Peacekeeper Wtorek Elizabeta and Saint Candidate Wtorek Csilla are in search of ELPIS Leader Gamma, also known as Wtorek Izsak.
Okör Mountain Range, Taurus
Csilla spotted him standing on top of the plateau overseeing the dip in the valley she’d been walking through with her mother for the past hour. She’d almost missed him since she’d been trying to spot flowers among the sprouting patches of grass sprawling out on either side of the beaten path—a game her mother had started halfway into their walk here. It was a game they—all three of them— used to play whenever they’d visited this mountain range here together on vacation. Not too far from this path there was a crooked, old, twisted tree beneath which patch of amaranths blossomed. That had always been her favorite picnic spot. Sometimes, her parents would help her climb that rickety old tree too. Sometimes, she felt like she could climb up to the clouds from the tallest branch.
“He’s here,” Csilla whispered, stopping short and squeezing her mother’s hand. She inclined her head. “Up there.”
“It doesn’t look like he’s…” Mama drew, squinting up in the direction. She looked down at Csilla and placed a hand on her head before drawing her close. “Who do you think is with him?”
“The last time I talked to Leona she said Delta, Tau, Beta, and Lambda were probably with him,” Csilla murmured. “It could be any of them… or only one of them.”
Mama tightened her grip and sucked in a breath. “Okay. Are you ready, honey?”
They wound down the path quickly, taking an offshoot trail that Papa had once shown them when they had passed through here two years ago. The sky was gray overhead, the ground frosted over just enough to emit a crunch, crunch, crunch as they continued forward. Their pace quickened as the path became steeper and as the patches of grass became broken up by wiry black roots cracking up from the red earth. Soon, they reached a winding trail that hugged tightly to the side of the elevated cliffside. The path was narrow, allowing only a meter of extra space width wise when Csilla and her mother ascended side-by-side. The trail was slippery from the permafrost, but they ascended carefully, steadily.
Csilla wasn’t sure what they’d find at the top of the plateau. Maybe nothing. Maybe Papa had used one of Theta’s gates to escape already. Maybe the glimpse of him that they’d seen had been a mirage.
Soon the trail widened to a circular flattop beyond which the trail narrowed once again and extended further up. At the mouth of that extension stood a cluster of men and women—some familiar, others not. The unfamiliars stood at the back of the group: a dark-haired man with glasses, a handsome man with dusty brown hair, and a woman with braided hair. Ahead of them stood Delta and Iota whom Csilla had seen pictures of from Leona’s work. Straddling in-between the two was a man bound tightly from head-to-toe in metal chains. Standing ahead of all of them was…
“It’s a peacekeeper,” the unfamiliar, somewhat handsome man with dusty brown hair noted. Capricornian, it seemed. “And a little girl.”
“What should we do?” the man with the glasses beside him whispered—also Capricornian. “Engage?”
The woman with braided hair frowned and sent him a look. “Really, Klaus? Engage with a child?”
What were these Capricornians doing here? Were they recruits? No, that didn’t matter. What mattered was—
“You’re following me, Taurus,” Papa stated. There was a gun in his left hand—newly conjured most likely. “Leo sent you—”
“No one sent us,” Mama interjected, holding up a placating hand. “We just want to talk.”
Papa’s eyes became slits, his gaze flitting from Csilla’s mother to Csilla herself. “‘Talk’, Taurus? Now after all these centuries, you would like to talk?” Wordlessly he lifted his weapon. “I won’t let you impede us any further.”
A bang rang out followed by a thunderous boom.
Csilla threw herself in front of her mother, brought up her vitae, and braced for impact—but that impact never came. Instead another sound came—a deep rumbling. Upon uncurling herself from her mother’s side, she came to find that a wall of glowing rock that went up to her chin now separated her mother and herself from the others on the other half of the flat. The Capricornian woman was kneeling on the ground—both of her hands planted on the earth and a trail of light leading from the newly-formed wall to the rock beneath her hands. Earth Elementalist.
“She’s just a little girl!” The earth Elementalist panted. “I didn’t desert just to do the same thing all over again!”
Papa studied the woman before glancing over at Iota. “These are the recruits you selected, Iota?”
Iota opened his mouth, then shut it before shrugging.
“That isn’t a little girl,” Papa said to the Elementalist in Capricornian, tossing his empty pistol aside and conjuring another one. “That is a saint candidate. The Saint Candidate of Taurus.”
The earth Elementalist’s face contorted with confusion, and she glanced back at the man wearing the glasses behind her.
“Was there a Saint Candidate of Taurus?” the glasses man murmured. “I know there was a failed one awhile back, but—”
“A failed candidate and a saint candidate are one and the same,” Papa interjected—tone like steel. He returned his attention to her and lifted his pistol. “They remain one and the same.”
Csilla tensed but startled as Mama abruptly stepped in front of her. One of her mother’s hands was raised and the other was pushing Csilla further back. “Izsak, put that down. Now.”
Papa’s hand twitched slightly.
“Look—we really do only want to talk. This has nothing to do with what you’re doing as ELPIS, nothing to do with the saint candidates, nothing to do with—”
“Nothing to do with it.” His eyes narrowed. “You’re either grossly irresponsible or ignorant beyond bliss to be speaking in those flippant terms, peacekeeper. Why else are you following me. You’re a nuisance. You will not stop our efforts.”
His manner of speech resembled that of the speech patterns centuries ago, Csilla thought, but his face—
Delta’s brows rose as she peered up over Papa’s shoulders. Her gaze flicked between Csilla, her mother, and her father. “Ah, I see… Curious, curious, curious.”
Clink, clink, clink, clink—
White glowing chains cut across the sky as Iota stepped forward, rolling her wrist and flicking her conductor-gloved hand back and forth. “Okay.” He clicked his tongue. “Who is this dusty, crusty peacekeeper? And what’s this about Taurus tailing you, Gamma?”
Mama visibly tensed at the sight—at the color.
“What?” Delta leaned forward in-between the two men. “Can’t you see the resemblance, Iota?”
Abruptly, the man bound in chains behind Iota charged away from the larger group—not back up the path where they had evidently come from, but off the slide of the cliff. He barely made it a foot off before the chains around him burst alive with white light and curled tighter around his body. He dangled in the air briefly by the chains before they began to slowly reel him back in. Iota looked annoyed. The others—even Mama—were fully focused on the chain-bound man.
Csilla used the opportunity to launch herself forward towards her father. She didn’t quite have a plan nor did she know exactly what she wanted to do. Perhaps she could drag him away from the other ELPIS Leaders—from the things that were pulling him away from her—and sit him down and talk and clarify things. Perhaps she could just give him a hug? Maybe he’d return it.
Just as she reached his side, however, he conjured something in the palm of his hand and threw it in her direction. A conducting grenade.
A bright light emitted from its center followed by an intense wave of heat. At this close proximity, both her mother and her father would be obliterated in an instant.
In the split second that followed, Csilla grabbed for it and curled her body around it as her mother cried out.
* * *
When Csilla’s left eye popped back into its socket, everything around her was dim and dark. Dust clouded the air above her head, around her face, everywhere. Once her right arm cracked into its hole and her skin rethreaded itself over her digits, she swiped away the veil of smoke and surveyed her surroundings. Slabs of red rock and gray boulders stood crooked around her. They stood on top of each other, stacking upwards and forming a ceiling. A sliver of illumination spilled down from above, casting the small, circular enclosure in dim light.
A groan resounded to Csilla’s left. Teetering to her feet, she followed the sound through the murky darkness and found a woman prostate on her stomach—hands extended in front of her. A large rock had fallen on them, but there was a dim glow bleeding out from beneath it. The glow connected to trail extended slightly further ahead. At the end of that rail of light was a glowing rock that jutted upwards against the wall at an angle. Above it was what looked to be around ten or twenty large boulders. Beneath that flimsy makeshift roof lay two men—barely saved from being crushed to death. The glasses-wearing Capricornian who was bleeding from the temple and the handsome Capricornian who was propping the former up.
A sacrifice. How pitiable.
Kneeling down beside the earth Elementalist, Csilla lowered her head and made eye-contact with the woman. Despite tears streaking the woman’s face, the woman held Csilla’s gaze evenly. Courage.
Nodding to herself as she reached an internal verdict, Csilla pushed the boulder off from the earth Elementalist’s hands. The unstable ceiling above them trembled. Csilla paid it not mind. Beneath that boulder was a mess. The strong metallic structure of the woman’s conducting gloves had saved her hands but the metal bits and pieces of glasses had become embedded into her skin. The Capricornian did not cry, however.
“Bergmann!” the handsome Capricornian shouted, pulling the glasses-wearing Capricornian out from beneath the enclosure. He scrambled forward towards the earth Elementalist on his knees but stopped short a step away. He eyed Csilla warily.
Csilla stepped back for him and watched as he darted to the earth Elementalist’s side. He extended his conducting gloved-hand’s over the woman’s and light emitted from the devices. A Transmutationist. A healer. Like her mother—Mama!
Csilla shot to a stand and spun around in a panic.
“O-Over there—” The Capricornian woman—Bergmann—lifted her head weakly and indicated a dust-shrouded area a meter away.
“Csilla…” came a weak voice out from the direction. “Csilla…!”
Csilla scrambled towards the call, continuously tripping over rocks and picking herself as she scrambled forward. Finally, she reached a small area where the dust did not fall as thickly. There, she registered her mother propped upright against twin stone slabs. Running to her mother, she threw her hands around her mother’s neck. Her mother returned the embrace just as tightly—but only with one of her arms. Half a second later Csilla realized her mother’s other arm was trapped beneath another rectangular boulder.
Without thinking, Csilla coated her hands in her vitae and pressed her palms against the offending boulder. The rocks stacked above their heads trembled and dust rained down at the effort, but Csilla didn’t care and pushed with all of her might. The rock slid off from her mother’s hand and the earth surrounding them trembled for what seemed like an eternity before everything stilled. Upon returning her attention to her mother’s hand, she found it intact but almost misshapen—
Csilla whimpered at the sight. “D-Does it hurt?”
“It’s been fractured. I’m lucky.” Mama wiped her brow with her good hand before glancing at Csilla and offering an easing smile. She rubbed Csilla’s cheek with the back of her hand. “I’ll be alright. Don’t worry, honey—” Her gaze darted over Csilla’s shoulder, and her eyes widened. “Csilla! Move—”
Csilla turned only to be knocked clear across the small space and into a rock slab to her far right. The ceiling trembled at the impact and a sleet of dust rained down. As one of her ribs cracked back into place, she registered her father stepping in front of her mother. He looked disheveled, one lens of his glasses crackled, blood trailing down from his temple, his clothes ripped and ragged. Behind her father stood Iota who looked slightly less worn out—
Csilla felt something hot rip through her left eye. Her vision went in and out, but her mother’s cry of anguish rang clear—
When some semblance of thought returned to her, Csilla whimpered, holding her hand to her left eye and then catching the bullet as it painfully squeezed out of her socket. She looked up to find Papa still pointing his pistol at her.
Papa lowered his pistol and held up his other hand, signaling Iota to hold in place behind him. He then advanced towards Csilla himself, drawing nearer and nearer and nearer, his eyes darkening with every step. Csilla had only seen him angry once or twice before. Once after returning from a long day at work and the other time when he’d learned that she’d been bullied by her peers because he and her mother had missed a parent-child event at school. His anger had never been directed at Csilla, however, so she had never been afraid of him. He was good.
“Please…” Csilla pressed back up against the rock behind her. “I just want…”
Papa hovered over her—his horn-rimmed glasses glinting in the dull light, his eyes hidden by the glare. He reached towards her—not with his conductor gloved hand. Her hammered as his hand drifted towards her face—but then he wrapped his hands around her throat.
“How dare you plead to me now” —Papa glowered, lifting her up in the air— “after everything you’ve done—disrupting the cycle, creating abominations, machinating conflict to fuel your putrid syzygy. We looked up to you. You were supposed to guide us. Why would you take up that responsibility if you couldn’t fulfill it? If you couldn’t fulfill it, why move to destroy all the work you laid out? It was perfect the way it was.”
“Please…”Csilla whimpered, feet dangling, clawing at her father’s hands as his grip tightened. “Pa…pa.”
Papa’s eyes widened a fraction.
“Papa, please. It hurts.”
Csilla could release her vitae and rip him from limb to limb and end him—she knew. But if she did that then there would be nothing of her father left. And there needed to be something of him left. He needed his hands to braid her hair and hold her hand, he needed his arms to wrap her in an embrace, he needed his eyes so he could watch her when she starred in her school plays, he needed his lips to smile at her and tell her that he loved her, he needed his legs to take her and her mother on walks through the mountain sides of Okör—
Wailing and sobbing as she gathered those memories close to her, Csilla blindly failed out her hands towards her father’s face. In her struggle, she managed to knock off his glasses. They clattered onto the floor only to be crushed as Papa stumbled backwards onto them. Her heart cracked with the glass and the frame.
Effortlessly, she tore herself out of her father’s grip and sent him flying back to the opposite wall with a kick to the gut. Iota tensed as Papa blew past him and raised his conducting-gloved hand in the air. A familiar clink, clink, clink resounded as the haze of smoke around them became illuminated by white light.
“No!” Papa snapped, righting himself.
Iota scowled but huffed and lowered his hand. The glowing light dimmed.
Papa squinted, aiming the gun blindly and firing. The bullet ricocheted off the wall beside Csilla and clipped her arm. Csilla winced and gripped the throbbing area in pain as it began to immediately heal.
“Csilla!” her mother cried, throwing herself at her father and grabbing him by the legs with her good hand as he moved towards Csilla. “Stop! You’re hurting her!”
“You’re a fool.” Papa looked down at Mama, brows furrowing. “She can’t feel pain—”
“She can! Look at her!”
Eyes narrowing, Papa lifted the butt of his pistol over her mother’s head and brought it down—
“Stop!” Csilla wailed. “Stop! Stop! Stop! Please—”
Papa stopped short—butt of his pistol only centimeters away from her mother’s head—and returned his attention to Csilla.
Csilla tearfully looked up to meet her father’s gaze and sank to her knees—as she took in the hatred and disdain in her father’s eyes, as she felt the faint throbbing of the healing bruise on her neck, as she fought against being dragged to reality.
This world was filled with cycles of suffering—she knew. The same mistakes made over and over again by different people in different times in different shades. The tiny struggles—meaningless against the tides of time. But there were blips of bliss and happiness. Her parents had taught her that. Swinging on the branch of an old oak tree, picking flowers on a wet summer’s day, locking eyes with a wild animal before it made its escape back into wilderness, stubborn fights that bled into awkward but heartfelt apologies, boring morning routines that brought a spark of pleasant mundanity to dreary months, the pride of finishing a drawing or project and showing it to loved ones and being praised, the disappointment of waking up too late to say morning goodbyes or falling asleep too early to say evening goodnights, playing silly little games of pretend-t. Silly little temporary average things—maybe. But they were things to be treasured—to be looked and reminisced about during dark times. Times like now—when the realization that those tiny blips would no longer be possible finally dawned.
“Why…? Why did you have to go?!” Csilla wailed, as she fell forward onto her palms. “Why?! Why?! Why! Why did you become peacekeepers?!” She let out a cry and pounded the ground with her hands. “You thought you could make a more peaceful world for me?” She tucked her knees beneath her stomach. “You’re all so stupid! What makes you think you could do what we couldn’t? You’re so full of yourselves!”
Silence rang in her ears as the dust cleared around her.
Taurus glared out at the Capricornians who she could now see huddled together in the far corner. “Throwing your lives away for your version of world peace, for what you think is justice, for your countries, for your family. I pity you…” She snarled. “Do you think they care about changing things for the better and making things better if it means losing all of you? If you really cared about them, then you would have just stayed home!”
The Capricornian woman startled.
“If you really loved me, you would’ve stayed…” A sob wracked through Csilla’s chest. “You would’ve stayed. You didn’t love me enough to stay…”
She remained in place there heaving and sobbing uncontrollably. She only stopped when a shadow passed over her. It was Papa, just a step away, gun raised.
Papa’s lips pulled into a thin line, and his grip on his weapon tightened. “Why are you acting like this? What game are you playing, Taurus?”
Csilla looked away from him and continued to weep. She couldn’t imagine it—no longer having her father by her side. It was just an impossibility. She half-expected to fall asleep weeping now only to wake up and find out that this entire year had been just a dream.
A soft click resounded—a pistol ready now ready to be fired.
Csilla didn’t try to stop him. It wasn’t like it would do any permanent damage anyways. Gamma—Pothos— knew this too, so she wasn’t sure why he was doing it. Pitiable—the both of them. She would allow him to pull the trigger on her, and after that she would take pity on him and free him from the visage of her father—
Gamma stumbled backwards as he regarded the peacekeeping agent who had just shoved him backwards and knocked the gun from his hand. His finger had slipped down on the trigger at the sudden force, and the bullet exiting the chamber had ricocheted off the nearby wall before exiting the small hole above them.
This woman was Wtorek Elizabeta, he knew. Mother of Wtorek Csilla—the Saint Candidate of Taurus. Delusional and perhaps deceived by the saint candidate—although deception did seem unlikely. Liza was a smart woman, after all. Maybe even the smartest.
“That isn’t your daughter,” Gamma informed Elizabeta calmly as he conjured another pistol. “Your daughter was swallowed whole the moment you allowed her to go through the baptismal ceremony. That thing is a monster—an amassment of knowledge given sentience—”
Gamma was cut off as his head jerked to the side, as his ears rang, as his vision swam. Slowly, he turned to face Elizabeta and found her hand raised, her eyes wet, her cheeks flushed. It took him a moment to realize that she’d slapped him. Even though he could not feel pain, it hurt.
“How dare you.”
Gamma held his cheek and stared at her.
“How dare you say that to our daughter!” she hissed, tears leaking from her eyes. “How dare you lay a hand on our daughter!”
Gamma couldn’t comprehend her. “She’s as much my daughter as she is yours, you stupid, foolish woman.”
Elizabeta didn’t budge, but the tears leaking from her eyes increased.
Gamma felt his chest wrack with unfamiliar guilt.
“What exactly are you looking for?” he pressed through it and spoke in an even tone. “What are you chasing? Were you guided by false promises? Are you her new disciple—”
“What?!” Elizabeta did a double-take before she dug into her coat pocket and slapped a piece of paper to his chest. “You know that’s bullshit. You know exactly what we’re looking for.”
Gamma held onto the paper as the woman pulled away. She sank to where Csilla—Taurus—sat still doubled-over, draped herself over the saint candidate’s body, and pulled her close. Then she began stroking the girl’s hair and whispering into her ear. An apology, a reassurance, a comfort.
Gamma looked at the object Elizabeta had handed him. It was a familiar photograph—one that he’d used to carry with him at all times until he’d lost it in Capricorn last year. Captured in monochrome in the photo was a smiling man, a smiling woman, and a smiling girl—a family.
Relief flooded his chest at the sight of it—at the realization that it had finally been returned to him—followed by confusion and disdain. He returned his attention to Liza and Csilla only to feel a cold wave washing over him. Elizabeta and Taurus were upright now and embracing each other—fixating him with watery eyes. In their gazes: anger, disdain, wistfulness, nostalgia, love, affection, and—
Wordlessly, Gamma dropped the pistol, tucked the photo into his pocket, and walked away from them.
Elizabeta watched as her husband sauntered away from them and towards a rock jutting up two meters away. She soon realized two of the other ELPIS Leaders were lying side-by-side there. A woman and a man bound in chains. Izsak knelt down beside the woman and tapped her shoulder. Looking away, Elizabeta pulled Csilla close to her with her good hand and stroked her hair. This had been an idiotic idea—chasing after him like this. Csilla was near physically invulnerable now, but she was not emotionally and mentally invulnerable. How could she be so stupid—letting her daughter come to such a dangerous place? She was a terrible mother.
“I’ll stay…” Elizabeta whispered again into her daughter’s hair. “I won’t leave. I promise.”
“So… what’s going on?” The man with the chain mediums, who was still standing rooted to the ground, looked between Izsak and Elizabeta herself.
“We don’t have the capacity to return Taurus to her reservoirs at the moment, Iota,” Izsak answered from the distance, “and it appears as if she doesn’t intend to stop our progress nor impede us.”
“We should not waste time and focus on finding a way to escape this place. Do you have any of Theta’s proto-conductors?”
Iota grimaced and pointed to the ground a meter or so away. A black stain was splattered there and sprinkled with shards of glass. “You?”
Izsak reached into his pocket and pulled out a similar completely shattered glass needle that was leaking out black liquid.
“Do you think Theta would hear us if we shouted loud enough? Would he come if he did?” Iota pursed his lips before looking around. “I can try to turn some of these rocks into my mediums and move them—”
“And have it collapse on us?” the woman on the ground in front of Izsak laughed.
“Then we use your conducting to shrink all this rock from the top down.” Iota frowned, placing a hand on his hip. “It’s not that complicated, Delta.”
“With what conductor?” The other woman—Delta—chuckled again, using her hands to pull herself up to a stand. “The one that’s broken to pieces over there? One conjured by Gamma? And what about the chances of their being tons of debris above those rocks up there? What about the chances of those rocks we see there being the only thing keeping us from all being mashed into soup, hm?”
“Okay, so we’re done for,” Iota finalized. “You could’ve put it more succinctly, Delta. There is no need at all to be a bitch in these times, is there? Well. I suppose it’s time to return to our resistors.”
“R-Return to your resistors?” the glasses-wearing Capricornian stammered.
“Oh, you two are still here….” Iota cocked his head at the three Capricornians in the corner. “And Zu, your resistor is… Well, how do you Capricornians feel about returning to the cycle? And I mean that as gently and politely as possible—unless you have some solution that’s preferable to being trapped here and starving to death—”
“Return to the cycle?” The Capricornian woman who was now lying on her back frowned. She struggled up a sit but was pushed back down by one of the other Capricornians. “You mean dying?”
Elizabeta frowned. “Why… are you jumping to that already…?” When everyone turned to look at her, she tended. “This is Okör—Taurus. We’re known for our natural disaster rescues—especially for situations like this. Our earth Elementalists and Transmutationist are the best in Signum.”
“I’d rather not heed the words of a peacekeeper,” Iota replied evenly. “Especially one that has a saint candidate attached to their right hip.”
“Being saved by users of those conductors is a fate worse than death,” Izsak added.
Iota glanced at him. “Dogmatic as always…”
Delta laughed and moved forward towards them. “Well—”
Suddenly Delta was face-first on the floor. She lifted her head and peered back at her legs. Even from Elizabeta’s current angle, she could clearly tell they were broken.
“Oh dear.” Delta sighed as if it was a minor issue. “I think my legs are broken. Well, this situation keeps getting better and better, doesn’t it?” She craned her head back to look at Izsak who had risen to a stand behind her. “Now whose brilliant idea was to throw a conducting grenade again?”
“Lambda is still at the highest plateau,” Izsak replied, kneeling to the ground and turning Delta over onto her back, “and she has one of Theta’s proto-conductors. When we don’t return, she can use it to find Tau or Beta and we go from there.”
It was unnerving seeing ELPIS Leaders confer with each other so casually and calmly—to see her husband conversing among them—in light of everything that had happened only moments before. The three Capricornians in the corner also seemed to think the same since they were tense, alert, quiet. One of them—the man who was least injured—abruptly rose to a stand and cautiously, carefully walked on over to Elizabeta. Iota’s and Izsak’s eyes were trained on him the entire time.
“I’ve seen you before,” the Capricornian drew as he knelt beside Elizabeta. His accent was light.” In the papers. You’re Wtorek Elizabeta—the vice chair for the Medical Department, a Transmutationist.” He offered a salute—how Capricornian of him—which was when she noticed that his hands were gloved with conductors. “Alwin Brandt. Combat Medic in the 212th Division of the Border Force. I’m a Transmutationist.” He gestured to her hand. “Will you allow me to help you, ma’am?”
“What is a Capricornian doing all the way in Taurus?” Elizabeta murmured, eyes narrowing as she held the affected appendage. “And with ELPIS?” She sighed. “This is a minor fracture. You should tend to the most injured first.”
Csilla’s grip on her tightened.
“I understand that’s protocol, ma’am,” Alwin said. “But since you’re a Transmutationist too, I think it’d be best if we got you fixed up first. More hands on deck.” He paused, seeming to notice her deepening frown. “Please—I’m not sure if I have the ability to help my friends without assistance.”
Studying the other Capricornian man and woman who were prostate and grimacing a meter or so away, Elizabeta relented and—with difficulty—offered her injured hand to Alwin. He held her hand gingerly before beginning his work—snapping her bones back into place and drawing skin over where abrasions had cut deep.
Elizabeta watched him silently—assessing his skill—as she listened to everything pop back into place. Crack. Snap. Crack. Padding footsteps drew her attention away. A shadow passed over her face. Iota was drawing near, hand on hip, eyebrow arched.
Elizabeta tensed, pulling Csilla close.
“Healing a peacekeeper now, Zu?” Iota frowned.
Elizabeta’s gaze flicked between the two men as realization dawned. “You’re an ELPIS Leader, Alwin?”
Alwin winced, while Csilla unfurled herself from Elizabeta’s side.
“Zu…?” Csilla tried, looking him up and down. “I heard from Libra, but I didn’t think…”
“It’s a bit of an awkward situation,” Alwin admitted. “There…” He glanced at Iota and waited until the man walked away before he continued: “…wasn’t that much vitae left in Zu’s resistor, so all I have really are some vague feelings and impressions from that time…” He eyed Csilla. “Well—strong feelings.”
“So you’re… just Alwin then,” Elizabeta tried.
“Could… my husband be the same way?
“Your… husband…?” Alwin follow Elizabeta’s gaze to Gamma then back to her. “Oh… Oh.” His lips pressed thin. “I’m not sure about that, ma’am, but… the atmosphere Gamma gives off is… familiar to me. I’m sorry.”
* * *
Elizabeta assisted Alwin with tending to the Capricornians—Emilia Bergmann and Klaus Kleine—first. Fractured wrist bones, split lips, a concussion, a sprained ankle. Frankly speaking, they were quite lucky given the height of their tumble, tousle, and fall. The Capricornians were quiet and tense, continuously eyeing Csilla who was curled up behind Elizabeta’s back. Csilla meanwhile kept sending furtive looks over at Izsak who was conversing with Delta and Iota in the corner. The whole situation felt rather surreal.
“She isn’t with the saint candidates,” Elizabeta informed them in Capricornian. “She’s my daughter. Csilla. Nothing more, nothing less. She doesn’t need to be.” She nudged her daughter. “Csilla, why don’t you introduce yourself?
“I’m… Csilla. Wtorek Csilla,” Csilla mumbled, facing the Capricornians but not quite meeting their gazes. “I just had my thirteenth birthday just last month. It’s nice to meet you… I hope you’re not in too much pain…” She glanced at Emilia’s worn face. “You’re… very pretty… I like the ribbon in your hair.”
Alwin stared, wide-eyed, while Klaus peered at her curiously.
Emilia’s face warmed immediately. “It’s nice to meet you too, Miss Csilla. Aren’t you polite?”
“Now what are Capricornians doing in Okör?” Elizabeta continued, carefully turning Emilia’s hand over in her own. “Tourist season is in the summer.”
The three Capricornians exchanged silent looks before Alwin gave a tentative nod.
“We’re… on the run,” Emilia admitted as Elizabeta worked on removing the shrapnel from her hand. She winced but continued speaking—a reaction indicating to Elizabeta that Emilia had most likely seen combat. “We were being used as hostages against our captain and our families were being used as hostages against us… It’s complicated.”
“By…” Emilia eyed Csilla. “… a saint candidate named Scorpio. Most of us met him during the Week of Bli—”
“Do you mean Talib?” Elizabeta breathed.
“Yes, the First Chair of Psychological Evaluations,” Klaus murmured, touching the makeshift bandage of cloth Alwin had wrapped around his head. “Have you seen him around then…? Since you’re a vice chair? Unless vice chairs don’t talk to each other… or maybe peacekeepers don’t talk to each other outside of their departments?”
“Seen him around?” Elizabeta chuckled morosely. “I can’t seem to escape him.” She grimaced. “Talib used to be a close colleague of mine. We were working together with a mutual colleague of ours to… bring a better peace to Signum—and yes, I know how ridiculous that sounds. He was a good man…” Like Izsak. She couldn’t help but scoff. “That colleague—everyone who seems to get close to her… I guess it’s more the fault of her goal than her own fault.” She refocused on Emilia’s hand. “So, Miss Bergmann, you were in the capital during the Week of Blindness and you had the misfortune of stumbling across Scorpio? I’m sorry you had to experience that.”
“I wasn’t there myself until the very end,” Emilia said, “but Klaus and Alwin were. Alwin’s great with stories if you want to know more.”
Alwin winced but nodded. “You’ve… heard about True Conductors, haven’t you, ma’am?” He eyed Taurus. “Well, our captain is one. And… someway-somehow Scorpio infected him without knowing it and then he caused a kink in their connection and all of the others he was connected to ended up cycling through him. They called it an override, but there’s actually a specific word for it—I just can’t remember what it is. Anyways, there was… a diplomat—I think—and then a swindler, a prince, a pirate…?” He perked up, hands flying out. “Somehow that pirate guy managed to hold their own against Leo. I couldn’t believe it. They literally fought tooth-for-tooth in the courtyards of the capital. And the captain smiled—”
Csilla squirmed briefly beside Elizabeta. “I… heard about that…” She perked up. “Wait then that True Conductor is…”
Alwin stared at her nervously for a moment before he continued, “The last one we met was a peacekeeper—”
It all finally clicked inside of Elizabeta’s head. “Wait—a True Conductor Capricornian captain? A peacekeeper? And during the Week of Blindness? Are you saying you… met Jericho?”
Klaus perked up. “You know Jericho? The peacekeeper with the white-ish vitae who talks a bit weird…? His conducting…”
Elizabeta nodded. “Jericho’s a colleague of mine. He’s also part of that group I mentioned earlier.”
“Wow… really?” Alwin murmured. “Talk about a small world…”
“Have you heard anything from him?” Emilia interjected. “From the captain? From Jericho, I mean? Do you know how he’s doing—the captain?”
Elizabeta shook her head. “I haven’t spoken with Jericho since around February or March.” She paused in thought. “Do you know where he was stationed? Assuming he’s still in service in your country—there are some hotspots my department was looking into. Have you ever heard of… chlorowheat?”
Emilia and Alwin exchanged looks.
Klaus startled and pushed his glasses up his nose. “Oh, no, no—the captain would never touch anything like that.”
Hm. That sort of faith in someone was dangerous. Izsak and Talib were clear examples of that.
Once Elizabeta finished tending to Emilia’s hand, she surveyed the three Capricornians and said, “I don’t know how long we’ll be here, so I have to ask. Do any of you happen to have any food and water?”
Emilia—almost proudly—reached behind her and pulled out what appeared to be a stuffed duffel bag. Inside were several canisters of water, three loaves of bread, and six wheels of cheese.
* * *
Elizabeta was a healthcare professional first and foremost. Her purpose was to save lives—no matter what the life was associated with. And this was why she left Csilla with the Capricornians and paced over to the side of the enclosure where the ELPIS Leaders resided. As she approached the four, she noted that they were speaking in an unfamiliar language. Ophiuchian, most likely. Her husband and Iota sat across from each other on small boulders, while the man bound in chains was straddled between them. On the ground before them lay Delta. Up close, Elizabeta could see that both of Delta’s femurs had broken cleanly and had pierced through her skin. An open fracture.
Iota surged up to a stand at her approach while Izsak regarded her with an unreadable expression. Now that she was closer to him and no longer under fire, she finally was able to see the white snake tattoo crawling up Izsak’s jaw. She wanted to scrub it off.
“Delta’s legs are broken,” Elizabeta said pointedly, dragging her gaze away from her husband’s face and lifting her conducting hand. “I can attempt a procedure to fix them. If I don’t, she might die from sepsis.”
“An Ophiuchian peacekeeper tending to the wounds of an Ophiuchian terrorist,” Delta hummed before she coughed into her hand. When she pulled her hand away, it was stained with blood.
That was not a good sign—blood in the sputum.
“I’m a doctor,” Elizabeta returned evenly. “My duty is to the health of people—no matter their background. Saving lives is more important than things like politics and labels.”
“But that’s contradictory in my case, isn’t it?” Delta chuckled, wheezing. “Actioning the goal we have as ELPIS will result in countless more deaths—necessary for preventing the syzygy which will inevitably result in complete nothingness. Then again, you could counterintuitively argue that nothingness isn’t a state of death, couldn’t you? Anyways, by saving my life, wouldn’t you be extinguishing so many others? Life—” She chuckled again. Another wheeze. “Our perspective on it is quite different. We’re already quite dead, you see? If you knew what we knew I wonder if you’d feel the same about your career. We slowly whittle away into nothingness while the saint candidates amalgamate into somethingness. True Conductors mix themselves until one is no longer recognizable from the next.” She glanced at Elizabeta. “So, you normals should take pride in your normalcy—though you’re kaleidoscopes in and of yourself from a certain point of view, wouldn’t you say?” She laughed. “Do you hear me, you guys? I sound like a teenage girl! It really does bring back memories, doesn’t it?”
Not understanding at all, Elizabeta shook her head before kneeling down beside the woman. Iota moved forward but Izsak held up a halting hand.
“Seriously?” Iota frowned. “You’re stringent about the conducting of people coming to rescue us but not about this?”
Izsak didn’t answer.
Elizabeta held the man’s gaze briefly before reaching forward towards Delta’s legs with her gloved hand. She was stopped by a hand around the wrist—by Delta all people.
“I said no.” Delta’s amusement was gone from her face. An eerie look had taken over her—a calmness that was unnatural given the situation. She suddenly looked eighty rather than thirty.
Elizabeta studied the woman incredulously. “You’ll die—”
“Well, it’ll be very, very difficult to fix this, don’t you know?” Delta’s gaze became focused on the sliver of light coming down from above. “The nature of bleached vitae makes it resistant to both corruption of the cycle and the turn of the cycle. An omission from the cycle, do you understand? Conducting on bleach vitae is of little to no use if you’re too inexperienced and it’s also quite taxing. You should conserve your energy, little girl.” She glanced over at the Capricornians—at Csilla. “For your little girl. Who knows how long we’ll be here?”
Was this woman worried about her?
“I’ve treated someone with bleached vitae before,” Elizabeta answered evenly. “While it is difficult, it is possible—”
“But you came over here for another reason, didn’t you?” Delta’s eyes became slits. “You’re caught in the middle here, aren’t you? Between a saint candidate and an ELPIS Leader? My research in Ophiuchus did require me to leave the laboratory from time to time to teach. I’m not fond of it, but I do love answering questions—do you understand?”
Izsak rose and sauntered off. Elizabeta noticed he was limping slightly but her attention was drawn away by Delta’s laugh.
“Even when an initiation is successful,” Elizabeta whispered, side glancing at her husband’s retreating back, “there can be little fragments of memories still stored in the brain, can’t there? From what I understand, you… people… inject your vitae into someone when they’re ‘about to return to the cycle’—when they’re about to…”—she struggled briefly— “die.” Leaning forward, she pressed, “That doesn’t mean that they’ve actually died yet. Medically speaking, you can consider that moment as maybe oxygen being cut off from their brains. Hypoxia. And that could lead to brain damage or something similar resulting in aberrant behavior.”
Delta’s smile slowly slid from her face. “Of course there are vitae fragments left over in the people we inhabit, little girl. Isn’t that a silly question? The body is like a vessel for vitae. You’re a doctor, aren’t you? Blood vessels? They shear ever so slightly from blood flow, don’t they? And the bits that come off from sheer force are free to circulate around the vessel.” She frowned. “Ah, perhaps that was a terrible analogy—I did say that I wasn’t fond of teaching, didn’t I? It’s because I’m not very good at it. Anyways, the impression is still there. But knowing that now, we come to a different question, don’t we? It’s a question that’s natural in light of the nature of vitae. How many of another’s memories would a person need to take on in order to become that other person? Even if they had all the other person’s vitae and memories, would they actually be considered that other person? I hate thinking about these things. Nothing is concrete. That’s more of Theta’s field. Theoretics, theoretics, theoretics.”
“What are you talking about?” Elizabeta murmured. She shook her head. “No, you should save your breath.”
“You find this era horrid, don’t you?” Delta asked suddenly. “It’s definitely several steps down from the time we lived, so Gamma and Theta and everyone else has every right to scoff at it. But the thing is—you don’t realize how beautiful and amazing the world you currently live in is, do you?” She sighed as she clasped her hands together. “I haven’t lived it myself but I’ve heard stories about the time before Signum’s founding. Anthropogenic disasters, crimes against humanity. Energy crises, a celestial body cracking under the pollution of technology, wars for the ages, discrimination, poverty. But it’s easier to blame all of our failures on the world we live in, isn’t it? For us, for you, for the saint candidates.”
Elizabeta remained silent. Approaching footsteps indicated Izsak’s return. When she turned, she found him limping towards them.
Delta chuckled, drawing Elizabeta’s attention back once again “Do you know what the difference between an idiot and a fool is, little girl? An idiot does something wrong or believes in something that’s wrong and doesn’t know that it’s wrong and doesn’t care to know. A fool does something wrong or believes in something that’s wrong, knows that it’s wrong, and does it or believes in it anyway.”
Iota cleared his throat, reminding Elizabeta of his presence. “You sound like a terrible mix of Alpha and Scorpio now. Are you sure you were initiated correctly?”
“Hm… Alpha—I think I always felt a bit sorry for him, right?” Delta continued, glancing at Izsak as he neared. “You were close to him, weren’t you, Gamma?”
Izsak didn’t answer as he reclaimed his seat. The chained man shifted in place.
“Oh come now,” Delta continued. “You were practically best friends, weren’t you? And you both adored Ophiuchus?”
Ophiuchus and Alpha—Elizabeta recalled Csilla mentioning them both.
“Aw, Gamma, why are you being shy about it now?” Delta laughed breathily. “You weren’t shy about it before, were you? Whenever she’s brought up, you say—word for word—‘ I can’t recall my parents’ faces anymore nor my hometown nor my childhood, but Ophiuchus? I remember her. She might not have been your Knowledge Bearer but she was mine.’”
Elizabeta felt her cheeks burn red and her blood run cold.
“There was none who shone more,” Gamma finally agreed. “Her wisdom remains unparalleled to this day.”
It stung—hearing someone who wore her husband’s face speak so affectionately about another woman.
Nu abruptly scoffed. Elizabeta was rather surprised. She didn’t think he could speak.
“Ophiuchus isn’t any different from the other saint candidates…” Nu’s face fell flat. “And the saint candidates aren’t… different from us. And we’re no different from the people of this era. We’re all the same.”
Izsak’s gaze narrowed. “If you truly believe that, then you’re more of a fool than I initially thought.”
“Alpha… he said our problem was that we thought they could save and guide us and that we could guide them if they ever strayed,” Nu said. He slipped into that foreign language again and continued speaking.
Elizabeta frowned at this and looked over at her husband whose gaze was fixed on Nu. Each word the latter spoke darkened Izsak’s expression further and further. Eventually, Izsak said something in the same language which ended with Delta and Iota nodding in agreement. Nu’s eyes widened, but he shook his head and continued in that Ophiuchian language.
“—freedom,” Nu finally finished in Common. “We all seek it in different ways—as ELPIS we do it through seeking knowledge, people of this era did it through chasing their dreams, and saint candidates pursue the syzygy.” He stared at a point in the distance before dipping his head. “They think the syzygy will be the end of it…? It’ll always start again…. Something from nothing. Another spark of life… It might take millions to trillions to billions of years, but in the end, we’ll end up right here. We struggle over tiny problems, cry and rejoice over short blips in our life—but it’s all… insignificant. Letting go of it all—the syzygy, ELPIS, everything—that’s what we all need to do. Whatever happens happens.”
What the hell?
Elizabeta felt like she was surrounded by professors at her old academy rather than by ELPIS Leaders. She glanced briefly over her shoulders and found that the Capricornians and Csilla were looking in their direction—were listening in.
“What?” Iota clicked his tongue. “You’re literally so dramatic and pathetic, Nu. That’s why you went with Alpha? Because he tricked you with some utter fatalistic bullshit philosophy? How did you even come to study alongside us if you give in so easily like that? You know why Alpha decided to let you tag along instead of swallowing you up? It’s because you’re easy.”
Nu’s brows furrowed, and he looked away.
“This is the path we chose, Nu,” Izsak said. “You made the decision to bleach your vitae and store yourself in your resistor knowing what the path would look like on the way and what the end destination was. We all did. The decision was made knowing that luxuries like such wayward philosophies were to be ignored. You were young when you were initiated, and Alpha’s led you astray time and time again. By working together with him, you have accelerated the syzygy and dampened our own progress. It’s clear to me that you need to be re-initiated and taught properly.”
“But first you will talk and tell us what we need to know.”
Elizabeta studied Izsak. Their eyes met briefly.
“Oh, I almost forgot to tell you, Gamma,” Delta interjected suddenly, turning her head towards the man. “You know how I went to handle some of the generator conductors and reservoirs that were being built up in Virgo?”
Izsak turned to her and nodded.
“That sapling Virgo planted some time ago is in full bloom,” she continued. “I have some concerns about it? I noticed that some of the plants in the area were rather peculiar.”
“It’s difficult to explain without being there and seeing it for yourself,” Delta said. “I did say I was a horrible teacher and explainer, didn’t I? But… those trees…. I revisited that place again a week later and the radius of that peculiarity had expanded. The Virgoans seemed peculiar about it too, so… I’d like to see it again? Gamma, could you visit it again and record what you see there for me? Down. To. The. Detail?”
Izsak nodded again.
Delta looked back up at the ceiling and her eyes became half-lidded. “Alrighty. I’m ready then.”
Izsak abruptly reached out and touched her face. She held his hand briefly before nodding again. Jealousy simmered in Elizabeta’s chest. Before she could digest the feeling, however, Izsak conjured a pistol in his conductor-gloved hand. As realization and horror dawned, a loud bang! rang out loud and clear.
Blood splattered onto Elizabeta’s face. Shards of Delta’s skull painted the walls. Elizabeta’s ears were ringing. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t seen anything like this before. There were plenty of body parts flying around during the war—sometimes the fight would even spill into the medical camps. She’d had to fire a few guns herself during those times. Izsak had always come to comfort her in that silly way of his afterwards—making little quirky jokes here and there and sometimes even bringing her his better food rations. She had to comfort him too—even before she’d accepted his proposal. Gabrielle probably had never seen it, but Izsak had cried on many nights whenever there was a lull in the fight. There were children on the battlefield after all. That was something Elizabeta and Izsak had both trying to prevent from happening again—for future children, for Csilla.
When Elizabeta came to her senses, she found that Izsak was kneeling on one knee, one hand placed over his chest. So was Iota. So was Nu—although his hands were still bound. Then they began to chant in unison together that old language again. This time, however, Elizabeta understood what they were saying because Jericho had translated it for a handful of times before—
“There is no end,
There is no beginning,
There is only a cycle.
Whether enemy, whether friend,
Whether family, whether stranger,
Whether on land, whether on sea, whether in sky,
Whether alone, whether in company,
Whether in peace, whether in war,
May all return to where all began.”
Elizabeta turned her head slightly just in time to see Alwin lift his head and remove his hand from his chest. Emilia and Klaus—pale and stiff—were studying him. A shifting sound drew Elizabeta’s attention back to Izsak and Iota who had risen and were now moving Delta’s limp body to the far corner of the room. Izsak plucked something that had been hanging around the dead woman’s neck—a knife-shaped pendant that now had a handle filled with wispy white light.
“Why…?” Elizabeta whispered, wiping the blood from his face. “It’s a waste—”
“It’s her choice,” Izsak returned evenly as he tucked the pendant into his coat pocket. “She would not have survived. She’s returned to her resistor. What remaining vitae in that body has been allowed to return to the cycle. Our rations will last for longer—”
“Freedom,” Nu muttered.
Elizabeta stared at them all in disbelief before a cold thought dropped to the pit of her stomach.
Csilla—what if she’d seen—
A hand on her shoulder cut the thought off short. Csilla was behind her now, brows furrowed with pity. Csilla wiped some of the wetness off from Elizabeta’s face before walking over to where Delta’s corpse now resided. She picked up small stones on her walk there before placing them slowly around and then on top of Delta’s body. Elizabeta didn’t stop her and sent Iota a warning look when the man made a move towards her.
Elizabeta wanted to cry at the sight but maintained her composure. She’d spent half of her life trying to make sure her daughter never witnessed something as gruesome as this, and yet here she was watching Csilla build a makeshift grave around a corpse. It took Csilla half an hour to finish Delta’s burial. It took fifteen minutes for Elizabeta to realize Izsak was watching Csilla for just as long.
And thus the waiting game for rescue began.
* * *
Elizabeta noted that Emilia Bergmann was rather good with children. Csilla had taken a clear liking to her ever since Elizabeta had left her in the Capricornian’s care. They seemed to enjoy talking about the latest fashion trends and catalogs and icons together—although Iota oddly, frequently dipped in to add some odd comment about ‘style’ and ‘aesthetics.’
Their groups were still quite tense in each other’s presences, but the ELPIS Leaders were surprisingly civilized and fair. Food and water were all rationed evenly—although Elizabeta noted that the ELPIS Leaders didn’t eat as much as they did. This was something she’d noticed about Jericho as well. He never ate a lot—though he ate more than the ELPIS Leaders which Elizabeta had attributed to Alice’s work. His diet had improved since she’d gotten to know him, however. Given what she’d learned about True Conductors, she assumed that was attributed to one of the ones he was connected to.
It was all rather surreal. ELPIS Leaders, Capricornian soldiers, a peacekeeper, and a saint candidate—all in the same squared-off space. It sounded like the beginning of a terrible joke.
Again, despite knowing of her daughter’s invulnerability, Elizabeta worried for her. Whenever Csilla was not at Elizabeta’s side or Emilia’s side, she not-so-subtly wandered over towards Izsak. Izsak would walk off in the opposite direction every single time. This resulted in the two making about ten rounds around the small space they shared every single day. Iota, Alwin, Nu, and Emilia watched them with varying degrees of curiosity and discomfort. Elizabeta, on the other hand, watched them, tense. She was unsure of how to feel. She felt like a terrible mother: letting her daughter follow a man who had hurt her. A man who was Elizabeta’s own husband, Csilla’s own father. But that damned hope…
Yes. It all felt surreal.
* * *
It was on the third day of their entrapment that Elizabeta noticed Izsak’s limp getting worse. When Emilia captured Csilla’s attention later that evening, Elizabeta took the opportunity to approach Izsak alone. She followed him into the small corner she’d seen him go into several times before—a corner opposite to where Delta’s small tomb was made. He didn’t turn as she followed him. However, once they paced behind a rather large boulder and were out of sight of the others, Izsak immediately whipped around to face her. Elizabeta held her ground.
“When I told Taurus to stop following me, I was also speaking to you, Wtorek Elizabeta.”
“Your leg,” she tried, irritated at herself for feeling awkward around her own husband. “Let me see it. I’m not letting you try what… Delta did there.” She pointed to a small boulder behind him. “Sit.”
“You seem to misunderstand your situation. You—”
Izsak’s eyes narrowed but he relented and sat down. Elizabeta kneeled before him, heart hammering as she slowly rolled his left pants leg up. It had been a long time since she’d been this close to him. It almost felt like it had been forever—
Elizabeta’s heart skipped a beat as she registered the bluish-black bruising that ran from his knee to his angle. “How… How long has it been like this?”
“I assume it’s been like that since we fell down this place.”
“And who’s fault is that…?” Elizabeta muttered, calming her nerves and reaching out to touch the area. It was hot. She pressed down a bit harder—unintentionally. “Sorry—” She paused and looked up at him as realization dawned. “You… can’t feel this at all?”
Izsak shook his head. “Analgesia—”
“I know what it is…” Elizabeta put her fist to her mouth and squeezed her eyes shut. She tried to swallow a sob but couldn’t.
Izsak shifted in place. “If it’s too much for you, then there’s no need. Lambda can—“
“No, I’ll do it,” Elizabeta insisted. “It’s fractured, so… I need to feel to see where it is. I can go from there after…”
Izsak remained silent, and so Elizabeta began feeling along his leg. There. The break at the center of his tibia. She could feel it—even though he couldn’t.
“You say you want to prevent the syzygy…” she drew in the quiet, activating her conducting gloves and breaking into a sweat as she tried to move muscle, tendon, and bone beneath his skin. “And the syzygy is a terrible thing—Csilla’s told me loosely about it. So… you trying to stop it isn’t a bad thing. But the people caught in the crossfire? The civilians caught up in your attacks on the generator conductors reservoirs—”
“A necessary sacrifice. The lives that are lost will return to the cycle so long as conductors are not used to end them. The vitae particles will remain as they are and be purified as they enter and exit the threshold—”
“The way you talk makes it sound like you don’t value life at all—damnit!” Elizabeta fell forward, panting and wiping her brow. His vitae—it was almost impossible—to move around. She didn’t meet her husband’s gaze as he peered down at her. “I’m sorry. I—no, I’ve got this.”
“Was Zu able to heal your injuries?” Izsak inquired suddenly. “And Taurus?”
“Csilla,” Elizabeta corrected, teeth clenched. “Her name is Csilla. And Alwin did his best.” It took her another moment to realize that there had been concern in his voice. “How… much do you remember?” she whispered, pausing in her work. “I know you remember some things—enough to keep that photograph, enough to walk away—”
“It doesn’t matter. Wtorek Izsak—”
“I know,” Elizabeta hissed. “Izsak would never hurt Csilla like you did, but…just tell me how much you remember, dammit! You owe me that much, don’t you?”
After a pause, Izsak said quietly, “When I say ‘remember,’ I’m referring to snapshots of memories—vague impressions, blips. I want you to keep this in mind.”
“That’s more than enough.”
“… I vaguely remember meeting Gabrielle,” he drew slowly. “I remember seeing a knife that I conjured and signed with my name embedded in a child’s back. I remember seeing you for the first time. It was on a Sunday morning and your medical unit was being integrated into Izsak’s. You slapped a soldier for trying to hide his injury right before Gabrielle introduced you to Izsak. Izsak was terrified of you after that but also enamored. You insulted his height.”
Elizabeta wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry.
“I remember the first ten times Izsak proposed to you. I remember the very last. I remember the wedding in Okör. I remember the decision to conceive Csilla. I remember the day of Csilla’s birth—the night sky was clear and the stars were visible. Csilla. A star of hope. I remember Csilla’s first steps and our first vacation to Hapaira. I remember the fight over what department to enter. I remember Csilla’s eight birthday—she wanted a stuffed rabbit plush. I remember—”
Elizabeta sobbed before she could stop herself and pressed forward against his knee as she lost control of her body. The memories he listed began replaying in her mind. The details were unclear, the memories faded, but the feelings weren’t. “H-How can you just call all of those ‘blips’…? That’s our life…!”
Blips. There for a moment, gone in the next, never to return.
The Capricornians were surprisingly resilient—or so Gamma noticed. The Capricornian woman with the cheese was unfamiliar to him, although he reasoned she was familiar with Wtorek Izsak given the frequent looks she would give him. Gamma, on the other hand, recognized the man with the glasses: the Capricornian was present in Die Hauptstadt the previous year when Gamma had temporarily stayed in the city himself. The Capricornian was most likely a companion of the Capricornian True Conductor who was connected to the suitcase peacekeeper. Foolish. Such a relationship was akin to holding the hand of someone who was friends with your executioner.
Gamma did not go near that trio often and left the task of their orientation to Iota. This was because Taurus frequented the cheese woman’s side, and Taurus made Gamma uncomfortable. This Taurus at least. He did not believe she truly came with simple intention—wanting to find her father. Only an idiot would believe such a lie. However, every time she would cast a glance in his direction, he’d falter and give into the belief. He pitied her. So—perhaps he was a fool rather than an idiot then.
On the fifth day of their entrapment, Gamma passed by the small hovel the Capricornians had claimed as their own and noted that the Wtoreks were not with them. Gamma thus approached them, ignoring how they all visibly tensed. Zu reached into the cheese woman’s duffel bag and procured a small slice of bread.
“Iota tells me that there is almost nothing left in your resistor, Zu,” Gamma said, accepting it from him. “Is this true?”
Zu tensed, hand drifting hesitantly to his belt. That was enough of an answer for Gamma.
Gamma inclined his head. “We will have a proper parting when this body fails you then.”
“What?” Zu—Alwin—tensed further. “You’re not going to return me to my resistor?”
“There would be no point. There is not enough of you left to form ‘Zu’ if we re-initiated you. It would be a meaningless action and a waste of resources. You are uninjured and plan to assist us, correct?”
Alwin swallowed before smiling slightly. “I have to admit that it hurts me as Zu to have you writing me off just like that.”
“You’re not Zu.”
“Yeah, I’m not,” Alwin agreed. After some apparent hesitation, he added, “But that sliver of Zu that remains in me was enough to make me almost kill my captain for being a True Conductor.”
“So you were associated with that True Conductor—that suitcase peacekeeper—and you let him live?”
Zu—Alwin—studied him. “Of course, I did. He’s my captain.”
“You recall what the purpose of True Conductors is.”
Alwin shook his head.
“I still wouldn’t agree with what you guys are doing just killing True Conductors,” Alwin said. He scoffed. “I still feel awful for even trying it. I lost my head there. What good would it do? Slow down the syzygy by a fraction? It’s a meaningless death.”
“You think we don’t value life?” Gamma looked away.
Alwin did a double-take. “What…?”
“You’re just proving how little of Zu remains—”
“Hey. It was enough for me to decide to follow Iota here—enough for me to decide to leave my fiancé to help you stop this thing. It might be a little, but it’s enough.”
Gamma turned back to stare at him. “What are you implying?”
“I’m… just saying that I’m not an ass who doesn’t feel sorry for a widow and her daughter.”
* * *
When the eighth day rolled around, Gamma came to a decision. He approached Iota who was kneeling in front of Nu and staring him down as he usually did: another unsuccessful interrogation.
“Iota, will you accept position as delegated leader?” Gamma asked.
Nu’s brows furrowed.
Iota shot up to a stand and whipped around, seeming to understand the implication immediately. “What? Are you sure, Gamma?” He looked over at Nu. “There’s only Nu and you here to cast the vote. I don’t believe Tau would agree with me being leader. Beta would be the more obvious choice.
“We’ve encountered many scenarios we haven’t prepared for. Betrayal, incorrect initiations, an extended timeline. Dogmatism needs to be… curbed at times.”
“I’m rather… surprised to hear you say that,” Iota muttered, “but I suppose that’s an indicator in itself…”
Gamma nodded. “Yes, but I don’t believe I’m anywhere near Theta’s pitiful state.”
“But are you sure, Gamma? I mean—” Iota looked him up and down. “I’ll reinitiate you as soon as I can, but—with all respect guaranteed—isn’t that a waste? I understood Delta’s reasoning but…”
“This initiation is inconvenient,” Gamma answered evenly. “Taurus is playing games and that peacekeeper is delusional.”
Iota put a hand to his chin. “But you’re a peacekeeper, Gamma. And that peacekeeping woman and Taurus seem to have an attachment to you. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to use it your current identity to your advantage? It might be easier to gain access to reservoirs—”
“Using identities for convenience?” Gamma’s eyes narrowed. “Are you suggesting I follow in Theta’s footsteps? Were you truly initiated correctly?”
“With all due respect, Gamma, my initiation surely is more right than yours,” Iota replied. “I held my tongue about what’s been going on here since you’re leader but I have been questioning things.” He waved his hand in the air. “Instead of debating about it, let’s just carry on, shall we? Re-initiation—”
“What…?” came a whisper from behind.
Upon turning, Gamma found Elizabeta approaching them.
“Re-initiation…? Were you thinking about killing yourself just now, Izsak…?” Elizabeta paled. “Like you did to Delta?”
“That’s none of your concern.”
“Of course it’s my concern—”
“Alright.” Iota clapped his hands. “This is obviously going in a very awkward direction, so I’ll take my leave now.” He did as he said, sliding past them and walking over towards the Capricornians.
Upon returning his attention to Elizabeta, Gamma found the woman staring daggers into him.
“The rations will only last several more days,” Gamma explained himself even though he knew he didn’t need to. “Lambda will come, but I’m unsure of when that will happen—”
“The mountaineers will probably only take a couple more days,” Elizabeta insisted. “If we just wait—”
“Yes, they’ll come with their corrupt ways of conducting.” Gamma frowned. “My final delegate Iota as the defacto temporary leader, since he’s the least injured out all of us. We will save resources that way—”
“What…?” Elizabeta did a double-take. “How can you give up so easily?”
“This is not giving up—”
“Yes, it is!” Elizabeta snapped. “Do you hear yourself, Izsak—”
“You know I’m not Izsak.”
Elizabeta shut her mouth.
“Taurus also knows this.”
Her frown thinned. “Why…? Really—why? I know it has to be more than that.”
Gamma stared her down, but after struggling beneath her gaze, he said, “Being around me is difficult for the both of you. And… being around you is also difficult for me. It’s akin to torture. I don’t understand your apprehension.”
Elizabeta stared. “Torture…?”
“My sole purpose is to prevent the syzygy to preserve everything we worked towards and everything Ophiuchus worked towards.” He closed his eyes, placing a hand to his chest. “That is the vow I made to her—whether or not she herself accepted it. I don’t intend to stray from the path ever—even when the others have—and I will continue along it until the rest of my vitae ebbs away into nothing.” He opened his eyes and studied Elizabeta’s somber expression. It hurt to look at so he looked away. “And yet here I’ve allowed you to use your filthy, crooked conductors on me and am conversing openly with a peacekeeper who’s unwittingly been contributing to the syzygy with every breath she takes. I keep a picture that’s not mine and—” Gamma returned his gaze to her but froze.
Elizabeta didn’t look sad anymore but angry. Her fists were clenched.
“So it’s getting hard for you so you’re going to decide to just end it?”
“It’s not an end,” Gamma replied. “It’s a temporary state.”
“It might as well be an end.” Elizabeta glowered, slipping into her native tongue. “You’re going to be snapped back to zero.”
Gamma slipped into the language as well: “The fruits of my labors will remain and the records—”
“Fruits of your labors…? You mean the innocent people you’ve killed. Is that all you ELPIS Leaders know how to do? Extinguish life because ‘it’ll return to the cycle’ and then carry on with grand monologues about how you’re right—”
Gamma’s eyes narrowed. “I won’t stand here arguing with—”
Abruptly, Elizabeta reached forward and grabbed him by the scruff of his shirt. “You will fucking live and you will fucking make up for everything you’ve taken away from us. If it hurts, then suffer for it!” she hissed, tightening her grip. “Izsak was a good ma—” Her voice cracked and she slid to her knees. “He was so, so good to me, to us, to everyone. He made mistakes—we both did—but I-I love—loved—him so much. And now you’ve taken him away from me. You’re tearing apart everything we worked for. And soon people won’t even remember all the good he’sdone because it’ll be overshadowed by every single terrible thing you’ve done.” She buried her face into his leg that she had just barely managed to heal the other day. “You promised me you wouldn’t die… You promised me, Izsak! You… lied…”
Gamma’s chest squeezed. Here it was again. This pain that managed to break past the numbness that bleaching vitae gave. Unfamiliar, unpleasant. Guilt—expanding out.
“Why did we think we could’ve changed anything?” Elizabeta whispered. “Why didn’t we just take simple jobs? We’d toil away every single day and we wouldn’t make as much, but we’d be able to spend more time with Csilla. We’d be there for every single parent-student event at Csilla’s school. We wouldn’t have to rely on a nanny so often. Csilla… Why did we let Csilla go through that ceremony? Why didn’t we research more beforehand? Are we terrible parents…? ”
He remained silent.
“Can’t you see that all Csilla wants is to be hugged by her father?” Elizabeta whispered. “Can’t you see that all I want right now is to be hugged by my husband?”
Before Gamma realized what he was doing, he was sinking down beside her. He held her hands in his own.
“But I am not your husband and I am not Csilla’s father,” he said. “There is not enough of his vitae left in this body for me to be considered Wtorek Izsak. These fragments and familiarities are not enough to form a full person. Pretending otherwise would not only be a rejection of the sanctity of the cycle, but it would also be marring your husband’s name. If you are the woman that Izsak remembers you to be, then you know this. And. I apologize for your loss.”
Elizabeta stared at him and then scoffed. “How can you say something like that—like you’re tying off some nice finishing bow? I can’t even hold a funeral because you’re standing here, but I don’t want you dead because then you’d just become Izsak’s… corpse. You better not… Y-You better not—” She wept.
Each tear that spilled from her eyes was like a knife to the chest. He wanted to make the tears stop—to stop her pain and his own—but he knew he couldn’t.
“I’m sorry, Liza,” Gamma stated, wiping a tear from her cheek. “I will remain here. There is more work I can still do.”
* * *
“You… made Elizabeta cry…”
Gamma lifted his head. He was sitting in the corner he had made for himself away from the others. He’d been staring at the photograph for the past half hour. He could remember the day the photo was taken—just barely. It had been a sunny afternoon and they’d been trekking their way down from Izsak’s old house in the middle of the Okör mountain range. Csilla’s legs had given out halfway through and so Izsak had given her a piggyback ride the rest of the way down. They had made a stop by the famous flower fields at the half-way point and Elizabeta had spread out a picnic blanket beside an old, wiry oak tree. Csilla had plucked several flowers from the surrounding fields and Izsak and Elizabeta had worked together to weave a crown into the little girl’s hair.
A simple blip.
Coming back to this photo and reminiscing on memories that were not his own was an addiction—Gamma knew this. But he couldn’t help himself. He hungered for it. And it felt like a betrayal against Ophiuchus.
As soon as he registered that it was Taurus standing before him, however, he folded the photo back into his pocket.
“Taurus,” he acknowledged her, “what do you want?”
“Pothos, I remember you being more tactful in the past, so it’s pitiable to see you deteriorate to this point,” Taurus said. She added: “Don’t make her cry again. I mean it.”
“So you do know who I am.” Gamma stood and approached her, eyes narrowing. “I admit you almost had me fooled with this act. I started assuming your baptism somehow was faulty in the same way our initiations can be.”
Taurus looked up at him.
She said, “Elizabeta tells me that you remember things.”
“Slightly more than the usual initiation,” Gamma returned evenly.
Taurus slowly began to pace around him in circles, looking him up and down and up and down. Gamma regarded her, ready to conjure a weapon if necessary. Finally, she stopped in front of him, blinked up at him, asked—
“Can you conjure me a stuffed rabbit?”
Gamma assumed he had misheard. “What.”
“Like the one I wanted for my eighth birthday,” Taurus elaborated. “Mama says you remember that birthday.”
“What?” His eyes narrowed and his suspicion grew. “Why? Is it a conduit for the syzygy—”
“What?” Taurus snorted. “No, it’s just a rabbit, Papa. It was limited edition.”
The title sent another stinging jab to his chest. She was playing games again—
Gamma slowly sank back down on the boulder and studied Taurus carefully. Her hair was pulled into a messy braid—no doubt Wtorek Elizabeta’s work. She was good with working with bodies but was terrible with working with hair. Taurus’s dress was in a similar state—torn in some areas, stained in others. The saint candidate looked pitiful.
“Will you leave me alone if I heed this request?”
Taurus didn’t reply.
Gamma studied at her before closing his eyes and searching his memory. Yes, there: a stuffed rabbit with floppy ears, blue-button eyes, and a red bow-tie. He held out his hand before opening his eyes and piecing together the requested object from his vitae in his palms. He was left exhausted at the end of the ordeal and frowned upon realizing he’d wasted his vitae on something so foolish. Regardless, he threw the newly conjured stuffed animal to Csilla.
The saint candidate caught it, stared at it. Gamma studied her face. Her shoulders slumped. He couldn’t understand why.
“It’s cute…” she mumbled. “It’s supposed to be ugly.”
“Why would you desire something that’s ugly?”
Gamma hadn’t gone to many of Taurus’s lessons back in the Aesculapium, but he recalled Taurus being one for simple aesthetics. So this sudden desire for ugliness was odd. This entire situation was odd.
“Ugly cute…” Taurus murmured, setting the stuffed rabbit on the ground. “I don’t like it…”
Gamma felt insulted. What a spoiled brat, he thought. No, this was a saint candidate. Not a girl, not a brat.
“Izsak worked very hard to conjure something pleasant-looking appearance for you,” Gamma drew, “and in reality, you wanted something that was ugly—”
Abruptly, Taurus charged towards him. He startled, ready to conjure a weapon but froze when she abruptly wrapped her arms around him. He immediately shoved her away. Taurus stumbled back and fell on her rear. Tense, Gamma stared at her as she picked herself off the ground and dusted herself off. A second later and she was throwing her arms around him once more. Again, he shoved her away. This time she caught herself before she fell and ran to him again for an embrace. Again, he pushed her away. Each time she came, he shoved her back harder. Each time she was shoved back harder, she ran to him faster. On the thirteenth shove, Taurus fell flat on her back. She picked herself up like she did all the times before, but remained standing in place. When their eyes met, she let out a sudden wail as tears began to pour out from the corner of her eyes. It was a caterwaul.
Tensing and not wanting to deal with Elizabeta again nor hear that painful sound any longer, Gamma walked briskly to Taurus’s side, knelt down, and half-whispered, half-hissed, “This is asinine. Keep quiet. I’ll conjure you something else. Shut up. How old are you to be crying like this—”
“Why are you so mean? I don’t care about the syzygy anymore.” Taurus sniffled, wiping her eyes and gulping between breaths. “I hate Scorpio. I hate Gamma. I hate the saint candidates and I hate ELPIS. It’s not fair. I keep trying and trying…”
“How dare you say you no longer care about—”
“Papa, Mama’s so, so, so lonely,” Taurus whimpered. “She’s been so sad since you’ve been gone and I made her sadder by running away. A-And she’s the only one left now, and it’s just…” Her voice cracked. “It’s just too sad.” She rubbed her eyes. “Our problem is that we’re fixated on the big picture.”
Gamma frowned at the change in tone.
“Both of us. ELPIS. The Saint Candidates. The syzygy, the turn of the vitae cycle, vitae reservoirs, the generators, war, peace. The big picture.” She hiccupped. “We failed to look at the tiny details. Papa always said the tiny details were important—especially in conjuring. A bunch of Capricornian soldiers trying to not be burdens to their families, their country, and the people they care about. A bunch of stupid peacekeepers coming together with a skeleton plan to try and achieve peace. A man playing up ridiculous eccentricities just to make a little girl laugh. A child playing on a swing set with friends at school and family at home. Schoolyard fights and insults. A mountaineer giving tourists directions on where to go and what places to avoid on a dangerous peak. A mother trying to transmute her family back together. All of it— tiny like ants—blips—in the great turn of the cycle.” She sniffled. “But in those moments—in those snapshots, in those details… Papa, you and Mama showed me there was so much meaning…” She took in a shaky breath. “Never in any of my lives”—she whimpered— “have I ever been treated so kindly, have I ever been spoiled rotten to this degree.” She buried her head in her hands. “Papa also said people who’re miserable expect everyone else to become miserable too and unintentionally make people around them miserable because of that…. Gamma, I-I think we’ve made everyone around us miserable.”
Gamma was still trying to digest her words. “Crying won’t change anything.” He studied the weeping saint candidate as each tear she shed intensified the twisting in his stomach. Then Iota’s words suddenly came to mind—Taurus as an ally? Leo had been an ally as well and that had turned out poorly. Therefore, attempting to reach an agreement was not an ethical nor sound decision. However— “If you are truly against the syzygy as you say you are, then—”
“You don’t listen!” Taurus interjected, throwing her hands out in frustration. “I said I don’t care about it anymore! Ugh! You never listen! It’s the details! The details!”
Gamma stared. Taurus blinked away her tears to meet his gaze and burst out into even more tears. Before he could say anything else, she again threw her arms around his neck. He tried to shove her away again but this time her grip was iron tight. After a moment or so of struggling, he gave up trying to rip her away.
“This is ridiculous, Taurus—”
“Csilla,” Csilla insisted. “It’s Csilla.”
This was torment.
Gamma struggled as that pain gnawed up his stomach and clenched his chest. “This is silly, Csilla.”
Csilla’s breath hitched and her grip around him tightened. “Can we please play pretend, Papa?”
Gamma remained silent.
The two words struck a chord within his chest and his mind. Faded memories of Csilla begging to stay out late just a little bit longer to catch fireflies out in the summer fields, memories of her begging to have one more piece of chocolate after dinner, memories of her begging for Izsak to go down one more waterslide with her flitted through Gamma’s mind. Izsak would give into her every single time—which had resulted in this brattish behavior. And so, Gamma too gave in—wrapping his hands around her small body.
“Okay. We can play pretend.”
She remained sobbing into his shoulder for a long time—clenching tight, not letting go. Gamma remained perfectly still, staring ahead towards the opposite wall where Nu sat watching them. And just a little ways behind him—Wtorek Elizabeta. Finally, after what felt like both an eternity and a millisecond, Csilla pulled away from him and rubbed her eyes again. Her face was beet red, her eyes swollen.
“Thank you, Gamma.”
A small blip was what this moment was.
* * *
On the twelfth day, shouting seeped down from above and grew nearer and nearer. Mountaineers. Rescuers. It seemed as if Elizabeta’s words of praise about Taurusian earth Elementalist rang true. Iota shouted back up at them, guiding the rescuers on where to dig. Soon, they would be free.
Gamma approached Wtorek Csilla and Wtorek Elizabeta on his own that evening. The two were sharing a meal together with the Capricornians who tensed as he approached. Ignoring them, he sat down across from the Wtoreks.
“The details of what happened before I became initiated,” he began. “Would you like to know?”
Elizabeta nearly dropped the slice of cheese in her hand. “You remember…?”
Gamma explained, “All I know for certain are three things. Firstly, the person who murdered Wtorek Izsak had an unusual style of conducting. I recall his shock from seeing it— although I don’t remember what his assailant’s conducting actually was. In short: the person who murdered him was most likely a saint candidate. That or a Specialist. Perhaps both.”
Elizabeta’s gaze darkened. “Scorpio…”
Gamma glanced at her. “Scorpio was not baptized at the time of his death, Liza.”
“Secondly, the person who murdered Wtorek Izsak must have been someone whom he trusted.” Gamma tapped his chest. “There was an intense feeling of betrayal at the moment of death. Thirdly—as I’m sure you’re somewhat aware of—Wtorek Izsak stumbled upon what I believe was the truth regarding the reservoirs, the vitae cycle, and the saint candidate. He was planning to make his findings known—”
Elizabeta clenched her fists, smooshing the sandwich in her hands. “And that’s why…?”
“Why he was killed?” Gamma inquired. “Most likely.”
Csilla slowly lowered the sandwich in her hands as her eyes widened. Realization, shock, horror, hurt, anguish—the emotions flitted across her face quickly. Gamma fought the urge to come to her side. Finally the last emotion to appear on her delicate face was pure rage. She clenched her fists, her fingers glowing a dark russet color, the bread and cheese melting in her hands.
The Capricornians stared wide-eyed and somewhat fearful, but then—
“Csilla! You’re making a mess!”
At her mother’s chastising, the light surrounding Csilla’s hand dimmed and her cheeks pinkened. Gamma studied her face and stared at her, but she didn’t elaborate on what exactly she had realized.
* * *
Soon, the mountaineers and rescuers were separated from them by only a thin layer of rock. Iota conversed with them casually. Gamma disapproved of this, but accepted it as necessary. However, he began to think on how exactly he would deal with the rescuers once they found out there were ELPIS Leaders down here. As he considered different possibilities, Csilla approached him with a clump of dust and dirt in her hands. Once she was directly in front of him, she spat into the clump, mixed it into a paste with her index finger, and reached towards his face. He immediately pulled away in disgust but she frowned and glared at him. So, he relented and allowed her to smear the dirt mixture over his lower jaw and throat. A moment later, he realized she was covering up his tattoo.
“I’m not going to hide my dedication and my purpose,” Gamma drew, reaching to rub it away.
“Pretend,” Csilla insisted, grabbing his wrist and stopping him short. “For now. Please?”
“It’ll save us trouble from them identifying you,” Elizabeta reasoned, joining them. “You can’t be that stringent all the time. It’s no wonder you’ve barely made any progress.”
Gamma stared at the Wtoreks for a moment before looking over at Iota who was already covering up the tattoo on his arm.
“Where are you going to go?” Elizabeta asked, drawing his attention back.
“Virgo before refocusing on Alpha,” he answered, before looking down at Csilla. “You understand why.”
Csilla’s brows met rather adorably. “I don’t actually… Virgo—she stepped away after the war. I don’t know what she’s doing over there…” She shifted from side to side, reaching for her mother’s hand and holding it. “Can we… come?” She looked at Elizabeta. “Can we go, Mama?”
Elizabeta answered by holding Gamma’s gaze.
“We can’t play games forever,” he informed them.
“I know, Gamma,” Csilla replied, taking his hand with her free one. “I know.”
Rumbling resounded above their heads.
In unison, they turned to look up at the tiny little hole in the caved-in ceiling. Slowly that little blip of light there grew larger and larger—basking everything in bright white.
a/n: AH. this chapter. was a time™ chapter updates will be much closer together and slightly more sporadic after this but i’ll always let you know when the chapters are coming on discord or twitter for the live reads o/. thanks for reading!!! we now appraoch the finale!!!