29.4:《A:O》Ashes/Tinder

「page 320」


Fires were once started
as means of survival,
a warmth that was shared,
but now they are used,
to turn to cinder,
everything that came before.

Given the length of the v-ehicle ride, Atienna was rather glad she had brought along her notebook and the portfolio Nico had given to her. She was able to parse through the dense material and was able to withdraw a few key specific points about ‘Ndoto’ which she had notated down:

  • twelve districts in Ndoto—each with a specialized role. eg, harvest in the grainery is associated with produce and food, the market is associated with entertainment, the baobab tree with the ‘chief guidance council’ and ‘policy makers.’ individuals can elect which district they wish to live in, but most tend to live in the district associated with their occupation/education
  • each district is headed by two COUNCIL LEADERS and maintained by several GUIDANCE OFFICERS.
  • each citizen seems to receive basic necessities at no cost: food, water, housing, transport. there is no push for individuals to work or study, but those who choose to are awarded a ‘merit’ of sorts that allows them to gain access/purchase additional luxuries. access to additional luxuries is also granted via increasing their ‘citizen’/KM-level through the KUELIMIKA TEST. an enlightenment test.
  • the CHIEF GUIDANCE COUNCIL ‘oversees’ ndoto. divided into two groups. guidance officers—‘the ones who guide you to happiness’. council leaders and ‘policy makers’—administrative roles.
  • there is only one rule that stands out this place:
    DO NOT IMPOSE ON THE HAPPINESS OF OTHERS.
  • how is it that such a system is able to exist for a prolonged period of time? a potential answer is that it doesn’t.

This note-taking was a much needed distraction. If she didn’t have it, perhaps she would never cease reaching out to Cadence and never cease becoming aware of the. This wasn’t like how it had been in Die Hauptstadt. At that time, she couldn’t feel them at all. This presence but lack of communication reminded her too much of how she felt when in the presence of her mother—her mother whom she was unable to retrieve.

Ah, unpleasant.

Atienna cleared her throat. “So, Cadence, may I ask…. if this chief guidance council… is it a peacekeeping organization? Or…?”

Cadence who’d been busy transmuting different “It’s… very strange to hear you asking about that. It’s usually me asking you about these things, though other than that you seem…” Her gaze shifted to Carl, and her expression became somber. “Unlike the others… Carl…”

Carl blanched.

“So it’s like Ophiuchus,” Gilbert muttered.

Cadence stared at him blankly. “Ophiuchus…?”

Carl swallowed and rubbed the back of his neck. “It’s a peackeepin’ organization. Takes care of things between countries. International relations. Policin’ them. Slaps on the wrist. Gettin’ their hands in the nitty gritty. All that stuff.”

“Oh, no. The chief guidance council nothing like that.” Cadence waved her hand. “They’re more like… administrators and counselors of a sort? They’re split in between council members—including leaders and the policy people—and the guidance officers. Whenever you have a problem, you can go to a guidance officer.” She sighed. “Like Nico for instance. That is—if you’re fond of ‘tough love.’”

Carl snorted. “So they are peacekeepers. Nico’s a damn peacekeeper.”

Cadence frowned, huffed, crossed her arms. “They’re not. Your ‘peacekeepers’ sound… brutish… Oh, you poor things. What a scary delusion to have. Carl…”

Gilbert made a face, while Carl simply shifted uncomfortably.

“The guidance officers care,” Cadence continued. “Maybe a bit too much so—and they have to go through years upon years of training before they assume their positions. They have to be at least of level 4 on top of that. The difficulty level between the KM-tests between level 3 and level 4 is ginormous.”

Atienna put down a few more notes in her notepad before she asked, “Are there any other groups outside of the chief guidance council?”

Gilbert arched a brow at her.

Cadence frowned slightly. “What… do you mean….?”

“I’m… sort of referring to sub-cultures and countercultures,” Atienna drew. This was a way to gauge the depth of this place. “Are there any sort of groups here?”

Cadence smoothed out her dress. “Well, I suppose there is, but you know I hate gossip. Is that not any of the pamphlets?”

No, it’s not unfortunately…

Cadence stared, waiting.

Atienna shook her head.

“Well… I suppose I can give you a quick rundown.” Cadence sighed. “Outside of the chief guidance council—”

Atienna blinked.5

“—and that’s how it is,” Cadence finished. “Hooligans and hippies. You can basically divide all those groups into those two categories.”

Atienna looked down at her notepad. Sloppily written there beneath her earlier notes was—

  1. ELPIS — protest. francis? is ‘jericho’ linked? is jericho here? j-man…?
  2. motorcycle gang compromised of smaller gangs— acronym begins with V.A.L.H.? ‘werner’ involvement?
  3. high level investigation?

“Hippies….” Gilbert shook his head. “Why the hell do you have such weird ass names for things?” He ran his hand down his face before side-glancing at Carl. “I can’t fucking believe ELPIS is a…” He shook his head. “…of all fucking things…”

Carl grimaced but said nothing.

Gilbert sighed, glanced out the window, and asked, “Anyways, so if one person in one district ends up murdering someone in another district, your guidance officers handle it? Basically Militärpolizei or peacekeepers then.”

Murder…?” Cadence gasped. “We don’t have those kinds of problems here.” She put a hand to her face. “Although… if they would somehow arise, the chief guidance officers would most likely handle it. You should really read those pamphlets. They may not be the best, but they are something.” She eyed Gilbert and then Atienna and then put her hand to her mouth. “Oh dear—”

Carl grimaced again. He looked extremely uncomfortable, but he seemed to be keeping his tongue—unlike Gilbert.

“You two designed these pamphlets, didn’t you? Oh, that’s right. I didn’t mean to be so rude.” Cadence lowered her hand. “But you made it when you were just starting off as policy makers, so…. Well, there’s always room for improvement, isn’t there?”

Gilbert stared. “What.”

Cadence stared back. “You two are policy makers. Did Nico not tell you? Well, even if he didn’t, it would be in those packets he gave you, wouldn’t it?”

“Fuck.” Gilbert fell back into his seat. “This really is eternal damnation. I’m a damned politician here. Now I fucking know for sure that this is punishment.”

“That’s a negative thing to say.” Cadence frowned. “Being a policy maker is an important thing, you know? You should be happy and proud…” She trailed off, studying Atienna. “Actually, I might be wrong about you being a policy maker Atienna… you might’ve switched occupations recently. I’m not sure. Please don’t take my word for it.”

“Wait… You don’t know what she does for a living?” Gilbert’s gaze flicked between them. “But you know what I do for a living?”

“Well…” Cadence cast a glance at Atienna. “We keep in touch but we all have our own lives, you know? I wouldn’t say we’ve drifted apart… but, Atienna, you and Maria have always been the types to go on doing your own thing…”

Ah. That statement pricked Atienna’s chest. She knew it shouldn’t since the theory of this being a dream still hadn’t been ruled out but… Unpleasant.

Brushing the thought aside, Atienna looked at her ID card. She supposed being a policy maker explained her high-level ranking. But the question now was why? The most difficult of questions. One could always check of the boxes of what, how, when, and where, but why?

“Well, it’s something to be proud of. Being a policy maker, that is. You have to be Getting into level 5 and up is hard, don’t you know? It’s even harder than getting into level 4.” She began twirling a lock of hair around her finger. “They always ask you some interview questions after you take your test—probably to improve the test and make it fairer for the next round of test-takers—but there are some odd ones in the mix that I think it factor into your scoring for higher levels—”

“What are… the questions?” Klaus asked, breaking his silence.

Gilbert shook his head. Klaus pulled back slightly, flushing.

“No, no, questions are good.” Cadence smiled—dazzling again, like a star. “I think one of the questions goes something like—‘In the context of the world as we know it, which reality would be easier for a person to live in: the reality that people are fundamentally good or the reality that people are fundamentally evil?’

Carl arched a brow before he snorted. “Dumb ass question.”

Cadence frowned. “Carl…”

Carl blanched. “Shit, Cadence. Please don’t look at me like that.”

“Well, I’m sorry. Can’t I even look at my own brother?” Cadence wiped a tear from her eye and looked away from him causing Carl to blanch even further.

Klaus cleared his throat. “Is… there a right answer? Maybe since this is place is…. a certain way. It’s ‘the reality that people are fundamentally good’?”

Cadence pointed a finger at him and then wiggled it. “If you say that, then your interviewer will say—If people are fundamentally good, then an act or thought of evil would be a conscious choice made with effort after lengthy deliberation. And since there can be potentially many acts of evil in the world, that would mean that—despite being fundamentally good—people continuously make evil choices.’

Atienna

‘Alternatively, if people are fundamentally evil, then an act of good would mean…’” She tossed her hair over her shoulder. “Well, I can’t recall how the rest of it goes.”

***

The v-ehicle—a ‘limousine’ apparently—pulled into the large parking lot at the back of a sleek black building. Atienna had never seen such a large parking lot before. In fact, this was the first one she’d seen in person. She’d read a newspaper recently—her version of recently—that had detailed Aries’s new adoption of these lots to accommodate the increased usage of v-ehicles. It seemed that here, these parking lots were quite common.

Feliciano exited the driver’s side of the v-ehicle and opened the side door for Cadence. He took her hand and guided her out. When he tried to do the same for Carl, Carl slapped his hand away. Feliciano glanced back at Cadence fretfully, causing her to give him a sympathetic look.

“So, we meetin’ Francis?” Carl said, pulling himself out of the limousine and squinting around the area. “The hell. This place is too bright…”

After accepting Feliciano’s extended hand and exiting the limousine, Atienna too took the time to survey the area. The parking lot was black and dotted with five or six v-ehicles and connected to a cluttered sidewalk and a busy road. Thin parallel tubes of colored light wound around the entirety of the building casting its sleek blackness in hues of purple, green, and blue.

“Francis? Well, he’s probably attending some opening business meetings right now. That was the deal. He opens and you close—though I guess he’ll have to do both now,” Cadence replied, combing through her hair with a small brush she’d taken out from her purse. “We probably won’t see him until grand opening time at 7 tonight.”

Carl stared at her.

She stared back. “Is that why you wanted to come? Just because you wanted to talk to, Francis…?”

“He’s our ticket out of here,” Carl replied thickly.”

“That again….?” Cadence crossed her arms. “Francis, Francis, Francis. That’s all that I’ve been hearing.”

“Cadence, he my brother—”

“Well, I’m your sister!”

Carl shut his mouth, wide-eyed.

“Anyways”—Cadence gestured up towards the building— “This is only the back entrance and it’s not as flashy and memorable as the front, but hopefully it’s jogging something?”

Carl sighed, not unkindly. “There’s nothin’ to jog, Cadence.”

She offered him another sympathetic look as she approached the red door on the side of the building. Feliciano held the door open for her.

“There’s always something to jog, Carl,” Cadence finally said, placing her comb back into her purse. “Because we’re always forgetting things or denying things or avoiding things. Like the truth for instance.”

“Ironic coming from someone like you,” Gilbert muttered.

Cadence only gave him a sympathetic look again.

“Hey, watch it—”

Cadence looped her arm around Carl’s and cut him off. Her expression seemed earnest. Carl opened his mouth and then closed it and then opened it. He ultimately said nothing. Smiling, Cadence walked with him into the doorway. Gilbert jerked his head and followed them in with Klaus tailing behind him.

Atienna remained, considering.

Feliciano, still holding open the door, cleared his throat.

Atienna obliged the invitation.

***

The walls of the hall inside the building were made of some shiny, metallic, reflective material that warped what was reflected in them. This warped appearance was accented by the bright tubes of light that hugged the corner where the ceilings met the walls.

The paparazzi always avoids the truth,” Cadence was saying. “It’s either too boring or “too depressing for them.” She rolled her eyes. “But they only think that way because they’ve never spoken an honest word in their life.”

Atienna listened, watching Cadence’s back, watching the distance between them blossom.

“Honesty is a virtue, you know?” She huffed. “Honesty not only to other people but to yourself. And I’m not just talking about. Not admitting or acknowledging things is also a lie. That’s why the paparazzi do what they do.”

“Didn’t you say you were a singer or a performer?” Gilbert interjected. He appeared mostly annoyed but Atienna noticed that he seemed more tense than usual. “That doesn’t really match the words coming out of your mouth.”

“People are like diamonds, you know?” Cadence replied matter-of-factually. “Multi-faceted and showing only one side of themselves to each person they meet. When I’m performing is when I’m at my most honest. When I’m up on that stage, people are looking at me from all those angles. They can finally see the entire gem that I am then.”

Gilbert rolled his eyes.

“I still don’t know what the hell a paparazzi is,” Carl grumbled.

Cadence whipped to him and smiled rather sweetly. “Well, that’s a good thing about your VNW this time around.”

Carl blanched again.

Cadence eventually led them into a room behind closed black doors a quarter-way down the hall. Inside the walls and half the floor were of wood. The other half of the floor was laid over with a maroon and orange, diamond-patterned carpet. There were several large contraptions pushed to one side of the wall. They were vaguely resembled the devices she’d seen through Olive’s eyes—the ones used to maintain conductor generators. Nobs, sliders, colorful buttons. A black leather couch offset the color on the opposite side of the room as did the black counters along the walls.

Cadence guided Carl down to the sofa and sat him down before motioning the rest of them to follow suit. Gilbert and Klaus sat down together at the couch’s center. Eyes never leaving Cadence’s face, Atienna took a seat at the far corner of the couch.

“This is a really important night for us and I know you’re out of sorts, but”—she clasped her hands together—“feel free to relax here until the grand opening, ‘kay? Francis’ll be making rounds then…” She placed a hand to her cheek and sighed. “I need to check in with him. I hope he’s not… If he’s not, he’ll be worried sick about you.” clapped her hands once and peered at Carl. “You could come watch my rehearsal?”

“Rehearsal for what?” Carl arched a brow.

Cadence sighed before gesturing to Feliciano who stood by the door. “If you need anything, just ask Feliciano.”

Feliciano nodded.

“Rather nail him in the face,” Carl muttered under his breath.

“I’m sure everything will make sense to you soon,” Cadence said, waving her hand loosely as she approached the door. She placed a hand on Feliciano’s shoulder. “You just have to re-acclimate yourself to the atmosphere a little bit. People may be a bit cold towards VNWs, but that’s just because they’ve never had it themselves or they’re just uneducated.” She waved at them as she drifted out of the room—walking as if she was bouncing on pillows. “Don’t worry. It’ll all be a bad dream soon.”

The room was quiet after the door closed behind her. Feliciano folded his hands in front of him and gave Carl a tight smile—

“The hell are you looking at?”

Feliciano looked away.

Carl sighed, then grumbled, “Nothing that just happened makes any damned sense.” He leaned back in his chair. “Hell. Francis better be normal.” He thrummed his fingers on his arm. “The business meetin’ he’s in—he’s probably just actin’ to lay low.”

Klaus shifted uncomfortably in his seat before glancing over at Gilbert. “Now what, sir….? Do we just wait?”

Gilbert didn’t answer.

Atienna peered at him. He was still perspiring lightly. “Are you alright—”

Gilbert entered a coughing spasm. He hacked into the crook if his elbow until the spasm became so intense that he doubled over and began hacking into his hand. Klaus neared him but Gilbert held him back with a hand.

“L-Lieutenant…?”

Gilbert stared at his hand as his coughs subsided..

“Hey…” Carl frowned and leaned forward. “Asshole, you’re not dying, are you?”

Gilbert stared at him before glancing over at Atienna for a moment. He nodded at Feliciano. “How about you get me a glass of water instead of staring, kid?”

Feliciano stiffened. “O-Of course. Would you…. like sparkling water? Or regular water? Or soda—”

“Just get the man a damned glass of water,” Carl snapped.

Feliciano squeaked before heading out the door.

Atienna hesitantly reached out for Gilbert’s back before refraining herself as he threw himself back on the couch.

“We need to get the hell out of here,” Gilbert said.

Carl grunted in agreement.

Atienna rose from her seat and approached one of the odd, cone-shaped, glass light-sources resting on the counters. She leaned in close, noticing that cone were strange globs of molten liquid contained inside the glass. It reminded her of molten lava—of the way Trystan looked in Olive’s nightmares.

“Some reconnaissance would be helpful… don’t you think?” Atienna drew, pulling away from the light source. “Since it’ll be quite some time before we can meet Francis unless we go pounding down these doors looking for him—which I don’t think will play out for us very well—gathering some more… information would be a good use of time, don’t you think?”

Gilbert grunted. “Going out on your own here won’t play out for you really well. We don’t know what’s up with this place yet. We don’t have any weapons.”

“That’s why we need some reconnaissance, right?” Atienna returned pleasantly. “I do have some experience in sleuthing around. That’s what people who work around in my field claim they have to do in order for things turn out smoothly, don’t they?”

Gilbert studied her briefly before sighing. “We can’t miss our ticket out of here, but we can’t put all of our eggs in one basket either. Klaus, go with her.”

***

“It’s very odd…” Klaus mumbled in Capricornian. “Seeing everyone here… all… calm and just… Just a month ago I was going through training with the Aquarians. No one explicitly said it, but we all knew those were war exercises.”

Atienna offered him a smile.

They were strolling down the sidewalk just outside the TwinStars Roller Disco Bar side-by-side. The front of the building was extremely flashy, featuring the very same tubes of light that spelled out the name of the bar at

“What do you think this place is…?” he continued. “If it were a dream and we’re aware of the fact that it was a dream, wouldn’t that make it a lucid dream? And if this were a lucid dream, wouldn’t at least one of us have control over what was happening? That’s not with all cases of lucid dreaming but…” He pushed up his glasses. “On the other hand, if saint candidates were responsible for this…”

“If this were something done by a saint candidate,” Atienna drew, “then by what mechanism are they pulling all of this off? If the people here can conduct without conductors, they’d go against the very laws of vitae theory that we know—that is, unless they themselves are saint candidates or extensions of a saint candidate.”

Klaus pushed his glasses up again. “And if they are extensions of saint candidates, then… would that mean that they aren’t actually…. themselves.”

Atienna looked back at Klaus and held his gaze. This was an aspect of him that she found somewhat relatable. Back when they met at the border of Argo, she’d seen the glimpses of that unaffected distance in his eyes.

“But the captain—Werner, I mean,” Klaus continued. “He’s… very kind. It might be a ruse, but…”

But Klaus never went all the way into that distance—which was why Atienna knew she could never truly connect with him despite their similarities. The only other people whom she’d seen this distance in had been Libra and Cvetka Akulova.

“It’s nice to have someone to bounce ideas off of.” Klaus chuckled. “It’s sometimes hard with the others since they’re more… hands on with things.”

Odd.

It was usually the other way around, wasn’t it? It was usually a True Conductor who felt a one-way connection towards a person who was close to another True Conductor they were connected with. In this case… it appeared as if Klaus felt close to her? A kindred spirit? Certainly not.

“This place…” Klaus eyed a passing group of children riding on bicycles. “It’s…. I know it could be a trick, but it’s… nice.”

They passed a family holding hands. A man with a trimmed mustache, a woman with light hair, and a young boy straddled between them. Atienna couldn’t help but stare for a moment—because the corpses of those three sometimes haunted her dreams.

Klaus stopped in place.

Atienna stopped with him.

He stared at her, wide-eyed. “Was that…?”

Atienna turned away from him slightly. “We should… become used to seeing people like that walking around, don’t you think? That’s how this place is…”

Klaus looked over his shoulder slightly but ultimately chose not to look fully.

They continued walking down the sidewalk until passed the wall of the brick building that was painted over with a colorful, rather abstract mural. In front of this, Atienna paused and stared.

At the mural’s center was a large white tree with roots as large and long as its branches making it difficult for Atienna to discern if it was upside-down or right-side up. A thick black line ran horizontally through the trunk of the tree dividing it in two; and interlaced among the branches and roots were blossoming flowers and… small silhouettes an figures. People. For each figure intertwined in a root, another figure of identically appearance was entangled in the branches directly opposite of it.

“What’s over there?”

Atienna looked in direction Klaus was pointing. Across the street and nestled in-between two tall buildings was a sprawling green field caged in by parallel bleachers that rose up about five seat rows tall. Again, Atienna had only read about these things in her books. She vaguely recalled an early childhood memory of Olive’s—one where he’d attended a football game with his parents when Lavi had been just a toddler. That memory was a colorful one—almost as colorful as the memory being solidified in her memory now.

Olive…

Atienna crossed the street with Klaus and made her way up on to top of the nearest bleacher. This was an acceptable vantage point—she imagined Werner would say about this. From here, she could see a group of adolescents in red matching shirts playing what appeared to be a game of football with another group of adolescents in green matching shirts.

Atienna looked up to the sky. A bright azure blue with only a few sparse clouds.

Odd…

“It’s bright out,” she murmured, “but I don’t see the sun.”

Klaus looked up with her and held up his hand to shade his eyes from the brightness. He startled a second later and pointed towards the field. “Isn’t that—”

A whistle blew.

“Game over!” someone shouted.

Atienna followed Klaus’s gesture. The adolescents kicking the ball around at the field were moving towards opposite ends of the field. Red to the left, green to the right. Klaus was pointing to the left—to a particular adolescent who was heading the group. He was smiling, jogging backwards, and waving back at his team following behind him.

Again—even though Atienna knew that perhaps feeling such a way would lead to disappointment—relief spread through her chest. Again, she called out, Olive…!

Atienna was not sure if there was an answer or not because her attention was quickly drawn way in the opposite direction. Running at the very forefront of the group in green heading right was a young girl whose hair was tied up into a tight ponytail. Her strides were long and strong, and her back was sturdy. Unlike Olive, she was not looking back at the group following behind her but facing forward. Still, Atienna was able to identify her immediately.

Kamaria…?

Relief again—this time coming from a more nested place within.

“I… Atienna, I’m sorry,” Klaus was saying, “but the Ariesian prince looks like he… fits in with everything here. I think he might be…”

Olive moving left.

Kamaria moving right.

Atienna took a step forward.

This placement of Kamaria and Olive was too coincidental. There had to be something methodical to it—

A lone figure standing at the very center of the field amongst the crowd of parting children caught Atienna’s attention. A woman with dark locks of hair, ruby red lips, and deep black eyes that seemed like bottomless pits.

Cvetka?

The woman smiled as their eyes met. She waved before lowering her hand to stroke something she was holding in her other arm. A familiar white cat.

Alice?

For a moment, Atienna lost sight of the two in the crowd.

When Cvetka reappeared again, she was no longer holding the cat. No, now her hands were wrapped around the handles of a wheelchair. And in that oh-so-familiar wheelchair sat—

Palms itching, Atienna darted down the railings, leaping from seat to seat as the onlookers gasped around her. Upon reaching the ground, she darted across the field and side-stepped around the adolescents who were lagging behind the others. They gave her odd looks, but Atienna ignored them. Cvetka, whose back was to Atienna now, was pushing the cart towards the opposite bleacher, around them, under them.

Atienna followed behind her, stopping short just before the shade of the bleachers. Peering in from the side, she could see a jungle of metal. She waited there for a moment until Klaus caught up behind her panting.

“A-Atienna…?”

“Did you see her…”

Klaus’s breath calmed and he nodded. “That was… the Aquarian woman, wasn’t it…? I’m not sure if you know from Cadence, but she… somehow knew and found out you all were True Conductors.”

“Did you see who she was with?”

“Do you mean the cat….?”

Atienna tensed, heart racing.

So he had seen her too but not her. This was half-real. ‘Real’? If this was real, there was no way Cvetka could have pushed that wheelchair through all of these beams. The wheelchair wouldn’t have fit. Atienna knew this for certain because she was familiar with that wheelchair than she was with the woman who’d she’s seen sitting it.

“She was working with the saint candidates,” Atienna drew. “So perhaps our reconnaissance is not unfruitful after all…?”

“Should we report in to the lieutenant?”

Atienna answered him by moving forward beneath the seats. She maneuvered quickly over the crisscrossing beams like they were the vines she was familiar with back home. The light coming down in sheets through the cracks in the seating above her head illuminated the darkness… and the emptiness that occupied it.

As she’d deduced, Cvetka and her mother were not here—

Klaus came up behind her. “Did they… get away?”

Atienna sensed a shadow passing over her—somewhere up there directly beneath the bleacher seats. High-above. She felt a breeze to her left and saw something dart by her left. Immediately, she whipped out her hand and grabbed for her darkness. Her fingertips met flesh and bone—someone’s wrist. She pulled.

A young man wearing a stripped button-up shirt with a flared out collar. His hair was blonde and his eyes blue, but the rest of his face was concealed by a handkerchief tied around the lower half of his face.

“Felix….?”

The man tensed, wide eyed before pulling his wrist out of her grip. He retracted back into the shadows. His reaction and demeanor were identical to the Jaeseong Felix that she knew.

Atienna peered in the direction he’d disappeared. “Is… Eunji with you, Felix? Princess Eunji of the Yuseong Clan?”

“A princess…?” Klaus whispered.

There was silence from the darkness.

A hesitant voice then called out—“You’re a friend of Olive’s, right? I’ve seen you. Just a little bit.”

Atienna nodded and placed a hand on her chest. “Atienna Imamu, advisor to diplomats of Virgo—at least I think I am. This place does seem to try one’s identity, don’t you think…?”

Another beat of silence.

Slowly, two silhouettes emerged from the shadows. Felix. And a girl half his height. She was wearing a plaid light blue skirt and a blouse the color of the sky. Black locks of hair had sprung loose

Atienna extended a hand. Yuseong Eunji hesitantly accepted the gesture. For a timid-looking girl, her handshake was surprisingly firm—firmer than Atienna’s own.

“This is a strange place, don’t you think?” Atienna pressed gently. “Did you also have a strange arrival here?”

Eunji hesitated, exchanging a look with Felix. Distrust it seemed.

“As I know it, I’m an advisor,” Atienna tried, “but here it appears I’m something else rather more serious.”

“I… woke up in a bathroom just outside of here… there were some… strange girls who acted like they knew me and then I met…” She paused, studying Atienna. “I ran away from them,” Eunji finally explained, toying with the lace of her dress. “Felix found me…” She looked up at Atienna. “And we found you… outside of that bar. We followed you.”

“Have you met anyone else?”

Eunji hesitated.

Curious.

“Did you see someone come in to this place before us?”

Eunji shook her head.

Truly curious—

“Atienna?”

Atienna froze at the voice—at the choice she had opted to ignore. It seemed as if it had chosen her instead of vice versa. She turned at the sound and found a figure approaching them from the direction they’d come from. The slits of light coming down illuminating dark his hair which Atienna could now tell was longer in the back and his hazel-colored his eyes. A red leather jacket hung on his shoulders with an emblem of a ram’s face nested in the corner. A ball was tucked beneath his arm.

“Olive…?” Atienna whispered. She tried to read his expression but found nothing out of the ordinary. Her heart wavered.

Olive stopped short just a step away from her. He hesitated. “Is it…. you?”

Atienna felt faint at the question. Faint and hopeful. “Olive, are you…?”

Olive shook his head before pausing and glancing over his shoulder with a frown. “Like everybody else here? No… ”

“He’s normal…” Klaus murmured.

“I… was trying to blend in,” Olive drew, tugging at his jacket. “I—“ He stopped short as he seemed to notice Eunji standing behind her.

Eunji’s brows met.

Atienna reached forward and pressed a hand against Olive’s cheek. She felt him tense and then pull away.

“What’s going on here…?” he drew. “The newspapers are saying that it’s 1969… Do you think it’s Scorpio?”

Olive, Atienna tried.

Olive glanced at her, but there was no answer.

“Maybe… if there was another ceremony for a new Scorpio, Olive?” Klaus suggested.

Olive studied him.

Klaus cleared his throat. “Er, I mean—Prince Chance—”

“Prince?” Olive’s brows lifted and a grin split across his face. Then, he chuckled—amused, a clear sound. “Wait a minute. So… in your VNW delusion, you think I’m a prince? All of you?”

Ah, so that was how it was.

Olive lifted his hand—palm-up—and crimson sparks danced across his fingertips. The flame that formed illuminated the dark. He studied their faces then frowned slightly as he extinguished the flame. “What nothing? No reaction? Aw. From what I heard, you’re surprised at people doing this kind of thing.”

To cast a flame so easily…

“Wait… You…. were pretending?” Klaus murmured in confusion.

Olive made a face. “When you point it out, it sounds really awkward.” He eyed Eunji. “Eun-y, why’re you hanging out with them for? First you run off and now this? Did I say something to upset you? Are we still going to the roller disco?”

Eun-y? Oh dear.

“Yeah…” Eunji answered hesitantly.

Oh? She was playing along?

“Sweet,” Olive replied with a crooked smile. “So it’s still a date.”

Oh. Dear.

Eunji looked faint but her cheeks were flushed.

“You surprised me a bit, Olive…” Atienna drew slowly, pressing but not accusing. “You had me convinced there for a moment. You seem to know our circumstances rather well, don’t you think?”

Olive arched a brow. “Oh. Well….Werner comes to my practices sometimes to cheer my team on. Cheered on the wrong side this time, but he’s got the spirit.” He began dribbling his ball on his knee. “We talked a bit after practice ended, and he gave me the ten-four about what was happening with you guys. You know him and how he babbles. I mean that affectionately, by the way. Don’t get the wrong idea. Jericho came by after that to take some pictures for us. He wouldn’t say anything, but it wasn’t too hard to guess some things.”

If Gilbert were here, Atienna imagined he’d grab Olive by the collar and give him a hard, frustrated shake. A cruel immaturity that her Olive did not possess. But ‘her’ Olive felt like he was standing right in front of her. Or was she just imagining it? Imaging a presence in its absence?

“So Jericho is… like you?”

Normal, you mean?” He switched dribbling knees. “I wouldn’t call that guy normal, but he sure is entertaining.” He dropped the ball on the ground and studied them. “I was hoping for more exciting reactions at my grand reveal… Mr. Wolff and Mr. Foxman, aren’t with you? From what I heard from Werner, they had the best reactions. Sucks.”

Oh dear.

“Why would you pretend like that…?” Atienna asked even though she didn’t want to know the answer.

“Because it was funny? You think that we’ve lost it, but from other people’s perspectives you’re the ones who’ve lost it.” He laughed, his eyes gaining that mischievous glint again. “It’s always the majority that wins that vote though, right?”

Atienna studied him before the conversation in the limousine resurfaced in her mind. “Is… Was Kamaria here?”

Olive kicked the ball back up into the air, caught it, and tucked it beneath his arm. “Your sister? Yeah. She rushed home because she thought you were heading home like Werner said you were supposed to. I tried to tell her that you were going to be here, but she wouldn’t listen. Her loss.”

Relief spread warmly through Atienna’s chest. So Kamaria was still her sibling here and Kamaria was concerned about her—but was this the Kamaria that she knew? Olive had said that she had headed home…

Home? A word usually on Jericho had troublesome thoughts about. What would be the best course of action now? Return to this ‘home’ so she could reunite with people who she wasn’t sure were even her own family members or stay ‘here’ to reunite with a man whom she wasn’t sure would be able to get them out of this place?

Olive stepped past Atienna and leaned forward towards Eunji. “So, our date—”

Felix pushed Eunji behind him and grabbed Olive by the wrist only to be tackled to the side by a shadow Atienna had noticed only moments before. The shadowy figure and

“Mr. Stein…?” Olive ogled the man. “Er…. what are you doing here?”

“S-Stein?!” Klaus stammered.

Derik pulled himself off of Felix—rather he was kicked off—before brushing off his shirt and staring at Klaus. The man was dressed in a dull, faded-green button-up stamped with floral patterns. There was a coffee stain blemishing the center of his green tie that hung loosely around his neck. “Shit. You’re actually fucking alive, Kleine? You’re not a pussy after all.”

Ah, so he was ‘normal’ too.

“I—yes—” Klaus slipped into Capricornian. “What are you doing here…?”

“What the fuck do you think I’m doing here?” Derik snapped, jerking his head at Olive.

“When did you get here?” Atienna tried.

“In this shithole?” Derik arched a brow at her. “This morning. Someone called me a fucking tube, so I punched him and all these fuckers started coming and trying to ‘calm me’ the fuck down. This place is ass-backwards. I saw that bitch Engel in some weird box shit.”

“Woah.” Olive’s brows rose. “Are you swearing, Mr. Stein? Wait, you’re friends with Mr. Kleine, aren’t you?”

“Fuck no,” Derik responded, grimacing. He stared at Olive. “What the hell is wrong with you? I was shouting at you earlier but you ignored me.”

“What…?” Olive stared. “What do you mean? You mean when you were cheering for me….? Thanks for coming to our practice meet, by the way, Mr. Stein.”

“What the fuck is wrong with you, you brat..?” Derik frowned before eyeing Atienna. “What the hell is going on here?”

Oh dear…

Olive’s eyes widened. “Oh. You have VNW now too, don’t you, Mr. Stein? You know if clusters of VNWs start showing up, we’re supposed to report them in… and sometimes guidance officer come in and sweep them away.” He walked a circle around them. “But don’t worry. I can keep a secret—”

“Ollie, what’s taking you so long?” a voice called out from the opening beneath the bleachers a ways away. “Mom and dad said you have to take me home, so you better not be ditching me again.”

A figure approached. A girl. Long dark hair. Wearing a uniform consisting of a thick tank-top emblazoned with a ram head design similar to the one on Olive’s jacket. She was holding two circle-shaped, bush-like balls of plastic. One was red, the other silver. They reminded Atienna of pom trees. The most pressing thing about this girl was that she was corporeal without Olive’s conductors or touch.

Eunji’s eyes widened. “Lavi…?”

“I’d never ditch you, Lavi,” Olive responded. “I’m just messing around. You know—Werner cheered louder than you guys did. You ever think that he could replace you as cheer captain?”

Lavi scowled, crossing her arms as she neared before she offered a small wave to Eunji. “Hi, Eunji.”

Eunji waved back silently.

“So… Atienna…” Olive drew, turning to face her. His eyes were not unkind. “Are you really going to spend this entire section—a whole seven chapters—trying to get to the roller disco? Why are you stalling for?”

What….?

“Your friends seem a lot more motivated than you, don’t they? You just seem like you want to drag this out as long as possible. Is there something you’re avoiding?”

“What did you say…?” Atienna looked back at Klaus, Derik, and Eunji but they were giving her odd looks. Hadn’t they heard?

“Olive!” another voice rang out from the open end of the bleachers.

Olive sighed. “I’ll be back.” Then he jogged out and disappeared from Atienna’s line of sight.

Atienna stared after him and noticed how Derik hadn’t followed.

“You should be careful of what you say and do.” Lavi drew suddenly. “You’re already being used as fertilizers for the tree.”

Atienna looked back at her.

Tree…? Fertilizer…

Atienna’s mind went to the mural she had seen on the wall earlier. Too coincidental. That and again it seemed as if someone had something only she could hear—

“What the hell did she just say…?”

Atienna looked back at Derik and found him staring at Lavi. Klaus was staring at Lavi too as was Eunji. A confirmation. Before Atienna could act on that confirmation, however, Olive came running back towards them flanked by two slightly taller adolescents. No, not adolescents. Ghosts.

On Olive’s left stood a young man whose shoulder-length was tied back into a ponytail. He was wearing the same outfit as Olive. His eyes were sharp, his brows bushy, his expression tired. Trystan Carter. Cause of death: either incorporation into high-energy-level vitae of immolation through Olive’s conducting. Date of death: December 1941.

On Olive’s right stood another young man who was also wearing the same outfit. His hair was also jet black but also shorter. His face was pale, his chin sharp, his dark eyes concealed by a pair of square sunglasses. Yuseong Haneul. Cause of death: exsanguination. Date of death: June 1942.

Atienna knew what was to come next.

“What the fuck…?” Derik spat.

“C-Claire…?” Eunji murmured, lips trembling as she stepped forward. “Claire?”

Felix held onto Eunji’s shoulders, preventing her from rushing forward—though it seemed as if he needed to be held back as well. “My lord…?”

Claire exchanged a look with Olive who exchanged a look with Trystan. He walked forward, ruffled Eunji’s hair, and then punched Felix lightly in the shoulder. He glanced back at Olive. “So, ice cream, right?” He turned to Derik. “And you said Mr. Stein or one of the adults was buying?”

“What…?” Derik stared at him. “… the… fuck?” He gestured to Trystan then to Claire as he snapped to Klaus. “What the fuck?”

Trystan’s eyes widened, and he stared at Derik.

Claire whistled. “Mr. Stein, are you in a bad mood today—” He was cut off as Eunji rushed forward and wrapped her arms around his waist. “Woah now. What’s up with you? Who put you up to this?” He glanced back at Olive. “What did you do to my little sister, huh?”

“We just had a little fight earlier. That’s all.” Olive waved him off. “It’s settled. We’re still going to the roller disco together, right, Eun-y?”

Eunji pulled away from Claire hesitantly and nodded. “Right…” She looked back at her brother then to Olive again. “The roller disco. Right.”

Playing along again.

Like brother, like sister.

 Atienna regarded Lavi for a moment before returning her attention back to Eunji. For such a young girl having just been reunited with her supposedly dead brother, Eunji had a surprisingly level headed—or so Atienna thought.

“But before that…” Olive flashed that mischievous grin again. “You promised to get us ice-cream, right, Mr. Stein? If I keep your secret?”

Blackmail?

Atienna couldn’t imagine Olive doing such a thing.

“Yeah, well I’m still on fucking ‘what the fuck’.” Derik snapped. “I didn’t promise you jackshit. What the hell his going on?”

Trystan ogled him, almost gaping.

Atienna winced internally before placing herself in front of Derik. She pulled out her ID card. “I can buy you all ice cream. We all somehow happen to be waiting to go to the roller disco anyways, right?”

 

a/n: chapter tomorrow. I am sick. No editing. We die like men or something something. Will return to edit later. one footnote in this chapter

4 thoughts on “29.4:《A:O》Ashes/Tinder

  1. ‘In the context of the world as we know it, which reality would be easier for a person to live in: the reality that people are fundamentally good or the reality that people are fundamentally evil?’

    The reality that people are fundamentally good. Evil is frequently not a choice, and is either perpetuated by necessity for survival, or out of short-sightedness. No person can calculate the quantity of good generated by any action, and even if they could, it would take so long that you’d end up like Atienna here, endlessly choosing inaction while trying to figure out what’s for the best. The perpetuation of small evils while trying to do better is, therefore, commonplace. The difference between people being fundamentally good and fundamentally evil, is that if people are fundamentally good, there is hope that someday the world will be better, while if people are fundamentally evil, this is the best reality we can ever have.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah had a similar thought if less developed. If a fundamentally person were to commit evil it would really only ever be by mistake or for the good of another. Doing something evil for the benefit if yourself isn’t really good. But the scale of evil gets put in to question there. Stealing some food whilst “evil” isn’t that bad compared to your own death. But it’s likely it would never reach a point where someone intentionally hurts someone else for their own benefit. Or at least that’s how I see it.

      Liked by 1 person

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