Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus
Andres felt cold in Maria’s arm. The conductor he had conjured for her was still hot in her hand.
Proteus stood before her free. Claire was not dead. Andres was not dying.
Maria tried to understand all the things that had happened in the moments that had preceded this—had she made another mistake?
Maria rested Andres’s head on her knee before hurling the proto-conductor at Proteus with all of her might. The golden line seared through the fog, but before it could contact Proteus’s neck, Dominic lurched forward and whipped out a conducting blade of his own.
Sparks erupted as the two gold fronts met.
Maria’s weapon went flying away.
It sounded as if the weapon had landed about three meters away just behind her. She could reach it in about five seconds. That was not enough time. She needed to find an alternative.
Dominic lowered his weapon and looked down at her. He smirked.
Maria was tired. Her head felt light, her limbs heavy. Still, she reached for the last conductor at her belt.
“You were thinking you were tired just now, weren’t you?” Proteus asked, walking forward and stopping in front of her. He reached a gloved hand towards her face but a bullet of gold cut the space between them. Instead of skirting away, he merely leaned back and glanced over at Leona.
Maria followed his gaze and found Leona pointing a conducting rifle at him.
“Leo,” Proteus greeted her back, “na, we meet again.” He smiled. “Or… should I call you Araceli? I did hear Jericho calling you that…Quite nostalgic actually, but it doesn’t matter, does it? It’s just a name. You’re rather attached to your ‘Leo’ name though, aren’t you? Attachment, vanity, or pride? The latter two fall under the umbrella of the former so I suppose it doesn’t matter.”
“Don’t touch the True Conductor.” Leona’s eyes narrowed. “Child.”
Proteus glanced at Maria. “But I already have. This one and the other one that you’re attached to. Way before you even knew they were True Conductors. Respectfully, Leona, you’re way too possessive—almost to the degree of Scorpio.”
A screech tore through the air as another vitae ray escaped from Leona’s conductor and hurtled towards Proteus. Proteus pushed Dominic back and flung his gloved-hand out towards the oncoming ray. The gold ray came into contact with a burst of light that emerged from his palm. It sizzled white and then into nothing.
“You must be truly becoming senile if you think you can hold your own against me,” Leona drew.
“Of course not, Leona.” Proteus chuckled. “But I do have the advantage of your digression know you’re hesitating. You have more to lose than I do. P.D. Oran for instance…” He moved a hand over his discolored eye. “…and the fact that I might come back and become even more of a nuisance for you than before. I’m not too sure if Epsilon would be willing to assist me again, but they’ve always been a follower, so I’m sure they will—”
Without warning, he whipped his hand out his gloved hand and a gust of white-speckled wind expanded out from his palm. Maria barely had the time to register it before she was thrown backwards. She clung tightly to Andres as she hit the wall behind her. Dominic was flung back just beside her, while Leona was hurtled across the room. Leona cracked against the wall before stumbling to her feet.
Proteus knelt beside Rho and un-did the cuffs around her wrists. Rho’s eyes fluttered open, and she met his gaze calmly. Proteus moved his gloved hand towards her cheek before moving it towards her chest. A small pulse of white light emitted from his palm, and her body jolted. Blood dribbled from her lips and dyed the water below her.
Proteus did not remove his hand and left it on her abdomen. Rho’s cheeks pulsated with white veins. Maria pulled Andres closer because he was not dying and stared with half-fascination as white also veins crept up Proteus’s face.
Rho spoke in the Ophiuchian language, “So it ends here?”
“If you’re asking me that question instead of answering it yourself, I think you already know the answer,” Proteus said, clenching his fist.
Rho only chuckled before her head lolled to the side. Dead. White light began to seep up from the white veins pulsating on her face and from the rest of her body—but it did not escape into the air like Omicron’s vitae did. No, it swirled into the palm of Proteus’s hand.
Leona flung a conducting-blade at Proteus but the man flicked out his hand and spilled out a familiar white fog from his conductor. The fog surrounded him, swallowing the oncoming conductor whole. When the conductor emerged from the fog, its golden blade was gone. Its hilt smacked his chest before plopping into the water with a splash!
Maria pulled Andres closer to her and away from the white fog as it inched closer. She searched the area.
Had Simon made a successful and daring escape? He had to have. He would not end up like—
“It’s fascinating how conducting-types work,” Proteus said suddenly, turning to Maria. “Leona is aware of this, but I know you aren’t, Maria—so let me explain it to you. Did you know that the conducting type a person develops is partially a product of their environment?” He dragged himself through the water—floated like a ghost—towards one of the toppled desks where a gate resided. “It’s a mix of both genetics, epigenetics, inherited vitae, and the environment actually. That’s something I was discussing with P.D. Oran quite recently. Theory.”
Maria lifted her head at the name. She was supposed to be keeping an eye out for a handful of people other than the children here. P.D. Oran was one of them.
“Stress and stability in the environment are strong predictors of conducting type—climate too, although not to such a strong degree. Projectors develop from being raised in high-pressure, stressful environments that allow little flexibility. Transmutationists arise from upbringings in which the Conductor had to constantly adapt to unstable, rapidly changing environments. Conjurors emerge from stable upbringings in which their creativity and imagination are fostered. Manipulators more often than not come from environments that promote them to strongly focus on conscientiousness and awareness of their surroundings. The environment that facilitates the formation of an Elementalist is slightly harder to pinpoint, but there’s evidence that enriched environments help foster their differentiation. As for Specialists? Well… I’m sure you can deduce the environment that causes the specialization just by looking at what sort of conducting that specialization manifests as.”
Well, he’s chatty today. That’s probably a bad sign, right?
“There’s even some argument for environmental effects on extraneous and intraneous conducting. All those categories are not all clear cut by the way. Nothing is. It’s more accurate to compare conducting-type to a sliding scale. But sliding scales are hard to control and chain down, right?” He chuckled. “Categories offer boundaries, confinement. When categories are enforced, people automatically fall into them. Flexibility and plasticity of conducting-type wanes with age, so in the end as you reach adulthood, you’re already confined to the prison of definition.” He placed a hand on his chin and waved a thought away. “Of course, environment only explains 35% of the variation found in conducting type, but I know I’m boring you with all of this.”
Leona interjected, “Enough, Proteus. Your words are more pointless than Scorpio’s and your actions even more meaningless.”
“Scorpio.” Proteus looked over at Maria again. “They’re no longer in the picture, are they? Saint of Passion Talib al-Jarrah has—as he would say—exited the scene.”
How did he know?
“I know everything.”
Leona lifted her conducting rifle again but did not point it at Proteus. Instead, she pointed it up at the ceiling above his head and fired.
The ceiling gave in at the impact and large slabs of plaster and stone rained down right over Proteus’s head. He disappeared beneath the rubble as the water erupted beneath his feet. The only sounds that followed were the pitter, patter of the sprinkling water droplets and the plop, plops of debris as they hit the high water.
That’s it. The One. That’s all?
“That was dangerous.” Proteus chuckled as he emerged from the cloud of dust. There was a cut running diagonally across his forehead, but he continued undisturbed towards another desk where another gate had been placed. “It’s very like you to bring down the foundation of what you built because of your pride.”
Leona reached for her belt again. Proteus meanwhile reached into his pocket and pulled out what appeared to be one of Francis’s proto-conductors. Maria wondered if he’d gotten that the same way he had gotten his gas mask. Taken it from one of her crew members? Unforgivable.
“I don’t usually like to do this since it’s not a good thing for the body, but…” Proteus crushed the proto-conductor in his palm and black liquid seeped out in-between his fingers—black liquid that began to suddenly pulsate with white light before it was swallowed by his conducting glove. “Even something like apprehension will hold you back—”
Dominic suddenly leapt to his feet beside Maria and swung out his conducting blade towards her. Maria dropped Andres to her knee and whipped out her conductor to block the strike. As soon as his blade met with hers, his shattered into dust. Dominic’s eyes widened a fraction of an inch before he stumbled back and glowered haughtily.
“So you again use another’s—”
“I am not facing you, yes?” Maria said to him. “Can you not see what is going on, dear? This is bigger than you.” She paused, thinking. “You are being used—”
“Please. I know you’re just tired and trying to cover it up,” Dominic scoffed. “Unsurprising.”
Saints. What’s with this brat and why he is he actin’ like he’s the main character in one of Atienna’s drama books?
Dominic eyed Andres before he lunged for her again only to be abruptly shoved against the wall by an unseen force.
“Simon!” Maria called out in alarm as the faint echoing memory of gunfire returned to her. “No, stay back!”
Dominic snapped up to his feet and whipped around wildly as he brandished his conductor. “So you’ve gotten even worse. Having someone else fight for you—someone I can’t even see—” He was shoved forward again—this time by a seen force.
It was Epsilon, who stammered— “D-Don’t touch her!”
Dominic whipped around, baring his teeth and raising his weapon again. Epsilon stumbled back, tripped over his own two feet, and fell into the water.
“Epsilon!”—Leona’s shout intermingled with Maria’s own.
“You can forget them, Dominic”—Proteus’s voice cut through just as a path in the white fog opened up in front of the boy— “If you come here, I’ll show you something even better.”
Dominic lowered his weapon and lifted his chin at Maria before heading towards the cleared path. Maria tried to move towards the open path but Andres’s body weighed her down. She looked down at him as her vision blurred before she looked back up at Dominic. The fog behind him was closing as he moved forward—removing her path. Once Dominic reached Proteus’s side, the man took Dominic’s hand in his own and placed his other hand on the gate which began to glow with pure white light.
“Let’s go reunite with Ophiuchus.”
With that, the duo stepped into and through the portal. The fog remained in place—a circle around which Proteus once dotted its center.
A snap echoed beside Maria’s ear, and Simon appeared kneeling at her side in a copper flash.
The priest placed a hand over his chest and eyed Andres’s bleeding hand. “Maria… what’s going on?”
Maria tried to explain the situation but her mind kept skipping over the events that had played out at the reservoirs. Olive was resisting—denying.
Epsilon leaned forward. “He’s… still breathing.”
Maria snapped to attention at Epsilon’s words. She then leaned closer to Andres and wiped away some of the blood from his mouth and brushed away the hair clinging to his face. When she placed her head on his chest, she could hear a weak thump, thump, thump.
He is still breathing, dear Olive, she thought. Andres is still breathing. And if he is still breathing, that means—
The anguish faltered and was replaced with a dizzying sense of desperation.
Maria’s thoughts cleared. bit a shadow spilled over her before she could think of what to do next. Upon looking up, she found Leona standing just a step away from her. The conducting rifle was still in her hand. Simon immediately pulled closer to Maria. Leona was evidently uninterested in him because she instead stared at Epsilon.
Despite her exhaustion, Maria raised her conductor. “We continue again, yes—” She stopped short as she saw Proteus emerge from the gate in front of Olive and Jericho at the Aurora reservoirs.
“Enough of this useless waste of time.” Leona turned her attention to Maria. She pointed to the black spot on the wall beside Maria’s head. “Have Theta open that gate for me to the Prognoikos Aurora Reservoirs. For the both of us. Proteus is a nuisance that needs to be dealt with first, but I am not letting you out of my sight.”
Okay—Cadence, the only one still talking through their connection—sounds like we should just take Leona to where she pleases and make a quick split. Right?
Maria considered it. Her part in this plan was to rescue the True Conductors and others from the lower levels of the Serpens Establishment, meet up with Jericho, transport the children, hold Leona’s attention while Scorpio was being handled by Jericho, and—if possible—injure Leona enough to keep her out of the picture for the time being. Killing her was also ‘on the board,’ but Werner had highlighted not taking any unnecessary risks.
Maria eyed Leona’s still bleeding leg—
Maria turned to the threshold of the door where she found Albatross appear in a flash of copper light. The boy took one look at the fog and Leona before darting to Maria’s side.
“W-What happened…?” Albatross stammered, hands hovering as he sank down beside her. “What’s going on…?”
“Take Andres back to where it is safe, yes?” Maria drew after hearing silence on Werner’s and Jericho’s ends. “You too, Simon, Epsilon.”
Keeping an eye on Leona who remained surprisingly motionless, Maria carefully handed Andres off to the three men and watched as they departed into a gate together. She then rose to a stand herself—but Leona’ grabbed a hold of Maria’s arm. Maria held her gaze. They exchanged no words.
* * *
Prognoikos Aurora Reservoirs, Ophiuchus
When Maria emerged from the gate at the Prognoikos Aurora Reservoirs behind Leona, the pain squeezing her chest intensified into a hopeful anguish that stole her breath away. With difficulty, she looked around.
She was on the platform that had fallen down from the main bridges. Leona was just a step in front of her. Arjun was standing tense at the left side of the platform. Felix sat at the very side and stared listlessly down into the pulsating reservoir as if half-expecting something or someone to emerge from it. He looked lost—waiting for direction, waiting for an order, waiting for his lord, waiting for the person he followed. Alice was beside him, trying to pull him away from the edge.
But it’s okay. Andres is alive, so that means that—
Olive was on all-fours on the ground on the right—head buried in his hands. Derik was kneeling beside him and aiming his conducting gun. Jericho was also at Olive’s side, holding him in an awkward embrace—though his gaze was trained at the very same thing as Derik’s weapon.
Proteus and Dominic. Proteus faced the reservoirs at the opposite edge of the platform. His arms were spread wide as if accepting or initiating an embrace.
“Everything they’ve done and everything we’ve done is to escape our inherent suffering,” he said. “Our suffering comes because of our lack of freedom, because of our attachments to people, things, ideas, ideals, concerns, dreams—but to be attached is to be human.”
Proteus reached for his off-color eye and then dug his fingers into his eye socket.
“Transcending humanity is a possible answer to escape this boundary. You’d think that becoming a Knowledge Bearer would result in this sort of transcendence. But it’s quite the opposite, especially if the Knowledge Bearers continue to mingle with people like us.” He chuckled. “You could argue that we as ELPIS are closer to achieving that transcendence than is. Becoming nothing instead of becoming something.”
Proteus popped out his eye in one quick motion. There was no sound. There was no blood. He held it out for them to see. The eye was perfectly circular, but it had no nerve attachments.
That’s not right.
“Ophiuchus is not like the other Knowledge Bearers. She is incapable of existing in a dense form. Becoming corporeal, solid is something she thankfully has trouble becoming. Unlike us. Still, even though we can’t see her, she’s all around us, watching, mourning, waiting, hoping. Her vitae particles are scattered all over this place.” Proteus chuckled. “And a few in me, of course.” He pointed over at Maria. “And in you.” He held the eyeball loosely in the air. “I wanted her to see, but didn’t realize it was impossible for her to see unless she became me—unless I become her. I didn’t think of this until I came across P.D. Oran actually. I doubt I’d even consider it if I were in a different mindset when I encountered that man. Everything just aligned—though I suppose rambling about it like this doesn’t really matter.”
It’s a conductor, came Olive’s realization.
“The Great Devourer—they called me. I wonder if I could devour a couple of stars.” Proteus slid the eye-ball-shaped conductor into his mouth and then swallowed with seemingly little difficulty. “Little Maria, would you like to see what the beginning of the syzygy might look like?”
Leona’s eyes widened and she lunged towards the man. Before she could reach him, he took a step and fell into the reservoir. Dominic almost followed through after him, but Leona grabbed him by the wrist and threw him back.
Did… that just happen? Cadence again. She paused when no one answered her. Come on, guys, that’s the signal ta book it outta here. Come on! Detective, Captain—
The reservoir began to bubble before geysering upwards right in front of them.
Get out. Now!
Maria started for Olive only to find that Derek already had him tucked under his arm and was running to the central gate on the platform. Jericho followed suit, grabbing Felix and then Alice before diving into the gate himself once Derik had activated it. Arjun joined them a moment after. Maria took one look at Leona and Dominic before she darted into the gate herself.
A moment later, Maria stumbled out of one of the many gates Olive had placed on the bridge strip overseeing the reservoirs. She nearly rolled off the edge of the bridge but managed to stop herself from teetering over by clinging to the grates.
As she picked herself up off the ground, she scanned the area for the others. They were scattered around the bridge and were just beginning to pick themselves back up on their feet.
Safe. Good. Yes.
Leona was already standing by the railings, peering over them. Dominic was beside her—his wrist clamped in her vice-like grip.
A groan emitted from below before another geyser of white vitae erupted upwards in front of them. The geyser continued to grow, grow, grow in height—reaching even higher than the bridge itself. Stray white glowing droplets caught in the air—floating lazily in place like bubbles.
“Amazing…” Dominic whispered.
Amazing, Maria agreed.
No, no, no—not amazing. Olive’s thoughts cut through her wonder. That’s… vitae elevated to a higher energy levels. Like… Trystan and Marta. Claire—
Fragmented recollections of that cloudy day in Die Hauptstadt floated to the surface of Maria’s mind. Someones amalgamating into something no longer human.
Maria looked across the bridge towards Olive. Olive, we will not happen again. I promise you, yes?
Olive stared over at her silently, biting his lip. He was trying to keep it together—Maria could tell. His pain and her pain for him melded together in her chest.
The geysering white mass began to solidify into a distinctive shape. The first thing to come together and become identifiable was its head—smooth, oval-shaped, featureless besides just the single eye that took up its entire face. Then came its body—long, sinewy, umbrella-shaped, spilling out like a royal drape. Out from that drape’s backside burst a pair of thin poles which budded out five branches. Fingers. Hands. Arms. Another pair of arms sprouted out from its shoulders and yet another from its waist. These six arms hovered in the air, resembling wings. Liquid and solid and gaseous. All at once.
What in saint’s name—
Maria stared in awe. It was like something out of the stories she used to create with Conta and the stories she used to hear Proteus tell. A beast? A white beast.
One of the floating white globules popped like a bubble beside Maria’s ear—
—and with the empty whisper it released came a heaviness that nearly buckled her legs. A memory of a feeling. It was not sadness. It was not happiness. It was nothing. And nothing was a heavy feeling.
Some of the others around her seemed to feel it too because Arjun stumbled to the ground alongside Derik. Felix, who was just beginning to pick himself off the ground, staggered forward. Jericho clenched his chest with a rare grimace as he struggled to hold Alice upright.
Like Ophiuchus’s conducting.
“Oh…. What the actual fuck…” Derek swore as he grabbed Olive by the shoulder. “I am not fucking drunk enough for this shit. What the fuck is this?” He looked around. “This isn’t fucking real, is it—”
“Derik…” Olive whispered beside him. “Go… Go back. Now.” His eyes wavered. It’s happening again—
Derik did a double-take and shook Olive’s shoulder. “What? And you stay? Fuck no. I’m not fucking going anywhere you’re not going.”
“Derik Stein, I recommend you heed the Ariesian prince’s orders.” Leona interjected, lowering her rifle as she continued looking over the towering humanoid shape. “You revealed yourself to be the truest fool in the end, Proteus..”
Derik stared at Leona with a grimace. “Who is this chick…?” He looked at her up and down. “This pretty woman, I mean?” He squinted. “Wait, isn’t this the lady who fought the not-captain a while back?” He eyed Maria. “And who the hell is this?”
“You… saw her before…” Olive muttered.
Here I am processin’ what in saint’s name this is, and there he goes jumpin’ from one thing ta the next. Impressive kinda. Capricornian efficiency—
Olive didn’t say anything else. Derik looked over at him with what appeared to be concern.
Felix remained on all fours, staring up at the humanoid mass. “Is that the prince…?” he whispered in Seongese. “Claire…? Haneul…?”
“That is not Yuseong Haneul,” Leona replied, looking back at him. “I’ve changed my mind. You True Conductors should leave immediately through Theta’s gate. Take your companions if you have any inclination towards them. Their fates don’t matter to me.”
Click, clack, click, clack, click, clack.
“That might not be the best idea, Leona—having them leave now, that is.”
Maria turned her attention towards the sound, and found a familiar silhouette approaching them from up the bridge. Bright red hair, a pair of red shades, a blue dress, a red leather jacket, and a long metal walking stick.
“Flannery…” Alice managed.
“Alice,” Flannery—Libra—acknowledge her with a nod. She stopped short in front of them, slamming her walking stick down with a resounding thud! before turning to face the towering humanoid shape. “An incomplete syzygy. Not even close ta the real thing without stabilization from True Conductors and flow from the leylines.” She scanned the bridge. “Where’s Scorpio?”
Maria could feel Jericho tense. Libra seemed to see it to understand what had happened because she looked down at her feet and then closed her eyes briefly.
“I see. So y’invoked judgment on yer own. Would you like to be judged the laws y’set yerself or would you like to be judged by our laws? Would you like t’be tried through our eyes or the eyes of the masses?”
Maria cocked her head. “Why do you get to decide who judges us?”
Instead of answering, Libra inclined her head at Leona. “What did Proteus want?”
The sound that rumbled out from the white beast as it slowly turned its eye towards them.
「Now we are here.」
“As in nothingness…?” Libra’s brows raised. “Y’desire nothingness, Proteus, and yet look at ya. The literal opposite.”
“He tried to take in the others. He’s not compatible. He’ll fall apart.” Leona shook her head. “If he simply wanted to die then—”
“Wanting t’die and losing the will t’live are two completely different things,” Libra interjected. “Wouldn’t y’agree, Alice?”
Maria felt Olive stir at these words. Alice meanwhile frowned.
“And yer wrong, Leona. When a container has a hole or a leak, it can be filled for an indeterminate amount of time.” Libra returned her attention to the white beast. “Ya’ve endangered a lot of lives, Proteus. Criminal abduction, murder, indoctrination, violation of the treaty—”
“Like you haven’t done the same fucking thing,” Derik sneered. “Fuck you.”
“—and now yer accelerating a pseudo-syzygy that’s just gonna end in a disaster. Y’don’t have True Conductors ta perform it properly nor do y’have connection to the other reservoirs through the leylines. Yer engagin’ in meaningless destruction. Therefore, actin’ on previous precedence set by the ELPIS Investigations Department to prevent harm from suspected terrorist attacks as long as there’s reasonable evidence of threat, you will need to be detained and suppresed usin’ any means necessary. Yer death is a legally permissible option.”
Maria couldn’t quite understand why a verbal declaration needed to be made.
Libra nodded at Jericho.
“Jericho, yer conducting is much similar t’mine. It’ll be most effective in dismantling him. Projectors and fire Elementalists too, of course, but our kinda conductin’ gets the job done quicker.”
“Wait—you are asking for our help?” Maria asked. “Asking for our help after working us like slaves and turning us into your hunting dogs? That’s kinda pushing boundaries, isn’t it?”
Libra glanced at her. “Ya callin’ it slavery is an insult t’people who’ve suffered through it. Y’made the binding agreement on yer own with full knowledge of what the agreement entailed. Y’can’t read and sign a contract and then blame the other party for yer regrets and lack of foresight. Accept responsibility for yer choices. That’s what’s fair and just.” She eyed Jericho and then Alice. “I can dismantle Proteus on my own, but it would take some time. Enough time for him t’spread out his umbrella and take the entirety of Ophiuchus and the corners of the other twelve countries inside of himself.”
“What?” Arjun murmured.
Maria had almost forgotten his presence. He looked shaken still. Pale, wide-eyed.
“Haven’t y’noticed him growing?” Libra nodded at the white beast’s head.
Birds fluttered around the thing’s neck—circling it like a necklace. They did not remain that way for long because they dared closer towards it and were immediately taken into the beast by thin threads that reached out to them and swallowed them whole.
Olive’s disgust throttled through Maria’s stomach.
Hold up, Cadence interjected. Not ta highlight the obvious, but wouldn’t the saint candidates want that…?
“He is an emptiness that can’t be filled. An energy level that’ll never reach complete equilibrium. An incomplete syzygy. Unregulated. Left alone, he’ll consume everything. And everyone he touches’ll be in agony. That would be unfair. Y’do remember what happened in the Capricornian capital, don’t ya?”
“So what?” Jericho asked. “We help you out and then you just jump on us as soon as we somehow take care of… that. The One. It wouldn’t be too much to ask for a head start afterwards, would it?” He blinked and then glanced at Cadence who appeared beside him with a shrug.
“Gotta try everything,” she said.
“The One?” Libra smiled slightly. “The One becoming one… That’s a bit funny, init?” She let out a breath. “Anyways, that is an accusatory statement, Jericho. From what Scorpio told me, ya’ve been stealin’ Ophiuchian property—”
“Property.” Jericho tightened his hold on Alice. “People.”
“—under protection,” Libra amended. “Enacting wrongdoing doesn’t restrict the one who does wrong from voicin’ grievances. Wrongs have been initiated on both sides in regards t’the deal among other things, but two wrongs don’t make a right. Measures to correct these wrongdoings were t’be put in place—the keyword here is ‘were’. Yer intervention’s changed things. Proteus was detained safely under our care, and look at ‘im now. This wouldn’t’ve happened if ya’d just stayed put as y’were. However, this wouldn’t’ve happened if we better handled ELPIS and dealt with y’better—”
“No, this wouldn’t have happened if you’d just—” Olive interjected before his voice cracked and he faltered. “This shouldn’t’ have happened. None of it.”
Libra regarded him. “Yer not just helpin’ us out. Yer helpin’ the poorer folk who live at the borders of yer country. Those far from the riches of the cities and capitals. Those rebels who want t’escape the hands of the upper echelon.”
Torrine. Olive turned to face Maria. His eyes were red. We have to since we can.
“Still, the choice is yours. In the case of y’seekin’ shelter instead of standin’ here with me—don’t worry. Y’wouldn’t be charged with criminal neglect.”
There was a beat of silence.
I… Atienna turned over the idea. We’ve already accomplished everything we’ve set out to do today. The children, the quadrants, our families—we’ve rescued all of them. And we’ve lost… She appeared behind Olive and gently touched his shoulder. We’ve already lost more than we… wanted to. Olive, I understand that you want to make up for—
“I’m not trying to make up f-for anything,” Olive interjected.
You’re not wrong, Olive. Choosing to help them or refusing to… Atienna ruminated for a moment before she said,“We have to continue thinking about what we’ve sacrificed to get to this point and consider how much more we’re willing to sacrifice, don’t you think?”
Cadence rubbed her chin before sighing. “We’re kinda thinkin’ along the same lines, honestly, but… ya know… neglectin’ things’ve never turned out in a good way for us, has it? Sunshine?”
Maria looked up at the white beast. “The golden beast must face the white beast, no?”
This is happening first, Jericho agreed. The One. Before the syzygy, before the war. This first. The beginning needs to be handled first.
“Captain?” Cadence tried next.
Werner had been silent ever since Claire had not been killed. When Maria peered in his direction, she found him staring blankly at the gate in front of him. His conducting rifle was still gripped tightly in his hands despite it having gone cold a while ago.
Maria watched as Atienna shook Werner gently from where they sat together in Francis’s room. He felt distant, unlike Olive who felt exceptionally close—pain, loss, and all.
“Werner,” Atienna urged, placing a hand to his cheek. “Werner—”
Werner snapped out of his daze and looked around as if just noticing the change in scenery. “I apologize.” He pinched the bridge of his nose, and Maria could feel him collecting himself. “Given the current circumstances, temporarily working together with the saint candidates may yield the best results—even if it appears as if we’re taking a step backwards. I agree with Olive, Jericho, and Maria. We can not afford to lose our countries: whether it be through ELPIS or the saint candidates.”
We still have to find Claire too, Olive insisted. He’s down there or in there somewhere. He has to be. Or—
Maria considered the thoughts of the other five and nodded as she faced Libra “Okay, we will lend a hand, yes? All this talking about rights and wrongs does not ‘get things done’ as Werner says, no? You are willing to ask for our help to help many people, so that request should not be not be denied, yes?”
Libra nodded at Jericho then at Maria. “Like I was sayin’, it’d be best if y’used his conductin’, Maria. Y’can do that, right? Askin’ whoever’s been helpin’ ya with yer run away plan here would also be helpful. I can see ya’ve got a lot of Theta’s gates around here. My suggestion is t’utilize ‘em. Yer Conductor friends don’t have t’come out. Just conduct through ‘em—” She eyed Leona— “though I’m guessin’ y’used that tactic recently, so I don’t need t’explain myself.”
“What? Libra, they’ve been fooling around for the past half hour,” Leona interjected, stepping forward. “You can clearly see that they’re exhausted. They’ve been cross-conducting intensively. They’ll die at this rate. They need to be sent away. They’re still valuable as True Conductors even if more form during the war.”
Libra nodded to Leona’s leg and then her arm. “Leo, as much as I respect that y’can hold yer own, look at ya. They did a number on ya. We need this t’be quick. We can’t be slowed down.”
Maria eyed the areas Libra indicated and was surprised to find that Leona’s pants leg and her sleeve were soaked red. Leona had hidden her injuries well. Why? Was there a point? Upon thinking upon it some more, Maria acknowledged that there was. It was why she had refused to address what had happened to her arm herself.
Libracontinued, “I reckon y’have conductors on hand that’ll let y’handle Jericho’s conducting-type?”
“Just the one conductor,” Olive muttered, nodding at the conductor in Maria’s hand, “outside of Jericho’s.”
Libra frowned slightly. “No others?”
“I… can modify the ones we already have,” Olive spoke up suddenly, voice calm despite the fact that Maria could feel he felt very much otherwise. “So they can handle Jericho’s vitae. The proto-conductors and your rifle too, Werner. It shouldn’t take long—”
“Olive…” Atienna murmured, hand drifting to his face. “You don’t have to—”
“I said I can do it!” Olive snapped. He was shaking, fists balled, eyes red. “I…” His voice cracked. “I can do it. We need to just put our feelings aside and just focus on what we need to do to prevent another Trystan and Marta from happening.” His voice caught in his throat as he looked up at Libra desperately. “Claire fell in there—is he—Andres—”
Cadence appeared beside him and slapped her hand over his mouth before he could say anything else. Silently, she placed her finger to her lips.
Libra glanced over at Leona, but Leona didn’t acknowledge her gaze.
“Brat says he can do it so he can fucking do it,” Derik said, arching a brow at Olive. “Who’s saying you can’t?”
Werner looked over at Atienna before he placed a hand on Olive’s head through their connection. “Let’s move quickly. I’ll relay this change to Captain Weingartner. He will most likely be resistant to the idea, but I believe I can present him with a reasonable argument in under a minute with Cadence’s assistance. After that, it would take an approximate additional two minutes for everyone to take their positions.” He rose to a stand, studying the white beast. “I don’t believe that our firepower will be enough. It would be better to have a surplus of manpower than to—”
“We can bring other peacekeepers here,” Olive suggested. “Then—”
“No, that can’t happen.” Leona’s eyes narrowed. “What’s happening here will remain classified.”
“What?” Olive did a double-take, wiping the tears from his cheek before gesturing towards the beast. “There’s a 30 meter giant towering over the reservoirs. I think it’s too late for ‘classified’—”
Leona shook her head. “You would be surprised at how easily common people will accept the simplest explanation for an event. Simplicity is the key to contentment even if it’s at the cost of understanding. ‘It’s only natural’ is something I suppose Scorpio would say if they were here. Most likely the people will blame whatever they see here on either our peacekeeping organization or on one of the warmongering countries.”
Olive grimaced. “How can you even…. talk like that? The war… Do you know how hard people work to try to make things work in their country? Even though it seems pointless—what they’re willing to sacrifice—” His voice cracked again.
Leona’s eyes narrowed. You don’t think we’ve tried?—Maria imagined this was what she was thinking.
“If you fail, then you try again, yes?” Maria interjected, taking a step back to fall in line with Olive. She pointed at Libra. “So what is next?”
Libra tapped her cane on the grates. “The deal is that Proteus here is much like those things y’faced in Die Hauptstadt. We’ll start by peelin’ back the initial super-elevated layers of vitae by havin’ yer assistants have at it. The layers’ll keep pullin’ back together though, so you’ll have t’keep up the barragin’. Meanwhile, Jericho’ll come with me to the front of Proteus while Leona and Maria’ll approach if from behind.”
“Both Jericho and I have the conductin’ t’dismantle this type of thing—two of us in other words. Maria’s the only one who can conduct like Jericho here on yer side, so it makes sense for us t’take the front to distract it—that is, if it has any semblance of consciousness left. Us in front and you behind. It’s logical.”
“The bridge that fell earlier is directly behind Proteus,” Arjun offered, sweat beading his forehead.
Libra nodded and closed her eyes, appearing to be in thought.
“Just us,” Jericho half-stated, half-asked.
“Y’have six lives, Jericho,” Libra responded, opening her eyes. “I have millions. The people standin’ behind ya only have one. Approachin’ it in this way is fair, is it not?”
Maria felt a foreign familiar unease slither down her back.
“Wait… just now you said something about peeling back layers…? That shouldn’t be—how do you know all of this?” Olive frowned in a daze. “About how to deal with this? You said it was like back in Die Hauptstadt but—” He pointed to the beast. “That is nothing like what was in the capital.”
“You wanted t’burn her alive from what I heard. Premeditation? No—manslaughter. A crime of passion? She committed a hefty amount of crimes herself, but she acted within her free will. Intervention on that point is unnecessary.”
Olive glanced at Derik in confusion.
Derik scoffed. “That crazy bitch?”
“A scientist moved by progress with little restriction,” Libra corrected. “The treaty y’laid out after the war said very little about ethics in science. It seems like that should be a point of contention after this war ends.” She turned her head to the white beast. “Like I was saying, we’ll start by sloughing off the outer layers. Newly incorporated vitae is deconstructed and then reconstructed to a certain degree centrally—the conversion rate’s dependent on vitae density—but that central part is what’s drawin’ everythin’ in. We need t’either break it there or slice it out—preferably the latter.”
“What…?” Olive murmured, brows meeting. “That’s… not how….”
“It’s a recent discovery,” Libra informed him. “I s’ppose y’could call this a trial run.”
“Wait—” Olive paled. “Are you saying that Trystan and Marta—they could’ve been… saved?”
Libra did not answer.
Maria felt something crack.
Olive stared at nothing for what seemed like forever before shaking himself and jogging towards the gate at the center of the bridge. When Leona reached out for him, he slapped her hand away. “I’m going back to modify the conductors. Derik, come on—” He paused and look towards Arjun. “Arjun…you…”
“I’ll… stay here,” Arjun said, turning to Libra. “I can help take you and Jericho to the front of that creature—though I’d only be able to take you one-by-one.” He paused, glancing at Felix. “I… Olivier, would you please take him with you?”
Olive stared at him in surprise before moving towards the gate with Derik who dragged a stiff and dazed Felix with him. They stopped at the lip of the gate and eyed the unmoving saint candidates tensely before slipping on through.
The gate Maria had emerged from suddenly blinked open immediately after. Out from it spilled Simon and Albatross. Maria tensed as Libra and Leona eyed them and moved herself between the two groups again
She smiled, keeping her back to the saint candidates as she pulled the men towards the gate. “Dears, you shouldn’t be here—”
“W-We heard we’re working with the saint candidates now, Captain,” Albatross blurted, eyes locked onto the white beast. “We can help—”
“I couldn’t stop him,” Simon said with an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry, Maria.” He studied Libra and then Leona before inclining his head slightly, hesitantly.
“The more hands we have, the quicker we can get this done and over with,” Libra said. She eyed Simon. “Yer a Monadic priest, aren’t ya?” Her gaze flicked in-between Leona, Simon, Maria, and then the white beast. “It’s interestin’, Leo, how things worked out for you to get t’this point. You, two potential candidates, yer Monadic priest, and”—she nodded at the white beast— “Proteus.”
“That’s… Proteus?” Simon stared at the beast in confusion. He placed a hand over his chest as he studied it. “Forgive me, Captain, but it… doesn’t look like it’s doing any harm. It looks docile.”
“Appearances are deceiving,” Jericho stated, half-cold, half-reassuring.
“Werner’s people are… very trained, yes?” Maria interjected, regaining the attention of Albatross and Simon. “They are ready for this kind of thing, no? They—”
“And we’re not?” Albatross challenged. “Not trained? Not ready?”
Maria was a bit surprised at the directness of the rebellion. “I don’t think I have ‘trained’ you enough, no? You have already done enough rescuing everyone.” She reached out and tapped the boy’s cheek. “You may not be mine, but I still don’t want to lose you. I am not the best person to follow sometimes—”
To not have someone by one’s side after having that presence for such a long time was something Maria now acknowledged as painful. An attachment, Proteus would say.
“What? But you are. And you won’t, lose us” Albatross insisted, eyes sharp. “We can help.”
“You’ve helped already—”
“Captain, what we just did was just the bare-minimum. We can do more—I can do more.” He eyed the white beast as his gaze darkened. “He hurt Lita—he hurt everyone.” He opened and then closed his mouth. “Captain, he hurt you—”
Maria was rather taken aback by the statement. She’d admitted the fact to herself already, but hearing it from someone else was odd.
“We—well—I understand that it gets dangerous and things sometimes turn out bad,” Albatross continued. “But we still follow you, Captain. For the adventure. For fun. For something new every day. For learning something new every day. You said you haven’t trained us or taught us and that you’re not the best person to follow, but… ” He fidgeted for a moment. “The Campanas they… taught us how to use our conducting. You let us learn what we wanted to learn —you let us choose our names and wander where we wanted to, but you were always there when we came back. You made us ready—you’re preparing us for our… own adventures. I don’t know what you were like before you let me and the others come onboard. I only know you the way you are now, Captain!” Albatross panted heavily afterwards before his cheeks flushed as he seemed to register the stares he was receiving.
Out of the corner of her eye, Maria could see Leona look away—averting her gaze.
“What’s yer conductin’, boy?” Libra asked. “Yer a Specialist. I can see it.”
Albatross looked at Maria. When she gave him a nod, he pulled out his hands behind his back, revealing that they were gloved with conductors. He flicked them and a glowing, cloud-like foam spilled out from his palm and remained floating in the air.
“How much weight can that hold, sir?” Arjun asked, intrigued.
“Sir…?” Albatross muttered. “It… can hold any weight. I don’t really understand it, but the Campanas tested it up to one ton…”
Arjun’s face brightened—but just slightly. “I would like to suggest that we ride on that substance. I think I can move all of us on it with my conducting. It would still be difficult, but I’m sure I would be able to get us where we need to go.”
Albatross looked back at Maria. “So… Captain?”
Before she had lost her original crew, she had not thought even once about those she’d brought onboard. After she had lost Conta, she had taken a step back and allowed people to choose whether or not they wanted to join her. But that had been what Proteus had done to the children he had taken in—letting them choose. She had to draw the line between Proteus and herself somewhere just as she had drawn the line between herself and Leona. Maybe it was—like Albatross had just said—teaching the children and her crew along the way?
But overthinking things like this was not like her at all. This was not who she was. This was another adventure. She would make it have a good ending.
I will look after him. Jericho offered her a thumbs up. I promise.
“You would make a good captain with this attitude, dear Albatross.” Pinching Albatross on the cheek, Maria swiveled to Simon. “I have not said this in a very long time, but—all hands on deck, yes?”
Simon smiled faintly. “Aye, Captain.”
* * *
Moments later Maria—now equipped with additional conductors and another one of Francis’s proto-conductors—was stepping out onto the fallen platform she’d been standing on only minutes earlier. Leona was just beside her.
The reservoir water that had once pulsated blindingly below the slats of the platform had receded significantly—so much so that Maria could see the stone bed of the reservoirs, so much so that the rocks that were once hidden by them were now jutting out like stepping stones. She scanned the waters carefully but could not find Claire. She was not sure whether the emotion that followed was relief or dread.
The stone path: easier traversing.
Maria nodded at Jericho’s thought. She could see Albatross, Arjun, Jericho, and Libra load up onto the cloud-like vitae that Albatross had produced. She watched Arjun send them up into the air with six hard whips of his conductor before she refocused on her surroundings.
Maria leapt towards one of the closest stones to her and landed deftly on her feet. Leona sprang forward two stones ahead of her.
“Move quickly,” was all she said.
“You are not very excited about us helping you,” Maria noted as she followed behind the woman. “You don’t like anyone helping you, yes? It is difficult for you to work with someone you are receiving help from—”
“You created this problem yourself. We’re the ones helping you. Besides, no one can solve your problems for you,” Leona answered, leaping forward again. “The only person who can save yourself is your own self.”
“You can do everything in other words?”
“I can, but that doesn’t apply to others. That’s where disappointment comes from.”
“Pride,” Maria considered. “‘You have a good amount of pride. Pursue that goal to the ends of the earth. Just be sure not to look back. If you do, I’m sure you’ll be very disappointed’—you said that to Jericho before when you were in the Twin Cities with him, no? “
Leona stopped short, pausing to look back at Maria.
“So—you cannot sit with asking for help or failing?” Maria continued. “Is that not also a part of being able to do everything?”
Leona didn’t answer and continued forward—keeping her eye on the beast.
Maria followed her gaze, taking in the looming creature. Simon was right. It had barely moved at all. Before she could think on it, several globules of light that had been floating around her popped open. Another memory of emptiness burst out from them—flashes of gloomy rain, bending over a black casket, watching shadows pass over a foggy moor as day passed into night.
The heavy feeling bowed Maria’s knees again. This time, she stumbled forward and nearly slipped into the reservoir. She just barely managed to catch herself—rather, someone helped her catch herself.
“Are you alright?” Werner asked from where he’d appeared beside as he aided her back to her feet.
“It is heavy, no?” Maria responded instead of laughing as she normally would. “You can feel it?”
Werner hesitated before he nodded. “We’re in position now,” he continued as he stared off in Jericho’s direction. He began to pull away from her. “We’ll commence fire in 45 seconds. Be careful.”
Maria looked over at Leona to find that she had fallen too. There was no one to catch her, however, and she was just beginning to pick herself up from where she’d slipped on one of the stones.
The white beast was starting to move—one of its pairs of hands drifting towards its chest.
There, they clasped together.
It looks like it’s forming a circuit, Olive thought.
Looks more like he’s about ta pray ta me, kid.
“We’ll commence fire now,” Werner’s voice cut through their thoughts. “Prepare yourself.”
A soft tangerine light warmed the entirety of the bridge as all the gates that Olive and his group had placed earlier opened wide. Maria could see Werner ready his conducting rifle and aim it towards the gate. She felt his finger move towards the trigger.
In the next second, psychedelic rain emerged from the gates and pelted diagonally downwards towards the beast. Maria could make out different conducting-types and colors from the rainfall and could connect those types and colors to people she knew—her crew, Werner’s crew, and the children. Indigo for Werner. Orange-ish red for Tuesday. Purplish-pink for Veles. The thudding sound the rays of light made as they contacted the beast’s skin was warped. The beast itself started drifting forwards—towards the direction of the Serpens Establishment.
“Don’t overexert yourself, Maria,” Leona warned as they continued towards the beast. “Your vitae reserves are tied to each other. You may have more vitae to spend than normal conductors, but that’s only because all of your vitae is pooled together. Every time you conduct, you’re also siphoning vitae from all of them.”
Maria looked towards the white beast again.
A six-point-star-shaped crack formed at the top of the white beast’s head. The crack grew and grew and grew, effectively splitting the beast into six parts—but only the surface skin of the beast. A layer of it, peeling downwards and opening up to reveal a slightly smaller white beast inside.
Maria could tell that it reminded Werner and Cadence of the matryoshka dolls that had populated the bars of Polovinastadt. It reminded Atienna and Maria herself of petals—a slowly blossoming flower.
The layer itself seemed to be made of globules of light similar to the ones surrounding Maria—but more dense and concentrated. Beneath that peeling layer, the white beast’s smaller hands were still clasped together. Another pair of its hands began drifting together too; and when they met, a low humming sound resonated.
It sent chills down Maria’s spine.
Something isn’t right. Olive. The way it’s reacting—the saint candidates are lying about something—
Six tendrils of light sprouted from the beast’s waist and shot outwards. The tendrils pierced the different sections of the bridge—mostly where Francis’s gates were—and burned right through them. The entire metal structure groaned.
The spears reminded Maria of Leo’s conducting.
“Projection with a touch of conjuring…” Leona muttered. “At this rate, they won’t be able to—”
The rainbow vitae ray rain out from the bridges began again, despite the tendrils being rooted in the bridges’ structure.
“You call us ants, yes, dear Leona?” Maria wiped her brow as she continued forward. “You like and hate ants, no?”
“What?” Leona glanced back at her. “Why are you bringing up this senseless topic now? Save your breath—”
“Because you thought just now that what we were doing was pointless, yes? Like we are ants running around? I heard Atienna think something very interesting once about ants actually,” Maria explained. “She always looks at things in a unique way, yes? Anyways, they are very small—ants I mean. To people bigger than them, they appear weak. But when you look at their strength compared to their size, they are amazingly strong, no? They can carry up to 50 times their weight!”
Leona leapt forward and pushed Maria aside just as the bridge directly above them gave way. They landed together on a wide, flat stone slab as the shallow reservoir waters splashed up behind them.
“This is too haphazard,” Leona said, rising up to a stand. “Head back immediately. You’re more a detriment than an asset. Your value as True Conductors surpasses your value here—”
“I am the one who says what my own value is, yes? And… First you want to cut off my other arm and now you want to help me—that’s a little bit confusing, no?” Maria quieted as her eyes trailed to Leona’s arm.
The woman’s sleeve was dripping red. Leona didn’t acknowledge the injury, however, and instead scanned the remaining bridges above them—only five remained. “That was pointless. At this rate, they will no longer have a height vantage point—”
As soon as she said that, the psychedelic vitae barrage began once again. Another star-shaped crack formed at the white beast’s head and split it into six parts again. With the splitting, it shed another petal-like layer that cascaded gently down onto the layer that had fallen previously.
“Saying it so soon again?” Maria pipped. “It is not over yet, no?”
Her eyes never left the brilliant display of light as she continued forward across the stones. Now she was leading with Leona trailing behind her.
“As I was saying about ants—when they have a strong leader or a strong purpose or goal, they can link together to form these big chains and bridges, yes? And then they can create these big long networks that can stretch out as far as you can see! So, I do think you are right comparing us to ants. Because ants are very amazing, no?”
Leona remained silent.
Just as they were crossing the halfway point, the blinding white spears began to come down at them—two of the now eight total.Maria could see the other six were hurtling towards Jericho, Libra, Albatross, and Arjun.
One pierced the path directly in front of Maria. The other whistled towards Leona who leapt back as it pummeled into the rock she’d just been standing on.
Maria whipped out her conducting blade, activated it, and drove it through the tendril in front of her. It began to disintegrate slowly at the blade’s touch, separating into globules of light. When the globules burst, a familiar—
This time it was Atienna who caught her before disappearing a moment after. Now steadied, Maria swung her conductor at the tendril targeting Leona as she leapt onto Leona’s rock. The tendril shattered again into globules of light which popped out that empty and lonely—
Cadence appeared and haphazardly caught Maria as Maria nearly slipped into the reservoir. “The kid’s assassination fiasco was one thing, Francis goin’ haywire in the Twin Cities was another, and the whole Scorpio revolution thing took the cake. But this is just…” She phased out before she finished the thought and sentence.
Leona picked herself up off the ground before Maria could offer her a hand and immediately began skipping over the rocks towards the white beast’s back. Maria continued after her, feeling somewhat sluggish.
They were a quarter of the way now. The vitae barrage from the gates was still quick and rapid while the strikes from what white beast’s spears had practically phased out of existence—Maria could see clearly that Jericho and Libra were drawing almost all of the white beast’s attention. Three additional petal-like layers had fallen since the white beast’s initial attacks—and she was now nearing the lip of the flower-shaped glowing fog.
Maria could see directly up the white beast’s back which was still being melted by vitae ray fire and noted that its third pair of hands were coming together above its head.
Just as she reached the fog with Leona, the rocks they were racing over began to glow white and fly up into the other. Maria nearly lost her footing again as the rock she was standing on soared upwards.
“Manipulation,” Leona noted as she balanced on a stone above Maria. “He’s truly dared to take from all the saint candidates. A petty child. Still—it’s only a nuisance. Nothing more.” With that, she began leaping from floating stone to floating stone.
Maria followed behind Leona swiftly—taking just a moment to look back down at the distance growing between her and the ground.
It was quite far away—
Another layer fell a moment later—this time directly on top of Leona and Maria herself. The dense globules of white light were blinding but Maria was able to clear them away from her with a spin of her conductor. Jericho’s conducting shattered them into nothing, causing them to again release the intense—
It was painful and heavy this time, dragging Maria to her knees like chains.
Olive was, however, at her side a second later. He held onto her good arm and looked around the fog with a grimace. “Saints... Are you okay? Just walk around this. It’s dense, but there’s enough distance between these vitae… blobs… to just move around them….” He trailed off.
Maria followed his gaze as he faded from her sight. She found Leona half a meter away on one knee. Maria moved towards her but Leona picked herself up again and brushed her off.
The glowing pebbles and rocks around them abruptly began to pulsate before slowly thinning into different shapes—sharp pointed spears, thin needles, triangles, bullets. Before Maria could even digest the intriguing sight, all of those objects started shooting towards her.
Leona leapt in front of her and spun her conductor in an arc, deflecting the shrapnel and bullets with ease. Some of the rocky bits slipped through—but none reached Maria.
“Transmutation now?” Leona grimaced as she continued to swipe away the flying debris and lead Maria forward. “This is ridiculous.”
「There’s no meaning behind it.」
“We’re close,” Leona stated as the voice rumbled around them.
Maria could tell. The surface of the white beast’s back was now only several meters away from them.
Maria allowed Jericho to pull her into a strong synchronization and scanned his surroundings.
He was still standing on the cloud-like vitae with Libra. Albatross was kneeling on the cloud and continually fueling it as it was battered by the transmuted, manipulated rocks being thrown at them. Arjun was busy whipping his conductor and keeping the cloud afloat.
“Looks like there’s only two layers left,” Libra was saying to Jericho. “Tell yer Maria that she and Leona need t’get through once the next layer falls. We’re too far off, but I can see them—they’re close enough t’reach inside.”
Jericho cocked his head.
Libra switched her can back and forth, shattering the fragments of rocks bulleting them. “Now I’ll clear a path for you t’strike, Jericho. I want y’ta whip out yer conductor on my mark. The layer should be stabilized enough by all the other vitae poundin’ into it that yer conductin’ll do away with it. Everyone else, stay a bit back and don’t move unless y’want t’meet yer end.”
Jericho looked over at Maria before tightening his grip on his drawn conductor.
Libra spun out her walking stick in a circle and the entire thing became outlined in a familiar dark pink light—then the air around it started to take on the pink haze too. The haze spread out towards the transmuted rocks in a rapid wave—disintegrating them instantly upon touch.
“Saints, that’s scary,” Cadence muttered. “We should probably make like twenty plans ta figure out how ta deal with her when the time comes, right?
The haze faded a second after as it brushed the surface of the beast—as it started spreading out towards Arjun, Albatross, and Jericho—and caused blisters to form on its surface.
Path now clear, Jericho swung his conductor out at the white beast’s face. His vitae thinned, thinned, thinned, as it reached outward, until its very tip touched the eye of the white beast. The beast’s skin began to shatter at the contact point and fragment away.
There was no miniature white beast hiding behind the shattered layer, however. No hands, no face, no body, but a mass of light several stories tall that took the shape of a flower bud. There was a small, barely visible opening on the side of it. A slit that she could just barely slip through.
Maria skipped across the rocks towards the slit only to realize that it was beginning to shrink. She knew she could reach it in time, but she needed a little—
A rumbling sound echoed behind her followed by a familiar spray of mist at her back. Upon turning, she caught sight of a large tide of pulsating purple water rushing at her at breakneck speed—out from the gates in the distance.
“What…?” Leona muttered.
Maria did not explain nor dodge out of the water’s path. Instead she embraced the wave that collided with her body and rode it all the way into the slit. When she rolled out inside of that slit, she came to find the inside was surprisingly hollow and chamber-like. White threads of light crisscrossed around the interior like spiderwebs.
Maria reached for her belt, plucked off Francis’s proto-conductor, and tossed it to the ground. It shattered immediately, spilling out its black contents.
“This is a mess.”
Maria looked back to find Leona—dripping wet again—sliding in through the gap in the layer. The gap itself began shrinking immediately after, but Maria could see the fallen petals slowly begin to rise back up just as it sealed off completely.
“Find the center,” Leona ordered, “and let me handle things from there.”
Maria moved forward and began to explore the chamber curiously. The webbing thickened to the point where it almost became impossible to see anything as she moved towards what she assumed was the chamber’s center. She lifted her conductor and cut through some of the tight thread in front of her. As it fell away, she saw a glimpse of it.
Or what remained of him.
He was standing upright—his entire body pulsating with pure white light. He was wrapped tightly in thread. And his eyes were closed.
Maria couldn’t make out much else. She would have to move closer.
Okay… Cadence appeared briefly at her side. “I know we’ve dealt with people havin’ a ton of issues and I know we’ve seen a lotta crazy things before but this really takes the cake. Right? This is just nuts—”
“You found him,” Leona said, coming up from behind Maria with a conducting rifle and a conducting blade ready. “Stay back. I’ll take it from here—”
The strings around them began to vibrate.
「You are unenlightened.」
They then began to unravel from each other.
「Even though you have suffered and have lost.」
Without warning, the strings rushed at both Maria and Leona.
「You still don’t understand.」
Their arms and wrists and legs were bound, and they were strung up in the air.
「Why do you still not understand?」
The touch of the white ribbons burned Maria’s skin, and with that pain came more memories of emptiness.
「You still don’t understand.」
Maria struggled against the threads and the heavy emptiness. “So because I have experienced sad and terrible things, I have to become sad and terrible myself? Like the saint candidates? Like ELPIS? Like the priests? Like the Espada? Like you? That is what you’re saying, yes?”
「You have not seen. If you saw then you would understand.」
“But I have seen,” Maria rebutted, slicing through one of the threads that had coiled around her arm. She cut through the strings binding Leona as well. “I have seen many things through the eyes of others, yes? I have seen many things myself too—through my own adventures after you took me from that orphanage.”
Leona stumbled to the ground and panted.
Maria moved forward, whipping her conductor back and forth as the threads came at her.
“I have seen people lose everything over and over again no matter how hard they try.”
She threw up her conducting blade, threw out her conductor-gloved hand, and sent a wreath of flames. As the threads burned away, she caught her blade again and found herself recalling the days Olive spent locking himself away in his room—rejecting everyone in his misery in hopes of making it so he could lose no one else. Olive’s anguish also came to her mind—his anguish as he saw Lavi’s neck snap, as he saw Trystan and Marta melt into one burned fresh inside of Maria’s chest, as he saw Claire’s glassy gaze reflecting the clouds.
“I have seen people lie, take advantage of, and trick the ones they care about for selfish reasons and even trick themselves for even more selfish reasons!”
Snapping her fingers, she transmuted invisibility over herself and slipped through twin pairs of threads that came at her from above and below. A stray string cut her cheek regardless, bringing to her mind the stinging pain Cadence had felt as Alma slipped away from her in the Twin Cities, the painful wistfulness Cadence felt as Fortuna had taken Ambrose’s hand, of the melancholy Cadence had felt when she had realized Ricardo whom she’d placed on a pedestal was no different from herself.
“I have seen people dedicate their entire lives blindly to something only to have it crumble all around them.”
Maria brought out her conducting blade again as the threads caught her arm and somehow shattered her transmutation. They then began to pull her away—away from Proteus’s cocoon. She fought against them and looked over her shoulder to see Leona flicking her blade back and forth to keep them off of her. Elegant as usual—but faltering.
Tightening her grip on her conductor as the threads tightened around her wrists, she found her forcefully remembering the quiet dread Werner had felt as he’d stood before two different Kaisers, of the desperation he’d seen in the eyes of his unit men on his first day on the field when their captain had fallen dead in front of them, of how he’d folded away the aching guilt he felt when he’d placed the gun to the back of Magda Rath’s head, of the fear and itch he felt whenever he was before his mother’s eyes.
Maria arched her leg back and kicked the conducting rifle hanging on her belt hard as she dropped her conducting blade again. The rifle soared up in the air, and she just barely managed to catch its muzzle. She inched her way towards the trigger of the weapon before aiming it at the side wall where the thread was emerging from. She fired, blasting the thread off from its connecting point and freeing her arm. Another thick rope of threads caught her again just a moment after, tightening to the point where she was forced to let go of her rifle.
“I have seen people constantly look away and distance themselves from people and things that need to be held close.”
Roaring, she grabbed a fistful of the thread with her conducting glove despite the sting and tore them from the ceiling. The pain reminded her of Louise’s tearful desperation in the caverns, of Yulia and Kovich folded over each other as Fritz desperately tried to reach them, of Usian’s empty laughter, of Chiamaka’s tired disappointment as she folded away her dreams for Virgo.
She dove to the ground, picking up her conducting blade and swiping as she again charged forward.
“And I have seen what believing in forever and absolutes does to ideas, countries, and people.”
She swung her conductor blindly as her childhood forcefully flashed itself past her eyes—first came the memory of her hiding in her mother’s dress as her father chased her playfully around their house just before all of it was obliterated by grenades dropped by a passing air Elementalist. Then came the memory of the orphanage where all the priests and children smiled and spoke the same. It was followed by memories onboard Proteus’s ship in Proteus’s shadow and then of her time on her own ship and of her old crew whom she’d plucked from wherever she pleased, of her new crew being plucked away from her in the same way, of the pain that had seared through her body as she had lost her arm.
“But—I still want to see everything this world has to offer,” Maria insisted, “because I have been shown beautiful things too.”
She was close now. Only a few meters away.
She thought of Olive calling them all together for the first time into his bedroom, thought of him bowing before his aunt and uncle before turning to leave forever, thought of his joy as Werner and Atienna had praised him for passing his conducting exam, of his animated conversations with Trystan, Derik, and Claire as they traversed across Signum, of relief and joy at seeing Lavi and Eunji get along with each other.
“I have seen people who have lost everything over and over again and who have fallen to their lowest point still choose to move forward and refuse to ever fall again.”
The strings were looking oddly off-white now.
Another step closer.
She thought of Cadence standing and desperately shouting on the spire of the Dioscuri in the hopes of breaking through to Francis, thought of Cadence playing the piano happily in the Sognare and then in Francis’s room with attentive children as her main audience both times, thought of Cadence sitting with the Foxmans and Fortuna and reminiscing and longing for the past.
“I have seen people desperately try to get back everything they’ve lost and I’ve seen the pain and happiness that finally touching honesty brings.”
Again Maria swung her conductor at the threads—now taking on a more yellow hue.
Maria then recalled Werner’s subordinates standing before him with their straightened backs, determination, and resolution and then Werner’s pride as he looked over them all. She recalled the reprieve and relief Werner felt when he was embraced by herself and the others and whenever he put the final touches on the cakes he made for them. And finally she recalled Werner staring at Nico and truly seeing him—more clearly than he had seen any target, enemy, or person—and Nico steadying his shaking hands.
“I have seen those very same people love and comfort each other in their times of weaknesses—no matter how ugly and wrong they think they themselves are.”
The strings now came at her from all angles—each one a warmer color than the next.
Bisecting a woven net-like thread that swept towards her, she burst forward without falter. As she passed through this net, she recalled Atienna bringing together the terrified elites in Die Hauptstadt to unite for the people. She remembered the quiet campfire conversations Atienna had with politicians, advisors, and soldiers—all from different walks of life. Then she recalled Atienna being immediately embraced by her sisters and Safiyah despite it having been so long since she’d last seen them.
“I have seen people come together despite their distance.”
Maria was so close, and so she now thought of Jericho. Jericho and Francis, sitting beside each other in candlelight with sketchbooks and books sprawled out between them. Jericho and Alice, embracing each other in the quiet of their cold apartments. Jericho and Talib, sitting across from each other in a train booth in pleasant content after a case closed. Jericho and Benì, sitting in the courtyard of the Serpens Establishment and waiting for a songbird to alight onto a budding tulip so they could capture it on paper and in photo. Jericho and Talib, holding each other as Scorpio spilled out from the latter.
“I have seen people forgive the ones who have hurt them and continue to reach out to the ones who have hurt and abandoned them because they have hope. I have seen them fight desperately with strength I cannot even describe against loneliness and come out victorious.”
Ducking beneath a whipping rope that nearly took off her head, Maria tore three more thick ropes to shreds. Now, she recalled everything and everyone close to but outside of herself—Raul, Simon, and Emmanuel who had chosen to stay, Morandi and Giorgio who had remained loyal despite their rocky start, Lita and Albatross and the other children who had grown and matured before her very eyes, and Conta who had cared for her enough to speak with her honestly.
Maria thought of the dilapidated and decrypt landscapes she had seen while venturing around Signum with Proteus: scorched and barren fields resulting from carelessness and neglect; a bridge dismantled because of the wants of the riches; a toppled execution tower fallen due to the shells of war; flowers and flora trampled beneath the feet of self-righteous protest; and tattered tents fluttering in the wind above blood-soaked sand. And then she recalled seeing those same landscapes again decades later through the eyes of others: recovered, blossoming, rolling green pastures aided by a plethora of determined farm hands; a glowing bridge rebuilt by the fingers of the poor; a bell-tower in the process of being reconstructed yet still dazzlingly beautiful in its incompleteness; a great and white tree reaching the heavens and symbolizing unity; small villages and great cities and open prairies flitting by in a blur of vibrant colors through a train window; and finally of the open and endless sea.
“And I have seen what happens after loss and failure—what time and change and a little bit of sunlight can bring. Things that have crumbled can be rebuilt. All of those sad things are not endings!”
Maria sensed the now golden threads coming at her from behind before she could actually see them. Her blade was still caught in another thread, however, and she did not have her other hand to combat the new ones. They were only millimeters away now—
Leona appeared behind her, shooting one of the hurtling ropes with her conducting rifle and slicing through another with her blade. The onslaught was blinding and endless but Leona still managed to fend them off—all but one thread that appeared from nowhere and pierced right through her stomach.
Maria froze—unsure if what she was seeing was real or another empty memory that was being shown to her.
“Enough of your incessant babbling,” Leona said through gritted teeth as she ripped the threads from her abdomen and brought her conducting blade up to continue the deflection. “Just cut him out already.”
Maria nodded, turned her attention forward, and raked down her conductor on the last knot of threads keeping her away from the central area of the chamber. As it fell away, she was able to see Proteus fully—bound in thread, not free despite all of his talk about freedom. Clutched in his hands was the eye-shaped conductor he had swallowed earlier. It was almost fused into his skin and was the source of all the threads—threads which no longer came at her.
「Then you see that it’s pointless」
「All the sacrifice」
「She didn’t realize her value」
Maria neared him, stopping short just three steps away. Her thoughts strayed to Conta. “You can’t see the value of things or people until you are at a far distance from them.”
「Failure, disappointment, pain.」
「True peace will come when you let go of everything.」
“Yes, maybe. But just because it looks that way to you doesn’t mean that it is that way to everyone else,” Maria said as she studied him. Faint memories of her childhood—wandering the countryside in his shadow—came to her again. “Nothingness and emptiness might be the place to be happy for you, but in my eyes it is just a chance to be filled.”
「You will never be able to understand.」
「Because you were given everything but understanding.」
“Understanding is not something that can be given or received, yes?” Maria panted. “I do understand now that nothing is for sure—not people, not places, not ideas, not the happy times, not the sad times. You have told me things when I was younger that are opposite to what you are saying now for instance. Does that mean those things do not have any value? No, it is because of this ‘uncertainty’ that each of these things increases in value.”
“Yes, I understand. I will do it.” Maria twisted her conductor in her hand, lifted it above, her head, and brought it down on the eye-shaped conductor—
—but a hand around her wrist stopped her short just as the blade was about to make contact. Jericho, synchronizing in beside her. Strong. His cold anger curled in her stomach.
“Maria,” Jericho said, jaws clenched, but voice even. “He needs punishment. Justice. To be taken in. He cannot return. To his resistor: back-up. To anywhere. He needs to be in the detention center. Like I was. He does not deserve nothingness or freedom.”
Maria studied Jericho’s face and his stony gaze.
“Will that bring you closure, dear Jericho? Will you be satisfied?”
Jericho’s brows met.
“Trying to find reason and blame—has it helped you, dear Jericho?” She turned her attention back to Proteus. “He has brought you only pain so I understand how you feel, and I am angry at how different things were for us. But… we cannot always act on how we feel, can we?”
“I made a promise, Maria.” Jericho’s steely gaze melted as it shifted from him to her. “To Ayda. To the others. To make them pay. To make sure it doesn’t happen again.” His voice wavered. “But—I failed. It happened again. Maria, it has to stop.”
“We can make it stop, yes?” Maria responded. “Right here and right now.”
Jericho looked down at his feet.
“It’s okay, Jeri.” She leaned forward towards Jericho’s face before tilting her head and giving him a quick peck on the cheek.
Jericho stopped pulling against her and instead slipped his hand forward so that he too was holding the hilt of her conductor. Channeling his conducting and letting out a roar, Maria drove the conductor with him through Proteus’s metal eye.
As soon as the tip of their conductor touched the sphere, it cracked, splintered, and became dust while the golden threads woven tightly all around them fragmented and broke off into spheres. The spheres of light themselves cracked, breaking free of their golden shells. The colors that were released from them were brilliant reds, oranges, blues, purples, greens, pinks, yellows, and they all began to float away—
—back to the reservoirs?
Sunlight slipped through the cracks of the chamber as it continued dissolving into balls of light. The touch of it warmed Maria’s skin. It felt like summer.
Proteus slowly opened his eyes as cracks began crawling up his arms as neck, as the threads fell away from his body. One eye missing, the other eye reflecting all the lights and the sun seeping on through . He did not look at Maria but instead stared upwards. His expression remained unreadable as he shattered into nothing right before Maria’s eyes.
Silence reigned for a very long time.
Good work, Maria.
Maria let out a long sigh with a satisfied smile as she stumbled forward—only to be caught once again. Physically. It was Jericho in the flesh. Faintly, she recalled him opening a gate on his end of things after, ushering Albatross and Arjun through it while Libra was distracted by the orbs of light, and then arriving at this place through the gate she’d left on the ground a couple meters away.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
Maria beamed weakly at him. “Just a little tired, dear Jeri. I don’t think I’ve been this tired in a very long time.”
Jericho nodded and helped her steady herself back to her feet. He held her gaze briefly before he tapped his cheek. “Why did you do that?”
Maria thought on it before shrugging.
Jericho studied her before nodding. “I understand.” He leaned forward and pecked her on the same place she’d pecked him on. He pulled back and stared, eyebrows meeting. “I… think I understand.”
Maria looked up at Jericho. “We… should look for him, yes…?”
“You’ve cleaned up your own mess”— a voice cut through their moment— “I suppose that’s something I should congratulate you on.”
Maria turned to the voice.
Leona was on her back on the ground. Red was pooling beneath her body. Still, her eyes glowed amber. “They’ll be coming soon,” she said, “to clean up the rest of this mess.”
“Libra,” Jericho stated.
“No. Pisces,” Leona corrected.
“The Saint of Cycles, yes?” Maria wondered as she moved towards Leona with Jericho. “Do you… need help—”
“How dare you?”
“It was just a question,” Jericho stated.
Leona’s harsh gaze lessened as it drifted from Maria to Jericho. “My body is dictating me to drag myself back into my reservoir,” she explained. “After I truly bathe myself, I’ll naturally come back together—”
“Do you want that?” Jericho asked. “To become Leo.”
Leona’s amber eyes flashed with heated intensity. “I am—”
A loud and unnatural sound that Maria could only describe as a groan resounded close by. Shadows danced around orbs of light floating around them.
Leona turned her head away. “If you don’t want to see something ugly, I suggest you leave immediately.”
Maria exchanged a look with Jericho. “We can’t. We have to look for someone, yes?”
“Then you’ll never be free.” Leona’s eyes narrowed. “Proteus may have been a fool, but he was write about one thing: letting go of unnecessary things.”
Maria paused, thinking—only to be interrupted as Olive’s image appeared before her. His eyes were red, his jaw tight, but his gaze was firm.
“Asking you to stay back and search for Claire would be selfish of me…” he murmured, glancing around the area. “I know he’s alive. We’ll find each other after we get out of this mess first… I… It’s the right thing to do now. Besides…” His gaze drifted to the distance. “What if…”
“Are… you sure, Olive?” Jericho asked.
Olive bit his lip as guilt flooded through their connection. He faded from sight, however, and left them with—“I don’t want you guys to be caught up in something else, okay? Let’s just go and come back later. It’s too dangerous here right now.”
Maria nodded before her gaze trailed back to Leona. She could feel Jericho’s gaze on Leona as well.
“Why are you helping us?” Jericho asked. “Again.”
“You’re still here?” Leona glanced at them before closing her eyes. After letting out a breath, she said, “Very briefly, while you were incessantly shouting and wasting your breath like a fool, Maria, I recalled some rather pleasant memories.”
Maria exchanged a look with Jericho again before they bent down together and looped Leona’s arms over their shoulders. Leona sent them each an indignant look but didn’t resist.
As the groaning grew louder and the shifting shadows of what Maria assumed was another Great Devourer, Maria entered the gate with Jericho and Leona and left the reservoirs, Proteus, the journey, a dream behind her.
to tired for coherent a/n. the ending is nere. fun pic will be posted on discord later. ty for reading and sorry for late chapter. i have a lot going on orz. b & c will be posted together. soon hopefully because juggling writing with grad school, undergrad school, and work is actually too hard OTL but will ganbatte
also I have a Claire side story right here!