Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus
“You have one arm, you never accepted the role of Saint of Victory, you’ve lost your weapon to me once, and yet you still want to face me?” Leona slipped gradually from Common into Leonian. Her eyes glowed behind her gas mask. “What’s your plan in facing me? To distract me? To aggravate me? Your end goal can’t be to kill me. That’s not in your realm of ability. Nor is it in your realm of ability to kill Scorpio.”
The fallen phones and chairs clacked against each other in the ankle-level water.
“You have also lost your weapon to me once too, no?” Maria studied Leona. “Though maybe that does not count because I was not fully myself and you were not fully yourself? Still, we have a tie then, yes? Now we can break it—”
“Again—arrogance. Your current handicap furthering your already present handicaps is the lack of your left arm.” Leona pointed her conductor at Maria’s residual limb. “My handicap is that I’ll have to try not to kill you.” She eyed her other arm. “Perhaps losing your other arm will sober you further… I’ll make this quick.”
This was a factor that Werner had laid down as a cornerstone of his plan. The saint candidates would not kill them. However, this did not mean that the saint candidates would not hurt them. This was why they had all agreed not to face them alone. Or any powerful enemy.
Leona did not make a move. Neither did Maria.
Pride? Whoever moves first would be ‘giving in’ perhaps…?
Maria’s grip on her conductor tensed as she continued to study Leona. From her perspective, her opponent was perfectly framed in the rectangle of the entrance. Alone.
Maria lowered her blade and reached for her belt as Leona’s eyes narrowed. As soon as Maria’s fingers wrapped around the cylindrical object she was searching for, she ripped it from its buckle and hurled it at Leona.
Leona grabbed something from her own belt with her free hand, aimed it—bang!
The proto-conductor filled with Francis’s vitae shattered into pieces in a burst of gold. Black liquid rained down into the water at their feet. Using the momentary distraction to her advantage, Maria ran backwards to where the train station panels and case labels were dangling off from the bulletin board. As she ran, she detached several more of Francis’s proto-conductors from the pouches clipped to her belt and hurled them at the desks and walls around the room. Once she’d gotten rid of all but two of them, she skidded to a halt and whipped around to face Leona.
Leona holstered her gun and approached slowly, the tip of her blade trailing the water. The liquid fizzled and bubbled from the heat. “What are you doing? Planting ways to escape?”
Leona was in front of Maria in an instant, and Maria barely had the time to bring up her own blade to block the blow. Leona pushed Maria back, back, back, until they were in front a gate Maria had placed on one of the floating desks.
The gate pulsated with light and from its mouth flew a vitae ray that screeched towards Leona. Leona whipped out the conducting rifle from her waist again and fired it at the oncoming ray. In the eruption of sparks that followed, Maria disarmed Leona and sent both of their conducting blades flying up in the air. She then charged forward, wrapping her arm around Leona’s waist and flipping her onto the ground hard.
The resulting thud! shook the room and sent a geyser of water up, but Maria did not stop there. She drew out another activated conducting blade from her belt—
Be careful. You only have three left.
—and brought it down with all her might. An arc of gold met it just as it was about to meet Leona’s arm. Another blade from Leona. The force of the contact sent both of their conductors flying off in opposite directions.
Maria skirted back from the strike as Leona struggled back up to her feet. Leona holstered her rifle and pulled another conducting blade from her waist.
All the gates scattered around the room began to glow at that moment. The ones on the desks, the ones on the walls, the ones on the ceiling. Globules of pale tangerine light even began to glow in patches in the water. As Leona looked over all the gates with narrowing eyes, Maria also drew out another conducting blade.
The room curled with cold air. And—after the briefest pause—indigo rays of light flew out from all the gates. It was a rain—a storm—of blinding light that pounded everything in sight. Water splashed up into the air as phones, wood, papers were bulleted through
Leona immediately whipped out a second conducting blade and began to spin both of them back and forth—deflecting the onslaught of Werner’s rays. Although Leona was caged in by the lines of indigo, Maria herself was not. The bolts of vitae skirted her and left her untouched.
Werner was very good. His aim—ear perfect, his eyes sharp, his calculations of angles through Maria’s own eyes quite amazing. But his aim was modified by the pounding thought that Scorpio had put in his head—that Werner had made his own—so none of the shots were fired with the intention to kill. He was bound only to maim.
Maria was not bound by the same protect, protect, protect. Eyeing a vitae ray coming out from a water-bound gate beside her, she twirled her weapon and swung it at one of the emerging rays. The ray ricocheted off of her blade and hurtled right towards Leona’s head.
Leona barely managed to deflect this one and sent Maria burning glare as she continued to divert the indigo barrage.
Maria took this as a good sign. She darted around the room and continued to deflect some of the rays emerging from the gates towards Leona’s head. Leona managed to successfully block these with the short blade in right hand, while the blade in her left hand was busy with fending off Werner’s shots.
But Leona was not perfect. No one was.
An indigo ray hurtled past Leona’s defenses as she was deflecting a ray coming from the opposite directly and clipped her leg. She faltered. Maria took the opportunity to quickly swipe six vitae bolts at the woman’s head.
Leona managed to deflect all of these—amazing as always—but then let out a rather startling shout. She dropped the conducting blade that had been helping her keep away Werner’s bolts and pulled out one of the conducting guns at her side in less than a second. Then, she fired into the gate closest to her.
The indigo rain immediately stopped.
Atienna! Maria thought in alarm. Werner!
In Maria’s mind’s eye, she could see the golden blade emerge from the gate of the room Atienna and Werner were residing in together. Atienna tackled Werner to the side just as the weapon tore towards his head.
We’re fine, came Werner’s firm thought. Pay attention. We’ll resume another barrage using Jericho’s conducting in five minutes. Remember: you only have two conductors left. Try your best to minimize burning out your vitae. Save the last conductor—
A ray of gold light cut across the room. Maria brought up her conductor just in time to deflect it away from her head. She looked up afterwards to see Leona aiming a drawn conducting gun directly at her.
Leona began to fire the weapon over and over again. Maria skipped back, blocking the rays as best as she could. She did not have the ability to bring out a second conductor like Leona, and her arm began to ache with its increased burden. Soon she found herself hitting the wall behind her as the onslaught continued—until a searing ray of gold hit the hilt of her weapon at just the right angle and set it flying into the air.
Maria immediately pulled out another conducting blade from her belt in the pause that followed. She dipped it into the waters just as Leona pulled the trigger again and then drew up a large arc of liquid. The droplets burst into steam as they met Leona’s vitae bolt. Using the steam and the still thick chlorowheat smog as her cover, Maria ducked below the bolt, darted behind Leona, and swung out her blade.
A burst of gold met the strike as Leona whipped her conducting blade behind her back to parry the blow. She then swiveled around and threw out her foot, knocking the conductor from Maria’s hand—
Leona kicked Maria away and brought her conducting blade up in time to block a bullet coming from the opposite.
Now framed in the threshold of the door was a still-masked Andres, soaking wet. There was a gun in his left hand. With his right, he conjured a conducting blade.
Leona’s eyes narrowed at the man. “You again? A heretic is what they would call someone like you. You who couldn’t become a star and you who now can’t even dedicate yourself enough to become part of the night sky. How sad do you have to be to lash out due to your own failures and insignificance?”
Without warning, Leona discarded the conducting gun and lunged at Maria again with her conducting blade instead. Maria reached for the last conductor hanging at her waist but then locked eyes with Andres who hurled his conjured conductor at her.
Maria caught the weapon, activated it, and brought it up just in time to block the swing of Leona’s blade directed at her arm. With a roar, she pushed back with all of her might before sweeping her feet beneath Leona’s because—as Atienna noted—Leona’s legs were her weak spot. Before Maria could strike again, Leona had hopped back to her feet with her conducting blade and another drawn gun ready.
Maria’s heart hammered ferociously in her chest as she backed away. Her vision began to fog. She shook herself and tried to focus.
Werner had warned her that a fight with Leona would be a stalemate. Leona was weakened slightly by her time held captive, while Maria was still recovering from her injury. Werner had said that with all factors considered, Leona and Maria herself would be standing on even footing. It was a test of endurance—no, a test of determination and will.
“Not only are you relying almost entirely on your nature as a True Conductor,” Leona drew, “but now you’re also relying on the assistance of a bystander? I don’t blame your falter, but it is truly underwhelming to see.”
“You are relying on your nature as a saint candidate too, yes? Why should I not rely on who I am?” Maria asked, half-panting. “When I have the choice to get help, I should get it, yes? It is a choice to stand alone, no? Is it not a choice for you—”
“Direct another baseless question at me again and I will cut off your tongue. Do you think we’re on the same level for you to be asking me things like that?” Leona’s amber eyes narrowed again. “You constantly make mistakes and lead the people who follow you to their ends. And still they gather at your feet and look for guidance. Pathetic—both of you.”
“I do make mistakes,” Maria agreed, “but I am lucky to be surrounded by people who forgive me and teach me to be better.” She paused. “I am lucky that I can forgive myself enough to the point where I can improve too, yes?”
Leona gave her a mirthless chuckle. “Your intention may be to sound philosophical, but do you know how truly irresponsible you sound?”
Maria thought on it. “Is… improving irresponsible? I made mistakes. You made mistakes—”
Leona’s eyes narrowed again.
“I was given things. You were given things too. But you also gave things in return. And have taken them. That is the nature of being alive, no? Being betrayed, making mistakes, and getting hurt is also a part of life. Life, things, and people are not perfect, yes? Things can become difficult if you think they are—”
“You think you’re biding your time here by distracting me,” Leona interjected, looking from Andres to Maria. “Libra and Pisces are most likely on their way to wherever you’ve taken Scorpio. This entire thing has been an utterly pointless waste of time. Just like everything I’ve built.”
Maria frowned, feeling something stir in her chest at the final sentence. Leona was…
Leona abruptly whipped around and fired her conducting gun in Andres’s direction. Andres managed to dodge the shot by ducking to the side, but he could not dodge the conducting blade Leona threw at him only seconds later. He only managed to angle his body away so that the blade pierced his right hand instead of his upper right chest. He winced and cradled his hand silently as the blade deactivated and splashed into the water—
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Andres’s eyes widened suddenly, and he gripped his chest. A moment later he was on his knees and blood was sputtering from his mouth. Leona stared at him in confusion, while Maria darted to his side and caught him before he hit the waters.
“A True Conductor…?” Leona whispered in realization.
“C-Claire…” Andres managed, his eyes becoming half-lidded as red dribbled out from the corner of his lips.
“The Sagittarian prince?” Leona startled before she turned her attention towards the gate Jericho and Scorpio had disappeared into. “Damn it.”
A heart-wrenching pain tore through Maria’s chest. An intense anguish as powerful as the anguish she’d felt when she’d lost Conta. Before Maria realized what was happening, tears were leaking from her eyes onto Andres’s paling face.
“Oh, little Maria,” came a familiar, quiet voice that cut through Maria’s haze, “there is no point in mourning. Everything returns to nothing in the end, and nothing is the perfect place to be. Right, Leona?”
With difficulty, Maria lifted her head towards the direction of the sound.
In the threshold of the door stood a masked Proteus and Dominic.
Prognoikos Aurora Reservoirs, Ophiuchus
The countdown began as soon as Maria’s ship crashed down into the Serpens Establishment. Olive wasn’t the best at keeping track of time, so he was a bit thankful that Werner was counting by the minutes—the seconds—that ticked by. That left Olive able to focus on yet another list of things he needed to get done. Admittedly, the list did help him keep track of things:
- Clear the Prognoikos Aurora Reservoirs of the priests and peacekeepers
- Set everything up
- Bring Scorpio through to the reservoirs
- Gather everyone except Scorpio in tight, opposing circle
- Activate the proto-conductors
- Deal with Scorpio
- Get the heck out of Ophiuchus
The Monadic priests were—of course—alarmed by the sight of the ship crashing down onto the peacekeeping building, so it took only a little bit of grumbling and a touch of fear-mongering to get them to leave. Claire handled it with his usual expertise and his politician’s smile. Soha and Eunji had been tasked with distracting the peacekeepers at the foot of the bridge and evacuating the area. Since no peacekeepers had come running up the bridge, Olive figured they were successful.
Step one was done at 1335 hours.
Then came the preparation and waiting game. While Claire scoped the perimeter to place strategic gates with Felix and Arjun as discussed, Olive set off to do his own work. He put down Francis’s gate at the center of the bridge and marked the rest of the bridge with chalk in preparation for Scorpio’s arrival. X where he was to stand, X where Arjun was to stand, X where Jericho was to stand, X where Scorpio to stand, and so on. Measuring out the radius and diameter and all the other basic things.
As he worked on placing the markers, he asked Derik to go back into Francis’s rooms to grab another conductor for Jericho since Jericho had lost his. A normal conductor could only last for so long with the wrong conducting-type—especially if it was a Specialist’s conducting-type like Jericho’s.
Derik, of course, complained as he left and complained as he came back—“I’m not you’re fucking maid, got it? This is only for the operation. What the fuck’s going to happen if shit goes down and I’m busy with lost and found?”
Scorpio’s words were still ringing in Olive’s ears, so he settled on a—“I know. Thanks, Derik.”
Once Olive was finished, it was 1339 hours.
The others were struggling slightly. Olive worried for them, but he had a job to do here. He needed to focus and not get caught up in his thoughts or it would be for nothing.
Claire returned with Felix and Arjun arrived shortly after and offered a small clap as he studied Olive’s markings. Olive pursed his lips in turn before he sighed and dusted off his hands. Claire meanwhile walked over to Lyrs who was crouched on the floor. The priest was muttering to himself while gripping the Monadic pendant like it was a lifeline.
“Why am I the only one who’s doing something dangerous?” Lyrs was whispering to himself. “While the rest of you get to hide off in some secret room? I’m a lover, not a fighter—well, yes, I’m a priest too but… Why is it only me? With a bunch of children no less….”
Olive didn’t bother with the obvious insult. He was too busy feeling secondhand embarrassment. Why couldn’t other True Conductors learn to keep their conversations in their heads?
“What about Seamus and Veles?” Olive interjected as he joined the two. “They’re both running around the Serpens Establishment right now.”
“It’s a team effort,” Claire chirped.
“Veles is quite literally built differently,” Lyrs muttered. “Have you seen him? He’s like an ice water variant of that ‘pirate’ of yours. I’m just a modest—admittedly not celibate nor abstaining— priest—” he stared at his gloved hand—“who dared to touch starlight. A leader of Monadism. A saint candidate of my own country.”
Saints. Lyrs was almost as dramatic as Cadence—
Hey! My drama is entertainin’—
We need to be sure Lyrs won’t freeze like last time.
Olive glanced over at Claire who didn’t look weirded out at all. Of course not. He was connected to Andres.
“Look. We touch starlight every day.” Olive half-sighed. He pointed up to the sky where the sunlight was faintly seeping through the clouds. “We’re touching starlight right now.” He crossed his arms. “Leaders shouldn’t be worshiped anyways. If you put people up on high pedestals, you might not be able to see their flaws from your angle.” He gestured up again. “If you can’t see their flaws, you can’t call them out. The flaws—the cracks and blemishes—grow, and they just fall apart and crumble altogether. The country and the people are crushed in the landslide. That’s when politicians take over…”
Lyrs eyed Olive before rising to his feet. “Well said. I can tell you’ll make a fine king.”
“Look.” Olive tapped the point of his shoe into the ground. “I appreciate… you and the people you’re connected with for helping us out. I know you’re… putting yourselves in danger by doing this. I know you have your own reasons for doing it, but I still appreciate it. We’re… doing something good. Thank you… We’re relying on you…”
“We should be thanking you for bringing this… situation into our awareness,” Lyrs replied. “It’s a war on five fronts.”
Olive glanced at him. “Interesting math…”
Lyrs reached for the Monadic pendant again. “It’s not the saint candidates that drew me into Monadism, by the way. The pillars… the pursuit to become a better version of yourself…”
Olive looked away. “Yeah… I’ve heard.”
* * *
At 1344 hours, their group split up slightly. Arjun and Felix placed themselves at the marker on the opposite side of the central gate, while Olive, Claire, Lyrs, and Derik remained on their marker. They were all equidistant from the gate and each group had satchels containing three sphere proto-conductors—retreived from Francis’s rooms. These were proto-conductors containing Alice’s vitae.
Normally, activating one proto-conductor would be enough to paralyze someone standing a certain distance away from it and outside of the null area. As the radius increased, the vitae particles became more widely dispersed which led to an overall decrease in effectiveness—but this was generally negligible. Olive had calculated that it took three of Alice’s vitae particles to paralyze one vitae particle in another person’s body. However, not all vitae particles in a person’s body needed to be affected by Alice’s vitae particles to render them unable to move. Overall, it took around just 15 thousand vitae particles to paralyze one person, and the sphere released about 40 thousand vitae particles.
Saint candidates were obviously very different from normal people and contained a higher density of vitae particles that were at higher energy levels than normal. Olive had performed some hypothetical calculations a week and a half ago and had arbitrarily concluded that it would take about approximately 240 thousand to potentially paralyze a saint candidate—and that was towards the upper end of his confidence interval.
In other words: not only did all three proto-conducting spheres need to be activated at the right time to paralyze a saint candidate but they also needed to be activated at a specific distance.
Numbers, numbers, numbers.
But everything was set up, so—
* * *
At 1345 hours, the central gate on the bridge began to light up with pale tangerine light. Lyrs tensed and looked over at the glow before glancing at Olive. Feeling Werner and Atienna readying themselves on standby, Olive nodded. Lyrs clenched his gloved hands, electric sparks lighting up the space between his fingers and the gate. The sparks died a couple seconds after, but Lyrs continued at it. Eventually, the width of the sparks grew, grew, grew, until it reeled in a large mass of bodies through the gate. Lyrs stumbled back immediately.
Jericho. Scorpio. Peacekeepers.
Olive ran to Jericho’s side and tried to help him up to his feet. The man was sopping wet, and Olive nearly slipped on the puddle of water that had formed beneath Jericho. Derik came a moment later and hauled both of them back to their marker. Olive handed Jericho the conductor he had Derik retrieve. Lyrs meanwhile disappeared into the gate at their feet—just as planned.
Jericho offered a nod and a thumbs up. Thank you.
Scorpio rose to a stand and looked around. His mediums struggled to a stand, their movements stiff and awkward. Chlorowheat’s effects?
Null hypothesis one rejected—a good thing in this case. Saint candidates were affected by chlorowheat—although obviously not to the extent of normal people.
Scorpio looked over at Arjun and Felix then at Olive and his group. As soon as Scorpio laid eyes on him, Olive felt the oppressive and ominous pressure once again. He knew the others around him felt it too because he could see all of them except Jericho tense. Shaking the feeling off, Olive gave a subtle nod to Arjun and then reached for the satchel at his side that contained the proto-conductors.
But then Scorpio started pacing forward towards them.
Scorpio had tended to follow the combat patterns of Manipulators since he was a manipulator himself—staying far off and allowing mediums to do the work. That was an attribute of Scorpio’s that they had been heavily relying on in order to enact this plan. But it was okay if Scorpio didn’t land on the first marker. Olive had drawn six more just in case. They had seven chances—down to six chances.
Olive started inching backwards, nudging the others to do the same—though he had to grab Jericho by the arm and drag him. Arjun and Felix meanwhile inched forwards behind Scorpio.
“You know it’s quite ironic that you’ve brought me here. This place was the beginning of everything—and I’m not talking just about when I fell in. Though… wait a moment.” Scorpio looked back at Arjun and Felix. “All the same actors from before are here—minus a few extras and plus a few extras. Everything truly returns to how it began.”
“No warm greeting, Sagittarius?” Scorpio looking towards Arjun. “I know we left off on the wrong foot, but to think you would stand against me again…. I suppose that falling into habits isn’t a surprise—even if it’s you.” He paused and studied Arjun. “Oh, I see. You weren’t given enlightenment just yet—”
“Were you the one who killed my aunt?” Claire interjected, inching backwards with Olive as Scorpio’s attention returned to them.
“Kill your aunt? Kill dear Gigi? What do you mean?” Scorpio pointed to the ground, to the reservoirs below as he continued towards them. “She’s still alive right down there, Yuseong Haneul, eldest prince of the Seong Clan, True Conductor connected to an Aquarian soldier and connected to…. who else—”
“Technically, I’m its only prince,” Claire interjected, reaching into his sleeve and pulling out his staff-conductor. “I thought we had a y—”
Scorpio pointed at Claire abruptly, silencing him. Then he pointed to Olive and then Jericho. “Do you think any of you have changed since we last came to this meeting point?” He lowered his hand as he continued forward. “You are trapped in an endless cycle of transformation. Cycling back to the person you were in the beginning, null and voiding your change. There is no end to your becoming. And yet you struggle to break free from it.”
“Fuck,” Derik hissed under his breath. “Does he ever shut the fuck up? Fuck the plan. Let’s just blow his head off—”
“What’s going on here?”
Olive whipped around and startled as he spotted a group of suit-wearing men and women approaching them from behind. He recognized a few of them. They were the peacekeepers who had been guarding the reservoirs when Olive had first arrived here with the others. Hadn’t Eunji and Soha taken care of them…?
The peacekeepers drew near, bypassing the markers and gates. Abruptly, they stopped short a yard or so away. Olive felt their eyes land on his satchel and on Claire’s drawn conducting staff and then on Scorpio. Then, they started reaching for the conductors strapped to their hips.
The front most peacekeeper called out calmly, “Everyone, lower your weapons. Attacking a peacekeeper is a criminal offense—”
A gust of sky-blue flecked wind burst down the bridge, knocking half of the peacekeepers off of their feet and sending the other half flying backwards.
“No worries, Ollie.” Claire flipped his conductor and pointed the tip of it at the peacekeepers. “I can afford a criminal mark or two on my record. Perks of being royalty.”
Olive grimaced, not quite sure whether Claire was reliable or volatile, whether he was smart or stupid, whether he was sane or insane. What he was sure of was that he was glad Claire was here—
Claire let out a sudden yelp, dropped his conductor, and grabbed his palm. In Olive’s mind eye, he could see Leona’s conducting blade stab Andres’s hand. The sky-blue speckled barrier of air that Claire had been forming broke momentarily—
Bang! Bang! Bang!
The sound rang so loudly in Olive’s ears that he almost buckled then and there. It rang so loudly that he almost didn’t hear the loud metal thud echo just beside him. So loudly that he almost didn’t hear Felix’s shriek—“No!”—followed by pounding footsteps.
When Olive’s ears stopped ringing, he turned to find Claire laying on his back at his feet. Down the bridge, one of the peacekeepers was nursing a bleeding shoulder. A gun lay at their feet. Derik was pointing his own conducting gun—tip still billowing with smoke—in the peacekeeper’s direction. Felix continued pounding down towards them—skirting past Scorpio.
This wasn’t part of the plan.
“Claire?” Olive sank to his knees—or maybe his knees finally buckled. He wasn’t quite sure. His eyes refused to focus properly. He placed his hands on Clare’s chest. Damp. “Claire…?”
Out of the corner of his eye, Olive saw red liquid seeping through the grates just below Claire’s body. Still, Olive’s eyes wouldn’t focus.
Saints— okay. Kid, kid, kid. Deep breaths—
Derik knelt down beside Olive across from Claire and then began pressing his hands against Claire’s chest and throat. Olive shook himself, pushed Derik aside, and moved his hands over the areas Derik had been pushing on. Gaze still unfocused, he blindly ripped open Claire’s shirt and activated his vitae. Crimson sparks danced below his fingers.
Cauterize it—he had to cauterize it.
Olive had been studying these past few months how to effectively cauterize wounds in between his projects. Emilia and Otto—he needed to stop things like that from happening. Humans were weak. They bled out too fast. Their lives extinguished in an instant. So—Olive had to prevent it. He knew the nature of his vitae would cause some damage during the cauterization process, but that damage was smaller compared to the damage caused by the—
“Young lord!” Felix appeared out of nowhere, shoving Derik and Olive to the side. “Haneul! Claire—”
Derik shoved and held him back. “Fuck off! We’re trying to stop the fucking bleeding!”
Werner appeared before Olive. It was obvious that distracted by what was happening on Maria’s end, but Olive still felt relieved by his presence and desperate for his attention.
“Nico—Nico can… help,” Olive stammered, grabbing at Werner’s arm through the connection as he worked on cauterizing the wounds. “No, wait—what blood type…?”
Blood-type. Thoughts and memories of Otto sent Olive reeling. Not enough time. Not the right blood-type.
Werner’s face paled. The man looked—felt—as shaken and dazed as Olive felt.
Olive’s eyes began to burn and pleaded despite himself, Werner—
The man finally snapped to attention. Calm down. Bring Claire back through the gate. Nico will treat him. Find out Claire’s blood type from Felix—
Werner abruptly fell silent as his gaze focused on Claire’s face. Olive found his eyes drawn towards the same direction. His heart stopped, his stomach clenched, nausea boiled, his ears rang, his hands shook, his blood ran cold as he registered Claire’s gaze unfocused but directed up towards the sky. The passing clouds were captured in his dull eyes.
That was the meaning behind Claire’s name. That was what Claire had told Olive when they’d first come to the Bodhi Temple together. Claire hated that name. It was too heavy—holding up the heavens, bringing the clan to the heights of the heavens, a name benefiting an emperor, the burden of family, the weight of responsibility. It was just too much. So why was Claire staring up at that very thing he hated? Why hadn’t Claire run away?
Olive couldn’t gather his thoughts and continued trying to seal the wounds close.
He had always struggled about picturing the future—what his future would look like. It was something that he’d gotten better at after his connection began with the other five. So—he’d imagined that somewhere down the line he’d be begrudgingly ascending the Ariesian throne after the whole syzygy thing was worked out. Claire would be already giddily sitting on the Sagittarian throne and have already abolished the clan system.
Maybe the two of them would play metaphorical chess in the political meetings between their countries. Outside of the courts and politics, maybe they would hang out and jokingly play parry with their words and tease each other—just like their current routine.
Maybe a couple decades down the line, they would finally have a heart-to-heart at one of these outings—maybe while strolling through the corridors of Claire’s villa. Claire would admit that he hated being emperor and the responsibility his mother had burdened him with. He would admit that he hated politics and pretending to be someone he wasn’t and that he was finally ready to move on. And Olive would just roll his eyes and say, “Finally.”
That imagined future had lost the possibility of becoming reality…?
It had happened so suddenly.
In an instant.
Olive moved his hands away from his friend’s unmoving chest. “C-Claire…?”
Atienna’s thoughts cut through, Look—
The entire strip of the bridge was now glowing with dark blue light. Scorpio’s peacekeeping mediums were collapsed on the floor behind him. Metallic groans trembled through the bridge.
“You idiots…. ” Scorpio’s eyes were wide and livid—the intensity in them.His gaze was trained on the peacekeeping agents behind Olive. “People like you always charge in and think that you’re bringing in good and change—that you’re heroes—when all you’re really doing is scrambling for meaning and purpose for living. I recognize you.”
The peacekeepers exchanged looks of confusion
“You all fought in the war, didn’t you? You couldn’t stop destroying things after it ended, could you? Just accept who you are!”
Suddenly, the bridge fell away below Olive and he was in free fall. The air whipped at his cheek as warmth rushed up from below. Someone wrapped their arms around Olive. Derik? Jericho? Olive couldn’t tell.
Olive’s bones rattled inside of his body and his head spun.
Heat accompanied by almost blinding light seeped up from below him.
It took Olive a moment to get his bearings. Jericho was curled around him. Derik was right beside him, shaking him and asking him questions he couldn’t quite comprehend. Felix was laying on his stomach a foot away—unconscious.
Olive lifted his head from beneath Jericho’s arm so he could see the rest of the area.
The bridge they had been standing on had broken off from the main structure and had landed on a collection of boulders that jutted up from one of them reservoirs. The reservoir itself was a mere inches below them.
Olive lifted his head and spotted Arjun lying at the very edge of the opposite side of the bridge. At the center of the bridge, he found Claire’s body half-hanging off at the very edge. Beside him stood Scorpio.
Olive’s heart leapt up in alarm, and he struggled to come to a stand. A splashing sound from the reservoir drew his attention away for a split second. He looked in the direction of the sound and regretted it instantly. The peacekeepers who had been shooting at them were in there—groaning, shrieking, sinking into the light as their skin seemed to melt into the glow—just like Trystan and Marta had. Their struggle only lasted a moment—Olive didn’t even have the time to think about helping them—before they disappeared completely.
“Look at them. Unable to take in what they give out.” Scorpio’s eyes narrowed before he sank down beside Claire. “You on the other hand… Do you want to be free? Or do you want the reassurance of responsibility? Both? You’re a voracious little thing, aren’t you? You want everything—including nothing?”
“Get away from him, you monster!” Arjun snapped, leaping to his feet.
But Claire himself remained silent.
“Poor child, do you want to be saved? A sense of direction?”
“I hear you.”
With that Scorpio rose to a stand and pushed Claire over the edge of the bridge with his foot. Olive shrieked as Claire disappeared into the reservoir in a hot splash of light. He crawled forward, searching the reservoir’s surface for any signs of movement.
“I see. That’s unfortunate.”
Jericho could not think straight. It was difficult. He knew Claire was dead, but he refused to believe Claire was dead. He wanted to say a prayer for him, but he could not because Claire was not dead.
Everything was still in motion.
Olive’s face was streaked with tears and his agonizing pain made it difficult for Jericho to breathe. Still, Olive squeezed himself out of Jericho’s hold and pulled the proto-conducting spheres out from his satchel. With a stammer, he shouted—“Now!”—and then slammed his fingers on the buttons on their surfaces.
At the shout, Arjun, who stood frozen and pale, startled and activated the sphere proto-conductors in his hands.
Rings of pink light expanded out from the three spheres in Olive’s hands as well as the spheres in Arjun’s hands. The two wave fronts met at the center of the bridge, wrapping Scorpio in pink light and then shattering altogether.
Scorpio frowned, body shaky slightly. Then, he stilled and sighed. “Well… this feels familiar. Alice’s vitae, is it?”
Null hypothesis two rejected, Olive was supposed to say. At high enough levels of concentration, Alice’s vitae was able to paralyze saint candidates to some degree. Intuition: this effect was amplified by the chlorowheat.
Jericho struggled to a stand and picked up the two conductors that had fallen beside him: the one he received from Maria and the one he received from Olive. His conducting whip and Maria’s conducting blade. He stumbled towards Scorpio and activated his whip.
“Oh dear. What’s the plan now, partner? Whip me into submission? Take out your anger?”
Jericho answered him by whipping out his conductor at the man’s arm. It coiled around the area and let out a familiar sizzle at contact.
“Did you really just do that?” Scorpio stared down at the gray cracks forming beneath the whip wrapped around his wrist in surprise. “Partner, I wasn’t the one who cut off Maria’s hand. Nor was I the one who killed Claire just now. Though, I do understand your pain. I am sorry.”
The gray cracks traveled up Scorpio’s arm to his chest and then to his face. Then his body began to crumble away.
“Were you thinking of breaking me apart, partner? I thought we were closer than that.”
Scorpio shakily grabbed the glowing whip with his other, still intact hand.
He can still move somewhat. Be careful.
The hand gripping the whip too shattered into nothing. As the shattering continued, the whip fell away onto the ground. Jericho deactivated the weapon with a flick of his wrist.
The body parts that became dust, however, started coming back together in small pieces that were coated in dark blue light. Slowly, Scorpio began to piece himself back together from nothing until the cycle of shattering and mending was complete. He was whole again.
Null hypothesis three rejected, Olive was supposed to say. Jericho’s conducting was not entirely effective against the saint candidates.
Shaking his arm, Scorpio took a step forward—
“One more time!”
Jericho dove back towards Olive at his shout. More rings of pink light burst out from the sphere proto-conductors and collided with Scorpio’s body again. The man immediately halted.
Jericho holstered his conducting whip and instead activated his conducting blade. Maria’s conducting-type or Werner’s conducting-type: he was not sure. It did not matter.
Jericho charged at Scorpio and drove the blade through his abdomen. He pulled it out a second later and drove it into Scorpio’s chest again. Blood sputtered from the man’s mouth.
“What are you…?” Scorpio’s eyes widened as if in realization. Then—
—he laughed. And laughed. And laughed. And laughed. His laugh echoed around the glow of the reservoirs and seemed to shake the floating bridge. The sound rouse to the sky and filled out the empty spaces Claire had left behind—
No, Claire wasn’t dead.
Jericho tensed, twisting the conductor further into his abdomen. More blood spilled out. Speckled with blue jewels of light. Dripping down through the slits in the bridge to the reservoir and then in the direction of the adjacent reservoir. Crawling back upwards against gravity.
Still Scorpio laughed, his hot breath tickling Jericho’s cheek.
Jericho tried to ignore it. Because. Olive said it would work. Just like how they had seen in Leona’s memories. Cut enough and close enough to the reservoirs and the vitae would return to where it belonged. Then after that. Everything would return to the way it was. Talib would put on his hat and trench coat again. They would search the reservoir for Claire and get Claire out so Olive wouldn’t hurt anymore. The pain would go away. All of it.
“What do you think vitae is, partner?”
Scorpio abruptly, shakily placed a hand on Jericho’s cheek. It was wet and warm. Blood. Receding. Flowing out. In. Out.
He’s still able to move.
The central gate behind Scorpio abruptly lit with light and a familiar figure emerged. Alice, wearing a gas mask and conducting gloves.. She approached them quickly and pinned both of Scorpio’s hinds behind him. Pink light emitted from her gloves. A failsafe.
“You too, Alice?”
Alice remained silent and nodded at Jericho. Jericho twisted the blade deep, pulled it out, drove it in again.
“ELPIS taught you that vitae is a particle of life that naturally enters and exits the cycle—following the turn of life and death. After you left ELPIS, you started believing that life and death were synonymous in the eyes of vitae. Although you understand now, you struggle with the difference with the meaning. The identity and meaning of things that pass from one stage from another.”
Scorpio coughed and hacked as his hand receded from Jericho’s face.
“Vitae is merely a bridge, partner. From the past to the present. It is a book to open and to read. A record. A tool. It has no sentience. The ones who receive and use the tool have it. Ignoring this important aspect in an attempt to absolve one’s crime is expected, but that’s a rejection of reality.”
More vitae was spilling out than spilling in now.
“I didn’t make all these choices as Scorpio with the vitae of Talib. I didn’t make these choices as Talib with the vitae of Scorpio either. Simply put: I did it.”
Alice grimaced. Jericho drove the conductor through Scorpio’s abdomen again and again.
“Even if you take it from me, nothing will change. The knowledge has already been passed on from donor to acceptor.”
Again, again, again—just like Leonhart had done to himself.
“Or did you just want to remove Scorpio from the equation?” Scorpio—Talib?—laughed. “They’ll probably just find another one to take my place and bring me back.”
Jericho twisted the blade hard. The vitae and blood was spilling out in thick, sticky buckets now. Still: some of it refused to spill out and receded back into Talib’s body.
“We spend all of our lives wearing masks, hoping that we can catch our false appearance in the reflection of someone else’s eyes. Happiness, self-satisfaction, self-fulfillment, meaning and meaningfulness…” Talib’s voice cracked slightly as he spit out more light-speckled blood. “No matter how hard we try, everything just naturally crumbles apart. There will be another Omar, there will be another Flannery, another Ayda, another Duccio, another Conta, another Otto, another Trystan, another Claire. There is no meaning behind it. Embracing who we really are deep down is the only way to exist with the least amount of pain and suffering. Let me ease that suffering so I can ease mine. Resisting is…”
Pull him through the gate now.
Jericho pulled the blade out from Talib’s abdomen and caught the man as he slumped forward. The searing heat of the vitae—the blood—continuously spilling out and yet also receding from and into Talib’s body burned Jericho’s fingers. Still: Jericho held on. Alice reached forward and slapped two pairs of suppression cuffs over Talib’s wrists. Talib fell limp entirely.
The gate behind Alice lit up, and she stepped aside as familiar sparks lit up the space between the gate and Talib. Jericho finally released the man and watched as he was dragged into the gate—vitae still trailing into and out of his body—in the blink of an eye. When the gate closed, the vitae trailing the man fell slack and splashed back down onto the bridge.
Panting, Jericho fell to his knees and cradled his hands. His heart was rattling inside of his rib cage, and he did not feel happy and relieved like he thought would. Pain. His hands hurt. His chest hurt.
Alice knelt down in front of him and slowly extended her hand. Jericho shook his head and turned towards Olive who was curled up on himself, shaking, audibly sobbing. The sobs were so loud that Felix finally stirred beside him. The young man lifted his head and scanned the area.
“Where is… Claire?”
Olive’s sobs only intensified.
That sound: it made the pain inside Jericho’s chest intensify and his eyes begin to burn. He started to crawl towards Olive but stopped when he felt a sudden cool draft of wind.
The gate behind Alice was glowing again.
Two figures emerged.
Jericho knew who they were before he laid eyes on them.
a/n: ironically, part 4 was supposed to be a “rest and recovery” from part 3 kind of story. anyways, i have a couple of final projects due since the summe semester is endng, some job things & interview things, and preparation for both of my unis starting soon–so the next chapter might take a week to geto ut–but i’m not 1000% sure
thanks for reading–