13c: Outsiders Laughing Above

Cvetka Akulova checked her make-up in a small handheld mirror before she entered the small office within the Serpens Establishment. The room was rather unpleasantly jumbled with books and small sheets of paper that were scattered across the floor. Light spilled in rays from the pulled blinds, and they illuminated the bulletin board on the left wall. The board was cluttered with photographs and spider-webbed with red string. The photographs captured the close-up profiles of men and women in black-and-white. There were names on sticky notes pasted below each photo alongside clippings of news articles. Beneath all of this clutter was a large map of Signum.

Categorized by country, she realized.

Cvetka’s eyes went to the Aquarius section. Sure enough, her picture and name were pinned there alongside Yulia Kriska’s. There were two red strings tied around the pin above her photo, and she followed one to Gemini, to the pinned photo of a very familiar-looking man. Astante Aurlio, read the note beneath him. Beside his photograph was the picture of a smiling, freckled, ginger-haired, boyish young woman. Cadence Morello, the note below it read. There were three red strings tied to the pin on the redhead’s photo. Cvetka followed one of the strings down to—

“Are you admiring my work?”

Cvetka startled and turned.

A man was lounging on a leather blue sofa against the wall behind her. He was twirling a pen with one hand and resting his cheek against the other. There was a beauty mark just below his left eye. A mole.

“I… I’m impressed.” Cvetka turned back to the board. “The amount of True Conductors you’ve discovered is—”

“It’s the work you should’ve done in the first place.”

Cvetka swallowed before calming herself and nodding. “I do admit that I’ve been slow recently in tracking down—”

“I don’t understand why Leona lets you run free when you’re so… useless. You find nothing, and the things you do find, you let die. And you think you’re clever enough to be playing games.”

“Games? I’m not sure what you—”

The man pointed his pen at her. “If it were up to me, I’d have you chained up in that prison of ours downstairs. All of you True Conductors. Until the syzygy.” He twirled a finger around a lock of his hair. “So, why are you here, Useless?”

“Leona wanted me to introduce myself since we’ll be working together from now on,” Cvetka replied, extending her hand. “I’m—”

“Cvetka Akulova. Age, 24. Birthday, June 24th. Blood-type, AB. Aquarian with a Capricornian father—parents both alive. Conjuror. Left-handed. Vision, 20/20 in right eye, 20/15 in left. Height, 165 centimeters. Weight, 60 kg. Occupation, false Aquarian advisor.” He flipped his pen. “Occupation, useless.”

Cvetka swallowed, clenching her left hand. “That’s very impressive, although it’s not very polite to comment on a person’s weight.”

The man twirled his pen. “Why are you complimenting me when I just insulted you? Do you think it’s impressive? It’s not. Are you only here to introduce yourself?”

Cvetka shook her head. “Leona wanted me to tell you to come down to the detention center.”

***

A woman with a rope of dark hair sat bound to a white chair. Her hands were locked together in front of her by a series of ten white suppression cuffs, but her smile was light and casual. Before her stood a woman with golden hair and a somber-looking man.

“Oh come, you guys,” the bound woman sighed. “Don’t look at me like that.”

The door behind the golden woman and the somber man creaked open, and a thin man entered the room and came to a stand between them.

“Oh, welcome back to the party, saint candidate of Scorpio, Saint of Passion,” Jin greeted. “Your welcome for the invitation. I don’t mind getting passionate with you this time around.”

“That look is very becoming of you, Jin,” was the thin man’s greeting paired with a smile that dipped into a frown. “How could you do something like this? With them? It’s pathetic. Pointless! Against everything we’ve worked for! You traitor.”

Jin sighed and rolled her eyes. “There’s the usual dramatics…”

“It’s not like you to go back on your word, Jin,” the somber man drew from the side. “Why would you go and do something like this?”

“Like I said, I wanted to try for a change in direction.” Jin shrugged. “Not like what I did really made any noise.” She smiled. “Unless you’re saying that I did make some noise. Enough to throw things up in the air.”

“Your arrogance never changes,” Leona murmured.

Jin threw her head back and laughed. “My arrogance? Look who’s talking.”

“Where is P.D. Oran?” the Saint of Passion interjected, arms crossed, fingers thrumming.

“Who?”

“You found him. I looked. In the Bodhi Temple. Where did you put him? Did you give him to them?” The Saint of Passion reached forward, gripping Jin by the scruff. “I can rip it from you if I had to.”

“Let’s tango then,” Jin offered, flashing a lackadaisical grin. “Just slide your vitae right into me.”

The Saint of Passion stared at Jin before a smile curled on his face. He leaned in close and whispered into her ear, “Oh, I will. And we’ll return you right back to the cycle after that.”

Jin continued smiling, unperturbed. “And around we go.”

***

Leona paced down the long, empty hallway as she flipped through her file in hand. As her heels clipped against the tiled floor, however, she became aware that she was being followed. An instinct. When she turned on her heels, she found the familiar, thin Saint of Passion approaching her from behind.

She greeted him with a pleasant smile as he came to a stop in front of her. “Is there something you need—”

A sharp pain exploded at her abdomen, and she looked down to find a pen embedded there.

She was better than this, she knew. The only reason he’d slipped past her defenses was because she had trusted him. An embarrassment.

“I’m sorry, Leona, but you’re just moving things along too slowly now,” the man said, pulling out the pen and catching her as she fell limp in his arms. “You should rest. I’ll take things from here.”

He picked up a photograph that had fallen out of Leona’s folder as he held her in his arms. Captured in black and white was the image of a stern-looking man dressed in a crisp Capricornian uniform. Slipping this photo into his pocket, the Saint of Passion finished with, “Let’s move up the syzygy, shall we? Capricorn seems like a good place to start.”

13b: Solitary Maidens

Re-cap:

The Twin Cities lives to see another day. Fritz von Spiel and Yulia Kriska are dead. The man formerly known as Wtorek Izsak has escaped from Ophiuchus. Ilseong Jin, the saint candidate, is in custody. The Twin Cities thus enters a period of change as Ophiuchian agents sweep through the streets. 


On Monday the following week, Eunji received the results of her State Conducting Exam. She passed with flying colors and received a printed certificate detailing her accomplishment, along with a note informing her she would receive her physical license within a few months. Her brother, Soha, and Felix congratulated her, while Olive offered her his usual shrug-nod of nonchalance. He didn’t personally think that this alone would satisfy Eunji.

Olive, of course, hadn’t been able to finish his practical portion of the exam, having been carted off alongside Claire, Trystan, and Felix for questioning following the incident with Ilseong Jin. And after that was all over and done with, he dreaded having to retake the written portion. After all, he had placed second out of all the test-takers, and he knew that achievement was unrepeatable. Maybe even a fluke, he thought to himself.

Cadence reassured him, “Come on, your highness, ya got the brains. Maybe this next time ya take it, you’ll score first since Eunji won’t hog that position.”

The Ariesian prince waved the idea off, but Cadence could tell he was pleased with her comment. Still keeping the facade of apathy despite everything. Very prince-like.

The prince even kept the facade in place despite his obvious concern about how Claire was dealing with Jin’s confirmed betrayal. But Claire merely voiced his own concerns regarding how Jin’s actions would affect his clan’s social standing. The betrayal seemed far from his mind.

“Right after Eunji was licensed too,” Claire had said with a casual sigh. “Things will get complicated again.”

Like a politician, Olive thought.

Or pretending to be one, Cadence amended.

The two princes bid each other farewell again at the Grand Snake Station after shaking hands—an action Olive initiated himself. And when Claire suggested that they meet up again sometime soon, Olive didn’tdeny the suggestion—though, he didn’t address it either. Eunji seemed pleased with this development, but Olive couldn’t wrap his head around why.

As Olive made his way back inside the Serpens Establishment with a bandaged Trystan after the farewell, he was pulled aside by Leona. Without speaking a word, the woman handed him a manila envelope sealed with wax. When he opened it up, he found a printed certificate stating that he had successfully completed the State Conductor’s Exam.

“I don’t think it’s fair for you to have to take the written exam again because of circumstances beyond your control. Especially given how well you performed,” Leona had said. “And I’ve witnessed your conducting myself.” She smiled. “I have to say, if that were the practical, you would certainly pass. The interview too.”

Olive was rearing to refuse it. He’d wanted to earn the license on his own right and was unnerved by Leona’s gesture. Werner shared a similar sentiment, but—

“Come on, you guys,” Cadence had interjected through a synchronization. “Ya accept what comes ta ya. Can’t reject everything because of pride. The faster ya get your license, the faster ya can figure out what’s goin’ on with Lavi, right? Your promise, your responsibility.”

And so, Olive accepted the gift and gave a polite word of gratitude.

Monday was also the day when Ophiuchian peacekeeping agents from the Conductor Regulation Department and the Conducting Law Department poured into the Twin Cities in droves. They raided the warehouses of both the Campanas and the Romanos, tore through cargo containers full of modified conductors, cracked open warehouses housing Specialist children in transit, and promptly brought in all associated parties for questioning. After all, Specialist children owned by the Campanas had been running through the streets during that night of chaos and modified conductors owned by the Romano Family had been the ones that nearly sank the city. There was no turning from it.

While most associated parties were questioned within the city, those executives found to be associated with ELPIS were brought into the depths of the Black Constellation Detention Center for further questioning.

Probably to never be seen again, Cadence figured.

Cavallo, with one arm slung up in a cast, acted as the main representative of the Romano Family. He was joined by the surviving Caporegimes Agape Rosario, Bendetto, as well as Fortuna Romano.

Following this meeting, the Romano Family’s modified conductor operations were swiftly dismantled. In exchange for a lesser sentencing and a form of protection, the don and the caporegimes offered up the files of the parties they had made business deals with. This included Argo, Aquarius, and many other wealthier, smaller parties. The files regarding Capricorn had already been tossed out as per Cadence’s request so there was no proof of their involvement, and the Romanos didn’t feel inclined to mention it. Another aspect of the lesser sentencing involved a sworn agreement to keep their discovery of ELPIS’s nature under wraps.

The entire thing was sketchy to Cadence. But that was the way the dominoes fell.

The aforementioned lesser sentencing was imposed on all executives of the Romano Family, and this included house arrest that would initially be implemented by Ophiuchian Agents aided by the city’s police.

The Twin Cities police force was undergoing a power shift. Police Comissario Vincente Giustizia who was confirmed to be an ELPIS leader had disappeared from the city alongside a number of the policemen and policewomen serving under him. It took less than a week for the mayor to select a replacement, and—as suspected—they were both in the Romano Family’s back pocket.

The Romano Family went through a shift of power within itself as well. Despite losing their main product of modified conductors, they still had their money-laundering fronts and land leases to fund their operations. Fortuna re-organized the truncated Family, delegating new seats herself, and even went so far as to offer Matilda a higher position due to the girl’s work in the city on that night.

The Foxman Family was not charged, on the other hand. This was in part due to the little evidence found regarding their exporting and importing of the modified conductors and due to their part in assisting Gabrielle Law with her case regarding the Campanas. They were, however, extensively questioned regarding the whereabouts of their brother turned business partner turned ELPIS leader. But neither Allen nor Carl had seen Francis since that night. And neither had Cadence. Omicron’s body hadn’t turned up either.

The Campana Family’s operations were also swiftly dismantled. Due to Gabrielle’s preliminary investigations and due to the nature of her findings, the Campana Family wasn’t offered lesser charges. Their assets were stripped from them, and they were found guilty on all accounts of trafficking. The don and associated executives were given life sentences in a Geminian specialized prison, while an investigation was launched to find connected parties and buyers. Ambrose was found not-guilty, despite his access to the organization’s files and records. And why this happened became clear as Jericho read the report that circulated through the Serpens Establishment not too long after: the files and records of the Campana Family merely identified the children by “item #”. Discovering this sent shivers down Olive’s spine.

“Good riddance,” the prince had spat with a scoff more to himself than the others.

But Cadence wasn’t too sure if the Campanas were getting the justice Olive thought they deserved. After all, the Campana executives had been locked in a rather well-furnished prison equipped with state-of-the-art showers, bedding, and a five-star chef to boot. But she tried her best to hide this from the prince.

Cadence, Atienna, Werner, and Jericho had also been brought in for questioning by the ELPIS Investigations Department. Atienna and Werner were questioned regarding their reason for being in the city and for their connection to Yulia Kriska and Fritz von Spiel respectively—both who had both been reported as having been in communication with ELPIS. Atienna and Werner were in suitable positions to deny their knowledge of ELPIS’s activities and highlighted their personal motivations—helping Sefu who had been caught in the crossfire; and arresting the colonel for suspected collusion with ELPIS and embezzlement of military funds, respectively.

Cadence and Jericho, on the other hand, were questioned about how they came to work together on that night the city nearly sank. Cadence and Jericho both informed their questioners that they had merely met up at a bar and realized they shared similar problems and goals. Cadence, wanting to help her childhood friend Francis Foxman who had gotten involved in ELPIS. Jericho, wanting to detain an ELPIS member for questioning.

It was a loose lie. A not very well crafted one, Cadence knew. But… Surprisingly, their answers were accepted.

The headline of the newspaper released that night pretty much wrapped up the city’s knowledge and perspective on the entire ordeal—

“Ophiuchian Crackdown on Crime Following TERRORIST Attack. IS ELPIS STILL IN OUR CITY? BEAUTIFUL PIANO KEYS LIGHT UP THE NIGHT SKY. Another Day in the Twin Cities?”

Cadence wondered about that.

***

On Tuesday, Maria paid Allen and Carl a visit at the docks. She brought with her Lita and was surprised to find their warehouse full of children. They seemed surprised themselves as did their lackeys as over a dozen children filled out all of the corners of the warehouse. Some skirted far from them. Others darted up daringly and tugged on the hemming of their suits.

“They just keep appearin’ outta nowhere,” Carl grumbled as he swatted them away. He muttered to himself, “Dammit, Francis. We’re tryin’ not to draw attention to ourselves.”

“Money’s still coming in from our casinos, bars, and dance halls,” Allen said with a grimace, “but we lost a major source of our income since the Romanos aren’t makin’ conductors for us to ship now. We can’t keep them here. Can’t afford it.”

But despite all their talk, the warehouse was filled with small makeshift beds. But Cadence was pretty sure that they weren’t acting so much out of the generosity of their own hearts than out of their desire to honor their brother’s wish.

Lita recognized about a dozen or so of the children, and they recognized her. In other words, Campana Specialist children made up half the lot. A problematic development for Allen and Carl, since Ophiuchus had been sweeping the city for the children. The reason as to why Francis didn’t want the children to fall into Ophiuchus’s hands remained largely unknown.

Maria thus offered to take some of the Specialist children out of the city on her ship for some time. She knelt before the children, sang about adventures and the sea, and then asked each of them one-by-one if they wanted to come along with her.

Cadence could tell though. Despite all of Maria’s brightness and cheer, her mind was fixated on Conta. And as Maria boarded her ship with Lita, Renée, and the Specialist children in tow, Cadence knew that one of Maria’s first touristing destinations would be Hapaira. Rather, Veles. The bounty hunter, the tracker.

Werner thought it was too dangerous. Cadence thought it was worth the risk.

“I will get my Conta back,” Maria had responded. “So please be patient with me…. yes?”

***

On Wednesday, several days after being released from questioning by the Ophiuchian agents within the city, Werner visited the Sognare. The bartender still hadn’t returned, and the shelves behind the bar were clear of all the wine bottles and liquor. The raiders hadn’t thought to dismantle the piano on the backstage, however, and it remained standing upright and tall. Werner drifted over to this stage and approached the piano, inspecting the dusty keys of the instrument with a frown.

As soon as the city was safe again, Werner had used the radio Kleine had conjured to contact the Capricornian capital. He informed them that the colonel had been caught in the crossfires of the city’s war while attempting to escape arrest—a white lie Cadence helped Werner craft and transmit. He also informed them that the colonel had confirmed that he had been embezzling money from the military’s funds and was indeed working with ELPIS. The capital officials were unhappy with this information and requested that Werner bring the colonel’s body back to Capricorn.

But this was impossible. The ELPIS Investigations Department had collected not only Fritz von Spiel’s body but also Yulia Kriska’s and Kovich’s as well. The peacekeepers reasoned that the bodies served as evidence regarding ELPIS.

And so, the Capricornian government stepped back to allow Ophiuchus to do their work. Cadence wasn’t surprised. Their underground dealings had nearly been dragged out to light, after all. She’d half-expected Werner to receive a promotion since he’d been indirectly behind saving face for Capricorn. But as Werner said, “Avoiding a problem isn’t worth praise.”

Hearing him say this made her feel a bit sad.

In the end, Cadence wasn’t sure whether to laugh or to feel uneasy about the Ophiuchian authority. Cadence also found herself wondering where Nico would fall in the Capricornian ranks now that the deal between the country and the Romano Family was no longer in action.

Thinking about all of these things, Cadence found herself strongly synchronized with the Capricornian as he examined the keyboard inside the bar.

“That rests on Nico,” Werner replied, resting his hands on the keys. “He has proven himself an asset in service, and the capital may believe he still serves as a possible liaison to connect them to the Romanos for future projects.”

There wasn’t much left for Nico in this city anyway.

Cadence grimaced. “It sucks that ya didn’t get the deal with the Romanos. The old deal is null and void now too.”

“Seeing as how Argo was being supplied by the Romano Family, this simply means we’re back on even territory. Fortunately, you had the Romano and Campana Family destroy those records,” Werner replied evenly. “I appreciate your actions.”

Cadence stiffened at the mention of Argo. “I honestly had no idea about the Romanos supplyin’ to Argo, Werner. I’m really sorry… Ya don’t even need ta thank me for that other thing either, really. I was just makin’ up for what I did… Or at least tryin’ ta.”

“I’ll accept your apology, Cadence,” Werner returned, resting his hands on the keys. “Since you’ve helped Capricorn escape a precarious situation.”

Cadence showed him a C-chord, and he copied. “It’s over with, but it doesn’t feel like we’ve won anything, Lieutenant.”

Werner remained silent for a moment before he said, “A battle is never won. Not truly. It’s simply that you’ve gained a tactical advantage over the enemy. Sometimes that merely means that you’ve lost less than them even if your loss is substantial. And still, people consider this winning.”

“And what do you think this is, Lieutenant? A battle?”

Werner didn’t answer.

“Ya know even with everything happening…” Cadence chuckled after showing him a couple more notes to play. “I’m still expectin’ Alma ta come through those doors. Ain’t that pathetic or what?”

Werner studied her for a moment before he lifted a gloved hand towards her head.

The door to the Sognare swung open before he could complete the gesture, however, and in came Nico and Gilbert.

“The guys are getting one last round at the TwinStars,” Gilbert explained, jerking his thumb backwards, “before we head home.”

Nico smiled a bit morosely. “Do you wanna come?”

“I won’t join you,” Werner said, rising from his seat, “but I will buy everyone a drink before we return.”

***

On Thursday, Atienna made it back to Aquarius alongside a properly healed Sefu and a properly amused Cvetka. They reached the original location where they were meant to originally attend their tripartite diplomatic meeting and found Moana and Chiamaka waiting there for them. Ophiuchian peacekeeping agents from both the ELPIS Department and an international relations department were also present and re-subjected them to a full questioning regarding their experience in the Twin Cities. Additional questions were asked regarding the mysterious Cancerian tourist who slipped away into the gates.

Atienna wondered how many Ophiuchian agents were questioning members of the Aquarian military as she herself was being questioned. She wondered how many scapegoats would be sacrificed for the betterment of their country. She wondered if their sacrifice would be worth anything.

After Sefu and Atienna were released from their interrogation, Chiamaka greeted them—

“It is good to see you both safe. But what you did was dangerous and foolish. You could have put Virgo’s international relations in jeopardy.” She did not mince words. “We must remain professional for the rest of this meeting, but we willdiscuss the ramifications afterwards.”

While all of this had been occurring, Aquarius had sent another diplomat down in Alexei’s place. Sigurd and Alexei guarded the diplomat tightly. And other than exchanging one long look, Atienna and Sigurd didn’t speak to one another for the rest of the time.

After brushing Chiamaka up on the customs of Aquarius and Pisces, Atienna waited in the hall outside of the meeting room alongside Cvetka and Sefu. Cvetka remained calm and quiet, acting as if everything that had just occurred were someone else’s predicament. She approached Atienna only once to hand her a slim index card with a number jotted down onto it.

“My employer,” she said, smiling as if in victory.

Three hours later, Chiamaka exited the meeting room with Kabal in tow.

“We’re continuing our relations with Pisces, but temporarily halting our negotiations with Aquarius,” Chiamaka informed them as they left the meeting building. “Their recent activities do not coincide with what Virgo stands for as a country. That being said, we will no longer be working together either, Atienna.”

As suspected, Atienna thought to herself, but not quite unhappily.

“Because I will be retiring from this position,” Chiamaka finished. “I admit, studying and teaching these subjects is very different from engaging in it. You can continue in this profession if you wish, Atienna, but you will be continuing without me.”

Atienna was somewhat startled by Chiamaka’s decision and felt someone responsible for it. However, she supposed it was an understandable choice. And this left her with her own choice.

As she gripped the index card tightly in her gloved hands, Atienna wondered if this entire time she had still been standing in place and averting her eyes. Frozen in place.

“Our first diplomatic outreach in years, and it ends like this.” Chiamaka shook her head. “We’ve stepped out into a dangerous world.”

***

On Friday, Jericho was finally able to have a session with Alice. Usually, he held no opinions of these sessions but this time he attended with alertness. He even had his journal ready and open.

Alice was, however, for once not alert. She remained silent, arms crossed, gaze distant.

“Was your questioning by the ELPIS Department…” Jericho began. “Unpleasant?”

Alice regarded him curiously for a moment before she sighed. “The ELPIS Department was very thorough with their questioning, Even more thorough with their threats. They put it fancifully, but they’ve practically threatened to put a case forward to have my license revoked if I were ever to speak of my experiences with external parties. For ‘endangering the countries of Signum by divulging sensitive information’. I’m sure they’ve told you the same.”

Jericho nodded. “Talib and I. Our licenses—”

“Yes, I heard.” Alice clasped her hands together. “And I also heard from Talib that Gabrielle’s now very interested in your application to the ELPIS Department.”

This was fact. During their luncheon the previous day, Gabrielle had brought up how Jericho’s recent actions would put him in good standing to work in the ELPIS Department. Elizabeta who had also been present at the time had stared holes to and through Jericho when Gabrielle had said this. Jericho hadn’t been sure if she’d been informed of Gamma’s identity, but he didn’t ask. It didn’t seem appropriate.

“Leona might personally approach you for a job offer,” Gabrielle had said. “I reckon you take it. We need someone in there. Especially now.”

“Yes,” Jericho confirmed to Alice as he recalled the memory. “Gamma. Izsak. It is important to Gabrielle.”

“And she needs someone in that department because of the department politics. It’s the least accessible department in all of Ophiuchus.” Alice leaned forward in her chair. “You’ve faced several ELPIS leaders in such a short amount of time, Jericho.” She clasped her hands together. “And you met the one called Theta too. Given the recent developments, I’m concerned about your stability in your continual pursuit of this department. What are your thoughts?”

“… I have a friend,” Jericho said after a moment of quiet, causing Alice to perk up. “He said there are things after. So I’ve been thinking about what to do after. I’ve been thinking about that. Even though I will still finish what I started.”

“And what is it that you want to do after?”

Jericho stared at her and then stared at the journal in his hands. “I don’t know.”

“It does take time to discover what you want to do next after accomplishing a goal that you’ve set for yourself,” Alice said, more gently than usual. “But as humans, it’s good to set goals. They help in moving forward.” She then frowned. “Although it is ultimately your choice and as much as I respect Gabrielle, I don’t think entering the ELPIS Department will be good for you, Jericho. Something isn’t right.”

Jericho agreed. Something wasn’t right.

Not so long after his session with Alice, Jericho was approached by Leona as Gabrielle had predicted. The woman merely greeted him and handed him a manila folder before departing. Upon opening it, he found his application to the ELPIS Investigations Department. Stamped across the top in big letters was APPLICATION ACCEPTED.

“Told you.”

Jericho turned and found Gabrielle leaning against the wall, arms crossed.

“Hello, Gabrielle.” Jericho offered a small wave.

“Hey, Jericho,” she returned, unlatching herself and approaching him. “Congrats on the acceptance.”

He stared at the file. “Thank you—”

“By the way, I’ve been meaning to mention this. Some ship captain named Maria said you were a part of some club with her. A ‘True Conductor’ club. Can’t help but think our Ariesian prince is also part of the club. Maybe even that swindler. Since you all seem to know each other.” Gabrielle waited for a reaction, but Jericho merely stared at her. She hung her head and sighed. “Alright. Well, if you ever feel like talking, I’m always ready to lend an ear.” She motioned Jericho forward. “Let’s grab lunch. Talib is treating with some homemade falafel.”

***

On Saturday, Boss Romano made his first public appearance.

Ricardo Romano strolled through the streets of the Twin Cities wielding the same aura he did from before he’d been stabbed. He didn’t even seem to care that there was an Ophiuchian agent at his left telling him he could only go so far from his property.

Cadence met Ricardo at a small park just outside of his residence with the bottle of wine he’d requested. She then accompanied him back into his manor and poured a glass for herself and him in his living room. The peacekeeper remained just outside of the room. Perched like a hawk.

“So, Cavallo has told me everything. About Francis. About ELPIS. About Theta.” Ricardo said as he swirled his wine glass. “You’ve met Theta, Cadence?”

Cadence tensed. “Yeah… I did. Briefly. Ya know. Like the others said. Met him while tryin’ ta capture Francis ta get him some help. Haven’t seen him since he went berserk at Warehouse 13.”

Ricardo hummed, taking another sip of wine, and the conversation lapsed into silence.

Finally, the boss said, “I was like you before, Cadence. An orphan on the street. Before the the war.” A pause. “I was taken in by a kind man who wasn’t from the best walk of life. Still, he was generous. He took me and many other children in. He even went so far as to offer us home and education.”

Ricardo took another sip of his wine, and the realization slowly dawned on Cadence.

“He passed during the war, but I thought that I would try to live up to his life. Of course, as you know, Cadence, this world is quite difficult to navigate and some things had to be sacrificed and exchanged along the way.” Ricardo set his glass down on the table in between them. “I had hoped taking individuals like you and Fortuna under my wing would suffice.” He folded his hands over his stomach and closed his eyes for a moment. “What do you think Theta thinks of what I’ve done with this extra life he’s granted me?”

Cadence looked away from the man she’d admired for years, the man she’d feared, the man she’d almost seen as her father. And she felt disappointment. “I think Theta’d be pretty sad…”

***

On Sunday, Cadence received a letter slipped under her door. She recognized the handwriting immediately. Those curling letters belonged to none other than Francis Foxman. But he must’ve forgotten she wasn’t savvy with reading with his mind all jumbled up. Still, she managed to get through the thing with Atienna’s occasional help.

It was an invitation. To the Sognare.

When Cadence arrived at the Sognare, she found Allen and Carl lounging at the bar there all casual-like. A look at the back of the bar informed her that the raiders had finally gotten to the piano. The empty stage made her chest crumple.

“No Fortuna?” she asked.

“No Fortuna,” Allen affirmed.

“Probably didn’t want a headache.” Carl scoffed.

“Probably figured she was too busy,” Cadence reasoned.

“And we’re not?” Carl snapped before he frowned, considering. “Yeah.”

The door creaked open, and two familiar figures stepped into the bar. Cadence personally recognized only one of them. The other she recognized through Atienna’s memories.

“You’re late, Francis,” Allen said before nodding at the person standing beside him. “Who’s your friend?”

“This is Pi,” Francis said, gesturing to the tall Aquarian standing beside him. “It seems he was initiated recently and somehow stumbled into one of my gates and ended up here during my…” Francis shook his head. “He’s a good person. We have similar mindsets regarding what we’ve become.”

While Francis was dressed in a turtleneck with a suit jacket thrown over his shoulders, Pi was dressed in an out-of-sorts, oversized shirt with tight suspenders. They looked out of place next to each other.

“He ELPIS?” Allen arched a brow.

Pi nodded. “Friend. Nice to meet.”

“What’s wrong with him?” was the first thing Carl asked.

Pi frowned, looking hurt.

“He wasn’t initiated properly,” Francis explained, placing a thoughtful hand on his chin and examining Pi. “I still haven’t dissected the specifics of what’s occurred, but you don’t need to be concerned about his behavior. Pi is still the person I remember him to be.”

“Nice ta meet ya.” Cadence offered Pi a hand with a grin.

Brightening, Pi accepted the gesture.

“What’s this about, Francis?” Allen asked grimly. He took out a box of v-cigarettes and shook one out for himself. He offered one to Cadence—which she refused—before offering them to Carl, Francis, and Pi. Carl and Francis accepted the v-cigs, igniting them with a shake, while Pi stared at Francis in slight shock and horror.

Francis took a drag of the v-cigarette before answering, “A friend… Rather, another ELPIS leader by the name of Gamma is searching for me. I came across him the other day.”

Izsak…?

“I think he’s planning to kill me,” Francis said casually, taking another drag of his v-cig. He glanced down at it with a grimace of disgust before puffing again.

Carl started forward, punching his fist into his palm. “The hell? You need us to sack him?”

Pi made an X with his arms, shaking his head. “Angry man. Want big boom. Again in city.” His frown deepened. “Not like. Before. Dangerous.”

“I refused his suggestion to target the reservoirs and generator conductors here again,” Francis elaborated, ignoring Carl’s outburst and Pi’s interjection. He puffed. “The guy didn’t seem to be too happy about that. Said I was only saying those things because I wasn’t initiated right.” He took another drag, shaking his head. “He wants to kill me here and now so I’ll return to my resistor. He wants to re-initiate me ‘properly’.” Francis’s gaze darkened. “I won’t let him take my last moments of Omicron away from me. And I’m not too keen on dying as Francis either. I also have some things I need to set straight. So you won’t be seeing me for a while.”

“You’re in trouble,” Allen concluded after a beat. “You need a place to lie low? We’ve got a couple places out of the city.”

“Yeah.” Carl nodded, almost desperately. “Got one in Cancer. Got another in Aries—”

“You misunderstand…” Francis drew, placing his gloved hand over his face and staring at them between his fingers. “I can’t be around any of you. When I look at you, I’m torn between disgust and affection. I need time to get my head on straight. And I need to figure out the next course of action…. It’s a mess.”

Silence stretched.

“Disgust and affection? That’s me at my reflection every day,” Cadence said good-naturedly. “It ain’t so bad.”

Francis blinked at her before offering a musical chuckle as he lowered his hand. “That’s why I didn’t invite Fortuna. She’s… a bit of a handful.”

“And Nico?”

Francis stared blankly at them before his eyes widened and he held his head. “I forgot Nico…”

“Eh, I doubt he’d want to come anyway,” Carl said, giving Francis a reassuring wave. “Been busy with his Capricornian pals. The bastard—”

But Francis turned away from Carl suddenly and turned to face Cadence fully. “I understand you have many questions. And I have only some answers given how much of my vitae has been lost through my many times of returning to the resistor. If you give me time, I will tell you what I know to the best of my abilities.” He shook his head. “My brain’s still a mess… but I will tell you this…”

Cadence perked up.

“True Conductors are like conductors themselves.” Francis tapped her chest lightly. “Human beings operate like their bodies when it comes to vitae. When people are born, vitae from the outside world flows in through a door that closes shortly after. When people die, a different door opens and vitae leaves your body. Some call it decay and loss of energy through the cessation of bodily function. But it’s not so simple.”

“Like blood,” Pi added suddenly, making a swooping gesture with his hand. “Flow through veins. Through valves. Open and close.”

“But you are different. Both doors are open constantly with True Conductors. You’re like open channels,” Francis elaborated. “It’s a defect. And because of that defect, extraneous vitae can easily enter. Connected True Conductors act as a very large channel. And when utilized properly, that channel can conduct a very large amount of vitae. You are more-or-less a tool. That is all.”

Cadence arched a brow. “Well, that’s one way ta flirt.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to come off that rudely,” Francis apologized, looking somewhat dazed. “But that’s as much as I can give at the moment.”

As much as Atienna’s curiosity scratched at Cadence’s mind and as much as Cadence selfishly wanted to push Francis further, Cadence let out a sigh and nodded. “Guess I gotta toss out the 100 questions I wrote down then—”

Abruptly, Francis pointed to Cadence’s pocket. “You have one of my proto-conductors.”

Cadence opened her mouth to whittle out another lie but thought better of it as she met Francis’s calm eyes. This was someone she wanted on her side. Not only for strategic purposes but because she genuinely did.

After digging into her pocket, she procured it for him. He gingerly plucked it from her hand and inspected it.

“It didn’t shatter with my outburst because there’s not enough vitae in it,” he said. Flipping the thing in hand, he rolled up his sleeve and pushed its needlepoint into his arm. The glass vial filled with blood as he pulled up the plunger. He pulled it out from his arm and then grasped it in his gloved hand. His palm and the red liquid within the vial began to glow with pale tangerine light. When the light faded, the liquid was pitch black.

“This is good for roughly six uses,” he said, dropping it back into her palm. “If you place the tip of this down on a drawn gate while the vial is full and speak of the place you wish to go, I will be able to hear you through my gate and send you as close as I can to that location. If not, you could end up anywhere.”

Cadence arched a brow. “It’s that easy?”

Francis didn’t answer and instead reached into his pants pocket to draw out two more similar proto-conductors. He gingerly handed one each to Carl and then to Allen before taking a step back. “I want you to have a way to leave,” Francis said, “if the worst comes into fruition…”

“The hell is that supposed to mean?” Carl arched a brow. “Stop being so ominous, Francis.”

Cadence patted Carl on the shoulder and arched a brow. “And what’s the catch?”

Francis dipped his head. “I know this is a lot to ask, but while I’m away, could you please look for and after the children who are looking for me? I need to focus on the task at hand, and I need to get my mind in working order… At the moment, I’m not suitable to care for the children.”

“And we’re suitable?” Cadence nearly burst out laughing as she thumbed herself and then Carl and Allen. “Us?”

“Yeah.” Carl crossed his arms. “Why not hand ‘em over to the Ophiuchians? I mean—”

Pi blanched and paled, while Francis glowered for half a second.

Francis took a moment to compose himself before he continued, “You can become suitable. Better than those peacekeepers.” He looked away. “I assure you, I am not abandoning them as I did in the past. But it will be dangerous with me. Just temporarily… Would you mind doing me a favor?”

Cadence curled her hands around the proto-conductor and met Francis’s eyes. “Ya got it, Francis. Didn’t even need ta ask.”

And so, on Sunday, Cadence made a promise.


“You know, Cadence, people might think you’re untrustworthy because of your profession, but I think it’s because of your profession that you’re as trustworthy as they come. You put on a sign saying that you’re untrustworthy with just your job title and your conducting type.”

“What in saint’s name is that supposed ta mean, Francis?”

Francis Foxman (?) and Cadence Morello, unknown time

11.5: Jericho’s (Dicotomico) Hatred

Re-cap:

As the plan’s final knots are tied, Jericho finds himself in Warehouse 13 alongside Cadence and one captured Theta/Francis. They await not only the arrival of the crime organization executives, but also Omicron’s arrival to seal the deal and save the city. As the strings of their plan unravel, Jericho faces the one who brought him into ELPIS to begin with.

Twin Cities, Gemini

Talib had many questions for Jericho when he arrived at Warehouse 13. He procured a bullet-pointed list out from his journal and promptly read the list out word-for-word:

“Why did Jericho want me to track Colonel Fritz von Spiel? Why is Jericho working alongside an associate of the Romano Family? Why is Jericho not on guard duty? Why did Jericho ask me to bring along a chair and rope? Is the Organization involved? Why—”

As soon as Talib laid eyes on Francis Foxman’s tattooed face, however, he fell silent.

Cadence propped up the chair Talib had brought, and Francis collapsed onto it with a polite word of gratitude. Jericho assisted her in binding the man to the seat with the rope.

“Sorry, Francis,” Cadence murmured, “we can’t be too careful.”

Francis offered a thin smile.

“I will explain when the others come,” Jericho said to Talib as he fastened the last knot. “No repetition.”

“Okay, partner…” Talib eyed the suppression cuffs around Francis’s wrists.

Now, they waited.

No one within the warehouse had a watch to count the time that ticked by, but that was not an issue. Werner would check his pocket watch every so often as he wove through the city streets and would increase synchronization just enough to provide an update. Every time Werner did this, Jericho would consult Talib about the location of Colonel Fritz von Spiel and would relay that information to Werner.

Cadence spent the time pacing the full length of the warehouse, while Talib busied himself folding origami with glazed eyes. Jericho remained standing in place, gripping his suitcase tightly and staring at Francis. Correction: staring at the tattoo on the right side of Francis’s face.

“Mind if I ask you what your story is, Mr. Jericho?” Francis asked suddenly.

“I want to destroy ELPIS,” Jericho answered without pause.

Francis blinked. “Well, that’s pretty straightforward.”

“Long story,” Cadence replied before meeting Jericho’s eyes. That ain’t the best conversation starter, detective.

I haven’t been practicing.

‘Practicing’…? Well, how about I practice with ya and show ya how ta do it so ya don’t have ta go practicin’ all the time?

You will… be my teacher?

“Are you two an item, Cadence?” Francis looked between them. “Didn’t think you’d be the type to go for someone like that.”

Saints. It’s so easy ta slip into that.

Cadence approached Jericho and threw an arm around his shoulder. “I mean, they do say that opposites attract, ‘ey?”

Jericho cocked his head.

“Partner, I know you said you’d explain everything later,” Talib drew as he finished folding a paper frog, “but this is quite… perplexing.”

Francis chuckled. “So we’re both being strung along then, Mr. Al-Jarrah?”

Talib frowned at Francis’s address.

Francis averted his gaze. “I understand your reservations—seeing that I’m not only the head of a crime organization but also a leader of a terrorist organization now. Two things you’re sworn as a peacekeeper to be against.”

Talib ran his fingers along the brim of his hat. “Well, you put it eloquently into words…”

Jericho felt something twist in Cadence’s gut. When he looked over to her, however, she was wearing a casual smile.

The Romanos arrived at the warehouse shortly after. First came Cavallo, alone as requested. And then came Cavallo’s special guest, bound with rope and guarded by two tall, suited men. As soon as the tied-up Caporegime Donato registered Cadence and Francis, he paled. His jailers and Cavallo also stiffened at the sight of Francis. No. At the sight of the tattoo on Francis’s face.

Only a second after came Ambrose Campana, accompanied by two guards. Not as requested. Another request Ambrose did not fulfill: bringing along Enzo. When Ambrose’s gaze passed over Francis’s face, he took a slight step backwards.

“What in saint’s name…”

“I’m aware that you’re young, Ambrose,” Cavallo drew, “but I was hoping you would still be attentive to Cadence’s request.”

Ambrose turned to Cavallo and then smiled as if amused. “Ah, yes, Cavallo, I’m very aware of our age difference as well.”

There was a tense stretch of silence as the two members of the crime organizations regarded each other, but Cadence swiftly stepped in between them, smiling.

“Hey now,” she sang, “we all reached an agreement before comin’ here right.” She gestured to Ambrose. “But like Cavallo said, I can see not everyone kept ta the deal.”

“I was merely being cautious, Cadence,” Ambrose replied. “I expected Cavallo to do the same, but I see now that he’s more honorable than what I originally took him for.” He placed a hand over his heart. “I apologize for my lack of tact.”

“And Enzo?” Cadence pressed.

Ambrose frowned. “His apartment was empty when we stopped by. I think that’s pretty self-explanatory—”

“Okay… what’s going on here?” came a voice from the doorway.

Gabrielle stood at the threshold there, panting. Her Ophiuchian band glowed on her arm.

“Talib? Jericho…?” She sighed and rubbed her hand down her face. “How much have I missed—” Her eyes widened as she registered Francis’s face. “Okay, brief me.”

***

With all parties present, Jericho proceeded with a prompt, general synopsis of what he and the other five had discovered about ELPIS’s origins, ELPIS’s goal of sinking the city and of targeting the reservoirs through Theta’s ability and proto-conductors, and how ELPIS was manipulating the Families from behind the scenes. Cadence interjected to describe Donato and Enzo’s role in the events and filled in the holes regarding how she and Jericho had stumbled across this information. She omitted any mention of True Conductors and refrained from mentioning their possession of two of Theta’s proto-conductors.

“Anyway, we met at a bar,” Cadence finished, thumbing herself and then Jericho. “Got drunk. Talked a little. Found out we got a lotta shared problems.”

Probably didn’t even need to pull wool over their eyes on that part, Cadence thought to him after they concluded their explanation. I mean, look at ‘em.

All of them—from the peacekeepers to the Family executives to the Family’s bodyguards—were quiet, stiff, pale as they digested the information.

“Do you have any idea when or where—other than the reservoirs—they’re going to set off the explosive conductors?” Gabrielle asked quietly.

Jericho shook his head once. “We are going to ask Omicron when she arrives.” He glanced at Francis. “Or Theta.”

He felt Cadence tense.

Gabrielle eyed Francis. “I’d like to say that I’d doubt they’d set it off when they’re still in the vicinity or that they don’t even have the firepower to, but…” Her eyes narrowed. “… with the way they operate, and Theta’s ability too…” She bit her thumb. “I hate to say it, but we really are going to have to rely on this Omicron to pull through.”

“Wait, so Izsak…” Talib drew dazedly. He turned to meet Gabrielle’s gaze. “Is he like Mr. Foxman here or…?”

Jericho opened his mouth to respond, but—

Not a good idea ta get emotions all riled up now. Things are tense as it is.

— “I’m unsure,” he said.

“They’re practically immortal… Right?” one of Ambrose’s guards muttered. “Is that even possible?”

“That’s not important.” Cavallo held up his hand before turning to Cadence. “Are you sure your plan will follow through, Cadence?” He folded his hands over his stomach. “Inviting us here when this city could be sunk into the Pollux Bay at any moment is quite callous.”

Cadence nodded half-heartedly in agreement.

Cavallo continued, calmly, “And if you do manage to complete this plan of yours, Cadence, what are you expecting to happen to Francis here? If what you’re saying is true, then he’s not only stolen from us but he’s also murdered several of our executives and is now planning to attack our territories.”

Francis didn’t acknowledge the mention of his name and continued to stare ahead at nothing with a strained expression.

“He attacked my father,” Ambrose interjected. “And he kidnapped and tortured Fortuna. Obviously, he needs to be held accountable.” Ambrose gestured to the ceiling. “The damages to the city. The current danger to our territories.” He shook his head and addressed Cavallo: “We shouldn’t even be waiting here. It may sound crude, but the best thing for us right now is to get Francis to talk no matter what means we’ll have to use—”

“That was Theta, not Francis,” Cadence argued. “And Theta happened because of Enzo and Donato. I get where you’re comin’ from, but before ya start pointin’ fingers, shouldn’t ya take a look at the ones who started all of this ta begin with? Plus, ya really think ya can make that guy talk? You’re charmin’, Ambrose, but even I can’t—”

Gabrielle finally stepped between them all with a yawn. “Look, you don’t decide what’s going to happen to him. Ophiuchus does.” Her gaze drifted over to Ambrose, and she smirked lightly. She nodded at Jericho and Talib. “And, you two, is there a reason why you didn’t turn Francis into Leona? You mentioned that she’s here.”

Jericho exchanged a look with Cadence and then with Talib.

Grunting noncommittal at the lack of response, Gabrielle leaned in towards Francis and inspected the tattoo on his face. “Anyway, Mr. Foxman, mind if I get a conversation in with your worse half?”

“That was parta the plan…” Cadence murmured, rubbing the back of her neck. She glanced at Francis with a frown. “But are ya up for it, Francis?”

“Whatever helps,” Francis replied after a beat.

Gabrielle nodded to Jericho, prompting him to move forward and undo the suppression cuffs over Francis’s wrists. The man grunted in turn and slumped immediately. A stretch of silence followed.

Cavallo and Ambrose puffed their v-cigarettes as they waited. Donato squirmed in his bindings. Talib and Gabrielle exchanged looks. Cadence bounced on the balls of her feet. Jericho drilled holes into the back of Francis’s skull.

Finally, the man at the center of their attention lifted his head, scanned his surroundings, scanned the gathered group, and tried his bindings.

Jericho stiffened. Ambrose and Cavallo stopped puffing. Donato froze. Talib and Gabrielle exchanged looks again.

“I see…” A sigh, amused. “It’s only natural that people of the same constitution would come together.”

“You’d be Theta, right?” Gabrielle pressed, walking forward and inspecting the man. “You’ve caused a lot of trouble, you know that?” She sighed. “I’m out of office for a little over a month and I come here to learn that you’ve gone and kidnapped one of my associates. And now what—”

“You’re referring to the blonde peacekeeper who wears glasses, I’m assuming,” Theta replied. “She is quite stubborn.”

“Do you mind telling me where you’re keeping her?” Gabrielle asked casually.

“You know my answer to that.”

“What about the others you’re holding captive?” Cavallo interjected. “Would it be too much to ask what their condition is, Mr. Theta?”

Theta turned his eyes onto Cavallo, and something akin to mirth enveloped his features. He answered in a quiet voice, “Before Cadence Morello captured me, the ones who we had not made an example of yet were Allen Foxman, Carl Foxman, Fortuna Romano, Agape Rosario, Bendetto, and a man whose name I believe is Maximallian. But rest assured. Even though I am not there, their time will come.” He turned back to Gabrielle. “You needn’t worry about your fellow peacekeeper. She is not a component of this. Her behavior aside, she is a very nice conversationalist—”

A pressure lifted itself off of Jericho’s chest.

“Are you the one who attacked my father?” Ambrose interjected, pressing forward. “The one who took Fortuna?”

The hell. We literally just told him that.

Theta stared at him. “Who are you?”

Ambrose blanched.

Something tickled the inside of Jericho’s chest. When Jericho turned to Cadence, he found that although she was frowning, there was a light in her eyes. She was amused, though Jericho didn’t know why.

“I’m Ambrose Campana,” Ambrose finally replied.

“Oh, I see.” Theta looked him up and down. “You’re his son. How dutiful… It wasn’t me who attacked your father, but an associate of mine,” Theta returned. “However, I will take responsibility for—”

Jericho felt a tug from Werner’s end, so he went over to Talib and asked the Manipulator to switch over his medium from Von Spiel to Omicron. Jericho kept his eyes glued onto the unfolding conversation all the while.

“—and Wtorek Izsak,” Gabrielle pressed. “This whole initiation thing—is he like you or is he…?”

“Would my answer change anything?” Theta inquired. After studying Gabrielle for a moment, however, he amended, “I’m unsure if he was properly initiated. I wasn’t the one who did it, and I didn’t ask.”

Gabrielle’s expression didn’t crack, and she pulled back in silent thought.

Theta regarded her for a moment before he registered the silent Donato standing just behind her. He chuckled. “I see you’ve brought the one who started this all here. It’s ironic. You people have caused your own downfall.”

Donato stiffened.

“The polite thing to do would be to thank you, Donato,” Theta continued, “but you’ve taken something from us.” The lightness in his tone fell flat. “Where are our resistors?”

Jericho detached himself from Talib’s side and stepped before Theta, blocking the man’s view of Donato.

“We’re asking the questions,” Jericho stated. “You don’t deserve to ask.”

“That’s quite a fire you’ve got in your eyes…” Theta murmured. His gaze flicked down to the suitcase in Jericho’s hand. “Oh. I see. You must be the suitcase peacekeeper that’s been causing us a lot of trouble—”

“How do you use your proto-conductor?” Jericho pressed. No. That wasn’t the question he wanted to ask.

Theta remained silent.

Jericho could feel Gabrielle’s gaze prick his skin, and so he pulled away to allow Gabrielle to push forward again.

The woman studied him for a moment before addressing Theta once more: “Mind telling me when you’re planning to detonate the conducting grenades at the vitae reservoirs? And around the city? Where around the city?”

“You don’t have trust in your fellow peacekeepers to watch over the energy source you’re so dependent on?” Theta returned.

“Not really,” Gabrielle admitted. “Especially when you’ve got your handy Specialist conducting paired with those proto-conductors filled with your vitae—”

“What is the point?” Jericho interjected again, causing Gabrielle to glance at him with an unreadable frown. This was once again not the question Jericho wanted to put forward.

“Why are you asking me that question when the color of your vitae is the same as mine?” Theta murmured. “If you chose to bleach your vitae, then you should know and understand our feelings. Towards conductors and towards those who use them. It’s unnatural. It upsets the cycle. Those things are only used to take lives and sow the seeds of destruction. If you look all the way to the end, by eradicating those things and the people who use them and fight over them, you will save many more lives.”

“Interesting soliloquy…” Gabrielle noted, clearly unaffected by his words.

But Jericho was. He pressed, “You don’t think you’re evil?”—but this was not the question he had wanted to ask either.

“Evil?” Theta chuckled. Musically, familiarly. “I’m sorry for laughing, but isn’t that kind of a childish concept, Mr. Jericho? You’re the one who offed Omega, aren’t you? When you were about to kill her, how did she look at you? Did she look like she was about to be put down by some noble knight? Did she grovel on the floor and beg for forgiveness? No, I’m sure she was very aware of where she stood and where you stood.”

The memory of Omega’s eyes on that night flashed through Jericho’s mind. They had been wide and full of hatred.

“Look at the people surrounding you, peacekeeper. People who you peacekeepers are supposed to put behind bars. People who sell modified conductors outside of your regulations, who turn profit from the wars they fuel.”

Gabrielle and Talib frowned, exchanging looks before studying Ambrose and Cavallo. Ambrose froze under their gazes while Cavallo took a drag of his v-cig.

Theta shifted in his chair, examining Jericho pensively—almost in disappointment. “They are right under your view, but you avert your eyes to their crimes. What is worse? Acting or staying in place?” He met Jericho’s eyes. “Now that I look at you, suitcase peacekeeper, I see you’re quite pitiable. You made a choice, and you can’t accept responsibility for it. Instead, you seek to blame others, to find a purpose and reason. I look at you, and I can already tell. Although you’ve left ELPIS, you’re still after us—still with us—because you’re unable to find anything beyond us. Nothing afterwards. Because you know we’re right.” He paused. “I’m sure you’ve already realized that even without dying, you’re already close to becoming nothingness.”

Jericho cracked his fist against Theta’s jaw, nearly sending the man to the ground. Before he could take another swing, however, he was pulled back by both Talib and Cadence. Theta hadn’t even flinched.

“You need to keep a chain on your Ophiuchian friend, Cadence,” Cavallo said. “We can’t afford losing our bargaining chip.”

Another chuckle escaped Theta’s lips. This time it sounded flat. “Oh, I see. You all seem to be under the impression that my life has value and weight. Perhaps you think you can get one of my associates to trade those executives or the locations of the detonation points in this city for me.” Theta cast a somber look to the side. “You are quite mistaken. I know as much as the others do that our individual existences are nothing compared to our purpose. If you’ve contacted any of them, all you have done is signal that we need to move forward. Even the person who values me the most knows this. They won’t come for me.”

Jericho curled his fists, but Gabrielle extended an arm to hold him back.

“You can kill me here if you’d like,” Theta continued calmly. “Perhaps I will return to my resistor, or perhaps I won’t. It doesn’t matter. Someone else will take my place. I’ve given them enough of my proto-conductors to operate without me. All you are doing is failing to even prolong the inevitable.”

The guards Cavallo and Ambrose brought along tensed as Theta seemed to loom over the crime executives despite remaining unmoving.

Theta continued, “You will take responsibility for—”

“Shut up about the damn cycle and takin’ responsibility!” Cadence snapped as she untangled herself from Jericho. She gestured back to him wildly. “How can ya even talk like that when ya forced him into this!”

“The peacekeeper made his choice,” Theta responded. “You’re responsible for your own actions.”

“Look, I completely get all your talk about responsibility,” Cadence drew. “But how can a dumb kid take responsibility for bein’ coerced into somethin’ he didn’t even understand?”

Jericho stared at Cadence in surprise.

Was she… defending him?

Theta frowned. “What are you talking about?”

Cadence stared back. “What—”

And then Jericho felt something clicked in Cadence’s head.

… He doesn’t know. 

Cadence stared at Jericho.

Omicron was tryin’ ta hide the Specialist kids from Theta. And if she was doin’ that, she’s probably hidin’ the fact that some of the kids Theta’s taken in got the whole recruitment spiel. Maybe she’s thrown away the records or whatever they bookkeep with. Because Theta probably wouldn’t be too happy if he found out about that and Omicron—

Jericho stared at Cadence, ears ringing.

I ain’t defendin’ Theta by no means. I mean, he’s blowin’ up half the city. And I’m not sure if it even means anything. But maybe, we could use that against him.

Jericho’s head buzzed.

“You’re wrong about that, ya know,” Cadence addressed Theta again, thumbing her chest. “I don’t mean ta sound cheesy, but I know from experience. Love makes ya stupid. And right now, I bet ya my life that Omicron is about ta walk right through those—”

As if on cue, the doors to the warehouse swung open. Cavallo’s and Ambrose’s guards went for the guns on their hips, while Gabrielle flexed her gloves. Jericho himself tightened his grip on his suitcase, while Cadence skirted back behind him.

Theta stared wide-eyed at the woman standing at the threshold. “Why?”

Omicron held her bare, ungloved hands in the air as she stepped into the warehouse. “A deal is a deal.”

Behind her were a group of men and women. Four men. Two women. Status: tentative, confused, hesitant as they entered behind her.

Ambrose raised his hand. His bodyguards hesitated, exchanging looks.

“She doesn’t have a conductor,” Ambrose said through gritted teeth. “Hurry up.”

His guards startled before slowly making their way to Omicron. Upon reaching her, they patted her down cautiously before pulling her arms tightly behind her back.

“Alice!” Talib detached himself from the gathered circle and ran over to the side of one of the women who had come in behind Omicron.

The woman’s red square glasses were undeniably recognizable, as were her piercing blue eyes. As soon as those eyes locked onto Jericho’s, he momentarily forgot about Theta sitting beside him and Omicron standing in front of him. A lightness filtered into his mind as the woman approached him. She came to a stop a quarter of a meter away while inspecting him.

“You are safe,” Jericho said. He searched his mind for the correct words. “I am… glad.”

“You look like you need more sleep, Jericho,” Alice returned. “Have you been writing in your journal?”

“No.”

Alice clicked her tongue and shook her head. “You need to keep up with these things even when I’m gone.”

“Okay, I will.”

They held each other’s gaze for another moment before Alice headed back towards Gabrielle. Talib who had followed behind Alice remained planted at Jericho’s side.

That’s it…?

Jericho wasn’t sure whose thought that was. Was that not the customary greeting for a reunion? He looked to Alice for confirmation, but it seemed she was preoccupied.

Once at Gabrielle’s side, Alice extended a hand. Gabrielle accepted the gesture with a slight smirk before they conversed with one another quietly. Gabrielle’s face paled as their conversation continued, and she shook her head before looking to and through Theta and then to and through Omicron.

Jericho glanced over at Cadence to find her surrounded by Allen Foxman, Carl Foxman, Fortuna, and Maximallian. Fortuna and Allen soon detached themselves from that circle, however, and moved over to speak with Ambrose, Agape, Bendetto, and Cavallo who were speaking within their own circle. Fortuna, Allen, and Carl kept throwing glances back at Theta. But Cadence didn’t pay the behavior any mind. Although her shoulders were loose and her arms widespread, Jericho could feel the relief, the joy, leaking through their connection. There was a slight swelling in Jericho’s chest at this feeling, prompting him to consider the fact that he was ‘happy’ for her, but—

Jericho’s gaze flicked over to Omicron. Their eyes met. Jericho tightened his grip on the handle of his suitcase.

“I would like to speak to Theta,” Omicron said, turning away from Jericho and towards Ambrose.

“You’re in no position to be making demands!” Ambrose snapped, voice thin.

“Okay, cool it.” Gabrielle sighed, pacing over to them. “What’s going on here?” She seemed dazed. “What’s with the shouting?” She also seemed angry, irritated, unhappy. Sad.

“I just want to talk with Theta,” Omicron reiterated, shrugging herself out of the guards’ hold with ease.

Gabrielle ogled her. “You want to talk now?”

Gabrielle placed a hand on Omicron’s chest. For a moment, magenta sparks danced beneath the peacekeeper’s gloved fingertips. Gabrielle crumpled Omicron’s blouse in her hand—

“Please,” Omicron pressed. “I’ll tell you everything you want to know after. And…” She paused as if reading Gabrielle’s mind. “It wasn’t me. When I came across him, Wtorek was already—”

—and then Gabrielle released her.

“I don’t believe you,” Gabrielle muttered. “He’s not…” She trailed off, pulling away and motioning Omicron forward. “You have two minutes, and then you’re telling me exactly what happened on that day.”

Alice musta told Gabe what happened ta Izsak…

Jericho thought of the deformed stuffed animal still resting on the desk at his bedside in his condo. An uncomfortable tightness squeezed his chest.

Surprised that Gabe didn’t knock Omicron in. Guess the prince doesn’t give her enough credit. Or maybe she’s in denial—

That was why ELPIS was truly evil. They allowed false hopes like this to exist. An illusion.

Omicron sank down to her knees in front of Theta and placed her hands in his lap.

“What are you thinking?” Theta asked, tone flat.

In response, Omicron lifted the chain around her neck—the same one that hosted the resistor Jericho had shattered weeks ago—and revealed its bareness to Theta.

Theta’s eyes widened. “When…?”

“When I tried getting into Ophiuchus,” Omicron replied. She glanced at Jericho briefly. “I’ve been meaning to tell you—no, that’s a lie. I didn’t want you to know. Like how I didn’t want you to know the other things that happen in this place.” She chuckled half-heartedly. “It looks I’m doomed to make poor and stupid decisions as Charite.”

“We can put your vitae into my resistor…” Theta muttered. “It will take some time and research, but—”

Hypocrite.

“It won’t be the same,” Omicron murmured. “I’ve been thinking about things that way for a while now, but my resistor breaking forced me to really face it.” She rested her head on top of Theta’s lap. “This is the only time this me and this you will meet each other.”

“You’re not making any sense. You’re putting our work at ri—”

“Aren’t you tired, darling? It’s like we’re all going through the same motions over and over again. Reservoir after reservoir, generator conductor after generator conductor, True Conductor after True Conductor. They fall and rise and fall and rise, over and over again. Reading the records has become such a chore now because I’m just reading the same thing in a different setting.”

“You’re only saying that because you weren’t initiated properly,” Theta stated, frowning. “Don’t be foolish. That is still progress. You’re beginning to sound like the—”

“Could you call me by my name one last time?”

“Omicron—”

“No, not those ridiculous code names we chose from the alphabet.” Omicron shook her head. “My real name.”

“Omicron, don’t do this.”

Omicron sighed and rose to her feet, turning towards Gabrielle and Alice. “We’ve been planning to deploy the conductor grenades and explosive conductors we’ve stolen from the Romano Family at certain areas in the city. Half of them have been placed already, and we’re currently in the process of placing the rest. They’re rigged to blow in two hours.”

Two hours.

Jericho tensed and saw Talib and Gabrielle do the same. The former captives of ELPIS didn’t appear startled in the least bit. Intuition: they were informed of this truncated timeline during their capture.

Saints. Two hours? Cadence was pale. Jericho could feel her scrambling for the others through their connection. I thought we’d have longer than that. I—

“You’re planning on leveling the entire city in two hours?” Gabrielle shook her head in disbelief. “Are you insane? Do you know how many people live here?”

“Our plan was to evacuate the children and those we deemed innocent,” Omicron replied, “before that happened.”

Gabrielle stared. “In that time frame? Just what gives you the right to say who’s innocent and guilty?”

“I admit it was a recent… rash idea,” Omicron replied, “but I’ll tell you the locations we’ve chosen as long as Theta is given some form of immunity or at least some protection.”

Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed. “That isn’t my call.”

Omicron sighed. “I figured as much.”

There was a stretch of silence.

Omicron gestured to Gabrielle’s side. “May I borrow those suppression cuffs?”

Gabrielle regarded Omicron for a moment before unlatching a pair from her belt and tossing it to the other woman.

“Don’t do this,” Theta stated.

Omicron reached over Theta, pulled both of his hands forward from beneath the rope, and pressed the suppression cuffs over his wrists. The man slumped immediately. She waited there patiently until Francis lifted and shook his head. He blinked in bewilderment, tensing when he registered her face.

“I’m sorry, Francis,” Omicron said, placing a hand on his cheek. “I was selfishly thinking this entire time that we might get to know one another. It’s pretty ridiculous, isn’t it? I’m sorry this happened.”

Francis stared at her stiffly.

It enraged Jericho. He couldn’t comprehend how they could show kindness to each other like this, but not to others outside of them. He wanted to shatter them both right then and there. But he knew he couldn’t because Omicron was needed to save the city and because Theta was Francis. And because Theta was…

It ain’t that black and white, detective. 

Wasn’t it?—

The door to the warehouse abruptly swung open. Jericho felt Cadence’s heart take flight in her chest.

“If anyone activates any of their conductors,” a familiar voice called out from the threshold of the doorway, “I will order them to open fire.”

Cadence, who was halfway to snapping her fingers, lowered her hand as she stared at the silhouette standing at the entrance. That ain’t part of the plan. How in saint’s name did she find us here?

Omicron took a step backwards, eyes widening. “Leona…”

Yes. It was Leona who stood there at the entry, her golden hair seeming to glow in the darkness. Behind her clustered a group of men and women in monochrome suits. The chairwoman stared past them all and locked eyes with Omicron, then Francis.

Omicron followed Leona’s gaze to the man before stiffening and making an attempt towards him. However, Leona’s peacekeepers were on Omicron in an instant. They tackled her to the ground, pulled her to her feet, dragged her out of the warehouse as she cried Theta’s name.

“Please take the civilians in for questioning as well,” Leona added

The peacekeepers obliged, surrounding Cadence and the other executives and herding them outside. Cadence threw a look back at Jericho before dipping her head and allowing herself to be guided out. Although she was gone from his sights, he could still feel her peering in.

Leona signaled for Jericho, Talib, Alice, and Gabrielle to come to her. Gabrielle obliged first, followed by Talib and Alice. Jericho was the last to join. He approached the gathered group just as Leona introduced herself to Gabrielle with an extended hand:

“First chairwoman of the ELPIS Investigation Department.”

Gabrielle accepted the gesture. “Third chair of the Assignment Department.”

Leona turned her eyes onto Alice and shook her hand. “And you would be the third chair of the Psychological Evaluations Department. The one who was captured by ELPIS. I’m glad to see that you’re well.”

“Thank you. I appreciate your words,” Alice replied.

“You’ve certainly got your hands full,” Gabrielle said after a beat. “The city’s timeline is a bit tight so maybe we should—”

“We will handle the issue,” Leona said, “since it falls under the ELPIS Department. Please don’t overconcern yourself. We’ll handle it.”

The atmosphere felt odd.

Ya mean ‘awkward’?

“I’m very curious how this all came about,” Leona continued. “Captives of ELPIS, two peacekeepers off-mission, and a chairwoman gathered together with crime organization executives and leaders of ELPIS. I’m aware that you four are very close associates, but this seems too planned to be a coincidence.”

“I’m actually pretty curious about how you found your way here too, Leona,” Gabrielle replied. “I’ll detail it in my report, but I was pointed here by some of the city residents. ‘Course, like I said… it seems like there’s a bigger issue here.”

Jericho stared at Gabrielle. Was she covering for him?

Please stop starin’. It looks suspicious.

Jericho looked forward.

“You’re speaking of the explosive conductors set around the city. As I’ve said, the ELPIS Department will handle it. While you were here, we’ve been working with an information broker within the city to handle this issue and working towards locating and dismantling them as we speak. The addition of Theta and Omicron will, of course, be helpful.”

Aint she bein’ too casual?

But Gabrielle and the others kept quiet.

“And to answer your question, I was also given a handoff by the broker,” Leona replied. “Can you imagine my surprise when I found you all here? Gabrielle, you were on a covert operation?”

“That I’m just about to wrap up,” Gabrielle confirmed.

“Well, I congratulate you on that,” Leona continued, “but given this current predicament, I need you to tell me exactly how much not only you but how much everyone else has learned here regarding ELPIS.”

“Are you asking me if I know about the individual details of the ELPIS members,” Gabrielle drew, “or about how they’re shoving themselves into pseudo-conductors and transferring themselves into people who’re practically living corpses?”

“I see. So you do know.”

“Sounds like the ELPIS Department is privy to it too.”

“I’m aware of ELPIS’s origins,” Leona replied. “The ELPIS Department has been aware of it for quite some time. ELPIS is an old cult of extremists who have discovered the ability to extract their vitae and forcibly inject that—and therefore themselves, their ideology, their memories—into unfortunate victims.”

“So the ELPIS Department accepts the idea of the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis? I don’t mean to come across as rude, but wouldn’t that information be useful to other Ophiuchian Agents? Or Conductors in general? Especially our Research Department.” Gabrielle paused. “Unless the chairs of the department already know…”

“And what good would unveiling this information do if the hypothesis is real, Chairwoman Law?” Leona inquired, arms crossed. “All it will do is drive more people to ELPIS. Tell me, the very idea of being able to separate oneself—one’s vitae—from one’s body for pseudo-immortality is alluring, isn’t it? People will be drawn into ELPIS just for the chance at that if they believed it was possible.”

Gabrielle shrugged. “Rather than that, I was thinking more along the lines of the ethical implications of what that means.” She arched a brow. “You don’t sound like you have that much faith in humanity.”

Leona looked her over. “If you’re concerned about ethics, then consider the fact that human beings are quite unethical when they’re desperate. That’s why we exist in Signum. Souls, vitae, memory. Artificial immortality. There will be a cold war between all the countries here if they thought the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis were true, and our job is to keep the peace.”

So it was an illusion of peace.

Jericho’s heart skipped a beat.

What. No. ELPIS was the illusion.

“I have to say I’m impressed by the amount you know, Leona,” Gabrielle said after a beat. “Will I get that same information on my desk in a classified folder when I become first chairwoman of the Assignment Department, or is that something that the Chairman of Ophiuchus only provides to certain departments?”

Leona didn’t respond.

Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders. “Just checking job perks.”

Leona smirked and then addressed Jericho and Talib, “I did mention, Talib, Jericho, that if you were to divulge any of the information regarding the case files I’ve handed to you to any outsider, I would have a case put forward to have your licenses revoked—”

Talib stiffened beside Jericho.

“With all due respect, Chairwoman Leona,” Gabrielle interjected, “everything I learned just now, I learned from—”

“However,” Leona continued, holding up a hand, “since you were able to bring Theta and Omicron into our custody—a feat none of those under me were able to achieve—I will allow the digression to pass.”

“I—your understanding is greatly appreciated, Miss Leona,” Talib stammered. “I—”

“I would like to speak with Jericho alone,” Leona interjected.

Jericho blinked at her.

There was a stretch of silence.

Talib and Alice shared a look with each other before glancing at Jericho. Gabrielle, on the other hand, gave Jericho a nod before heading outside. After a moment, Talib and Alice followed suit.

Leona waited for them to pass the threshold of the doorway before she asked, “So?”

Jericho stared at her. “… So.”

She chuckled. Not with him. At him. “So have you found your peace here yet?”

Ya need ta get outta there, detective.

“ELPIS still exists.”

Leona chuckled again. “That may be so.” She extended her hand.

Jericho glanced at it and shook it. When he retracted his hand, however, she still held hers out, palms up.

“You have Theta’s conductor, don’t you?” Leona pressed. “That’s important evidence for the ELPIS Department.”

Jericho hesitated.

“Well?”

He dug into his pocket, pulled out Theta’s glove conductor, and dropped it into Leona’s waiting palm.

Leona smiled thinly, curling her fingers around the glove. “You have promise, Jericho. Once this is resolved, I will take a look at your application to my department myself.”

Her praise didn’t make him feel ‘good’. In fact, it accentuated the hollowness that had been carving itself in his chest ever since he had shattered Omega that night. He hadn’t been expecting to feel anything when he had completed the deed. But this emptiness was uncomfortable.

Leona said a word of parting to him before she exited the warehouse and left him in the quiet. In the new silence, the warehouse seemed vast, empty, like a void. And it left Jericho with his thoughts.

Theta hadn’t known.

But that changed nothing.

But that also meant that all the ELPIS leaders might not know either. Was there a point in shattering them all if they weren’t aware of their crimes?

Irrelevant. Of course there was.

But Theta. The question Jericho had truly wanted to ask Theta—

Suddenly, a terrible screech resounded from outside the warehouse, and a cold wind whipped the wooden doors ajar. His attention was drawn away from this by a pale tangerine light emitting from his suitcase. When he clicked it open, he found Theta’s proto-conductor that had been stored within glowing. He picked it up in confusion.

Hot!

Jericho dropped the thing at the thought. It shattered on the ground upon impact, spewing its contents all across the ground. A portal, gaping wide.

Cadence’s terror came shortly afterwards.

Jericho turned away from the portal and dashed outside to find the sky afire with the reflection of pale tangerine light. The ground was littered with large planks of wood and singed with the aftermath of vitae-ray fire. Behind the crates scattered between the debris hid the peacekeepers. Jericho could feel Cadence’s fear and worry as she hid among their monochrome uniforms. And as if drawn by her feelings, Jericho found his gaze being pulled away from the scene and up to the roof of the warehouse just beside the one he had come out of.

At the top of Warehouse 12, Francis stood free of suppression cuffs. On his left hand was Theta’s glove conductor. On his face was an expression of distraught. No, of righteous fury.

Jericho started forward at the sight, only to suddenly sink downwards. He barely managed to register the portal that glowed beneath his feet before he was in free fall.

11.4: Maria’s (Primo) Defeat

Re-cap: 

The night of the grand plan is afoot, and Maria is aiming to rescue the children owned by the Campanas. With peacekeeper Gabrielle and Chevalier Renee welcomed into her crew, Maria is ready for a night of excitement. At the back of her mind, however, she has a rare two worried. Conta’s aloofness after their fight. And the identity of who set the bounty on her head. 

Twin Cities, Gemini

Maria opened her eyes as she stood at the bow of her ship.

She was met with a complete darkness that was occasionally broken up by flashes of colorful light reflected by smog clouds hanging overhead. Whenever the clouds would light up, the city below would also be illuminated. The skyscrapers’ reflective windows and the stone buildings that popped up between them all were a beauty to behold in front of the backdrop of light.

“What the hell happened here?” Gabrielle muttered under her breath from beside Maria. “The generator conductors…” She glanced at Maria with a frown. “I need to figure out what’s going on in the city first before anything else. We will save the children, but you need to stay put while I ring in before that.” She grimaced, squinting into the dark. “Or try to. Could really use a Conjuror right now…”

Maria turned to the peacekeeper and then back to her crew scattered around the deck. Some of them gaped at the skyline while others scanned the empty docks they had just pulled the ship into.

“Speaking of Conjurors… do you want to know what has happened to Wtorek Izsak?” Maria inquired.

Gabrielle stiffened. “I’m guessing you know who that is because of that ‘True Conductor club’.”

“Warehouse 13,” Maria said, smile faltering for just a moment as the sky was lit up by a flash of orange light. “I promise you will find what you want to know.”

Maria turned around again and found the blind girl standing right behind her. She took the girl’s hand in her own before sweeping the girl off of her feet and hopping onto the railings of the ship.

“M-Maria?” the girl stammered in confusion.

“Wait, Maria—” Gabrielle began.

Maria leaped from the railings and landed with a thud onto the wooden dock below. A pair of footsteps pounded down the platform connecting the boat to the pier a beat after; and off of the ship came two figures. Renée and Conta.

Maria blinked at Conta before chuckling. “Ay, I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist an adventure with me even though you are angry!” She glanced at Renée. “And you?”

“I cannot call myself a Chevalier of Cancer,” Renée explained, “if I just turn away from injustice.”

“Maria!” Gabrielle called out from the deck. “You can’t just charge in by yourself without—”

“Warehouse 13!” Maria called back with a wave.

The blind girl then slipped on her conducting glasses, blinked once and then twice, before gasping as she stared up at the dim sky. Maria studied her curiously.

“It’s everywhere. Vitae—I, uhm…” The girl swallowed. “I can barely make out anything. They’re just so many colors—I…” She frowned, nodding. “I can still tell you where it is. I remember.”

“Off we go then!” Maria hummed.

The girl directed them along the route to the warehouse through descriptions of steps, sounds, and smells.

“When you start to smell the pastry shop, turn left down the alleyway that smells like mildew. Yes, this one.”

And—

“When you start hearing the canal, cross the bridge, take ten steps, and make a right.”

It was a rather fun activity, Maria thought as she wove her way through the city streets. It was like solving a puzzle. Something Atienna was sure to enjoy.

The girl, Renée, and Conta didn’t seem to think it was fun, however. Instead, they seemed to be very focused on the excitement buzzing around the streets of the city. People running this way and that way, v-ehicles soaring through the streets. If Maria wasn’t on such an important task, she would’ve stopped by to join the activities.

Eventually, the girl’s directives became more precise, and she finally said, “Down the alleyway and to the left. It should have a swinging sign in front, or… like a weathervane on top of it. It goes bang, tap, bang, tap. That’s where they keep us overnight sometimes.”

Maria followed along with the girl’s directions with a hop in her step. Sure enough, after taking a left, Maria discovered a modest brick building that hosted a rooster-themed weathervane at its top. The building was a very normal-looking one with a pair of large white doors at its front and a set of stairs leading up to it. The only thing Maria supposed was odd was that it only had two windows placed at its very top. Fortunately, there was a stack of crates pressed along the wall that stretched up all the way to one of the windows.

Maria climbed the stack deftly with the girl in tow before peering in through the window. The only source of light within came from a handful of candles that dotted the floor. Sleeping around that sparse light on thin mattresses was a cluster of around thirty children gowned in white. Around those children, a group of suited men and women stood guard.

Maria put the blind girl gently down on the crate with a grin, fluffed the girl’s hair, and pulled open the window.

“Wait, Madame,” Renée whispered from the ground below. “Should we not come up with a plan—”

Maria didn’t wait to hear him finish and slipped inside. She looked to the ceiling and spied iron support beams crisscrossing up there. After deftly leaping into the air, she grabbed hold of one of the beams, hoisted herself onto it, and began to silently stalk forward along it. She passed quietly overhead one of the suited guards.

She supposed her shadow must have caught his attention, however, because he suddenly peered up into the darkness, and grumbled, “What the hell is tha—”

Hooking her feet to the bar, she swung down, pulled the man from the ground, and up into the darkness in one movement. As he struggled in her hold, she pulled her sword out from her scabbard and drew it across his throat.

Brief stomach-churning nausea gripped her stomach, but she quickly brushed it aside.

She threw the guard back down onto a female guard who collapsed under the weight before pulling back up into the darkness.

“Intruders!” one of the guards screeched, marking him as her next target.

Maria ran above him and pulled him up into the dark with another quick sweep. To this guard, Maria gifted a swift snap to the neck before tossing his body back down onto another guard.

The children stirred below, cowering in the dimness. Ignoring them, the guards fired their weapons at the ceiling. Flashes of reds, blues, and greens from vitae rays peppered in between orange sparks as bullets ricocheted against the steel beams below her feet.

Maria laughed merrily as she dodged them all, dashed along the bars, and hoped between the bars. She scanned the floor below, selecting her next victim before swinging down and pulling him up into her territory. The gunfire and vitae fire did not stop all the while, and so she decided to turn the man into a shield. His body jerked left and right with each bullet and ray before she tossed him onto another guard. Not skipping a beat, she ran along the bars again, dipping down to pull a younger man who was firing out blindly. She pulled him up into the dark and wrapped him in her arms as she pressed her blade against his throat.

“I am the Golden Beast,” Maria whispered into his ear. “I will hunt down every single person who hears my name, yes? The only way to extend your life is by telling my story to other people because whoever hears my name last is my next victim, understand?” For dramatic effect—as Cadence always liked to highlight—she drew her tongue up the man’s face before releasing him onto the ground.

The guard hit the floor with a thud before scrambling to the doors. He fumbled for his keys, unlocked the doors, and dashed out, all while whimpering. Cold air filled the room at his exit, leaving the remaining guards to stare after him in the chill. Their expressions of confusion turned to surprise, however, when a figure eclipsed the door’s threshold. Renée.

“My, could I perhaps ask you to quiet down?” the Cancerian inquired. “You are making quite a ruckus.”

One of the guards closest to the doorway lunged at him, but in a flash of light, the Chevalier twirled a knife in hand and drove it up the guard’s chin.

Maria took Renée’s distraction as an opportunity to shop around for her next victim—a shaking, gun-wielding woman who looked as if she were about to faint. Maria pulled the woman up into the dark and gutted her, before throwing her down on one of the other guards firing at Renée.

That’s cruel. 

They were not friendly people in Maria’s book, so she didn’t see it like that.

The children screamed at the sight of the woman’s body and stiffened in fear.

See. 

“Come on, children,” Renée called out in a reassuring tone. “The door is open for a reason.”

None of the children moved. Fear of the unknown. It looked as if some convincing was in order, Maria thought—

But then the blind girl joined Renée at the threshold.

“Guys, come on!” the girl shouted. “Let’s go! Don’t you want to be free? Come on, come on, come on!”

The children gasped at the girl’s appearance—at the sight of one of their own free, perhaps—before they all became electrified into action. In a herd they stumbled and dashed forward towards the exit, weaving around the guards who were still occupied with either firing up at Maria or across at Renée. One guard lunged for one of the girls dashing towards the door, but Maria swooped down and plucked the guard from the ground. She threw him up in the air while swinging from the beam with her hands and cracked him against the skull with a kick. The guard smacked the beam just across from her before tumbling down and hitting the ground with a thud.

“Hey, aren’t you one of ours?!” came a growl from below.

A high-pitched screech and wail followed the question.

Upon peering down, Maria found the blind girl being dragged to the side by a burly-looking guard. Renée was still dealing with the last two guards at the doorway, and so Maria marked her next prey. But before she could swing down and rip the man to shreds, a gunshot rang out from the dark and the burly man collapsed. Conta stood behind him, gun still billowing with smoke. In the background, Renée finished off the last two guards with two quick jabs of his knife.

Conta welcomed the trembling girl into her arms and comforted her for a moment before she peeled away to inspect the girl’s face. The girl, however, stared back at Conta wide-eyed through her conducting glasses and paled.

“Wow,” Maria hummed as she dropped from the steel beams to the ground in front of them. She clapped loudly. “That was a dazzling rescue, Conta! I am so proud—”

The girl abruptly ripped herself out from Conta’s hold and ran over to Maria’s side. Clinging to Maria tightly, the girl cowered, shivered, trembled. Conta extended her hand out to the girl in slight confusion.

Maria blinked down at the girl with the same confusion before glancing up at Conta. “What is wrong, my dear? Is it the gun? They are not very elegant, yes, but—”

“I-I saw,” the girl stammered, gripping her conductor glasses tightly with one hand. “A-As soon as I touched her, I-I saw…” She dragged off her glasses and pulled herself closer. “I-It was white, Maria. White.”

Conta’s hand dropped to her side, and her expression of concern fell flat.

“What are you talking about…?” Maria asked the girl, her eyes still trained on Conta.

The girl didn’t respond and merely buried her face deeper into Maria’s back.

Without speaking another word, Conta reached into her pocket and pulled out two items. A singular glove lined with metal, which she slipped on slowly. And a knife with which she used to slice open her bare palm.

“Captain Maria Gloria-Fernandez, you are a True Conductor,” Conta stated. “We cannot allow you to live.”

What…?

“That’s awfully mean of you to say, Conta…” Maria murmured, chuckling. “Are you still angry at me—”

Conta extended her gloved hand outwards. The blood dripping down her other hand glowed a blinding white. And then Conta jerked her gloved hand upwards, sending the streams of glowing blood hurtling in Maria’s direction. Like spears. Almost like a Projector.

Maria couldn’t comprehend the scene well enough to dodge the onslaught. The spears pierced through her right arm and left leg. One scrapped against the side of her ear, drawing blood. But she didn’t feel pain there. Instead, there was a pain in her chest. Like a cracking. Something fragile was cracking. Paired with the pain was a light in her head.

“Maria!” Renée exclaimed, starting towards her.

The white spears crumbled away into specs of light that floated up into the air. Eventually, they faded away leaving them in darkness.

“If you come over here, Renée…” Maria murmured, extending a hand out towards him. “I might accidentally kill you.”

Wait… what?

Maria knew she never did things accidentally. Everything she did, she did because she could do it. With purpose. There wasn’t anything she couldn’t do. And…

“Who… are you?” Maria asked, staring at the woman before her.

“So, you are connected to someone who knows,” Conta surmised. “I am Beta.”

A letter in the original Ophiuchian alphabet.

No. That’s the wrong answer, Maria thought to herself as the world spun.

When had it happened?

Enzo had his boys test them on a couple of poor saps,” Donato had said to Cadence in that cold room. “‘Course one managed to get away, but that’s not relevant.”

Was it then?

The Conta who had returned to the ship on that day they were to depart from the Twin Cities all those weeks ago—had that not been her Conta?

No, no. Maria would’ve noticed if it wasn’t her Conta. She would’ve.

Why hadn’t she noticed?

Conta was gone for so long, and Maria hadn’t even noticed. Maybe it was because Atienna and Cadence had suggested for her to keep her distance from Conta after their fight.

“Give Conta time,” they had said. “Let her digest her feelings.” Maria had thought that she had understood what they were saying then, but perhaps she hadn’t truly understood anything at all.

How would Conta feel if she realized that Maria hadn’t noticed she was gone?

Conta would be sad, of course. And Maria didn’t like it when Conta was sad. Being mad was better than being sad. Conta—

Conta who had always been by her side. Conta who held her hand as they ran through the grass fields in front of the orphanage. Conta who had leaped with her from the ocean cliff-side in their childhood despite being terrified. Conta who had tentatively told her in the days following Leona’s departure from their ship that she had taken Leona’s necklace because she had wanted Maria to compliment her on it. Conta who filled in Maria’s shadow perfectly.

Conta was gone?

No, that was impossible.

Because Maria never lost, and she never broke promises. Whatever she put her mind to, she accomplished. So, when she promised Conta that they would travel the world together forever, promised Conta that she would never allow her to die, she meant it. She was going to make that possible. But.

Conta was gone.

And a world without Conta was impossible.

But nothing was impossible.

Then… okay.

“I won’t forgive you,” Maria stated calmly before pushing the girl behind her into Renée’s waiting arms.

“Maria—”

Without skipping a beat, Maria charged at Not-Conta with her drawn blade. Not-Conta flicked her gloved hand again, sending another barrage of glowing white spears of vitae at Maria from her blood. This time Maria dodged swiftly, which prompted Not-Conta to send out another barrage. This barrage snapped Maria’s blade into shards and scratched at her arms and legs, but Maria didn’t care. She simply plucked the sharpest shard from the air and tackled Not-Conta to the ground. She pinned Non-Conta there as she heaved and gritted her teeth. It wasn’t hard to keep Not-Conta locked beneath her. Conta wasn’t very physically strong after all.

“I’ll never forgive you. I won’t forgive you. You—”

She drove the shard through Beta’s gloved hand and ripped the conductor off with the blade as the woman groaned. The sounds of Beta’s pain were terrible, but Maria ignored them and wrapped her free hand around Beta’s throat as she brought the shard back up with her other hand.

“I won’t ever, ever forgive someone who has taken something that’s mine!”

Maria drove the shard downwards but—

—was stopped by a tanned hand around the wrist.

Olive. He stared at her, green eyes wide as saucers, as he struggled against her thrust. In his background, she could faintly hear the blaring of sirens. Still, this mirage of him was oddly strong.

Wait, Maria!

Why? 

Think, Maria, please.

I am thinking. I am thinking that I will kill this person. 

I mean, think. She was probably the one who hired the bounty hunters. 

All the more reason to kill this impersonator.

But why did she send the bounty hunters?

She wanted to kill me. Just like she killed Conta—

Another roll of rage and anguish and fury overcame her, and she drove the knife downwards once more.

No! She couldn’t do it herself. That’s why she hired them! She couldn’t bring herself to! Because she’s still Conta!

Maria stopped driving the blade downwards, but Olive’s ghostly hand remained gripped tightly around her wrist.

And she was probably the one who killed them. Maybe. I don’t know. But…

A wave of nausea that she knew was not her own swept over her.

Maria, please! Olive’s eyes were wide, fearful, concerned. I don’t want you to do something that you’ll regret.

And Maria lacked regrets. But she still lacked understanding, she knew. But Olive’s feelings—those, she could understand as if they were own.

But—

Maria squeezed the shard tightly, drawing blood. She met the eyes of the woman below her and drove the blade down again—this time, into the ground right beside the woman’s head. She peeled herself off of the other woman and stared.

Beta slowly rose from the ground, holding her bleeding hand with a slight wince. She didn’t make any moves—merely regarded Maria with an unreadable expression.

Before Maria could say anything, however, a terrible whine rang through the air. The sound resounded out from Beta’s left pocket which was now glowing a pale tangerine. Beta reached in and drew out what Maria soon recognized to be one of Theta’s proto-conductors. Its glass tube was filled with pulsating pale tangerine, liquid-like light.

Beta’s hand twitched as the glow from the proto-conductor intensified, and the proto-conductor tumbled to the ground. The glass capsule of the thing burst open with a crash, sending the pale liquid within splattering across the floor. The liquid spread far, consuming nearly a quarter of the ground before an icy wind blew out from it. And that icy wind carried a familiar voice—

“There really is no hope.”

“Theta…” Beta murmured. She cast one last, long look back at Maria before she leaped into the tangerine light and disappeared.

Maria started after her but found her knees suddenly giving way. She fell forward on all fours and stared blankly at the ground. Something wasn’t right. Her head wasn’t right. Her chest didn’t feel right. Nothing felt right. This wasn’t fun anymore. No.

Maria buried her head in her hands and felt her eyes begin to burn.

What was going on?

What was going on, Maria knew, was that she had broken her promise. Her promise to Conta.

And as Maria pictured herself returning to the ship without Conta by her side, sailing the ship without Conta at her shadow, spending the nights without listening to Conta count their treasures and supplies, Maria’s heart collapsed in on itself.

No, she didn’t like this feeling at all. This emptiness—like a piece inside of herself had been sliced out cleanly, leaving a gaping hole.

And then, for the first time in many years, Maria wept.

11.3: Atienna’s (Inverso) Heroism

Re-cap:

Having finally come together, the six have formulated a plan to handle all of their life-staking, respective, inter-connective issues at once.

Atienna has confirmed the following: Aquarian secretary Yulia Krista is a True Conductor connected to a Specialist child named Kovich who is under the Campana Family’s ownership; Yulia accidentally murdered Kalama after mistaking Kalama for Alexei; Kovich is Alexei’s child whom Alexei sold to the Campanas; Yulia wants to kill Alexei to avenge Kovich’s current circumstances; and Werner’s Colonel Fritz von Spiel is also connected to them.

After confirming what is truly important to her, Atienna confronts Yulia in the cavern and threatens her into submission. But as the night of the plan carries on… 

Zatmeniye Caverns, Aquarius

Atienna opened her eyes.

The firelight was crackling half a meter away, highlighting her face in warmth while leaving her back in the cold. Across the flickering flame she could see Yulia jotting away in her notebook again. The Aquarian woman’s back was facing the sleeping Aquarian party—away from Alexei.

Atienna pulled herself up to a sit, drawing the attention of Yulia who locked eyes with her. They held each other’s gazes for a moment before Yulia dipped her head and looked away.

Following their confrontation with one another at the back of the cave earlier, Yulia had agreed to step down from her attempt on Alexei’s life without question. It was rather anti-climactic, but Atienna supposed that was the desperation of connected True Conductors.

Atienna rolled her neck in thought.

Her own part in this plan of theirs was rather simple. She was to watch over Yulia and ensure that the secretary didn’t act out after Werner executed his portion of the plan. If all went well, then Atienna wouldn’t need to lift a finger.

Atienna felt a bit concerned, however, about the others. It wasn’t hard to see that their shares in this schema were much more perilous than her own. Truthfully, she hadn’t wanted any of them to take part at all. Deep down she had wished for them to take a step backwards and watch everything unfold from afar. A safe distance. Let those who were outside of them settle everything and avoid the danger. That was a choice—right from one angle and wrong from another. And the difference between that choice and averting one’s eyes was debatable.

But the people whom she was connected with wanted desperately to move forward; and Atienna had agreed with that choice personally herself months prior. She did wonder if this was considered blundering forward blindly, however. They had all unified so resolutely together that night that Atienna had decided to keep her reservations to herself to the best of her abilities. She had wanted to consult Werner about it privately later, but the lieutenant seemed to have been drawn in tightly either through his own patriotic sense of duty or through the influence of the others.

Atienna glanced behind her and found Chiamaka sleeping away quietly. Sefu was on guard, half asleep, leaning against an ice rock a little way away. Kabal was on guard over Afu somewhere in the cavern; but Atienna reckoned if he were on guard here instead of Sefu, he would do just the same.

But it wouldn’t do very well to sit here and highlight her idleness, Atienna thought to herself. She’d already finished reading the books she’d brought with her twice over already but wondered if she could approach it with a unique perspective on a third read-through.

Before Atienna could reach into her satchel for her books, however, she was joined by Cvetka who suddenly settled down beside her. Atienna assumed the Aquarian advisor had woken up earlier and had developed the sudden desire to converse.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about Kovich recently,” Cvetka said.

Heart skipping a beat, Atienna turned to her.

“About his writings, I mean,” Cvetka elaborated. “That passage about valuing a person more than others and then becoming another person’s enemy as a result.”

“It’s an interesting perspective on the sociality of human nature,” Atienna drew slowly. “A rather pessimistic perspective.”

“Pessimistic or realistic?” Cvetka met Atienna’s eyes.

Something in Cvetka’s demeanor had changed since they had last spoken, Atienna realized. There was a sharp, calculating glint in the woman’s eye that had not been there before. No. Rather, it was more likely that it had been hidden away until now.

“That’s up to the reader, don’t you think?” Atienna replied with a smile.

“You’re knowledgeable, Atienna,” Cvetka said, looking away. “But as Kovich says—”

“Knowledge isn’t wisdom.” Atienna followed her gaze. Yulia.

“Fortunately, our professions as advisors don’t require wisdom,” Cvetka returned. “But I’m assuming that you are like me and only playing the role.”

Atienna’s heart skipped another beat, and she turned to find Cvetka staring at her. The woman’s gaze was intense, unwavering, un-averted.

“Why have you been avoiding me, Atienna?” Cvetka pressed. “Is it because… you know that I am a True Conductor like yourself? That is very rude.”

The Aquarian’s eyes were like pitfalls. They didn’t seem to reflect back the light from the fire due to their bottomlessness. And Atienna had just fallen into the pit.

Atienna managed to keep her composure. “Am I correct in thinking that you reached that conclusion before I reached my conclusion about you?”

“If you realized I was one only when that ELPIS member fell out from that portal, then yes. We’ve known before you’d even stepped foot in this cave.”

‘We’? It didn’t seem as if Cvetka was referring to whoever she was connected to.

“Just as we’ve known Yulia is one,” Cvetka continued. “It’s quite unexpected actually to have many True Conductors gathered together. But as another True Conductor once told me, ‘It’s only natural that True Conductors all come together.’”

Was she referring to Veles, the rather powerful Elementalist True Conductor Maria had encountered…?

“You’re very observant,” Atienna noted, “to find True Conductors so easily.”

“It’s merely my job to search for True Conductors,” Cvetka replied. “If I wasn’t observant, then I would be in trouble with my employers.”

Atienna’s mind went to Olive’s conversation with Claire. The two princes had spoken of True Conductors who could be hunting down other True Conductors for unknown reasons and—as Atienna realized now—for unknown employers.

A cold sweat broke down the back of Atienna’s neck. “And you would not be in trouble with your employer telling all of this to me?”

Cvetka’s red lips curled upwards. “Are you under the impression that you can do anything about it even with this knowledge?”

‘Knowledge was power’—that was a naivety, Atienna realized.

“You and me, and all of the other people like us—we’re just ants to them,” Cveta drew. “Or maybe we’re specks of dust in the air.”

“It’s very mysterious if you keep referring to your employers as ‘them,’ don’t you think? Would it be too much to ask who your employer is?”

“You could guess, and then I can confirm or deny.”

“I could… And then you could narrow down the people whom I connected with through my knowledge.”

Cvetka remained smiling.

This differed from her confrontation with Yulia, Atienna knew. With Yulia, Atienna had held the foothold, held the knowledge, the advantage. Here, Cvetka was the one who possessed all the cards. The cards Atienna wanted. Not only that but—

Cvetka’s eyes narrowed.

—this woman was clever and dangerous. Like Cadence.

“I will tell you this,” Cvetka finally said. “If this entire thing were a novel, ELPIS would merely be the secondary villain.”

“Well, that’s reassuring,” Atienna finally said.

“How so?”

Cvetka was fishing for information again.

“Well, ELPIS is a terrorist organization, isn’t it?” Atienna returned.

“You say that, but you were being very friendly with an ELPIS leader.”

Had Cvetka had a slip of the tongue? How surprising.

“So your employer knows about the true nature of ELPIS then?”

And here, Atienna realized, she had slipped too.

Cvetka’s eyes widened a fraction, and then she chuckled, shaking her head. “It seems as if we’ve both gotten too carried away. Well, it doesn’t matter.” She hummed. “We will find all of the ones you are connected to, Atienna. But as long as you all stay in line, nothing will happen to you or to them until it’s time for the syzygy.”

So True Conductors truly were valuable to whoever Cvetka’s employer was, Atienna concluded. Up to a point.

Leona’s haughty yet merciful demeanor onboard Maria’s ship flashed through Atienna’s mind, followed by Jin’s mention to Olive about how saint candidates were allies of True Conductors.

So that was how it was.

Were the saint candidates—as Cadence liked to say— ‘end game’ then? And how exactly were they the villain here? Through machinating the mysterious syzygy? How perplexing.

Atienna’s hands itched for the answer.

Cvetka’s gaze shifted across the fire towards Yulia again. “For those who refuse to stay in line, however…”

Atienna’s gaze flicked to Yulia. “Might I ask how big all of this is?”

Cvetka reached forward and drew a small circle on the ground with her index finger. “This is Aquarius.” Cvetka drew a large circle around Aquarius. “This is Signum.” And then she drew a larger circle around it and slapped her hand down on the image. “That is the end.”

Atienna stared at Cvetka’s hand for a moment before she tried, “Really… why are you being so open to me?”

“There’s a lifelessness to you. An apathy. And I think you’re proud of it,” Cvetka said without falter. “You look down on others for caring about things like this.” She gestured loosely around the camp. “It’s unsightly to you. How people tear each other and themselves apart for an ‘idea’ they think is right. You think you’re better.”

“You speak so eloquently, Cvetka.” Atienna reflected the woman’s smile back to her. “It’s as if you’re drawing conclusions from your own heart.”

Cvetka seemed to have understood the insult as her lips twitched downwards slightly. Atienna couldn’t help but find a small victory in this.

“I just wonder if you’ll make the same choice as I did when my employers approach you—and they most certainly will.” Cvetka turned back to the campfire as the others began to stir and greet the morning. “What’s more important to you, I wonder… All I want is for myself and those I care about to be able to live comfortably until the end.”

***

It was near nightfall on the same day when their plan was executed.

Cvetka’s intrusion and revelation came too close to the plan’s initiation for them to revise and hold off. The time dependency of the plan also had to be accounted for; and after weighing the prominence of danger, they all decided to move forward—albeit more carefully.

Thus, Cadence kick-started the plan.

Atienna could see it all play out in the distance in her mind’s eye through a thin veil of fog as she sat once again in front of the campfire with the others sleeping around her. The guard rotation was the same as it had been that morning—Sigurd and Sefu, both appearing tired or disinterested.

Atienna had a book poised on her lap to not look suspicious as she observed the other five initiate their portion of the plan.

It was rather impressive—the way it was all coming to fruition.

Distantly, faintly, Atienna could see Cadence and Jericho successfully capture Theta. She could see Maria begin her haphazardous freeing of the Specialist children under the Campanas. And then she could see Werner stalk Fritz von Spiel from behind—

Yulia abruptly snapped up from where she’d been sleeping across the fire from Atienna. Without even casting a glance at Atienna or any of those sleeping around her, Yulia rose to a stand and paced to the back of the cave. Cvetka who was sleeping only a meter away from Yulia remained still.

After a moment of thought, Atienna rose from her bedding and followed behind the Aquarian secretary. She found Yulia facing the black-painted wall at the back of the cavern. The woman was quietly muttering to herself there as she stared holes into the black spot.

Atienna drew closer in an effort to better hear her.

“—calm down. Don’t panic. We knew this was coming,” Yulia muttered. She clicked her tongue and shook her head. “Why are you running?”

Given Yulia’s lack of subtlety here, Atienna could clearly see how Cvetka had been able to deduce that she was a True Conductor. How Cvetka had discovered Atienna’s own status as a True Conductor was troubling. Atienna had little contact physically with the others, after all. Perhaps then, it had been Virgo’s leave from isolation that had drawn the attention of Cvetka and her employers. If that were the case then that indicated that Cvetka and her employers didn’t believe at all in coincidences. Which was dangerous. But there had to be more to it.

Yulia suddenly fell silent.

Werner buzzed at the back of Atienna’s head and then—

Atienna. Monitor—

I know. Be careful, Werner. 

Suddenly, Yulia sank to her knees. The woman lowered her head, hands pressing against the cold ground as she trembled. “He’s free… He’s finally free… I—” She lifted her head, a frown gracing her features. “What are you doing? You look ridiculous—” Yulia shot up to a stand. “They won’t know it was you—”

Another stretch of silence. Atienna could hear the colonel’s aggravation from Werner’s end. It sounded muddled, like an echo resounding in a cave.

“What is wrong with you?!” Yulia snapped. “He’s finally free! Why are you only thinking about yourself? After everything he’s suffered—” She suddenly took in a deep breath and continued evenly, “Calm down. You’re pulling me in—”

“What is all this shouting about?!”

A stampede of footsteps resounded from behind Atienna. And upon turning, she found a half-asleep Alexei, a perplexed Moana, a tense Sigurd, a worried Sefu, a tired Chiamaka, a frazzled Louise, and an alarmed Pi standing behind her. Cvetka wasn’t among them.

“Atienna?” Chiamaka looked her up and down. “What is going on here? Why have you left the campsite?” The Virgoan diplomat paused, staring past Atienna towards Yulia.

When Atienna followed Chiamaka’s gaze, she found Yulia staring back past her. Atienna already knew who Yulia was looking at. Alexei. Yulia’s gaze flicked back to Atienna.

Atienna shook her head slowly before noticing that Yulia had already slipped on conducting gloves. It seemed as if a decision had already been made.

“One thing he was right about was that this is not fair,” Yulia drew dissonantly, staring holes into Alexei. “Why do we have to suffer just because of a choice you made?”

Alexei blanched in confusion. “What…?”

Yulia drifted forward like a ghost towards Alexei, but before she could reach him, Sefu and Sigurd stepped between them. Sigurd hovered over Alexei, while Sefu pushed Yulia back with a loose hand.

As Atienna moved forward to calm Yulia, however, a wave of anguish overcame her. It was an intense heaviness—a void—that opened up at the bottom of her chest. A feeling that reminded her of the achingly painful months following her mother’s injury.

Loss.

Gone.

Maria… Atienna realized, tears pricking her eyes.

And then a terrible screech unfurled from the black-painted wall. A crack appeared in pale tangerine there, slowly expanding outwards until it consumed the entirety of the black stain. A cold draft blew out from the newly formed portal and it carried an eerily familiar voice—

“There really is no hope.”

“Theta…” Pi whispered from behind Atienna.

When Atienna turned to the man, she found him staring down at her with wide eyes.

“Fix. Change,” he said. “Make up. Is what is important.”

Atienna froze. “Pi, wait—”

But Pi did not wait. With brows furrowed in determination, he darted forward and leaped into and through the portal, disappearing in an instant.

“M-Mladen?!” Alexei exclaimed a second too late.

And suddenly Louise let out an airy, giddy laugh as she too dashed forward. She twirled around and waved her hand in the air with a “Thanks for everything!” before she leaped through the portal.

“L-Louise?!” Alexei shouted, again a second too late and echoing Atienna’s confusion.

Abruptly, Yulia rushed at Alexei with a roar, tackling him to the ground and pinning his arms to the sides with both of her hands. Alexei struggled under her weight for a moment before he let out a screech of agony as his arms began to glow a gray-blue beneath her gloved hands. The next instant saw to a burst of that same light erupting physically from the man’s arms. The light solidified, taking the shape of a familiar-looking, crystalline structure that resembled a flower. The same structure that had been blossoming out of Kalama’s corpse.

Moana’s eyes widened, and she paled before her face became twisted with rage. “You—”

Atienna held her back with one arm.

Yulia had ousted herself. She could no longer frame anyone. There was no exit for her anymore. She had trapped herself.

“Do you recognize it?” Yulia whispered as Alexei wailed beneath her. “This conducting? It’s amazing, isn’t it? To be able to send the vitae particles in your bloodstream haywire just by just touch—”

Yulia was cut off as Sefu ripped her off of Alexei. She whipped around and delivered a well-aimed kick to the gut that sent him flying backwards. Sefu righted himself immediately, whipping out his conducting spear and aiming it at her.

“Sefu!” Chiamaka exclaimed. “Do not fire! This is an internal affair, Sefu!”

Sefu gave Chiamaka an incredulous look, as did Atienna. But upon further thought past Maria’s haze of despair, Atienna supposed it made sense. To Chiamaka, Virgo was the most important thing here.

Sigurd approached Yulia from behind while swinging out her own halberd conductor. “Don’t move, Yulia,” Sigurd drew slowly, locking eyes with the secretary. “This isn’t wise.”

But Yulia didn’t obey. In one swift movement, she threw Alexei over her shoulders as if he were a rag doll and placed a gloved hand over his throat. “You stop me. He dies.”

Sigurd’s eyes narrowed, but she lowered her conductor.

Slowly, carefully, Yulia inched herself away from them and towards the still glowing portal.

Atienna’s mind raced.

Victim, perpetrator, and circumstance—the lines blurred with motivation, past, feeling. Now that all the variables meaningful to Atienna had been removed, what was the choice?

Atienna took a hesitant step backwards.

Just before Yulia reached the portal, however, Sefu let out a war cry and made an attempt at Alexei. A brief scuffle ensued, but before Atienna could comprehend the scene, Sefu, Alexei, and Yulia fell into the light and disappeared.

No…

Atienna started forward.

“Atienna, don’t!”

Atienna turned her head and found Chiamaka staring at her wide-eyed.

“Don’t get involved! Think about Virgo!”

Truly, that was the last thing Chiamaka should’ve said, Atienna thought to herself. But Atienna supposed Chiamaka was right in a certain light—just not Atienna’s own light.

Atienna couldn’t afford to lose someone else. Not after Maria had lost…

Atienna turned away from Chiamaka, away from the pain that crumpled in her chest, and dashed toward the portal.

A hand around her wrist stopped her short just as she reached it, however. When she turned, she found not Chiamaka but Sigurd gripping her tightly.

“Bad choice,” Sigurd said.

“He’s as important to me as that clever prince is to you,” Atienna whispered.

Sigurd’s eyes widened, and she released Atienna from her grip. “You really do know everything.”

And with that, Atienna stepped through the shimmering gate—

***

Twin Cities, Gemini

—and stumbled out into a warm, damp alleyway.

It was her first time seeing an alleyway marked with red brick and littered with debris. It was strange not seeing vines creeping up a wall like this one, strange not seeing moss growing along the floor. The air tasted strange as well—an ashen flavor with a touch of salt. But at the same time, all of this was nostalgic.

“—do you even think of him?!”

Atienna peered down the alleyway. At the mouth there stood Sefu, Yulia, and Alexei. Sefu was sandwiched between the two Aquarians, pointing his spear at Yulia with one hand. His other hand was crystallized over with red. Yulia didn’t even seem to comprehend the fact that Sefu was standing in front of her, however, and glared down at Alexei with malice. Alexei himself was lying on the ground on his stomach and was cradling his injured arms.

Atienna immediately started towards them.

“What are you…?” Alexei whispered to Yulia from on the ground. “You’re a Manipulator, but… how can you…?”

Yulia darted forward. Sefu pulled up his conducting spear defensively but before he could swing or aim the thing, Yulia swept him off his feet with her leg and slammed her conducting gloves over his left calf as soon as he fell.

Her movements were not that of a secretary. They were the movements of a trained soldier. No doubt Fritz von Spiel’s influence.

A burst of gray-blue light flashed from beneath Yulia’s gloves, followed by Sefu’s agonized scream.

No!

Atienna ran forward swiftly, spun around, and cracked Yulia against the skull with her foot just as the secretary turned towards her. Yulia flew back into the open street before colliding against a store wall behind her.

But Atienna didn’t pay her any mind. Instead, she wrapped her arms around Sefu’s waist and began to drag him back into the alleyway.

“M-Miss Imamu,” Alexei stammered, “w-wait—”

Atienna met Alexei’s eyes, gave him a sympathetic look, and continued to drag Sefu backwards. Alexei paled. Yulia pulled herself up to a stand and staggered over to Alexei’s side. She didn’t make an immediate move towards Alexei, however, and studied Atienna curiously.

“I warned you…” Atienna murmured as she held the groaning Sefu in her arms. “You will only cause him more pain by doing this.”

“An eye for an eye,” Yulia challenged.

“Makes the world blind,” Atienna finished the cliché line.

“Then let’s all be blind together.”

Atienna considered the thinly veiled proposal before she dipped her head. “Before you make that choice… He should be able to meet him first, don’t you think?” She glanced at Alexei. “To decide himself. It’s only right.”

Alexei stiffened.

“You can see it, can’t you?” Atienna continued. “He’s almost here.”

Yulia froze, wide-eyed. She then turned her attention down the road as a pair of light footsteps resounded through the streets.


Yulia Kriska is an exceptional woman. She has always contributed to the good of Aquarius: from her former days spent as a farmer to her current days serving in Aquarius’s political realm. Her childhood friends say that she didn’t always cut such an imposing, straight-laced figure and that she used to be very shy. When questioned on how she conquered her ‘crippling shyness,’ she said: “Find something you will die for and dedicate your heart to it.”

Truly, her heart lives and breathes with Aquarius.

Narodnaya Gazeta Issue, Yezhenedel’noye Izdaniye #87, 17 Avgust 1939

11.2: Werner’s (Fidato) Command

Re-cap:

The Twin Cities is in chaos as ELPIS reigns through the streets. The six have come together to formulate a plan in order to resolve each of their interconnected issues. Cadence has successfully completed her portion of the plan and has captured the ELPIS leader Theta with Jericho’s assistance.

Werner is out of commission due to an override by Cadence but was previously looking into Colonel Fritz von Spiel’s invovlement with ELPIS after it was brought to his attention by Private Derik Stein. Von Spiel has been revealed to be a True Conductor connected to a child owned by the Campanas and to Aquarian secretary Yulia through Cadence’s and Atienna’s investigations.

As their plan unfolds, Werner’s role begins to come into play. And it’s all about trust.

Twin Cities, Gemini

Werner Waltz opened his eyes.

He immediately assessed his surroundings. He was lying on a firm bed; there was a sharp, antiseptic smell in the air; it was dim; and there was a brass sound trilling through the air. Saxophone. A record.

He was injured, clearly, given the soreness at the back of his neck and arms. And he was forgetting something. The memory he sought, however, slipped from his fingers as soon as he reached for it. This prompted him to shuffle through his memories.

Firstly, Morello had overridden him, resulting in his injury. Given that occurrence, it was most likely that he was currently under Nico’s care.

Werner frowned.

He had allowed himself to be overridden twice within a month. A single error was already inexcusable. The same error made twice was unacceptable.

But that was not what he had been forgetting, so Werner temporarily set it aside as he searched his memory further.

Following a period of darkness, he had come to and had assisted Morello when she was captured by Caporegime Donato. He had overridden her and taken her place during Feliciano’s sadistic torturing. Yes, that had been a logical choice. However, there was a digression. At that moment when he had offered Morello his assistance, he had reached out for her with a comforting hand on the cheek.

Werner couldn’t dissect why he had done such a thing. It hadn’t been appropriate. And it was rather… intimate. This issue too was insignificant, however, and Werner set it aside as well.

After he had assisted Morello, he had assisted Jericho in his conflict with Omega. The confrontation had been reckless, but the outcome was justifiable. ELPIS’s source of information and espionage had been cut off at the head.

Following this, he had guided Jericho back to the hotel since the man had seemed unstable. This was logical as well, but Werner couldn’t comprehend why he hadn’t directly advised Jericho to get a hold of himself and had instead assisted the peacekeeper quietly from the sidelines. Not significant.

Jericho had encountered Talib not so long after that, and Werner had observed their conversation from afar. The two peacekeepers had spoken of ‘trust’, and then Jericho had asked Talib to place one of his manipulated mediums on the colonel.

The colonel.

Werner forced himself up into a sitting position. The world around him spun, but he kept himself upright.

There was a white curtain drawn to his left, and behind it shadows danced in a backdrop of candlelight. Werner pulled the curtain open and found an older man in a lab coat sitting at a drab desk pressed against the wall. There was a candle flickering on the surface there acting as the sole source of light in the room.

“Ah, I see you’ve finally woken up,” the man said, turning in his chair. “How are you feeling?”

“I’m fine. Thank you for your hospitality,” Werner responded. “Are you affiliated with Nico Fabrizzio?” He knew the answer already, but it would be suspicious not to ask.

“Yes, I’m Nico’s father actually,” Doctor Fabrizzio explained. He gestured around the room. “I apologize for the dismal conditions. The city’s power has been cut, it seems; and my portable generator conductor went out just the other day.”

“I see. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Doctor Fabrizzio,” Werner said. “Is Nico present?”

Doctor Fabrizzio smiled thinly, snapping his fingers. “Yes, he is. Let me retrieve him for you.” The doctor rose from his seat and exited the room, leaving Werner in dark and in silence.

Welcome back, Lieutenant! Just in time too! Told ya Nico does great stuff!

Cadence’s image appeared before Werner suddenly. The grin she wore quickly became a frown of concern. “You alright, Lieutenant?”

I’m fine, Morello. Re-inform me of the points in our plan. 

Their synchronization increased slightly, and the memory of their discussion in the Sognare trickled to Werner gradually.

Cadence stiffened, reaching out and placing a hand on his shoulder. “Ya don’t remember yourself?”

There was no point in lying.

My recollection of everything that occurred while I was unconscious is hazy, Werner explained. It’s coming to me slowly, but I wanted to be clear on everything. And now I am. 

“Well… that doesn’t sound like a bad thing. Hopefully, the whole thing with Feliciano’s escaped your memory too?”

No. I remember that clearly, but that’s not important. 

Cadence blanched and rubbed the back of her neck. “I… I didn’t say this earlier ‘cause of everything that’s been happening but… Thank you for doing that, Werner. Sincerely. And don’t say there’s nothing ta thank ya for. There is.” A second of silence. “I’m sorry, Werner. I really am.”

Nothing is accomplished in being sorry, Morello, Werner informed her. Just be better.

Cadence half-laughed, half-sighed. “Ya got a way with inspirational words, Lieutenant…” Her gaze drifted down to his lap—no, his hands which rested on his lap.

They were bare, he realized. His hands were bare, his palms visible.

Before Werner could pull them away, however, Cadence placed her hand over them. Although she was not present, he could still feel the coolness of her touch.

Werner stiffened, unsure of how to respond. For once, however, he didn’t feel shame.

Cadence desynchronized abruptly as footsteps pounded up the hall. Nico stumbled into the room with black curls wild, face flushed from running, shirt disheveled. In his hands were Werner’s folded uniform and a glass of water.

“You’re—you’re awake,” Nico stammered. “I—my transmutation—I thought I missed something because you wouldn’t wake up. I’m…” He took a deep breath. “How’re you feeling? Do you have any prominent pain anywhere? I’m glad you’re alright.”

“Your work is good, Nico. My prolonged condition may have had something to do with me being a True Conductor.”

Nico handed him his uniform and the glass of water. “Then… you know what’s been happening?”

“If you’re referring to what’s happening in the city at this moment, then yes. I am aware,” Werner replied after slipping on his gloves and then moving to take a sip of water. “I’m also aware that Cadence hasn’t been in contact with you recently.”

Nico took the empty glass from him and set it on the table. “I heard that she infiltrated the Campanas from Gilbert, but that’s it…” Nico frowned. “She overrode you, didn’t she?”

“That needs to be set aside, Nico. I’m working in tandem with Cadence now to resolve our current issues here.” Werner felt a press at the back of his neck. “Cadence wanted me to tell you something.”

Nico’s brows rose. “Cadence did?”

Werner informed the man of Francis’s fate and ELPIS’s nature. It was a short debriefing, but it seemed to take its toll.

Nico fell pale afterwards and sank down to the bed beside him. He buried his head in his hands and remained silent. Finally, he turned to study Werner. His face was calm, expectant, waiting. “So do we have a plan?”

Werner was rather surprised at how readily Nico accepted these developments given his less than calm display earlier. It was a satisfactory change.

“Yes, we do. Where are the other men?”

“They’re actually in the rooms we have open here,” Nico drew dazedly. “I called them here as soon as the power went out. They… Well, Stein’s sorta figured out that I’m not from the best walk of life. Sorry about that—”

An odd tenseness in Werner’s shoulders released.

“Stein is awake?”

Nico nodded. “He woke up just the other day. He’s doin’ fine. Angry, but…” Nico moved forward. “If it’s alright with you, I’d like to move forward with my medical assessment first before—”

“Nico, I’m fine.”

Nico frowned, pulling out his conducting gloves from his pockets. “You’re my superior on the battlefield, Werner, but I’m your superior in this field.”

Werner considered this and conceded with a nod. Nico quickly, efficiently went through all the medical checks he usually would when they were in the field. Afterwards, he pulled back and beamed before leaving the room to allow Werner to change.

Werner slid on his uniform, straightened the medals on his chest, and combed back his platinum blonde hair. He then checked his pocket watch that had been stored safely away in his pants pocket.

Twelve hours exactly.

As he prepared to leave the room, a wooden picture frame resting on the desk caught his eye. After a moment of hesitation, he picked it up.

Captured in black and white, there was a group of six smiling children. There was a cross-armed, long-haired girl glaring at a freckled, boyish-looking girl. The latter had one arm slung over the shoulder of a calmly smiling, amused-looking boy and the other around the waist of a nervous-looking, curly-haired boy. Behind them stood a smirking, thick adolescent with crossed arms and a young man wearing an expression of indifference.

Werner could remember when this photograph was taken.

They had taken it using a portable camera stolen from an Ariesian tourist. They had spent all day choosing outfits for the picture, and it was nearly sundown when they’d managed to all come together for it. Then they spent three hours trying to figure out how to get a good image out; and by dusk, they were at each other’s throats. Still, in the end, they came together to capture this single moment. Afterwards, Allen had treated them for some gelato as they waited for the v-lights on the Dioscuri Bridge to flicker on.

It was a warm memory.

A silhouette in the door’s threshold behind Werner became reflected on the picture’s surface.

“What is with you and wanting to hop right back in death’s door when you literally just got away from it?”

Werner turned.

Gilbert was leaning against the doorframe, arms crossed.

There were three seconds of silence.

“You feeling alright? Sleep good?”

“This is no time to be joking around, Gilbert.” Werner set the photograph down. “Were you able to submit the report about the colonel to the capital?”

Gilbert uncrossed his arms. “Yeah, I did. Klaus conjured a radio after the power went out.”

“And?”

“The capital said they were going to run a preliminary investigation. Didn’t give us any directive, so I’m assuming they’re expecting us to just hang tight. Colonel’s gone AWOL too.” Gilbert grimaced. “Sorry.”

The development wasn’t unexpected. Carrying on the plan without the capital’s personal mandate would be less than satisfactory, however. Werner was very aware that he had already acted outside of orders against a superior once. If he did it once more—regardless of his intentions—they could mark him down for misconduct and insubordination. He would appear rebellious and disorderly. Unsatisfactory.

Capricorn’s deal with the Romanos could be compromised by this plan going awry as well. And if the deal were compromised, then Capricorn would be at an impasse with Argo. And there was Gabrielle’s investigation to consider. If during the plan’s execution, Ophiuchus found out about the deal then—

Saints, ya think too much. It’ll be alright. Cadence. Below eighty percent synchronization. Like I said, I’ll make it right. Ya don’t have ta worry about your country’s dirty deeds bein’ caught on by Ophiuchus. I promise.

Reassurance.

Right. The colonel held military secrets regarding Capricorn’s conductor development and most likely held classified information regarding Capricorn’s generator conductors and reservoirs. It wouldn’t be unfounded to believe that the colonel would trade these secrets for whatever ELPIS was offering if the offer involved Kovich. That was the desperation of connected True Conductors. The thought unnerved Werner. Regardless, sacrifices were necessary.

“Werner…?”

“It’s not your fault, Gilbert,” Werner finally said. “That was beyond your control.” He paused, approaching the man at the threshold and meeting his eyes. “Thank you for helping her—Morello—in her investigations of the Campanas.”

“No problem. Anyway, you two worked out your drama then, I’m assuming?” Gilbert shrugged before his expression soured. “So… do you know?” He tapped his head. “From Cadence?”

“Yes, I’m aware, Gilbert.” About the children.

“Makes me feel disgusting for even eating in places owned by those people.” Gilbert spat. “How the hell are they still operating? Ophiuchus is busy breathing down our necks about border agreements, but they’re letting this run? I hate sounding like those nationalists, but the hell is the point of them even being here?”

“I understand your feelings, but you need to remain calm,” Werner replied. “We need to focus on what we can manage.”

Gilbert’s eyes narrowed and then widened. “You mean… the colonel?”

Before Werner could respond, a pair of footsteps pounded up the hall. Upon turning, he found Kleine doubled-over and panting.

“L-Lieutenant,” Kleine stammered after straightening to attention with a salute. “I-I heard you were awake, sir, and I’m glad to see you awake. But, sir, I need to tell you. My childhood friend Charite. She’s an ELPIS leader. I had no idea. I thought… it doesn’t make sense. I—”

“Dammit, Kleine!” Gilbert snapped. “Where is your respect? The man just woke up, and you want to barrage him with some half-assed explanation? He knows all that already.”

Kleine glanced in between them before he continued regardless, “I had no idea, Lieutenant. Believe me, sir. I really thought she was one of you. A True Conductor. But I—” Kleine fidgeted with his glasses. “I was completely wrong. I’m sorry, sir, if I’d known, I would have told you. I… I don’t understand it. But I promise you can still trust me, sir.”

There was that word again.

“Kleine, calm down and lower your voice,” Werner ordered, holding up a hand. He scrutinized the man. “Has it ever occurred to you that I might be like Haussmann? That I might be affiliated with ELPIS?”

Kleine stiffened and stared, clearly confused. “What…? No, sir. Of course not.” He adjusted his glasses. “Is… Is this a test, sir?”

This was trust.

That was naïve. It was rank-and-file obedience.

Was it?

Werner’s head buzzed.

“I’m going to need your assistance, Kleine,” Werner finally said. “I need to know if I can trust you, if I can rely on you.”

Kleine blinked out of his daze. “Rely on me?” He straightened and nodded. “Of course, sir.”

“Good.” Werner nodded before elaborating: “Colonel von Spiel is a True Conductor like myself. One of the individuals he is connected with is under the ownership of the Campanas—the organization that owns the restaurant you visited with Morello prior—and he is working with your childhood friend.”

Kleine startled, opened his mouth, closed it, digested the information. Finally, Kleine murmured, “He’s working with…. ELPIS?”

“I understand you have questions, Kleine,” Werner continued, “but I’ll address the remaining details with the others.”

***

After Werner collected his thoughts, he made his way into the reception room of Doctor Fabrizzio’s underground clinic. There he found all of his subordinates that had accompanied him to this city waiting for him. Kleine and Bergmann were squeezed together on a small sofa in the corner of the room, while Stein and Gilbert were leaning against the wall. Nico stood off to the side, smiling lightly. They all stood at attention at his arrival, remaining silent and watchful.

Werner nodded at Stein whose left arm was slung up in cloth. “It’s good to see that you’ve recovered, Stein.”

“You too, Lieutenant.”

“Are you well enough to fire a rifle conductor?”

Stein straightened. “I’m always ready for a fight.” He moved his slung arm. “This is just for the ladies.”

Werner nodded at him before he began his debriefing:

“As you’ve been made aware, our true purpose in this city isn’t for luxury and recess. We were meant to act as a cover for Capricorn’s engagement with a crime organization that supplies us with modifier conductors. These were the orders handed down to us by the capital.”

Bergmann bunched up her pants legs in her hands.

“Colonel Fritz von Spiel has been colluding with ELPIS for unknown reasons. It most likely involves his unsanctioned dealings that my associate investigated on my behalf. Stein found evidence of the ELPIS collusion this prior to his injury.”

Kleine nodded. Bergmann gasped. Stein grunted. Nico lowered his gaze, while Gilbert remained impassive.

“Then everything that’s been happening in the city…” Bergmann murmured before rising to a stand. “Has the capital been informed? What are we supposed to do?”

“What do you think the lieutenant is talking to us for, Bergmann?” Stein scoffed.

“Stein, no one asked—”

“I am giving you all a briefing,” Werner interjected. “If you believe that what you have to say is an important point that I’m not aware of, then you can speak. If it’s just commentary or questions that will be answered during this briefing, I ask you to remain silent.”

The two quieted.

“There are no orders from the capital regarding what to do with the colonel. In fact, they have indirectly requested us to stand by,” Werner continued. He allowed a brief pause of silence. “I’m choosing to move forward and put the colonel under arrest. I will clarify that this differs from former major Ersatz’s—” Werner’s stomach churned, but he pushed it aside. “—betrayal. This is not a defensive position. This is offense.”

There was a beat of silence, and Werner could feel all of their gazes boring into him.

“I understand that given all the secrecy and lack of certainty in these developments, you may be hesitant to follow behind me.”

There was another beat of silence, but none of them exchanged looks as he’d been expecting.

“But what I am asking from you is not your blind obedience,” Werner stated. “What I am asking for is your trust and your assistance. I will take full responsibility for it.”

Werner met each of their gazes—the gazes of soldiers who had served beneath him for years now. They stared back at him, either wide-eyed or perplexed.

Werner knew his request was large and unprofessional. He had no doubt that their opinion of him had most likely decreased with this, but at the moment that wasn’t what was important.

“There are certain details I cannot divulge to you, but what I can tell you is this: the colonel is going directly against Capricorn’s interest and may compromise the country that we’ve served and protected all of these years.” Werner’s hands began to itch, and he had to take a moment to compose himself to continue: “Trust is something traded. You should know what I mean when I say this. So what is your answer?”

There was another stretch of silence, and Werner could easily count the seconds that ticked by without glancing at his pocket watch.

And then—

“Yes, sir!” In unison, in chorus, with the same certainty, they all stood at attention.

Their conviction was startling. And Werner had to carefully hide away his surprise with a curt nod of confirmation.

Gilbert paced over to him, placed a hand on his shoulder, and whispered, “Did you really even need to ask?”

The risk of their non-compliance had to be evaluated and accounted for, so of course, he had to ask—is what Werner wanted to say. Instead, however, he addressed them firmly: “I will now brief you on what our next steps will be.”

***

On the morning of the plan’s execution, Werner ordered Kleine to conjure conducting rifles and normal ranged weaponry. Although they did not need this many weapons to capture the colonel, the city was at war with itself and precautions were necessary.

As Kleine rested and as they were loading, kickstarting, and cleaning the weapons, Werner consulted Cadence and Jericho through eighty percent synchronization. The two had successfully detained Theta on their end; and Talib had just arrived at their warehouse. Werner watched in his mind’s eye as Jericho pulled Talib to the side and requested information on the medium that had been placed on the colonel.

As the information regarding the colonel’s whereabouts trickled down to Werner, he and his subordinates took to the streets.

The streets and alleys of the Twin Cities were dark and in chaos. People tore through the walkways and roads, either running at each other with weapons or away from each other with money. Every so often, the resounding cracks of gunfire would pepper the air and would be followed by the sharp whine of vitae ray fire. The smog clouds overhead would reflect back the bursts of vitae light and illuminate certain blocks briefly.

The atmosphere reminded Werner of the skirmishes on the fronts. His men seemed comfortable as they stalked the streets beside him, so it appeared to be a shared sentiment.

They encountered several hostile parties as they wove their way through the city. The first was a group of delinquents aiming for extortion. The second was a group of ELPIS cultists who demanded that they repent with their lives for carrying conductors. The third was a cluster of Twin Cities police officers who attempted to put them under arrest for being out past the set curfew.

None of these groups, however, were as efficiently trained as the enemies Werner had encountered during border service, nor were they as efficiently trained as Werner’s own men.

A shot to the leg of the ringleader of the first group acted as a signal for that group’s tactical retreat. A larger skirmish occurred with the ELPIS group. As with every ELPIS encounter, Jericho’s wrath surged beneath the surface. With difficulty, Werner kept focus, and the cultists were dismantled with a series of vitae rays and without casualties on Werner’s end. The third group was settled with Cadence’s assistance and suggestion: multiple rolls of Geminian cens.

But these were all distractions. The colonel was their key battle.

And as Jericho and Talib directed, Werner found Colonel Fritz von Spiel stepping out from a familiar shop on a dark, deserted street. There was a lollipop sign hanging down from the extended roof of the store, and its storefront was littered with discarded candy wrappers and ribbons. Tucked beneath the colonel’s arm as he headed down the street was a plastic-wrapped gift basket filled with an assortment of sweets and topped with a bow.

Peering at the colonel from around the corner of the block, Werner slung his conducting rifle over his shoulders and pulled out a common handgun from his side. He signaled for his men to go around to the back of the strip before stalking the colonel quietly from behind.

When he was within a meter of the man, Werner calmly ordered, “Put your hands in the air, Colonel.”

A Projector fired a conductor somewhere in the distance, lighting up the clouded sky with a flash of blue light.

The colonel stopped in his tracks just in front of the alleyway that divided the candy shop from a coffee shop. He peered over his shoulder, frowning. “What do you think you’re doing, First Lieutenant Waltz?”

“Colonel Fritz von Spiel, you have been found to be in collusion with the terrorist organization ELPIS and are suspected of divulging to them military secrets,” Werner stated calmly. “For this reason, I am taking you into custody.”

“What? I’m your superior, Werner,” the colonel said. “Where is your evidence? Without that, all I see is insubordination.”

The man was obviously scrambling.

The clouds darkened above them.

“There is a key witness who saw you conversing with an ELPIS leader—”

“You mean Stein?” The colonel scoffed. “He’s spent his entire time here with more alcohol in his bloodstream than there is in all of Gemini’s wineries. He’s hardly a reliable witness.”

“If you have nothing to hide, sir,” Werner stated calmly, “then please come in and testify. The capital is already running a separate investigation. I will take responsibility for my misconduct if it comes to that.”

“Alright then,” the colonel said.

There was a pause.

The colonel’s hand darted for his waist.

Werner aimed and fired without hesitation. The gunshot resounded through the streets as the skyline was once again lit up by the glow of vitae in the distance.

The colonel snarled, grabbing hold of his hand that now hosted a bullet-sized hole. The gun that the man had been reaching for clattered uselessly to the ground. Despite being wounded and deprived of his weapon, however, the colonel still kept the basket tucked tightly under his arm.

“Dammit…”

The colonel abruptly took down the alleyway at his left—just as calculated.

Werner dashed after him, side-stepping the glass bottles and trash bins that were carelessly scattered around. The colonel’s footing was not as exact, however, and the man tripped over a wine bottle before falling face-first. The basket flew from his hands, landing half a meter away. The colonel scrambled forward desperately, stopping short as he registered that Werner’s men stood guard only two meters down the alleyway. Grimacing, the colonel pulled himself up to a stand and picked the basket off the ground just as Werner neared him.

“This is ridiculous.” The colonel glowered at Werner and then at Werner’s men who drew closer. “Did the capital order this pursuit? This is absurd. This is insubordination.”

Just as Werner was about to take another step forward, three white-hot iron bars lit up the dark alley and bulleted the ground in front of him.

This was a good development, Werner thought calmly. It appeared as if all their assumptions required for this plan were holding.

The colonel’s eyes brightened at the sight of the bars. And he became ecstatic when the iron bars rose high from the ground and turned their tips towards Werner. Their target was clear.

The bars hurtled downwards—

—and then Kleine stepped in front of Werner.

The iron bars halted immediately midair. The colonel paled in confusion, searching the skyline with desperation.

“C-Charite, I don’t know what happened to you,” Kleine called out to the dark, “but please—let’s talk. Please, Charite.”

A lengthy stretch of silence ensued before a figure dropped down from the fire escape right between Kleine and the colonel.

Omicron.

The snake-like tattoo on the left side of her face was unmistakable.

Werner’s hand twitched, and it took a minute for him to suppress the urge to lift his handgun and shoot her through the head then and there.

This was the first time Werner had seen the woman himself. Her body was poised for combat like that of a soldier, but her gaze was softer than he’d expected.

Gilbert and Bergmann tensed from behind the woman, while Stein tightened his grip on his conducting rifle. Nico studied her silently, curiously, hopefully.

“Klaus,” Omicron whispered, “you should leave this city—no, the country. You don’t understand what you’re getting involved in.”

“You know I can’t leave.” Kleine nodded at the colonel standing behind her. “I have a duty.”

Omicron’s eyes narrowed. “So do I—”

“You know someone named Theta, right?” Kleine interjected.

Omicron froze, eyes wide, face pale. “How do you know that name, Klaus…?”

Kleine’s face crumpled. “I’m sorry, Charite. Right now Theta is currently being held captive by another group. That group reached out to us because they have an interest in the colonel too.”

A truth twisted into a half-lie.

“Their demands are—”

“Release the prisoners you have captive,” Werner finished. “No harm will come to Theta if you do this. If you don’t, they will kill him. If you contact any members of ELPIS, they will also kill him.”

The rage in Omicron’s eyes was undeniable; and with a flick of her wrists, she sent the metal pipes flying up in the air again.

“If you are concerned about the children owned by the Campanas,” Werner drew coolly, “I have received information that they are being freed through the joint effort of Ophiuchus and the party that asked us to deliver this request.”

A disturbing expression of both horror and relief eclipsed the colonel’s face, while Omicron’s expression became unreadable.

“It is your choice whether or not to believe me,” Werner continued. “What happens to those children and Theta next is entirely based on your decision.”

Omicron stared at him. If she didn’t agree to this, he could still get a head-shot in. Of course, the fall-out would be catastrophic, and the rest of the plan would unravel. It was an irritatingly unavoidable risk that had to be taken. All of it was.

Omicron lowered her hand, causing the floating steel beams to lose their white glow and clatter to the floor.

“Y-You can’t be really considering this, woman,” the colonel stammered, grabbing Omicron by the shoulder. “I completed every single request you had. I gave you your information. I bought all the children. You said you would give us that proto-conductor! You said we could escape—”

“How will I know where to go?” Omicron asked, brushing aside the colonel’s hand.

Jericho.

Somewhere in the distance, Jericho exchanged a word with Talib.

In the next moment, a colorful slip of origami paper that was outlined in dark blue light slipped out from the colonel’s pants pocket. It fluttered above Omicron’s head where she plucked it from the air.

“That will lead you to the location of where Theta is being imprisoned after you’ve met your end of the bargain,” Werner explained.

“A Manipulator capable of putting up a strong observational medium…” Omicron concluded. An expression of pain passed over her.

Werner suspected she was thinking of Omega.

Omicron pocketed the slip of paper and drew out one of Theta’s proto-conductors. She tapped it against the alley wall behind her, and a door ignited in pale light there. Stein and Gilbert lifted their conducting rifles in alarm, but Werner held his hand in the air, signaling them to stand down.

“Klaus, I…” Omicron locked eyes with Kleine before lowering her head and stepping into the light.

Kleine took a step forward, but Werner placed a halting hand on the man’s shoulder.

“No…” The colonel dropped the basket and stumbled towards the glowing portal just as it dimmed into black. The colonel stared at the dark spot before he threw himself against the alley wall again and again. “No! No! No!” He pounded the wall with his fist. “You promised me! Come back!”

The man’s cool, suave, collected demeanor shattered in an instant, leaving Werner and his evidently gaping men startled. But perhaps this was Von Spiel’s true demeanor. As Cadence always said, appearances were deceiving.

“Dammit!” the colonel snapped, whipping around and glaring at Gilbert. “This is all your damn fault! Yours!”

“The hell…” Gilbert grimaced, cocking his rifle. “I’m not the one who made you—”

“It wasn’t enough that I lost all my inheritance putting it in the market to try to get enough back to buy him, but you had to make me take this stupid mission! Made me take those damn funds out from the country’s damn treasury!” the colonel spat. He paused, staring past Gilbert and snarling. “Of course, they’ll know it was me! They probably already know at the capital since they already started their investigation! I’ll be thrown in prison!”

Gilbert exchanged a look with Werner over the colonel’s shoulder.

Atienna. Werner reached out to her lightly, keeping their synchronization as low as he could as to not distract himself. Monitor—

I know, Werner. Be careful. 

“You’re suggesting that you’ve embezzled money from the Capricornian government,” Werner stated. “That will be an additional reason for your arrest—”

“Like hell, you helped me get this damn position!” The colonel grabbed hold of all the medals on his chest and tore them off their seams. “I never wanted this! You made me want this!” He threw the medals on the ground and stomped on them. “Why couldn’t we just take our time?! I was fine working in the damn capital! I could’ve worked my way up to a higher salary! All we had to do was be patient!”

Bergmann and Kleine looked to Werner in confusion. Gilbert frowned. Stein appeared rather disgusted, and Nico simply appeared concerned.

The colonel abruptly fell silent, hanging his head, before he turned to Werner suddenly and held out his wrists. His expression was eerily calm. Werner signaled Stein with two fingers. Slinging his conducting rifle over his shoulders, Stein moved forward and cuffed the colonel. Before Stein pulled away, however, the colonel grabbed hold of Stein’s wrist.

“At least kindly light one last smoke for me, would you?”

Stein grimaced, but then glanced back at Werner who nodded. Stein scowled, removed a box of cigars from the colonel’s pocket, lit one, before shoving it haphazardly into the man’s mouth. The colonel puffed calmly, acting as if his former irate outburst had been someone else’s.

Gilbert joined Stein on the other side of the colonel and together the two jailed him in tight, secure, while Werner ordered Bergmann to sweep the streets outside of the alleyway with Kleine. As Werner watched the two set off down the alley, he collected his thoughts.

All they would need to do now was safely transport the colonel back to Doctor Fabrizzio’s clinic and wait for the rest of the plan to unfold. As soon as the power was restored, he would return to Capricorn with a ready report via v-train. His superiors would decide the rest.

Werner checked his pocket watch. Eleven hours, eleven minutes, and eleven seconds exactly.

They were ahead of schedule—

“—never forgive you. I won’t forgive you. You—”

Anguish and rage clashed together in Werner’s chest. It was an overwhelming tidal wave, nearly submerging him in despair.

Something had gone wrong.

On Atienna’s and Maria’s end.

Werner’s head pounded as his chest curled in on itself.

This suffocating feeling belonged to—

“I won’t ever, ever forgive someone who has taken something that’s mine!”

—Maria?

The sorrow was sharp and painful, like a knife. The feeling of personal loss. Something he had never experienced before and—with the way Maria was reacting—something Maria had never experienced either.

A hand on his shoulder dragged Werner out of the whirlpool of heartache. Gilbert was standing beside him with an expression of concern.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost, Werner. What’s going on?”

Werner looked past Gilbert towards the colonel. Von Spiral was still handcuffed rigidly beside Stein, but was now gawking at Werner with incredulity.

“You…” The colonel realized, his cigar falling out of his hands onto the ground. “You’re one too…?”

And then something went wrong on Cadence and Jericho’s end.

Before Werner could even comprehend the events that had unfolded so shortly one after another, a terrible, inhuman screeching whine clawed its way through the air. It resounded from all directions. From below, from above, from beside, from between—from the black spot on the alleyway wall that Omicron had stepped into. A crack of white appeared there, stretching open wide and wider until it took the shape of the familiar glowing door. But no one stepped out from it. It dimmed and closed a second later but—

“Saints. Werner, look…”

Gilbert was pointing at the sky.

The smog clouds were afire with the reflection of pale—almost white—tangerine light.

But this was not an event restricted only to their square in the city.

Werner could see it all—through the eyes of all those within the city whom he was connected with:

Every single street corner, every single building, every single surface in the Twin Cities was littered with glowing portals. And from all of those spatial distortions, a singular, familiar voice cracked out in anguish: “There really is no hope.”


“Colonel Fritz von Spiel’s remarkable achievements in the past three years are exceptional. Once hailed as the record-holder for Capricorn’s most military failures, Von Spiel has flipped every single one of his defeats into a victory. He has shown heart, passion, and dedication to improvement. Moreover, he has shown the Capricornian public that any soldier can rise to bring good to Capricorn regardless of past grievances. 

As his father states with utmost affection: It’s almost as if he’s become a different person.”

Der Militärzeitung, Wöchentliche Ausgabe #78, 17 August 1939

11.1: Cadence’s (Sincero) Deception

Re-cap:

Cadence Morello has faced her own self-deception and self-illusion. She has learnt that Donato of the Romano Family was the one behind Francis’s stabbing and that the man is working together with Enzo of the Campanas. But the city has been moving quickly without her notice. Theta (?) has decided that it is time for ELPIS to make their move, and the Twin Cities begins to fragment under ELPIS’s terror and ‘hope’. Now, Cadence and the other five must come together and decide to…

Twin Cities, Gemini

Cadence opened her eyes.

She was flat on her back with the dampness of the pavement beneath her soaked into her suit jacket and pants. Pain throbbed up and down her limbs—unpleasant when paired with the taste of iron in her mouth.

She blinked and squinted.

It was pitch black. She couldn’t even tell if she was looking at the sky or the ground. If it were the sky, she figured she’d at least be able to see the city lights reflected back by the smog clouds, but there was nothing.

Was she dreaming? No. It’d be a terrible dream if she felt this awful.

Was she dead?

And then she heard the screams; the pit-pat-pit-pat of gunfire that reminded her more of Werner’s side of things than her own; and the blaring of sirens.

Maybe she was in hell.

“What in saint’s name…”

You lost consciousness.

Jericho’s face eclipsed her just as a sudden burst of burning white light became reflected on the smog clouds above her.

“Yep. Seems so. From pain instead of drinkin’ this time, though. Great.”

The white light faded from the sky, leaving her in complete darkness again.

“Detective… what the hell is goin’ on here?”

ELPIS made their move. They cut the insulation lines connecting the generator conductors around the city to the vitae reservoirs’ generator conductors around three hours ago. ELPIS members are on the street. Targeting civilians and searching for members of the Romanos and the Campanas. Bendetto has gone missing.

What…?

I’ve been put on a task force set to hunt the ELPIS leaders who are confirmed to now be present in the city. Theta, Omicron, Iota. A pause. Then Jericho added as if an afterthought—I also…

The memories of Omega’s execution in the damp, dark warehouse flooded Cadence’s mind. The anger, the hatred, the righteousness, the minute satisfaction. And the emptiness afterwards.

Cadence’s heart thundered in her chest.

We have not located Theta yet. Another pause. I have not informed Leona of the connection between Theta and Francis either.

Relief.

Thanks, detective. But…

“I… I don’t get it.” Cadence pulled herself up to a sit and groaned. “Why are they actin’ now? Thought they were aimin’ ta lie low till they found that mystical third vitae reservoir. Use the Families against each other.”

Yes, Leona believes ELPIS has uncovered the location of the third reservoir, and they are now aiming to destroy the three central generator conductors hooked to them simultaneously. She has increased the number of agents guarding them, but given Theta’s ability, it may not be sufficient. The city conductor engineers are attempting to restore power.

“Leona?” Cadence struggled to a stand and began to drag herself blindly forward, hoping she wasn’t walking towards a dead-end. “You tellin’ me that Leona knows that there’s a third vitae reservoir in the Twin Cities? That there actually isone?”

Another memory flashed into Cadence’s mind.

The limestone pillars at the front of the Leonian Monadic Temple in the Monadic District. Then the pews within, pointing towards the faceless statue at the back. Then the back room behind that statue, and then the trap door within the backroom that led to a descending staircase. Up from the depths of those stairs bled soft light and intense heat.

“Beneath the Monadic Temples…? Seriously? Brain’s a little mush right now, so I can’t even think of a good joke.” Cadence chortled and winced at the pain that followed. She pushed forward, drawing closer to a barely noticeable streak of light several meters ahead. “How did Le—”

“The first chairs of all the Department of Ophiuchus receive confidential reports from the different countries of Signum about newly formed vitae reservoirs bi-annually,” Leona had informed Jericho at the crowded roundtable meeting within the Abaccio. “Of course, the countries are free to do what they please with these reservoirs as long as they follow conductor regulation and don’t start conflict over them. This particular reservoir formed one year following the end of the war and was delegated to be harvested in only times of emergency.”

“So, the official papers say,” Cadence muttered.

Finally, she reached the streak of light—the end of the alleyway. She stopped at the threshold and peered out onto the street.

“What the…”

The street itself was lit by a handful of trash fires spotted in front of tourist trap shops that had either boarded-up or broken windows. The walkways were scattered with shards of glass. Men in suits, women in dresses, men in rags, women in rags stampeded up and down those walkways, shrieking at the top of their lungs. A v-ehicle blitzed on and off-road, nearly taking out a v-lamp and a group that was running down the sidewalk waving clubs and bats. Chasing after that group were three police officers waving batons.

As if that’s gonna help. 

Cadence took a step forward flabbergasted, only to be rammed and shoved sideways first by a woman in high heels and then again by a man with a bag full of Geminian cens slung over his shoulders.

“Screw the Romanos! Screw the Campanas!” the man whooped, fist-pumping the air and shoving an old woman who was coming up in the opposite direction. “This city belongs to us—”

A white ray of vitae cut across the darkness and struck the man mid-sentence. He was thrown to the ground instantly, the coins in his bag spilling out onto the street.

Cadence ducked back into the alleyway just as a crowd of men and women darted in the direction of the fallen man. She peered around the corner and found them all scrambling on the ground and shoving the scattered cens into their pockets. Cadence scanned the road opposite where the vitae ray had emerged from but it was empty save for two pacing girls. The two crossed the road and came to the aid of the old woman who’d been pushed to the side by the man earlier. They helped the woman to her feet and escorted her across the street away from the scrambling crowd. They sat her down there in front of a coffee shop with boarded-up windows.

Cadence recognized one of the girls immediately. The butterfly-shaped birthmark was undeniable.

Matilda.

Keeping low, Cadence forced herself forward again, crossed the road, and approached them with a wave. “Hey, Tilda, ain’t you a good samaritan?”

Matilda jumped and turned on her heels. “Cade—oh, saints.” Matilda’s relief folded into horror. “W-What happened to you…?”

“Long story. Been out a bit.” Cadence thumbed a man throwing a trash can into the window of a bookshop two blocks down. “You been in contact with any of the Romano capos in the past few hours? Can’t imagine they’d let this go down even if Bendetto’s been spirited away like everyone’s been sayin’.”

“Bendetto.” Matilda swallowed, shook her head. “You—Cadence, it’s completely nuts. There’s… ELPIS members’re running around saying that they’re cleansing the city of all the Families. A-And people have been saying that a couple of Romano executives were rigged with conducting grenades and sent off to Romano fronts. A-All the smaller gangs in the city are taking advantage of all the chaos.” She frowned. “I… haven’t reached out to Cavallo… The Campanas, the Romanos—I-I don’t know, Cadence. But ELPIS really is here. I-I saw them. I saw the Ophiuchians too. I saw…”

Cadence placed a hand on her shoulder. “What did ya see, Matilda?”

“You… You wouldn’t believe me. What I saw…”

“Try me,” Cadence said before she cracked a grin with effort. “I mean, I’m an illusionist.”

Matilda took a deep breath and informed Cadence of her experience in the casino right before ELPIS unleashed their brand of justice, about her experience with Theta—Francis—at the highest floor of the building, about how Bendetto had been tied and gagged and captured.

“He let me go afterwards. Told me to get out of the city…” Matilda finished.

“And why didn’t ya?”

Matilda frowned. “Where do I even go if I leave?” She nodded to the girl behind her. “Some of the people in my group can’t afford to leave either. They have family here, and they’re my family.” She grimaced. “That definitely wasn’t Mr. Francis. He was looking at me like I was the saddest thing in the world. I hated it. Like, this city might be awful, but it’s good too. People like him scare me… Saying that he needs to destroy it to fix it. Why not just fix it?”

Cadence studied Matilda for a moment and felt an odd swell of pride in her chest. “That’s my girl, Tilda.” She nodded at the old woman. “And the super-heroism?

Matilda shrugged. “If this all blows over, then I have a bunch of people who owe me. Simple as that.”

Cadence ruffled the girl’s hair. “Well, don’t overdo yourself, girlie.” She pulled away and turned on her heels. “And stay safe, will ya?”

“Wait, where are you going?”

Cadence waved. “For a drink.”

***

Cadence wove through the city streets that she knew like the back of her hand. She dodged a couple of delinquents swinging around metal pipes, misdirected a robber away from a group of cowering children hiding in an abandoned v-ehicle, and eventually found herself in front of the Sognare. A sign was posted at the front: CLOSED until further notice.

She peered inside through the window. Empty. She tried the door. Unlocked.

Cadence slipped inside and collapsed on the bar table. The bartender—as expected—was nowhere to be seen, so Cadence rounded the counter, poured herself a spritz, and downed it in two gulps. She slapped the glass down and slid to the ground against the wine cases at the back.

“Guys…” Cadence tried. She lowered her head and tried again, this time with feeling as she reached outwards: “Guys! Please!”

Slowly, gradually, the other five filtered into her view. Maria sitting up on the bar counter, Olive and Atienna leaning against it, Jericho and Werner standing to the side. Lavi didn’t seem to be around, but Cadence figured that was a good thing.

All of their intense feelings that she had felt wavering beneath the surface came at her like a tsunami upon synchronization. It took her a moment to separate her own anxiety from theirs. When she did, she found them all looking at her with varying expressions—but they all shared a similar emotion: concern.

Cadence buried her head in her hands as that warmth bled into her.

Damn.

Atienna moved forward and knelt down beside her, placing a hand on her cheek at the exact spot where she’d slapped her.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Cadence said, lifting her head and cracking a grin. “Now that you’re here, doll.”

The attention then turned to Werner. There was still a void of darkness stretching behind him, and there was a somewhat distant look in his eyes.

“I’m fine as well,” Werner stated. “That isn’t what’s pertinent at the moment.”

“Right.” Cadence spread her arms wide. “Well, we’ve got a saint candidate peacekeeper who’s workin’ with ELPIS, obviously. We’ve got a colonel True Conductor who’s workin’ with ELPIS and who’s connected to a murderous Aquarian advisor. We’ve got a buncha kids stuck in a hellish slavery bit. And we’ve got ELPIS mowin’ through the city like maniacs.”

Maria pressed her hands together. “It is rather exciting, yes? So many things happening at once!” She peered into Olive’s face and beamed. “And let us not forget that amazing conductor trick you did!” She looked around the bar at them. “I don’t really understand it, but if this is a True Conductor thing, does that mean I can do it too?” She leaped off the counter and slipped in between Werner and Jericho, beaming. “Both of your conductings are very cool! I would like to try—”

“That development is rather interesting, Maria,” Atienna interjected with a gentle smile, “but we should try focusing on the immediate issues, don’t you think?”

“Right. And there’s only one way we’re gettin’ out of this damn mess,” Cadence said, struggling back up to a stand. “And that’s by workin’ together. We need ta be honest with each other.”

There was silence.

Olive arched an eyebrow at her.

“I know, I know. I’m the last person in the position ta be sayin’ that. I’ve been sayin’ I’m sorry, but it’s not enough.” Cadence grimaced. “But, we’re all bein’ dishonest here. With ourselves and each other. I’m not trynna make excuses for myself. We gotta—me included—stop lookin’ at this whole True Conductor thing like it’s just a situation that’ll go away.” She took in a deep breath. “It ain’t. Our lives are literally on the same chord. One note off, and it’ll be a disaster.” She held her hands out. “I’m not sayin’ we should be all holdin’-hands-like, frolickin’ in the fields or anything. I ain’t that optimistic. But we should be on the same page, feelins out. We’re livin’ together literally; and—like it or not—we’re probably gonna end up dyin’ together; and we’re gonna end up carin’ for each other if we don’t already do. It’s hard not ta. The more we try ta deny, the more we’ll butt heads.” She tapped her temple. “It might be a lie. Who knows? I mean, appearances—feelings—are deceiving. But sometimes a lie can eventually work its way into becoming a truth. And it’s just as—if not even more—valid.”

There was a beat of silence as Cadence took a minute to catch her breath. The silence continued afterwards. If she were Olive, she figured she’d be embarrassed.

“Aw, come on, guys.” Cadence chuckled, wincing at the stomach pain that followed. “I know I’m ramblin’ here, but I’m pourin’ my heart out ta ya. Please don’t leave me hangin—”

“Honestly, that reminded me of one of those drama plays my aunt and uncle used to force me to watch,” Olive interjected. “And I’m pretty sure you contradicted yourself twice there, but…” Olive met her eyes and nodded. I understand.

Jericho gave a silent thumbs-up. Maria offered her a small, but cheery clap with a beaming smile, while the corner of Atienna’s eyes crinkled. Werner remained impassive.

As expected.

“Honestly, right now,” Cadence drew, “all I wanna do is ta get myself, the Foxmans, Fortuna, and Nico the hell outta this city; or at least get whatever the hell this is fixed.”

Despite everything, Alma flashed into Cadence’s mind. She grimaced and shook her head.

“All of those guys were like family ta me before all this True Conductor stuff went down. I’m still pretty selfish so I can’t think beyond what I want and what’s important ta me. Not the Families or even ELPIS,” Cadence admitted, gesturing to herself. As soon as those words left her mouth, she felt a weight lift off her chest. She then nodded at each of them. “Werner wants ta bring down Colonel Douchebag for Capricorn. Atienna wants ta keep that crazy secretary chained down and stop her from muckin’ things up with the diplomacy thing. Maria wants ta save the children the Campana’s are sellin’ ‘cause she feels like it—”

“Ay, you know me so well,” Maria hummed.

“—and Jericho wants ta save Alice and wipe all trace of ELPIS outta the city. Olive wants ta complete the State Conducting Exam—”

Olive uncrossed his arms. “I—”

“—and he wants us ta all make it outta this stitch alive, and save Lavi along the way, and also for all of us ta get what we want. Pretty greedy if ya ask me,” Cadence finished. “Anyway, I’m not satisfied with just a win on my end. I want there ta be a win on your guy’s sides too. Honest. There’s gotta be a way for all of us ta hit these marks. I mean, I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, but all of ya are pretty brilliant.” She paused. “Any ideas?”

There was a stretch of silence; and in that silence, there was rumination. Ideas zipped from one end of Cadence’s mind to the other, and she could barely catch hold of them before they were discarded in favor of a different idea. The others were shuffling through their thoughts faster than a shady dealer shuffled a deck of bad cards.

And then, it clicked. For all of them. It wasn’t that one person had come up with a completely brilliant idea; rather, it was more like they all came up with a part of an idea that somehow all came together to form a singular, coherent concept.

It was an odd feeling—the way it all coalesced together in Cadence’s mind. She figured—as she felt Werner smooth out that idea’s rough edges within his own mind—that this was what synchronization was about.

“Yes, that could work,” Werner finally said, a thoughtful hand over his mouth, “but it’s based on relying on many assumptions. Our timing also would have to be exact.”

“It’s a gamble,” Cadence agreed. “But I’m feelin’ a bit lucky this week.”

“There’s no such thing as luck, Cadence,” Werner corrected. “But given our few viable options, that is the route that seems the least… problematic.”

“Great,” Cadence popped, leaning back against the wine cabinet as she took in a deep breath. “Hopefully, the cards’ll fall in our favor….” She paused, unlatching herself and approaching Jericho hesitantly. She looked him up and down and then swallowed. “Look, detective, I know how you feel about ELPIS. I understand. But please…” Her voice cracked despite her efforts. “He’s still Francis.” She placed a hand on the peacekeeper’s arm. “He’s still Francis. His vitae wasn’t ‘returning to the cycle’ or whatever that means when they used their resistor on him, so it’s still him. I know I’m bein’ so selfish right now, but please just wait until… I honestly don’t know… but please, Jericho.” She tightened her grip. “We can figure something out. Just wait. For just a little bit.”

Cadence knew the peacekeeper could feel how much Francis meant to her. The childhood memories of them wandering the late-night streets in search of tourists to pickpocket in their younger years was just as much burned into his mind as it was hers. The thing was that she didn’t know if that was enough—

“Okay. I will,” Jericho agreed after a beat. “For you. Because he is still Francis.” Then something in his eyes sharpened. “And I would like to speak with Theta.”

“Got it.”

Cadence turned to Werner then who was standing right beside Jericho. She met the man’s gaze, curled her hand into a fist, and lightly tapped it against his chest.

“I will make this right, Werner. I promise.”

***

On the day of the plan’s execution, Cadence got a tip-off from Matilda on where Theta was. The girl informed Cadence that one of her workers—one of her friends—had told her that Theta had been inviting a cluster of children every so often to join him at a particular location within the city. The location itself was completely out of the woods, in Cadence’s opinion, and she wondered if he’d truly be there. But it was her only lead.

And so, Cadence slid on the proto-conductor rings she’d stolen from Russo, transmuted the guise of Matilda over herself, and took to the streets. The police had ordered a citywide curfew a day or two ago, but as usual, no one heeded it. The darkened walkways were crowded with ambling gangs of thieves, delinquents, and hustlers, all sneering and jeering as they stalked their newly minted territory.

Cadence ducked past them, swept through cement walkways that bled into cobblestone streets, strolled through one of the city’s few metropolitan parks, and made her way over to the one place in the city she had never stepped foot in. The Twin Cities Library.

It was a large building that resembled more of a Monadic temple than anything else. Guarded by two large stone pillars that held up a triangular roof, the library loomed over the empty cobblestone walkways and stretched shadows all across the street. A white limestone staircase unfurled up to the entrance of the building, where a pair of twin statues of cupids stood erect.

As expected, the streets around the establishment were empty. No one in the city wanted to steal books, it seemed. Cadence could feel Atienna’s relief at this.

Sucking in a breath, Cadence crept her way up the stairs and slipped inside. The smell of old, musty books greeted her immediately. The interior was dark, and she could barely make out the outlines of towering bookcases lining the walls. A small sliver of light bled out from the back of the library. After making her way around the bookcases and towards the light, she found a wooden door that was slightly ajar.

Steeling herself, she slipped inside.

The room within was small. A large, oak desk sitting front and center and was cluttered with stacks of books and littered with wax candles. Gathered around the wealth of knowledge and light sat Theta and a group of children and adolescents. With everything going on in the city, the group’s serenity seemed out of place, illusory.

Some of the children gathered recognized Cadence—rather, her guise of Matilda—and leaped to their feet, beaming.

“You came!” they exclaimed. Their expressions fell, however, when they registered her carefully practiced expression of panicked fear.

“T-Theta…” Cadence stammered, stumbling forward. When Theta looked up at her in mild surprise, she took a step backwards. “I-I know you told me to leave, but I… I couldn’t. Some of the others wouldn’t. And…” She forced tears to spill from her eyes. “A bunch of men… the gangs… t-they… they attacked us… They took Marzia and the others. I-I don’t know who to go to… There’s no one. I… I-I…”

Theta shut the book in his hands with a snap, rose from his seat, and paced over to her. The children parted as he did so, all wearing varying expressions of guilt and worry. When Theta reached Cadence’s side, he wiped the false tears from her eyes with his thumb.

“Use my proto-conductor as I’ve shown you,” Theta addressed the children behind him. “And leave this city.” He knelt down and met Cadence’s eyes. “Tell me where, Matilda.”

Cadence swallowed. “W-Warehouse 13. The—”

“One near the docks, running along the center of the city,” Theta finished. “Do they have conductors?”

Cadence nodded.

“I see.” The light in Theta’s eyes changed. “There’s no reason to be afraid. I’ll help you.”

The one good thing about Francis being Theta was that Theta was a bit gullible, Cadence thought. She didn’t quite know how old ‘Theta’ was, but she figured seniority could make people just as naïve as youth did in certain situations.

Theta extended his bare hand, and Cadence accepted it hesitantly. The man then pressed his gloved hand against the carpet beneath them, which Cadence now noticed was stained black. The stain glowed at his contact, and they began to sink down into the blindingly bright portal.

Cadence winced at the light and shut her eyes. When she opened them a second later, she found herself standing in a cool, dark, familiar warehouse.

Empty metal trash bins were rusted into the ground, and piles of metal pipes cluttered the dirt floor. A hull of a ship rested at the center of the warehouse, looking the same as it did when Cadence came into this place several months prior.

Theta scanned the darkness from beside her. “Where are they?” He looked down at her, expression impassive. “Matilda, tell me—” Theta’s eyes widened, and something flickered in his eyes. “Are you… Cadence?”

Cadence’s heart skipped a beat.

How had he known her name? She’d never encountered Theta as herself before, so that could only mean… Francis and Theta were starting to bleed into each other.

No…

“T-The swindler? She wasn’t the one who took them.” Cadence feigned confusion. She shook her head and scanned the dark. “They were just here. I swear. The gang must’ve—”

“Enough.”

Cadence tensed and turned to meet Theta’s eyes.

“You deceived me.” The man’s eyes narrowed, and he lifted his gloved hand. “You—”

Now!

Before Theta’ could finish his sentence, Jericho leaped down from his perch on the steel beam above their heads. The peacekeeper tackled Theta to the ground, pinning the man’s hands behind his back before slapping on a pair of suppression cuffs over his wrists. Theta went slack immediately, allowing Jericho to pry his conductor glove off of him. Jericho remained planted there unmovingly as he stared holes down into the man.

Jericho.

Jericho glanced at Cadence and removed himself from the man’s back. Snapping her fingers to dispel Matilda’s appearance, Cadence moved forward, stopped only momentarily by a hand around the arm. Jericho again. Cadence patted his hand; and he released her, allowing her to sink to the floor and crawl over to the unconscious man.

Come on, Cadence urged as she studied his face. Please let the kid’s idea work.

The man’s eyes fluttered open as soon as the thought left her, and a quiet groan escaped from his lips as he blinked blearily around. When he locked onto Cadence’s face, he stared. “Cadence…? What happened to your face?”

Cadence scrambled forward. “Quick. Tell me something only Francis would know.”

A perplexed expression flashed across the man’s face. “When I was fourteen years old, I snuck out with a girl one night to go to some party. You agreed to be me for the night so Allen wouldn’t find out. You still use that as blackmail to this day.”

Cadence brightened immediately, but then frowned. “Theta might know that too with the way this whole thing works. There’s gotta be somethin’ else.”

“How about we play a round of cards,” the man suggested. “If you win, then I’m Theta. If I win, I’m Francis and you can be Theta.”

“Okay, Francis, no need ta push it.” Letting out a sigh of unmeasurable relief, Cadence helped him up to a sitting position. “Take it easy.”

“What’s going on? Where are we?” Francis asked, scanning the warehouse. “Is this Warehouse 13?” He tried the cuffs behind him, eyes darkening. “What is this?”

“You are under the jurisdiction of Ophiuchus,” Jericho stated from behind Cadence. “We have placed suppression cuffs on you in an attempt to suppress Theta’s vitae in hopes of also suppressing his memory and influence. We have succeeded.”

“The suitcase peacekeeper…” Francis studied Jericho before his eyes widened. “You’re the Ophiuchian who came down here to investigate that other peacekeeper’s disappearance a couple months ago.”

Jericho stared down at Francis. Cadence could see in the peacekeeper’s mind eye that he was staring down into the past. Affection and hatred twisted together as one. It made Cadence’s stomach do flip-flops.

“Yes, that was me,” Jericho finally said.

Francis continued to study Jericho before he suddenly startled and whipped to Cadence. “Allen, Carl, and Fortuna—”

“Slow down, Francis,” Cadence said, squeezing his shoulder. “The city is lookin’ like a bad bar fight right now ‘cause ELPIS’s decided ta make their entry into the spotlight.”

Francis paled. “Did I…” He shook his head, eyes sharpening. “The Ophiuchians—”

“Aren’t really involved in this whole thing we got goin’ on right now.” Cadence thumbed Jericho. “He’s a bit of a black sheep with ‘em and he’s pullin’ one out for me, but he’s the best in my book. A friend of his that’s helpin’ us is comin’ along in a bit too.”

Francis seemed to digest this information slowly. “So, what’s the plan here then?”

“A couple of the execs from both sides are comin’ down here in a couple,” Cadence explained. “From the Romanos and the Campanas.”

Francis blanched. “How in the world did you manage that?”

Cadence rubbed the back of her neck. “I… kinda had ta tell them that I got the one behind orchestratin’ this entire thing on a leash.”

“So, they’re coming here for me,” Francis surmised.

He didn’t look happy.

“Look. They’re our best bet at gettin’ control of the city, and they all need ta get on the same page,” Cadence explained. “The police ain’t in any state to get the reins in, and Ophiuchus is focused on the reservoirs. Plus, we can explain the situation with you too. And Enzo and Donato—”

“Enzo and Donato?”

“Yeah, I’ll explain that bit later.” Cadence waved her hand. “But… I can call the executives off if ya’d like.” She scratched her head and sighed. “Though… I kinda pushed them ta do me an additional favor, so if I back out now, I’ll be in the ruts.”

“An additional favor?”

“Yeah, long story short, I asked ‘em both ta destroy any evidence that they’d been dealin’ with the Capricornian Army.” She poked him in the chest. “Mind if I ask ya ta do the same in exchange for me gettin’ your head half on?”

“Wait. Are the Capricornians pulling out of the deal?” Francis frowned. “I would have to consult Allen and Carl about that first. We keep records for a reason, Cadence.” He arched a brow. “And why are you pushing for this? Did they pay you?”

Cadence flashed a grin, placing a finger to her lips. “A secret.”

Francis shook his head, amused. “Well, it wouldn’t be very business savvy of me to just go and accept those terms, would it?” The very faint smile he had on fell. “Jokes aside, what’s going on with my brothers?”

“That part of the plan is in action as we speak. Don’t ya worry about it,” Cadence elaborated before she chortled. “By the way, how’s it feel to be a damsel in distress?”

Instead of receiving the slightly annoyed chuckle from him as she’d expected, Francis suddenly slumped forward.

Cadence caught him. “H-Hey, talk ta me, what’s goin’ on?”

“Sorry. I’m just… really… tired….” Francis shook his head, his eyelids drooping slightly.

Cadence reached over and lightly slapped him on the cheek. “Come on, Francis, stay with me.”

Francis blinked and shook his head again.

“Say… Cadence…” he murmured. “Who do you think has the moral high ground here?”

Cadence’s heart skipped a beat, and she grabbed Francis by the shoulder. “Francis.” She squeezed. “Look at me. We’re not the ones throwin’ this city into the shit.”

She was about to mention that they weren’t the ones who were taking advantage of children either, but then she remembered Matilda and then the Specialist children. Damn. What they had been doing was wrong. No two cents about it. But still—

Cadence continued, “We ain’t the ones runnin’ around actin’ as judge, jury, and executioner. And we ain’t destroyin’ lives on an international scale.”

“Aren’t we?” Francis stared into her, and Cadence couldn’t help but stare back at the snake tattoo on his face. “I mean all of the conductors that we’ve been shipping out, that the Romanos have been selling… we’ve been indirectly taking lives since we were teenagers… Those people may have been using the conductors we’ve been selling to protect their countries and families, but what’s our reason?”

What was this…?

Cadence reached out with both of her hands and grabbed a hold of Francis’s face. He stared back at her with raised brows. Cadence figured he was wondering if she was who was losing their mind. She figured she was.

“Francis, look. I’m not even sure if there’s even a ‘lesser of two evils’ thing here. I’m pretty shit, you’re pretty shit, they’re pretty shit,” Cadence said. “But unlike them—despite all their talk about responsibility, yada, yada—we can change. Them? As soon as they kick the bucket and return ta their resistor, they’re back ta square one. They can look through all the records and bookshelves they keep all they want, but they ain’t actually learnin’ anythin’ from it. They can’t take responsibility—don’t care ta— ‘cause they can’t even feel the guilt or consequences of what they do. ‘Cause they don’t even remember it.” A heat twisted in her chest. “All they do is spew some sorta rhetoric that the world is in the dirts now and spread the false hope that everything is gonna be peachy after they do their ‘work’.”

Francis arched a brow at her.

“Sorry. Got kinda heated there, but I really mean that first bit.” Cadence released him from her hold. “But, it’ll be okay. You’ll be okay, Francis. We’ll fix this and get everything back ta the way it was. I promise.”

Francis studied her before he lowered his head and chuckled. Musically. A wonderful sound. “Alright, Cadence. I’ll let you swindle me a little while longer.”

10.( ): The People of Sin City

Re-cap:

The captive Fortuna, Allen, and Carl have learned of Theta’s true nature as Francis. The two crime organizations of the Twin Cities are at war. Comissario Vincente Giustizia—Tau—has learned what Omicron has kept hidden from Theta. Omega has been killed by Jericho. Young Matilda is still trying to figure out why her coworkers—her friends—are leaving their shipping business. 

The people of the Twin Cities prepare for the curtain call as something within ELPIS begins to change.

Fortuna requested another round of Itero Recino. Theta didn’t question her about it when returning alone several hours after ELPIS’s truth was revealed, didn’t even question Tau on how he became locked in the room with them. When Tau left after receiving another proto-conductor from him, Theta settled into the requested game as if nothing had happened.

However, instead of inquiring about another warehouse after winning the match, Theta asked her, “Why do you still insist on playing?”

Fortuna answered without answering. “Obviously, I have a question I want to ask.”

Fortuna Romano didn’t fear Theta. Not anymore, at least. She admitted she was afraid at first—but only because she’d never dealt with an organization like ELPIS before. But fear faded with familiarity. She had learned this firsthand. Sneering, towering executives in the family that made her shrink backwards were now playing pieces in the game. Conductors that she had been once afraid to touch, she now easily turned over in hand as she inspected them for salability.

“Perhaps I should lose a round and satiate my curiosity.” Theta chuckled when Fortuna stiffened.

“… Please do.”

Fortuna consulted Allen with a glance, moved a piece. “I assume that ‘Lambda’ has resolved your…. allergy issue?”

Theta didn’t look up at her, ate one of her pieces with his own. “Yes. ‘Lambda’… You’re observant. It’s a pity that you’ve spent your skills in less favorable professions.”

“And you?”

Theta met her eyes.

Fortuna knew she was straying the line between arrogance and bravery.

“I was a teacher before becoming what you call a terrorist,” Theta explained. “Is it customary not to think that a favorable profession?”

Fortuna glanced at Allen again. Ate two pieces. “It certainly is more favorable than being an executive in a crime organization, but I doubt it pays as well.”

Theta paused.

“I’m not a psychologist nor a Conductor by any means, but from what I understand, you’re still an executive of the Foxman Family. Don’t you think there’s a conflict of interest here?”

Theta moved a piece. “I have put some thought into it. A dichotomy exists. I won’t deny that. The fact that I trusted you to tell me the locations of the warehouses if I won proves that I am more influenced than I initially believed. Or maybe that shows my personal naivety.”

“Then—”

“But that’s why I can rely on Omicron,” Theta said. “If I can’t follow through, Omicron always will… I recommend that you find someone you can truly rely on too. Even if it’s just one person, that is all you need.”

It sounded like advice.

Silently, Fortuna moved a piece, leaping over six of his in one move. Theta stared at the board in mild disbelief. The only piece left on it was hers.

“You won.” Theta looked up. “What do you want to ask?”

Fortuna swallowed despite herself under Theta’s gaze. “I need time to think about it actually…”

Something abruptly flickered in Theta’s gaze. “The Romano Family has decoy warehouses.”

Fortuna pulled her hand away from the board and stiffened.

“Yes, you told me—Francis—when you were much younger. The higher-tier executives like the capos and you use the destruction of decoy warehouses to send signals to each other.” Theta studied her. “You deceived me.”

Fortuna remained like a statue.

Theta rose from his chair and stared down at her. “The people of this city do not make any sense to me. They lie and lie and lie habitually despite not changing the outcome. But rest assured. I will ensure you take responsibility for everything you’ve done.”


When Omicron stepped in half an hour later, there was a kid riding on her shoulders. She did a quick sweep of the room, looked disappointed that only her prisoners were present, and sent the kid back off through one of the gates with some sweets she’d brought in a bag.

“That doesn’t have nuts in there, does it?” Allen asked from beside Carl.

Omicron glanced at them. “No, it doesn’t.”

“If you guys are foodies, you should try givin’ him some beef wellington. It’s Francis’s favorite,” Carl said, shrugging. “If you’re gonna treat my brother, you gotta treat him damned right.”

Carl had a long conversation with the peacekeeper about Francis. Alice didn’t believe in coating words with false hopes, and Carl liked that about her. She’d said transmuting a small amount of a Manipulator’s vitae from a victim was already hard enough. Removing an entire person’s vitae was unheard of. But Carl was used to being dealt bad cards. Bad situations could be muscled into good situations.

Omicron looked them over.

“So how long have you two been together?” Carl continued as she set the bag of sweets down. “You and Theta.”

The gears in Omicron’s head were turning. Carl could tell she was trying to figure out what he wanted. He could also tell that she was in love. And from his experience with working with underlings who were in love, love tended to make people loose-lipped. Maybe even a bit stupid. And Carl knew all about being stupid.

“Sixty-nine years.”

Carl’s jaw hit the floor. “Saints… you’re old then.”

Omicron frowned.

“Anyway, how’d you guys meet?”

“Through work.”

There was something dignified in the way she held herself. Reminded Carl of the Ariesian royal guards he’d see pictures of in the newspapers.

“I don’t understand the people of this city,” she said. “One moment you’re terrified of me, the next you’re angry, and now you want to converse. You change face too quickly. Accept everything too easily. Complacency. Lack of self-discipline. No sense of responsibility… Your circumstances don’t change simply because Theta happens to be related to you.”

“Yeah, Theta said he could rely on you ‘bout that.” Carl shrugged. “But from my point of view, my brother just happens to be Theta.”

Omicron paused. “You’re taking it in well.”

Carl shrugged. “Cooled my head off. Thought a bit. Still wanna hunt down and strangle the bastard who did my brother in, but if you’re not pulling my leg about not bein’ involved in what happened to him, then you’re not on the list.”

“And this is after you’ve put some thought into my position as your captor and executioner?”

“Yeah, Francis ain’t gonna go through with that.” Carl waved her off with his head. “I know my brother.”

“And I know Theta.”

“Theta’s an explosion enthusiast then?”

Omicron went silent.

“When you guys get married?”

Omicron cleared her throat.

Carl did a double-take. “…The hell? You’re slapping matching tattoos on each other’s faces, callin’ each other pet names, been together for over sixty years, and you’re not married?”

“They were different times,” Omicron huffed, straightening her suit.

The love-struck stupidity was leaking through.

“So you weren’t lyin’ when you said you’re from way back when,” Carl continued. “So you know what’s what when it comes to modern tech. That mean Theta doesn’t know how to use a telephone?” He glanced at Allen. “They didn’t have those back then… right?”

“Theta did struggle quite a bit…” Omicron admitted before she chuckled lightly. “It was actually a bit cute…” Omicron sighed fondly at some memory before turning to them tersely. “You have no idea how fortunate you are to have these things. But instead of working further to develop them, you decide to develop weapons instead.” She shook her head. “It makes no sense to me.”

“They say you should never mix business and pleasure,” Agape interjected suddenly. “Working with your partner never works out. You’ll either lose sight of what you’re doing or of each other.”

Carl had thought that Agape had fallen asleep again with how quiet she’d been, but he figured it made sense that she’d speak up when it came to this kind of topic. She was in the business of love, after all.

“It must be very convenient,” Agape continued. “Your relationship. If you ever have a big fight, you’ll just forget about it the next time your resistors are used. Like it never happened.”

Omicron tensed. “That’s not—”

Theta entered the room before she finished.

Omicron made her way to Theta’s side and took his hand in her own.

Theta stared at her. “What is it?”

Omicron opened her mouth, closed it, smiled. Finally, she said, “I’ve been thinking. It’s something akin to a miracle that we’re here at the same time. I’m just hoping that you’ll hold my hand until the very end.”

“You’re a ridiculous person.” Theta sighed after a beat. He cupped her hand in his own and said gently. “You are my precious magpie. My hands may be cold, but I want to hold you in them for as long as possible. Every single time.”

Omicron’s expression fell slightly at the last remark.


Theta was alone perusing the bookshelves a couple of hours later. Allen cleared his throat to get the man’s attention. The other executives were watching him like a hawk. Let them, Allen thought. He didn’t give a damn. Not anymore.

“Trying to find something?” Allen asked.

“I’m trying to find our records from around ten years ago,” Theta murmured after a pause. “But, as I suspected, they must have been lost some time ago. As most of them are.”

“Why you looking for records?”

“Why do you think people wade through them?” Theta continued scanning the shelf. “I’m sure of it. I was definitely active then.”

Allen grunted in response.

“You feel guilty for what happened,” Theta said suddenly, turning to him. “But you don’t feel guilty for everything else that has happened due to your underground businesses. The fact that you are shipping weapons of mass destruction does not give you any pause. Cognitive dissonance.”

Allen thought of Francis bleeding out on the dirty alleyway floor surrounded by a circle of their men and he grimaced. “Comes with the business territory—”

“I’m not referring to Francis being stabbed with my resistor,” Theta interrupted. “I’m referring to your guilt about not being able to protect your brothers from all of your father’s abuses.”

Allen stiffened and felt his skin crawl. “So, you got some of those memories then.”

“Yes. It’s only a small amount at this point, but it’s enough for me to see that you were a good brother.” Theta returned his attention to the bookcase. “As they say, every child deserves better parents, but not every parent deserves a child.”

“Hey. It’s not normal to bring stuff like that up casually in public,” Allen said. “Not polite.”

“What happened with your father was beyond your control,” Theta continued regardless. “But what’s happening in this city isn’t.”

Allen didn’t feel like continuing on this path. Switched gears. “Sounds like you like kids.”

“They’re inheriting the world from us.” Theta turned to meet his eyes again. “Just like you inherited it from us.” Then Theta looked to the side. “Or maybe it’s more appropriate to say that we’re borrowing it from all of you…”

So damned gloomy. Not even close to matching the manic energy Allen had seen when Theta had taken them up to the Dioscuri Bridge earlier.

There was a flash of pale tangerine light from the corner of the room, and Iota suddenly stormed in. Wailing like a banshee, she knocked down bookcases, stomped out candles with her foot, toppled book stacks.

Allen noticed with muted surprise that the woman was missing her lower left arm. There was a bandage going around the stub’s end. Unsurprisingly, the handicap didn’t stop her from thrashing everything in her sights. She eventually roared her way over to Carl and lifted her fist with a snarl, but Theta stepped in between them without expression.

“Iota, enough,” Theta stated. “What is this really about?”

Iota froze and stared holes into him. Wordlessly, frigidly, she pulled something out from the folds of her dress and held it out to him. It was a resistor. There was something swirling at the very corner of its glass handle. A drop of white vitae that was barely larger than Allen’s two fingers put together.

“This is Omega’s,” Iota murmured. “She gave it to me right before she left to go put mediums at that warehouse like you told her to. She’s… returned to her resistor.” Iota’s face crumpled. “I knew something was off! I knew it, but I…”

Theta took it from her and studied it. “Omega must have encountered a peacekeeper. Most likely, she encountered the peacekeeper with the suitcase.”

“There’s barely anything of Omega left,” Iota pressed, voice cracking. “What are we going to do?”

“Nothing,” Theta responded after a pause. “We will continue our search for the third vitae reservoir, and we will continue collecting the explosive conductors we’ve stolen from their warehouses—”

“What?! How can we do nothing?!” Iota spat. She reached forward and wrapped her fingers around Theta’s hand that held the resistor. She snapped out a couple of words Allen didn’t understand and then she hissed, “I mean, look at what they did to her—”

“This fate is something we have all accepted, Iota,” Theta stated. “We died the moment we bleached our vitae, so there is nothing to be lost and there is nothing to be returned to the cycle. You know this. Omega knew this.”

Iota closed her mouth.

“Our individual lives don’t matter. They never have. It’s our purpose that does.”

“Our purpose…?” Iota gritted her teeth. “Well, we’re taking too damn long with that purpose! If we’d just sank the damn city and reservoirs and generator conductors when we were first all here, then this wouldn’t have happened!”

“Not everyone in this city deserves to die, Iota. We need to ensure the innocent and the children are properly accounted for. The third vitae reservoir is important. And Omicron also needs to handle the Campana—”

“The children?! The innocent?!” Iota recoiled. “What is with you and Omicron?! You both keep acting like the past several centuries haven’t happened! Omicron keeps speaking about honor and valor and righteousness, and you just…” Iota slapped her chest. “I have memories of the war. I’ve seen what the conductors—what people using them—can do firsthand. And those ‘children’ aren’t as innocent as you think! They’re cruel as all the other people in this city. And if not, they become cruel!” Iota shook her head. “Let’s just use the damn conductors and blow up the two damn vitae reservoirs. Screw the other one! Let’s just crack this city in two!”

“Our goal is not senseless destruction, Iota. Do not forget.” Theta’s stolidness hadn’t changed. “There needs to be a lesson.”

Faltering under Theta’s gaze, Iota turned away. She glared holes into Allen, let out a snarl, ripped a book from one of the book stacks, and chucked it against the wall. The book rebounded back, flew through the air, and clipped Theta in the temple. Theta didn’t even flinch, but Iota did.

“I—sorry—”

“You need to collect yourself,” was all Theta said. “Come back when you can think clearly.”

Iota dipped her head, nodded, and left through a portal using Theta’s proto-conductor.

“Uh…” Carl cleared his throat. “Thanks for the save…” He trailed off and swallowed.

Theta was staring down at the resistor in his hand, and his eyes were wet.

What a bluff.

“You’re bleeding,” Allen said after a beat. “You should get that looked at.”


Maximallian had been working for the Foxman brothers for over five years. Spent months proving himself. Worked his way up to become the brothers’ most trusted man. Made a name for himself in his home city. Used to be called Maximallian “The Mouse” Jarrick. Now was Max “The Jackal.”

But on that night over a month ago when he’d escorted Francis out of the casino, he became ‘the Mouse’ again. He was incapacitated by a bullet from the dark and didn’t see the face of the bastard who ended up ramming a knife right up his boss’s stomach.

Max’d thought then that if the bullet wound didn’t kill him, Francis would. That was how things were in the city, after all. But Francis didn’t kill him. Instead, the boss visited him at the hospital, looked him right in the eye, and said— “We’ll hunt the ones who did this down, Mr. Maximallian. I promise.”

But then Carl and Allen went missing. And with all the pressure of running the family on his own, Francis delegated Max to watch over the Rosario Round casino when Max got out of the hospital.

Max did the best that he could for someone who’d never run a casino before. But he still preferred bodyguarding. And because of his preferences, when Francis took a couple of the other men with him to the west side of the city without asking Max for help, Max was off-put. Felt a bit useless, put to the side. But he still continued looking after the casino.

Then the men the boss went out to the west side with came back saying that the boss randomly took off was nowhere to be found—all while Max was running the damn stupid casino. Some of the others abandoned ship due to loss of paycheck. Max considered but figured he’d invested too much time into his occupation to give in that easily.

But at the same time, Max had no idea what to do. Spent all his time thinking about it. Went through the liquor cabinet at the casino for emotional compensation.

So when a Sagittarian tourist stumbled into the casino one day, Max wasn’t really interested. Too busy thinking what to do. When the tourist mentioned the swindler sent him, Max’s interest piqued. And when the tourist told him that he’d seen Luigi and Feliciano together, Max was invested. When he learned that the tourist had actually witnessed the night the boss was stabbed, Max was obsessed.

“I thought it was some sort of street performance,” the tourist said, “but I did see that Luigi fellow running off after running into that… Francis fellow. I saw him a bit later when I was window shopping. He was speaking to that frightening Feliciano fellow.”

It took everything in Max not to use the tourist as a punching bag.

That damn bastard Luigi.

Several weeks prior, Francis had shown rare mercy after they’d brought Luigi in and beat him down. The boss had let him walk off scott-free with only two dozen bruises. Carl had argued against it, while Allen had watched on silently. Max couldn’t understand it. There had been secondhand accounts and everything, and yet still Mr. Francis had said— “That’s enough violence for today.”

“I saw that Francis fellow playing with some children several weeks ago, so he must’ve made a speedy recovery,” the tourist added. “He’s a Specialist, correct? That is quite an interesting ability…”

Ignoring the tourist’s mad and irrelevant ramblings, Max took a couple of men and went on a hunt. It didn’t take them long to find Luigi. He was at one of his usual gambling dens and was losing terribly at a round of poker. Max figured he was doing the man a favor by ripping him out of his seat.

As Max and the men he’d brought began beating Luigi within an inch of his life in an alleyway at the back of the gambling den, he started spilling his guts. Begged for forgiveness. Begged them not to tell the boss. Offered money.

And that just made Max want to beat him in more.

Just as they were about to pound Luigi into an early grave, a woman appeared in front of them out of nowhere. She was wearing a polka dot dress and was missing half an arm.

“I’ve been about what I need to do to make Theta move,” the woman said, staring at them wide-eyed before a slow grin crawled up her face. “But hearing you say all of that just makes me realize I just have to make Francis move.”

The next moments came in broken flashes.

The woman raised her gloved hand, and there was a click-clack, click-clack sound. And suddenly Max was thrown off of his feet and was sent flying backwards through a dizzying swirl of tangerine light. When he hit the ground, it was dark.

As Max’s eyes adjusted, he found himself not on the dirty alleyway floor but in a room lit only by candles. There were no doors, no windows. Only bookcases, book towers, and a group of people tied to chairs. Max glanced to his left. Luigi foundered around in confusion beside him. The polka dot dress woman stood behind him.

“What the—Max?!” a familiar voice shouted from the lined-up row.

Maximilian squinted at the bound people. Recognized half of them. Boss Carl. Boss Allen. Caporegime Agape Rosario.

“Boss?!”

“Stay right there, Max, don’t move,” Allen said calmly from where he was tied beside Carl.

Max surveyed the room again in confusion. A group of about five people crowded the bookcases to his right. The commissario Vincente Giustizia was among the group as were two of his officers.

As soon as the commissario locked eyes with him, he stormed forward and snapped at the polka-dot dress woman— “Iota, what is this?! What are you thinking?!”

A hand on the shoulder stopped Vincente short, and he stepped aside. Francis stood there behind him with an ELPIS tattoo smack on the right side of his face.

‘Shit’ was the only thought Max had.

“Iota… what are you doing?” Francis asked. He approached Max and stared down at him and then at Luigi. “Who are these people?”

Luigi let out an incomprehensible, while Max stared up in confusion.

“This guy,” Iota said, kicking Luigi in the ribs, “apparently is the one who stabbed Francis with your resistor.” She nudged Maximallian with her foot. “At least, according to this guy. Which means guy number one knows where our resistors are.”

Francis stared down at Luigi. “Were you the one who initiated me?”

Luigi scrambled forward, grabbing Francis’s pants leg. “I-I had to. It was Feliciano. His pop. I owed ‘em too much money. I—”

A woman with a tattoo on the left side suddenly bulldozed in and shoved Luigi backwards. She glowered at him before turning to assess Francis. But the boss’s eyes were glued to Luigi.

“Yes, I remember seeing you at that moment I was initiated.” Francis’s speech pattern sounded off. “Right after you shot Maximallian and Stefano in the chest, you shot Luci, Barto, and Marcelle right through the head. Why did you do that?” He stared into Luigi. “Were you aware that Marcelle was only sixteen years old? She was only a child.”

“L-Like I said,” Luigi stammered, scrambling, “i-it was—”

“Always diverting the blame when you are the one taking the action.”

Francis reached over and pulled out a knife holstered to Vincente’s belt. Luigi whimpered but startled when Francis turned the knife on himself. The boss sliced his own palm and drew blood before handing back the knife.

One of the boss’s hands was gloved in a conductor, Max realized then. An odd sight. Before Max could make heads-or-tails of it, Francis rushed forward and shoved his bleeding palm over Luigi’s mouth. Luigi jerked away, gagged, spit.

“W-What was that?!”

The boss wiped his bloodied palm onto his gloved hand before silently pressing that hand against Luigi’s chest. There was a pale tangerine glow beneath his gloved palm before his hand passed right through Luigi’s chest. When Francis pulled his hand out a second later, Luigi began gagging and scratching at his throat.

The man ripped open his shirt, revealing a circular lump the size of a fist just beneath the skin over his heart. He foamed, made an inhuman sound Max’d never before in all of his years working in the underground, before he collapsed.

When Luigi stilled, Francis reached forward with his glove-conductor again and placed it on the lump. His hand passed through, and his fingers wrapped around the lump beneath Luigi’s skin. Upon pulling his gloved hand out in a flash of tangerine light, he held a familiar-looking cue ball.

“It looks like you can swallow it,” Francis said before dropping the ball on the ground and watching as it rolled its way over to Max’s foot.

There was a stretch of silence.

“T-Theta, he had information on where our resistors are!” Vincente snapped. “Why did you—”

“As you’ve heard, he was hired out by Donato of the Romano Family. So will just need to capture Donato,” Francis replied. “He was unneeded.”

The woman with the tattoo on the left side of her face pulled out a handkerchief from her pocket and wiped Francis’s hand with it.

“Oh, that’s right.” Saying this suddenly, the boss fell back into a sit on a stack of books just behind him. He placed a hand over his mouth. “No, I’m an idiot, Omicron.”

“What is it, darling?” the woman—Omicron—asked, pocketing the handkerchief.

“We started off with the wrong Caporegime,” Theta said, gaze fixating on Agape Rosario. “The one who handles the land and rent collection is Caporegime Bendetto. He shares a close relationship with Ricardo Romano. If anyone knew where the third vitae reservoir is, it would be him.”

“So then…” Iota pressed. “What now?”

There was a long stretch of silence again.

Omicron paled and knelt down beside Francis. “Darling, I still haven’t finished working on the west side yet. I still don’t have all the locations of the Campanas bases and—”

The commissario stared bullets into Omicron. He was sweating bullets too.

“The longer we leave it, the more it will fester,” Francis said, placing a hand on her arm. “As we speak, these organizations are still shipping out these conductors and children are still suffering. We’ve become complacent. We can’t bide our time any longer. It’s a cost-benefit analysis. We have more to lose the more we wait.” He moved his hand to her cheek. “You will have to move up your schedule, Omicron.”

Iota bounced on the heels of her feet.

“Since we’re in a city of indulgence,” Theta said, rising to a stand, “we should have a proper memorial for Omega. We should let this city know we’re here and why we’re here and what they’ve done.” He nodded at Iota, and there was a glint in his eye. “You can contact all of those ‘recruits’ that you’ve been gathering in the city, Iota. From the Campanas to the Romanos to the common people who have chosen to follow us. The directions are simple. Use my gates to plant the conductors at the vitae reservoirs and the points we’ve agreed on. Evacuate the children and those you deem innocent.”

A pause.

“And condemn those who profit from any form of conductor use and conductor trade.”

Iota nodded, beaming.

“Let’s have a proper eulogy,” Francis said before inclining his head towards one of the executives. “Mr. Etoile, rest assured. Your time will come soon. You will be our first example.”

Etoile melted like butter in his chair.

The next couple of minutes went by in a blur.

Max was strung up in glowing white chains and straddled between Allen and Carl. Francis left with Omicron through some sort of portal, and a handful of other people exited and entered and exited again in a stampede of footsteps. Soon, the only people who remained in the room besides Max himself, two-thirds of his bosses, and the executives were the commissario and his two officers.

Commissario Vincente paced up and down their line biting his thumb.

“A-Are you really going to go along with this, chief?” one officer stammered.

Vincente whipped around and snapped, “Of course, I’m going to go along with it. I don’t like it, but I have to go through with it! Theta was chosen as leader, and our rules say the one who’s chosen is the one we follow! If I break the damn rule now, then I set precedent to break the rules in the future—oh, don’t look at me like that when three months ago you were breaking the damn rules to try and bag of a couple yankee-dankee, two-bit criminals! You should be arrested!”

Max stared.

Vincente dug into his pockets and tossed the two officers an item each. “Here. Theta gave me extra proto-conductors since I got myself locked in here last time. Take it, use it, get your families out of this city.”

“But, chief—”

“Dammit, shut up and leave before I charge you for subversion of the law!”

The officers exchanged looks before nodding and heading in and through the wall in a flash of light.

“Sounds like you’ve bitten off more than you can chew,” Caporegime Agape said two heads down. Sweat dripped from her forehead, and her voice shook. “It’s no time for regrets unless you—”

“No regrets?” The commissario threw his head back and barked. “You really think everything that’s happening here is all us? I know Theta. Theta would never do any of this. Just read the records. Theta has always worked on the sidelines passively. Theta’s not violent, and Theta’s not a murder.” He shook his head and mumbled to himself. “We could’ve done this better. Using both of our new identities. Something permanent—”

“Well,” Carl scoffed. “Open your damn eyes. Your Theta is just as murderous as the rest of us—”

“You’re the one who needs to open your eyes, you greedy, stupid, dirty pig!” Vincente seethed, jabbing a finger at Carl’s chest. “It’s your damn brother!”


Caporegime Bendetto of the Romano Family wasn’t fond of Ophiuchus’s peacekeeping agents. They slithered around like snakes and wielded their badges like batons, intervening in places they deemed necessary and brushing their hands of areas deemed not. On paper, their accomplishments did look impressive. Treaties, peace accords, conducting law, but in reality, it was all laughable.

The fact was that the peacekeepers were now protecting people who were breaking the laws they were meant to enforce. But Bendetto knew that the peacekeepers weren’t stupid. They probably had more than an inkling of what the Romano Family really did in the city. He’d heard buzz from under the table about certain departments in Ophiuchus beginning investigations regarding their business, but none of those had come to fruition. Ophiuchus had always been the last thing on Bendetto’s mind because of this.

Then Ophiuchus came barging in saying that ELPIS could be in the city and that the Romano Family could be targets. It was too many ‘could be’s in Bendetto’s opinion, and he was rearing to decline their protective services, but—

“You’re mistaken about your position here,” the peacekeeping Agent Leona had said during their meeting. “It’s not that your power in this city keeps us from intervening in your activities. It’s that our power allows you to continue. It’s cost-effective for us. But if you continue to obstruct us, then we’ll remove that obstruction.”

Bendetto wasn’t stupid. He didn’t take a gamble when he knew it was bad, so he begrudgingly accepted Leona’s assistance. Maybe Agape would disagree with his decision, but she’d disappeared off of the face of the earth. Damn Campanas.

And so, Bendetto found himself accompanied by two peacekeeping agents—persuaded to be disguised as civilians—to his favorite casino just a block away from the newly refurbished TwinStars Pub. He had to keep up the casual appearances, after all, and had invited several of the Romano Family’s investors to play some rounds of poker with him.

At the moment, Bendetto sat at a large poker table with a disguised peacekeeper at his left and Bruno Perti—a wealthy investor who’d been with them for years—at his right. The male dealer at the table was wearing a surgical mask and watched their play with disinterest. Occasionally, the dealer eyed Bendetto’s hired guns crowded at the roulette tables behind him. Probably afraid.

They were ten minutes into the first round, but Bendetto couldn’t focus on the game.

Recently, their decoy warehouses had been under fire, meaning someone—probably Fortuna or Agape—was trying to send a message. Campanas had been seen leaving the scene of the attacks, which was contradictory to the message being sent out: danger from outside the city.

Abruptly, one of Bendetto’s men approached him from behind and whispered into his ear, “Boss, they’ve found Etoile.”

Etoile was one of their lower-tier executives who’d disappeared around the same time Agape had. Had the Campanas released him? Why?

“He showed up out of the blue at the front steps of the Casa.” A pause. “Boss, there was a conducting grenade insideof him. He took one step, and it detonated.”

“What?!”

Bendetto threw down his cards and rose from his seat, but a hand on his arm gave him pause.

Bruno Perti flashed him a grin. “Come on, Bendetto, the leaders are just about to clean everything up. Why don’t you stay for a bit?”

Before Bendetto could decipher what Bruno meant, the man reached into his suit and pulled out a handgun conductor. Without hesitation, he aimed it at Bendetto and pulled the trigger.

Bendetto was tackled to the ground by both the peacekeeper guarding him and one of his own bodyguards—but not before Bendetto saw the white vitae ray emerge from Bruno’s conductor and strike the high ceiling. The ceiling plaster crumbled down, and the patrons shrieked in alarm. The second peacekeeper wrestled Bruno to the ground, while the patrons around the table leaped to their feet in alarm.

“Everyone, stay calm!” the peacekeeper beside Bendetto said, helping him to his feet. The peacekeeper reached into his pocket, pulled out his badge, and flashed it. There was a collective of gasps.

Damn Ophiuchians.

While Bendetto was handed off to his own bodyguards, the peacekeeper pocketed his badge and approached the dealer at the table. The dealer responded in turn by reaching for his belt. The peacekeeper swiftly conjured a gun in a flash of verdigris light and fired it without hesitation.

The dealer stumbled backwards, gripping his bleeding chest before he abruptly straightened and hissed, “That’s attempted murder, dammit!” The bloodied bullet wound started glowing white beneath the dealer’s gloved hand. And as the dealer drew his hand away from the wound, a stream of the white glowing blood floated out from it before compacting into an easily recognizable shape. The glow faded as the gun solidified in the dealer’s palm.

The Conjuror peacekeeper’s eyes widened. “You’re a leader.”

Before the dealer could pull the trigger, the peacekeeper fired three additional rounds at him, each one hitting him square in the chest. A click, click, click indicated that the gun was now empty. The peacekeeper flourished his gloved hand to conjure another one but the dealer beat him to it. Without faltering from his wound, the dealer fired off six shots. One bulls-eyed right into the Conjuror peacekeeper’s head. Another struck the other peacekeeper that was pinning Bruno down in the arm, while the other four found their ways into Bendetto’s bodyguards. Only one dead thought.

Terrible aim.

Bendetto’s guards retaliated by whipping out the conductors they’d brought with them. The Projectors started firing immediately, while the Conjurors fired after they’ve conjured handguns. The dealer leaped back behind the table as the rain of vitae rays and bullets came down on him, while Bendetto was pushed back by several of his guards.

Some patrons screamed and ran. Others dropped to the ground.

The air was cluttered with fluttering cards, bouncing cue balls, and flying game chips.

And suddenly, in the middle of this chaos, the ceiling above Bendetto’s head began to glow and a chilling draft of wind filled the room.

White glowing chains slithered out from the pools of light. Three figures rode down on them, but Bendetto was in no position to pay attention. This was because the chains started raining down into the crowd. They acted like bullets, shooting through the bodies of patrons left and right without dispute. Bendetto himself was shoved to the side as one of his bodyguards was felled by a chain that went straight through his gut.

A shrill laugh resounded from one of the three that were still riding down on the chains: “That’s what you filth get! And you damn peacekeepers! How dare you call yourselves Ophiuchians!”

As soon as that shout hit the air, the last peacekeeper was impaled by a chain.

Screams resounded as the patrons scrambled to the door leading to the entrance hall. But something was off about that route—Bendetto could tell. It was an intuition—an instinct—he’d developed since serving on the eastern front during the Reservoir War.

It was a trap.

But it was too late to warn them. A group had already fled through the doors. As soon as they stepped past the threshold that was glowing with pale tangerine light, they disappeared. And reappeared tumbling out from the glowing light from the ceiling. Their bodies cracked against the floor, the billiard tables, the roulette tables, and the island bar at the center of the room. Those who were dashing towards the door scrambled away, only to be picked off by the mask-wearing dealer who was now firing into the crowd from on top of the island bar and by the chains still pelting down.

Bendetto was again shoved to the side by his guard, who was subsequently pierced through the head by a chain. Bendetto ripped the rifle conductor from the man’s corpse and aimed it at the trio still descending downwards.

Bendetto hadn’t fired a conductor in some time, but it was all muscle memory. He aimed and fired. A blood-orange vitae ray hurtled out from the conductor towards the descending trio, only to be obstructed by a collection of luminescent steel bars that came from nowhere. There was a fiery explosion upon impact, causing smoke to unfurl in the air.

Bendetto got on his knees below the smoke and, with several of his bodyguards behind him, began to crawl his way towards the staircase at the very back of the casino.

Lucy. He needed to get back to Lucy. No matter what. Couldn’t leave Lucy alone.

Just as he neared the staircase, however, another collection of steel beams bulleted the ground in front of him blocking his path. Bendetto froze, glanced back at his men, heart racing.

“Bendetto,” a familiar voice called out from the smokescreen.

Bendetto couldn’t believe his ears. “F-Francis?”

White beams flew out from the smoke and impaled the men behind Bendetto.

Out from the smoke shroud in the direction of where the white beams had come from, stepped Francis Foxman. He was wearing a dark turtleneck sweater with a suit jacket thrown over it like an afterthought. He had been one of the three people riding down on the chains, Bendetto realized as he took in the man’s outfit. And upon further inspecting the man’s face, Bendetto reached a more troubling realization.

Francis smiled thinly down at him.

“Shall we have a talk, Bendetto?”


To Matilda the Twin Cities was her home just as it was home to tens of thousands of others. Like them, she knew that the city was dirty and filled with disgusting people and things. Still, it was home. The place that accepted everything and rejected nothing. People here didn’t gawk at her butterfly-shaped birthmark, didn’t ogle her when she’d worn raggedy clothing or stolen food from trash bins. People here didn’t care. And that was a comfort.

Matilda had worked hard to get where she was currently at in the city. To get to the point where she was in the fancy restaurants looking outside instead of outside looking in. She’d made friends who’d made friends who’d made friends until together they’d formed a network of weak that was able to stand up against the strong.

Together, they had a fighting chance in this city where adults played games with each other’s lives. Together, they made more money working with the Foxmans and Romanos than any other delinquent ring in the city. Together, they could survive. Together, they were stronger.

And so Matilda didn’t understand why some of her friends started to break off from the group that they’d all painstakingly formed. Those who’d left said things along the lines of “what we’re doing is wrong,” and “we don’t have to work for them like this,” or even “they’re just taking advantage of us and don’t care about us.” And when Matilda had asked them where all of these ideas had come from, they said plainly, “Theta said it. Theta cares. Theta knows. Theta says we can live a better life somewhere else.”

Matilda secretly wanted to meet who this mysterious ‘Theta’ was. She was sure that the person was simply full of false promises, false hopes. She figured that Theta was someone who was manipulating all of her friends—someone who was seeking to take advantage of them.

And Matilda knew all about being taken advantage of. She’d been taken advantage of by Verga. She knew she was being taken advantage of by the Foxmans and the Romanos. But she was fine with it because she was taking advantage of them too. Being taken advantage of, she thought, was only dangerous when you weren’t aware of it. And Matilda was certain that her friends who were leaving their shipping business for this ‘Theta’ weren’t aware of it.

And so when one of her closest friends Fernando began to speak about ‘Theta’ too, Matilda decided to take him out to a casino party that Bendetto had invited her to. She wanted to show Fernando everything they’d worked for, everything they were working towards. She wanted to prove to him that if they continued working together, they could live in luxury too like all the adults.

The casino was fun at first. They were greeted at the door by Bendetto and greeted warmly by all the servers. The adults and patrons at the casino smiled at them warmly, jokingly offered them drinks, and showed them how to play some of the games.

But then things snapped in two.

As soon as Matilda saw the man beside Bendetto pull out a conductor, she grabbed Fernando’s hand and ran to the nearest escape she could find: a staircase at the back of the casino. They pounded up the seemingly endless marble steps, until they reached the highest floor, ran down the carpeted hallway, and burst into a mansion of a room at the end. Matilda scrambled around in the dark before she pulled herself under a cloth-covered table at the very corner of the room with Fernando in tow.

As soon as they were beneath the tablecloth, the screams from below started. Gunfire. Vitae ray fire. Thud, thud, boom, boom. The entire building shook and rumbled.

And then there was silence.

Matilda clutched Fernando’s hand and waited.

Suddenly, there was tap, tap, tapping. Someone was ascending the staircase. The door creaked open. There was scrapping, a click-clacking, a series of receding footsteps, and then silence.

Matilda met Fernando’s eyes and peered out from beneath the cloth.

The curtains in the room had been drawn open, revealing a window that took up the entire left wall. The entire twinkling, nighttime cityscape was visible from it. The city lights spilled into the dark room, stretched across the tiled floor that was littered with playing cards and poker chips, and reached all the way back to the room’s center where a man was tied with chains to a chair.

Matilda squinted and tried to make out the man. She instantly recognized Bendetto’s crisp suit. But—Matilda’s blood ran cold—Bendetto’s head was missing. At the base of his neck where his head should have been, there was an oddly glowing splotch of pale tangerine light. Contrarily, his chest was still moving up and down. He was alive?

Across from him facing the light from the city stood a figure. A man, holding open the page of a book. From that book, emerging from a pool of light, was Bendetto’s head.

Matilda nearly passed out from the sight of it.

“This city is actually pretty beautiful when I’m looking at it from up here,” the figure drew. “It’s a shame that it’s built on dirt and filth.”

Matilda recognized the voice. That was—

“Francis…” Bendetto’s head pressed. “What are you trying to do? No—why?”

Matilda gasped despite herself.

Bendetto continued, “Agape, Fortuna, Etoile, your brothers too—that was all you? Why?”

“How can you ask me that after everything you’ve done? Can’t you see the hypocrisy behind it?” Francis lifted the book so that Bendetto was eye-level with him. “But I have to thank you for the information about the third reservoir. I should’ve known it was there.” He chuckled. “Tell me, Bendetto, what do you think’ll happen if I close my gate with your head still stuck right here?”

Bendetto paled, eyes hardening.

Suddenly, Fernando pulled his hand out of Matilda’s and crawled out from beneath the table before she could stop him.

“Theta, you’re outside!” Fernando exclaimed, running up to Francis’s side while beaming.

“Theta…?” Bendetto repeated in confusion.

“Fernando.” Francis turned. The snake tattoo on the right side of the man’s face became cast in the city’s glow. “What are you doing here? I thought I told you and the others to leave the city.”

Fernando faltered, gaze flickering between Bendetto’s head and Francis’s face. “I… I…”

Francis stared past him, towards the table, towards Matilda. “Come out. The one that’s hiding. You can come out now.”

Matilda trembled but obeyed, pulling herself out from beneath the table.

“Come closer.”

Matilda again obeyed but stopped short a meter away, trembling.

“I-It’s okay, Tilda,” Fernando said. “It’s not Francis. It’s Theta. We’re safe.” He made it sound like whatever that meant was supposed to reassure her.

“I thought I told you to leave the city too,” Francis—Theta—said to her. He followed her gaze to Bendetto, and his brows furrowed. He abruptly dropped the book and started cradling his head and his stomach. The book snapped shut, Bendetto’s head disappearing along with the light.

Matilda whipped her attention to Bendetto’s body just in time to see Bendetto’s head pop out from the glowing light on his neck. The man gasped in relief, panting.

“T-Theta,” Fernando stammered, hands hovering.

“I’m alright,” Theta said. He straightened himself and placed his gloved hand on top of Fernando’s head. He then beckoned Matilda. “Come closer. I won’t hurt you. I promise.”

Matilda wanted to run. But she didn’t. Instead, she hesitantly took advantage of the mercy that he showed her and fell into step beside him.

Theta nodded his head towards the window. “Watch.”

The city lights started to flicker in unison. On and off, on and off—until they began to go dark one by one, patch by patch. The only thing left burning bright was the v-lights sparkling on the Dioscuri Bridge. But they too started flickering, until they completely went out, leaving Matilda in terrifying, complete darkness.

A warm hand rested on her head.

“It’s alright,” Theta said. “Wait for it.”

A sudden burst of light from a city street below bleached the surrounding skyscrapers and buildings in light. Several streets away came another flash of light. And then another, and another, illuminating the city blocks in sporadic blazes of white and almost taking the place of the illumination of the city’s v-lights themselves. Oddly pretty.

“This is all for you.”


“Come one, come all! Experience the fun that is the Twin Cities of Gemini! From the roaring dance halls to the flashy casinos to the one-of-a-kind resorts! You can do anything in the Twin Cities! Achieve anything!

As long as you don’t get caught!”

Twin Cities’s Top Attraction Tourist Pamphlet, mass circulated 1935

10.5: Jericho’s Cycling (Vendetta)

Re-cap:

Jericho has arrived in the Twin Cities along with Jericho and Leona under the latter’s request. Jericho and Talib are to assist Leona in her investigations of ELPIS within the city. Leona believes that Omicron who was present during an ELPIS attack on the Black Constellation Detention Center may be present in the city. Talib is set to scour the city with manipulated mediums, while Jericho is temporarily put on guard over Romano Family executives. Jericho clashes with Iota while protecting Caporegime Donato and encounters Cadence and Werner’s subordinates. Jericho manages to save Donato with assistance from Cadence, Werner, and Werner’s men.

And now Jericho has learnt of ELPIS’s true origins from Cadence’s end.

Jericho has decided to…

“I see you are still grieving,” Theta—rather, that version of Theta—had said, cupping Jericho’s cheek on that moonlit night all those years ago. The silver moonlight had made the tattoo on the right side of her face glow. “But there is no reason to be sad.”

“No reason to be sad?”

“They have died, yes, but in reality, all that has happened is that they have returned to the cycle of vitae. They have become a part of everything around you. They still exist all around you. That is how the cycle of vitae turns.”

“Vitae…?”

“Yes, so you shouldn’t grieve. You will only make them sad if you grieve. In the end, everything will return to the beginning. Isn’t that reassuring?”

Yes, it had been reassuring. Having lost his entire family, his neighbors, his friends, his town in one night, Jericho had found Theta’s words a comfort. Although she had been among the group orchestrating that massacre, he clung to her like a lifeline. As did the other children who were picked up along the way.

“Conductors are inherently evil,” she had told him. “Their main purpose is to kill people, to bring an end to everything. They are unnatural. Our purpose, on the other hand, is… well, you don’t need to worry about that.”

But when Theta had ‘died’, despite clinging onto every word she had said, Jericho had grieved. Just as he’d grieved when his mother was slaughtered in front of him by the same people who had taken him in.

One of the ELPIS members—perhaps an underling, perhaps not—took note of Jericho’s grief and the grief of the children who had become his friends under Theta’s care.

“Theta wouldn’t want you to grieve,” the ELPIS member had said to them. “Theta would want you to fight. Do you know what we’re fighting for?” A pause. “Would you like to know?”

For hope.

Jericho had embraced the ideology fully then. Just as the other children had.

Bleaching his vitae was excruciatingly painful, but Jericho rarely ever felt pain afterwards. He used to think that all the pain he was to endure in life was concentrated in that moment, leaving everything else going afterwards numb. Equivalent exchange.

Every generator conductor they destroyed together signaled a step closer to a hopeful future without reliance on conductors. Every Conductor killed represented one less murderer. But at the same time, death didn’t matter. All those who died were simply returning to the cycle. Over and over.

Jericho had carried this ideology even after he was taken in by Ophiuchus, by Alice. His perspective had only changed when he had put a bird with a broken wing out of its suffering and was discovered by Alice enacting the mercy kill.

“You killed it to put it out of its suffering, and it doesn’t matter if it’s died because it’ll return to the cycle? Do you really believe that?” Alice had clicked her tongue and shook her head. “I can’t believe the doctors haven’t handled this topic yet.” She looked him right in the eye then and said clearly: “That’s ridiculous. Even if that were true, even if someone’s vitae were to return to the ‘cycle’, it wouldn’t be the same. It wouldn’t be ‘them’ anymore. Not really. The situation, the parts, the components will never be the same. That’s why they say life is precious. Do you understand?”

It was difficult to break out of that thinking. If he did not think of it as a cycle, how could he rectify what he had done for so many years of his life? So instead, he stopped thinking of that aspect altogether. Alice had not been happy with his choice, but it had been the best he could do.

***

Twin Cities, Gemini

Recalling those memories that remained burned into his mind, Jericho stood on an empty street in front of a boarded-up liquor store. The building was large and took up an entire block by itself. He had to leap a wired fence to get to this place. And upon his landing on this side of the fence, he was greeted by a large sign at its front that read—UNDER INSPECTION AND DECONSTRUCTION. STAY OUT.

Jericho was grateful to Cadence because she was the reason for why he was standing here. He had received this information from her when she had been in Theta’s room listening in to all of their exchanges. Jericho surmised that she had been too affected by the revelation of ELPIS’s origins at the time to pay any attention to what was really being said. Jericho conjectured Francis’s brothers were also too affected to pay attention. Jericho couldn’t fathom why. Even if everything that was said was true, the fact was that—

ELPIS was still ELPIS.

And because Jericho knew this, he wasn’t distracted and was able to pick up the quick exchange between Omega and Theta regarding the warehouse location that Fortuna had given Theta.

“A conductor-manufacturing plant renovated from a renowned liquor store that went out of business fifteen years prior,” was what Theta had said. “Plant your mediums there and use my proto-conductor there.”

A quick check at the city hall and a dive into the records there paired with half an hour spent studying a map of the city had led Jericho here. To this warehouse. To this warehouse that Omega was most certainly within.

Jericho could feel her presence in the way his heart pounded, in the way his senses sharpened, in the way his ears rang. This was certainty.

Jericho. 

Jericho turned his head. A silhouette stood behind him.

Werner.

The Capricornian seemed tired.

Jericho wasn’t sure whether the man was exhausted because of his unconscious state or because he had taken on the brunt of Cadence’s pain. Jericho recalled his own bout of unconscious consciousness. It hadn’t been comfortable for him back then, so Jericho doubted that it was comfortable for Werner.

Werner’s image straightened and approached Jericho with a frown. “Engaging with an ELPIS leader without assistance is rash and high-risk.”

Jericho could already feel the lecture coming on, but he had come prepared: “Leona’s file. Omega is a Manipulator. She specializes in observational mediums. Intuition. She doesn’t have strong combat abilities. If alone, she will be easy to kill.”

Jericho had to do this. He had to. It was time. His fingers ached for it. His heart felt like it was going to explode if he didn’t achieve it.

Much to Jericho’s surprise, Werner nodded and said, “The weakest link. There is a high probability that she is the main information gatherer for ELPIS. Targeting her first is a reasonable strategy.”

Jericho blinked at him, confused.

“I know I can’t stop you, Jericho,” Werner responded evenly. “You’ve fallen out of following orders, as you’ve said. And I admit your sense of self—of revenge—is too strong for me to attempt an override without permission if the situation called for it.”

Jericho stared at him, still confused.

“As I’ve said, engaging with an ELPIS leader without assistance is dangerous—which is why I am offering my assistance.” A pause. “That and limiting their inflow of information will allow us to avoid detection as True Conductors for longer.”

“Are you sure?” Jericho cocked his head and pointed at him. “Is it customary to assist in battle when you have been through torture?” He paused, frowned a bit, and lowered his hand. “Suggestion… You and Cadence should rest.”

“Your concern is acknowledged, Jericho,” Werner said. “But I will not waste my time doing nothing while I’m in this… state.”

“… Thank you.”

Werner hesitated and then nodded. “What is your plan, Jericho?”

“I will kill her,” Jericho said simply. “This time. For certain. Intuition. Tonight. And then I will save Alice.”

“… We need to get as much information as we can from her first,” Werner returned. “And what will you tell Leona and the other Ophiuchian agents if they discover you?”

“Intuition…?”

In an unusual display of physical frustration, Werner pinched the bridge of his nose. “I’ll think of something then.”

Jericho shifted in place, gripping his suitcase tightly. “I… would like to say a prayer.”

Werner lifted his head. “… a prayer?”

“Yes.” Jericho stared into the darkness. “I don’t remember a lot before ELPIS. I was young. But I do remember the prayer my mother taught me. A Scorpian nomadic prayer. So, I would like to say it. Since I am ready. In control. It feels… ‘right’.”

“… Like I said, Jericho,” Werner said quietly. “I am not here to stop you. I am here to assist.”

Jericho nodded, set his suitcase to the side, and sank to his knees. He then dipped forward, pressing his forehead to the ground, palms faced downwards. He took a deep breath—

“Although our land is barren, our spirit is strong.
Although we are spread far apart in these deserts, we are connected through our spirit.
Each grain of sand we walk on is from a distant land connecting our ancestors past to us.
When we pass,
our bones will become the earth,
our spirits will become the sun shining on the land.
That is how we will become eternal.”

Jericho rose to a stand, picked up his suitcase, and turned back to Werner. The man silently met his eyes and then nodded.

“We are dealing with a Manipulator who is skilled at creating observational mediums. We most likely won’t be able to take the element of surprise during our initial encounter. She will most likely attempt an escape when she encounters you. There is no solution to this. If she does engage, she will use Theta’s proto-conductors to her advantage. I suggest you take advantage of the portals as well.”

Listening closely to Werner’s summary, Jericho closed the distance between himself and the warehouse. On Werner’s suggestion, he slipped in through an open window. He landed deftly on a high stack of crates just below and swiftly maneuvered his way down to the ground floor. In the darkness, he could make out looming machines and factory belts that crisscrossed across the ground.

An updraft of wind made him pause.

“My, my, the knight has finally arrived. I knew you’d come.” An airy laugh filled the air. “You cut an even more gallant figure up close.”

As expected, she’s already placed observational mediums in the building. By her tone, she means to engage. She’s been expecting you.

“I’ve always, always, always wanted to meet you, Jericho. I’ve been watching you from afar for forever.” A sigh. “From the moment the previous Theta took you in until now, I’ve been watching you. You’ve grown so, so, so much since then. But in the end, even after all this growing up, you’re still a—”

There was another updraft of air. This time from the left.

“—traitor.”

Jericho froze.

The voice was the same. The whispers from the walls. The whisper inside of his head. The whisper behind his back right before he was pushed down the stairs of the Serpens Establishment several months ago.

“I was hoping that the trip down the stairs would be the end of you, but it looks like I accidentally kick-started your path to True Conductorhood. Whoopsies.”

She knows. You have to kill her here. 

Jericho slowly undid his suitcase and pulled his conductor out.

“Don’t worry. Only Gamma and I know what you are. If I told any of the others, they would come right for you, and I don’t want that. It’s hard keeping a secret, you know? But I made it work.”

Another airy laugh.

“I want you all to myself. Which probably sounds weird since you’ve never met-met me before. You don’t know me at all. But I know you. I’ve been watching you forever, like I said.”

A loud boom resounded, and Jericho felt something whistle by his ear. Heat.

A bullet. She has a gun.

Jericho scanned the darkness. Metal piping, swinging chains from the ceiling, cold rectangular machines.

But her vision and aim are poor. Don’t activate your conductor, or she’ll be able to locate you in this darkness.

Jericho hesitated and stared at his conductor.

Jericho, you may not be able to feel much pain, but your body can still take on irreparable damage. A pause. Given the others’ reactions prior to our first synchronization, despite your analgesia, for whatever reason, the others are still able to feel your injuries. Do not activate your conductor.

Jericho nodded, clutched his conductor tightly in hand, ducked low, and began to head in the direction of where the last updraft had originated.

“You’ve been looking for us desperately this entire time, waiting for an opportunity like this,” came Omega’s sing-song voice. “But you know, I’ve been seeking you out too for the same reason.”

A bang resounded in the darkness, and a bullet ricocheted on a protruding pipe just above his head.

She has an obsession with you. She’s not operating rationally. 

“I hate you, Jericho. I really hate you.” Omega’s voice came out slightly higher-pitched than before. And it was coming from above his head. “I watched you, Jericho. The others have forgotten, but I haven’t. I’ve been active the longest out of all of them, you know? Ever since the Reservoir War ended…”

Another gust of wind.

A metal click-click, click-clack, click-clack resounded along the ground, and something rolled up to Jericho’s foot. He could barely make out its shape in the darkness. It was cylindrical, with a hollow glass tube lined with metal at its center.

“What you did to all the other little ones that were with you on that day—the ones who you grew up with—how can I forget? It’s burned into my brain. You lifted your conductor towards them, and you shattered them into nothing.”

The hollow glass tube began to hum and glow with a faint white light.

A conducting grenade. Jericho—

Jericho swiftly kicked the grenade right back in the direction it had come from.

“And when the peacekeepers took you in after you killed them all, they called you a tragic hero! And they hid you away, telling you that you were ‘strong’ for turning away from us, that you did the right thing by killing all the little ones.”

A fiery explosion erupted several meters away from him above his head. The fire illuminated the entire warehouse, stretching crooked shadows across the floor in between combing smoke. In front of that flame and on top of a factory machine, a woman stood with one hand snaking through her white hair and the other loosely holding both a gun and one of Theta’s proto-conductors.

“How do you think the little ones felt when they stared into the eyes of a friend-turned-murderer and felt their bodies crumble away into nothing? All because you thought for just one moment that what you all were doing was wrong,” Omega said, her voice barely carrying above the crackle of the flame. “I watched you spend all of these years without shedding even a single tear for any of them. You think we’re the monsters, but you’re the monster to me, you know? They were children.”

Children who were prepared to execute an entire community in cold blood because they had installed a generator conductor in their village. Children who wouldn’t stand down, who wouldn’t hesitate, in following through with their duties. Children—friends—whom Jericho hadn’t been able to deter with words.

“Yes, they were children,” Jericho agreed. “We were children.”

Omega’s eyes narrowed. “They became nothingness after you killed them. You know that, right? Because of the bleaching of their vitae, your vitae, our vitae… ‘It’s inevitable’ as Theta says, but… You should’ve become nothingness instead.”

“I said a Scorpian prayer my mother taught me before I came here,” Jericho stated. “I will also say the prayer Theta taught me. For them. When I kill you. Will that be sufficient?”

Omega stared and laughed.

The sprinkler system went off, and a torrent of water came gushing down, soaking Jericho to the bone. The fire dimmed, and once again the factory became shrouded in darkness. Jericho continued forward, his footsteps sloshing around in the puddles that had formed on the ground. The sound was deafened by the pitter-patter and whining of the sprinklers.

A loud bang resounded again, but Jericho did not hear the ricochet of the bullet.

Jericho, your arm.

Abruptly, Jericho found his left hand resting on his upper right arm. The fabric just above his Ophiuchian sash had torn. It was damp. The bullet had grazed him.

Omega knows where you are. Even if she’s filled this factory with mediums, her precision is too exact. She may have placed an observational medium on you without your knowledge.

Jericho paused and reached for his bleeding arm.

Intuition.

He ripped off his Ophiuchian sash and stared at it.

A lure.

He threw it on the ground and started off into the dark. After ducking behind a network of interlaced, low-hanging pipes, he fell into a crouch and stared out into the dark.

Jericho, we don’t know what other locations she’s placed her mediums. This hiding location is not—

Intuition. She has only placed observational mediums at the entrance and where she thinks the modified conductors are being stored. Not here. I don’t think. 

Jericho waited, listening intently to the tap-tap-tap of the water around him, tuning his ears to any discrepancy of sound.

Several bangs resounded in the dark. Sparks erupted around where Jericho had dropped his sash from bullets ricocheting off the ground. After that, for a long while, there was nothing.

And then, a figure emerged from the network of low hanging pipes opposite of him. Omega. She slowly stepped forward in the darkness, clutching her gun loosely in one hand as she extended the other blindly outwards. She stopped short just in front of the white band and squinted down at it.

“Oh my, you’ve grown smart though, haven’t you?”

Jericho activated his conductor with a flick; and with precision he assumed was from Werner, he threw out a whip of vitae across several meters right at her. Instead of piercing her through, however, he split his vitae out into a web that formed a bubble around her. He flicked his wrist, tightening the cage of vitae and leaving just her head exposed. He stepped out from his place of hiding. The heat from the vitae caused her to drop both the gun and Theta’s proto-conductor. The water from the sprinklers sizzled as it pitter-pattered onto the white cage.

“I really am not suited for this kind of thing, am I?” Omega laughed airily as he approached her. “This is more of Iota’s thing. Ah, Iota will be so mad at me…” Her eyes widened. “You took Iota’s arm… that’s right. I can’t forgive you for that either….”

“Tell me where Theta keeps the prisoners,” Jericho stated. “Tell me how to use Theta’s proto-conductors.”

The corners of Omega’s eyes crinkled as she traced his face. “You really have grown up since then.”

“Shut up.”

“Congratulations on getting closer to your goal of completely eradicating us. Vengeance for yourself? Or for your blood family? I still can’t figure it out… What did you call us when you were speaking to Talib? I was watching then too, you know? Right… You called us ‘false hope’?” Omega hummed. “What will you do now that you know that just killing us isn’t enough? Will you hunt down our resistors too? That’ll be a long road ahead, you know?”

Jericho brought up his suitcase and cracked it against her face. She stumbled to the side, pressing into the cage of vitae.

The smell of burning flesh filled the air paired with an unpleasant sizzling sound.

Omega righted herself quickly, pulling away from vitae. The contact was not long enough, leaving her skin intact.

“I said shut up,” Jericho stated.

“You should know. I’m just like you. My sense of pain is super-duper dulled,” Omega replied, blinking away the blood that had dribbled into her eyes from the wound that had formed at her temple. “So, things like this won’t work on me. And killing won’t work either. Not right now anyways.” Her lips turned upwards. “I’m not afraid of dying. It’s the same with you, isn’t it?”

Jericho didn’t respond. Merely tightened his grip on his suitcase that was dripping with her blood.

“After you eradicate us, what’ll you do, Jericho?” she continued. “Do you think peace happens instantaneously? You should know. We’re not something physical. If you really want to eliminate us, you have to eliminate ideology, you know? And that’s really hard—”

“You keep talking. But all that’s coming out of your mouth is garbage.”

“Could it be that you’re a bit of an airhead, Jericho?” Omega gasped. “I mean, the color of our vitae is the same, isn’t it? So, to really destroy ELPIS, you would have to—”

Jericho cracked the suitcase against her head again and again. She rattled against the small cage but righted herself.

“What is the syzygy?” Jericho found himself asking.

“Syzygy…” Omega cocked her head and then chuckled. “Who knows? I think I forgot what it was five lifetimes ago, but who knows, who knows. I don’t think Theta or Omicron remember either. Maybe just bits and parts. The records are falling apart now too… We just know that we have to stop it and how to stop it—which is by eliminating conductors and killing True Conductors like you, hm… that’s why we need Gamma—Wtorek Izsak, this time. Gamma’s barely been initiated so Gamma remembers almost everything.”

A ludicrous existence. 

“Hm-hm, I used quite a lot of my vitae this time around actually,” Omega said suddenly. “There might not be enough of my vitae left to be me… I really might become nothingness this time.” She stared off into the darkness. “That doesn’t scare me though. I’m only afraid that if I do make it back, I won’t remember everything. I won’t remember you or what you did at all. Nobody but you will. Ah… such troubles.”

“I will ask you one more time,” Jericho stated, tugging on his conductor and tightening the vitae cage around her. “Tell me where Alice is. Tell me how to use the proto-conductors.”

Omega paused in her airy laughter, straightened herself, and locked eyes with him.

“I hope you suffer,” she answered, her voice losing its light tone. “Just as they suffered, you hypocritical traitor.”

With a grunt, Jericho pulled his conductor backwards, tightening the cage of vitae around her. The lines tightened, tightened, pressing into her skin, constricting her like a snake, until the contact was enough and the crumbling began. The cracks crawled up her arms and legs, connecting at her chest before ascending to her face.

And then she crumbled away into nothing. Not even a dusted trace of her left. The cage of vitae fell loose in the absence of her body. Mist-like whiteness rose into the air and dispersed.

Jericho retracted his vitae back into his conductor, leaving him in the cold, wet dark. Slowly, he bent down to pick up the proto-conductor and gun and stored it in his suitcase. After a brief moment’s hesitation, he sank down onto one knee, bowed his head, and placed a hand over his chest. He recited in the original Ophiuchian language—

“There is no end,
There is no beginning,
There is only a cycle.
Whether enemy, whether friend,
Whether family, whether stranger,
Whether on land, whether on sea, whether in sky,
Whether alone, whether in company,
Whether in peace, whether in war,
May all return to where all began.”

Continuously repeating the chant under his breath, Jericho stared at the spot where Omega had drawn her last breath.

“—no beginning,
there is only a cycle.”

He had succeeded. He had killed her. She had said there was not enough of her left ‘to become her’ when she returned to her resistor. But her resistor didn’t seem to be on her person. He would have to find and destroy her resistor, to be sure. But if she was re-initiated in the meantime, it wouldn’t be the same. Still.

Conclusion: destroy all of their resistors.

Until there was nothing left. Absolutely nothing. Like how there was nothing left of her now. Eliminate the false hope. Completely.

“—whether in peace, whether in war,
May all return to where all beg—”

A hand on his shoulder.

Jericho turned his head.

Werner.

You should leave. The Romano Family will send people to investigate the disturbance here. 

***

Still dripping wet, Jericho made his way through the streets of the Twin Cities. He didn’t really have a direction in mind.

Werner was still synchronized with him lightly. Jericho could feel his presence, like he could feel the moonlight hazily seeping through the smog clouding the skyline. Jericho didn’t understand why Werner was still present despite the task being completed. Perhaps it was customary.

What next.

“Jericho!”

Jericho lifted his head and looked left then right. The streets were familiar to him. The windows of the shops and the people walking along the streets skirting around him scratched at his memory. Yes, familiar. Werner had been steadily directing him back to the Abaccio, Jericho realized.

“Jericho!” Came the shout again.

Jericho turned his head.

It was Talib, coming along down the walkway and waving his hand wildly in the air. The Manipulator came to a stop in front of him before bending over and panting. Even after all of the cases they’d had together, it seemed as if Talib’s cardio still hadn’t improved much.

“How did you find me?” Jericho asked after a beat.

“Leona is looking for you,” Talib said slowly, straightening himself. “I tracked you with my medium.” He tapped Jericho’s chest pocket.

Jericho reached into the pocket and pulled out the damp origami paper Talib had slipped in there several days earlier. Jericho had completely forgotten about it.

“You saw,” Jericho concluded.

“I overheard,” Talib corrected. “… You weren’t directed to chase after the ELPIS leader by Leona, were you?”

“No, I was not.”

“How did you know where that one would be?”

Jericho remained silent.

“And you didn’t get any information on Alice’s whereabouts…”

“No.”

“You… killed them.”

“Yes, I did,” Jericho affirmed. “Will you tell Leona this?”

This time Talib remained silent.

“I will meet with Leona,” Jericho said after a beat, turning back towards the direction he’d been walking.

Talib placed a hand on his arm. “Not with that look in your eyes, partner.”

When Jericho turned to Talib in confusion, Talib nodded over to a closed store with darkened windows. In the reflection of the pane, Jericho found his reflection captured. His face was pale, his lips were drawn tight, and his eyes were wide—wide and faintly glowing with a ring of white light.

“You can trust me, partner,” Talib said. “I won’t tell Leona what happened here, but I think we both need to talk with each other for a bit.”

They made their way over to a bench that rested on a desolate walkway and sat down. Talib ran into a nearby bar and returned with a towel. Jericho accepted it from him and began to dry his hair slowly.

“Did you know the framework of most conspiracy theories is based on fundamental attribution error?” Talib asked suddenly. “We as human beings tend to favor dispositional explanations for things rather than situational explanations. Say someone bumps into you and glares. You tend to think that the person doesn’t like you instead of considering that they might be in some sort of pain and bumped into you and glared accidentally. Say you choke on a piece of food while at a restaurant. Say instead of thinking that you choked on accident because you were eating too fast, you end up thinking that the chef is an assassin sent by a shadowy organization to kill you.”

That was one gigantic leap… wasn’t it?

Yes, it was.

Werner. Still present.

“But it’s not always circumstance,” Jericho said, pulling the towel from his head.

“Or is it?” Talib responded automatically, arching an inquisitive brow. He cleared his throat. “But most of the time it is. Or so we tell ourselves to make ourselves feel better.” Talib slid his hands into his pockets and stared across the empty street. “Say someone you respect hands a message off to someone else you respect. Then that latter person tells you to fulfill that message. That message involves you looking into yet another person you fear but respect. But the very first person who is a part of this chain turns their back on everything they stand for, while the person at the end of the chain begins to exemplify everything that the first person stood for. What is it? Situation or disposition? Coincidence or purpose. You can lose your mind in the conspiracy.”

“Gabrielle asked you to investigate Leona,” Jericho concluded, piecing together the details from Maria’s end of things. He paused and thought on Talib’s words. “Gabrielle received a message from… Izsak before he became involved with ELPIS.”

Before a resistor was used on Izsak and he became ‘Gamma’.

Talib would be sad if he found out… correct?

Yes. Cadence was sad about Francis. Theta…

Talib nodded. “Izsak gave a coded message to Gabrielle before he… converted. It was very strongly coded, so the decoded message was terribly brief. Just—‘saint candidate’ and ‘vitae reservoir’. Two concepts that could be connected. Or not. The thing is… Is this a wild goose chase that Izsak has sent on us or…?” Talib whipped out his notebook from his pocket and flashed it at Jericho. There were nonsensical scribbles within. “And then there’s you, Jericho. You were formerly involved with ELPIS too. Situationally, your aim is revenge. Dispositionally, your aim is revenge. You’re a constant. Alice was right about that.” Talib’s shoulders drooped, and he pocketed his journal. “Alice said you were very trustworthy…”

Jericho stared. “Are you… saying you trust me?”

Trust…

Talib nodded again and then bit his thumb. “Saint candidates, ELPIS, vitae reservoirs. Alice, Flannery. Leona, Izsak.”

Syzygy.

Talib shook his head. “I say Leona is exemplary, but at the same time, I have this sinking feeling that she doesn’t really care what’s going to happen to Alice. That doesn’t bode well at all.” He frowned. “Perhaps Leona’s involved in the Organization? No, that’s a separate thing. Or is it?”

“We will find Alice then. Together.” Jericho paused. “But, Talib, be careful.”

Talib startled and then chuckled. “I’m not the one who’s tackling ELPIS head first.” He rubbed his knees. “Well, if you know anything, I’d appreciate it if you told me. And if you want to know something, I’m all mouth.” He pointed to Jericho’s pocket where Jericho had restored the origami sheet. “I put that on you out of concern, but if you don’t feel comfortable then—”

“Talib… can I ask you for something?”

Talib stared at him. “Of course, partner, anything.”

“A paper crane. One that you manipulate as a medium. Can you place it on someone for me? I think they might be involved with ELPIS.”

Talib nodded. “Of course. Anything that’ll help us get closer to finding out where Alice is.” He paused. “Do you know what they look like? Can you give me a name? Maybe a picture?”

“I can draw one,” Jericho said as Colonel Fritz von Spiel’s face drifted into his mind.

… Thank you, Jericho.


Reversus Oratio: an ELPIS Ophiuchian prayer often directed towards a person one has strong feelings for. A prayer of parting. Sometimes said in memory of one who has passed away.

???

10.4: Atienna’s Questioning (Riposto)

Re-cap:

Atienna’s diplomatic journey reaches a standstill when she becomes storm-locked in a cavern alongside Virgoan diplomat Chiamaka, their guards Kabal and Sefu, and the Cancerian tourist Louise whom they’d rescued. Already locked in the cave are Piscese diplomat Moana, Pisces advisor Kalama, Piscese guard Afu; Aquarian diplomat Alexei Drei, Aquarian secretary Yulia, Aquarian advisor Cvetka Akulova, and the guards Nikita Knovak and Sigurd.

Kalama is mysteriously murdered one day in, and Afu is put on arrest after lashing out at Alexei. As tensions built up inside of the cavern, a portal opens up, dumping Ophiuchian peacekeeper Mladen and Major Ersatz within. The major dies shortly after, leaving an oddly discombobulated, nonsensical Mladen who insists on being called ‘P’ to deal with the dysfunction.

On Atienna’s mind: P’s relation to ELPIS; Yulia’s, Sigurd’s, Louise’s, and Cvetka’s knowledge of the word ‘syzygy’, and the probability of them being True Conductors; and Kalama’s murder. One mystery appears to be nearing solved as P finally reveals his association to ELPIS to Atienna… 

Zatmeniye Caverns, Aquarius

“Rather than calling you ‘P’ then, perhaps I should call you ‘Pi’? I’ve been reading a bit about the original Ophiuchian language and that seems to be appropriate…”

The person—

who had killed Mladen 

who had become Mladen 

who had passed on memories to Mladen 

—who had taken over Mladen’s life stared at Atienna with wide eyes.

Slowly, Pi nodded.

Jericho’s rage pulsated beneath the surface, but the peacekeeper’s mind was too focused on the task he was currently pursuing for it to take Atienna over.

Atienna sighed, closed her eyes, felt the cold of the ice wall behind her press through her layers of clothing. She tried to amalgamate the information she had gathered from Pi and from Cadence’s end.

Firstly, ELPIS was not a new terrorist organization. It was an ancient one. Secondly, what was assumedly ELPIS’s original founders passed on what were essentially their souls and memories to people near death’s door via resistors. In a sense, Atienna thought, that was strangely similar to the way to how True Conductors came to be. Curious. Thirdly, every experience an ELPIS leader underwent while in someone else’s guise was lost when the ELPIS leader ‘died’ and entered another person’s guise.

Really… what a ludicrous existence. 

If anything, this just proved the truth of the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis. And that truth was rather…

“Unsure…” Pi muttered from beside her. “What to. Do.”

When Atienna turned to him, she found that he was looking at her in askance. How troubling.

“It depends on how you view your current self,” Atienna drew uncertainly. “Would I be correct in saying that you don’t agree with ELPIS’s current trajectory…?”

Pi froze and nodded. He let out a breath that clouded the air before his eyes widened and he stared off into the distance. “Have I… Past me. Done that. Too?”

If Pi’s vitae had occupied Major Ersatz previous to its current occupation of Mladen, then the answer was clear.

However, Atienna remained silent.

An interesting case. An ELPIS leader who did not agree wholeheartedly with ELPIS ideology.

Atienna wondered if she was lucky to have encountered Pi instead of another ELPIS leader. Pi himself did not seem to be as antagonistic as Iota nor as ideological as Theta. Atienna was uncertain if this was an aspect of Pi’s faulty initiation or of his true nature. Or… Perhaps it was that Pi was lucky to have encountered her. Such hubris.

“Do you consider,” Atienna began, “how you are now as a uniquely different to all those other versions of you? Do you think you should take responsibility for those actions or will you move forward without looking back? Which way do you think is right?”

These were answers Atienna truly wanted to know.

Pi stared at her blankly. Instead of answering, he stated, “You… no fear…”

Atienna offered him a thin smile. “I must admit that I am more curious”—and furious—“than afraid.”

“You. Scary,” Pi said, nodding. “A little.”

Atienna blinked in surprise. “Shouldn’t our reactions be reversed…?”

Pi shrugged before studying her hesitantly. “Now you know. What do. For you?”

“I’m wondering that myself…”

***

When Atienna learned of the Specialist children being taken advantage of by the Campanas, she felt her heart sink. She had always known that activities such as these were commonplace, but baring witness to it through Cadence’s eyes solidified it as reality as compared to fiction on paper.

Then when Atienna witnessed Werner taking on Cadence’s pain in that cold, dimly lit cellar, she was filled with emotions she could not dissect in one sitting. A sense of unity, a sense of sadness, a sense of guilt, a sense of worry, a sense of happiness.

Going along with the rush of all of these hard to digest feelings, she found herself prying open the letter she had been neglecting since she’d departed Virgo. She sat in her pocket in the cavern—Pi remained at her side, quiet and contemplative—as she read the curling Virgoan letters:

My dearest sister, Atienna,

I suspect you have put off reading this letter despite your love of reading. I am unsure if this is in part due to your newfound duties or if it is due to the argument we had prior to your departure. But you are kind and caring, so I doubt it is the latter.

I know I have argued against you serving as an advisor to Chiamaka as has father. I am not sure what father’s case is still, but as for me… It isn’t because I don’t believe you can serve as an advisor. In fact, I believe wholeheartedly that you will become the best advisor Virgo has to offer. Perhaps, if you choose to do so, you will climb up to become the best diplomat Virgo has ever had.

My reservations come from the fact that I fear you may become like me—rather, like how I was when I was working alongside Usian. Carried away by patriotism and ideology. During that time, I lost sight of what was truly important to me and fell into convolution. I don’t wish the same to befall you. That is all my hesitation and reservations amount to. I am sure, however, you are shaking your head as you are reading this. You are thinking, ‘how can my little brother dare to give me advice about a situation I helped him out of’. And I agree. You are much wiser than I. But I had a feeling that it still needed to be said. You know me and my impulsivity.

I apologize for not telling you all of this directly. Safiyah is right about me not being well-versed when it comes to apologies. But let me just say that she is not well-versed when it comes to it either.

So, yes, my dear sister, the purpose of this letter is mostly to serve as a long-winded apology. I hope my feelings come across clearly and are not lost in my usual drivels and ramblings.

Kamaria, Kichea, father, and I eagerly await your return. I suspect by the time you are reading this, they are near driving me to complete insanity.

As promised, Safiyah and I are tending to your garden together so you mustn’t worry about that. Then again, I do recall Safiyah somehow managing to obliterate your purple asters when you asked her to look after them for an hour. I will try my best to protect your garden from her until you return.

To close this poorly formed letter, I would like to leave you with a request. I know this is selfish to ask with you so far away from us and moving forward, but I simply request that you do not forget what is important to you.

Sincerely,

Bachiru

Atienna let out a final breath and folded the letter back into the envelope. She sighed in exasperation and pressed the paper to her lips.

As always, Bachiru acted as the final push, the final reminder.

“Pi,” she murmured under her breath, “perhaps all you need to do is realize what is the most important to you out of all of this.”

***

Atienna knew Kalama’s murderer was still in the cave. Pi’s arrival in the cavern was merely a confounder. She had known since the beginning, but she had refrained from speaking and acting. There was just too much uncertainty. She didn’t know all the details, after all. And because she didn’t know everything, she hadn’t made the choice.

She had assured herself repeatedly that she would make a choice. It was just that she just didn’t have the necessary components to make that choice yet.

Information, pattern, hypothesis theory. Or theory, hypothesis, observation, confirmation. It was insufficient.

It had been the same case with her approach of Pi. A threshold of information had been reached before she had chosen to address him. And until that threshold had been reached regarding Kalama’s case, Atienna had decided that she would just have to deal with the itch of curiosity. But that was just an excuse. A form of self-deception. Prolonging false peace. Delaying the inevitable.

Atienna realized now that the only information that was required to reach the threshold in this circumstance was this: what was important to her.

And so, when everyone reclused to sleep around the campfire that night, Atienna kept her eyes trained on the Aquarian side of the camp. As usual, there were two people on that side who remained awake and sitting. One was the Aquarian guard on duty and the other—

The other Aquarian was sitting with their back to the campfire and using it as a reading light for note-taking. About half an hour after everyone fell asleep, that person rose from their seat and hovered over Alexei’s sleeping form.

Atienna peered at the posted guard on that side. Sigurd. Perhaps if Nikita Knovak was on guard instead, he would have asked exactly what that person was doing. But Nikita was on watch over Afu, and Sigurd merely looked on with disinterest.

Atienna silently rose from her bedding, cast a look at Sefu who was dozing off on guard behind her, before she slinked over to the hovering figure. She placed a gentle hand on the figure’s pale arm.

Yulia turned back to her with wide eyes. The same eyes Atienna had seen in Jericho and Werner. The eyes of a killer.

“It’s about Kovich, isn’t it?” Atienna said quietly.

The light in Yulia’s eyes changed, and suddenly she had the eyes of a mother.

Atienna glanced at Sigurd, who was watching them unmovingly. Atienna pressed gently, “We should speak elsewhere, don’t you think?”

In silence, they walked over to Atienna’s small cavern pocket. There, they reached a standstill, face to face with another. Atienna’s back was to the campfire, so she was able to see the way the orange light stretched thin shadows across Yulia’s unsmiling face.

“So, you are one too. I thought so.” Yulia broke the silence. “After what happened in Virgo, I suspected another True Conductor was involved. Cvetka did mention that Virgo’s leave from isolation was too sudden… I assume you have one that is close to my dear colonel then. That’s the only way you would know the importance of that name.”

And with that, it was confirmed.

Fritz von Spiel, the Capricornian colonel; Yulia, the Aquarian secretary; and ‘Kovich’, the Specialist child owned by the Campanas, were connected True Conductors.

Atienna had suspected it when she had observed the colonel’s note-taking skill and posture when Werner had accompanied him to the Romano Family meeting. It had been the exact mirror image of Yulia’s posture. Then came their echoed words— “If you don’t come to your senses, you’ll fall apart”. And finally, came Yulia’s adoration of the Aquarian author Kovich—which was the name the colonel had addressed the Specialist boy with at the secret Campana meeting Cadence had witnessed. And the connecting piece was…

“Alexei… is that poor boy’s father, isn’t he?” Atienna whispered. “Alexei is Kovich’s father.”

“Alexei is a bastard,” Yulia spat vehemently. “He puts on that face like he’s a saint, but all he cares about is himself.”

Atienna realized that Yulia must have pushed Afu into lashing out at Alexei then. How unpleasant.

Yulia’s voice began to rise: “We all suffered during Aquarius’s economic crisis! I had nothing to eat but a loaf of bread for weeks! But… never did I ever… I never turned my back on my family. I spent months looking for work so I could feed them, and Alexei—he—”

“He sold Kirill—Kovich—to the Campanas,” Atienna finished steadily.

Yulia’s expression folded. “Can you even understand what it feels like to be sold by your father while he holds your hand acting like nothing is wrong? Without a second thought?” Her mask of indifference cracked in the light of the fire, and she stared into Atienna. “Do you know how many times I’ve tried to tell Kovich it wasn’t his fault…? No matter what I do—no matter what I think or say—he goes to sleep every single night wondering what he did wrong! I tried to even change his name to distance him from that bastard, but how can Kovich forget his father when every morning he wakes up as a slave under the Campanas—the people that his father sold him to?!”

How terrible…

That distant sympathy curled up in Atienna’s chest.

“So, you plan on taking revenge on Kovich’s behalf?” Atienna inquired after allowing a moment for Yulia to recollect herself. “By killing Alexei Drei… using Kovich’s own Specialist conducting? I wonder if that’s considered poetic justice…” She lowered her gaze. “And Kalama…”

“That was a mistake on my part,” Yulia elaborated, tone even. “I was going to kill Alexei when we found ourselves trapped in this cave initially. I was determined to. It was the opportunity I had been waiting for while working under him for all of these years. It would be very easy to cover it up as a cave accident with Kovich’s conducting.” Yulia’s eyes glinted. “…. but then the Piscese diplomats came, and I had to wait and wait… And then you came.” She frowned. “I was… too rash that night. I did not realize that Alexei had given Kalama his jacket… I just saw it, saw the opportunity.” Her frown deepened. “I would apologize, but that would do nothing now.”

“‘Now’,” Atienna repeated. “And what happens now…? If you move forward with this, then… perhaps you’ll frame Afu? Or you’ll say that the murderer came from the portals… which is why you are so attentive to Mladen. You know he is ELPIS. About how ELPIS truly operates. He could be your key out of here… and he may hold information regarding Fritz’s dealings with Omicron, which must somehow involve the Campanas.”

Yulia stared at her wide-eyed before she shook her head and chuckled mirthlessly—no, nervously. “Cvetka was right when she said you knew everything.”

Atienna didn’t know everything, but if Yulia thought that she did, then that was good. That meant that Yulia believed that there was nothing that she could hide from Atienna. Knowledge was power. Knowledge could be used as a trap. Against someone who knew everything, one could do nothing.

“And you’re aware of Cvetka’s nature as a True Conductor?”

Yulia paled slightly. “What…?”

So, she didn’t know.

Yulia was out of her depth, it seemed.

“Yulia… I’m not in your situation,” Atienna drew quietly, “so I won’t truly understand your pain. But… There must be a way for us to reach a peaceful resolution. Enough blood has been spilled, don’t you think? If you try and harm Alexei, you’ll start something that’ll be difficult to stop… You must also consider that Fritz is already on his way to free Kovich—”

“A peaceful resolution? Even if Kovich is free, as long as that man takes a breath, he will still be trapped.” Yulia grimaced. “Didn’t you hear me from the beginning? I don’t care what happens to my country—”

“I don’t care either.”

Yulia paused.

Atienna looked to the side. “It feels both a relief and a pain to admit it, but I don’t care what happens to Virgo… Although, I wonder if I’m failing my patriotic duty by saying this.”

After all, it was because of ‘Virgo’ that her mother ended up the way she had. It was because of ‘Virgo’ that Bachiru had fallen in with Usian. The concept that the country in itself was more important than the individual—some viewed this as a positive, altruistic perception, and perhaps it was. But not to Atienna.

She wondered if Werner, her father, or her mother would be disappointed in her line of thought.

“I’ve been participating in all of these political things only because it is considered ‘what is right’,” Atienna continued. Because it was what her mother would have viewed as ‘right’. And… “Because if I do it, then I will be able to better protect the things that I do care about.”

Bachiru, Kichea, Kamaria, her father. Even Sefu and Nia. And, of course, now the other five.

A handle—an eye—on the developments of Virgo would put her in a better position to protect them. Everything else that happened was just an inconsequential itch. Something to bide her curiosity. Perhaps.

This was the true choice Atienna had made when she had confronted Usian in front of the Great Tree all those months ago.

“It makes sense,” Yulia said. There was no judgement in her eyes. “It makes sense that we True Conductors would feel similarly. We’re given positions where we’re able to be outsiders looking in. So then—”

“If you kill an Aquarian diplomat and if you choose to divert the blame, you will start something irreversible between all three of our countries,” Atienna interjected, holding up an apologetic hand. “And that will bleed out to other countries—to the people I do care about within those countries and within my own country. That’s something I can’t look away from.”

Yulia’s gaze darkened.

“So, I am asking you, Yulia… I will keep your secret about Kalama… but please do not move any further than this. Let’s leave this behind us and return to the people we care about. You will end up ruining your own happiness if you—”

Yulia abruptly pushed her back. “I do not need your words of advice nor your words of sympathy, Miss Imamu.”

Atienna rubbed her shoulder. “Kovich has been through enough pain already, don’t you think? And any pain you feel, he will surely feel himself.”

Yulia took a single tense step backwards.

“It’s somewhat embarrassing to admit this, but my… tousle with Afu was my choice—my skill—alone.” She met Yulia’s eyes and saw the woman pale considerably. “Perhaps, saying that ‘I am asking you’ is an improper choice of words.”


Aquarius’s long awaited change from the pre-war moneta bill to the dracul coin has led to extreme inflation of the new currency. The Treasury of Aquarius is currently attempting to rectify the issue and is expected to push forward several legislations to help curb a market stumble. Time will tell.

Novosti Newspaper, 13 January 1932