15.3: Lance Corporal, 0610 Enemy Encounter

Re-cap:

Atienna is locked in an override over Werner. After discovering that a Capricornian was disguised among their Argoan attackers, she follows Gilbert’s lead to complete the mission assigned to them–to meet with Captain Weingartner in the unoccuppied territory. As they near their point of destination, however, they find that the captain’s camp has been ransacked and three survivors remain: an Argoan named Emil, a fellow Capricornian soldier, and Marionette Engel of the Verbundene Augen movement.

Meanwhile, Werner finds him at the supposed threshold of life and death where he untangles himself from a memory only to encounter Lavi and the owner of the mysterious voice that always escapes his memory.


Feindliche Begegnung » Enemy encounter at 0610 hours

Unoccupied Territory, Argoan-Capricornian Border

Lance Corporal Klaus Kleine was accustomed to seeing dead bodies. He’d seen his first five years ago in his city-town of Buchstadt before he’d even been officially deployed. That day, the newspapers had praised Capricornian victory against an Argoan onslaught from Abschnitt 45 to 51, pushing forth celebrations all across the country. What the government gifted their citizens for their victory and sacrifice were caskets. They were of polished black wood, engraved with rigid gold lines, and embossed with the Capricornian sea-goat. No names designated.

The first casket to arrive in Buchstadt contained the body of Klaus’s senior at the military academy, Ulrich Stoeffman. Klaus had been witness to Stoeffman’s mother’s tears as the Militärpolizei peeled away the coffin lid to reveal his body. She had caressed Stoeffman’s pale face and wailed for hours—all in the town square.

That night, a resident fire Elementalist Conductor set all the bodies and caskets aflame as they sang the country’s national anthem.

For mother, for father, 
For glory, for honor,
Victory is upon us…”

Fear thundered through Klaus’s bones as he’d repeated the hymn ingrained in him since primary school. As his childhood friend Charite—before she became Omicron—had gripped his arm tightly, he could hear her thoughts echoing his own. I don’t want to die; I don’t want to die.

When Klaus had seen his first dead body on the battlefield—one felled by his own conjured rifle and fresh with ichor pouring out from all bodily orifices—he had puked. Stein had tormented him all the while, urging him to conjure a book “to help him grow some balls.” Klaus had continued to heave on the ground until First Lieutenant Werner Waltz ripped him up to a stand with an iron grip.

“Enough, Private Kleine,” Werner had said coldly. “You’re a Capricornian. If you have time for regrets, then you’re wasting my time.” In other words, there was no time for regrets.

And it was true.

Even here at their mysteriously fallen camp, as Klaus joined the others in collecting the name tags from their own and the Argoans, there was no time for regrets—no time to wonder if they could’ve done anything more, if they could’ve come earlier.

Stein swore from beside Klaus suddenly. He plucked a tag from a corpse draped over a log. “It’s fucking Lukas. He… He owes me twenty marks from poker.”

Klaus glanced down and registered the face of the man he had lent a book to only a week prior. He grimaced and gave an internal Monadic prayer before his gaze trailed over to a clearing in the campsite where Gilbert, Nico, and Werner—Atienna—stood in front of three seated individuals. The first was the captive Argoan Emil. The second was the survivor Heimler had found, Henning Ratha soldier from the 212th Division whom Klaus was not familiar with. Lastly, there was Marionette Engel, leader of the Verbundene Augen.

Klaus had been keeping a sharp eye on her political movement for some time now. He happily ate up the group’s surprisingly uncensored news pieces in his free time.

“A Capricorn without war.” It sounded nice.

***

At dusk, Klaus handed off a dozen tags to Second Lieutenant Wolff at the center of camp. Nico, Marionette, Emil, and Rath stood in a cluster just a meter away from Gilbert. Vogt was stationed behind them, watching like a hawk. Atienna was not present.

“Kleine.” Gilbert jerked his head and motioned him closer.

Kleine swallowed and complied.

“Go keep an eye on ‘Werner’ for me. He was collecting the tags and moving the bodies with the others, but I had him start the campfire instead.” Gilbert nodded across the field where Atienna was collecting pieces of wood from desecrated tents within eyesight.

“Yes, sir.” Klaus eyed Marionette Engel. “Sir, can I ask… how she even made it past the border?”

“Don’t think too hard, Kleine, and keep your damn lieutenant company,” was Gilbert’s response to that.

And that was that.

By the time Klaus made it over to Atienna, her fire was already crackling away. She was seated before it, knees pulled up to the chest, staring into the flames. At his approach, she lifted her head and offered him a small smile:

“Oh… hello, Klaus.”

It was odd hearing his first name used out here. But it was nice. Made him feel like more than a cog in the machine. Made him feel a little bit more human.

“Hi…” Klaus fumbled with his glasses. “Er… you’re good at making fires.”

“Oh, I’ve had quite a lot of practice.” The corners of Atienna’s—the lieutenant’s—eyes crinkled. “Is there something I can do for you?”

Weird but pleasant.

“I… was just wondering what Miss Engel, the Argoan, and Rath said about what happened here.” —A half-lie. He didn’t think she’d like the idea that he’d been sent over to keep an eye on her, after all.

“Oh…” A soft hum. “Did Gilbert not tell you this himself?”

Klaus stiffened. When he locked gazes with her, however, her lips were turned up slightly.

“But…” She averted her eyes. “A friend of a friend of mine advised that if you can’t solve a problem, you should ask a friend for a different perspective. And I agree.” Before Klaus could digest what she meant, she continued, “The three have differing stories… Miss Engel says that she came with a group of protesters. They planned to form a line at the middle of the unoccupied territory… She didn’t elaborate on her plans much further than that and demanded a lawful representative.”

A demonstration? One that seemed dangerous and stupid.

“She says that the Capricornians discovered her group and started attacking, so they tried defending themselves. Mr. Rath says that Miss Engel’s group attacked them first, and they defended themselves. He lost sight of Captain Weingartner during the confusion but suspects that he retreated. That Argoan—Emil—is still in shock… poor thing.”

‘Poor thing’—coming from the lieutenant’s mouth was very weird. Especially when it was in regards to an Argoan.

“Miss Engel didn’t mention anything about why she was in a Capricornian uniform—not even the possibility that it was used for her demonstration … which is a bit strange, don’t you think?”

“It’s like someone was trying to hide her identity,” Klaus realized, sinking down beside her. “Or maybe they were trying to blend in with us? Did she do it herself? What’s the point?”

“That’s exactly what I’m wondering,” Atienna murmured. “An elaborate political demonstration that’s gone wrong…?”

Klaus studied her and figured that she was probably a pretty person, before he cleared his throat. “It’s best to leave this to higher command. This isn’t really your problem to solve.”

“Are you saying that I’m an outsider looking in?” She side-glanced at him, Werner’s eyes piercing and cold. “And what makes you think you know who I am? I’ve seen you through Werner’s eyes, but you haven’t seen me. I might be closer than you think”

Klaus stiffened beneath that frigid gaze.

“I’m sorry. I was just teasing you.” Atienna chuckled, looking away sheepishly. “I know exactly where my place is. It’s not something I wonder about.”

Klaus liked Atienna. A lot. And he also knew his place like she did. Cog in the wheel. Part. Replaceable. Easy to do it—as easy as it was to conjure a single part of a conductor.

“I’m sorry you had to see all of this,” Klaus said after a beat, adjusting the strap of his conjured rifle. “It’s ugly…”

“It’s something Werner and the rest of you have to face every day. It seems a bit wrong that you’re apologizing to me… I’ve only collected fifteen tags so far, but you’ve collected so many more.” A hum. “Gilbert is more careful than he appears to be—sending you over here like this. Although I do enjoy the company.”

So she knew.

“I know Werner already gave you his condolences about Omicron—Charite…” Atienna continued. “But I would like to offer you it myself. I hope I’m not overstepping my bounds by saying this… but Charite was heroic in her last moments. I’m certain her encounter with you was one of the things that spurred her on.”

A slight heaviness entered Klaus’s chest as faint memories of his childhood wandering his hometown with Charite filtered into his mind. He wished he could mourn her more—mourn more for the others in his unit who had died too. But it was hard. A waste of time, even.

Wait. ‘Condolences’?

Klaus thought back to the lieutenant’s words just before they had left the Twin Cities.

“The ELPIS leader Omicron passed away,” Werner had said, after pulling him aside. “I’m heading to the capital with the second lieutenant, Bergmann, and Stein. While you’re expected to make a report yourself, the report isn’t due until a week from now. The train ride to the capital will take approximately two to three days.” He’d paused. “Take as much time within that allotted period that you require. Just be sure to report to the capital before the deadline. You’ll be marked if you don’t, Lance Corporal Kleine.”

Now that Klaus thought about it, the lieutenant had been unusually considerate in his approach. Klaus himself had been too dazed by the revelation of Charite’s death at the time to register it. Afterwards, he’d used the allotted time before the reporting deadline to visit Charite’s parents in his hometown. He couldn’t tell them anything, of course, but he’d thought his presence was better than nothing.

“Are you alright, Klaus?” The lieutenant’s voice in Atienna’s tone jarred Klaus from his thoughts.

“I’m just… a bit confused,” Klaus replied. “This… override is lasting a very long time.”

Atienna nodded, sullen.

“I just want to preface this by saying that this is a complete compliment.” Klaus squeezed his knee. “But this isn’t a place for someone like you… Not a place for Bergmann, Vogt, or me either. People who are here collect enemy military tags like they’re trophies. They hold scoreboards for who’s killed the most.”

Vogt and Heimler approached the fire from behind them and took a seat across the flame.

Atienna asked, “Do you really think they are excited about taking another life?” Her eyes seemed to ask—Do you think Werner is?

Klaus eyed the two newcomers before shrugging. “Stein said that he’d be happy to shoot even a half-Argoan Capricornian if he could… sir.”

Atienna hummed, placing a hand on her cheek. “…Things said out loud aren’t able to fully reveal what lays behind, don’t you think? And I’m not referring to just lies and self-deception.”

Klaus realized Atienna was a bit odd. Her way of speaking was very roundabout.

“Even though I’m speaking honestly with you now, I’m not able to fully convey my thoughts. Words simply aren’t enough. Neither are actions.” Atienna side-glanced at Heimler. “Perhaps that’s why there’s so much conflict… That small bit of discrepancy is all that it takes to switch something from being perceived as ‘right’ to being perceived as ‘wrong.’ Justice and vengeance. Maybe that’s why we can’t achieve peace. Because we can’t fully convey everything to each other.”

Heimler stiffened. Klaus couldn’t dissect the exchange.

Atienna’s gaze lingered a moment longer before she turned back to the flame. “Maybe… you would think that being able to know another’s thoughts—without needing to use words—would resolve this issue.”

Was she referring to her connection as a ‘True Conductor’ with Lieutenant Waltz and the Geminian redhead?

“You can liken it to reading the appendix or a glossary of a book… But seeing those types of book sections just makes you more aware of everything you don’t know, don’t you think? …Or is it better that way?”

Klaus figured it was a question that didn’t require an answer—

“It would make it harder, sir, I think,” Vogt interjected—Klaus assumed the silence had compelled him to respond. “The appendix… If you have too much information… it could make you hesitate. You wouldn’t be able to do as you’re told.” He eyed Atienna’s shoulder. “… That was one of my problems when I first started. I know that now, sir”

“What do you think the correct answer is then, Otto?”

“T-The… answer?” Vogt blinked, perplexed. He glanced at Klaus then at Heimler before meeting Atienna’s gaze. “Find… a balance?”

Atienna didn’t respond, averting her eyes ever so slightly.

Vogt melted. “I didn’t mean to interrupt the conversation, sir—”

“You… didn’t interrupt. You contributed.” The corners of Atienna’s eyes crinkled again. “There is a difference.”

“Right…” Vogt scrubbed a chunk of dirt off of his boot with his heel. “By the way… are you feeling any better, sir? With your head injury, I mean.”

There was a glint in Atienna’s eye. “Are you alright, Otto? You’ve been working hard today…”

Vogt perked up. “I’m fine, sir.” He reached for his neck and ran his fingers along the tag that hung there glinting silver in the firelight. “I… It’s nothing. Thank you for asking.” He scuffed his shoes again and tried hesitantly, “I hope this doesn’t affect our leave….”

“Leave?” Atienna murmured.

“Military leave.” Vogt nodded, relaxing fully. “To go home. I haven’t been back in over three months. They keep increasing the number of operations I have to take every time I meet the quota.”

“Yes… It would be nice… to go home.”

“Home with all the booze,” came a singsong voice from behind. It was Stein, squeezing himself in between Vogt and Heimler. “With all the home-tied beauties ready to admire all my medals.” He shoved Vogt to the side. “Heard Heimler got loaded after the Reservoir War and lives in a mansion. What’ve you got to look forward to returning to, Vogt? Your mom?”

“Your botanical store-school, right, Otto?” Atienna interjected.

Vogt’s fallen expression brightened. “Yes, sir. But… Stein is right. I miss my mom’s potato pancakes more than anything else. She made the best in the town. Grows her own. Potatoes, I mean.”

Stein snorted.

The corners of Atienna’s eyes crinkled again. “Do you not miss your family, Derik?”

Stein stiffened and then shrugged. “Well, of course, I miss my parents, sir. It’s just not something to think about out here.” He held a mock gun, aimed it at Vogt, and fired. “Here, I’m just thinking about the number of Argoans I can shoot down with one vitae ray.”

Klaus regarded Stein silently.

***

At the crack of dawn, Gilbert made the call for them to set off back to the border to report in their findings. After tallying up all of the tags overnight, it was clear that a handful of soldiers in Captain Weingartner’s platoon were missing. This included the captain himself, Emilia Bergmann, and several others. Gilbert had surmised that the missing had either retreated or had been captured. Klaus was relieved beyond belief at the possibility of Bergmann and the captain still being alive—and at the fact that they were returning home.

Their route back to the border was accompanied by lightning clapping through the sky. By the smell of the air, Klaus forecasted rain within the hour. The occasional booms of thunder shaking through the trees stretching around them made Klaus wonder if they would have to find a hole-in for the night. No one looked like they were ready to entertain the idea.

Emil and Marionette Engel sauntered on sandwiched in-between Stein and Heimler. Rath limped just behind them with the Gewehr-43 conducting rifle Klaus had conjured for him dangling in his hands. Usually, Klaus would feel disrespected by the mistreatment of creations, but at the moment he was in decent spirits. After all, he could almost taste and smell home—

A loud crack resounded again, but not from above. It thundered out from the thicket of mist and trees to their left. A high-pitched whine accompanied the sound and was followed by a snap as one of the branches from the trees to their right splintered off from its base. Then came the barrage. Bullets peppered down on them like torrenting rain. One whizzed by Klaus’s ear, while another struck the ground a centimeter away from his foot.

“Take cover! The trees!”

Instinct moved Klaus before Gilbert’s orders reached his ears. He dove behind the tree-line to his right and swung himself behind a thick trunk before falling into a crouch. He pulled his rifle from his shoulders and wrapped his fingers around the trigger—ready to fight. But as the trunk behind him shook with pounding bullets, he shrank further into himself.

Wait.

How many made it?

Atienna.

Klaus stiffened and scanned the area to his left. The combat medics Nico and Alwin were hidden behind a cluster of thin trees just a drop away. Behind a thick fallen log to his right, Fischer and Stein were caged around Marionette and Emil. A shaking Rath was pressed against the floor in front of them. It looked like he had somehow lost the conducting rifle. A waste.

Klaus glanced right. Relief came soon afterwards as he rounded off survival numbers in his head.

Vogt and Gilbert were pressed back against the tree stump beside him while Atienna was seated low in-between them. There was sweat beading her brow but her eyes were eerily calm, her breathing even. Almost like Werner.

For a moment, the barrage of bullets halted.

Maybe the lieutenant—

“Are you all alright?” Atienna asked quietly under her breath.

The illusion shattered.

Before Klaus could reply, another storm of bullets sprayed just above their cover. Stein and Vogt both lifted their rifle conductors and returned fire, only to be hampered down by another flurry of metal. Machine-gun? Klaus had heard about the Argoans developing higher-caliber artillery in the past few months, but this was something else.

“I need a headcount! How many of them are there?” Gilbert shouted, whipping around the trunk to fire off into the fog before pulling back again as a barrage of bullets ricocheted just above his head. “Dammit… how the hell did they get around us?” He swore. “This is why Werner wanted some damn Manipulators in this unit! Is that too much to ask for? Just a bit of damned medium-surveillance?!”

Vogt gave him an odd look before glancing at Atienna.

“Stein, Vogt, help me give Fischer some cover fire,” Gilbert ordered before nodding at the plethora of short-ranged conductors clipped to the latter’s belt. “Fischer, put those things to damned use.”

Atienna stiffened.

“Don’t worry,” Gilbert muttered to her. “He’s trained for this.”

Not seeming to hear the exchange from the short distance, Fischer nodded, locked eyes with Rath, and tossed the man his conducting rifle. He then pulled out a bladeless hilt from his waist and ignited it in amethyst with a flick of his wrist.

“Kleine.” Gilbert nodded. “Grenade.”

Klaus lifted his conductor-gloved hands, closed his eyes, and concentrated. He pictured the strike lever, the detonator, the percussion cap, the filling hole. Everything exact. One wrong ingredient and the entire thing could go off in your hands, as the instructors at the military academy had said.

His palms warmed and his arms became heavy. He, however, kept his concentration sharp. One last detail. One last serrated, cast-iron shell and—there. Klaus opened his eyes as the grenade solidified from the sky-blue light emitting from his palm.

Gilbert nodded at him. Signaled one, two, three. “Now!”

Klaus pulled the pin, drew out from cover, locked eyes with shadows moving through the smog, threw. A boom rang out a second later, followed by a gust of smoke and heated wind. Stein and Vogt immediately opened fire into the opposing tree-line. Fischer darted out from behind the protective cover fire and zipped through the mesh of fog and smoke. He slipped into the gray shroud, the light from his ignited blade serving as the only indication of his position. The faint amethyst line of light slithered through the smog in an arc before swinging up in a circle. A hissing sound as vitae tore through metal followed this motion, and the gun-gattling ceased. Then came the minute pops of gunfire followed by howling screeches.

It was a bit funny how they all sounded the same, whether they were afraid or dying—whether Argoan or Capricornian.

Gilbert signaled them to move forward. Projectors first. Combat medics last. Stein on Marionette and Emil, and Atienna ‘keeping an eye out’ behind the trees.

Rifle ready, Klaus filtered out behind Gilbert in a low crouch alongside Vogt. He kept close to the latter private as he always did—ready to conjure another conductor if Vogt cracked his insulation system or his conducting core as he usually did. Klaus himself scanned for movement in the smoke. There. Just two meters away. A woman was trying to reload her rifle. This was where conductors dominated.

Vogt fired his conductor at her before the woman could get the bullet into the chamber. She folded onto the ground. Gilbert gave a firm nod before disappearing into the gray. One down. Unknown number to go—

“Kleine, behind!”

Klaus whipped around at Vogt’s shout just in time to see an Argoan charge at him from behind with a bayonet. Less than a meter away. This was it—

But there was a loud crack, and suddenly the bayonet was spinning up into the air. The Argoan grunted, staggering backwards away from the one who had kicked up his weapon: the lieutenant—no, Atienna.

She grabbed the Argoan, swept his legs out from underneath him, and then drove his face into the ground in one swooping motion. Swinging her rifle off her shoulders, she cracked the butt of it against the back of the Argoan’s head before swinging it out and jabbing it into the gut of another Argoan coming up just behind her. She uppercut him with the rifle a second later, and when he fell to the ground, she pounded down on his face twice, thrice, until he was no longer moving. She pulled back, panting heavily before turning around—

“Are you alright, Klaus?”

Beneath all of that odd concern, her eyes were afire. She looked like how Stein looked after he made a headshot. Absolutely…. alive.

The Argoan she had just incapacitated abruptly whipped out a pistol from his holster. Before he could fire it off, however, an arc of shimmering amethyst light severed his gun-wielding hand from his arm. The Argoan screeched in alarm but was soon muted as the amethyst light drilled its way through his chest.

Panting heavily, Fischer pulled his blade conductor out from the Argoan’s torso, turned to Atienna, and searched her face for approval. The only thing he found there, however, was wide-eyed shock. But before anything could be said, another figure lunged out at them from the smokescreen with a roar. It was—

—Rath?

The Capricornian tackled Fischer to the ground with a snarl.

“I’m friendly!” Fischer snapped, deactivating his conductor as he held up his arm to defend himself. “Look at my uniform! My conductor!”

Rath let out a guttural growl as he ripped Fischer’s conductor from his hands. Stumbling backwards, he flicked his wrist and activated the blade with a shimmer of light yellow. “You! It was one of you! My Magda!” And then he swung it down.

Fischer swiftly drew out another blade-less conductor from his belt and activated it just in time to block Rath’s oncoming attack. Sparks erupted as the blades screeched against each other. The steam from the heat and their panting breaths filled in the space between them.

Before Klaus could react, another pepper of gunfire came down in their direction. He ducked low, rolled into a wave of smoke cloud billowing towards him, and aimed his rifle at three Argoans who peeled out from the smog. Two shots. One to the chest, one to the face. Vogt took down the other one with a vitae-ray straight through the head. The Argoans dropped dead. Danger eliminated.

When Klaus turned back to Fischer and Rath, he found that their two vitae blades were still scratching against each other. But—something about Rath’s vitae blade looked odd. Cracks ran along its body—cracks that reminded Klaus of the vitae cracks that had run along the lamia tree Atienna had taken an interest in the other day. The cracks along Rath’s blade were dark blue instead of white, however, and they were pulsating, spreading. In an eerie fashion, the cracks crept forward along Rath’s blade towards Fischer’s blade—

Atienna kicked both Fischer’s blade conductor and Rath’s conductor up out of their hands before the strange cracks were able to complete whatever course they were taking. Without skipping a beat, she lunged forward and kneed Rath in the abdomen before grabbing him by the scruff and throwing him over her shoulders. He hit the ground with a thud before groaning and remaining motionless. Pulling away from him, she turning her attention to Fischer.

“Sorry, sir.” Fischer panted.

Atienna offered him a silent hand. Fischer startled before accepting it as if it were a gift from a saint. Klaus had never understood Fischer’s gushing admiration for Werner. While Klaus did respect his lieutenant, he wasn’t fanatical.

A movement from behind the two cut the moment in half. A bloodied-face Rath had pulled himself up into a sit and was now pointing a weapon he seemed to have pulled out from nowhere at them. The conducting rifle Klaus had conjured for him earlier.

Rath fired off two bursts of vitae without hesitation before Fischer charged at him with a newly drawn dagger conductor. Klaus dodged the blasts as did Atienna—her movements swift and fluid. Fischer drove the conducting knife into the man’s gut before pulling it upward in one clean slice. There was a splurge of red followed by the smell of unnatural iron and then silence.

Heaving, Fischer pushed Rath’s divided corpse off himself before turning to face them. Then, he stared past them. Klaus froze and followed his gaze right to Vogt—no, to Vogt’s stomach.

Klaus took in a breath. “No…”

Vogt whimpered as he stumbled backwards. He unbuttoned the front of his singed uniform, peeled away the fabric that had melted into his skin, and gripped his abdomen. “Oh, saints. Oh no… please no.”

It was an ugly, gushing wound, and for a faint moment, Klaus thought he could see right through it.

Atienna was at Vogt’s side in an instant, catching him before he hit the ground.

“M-Medic!” Klaus shouted hoarsely, running up to their side. “Alwin!”

Atienna pulled out a handkerchief from her pocket, placed it over Vogt’s wound, and applied pressure. Klaus found himself looking to her—to the person who wore his lieutenant’s face—out of habit for direction but instead found her looking to him for reassurance.

The world blurred; the background popped with spits of gunfire; Vogt’s sobs cut in out of the deafening sounds; and then came the pounding footsteps. Klaus whipped around with his rifle drawn but stopped short. Finally.

Nico and Alwin, conducting gloves already equipped, seated themselves on opposite sides of Vogt. Atienna’s gaze flicked from medic to medic, but all Klaus could focus on was Vogt—Otto.

“Get the morrowheat from my left lower pocket,” Nico said. “It’s the liquidized version. Inject it in his left leg. Keep applying pressure, Ati—Lieutenant. You’re doing good.”

Klaus fumbled through Nico’s orders, pulling out a capped needle from the man’s pocket and injecting it into Otto’s leg as instructed. As he did this, Alwin pulled a combat knife from his belt and tore open Otto’s pants leg. While Atienna continued to apply pressure to the wound, Nico and Alwin began to run their conducting gloves from the skin of Otto’s exposed lower leg to the gaping wound at his abdomen.

Another set of footsteps crunched on towards them from behind causing Klaus to finally realize that everything had fallen deathly quiet. No gunfire, no screams, no booms.

Gilbert emerged from the fog a moment later, rifle still gripped in his hands, but with loose shoulders and hop in his step. “The lot of them are retreating. We—” His eyes widened as he registered Rath’s corpse and then Otto bleeding out on the floor. He turned to the opposite woods and whistled sharply. “Stein, if you’re still alive, bring those two out here. Now!”

A smirking Stein came out from the wooded cover a second later with Marionette and Emil in tow. Upon laying eyes on Otto, however, the man swore. He then swiveled around and drove the butt of his conductor against Emil’s head. “You damn groan! This was a trap, wasn’t it?!”

Emil yelped and hit the ground before curling up into a ball. “It wasn’t! It wasn’t! I don’t know anything!”

“Dammit, Stein! Enough!” Gilbert ordered. “One headache at a damn time. Keep a damn eye out.” He sank to a crouch beside Nico and glanced between him and Alwin. “How’s it looking?”

“We’re almost done with the graft,” Nico replied, forehead dripping with sweat as he continued to move his conductor from Otto’s leg to his stomach, “but he’s lost too much blood.”

During Stein’s ordeal with Emil, Atienna had been ushered aside by the combat medic and now hovered beside Klaus. She looked between them all with a painfully hopeful expression.

Alwin nodded at Nico in agreement. “We need to get him to a dressing station.”

“He…” Nico hesitated. “He might not make it.” He shook his head. “We need to stabilize him for transport. Klaus, get a gurney ready.”

Conjuring the gurney wasn’t as difficult as conjuring a grenade. Fewer parts, less dangerous. It took less than a second for Klaus to create it, and with Atienna’s help, he situated it parallel to Otto’s body.

Nico and Alwin peeled away from Otto as they finished their transmutation. Beneath all of that blood, they had managed to pull over a thin sheet of skin over his stomach. The transmuted area glistened in the dull light looking like it’d tear at any moment. Otto looked like a corpse.

Klaus had seen this many times. It was always strange—how fast the color was drawn out from a person’s face as they were dragged closer and closer to the door of death. Pink to pale white to ashen gray.

“We need a transfusion,” Nico muttered. He glanced up at Alwin. “Otto is type-O, right?”

Alwin nodded and grimaced. “No one in the unit is—”

“I… I am…” Atienna whispered, placing a hand on Nico’s arm.

Nico’s eyes widened and then softened, and he consoled her: “Werner is type-A. Otto is the only type-O in the unit. ” He called out to Marionette and Emil. “Type-O! Are any of you type-O?!”

No one answered. No one moved.

“None of you are type-O?!” Nico swung around wildly before his face crumpled. “Let’s just move him as fast as we can. Help us get him onto the gurney.”

Stein came around, swinging his conductor over his shoulder and locking eyes with Klaus as he hooked his hands underneath Otto’s arms. Klaus nodded, grabbing Otto by the legs. One, two, three—

Otto cried and kicked and squirmed as they hoisted him up. “Let me down! Let me down! Please! It hurts!”

“F-For, saint’s sakes, Vogt!” Stein snapped. “We’re trying to save you, you pussy!”

“Put him down!” Alwin shouted. “His transmutation grafting is tearing!”

Klaus stiffened and turned his eyes towards Otto’s stomach. The thin, shiny flesh there had split into two and a geyser of red spurted out from it.

Saints.

“Gently, you guys, gently!”

With great difficulty, Klaus placed Otto back on the ground with Stein’s help. Alwin didn’t move forward, however. He merely sank to his knees and ran a hand down his face. Nico did, hands extended. His face contorted as he began the effort to transmute more of the skin from Otto’s leg to his abdomen.

“There’s not enough left for grafting,” Alwin said calmly. “Nico, you’re wasting your energy.”

Nico stiffened. “Then we use the other leg—”

“It’ll just tear. And I know you saw it. The amount of blood. The abdominal aorta—”

Klaus stared at Alwin in disbelief. “Don’t just sit there and—”

“I-I’ve been hit,” Otto stammered, eyes fluttering. He searched Nico’s face and then Klaus’s as he placed a hand to his stomach. He stared at his bloodied hand. “Klaus, Nico, I’ve been hit…”

Delirium.

From the corner of his eye, Klaus saw Atienna slowly, silently pulling away as she averted her gaze. Before she could make her escape, however, Otto grabbed a hold of her arm.

“A-Am I dying, Lieutenant…?” came the cracked sob.

Atienna’s eyes widened and her fingers trembled as she wrapped them around Otto’s hand. No words came from her mouth. No confirmation.

“Yes…” Nico said quietly. “Yes, you are, Vog—Otto. I’m sorry.”

There was a stretch of silence as the reality sunk in.

“T-Talk to me. Please,” Otto whimpered. “Someone please talk to me.”

Talk? With what? Empty words? Emptier than the pages of poetry that Klaus always dove into to ignore the sound of gunfire and stupid, senseless chatter when he was stationed in the trenches at Abschnitt 45?

Atienna leaned forward, her face eclipsing Otto’s. She whispered, “You… You did good, Otto. You did very good.”

Empty words. And another empty stretch of silence.

“Will you write to my parents for me…?” Otto murmured after a long quiet. “It would mean a lot coming from you.” A shaky breath. “Tell mutti that I love her. Can you tell them I was good? Just… like you said now… Even if it can’t convey everything. It’s enough.”

Atienna side-glanced at Gilbert before nodding and placing a steady hand to his face.

“I’ll write, Otto,” she whispered. “I’ll write. Anything you want. About your plan for your botanical garden. About your horticulture class—”

Atienna was cut off by a hand on the shoulder. Nico, eyes calm but somber. She didn’t look away from Otto to meet those eyes but the message was clear. The one her words had been intended for was gone.

And the only thing Klaus could do was try to remember if he had lent Otto a book back at Abschnitt 45.


Threshold

The threshold between life and death’? That was ludicrous. That threshold was not a location. It was a state of being.

Cacophonic flapping and chirping resounded across the divide of light.

Werner squinted past the darkness towards the origin of the voice. There, he found a humanoid shape inching closer and closer to the stream of light between them. Its form was undefined, devoid of color, and pitch-black. Rippling, shifting, quivering—breaking apart at its edges. Breaking apart into something that fluttered, that flapped, that sent thin jet-black feathers swirling through the air. Blackbirds.

Werner’s eyes widened then narrowed.

A dream?

He glanced down at Lavi briefly. Her eyebrow was arched, her face impassive.

“It’s not a dream,” the voice across the divide continued, milky but clear. “Not in the literal sense.”

She could hear his thoughts, he realized.

“Yep,” the figure popped, her voice resonating above the chirping of the birds enveloping her body. “But not in the literal sense.”

It made logical that she could hear him and knew his name. If this was a dream, anything beyond the realm of reality was possible. This surreality.

“I mean this in the gentlest way possible, but the more time you spend thinking that this is a dream, the more dangerous your current situation becomes.”

Current situation?

“You’re in a perilous position right now, Werner. You and the other five.”

At the mention of the others, Werner tensed and moved his hand towards the gun clipped to his belt.

The blackbirds crowding the figure peeled away slowly, fluttering upwards into the darkness. As the birds dissipated, her features slowly became revealed. First came the black of her suit jacket, then came the white of her armband. Next, her short black hair was freed from the swarming birds, followed by her almond-shaped black eyes and round nose. Her appearance vaguely stirred Werner’s memories, although he was certain he had never met her before. Perhaps one of the other five had.

The unknown appeared to be a woman of Sagittarian descent who was affiliated with Ophiuchus, Werner surmised as he felt the cold tip of his pistol at the tip of his fingers. Normally, it would not be wise to engage with foreign peacekeeping bodies. The consequences would be severe. The evidence that this was not normal circumstance, however, was clear.

“Like I said, you’re on the threshold,” the woman said. “You’re here but you’re not really here, so you don’t need to be worried about those kinds of consequences. And that gun you’re reaching for isn’t really there either.”

Werner paused, glancing down to his waist where his holster sat empty. He lowered his hand.

It appeared as if certain assumptions would have to be made.

“Exactly!” The woman nodded. “I know you’re a logical person, so if you see it right before your eyes, then you have to assume it’s real. If we want to get metaphysical about it, it became real as soon as you laid your eyes on it.”

You’ve been invaded, Werner,” Lavi said, her fingers ghosting his hand that still gripped her arm. “You’re being strangled by an idiot who doesn’t know how to stop. You and the others. If you don’t do something, you really will all…”

Werner released his hold on her. Was this truly Lavi? His eyes narrowed. “What do you mea—”

“Well, she’s a truer Lavi than the one you’ve seen,” the woman across the divide interjected as she pointed upwards. “While it’s pretty easy to make it down here, it’s pretty hard to make it back up without crossing this line. And, well, if you cross this line—I’m sure you know what that means. Of course, being a True Conductor does make it easier for you to return in the direction you came from.”

If she could hear his thoughts, it was unsurprising that she knew his position as a True Conductor. It was also unsurprising that she knew of Lavi. And if the presumption that this place was truly a ‘threshold’ was accepted then a reasonable theory could be made as to why Lavi was with him. This other woman’s presence, however, was unexplainable.

“Identify yourself,” he said calmly. “You’re a peacekeeper. Why are you here?”

The woman’s lips pulled tight but then she shrugged. “I’m Shion Myosotis. Weird name, I know. Mother was Sagittarian; father was one-third Ophiuchian. Kept the surname. And I, my dear, am here because I kinda died and got stuck. I’m just the result of doing too little too late.”

It’s too little, Werner. A soft, stern voice whispered at the back of Werner’s mind. A faint memory, expanding like a fractal sheet of ice. And it’s too late—

Shion tutted loudly. “Be careful now. Like I said, you’re at the place where vitae enters and leaves the cycle. And since vitae stores memories, memories hold more power here than normal. You can easily slip into something you’ll have a hard time crawling out of. Metaphysical stuff.”

Werner stiffened despite himself. It had already been difficult to adapt to the other five being able to access his thoughts and memories. A sixth intruder was—

“Memories make up reality,” Lavi argued. “There’s nothing metaphysical about it. It’s fact.” Her words were sharp and direct, so unlike the airy and timid girl that would ghost their synchronization meetings. “Just take a look at your history textbooks,” she continued. “We all know those types of things aren’t fully accurate. They’re based on the recollections of people who wrote them. But because they’ve been recorded and remembered, they’ve become fact—”

“Enough,” Werner interjected. “What is happening?”

“Always down to business with you.” Shion sighed. “Like I said earlier, I’m the result of doing too little too late. I’m stuck here—kinda like how Miss Chance is stuck here. And if you don’t act soon, you’ll be stuck here too—”

“No,” Lavi interjected. “You’ll die. You and the others. My brother.” She turned, pushed herself up on toes, and grabbed hold of his shoulders. “You need to free yourself.”

Die? Free himself?

Werner tensed. “Explain.” He studied Lavi for a moment—faint memories of running through sun-dappled courtyards hazed the edges of his mind—before he provided a respectful, “Please.”

Shion pointed to her open palm. “You had an accident, you see. It’s not your fault, but the moment it happened, you and the people you’re connected to were visited by an intruder’s vitae.”

Werner stiffened, before tightening his gloved hand into a fist. The memory was faint but he could still vaguely recall the ghost of the knife cutting into his palm. The knife had belonged to Heimler, and Werner was certain it had not been a conductor. Unless… An individual who was able to use vitae without a conductor was involved and had wielded the weapon.

Werner frowned.

He hadn’t even considered the possibility. A miscalculation. So if everything said was true, then this occurrence was his fault. Unacceptable and shameful. He would need to rectify it.

“Invaded by what?” Werner pressed. “A Specialist? A saint candidate?”

Lavi answered, “You can compare it to something like a monster. The point is that True Conductors are like channels. Each True Conductor group serves as one channel. When something else is added to it or if something that is part of it breaks away, the channel is either put under pressure or crumbles in on itself. What entered you is slowly constricting you and the other five—my brother.” Her eyes narrowed. “It’s playing with you. Loosening, constricting, loosening, constricting.”

Werner studied Lavi carefully. He already had suspicions about her nature, her history as a failed saint candidate, and Olive’s ability to conduct without a conductor. He hadn’t addressed it for reasons that he realized now were unclear to him. Influence from Chance, most likely. And now Lavi’s knowledge here was highly disturbing, but he couldn’t make himself think of her as anything but an ally. Again, Chance.

“Right now,” Shion continued, “you’re the only one here. Most of the others are probably caught somewhere between here and the surface. Maybe one of them is on the surface. Your surface. Meaning, only you can fix this.”

Was she referring to an override? Then that was even more disconcerting given the physical position of his body in the unoccupied territory—his mission. And if Olive or Cadence were on the surface then…

He pressed, “And how exactly do I rectify my mistake?”

“You’re reacting really well to being told you’re dying,” Shion noted with a grin before frowning. “And I told you, it isn’t your fault…”

There would be no point in panicking in this situation. And responsibility always needed to be accounted for. They needed to get to the matter at hand.

Shion gave an abrupt laugh. “Well, since you’re so eager—think of it like this. Right now, whatever’s invaded you has its fingers embedded in you—in your vitae. Meaning, in your memories. All you need to do is cut off those fingers.”

An unclear answer, but first—

“You know a significant amount of information regarding this,” Werner said. “How did you obtain this information? You told me your name, but that isn’t proper identification.”

He felt ridiculous—questioning something that might as well be a part of his own subconscious. But he had taken enough risks already and had possibly put the others in danger due to those risks. He would not make the same mistake again.

“Well, Miss Lavender and I have been stuck here for quite some time. You tend to pick up a thing or two. Sometimes things come on down here just like you did now. But, look, trust us, don’t trust us. We’re here to help you regardless.”

Trust—Werner thought of his men. Here, however, that was an empty word. Too many variables. Too much uncertainty. Too much risk.

Shion clasped her hands together. “The deal is the longer you stay at this threshold, the closer you all are to dying. Because of that constriction. Eventually you’ll be constricted to the point where you’re no longer connected with the others—and that connection is what’s keeping you all alive. The clock is ticking, Werner.”

Tick, tick, tick, tick—Werner’s pocket watch abruptly began to thrum away over his heart in his chest pocket. He refrained from reaching for it—refrained from thinking of the one who made it—and kept his pose firm and his ears peeled.

“The only way to get out of this mess—to remove the hold it has on you,” Shion continued, “is to find exactly where it’s embedded in you—in your vitae. A.K.A., which memories it’s embedded in. Pretty easy to find ‘em since we’re at the threshold.” A frown creased her lips, and she folded her right hand into a mock gun which she rested in her left. “After you find the memories, you need to wade your way through them, and break it—the finger, I mean.” She pulled a mock trigger. “It’s as metaphysical as that.”

A distant memory resounded within Werner’s mind at Shion’s motion: the bang of the bullet exiting its chamber as he’d pulled the trigger of the gun aimed at the back of Magda Rath’s head.

14.1: Observer & Peacekeeper, 0000 Unusual Activity

Ungewöhnliche Aktivität » Unusual activity, unrecorded 

Werner Waltz. Born January 1st. Blood type A. Vision, 20/6.6 in both eyes. Height, 183 cm. Weight, 80.1 kg. Ambidextrous. Personality type, ISTJ-Turbulent, changing. Parents, alive. Siblings, elder brother and younger sister, alive. 

Occupation, First Lieutenant of the 212th Division of the Border Force of the Capricornian Army. Nicknamed, ‘Cold Eye’ or ‘Kaltes Auge.’ Badges awarded; Iron Horn, Periwinkle Cross, Border Force Combat Clasps, Order of Duty [Rank II], Badge of Marksmanship [Rank V], Border Force Saturn Ring of Honor for Valor. 

Described by superiors as “efficient, accomplished, hardworking, orderly, pragmatic, driven, loyal, professional.” Described by subordinates as “strict, skilled, unyielding, cold, intimidating, focused, rational,” and “occasionally, surprisingly kind.”

Unusual activity: involvement in dismantlement of Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict, presence in Twin Cities during large-scale ELPIS-related event, associated with deceased True Conductor Fritz von Spiel, associated with deceased 98th Pi Erwin Ersatz. 

Probability of being a True Conductor, 89%. 

Probability of disrupting syzygy, 1%. Reason, obedient and cautious. When adjusting for influence from connected parties if assumption of being True Conductor holds, 56%. Reason, obedient but cautious. Resulting course of action…?

Turning over this particular topic in mind, the Saint of Passion spun his pen in hand as he studied the bulletin board on the wall across from him. The red strings crisscrossing the clusters of newspapers, photographs, and sticky notes there glowed in the light sauntering through the partially drawn blinds. 

“What’s the best way to steal sheep and a guard dog from a shepherd?”

The woman sitting straight-backed beside the bulletin board remained silent.

“A sheep is mindless. A dog is loyal.” He flipped his pen. “Therefore, the correct answer is not to directly deal with either of them. The best thing to do is to break the shepherd.” 

Again, silence.

“… Having a law that makes it so that conductors allotted to a country is inversely proportional to their vitae reservoirs was truly an ingenious strategy. A sensible, cruel law,” the saint candidate continued. “But it’s not enough. Capricorn isn’t in the state it should be in. Their vitae reservoirs are…” 

“Capricorn has only one major reservoir,” the woman finally spoke. “Near the border with Aquarius. Additional reservoirs are forming along the south.”

“When was the last major conflict again?”

“The Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict—”

“That was barely a conflict. How many died?”

“Approximately 150 Capricornians and 240 Aquarians.”

“Definitely not enough…” He let out a sigh. “Oh, Capricorn—a country graduated from war but still relishing in it. From the failed Watch to the southern borders shared with Argo to the eastern borders shared with Aquarius.” His lips curled. “Well… if they wish for war, then let’s give them a civil one, shall we?”

Rising from his sofa, the Saint of Passion glided over to the bulletin board and uncapped his pen. 

“Let’s seat the audience, set the actors on stage, and yell ‘fire’!”

With vehement glee, he drew large arcs across the map that was pressed flat below all of the photos, strings, articles. Over and over again he went at it until the tip of his pen snapped off and struck the window blinds. Dark blue ink dripped from his hands, trailed down the walls. 

“Can you hear it? It’s almost here.”

Panting, he took a step back to admire his masterpiece. 

“The pulse of the syzygy…”

A knock on the door drew his attention away. 

He rolled his eyes and sighed. 

“I suppose we can take a lunch break.”


Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

“Partner, it’s good to see you! I haven’t heard from you in days!”

Upon entering Gabrielle’s office, Ophiucian peacekeeper Jericho was met with this exclamation. He chose to remain unmoving as Talib Al-Jarrah fervently shook him by the shoulders. He did not remain still out of discomfort. He simply did not want to drop the stack of files he carried in both hands. 

“I thought the Organization almost had you for sure!” Talib continued, gesturing widely towards the occupied sofas before them. He curled his hand into a fist. “Recently, they’ve installed this diabolical device in the cafeteria that transmits strange sounds in up and down undulations in between stretches of static. Now, listen here, Jericho. I’ve done my research. Those sounds send subliminal messages right to our brainstems and increase our aggression so that we go at each other’s throats! It’s a ploy to dismantle our Ophiuchus!” 

Jericho cocked his head. Interesting supposition. Intuition: tinfoil hat conspiracy theory. 

“Saints! You mean the radio, Talib?” Ferris sighed from her usual spot to the left of the island table. Her lunch today was a tuna sandwich which she paused her exasperation to munch on. “I’m actually glad that they’ve finally installed one there. It’s been so… quietsince what happened down at the detention center.” She glanced at Wtorek Elizabeta who sat silent beside her before clearing her throat. “There’s that new singer I really like. Alma Miraggio. Her song ‘Red Fern’ is so good! I wish I could carry it with me everywhere! She’s on a tour, right? I wish she’d stop by here.” 

Red was also the color of Ferris’s hair now. She had dyed it three times in the past week and had settled on this color for two days so far. Jericho conjectured it would last two more days. 

“Oh, my sweet naive, Ferris.” Talib shook his head, detaching from Jericho’s side. “Your innocent trust of the public is—”

“Don’t call me that please, Talib.” Ferris sighed again.

“That is a bit absurd, Talib,” came the reply from the sofa opposite. “Even for you.”

Doctor Alice Kingsley sat there nibbling on her usual fruit salad. She had gotten a short haircut recently, and her blonde hair now fell well above her ears. Although Jericho liked the new haircut, he did not like how it made it more difficult for him to escape her mind-reading eyes. No bangs to curtain her gaze. Everything, clear. 

Talib joined her on the sofa while continuing on about how sound waves could change brain patterns. Alice rebutted every one of his theories. 

Again, their luncheon was missing three of its formal members. First, there was Roberto Gonzalez who was still investigating a case in Capricorn. Then there was Moraeni, still ensnared in the busiest department of Ophiuchus: the Licensing Department. Lastly, there was Flannery Caertas whom Jericho had recently discovered the reason behind her nickname “money bags.”

Flannery’s parents were from an old family in Libra with a lineage extending well before the Reservoir War. Her “great-to-infinity”— as she had put it—grandparents started one of the first conductor-manufacturing-slash-research companies in Signum. The business was passed down for generations and produced 2/3 of the conductors—generator and weaponized—currently in circulation. 

Flannery was in the process of inheriting the company herself and had taken a trip down to Capricorn to attend a diplomatic convention regarding the distribution of said conductors. But this was not of interest to Jericho—although the family company name was…. unique.

Pure Balance, it was called. 

Upon learning of Flannery’s ‘secret’ identity, Jericho had been bombarded left-and-right with questions from Olivier. The questions were filled with the prince’s indignation on how Jericho had not realized such a ‘high-up’ person could be in his presence.

“You’re a prince, kid,” Cadence had said in response to that. “Ain’t that even higher up?”

Werner had also shown interest in Flannery’s status. But Jericho suspected his intentions were not as academically-inclined as Olivier’s. 

“So,” Gabrielle drew after a yawn from where sat at her cornerstone desk, “how’s the new department treating you?”

Jericho took his usual position beside Ferris and set his stack of files onto the island table. Alice stared into him the entire time.

Alice had made her displeasure and disappointment regarding his choice to enter the ELPIS Investigations Department upon his acceptance known at every one of their sessions. Yet she still spoke with him ‘pleasantly.’ She would move on from the unpleasanttopic after voicing her disapproval of it and would address other topics such as his journaling and his daily activities. 

This was just concern, Jericho had learned. It always had been.

“I have not been put on any cases,” he replied. “Paperwork. Deskwork. Only that.” He pointed to the paper stack. “A lot of that.”

“And…” Wtorek Elizabeta peered at him over Ferris and then eyed the files. “Are any of the files…”

“They mention attempts to find Gamma,” Jericho answered. “But they do not mention contact with him.” He paused, thinking. “It is supposed to be confidential.”

“Keyword is ‘supposed to be,’ right?” Gabrielle returned, leaning back in her seat. She closed her eyes and remained silent for a very long time before she tried, “And Leona?”

“Has not contacted me since accepting my application.”

“Well, she is chair of the ELPIS Investigation Department.” Gabrielle sighed. “It’d be weird if she kept tabs on you.”

“Well, I say we should all enjoy the reprieve from all of the cases we’ve been bombarded with since that ELPIS incident, partner,” Talib interjected, arms crossed behind his head. “That way we can focus on what’s truly important. That nefarious radio—”

“Actually…” Ferris nibbled on her sandwich again before she finally said, “I hate to be the bearer of bad news but the Assignment Department is starting to see an influx of requests and cases. We’re handing out over three dozen assignments starting tomorrow.”

Talib lifted his hat to scratch his curly dark head. “This wouldn’t happen to be due to the diplomatic conductor convention going on in Capricorn, would it?” 

Gabrielle answered, “Sort of. A couple of agents from International Relations are already in the Capricornian capital overseeing it in light of what happened in the Zatmeniye Caverns in Aquarius two months ago.” She rolled her neck. “The main problem is that there’s a political organization that’s starting to make some noise in the capital because of that. Verbundene Augen—” 

“Connected Eyes,” Jericho translated to Common. He did not like that wordRather, that organization. Correction: Werner did not like it. 

She nodded. “It’s a party supporting demilitarization of Capricorn that formed after the Capricornian Watch was made known to the public. No ELPIS ties from what we’re aware of…”

Jericho nodded his head in confirmation.

“They’ve been around for a while, but they’ve become popular recently,” Gabrielle continued after offering Jericho a nod. “They’re planning a demonstration around the same time as the convention. The Capricornian government requested Ophiuchus to give ‘em a bit of a gander. So, here we are.”

“Haven’t been to Capricorn on a case in sometime…” Talib mused, rubbing his chin. “Well, Gabrielle, hopefully we’re assigned together. It gets quite lonely without someone there to appreciate my ideas.”

“I’m assuming, Talib—” Alice arched a brow. “—that you’re referring to how agents outside of ourselves tend to evaluate you in a negative light when you go on about your conspiracy theories?”

“Theories that will soon become fact!”

Jericho frowned. 

He… missed going out on cases with Talib. The feeling was similar to how he’d miss Werner when the man would lower synchronization to focus on his operations or how he’d miss Atienna when she did similarly to focus on diplomatic meetings. 

A knock on the door cut the conversation short. 

“I got it!” Ferris rose from her seat, rounded the table, opened the door. 

An agent wearing a cap that read DELIVERY SERVICE stood there holding a large wooden basket filled with festively wrapped boxes that were buried beneath a mound of envelopes. Letters. 

“Heard you all usually hang out together,” the man said, “so thought I might as well bring everything at once.”

“Oh!” Ferris brightened, taking the basket from him and beaming. “Thank you!”

The man tipped his hat and left down the hall. 

“Is it a mistake?” Jericho asked, staring. 

“No, silly.” Ferris laughed lightly as she walked over and set the basket on the island table. “People always send letters to peacekeepers after they complete cases. They come in such volume that the Communications Department usually sends them all in bulk semi-annually to save time.” 

Send letters?

“They’re ‘thank you’ letters,” Alice elaborated. “You started taking cases near the end of the last lettering season which is why you haven’t received any before now.” She leaned forward and selected an envelope from the basket. 

To Alice was written in swirling Common letters. 

Elizabeta silently pulled out a letter addressed to her and skimmed it without expression. After shooting her a sympathetic look, Ferris plucked a stack of envelopes from the basket, paced over to Jericho, and handed him half as she took a seat beside him. She flashed him a smile before digging through her own letters. 

Ferris had been very ‘friendly’ to him recently. Intuition told him she still felt bad about voicing her fear of him to Roberto. Unneeded. He had told her it was okay before. But he understood her. Almost. She did not want misunderstandings. She wanted to improve their relationship. Relatable. 

Jericho glanced left to see Alice already peeling open the envelope and scanning the letter inside. Jericho moved forward to do the same. Gingerly, carefully, he undid the first envelope which was cream-colored and hosted a stamp featuring a crab. 

There was a small piece of wrapped candy inside paired with a thin, folded letter. It read inked in black:

Dear Agent Jericho,

You probably don’t remember me, but I do remember you. I was the man who was manipulated into fighting you in Lepischau, Cancer. Thank you for your heroic actions on that day. I cannot put into words how terrible it feels to be manipulated. I feared the worst. I thought I would never see my family again. I thought I would be killed by the pursuers of the Manipulator. But you saw me. Saved me.

There are not enough words to express how grateful I am for your help. I will always remember you, Monsieur Jericho. 

I own a small but very renowned candy store within Lepischau that has been awarded numerous Cancerian golden stars. Within this envelope, I have sent you one of our finest confections made from the sugar trees of Virgo (Quite rare and since Virgo is just beginning to open its doors to trade. You will taste nothing like it!) and the milk of the finest Taurusian cow. We only make twenty of these a year. I hope you find it to your liking even though I know it will not be enough. Thank you again.

Sincerely, 

Leize Artigue

Jericho unwrapped the confection and popped it into his mouth. It melted like honey on his tongue. He knew Olive enjoyed the phantom taste, although he believed he himself enjoyed the letter more.

That’s lovely, Jericho, came Atienna. Since they had improved their control over synchronization levels within the past few weeks, she always hovered within a reachable distance. You should frame it. 

Yes. Jericho supposed he would. If it was customary. It was important too. It was his first.

He folded the letter gingerly and slipped it into his pocket before reaching for another one. The next envelope was dark blue and sealed with paraffin wax. A small card rested inside it with a singular sentence penned in blue ink.

I’ve got my eye on you! ❤

Beneath it was a cartoonish drawing of a pair of eyes. One was closed as if winking. The other was almond-shaped with three eyelashes protruding from its top. 

“Looks like you’ve got a secret admirer!” Talib crowed, leaning over the table to peer at the card. “Quite the swooner, you are!”

“Secret admirer?” Jericho stared. “Why would they keep it secret? They are hiding something. A threat.” 

“No, they just really like you, Jericho,” Ferris amended, carefully peeling open another envelope.

“I know.” Jericho stared down at the card and then back up at her. “It was a joke.” 

“Oh!” Ferris’s eyes widened for a second before her face lit up and her cheeks became a rosy pink. She chuckled squeakily, like a mouse. 

Cadence and Olivier had been providing him tutorials on humour. ‘Sarcastic’ and ‘dry’ were his favorite types from what they had shown him.

Ferris continued to chuckle, wiping a tear from her eye.

It was… pretty, Jericho thought. The shade of her cheeks. He wanted to sketch that color in his journal. Though—he realized now—he’d never used color in his drawings before. 

It’s a good time to start.

Yes, it was. 

A dull pain suddenly pricked the base of his right hand. When he studied the area, he found split leather and an open wound that ran across a pale, bleeding palm.

Werner?

He blinked.

The mirage disappeared. His dark skin remained unblemished and ungloved beneath the overhead lights. 

Yes. A minor injury on Werner’s end, it seemed. No problem—

But then Jericho felt nothing.

Absolutely nothing.

Not the rain drizzling down in the capital of Capricorn, not the cold moonlight spilling through the trees at the southern Argoan-Capricornian border, not the soot and salt of the Twin Cities, not the creaks of an old library, not a single buzz at the back of his mind. 

Silence.

Something was…

A clattering sound drew his attention away. Talib had tripped over the desk, sending all the letters he had been carrying fluttering into the air. They cascaded downward in a psychedelic, hypnotic, rainbow array, occasionally catching glow from the overhead v-lights. Like rain. Tumbling down. Like how Jericho had tumbled down those stairs all those months ago. 

Alice stared at him. “What’s wrong?” 

“Nothing,” Jericho replied.

The truth. 

Absolute silence. 

There was nothing. 

A falling letter landed at his feet. In curling dark blue letters, it read—

I will enter.

Pinpricks dotted Jericho’s vision as his knees suddenly gave way. He stumbled forward, lost his footing. His knees cracked against the floor first followed by his shoulder and then his head. 

Someone shouted in alarm. 

He did not feel pain. Not really. Just numbness along his head, neck, limbs. In other words, he could not move an inch. But. This sensation. It was the same. The same as how he’d felt when Omega had pushed him down the stairs of the Serpens Establishment before this all began. The only difference was that this time he was not alone. Faces ringed above him as his vision dimmed. 

He would not succumb to this, he knew. 

He clenched his fists tightly as the memory of lying in a pool of his own blood at the bottom of the steps of the Serpens Establishment seeped into his mind. 

Not until he’d reached the answer. Not until then. He had to hold on.

An unfortunate cut to black.

13a: Copper Cadence

Choose your finale OST: 1 – 2 – 3

Re-cap:
As Theta/Francis tears through the Twin Cities, Cadence must face the person who strays the line between family, friend, and enemy.


Twin Cities, Gemini

Cadence pulled herself onto all fours with a grimace. Her head pounded, her ears rang, her mind was clouded by memories and feelings that weren’t her own—a battle between saint candidates inside Ophiuchus, the death of True Conductors, and a murderous rampage of revenge. From these things, she reached a conclusion—

Their plan had fallen through faster than a row of dominoes.

Werner had been right. There had been too many assumptions and too many unknown variables involved. Francis had…

Shaking her head, Cadence assessed her surroundings. It was dark and musty. There was a crack of light spilling in from somewhere, and there was a ceiling above her head that was hung so low that she couldn’t even stand up without brushing against it.

Wait.

Rock. Slabs of rock. No. Sides of buildings. They were everywhere around her, forming a tight, claustrophobic enclosement. Dust rained down from above as she scrambled backwards.

She was buried. Under rubble.

How had that happened?

Theta. He had lost it and started throwing portals left and right. And…

Cadence grimaced.

Had he really dropped buildings on them? Wasn’t that a bit much?

A groan resounded from beside her. Slowly, she turned her head and found Allen, Carl, and Fortuna sprawled out just beside her. They stirred in unison, rising and assessing their surroundings. Cadence figured it’d be better if they assessed themselves first.

There was a stream of blood running down Carl’s head, and he was breaking a hacking cough. He barely looked able to sit. Fortuna seemed slightly better, but her bare ankle was sporting a painful-looking purple bruise. Allen looked the worse than all of them. The front of his suit was torn open and a nasty gash ran diagonally across his chest.

No, no, no. This was way worse now—

“You all finally up?” came a casual voice from behind.

Cadence’s blood ran cold as she turned her head.

Kneeling casually behind her was Omicron. In the dimness, Cadence was unable to see the tattoo on her face. But Cadence couldn’t even really focus on the woman’s face, because—

There was a steel beam embedded in Omicron’s abdomen, extending from the ground to the slab of rock just above their heads. A stream of blood was dripping down the beam and had already formed a large puddle on the ground. All around them similar steel beams protruded upwards, keeping the rubble in place. They were pulsating faintly with white light. No, not white. Upon closer and deeper inspection, Cadence realized that the light surrounding the beams was a very, very, very pale purple. Off-white. She figured she probably wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference if it wasn’t right in front of her.

Perhaps Charite’s vitae had been some shade of purple before—

Realization settled in abruptly.

“Why…” Cadence did a double-take. “Why did ya…?”

Omicron frowned. “What do you mean ‘why’? You’re important to Francis. Why else?” She glanced down at her injury and grimaced. “Admittedly, I haven’t done a rescue in some time so I didn’t maneuver that smartly.” She spat some blood and sighed. “If I try removing this, this entire thing’ll come down.” She started mumbling to herself, almost delirious. “And you don’t look like you’re going anywhere anytime soon. And I’ll probably bleed out even more even if I take it out. Not that I have the strength left to conduct anyways.” She waved her gloved hand. “Your conductors are so…. Theta…”

Allen pulled himself up beside Cadence with effort, exacerbating the wound on his chest. Cadence shouted in protest but he waved her off.

“But you still have the strength to ramble?” Carl asked before he entered a coughing fit.

Fortuna frowned from beside him, hitting his back while eyeing Omicron’s wound with a frown.

“I’d just like some appreciation,” Omicron admitted with a light scowl. “I was the highest-ranking member in my field back in Ophiuchus so you should at least show some respect. Even the kids show me more respect than you do.” She nodded at a small opening in between two slabs of concrete where the light was spilling in through. “Small ginger one, you can squeeze through there and get some help. A peacekeeper if you have to. You look small enough. This structure’ll hold even when I die.”

Cadence grimaced. Talking about death like that so freely—

“I’m going to actually die this time…” Omicron’s eyes widened. “No, I’m going to become nothingness…” She winced and wrapped her hand around the iron bar going through her gut. “Not a trace of me left…”

“Hey, I thought you said you guys don’t feel pain…” Carl frowned. “‘Cause you bleach your vitae or whatever.”

“It dulls the pain,” Omicron returned flatly, almost rolling her eyes. “If there’s an iron bar going through my gut, of course, I’ll feel it. Especially since Charite’s vitae—my vitae—is still inside me. I’m still human.”

There was a stretch of silence.

“You think saving us now makes up for everything you’ve done?” Fortuna pressed sternly, lips drawn.

Omicron glowered at her. “I don’t want to hear that from you.” And then her expression lightened. “Then again… I’m supposed to get along with you since your Francis’s family and friends.”

Cadence figured Omicron really was getting delirious from blood loss.

“You know…” Omicron murmured suddenly, turning to Cadence with wide eyes. “The easiest way to get all of you out of here would be if you—”

“Ya can just straight out say ya want me ta get Francis,” Cadence muttered, grimacing as another sludge of red poured out from Omicron’s gut.

Omicron stiffened before she whispered, “You can’t let Theta go through with this. This isn’t them. They wouldn’t do this. I think it’s just that… they’ve finally… come together… and it’s just too much.” She shook her head. “You can’t let Francis—Theta—bring the city down.”

“Like you all weren’t planning to sink the entire city before?” Fortuna frowned.

“We were planning to get the children and innocent out first,” Omicron replied, grimacing slightly. “Now, Theta is just…”

“Like that’s any better.” Fortuna scoffed. “What gives you the right to dictate what’s right and wrong?”

“Saints! Fortuna, there ain’t no point in arguin’ now,” Cadence interjected. “Ya need ta save your breath.”

Fortuna’s eyes narrowed before she sighed and shook her head.

“He was my brother before he was your lover!” Carl suddenly, almost randomly, roared, struggling forward. “Don’t you tell me to rescue him! Of course, I—” He entered a hacking cough.

“Carl, you’re injured,” Allen interrupted him. “You’re not going anywhere. Fortuna’s not going anywhere. I’m not going anywhere. The ROI on dead people is zero.” He turned to Cadence. “Get Francis first. Stop Francis. Before the peacekeepers do. We’ll be fine here.” He paused, thinking. “It’s a high-risk job, so name your price.”

Fortuna and Carl remained silent.

Cadence chuckled faintly, nervously. “I’ll take the down payment of ya not dyin’ before I get back.”

Allen’s brows rose ever so slightly before he nodded. “Done deal.”

Omicron’s eyes widened. After letting out a sigh of relief, she whispered, “Thank you.”

Her words of gratitude churned Cadence’s stomach, but Cadence merely gave her a quick nod and a two-fingered salute to the others before crawling her way to the crack of light. As she drew near to it, however, she felt her heart drop. Two crisscrossing iron pipes tightly blocked the exit. There was no way in hell she was going to be able to squeeze through them.

Wait, no. She could solve this. They could solve this. But…

Cadence’s gaze flicked back to the Foxmans, Fortuna, and Omicron who were watching her before she turned back to the bars. Atienna’s image flickered behind them for half a second.

What’s important?

Cadence wrapped her fingers around the steel bars and reached out to Olive who was already faintly peering in. His image appeared beside her, his lips drawn tight, his brows furrowed.

“I… It may have been a fluke the last two times. I’m not sure how it works, Cadence. It’s almost an override. I don’t want to—”

Come on, kid. Have a little bit more faith in yourself.

Olive gave her a brief look of annoyance which she could easily tell wasn’t how he really felt. He grimaced and covered her hands with his own and closed his eyes. There was a beat of silence. Cadence’s head buzzed.

The next moment saw to copper sparks dancing at her fingertips. The metal piping melted away into nothing below her palm. Waving away the disgusting smoke, she let out a quiet breath and hesitantly glanced backwards.

Fortuna and Allen looked somewhat perplexed. Carl just looked confused.

Omicron’s eyes widened for a fraction of a second—she almost looked fearful—and then she sighed. “I see. That’s a unique case for a True Conductor. That makes so much more sense. It’s amazing what you can do.” She coughed. “Not sure if that’s a comfort or…”

“Stop talking,” Fortuna reproached.

But Omicron continued on, “Theta isn’t hotheaded and Theta isn’t violent. If you make a sound argument, then you’ll be fine.”

Saints. That wasn’t helpful.

“He also said something about children inheriting the world from us. About us just being borrowers,” Allen added. “Was a teacher. Apparently. And Francis is hotheaded even though he pretends not to be.”

That was helpful.

“Right, thanks for the tips.” Cadence nodded before giving another salute. “See ya on the other side.”

With a grunt, Cadence pulled herself up and out of the hole before surveying the area. She nearly fainted when she turned to see how much rubble had fallen on top of them. It was like a tower, a castle. If Omicron hadn’t pulled through for them, they would’ve been dead for sure.

Cadence looked away, shivering before pausing as she felt something in her pocket. She reached in and pulled out Theta’s proto-conductor. Still in one piece. Weird as hell that it didn’t end up like Olive’s or Jericho’s proto-conductors. She shoved it back into her pocket and took in her surroundings.

The sky was illuminated by the reflection of the lights from the portals that seemed to litter every corner as far as she could see. The surrounding warehouses had collapsed into themselves and large slabs of rock and stone that looked like they were from different areas of the city were scattered around. There were a couple of peacekeepers dotted nearby, but they looked too busy or injured to even pay her any mind.

Where was she even supposed to start? Was Francis still even in the city?

Morello.

Werner was reaching out to her, and she accepted the synchronization.

The Capricornian was perched on top of one of the lower-rise buildings dotting the canal that ran into the Pollux Bay. He was peering towards the Dioscuri Bridge through a sniper scope of a conducting rifle. His telescope sight was focused on a spot on the bridge up high. No, not a spot. A person.

Theta stood there at the tip of the spire above the bridge. His conductor-gloved hand was pressed against a thin pole protruding from the spire. Beneath his palm, there was a pale tangerine glow. In his free hand was a v-cigarette that he would take a drag from every so often.

Cadence started through the city as she continued to peer in through Werner’s eyes.

Every so often a ray of vitae would hurtle up towards Theta only to be swallowed up by an unseen portal and be returned back in the direction it was sent. It made for a horrifying light show.

Morello, pay attention.

Cadence blinked and skidded to a halt just as she was about to cross a street. On the opposite side of the road stood a cluster of men and women. She recognized them from when she’d attended the Romano-Foxman meeting weeks ago. They’d been lower-ranking members of the family who’d dotted the square tables at the very ends of the meeting room. And now, they all held conductors ignited with pale off-whiteness. Just how many had ELPIS managed to convert? And Romano Family members of all people? That was just convoluted as hell. She’d laugh if she weren’t afraid.

Cadence stumbled backwards before she ducked into the nearest alleyway only to trip over the body of a man in a monochrome uniform wearing a white armband. Flinching backwards, she snapped her fingers. The cluster of men and women entered the alleyway just as the copper light from her transmutation faded. They jogged past her invisible guise.

Cadence held her breath, remaining still on the ground.

Now all she had to do was wait a little—

“This is Morello we’re dealing with,” one of them said, stopping short of the opening at the opposite end of the alley. “She’s probably still here. Transmuted herself into a disguise. Give it a sweep. She’s just as guilty as the Romanos and the Campanas since she’s workin’ with ‘em.”

You’re Romanos, ya hypocrites! 

Cadence’s heart hammered in her chest as she saw the group split into two and start sweeping their way from the ends of the alley towards her in a line.

Saints. Why were they so smart?

Cadence scanned the dark for anything she could use. Then her eyes locked onto the bladeless hilt clipped to the dead peacekeeper’s waist.

It’s a Projector’s conductor. 

Cadence hesitantly reached out and wrapped her fingers around its hilt. A ghost of a gloved hand passed over her own. She looked up and met with Werner’s cool blue eyes.

We still don’t understand this well enough, Werner stated. He studied the conductor. And I’m ill-equipped when it comes to melee combat.

Another hand abruptly wrapped over both of theirs.

When Cadence looked up, she found herself meeting Maria’s somber green gaze. Do not leave my side.

Two at the same time has never been done before. Werner glanced at her with a frown then glanced back at the closing distance of her pursuers. But given the situation, the risk is acceptable. May we? 

Nodding, Cadence took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Then she felt the blade hum beneath her fingertips. Everything after came in flashes. Bursts of a copper blade of light, leaping over bodies, hopping on shoulders, twirling in the air, slashing wildly. And a whole lot of sadness.

When Cadence came to, she found herself panting heavily, sweating profusely, and standing above a trove of bodies. She stumbled away from them, dropping the conductor that was still warm in her hand.

Guilt, later. Save, now.

She turned on her heels and dashed down the alleyway and back out onto the street as she peered through Werner’s eyes again. It took a second for the big question to hit her: how was she supposed to make it up to the top of the bridge? An idea came a second later.

Lieutenant—

Okay. I’ll send Bergmann to assist. But as soon as it appears that you’re unable to proceed, you and Bergmann will fall back and allow the peacekeepers to settle this. 

Understood, sir!

This isn’t a joking situation. 

It’s the nerves. 

Cadence wove her way through the streets and to the walkway that lined the lip of the Pollux Bay. There, she was finally able to make out Francis standing at the tip of the spire with her own eyes. He was just a tiny spot in the dark, but he was a firm destination.

Eventually, Cadence reached where the road met the beginnings of the bridge and train station. She was soon met by a panting Bergmann who was pounding up the steps connecting the lower level of the city to the bridge.

“Hey, doll,” Cadence greeted her with a grin despite her nausea. “Ya know, there’s a shorter route.”

Bergmann stiffened. “I apologize, ma’am. I was sent here by my lieutenant to assist you.”

“I’m pullin’ your leg, Emilia.” Cadence raised her hands before jerking her head up to the spire several meters away. “Mind sendin’ me up there?”

Bergmann nodded firmly and together they set off up the bridge.

As they drew closer and closer to the spire, however, the winds began to howl around them harsher and harsher. The portals scattered around the bridge were the source of these winds, and they wailed in agony as the gales pressed into and out of them. It was a horrifying sound. It sounded like people were trapped inside of them.

Eventually, the winds whipped around so strongly that they couldn’t take another step without being pushed right back. The spire of the bridge was still several meters away, but Cadence figured those odds were enough. She turned to Bergmann. The woman nodded, fell into a crouch, and pressed both of her gloved hands against the ground.

The area beneath her hands began to illuminate. The light there slithered along the ground until it came to a stop beneath Cadence’s feet where the light formed a large square. Bergmann looked up at Cadence, prompting Cadence to give her an affirmative nod and wink.

With a rumbling crack, the glowing ground trembled beneath Cadence’s feet and then extended up through the night sky, carrying her up with it. Its growth stopped short when it was level with the spire. Now, Cadence could really see Theta— a human figure standing on the spire, separated by the empty space from Bergman’s rock tower.

Here we go.

Cadence snapped her fingers and transmuted Omicron’s guise over herself in a flash of copper. Without skipping a beat, she charged forward and shouted Theta’s name. The man turned in her direction, wide-eyed—

“Omicron?!”

And Cadence leaped forward off of the extended ground. She knew that she was definitely too short to make the jump but, as gambled, Theta reached out to her in alarm and flicked his gloved hand. A crack of pale tangerine opened up before her at the motion. After tumbling on through it, she stumbled out onto the cold metal floor of the spire. The wind stopped whipping at her face, and the air felt warm. As she righted herself, she looked up to find Francis—Theta—standing across from her.

He took a drag of his v-cig. “You’re not Omicron.”

Cadence stiffened under his gaze. The courageousness and determination that had filled her only a second ago fizzled away. Jericho’s anger wasn’t there to suppress her fear either.

Atienna’s image abruptly appeared beside her and met her eyes. Her hand ghosted hers. I’m with you.

Letting out a breath, Cadence snapped her fingers and dispelled the illusion. “‘Fraid not, but your lady was the one who sent me up here.”

He extended his un-gloved hand. “Then I’ll send you back—”

“Looks like ya got your hands kinda too full right now ta be doin’ that.”

He glanced at his gloved hand that was still pressed against the glowing spot on the pole and then took another drag of his v-cigarette. “So, are you planning to push me off then? That won’t change anything. Everything has—”

“You know I’m a lover, not a fighter,” Cadence interjected, hands raised.

The man stared. “Don’t tell me you came up here just planning to talk to me…”

Cadence shrugged. “Well, I’m lousy in a fight. I ain’t the sharpest tool in the shed—saints, I’m still learnin’ ta read. And I’m poor with money so I don’t have any of that ta give. Doubt ya’d take it anyways. Talkin’ is the only thing I’m good at.”

“You’ll only waste your breath,” he replied calmly. “Everything is set in stone.”

“That’s awfully fatalistic of ya, ain’t it? Aren’t ya people all about ‘hope’ or whatever?” Cadence interjected.

“There’s no ho—”

“Yeah, I heard your whole spiel through your portal thing.” She waved her hand in the air. “So what? Ya realized that ‘your work’ wasn’t as stellar as ya thought it was; ya realized people’re worse than ya thought and ya and gave up? Ya pissed so you’re tryin’ ta just wipe everythin’ out? Ya don’t even care about the kids in the city anymore? After all that shoutin’ at us about not savin’ the children? Gonna murder-suicide this?” She took a step forward. “What are ya? A kid yourself?”

“I’ve just reached a realization—”

“I ain’t just talkin’ about whatever breakthrough ya just had that’s makin’ ya want ta sink the city now. I’m talkin’ about that off-the-walls project in general.” Cadence took another step forward. “I mean—what good would sinkin’ the city do ta begin with even if ya did it later like ya planned?”

“This city is unsalvageable—”

“Sure, this city is shit and the people are shit and—hell—even some of the kids are little shits, but we weren’t always shit and we won’t always be shit,” Cadence pressed on. “Some of the kids and people here are gonna do great things—change the world maybe—and they won’t be able ta do it if ya sink this city. What you’re doin’ is no better than the Campanas. You’re stealin’ away the future—the world—that you’re borrowin’ from them!” She shook her head. “I don’t get it with ya and your ELPIS bunch. Always seein’ everythin’ in black and white. If a white bucket of paint gets a tiny little speck of black in there, ya just go and dump it all out. Ya waste it. So again. What good would it do?”

Cadence snapped her fingers and let loose a transmutation that stretched across not only her own body but stretched to the floor and to Francis too. When her copper light shattered, she gazed at him.

“And are ya gonna seriously tell me that there’s nothing that ya can see that’s redeemable? Nothin’ lookin’ back that makes ya think that it ain’t so bad…?”

“What is this?” Frowning, the man studied first himself and then her. “Are you trying to use Francis’s childhood memory against me?”

Transmuted over Francis’s—Theta’s body—was the illusion of Francis’s younger childhood self. And reflected in the man-turned-boy’s eyes was Cadence’s younger self which Cadence had transmuted over her own body.

The man had been correct in his assumption. That was what Cadence had been trying to do. Deception through nostalgia. People clung to the past, after all. But as soon as Cadence saw her short, chubby-cheeked, wide-eyed image reflected in his eyes, she came to a realization. That was impossible.

She shook her head, heart faltering. “I ain’t talkin ta the parta ya that’s Francis in the first place.”

He froze, wide-eyed.

“I’m talkin’ ta you, Theta,” Cadence clarified. “Francis… is an idiot. He gets pulled in way too easily into drama. Not suited for the business as it is. Doesn’t operate on normal people morals or even—ya know—logic when he gets worked up. He just operates on what he feels is right.” She looked him over. “But you, Theta—ya seem ta me like the type that actually has ‘em. Which makes what you’re doin’ ten times worse.”

The man—the boy—frowned slightly.

“Do ya think that you doin’ this is some kinda callin’ card—an end slide—ta this whole thing? Ya think you’re makin’ a difference?” She took another step forward, dispelling the illusion with a wave of her hand.

“I—”

“This is just you givin’ up and runnin’ away,” Cadence interjected. “Ya were doin’ that even before ya became Francis! And that’s the one big difference between you and him. Francis faces his problems head-on, but you—look at what you’re doin’. Ya think anything’ll change by ya doin’ this? I don’t have a clue why ya think destroyin’ reservoirs or generator conductors or the city’ll solve anything. I mean, ya went after the one in Aries years ago, and look at it—it’s back! All those people ya killed—the children who died or became orphans—ta get to it died for nothin’ then in your book, ain’t that right?”

“I wasn’t—”

“With the way you ELPIS leaders exist and operate… ain’t it just that everything you’re doin’ is just an illusion of good will and change?”

Atienna’s image flickered strongly out of the corner of Cadence’s eyes, and an intense sadness took over her.

“I mean, by the way ya talk, ya obviously view dyin’ a helluva lot different than the rest of us. People like me—we ain’t thinkin’ about returnin’ ta the cycle. That’s why we try so hard—struggle and grovel like idiots. This is it for us. The end of the line. We ain’t comin’ back like you when we kick the bucket, so everything we do here is full effort one way or another.” She paused, frowning. “Theta, can ya really put your full effort into somethin’ when ya know you’ll always get another crack at it? ‘Cause if it ain’t and you’re causin’ all this, you’re worse than us.”

Jericho reached out to her in the distance. Cadence hesitated for a moment before she threw away the idea of pulling away and allowed him to come. He came in strongly, carrying in his usual fury but this time in a different flavor.

“Not only are ya not making progress and hurtin’ kids ya don’t even know but… what do ya think happens ta all of the children ya take in when ya run off and do things like this?” Cadence pressed. “What happened ta the ones who survive when you’re gone?”

This gave Theta pause. “You said that before. What are you talking about?”

“Who do ya think that suitcase peacekeeper that’s constantly after ya guys is? Why do ya think he’s after ya?”

Theta remained silent.

“It’s ‘cause he was raised up and taught by a person named Theta after ELPIS raided his village. Theta who taught him all about vitae and cycles; Theta who disappeared with the wind leavin’ him in the care of all the other ELPIS quacks. And what do ya think happened to him after that?”

Theta’s eyes widened slightly.

“You guessed it. He was forced into ELPIS when he was just a kid. Forced ta do the same kind of things you’re doin’ here as an adult. He’s lookin’ for revenge for everything your group forced on him—on the other kids too. Because that’s the only thing he can do.”

Theta paled in the light.

Jericho’s image intensified in front of her eyes.

“I think givin’ people love and takin’ it away is a helluva lot crueler than not givin’ ‘em any love at all. ‘Specially when you use it against ‘em.” She gestured widely down to the city. “Ya gave those kids down there hope, and now you’re takin’ it away!”

“You’re lying…” Theta pulled his gloved hand away from the pole, and the light there dimmed.

The light illuminating the city skyline followed suit, and slowly they became draped in complete darkness.

“Everything I’ve said since comin’ up here is one-hundred percent the truth—a record for sure,” Cadence affirmed. “Ya know that I’m not lyin’. If ya did, ya would’ve shut me up from the very beginning.”

The guilt enveloped the man’s entire body in an instant—from his face that crumpled, from his shoulders that dropped, from his back-step of disbelief.

Hook. Line. Sinker.

Guilt was a great motivator, after all. A tool to break down or a tool to incite change. Cadence had learned that from Olive, and she figured she was beginning to experience it herself. And with the sense of victory came a feeling of righteousness, fulfillment, satisfaction.

Jericho’s image flickered away out of her vision, although she still felt him lingering at the corners of her mind.

“And it ain’t just him. He just happens to the most vocal one about… Or maybe he’s the only one left.” She paused, gesturing to the city below. “You leavin’ all of ‘em like this… The ones who make it out—what do ya think’ll happen ta them?” She jerked her thumb backward. “That Iota broad has more than a few screws loose. Ya think she’s gonna take care of ‘em or let ‘em all go on their merry way? She’s all about recruitment, ain’t she?”

Theta didn’t seem to be listening too closely anymore.

“Take your own damn advice and take some damn responsibility!” Cadence snapped, stepping forward, grabbing a hold of the man by his collar, shaking him. “It’s not ‘it can’t be helped so I’m just gonna let it be’ or ‘I’m going ta wipe it away and forget about it’! Of course, it can be helped!” She tightened her hold. “Despite everything we went through when we were kids, we still all had stupid hopes and dreams. We knew that we’d never be like the rest of ‘em and we’d make terrible life-choices, but we still wanted to continue. We didn’t even think we were unfortunate then. And those kids down there—the ones you took in, the ones the Campanas owned—are just like us. They deserve as much of a chance as we did! Even if they end up shit. What gives you the right ta take that away?”

Francis’s hands wrapped around her own as he struggled in her grip.

“And, Francis, look. I… I don’t know what kinda memories of Theta’s ya saw. Just by the sound of it, it seems like it was maybe paradise back then. And ya probably have every right ta be angry on Theta’s behalf for how bad things’ve gotten.” Cadence’s shoulders sagged. “I lied ta ya before, Francis. Things can’t go back to the way they were before. Not anymore. Not to whatever the world was like before ELPIS. Not to how things were like before we grew up. We can’t go back. Not really.”

Alma’s gentle smile flashed through Cadence’s mind, as did the memory of running through the streets with the Foxmans, Fortuna, and Nico at her side. Biting her lip, Cadence tightened her grip on the man’s collar.

“It hurts. Realizin’ everythin’ you’ve been doin’ up ta now might’ve been for nothin’. Realizin’ ya can’t go back to the good old times. Realizin’ that you’ve fucked up hurts. It sucks, it’s embarrassin’—I know. But all you’re doin’ is throwin’ up temporary solutions ta this problem. Ya gotta own up to it, stop shruggin’ your shoulders, and try ta work somethin’ out.” Despite the burning in her eyes, she lifted her head and met his gaze. “So stop sayin’ there’s no hope, okay? It hurts when ya say that you’re givin’ up. ‘Cause you’re family ta me—no joke—Francis. So, let’s just try ta be better, aight?”

Francis released his hold on her hands and stared at her wide-eyed.

He’s done, Cadence, came Atienna’s reassurance.

Cadence panted heavily in the silence that followed and then released him. He slid to the ground and fell to his knees. She fell back on her rear beside him, heaving.

“I….” he murmured. “Saints. What am I doing…? I messed up… All those children…”

Cadence ran her hand down her face. “Yeah. We all did.” She studied him. “Have ya calmed down some now? ‘Cause that’s all I got. How about we put a stop ta the whole sink the city plan now?”

Francis’s brows furrowed, and he studied her in the dark. “It’s too late… I… the conducting grenades and explosive conductors. They’ve been placed already. They’re going to detonate. There’s no stopping it.”

Cadence sighed. “Okay, did ya not hear my whole speech about not givin’ up and takin’ responsibility?” She chuckled. “Embarrassing’ hearin’ myself say that.”

“Unless you grow five-hundred hands to reach all of them, then it’s going to be a miracle, Cadence.”

“I got a billion of ‘em for ya.”

Francis frowned.

“Open up your portals again, Francis,” Cadence urged. “I gotta plan. And I’m gonna prove to ya that the people of this city—nah, the world—ain’t as bad as ya think. Despite circumstance and situation.”

Francis stared. “You’re not making much sense…”

“You can control where things go when they enter your portal, right?” Cadence asked. “Then all we need ta do is have ya open up the portals that’re near the explosives, have the portals lead ta somewhere far off from the city, and dump the bombs in.”

“There’s five hundred of them all around the city, Cadence,” Francis muttered. “I won’t be able to gather them and transport all of them in time.”

“You’re not gonna have ta. The city folks will. Through a little help of direction,” Cadence said, wiggling her ringed fingers. “Or should I say mis-direction?” She chortled. “Nah, I’m kiddin’. It’s direction. I’ll transmute an illusion out from your portal to show ‘em where the bombs are at.”

“That’s too risky.” He frowned. “The amount of vitae you would have to expel to create an aerial distortion—an illusion—of that magnitude… plus, relying on the people of this city…”

“Aw, come on, Francis.” She cuffed him on the shoulder causing him to stiffen. “We’ve taken worse risks than that before. Remember the Ferrari candy store fiasco of the early 30s? After we pulled our last candy raid and cleaned the shelves, the folks set up watches around the block ta catch and beat thieves like us. And then there was that other group that bought a bunch of his candy and threw it all on the streets for rats like us. They all coulda been sadist protectin’ their own stuff, but also coulda been saints. Who knows. Appearances are deceivin’. The fact is that this is still their city, and they’re all greedy a hell.”

Francis’s eyes widened, and he seemed to reminisce before dipping his head. “Okay, Cadence, I’ll let you deceive me one last time.”

Francis moved back to the extended pole marked in black and placed his gloved hand on top of it. The spot began to glow immediately, and shortly after the smog clouds began to reflect back the pale tangerine glow from the city below. The light wasn’t as intense nor as large in number as before—Cadence could barely make them out in the dark.

Francis extended his free hand out to her. Cadence accepted the gentlemanly gesture, let out a shaky breath, and reached out her other ringed hand to the edge of the portal.

She knew she had to transmute something simple. Something easy to discern. Something eye-catching that’d get people’s attention. Something she knew like the back of her hand.

The image crossed her mind. Perfect.

She snapped her fingers and copper light spilled out from her hand from her rings. It was a bit more difficult to manage—the proto-conductor rings. She had to periodically flip from filling the rings with vitae to expelling the vitae, but eventually, she got the hang of the back-and-forth. And so, she turned her eyes to the nightscape and watched as her illusions rose out from the darkness from Theta’s portal.

Gigantic black and white piano keys stretched upwards through the night sky. They were as wide as the skyscrapers they rose up in-between. And slowly from the top to the bottom, the keys lit up and dimmed with copper light as if someone were playing. One key at a time. The faux play of light continued down the keys until the light cascade hit the bottom. As soon as the last key brightened and then faded, the top key would light up copper and the luminousness would descend again. Enough to draw the eyes and trigger curiosity.

Guys, I know I’m askin’ for a lot now, but…

Cadence’s vision began to blur as a wave of exhaustion took over her, but she kept herself standing.

Understood.

Cadence could see all of the others she was connected to within the city start towards her copper illusions. Werner directed his subordinates to the illusionary keys they were closest to. He was efficient, disposing of twenty explosive conductors into Theta’s gates with ease. Maria was a beast, leaping across thin alleyways from building to building, swiping the explosive conductors where they rested in plain sight, and tossing them into the portals as she ran past.

Cadence heard Atienna exchanging carefully chosen words with Cvetka who then prompted the Ophiuchian peacekeepers they were with to move out towards the piano keys. The word spread through the city quickly. Rumors were like currency in the city, after all. Cadence could hear through the ears of Werner, Maria, and Atienna the whispers of the people of the city as they rushed back and forth—

“What in saint’s name is that in the sky? Let’s check it out!”

“Peacekeepers say the city’s damned rigged to blow. Explosive conductors. ELPIS. Apparently, they set up Specialist vitae things around the city. Near those floatin’ keys.”

“They’re tossin’ ‘em into those things. It’s like a fancy garbage chute. Don’t know if they’ll manage it all in time though.”

“Damn. You think there’s one at La Teglia? Like hell, I’m going to let my favorite pizza place go down. Finally managed to eat their long enough to get that discount. I’m gonna check it out.”

“I heard there’s lotta money involved. If you show proof that you threw away those explosive conductors, then the Ophiuchians’ll give you 500 cens for each one!”

And through their eyes, Cadence also witnessed the city act on those rumors and words. Matilda and her gang wove their way through the streets towards the glowing keys. Her network of street rats and orphans dispersed, reaching nearly every corner of the city as they searched for the explosives and dumped them into the portals. There was also Hideyoshi and Louise whom Maria witnessed working together with several police officers to toss a large explosive conductor into a portal. Ferrari was even spotted checking around his candy store.

Of course, there were some who ran away in the opposite direction, some who dismantled the conducting grenades and explosive conductors and stored their parts away in their pockets, some who took advantage of the chaos, but—as all things in the city were—everything was balanced. Half and half. Good and bad.

Chortling at her good hand as her vision began to fade, Cadence fell forward into darkness.

***

When Cadence cracked open her eyes again, the sky was dark and she was lying on the ground with her head propped against something soft and warm.

Francis’s face eclipsed her own. “Are you alright?”

At the faint sight of the tattoo on Francis’s face, Cadence didn’t feel the usual anger. Instead, she felt a heavy sadness. And uncertainty. But just for him.

Jericho.

“Ya know, I’d feel much better if I was layin’ on the lap of a pretty broad instead.”

Francis chuckled lightly, musically. “I think that answers that question.”

“Where are we?” Cadence asked after a beat.

“We’re still on top of the Dioscuri,” Francis replied.

The memory of the others weaving through the city trickled down to her slowly, causing her to cackle lightly. “Told ya we could save the city. I never bet on a bad game.”

“Eleven-twelfths of it,” Francis amended. “One-twelfth of the explosive conductors were set off before they were dropped into my gates.”

Cadence stiffened.

They didn’t detonate near any of the reservoirs. From the information I’ve received, they donated in the wealthier districts that evacuated when this incident first began, Werner provided, suddenly dipping into her mind. His shadow crossed her face. I apologize for the intrusion. It wasn’t intentional. A pause. You did well. 

Enjoyin’ the praise here. And I enjoy the company too, Lieutenant.

Cadence nodded back at Francis. “Yeah, those are good odds, ain’t they?” She groaned and rubbed the back of her neck. “I feel like I’ve got a hangover.”

“You expelled a lot of your vitae,” Francis said. He paused, studying her quietly. “To expel that much vitae, you’d have to be one of two things. Either a saint candidate or a True Conductor.”

Cadence tensed and felt Werner’s synchronization increase. “Ya ain’t gonna strangle me now are ya?”

Francis frowned, gaze lowering. “It’s not even funny that you’d suggest that after everything you’ve said…”

Damn… He was gloomy.

“Hey, hey, can ya blame me? Every time we come across any of ya, ya try ta put a bullet or whatever ya can find through us.”

“Yes, your existence is dangerous. You’re a necessary part of the syzygy,” Francis agreed. “But I’ve given your words some thought while you’ve been napping. It really is a temporary solution. The reservoirs and the True Conductors.” He smiled thinly down at her. “I might be biased though, since a childhood pal of mine is one.”

“And Theta’s pals?”

Francis frowned again. “They relied on my ability for this entire operation, and we put all of our stakes on this night. No one is getting their hands on those explosive conductors. Not any of the Families. Not any of them.” He looked out towards the faint cityscape. “And the others will not be able to move in this city without me.”

“Well, if we’re on the same page now, I was hopin’ ya’d answer a couple of questions for me—wait!” Realization jolted Cadence, and she shot up and grabbed a hold of his hand.

Francis startled in alarm.

“Francis—no, Theta?” Cadence shook her head. “Saints, it doesn’t even matter.” She tightened her grip. “It’s Omicron and the others.”

***

Francis took the both of them through a portal to outside of what remained of Warehouse 13 before Cadence guided him into the collapsed cavern of rubble. Fortuna, Allen, and Carl were still huddled together in the corner there, although they all looked much better than how when Cadence had left them. Fortuna’s ankle was wrapped tightly in gauze, Carl’s forehead was no longer bleeding, and Allen’s chest was tightly bandaged. The trio looked up at their appearance.

The relief that broke across Carl’s face almost made Cadence laugh. Fortuna meanwhile merely frowned, while Allen leaned back against the stone slab behind him and let out a sigh.

Cadence figured the new addition to the cave was the reason for their drastically improved conditions. And, as per usual, that new addition was too focused on his task at hand to notice her and Francis’s entrance. Cadence cleared her throat.

Nico Fabrizzio turned from where he knelt and stared.

“Cadence!” He brightened in a way that made Cadence’s heart warm. His expression faltered, however, when he registered Francis standing behind her. “Saints, Francis, you…”

“A warmer greeting would’ve been nice, Nico,” Francis said as he walked past Cadence to Nico’s side.

Then Cadence registered who Nico was kneeling in front of. Omicron. The woman was deathly pale, although the wound that the pole was protruding out of was no longer bleeding profusely. Nico’s work, no doubt. Omicron’s eyes were half-lidded, and she seemed to be staring at something deep in the ground.

“I… I know she’s ELPIS, but Carl and Allen gave me the go-ahead.”

Cadence arched a brow at the two brothers. They were inhabitants of the Twin Cities through and through. Fickle. Unbiased. Except when it came to family.

“I’ve been tryin’ my best,” Nico stammered as Francis knelt beside him, “but the pole’s pierced vital organs. I can only transmute so much without a donor or…”

Francis placed a hand on his shoulder. “It’s okay, Nico. That’s enough.”

Nico frowned in surprise and confusion, before Cadence approached him from behind, tapped him on the shoulder, and jerked her head backward. Nico opened his mouth to protest but then unfurled from Francis and joined Cadence at her side.

Omicron lifted her head at the commotion.

“You really are a ridiculous person,” Francis murmured. “Trying to look heroic at a time like this.”

“I am heroic… darling,” Omicron greeted him pleasantly, voice barely audible as she reached for his face with her ungloved hand. “The city?”

She didn’t seem to have the strength to reach him, however, and her hand fell short just a centimeter away. He intercepted the gesture, cupped her hand in his own, and pressed it to his cheek.

“It’s still standing,” Francis murmured. “I’m sorry for putting you through this…. all of you.”

Omicron opened her mouth but no words came out. It was too much of an effort. Francis tightened his hold on her hand.

“Please. My name. My real name. One more time.” Omicron’s eyes widened. The desperation in her voice was tight. “Just once. Please. If you remember—”

“Altair,” Francis affirmed. “I can never forget that.”

Omicron’s eyes widened before they softened. “My darling Vega.”

The affection in their words sparked a pang of jealousy in Cadence’s chest, but the feeling was quickly overtaken by a pang of heavy empathy. To be so close yet so far away from someone you cared about was…

And then Omicron’s hands slipped from Francis’s. The man grabbed it as it fell and pressed it against his cheek for a moment before gently placing it down. He placed a hand on the side of Omicron’s cheek that hosted her tattoo before moving forward to close her vacantly staring eyes. A pale light began to curl up from her body like smoke as he did so. A pure white light.

And then Francis began to murmur under his breath,

“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.”

Despite everything, Cadence couldn’t help but find the entire scene beautiful as the light filled the dark corners of the cavern and illuminated the steel beams as it seeped out of the cracks of rock.

When the light completed faded, Francis rose slowly and faced them. His eyes were wet but he didn’t seem ashamed.

“Er… I’m sorry, Francis. About your girl.” Carl sat up. “Did er… Omicron become… nothingness then?”

Cadence wanted to smack him. Couldn’t he read the atmosphere?

“Maybe…” Francis murmured, wiping his eyes and turning towards his brother. “Or perhaps she’s found peace.”

For a moment, no one spoke.

And so the six of them remained there in silence. Six childhood friends, always looking backwards, always being forced forwards. Staying the same, yet constantly changing. Unsure of what to do next, but always faking certainty. Accepting everything, rejecting nothing. Representatives of what the Twin Cities truly was. It truly was absurd—the different directions they’d all gone.

A romantic thought, Cadence mused. She wondered if Atienna was influencing her more than she liked to admit.

Francis reached into his pocket and drew out a knife. Nico startled, but Cadence squeezed his shoulder. Francis drew the knife across his palm and splashed a streak of red at their feet. He then sank to his knees and placed his gloved palm on top of the red.

“Don’t take too long, Francis,” was all Allen said. Carl nodded in agreement from beside him.

“You need to answer for everything you’ve done. The business, the Family, my father. You’re not walking away from this,” Fortuna added, eyes glowering. But she didn’t make any attempts towards him. “And you still have to answer one question since I won the game.”

Nico, as always, looked between them all with confusion and concern which turned into alarm as the space beneath their feet began to glow with tangerine light.

“See ya soon, Francis,” Cadence called out as she, Allen, Carl, Fortuna, and Nico began to sink downwards into the portal. “And I’m sorry.”

Francis merely smiled as he watched them disappear from his sights.

Given all of their responses to the situation, Cadence wondered if that despite everything, deep down they were still all the same, but—

—as she re-emerged from the portal and found herself in front of Doctor Fabrizzio’s underground clinic, she knew that there was no going back.

12.3: A Solo for a Beast

Re-cap:

Theta/Francis prepares to sink the Twin Cities, and the streets are in chaos. Maria reels from the revelation that Conta has become Beta. Now, she…

Twin Cities, Gemini

Caporegime Donato stumbled into the dark warehouse and immediately slipped on the blood on the floor. His son, Feliciano, rushed forward and helped him up to his feet. The two scanned the dark together, noting the suited men and women splayed dead on the ground. It took them a moment to register that there was a figure leaning against a table pressed alongside the wall.

Enzo.

“What in saint’s name happened here?” Donato muttered, walking up to the man.

“Apparently, some man with glasses—a Conjuror—came in. Attacked the guards.” Enzo grimaced. “Took the conductors we’d stocked and those knife things ELPIS wants. His vitae was white. Makes sense.”

“And he did all this?”

Enzo shook his head before he nodded down to a dead man splayed across his feet. “Not sure. Just arrived. But my guy here started spewin’ nonsense about some ‘beast’ comin’ in here and tearin’ ‘em all apart after the ELPIS people left.”

“Like that urban legend those street rats’ve been tossin’ around?” Feliciano arched a brow.

Ignoring him, Donato ran his hand down his face. “There goes our collateral.”

“I got word our warehouses with the Specialists also got ransacked.”

Donato’s face folded. “You’re kidding me.” He tapped his leg. “My leg’s not fully healed yet!”

“Well, the kids you gave us ain’t there anymore, so the contract is null and void.”

Feliciano brushed past his father and grabbed Enzo by the scruff. “The hell you say?”

“It doesn’t really matter now.” Enzo slapped Feliciano’s hands aside. “That swindler’s already loosened her tongue to the other execs, hasn’t she? Got word from one of my covers with Ambrose and barely packed my bags in time.”

Feliciano spat and gritted his teeth. “Cadence…”

Donato pinched the bridge of his nose before placing a calming hand on his son’s shoulder. “Yes, they know everything. They brought me into Warehouse 13—part of an exchange, I don’t know. Francis was there. Cuffed, of course, and out of his mind. But then the peacekeepers came, and he got free and started ransacking the place—the crazy bastard. Managed to give them the slip in the chaos.” He frowned. “A total embarrassment.”

Enzo shrugged and drew out a burlap sack from beneath the table with his foot. He picked it up and gave it a shake, causing it to give a metallic jingle. “Well, there’s one silver lining here. That Capricornian colonel gave us a down payment in Geminian cens—”

The burlap sack fell to the ground, bursting open and spilling its glittering contents out onto the wooden floor. The coins rattled as they tapered along the wood filling in the silence that followed.

Donato and Feliciano stared blankly at the empty space Enzo had once occupied. One second he was there, and the next he was gone.

A wail of terror rang out from overhead. Upon looking upwards, Donato and his son found a pair of legs kicking and flailing above them in the darkness. Those brand-name polished shoes were undeniably Enzo’s. His upper body and the rest of the ceiling were hidden in shadow, but something was definitely up there.

While Donato stared, Feliciano scrambled forward, grabbed Enzo by his legs, and tried to pull him down. For his efforts, he was gifted several kicks to the face that forced him to release the man.

“First it was the children. Then you took away Francis. You made my Cadence sad. And then you took Conta. And you made me very, very mad.”

A sickening crack resounded from above. Enzo’s kicking became more intense and frantic as a wheeze replaced the wailing. And then—

—his body hit the ground like a ragdoll. Instead of hopping to his feet, however, he rolled around on the floor clutching his throat. On his pale skin there hidden away by his hands was a sharp, purple imprint of a hand. He scratched at this imprint, chest moving up and down fruitlessly. His face paled, purpled, blued as he scrambled onto his knees and dragged himself over to Feliciano and Donato. Donato skirted backwards, while Feliciano rushed forward with concern. The younger man was pulled down by Enzo to the man’s eye level as the older man foamed at the mouth. There, Feliciano was able to see the terror that was in the man’s eyes. The Campana had seen something up in those shadows. Something horrifying, something unsightly, something Feliciano didn’t want to see.

Letting out a death rattle, Enzo collapsed into Feliciano’s arms.

Feliciano froze and turned. “Dad—”

But the space his father once occupied was empty. Trembling, Feliciano turned his eyes upwards. He recognized his father’s shoes instantly, kicking out from the darkness above.

“I can’t forgive it…” croaked a voice. “I can’t forgive it…”

Scrambling forward, Feliciano leaped and grabbed a hold of his father’s legs. He pulled and tugged, but it was no use. His father was jerked up and away from him and into the shadows above. Feliciano fell back onto his back as something wet and warm dribbled down onto his face. He wiped it away with his hand and stared. In the gloom, he could just barely make out the color red staining his fingertips.

A shadowy figure slowly spilled down from the ceiling onto the floor as wood creaked and groaned.

“Your father is dead.”

Feliciano’s heart raced and crumpled at the same time. With a stuttering roar, he lunged at the figure only to be met with a punch to the gut. He doubled over, heaving.

“You can run away or you can face me,” the figure said slowly, wrapping its fingers around his wrist. “It is your choice. It is my mercy.”

Feliciano trembled as the smell of iron filled his nostrils. “I—”

“No.”

Feliciano cried out in pain as the figure tightened its grip on his wrist until there was a crack. His knees buckled, and he collapsed onto the ground shaking.

An inhuman face peered out from the darkness.

“You hurt my Werner and my Cadence. I can’t forgive you either.”

***

Maria wasn’t done. Not yet. Not even close.

She tore through the city relentlessly, plucking those she deemed evil off of those she deemed innocent. She didn’t care what faction of the city they were a part of. She didn’t care whether or not they were ELPIS. She didn’t care if they were Romano or Campana. All she cared about was that she wanted to save people. Because she was strong. To confirmshe was strong.

Eventually, as she whistled around through the streets, she came across a man and a woman huddled together at the dead-end of an alleyway. The woman waved what looked like a drainage pipe wildly in the air as a group of men and women wielding rifle and bladeless conductors surrounded her and her companion.

Maria didn’t wait for an explanation or for the details. She rushed forward along the fire escape, leaped down into the dark, and landed on top of the one she deemed the gang’s leader. She ended the person by shoving her blade right down their gullet. As soon as she hit the ground as the leader fell, the leader’s companions dispersed immediately. They dropped their conductors and started off into the dark in a flurry of panic. Fakes, maybe. Or maybe she’d scared them.

Maria…

Maria looked down at the person who was now acting as a sheath to her blade.

A lonely death. How sad…

Regret. Guilt.

No. She was strong. She didn’t have regrets.

Maria looked at the man and the woman she had saved. They were dressed oddly. The woman was bundled in layers of fur coats, while the man was dressed in a crisp suit. They looked so unsuited yet perfectly suited for each other at the same time.

Maria blinked.

They were familiar to her, she realized.

And then it clicked.

It was the Sagittarian tourist Cadence had met. And the Cancerian tourist Atienna had met. Side-by-side. Hand-in-hand. Together. They stared at her wide-eyed, fearful.

“You’re True Conductors…” Maria realized. Their names came to her slowly. Hideyoshi. Louise.

“A-And who are you?” Hideyoshi stammered.

“Sh, honey, don’t talk to it,” Louise whispered to him, tightening her grip on the metal pipe. “It’s that. The monster the kids were talking about. The urban legend. The beast.” Louise dipped her head at Maria. “We do not mean you offense, Golden Beast! We are… mere tourists. Please spare us.”

They didn’t sound afraid, despite the dead man at their feet. They were definitely odd—a bit funny in the head, maybe—but Maria was in no mood to engage with them. Not when there was this gaping hole in her chest that needed to be filled.

As Maria stared at Louise, however, something else clicked in her mind. “Are you… the one Renée is looking for? The… Cancerian duchess?”

Hideyoshi stepped in front of Louise at this. “Are you in cahoots with ‘Renée’? I don’t care if you’re a beast or a demon, but you won’t lay a finger on her head, you hear?”

Something uncomfortable curled in Maria’s chest at the sight of him standing in front of her. She studied the two for a long time before she stared down the opposite end of the alleyway. “He is in this city now, yes? If you want to protect what’s yours, maybe you should leave.” She bent down and ripped her blade out from the mouth of the dead man before climbing back up the firescape.

Right. This was jealousy.

***

Maria’s rampage ended when she stumbled upon the body of a man lying flat on his stomach in an alleyway. His hand was extended outwards towards a plastic-wrapped candy basket that rested a meter away on its side.

He couldn’t save them either, she came to understand.

Maria slid into a crouch in front of him. She studied his face for a beat before moving the basket closer to his body.

“You were not able to reach them either,” she murmured, resting her chin on her knees. The pain in her chest returned, and she didn’t like it.

But the others were very busy. Maria didn’t want to disturb them too much. They might leave if she did. And Maria didn’t want that.

She glanced back at the man’s body again. Perhaps, she thought, he had been lonely too. Sad. Hopeless. Unable to reach. Yes.

After another moment of consideration, she laid down on her back beside him and stared up at the sky that was afire with tangerine light.

She had met so many interesting people in the past few weeks. Veles, Renée, that angry bounty hunter, and so many others through the eyes of the other five. But despite all those new faces, despite meeting all those new and exciting people, it wasn’t enough. They could not replace the space Conta had occupied. It was not the same. Insufficient.

That meant that Maria would have to seek Conta out. Yes. To fill in that emptiness. No matter what. She could do that. Definitely. Even though she’d failed in her promise to keep Conta at her side for eternity.

Maria blinked.

Was this what Jericho felt…?

A pit-pat of footsteps drew Maria’s attention away from the skyline. Upon lifting her head and looking down the alleyway, she saw a small figure dashing down towards her. It was the blind girl, wearing her conducting glasses. The girl made it about halfway down the alley before she tripped over a stray trash bin and fell flat on her face.

Maria picked herself off the ground and went to the girl’s side. “My dear,” she said as she aided the girl to her feet, “what are you doing out here?”

“Maria!” the girl exclaimed as soon as they made physical contact. “There you are!”

Maria stared at her. “Where is Renée? Did you…. follow me here?”

“He… told me to wait some place… but there were all of these loud sounds all of a sudden… and I… I thought it’d be a better call if I looked for you. I took initiative.” The girl lifted her head and then lowered it. “It was really, really hard—I could barely see anything—but I did it….” Her eyes widened. “Did you not… want me here?”

Maria understood now. The girl had followed her from behind. Just as Conta would. And Maria hadn’t noticed. Not really.

Maria placed a hand on the girl’s head. “I always enjoy company, my dear—” She paused, studying the girl’s face. “What was your name again?”

The girl’s brows creased. “I… don’t have one… They… call me ‘doll’ or ‘girl’ sometimes. Mary, Sue, Bella. They call all the other ones like me that too.”

Maria hadn’t even realized it. And if she hadn’t realized this obvious thing—just as she had not realized that Conta was gone—how much else hadn’t she realized?

“Do you want one, my dear? One just for you?”

The girl stiffened, flushing before nodding hesitantly.

“Lita,” Maria decided, threading her fingers through the girl’s hair as the light from above lazily sank downwards. “You are Lita.”

Light.

12.2: A Duet Between a Soldier and Advisor

Mood OST

Re-cap:

As Francis/Theta tears through the Twin Cities, Werner faces Colonel Fritz von Spiel while Atienna faces Yulia Kriska. Two connected True Conductors against two connected True Conductors. One seems to show mercy and the other ruthlessness, but the truth is…

Twin Cities, Gemini

Pulling Sefu closer to herself, Atienna tuned her ears to the sound of the small footsteps drawing nearer from down the road. Yulia sank to her knees, arms widespread. A beat after, a familiar boy flew into her arms from the side of the street. He wrapped his arms around her neck and buried his face in her nape. The two of them sat there embracing each other for a very long and quiet moment.

“K-Kirill…?” Alexei whispered in realization. His face paled, and he suddenly looked to be in more pain than Yulia had put him in.

The boy unfurled from Yulia’s side and peered down at his father who tensed immediately. Yulia took off her conducting gloves and fitted them gingerly onto Kovich’s hands.

“K-Kirill…” Alexei stammered. “I… I’m so sorry. I had to do it. We had no money, Kirill. No food. But they could feed you, Kirill. They said they’d take care of you. And they did, didn’t they? And I had to. But now. I’m almost there. Not yet. I’m not ready yet. I haven’t been able to make a place for you yet. But when I did—when I do—I was going to…”

Yulia’s brows furrowed and her lips tipped downwards, but Kovich placed a hand on her arm. He then looked up and meet Atienna’s eyes.

“It’s your choice,” Atienna said to both Kovich and Alexei, “but choices can’t be undone.”

Still… How sad.

Even if this was Alexei’s attempt to dissuade Kovich from using his conductor, Atienna knew that there was some truth to the man’s words. Yes, Atienna could see it clearly—what his intentions had been. Good intentions sometimes led to terrible outcomes. Atienna’s mother was an example of that, although Atienna was certain her mother would never make a choice like this one.

That aside, Atienna knew that even the cruelest, most selfish person tried their best to make the ‘right’ choices. But that also meant that the kindest, most selfless person sometimes made the ‘wrong’ choices—

Kovich sank into a crouch in front of Alexei.

The man’s eyes widened. “K-Kirill—”

The boy reached forward with his gloved hand—

—and placed an index finger to Alexei’s lips as he shook his head.

“‘Kovich,’” he corrected in Aquarian before pulling his hand away. “You left me. I think I understand why now. But that doesn’t matter to me anymore. Because Yulia and Fritz won’t leave me. Ever. And they’re all I need.” He pulled himself up to a stand, locked hands with Yulia, and looked up at her.

Yulia frowned back down at him before she sighing, nodding, and tightening her grip on his hand.

So that was Kovich’s choice then.

Atienna let out a sigh of relief.

“Can we go now?” the boy asked. “Get Fritz? He seems really angry…”

And then laughter rang from Werner’s end into Atienna’s ears.

***

Colonel Fritz von Spiel threw his head back and laughed as he locked eyes with Werner. “You are like me. To a Virgoan advisor of all people?” He doubled over, still laughing. “You’re probably going soft!” He turned to Gilbert, then to Stein, then to Kleine, then to Bergmann. “Your lieutenant is as bad as I am! If you’re going to arrest me for collusion with an enemy party, then you might as well cuff him too.”

“You say he’s like you, but I don’t see him working with ELPIS,” Stein grunted.

“Well, it’s probably because all of the people you’re connected to are well off, aren’t they?” The colonel scoffed wryly, bitterly at Werner. “Lucky you…”

Werner’s men looked to him uncertainly, but before Werner could give an order, the colonel charged towards him and grabbed the nose of his handgun. As his men started forward, Werner held up a hand. Werner’s grip on his gun was still tight. The only thing that the colonel had done was line his own forehead up with the mouth of the weapon.

“Shoot me. Do it. Shoot me now.”

Werner’s eyes narrowed.

“I’d rather die than rot away in prison. I’d rather die than be stuck in one place forever with—with—” The colonel jerked his head back down the alleyway, cuffs clacking. “—with them constantly burrowing into my head!”

Werner froze. “Colonel von Spiel, you will be taken in for questio—”

“If you really are a True Conductor, then you understand.” The colonel’s eyes were livid as he gripped the nose of the gun tight with his injured hand. “It’s torture! Constantly being pushed back and forth against your will. Being forced to want things you don’t want. To the point where you don’t even know what you want anymore! Basically falling damn apart.” The colonel stared holes into him. “Isn’t that right?”

Werner didn’t respond.

“If you don’t put a bullet in me now,” the colonel continued. “I’ll tell everything I know about Capricorn to Yulia and I’ll have her go tell Aquarius’s government agencies about it. And if I go to jail for this, then I’ll tell Capricorn that you’re like me too—that you’re a liability.”

Werner tensed, finger twitching. He couldn’t allow the colonel to divulge Capricornian military secrets. The dangers that it would impose on Capricorn would be monumental. And… the others…

“Do it!”

At that moment, Werner saw through Atienna’s eyes:

Yulia silently shook her head as she pulled Kovich closer to herself.

It wasn’t going to happen.

Colonel Fritz von Spiel paled before choking out a laugh. “…. Why? Why can’t you even let me escape…? Do you want to make every single moment in my life torture—”

Through Atienna’s eyes, Werner saw Kovich lower his gaze teary-eyed.

“Stop looking like that… Dammit, you…” the colonel whispered, releasing his grip on Werner’s gun and taking a step backwards in defeat. “And now because of you two, I look like a damn fool…”

Silence.

“…the fuck is going on?” Stein muttered.

Gilbert responded by telling him quietly to shut up.

“You’ll be given a fair but thorough investigation and trial, Colonel von Spiel,” Werner said, lowering his gun slowly. “And you are mistaken. I will always be loyal to Capricorn—”

A gunshot suddenly rang out without warning.

Werner stiffened before doing a quick, rapid assessment of all of his subordinates’ weapons. None of them had fired. He hesitantly looked over his own weapon and let out an internal sigh of relief. He had not unknowingly fired either.

But the colonel doubled over cradling his throat and let out a groan of pain. When he removed his hands from his throat, however, there was no wound, no blood. Instead, red dribbled out from the corners of his mouth.

“You’ve got to be kidding me…” The colonel spat and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “That… stupid woman…”

***

Yulia’s hand went to her throat where a bullet-sized hole had suddenly formed. The wound spurted out red, dribbling out in-between her shaking fingers. Kovich let out a wail, simultaneously reaching out for Yulia while cradling his own neck which was not bleeding.

“Y-Yulia.” He whimpered. “Y-Yulia!”

Atienna stared, frozen. What exactly had just—

The world suddenly went black.

When color returned again, it took a moment for Atienna to get her bearings. She was pressed back against the alleyway wall behind a large garbage bin. Sefu was pulled tightly against her lap, his legs parallel to the wall beside them and hidden away from anyone peering into the alley. Her left hand was cupped over his mouth, while her right hand was over her own. Sefu blinked up at her, wide-eyed and confused.

Werner had overridden her, it seemed.

Yes, I apologize. Werner’s synchronization skirted her mind, and his mirage phased in front of her. He pressed a finger to his lips. Remain silent.

A pair of footsteps resounded by the mouth of the alleyway. Despite the hammering in her heart, Atienna’s curiosity itched inside of her mind. She carefully peered around the trash bin.

A man with brown hair wearing a pair of square-rimmed glasses stepped in front of the entrance of the alleyway. Wtorek Izsak. No. Gamma. There was a gun that was billowing out smoke in his conductor-gloved hand. He stared remorselessly down at Yulia who was now gagging on the ground and then at Kovich who was clutching her body and coughing up blood.

Atienna’s heart plummeted, the world spinning around her.

They were not ‘what was important’ to her, but she didn’t want this to happen either. This wasn’t the ending that she wanted. No…

“Was this the only one?” Gamma asked

Another woman stepped into view beside him. The polka-dotted blue dress was unmistakable. Iota.

“Yep, Omega saw Omicron meeting with her and some Capricornian soldier,” Iota replied, peering down at Yulia and Kovich. She nodded at the boy who had gone into convulsions on the floor. “Looks like this kid was connected to them too though.”

Kovich’s body stilled.

Alexei who had been cowering away from the two stiffened when he noticed this and tentatively reached out to the boy. “Kirill…?”

Gamma reloaded his gun, jerking his head towards Alexei whose eyes were glued to Kovich. “And who is this one?”

“Dunno. He looks Aquarian.” Iota studied Alexei before bending down and tapping the crystalline formations protruding from his arms. “Did a conductor do this?” She shook her head and clicked her tongue. “You see, this is what happens when you play with fire.”

“What did you do to him?!” Alexei spat as he crawled forward to his son. “You—”

Gamma pointed the gun at the Aquarian’s head. “Do not fear. You will return to the cycle.” And he fired.

The gunshot rang loudly through Atienna’s ears. She squeezed her eyes shut and pulled back behind the trash bin. Sefu startled in her hold and almost snapped up to a sit, but she gripped him tightly in place.

“Whoever he was, he might have been a True Conductor too,” came Gamma’s voice.

There was a clattering sound.

He’s discarded his weapon, Atienna, but he’s a Conjuror. Werner’s image was still perched in front of her, finger still pressed to his lips. Remain still.

“They always tend to gather together.” —the sound of receding footsteps followed Gamma’s statement.

“It’s good to have you back, Gamma,” Iota drew as her footsteps faded along with this. “You came back just in the nick of time.”

Atienna’s heart hammered wildly in her chest as she pulled Sefu even closer to herself.

This had been the result of her choice. Her choice to let Yulia go had led to this encounter. A correct and incorrect choice in one. Atienna had thought that she had been showing Yulia mercy, but she wondered if what she had shown the woman instead was truly cruelty—

You made your choice, but they also made theirs. Werner looked down at Sefu. There is no time for regret when a decision has been made.

He had merely told her the words she had expected him to say. Firm, concise, logical. And that was both very troubling and very comforting to her.

Werner frowned and opened his mouth to address her thoughts. But before he could speak a word, he was suddenly pulled back into his own surroundings.

***

Fritz covered his mouth and hacked a cough. Blood seeped out in-between his fingers. He pulled back his hand and stared at it in disbelief. Werner’s men stared at the red with a mixture of confusion and surprise. Nico appeared concerned.

“That stupid woman…” The colonel hissed before abruptly bending down to pick up the candy basket he had discarded earlier. He turned away from Werner and started forward down the alleyway without hesitation.

Werner’s men raised their weapons at his approach.

Werner cocked his own handgun.

The colonel froze at the sounds.

“I can’t let you leave, Colonel von Spiel,” Werner stated plainly.

“I can’t leave anyways, Waltz,” the colonel returned before he retched and more blood poured out from his mouth. He held the basket away from his body, almost as if to not dirty it. “And now look at what they’ve done. They’ve turned me into a damned deadman walking.”

The colonel took another step forward, prompting Werner’s finger to drift towards the trigger of the gun—

And then a pair of hands enveloped Werner’s own. Looking down, he registered Atienna’s image. Her eyes were pained and sad, and he could feel her wavering remorse spill into him dizzyingly.

Regardless, it was his duty to bring the colonel in.

Werner tensed despite himself as Atienna lifted one of her hands in response to his thought. Her gaze merely softened, however, and her hand ghosted his cheek causing him to tense. The intimacy was strange, although he oddly didn’t think it was inappropriate. And although she was far from him, he could feel the warmth of her palm. He was also able to feel her intentions. And none of those intentions involved her overriding him or subtlety influencing him to make him choose what she thought was right.

He has only one place he can run to.

And the choice here, Atienna was saying, was his own. To follow through with his duty, to prevent the colonel from leaving, to attempt to heal the colonel so that the colonel might have the slim possibility of living long enough to be questioned by Capricorn. That or to allow the colonel to try and reach Yulia’s and Kovich’s sides before they died. To be more precise, to show mercy.

Werner turned his attention back to the colonel. The man wasn’t looking in his direction at all. Instead, Von Spiel stared down south of the alleyway past Werner’s men and in the direction of where Yulia and Kovich most likely were.

Werner didn’t know enough about the link True Conductors shared to tell if medical Conductors would even be able to aid the colonel’s injury. The colonel looked near dying despite not suffering any external afflictions. And although Werner despised assumptions, given the events presented so far, he knew it wouldn’t be unsound to assume that the colonel was being dragged to death’s door through his connection with Yulia Kriska.

It was dangerous.

Yes. And it was also rather unfortunate. 

Werner found himself lowering his weapon before he could even register he was doing it. His palms immediately began to itch causing him to freeze. This show of mercy could paint him as traitorous—perhaps weak. But when he turned to his subordinates, he found that all of them had already followed along with him in lowering their weapons—although, Stein did it while grimacing. Now they looked to him expectantly.

This was not rank-and-file. This was trust. Respect.

The colonel stared at him in dulled surprise before he scoffed and coughed out more blood. “You too, huh?”

Werner signaled for his men to step to the side. His men obeyed, drawing to the alley walls, some more hesitantly than others. The colonel glanced at them with an almost grateful expression as he dragged himself forward. The man stopped short at the mouth of the alley before turning towards them with a grimace.

“Why? Even though they’ve ruined everything in my life…” His grip on the basket tightened, and his voice cracked. “I can’t help but go to them when they call me…”

And with that, the colonel stumbled forward and disappeared down the street. Silence followed.

Nico was the first to break the quiet. “Did he…?”

“No.” Shaking his head, Werner closed his eyes—

***

— and Atienna opened her eyes.

She let out a quiet breath and peered around the trash bin to the mouth of the alleyway once more. The first thing she was met with was Yulia’s open, lifeless gaze. Draped over the woman’s still body was an unmoving Kovich. And beside them both lay Alexei, one hand extended out towards the boy.

“Are you alright, Miss Atienna?” Sefu whispered from on top of her.

“I—”

A click-clacking echoing through the streets cut her off. Before she could fully register the sound, a shadow passed over them.

Atienna’s heart hammered as she turned to look upwards.

“Cvetka…?” Sefu’s brows rose. “You entered through the light too?”

The way Cvetka’s black hair curled around her pale cheeks made her appear ghost-like. The only signs that she was among the living was her very light panting.

Cvetka ignored Sefu and studied Atienna. “Good. At least you’re still alive.” She glanced down the alley towards Yulia. “Was that you?”

Atienna shook her head. “ELPIS.”

Cvetka let out a quiet sigh before glancing at Sefu and finally answering him, “I ended up coming out of one of those portals four blocks away.” Her gaze flicked back to Atienna. “Although I doubt my employers will accept that excuse.”

Struggling up to a stand despite Atienna’s protests, Sefu managed, “Your diplomat. Alexei—he—”

“Is dead,” Cvetka confirmed. “So is Yulia. So is Kirill Drei. So is Fritz von Spiel.”

Sefu paled.

Atienna felt her heart sink.

What a terribly sad ending.

“The good news for the both of you is that this started and began as a strictly Aquarian issue,” Cvetka continued. “It won’t affect Virgo at all.”

Sefu did a double-take. “What are you saying? He is one of your people, is he not?! How can you say something like that? He’s dead!”

Atienna tensed.

Sefu truly had a good heart, but…

Atienna rose to a stand and put herself in between Sefu and Cvetka. She could feel Sefu’s gaze press against her, but she remained firm and in place. Cvetka regarded her before she inclined her head towards Sefu.

“He’s injured,” she said. “I will contact some of the Ophiuchian Transmutationists in the city. They may be able to assist Sefu, and we can seek protection and escape under their care while what’s happening here passes.”

Those few sentences alone revealed many things to Atienna. Firstly, Cvetka was connected to someone in the city. Secondly, Cvetka had enough authority to be in direct communication with Ophiuchian agents. Thirdly, Cvetka’s Ophiuchian contacts were most likely in the ELPIS Department given that those were the mainly active peacekeepers in the city. And finally, all of these things together led to the theory that Cvetka’s employer belonged to the ELPIS Department. And that would most likely be—

“Despite everything that’s happening, the gears in your head are still turning,” Cvetka noted, drawing Atienna out of her thoughts. “You would do really well working in my occupation. It’s safe. It’s comfortable. You and those you care about are protected.”

“It’s a bit strange hearing you say that…” Atienna murmured, eyes downcast. “It’s almost as if you’re trying to convince yourself that.”

Cvetka chuckled lightly. “I know you know. The three of us aren’t so different from each other.”

12.1: A Duet for a Prince & Peacekeeper

Re-cap:

Francis/Theta prepares to sink the Twin Cities in an explosive event.

Meanwhile, the Serpens Establishment of Ophiuchus also rumbles with change. Jericho, who has been thrown to Ophiuchus through one of Theta’s portals from the Twin Cities, now faces a dangerous enemy alongside Olive, who has just finished taking the written portion of his exam. 


Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

Jericho’s ears rang with the wail of sirens as he picked himself and his suitcase off the white tile floor.

It was an odd sensation. He knew where he had landed before he had even taken a survey of his surroundings. And that was because—

Jericho turned his head.

Olivier Chance stared back at him wide-eyed. Behind the Ariesian prince stood Sagittarian Prince Claire Yuseong, Trystan Carter, and the Sagittarian guard Felix. Jericho glanced backwards. Just behind him, two other peacekeepers were just beginning to right themselves. Gabrielle and Talib. They had been thrown to this location too through Theta’s portals, it seemed. And so had—

“Are you alright?”

Alice stood on the opposite side of the large portal that divided the hallway as she asked the question. Her voice barely carried above the wail of the sirens as her gaze swept from him to Olivier to Talib and Gabrielle. “Are you alright?” Her gaze pierced through him specifically.

She wants the truth. Not— “I’m uninjured.”

“I’m unsure,” Jericho replied after a moment’s hesitation.

Alice met his eyes and nodded. “Okay—”

“We’re fine, Alice. Go get reinforcements,” Gabrielle called above the sirens as she took in her surroundings. “Something isn’t right here. There aren’t any other agents around, and we’re right outside the Detention Center. Go. Now.”

Alice frowned, gaze lingering on Jericho and then Talib and Olivier, before she dipped her head and disappeared down the hall.

“Is that you, Olive…?” Gabrielle asked, finally noticing Olivier’s presence and then Claire’s. “And Prince Yuseong Haneul…” She reached over and shook Claire’s hand abruptly. “It’s good to see my home country getting along with Sagittarius. Though if you’re here for the State Conducting Exam, you’re in the wrong place…”

“Good to see you always focus on what’s important….” Olivier mumbled.

“Right…” Gabrielle rolled her neck and nodded to the portal. “Olive, Prince Yuseong, do you think you can make that jump? I would like to get you both as far from here as possible.”

Claire startled, glancing back at the portal before digging into his pocket and pulling out his conductor. “I can carry myself over with my conductor, but—”

Gunshots and a series of shouts resounded from down the hall in the direction of the detention center.

Jericho’s heart started racing. Correction: Olivier’s heart started racing.

The detention center. Olive’s fear bled through. Jin went down there. Izsak. I think… I’m not sure… I… the proto-conductor. I’m sorry…

It is okay, Olivier. 

Footsteps resounded down the hall and two figures came into view. A man and a woman. The man held the woman at gunpoint as he dragged her forward.

“Do not move, or I will shoot this woman.” The request barely carried over the call of the sirens.

Jericho stepped in front of Olivier. Trystan who was already in a protective stance in front of the prince gave Jericho an odd look. Jericho received the same look from Talib, but he wasn’t unused to receiving stares.

As the gun-wielding man and the hostage drew nearer, Jericho identified them. Wtorek Elizabeta, who appeared more concerned than afraid. And Wtorek Izsak, who was expressionless.

No. That wasn’t Wtorek Izsak. Cadence had heard Omicron confirm the fact days ago: Wtorek Izsak’s vitae had already left his body went the resistor was used on him. ‘Gamma’ had been initiated.

Jericho tightened his grip on his suitcase.

In other words, this Gamma had to die—

The image of the terribly conjured stuffed animal that was still resting on his bedside in his apartment abruptly flashed through Jericho’s mind. This was followed by a faded memory of Wtorek Izsak resting a hand on his head while conjuring a mountain of similarly ugly stuffed animals with a lackadaisical smile.

Jericho’s rage dampened abruptly, leaving him with an uncomfortable hollowness.

It didn’t matter who Izsak was before, Jericho thought. It wasn’t Izsak anymore.

“Move aside—” Gamma said as he pressed the gun to Elizabeta’s temple. He stopped short, however, as he registered Olive and Jericho. “True Conductors…”

“Trouble with the wife?” Gabrielle asked, smiling thinly, sweat dripping down her forehead.

Gamma didn’t respond.

How can she say that in this situation…?!

“Izsak, I’ve been hearing really weird things about ELPIS,” Gabrielle drew. “Things about ELPIS, the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis, and these things called resistors.” There was a pause. “How much of you is you?”

“Would my answer change anything?” Gamma asked.

Gabrielle’s expression darkened. “Yes, yes, it would.”

Elizabeta’s brows furrowed in confusion. She craned her neck towards Gamma and whispered, “Honey, please…”

False hope.

Before Gabrielle could continue, she was suddenly thrown to the left against the wall by an unseen force. Correction: by a surge of wind. Talib was at Gabrielle’s side in an instant, checking for damages.

The sound of footsteps resounded up the hall from the direction Izsak had come from and it was followed by a sigh: “Hey, I’m doing Omicron a big favor here by busting you out and ruining my stellar Ophiucian reputation, and you repay me here by running off without me?”

Still gripping Elizabeta tightly, Gamma turned his head. Jin Ilseong appeared behind him, bow conductor cocked.

“Aunt Jiji?” Claire stammered, wide-eyed.

“The saint candidate of Sagittarius,” Talib realized.

“Aw crap,” Jin blanched as she registered Claire. “What are you doing down this way? Oh, well…”

She pointed her bow conductor, aimed it at the center of their group, and jerked it backwards. Instead of a burst of air coming at them, however, the air around them stilled and became dotted with blue light.

Something was wrong.

Olivier suddenly gasped, scratching at his throat as he fell to his knees. Trystan was on the ground too, wheezing. Claire and Felix were topped beside them. Talib and Gabrielle were in the same state along the wall.

And then Jericho felt it. The air had thinned. His chest ached dully, while he felt Olive’s chest burn as if it were on fire.

Stumbling forward, Jericho clicked open his suitcase and dragged out his conductor. He gripped his weapon tightly as his vision blurred and doubled. With this level of concentration, he knew he wouldn’t be able to properly wield it. There was only one target possible.

But Jericho’s gaze was drawn not to Jin. Instead, it was drawn to the man standing behind Jin: Gamma, who had shoved Wtorek’s wife to the side and was now staring down at them with a look of righteousness.

Jericho tightened his grip, bit the inside of his cheek unknowingly until he drew blood. Olive wheezed beside him.

There shouldn’t be hesitation, Jericho realized. The choice was clear.

Jericho whipped out his conductor sending a thin line of vitae hurtling forward. It missed its target but the effect was the same. Jin’s conductor shattered in her hand, and the blue flecks of light dotting the area dispersed.

“My conductor!” Jin yelped. “That was expensive, you jerk!”

Gasps filled the air as everyone who had been subjected to the vacuum took in a deep breath.

Jericho rubbed his throat and coughed lightly, turning to Olive who was being helped to his feet by Trystan. Trystan himself was staring at Jericho’s conductor wide-eyed. However, Claire and Felix paid him no mind as they guided each other to their feet and neither did Gabrielle nor Talib as they righted themselves. Instead of addressing him, however, the wheezing Trystan whipped out his bow conductor and fired an arrow of flame vitae straight at Gamma who had aimed his gun at them. Jin darted forward and lifted a hand in alarm to block it. A crunch resounded as the arrow wedged itself right below her middle finger. Jin swore and cradled her hand as she ripped out the arrow. But it was too late. The fire spread, igniting her entire hand in a wreath of pale rose flame.

Jin screeched as she cradled her hand. “That. Is. It!”

A burst of blue-flecked wind whirled through the hall, causing the flames to die away and leaving her hand smoking.

Trystan stared. “How—”

Don’t tell me—

Jin aimed a mock gun at Trystan and winked. “Bang!”

Out from Jin’s mock pistol came a burst of glowing air. The invisible arrow hurtled forward, striking Trystan right through the shoulder and sending him flying backwards over the portal. He hit the ground on the opposite side, rolling to a stop after a couple of meters.

Worry and panic seized Jericho’s chest.

“Trystan!” Olive shouted.

Trystan grimaced as he cradled his bleeding shoulder and craned his neck towards them. “Y-Your highness, I’m fine—watch out!”

Jericho whipped around just in time to see Jin aim another mock gun at them.

“Bang!”

Jericho launched himself at Olivier and curled around him just as a gust of wind took them backwards and into the portal.

***

Olive’s ears rang as his eyes adjusted to the light. It took him a moment to realize that Jericho was draped over him. Their gazes met.

“Are you okay?” Jericho asked as if everything that had just happened was a walk in the park. He cocked his head. “It’s not a walk in the park. It’s dangerous.”

Jericho unfurled from him and rose to a stand to assess his surroundings. Olive did the same, albeit more hesitantly.

The atmosphere was warmer now, Olive realized, and everything was brighter. And colorful. Particles of light floated through the air fluorescently, casting everything in a multicolored, psychedelic glow. This light originated from below the raised bridge that they were now on top of. Vitae reservoirs. Thirteen of them.

It was the tourist attraction site within Ophiuchus that Jericho had taken them to before ELPIS attacked the detention center.

But… where were the tourists? It was empty.

It was shut down before I left. To do a double-check and clean down any of Theta’s portals. 

Well, they obviously hadn’t scrubbed it down well enough.

A duet of groans arose from just beside Olive. Talib and Claire, who were just beginning to pick themselves off of the ground. Talib rose first and offered Claire a hand. The Sagittarian accepted the gesture dazedly.

“It seems like we’ve been tossed to the Prognoikos Aurora Reservoirs,” Talib assessed.

Olive nodded at Claire. “You… okay?”

Claire was pale, dazed, quiet, unlike himself. His conductor was loosely gripped in his hand. “I…” His gaze flicked to and then past Olive.

Olive turned his head.

Theta’s portal was open just a couple of feet away from them at a hidden strip just in front of the railing on the left side of the bridge. In front of that portal stood Jin and Gamma.

It was just the six of them here, Olive realized. Gabrielle, Trystan, and Felix must have either been thrown to a different location if they entered the portal or they were still within the Serpens Establishment.

“I don’t have my suitcase,” Jericho whispered to both Olive and Talib.

“You don’t have your conductor,” Olive realized.

“Okay, okay,” Jin grumbled, brushing off her uniform and fixing her hair. She slid her hands into her pockets and nodded at them. “Let’s just go our separate ways now, alright?” She thumbed Gamma. “I’m just here for him. Not ya’ll. So let’s not create some dramatic fight about this, okay? I’m tired. My head hurts. My reputation is ruined.”

“I will not leave until those True Conductors have been put down,” Gamma said, gripping his handgun tightly. He glanced to the side at the light rising up the bridge from the vitae reservoirs below. “And this reservoir—”

“You’re the one who’s going to be put down.” Jericho glowered.

Olive blanched. Was it really the best idea to make threats without a weapon?

I need to let him know, Olivier.

Okay then.

“Yeesh. Why are you two so violent?” Jin sighed before nodding back at Gamma. “Omicron and your gang are waiting for you to tell them what’s what with the syzygy and everything, you know that?” She twirled a finger around her temple. “They’re missing some marbles. Your records aren’t so great.”

Gamma frowned. “You didn’t tell them?”

“I’m already doing enough for you, aren’t I?”

Gamma didn’t respond and instead lock eyes with Olive.

Olive’s hand subconsciously went to his throat as he felt the ghost of Wtorek’s—no, Gamma’s hand—hand wrap around it. The memory of the intent to kill in that man’s eyes in New Ram City all those months ago still haunted Olive’s nightmares. It was the same here. A nightmare bleeding into reality.

“There is no point in me being here if I don’t deal with this,” Gamma responded, lifting his gun.

Jin shrugged. “Well, you heard the man. He won’t go away until I put you down so it can’t be helped.” She took a step forward.

Olive’s heart raced, chest still achingly raw from Maria’s loss of Conta. He glanced at Jericho as cold sweat broke down his back before he pulled the peacekeeper behind him and extended his hand. With a grimace, he drew a line of flame vitae between his group and the two outsiders.

“I’ll burn you to a crisp,” Olive said, managing to keep the shake out of his voice, “if you take another step forward.”

“I heard rumors but….” Talib murmured from behind him. “You really can conduct without a conductor…”

Olive stiffened and looked back at Talib to find the man studying him perplexed. Before any words could be exchanged, however, a cold gust of wind speckled with blue blasted through the area. The torrent extinguished Olive’s drawn line and knocked him clear off of his feet. Jericho caught him by the scruff of his shirt and righted him.

“Wow, you’ve sure improved a lot in that short amount of time, kiddo.” Jin whistled, as she waved off the smoke in the air. “But air still beats fire. Like paper beats rock.” With that, Jin flicked out her hand and then curled it into a fist.

Unlike before, the vacuum formed in an instant. Olive fell forward as his vision blurred Talib and Claire were already collapsed on the ground. The Sagittarian prince was still conscious, however, reaching for his conductor which had fallen from his hands.

Jericho…

Jericho stumbled towards Jin but eventually he too fell to his knees. Still, he crawled forward relentlessly as Olive’s vision faded to black—

—and then brightness cracked across Olive’s vision. As he tried to get his bearings, Olive came to realize that he was somehow now only inches away from Jin who was looking down at him with an arched brow. No. He was seeing through Jericho’s eyes. Relentless Jericho.

“Geeze, Glasses, you’re desperate, aren’t you?” Jin sighed.

Fire needs oxygen to spread. And if Jin’s removing the oxygen via vitae particles from the air, then she has to be shifting the oxygen atoms somewhere else, Jericho. Somewhere else being right—

Olive urged Jericho to extend his fingertips further and further until Olive was able to feel the slight change in the air pattern surrounding the woman through Jericho’s fingertips.

—here. 

Just before the white sparks erupted from Jericho’s hands, a flicker of black appeared out of the corner of Olive’s—rather, Jericho’s— eyes. Olive knew who it was immediately. Lavi. She gazed through Jericho at him with a sharp expression that Olive had never seen on her face before.

“Don’t hold back,” she said. “Not with them.”

With an audible roar, the white flames burst forward in aninstant, consuming Jin in a white aura of fire. Gamma and Jericho were thrown backwards in opposite directions by the explosion.

Through Jericho’s eyes, Olive was able to see Claire gasp, grab his conductor, and whip it through the air. Flecks of sky-blue light shot out from his conductor followed by a gust of wind.

Olive’s eyes fluttered open. His senses returned to him as he took a deep breath, gasping, heaving. Air had never tasted so good. But as thankful as Olive was for the additional oxygen Claire had brought in, the gift came with an acrid, all too familiar scent. Burning flesh. At the smell, he gagged and retched before screeching and wailing reached his ears above the crackle of flame. Olive turned in slow horror towards the sound. The silhouette of a human enveloped in a crown of white flame stumbled back and forth along the bridge in agony.

“A-Aunt Jiji…”

Claire was wide-eyed, unmoving beside Olive.

And then Olive’s horror settled in—the horror at Jin’s immolation, the horror at the realization that he had meant to do this to Jin. It wasn’t like how it was with Gamma back in New Ram City. Not like how it was with the Sagittarian assassins weeks ago. This time, to protect the others, to not die, to continue on, he had been intending wholeheartedly to… kill?

Tears burning at his eyes, Olive bent over and gagged again as revulsion seized his entire body. But before he could fully empty his stomach contents, an agonizing anger crumpled his chest. His gaze was torn from Jin and towards Jericho who had picked himself off the ground only a second after the fiery explosion, who had run past the immolated Jin, who had launched himself at Gamma without hesitation. Now on top of the man, Jericho wrapped fingers around his throat.

Olive could feel Jericho’s hands tightening around Gamma’s neck, could feel the other man struggle fruitlessly beneath Jericho’s grasp, could feel life leaving the man’s body.

But what if Izsak is still

Jericho hesitated but only for one moment before he squeezed and squeezed and—

No. False hope. False hope.

—was tossed backwards by an abrupt torrent of wind.

“That really, really frickin’ hurt, kiddo.”

Olive’s gaze flicked to the one who had spoken and nearly fainted at the sight of her. It was Jin, no longer surrounded by white flames and instead cloaked in gray smoke. Her suit was badly tattered and singed at the edges, but despite that, her Ophiuchian armband shone brightly. And she looked unscathed. Unharmed. Just covered by a thin layer of soot and ash.

How…? Olive couldn’t comprehend it. Had she driven the oxygen away with her vitae particles? But he had seen her ignite in flame. What in the world—

“…But I see that you’ve got someone you’re connected to in our ranks,” Jin noted. “That changes things up.” She glanced at Claire then at Olive then at Jericho. She threw a look back at Gamma who didn’t look at all surprised by her lack of injury and then at Talib. “Let’s clear the stage of the non-essentials, shall we?”

And with that, Jin threw out her arms outwards towards opposite sides of the bridge. A gust of twin winds kicked up, one throwing Gamma straight into the portal and the other tossing Talib right off the bridge.

Jericho hesitated for less than a second, before he launched himself not towards the portal that Gamma had disappeared into but towards the railings after Talib. He managed to reach the rails just as Talib tumbled past him. Missed by a hairsbreadth.

“Claire!” Olive shouted in panic.

Claire snapped out of his stupor, twirled his conductor, and took off from the bridge in a blast of wind. He hurtled downwards after Talib, disappearing with a boom that shook the bridge.

Jericho stiffened and whipped his attention back to the portal—the portal that had dimmed away back into a black stain. Olive felt the rage in Jericho’s chest dissipate instantly. But the emptiness that the feeling left behind was almost as unbearable.

But they had to focus.

A click-clacking suddenly echoed from behind Olive. Upon turning his head, he found a newcomer coming up the bridge slowly. A woman. She was flanked on her left and right by a peacekeeper. The light from the reservoirs cast her golden hair in an odd light.

Leona.

It was the first time Olive had seen her up close himself, and something about her gave him unease.

Wasn’t she back in the Twin Cities? Had she fallen into one of the portals? Even if she did fall into one leading to the Serpens Establishment, why did she come here?

His gaze flicked to the two peacekeepers behind her.

And that wasn’t even close to enough people to handle Jin, was it?

Jericho was at his side immediately, expressionless.

“Are you two alright?” Leona asked as she fell into step beside them. She was calm. Unnervingly calm.

Olive tensed, nodded.

“How are you here?” Jericho. Direct as ever.

“I fell through one of Theta’s gates,” Leona explained, “and landed in the Serpens Establishment. With the sirens blaring, I suspected that Gamma was being freed. And if he was free, I assumed I would have to keep an eye on our reservoir. It seems as if I’ve made the correct choice.”

… How had she known Gamma’s name?

“My partner. Talib,” Jericho said. “He—”

“I saw,” Leona replied calmly. “Believe me when I say he will be fine. The Sagittarian prince—”

“Come on, Leo.” Jin sighed from across the bridge. “You’re always butting in where you don’t need to butt in.”

“You’re an embarrassment, Jin,” Leona replied, meeting the woman’s gaze. “Why are you doing this?”

So Jin hadn’t been lying. They did know each other. Closely.

“I just felt like it.” Jin shrugged. “Was bored. Felt like fighting for the losing side for once. A change of direction. Don’t you ever feel bored with winning?”

“And Gamma?”

“Gone with the wind.” Jin thumbed the black stain.

Leona looked her over. “And are you still to pursue this route, Saint of Arrow and Direction?”

Jin cracked a grin. “Of course, Leo. I mean—since we’re being formal now—of course, ‘Saint of Victory’.”

Leona motioned for one of the peacekeepers behind her with an index finger. The peacekeeper shuffled forward, placing a belt in Leona’s waiting hand. The belt was equipped with a number of bladeless hilts, several handguns lined with glass tubes, and other miscellaneous weapons. Conductors. She calmly clipped the accessory around her waist.

Leona nodded at Jericho. “Jericho, please escort the Ariesian prince back to the Serpens Establishment.”

Jericho stared.

Claire’s got Talib. I’m sure of it.

Jericho continued to stare. “You… will face Jin alone?”

“Of course,” Leona replied. “As I said earlier, the traitor who allowed all of this to come into fruition is not your concern. It is mine—”

Olive suddenly felt the hair on the back of Jericho’s neck rise. Jericho whipped around just in time to see Jin cock a mock gun in their direction.

“Bang!”

Leona pushed the both of them backwards, drawing out a bladeless hilt and igniting it in a flash of gold. She did a strange twisting movement with her wrist and dispelled the invisible arrow of air with a flourish.

Jin changed course and curled her hand into a fist. The air thinned again, and Olive’s vision blurred. However, in one swift movement that was barely perceptible to Olive’s eye, Leona plucked a bladeless hilt from her belt, ignited it, and threw it at Jin. The screech it made as it tore through the air was unsaintly, and it hit Jin’s shoulder right on target. The woman yelped, and the air instantaneously became breathable again.

“Dammit!” Jin snapped, before ripping the conductor from her shoulder and tossing it to the ground. She frowned, taking a step backwards. “I forgot how good you were when it comes to close quarters…”

Jin flicked her wrist, and the feel of the air changed. Olive braced himself gawked when Jin suddenly shot up to the sky leaving glowing flecks of blue light in her wake.

Leona reached into her belt again and drew out another bladeless conductor. Instead of throwing it, however, she swung it upwards. Out from its tip unfurled a gold whip that flew out and wrapped itself around Jin’s ankle. Giving the whip a sharp tug, Leona slammed Jin back onto the ground. The Sagittarian groaned as the bridge trembled.

Leona glanced back at them. “Agent Jericho, I told you to escort the prince away.” Her eyes were ringed with an intense golden light.

Without thinking, Olive stumbled back, grabbed a hold of Jericho’s hand, and pulled him backwards. And then he began to run, leaving behind Leona and her two apparently non-combative assistants, leaving behind Jin, leaving behind the reservoirs. He pounded up the bridge dragging Jericho along behind him. He had no idea if he was heading in the right direction. He just knew he had to get himself and Jericho away. Just like he had dragged Werner away from that battlefield. Pathetic. But sometimes running away was the best route.

A sudden and loud sonic boom resounded in the air followed by a loud clang. Olive glanced left just in time to see a wrestling Leona and Jin crash down from the sky onto a bridge running parallel to them. Jin untangled herself from Leona and shot up to the sky again; but the other woman leaped onto the railings of the bridge, ran along its length, launched herself up at Jin, and wrapped her arms around Jin’s legs. They fumbled there for a moment before Jin flew higher and higher until they disappeared into the clouds.

What in saint’s name…

This was ridiculous. Were they even human?

Abruptly, Jericho stopped running behind him.

Olive stopped too and turned. He knew what Jericho was thinking of. Gamma and the portal.

They have been right in front of me, Olivier. This entire time. This is the closest I’ve gotten. To them. And my purpose is to eliminate false hope. Destroy them. But I let them go. Not just here with Gamma. With Theta. With Omicron. Only Omega. It’s not enough.

Jericho stared into Olive, causing Olive’s heart to skip a beat. The man’s eyes were intense. Almost scary.

Is it this connection? Am I forgetting? A pause. I would rather become nothingness than for my anger to disappear. It’s my purpose. 

The memory of Theta’s words— “You’re already close to becoming nothingness”— to Jericho resounded within Olive’s mind.

I can’t fail. I am going to eventually become nothingness. That is fine. That is natural whether what ELPIS has taught me is true or not. But only if I fulfill my purpose before then. I can’t fail.

Olive’s heart dropped to his stomach. Hearing Jericho think that was…

They killed your family. But you don’t feel hatred. 

Olive’s heart dropped even further at the statement, but he shook his head. Was this really the time to be thinking about this?

Jericho continued to stare at him.

Olive guessed it was.

Of course I’m angry, Jericho. At them. At myself. I obviously want them to go down and to be locked up for good. But for me, killing them won’t do anything. It’s stupid and meaningless. And it doesn’t get anyone anywhere. And I can’t live with the guilt of doing something like that. No matter who or what they are.

Frowning, Olive studied Jericho from the corner of his eye.

I can’t wrap my head around your revenge thing at all. I don’t agree with it… And I know my opinion doesn’t mean much. Doctor Kingsley probably knows better. But I don’t think it’s good for you. I mean, there’s literally a bunch of books saying things like ‘revenge is a cycle’… then again, I’m an idiot and naive so who cares what I think. 

Jericho blinked. I care. What you think.

Okay. Then I don’t think the ‘become nothingness’ spiel even means anything. Doesn’t matter whether the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis is true or not. Burning energy versus burning a soul.

An uneasiness took over Olive at the thought of it ringing true.

But that’s not the point.

He grabbed a hold of Jericho’s wrist, tugging him forward and continuing with him onwards down the bridge.

The point is that there’s still stuff after too—whether you decide to keep going with this revenge thing or go for a different route. 

Their footsteps echoed along the walkway, interspersing with the resounding booms of Leona and Jin’s battle in the distance.

If being a part of this has taught me anything, it’s that there’s always stuff after. 

Olive let out a sigh of relief as the edge of the bridge neared their sights. Just beyond that was a pathway leading to an empty train station.

Not ‘nothingness’.

Jericho’s eyes widened slightly.

Finally, they reached the threshold of the bridge.

Olive slumped and proceeded to collapse onto the ground panting. Jericho blinked down at him, not even remotely out of breath.

“That is an ‘interesting’ way of thinking.”

Olive grimaced back up at him. “When you do air quotes, it’s just insulting.”

I think I appreciate it.

Olive stiffened before grimacing.

A shadow suddenly passed over both of their heads causing them to tense. When Olive looked up to the sky, however, he let out a sigh.

It was Claire, slowly sinking towards them while riding his staff conductor. Balancing precariously on the staff beside him was Talib who had one arm slung over the Sagittarian’s shoulder. Olive felt Jericho’s chest lighten immediately. Although Jericho didn’t fully comprehend the feeling, Olive did. It was relief, filling in the emptiness inside of Jericho.

“Partner, it’s good to see you in one piece!” Talib exclaimed as he hopped off of the staff with Claire’s assistance.

“I am glad you’re okay,” Jericho responded.

Olive winced. Jericho was still so awkward.

Jericho blinked down at him.

Olive winced again before he stiffened and turned to Claire “Leona and Jin—”

“Yeah… We saw both of them while we were flying over here,” Claire muttered. His expression was grim, pale, but still he offered Olive his hand and helped him up to his feet. “Seems like you were right then.”

Olive opened his mouth, unsure of what to exactly say, but then another boom resounded and he allowed the silence to continue.

Talib broke the quiet, peering at Jericho hopefully. “And… Izsak?”

“Gone,” Jericho replied curtly. “Through Theta’s portal.”

Talib’s expression fell.

A click-clacking suddenly echoed from behind them. It was Leona, drifting down the bridge towards them. She was sweating and panting lightly, but she appeared unharmed. She assessed them silently as she came to a stop in front of them before she paused and assessed Talib. “Are you all alright?”

Olive nodded as did Claire. Talib inclined his head. Jericho remained impassive.

“Good.” Leona extended her hand. “Talib, Jericho, I would like any of the suppression cuffs you still have on you.”

Without hesitation, Talib unhooked both of his from his belt and handed it to her. Jericho stared at Talib before following suit. Leona clipped the items to her own belt before turning on her heels and starting down the bridge again.

“Did… Did you…?” Claire called after her.

“I will take Ilseong Jin into custody where she will face trial for collusion with ELPIS,” Leona answered curtly, disappearing from their sights and leaving the click-clack of her heels echoing in her wake.

Olive glanced at Claire who was whiter than a ghost and winced. He opened his mouth and then closed it, still unsure of what to say. It was easy to convey his feelings to the others he was connected to, but with those outside of their group, it was still…

That didn’t go as planned, Jericho thought.

Olive turned to Jericho and sighed with a grumble. It never does.

Would it be customary to… hug now?

Olive hesitated, considering. No.

11.6: Olive’s (Nascosto) Test

Re-cap:

Olive has been in the Bodhi Temple of Sagittarius studying for his State Conducting Exam. Alongside him is Claire and Claire’s sister Eunji who is also studying for the exam. The saint candidate of Sagittarius Ilseong Jin appears before Olive ominously casting doubt on Olive’s efforts and Olive’s sister Lavi. She is then revealed to have ties with ELPIS.

As the night of their plan comes into fruition, Olive’s part is to…

Olive opened his eyes.

The clicks and clacks of the train trudging along the tracks were the first things he became aware of. Then came his awareness of the surrounding animated chatter.

Across from him sat Jin, sandwiched in-between Claire and the latter’s step-sister Mai. At Claire’s left sat Eunji with her head buried in her book, and at Mai’s right sat Kai who was looking at the scenery flitting past the train-car window. The rest of the compartment was filled with Claire’s and Mai’s entourage. It was a rather tight fit, but the heat wasn’t unpleasant. It reminded Olive of the air back home. At Olive’s left sat Trystan who mumbled a “Did you sleep well?” as Olive gained his bearings.

“Yeah.”

No.

“Good morning, kiddo.” Jin flashed him a grin.

Ignoring her, Olive rose from his seat and headed over to the corner of the train cart where his bird had been placed alongside all of his other belongings. The blackbird tweeted at his approach, and he looked around expectantly for Lavi to show her face. But she didn’t.

Olive grimaced and stared at Jin’s reflection on the window beside him.

He knew that his portion in this plan of theirs was rather simple. Much more simple than the tasks of the other five. And yet still, he wouldn’t be able to do it without Cadence’s help. It was pathetic.

“Seeing that bird in that cage is pretty depressing.”

Olive startled and whipped around to find Jin hovering over his shoulder.

“I would say set the bird free,” Jin continued, “but what’s the point? It’s been conditioned to captivity, so it’ll be absolutely useless when you let it loose in the wild.”

“I see you’re an ornithologist now,” Olive muttered. “People really are into fields that reflect their personality.”

“Are you calling me bird-brained?” Jin whistled. “You have a lot of gusto, kiddo. Wonder if I’ll ever see that aloof arrogance disappear.” Her smile thinned. “I’ll be looking forward to it.” She chuckled. “Just kidding, kiddo. Maybe in my next life.”

***

Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

The train docked at The Grand Snake Station five hours later.

As Olive was gathering his belongings alongside Trystan and Claire, he kept his eye glued on Jin. She hadn’t brought much with her on their train ride and was busy chatting with the car attendant at the cabin’s exit.

It was now or never.

Olive sucked in a breath as he headed towards her; and then with unpracticed uneasiness, he tripped forward. He let out a yelp and reached out for the closest thing to him, which just so happened to be—as calculated—Jin. She whipped around quickly and caught him mid-fall. His vision went black for a moment. When it returned, Jin was flashing him another grin.

“Nerves?”

“Sure,” Olive muttered, peeling away from her and quickly shoving his right hand into his pocket. He beckoned for Trystan with a jerk of his head and headed through the train doors behind Jin. Abruptly, Jin reached out and grabbed his shoulder. Olive tensed, heart hammering, and turned back towards her.

“Good luck on your exam,” Jin hummed, tightening her grip. She nodded at Claire, Eunji, Mai, and Kai who had just finished packing their things. “All of you.”

“You’re not coming to watch?” Claire asked perturbed.

“I’ve got something I need to take care of first. I’ll be around though,” Jin answered, stepping off the train with a wave. “Good luck!”

Olive swallowed, curling his fingers around the proto-conductor that Cadence had just plucked from Jin in his pocket. Now all he had to do was keep an eye on her and figure out what to do with the proto-conductor. Keeping it away from her was the best option at the moment. But first, he had to stop acting suspicious. Shrugging his shoulders, he shuffled off the train and stepped out onto the platform.

It was annoyingly crowded. Men and women in black and white uniforms brushed past him without care, while men and women dressed in casual wear looked around at them in confusion. Despite the overwhelming crowd and noise, Olive didn’t find it jarring or uncomfortable. Even though he had been to this place only once many years ago, everything was still very familiar to him. Beside him, Trystan surveyed the area while balancing all of their belongings.

Claire appeared from behind with a pleasant smile. “Lost?”

Behind the Sagittarian prince stood Felix, Soha, and Eunji. Mai and Kai and their entourage seemed to be elsewhere. Good.

“Because we are,” Claire finished. “You wouldn’t happen to know a friend who knows their way around, would you?”

Olive didn’t know what Claire was playing at, and he was too tired and anxious to even think about it. So, without complaint or response, Olive led them to and through a straight pathway in an open yard dotted with statues of faceless, genderless figures. The pathway eventually led to a large white marble staircase that extended as far wide as it extended high. It seemed completely impractical, but instead of grumbling about it to himself, Olive found himself staring at a spot at the foot of the steps.

He was certain.

This was the very spot that Jericho had struck when he’d been pushed from the top by Omega. This was where Jericho almost died. This… was a safety hazard.

Olive shivered but was jarred out of his thoughts by a hand on his shoulder.

Claire chuckled. “Mentally preparing yourself for the climb?”

***

When they reached the top of the staircase, they were greeted by an army of peacekeepers who prompted them to turn in any conductors they had. Olive and Trystan flashed them golden, hexagonal medallions imprinted with the Ariesian royal ram, while Claire and his entourage flashed silver medallions carved with Sagittarian letters. The peacekeepers looked the identifications over, before allowing their group to pass with their conductors. A little bit of misdirection with Cadence’s assistance allowed Olive to slip the proto-conductor past them too.

“Perks of being royalty,” Claire sang.

After passing a vitae spectrophotometer test within, they were directed inside and given directions to a room to store their belongings. The directions were poor, of course, and vague too. But thankfully, Jericho synchronized at just the right moment and directed Olive on where to go. Eventually, Olive guided the group to a large storage room where they checked in their belongings with several peacekeepers.

Olive didn’t ask these peacekeepers for the directions to the examination room. Instead, he continued forward with a shrug and led the Claire and the others to an open room on the fourth floor of the establishment. STATE CONDUCTING EXAM was emblazoned on a plaque just outside of the room.

No use in it being there, Olive thought, if people couldn’t even find the room to begin with.

The room’s walls were guarded by rows of white waiting chairs, half of which were occupied. They bypassed these chairs in favor of approaching the half-circle receptionist desk at the room’s center.

A familiar man with black curls and a tattooed face manned the desk’s forefront. It was Moraeni, the Piscese peacekeeper who was a part of Gabrielle’s inner circle.

The man greeted them pleasantly at the desk; and after ascertaining which members of their party were taking the exam and checking their identities, he handed Eunji and Olive each a slip of paper with a number on it. He didn’t seem affected by their twin statuses of royalty.

“That’ll be your examinee number, and if you pass this exam, it’ll be your license number,” Moraeni explained in Common. “Please be aware that it’ll take around two months for you to receive your license if you pass due to secondary background checks. Also, while you can come in and take the written exam on any day of your choice, you must take the practical portion on the day you’ve taken the written portion. If you don’t, you’ll have to take the written portion again.” He gave an apologetic smile, the formality in his body and tone dissipating. “It’s just how the system works. Sorry.”

Olive nodded, not particularly caring.

“As you know, only the examinees are allowed to be in this room while the exam is being proctored,” Moraeni addressed Claire, Soha, Felix, and Trystan, “so go ahead and exchange your good wishes.” He nodded back to an ominous-looking black door just behind him. “When you’re done, the test takers may enter through that door to the examination room.”

Claire pulled Eunji to the side and began to speak to her quietly. Felix and Soha stood in front of them, blocking the siblings from Olive’s view. Not that Olive needed a first-row ticket to family drama. Ignoring them, Olive pulled Trystan to the far corner of the room.

“I need you to do something for me,” he said.

“What is it, your highne—Olivier?”

“I need you to find Jin and keep an eye on her.”

Trystan frowned somewhat but obliged. “… Of course, Olivier.”

“But keep your distance. Don’t… don’t get too close.” Olive reached out, squeezed his arm.

Trystan nodded hesitantly and departed from the room alongside Claire and his two guards. Olive sighed and grimaced before heading towards the ominous door. He found Eunji standing right in front of it, stiff with a constipated expression. He would’ve chuckled at the sight if he wasn’t as nervous himself. And not just about the exam.

“Come on.” Olive gave Eunji a nudge forward. “Can’t take the test standing.”

Together, they stepped inside.

The room was spacious and wide. It held a lecturer’s podium at its center with interconnected desks arching around it. A handful of young men and women who looked nauseous already occupied several of the desks.

The entirety of it reminded Olive of the lecture halls back in New Ram City.

Olive helped Eunji find her seat before walking over to the desk that was marked with his number and taking a seat himself. The test proctor came to a stand at the center of the room and monologued about rules, cheating, and time frames as another proctor started passing out the exams.

When Olive received his own exam packet, he grimaced. It was more like a tome than anything else. Almost an inch thick. As much as he cared for Atienna’s love of plants and trees, he sincerely hoped it was single-sided.

“—and now,” the test proctor boomed with an aggravatingly dramatic flourish, “you may begin!”

Taking a deep breath, Olive picked up the pencil that they had provided to him and flipped open to the first page.

Double-sided.

Damn. 

***

Olive finished the exam with an hour to spare. After double-checking his answers and switching back and forth between A and C for several questions on the multiple-choice section, he decided enough was enough. He shut the packet, signed his name at the front of the thing like he was signing his will, and handed the packet to the proctor.

As he made his exit, he realized that Eunji’s seat was empty. She had completed her exam before him, it seemed. It was a slight blow to his ego, but it was mended a second later when Olive spied Kai among the seated examinees. The man was staring holes into his testing paper and seemed to be sweating and swearing under his breath.

Olive swept out of the room and let out a sigh. He stopped short, however, as he registered Eunji sitting along the wall with her head buried in her hands. He grimaced and rubbed the back of his neck before walking over and sinking down beside her.

“What did you put for number 23b in section C?” Eunji asked, snapping up to stare at him. “The question about the vitae particles and kick-starter?”

“Would knowing what I put change anything?” Olive arched a brow.

Eunji stared down at her hands, opened her mouth, grimaced, fell silent.

Talk about awkward.

But Olive could tell what was going through her mind. Only a couple of months ago, he’d been going through the same thought process. The desire not to be useless but the fear of being useful. Trying to dissect if the effort was worth anything at all in the end.

“You should stop thinking so much and just worry about what you can do now. The rest will come later,” Olive finally said. When Eunji blinked up at him hesitantly, he jerked his head towards the exit. “Let’s go. Unless you have a friend you’re waiting for.”

Upon exiting the examination room with Eunji in tow, Olive found Claire, Soha, and Felix lounging around in the hall just outside. Claire beamed at their appearance and rushed over to Eunji’s side.

“How was it?” he asked.

Eunji shrugged.

Olive cast a glance to the side and was startled to find Trystan approaching them from down the hall. Olive detached himself from the Sagittarian and met Trystan halfway.

“Trystan?” Olive asked. “You couldn’t find her?”

“No, I did find her, Olivier,” Trystan replied, dipping his head. “But she entered a location that I was barred entry from.”

“What’s going on?” Claire asked as he joined them alongside his sister and bodyguards.

“It’s nothing—” Olive began.

“This is about my aunt, isn’t it?” Claire interjected.

Eunji looked between them in confusion. “What about Aunt Jiji…?”

Olive turned back to Trystan. “Show me where.”

Trystan startled. “But, Olivier, your practical exam is—”

“The practical portion isn’t for another two hours,” Olive interjected. “Take me, Trystan—”

Claire placed a hand on Olive’s arm and urged, “I’m comin with you. This is one of the people of my clan.”

Olive regarded him for a moment before brushing his hand aside and nodding.

Claire turned back to Eunji and his vassals. “Soha, stay with Eunji. Felix, with me.”

“Yes, my lord,” came the affirmations in unison.

***

Olive’s heart hammered in his chest as Trystan directed them through white halls, past suited peacekeepers who only spared their traveling group a glance, past rooms marked with department names and numbers, down several floor levels. As Trystan continued to lead them onwards and as they continued to descend the Serpens Establishment, Olive came to realize that he knew this route. Down, down, down they went until they reached the first-floor level and made their way through a near-empty corridor.

Olive knew what was at the end of this corridor. He—no, Jericho—had been down this way once before. At the end of this hall would be a series of tightly guarded checkpoints that only certain Ophiuchian agents were able to get past. After that, they would be greeted by a metal elevator that would bring them to the depths of the Black Constellation Detention Center.

Olive stopped short in his tracks halfway down the hall. Trystan, Claire, and Felix turned back to look at him.

It’s okay, Olive tried to reassure himself. As long as Jin didn’t have Theta’s proto-conductor, whatever she was planning, she wouldn’t be able to properly execute. She wouldn’t even think about doing that… right?

A loud boom resounded from down the hallway. The sound was followed by the rumbling and groaning of the entire building. Dust fell from the ceiling and a crack appeared on the floor.

Then the sirens blared.

Trystan was at Olive’s side immediately, bow conductor drawn. Felix drew near to Claire but didn’t move to conjure anything.

Olive was in no state to pay attention because Maria’s anguish suddenly tore through his heart like a knife. He doubled over at the intense emotion thatt weighed down his chest like an anchor. Olive thought he’d never feel like this again. This pain, this heaviness, this guilt.

Maria….

Olive had been alone when he had suffered these feelings after the Tragedy of Aries and—

He grimaced.

—he wouldn’t let Maria go through it alone like he did. He clawed his way towards her, increasing their synchronization through the haze of sorrow until he was with her. With her facing Conta. With her charging in fury at Conta. With great effort, he convinced Maria to quell her rampage, and he was left drained at the attempt. Maria was a force of nature. Sometimes Olive doubted if she was human. But still. He didn’t want her to be alone—

Something buzzed warm in Olive’s right pocket, bringing him back into his reality in the hallways of the Serpens Establishment. Glancing down, he found that his pocket was glowing. He dug into it, pulled out Theta’s proto-conductor. It was bright, burning hot.

Reflexively, he yelped and dropped the thing. It shattered as soon as it hit the ground, spewing the glowing substance across the floor with a splatter. The liquid-like substance trickled along the ground, crawling forward until it eventually divided the hall in two.

Trystan jerked Olive backwards away from the newly formed portal just as it nearly reached his foot. Olive offered him a subdued look of gratitude before he realized that their entire group was on the side of the hall leading towards the detention center. He looked back and then forward, measuring the distance the portal covered with his eye. It looked at least several feet wide.

Suddenly, from that newly formed portal, a familiar voice cracked out—

“There really is no hope.”

Only a second later, out from the pool of light flew four figures in monochrome uniforms. Three landed on Olive’s side of the hall, while one landed on the opposite side. Olive recognized one of the peacekeepers who landed on his side immediately. The recognition was paired with relief.

Jericho.


The State Conductor Exam (sometimes referred to as the State Conducting Exam) is a standardized examination given to propsective Conductors. Established six months following the foundation of Ophiuchus as a peacekeeping state, this exam consists of three portions: written, practical, and interview. The written portion consists of questions regarding conducting principal and vitae theory, while the practical consists of conductor maneuverability and usage. 

Altogether, the exam can take 7.5 hours to complete.

In order to receive a State Conductor’s License, one must pass this test. 

Conducting Informational Packet, circa 1935

11.[]: Francis’s (Theta’s) Singularity

Re-cap:

Chairwoman Leona has arrived inside Warehouse 13 and has taken the reins from Cadence and Jericho. Fortunately, Omicron has already given up ELPIS’s captives and Theta has been successfully suppressed. The main problem that remains is the explosive conductors and conducting grenades scattered around the city. Leona does not seem too concerned, and the city inches towards salvation. However, while restricted under the suppression cuffs, Francis begins to…

Twin Cities, Gemini

The past had become a blur for Francis.

Sometimes memories of running barefoot across limestone brick on a warm summer’s day crossed over with memories of squeezing between tight alleyway walls while wearing hole-riddled shoes. Echoes of laughter ringing through open halls lined with white pillars bled into echoes of the metal clicks bullet cases made as they clinked against the ground. Recollections of shaking hands on business deals merged with recollections of reaching out to grasp an extended, waiting hand at the beginning of a dance. Orders shouted to grim-faced underlings swirled around with practiced lectures made to wide-eyed children.

Everything was clouded and uncertain in his mind to the point where he wasn’t sure if he was able to distinguish dream from reality.

One thing he was sure of, however, was that the suppression cuffs were back on his wrists. He also knew he was being guided out of Warehouse 13. He was pulled left and right, shoved forward and back by men and women in monochrome uniforms. Eventually, he was put in front of a woman with golden hair and molten eyes.

At the sight of her, his heart started racing. When she took hold of his chin and turned his face to the right, he felt a wave of disgust and disappointment. His sentiment was reflected in her eyes.

“You’re still such a fool…” the woman murmured.

She eventually departed from his side, and he was once again shoved forward.

Men and women in suits crowded the area. He searched the crowd for a face that itched at his mind, but he could not find her among them.

People conversed around him. Words he wasn’t quite able to understand. Everything sounded garbled like it was underwater—

—underwater. He had been underwater once before. Diving into the depths and swimming among schools of fish on a vibrant coral reef. He had captured a jellyfish once to study its dietary habits and had released it back after he had made his notes.

The beaches were blue back then. A cerulean blue. A friend had tried to paint the seascape once, but had never been able to capture that exact color. 

Those were peaceful times. Not a worry in the world. 

“—Campana crime organization investigation—”

“—separate investigations of the Romanos and the Foxmans—”

“—ELPIS ties.”

“—explosive conductor locations—”

“—my brother! Get the hell out of the way!”

“Mr. Foxman, sir, I understand your feelings, but we can’t allow you to—”

“Alright, alright.” A yawn. “Third chairwoman of the Assignment Department here. Let them through.”

“But—”

“They’re involved with my case. And since it’s my case and I’m a chair and you’re not, I’m the authority here.”

Suddenly Allen and Carl were in front of him. At their side stood the yawning peacekeeper Gabrielle Law.

“So what’s gonna happen to him?” Carl asked. “They ain’t gonna lock him in Ophiuchus forever, are they? I mean, it ain’t his fault.”

“That’s up to the ELPIS Investigations Department,” Gabrielle replied. “But since you helped me out, I’ll try to see if I can work something out. After they finish questioning Omicron and get this whole city out of the danger zone, I mean.”

“Try or will?” Allen replied thickly.

“Try,” Gabrielle stated. “I’m not going to make empty promises. But… the silver lining in all of this is that the Campana case is near a case-closed. I was able to get the evidence.”

“The Campanas?” Carl arched a brow. “Yeah, it’s good that they’re bein’ buried under. But what’s the point if we’re buried under with them?”

“That’s what immunity is for,” Allen interjected. “That was part of the price for our involvement—”

“The case we’ve been working together on?”

The three turned to stare at him after exchanging looks.

“Yeah, Francis,” Carl said, “we got Gabrielle on Maria’s ship so she could find out what the Campanas product was. Remember?”

Their product?”

“It’s unpleasant stuff,” Carl said. “Even for me.”

Gabrielle’s brows rose. “You three know already?”

Carl nodded at Gabrielle. “Got the whole thing dumped on us by one of our pals not too long ago. Though… that Omicron didn’t want Theta to know about it for some reason. Some ELPIS drama thing I don’t understand.”

Why would Omicron hide it?

“What was their product…?” he asked.

No. He didn’t want to know.

But he had to know.

Carl arched a brow at him. “…Specialist children. That’s the Campana’s product.”

The world inverted.

“What are you talking about?”

Gabrielle frowned. “Francis—”

“Why are you standing here talking to me when you know that children are being sold like furniture?”

Gabrielle’s frown deepened slightly, and she lifted a hand. “I’m going to submit my report to the Serpens Establishment, and we’ll take it from there. I’m not sure how much time it’ll take with everything going on, but—”

“I don’t understand.” He stared at her. “‘Time’? How long will they have to wai—”

A cacophony of high-pitched squeals suddenly rang through the air, and out from the darkness behind the warehouses stampeded a herd of—children. Gowned in white. They wove their way through the startled peacekeepers before disappearing into the dark and leaving their shrieks turned laughter ringing in the air. Gone as fast as they came. It was surreal.

“What the hell…?”

The peacekeepers looked around flabbergasted.

“Looks like Maria’s got to work while I’ve been here…” Gabrielle muttered beside him. “What a mess.”

He stared at her, still numb, before his attention was drawn away by two lingering children who approached him. A boy and a girl.

“Theta, there you are!” the girl exclaimed, tugging the boy forward. “This is Emil! He and a couple of others wanted to meet you! It’s a lot to explain but he was with the Campanas before…” She trailed off as she registered his cuffed hands.

It was one of the girls that he had taken in earlier. Lia. Yes, that was her name. She was a pick pocketer who had been abandoned by her Taurusian parents. She had been near death’s door when he had taken her in and had been one of the ones who clung to his side the most. He had told her to leave the city, and yet here she was…

The girl worriedly slipped something into his hands—something he recognized immediately. His glove conductor.

The boy beside the girl peered at him curiously, innocently. The boy was dressed in a pure white nightgown. From beneath that whiteness, the bruises that purpled the boy’s neck were especially prominent.

A Specialist child owned by the Campanas…? So all of those children that had just run past had also been…? No…So many of them? This entire time?

The boy’s bruises reminded him of the bruises that had littered his own body when his father would come home mad and drunk. Allen would have to save him every single time, and—

“You idiot, don’t—” came Gabrielle’s shout that drew him out of his daze.

He looked up just in time to see an Ophiuchian agent swing a blade of glowing red vitae at him. He brought up his hands to defend himself as it seared downwards. Although he felt only faint pain as the weapon scraped against his arm, there was a vibrant gush of red as a jagged cut opened along the area. Absentmindedly he watched the peacekeeper who had attacked him wipe his blood from her face as she was restrained by Carl and Gabrielle. And then—almost out of habit—he slipped on the conductor and wiped the blood off of his arm with it.

The atmosphere changed instantaneously. The surrounding peacekeepers went for their conductors as the boy and the girl screeched and were pulled away. It was a heart-wrenching sound. But it was good that they were running away, he thought. Because in that moment, as the last pieces of the suppression cuffs fell away from his wrists, he reached a singularity. A sense of clarity.

“Francis!” came a cry of alarm. It was Cadence, standing only half a meter away from him behind a wall of peacekeepers. Her eyes were wide, her hands raised. “Don’t freak out on me.”

She was trying to deceive him again.

But the truth was this:

He had taken in these children because they had suffered at the hands of conductors. No. They had suffered at the hands of people using those conductors. But what about these ones? If he had missed them, then how many others…? In the end, had all of his efforts been—

A Projector peacekeeper fired a conducting rifle, sending a persimmon-colored vitae-ray hurtling at him.

The ray didn’t reach, of course.

His blood droplets were still hanging in the air from that initial attack, after all. And those droplets had been converted into small, almost imperceptible gates as soon as he had wiped the blood from his arm onto his conducting glove. He usually never used these small gates because they were so dangerous to manipulate. But.

The persimmon ray disappeared into the gate, splintering within the spatial distortion as it sheared through the tiny opening. Clenching his fist, he released the ray back through the other tiny gates floating in the air. The ray fragmented as it was forced out through them, and the splinters rained outwards, bulleting the peacekeepers who stood closest to him.

He clenched his fist again, and his blood on the peacekeeper who had initially attacked him morphed into a gate that cracked open and tore the peacekeeper in two. There was another rain of red, and his gate spread even further onto those who had been surrounding that peacekeeper.

A flurry of vitae rays came at him paired with a green roll of vitae flame. They all entered his small gates, splintered within them, and fragmented as he sent them back out with a flick of his wrist. Several of the splinters came back and struck his arms and legs, but the pain was nothing. All it did was enable him to produce more gates.

“Stop firing, dammit!” Gabrielle snapped.

Her voice resounded from behind a stack of crates alongside Warehouse 13. She had taken cover, it seemed.

He clenched his hand again, stepping back into a pool of blood that had formed on the ground from his injury. He sank down into its depths as it glowed pale tangerine and reappeared on top of Warehouse 12 from a gate he had placed there weeks ago.

He stared down at them all from his new height in fury.

“I’ve spent all of my lives trying to make it so that children who’ve been used and abandoned could have at least some chance at a hopeful future. All this time I’ve spent reading through all of the records, I’ve thought—even though I knew it wasn’t enough—that we’d made at least a little bit of a difference.”

The winds howled around him as he tore open all of his gates with a snap of his wrist.

“But how were things when I came to this era?!” He gripped his abdomen as it throbbed with phantom pain, and his voice cracked. “Children continue to suffer! Exploited for your petty wars, for your pocket change!”

Memories clashed together in a cacophony in his mind. Memories of extending out a hand to pat the head of a small child huddling at the very corner of an alleyway. Memories of spending hours and hours pouring through articles detailing the casualties of the Reservoir War. The displaced, the murdered, the orphans, the uncounted. Memories of himself cowering beneath the rage of his father. Memories of taking to the streets to pickpocket alongside Cadence and Nico on an empty stomach as adults turned a blind eye.

And all of these memories clashed with—

—memories of himself extending a hand out to Matilda as he hired her to deliver conductor parts. Memories of signing off on a lease to convert buildings street orphans had used as home into warehouses to temporarily store shipped conductors. Memories of himself chuckling alongside one of his hired men who had served as a child soldier in the war. Watching as that man gleefully beat an adolescent within an inch of her life because she had stolen from them. Memories of him watching Matilda coercing her friends and the younger street children to follow on behind her in her shipping business.

“They suffer and suffer and grow up only to cause more children to suffer!”

He panted heavily, heaved.

They had been right. They had been right from the very beginning. A senseless cycle.

“And you…” Theta glowered down at all the cowering peacekeepers, at all the leaders of the criminal organizations. “You all just stand by and watch, acting like it can’t be helped, turning your eyes away because it’s easier!” He staggered forward, gritting his teeth. “You could’ve helped them! Saved them!”

They all stared at him silently, wordlessly, looking at him as if he was some immovable object, as if he was the obstacle they needed to overcome instead of their own negligence and carelessness.

Theta couldn’t help but chuckle at the sight.

What was even the point? Even if they helped the children now, the children had already suffered so much. And those children would simply transfer their suffering onto other children. Once it began, there was no stopping it. Over and over. In an endless cycle.

He couldn’t take the failure any longer.

They really had been right.

He flicked his injured hand outwards, and an arc of red rained down on all those below. “There really is no hope.”

“What are you doing!?”

He turned to find Omicron running along the rooftop towards him. She stopped short just in front of him, raising a hand to his cheek. Her hand was gloved again with a conductor. She must have taken one off of one of the peacekeepers. Always so prepared, so reliable, so heroic. But a liar.

“I’m going to send the signal for all of the others to place the rest of the conducting grenades and the explosive conductors,” he replied calmly. “All they need to do is drop them into one of my gates, and I’ll direct them to where they need to go myself. Five-hundred locations. Even Leona won’t be able to get them all. Not when she’s trying so desperately to protect her reservoirs and those generator conductors. Beneath the Monadic Temple, on the east, on the west. But don’t worry. I’ll drop the explosive conductors in those places myself at the final moment. So in an hour and a half, this city will—”

“W-What about the children…?” Omicron interjected.

He’d never seen Omicron like this before. Her eyes were wide, her hand shaking as it caressed his cheek. There was fear in her. Fear of loss and death. Foolish.

“They will return to the cycle.”

Omicron pulled her hand away. “You don’t mean that… You—”

“Are you going to tell another lie of omission to convince me otherwise?” he asked. “Like how you hid your resistor and how you hid the Specialist children…?”

“I was going to get them out of the city before…” Omicron whispered. “So you wouldn’t have to see… so they could be free and leave. I’m sorry that I hid it from you, but what you’re doing now is—”

“Just because they can’t be seen doesn’t mean they haven’t suffered. Just because you take them out of their suffering doesn’t mean that you’ve saved them.” He found himself chuckling. “If you say you’re going to do something, you have to follow through. No matter what.” He shook his head slightly. “It’s been a bad hand since the very beginning…”

Omicron’s eyes widened. “Franc—”

He hovered a hand over her cheek, not quite touching. “Despite everything, you’re still my precious magpie. So please fly away for me.” He pulled his hand back, snapping his fingers.

A rain of brick and metal torrented out from his gates that hung in the air. Shouts resounded as all of stone and metal came crashing down below in front of the warehouse in a cacophony. A musical sound.

And with that, Theta stepped back into the portal, tuning his ears to the lovely sound the city made as it neared its end.


“You have to acknowledge it, Omicron. Theta was incorrectly initiated into a dangerous person. Regardless of the progress that person adds, we have to consider the fact that Theta may become as despicable as everyone else in this city.”

Vincente Giustizia Tau, Police Comissario of Gemini Leader of ELPIS

6c: Outsiders Looking In

Yuseong Haneul—though he preferred the name Claire—sat on the ledge of the belfry overlooking the New Ram City’s market square. It was crowded as usual given the time of the day, but even still, he was able to pick him out from the crowd.

Ariesian Prince Olivier Chance. He was standing at the exit of the marketplace, looking back with a determined expression. At his right was Trystan, and at his left was a birdcage.

Claire thrummed his fingers in thought, but a shadow dancing in the corner of his eye distracted him. He turned. A woman stood there. Her hair was a light blonde, her eyes an ice blue, her nose hooked and prominent.

“Why do you enjoy being stepped on so much?” she asked.

“Hey, I’m not a masochist,” he sighed. “But in order to create a better world, you need to be willing to make a few sacrifices.” He turned his attention back to the square and back to Olive.

She didn’t respond and instead followed his gaze to Olive. “Is he really one then?”

“Yup,” Claire affirmed with a thin smile, resting his cheek on his fist. “He’s like—”

“My Lord, who are you talking to?” came another voice.

It was Soha who had just climbed her way up the tower. She stood behind him without her mask. Her confusion was clear as her gaze swept the empty bell tower.

Claire chuckled. “To myself like usual.”

* * *

Leona approached the two-way mirror and peered inside.

Izsak Wtorek sat in the room on the opposite side of the glass. His hands were bound, and his eyes stared forward into nothing.

“They got rather close this time,” the man who stood next to Leona murmured. “ELPIS… to think they’d taken an Ophiuchian agent…”

Leona glanced at him. His brows were furrowed, his lips drawn tight, eyes focused on the man on the opposite side of the mirror. An expression of loss.

“But they’ll continue making the same mistakes over and over again,” Leona returned. “Struggling like an ant.” She observed Izsak. “Don’t worry. Izsak’s and Ophiuchus’s reputation will be saved since we pinned his actions on the act of illegal manipulation conducting. Of course, we’ll keep him here and alive to see if ELPIS decides he is worth retrieving.”

A soft chuckle. “With all due respect—from one saint candidate to another—ants are quite powerful when they work together, Leona… but, thank you.”

“No need to thank me. That aside, you can still crush them with your boot—ants, that is.”

“This was hopeless from the beginning. They should know this.” Another chuckle. “Well, your temporary problem and the end of the border conflict aside, we’ve had good developments. Virgo has finally come out of isolation after some prodding. Unexpectedly, it was a daughter of the Imamu tribe that did it. And… you found one of them?”

“Yes, a True Conductor. A pretty amusing one.” Leona smiled. “I’ve already put a tab on her, but we shouldn’t make a move until we know who she’s connected to.”

“That’s good. We’re close to the syzygy. True peace at last.”

* * *

The pitch-black warehouse smelled of iron.

“They really went after you, Omicron,” came a voice from the shadows. “From the Twin Cities to Aries to here.”

“No, they didn’t send a saint candidate. They must not see us as enough a threat.”

“That’s a good thing. Usian failed and the Geminians still have our shipment. Plus, Verga’s dead.”

“Right. The Romano Family and the Foxmans.”

“We have to get it back.”

“And the Ophiuchians have two of ours too. What a headache.”

Moonlight spilled into the warehouse, illuminating a lake of crimson. The bodies that floated in the pool were identifiable only by the white sashes wrapped around their arms. The whiteness of the sashes matched the whiteness of the snake-like tattoos of those who stood above the corpses.

“We’re the only hope left.”

6b: Crimson Volition

Re-cap:

The Watch has been stopped. Wtorek Izsak has been revealed to be affiliated with ELPIS and has been apprehended by Gabrielle Law. Due to the efforts of the swindler, the soldier, the chieftain’s daughter, the pirate,  the peacekeeper, and the prince himself, the prince has survived. They have survived. But questions and choices still need to be made. It is time to move on forward.

Olive felt like he’d been picked up by a whirlwind, tossed around in the air for the better part of a week, and then gently placed back down onto the ground as if all was in order. Everything fell into place the next couple of weeks after the Watch’s attack so perfectly that Olive couldn’t help but feel unnerved.

Gabrielle and Jericho left a week after the incident with Izsak in cuffs. Other Ophiuchian Agents, including Leona and Talib, arrived to apprehend the remaining members of the Watch and to bring them in for questioning. Samuel and the other guards present during the attack were making a recovery at the hospital. Olive had visited them for the most part during the stay, but as soon as they were well enough to make lengthy conversation, he stopped visiting.

Trystan was released from prison and was re-offered his position, but he declined the offer. Meanwhile, the feudal lord heading the Ariesian Investigation Bureau was called into questioning in his place. Olive figured that if he looked hard enough, he might find poetic justice in there somewhere. 

Olive learned from Cadence that the Romano Family and the Foxmans were working with Ophiuchus to find out exactly what else Verga had been shipping for ELPIS. Ricardo and the Foxmans had also rented out Matilda and her crew’s services. They were delivery men again, although they now transported conductor parts from facility to facility instead of whole conductors to civilians. It was stupid, Olive had thought, for them all to end up right back where they started. 

“That’s how the city works,” Cadence answered with a shrug as she attended the party celebrating the new partnership. “They had nowhere else to go anyways. Rinse and repeat.”

In the middle of a toast at the aforementioned party, Francis had coyly offered to Cadence a packet of normal cigarettes and a bottle of wine.  But after casting a glance in Olive’s direction, Cadence accepted only the wine.

Werner appeared to be ending on a slightly more positive note. After extensive interviews from Ophiuchian Agents and Capricornian officials, it was decided that Werner acted appropriately in the situation regarding Ersatz and ELPIS and that he was uninvolved with Ersatz’s plan. A statement by the Aquarian Captain Dunya Kramer also proved his and his division’s innocence. The Capricornian government was ruled to be involved in the ELPIS machinations as well.

Major Ersatz had survived the battle and was brought to Ophiuchus to be detained and questioned about his ELPIS involvement. He was given a dishonorable discharge by Capricorn, and the Watch was dismantled shortly after—per order of Ophiuchus. Werner was revered as a hero and given temporary leave, which he extended to the rest of his division.

The Ophiuchians also mediated the border conflict, and it was resolved with the vitae reservoir being declared as belonging within Capricornian borders. There were reparations to be made on both sides. Gilbert had derised the swiftness of it all and had something akin to “if it was solved that easily then why fight over it to begin with” to which Olive couldn’t help but agree. 

Soon after that, a new combat medic was introduced to Werner’s division. His placement was followed by a sudden influx of weaponized conductors. The oddity was questioned by common soldiers but remained unquestioned by high-ranking officers. On the surface the medic’s responsibilities seemed to merely be tending to the injuries of those within the division. However, his true responsibility lay in acting as a liaison between “the Capricornian army and certain organizations in Gemini” or so stated the official documentation Werner received a week prior to the medic’s arrival.

Cadence was worried, but they all knew Werner was reliable. Nico would be fine.

Maria’s side was surprisingly more subdued. Her ship had been quiet and empty since Olive’s incident. She pulled back into Pollux Bay a few days following the event, and the Foxmans greeted her warmly, much to the surprise of Morandi and his men. After hearing about her circumstances from Conta, the Foxmans offered her the services of Morandi and his men with condolences. Although there was some resistance at first, a flash of Geminian cens sealed the deal for Morandi’s group. They set out to sea the very next day.

When Olive asked what Maria’s goal really was on a stormy night at sea, she had laughed and said, “There was only one moment when I was not in control of my life, and I am in the search of the person responsible for it.” When he asked why in the world she would chase after someone like that, she simply responded with her usual ‘why not?’ Olive didn’t think he’d ever understand Maria.

Atienna’s conclusion made a bit more sense to Olive. Virgo ended its isolation two weeks after Usian’s arrest. Atienna’s father, however, resigned from the Tribal Council and stepped down as chieftain of the Imamu Tribe. Bachiru was upset, but Atienna thought it was for the best. She was planning to take a step forward, after all. Not as chieftain, of course. That responsibility was for someone else more worthy. Now that Virgo was ready to reach out to the world again, a diplomatic party needed to be formed to interact with the other countries. And Atienna was determined to have a foot in it. Despite the strength of her words, however, Olive could feel the falter through the link that they shared. He decided not to address the matter. 

Atienna herself spent quite some time researching the meanings behind ‘syzygy’ and ‘True Conductor’, but it seemed as if without a Conducting License she could barely scratch the surface of anything. How ELPIS and Leona knew of these words was also a mystery. And since there were so many dangerous unknowns involved, the six of them agreed to keep their connection under the table until they figured out how to resolve it. This agreement occurred following Atienna’s long-winded proposal, of course.

A small resolution came with Claire as well. With the conclusion of the Capricornian-Aquarian border conflict and the promise of reparations, Claire graciously returned home. But not after solidifying Sagittarian-Ariesian relations with the king and queen and then insisting that he and Olive become pen-pals during the same meeting. No tact at all, or perhaps too much tact. Olive had declined the offer point-blank in front of his aunt, uncle, and the feudal lords. Of course, Claire had just laughed the entire ordeal off.

While Olive’s personal relations did not seem to improve much, Olive discovered that Jericho’s relations did.

When Jericho returned to Ophiuchus, he did his best to avoid the commotion that came with his mission completion. The mystery of what had unfolded was the new buzz of the Serpens Establishment, and wiithin the first few days of his return, Jericho was approached by over a dozen peacekeepers pressing him for details. Thankfully, the ELPIS Department made a statement on Leona’s disappearance and Izsak’s involvement not long after.

According to the report, Leona had been ambushed by ELPIS after a fellow peacekeeper disclosed her location to them. A traitor to the upstanding, philanthropic Romano organization of the Twin Cities was then tasked by ELPIS to handle her imprisonment, but the traitor was discovered by the organization and was dealt with swiftly. Meanwhile, Leona managed to break free of her captors and successfully stopped the assassination of the Ariesian prince. The assassination was orchestrated by a recently ELPIS-converted Capricornian major with the assistance of the aforementioned peacekeeper. There was no mention of Maria’s ship.

Talk about paintin’ a pretty picture, Cadence thought as Atienna read the article in the newspaper. Not givin’ credit where credit is due.

The traitorous peacekeeper involved in the assassination attempt and Leona’s capture, the ELPIS Department elaborated, went by the name of Izsak Wtorek. A Taurusian who had served in Ophiuchus since its founding. Izsak was believed to have been under the influence of a Manipulator Conductor and was currently undergoing treatment in Ophiuchus through the Medical Department and the Psychological Evaluations Department.

Jericho and Talib’s names were mentioned only briefly at the end of the article. When pressed by Cadence, Jericho informed the group that he felt neither pleasure nor displeasure at this.

Shortly after the article was published, Talib invited Jericho to a party to celebrate a successful case closed and led Jericho into an office at the very back of the Serpens Establishment.

Within the office, Gabrielle sat at a desk with Alice Kingsley at her right and the pink-haired Ferris at her left. On a couch in the room sat three men and two women. All assessed Jericho with differing expressions upon his entrance.

“How would you like being my minion?” Gabrielle had asked, extending a hand. “I’m planning to become head chair of Ophiuchus and bring real peace to Signum, and I could really use someone like you on my team. You have a thing against ELPIS, right? Well, if you work with me, I can get you to them.”

Truly, a terrible personality.

Even so, Jericho accepted Gabrielle’s hand.

And with that, an entire month passed by.

Now Olive found himself kneeling before his uncle and aunt in the throne room of the royal palace. He had bowed upon entering and remained prostrate despite their insistence that he stand.

The red of the carpet below his feet was nostalgic. Almost alluring. Beckoning him to stay. To reconsider. To return to how things were before—skipping classes at the university, watching council meetings with disinterest, escaping to Marta’s shop to sleep for hours. It really was tempting. An easier way. Drifting through days with indifference.

But—

Mustering all of his courage, Olive lifted his gaze from the carpet to his aunt and uncle.

“I’ve decided to take the State Conducting Exam.”

Both his aunt and uncle beamed.

“That’s wonderful, Olive!” Terra hummed. “Now that this is over with, you can return to the university and—”

“I’m going to study on my own,” Olive said. “I’m leaving the Capital.”

“What?”

“Olivier, you can’t—”

There was a flicker of black out of the corner of his eye. Not any of the others. Lavi.

“I don’t care if it looks like I’m running away. If I stay here, I’ll fall back into the same patterns over and over again. I won’t change,” Olive continued, rising to a stand. “I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, and I’ll never be able to repay you. I know it seems selfish of me leaving like this, but I have to take responsibility.”

His uncle and aunt remained silent. There was disappointment in their eyes. But he could live with that. Letting out a small breath, Olive turned away from them and exited the chambers with his sister following right behind.

“My brother’s been looking weirdly determined recently. Usually, I’d think that’s a bad thing but he looks kinda cool so maybe it’s a good thing this time.

Lavender Chance, unknown time