Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus
The grounds outside the Serpens Establishment were eerily empty. Odd since the election results were to be announced just that evening—after Olive participated in the last round of votes with Claire. Odd since war had been declared just a handful of days ago. But also not so odd given the fact that an invasion was slated for the very same evening. Also not so odd considering the fact that—according to Jericho—a good chunk of the peacekeepers had been carted off to Cancer, Leo, Aquarius, and Sagittarius in the past few days.
Still, it felt odd. Other than the anxious buzz that’d seemed to have found home everywhere, Olive didn’t feel like much had changed over the week. He didn’t know what he’d been expecting. Most of the other five had been born in the middle of the war or right after it had started, so Olive didn’t have much first-hand account on what the beginning of war should actually feel like.
There were only a handful of peacekeepers dotting the courtyard now—trapped in an endless loop of walking back and forth from pillar to pillar, from statue to statue. Evaluating and guarding the perimeter.
Beneath the light of the sun, the peacekeepers’ black suits stood out like sore thumbs against the white floors, walkways, statues, everything. This place looked as white and pristine as it had looked before everything fell apart in the 1400s. And the early 1900s.
It felt weird to be standing here. Maria’s shared memories of Ophiuchus’s original grandeur were burned into the back of Olive’s head despite their faintness.
But that in itself brought meaning and value.
The quietness just made Olive all the more aware of how sweaty his palms were and how light his head felt. Still, he was not as nervous as he thought he’d be.
Olive glanced to his right where Lyrs and Derik paced beside him. The latter was glaring at the peacekeepers, while the former looked nauseous. Claire, Eunji, Soha, and Felix walked at Olive’s left with Arjun caged in-between them. It was all for show. Needed to keep up appearances.
Claire tapped Olive’s arm abruptly and nodded up to the sky. Olive arched a brow before he caught sight of a shadow passing overhead. He looked up to find a handful of peacekeeping agents riding on thin conductors overhead. Air Elementalists.
“It’s strange to see so many air Elementalist this far from home,” Arjun noted. “I think I recognize a few from the Hoshi Clan.”
“They’d probably be shunned for running away if they ever came back,” Claire responded lightly. “Even if you’re doing something as pure as seeking peace, the clan just won’t have it”
Arjun glanced at him.
Olive internally pleaded for no more family drama.
“How do you think they’re going to do it?” Claire asked suddenly. “The other-ELPIS, I mean. How do you think they’re going to try and break in?”
Olive glanced up at the sky again and eyed the peacekeepers up there. Then he felt his stomach twist. Guilt. They were taking advantage of ELPIS’s raid here. Not making any moves to prevent it. People would get hurt.
But how exactly can we stop it? We’re caught in a tight spot—literally sandwiched between a bunch of old geezers who keep insisting on smacking the lights out of each other with canes both physically and philosophically—
That metaphor is ‘unclear.’
Olive waved the thought away.
Okay. Metaphor unclear—definitely. But it was a valid argument. But… what if the peacekeepers hurt the children?
They will not. Peacekeepers: to use suppression cuffs on children unless directed otherwise. Not applicable to suspected true ELPIS members.
The peacekeepers will most likely be the ones to receive losses.
Under these circumstances, the cost was an acceptable one. In the end, they could only pursue so many objectives at a time. So long as ELPIS retained the attention of the peacekeepers for a set amount of time, everything would run as planned. There was no need to worry.
Feeling slightly more at ease, Olive reached the foot of the Serpens Establishment’s stairs with the others. They began to ascend.
Halfway up, Olive glanced at Derik and muttered, “I’m surprised your voting time’s the same as mine… didn’t you get your license a couple of years ago?”
“What? I didn’t vote,” Derik snapped. “All of them are assholes.” He slipped into Capricornian. “Why the fuck should I waste my vote on someone I hate? Fuck all of them.”
Lyrs glanced at him. “You could have voted for Seamus, you know.”
“Like that fucking matters anymore,” Derik scoffed. “Why the fuck are there elections anyways? Just do it the way we do it. Pick someone who isn’t a dumbass and who has some experience and put him up there.”
“And that’s worked out so well for your country, has it?” Felix muttered under his breath.
Clare tutted. Felix dipped his head as if embarrassed.
Derik whipped to face him. “Listen, asshole. Our country isn’t the one that’s having a bunch of blood-related adults being the shit out of blood-related teenagers over some dumbshit politics.” He shut his mouth and grimaced. “Keyword is fucking blood-related.”
Olive’s eyes narrowed, his lips pulling tight.
Derik seemed to notice this. “I’ve gone AWOL from Capricorn. I’m not representing anyone anymore. No need to ride my ass about it.”
“Are you hearing things?” Olive arched a brow. “I’m not riding…” He grimaced. “…anything.”
Derik shrugged. “Anyway, who’d the captain vote for?”
“Werner didn’t vote,” Olive half-whispered. “I mean. He did. Cadence did it for him. She voted for Gabrielle.”
“What?” Derik arched a brow. “Why’s that? Not the Gabrielle thing. The other thing.”
Olive didn’t answer.
Claire leaned in, smiling at Derik. “That’s not good—not voting just because you don’t like the candidates. I mean, don’t you want things to change?”
“I don’t give a shit whether things change, brat.”
Felix clicked his tongue. “Don’t talk to the prince like that.”
“Don’t talk to me like that—”
Olive grumbled, “If picking fights was a career, you’d be rich, Derik.”
Derik opened his mouth.
“Come on. Please.”
Eyeing Olive with an unreadable expression, Derik finally shut his mouth.
They reached the top of the flights where a row of peacekeepers stood waiting for them. Olive recognized the one who stood front and foremost. Mosely. Second chair of General Investigations. Gabrielle’s vice chair.
Olive reached for his royal insignia in his pocket but was stopped by Mosely’s halting hand. He exchanged a look with Claire who was just beginning to pull out his own insignia.
“No need,” Mosley explained. “We’ve temporarily changed protocol.” He extended his hand. “Licenses please—if you have them.”
Olive repocketed his insignia and pulled out his conducting license. After Mosely looked over it, he gestured to the long table that had been set up behind him. About seven vitae spectrophotometers were lined up on its surface. Similar tables were aligned parallel to each other at the other entryways into the building.
Moseley motioned Olive forward to the closest device.
Olive himself was familiar with the process since Jericho had to go through it numerous times before Alice had gotten him that special pass. He’d gone through it once himself before when he’d taken his licensing exam. That and he’d been there when Marta had been building it.
Marta. Marta. Did any of the people using these things know how hard Marta had worked to make something like this possible? Of course not. No matter how much blood, sweat, and tears someone put into something, sometimes all of it went unacknowledged.
But at least hard work bore fruit, don’t you think? What’s more important—being acknowledged for the labor of picking the fruit or the fruit itself?
The fruits were more important, but acknowledgement and appreciation helped. Wasn’t it important for leaders to acknowledge the hard work of people around them? Not that he was a leader himself, but still.
Olive waved his thoughts away as the familiar feeling of anchor pulling down on his chest started making it difficult to breathe. He moved to the device and arched a brow at the peacekeeper operating it. The woman wasn’t even holding it properly.
A pinprick to the index finger later and the vitae spectrophotometer flashed the color of Olive’s vitae on its small display. He moved on down the line where he was patted down by a peacekeeper before moving to yet another vitae spectrophotometer. After this one, the next peacekeeper down the line had him fill out a weird survey before allowing him to move on down the line. Another peacekeeper asked for his conductor.
Test after test after test and then—finally, they made it inside.
It was eerily quiet and empty in the lobby. The only sounds seemed to be coming from the large metal fans lazily whipping above them. There were a handful of peacekeepers crossing the foyer with purpose, and a couple of men and women in normal attire were weaving in-between them.
The large map of Signum on the wall at the very back was unmarked unlike the one they had in Francis’s room. Whether this was a good thing or a bad thing—Olive didn’t know. A large clock ticked above it—a Waltz Model as indicated by the twin Ws at its center.
12:41 pm. They were on time.
But it was best to be ahead of time.
Claire signaled for Soha to take Eunji and Arjun to wait by the map, and the trio complied. Lyrs happily volunteered to remain behind too.
Olive tried to do the same to Derik, but Derik just sneered and ignored the silent request. Olive was too tired and anxious to fight with him it at this point. So, he headed with Claire, Felix, and Derik to the Licensing Department through one of the west wing halls. After passing up some stairs, they entered the room where Olive had taken his exam.
At the front desk in the otherwise empty waiting room there sat Moraeni. Olive was curious about the man. Frankly, he was curious about all of Jericho’s peacekeeping acquaintances—aside from Gabrielle and… Izsak.
“Olive Chance, right?” Moraeni greeted Olive as he approached the desk. The man then nodded at Claire. “And Yuseong Haneul?”
Olive stared baffled for a moment before mentally slapping himself. Of course Moraeni knew him.
“I never forget a face,” Moraeni said. He pulled back with a chuckle. “Can’t. Not when I’m the first chair of the Licensing Department. I have to admit that the royal statuses do help out quite a lot.”
Not knowing what to say, Olive gave a jerk of his head.
Moraeni motioned their group forward. “May I see the licenses of the ones who will be voting today?”
Olive procured his license alongside Claire. Moraeni scanned them before he smiled and handed them back. His gaze lingered on Claire briefly before he gestured to the door behind him.
“Yuseong Haneul, your booth is number 5B Olivier Chance, your booth number is 7C,” he said. “The voting booths are just in the other room whenever you’re ready. There is a queue.” He smiled at Felix and Derik. “If you’re not voting, I’m going to have to ask you to wait outside. Just like how it is when it’s exam time. Simple, right?”
Felix settled into a chair after being given a wave by Claire. Olive tried to follow suit and was pleasantly surprised to see Derik settle in one of the waiting chairs five seats down from Felix. This—sadly—was progress.
“New guard, huh?” Moraeni said with a laugh, eyeing Derik.
Olive didn’t respond. He entered the indicated backroom with Claire and found clean lines of men and women standing in front of 12 booths. The booths were white and wooden with a warped glass at their most proximal sides making it almost impossible to see what was going on inside them. Every so often, someone would step out from one of the booths and another person would enter. Olive split off from Claire and quickly found the one he was assigned and queued up at the end of the line. He tried his best to ignore Claire who was giving him looks from several rows down and instead reached out to the others.
Werner and Maria were poised and ready in Francis’s rooms—the former with an air of seriousness and the latter with an air of eager anticipation. Jericho was still making final rounds with Leona through the white halls of the Serpens Establishment not too far off. Atienna was at the border of Virgo now, while Cadence had just slipped from the gray Capricornian capital back into Francis’s place.
Soon, it was Olive’s turn to enter the booth. He stepped inside to find a small, long, wooden table topped with a big white box with a slit cut on its top. Beside the box were a stack of papers and a pen. The paper read:
Country of Origin
Below that were the names of the twelve first chairs with their departments in parentheses. Beside each name was a checkbox.
Olive scowled as he filled out the information before pausing at the ballot.
Did it really matter who he voted for at this point? Wait—should he even keep that weird promise he’d made to Lyrs to vote for Seamus? Then again, he hated breaking promises. Anyways, saying things didn’t matter was something he was trying to stop doing.
Olive checked off the box for Seamus and inserted his ballot into the slot.
* * *
As soon as Olive rejoined Arjun’s group alongside Claire, Derik, and Felix in front of the Signum map in the lobby, Lyrs stepped forward and asked, “You both voted for Seamus, right?”
Claire smiled and placed a hand on his chest. “I never break a promise.”
Olive resisted rolling his eyes but was glad they were on the same page on that at least. He studied the map, eyes lingering on his home country in the north briefly. If things turned out, he would be seeing the countryside soon through the eyes of one of the others. Letting out a half-grumble, half-sigh, he turned on his heels to head out the lobby but collided with another body. He stumbled back before falling on his rear.
Olive glanced to the side at the call and found a familiar woman standing there and holding a packet of folders. Short blonde hair, red square glasses.
“Hey!” Derik snapped, taking a threatening step towards the figure Olive had collided with. “Watch it—” He shut his mouth. “You.”
Olive followed his gaze and then froze. His heart hammered wildly as a dark extended hand entered his view.
“I’m terribly sorry about that. My mind is quite literally everywhere these days.”
Olive didn’t move as the hairs on his arm rose to a stand. An ominous, heavy feeling was pushing down on his chest and shoulders.
“Oh my! Are you Prince Olivier Chance?” The hand retracted. “I-I’m absolutely honored! Absolutely honored!” The hand extended again.
Olive remained unable to even move a muscle. The way Scorpio was holding his hand out and looking at him—it felt like Scorpio was holding him in the palm of his hand.
In the distance, he could see Jericho stop short in his walk down the halls with Leona. Leona turned to look at him, but Jericho ignored her and started walking in the opposite direction—towards the lobby where Olive was.
Wait, wait, no. Olive held Jericho back with difficulty. We can’t draw attention. Not now. We’d be doing what he wants. Anyways, this works with the plan.
Werner neared, coming in strongly enough for Olive to see him. The man placed a hand on his shoulder. “Olive is correct. This encounter is useful.”He evaluated Scorpio, and Olive could feel the tension in his body. He moved his hand to Olive’s head—but Olive couldn’t tell who the gesture comforted more. “That being said, after the next step is completed, you should try your best to disengage—”
“Fuck off,” Derik hissed before shoving Scorpio away and ripping Olive up to stand.
Scorpio stumbled back slightly before a smile split across his face.
“Ah, it’s been quite some time, Herr Stein,” he said, straightening himself and brushing off his shoulders. “I have to say that you’re looking much better than before. It seems as if your countenance and attitude has improved greatly—though I suppose that’s natural given that you’ve finally found something to dedicate yourself towards.” He gestured to Olive. “I’m sure your parents back home would be proud—that is if they weren’t flabbergasted by your desertion. Oh, but don’t worry. Ophiuchus is a neutral state, so any warrants and what that Capricorn has out for you are rendered null and void here—”
Derik took a step forward, jabbing a finger at Scorpio’s chest. “I don’t give a fuck what chair you’re on and I don’t give a fuck what you’re the saint of, you bastard—”
Some of the peacekeepers walking through the lobby cast glances in their direction.
“Derik, no,” Olive muttered under his breath and eyed Lyrs. “There’s no point. Come on. Please.”
Derik stopped short, before grimacing and pulling back.
“Well, this is quite the conundrum.” Scorpio sighed, placing a hand on his cheek. “You’re following one of your passions, but the nature of that passion is causing you to ignore your other, smaller passions. I suppose it’s only natural given who you’ve dedicated yourself to—a chain, really.”
Scorpio turned his eyes on Olive. “That’s what you are, Prince Chance. A chain. Exactly what you feel every so often. Keeping things in place—helpfully, forcefully, and everything in-between. You haven’t felt it lately, have you? That’s because you’ve transferred that feeling to everyone around you. Everyone you’re connected with is chained down by you. Do you think they truly want to be around you? Why do you think the captain did what he did?”
Olive felt faint briefly—
It’s an uninformed evaluation and metaphor, Werner thought, presence still strong. You are not a chain, Olive. A pause. Hesitation. If we were to continue speaking in metaphors, it would be more appropriate to liken you to a necessary anchor.
“I don’t get the ‘analogy’,” Jericho said under his breath from a far off hall in the building. He ignored Leona when she looked at him. “But yes: I agree.”
Olive could feel him staring at Talib through his own gaze.
“Talib,” Alice interjected, eyes narrowing. “We’re in public. You still haven’t won the election yet. Control yourself. Speaking of which, we need to prepare for the election result announcements—”
More peacekeepers and passersby were beginning to stare.
“Wait, no.” Derik frowned, glancing between them and then eyeing Scorpio. “What the fuck are you yapping about?”
“Oh? You didn’t know?”
Derik pulled back, nudging Olive. “Well, fuck it. Now I don’t want to know—”
Olive’s palms begin to itch.
Scorpio gestured to Olive. “Chlorowheat is everywhere—as I’m sure you’re well aware. Poor Hårek is really up in his wits end trying to hold it together. ELPIS certainly isn’t helping any. Capricorn and Aquarius are hotspots—not too surprising. Overdosing and experiencing withdrawal symptoms can both be quite terrible…” He glanced at Derik with an almost sympathetic expression. “Prince Chance here—I heard from the papers—got quite sick recently, didn’t he?”
Derik arched a brow at him in confusion before his eyes widened a fraction of an inch. He turned to Olive in disbelief. Shame boiled in Olive’s stomach but—
It was okay, Olive thought in reassurance. It happened. It wouldn’t happen again. They’d work through it.
The shame mellowed—only slightly.
“I don’t mean to sound rude—Mr. Al-Jarrah, right?” Claire interjected suddenly, eyeing Lyrs,
“—but I think you’re making Olive here a bit uncomfortable. I mean—we’re always in the public eye and being criticized, so it’d be nice not to have to face that in neutral territory, wouldn’t you say? There’s always more to the story than what the papers say.”
Olive turned to Claire in slight surprise. Was Claire defending him again? And simultaneously throwing himself in Scorpio’s line of fire?
“I frankly don’t really understand what this is all about, but since you’re a chairman—”
Scorpio turned to Claire. “Oh my—aren’t you Prince Yuseong Haneul?”
Felix and Soha tensed behind Claire, while Eunji tucked herself behind him.
Claire smiled, brows raising in surprise. “Oh—you’ve heard of me? Only good things I hope. Though… haven’t we met—”
“Oh, right, right. We’ve met directly and indirectly before.” Scorpio chuckled. “Right before a rather interesting fall and during a precarious train ride in Aquarius if I recall correctly. Short-lived meetings really. It does make one wonder how this meeting will end.”
Olive saw the muscles in Claire’s neck tighten, but his smile didn’t falter. Slowly, Olive moved towards Lyrs and nudged the man’s arm. The man shifted away. Irritably, Olive moved to stomp on the man’s foot causing the man to whip to face him.
Scorpio meanwhile glanced at Felix. “And you’re Jaeseong Felix. Originally Felix Pedersen.”
Claire’s smile twitched.
“An orphan adopted by Haneul into the Seong Clan after an influx of Aquarian refugees came to Sagittarius trying to escape the country’s famine. Sagittarius was quite xenophobic back then, wasn’t it? Even after all of Sagittarius’s hard work… but people naturally are afraid of things and people different from them. Naturally, they’re averse to change.” Scorpio tutted and sighed. “That’s why you’re so loyal to Haneul, Felix, right? He accepted you when others wouldn’t.” Scorpio nodded at Soha. “Jaeseong Soha. Sagittarian war veteran. Political assassin. I think you were responsible for the death of one of the Xing Clan successors, right? I’m sure any person who fought on the south-eastern front would recognize your mask immediately.” He then turned to Eunji.
Claire pushed her further behind himself, still smiling.
Scorpio chuckled. “My, my. The will of familial ties certainly is a heavy burden, Prince Yuseong, and the will of the people is even heavier. But the heaviest thing is your own momentum, right? I mean—you’ve already been walking on your current path for so long, so it would feel like a waste to turn back. What would there be for you if you didn’t continue walking in this direction anyways? Nothing. The walk back is way too long. Plus you feel pride in the fact that you didn’t give up where others have—but you also feel bitter about it. If only you didn’t have to feel this way, right? You despise it, don’t you? Why did you—do you—even have to do all of this in the first place? You can’t run away; you can’t stay still.” He placed a sympathetic hand on his chest. “You want to relinquish yourself. You want a true taste of freedom. But… it makes you wonder—outside of this convenient burden, what’s your reason for being here?”
Claire’s smile slid from his face—like it hadn’t even ever been there in the first place. It unnerved Olive, and now he half-wanted to punch Scorpio in the face.
“Am I wrong?”
“Do not speak about the prince so chastely,” Felix interjected.
Claire held up a hand and flashed Felix a closed-mouth smile before returning his attention to Scorpio. “Do all first chairs know this much information?”
Scorpio chuckled again. A handful of peacekeepers who were walking through the lobby stopped in their tracks and swiveled their heads in their direction in unison.Olive tensed.
“Let’s not beat around the bush anymore, shall we?” He glanced between Claire and Olive. “There are troubling times ahead—just within the next hour, in fact—so do be careful. Even though you’ll no longer be quite as novel and unique soon, you’re still very precious to us peacekeepers—”
Lyrs still wasn’t budging. Olive swallowed a sigh and then eyed Derik as the man came up behind them both. Derik rolled his eyes before he shoved Lyrs forwards, causing the man to stumble right into Scorpio’s arms.
“Shit,” was all Derik said. “Whoops. Shouldn’t’ve gotten in the way.”
“Oh, it’s an honor to meet you, Talib Al-Jarrah,” Lyrs said quickly, pulling himself back slightly shaking Scorpio’s hand. “I know you probably don’t remember me, but we met at your ceremony—but only for a minute and—well—it was really amazing. To see you see then, I mean. And now, of course.”
Scorpio stared at Lyrs for a moment before he offered a warm smile and returned the handshake vigorously. Abruptly he stopped shaking, grip visibly tightening. “You’re Scorpioan, aren’t you?”
Lyrs nodded silently.
Scorpio hummed before releasing his grip and holding Lyrs’s hand in his open palm. He pointed to Lyrs’s hand—rather, Lyrs’s glove conductor. “It isn’t polite in our culture to shake hands using hands that are used to hold conductors—much less hands that are wearing conductors.”
“Oh.” Lyrs blinked. “To be fair, I’ve mostly lived abroad.”
Scorpio’s brows rose before he chuckled and shook Lyrs’s shoulders. “Is that so? A missionary then? Well, I’m glad you’re spreading your passion to others! I was quite literally a convert myself!”
Olive suddenly recalled the conversation on the train bound to the Twin Cities between Talib, Leona, and Jericho. He felt a twinge before noticing that Scorpio hadn’t released Lyrs yet.
Scorpio glanced back at Olive. “And now you’re spreading the good word to royalty! How astounding! And interesting. I hope my conversation earlier with the princes didn’t upset you much. It’s all within my duties as first chair and as saint candidate.”
“Another member of the cult,” Olive muttered in an attempt to divert Scorpio’s attention. “Great.”
“Well, that was rude.” Scorpio released Lyrs, and the latter took the opportunity to loop back behind Soha and Felix. Scorpio hummed as he looked Olive up and down. “By the way—do you want to know what the syzygy is?”
Olive stared, unsure if he was hearing properly. Alice looked startled so he assumed that he had.
Scorpio stared deeply into Olive’s eyes and began straightening his tie. It took Olive a moment to realize that he was using his eyes as a mirror.
“I’m assuming Theta still hasn’t gotten to that information yet. Or perhaps he doesn’t really want to know the specifics. I’m sure you’re familiar with the feeling.”
Olive tried not to think of Atienna.
“Oh, but Theta is quite staunch. I doubt he’d be so… cold. Anyways, I’m sure if Alpha were up on this floor, he would say something like— ‘What the syzygy is doesn’t matter. Not really,’” Scorpio continued. “And I would have to agree. It doesn’t matter what the syzygy is. Because it is inevitable. The other side of the equal sign. Knowing the formulaic reasoning and steps preceding it won’t change the outcome.”
Olive disagreed. He couldn’t help but grumble, “Is ‘inevitable’ your favorite word?
“Only because it’s true.” Scorpio chuckled, before stopping abruptly and locking eyes with Olive. “The syzygy is the cessation of vitae.”
Olive froze, trying to dissect the meaning behind his words—
I mean… is there really any dissectin’ ta do? Obviously, that’s the end game for everyone, ain’t it? Like Francis said—
“But it’s also the unity of vitae. All passions and pleasures unifying as one in a brilliant, shining, true moment that is channeled through True Conductors before—” Scorpio snapped his fingers. “—nothing.”
The sound echoed through the lobby.
“Now… does knowing that change anything for you?”
Olive glanced over at Claire.
“Why is everyone just standing around for?” A gravelly voice cut through the conversation and was followed by a gasp. “Talib dear? Oh, and is that Alice?”
Alice’s brow twitched as she turned. Olive followed her gaze to find an older couple standing side-by-side at the center of the lobby. Dark wrinkles creased their faces. The clothing they wore was long, beige-colored, made of cloth. Stray strands of black and graying hair popped out beneath their head wraps.
Scorpio flashed an exasperated look—of all things—at Olive, glanced at Alice, then smiled. “Mother!” He spread his hands wide and open as he swiveled around to face Talib’s parents. “Father! It’s so good to see you! I’m so glad you came!” He turned to Alice and gestured her close. “Come, Alice. When’s the last time you saw my parents?”
With clear reluctance, Alice joined Scorpio’s side beside Talib’s parents.
Olive resisted grimacing and nodded towards the exit. “Let’s get out of here…”
They started to slide past the peacekeepers collectively. Olive held Alice’s gaze briefly just as he passed. Abruptly, Scorpio craned his neck around and caught Arjun’s sleeve.
Arjun tensed as did Claire.
“You’re Arjun, right? I’ve heard many things about you. You’re quite noble and staunch, aren’t you? You remind me a bit of Leona. She’s a saint candidate too–if you’re unfamiliar with her.”
“Talib…?” Talib’s father called.
“Ah. Well, see you soon.”
Scorpio released Arjun.
* * *
Prognoikos Aurora Reservoirs, Ophiuchus
The walk to the Prognoikos Aurora Reservoirs was a quiet one. Olive wasn’t sure if the others were being quiet because of nerves after their encounter with Scorpio or if it was because they didn’t want to potentially let anything slip to Scorpio’s mediums floating around Ophiuchus.
Once they reached the entrance path to the reservoirs, they were immediately stopped short by ten peacekeepers. The peacekeepers were wearing rather large backpacks that reminded Olive of the ones Werner’s unit members would lug around sometimes when they were out in the field. An uncomfortable pang followed the thought.
“No tourists,” one of the peacekeepers said. “Not this week. Trains were shut down here for a reason.”
“We’re here for a last minute religious ceremony,” Claire explained, pulling out his royal insignia. “There should have been a letter sent last week about it, but if not—” He signaled for Felix who procured an envelope.
“There are strict regulations today,” the peacekeeper continued. “No one gets through.”
“I insist you read the letter,” Claire pressed.
Grimacing, the peacekeeper motioned Felix forward. Felix handed the letter to him, and the other man skimmed it quickly. The peacekeepers whispered amongst themselves briefly afterwards before exchanging looks and directing Olive and the others forward. One of the peacekeepers reached into their backpack and pulled out—surprise—a vitae spectrophotometer.
Claire took Eunji and Soha to a seating area on the side. Olive watched the two siblings converse with each other as his thoughts strayed to Lavi. Eunji’s gaze lingered on Claire as Claire rejoined the group. Soha stayed behind with Eunji. The peacekeepers looked annoyed by the interaction. Olive gave them a look of annoyance in turn.
Olive and his group then proceeded through two vitae spectrophotometer tests, validated their licenses, and passed their conductors through inspection.
The peacekeepers muttered to themselves all the while—
“Holding a religious ceremony in the middle of all of this?”
“Yeah? What of it? Should we stop our practices because of some terrorists? Hell no. It’s annoying, but I’m for it.”
“I really don’t get Monadics.”
“That’s why you’re never going to get married.”
When this was done and over with, Olive and the others were finally allowed to ascend the dirt path leading to the metal bridges that hung over the reservoir. The air gradually became warmer and heavier as they ascended. When they reached the lip of the southernmost bridge, Olive paused and glanced back in the direction he’d come from. He wondered if any of the other Sagittarian royals were waiting around outside the view of the peacekeepers.
When was the last time he’d been here anyways?
Last fall. When Talib fell.
Olive took a step forward, the metal clang his shoes signaling a step into the next part of the plan. Claire and the others came along beside him.
“What the fuck was the dramatic pause for?” Derik muttered under his breath.
Olive ignored him. He was probably anxious—no, excited.
As they drew nearer to a central platform that linked the twelve bridges together, a group of black-clothed men and women clustered there in a circle came into view. Monadic priests. He glanced back at Arjun then at Lyrs. The former offered a calm nod, while the latter arched a brow.
When they finally reached the central platform, Claire took Arjun by the arm and led him up to the priests. Olive meanwhile reached out to Werner who was standing in the HQ of Francis’s rooms. He was expressionless, but Olive could feel his tension.
Werner checked his pocket watch. It read 1:29 pm. 1329 hours.
A rumbling sound in the distance pulled Olive away from the synchronization. He felt Jericho’s heart rate quicken inside his own chest. A familiar blaring, deafening alarm shrilled in his ears.
Intuition: it is happening now.
“What is that…?”
Olive turned in the direction he’d come from—towards the Serpens Establishment.
A dark cloud was spread thin over the horizon. It was blacker than any storm cloud Olive had ever seen on his journey crossing Signum so far. Obviously, it was not just any storm cloud—
Thunder rumbled again and the black cloud flashed with pale tangerine lightning.
Realization dawned as a waterfall of rain that Olive could see even from this distance poured down onto the white of the Serpens Establishment. Olive could feel the water soaking through his clothes into his bare skin.
Olive barely had the time to gawk before the hull of the ship crashed into the roof of the Serpens Establishment.
Commence the operation.
Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus
“You look nervous.”
Peeling his eyes away from the clock he had just passed which read 12:55 pm, Jericho whipped to face Leona—Araceli—walking beside him. “I am not.” He paused, tightening his grip on the handle of his suitcase. “I always look like this.”
Detective, that ain’t how ya convince someone.
Cadence. She was ‘everywhere’ today.
Detective… I know ya meant that as a compliment but…
“Did something happen to the Ariesian prince earlier? I’m aware that he’s voting here today, then he’s off to that ceremony.”
Jericho stopped short and stared at Leona. She continued walking several steps ahead before pausing to look back at him.
“I have access to the voting dates people are assigned,” Araceli answered his unasked question evenly. “People slotted to vote today were listed in the report sent out two days ago. There was a notice to be aware of such individuals. Didn’t you read the report?”
“I did.”—In fact, Werner had poured over the report multiple times with him. “This is ‘serious.’ ELPIS coming.” He paused, trying to formulate the twisting sensation in his chest into words. “Elections: they’re still going. Why? Postponing would be better.”
Araceli’s eyes narrowed. “Are you suggesting we change our way of doing things and adjust our schedule just because of the final struggle of an ant?” She motioned him forward with her index finger and continued walking ahead. “So? What happened?”
Jericho caught up to her in two steps. “Scorpio.” He didn’t elaborate any further, and Araceli didn’t press any further. After a while, he asked, “Question. Will Scorpio give you the votes if Seamus gives the votes to Gabrielle?”
Araceli didn’t answer. Jericho side-glanced over at her trying to gauge the meaning behind her expression. She did not look happy.
Pissed, detective. She’s obviously pissed. She’s probably got a bit of hurt pride. One thing after another. Saint of Victory, ‘ey?
“Pride…” Jericho muttered aloud, thoughts straying from Maria to Araceli.
Araceli glanced at him. “If you don’t have it, then you’re no better than an ant.”
Someone’s obsessed with ants… Olive.
Jericho stared at her.
Araceli’s jawline twitched slightly.
“— I understand you, but I don’t,” he said. “I asked Benì about the syzygy. He said he was doing ‘what his people wanted’. Perspective. Interpretation of art. Happiness. Araceli, you think people are ants but you look at ants like you like them. You are the head of the ELPIS but you let Epsilon go. We… caught you… but you are okay. You were tricked then and you are bad, but you’re not reacting. Question: why?”
Araceli didn’t look at him. “What do you think our relationship is for you to be referring to me with that name and with such a familiar tone? If someone shows you mercy, it would be unwise to question it.”
Mercy? Why’s she suddenly bringin’ that up?
Jericho thought on Araceli’s question. “We are not ‘acquaintances’ and we are not ‘friends,’ but we are not ‘enemies’ because Alpha is my ‘enemy’ and Scorpio is… something. I’m unsure—”
“It was a rhetorical question, Jericho.”
“Oh.” Jericho continued beside her in silence for a moment before he tried again: “Vitae will cease. Scorpio said that just now. He said that’s what the syzygy is.”
Araceli clicked her tongue. “He talks too much. As always.”
“Vitae no longer ‘existing,’” Jericho drew. He frowned. “The cycle: disrupting. That… is not right. No. Even if it brings ‘happiness’—”
Araceli chuckled. “That’s what they taught you. You shouldn’t learn from people who can’t even truly learn anything themselves. It’s pitiable really. I’d even liken it to an eye sore.”
“You’ve been more expressive and talkative lately compared to when we first met,” Araceli continued as they rounded the corner. “Is it because you’re a True Conductor…? Well, no matter. You should nurture that skill—”
“You worked to create Leo. Clarification: Leo, the country. Not you, Araceli, but ‘Leo.’ Conjecture: it was… a lot of work. Leo’s hard work. Leo’s ‘pride.’ Before the twins. So. Do you want this? As Araceli? What does Araceli want? The syzygy? What about after?”
“I would like to rest,” Araceli answered simply. “Even beings like ourselves need rest.”
Ugh. She did not just say ‘beings.’ Olive again: he was walking towards the reservoirs.
“Rest: yes. It’s good.” Jericho offered a hesitant thumbs up. “But not… abandoning things.” After another pause, he continued: “I thought you wanted an adventure.”
Araceli’s gaze narrowed.
“I am just trying to understand you,” Jericho tried to explain—
This conversation isn’t necessary for the operation.
Jericho knew this, but.
“It is nice to be relied on,” he continued. “I would like to be relied on. But if people relied on me and I could not meet that expectation or if I failed, I would be angry at myself” — he thought of Werner at this— “And if people I helped failed when I tried to help them, I would also be angry. Observation: sometimes that anger is ‘misdirected’ at other people. Even unintentionally. Conjecture: pride can make it worse. Easier. That feeling. But it’s not good to always be angry. Finding something else is important. It is okay to be wrong and to fail. But…”
Araceli remained silent for a while before she gave a mirthless chuckle. “Are you talking about me or yourself? You might be spending too much time in Theta’s company—rambling like this.”
Jericho stared at her.
“Ironically, that’s what Scorpio believes Alpha’s thought process is. Anger at his own failure and incompetence in relation to Ophiuchus and his peers.” Her eyes narrowed. “Some people would prefer to look at the flaws in others instead of evaluating the flaws inside themselves. The comfortability of labeling a small flaw in other people as much more egregious than a large flaw coming from within is… pathetic.”
Now, that sounds like projecting.
“I hope you aren’t assuming that I’m unreflective.” Araceli glanced back at him. “Now I’d rather not waste any more time on a conversation that is a rehash of conversations we’ve had before. Don’t test me, Jericho.”
* * *
Jericho had never been in this room of the Serpens Establishment before—this ‘Official Meeting Room.’ He had seen it once or twice when passing the halls from General Investigations to the Assignment Department, but the doors had always been closed. Now as he entered into it behind Leona, he took notice of everything inside: fixed rows of desks staggering downwards to a central stage. Room: divided into three sections. Seats: 75% occupied. Mostly peacekeepers. And Talib’s parents. Front row.
Leona led Jericho down the steps that divided the sections of the room and onto the centermost stage. On said stage were thirteen chairs spread in a semi-circle facing the audience. Behind twelve of those chairs were smaller chairs. Almost all occupied. Sitting in the twelve front chairs were the first chairs of the twelve departments, while their vice chairs sat behind them. Missing: Elizabeta and Ferris. The central chair: occupied by the head chairman. In front of him: a podium. Behind him: a projection screen.
Jericho seated himself behind Leona and eyed Alice and Gabrielle who were seated in their respective chairs. The former gave him a curt nod and the latter the briefest smile. He felt relief.
The lights dimmed as the head chairman rose from his seat and approached the podium. A projector across the room flickered on and the Ophiuchian symbol appeared on the back screen. The head chairman began speaking. Jericho did not listen. Instead he reached out to the others.
The slide flickered again and a table appeared on the screen. Heading: 1942 HEAD CHAIRMAN ELECTION RESULTS. Talib was still at the top of the rank list. The ranking of the first chairs had not changed even after the final votes had been cast.
Suddenly everyone was applauding and the head chairman was gesturing to Scorpio who was waving and smiling at the audience.
Seamus cleared his throat and also rose to a stand. He raised one hand and placed the other over his chest. “If I may speak?”
The head chairman nodded.
“I would like to activate the alternative choice clause for the election this year,” Seamus said with a smile. “I would like to transfer my votes to First Chair of General Investigations Gabrielle Law. I believe that given the slew of hands-on experience and cases she has beneath her, she’d be a much more suitable candidate.”
Without skipping a beat, Scorpio copied Seamus’s gesture. “In that case, I would like to do the same but for Leona Gloria-Angelo for the exact same reasons.”
Whispering broke out immediately.
“Seriously?” someone in the crowd said. “Now of all times?”
“A war, an ELPIS attack,” another mutter sarcastically. “What other better time to do it?”
“Maybe this is a good thing—”
“Talib, Seamus, your motions are both in concordance with the guidelines of the elections,” the head chair said, cutting through the chatter. “I will continue to reside as the head chair until this clause has reached a resolution.”
Jericho glanced between Seamus and Talib. They were both still smiling.
The head chairman clicked his slide-clicker and the screen went black. The room fell into darkness. The v-lights flickered back on.
That’s it…? Cadence synchronized in strongly beside Jericho and leaned an elbow on his shoulder. “Well, I was expecting a whole bang-bang right away. Not a thrill-seeker here like Sunshine, but I gotta say I’m a bit disappointed…”
The room emptied out slowly. Jericho remained seated as did the other vice chairs and first chairs. The head chair left after speaking some parting words with Leona and Talib. Correction: Araceli and Scorpio.
Afterwards, Scorpio crossed his legs and leaned back in his chair. “Well, I’m glad we rehearsed that in the meeting room earlier. Aren’t you?”
Gabrielle rose from her chair as she adjusted her suit cuffs. “Actually, this re-run is missing a bit of the dramatic flair from the first time around. That’s my only complaint though.”
“Oh? I’m glad you’re in better spirits now, Gabe. Did something good happen to you recently? I suppose being in good spirits despite everything going on is a fair approach. Maybe our citizens in Cancer, Leo, and Aquarius can resolve everything by just good spirits alone.” Scorpio glanced over at Nadinaline then at the chair behind her. “Say, where’s Ferris? She’s not the type to miss important events like this. Quite unusual. Though I do have to admit Gabrielle’s associates up and disappearing isn’t very unusual at all—”
“Is it so odd for Ferris not to be here?” Nadinaline interjected after glancing over at Hårek then at William. “She’s Cancerian. I don’t blame her for wanting to return home.”
“Home? Is that where she’s at? Ah, yes. I see now.”
Gabrielle and Alice exchanged looks.
The v-lights dimmed suddenly again and the projector flicked back on. It was still on the election results slide. Scorpio rose from his chair: now half caught in the light of the projector and half in darkness.
“But aren’t we as peacekeepers supposed to abandon our loyalties and connections to our countries of origin? Isn’t that something we all agreed upon when picking up this sash?”
The slide clicked and the Ophiuchian peacekeeping symbol was projected over Scorpio’s face.
“True neutrality. Because as soon as someone values a person, a country, or an idea above all other things, they automatically become a villain.” He looked over at Moraeni. “Right?” He hung his head. “Well, I suppose we can’t help our lingering attachments, can we? It’s what makes us human and willing to fight and—” He winked at Jericho “—protect things—”
“You talk too much—about inane, irrelevant things.” Araceli rose to a stand and gestured to the other first chairs. “There are other more important things to spend time on. Everyone should head back to their department to prepare immediately. The attack could happen at any time now”
“Well, that’s enough drama for me today. There’s always the next election to win.” Luca popped up from his seat first, shrugged, and exited the room with his vice chair in tow.
“If there’s another election to be held,” Katharina Groth responded before exiting with her vice chair too.
The others followed. Soon only Alice, Gabrielle, Moraeni, Araceli, Scorpio, and Jericho himself remained.
Scorpio put a hand to his chest. “Where is this attack coming from, Leona? And right after I donated my votes to you too—”
A loud blare cut through the room. It was seeping in from the hall outside. An alarm. Jericho knew the sound. The same note that had played when Omicron had broken into the Black Constellation Detention Center last year.
While Gabrielle and Alice stiffened, Scorpio and Araceli looked annoyed.
Araceli turned to Jericho. “Move yourself to the safe location we discussed. Don’t do anything reckless or rash. This is your last chance.” She exited the room.
“I wonder what’s got her in such a bad mood? Anyways…” Scorpio slowly strolled out of the room after her and beckoned Alice to follow behind him. “Places, everyone, places.”
As he parted, he called out: “Let’s see how all of this goes for you, partner, shall we?”
Cadence startled beside Jericho before casting a glance over her shoulder. Er… Captain… She disappeared a moment later.
Jericho looked over to Gabrielle, the last one remaining. She held his gaze and nodded before exiting the room.
Jericho felt his heart hammer wildly. Someone was nervous. Excited. Anxious. Shaking the feelings off and picking up his suitcase resting at his feet, he exited the room.
The formerly empty hallways were now packed with peacekeepers running towards the central lobby and with civilians being directed to the opposite direction. Jericho allowed himself to be pushed forward with the crowd until he was in the lobby. There was commotion at the entrance. Correction: outside.
Jericho pushed his way past several peacekeepers and passed the threshold of the entrance. Sunlight did not meet his eyes. No, it felt cold. Cool.
It felt like it was about to rain.
The other peacekeepers were pointing up to the sky and gasping. Jericho followed their gazes.
A peacekeeper on a conducting staff was wrestling a child in the sky. A girl: no older than ten. She did not seem to be an air Elementalist like the peacekeeper, but still she fought biting and clawing against him: unafraid of falling. Her hands were gloved, a trail of smoky blackness trailing from her palm to the dark clouds that hung overhead. Intuition: those were not clouds. Black. Francis’s vitae.
Some air Elementalist peacekeepers were floating ringed around them. Other peacekeepers were up at the clouds and taking turns swiping their conductors at the cloud. The bursts of light-speckled wind shooting out from their conductors did little to disperse it.
The black cloud cracked with pale tangerine lightning—
—and then it began to rain. It came down in a drizzle. A light tap, tap, tap on the face.
It tasted salty. Like how the air tasted in the Twin Cities. Like how Maria’s lips tasted when she licked them while at sea. Sea. Conclusion: seawater.
Suddenly, it came down harder. In sheets. A downpour. Jericho was soaked. The peacekeepers around him were shouting behind him. He spotted Gabrielle among them. She caught his eye, waved. Her lips moved. He couldn’t hear her above the downpour.
A groan echoed above. Something lurching.
Jericho looked up. He could barely see anything through the curtain of rain, but: there. A familiar curved, dark shape was protruding from the cloud. He was unable to identify it—
That is the hull of my ship, no?
The ship began to fall forward out from the cloud.
1330 hours. Commence the operation.
Saints, detective. What are ya doin’?! Run!
Jericho’s legs moved before he ordered them to and suddenly he was blindly dashing down the sleek stairs leading out of the Serpens Establishment and into the courtyard.
Don’t trip. Don’t trip. Don’t trip. Not again.
The groan resounded again. This time louder—
Jericho foot slipped, and he was in freefall. A moment later, he felt his body jolt. Everything went black.
Jericho. Jericho. Jericho!
Jericho’s eyes snapped open and he peeled himself from the ground. He was laying in the courtyard. He was wet. The tiles around him wet and reflected the dissipating black cloud overhead. There was a sprinkle coming down still, causing ripples in the puddles around him. The puddles: littered with flopping fish, bits of wood, seaweed, peacekeepers. Some moving. Others not.
Jericho approached the nearest peacekeeper and shook her. She groaned. Okay. Alive.
Wait. Where was his suitcase. He needed it. It was part of the plan. No—
It’s alright. Surely you can adjust.
Yes. He could.
The others were already moving. He had to synchronize with them. Clarification: synchronize time-wise. He needed to do this without the suitcase and its contents. Somehow.
He turned to face the Serpens Establishment. Then he froze. The building’s roof had collapsed in on itself, its pillars now laying crumpled beneath a splintered mass of wood, iron, metal, and rope that he now recognized as Maria’s former ship.
Heat hammering, Jericho bounded up the stairs but skidded to a halt as he saw smoke spilling down the steps ahead of him from the collapsed building.
No. This smell… It’s chlorowheat.
Jericho took a step back, pulling his elbow to his face. He then looked back down the staircase and searched the grounds. His suitcase: he really needed what was inside of it. Before he could descend the steps in search of it, his attention was pulled back to the entrance of the Serpens Establishment by bursts of flashing white light.
That color. Again. Conducting.
His stomach churned but he managed to shake it off.
The ELPIS members are still able to conduct despite the chlorowheat. Werner. They must be utilizing those gas masks again like we expected.
“I… lost my suitcase,” Jericho managed. “I am sorry. The mask I was supposed to use and my conductor: gone.”
It’s alright. We’ll just adapt like Atienna said. You’re going to have to take it from one of the children or one of the ELPIS members. For now, try—
Jericho nodded before pulling off his suit jacket and tearing the sleeve off. He tied the sleeve tight around his lower face.
Jericho then pounded up the rest of the footsteps, entering the flog, side-stepping over debris, fish, unconscious peacekeepers. Finally, he made it to the top flight. Problem: there was no longer an entrance into the building. Not that he could see. Solution: past the fallen pillars and standing planks of wood, he could still make out the opening to different wings of the building.
Peacekeepers were running back and forth there. Some running after children. Others running from them. Some had put makeshift masks over their faces. Others hadn’t. Some were trying to activate their conductors. Others weren’t—couldn’t. Giggling and shouting melded together.
“Stay away! I don’t want to hurt you! Do you understand me? Stop!”
The yell drew Jericho’s attention to one of the west wings of the building. A child was cornering a peacekeeper two times her height. The child’s hair: tied up in a ponytail. In their hand: a sword conductor with a wavering white blade. It sputtered like fire.
Abruptly, the child lowered their weapon. The peacekeeper approached them cautiously, hesitantly and placed his hands on the child’s shoulders—only for the child to drive the conductor through his abdomen.
Was that one of Cadence’s or Maria’s children? No. It couldn’t be. They had taught them better—
Jericho darted forward and pulled the child off of the peacekeeper who proceeded to slump on the ground motionless. A pool of blood formed beneath the man’s body. The child—a girl—whipped around to face Jericho. Through the eyeholes of her gas mask, her eyes appeared serene and calm. And: there was a mole on her neck. A familiar mole. A coincidence.
“Stop.” He pulled the girl back further. “Come with me. I am here to help.”
The girl looked him up and down. She spoke in Geminian: “Do you know what freedom is?””
Jericho didn’t know how to respond.Hetried, “I’m with Francis, Cadence, Maria—”
The girl lunged at him with her conducting blade, but he easily side-stepped back to dodge it. When she swiped at him again, he grabbed her wrist and pulled her up in the air. She dangled there, kicking her feet. He squeezed her wrist in an attempt to force her to release her conductor. She didn’t budge. Reason: she could not feel pain. Of course not. The color of her vitae was evidence of that.
“Stop,” he tried, prying the gas mask from her face. “I am here to help.”
As he removed the mask from her face, she wriggled out from his grasp and fell onto her rear on the floor. When he tried to reach for her again, she grabbed his arm and bit down on his hand. Jericho’s heart skipped a beat as an unfamiliar and unpleasant feeling radiated out from the area.
It. Stung. What. It. How. Pain. It hurt.
Jericho, what’s wrong—
Jericho was overwhelmed by the sensation and shoved the girl back. He stared at his bleeding hand in confusion.
The girl lunged at him again. His body acted before his mind could, and he swung his hand out at her. His fingers contacted her skull, and she flew to the ground with a—crack! The sound echoed in his ears. Loud. Resounding.
Holding his bleeding hand, Jericho tried to focus on the girl but his vision swam as his ears rang. His gaze swept out to the lobby, to the other wings of the building, to the children wielding those conductors of pure white vitae. It felt the same. The children with their bleached vitae. Running around with conductors. On a mission. With a goal. Righteousness. Deliverance. He had to stop them again. They wouldn’t listen—
Werner appeared beside him. A hand on his shoulder.
Calm down. A pause. He looked down at Jericho’s hand. “Are you alright?”
Jericho nodded again.
Werner examined the bite mark. “It’s minor. There’s no time to tend to it now, but ask Nico to look over it when the opportunity presents itself.” He studied Jericho for a moment. “The situation is different, Jericho. It’s not like before”
Yes. The situation was different. He did not have his conductor. He did fragment the ones he couldn’t convince. There were bodies still. The child was alive. And he felt pain.
But: he did not feel good. Not just physically. Not just because of the children. Not because of this new pain. Reason: Werner had to help him again. Like in the capital. Conjecture: hurt ‘pride’? Maybe. A little. And. He wanted to be relied on. Not to always be the one having to rely on other people. Especially Werner.
Jericho— Werner regarded him. There is flexibility with the operation. You can switch with someone who is working on the outer quadrants. However, this decision needs to be made now. Would you like to—
Jericho shook his head. No. He could do this.
Werner nodded before his synchronization decreased.
Jericho quickly grabbed the gas mask he’d dropped on the floor and strapped it onto his face. He then unhooked the suppression cuffs at his hip and slapped them over the young girl’s wrists before he threw her unconscious body over his shoulders. He moved next to the fallen peacekeeper. The man’s eyes were staring glassy out at nothing. Dead.
Jericho studied the man’s face. He’d seen him before somewhere. In the halls, maybe. Jericho proceeded to get on one knee and recited the Ophiuchian prayer for him before standing up and heading into the fog towards the sound of giggling children and shouting adults.
As he rounded down the hall, something in the corner hidden behind a fallen potted plant caught his attention. A suitcase. Not his. Someone had dropped it. But—
Jericho picked it up from the ground and swung it back and forth. Yes. Good.
He continued down the hall towards the sounds and broke into another lobby. Here, he found several peacekeepers wearing gas masks and pinning unmasked, suppression-cuffed children to the ground. Some of the peacekeepers were injured. Some children were injured.
“I will take the children,” Jericho offered, voice muffled. He approached them quickly and gestured to the children on the ground, “to a place that is safe.” He was not lying. This was the truth.
“What department are you in?” one of the peacekeepers asked, eyeing Jericho’s armband and then the child slung over his shoulder.
The peacekeeper regarded him.
Jericho clicked his tongue in feigned frustration. “Are we really going to be wasting time talking about this? Did you not look over the protocol papers the first chair sent out? Subdue and gather. You’ve subdued and now I’m gathering.”
The peacekeeper looked as if he were about to argue but was cut off by a boom and a shriek from down the hall.
“Stop yapping,” another peacekeeper snapped as she hopped to her feet and headed towards the direction of the sound, “and let the man do his job. Hurry up.”
“The ELPIS Department was supposed to be doing their job in the first place and look at us now,” the initial peacekeeper responded, pulling away from the children. After gesturing to the children, he darted after his companion. “Wait, I’m coming!”
The next moment: Jericho was dashing down the halls and carrying four children on his back. He passed a child water Elementalist pinning an unmasked peacekeeper against the wall with a glowing white snake of ocean water; and so Jericho threw his suitcase at the child’s head and knocked the child out cold. The water and the peacekeeper hit the ground simultaneously. Jericho only gave the half-conscious peacekeeper a nod before sweeping the child up on his back, picking up his suitcase, and continuing down the hall.
Jericho soon found himself in another lobby where he found another peacekeeper and child facing off against each other. The peacekeeper was on top of the child. His hands around the child’s neck. The child wasn’t moving—
Jericho darted forward, whipping his suitcase to crack the peacekeeper against the temple. The peacekeeper flew across the lobby and smacked against the opposite wall. Jericho did not watch him hit the ground and instead moved towards the child. A boy. Still breathing. Good.
He slapped suppression cuffs over the boy’s wrists. This unconscious child, he tucked underneath his arm before continuing down the hall and entering another lobby.
Now he was in the Assignment Department office room. As planned. The train schedules and the associated cases on the flip panels on the back wall were still standing strong, but several desks had been overturned. Extension cords and typewriters bobbed up and down on the flooded floor. The v-lights flickered on and off, the chlorowheat smog absorbing the light.
Quickly. 1337 hours.
He needed to find a place to put these children so that he could gather more children. And. He needed a gate. Francis’s proto-conductor had been in his suitcase but he had lost it. So: he now had to rely on Maria—
“It looks like you certainly have a handful on you! Now what are you doing trying to steal away the fun the kids are having?”
Jericho whipped around.
A woman stood behind him at the entrance of the room. Her face was concealed by the gas mask, but Jericho recognized her instantly. He never ever forgot what one of them looked like. An ELPIS Leader. Rho.
“Are you bitter about the peacekeepers stealing away your freedom?” Rho inquired, dragging herself forward. “So you have to steal away the freedom of these poor children here—”
“You.” A cold heat boiled in Jericho’s chest. “Shut up. Blood should be coming out of your mouth instead of garbage.”
Rho. Just like the One. She tricked them all. Deceived them. If she was with Alpha now, then—conjecture: she had been with Alpha back then. Back when he was young. When he was with Ayda and the others. Again and again they did and would do this to children. Not learning from their mistakes. Even if Alpha remembered almost everything. Not like Theta. Unforgivable—
Jericho. We need to remain focused.
Some of the heat in his chest simmered down.
“Oh. That’s a nasty look you’ve got there, Mr. Suitcase Peacekeeper. A very nasty look for someone who’s swinging around only a suitcase like it’s a gun or a sword. Haven’t the peacekeepers taught you anything about the art of war?”
Jericho didn’t have his conductor: yes. But he could still burn her alive.
Rho lifted a conductor-gloved hand and pointed to his back. Correction: to the children.
“That’s quite a heavy burden you have on your shoulders,” she said. “Quite literally. A chain. An attachment. So on and so forth. It’s quite hard to move around in life—like now for instance—with that kind of weight there.” She wiggled her fingers, causing a white mist to slip from her fingertips into the air. “Fortunately, I don’t have that kind of weight on my shoulders.”
Maria had been patient—more patient than she’d ever been before in her life. From within Francis’s room, she watched half of the other five meticulously play out their role in the plan. Her crew members—the older ones—waited around her in a ring. Andres sat with her too, hands pressed around his Monadic pendant as he chanted the pillars under his breath. Veles sat with his own crew not too far away from them. His gaze was far off.
Veles. Andres. Simon. Raul. Emmanuel. Giorgio. Caleb. Rosa. And Albatross.
Albatross was the youngest one here. He had insisted on coming even after Simon advised him to stay back at the hospital with El and Morandi. Albatross was the oldest of the children Maria taken onboard her ship back last fall. Not quite an adult, but not a child anymore either. A place in-between. Like where Olive was when this all began. And like Olive back then, he was not acclimated to combat. A portion of her crew was not well-acclimated for combat either, although they showed remarkable discipline. Having them participate in this operation was risky—as Werner said—but the more the merrier. And more was needed with the scope of their plan.
Maria admittedly still did not know her crew members as well as she should. She was not like Werner nor was she like Olive and Fortuna in this ‘leadership.’ Over this past year, she had been trying to better listen to her crew members and heed their wants instead of dragging them around. She wanted to value and love them—to prove that she could. ‘Loving everyone and everything meant loving no one’? And yet valuing one person more than another automatically led to villain hood?
There were so many things to think about.
The orphanage and her time with Proteus had been a miniscule moment, but they had both given her things that had remained with her even up until this point. Or perhaps it was that she had stolen those things. It was difficult to think about that—how much was given to her and stolen by her versus how much was originally her own. Proteus had made an interesting accusation about nothing truly being hers—but was that such a bad thing? It was like a kaleidoscope, wasn’t it? And kaleidoscopes were beautiful things. As for her new thoughts on conquering impossibility—just because one could not do everything did not mean that one shouldn’t try to do anything and everything.
Maria noted that her silence was making her crew nervous.
No need to be nervous, she would’ve said maybe just half a year ago, because I am here, my dears! But what sort of reassurance was that? It was one that the priests at the orphanage had taught her.
“It is okay to be nervous. Nerves keep you alert, no? Aware, yes?” Maria said after some more thought. She ran her conductor-gloved hand along the many conducting blades and conductor apparati clipped to her belt. “You will be each other’s eyes.” She put up her index finger. “Even if all you can do is save one child, that is more than enough, yes?”
Her crew members exchanged looks before nodding in unison. “Aye—”
And then it happened. The black storm cloud of Francis’s vitae appeared above Ophiuchus.
As soon as Maria saw her ship crash into the Serpens Establishment from both Jericho’s and Olive’s perspectives, she shot up to a stand. Veles was standing too. Maria glided over to the wall where Francis’s gate was and tapped his needle-shaped, proto-conductor against it. She whispered—
Black Constellation Center: Sub-Floor, Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus
—and stepped through the portal as it lit a fire with familiar light.
Maria spilled out onto the cold, hard, water-logged linoleum floor of the Black Constellation Detention Center and bounced on the balls of her feet as she looked around. It was dark, loud since the alarms were still blaring, and empty. The walls around her were lined with glass windows. Behind the windows Maria spied a handful of unfamiliar men and women curled up on the floors and beds.
She turned to face the window behind her. It was stained with a splotch of black that cycled through light pulses of pale tangerine and then copper. When it flashed copper, it temporarily disappeared, allowing Maria to see straight through the window. A small proto-conductor disk at the center of the window and the black splotch was the source of these shades of orange—radiating out the light in intervals.
This proto-conductor had been placed by Jericho on this window one week ago. Olive had designed it and made it capable of using two types of vitae and conducting-types at once. Francis’s conducting to open the gate and Cadence’s conducting to conceal its entirety. Maria did not quite understand how exactly Cadence’s conducting was able to make Francis’s gate see-through—Olive had explained something about refraction and reflection—but she was still amazed by Olive’s handiness.
Ah, but she needed to focus.
When the copper light shimmered out from the disk and disappeared the black splotch, Maria peered inside the unveiled window. There, she spied Louise curled up on the ground. Her eyes narrowed at this, and so she drew out the conducting blade strapped to her hip. She flicked it on with a twitch of her wrist and watched a line of gold shoot up from its hilt. For a brief second, she studied the color. Dominic’s was the same, wasn’t it? And Leona’s too? Leonce, Leonhart, Stelleona—
Maria stabbed the blade through the window, melting the glass instantly and forming a molten hole. Slowly, she dragged the conductor in a large arc until she had successfully drawn a full circle. Louise stirred inside, rising to her feet and staring blankly in Maria’s direction. Maria in turn pushed against the glass circle she’d formed.
Screet, screet, screet—crash!
The glass fell forward onto the opposite and shattered to pieces on the ground.
Maria stepped through the gaping hole. Louise stumbled back before tripping over her feet and falling on her rear.
“Hello, dear Louise,” Maria greeted her, extending a hand. “We have met once in a dream, yes? Not quite in person? Now—would you like to come on an adventure with me?”
Louise’s eyes widened. “It’s you again…”
“Yes? We half-met in the Die Hauptstadt, no?” Maria cocked her head. Atienna buzzed at the back of her mind and realization dawned. A faint memory of stealing a wardrobe of pretty clothes from the room of a somber girl. “Ah… you are the one with all of the pretty dresses, yes?”
“And you’re… the pirate…” Louise remained silent before she whispered, “Is this a dream?”
“No, this is reality,” Maria answered. She fell to a crouch and reached into her pocket. From it, she pulled out Francis’s proto-conductor. After spilling its liquid contents onto the ground in front of Louise, Maria handed the item to her. “We need to move quickly, yes?”
Dazed, Louise took the proto-conductor and stared at it.
Maria wrapped her fingers around the woman’s hands and moved it so the tip of the proto-conductor was touching the gate. She opened her mouth then closed it as a thought occurred to her. “Ah, Atienna is very sorry for what she did.”
Louise’s gaze darkened, and she hesitated. “Atienna…? You’re with Atienna?”
“Yes, and I am with dear Olive too,” Maria confirmed. “Hideyoshi and dear Olive—I am fulfilling the promise he made to Hideyoshi.”
Louise’s eyes became even harsher. Like Hideyoshi’s eyes when Olive had faced him in Scorpio. “Where are you taking me?” she asked, hissed.
Her reaction was justified, wasn’t it…?
“Where do you want to go, Louise?” Maria returned. “I am not taking you exactly. You are taking yourself. So where do you want to go?”
Louise’s face lightened, and she seemed to study Maria with tentative curiosity. “Anywhere, but here,” she finally muttered. “Freedom… Where there’s no politics, no dukes. Where no one wants anything from me.”
Maria nodded, pulling Louise’s hand down so that she was tapping the needle-shaped proto-conductor against the black spot, “Take her to freedom.”
As the gate activated, Louise’s eyes sparkled familiarly in the light of Francis’s vitae. She gasped. Slowly, she looked up to meet Maria’s gaze. Then, after a pause, she jumped on through. The gate remained bright, and Maria stepped back as she watched her crew members slowly crawl out from the gate a moment after. They immediately spilled out into the hall behind her as they arrived and began wandering around.
“I never thought I’d see the inside of the Serpens Establishment…” Giorgio whispered, putting his hands over his ears and wincing. “Much… wetter than I thought it’d be… Louder too.” He trailed off as he stared at the men and women behind the windows of the hall.
Veles and his group arrived next from the gate. While Veles’s men looked around with mild interest, Veles sloshed his foot around in the ankle-deep water. “Hm, yes. This water is suitable enough for me to use.”
Stay on the timeline. 1335 hours.
Maria joined her crew out in the hall and clapped her hands. She nodded at Simon who neared her. “Like I said—as long as you save one child, then it is good, yes? And most of all, be careful, yes? We will be very sad if we lose any of you too, no?” She pointed to the gas masks hanging on their belts and then her own. “Oh, and put on your masks when you see the smoke!” And pointed to the proto-conductor rings on their hands. “And remember to hide as you go along, yes?”
Veles stepped out into the hall behind Maria and approached the window across from her. Maria peered around him and spied Hilton Tyler lying on the bed inside.
Veles tapped the glass. When he got no response, he dipped his gloved hand in the ankle-deep water at his feet. Purple light spread out from his fingertips to the rest of the rippling waters. When he lifted his hand, the water gathered in a whirlpool around his feet. With a flick of his wrist, he sent a spear of it hurtling towards the glass. The entire building shook.
Hilton startled up at the sound.
Veles flicked his hand again, sending another spear of water towards the window.
He’s attracting too much attention.
Maria placed a hand on Veles’s shoulder, causing him to pause his conducting. The window had started to crack and splinter. Maria moved forward and drove her conducting blade through the center of the cracking and splintering. Veles lifted his hand again a moment later, sending out another ocean torrent that shattered the window—and took Maria’s blade with it.
Once the water settled back down, Maria peered through the window frame and noticed that Hilton was pressed up against the back wall. His eyes were wild and wide and became even wilder, wider when Maria stepped into the room with Veles.
“What the bloody—” Hilton stammered, wiping his face before an unusually suave expression folded over his face. “Of course, it’s you two….” He trailed off as he stared at Maria’s arm. “Hell. Saints. Maria, your arm—”
“Mm, yes, I lost in a fight, yes?” She pointed to her limb with her hand. “Someone dear to me is making something to help me with this, but our timeline is quite tight, yes? Ah—I don’t remember if we met in person before, dear Hilton, since this True Conductor thing can get quite confusing, no?” She took him by the hand and guided him out the window. “But Reneè is a good man, yes? And he has…. helped me so much and so now I will help him.”
“I… don’t quite follow.” Hilton hesitantly allowed Maria to guide him into the opposite cell where the gate was. “But… Louise?”
“She has already claimed her freedom, yes?” Maria replied. “The first one to!”
Hilton stared at Francis’s gate as Maria activated it for him. He closed his eyes as a cool draft wafted up from the escape route and let out a breath. “And the Virgoan?”
Maria found her brows meeting. It felt odd. “She is…. very sorry. She was doing what she thought would keep us safe.”
“Screw everyone else, right?” Hilton scoffed and opened his eyes. “Bullocks.”
“I didn’t and still don’t understand her either, dear Hilton, dear Reneé. I think I tried to make her understand me instead of understanding her?” Maria cocked her head. “I wonder if things would have turned out differently if I did it the right way…”
After staring at her briefly, Hilton slipped through the gate.
When Maria returned to the hall, she found Veles standing in front of one of the other cell windows. Maria knew from Jericho’s memory that it was Proteus’s cell. She did not join Veles. Not just yet.
“He looks nothing like the adventurer,” Veles muttered, eyes narrowing. “He’s the one who took your arm?”
“Yes, that is him.”
“So… how do we get out of here…?” Albatross approached Maria, casting a wary glance in the direction of Proteus’s cell. “And get the others”
Maria flourished her hand in the direction of the elevator down the hall.
Albatross’s cheeks pinkened. “I don’t think I’ve ever ridden in one of those before….”
Veles barked out a laugh as he turned away from Proteus’s cell and approached them. “You expect me—Veles—to ride up on something so mundane? I doubt that can contain me.”
Saints. Seriously? Olive—he felt quite nervous. Kept increasing and decreasing his synchronization with her.Aw. He might be able to control water but he can’t control time—and obviously not his ego…. Werner’s right. We need to get a move on—
Veles flicked his hand upwards, and all the water around them rose again. With another flick of his wrist, he shot the water upwards again and again, again, again and again, until—crack!
What is he—Werner. That’s dangerous. Tell him halt immediately—
Veles formed an umbrella-shape with the water and caught the debris that rained down on them as the ceiling fell away. Once everything settled, Maria was able to spy the next floor from the hole that Veles had formed above her head. The normal floor of the detention center? Was Usian there…?
“You are amazing as always, Veles,” Maria noted before cocking her head to listen to Werner’s whispers. “Ay, but there are many floors above this one before you get to the main building, no? The elevator—”
“Then I shall surpass them all.” Veles nodded, whipping out his arm dramatically. He extended his hand to Mara’s crew and then to his own followers. “Now, don’t waste my time and come along. Maria, you’ll handle things here I assume?”
With that, Veles waved his hand, forming a platform of water that delivered all but Maria and Simon up through the hole. Once they were out of sight, Maria peered at Simon curiously.
“It feels right, Captain,” Simon answered Maria’s unasked question. “You said everyone was to watch everyone’s back, right? Who is to watch yours?”
Worry? Yes, it seemed so. She had lost her arm recently, after all. But there seemed to be that hidden motivation in Simon’s eyes again.
“Okay, dear Simon. But remember—I am not a saint candidate.” She moved towards one of the cell windows and pulled out another conducting blade from her hip. “Not even a potential one. I am no longer an orphan either.”
Simon approached her. “Captain…”
She activated the blade and inserted it into the window before leaving it there and turning to face Simon. She reached out and held his chin in her hand. She stared into his eyes.
“I only see Simon,” she said quietly, “so will you please only see Maria?”
Simon startled before his lips pulled thin and he nodded. “Of course, Capt—Maria.”
Maria continued on to the different windows along the hall and began to cut each of them open. The unfamiliar men and women inside greeted her and Simon with apprehension, gratitude, confusion. She did not know who any of them nor did she know if they were all True Conductors, but there was no time for questions. In half a minute, she got all of them through the gate in Louise’s former room with Simon’s help.
On schedule. Well done—
Well, she’d gotten almost all of them.
There was only one window cell remaining that she had yet to cut open. She stopped short in front of this window and placed a hand on the door just beside it. Within the room behind the glass pane sat Proteus on his bed. He rose abruptly and approached the window. Maria did not budge. She felt Simon’s gaze on her back.
This was the first time Maria had gotten this close to him—for this long of a time. He was very young-looking. She was certain he was physically younger than her. Which made her think—what had happened to the child that he had been initiated into? And what had happened to the body of the Proteus that she had encountered?
Unresolved. No closure.
“… we should be seeking a destination and closure not outside but inside, yes?”
Proteus stared at her—past her—then placed his ear to the glass.
“I thought they would move you.” Maria moved her hand to the window and closed her eyes briefly.
A faint memory played in her mind. Riding on an older man’s shoulders as he walked through the waves lapping on a sandy beach. The warmth of the sun. The cry of the seagulls. Conta’s giggles as she walked along holding the older man’s hand. Maria had reached towards the sky then, trying to grasp onto the golden rays of light.
“This is fun, isn’t it?” the man had asked, adjusting his eyepatch.
Maria and Conta had agreed enthusiastically.
“No worries. No problems. Only us and the sea—free. Ah, but it won’t last forever. This is just a passing moment. All the sadness, pain, and worries will come back. Attached to our backs, those things are.”
The ocean waves swelled.
“But that makes this moment of freedom all the more meaningful. Staying in it forever—that would also be an attachment, no?”
Who had said that though?
Uncertain, Maria opened her eyes. Proteus had yet to respond. Nodding, she turned away from him and headed into the elevator with Simon.
As the elevator ascended, it slowly became filled with smog. Maria strapped on her gas mask. She motioned for Simon to do the same. Once she reached ground level, she stepped into smog-clouded chaos. The laughter of children rang loud in the air—intermittently interrupted by loud pops. Gunfire? Hm…
A familiar sound.
A group of peacekeepers crossed the floor in front of her. They didn’t even seem to register her presence.
“What the hell is going on…?” one passing peacekeeper muttered as he passed out of view. “Where the hell are all these civilians coming from…?”
Maria ignored them and signaled for Simon to follow her down the west wing. She had a destination in mind: the Assignment Department office room. As she ran through the halls towards the office, she came across a handful of stray children. They were wandering around lost and weeping and leapt into her arms when she found them. These were the children she’d taken in and children that the Foxmans had taken in too. Marisol. Piano. Tuesday. Petal. Pablo. Luciano. Bridge.
Unlike Jericho, Maria did not need to cuff these children to take them with her. These children willingly followed. Simon helped shepherd them single-file—hand-in-hand—in-between Maria and himself. He then activated the proto-conducting ring filled with Cadence’s vitae on his hand. The copper shimmer slid over his body, then the children’s’ bodies, and then finally Maria’s own body.
Refraction, reflection—Maria didn’t really know too much about it, but what she did know was that their moving group was now invisible to the naked eye. It was not as exciting this way. There was less of a chance for them to get into surprising situations. But this help and caution was necessary—Maria understood. To keep the children safe.
Soon, they made it undetected to the entrance of the Assignment Department. Maria looped around and tapped on Simon’s shoulder to signal to him for him to remain back with the children. She then parted from them, shedding Cadence’s illusionary guise as she did so.
As Maria entered the office room, she immediately spied Rho standing at the room’s center with her back to her. Jericho stood just beyond Rho. He eyed Maria and readjusted the children under his arm and on his back.
Maria flipped the activated conducting blade in her hand, caught it, and hurled it at Rho. It whistled through the air at breakneck speed—but Rho threw herself to the side out of its path. The blade continued forward on its course, until Jericho dropped his suitcase and caught the blade by its hilt. The vitae blade sputtered from gold to a pale gray.
“Oh my….” Rho hummed, looking between them. “Two of Alpha’s flock—here again. If only you were confronting Alpha. It’s kind of anticlimactic if it’s just me, isn’t it? Ewugh. I sound like Scorpio when I say that.”
Maria pulled another hilt from her waist and flicked it on.
Rho gestured to Maria’s left arm. “It looks like something happened there, hm?” Her voice was almost lost beneath the alarm blares.
Maria pointed to Rho’s arm with her conducting blade. “Maybe something will happen there now, no?”
Rho chuckled. “And here you are still hoping around only a month later making puns and threats.” She placed a hand on her chin. “You really were meant to be the perfect Leo.”
“Me, the perfect Leo?” Maria cocked her head. “No—I am the imperfect Maria, yes?” She glanced at Jericho. “Or the near-perfect Maria?”
Quickly. Hold fast to the timeline: the children, the quadrants, the saint candidate.
Yes, the children first—
Maria’s heart began to abruptly thrum like a hummingbird. Across from her, she saw Jericho’s free hand drift to his chest. Her blood ran cold a moment after as dread clenched her stomach.
He found us. Atienna. I’m sorry, but something is—
Jericho’s brows met. Before Maria could say anything, Rho lifted her gloved hand in her direction.
Rho staggered forward, dropping her hand and instead cradling the back of her head. Jericho’s suitcase plopped into the water beside her feet.
That was her Jericho!
Maria took the opportunity to hurl the conducting blade in her hand at the woman. Rho immediately lifted her gloved hand, sending out a small cloud of white smoke. From experience, Maria knew her sword would not reach Rho, but she also knew Olive’s conducting could. With this thought in mind, she flung her gloved hand out in an arc and sent a wreath of golden flame out towards the woman. Rho could not pull up her other gloved hand in time. The two gold and white fronts met, devouring each other. Maria’s—Olive’s—flames bursts were relentless, however, and soon the golden, fiery snaps consumed the white droplets hanging in the air. Rho was enveloped whole.
She did not scream.
Maria’s stomach churned. She lowered her hand as Rho collapsed into the water.
“Woah.” Rho croaked with a light laugh as Maria approached her. “That’s new.” She lifted her hand—the glove had melted into her flesh. “Ah, bother. I made this myself, you know?”
Rho’s jaws clenched. Maria moved forward immediately and shoved her gloved-hand into Rho’s mouth, preventing the woman from successfully biting her tongue. Maria held Rho’s tongue in-between her fingers.
“You and Proteus tricked the children, yes?” she drew, glancing up at Jericho. “It seems wherever I travel, people always end up tricking children.” She tightened her grip. “What is it? Do you want the children to worship you? Or do you want them to become adults you can worship and admire? I want to understand—”
There is no time for side conversation. Stay focused.
Maria perked up. “Werner says we must hurry up, so what do you think we should do, Jeri? One should know when to offer mercy, yes? But also when to condemn?”
“She will just return her resistor if we kill her,” Jericho said. His eyes narrowed. “Not good enough.”
Maria nodded, kicked Rho over onto her back, and held her down long enough for Jericho to slap a pair of suppression cuffs. She then called for Simon.
A rippling line trailed in the water starting from the threshold and ending just in front of her.
“You can show yourself, dear Simon.”
Simon and the children appeared before her in a flash of copper.
Jericho waved. Simon waved back, eyeing the children on his back.
Maria pulled two of Francis’s proto-conductors from her belt. She handed one to Jericho and dispensed the other over the closest office desk. A pair of hands stuck out from the gate as soon as it opened. Maria motioned the nearest child forward, picked her up, and lowered her into the gate into those hands.
“It’s… strange,” Jericho explained as he helped her move the children through the gate. “To see you here.”
Maria nodded. “It is pretty strange, no? This place used to be much more vibrant in the Knowledge Bearer’s time, yes?”
As they maneuvered the last child through the gate and Simon passed through too carrying Rho, a voice cut through the room—
“What do you think you’re doing, Jericho?”
Maria perked up at the familiar voice and saw an even more familiar face reflected in Jericho’s glasses. When she turned around, she found a masked Leona standing at the threshold of the door. Despite all the water sloshing around her, Leona herself appeared dry as a summer’s day. Serene and calm in the chaos, but there was a conducting blade in her hand.
Maria pulled another conducting blade from her hip and activated it. “We are just rescuing the children Proteus stole from us, dear Leona. The feeling of having people you care about taken away is not a very pleasant feeling, no? Especially if it is your own fault for them being taken—”
“I have no care for or interest in the children,” Leona interrupted. “They’re mere byproducts of the folly of others.” She pointed to the unmoving Rho. “I wouldn’t even say she holds my interest, but I’ll take her from you. An appropriate punishment needs to be dealt for wasting my time.”
“We can hand her over to you,” Maria suggested, “if we both do our own things, yes? Werner really wants us to be on time, and I want him to be happy, you see?”
Leona’s eyes narrowed as she stepped into the room. “I expect you to hand over yourself, Maria. You’ll be in safe hands. You understand that this is mercy—”
“You call it mercy. I call it feeding your ego.”
The water sloshed as Scorpio slowly entered the room behind Leona. Unlike Leona, he was soaked to the bone and had abandoned his suit jacket. There was a big gash on his forehead, but as he walked forward, his skin and blood pulled itself back together in a glimmer of dark blue.
“They’re running, Leo. All of them. From the kings to the queens to the knights to the pawns. They’re making their escape.” Scorpio wiped the water from his face. “We knew you were planning something stupendous, but I didn’t expect their struggle to be this… desperate.”
Peacekeepers began to enter the room behind Scorpio. Their movements were stiff. Mediums.
So he’s still able to conduct…
Leona’s eyes narrowed. “I gave you one last chance, Jericho. Our deal and agreement is now null and void.”
“Congratulations on running now instead of standing still,” Scorpio continued. “Truly—I’m proud of your pursuit. But you need to open your eyes, you poor things. You’re running around in a labyrinth.”
Scorpio’s arrival at 1345 hours. On time. Just as planned.
Dominic was alone now. Alone in a candle-lit room cluttered with boring books. There were no doors or windows here—no way for him to escape his boredom.
On the days prior to him being alone, he was almost never alone. People were constantly going in and out of this room he’d been imprisoned in. A day or so ago, one of the people entering and exiting the room had undone his cuffs. Dominic was infuriated by the action—by the pity in that person’s eyes. But he didn’t bother wasting his breath. His thoughts were too consumed by the memories from the 1600s. The glory that was Stelleona and Leonce. They were bright twin stars that had burned their way into his memory. Dominic wanted to reach them, to shine as brightly as them, to have people look up at him just as they had looked up at them—he knew he could do it. The priests in the orphanage said so. If he could just—
Dominic was drawn out of his thoughts as the black doorway at the far end of the room lit up with pale tangerine light. He tensed, eyes narrowed as two men stepped into the room.
It was the stupid one—the one who talked about Leo all the time—and another man wearing glasses.
“For the damned last time: I am not coming with you to participate in an illegal raid on an established organization while another illegal raid is going on at the same time! No! Who do you think I am? Mm? A criminal, Epsilon?!”
The glasses-wearing man was half-foaming at the mouth as he shouted. Pathetic, really.
The stupid one tailed him across the pathetic one room. “But Theta said you did it before, Tau. Last year—”
“We committed crimes last year—crimes more despicable than our other crimes!” Tau snapped back. “Everything that happened in the Twin Cities last year was a mistake!” He whipped around. “Now that Ophiuchus may be a fake Ophiuchus, but they are practicing their due diligence by safely detaining the children who. Once they’ve been detained by those fake peacekeepers, they are under their jurisdiction—”
“There’s nothing wrong with being fake, is there…?” Epsilon interjected suddenly. After a pause, he added, “I thought you didn’t like them. Ophiuchus—I mean. So wouldn’t you—”
“I don’t like them!” Tau snapped. “But they are operating within the guidelines that they set up, so what can I do? Besides—Theta is no Samaritan either. They’re lawless—Alpha and Theta! The both of them!” He whipped around. “Did you say there was nothing wrong with being fake?! Fake is synonymous with a lie! Lying is the seed for crime! Must I bring in that yapping ginger raccoon to plead my case?!” Tau entered a coughing spasm.
Epsilon neared him and patted him on the back.
After a moment, Tau righted himself and pushed his glasses up his nose. He started muttering something in a language Dominic couldn’t understand. Dominic was able to pick up a few words like war, probable cause, humans, people, law, Virgo, and Beta’s concern, but before he could put the words together to form meaning, Tau exited through the black doorway he’d come from.
In Tau’s absence, Epsilon stood in silence. Dominic watched him with disinterest. That was at least until Epsilon withdrew a proto-conductor, tapped it against the black gate, and whispered, “Take me back to where Leo was.”
Leo. Like Leonce and Stelleona?
Epsilon passed through the gate immediately. Not even hesitating—because only the weak hesitated—Dominic leapt up and stepped into the gate after him. He was immediately met with the deafening blare of alarms and a cold wetness that soaked through his shoes.
It was dark, and there were shards of glass floating around in the water at his feet. Dominic waded through and soon found himself in an empty hall. There was a hole in the ceiling, and the windows lining the walls of the hall were broken in. All but one. In front of this one, Epsilon stood.
Dominic approached him from behind cautiously before he startled upon realizing that Alpha was standing directly behind the pane. He was not wearing his eyepatch. Alpha’s eyes—Dominic was surprised to see both of them there. Had the eyepatch been for show…?
Something tapped against Dominic’s leg and pulled his attention away. A deactivated conducting blade was floating in the water. It looked like it was made for a Projector. He picked it up and activated it with a flick of his hand. Gold. The light was pleasing. Almost like Leonce’s and Stelleona’s color.
Epsilon startled and turned as the light illuminated his back. Dominic lifted his chin. Epsilon, meanwhile, stared at the golden light for a moment before his brows met. Dominic waved his other hand, signaling the other man to step aside. After a moment’s hesitation—which was rude—Epsilon stepped aside.
Dominic approached the glass and pressed on it with his palm. Cold. He pulled his hand back and whipped his vitae blade at the same spot a moment after. The force and speed of the strike left a glittering afterimage in its wake—an afterimage that was captured in the reflection of the window just before it fragmented into tiny pieces.
As the last of the glass shards pitter-pattered into the water, Dominic met Alpha’s gaze
Standing before Alpha now made Dominic feel exactly as he had when Alpha had stood before him the first time—like the wind had been knocked out of him, like the rug had been pulled out beneath his feet, like he’d suddenly lost control, like he was free-tumbling through the wind.
“Ah.” Alpha looked down at him and smiled. “I knew you’d come, Dominic.”
“I allowed you to free me,” Dominic explained, lifting his chin again. “And now I’m freeing you.”
Alpha merely chuckled as he stepped out into the hall. “Freedom can’t be given, Dominic”
Dominic stared after him as he approached the elevator. “Where… Where are you going?”
“To meet someone. Say, would you like to meet a real Knowledge Bearer?”
a/n: sorry for late chapter. work, school, money death. 27.2 & 27.3 will be out really soon