26.[]: The Wtoreks & ELPIS: An Entente in White

Re-cap:

Peacekeeper Wtorek Elizabeta and Saint Candidate Wtorek Csilla are in search of ELPIS Leader Gamma, also known as Wtorek Izsak.


Okör Mountain Range, Taurus

Csilla spotted him standing on top of the plateau overseeing the dip in the valley she’d been walking through with her mother for the past hour. She’d almost missed him since she’d been trying to spot flowers among the sprouting patches of grass sprawling out on either side of the beaten path—a game her mother had started halfway into their walk here. It was a game they—all three of them— used to play whenever they’d visited this mountain range here together on vacation. Not too far from this path there was a crooked, old, twisted tree beneath which patch of amaranths blossomed. That had always been her favorite picnic spot. Sometimes, her parents would help her climb that rickety old tree too. Sometimes, she felt like she could climb up to the clouds from the tallest branch.

“He’s here,” Csilla whispered, stopping short and squeezing her mother’s hand. She inclined her head. “Up there.”

“It doesn’t look like he’s…” Mama drew, squinting up in the direction. She looked down at Csilla and placed a hand on her head before drawing her close. “Who do you think is with him?”

“The last time I talked to Leona she said Delta, Tau, Beta, and Lambda were probably with him,” Csilla murmured. “It could be any of them… or only one of them.”

Mama tightened her grip and sucked in a breath. “Okay. Are you ready, honey?”

Csilla nodded.

They wound down the path quickly, taking an offshoot trail that Papa had once shown them when they had passed through here two years ago. The sky was gray overhead, the ground frosted over just enough to emit a crunch, crunch, crunch as they continued forward. Their pace quickened as the path became steeper and as the patches of grass became broken up by wiry black roots cracking up from the red earth. Soon, they reached a winding trail that hugged tightly to the side of the elevated cliffside. The path was narrow, allowing only a meter of extra space width wise when Csilla and her mother ascended side-by-side. The trail was slippery from the permafrost, but they ascended carefully, steadily.

Csilla wasn’t sure what they’d find at the top of the plateau. Maybe nothing. Maybe Papa had used one of Theta’s gates to escape already. Maybe the glimpse of him that they’d seen had been a mirage.

Soon the trail widened to a circular flattop beyond which the trail narrowed once again and extended further up. At the mouth of that extension stood a cluster of men and women—some familiar, others not. The unfamiliars stood at the back of the group: a dark-haired man with glasses, a handsome man with dusty brown hair, and a woman with braided hair. Ahead of them stood Delta and Iota whom Csilla had seen pictures of from Leona’s work. Straddling in-between the two was a man bound tightly from head-to-toe in metal chains. Standing ahead of all of them was…

“It’s a peacekeeper,” the unfamiliar, somewhat handsome man with dusty brown hair noted. Capricornian, it seemed. “And a little girl.”

“What should we do?” the man with the glasses beside him whispered—also Capricornian. “Engage?”

The woman with braided hair frowned and sent him a look. “Really, Klaus? Engage with a child?”

What were these Capricornians doing here? Were they recruits? No, that didn’t matter. What mattered was—

“You’re following me, Taurus,” Papa stated. There was a gun in his left hand—newly conjured most likely. “Leo sent you—”

“No one sent us,” Mama interjected, holding up a placating hand. “We just want to talk.”

Papa’s eyes became slits, his gaze flitting from Csilla’s mother to Csilla herself. “‘Talk’, Taurus? Now after all these centuries, you would like to talk?” Wordlessly he lifted his weapon. “I won’t let you impede us any further.”

A bang rang out followed by a thunderous boom. 

Csilla threw herself in front of her mother, brought up her vitae, and braced for impact—but that impact never came. Instead another sound came—a deep rumbling. Upon uncurling herself from her mother’s side, she came to find that a wall of glowing rock that went up to her chin now separated her mother and herself from the others on the other half of the flat. The Capricornian woman was kneeling on the ground—both of her hands planted on the earth and a trail of light leading from the newly-formed wall to the rock beneath her hands. Earth Elementalist.

“She’s just a little girl!” The earth Elementalist panted. “I didn’t desert just to do the same thing all over again!”

Papa studied the woman before glancing over at Iota. “These are the recruits you selected, Iota?” 

Iota opened his mouth, then shut it before shrugging.

“That isn’t a little girl,” Papa said to the Elementalist in Capricornian, tossing his empty pistol aside and conjuring another one. “That is a saint candidate. The Saint Candidate of Taurus.”

The earth Elementalist’s face contorted with confusion, and she glanced back at the man wearing the glasses  behind her.

“Was there a Saint Candidate of Taurus?” the glasses man murmured. “I know there was a failed one awhile back, but—”

“A failed candidate and a saint candidate are one and the same,” Papa interjected—tone like steel. He returned his attention to her and lifted his pistol. “They remain one and the same.”

Csilla tensed but startled as Mama abruptly stepped in front of her. One of her mother’s hands was raised and the other was pushing Csilla further back.  “Izsak, put that down. Now.”

Papa’s hand twitched slightly.

“Look—we really do only want to talk. This has nothing to do with what you’re doing as ELPIS, nothing to do with the saint candidates, nothing to do with—”

“Nothing to do with it.” His eyes narrowed. “You’re either grossly irresponsible or ignorant beyond bliss to be speaking in those flippant terms, peacekeeper. Why else are you following me. You’re a nuisance. You will not stop our efforts.”

His manner of speech resembled that of the speech patterns centuries ago, Csilla thought, but his face—

Delta’s brows rose as she peered up over Papa’s shoulders. Her gaze flicked between Csilla, her mother, and her father. “Ah, I see… Curious, curious, curious.”

Clink, clink, clink, clink— 

White glowing chains cut across the sky as Iota stepped forward, rolling her wrist and flicking her conductor-gloved hand back and forth. “Okay.” He clicked his tongue. “Who is this dusty, crusty peacekeeper? And what’s this about Taurus tailing you, Gamma?” 

Mama visibly tensed at the sight—at the color.

What?” Delta leaned forward in-between the two men. “Can’t you see the resemblance, Iota?” 

Abruptly, the man bound in chains behind Iota charged away from the larger group—not back up the path where they had evidently come from, but off the slide of the cliff. He barely made it a foot off before the chains around him burst alive with white light and curled tighter around his body. He dangled in the air briefly by the chains before they began to slowly reel him back in. Iota looked annoyed. The others—even Mama—were fully focused on the chain-bound man.

Csilla used the opportunity to launch herself forward towards her father. She didn’t quite have a plan nor did she know exactly what she wanted to do. Perhaps she could drag him away from the other ELPIS Leaders—from the things that were pulling him away from her—and sit him down and talk and clarify things. Perhaps she could just give him a hug? Maybe he’d return it.

 Just as she reached his side, however, he conjured something in the palm of his hand and threw it in her direction. A conducting grenade.

A bright light emitted from its center followed by an intense wave of heat. At this close proximity, both her mother and her father would be obliterated in an instant.

No!

In the split second that followed, Csilla grabbed for it and curled her body around it as her mother cried out.

* * *

When Csilla’s left eye popped back into its socket, everything around her was dim and dark. Dust clouded the air above her head, around her face, everywhere. Once her right arm cracked into its hole and her skin rethreaded itself over her digits, she swiped away the veil of smoke and surveyed her surroundings. Slabs of red rock and gray boulders stood crooked around her. They stood on top of each other, stacking upwards and forming a ceiling. A sliver of illumination spilled down from above, casting the small, circular enclosure in dim light.

A groan resounded to Csilla’s left. Teetering to her feet, she followed the sound through the murky darkness and found a woman prostate on her stomach—hands extended in front of her. A large rock had fallen on them, but there was a dim glow bleeding out from beneath it. The glow connected to trail extended slightly further ahead. At the end of that rail of light was a glowing rock that jutted upwards against the wall at an angle. Above it was what looked to be around ten or twenty large boulders. Beneath that flimsy makeshift roof lay two men—barely saved from being crushed to death. The glasses-wearing Capricornian who was bleeding from the temple and the handsome Capricornian who was propping the former up.

A sacrifice. How pitiable. 

Kneeling down beside the earth Elementalist, Csilla lowered her head and made eye-contact with the woman. Despite tears streaking the woman’s face, the woman held Csilla’s gaze evenly. Courage. 

Nodding to herself as she reached an internal verdict, Csilla pushed the boulder off from the earth Elementalist’s hands. The unstable ceiling above them trembled. Csilla paid it not mind. Beneath that boulder was a mess. The strong metallic structure of the woman’s conducting gloves had saved her hands but the metal bits and pieces of glasses had become embedded into her skin. The Capricornian did not cry, however.

“Bergmann!” the handsome Capricornian shouted, pulling the glasses-wearing Capricornian out from beneath the enclosure. He scrambled forward towards the earth Elementalist on his knees but stopped short a step away. He eyed Csilla warily.

Csilla stepped back for him and watched as he darted to the earth Elementalist’s side. He extended his conducting gloved-hand’s over the woman’s and light emitted from the devices. A Transmutationist. A healer. Like her mother—Mama!

Csilla shot to a stand and spun around in a panic.

 “O-Over there—” The Capricornian woman—Bergmann—lifted her head weakly and indicated a dust-shrouded area a meter away.

“Csilla…” came a weak voice out from the direction. “Csilla…!”

Csilla scrambled towards the call, continuously tripping over rocks and picking herself as she scrambled forward. Finally, she reached a small area where the dust did not fall as thickly. There, she registered her mother propped upright against twin stone slabs. Running to her mother, she threw her hands around her mother’s neck. Her mother returned the embrace just as tightly—but only with one of her arms. Half a second later Csilla realized her mother’s other arm was trapped beneath another rectangular boulder.

No…!

Without thinking, Csilla coated her hands in her vitae and pressed her palms against the offending boulder. The rocks stacked above their heads trembled and dust rained down at the effort, but Csilla didn’t care and pushed with all of her might. The rock slid off from her mother’s hand and the earth surrounding them trembled for what seemed like an eternity before everything stilled. Upon returning her attention to her mother’s hand, she found it intact but almost misshapen—

Csilla whimpered at the sight. “D-Does it hurt?”

“It’s been fractured. I’m lucky.” Mama wiped her brow with her good hand before glancing at Csilla and offering an easing smile. She rubbed Csilla’s cheek with the back of her hand. “I’ll be alright. Don’t worry, honey—” Her gaze darted over Csilla’s shoulder, and her eyes widened. “Csilla! Move—”

Csilla turned only to be knocked clear across the small space and into a rock slab to her far right. The ceiling  trembled at the impact and a sleet of dust rained down. As one of her ribs cracked back into place, she registered her father stepping in front of her mother. He looked disheveled, one lens of his glasses crackled, blood trailing down from his temple, his clothes ripped and ragged. Behind her father stood Iota who looked slightly less worn out—

Bang!

Csilla felt something hot rip through her left eye. Her vision went in and out, but her mother’s cry of anguish rang clear—

“No!”

When some semblance of thought returned to her, Csilla whimpered, holding her hand to her left eye and then catching the bullet as it painfully squeezed out of her socket. She looked up to find Papa still pointing his pistol at her.

Papa lowered his pistol and held up his other hand, signaling Iota to hold in place behind him. He then advanced towards Csilla himself, drawing nearer and nearer and nearer, his eyes darkening with every step. Csilla had only seen him angry once or twice before. Once after returning from a long day at work and the other time when he’d learned that she’d been bullied by her peers because he and her mother had missed a parent-child event at school. His anger had never been directed at Csilla, however, so she had never been afraid of him. He was good.

“Please…” Csilla pressed back up against the rock behind her. “I just want…”

Papa hovered over her—his horn-rimmed glasses glinting in the dull light, his eyes hidden by the glare. He reached towards her—not with his conductor gloved hand. Her hammered as his hand drifted towards her face—but then he wrapped his hands around her throat.

“How dare you plead to me now” —Papa glowered, lifting her up in the air— “after everything you’ve done—disrupting the cycle, creating abominations, machinating conflict to fuel your putrid syzygy. We looked up to you. You were supposed to guide us. Why would you take up that responsibility if you couldn’t fulfill it? If you couldn’t fulfill it, why move to destroy all the work you laid out? It was perfect the way it was.”

“Please…”Csilla whimpered, feet dangling, clawing at her father’s hands as his grip tightened. “Pa…pa.

Papa’s eyes widened a fraction.

“Papa, please. It hurts.” 

Csilla could release her vitae and rip him from limb to limb and end him—she knew. But if she did that then there would be nothing of her father left. And there needed to be something of him left. He needed his hands to braid her hair and hold her hand, he needed his arms to wrap her in an embrace, he needed his eyes so he could watch her when she starred in her school plays, he needed his lips to smile at her and tell her that he loved her, he needed his legs to take her and her mother on walks through the mountain sides of Okör—

Wailing and sobbing as she gathered those memories close to her, Csilla blindly failed out her hands towards her father’s face. In her struggle, she managed to knock off his glasses. They clattered onto the floor only to be crushed as Papa stumbled backwards onto them. Her heart cracked with the glass and the frame.

Effortlessly, she tore herself out of her father’s grip and sent him flying back to the opposite wall with a kick to the gut. Iota tensed as Papa blew past him and raised his conducting-gloved hand in the air. A familiar clink, clink, clink resounded as the haze of smoke around them became illuminated by white light.

“No!” Papa snapped, righting himself. 

Iota scowled but huffed and lowered his hand. The glowing light dimmed.

Papa squinted, aiming the gun blindly and firing. The bullet ricocheted off the wall beside Csilla and clipped her arm. Csilla winced and gripped the throbbing area in pain as it began to immediately heal.

“Csilla!” her mother cried, throwing herself at her father and grabbing him by the legs with her good hand as he moved towards Csilla. “Stop! You’re hurting her!”

“You’re a fool.” Papa looked down at Mama, brows furrowing. “She can’t feel pain—”

“She can! Look at her!”

Eyes narrowing, Papa lifted the butt of his pistol over her mother’s head and brought it down—

“Stop!” Csilla wailed. “Stop! Stop! Stop! Please—”

Papa stopped short—butt of his pistol only centimeters away from her mother’s head—and returned his attention to Csilla. 

Csilla tearfully looked up to meet her father’s gaze and sank to her knees—as she took in the hatred and disdain in her father’s eyes, as she felt the faint throbbing of the healing bruise on her neck, as she fought against being dragged to reality.

This world was filled with cycles of suffering—she knew. The same mistakes made over and over again by different people in different times in different shades. The tiny struggles—meaningless against the tides of time. But there were blips of bliss and happiness. Her parents had taught her that. Swinging on the branch of an old oak tree, picking flowers on a wet summer’s day, locking eyes with a wild animal before it made its escape back into wilderness, stubborn fights that bled into awkward but heartfelt apologies, boring morning routines that brought a spark of pleasant mundanity to dreary months, the pride of finishing a drawing or project and showing it to loved ones and being praised, the disappointment of waking up too late to say morning goodbyes or falling asleep too early to say evening goodnights, playing silly little games of pretend-t. Silly little temporary average things—maybe. But they were things to be treasured—to be looked and reminisced about during dark times. Times like now—when the realization that those tiny blips would no longer be possible finally dawned.

“Why…? Why did you have to go?!” Csilla wailed, as she fell forward onto her palms. “Why?! Why?! Why! Why did you become peacekeepers?!” She let out a cry and pounded the ground with her hands. “You thought you could make a more peaceful world for me?” She tucked her knees beneath her stomach. “You’re all so stupid! What makes you think you could do what we couldn’t? You’re so full of yourselves!” 

Silence rang in her ears as the dust cleared around her.

Taurus glared out at the Capricornians who she could now see huddled together in the far corner. “Throwing your lives away for your version of world peace, for what you think is justice, for your countries, for your family. I pity you…”  She snarled. “Do you think they care about changing things for the better and making things better if it means losing all of you? If you really cared about them, then you would have just stayed home!”

The Capricornian woman startled.

“If you really loved me, you would’ve stayed…” A sob wracked through Csilla’s chest. “You would’ve stayed. You didn’t love me enough to stay…”

She remained in place there heaving and sobbing uncontrollably. She only stopped when a shadow passed over her. It was Papa, just a step away, gun raised.

Papa’s lips pulled into a thin line, and his grip on his weapon tightened.  “Why are you acting like this? What game are you playing, Taurus?”

Csilla looked away from him and continued to weep. She couldn’t imagine it—no longer having her father by her side. It was just an impossibility. She half-expected to fall asleep weeping now only to wake up and find out that this entire year had been just a dream.

A soft click resounded—a pistol ready now ready to be fired.

Csilla didn’t try to stop him. It wasn’t like it would do any permanent damage anyways. Gamma—Pothos— knew this too, so she wasn’t sure why he was doing it. Pitiable—the both of them. She would allow him to pull the trigger on her, and after that she would take pity on him and free him from the visage of her father—

Bang!


Gamma stumbled backwards as he regarded the peacekeeping agent who had just shoved him backwards and knocked the gun from his hand. His finger had slipped down on the trigger at the sudden force, and the bullet exiting the chamber had ricocheted off the nearby wall before exiting the small hole above them.

This woman was Wtorek Elizabeta, he knew. Mother of Wtorek Csilla—the Saint Candidate of Taurus. Delusional and perhaps deceived by the saint candidate—although deception did seem unlikely. Liza was a smart woman, after all. Maybe even the smartest.

“That isn’t your daughter,” Gamma informed Elizabeta calmly as he conjured another pistol. “Your daughter was swallowed whole the moment you allowed her to go through the baptismal ceremony. That thing is a monster—an amassment of knowledge given sentience—”

Gamma was cut off as his head jerked to the side, as his ears rang, as his vision swam. Slowly, he turned to face Elizabeta and found her hand raised, her eyes wet, her cheeks flushed. It took him a moment to realize that she’d slapped him. Even though he could not feel pain, it  hurt.

“How dare you.”

Gamma held his cheek and stared at her. 

“How dare you say that to our daughter!” she hissed, tears leaking from her eyes. “How dare you lay a hand on our daughter!”

Gamma couldn’t comprehend her. “She’s as much my daughter as she is yours, you stupid, foolish woman.”

Elizabeta didn’t budge, but the tears leaking from her eyes increased.

Gamma felt his chest wrack with unfamiliar guilt.

“What exactly are you looking for?” he pressed through it and spoke in an even tone. “What are you chasing? Were you guided by false promises? Are you her new disciple—” 

“What?!” Elizabeta did a double-take before she dug into her coat pocket and slapped a piece of paper to his chest. “You know that’s bullshit. You know exactly what we’re looking for.”

Gamma held onto the paper as the woman pulled away. She sank to where Csilla—Taurus—sat still doubled-over, draped herself over the saint candidate’s body, and pulled her close. Then she began stroking the girl’s hair and whispering into her ear. An apology, a reassurance, a comfort. 

A fool.

Gamma looked at the object Elizabeta had handed him. It was a familiar photograph—one that he’d used to carry with him at all times until he’d lost it in Capricorn last year. Captured in monochrome in the photo was a smiling man, a smiling woman, and a smiling girl—a family. 

Relief flooded his chest at the sight of it—at the realization that it had finally been returned to him—followed by confusion and disdain. He returned his attention to Liza and Csilla only to feel a cold wave washing over him. Elizabeta and Taurus were upright now and embracing each other—fixating him with watery eyes. In their gazes: anger, disdain, wistfulness, nostalgia, love, affection, and—

Hope.

Wordlessly, Gamma dropped the pistol, tucked the photo into his pocket, and walked away from them.


Elizabeta watched as her husband sauntered away from them and towards a rock jutting up two meters away. She soon realized two of the other ELPIS Leaders were lying side-by-side there. A woman and a man bound in chains. Izsak knelt down beside the woman and tapped her shoulder. Looking away, Elizabeta pulled Csilla close to her with her good hand and stroked her hair. This had been an idiotic idea—chasing after him like this. Csilla was near physically invulnerable now, but she was not emotionally and mentally invulnerable. How could she be so stupid—letting her daughter come to such a dangerous place? She was a terrible mother.

“I’ll stay…” Elizabeta whispered again into her daughter’s hair. “I won’t leave. I promise.”

“So… what’s going on?” The man with the chain mediums, who was still standing rooted to the ground, looked between Izsak and Elizabeta herself.

“We don’t have the capacity to return Taurus to her reservoirs at the moment, Iota,” Izsak answered from the distance, “and it appears as if she doesn’t intend to stop our progress nor impede us.”

“So…?”

“We should not waste time and focus on finding a way to escape this place. Do you have any of Theta’s proto-conductors?”

Iota grimaced and pointed to the ground a meter or so away. A black stain was splattered there and sprinkled with shards of glass.  “You?”

Izsak reached into his pocket and pulled out a similar completely shattered glass needle that was leaking out black liquid.

“Do you think Theta would hear us if we shouted loud enough? Would he come if he did?” Iota pursed his lips before looking around. “I can try to turn some of these rocks into my mediums and move them—”

“And have it collapse on us?” the woman on the ground in front of Izsak laughed. 

“Then we use your conducting to shrink all this rock from the top down.” Iota frowned, placing a hand on his hip. “It’s not that complicated, Delta.”

“With what conductor?” The other woman—Delta—chuckled again, using her hands to pull herself up to a stand. “The one that’s broken to pieces over there? One conjured by Gamma? And what about the chances of their being tons of debris above those rocks up there? What about the chances of those rocks we see there being the only thing keeping us from all being mashed into soup, hm?”

“Okay, so we’re done for,” Iota finalized. “You could’ve put it more succinctly, Delta. There is no need at all to be a bitch in these times, is there? Well. I suppose it’s time to return to our resistors.”

“R-Return to your resistors?” the glasses-wearing Capricornian stammered. 

“Oh, you two are still here….” Iota cocked his head at the three Capricornians in the corner. “And Zu, your resistor is… Well, how do you Capricornians feel about returning to the cycle? And I mean that as gently and politely as possible—unless you have some solution that’s preferable to being trapped here and starving to death—”

“Return to the cycle?” The Capricornian woman who was now lying on her back frowned. She struggled up a sit but was pushed back down by one of the other Capricornians. “You mean dying?”

Elizabeta frowned. “Why… are you jumping to that already…?” When everyone turned to look at her, she tended. “This is OkörTaurus. We’re known for our natural disaster rescues—especially for situations like this. Our earth Elementalists and Transmutationist are the best in Signum.” 

“I’d rather not heed the words of a peacekeeper,” Iota replied evenly. “Especially one that has a saint candidate attached to their right hip.”

“Being saved by users of those conductors is a fate worse than death,” Izsak added.

Iota glanced at him. “Dogmatic as always…”

Delta laughed and moved forward towards them. “Well—”

Crack!

Suddenly Delta was face-first on the floor. She lifted her head and peered back at her legs. Even from Elizabeta’s current angle, she could clearly tell they were broken.

“Oh dear.” Delta sighed as if it was a minor issue. “I think my legs are broken. Well, this situation keeps getting better and better, doesn’t it?” She craned her head back to look at Izsak who had risen to a stand behind her. “Now whose brilliant idea was to throw a conducting grenade again?”

“Lambda is still at the highest plateau,”  Izsak replied, kneeling to the ground and turning Delta over onto her back, “and she has one of Theta’s proto-conductors. When we don’t return, she can use it to find Tau or Beta and we go from there.” 

It was unnerving seeing ELPIS Leaders confer with each other so casually and calmly—to see her husband conversing among them—in light of everything that had happened only moments before. The three Capricornians in the corner also seemed to think the same since they were tense, alert, quiet. One of them—the man who was least injured—abruptly rose to a stand and cautiously, carefully walked on over to Elizabeta. Iota’s and Izsak’s eyes were trained on him the entire time.

“I’ve seen you before,” the Capricornian drew as he knelt beside Elizabeta. His accent was light.” In the papers. You’re Wtorek Elizabeta—the vice chair for the Medical Department, a Transmutationist.” He offered a salute—how Capricornian of him—which was when she noticed that his hands were gloved with conductors. “Alwin Brandt. Combat Medic in the 212th Division of the Border Force. I’m a Transmutationist.” He gestured to her hand. “Will you allow me to help you, ma’am?”

“What is a Capricornian doing all the way in Taurus?” Elizabeta murmured, eyes narrowing as she held the affected appendage. “And with ELPIS?” She sighed. “This is a minor fracture. You should tend to the most injured first.”

Csilla’s grip on her tightened.

“I understand that’s protocol, ma’am,” Alwin said. “But since you’re a Transmutationist too, I think it’d be best if we got you fixed up first. More hands on deck.” He paused, seeming to notice her deepening frown. “Please—I’m not sure if I have the ability to help my friends without assistance.”

Studying the other Capricornian man and woman who were prostate and grimacing a meter or so away, Elizabeta relented and—with difficulty—offered her injured hand to Alwin. He held her hand gingerly before beginning his work—snapping her bones back into place and drawing skin over where abrasions had cut deep.

Elizabeta watched him silently—assessing his skill—as she listened to everything pop back into place. Crack. Snap. Crack. Padding footsteps drew her attention away. A shadow passed over her face. Iota was drawing near, hand on hip, eyebrow arched.

Elizabeta tensed, pulling Csilla close.

“Healing a peacekeeper now, Zu?” Iota frowned.

Zu?

Elizabeta’s gaze flicked between the two men as realization dawned. “You’re an ELPIS Leader, Alwin?”

Alwin winced, while Csilla unfurled herself from Elizabeta’s side. 

“Zu…?” Csilla tried, looking him up and down. “I heard from Libra, but I didn’t think…”

“It’s a bit of an awkward situation,” Alwin admitted. “There…” He glanced at Iota and waited until the man walked away before he continued: “…wasn’t that much vitae left in Zu’s resistor, so all I have really are some vague feelings and impressions from that time…” He eyed Csilla. “Well—strong feelings.”

“So you’re… just Alwin then,” Elizabeta tried.

Mostly Alwin.”

“Could… my husband be the same way?

“Your… husband…?” Alwin follow Elizabeta’s gaze to Gamma then back to her. “Oh… Oh.” His lips pressed thin. “I’m not sure about that, ma’am, but… the atmosphere Gamma gives off is… familiar to me. I’m sorry.”

* * *

Elizabeta assisted Alwin with tending to the Capricornians—Emilia Bergmann and Klaus Kleine—first. Fractured wrist bones, split lips, a concussion, a sprained ankle. Frankly speaking, they were quite lucky given the height of their tumble, tousle, and fall. The Capricornians were quiet and tense, continuously eyeing Csilla who was curled up behind Elizabeta’s back. Csilla meanwhile kept sending furtive looks over at Izsak who was conversing with Delta and Iota in the corner. The whole situation felt rather surreal.

“She isn’t with the saint candidates,” Elizabeta informed them in Capricornian. “She’s my daughter. Csilla. Nothing more, nothing less. She doesn’t need to be.” She nudged her daughter. “Csilla, why don’t you introduce yourself?

“I’m… Csilla. Wtorek Csilla,” Csilla mumbled, facing the Capricornians but not quite meeting their gazes. “I just had my thirteenth birthday just last month. It’s nice to meet you… I hope you’re not in too much pain…” She glanced at Emilia’s worn face. “You’re… very pretty… I like the ribbon in your hair.”

Alwin stared, wide-eyed, while Klaus peered at her curiously.

Emilia’s face warmed immediately. “It’s nice to meet you too, Miss Csilla. Aren’t you polite?”

“Now what are Capricornians doing in Okör?” Elizabeta continued, carefully turning Emilia’s hand over in her own. “Tourist season is in the summer.”

The three Capricornians exchanged silent looks before Alwin gave a tentative nod.

“We’re… on the run,” Emilia admitted as Elizabeta worked on removing the shrapnel from her hand. She winced but continued speaking—a reaction indicating to Elizabeta that Emilia had most likely seen combat. “We were being used as hostages against our captain and our families were being used as hostages against us… It’s complicated.”

“Hostages?”

“By…” Emilia eyed Csilla. “… a saint candidate named Scorpio. Most of us met him during the Week of Bli—”

“Do you mean Talib?” Elizabeta breathed. 

“Yes, the First Chair of  Psychological Evaluations,” Klaus murmured, touching the makeshift bandage of cloth Alwin had wrapped around his head. “Have you seen him around then…? Since you’re a vice chair? Unless vice chairs don’t talk to each other… or maybe peacekeepers don’t talk to each other outside of their departments?” 

“Seen him around?” Elizabeta chuckled morosely. “I can’t seem to escape him.” She grimaced. “Talib used to be a close colleague of mine. We were working together with a mutual colleague of ours to… bring a better peace to Signum—and yes, I know how ridiculous that sounds. He was a good man…” Like Izsak. She couldn’t help but scoff. “That colleague—everyone who seems to get close to her… I guess it’s more the fault of her goal than her own fault.”  She refocused on Emilia’s hand. “So, Miss Bergmann, you were in the capital during the Week of Blindness and you had the misfortune of stumbling across Scorpio? I’m sorry you had to experience that.” 

“I wasn’t there myself until the very end,” Emilia said, “but Klaus and Alwin were. Alwin’s great with stories if you want to know more.”

Alwin winced but nodded. “You’ve… heard about True Conductors, haven’t you, ma’am?” He eyed Taurus. “Well, our captain is one. And… someway-somehow Scorpio infected him without knowing it and then he caused a kink in their connection and all of the others he was connected to ended up cycling through him. They called it an override, but there’s actually a specific word for it—I just can’t remember what it is. Anyways, there was… a diplomat—I think—and then a swindler, a prince, a pirate…?” He perked up, hands flying out. “Somehow that pirate guy managed to hold their own against Leo. I couldn’t believe it. They literally fought tooth-for-tooth in the courtyards of the capital. And the captain smiled—”

Csilla squirmed briefly beside Elizabeta. “I… heard about that…” She perked up. “Wait then that True Conductor is…”

Alwin stared at her nervously for a moment before he continued, “The last one we met was a peacekeeper—”

It all finally clicked inside of Elizabeta’s head. “Wait—a True Conductor Capricornian captain? A peacekeeper? And during the Week of Blindness? Are you saying you… met Jericho?”

Klaus perked up. “You know Jericho? The peacekeeper with the white-ish vitae who talks a bit weird…? His conducting…”

Elizabeta nodded. “Jericho’s a colleague of mine. He’s also part of that group I mentioned earlier.”

“Wow… really?” Alwin murmured. “Talk about a small world…”

“Have you heard anything from him?” Emilia interjected. “From the captain? From Jericho, I mean? Do you know how he’s doing—the captain?”

Elizabeta shook her head. “I haven’t spoken with Jericho since around February or March.” She paused in thought. “Do you know where he was stationed? Assuming he’s still in service in your country—there are some hotspots my department was looking into. Have you ever heard of… chlorowheat?”

Emilia and Alwin exchanged looks.

Klaus startled and pushed his glasses up his nose. “Oh, no, no—the captain would never touch anything like that.”

Hm. That sort of faith in someone was dangerous. Izsak and Talib were clear examples of that.

Once Elizabeta finished tending to Emilia’s hand, she surveyed the three Capricornians and said, “I don’t know how long we’ll be here, so I have to ask. Do any of you happen to have any food and water?”

Emilia—almost proudly—reached behind her and pulled out what appeared to be a stuffed duffel bag. Inside were several canisters of water, three loaves of bread, and six wheels of cheese.

* * *

Elizabeta was a healthcare professional first and foremost. Her purpose was to save lives—no matter what the life was associated with. And this was why she left Csilla with the Capricornians and paced over to the side of the enclosure where the ELPIS Leaders resided. As she approached the four, she noted that they were speaking in an unfamiliar language. Ophiuchian, most likely. Her husband and Iota sat across from each other on small boulders, while the man bound in chains was straddled between them. On the ground before them lay Delta. Up close, Elizabeta could see that both of Delta’s femurs had broken cleanly and had pierced through her skin. An open fracture. 

Iota surged up to a stand at her approach while Izsak regarded her with an unreadable expression. Now that she was closer to him and no longer under fire, she finally was able to see the white snake tattoo crawling up Izsak’s jaw. She wanted to scrub it off.

“Delta’s legs are broken,” Elizabeta said pointedly, dragging her gaze away from her husband’s face and lifting her conducting hand. “I can attempt a procedure to fix them. If I don’t, she might die from sepsis.”

“An Ophiuchian peacekeeper tending to the wounds of an Ophiuchian terrorist,” Delta hummed before she coughed into her hand. When she pulled her hand away, it was stained with blood.

That was not a good sign—blood in the sputum.

“I’m a doctor,” Elizabeta returned evenly. “My duty is to the health of people—no matter their background. Saving lives is more important than things like politics and labels.”

“But that’s contradictory in my case, isn’t it?” Delta chuckled, wheezing. “Actioning the goal we have as ELPIS will result in countless more deaths—necessary for preventing the syzygy which will inevitably result in complete nothingness. Then again, you could counterintuitively argue that nothingness isn’t a state of death, couldn’t you? Anyways, by saving my life, wouldn’t you be extinguishing so many others? Life—” She chuckled again. Another wheeze. “Our perspective on it is quite different. We’re already quite dead, you see? If you knew what we knew I wonder if you’d feel the same about your career. We slowly whittle away into nothingness while the saint candidates amalgamate into  somethingness. True Conductors mix themselves until one is no longer recognizable from the next.” She glanced at Elizabeta. “So, you normals should take pride in your normalcy—though you’re kaleidoscopes in and of yourself from a certain point of view, wouldn’t you say?” She laughed. “Do you hear me, you guys? I sound like a teenage girl! It really does bring back memories, doesn’t it?”

Not understanding at all, Elizabeta shook her head before kneeling down beside the woman. Iota moved forward but Izsak held up a halting hand. 

“Seriously?” Iota frowned. “You’re stringent about the conducting of people coming to rescue us but not about this?”

Izsak didn’t answer.

Elizabeta held the man’s gaze briefly before reaching forward towards Delta’s legs with her gloved hand. She was stopped by a hand around the wrist—by Delta all people.

“I said no.” Delta’s amusement was gone from her face. An eerie look had taken over her—a calmness that was unnatural given the situation. She suddenly looked eighty rather than thirty. 

Elizabeta studied the woman incredulously. “You’ll die—”

“Well, it’ll be very, very difficult to fix this, don’t you know?” Delta’s gaze became focused on the sliver of light coming down from above. “The nature of bleached vitae makes it resistant to both corruption of the cycle and the turn of the cycle. An omission from the cycle, do you understand? Conducting on bleach vitae is of little to no use if you’re too inexperienced and it’s also quite taxing. You should conserve your energy, little girl.” She glanced over at the Capricornians—at Csilla. “For your little girl. Who knows how long we’ll be here?”

Was this woman worried about her?

“I’ve treated someone with bleached vitae before,” Elizabeta answered evenly. “While it is difficult, it is possible—”

“But you came over here for another reason, didn’t you?” Delta’s eyes became slits. “You’re caught in the middle here, aren’t you? Between a saint candidate and an ELPIS Leader? My research in Ophiuchus did require me to leave the laboratory from time to time to teach. I’m not fond of it, but I do love answering questions—do you understand?”

Izsak rose and sauntered off. Elizabeta noticed he was limping slightly but her attention was drawn away by Delta’s laugh.

“Even when an initiation is successful,” Elizabeta whispered, side glancing at her husband’s retreating back, “there can be little fragments of memories still stored in the brain, can’t there? From what I understand, you… people… inject your vitae into someone when they’re ‘about to return to the cycle’—when they’re about to…”—she struggled briefly— “die.” Leaning forward, she pressed, “That doesn’t mean that they’ve actually died yet. Medically speaking, you can consider that moment as maybe oxygen being cut off from their brains. Hypoxia. And that could lead to brain damage or something similar resulting in aberrant behavior.”

Delta’s smile slowly slid from her face. “Of course there are vitae fragments left over in the people we inhabit, little girl. Isn’t that a silly question? The body is like a vessel for vitae. You’re a doctor, aren’t you? Blood vessels? They shear ever so slightly from blood flow, don’t they? And the bits that come off from sheer force are free to circulate around the vessel.” She frowned. “Ah, perhaps that was a terrible analogy—I did say that I wasn’t fond of teaching, didn’t I? It’s because I’m not very good at it. Anyways, the impression is still there. But knowing that now, we come to a different question, don’t we? It’s a question that’s natural in light of the nature of vitae. How many of another’s memories would a person need to take on in order to become that other person? Even if they had all the other person’s vitae and memories, would they actually be considered that other person? I hate thinking about these things. Nothing is concrete. That’s more of Theta’s field. Theoretics, theoretics, theoretics.”

“What are you talking about?” Elizabeta murmured. She shook her head. “No, you should save your breath.” 

“You find this era horrid, don’t you?” Delta asked suddenly. “It’s definitely several steps down from the time we lived, so Gamma and Theta and everyone else has every right to scoff at it. But the thing is—you don’t realize how beautiful and amazing the world you currently live in is, do you?” She sighed as she clasped her hands together. “I haven’t lived it myself but I’ve heard stories about the time before Signum’s founding. Anthropogenic disasters, crimes against humanity. Energy crises, a celestial body cracking under the pollution of technology, wars for the ages, discrimination, poverty. But it’s easier to blame all of our failures on the world we live in, isn’t it? For us, for you, for the saint candidates.”  

Elizabeta remained silent. Approaching footsteps indicated Izsak’s return. When she turned, she found him limping towards them.

Delta chuckled, drawing Elizabeta’s attention back once again “Do you know what the difference between an idiot and a fool is, little girl? An idiot does something wrong or believes in something that’s wrong and doesn’t know that it’s wrong and doesn’t care to know. A fool does something wrong or believes in something that’s wrong, knows that it’s wrong, and does it or believes in it anyway.”

Iota cleared his throat, reminding Elizabeta of his presence. “You sound like a terrible mix of Alpha and Scorpio now. Are you sure you were initiated correctly?”

“Hm… Alpha—I think I always felt a bit sorry for him, right?” Delta continued, glancing at Izsak as he neared. “You were close to him, weren’t you, Gamma?”

Izsak didn’t answer as he reclaimed his seat. The chained man shifted in place. 

“Oh come now,” Delta continued. “You were practically best friends, weren’t you? And you both adored Ophiuchus?”

Ophiuchus and Alpha—Elizabeta recalled Csilla mentioning them both.

“Aw, Gamma, why are you being shy about it now?” Delta laughed breathily. “You weren’t shy about it before, were you? Whenever she’s brought up, you say—word for word—‘ I can’t recall my parents’ faces anymore nor my hometown nor my childhood, but Ophiuchus? I remember her. She might not have been your Knowledge Bearer but she was mine.’”

Elizabeta felt her cheeks burn red and her blood run cold. 

“There was none who shone more,” Gamma finally agreed. “Her wisdom remains unparalleled to this day.”

It stung—hearing someone who wore her husband’s face speak so affectionately about another woman. 

Nu abruptly scoffed. Elizabeta was rather surprised. She didn’t think he could speak.

“Ophiuchus isn’t any different from the other saint candidates…” Nu’s face fell flat. “And the saint candidates aren’t… different from us. And we’re no different from the people of this era. We’re all the same.” 

Izsak’s gaze narrowed. “If you truly believe that, then you’re more of a fool than I initially thought.”

“Alpha… he said our problem was that we thought they could save and guide us and that we could guide them if they ever strayed,” Nu said. He slipped into that foreign language again and continued speaking.

Elizabeta frowned at this and looked over at her husband whose gaze was fixed on Nu. Each word the latter spoke darkened Izsak’s expression further and further. Eventually, Izsak said something in the same language which ended with Delta and Iota nodding in agreement. Nu’s eyes widened, but he shook his head and continued in that Ophiuchian language. 

“—freedom,” Nu finally finished in Common. “We all seek it in different ways—as ELPIS we do it through seeking knowledge, people of this era did it through chasing their dreams, and saint candidates pursue the syzygy.” He stared at a point in the distance before dipping his head. “They think the syzygy will be the end of it…? It’ll always start again…. Something from nothing. Another spark of life… It might take millions to trillions to billions of years, but in the end,  we’ll end up right here. We struggle over tiny problems, cry and rejoice over short blips in our life—but it’s all… insignificant. Letting go of it all—the syzygy, ELPIS, everything—that’s what we all need to do. Whatever happens happens.”

What the hell? 

Elizabeta felt like she was surrounded by professors at her old academy rather than by ELPIS Leaders. She glanced briefly over her shoulders and found that the Capricornians and Csilla were looking in their direction—were listening in. 

“What?” Iota clicked his tongue. “You’re literally so dramatic and pathetic, Nu. That’s why you went with Alpha? Because he tricked you with some utter fatalistic bullshit philosophy? How did you even come to study alongside us if you give in so easily like that? You know why Alpha decided to let you tag along instead of swallowing you up? It’s because you’re easy.”

Nu’s brows furrowed, and he looked away.

“This is the path we chose, Nu,” Izsak said. “You made the decision to bleach your vitae and store yourself in your resistor knowing what the path would look like on the way and what the end destination was. We all did. The decision was made knowing that luxuries like such wayward philosophies were to be ignored. You were young when you were initiated, and Alpha’s led you astray time and time again. By working together with him, you have accelerated the syzygy and dampened our own progress. It’s clear to me that you need to be re-initiated and taught properly.”

Nu tensed.

“But first you will talk and tell us what we need to know.”

Elizabeta studied Izsak. Their eyes met briefly.

“Oh, I almost forgot to tell you, Gamma,” Delta interjected suddenly, turning her head towards the man. “You know how I went to handle some of the generator conductors and reservoirs that were being built up in Virgo?”

Izsak turned to her and nodded.

“That sapling Virgo planted some time ago is in full bloom,” she continued. “I have some concerns about it? I noticed that some of the plants in the area were rather peculiar.”

“Peculiar?” 

“It’s difficult to explain without being there and seeing it for yourself,” Delta said. “I did say I was a horrible teacher and explainer, didn’t I? But… those trees…. I revisited that place again a week later and the radius of that peculiarity had expanded. The Virgoans seemed peculiar about it too, so… I’d like to see it again? Gamma, could you visit it again and record what you see there for me? Down. To. The. Detail?”  

Izsak nodded again.

Delta looked back up at the ceiling and her eyes became half-lidded. “Alrighty. I’m ready then.”

Izsak abruptly reached out and touched her face. She held his hand briefly before nodding again. Jealousy simmered in Elizabeta’s chest. Before she could digest the feeling, however, Izsak conjured a pistol in his conductor-gloved hand. As realization and horror dawned, a loud bang! rang out loud and clear.

Blood splattered onto Elizabeta’s face. Shards of Delta’s skull painted the walls. Elizabeta’s ears were ringing. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t seen anything like this before. There were plenty of body parts flying around during the war—sometimes the fight would even spill into the medical camps. She’d had to fire a few guns herself during those times. Izsak had always come to comfort her in that silly way of his afterwards—making little quirky jokes here and there and sometimes even bringing her his better food rations. She had to comfort him too—even before she’d accepted his proposal. Gabrielle probably had never seen it, but Izsak had cried on many nights whenever there was a lull in the fight. There were children on the battlefield after all. That was something Elizabeta and Izsak had both trying to prevent from happening again—for future children, for Csilla. 

When Elizabeta came to her senses, she found that Izsak was kneeling on one knee, one hand placed over his chest. So was Iota. So was Nu—although his hands were still bound. Then they began to chant in unison together that old language again. This time, however, Elizabeta understood what they were saying because Jericho had translated it for a handful of times before—

“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.”

Elizabeta turned her head slightly just in time to see Alwin lift his head and remove his hand from his chest. Emilia and Klaus—pale and stiff—were studying him. A shifting sound drew Elizabeta’s attention back to Izsak and Iota who had risen and were now moving Delta’s limp body to the far corner of the room. Izsak plucked something that had been hanging around the dead woman’s neck—a knife-shaped pendant that now had a handle filled with wispy white light.

“Why…?” Elizabeta whispered, wiping the blood from his face. “It’s a waste—”

“It’s her choice,” Izsak returned evenly as he tucked the pendant into his coat pocket. “She would not have survived. She’s returned to her resistor. What remaining vitae in that body has been allowed to return to the cycle. Our rations will last for longer—”

“Freedom,” Nu muttered.

Elizabeta stared at them all in disbelief before a cold thought dropped to the pit of her stomach.

Csilla—what if she’d seen—

A hand on her shoulder cut the thought off short. Csilla was behind her now, brows furrowed with pity. Csilla wiped some of the wetness off from Elizabeta’s face before walking over to where Delta’s corpse now resided. She picked up small stones on her walk there before placing them slowly around and then on top of Delta’s body. Elizabeta didn’t stop her and sent Iota a warning look when the man made a move towards her. 

Elizabeta wanted to cry at the sight but maintained her composure. She’d spent half of her life trying to make sure her daughter never witnessed something as gruesome as this, and yet here she was watching Csilla build a makeshift grave around a corpse. It took Csilla half an hour to finish Delta’s burial. It took fifteen minutes for Elizabeta to realize Izsak was watching Csilla for just as long. 

And thus the waiting game for rescue began.

* * *

Elizabeta noted that Emilia Bergmann was rather good with children. Csilla had taken a clear liking to her ever since Elizabeta had left her in the Capricornian’s care. They seemed to enjoy talking about the latest fashion trends and catalogs and icons together—although Iota oddly, frequently dipped in to add some odd comment about ‘style’ and ‘aesthetics.’

Their groups were still quite tense in each other’s presences, but the ELPIS Leaders were surprisingly civilized and fair. Food and water were all rationed evenly—although  Elizabeta noted that the ELPIS Leaders didn’t eat as much as they did. This was something she’d noticed about Jericho as well. He never ate a lot—though he ate more than the ELPIS Leaders which Elizabeta had attributed to Alice’s work. His diet had improved since she’d gotten to know him, however. Given what she’d learned about True Conductors, she assumed that was attributed to one of the ones he was connected to.

It was all rather surreal. ELPIS Leaders, Capricornian soldiers, a peacekeeper, and a saint candidate—all in the same squared-off space. It sounded like the beginning of a terrible joke. 

Again, despite knowing of her daughter’s invulnerability, Elizabeta worried for her. Whenever Csilla was not at Elizabeta’s side or Emilia’s side, she not-so-subtly wandered over towards Izsak. Izsak would walk off in the opposite direction every single time. This resulted in the two making about ten rounds around the small space they shared every single day. Iota, Alwin, Nu, and Emilia watched them with varying degrees of curiosity and discomfort. Elizabeta, on the other hand, watched them, tense. She was unsure of how to feel. She felt like a terrible mother: letting her daughter follow a man who had hurt her. A man who was Elizabeta’s own husband, Csilla’s own father. But that damned hope… 

Yes. It all felt surreal.

* * *

It was on the third day of their entrapment that Elizabeta noticed Izsak’s limp getting worse. When Emilia captured Csilla’s attention later that evening, Elizabeta took the opportunity to approach Izsak alone. She followed him into the small corner she’d seen him go into several times before—a corner opposite to where Delta’s small tomb was made. He didn’t turn as she followed him. However, once they paced behind a rather large boulder and were out of sight of the others, Izsak immediately whipped around to face her. Elizabeta held her ground. 

“When I told Taurus to stop following me, I was also speaking to you, Wtorek Elizabeta.”

“Your leg,” she tried, irritated at herself for feeling awkward around her own husband. “Let me see it. I’m not letting you try what… Delta did there.” She pointed to a small boulder behind him. “Sit.”

“You seem to misunderstand your situation. You—”

“Sit.” 

Izsak’s eyes narrowed but he relented and sat down. Elizabeta kneeled before him, heart hammering as she slowly rolled his left pants leg up. It had been a long time since she’d been this close to him. It almost felt like it had been forever—

Elizabeta’s heart skipped a beat as she registered the bluish-black bruising that ran from his knee to his angle. “How… How long has it been like this?” 

“I assume it’s been like that since we fell down this place.”

A smartass. 

“And who’s fault is that…?” Elizabeta muttered, calming her nerves and reaching out to touch the area. It was hot. She pressed down a bit harder—unintentionally. “Sorry—” She paused and looked up at him as realization dawned. “You… can’t feel this at all?” 

Izsak shook his head. “Analgesia—”

“I know what it is…” Elizabeta put her fist to her mouth and squeezed her eyes shut. She tried to swallow a sob but couldn’t. 

Izsak shifted in place. “If it’s too much for you, then there’s no need. Lambda can—“

“No, I’ll do it,” Elizabeta insisted. “It’s fractured, so… I need to feel to see where it is. I can go from there after…”

Izsak remained silent, and so Elizabeta began feeling along his leg. There. The break at the center of his tibia. She could feel it—even though he couldn’t.

“You say you want to prevent the syzygy…” she drew in the quiet, activating her conducting gloves and breaking into a sweat as she tried to move muscle, tendon, and bone beneath his skin.  “And the syzygy is a terrible thing—Csilla’s told me loosely about it. So… you trying to stop it isn’t a bad thing. But the people caught in the crossfire? The civilians caught up in your attacks on the generator conductors reservoirs—”

“A necessary sacrifice. The lives that are lost will return to the cycle so long as conductors are not used to end them. The vitae particles will remain as they are and be purified as they enter and exit the threshold—”

“The way you talk makes it sound like you don’t value life at all—damnit!” Elizabeta fell forward, panting and wiping her brow. His vitae—it was almost impossible—to move around. She didn’t meet her husband’s gaze as he peered down at her. “I’m sorry. I—no, I’ve got this.”

“Was Zu able to heal your injuries?” Izsak inquired suddenly. “And Taurus?”

“Csilla,” Elizabeta corrected, teeth clenched. “Her name is Csilla. And Alwin did his best.” It took her another moment to realize that there had been concern in his voice. “How… much do you remember?” she whispered, pausing in her work. “I know you remember some things—enough to keep that photograph, enough to walk away—”

“It doesn’t matter. Wtorek Izsak—”

“I know,” Elizabeta hissed. “Izsak would never hurt Csilla like you did, but…just tell me how much you remember, dammit! You owe me that much, don’t you?”

After a pause, Izsak said quietly, “When I say ‘remember,’ I’m referring to snapshots of memories—vague impressions, blips. I want you to keep this in mind.”

“That’s more than enough.”

“Okay.”

Elizabeta waited.

“… I vaguely remember meeting Gabrielle,” he drew slowly. “I remember seeing a knife that I conjured and signed with my name embedded in a child’s back. I remember seeing you for the first time. It was on a Sunday morning and your medical unit was being integrated into Izsak’s. You slapped a soldier for trying to hide his injury right before Gabrielle introduced you to Izsak. Izsak was terrified of you after that but also enamored. You insulted his height.”

Elizabeta wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. 

“I remember the first ten times Izsak proposed to you. I remember the very last. I remember the wedding in Okör. I remember the decision to conceive Csilla. I remember the day of Csilla’s birth—the night sky was clear and the stars were visible. Csilla. A star of hope. I remember Csilla’s first steps and our first vacation to Hapaira. I remember the fight over what department to enter. I remember Csilla’s eight birthday—she wanted a stuffed rabbit plush. I remember—”

Elizabeta sobbed before she could stop herself and pressed forward against his knee as she lost control of her body. The memories he listed began replaying in her mind. The details were unclear, the memories faded, but the feelings weren’t. “H-How can you just call all of those ‘blips’…? That’s our life…!”

Blips. There for a moment, gone in the next, never to return.


The Capricornians were surprisingly resilient—or so Gamma noticed. The Capricornian woman with the cheese was unfamiliar to him, although he reasoned she was familiar with Wtorek Izsak given the frequent looks she would give him. Gamma, on the other hand, recognized the man with the glasses: the Capricornian was present in Die Hauptstadt the previous year when Gamma had temporarily stayed in the city himself. The Capricornian was most likely a companion of the Capricornian True Conductor who was connected to the suitcase peacekeeper. Foolish. Such a relationship was akin to holding the hand of someone who was friends with your executioner.

Gamma did not go near that trio often and left the task of their orientation to Iota. This was because Taurus frequented the cheese woman’s side, and Taurus made Gamma uncomfortable. This Taurus at least. He did not believe she truly came with simple intention—wanting to find her father. Only an idiot would believe such a lie. However, every time she would cast a glance in his direction, he’d falter and give into the belief. He pitied her. So—perhaps he was a fool rather than an idiot then. 

On the fifth day of their entrapment, Gamma passed by the small hovel the Capricornians had claimed as their own and noted that the Wtoreks were not with them. Gamma thus approached them, ignoring how they all visibly tensed. Zu reached into the cheese woman’s duffel bag and procured a small slice of bread.

“Iota tells me that there is almost nothing left in your resistor, Zu,” Gamma said, accepting it from him. “Is this true?”

Zu tensed, hand drifting hesitantly to his belt. That was enough of an answer for Gamma.

Gamma inclined his head. “We will have a proper parting when this body fails you then.”

“What?” Zu—Alwin—tensed further. “You’re not going to return me to my resistor?”

“There would be no point. There is not enough of you left to form ‘Zu’ if we re-initiated you. It would be a meaningless action and a waste of resources. You are uninjured and plan to assist us, correct?” 

Alwin swallowed before smiling slightly. “I have to admit that it hurts me as Zu to have you writing me off just like that.”

“You’re not Zu.”

“Yeah, I’m not,” Alwin agreed. After some apparent hesitation, he added, “But that sliver of Zu that remains in me was enough to make me almost kill my captain for being a True Conductor.”

“So you were associated with that True Conductor—that suitcase peacekeeper—and you let him live?”

Zu—Alwin—studied him. “Of course, I did. He’s my captain.”

“You recall what the purpose of True Conductors is.”

Alwin shook his head. 

“Then—”

“I still wouldn’t agree with what you guys are doing just killing True Conductors,” Alwin said. He scoffed. “I still feel awful for even trying it. I lost my head there. What good would it do? Slow down the syzygy by a fraction? It’s a meaningless death.”

“You think we don’t value life?” Gamma looked away. 

Alwin did a double-take. “What…?”

“You’re just proving how little of Zu remains—”

“Hey. It was enough for me to decide to follow Iota here—enough for me to decide to leave my fiancé to help you stop this thing. It might be a little, but it’s enough.”

Gamma turned back to stare at him.  “What are you implying?”

“I’m… just saying that I’m not an ass who doesn’t feel sorry for a widow and her daughter.”

* * *

When the eighth day rolled around, Gamma came to a decision. He approached Iota who was kneeling in front of Nu and staring him down as he usually did: another unsuccessful interrogation. 

“Iota, will you accept position as delegated leader?” Gamma asked.  

Nu’s brows furrowed.

Iota shot up to a stand and whipped around, seeming to understand the implication immediately. “What? Are you sure, Gamma?” He looked over at Nu. “There’s only Nu and you here to cast the vote. I don’t believe Tau would agree with me being leader. Beta would be the more obvious choice.

“We’ve encountered many scenarios we haven’t prepared for. Betrayal, incorrect initiations, an extended timeline. Dogmatism needs to be… curbed at times.”

“I’m rather… surprised to hear you say that,” Iota muttered, “but I suppose that’s an indicator in itself…”

Gamma nodded. “Yes, but I don’t believe I’m anywhere near Theta’s pitiful state.”

“But are you sure, Gamma? I mean—” Iota looked him up and down. “I’ll reinitiate you as soon as I can, but—with all respect guaranteed—isn’t that a waste? I understood Delta’s reasoning but…”

“This initiation is inconvenient,” Gamma answered evenly. “Taurus is playing games and that peacekeeper is delusional.” 

Iota put a hand to his chin. “But you’re a peacekeeper, Gamma. And that peacekeeping woman and Taurus seem to have an attachment to you. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to use it your current identity to your advantage? It might be easier to gain access to reservoirs—”

“Using identities for convenience?” Gamma’s eyes narrowed. “Are you suggesting I follow in Theta’s footsteps? Were you truly initiated correctly?”

“With all due respect, Gamma, my initiation surely is more right than yours,” Iota replied. “I held my tongue about what’s been going on here since you’re leader but I have been questioning things.” He waved his hand in the air. “Instead of debating about it, let’s just carry on, shall we? Re-initiation—”

“What…?” came a whisper from behind.

Upon turning, Gamma found Elizabeta approaching them.

“Re-initiation…? Were you thinking about killing yourself just now, Izsak…?” Elizabeta paled. “Like you did to Delta?”

“That’s none of your concern.”

“Of course it’s my concern—”

Alright.” Iota clapped his hands. “This is obviously going in a very awkward direction, so I’ll take my leave now.” He did as he said, sliding past them and walking over towards the Capricornians.

Upon returning his attention to Elizabeta, Gamma found the woman staring daggers into him.

“The rations will only last several more days,” Gamma explained himself even though he knew he didn’t need to. “Lambda will come, but I’m unsure of when that will happen—”

“The mountaineers will probably only take a couple more days,” Elizabeta insisted. “If we just wait—”

“Yes, they’ll come with their corrupt ways of conducting.” Gamma frowned. “My final delegate Iota as the defacto temporary leader, since he’s the least injured out all of us. We will save resources that way—”

“What…?” Elizabeta did a double-take. “How can you give up so easily?”

“This is not giving up—”

“Yes, it is!” Elizabeta snapped. “Do you hear yourself, Izsak—”

“You know I’m not Izsak.” 

Elizabeta shut her mouth. 

“Taurus also knows this.”

Her frown thinned. “Why…? Really—why? I know it has to be more than that.”

Gamma stared her down, but after struggling beneath her gaze, he said, “Being around me is difficult for the both of you. And… being around you is also difficult for me. It’s akin to torture. I don’t understand your apprehension.”

Elizabeta stared. “Torture…?”

“My sole purpose is to prevent the syzygy to preserve everything we worked towards and everything Ophiuchus worked towards.” He closed his eyes, placing a hand to his chest.  “That is the vow I made to her—whether or not she herself accepted it. I don’t intend to stray from the path ever—even when the others have—and I will continue along it until the rest of my vitae ebbs away into nothing.” He opened his eyes and studied Elizabeta’s somber expression. It hurt to look at so he looked away. “And yet here I’ve allowed you to use your filthy, crooked conductors on me and am conversing openly with a peacekeeper who’s unwittingly been contributing to the syzygy with every breath she takes. I keep a picture that’s not mine and—” Gamma returned his gaze to her but froze.

Elizabeta didn’t look sad anymore but angry. Her fists were clenched.

“So it’s getting hard for you so you’re going to decide to just end it?”

 “It’s not an end,” Gamma replied. “It’s a temporary state.”

“It might as well be an end.” Elizabeta glowered, slipping into her native tongue. “You’re going to be snapped back to zero.”

Gamma slipped into the language as well: “The fruits of my labors will remain and the records—”

“Fruits of your labors…? You mean the innocent people you’ve killed. Is that all you ELPIS Leaders know how to do? Extinguish life because ‘it’ll return to the cycle’ and then carry on with grand monologues about how you’re right—”

Gamma’s eyes narrowed. “I won’t stand here arguing with—”

Abruptly, Elizabeta reached forward and grabbed him by the scruff of his shirt. “You will fucking live and you will fucking make up for everything you’ve taken away from us. If it hurts, then suffer for it!” she hissed, tightening her grip. “Izsak was a good ma—” Her voice cracked and she slid to her knees. “He was so, so good to me, to us, to everyone. He made mistakes—we both did—but I-I love—loved—him so much. And now you’ve taken him away from me. You’re tearing apart everything we worked for. And soon people won’t even remember all the good he’sdone because it’ll be overshadowed by every single terrible thing you’ve done.” She buried her face into his leg that she had just barely managed to heal the other day. “You promised me you wouldn’t die… You promised me, Izsak! You… lied…”

Gamma’s chest squeezed. Here it was again. This pain that managed to break past the numbness that bleaching vitae gave. Unfamiliar, unpleasant. Guilt—expanding out.

“Why did we think we could’ve changed anything?” Elizabeta whispered. “Why didn’t we just take simple jobs? We’d toil away every single day and we wouldn’t make as much, but we’d be able to spend more time with Csilla. We’d be there for every single parent-student event at Csilla’s school. We wouldn’t have to rely on a nanny so often. Csilla… Why did we let Csilla go through that ceremony? Why didn’t we research more beforehand? Are we terrible parents…? ”

Gamma stared.

“Answer me!”

He remained silent.

“Can’t you see that all Csilla wants is to be hugged by her father?” Elizabeta whispered. “Can’t you see that all I want right now is to be hugged by my husband?” 

Before Gamma realized what he was doing, he was sinking down beside her. He held her hands in his own.

“But I am not your husband and I am not Csilla’s father,” he said. “There is not enough of his vitae left in this body for me to be considered Wtorek Izsak. These fragments and familiarities are not enough to form a full person. Pretending otherwise would not only be a rejection of the sanctity of the cycle, but it would also be marring your husband’s name. If you are the woman that Izsak remembers you to be, then you know this. And. I apologize for your loss.”

Elizabeta stared at him and then scoffed. “How can you say something like that—like you’re tying off some nice finishing bow? I can’t even hold a funeral because you’re standing here, but I don’t want you dead because then you’d just become Izsak’s… corpse. You better not… Y-You better not—” She wept.

Each tear that spilled from her eyes was like a knife to the chest. He wanted to make the tears stop—to stop her pain and his own—but he knew he couldn’t.

“I’m sorry, Liza,” Gamma stated, wiping a tear from her cheek. “I will remain here. There is more work I can still do.”

* * *

“You… made Elizabeta cry…”

Gamma lifted his head. He was sitting in the corner he had made for himself away from the others. He’d been staring at the photograph for the past half hour. He could remember the day the photo was taken—just barely. It had been a sunny afternoon and they’d been trekking their way down from Izsak’s old house in the middle of the Okör mountain range. Csilla’s legs had given out halfway through  and so Izsak had given her a piggyback ride the rest of the way down. They had made a stop by the famous flower fields at the half-way point and Elizabeta had spread out a picnic blanket beside an old, wiry oak tree. Csilla had plucked several flowers from the surrounding fields and Izsak and Elizabeta had worked together to weave a crown into the little girl’s hair. 

A simple blip.

Coming back to this photo and reminiscing on memories that were not his own was an addiction—Gamma knew this. But he couldn’t help himself. He hungered for it. And it felt like a betrayal against Ophiuchus.

As soon as he registered that it was Taurus standing before him, however, he folded the photo back into his pocket.

“Taurus,” he acknowledged her, “what do you want?”

“Pothos, I remember you being more tactful in the past, so it’s pitiable to see you deteriorate to this point,Taurus said. She added: “Don’t make her cry again. I mean it.” 

“So you do know who I am.” Gamma stood and approached her, eyes narrowing.  “I admit you almost had me fooled with this act. I started assuming your baptism somehow was faulty in the same way our initiations can be.”

Taurus looked up at him. 

He waited.

She said, “Elizabeta tells me that you remember things.”

“Slightly more than the usual initiation,” Gamma returned evenly.

Taurus slowly began to pace around him in circles, looking him up and down and up and down. Gamma regarded her, ready to conjure a weapon if necessary. Finally, she stopped in front of him, blinked up at him, asked—

“Can you conjure me a stuffed rabbit?”

Gamma assumed he had misheard. “What.”

“Like the one I wanted for my eighth birthday,” Taurus elaborated. “Mama says you remember that birthday.”

“What?” His eyes narrowed and his suspicion grew. “Why? Is it a conduit for the syzygy—”

“What?” Taurus snorted. “No, it’s just a rabbit, Papa. It was limited edition.”

The title sent another stinging jab to his chest. She was playing games again—

“Please…?”

Gamma slowly sank back down on the boulder and studied Taurus carefully. Her hair was pulled into a messy braid—no doubt Wtorek Elizabeta’s work. She was good with working with bodies but was terrible with working with hair. Taurus’s dress was in a similar state—torn in some areas, stained in others. The saint candidate looked pitiful.

“Will you leave me alone if I heed this request?”

Taurus didn’t reply.

Gamma studied at her before closing his eyes and searching his memory. Yes, there: a stuffed rabbit with floppy ears, blue-button eyes, and a red bow-tie. He held out his hand before opening his eyes and piecing together the requested object from his vitae in his palms. He was left exhausted at the end of the ordeal and frowned upon realizing he’d wasted his vitae on something so foolish. Regardless, he threw the newly conjured stuffed animal to Csilla. 

The saint candidate caught it, stared at it. Gamma studied her face. Her shoulders slumped. He couldn’t understand why.

“It’s cute…” she mumbled. “It’s supposed to be ugly.”

“Why would you desire something that’s ugly?” 

Gamma hadn’t gone to many of Taurus’s lessons back in the Aesculapium, but he recalled Taurus being one for simple aesthetics. So this sudden desire for ugliness was odd. This entire situation was odd. 

“Ugly cute…” Taurus murmured, setting the stuffed rabbit on the ground. “I don’t like it…”

Gamma felt insulted. What a spoiled brat, he thought. No, this was a saint candidate. Not a girl, not a brat.

“Izsak worked very hard to conjure something pleasant-looking appearance for you,” Gamma drew, “and in reality, you wanted something that was ugly—”

Abruptly, Taurus charged towards him. He startled, ready to conjure a weapon but froze when she abruptly wrapped her arms around him. He immediately shoved her away. Taurus stumbled back and fell on her rear. Tense, Gamma stared at her as she picked herself off the ground and dusted herself off. A second later and she was throwing her arms around him once more. Again, he shoved her away. This time she caught herself before she fell and ran to him again for an embrace. Again, he pushed her away. Each time she came, he shoved her back harder. Each time she was shoved back harder, she ran to him faster. On the thirteenth shove, Taurus fell flat on her back. She picked herself up like she did all the times before, but remained standing in place. When their eyes met, she let out a sudden wail as tears began to pour out from the corner of her eyes.  It was a caterwaul

Tensing and not wanting to deal with Elizabeta again nor hear that painful sound any longer, Gamma walked briskly to Taurus’s side, knelt down, and half-whispered, half-hissed, “This is asinine. Keep quiet. I’ll conjure you something else. Shut up. How old are you to be crying like this—”

“Why are you so mean? I don’t care about the syzygy anymore.” Taurus sniffled, wiping her eyes and gulping between breaths. “I hate Scorpio. I hate Gamma. I hate the saint candidates and I hate ELPIS. It’s not fair. I keep trying and trying…”  

“How dare you say you no longer care about—”

“Papa, Mama’s so, so, so lonely,” Taurus whimpered. “She’s been so sad since you’ve been gone and I made her sadder by running away. A-And she’s the only one left now, and it’s just…” Her voice cracked. “It’s just too sad.” She rubbed her eyes. “Our problem is that we’re fixated on the big picture.”

Gamma frowned at the change in tone.

“Both of us. ELPIS. The Saint Candidates. The syzygy, the turn of the vitae cycle, vitae reservoirs,  the generators, war, peace. The big picture.” She hiccupped. We failed to look at the tiny details. Papa always said the tiny details were important—especially in conjuring. A bunch of Capricornian soldiers trying to not be burdens to their families, their country, and the people they care about. A bunch of stupid peacekeepers coming together with a skeleton plan to try and achieve peace. A man playing up ridiculous eccentricities just to make a little girl laugh. A child playing on a swing set with friends at school and family at home. Schoolyard fights and insults. A mountaineer giving tourists directions on where to go and what places to avoid on a dangerous peak. A mother trying to transmute her family back together. All of it— tiny like ants—blips—in the great turn of the cycle.” She sniffled. “But in those moments—in those snapshots, in those details… Papa, you and Mama showed me there was so much meaning…” She took in a shaky breath. “Never in any of my lives”—she whimpered— “have I ever been treated so kindly, have I ever been spoiled rotten to this degree.” She buried her head in her hands. “Papa also said people who’re miserable expect everyone else to become miserable too and unintentionally make people around them miserable because of that…. Gamma, I-I think we’ve made everyone around us miserable.”

Gamma was still trying to digest her words. “Crying won’t change anything.” He studied the weeping saint candidate as each tear she shed intensified the twisting in his stomach. Then Iota’s words suddenly came to mind—Taurus as an ally? Leo had been an ally as well and that had turned out poorly. Therefore, attempting to reach an agreement was not an ethical nor sound decision. However— “If you are truly against the syzygy as you say you are, then—”

“You don’t listen!” Taurus interjected, throwing her hands out in frustration. “I said I don’t care about it anymore! Ugh! You never listen! It’s the details! The details!”

Gamma stared. Taurus blinked away her tears to meet his gaze and burst out into even more tears. Before he could say anything else, she again threw her arms around his neck. He tried to shove her away again but this time her grip was iron tight. After a moment or so of struggling, he gave up trying to rip her away.

“This is ridiculous, Taurus—”

“Csilla,” Csilla insisted. “It’s Csilla.”

This was torment. 

Gamma struggled as that pain gnawed up his stomach and clenched his chest. “This is silly, Csilla.”

Csilla’s breath hitched and her grip around him tightened. “Can we please play pretend, Papa?”

Gamma remained silent.

“Pretty please?”

The two words struck a chord within his chest and his mind. Faded memories of Csilla begging to stay out late just a little bit longer to catch fireflies out in the summer fields, memories of her begging to have one more piece of chocolate after dinner, memories of her begging for Izsak to go down one more waterslide with her flitted through Gamma’s mind. Izsak would give into her every single time—which had resulted in this brattish behavior. And so, Gamma too gave in—wrapping his hands around her small body.

 “Okay. We can play pretend.”

She remained sobbing into his shoulder for a long time—clenching tight, not letting go. Gamma remained perfectly still, staring ahead towards the opposite wall where Nu sat watching them. And just a little ways behind him—Wtorek Elizabeta. Finally, after what felt like both an eternity and a millisecond, Csilla pulled away from him and rubbed her eyes again. Her face was beet red, her eyes swollen.

“Thank you, Gamma.”

A small blip was what this moment was.

* * *

On the twelfth day, shouting seeped down from above and grew nearer and nearer. Mountaineers. Rescuers. It seemed as if Elizabeta’s words of praise about Taurusian earth Elementalist rang true. Iota shouted back up at them, guiding the rescuers on where to dig. Soon, they would be free. 

Gamma approached Wtorek Csilla and Wtorek Elizabeta on his own that evening. The two were sharing a meal together with the Capricornians who tensed as he approached. Ignoring them, he sat down across from the Wtoreks.

“The details of what happened before I became initiated,” he began. “Would you like to know?”

Elizabeta nearly dropped the slice of cheese in her hand. “You remember…?”

Gamma explained, “All I know for certain are three things. Firstly, the person who murdered Wtorek Izsak had an unusual style of conducting. I recall his shock from seeing it— although I don’t remember what his assailant’s conducting actually was. In short: the person who murdered him was most likely a saint candidate. That or a Specialist. Perhaps both.”

Elizabeta’s gaze darkened. “Scorpio…”

Gamma glanced at her. “Scorpio was not baptized at the time of his death, Liza.” 

Elizabeta quieted.

“Secondly, the person who murdered Wtorek Izsak must have been someone whom he trusted.” Gamma tapped his chest. “There was an intense feeling of betrayal at the moment of death. Thirdly—as I’m sure you’re somewhat aware of—Wtorek Izsak stumbled upon what I believe was the truth regarding the reservoirs, the vitae cycle, and the saint candidate. He was planning to make his findings known—”

Elizabeta clenched her fists, smooshing the sandwich in her hands. “And that’s why…?”

“Why he was killed?” Gamma inquired. “Most likely.”

Csilla slowly lowered the sandwich in her hands as her eyes widened. Realization, shock, horror, hurt, anguish—the emotions flitted across her face quickly. Gamma fought the urge to come to her side. Finally the last emotion to appear on her delicate face was pure rage. She clenched her fists, her fingers glowing a dark russet color, the bread and cheese melting in her hands.

The Capricornians stared wide-eyed and somewhat fearful, but then—

“Csilla! You’re making a mess!”

At her mother’s chastising, the light surrounding Csilla’s hand dimmed and her cheeks pinkened. Gamma studied her face and stared at her, but she didn’t elaborate on what exactly she had realized.

* * *

Soon, the mountaineers and rescuers were separated from them by only a thin layer of rock. Iota conversed with them casually. Gamma disapproved of this, but accepted it as necessary. However, he began to think on how exactly he would deal with the rescuers once they found out there were ELPIS Leaders down here. As he considered different possibilities, Csilla approached him with a clump of dust and dirt in her hands. Once she was directly in front of him, she spat into the clump, mixed it into a paste with her index finger, and reached towards his face. He immediately pulled away in disgust but she frowned and glared at him. So, he relented and allowed her to smear the dirt mixture over his lower jaw and throat. A moment later, he realized she was covering up his tattoo.

“I’m not going to hide my dedication and my purpose,” Gamma drew, reaching to rub it away.

“Pretend,” Csilla insisted, grabbing his wrist and stopping him short. “For now. Please?”

“It’ll save us trouble from them identifying you,” Elizabeta reasoned, joining them. “You can’t be that stringent all the time. It’s no wonder you’ve barely made any progress.”

Gamma stared at the Wtoreks for a moment before looking over at Iota who was already covering up the tattoo on his arm. 

“Where are you going to go?” Elizabeta asked, drawing his attention back.

“Virgo before refocusing on Alpha,” he answered, before looking down at Csilla. “You understand why.”

Csilla’s brows met rather adorably. “I don’t actually… Virgo—she stepped away after the war. I don’t know what she’s doing over there…” She shifted from side to side, reaching for her mother’s hand and holding it. “Can we… come?” She looked at Elizabeta. “Can we go, Mama?”

Elizabeta answered by holding Gamma’s gaze.

“We can’t play games forever,” he informed them.

“I know, Gamma,” Csilla replied, taking his hand with her free one. “I know.”

Rumbling resounded above their heads. 

In unison, they turned to look up at the tiny little hole in the caved-in ceiling. Slowly that little blip of light there grew larger and larger—basking everything in bright white.


a/n: AH. this chapter. was a time™ chapter updates will be much closer together and slightly more sporadic after this but i’ll always let you know when the chapters are coming on discord or twitter for the live reads o/. thanks for reading!!! we now appraoch the finale!!!

26.6: Jericho & Leona: A Colorless Forge

Re-cap:

Jericho has been remaining inside Francis’s rooms and watching over the now imprisoned Alpha and Leona. 

The steady beat of drums is resounding as a plan of escape boils beneath the surface. As the election, international conflict, and a potential ELPIS attack on Ophiuchus rapidly hurtle towards a meeting point, Jericho must decide how to deal with Leona.


(  )

Jericho had ‘mixed feelings’ about entering the room where Alpha resided. At times, he stayed up late into the night staring up at the ceiling and thinking about what he would say and what he would do the next time he saw the one. Clarification: he was not excited about this. 

Contrarily: other times he tried to ‘busy’ himself with other activities to not think about the meeting.  He at first divided his time between visiting Werner and visiting Maria. After Francis and Cadence ‘made up’, he also visited Francis from time-to-time. However: all three of them started to become preoccupied themselves. Werner had a plan, and Francis and Cadence were acting in accordance with that plan. Everyone was. Jericho had his own part to play. Note: an ‘important’ part. Werner had said they were relying on him. This had made Jericho something akin to happy.

But first: Werner had said that it was important to ‘rectify’ the situation with Leona in order to proceed with his part in the ‘operation.’ Jericho understood this. He Just did not know exactly how to do it. 

He visited the room Leona and Alpha shared every single day to feed them. Often, he would bring whatever food Cadence grabbed from the outside. Sometimes this was pasta; sometimes it was pizza; sometimes it was just bread. Other times, he would bring things Werner would make. Recent discovery: Werner could cook. ‘Sort of.’ Olive thought it was ‘bland’ food but had tried to hide the thought from Werner. He was not successful in his attempt.

Note: feeding Leona and Alpha was difficult. Jericho could not untie them. It would be too dangerous. So: he had decided to feed them by hand. Correction: he had decided to feed Leona. In Alpha’s case, Jericho often threw whatever food he brought with him onto Alpha’s lap with little regard. Sometimes the scalding hot food would spill all over the man’s lap and even douse his chest. Jericho didn’t care. Epsilon therefore took over feeding Alpha instead.

Returning point: Leona was difficult to feed.

The first time Jericho had brought a spoon to her mouth, she had lifted her chin and glowered at him. She never spat, however, and never kicked nor shoved him away. Intuition at the time: this was good.

“The disrespect,” she had said one day after refusing another meal. “Do you still not understand who I am?”

The possibility of her starving to death had eventually arisen. This would not have been a ‘good’ development. Reasoning: Leona was necessary for their plan.

“It is like you are royalty,” Jericho had reasoned some days afterwards, following Cadence’s whispered direction. “Being spoon fed. Is it not customary for those in power to be spoon fed from time to time? I am like your ‘butler’ in this case. Maybe.” 

Leona had merely frowned. After some time, however, she had relented and had begun allowing Jericho to feed her. She never had anything nice to say about the food. ‘Bland,’ ‘lacking taste’, ‘awful,’ ‘commoner food,’ ‘made by a novice.’ Cadence often pretended to be insulted by the fact, while Werner seemed rather distraught.

Thus: slowly, Jericho began to be able to adjust to this new ‘relationship.’

Then came Lita.

Jericho did not really know what to do with Lita. He knew she was going to come to him because Maria had asked her to, but Jericho didn’t understand why Maria had asked her to come to him. Conjecture: Maria wanted him to console Lita. He understood that he was similar to Lita in one or two particular areas, but he did not understand how to ‘console’ her. The others like Werner and Atienna were much better at this ‘consolation’ than him. Francis was also better with his words.  Just be yourself, Jeri, was what Maria had left him with. Jericho wasn’t certain on what she had meant by that.

“Aw, come on, detective. You can do it. You’re thinkin’ about it too much is all,” Cadence reassured Jericho when he had asked her to speak in his place. “Just start ramblin’ about yourself and show her a couple of your drawings.” After a moment, she’d added: “Try it for yourself first, detective.  And if things start goin’ south, then I’ll step in for ya.”

Jericho was uncertain if he was reassured by this. There was no time to think, however. Shortly after this conversation, Lita came to him in Francis’s piano room just as he was about to exit. She did not come alone. Albatross accompanied her, his arm looped around hers. 

“Hello,” Jericho greeted them, taking a step back to allow them entry.

“Jericho?” asked Lita.

“Yeah, it’s him,” Albatross confirmed, looking Jericho up and down and then eyeing the Ophiuchian sash on Jericho’s arm. “He’s very tall—taller than me—and he’s dark. He wears glasses—”

“Maria’s described him to me already…” Lita mumbled. “And I’ve met him a couple times before.”

Albatross flushed briefly. “Oh. Right.”

A stretch of silence followed. Jericho knew he should have said something, but he simply could not think of what to say. He tried to imagine Lita was Csilla—correction: Taurus. This did not prove helpful.  Talib was the one who was best at speaking with her. 

Lita fidgeted before lifting her head and staring in Jericho’s direction. “Can we talk? Here? Everywhere else is kind of… crowded right now. It’s getting busy…”

Jericho nodded, then amended himself: “Okay, but…” He glanced at Albatross. “Do you also need to be here?”

Albatross frowned and straightened before he glanced at Lita. “Only if Lita needs me here…”

Lita bobbed her head. 

“Okay.” Jericho nodded again. He thought for a moment before gesturing to the piano. 

Before they could move towards the instrument together, the gate behind them burst with light, and four figures stepped into the room: Tau and three Geminian police officers. Two women, one man. As soon as Tau laid eyes on the two children and Jericho himself, he became red in the face.

“Do you have the right to be here?!” Tau snapped, flying forward and jabbing a finger in each of their faces. “Why do you people think you can go wherever you damn well please, hm? Is this your house? No!” He whipped to face Lita. “And look at you, staring at me like you—

“She can’t see,” Albatross responded, brows furrowing. “Giustizia—”

Tau shut his mouth and pulled back before turning to Albatross and jabbing a finger at his chest. “You, boy, have no respect? Using my last name like some hooligan? Do you even have a license to be acting as a blind guide? Huh? No, I bet not! Look at you! You probably—”

“What—” Albatross frowned, taking a step back. “Isn’t that for dogs…?”

“We have permission to be here,” Jericho interjected, stepping in-between them and shoving Tau back. “Francis allowed it. We’ve been here longer than you have.”  

Easy, detective. 

Tau stumbled backwards. The Geminian officers rushed to his side and steadied him. Tau scowled before he brushed his shoulder off and pointed another finger in Jericho’s direction. He snapped, “That’s assault, you know. I could have you jailed for it! And how dare you imply you have seniority over me! Who do you damned think you are—” He began hacking and coughing and pounding his chest as the officers tended to him. 

Albatross pulled Lita away from Tau and towards Jericho.

When Tau’s coughs subsided, the man pushed his glasses up his nose and heaved: “I stood in this place as it was being built and who knows how many times after that. I have seniority—”

“In the past. But not now,” Jericho answered. “What matters more—”

“Er, boss…” one of the female officers behind Tau whispered. “Weren’t you coming here for something specific?”

“Right.” Tau shut his mouth and shook his head.  “Oh—no, no, no. I’m not going to let you waste my time and distract me. I can sue you for that too but I don’t have time to!” He pointed at them again, before whipping around and storming to the bookcases on the far left wall with his three officers tailing him. He continued to rattle: “But don’t think I’m letting you off the hook either! The universe infinitely curves towards justice—”  

Jericho gestured to the piano bench again. Albatross guided Lita over to the seat and took the far left corner of the bench while Lita sat at the center. Jericho stared briefly before taking the right corner. Lita fidgeted. 

“What would you like to talk about?” Jericho tried. 

Lita stiffened and lifted her head. After clasping her hands together and squeezing tight, she murmured, “You… also had your vitae bleached, right—”

“Yes,” answered Jericho immediately. 

Lita startled and after a moment asked, “How old were you…?”

Jericho thought about it. “I’m not sure. Conjecture: around your age. No: younger.”

Her brow’s knit. “And… did you start talking like that after it was bleached?”

Jericho paused. “‘Talking like that’?”

Lita pinkened. “Oh… nevermind…” She smoothed out her dress and played with some thread that had become undone at the edges. “Did it hurt for you?”

“Yes.” Jericho nodded. “I did not know how to describe it at first, but Atienna—she is someone who is also connected to us—read a book recently where a spy was captured and tortured by a foreign government. A fire Elementalist injected tiny amounts of his vitae into his prisoner to literally ‘put fire in his veins’—”

Albatross and Lita both paled.

Feeling his own cheeks pinken, Jericho quickly finished, “I think that is a good way to describe the pain. Was it the same for you?”

Biting her lip and rubbing her arms, Lita nodded. Her face scrunched, her eyes becoming wet. “And now… I can’t feel anything. Mr. Francis says that I need to be really careful since… I can’t see either, so I wouldn’t be able to tell…” 

Frowning, he reached over and put his hand over her own. “You can feel.”

Lita tensed at the contact.

“You can still feel things,” Jericho continued. “Warm. Cold. Textures: flowers, books, leather, flour. Tastes: sweet like strawberry, sour like lemon, bitter like coffee, salty like ocean water.” He realized that most of those sensations had been provided to him from the others.

“Barely,” Lita whispered.

“It gets better,” Jericho reassured her. “Slowly, little-by-little. Like a blank canvas. Adding color. From experiences. A full picture. The good and the bad.”

Lita peered at him curiously at this before she asked, “Are you… afraid?” 

“Afraid?”

“Afraid of… not… not ‘returning to the cycle’,” Lita stammered. “I don’t really know Mr. Foxman too well, but the others do and…. I heard a lot about the—uhm—concept when the others were… here… Kent talks about it a lot…” 

“I… don’t think about it,” Jericho answered honestly. “Oh. Correction: I didn’t. Until recently.” He stared at the gate on the opposite wall.  “I am not afraid of becoming nothingness.” Lifting his head, he gazed over at Tau who was still rifling through books. “ ELPIS continuing on and tricking more people without being brought to justice: I was afraid of this. But now there’s the syzygy.” 

And a reason for ELPIS. But a reason was not an excuse and not closure. In existence: a distinction. ELPIS Leaders who went one way and ELPIS Leaders who went the other way: differing with initiation or remaining the same. Original purpose: twisted and forgotten. 

But what if his own original purpose? Finding something else, yes, but—

Jericho blinked out of his thoughts and found Albatross arching a brow at him and Lita gazing in his direction expectantly. After reassuring himself of his surroundings with a quick scan of the room, he discovered that a new person had entered: Agape Rosario. With a v-cigarette hanging from her lips, she lounged on a small sofa in the far corner of the room. 

“When the others go, I will go too,” Jericho said. “They will return to the cycle. I won’t.” He frowned, feeling something hard and heavy swell in his chest. 

“That’s… dark,” Albatross muttered under his breath before Lita nailed him in the foot with her heel. 

“I’m sorry for complaining instead of actually talking,” Lita mumbled, “especially because I did this stupid thing myself.” She grimaced. “I was so stupid…”

Jericho shook his head. “No, you shouldn’t be angry at yourself. It was not your fault.” 

“He’s right…” Albatross agreed.

“I barely spoke to Proteus when I was younger,” Jericho said, “but I know he is the one who is wrong. Manipulative. It was your choice but it was not your choice.” He struggled to find the words. “You didn’t know what you were doing.”

“But I did…” Lita fidgeted. “I knew what would happen. I just didn’t want the others to also—” Letting out an abrupt sigh of frustration, she slammed her tiny fits into her lap. “Why didn’t the others just use their dumb brains! Bleaching your vitae… not returning… the cycle… ELPIS… ”

Somewhat startled, Jericho stared at her briefly before nodding. “Okay. Yes, you knew.”

Albatross glared at him.

“But. I didn’t know what I was doing,” Jericho continued, “and I did very bad things: returning people to the cycle. Killing people”—even after he’d left ELPIS— “You knew what you were doing and you tried to do a good thing: preventing others from becoming like us. From being tricked. Question: who is right and who is wrong then?”

A pop echoed through the room: Tau had snapped shut the book he’d been perusing. Turning on his heels, he said, “The offense is obvious, the verdict a bit more unclear. But that’s why we have the law to guide us.”

Uhm. Did anyone actually ask? Olive, listening in and scowling somewhere.

Tau turned to face them, a book pressed between both his palms. “Murder is a damned criminal offense in every single country on this damn continent—so in your case, Suitcase Peacekeeper, that would be your charge. And it would be my charge.” He whipped around and pointed at each of his officers and then at Agape. “And it would damn well be all of your charges too! How can you live with yourselves, you filthy murderers—”

“Wait—uhm. What’s… happening…? Is that Tau?” Lita whispered, looking around in confusion. “Are you still here, Jericho…?”

“Yes, I am still here,” Jericho replied evenly. “It is just someone else needs to shut their mouth so we can talk.”

Tau huffed.

“Tau, I’m sure if you visit some country outside of our continent,” Agape interjected suddenly, taking a slow drag of her v-cigarette, “murder would be viewed as acceptable in certain contexts or if done by a certain person in power. Laws and morals change. So how would you reach a verdict then?

Tau whipped to face her but did not start shouting. Instead, he replied, calm: “Laws and morals do change and evolve with time, context, and location. But it’s our duty as social beings capable of evolution and self-aware thought to evolve with them. It’s about respect, damnit. About justice! Are you even human if you’re incapable of that?”

Jericho did not like the fact that an ELPIS Leader like Tau was talking about morals, law, and justice. Clarification: Jericho wanted to strike the man for it. But there was a distinction, Jericho knew.  And that distinction made Jericho think. Something about what Tau said clicked inside of his mind. Evolution. Change. Yes, with that frame of reference, Jericho’s own changing—evolving—towards feelings ELPIS began to become more understandable to him.

“Who knew you were capable of philosophy, Giustizia,” was all Agape said.

“It’s not damned philosophy,” Tau snapped. “It’s damn common sense and morals.” He whipped around and pointed a finger at Jericho. “Don’t get too relaxed, Suitcase Peacekeeper. I am not consoling you. You still have one particular criminal charge that you need to answer for.” He lowered his hand. “You returned Omega to nothingness.”

“She pushed me down a flight of stairs,” Jericho replied immediately. “She was not innocent. Neither are you. You people, you trick people, you deserve punishment—”

I haven’t tricked anyone. Lies are for criminals. For cowards,” Tau spat. 

“You pretended to be the good old commissario, didn’t you?” Jericho found himself asking. “That’s a lie.”

Tau shut his mouth again before slapping a hand to his lips. “Damn. You’re right. Am I slipping? It’s the damned corruption of this place—I can’t even smell my own corruption with all this corruption stench!” He whipped around to his officers. “Why did none of you bring this to my attention?! Where did you earn your badges from—letting this fraud slip by you like it’s nothing? What? Did you fake earning your certifications—”

“Er, we did bring it up, boss,” one of the officers muttered. “After we found out…”

“Did you?” Tau huffed, pulled back, straightened his hair and glasses. “Well, then…” He returned his attention to Jericho. “Mr. Suitcase Peacekeeper, who exactly made you judge, jury, and executioner? There’s a reason those are separate damned professions given to separate damned people.” He turned his attention to Lita. “Moving aside temporarily from that charge: bleaching your vitae is not a criminal offense. It is a choice. Having bleached vitae does put you under ‘watch’ by the ELPIS Department of your silly peacekeeping organization, but it’s not until you break a law that you’re a criminal. You’re just like any other person—in fact, you have the leverage of suing for discrimination. Given that the modern perspective is that the vitae inside of your body is part of your property, you can even sue for bodily violation if you were arguably forced to bleach it.” He began to pace back and forth, slapping his book into his hand. “If you wanted to take it a step further, you can even sue for criminal coercion. There’s a distinct, clear, obvious difference between coerced choice and a choice made with full autonomy. Of course, one could argue what exactly constitutes as autonomy. ‘Despite coercion, you could still resist since you still have your mental faculties about you,’ one could argue—” He stopped short. “ Damn—where was I going with this?”

Jericho didn’t answer the man and turned his attention to Lita. Her brows were knitted. 

 “Oh, right.” Tau snapped his fingers. “Counter-arguments! Manipulation, duress, and so on—especially when done to minors. Learning about the cycle of vitae was something that was natural in my day among the generally educated, but the delivery of that knowledge always needed to be done with care and generally was delivered by practiced professors. Yes, everything does return to the natural cycle of vitae, but that doesn’t diminish the value of the vitae already here. In fact, it only highlights the value of it. Learning about the cycle while being taught this most important fact is essential. If not…” He gestured to Jericho. 

Saints. Olive again. He’s still talking? 

“Now onto the case of murder under manipulation. As current and conducting law of old dictates, those under the influence of a manipulator while committing a crime are pardoned as long as they’re subject to thorough counseling for an agreed upon timeframe afterwards. In this case, the law accepts the perpetrators as the victims. Of course, in the court of public opinion, the verdict could vary drastically” 

Jericho felt his stomach drop as he thought of that day in the Capricornian capital.

“Of course, you’re current practicing courts didn’t do a damn thing about upholding this after the Week of Blindness, did they?” Tau snapped. “Moving on! Any murder you’ve committed after realizing this fact and any completed with full autonomy: for that, you do receive a guilty verdict.” He spun around and pointed at Jericho again. “You murdered Omega when you were at full mental capacity, suitcase peacekeeper. For that, you are guilty. I rest my case.”

He… was making a case? 

“You were making a case?” Albatross voiced Olive’s thoughts aloud.

Tau approached their piano bench in response. Gesturing to Jericho then Lita, he said, “You were talking about becoming nothingness earlier? That was Omega’s ultimate fate. She won’t return to the cycle any longer. That’s all of our ultimate fates: nothingness.”

Lita’s brows furrowed, while Albatross smacked Tau’s finger away.

“Back in the day some considered that an ultimate punishment, others an ultimate state of peace. A goal to be reached in other words. Enlightenment, the final stage, and so on. But—or so I argued back in the day,” Tau continued, “‘nothing’ is just a temporary state. So it’s neither—”

No longer angry but merely confused, Jericho wiped some of Tau’s spit off from his face and stared at the man.

“Boss,” one of the officers interjected, “didn’t you say you failed to defend that whole nothingness dissertation defense thing or whatever back in the day?”

The gate on the wall burst with light before Tau answered. Jericho knew who it was immediately: Olive accompanied by Derik.

Albatross grabbed Lita’s arm. “It’s the prince. The Ariesian Prince. Maria wasn’t joking when she said…”

Lita stiffened. “A prince…?”

The officers behind Tau stared, while Tau merely inspected Olive with narrowed eyes.

“Alright. Get the fuck out,” Derik snapped, walking forward and kicking over one the many bookstacks in the room. “Now!”

“Derik!” Olive scowled, running up to the man and pulling him back. “What’s wrong with you? Are you crazy? That was a rhetorical question, by the way.” 

Derik glanced back at him. “You said you wanted to talk with the weirdo in person and in private.”

Olive pointed to his temple and stated flatly, “Yeah, I did, didn’t I? Wonder how I can do that—”

Suddenly, Derik stormed towards Tau and grabbed him by the scruff. “You again—I remember you, you four-eyed freak.” He paused as if recalling something, grimaced, and released Tau. “Beat it, you possession freak.”

“Hey, lay off!” one of the Geminian officers snapped. “That’s the commissario of the Twin Cities you’re talkin’ to!”

Former commissario,” Tau corrected. “We can’t commit fraud again now, can we, Butch?” He snapped back at Derik, “ And I have every damned right to stand in this damned room and you have no damned authority over me until you bring me a piece of signed legislation saying that you do!” He brushed past the man, waved his book in the air, and huffed: “I will take my leave now— but don’t think I’m letting you off the damned hook! I promise you I’ll—”

Jericho couldn’t hear the rest of it because the man exited a second after with the officers following close behind. Agape shook off the ash hanging off the bud of her v-cigarette before departing as well. 

Lita squeezed Jericho’s hand, drawing his attention away from the departing party.

“Thank you very much for the talk, Jericho,” she drew, releasing his hand and rising to a stand with Albatross’s assistance. “Could we… talk again some other time?”

Oh.

“Yes. Whenever you would like.”

After a word of parting, she too departed with Albatross.

But Jericho was not alone. 

He rose to a stand, meeting Olive by the toppled book stack. He offered a wave.

Olive quirked a brow and smiled slightly. “Hi, Jericho.”

Jericho stared at him for a moment before moving to pick up the fallen books on the floor and returning them to the pile. Olive joined him in the task, while Derik sprawled himself out on the piano bench. In the quiet, Jericho began to think of his conversation with Lita. Had it gone well?

“Dealing with kids can be annoying and a hassle—especially Dominic. Every time one of you goes to him, I want to hit my head against the wall. How can someone be so annoying?” Olive muttered, breaking the silence first. “I think that you handled that conversation with Lita… well. Sorry that Tau barged in halfway through. I don’t get what his problem is…”

Verdict: guilty or innocent.

Olive looked up at him. “It’s more complicated than that, Jericho… You know that…”

Suddenly, Jericho became aware of how much he towered over Olive. “But you are still classified as a child and ‘kid’ also, Olive? Why do you refer to children as children when you are a child?”

Derik snorted.

Olive did a double-take. “Wha—look. I’m trying to help here!” He flushed, scowled, glared at Derik, then sighed. “Why do you always say that…?” 

Jericho studied him. “That is… how it is.”

“I’m a young adult,” Olive mumbled, looking away and handing Jericho a book. “It’s different, obviously.” 

“Okay.” Jericho accepted it and stacked it up on the growing tower. “You ‘evolved’.”

Olive snorted. Then, he muttered, “The plan Werner has…” He glanced over at Derik as the man perked up at the name. “Everything’s going to change. We… probably won’t be able to go back home after this.”

Home. Taken away.

“You can still go home, Olive,” Jericho interjected. “There… is still a place for you.”

A sharp pricking pain stabbed Jericho’s chest. Jericho felt his own chest sink in turn. It seemed as if he had said the wrong thing. Again.

“I know I’m luckier than all of you since I’m the prince,” Olive mumbled.  “But that place isn’t home to me.” He grimaced. “Not to Lavi either. At least not anymore…” 

Then where was home?

Olive sighed. 

I’m not running away or anything. That’s not what I’m trying to say. I know I need to change things. I’m just trying to say that to me home….

Then Olive looked up at him. After some time had passed, he approached Jericho and slid a small cold disk with a glass center filled with an odd mix of pale tangerine and copper light  into his hands. A proto-conductor. 

“For the plan,” Olive explained. “Hopefully, this thing works.”

* * *

Epsilon, who was always present in the room with Alpha and Leona, would always ask the same thing whenever Jericho came by: “Leo isn’t with you?”

“Maria is still with Veles,” Jericho answered Epsilon’s question this time just like he’d answered the question all the times before. “She will come soon.”

This time Jericho brought with him two bowls of scalding Käsespätzle. As usual, he threw one of the bowls hard onto Alpha’s lap. The bowl toppled over and spilled steaming cheese onto the man’s legs. Alpha did not flinch. Jericho did not care. While Epsilon rushed to clean up the mess, Jericho approached Leona with a readying spork. After situating himself beside her on his usual chair, he sporked out a bite of the Käsespätzle and held it out for Leona.

Leona remained in place and opened her mouth. Jericho popped the food into her mouth.

Leona chewed slowly, swallowed, stated: “It’s adequate.” 

Jericho frowned slightly. Werner had worked hard on it. 

“The Leonian princess was ‘assassinated’,” Jericho informed her as he prepared another sporkful for her. “They think the brother of the princess will push the king and queen to declare war. I know the Leonian princess has run from home, so intuition: the Leonian government is using this. Reason: unknown. To harvest vitae…?”

Leona closed her mouth and regarded him expressionlessly. “I see. How disappointing of Ilunaria. It’s expected but you would think that someone who’s going to be been bestowed the Leonian crown would be somewhat more dignified than the other ants. Rather than disappointing, I suppose it’s more correct to call it an ‘insult.’”

Jericho studied her and held out another sporkful of cheesy pasta. He needed to handle this now, he realized. He did not want to cause trouble for the others any longer—not after they had colored his canvas.

 “They are using Ilunaria like they used Stelleona and Leonce,” Jericho said. “The 1630s. Massacre. The Golden Beast. It will repeat. Another Reservoir War. Almost, but different.”

Alpha chuckled suddenly. “I see my prediction was right. I did tell you that I knew everything, didn’t I? The 1630s, hm…? Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter.”

Leona shut her mouth, eyes narrowing at Jericho. “You should be careful. You may be a True Conductor and I may be allowing myself to be in this position but you test my patience with every action you take and ever word you speak—”

“What you did then. Me too,” Jericho said after a beat. “I did the same. I understand why you thought what you thought during that time. I think I do.”

Leona remained silent.

“I thought I was right,” Jericho continued. “And that they were wrong. The children who were in ELPIS with me. My friends, I think.  I was upset that they wouldn’t listen to me—that they were doing the incorrect thing: over and over again. I was like you. Maria told me about it: your justification.”

“They were wrong.”

“When people are right, they don’t hide or lie,” Jericho said, thinking of Cadence. “They only do that if they know they are guilty or if they’ve done wrong.” He slowly turned to Alpha whose lap was still being tidied up by Epsilon. “But ‘guilt is a good motivator.’ You are better than people like him. People who do not feel that they are wrong or guilty. People who force others to do things—”

“Jericho, I’ve already told you…” Alpha smiled from the distance. “All this anger you’re directing towards me, all these concepts and ideologies that you’re attaching to yourself, and all these people you’re attaching yourself to, the affection they show you: they’re only temporary. In the case of your fellow True Conductors, they’re forced. So acting while spurred on by these temporary things… you’ll only become more and more unhappy.”

“Shut up.” Jericho glowered.

“‘Save the children’,” Alpha continued. “‘Show them mercy’ as Maria would say. What makes you think they want or need to be saved? Just because you’ve suffered doesn’t mean others have. Children are not as innocent as you think they are—though they are freer than adults.”

A faint hand touched upon Jericho’s shoulder. A voice whispered— “Calm yourself, Jericho. If necessary, you can attempt this another day.”

“Your actions were justified, Jericho,” Leona drew suddenly. “Those children—if you’re speaking of the ones you killed before you were taken into Ophiuchus—were beyond a point of saving. They might have tried to change, but they truly wouldn’t be able to. You would have only been disappointed in the end. There was no other way—” 

“No, there was another way.” Jericho felt his brows furrow. His grip on the bowl tightened. “But I am not like Olive. I could not find it. Could not obtain it. True peace. Justice. Is that what the Knowledge Bearers tried to obtain but couldn’t?”

Leona studied him silently. The way she studied him reminded him of the way she had studied that ant on her finger while they stood in the yards of Ophiuchus together several months ago.

“Epsilon is right,” Jericho said. “You are not Leo. You are Araceli.” Forced. Tricked. “I see you.”

At Leo’s name, Epsilon perked up and looked over at them.

Leona’s jaw muscle tightened and her eyes narrowed. Then she turned away from him and closed her eyes. “How impudent.”

“I think that is a good thing. You remained strong. You stayed yourself,” Jericho stated. After thinking of Talib and Beni briefly, he asked, “Do you want to go back to Ophiuchus?”

Leona opened her eyes slowly. “What…?”

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” Jericho admitted. “I have also been ‘chastised’ by the others for taking you. Maria was hurt. You were there. I didn’t want Maria to be found. I ‘panicked.’ But now that you are gone, there are problems. I don’t want to cause trouble for the others.”

“And yet you have,” Leona replied. “You expect me to move on from your traitorous actions and come along with you? Act as if nothing has been done? Have you not thought of people questioning what we’ve been doing this entire time?”

Betrayal. That was what Leona felt. She would rather feel betrayed than feel that she had failed. Disappointment in others over disappointment in herself. 

“Alpha. The One. We can bring him back to Ophiuchus now,” Jericho reasoned, “and say that we have been searching for him this entire time. A lie: like the lie about what happened when you were onboard Maria’s ship. The lie in the newspapers.”

Leona’s gaze narrowed.

Jericho frowned, thinking of Werner, Francis, and Cadence. “No. Maybe not. Lying is—”

“You’ll hand over the person who’s responsible for putting you on your path of vengeance? The one who deceived you and the children you grew up with?  Has your hatred of ELPIS faded that much?” Leona placed the questions before him one-by-one. “You’re at peace with letting him go like this?”

“No. He deserves worse punishment.” Jericho glowered at Alpha again who looked unaffected.  Then he looked down at the cheesy noodles in his hands. “But, I… don’t think I should be judge, jury, and executioner. The other ELPIS Leaders that were with Alpha will still try to attack Ophiuchus. The children they have: they need help. This is the job of the ELPIS Department.”

Leona regarded him.

“But… I want to see him jailed. I want to walk him into that cell myself.” Jericho stared at Alpha before looking over at her. “So I can see him feel what I felt. To be trapped. Alone. I want to see if he will say the same garbage he says now after  a couple of decades. If you will let me. I will keep your secret too.”

—that and he needed to fulfill his part of the plan.

Alpha shrugged. “I assure you that won’t bring you peace, but if you think that’s what your justice is then feel free to. I have time.”

Jericho shot up to his feet, nearly dropping the bowl of food—nearly throwing it at Alpha.

“And what of the other ELPIS Leaders who aren’t working alongside Alpha?” Leona inquired. “For instance—the ELPIS Leader whose residence we’re currently sitting inside?”

Jericho frowned and he shook his head. “Francis is not a bad person.”

“The scars that remain in the Twin Cities beg to differ—and that’s both before and after Theta’s arrival.” Leona studied him. “You’re being selective in your justice, Jericho. Your conducting may be like Libra’s but you don’t have her vision nor her lack of bias.”

Jericho couldn’t tell whether or not she sounded disappointed. 

“Again I’m asked to forgive a grievous offense and to complete a favor.” Her gaze fell onto Jericho—her stare intense and molten gold. After a while, she looked away and let out a breath. “I’ll forgive this transgression of yours and think of our time here as a brief and sub-par vacation.  We’ll leave within the hour. Now untie me.”

Jericho froze briefly before nodding. He slowly and carefully undid Leona’s bindings, while keeping an eye on her the entire time. Upon being released, Leona rubbed her wrists and rolled her arms until there was a pop. She then rose to a stand and slowly walked over to Alpha and Epsilon. Epsilon moved back slightly causing Leona to frown but she ignored him and came to a stop before Alpha.

“You’ve never looked so pathetic, Proteus. I pity you.”

“And I you,” responded Alpha. 

Be careful.

* * *

Oroslita, Leo

For the first time in nearly a month, Jericho physically stepped out into open air. It felt nice. The air was warmer and more humid than it had been the previous month, and the birds were singing their morning song. The horizon just above the roof-lines of Oroslita blushed in shades of gold, red, and purple. Note: paint this scenery later.

Beside him stood Leona and beside her stood Alpha. The latter’s arms were bound at the wrist by two suppression cuffs and a potato sack had been pulled over his head. Leona meanwhile stood silently staring out at the cityscape as the sun began to rise over the rooftops. As the golden light reached them on the cobblestone street, she spread her arms and let the sunlight slide up her fingertips, dance up her arms, and touch her face. Her hair and eyelashes glowed in the heat.

Jericho felt a bit bad for Leona. She was not like him in this case: there was no one connected to her who shared fragments of the outside world with her while she was stuck in Francis’s room. As Jericho thought on her more, he realized that she did not seem like the type of person who would—

Lowering her arms, Leona said, “I’m going to bathe first.”

* * *

In-Transit

The train ride from Leo to Ophiuchus was long. Jericho spent his time using oil pastels Atienna had gifted him a while ago to recreate the scenery he’d seen in Oroslita. He could feel Leona’s gaze on him the entire time. Alpha remained quiet. The other passengers on the train were not quiet.

Every single compartment was filled with chatter: Cancer, Leo, Aquarius, Capricorn, Aries, Sagittarius, borders, assassination, tension.

“The stocks are crashing,” said one passenger. “I’m coming from the Twin Cities and—let me tell you—the city is in a damned panic.”

“I heard that Seamus Dolby tried to talk to the Aquarian premier but they kicked him out of the country…” said another.

“What are they going to do about this?” a passenger in the compartment just across from them scoffed loudly, eyeing both Jericho and Leona.  “It’s their job to stop this kind of thing, isn’t it? I knew peacekeepers were useless.”

Jericho stared at the passenger in turn.

The passenger startled and turned away. 

“All they can do is ask and ask,” Leona said in her native tongue. 

* * *

Ophiuchus

The Grand Snake Station was more crowded than Jericho had ever seen before. Bodies pushing against bodies. Shouting over shouting. Clashing sounds, languages, words. Scrambling civilians and peacekeeping agents keeping them at bay. No space in-between them. It was difficult to squeeze past them all in the beginning, but the crowd parted as people began to register Jericho’s and Leona’s faces and armbands. The crowd’s shouting died to whispers as they eyed Alpha whom Jericho dragged behind them. 

The Serpens Establishment was just as crowded. The front steps were dotted with agents and civilians: it almost looked as if bodies were flowing over the railings. Jericho was surprised that no one had fallen down the stairs yet. At least there would be someone to break their fall.

With difficulty, Jericho and Leona made it past the vitae-spectrophotometer screening process before entering the cool building. Inside was only slightly less crowded. Several peacekeepers who stated that they were from the Assignment Department stood at the center of the lobby and directed civilians to two main areas: the Licensing Department to vote and International Relationships ‘for concerns.’ Said Assignment Department agents quieted and exchanged looks as Jericho and Leona passed them with Alpha in tow.

“It’s the chairman…” one whispered.

“The elections are still going on,” Jericho stated. “Even when what is happening is happening. That is… odd?”

“Is it so surprising?” Leona replied, walking ahead of him. “Even at the climax of the Reservoir War, individual countries continued to hold elections and support candidates from countries outside of their own for political gain. The same held for wars before that.” 

Eyes continued to be on them as they walked deeper into the building—whispers of fellow peacekeeping agents echoing alongside each step they took. Jericho searched the agents who passed him by for familiar faces: Alice, Gabrielle, Ferris, even Roberto. But he could not find them. Where were they? 

As they passed on through the halls of the ELPIS Department, peacekeeping agents emerged from their desks and cubicles to ogle and stare. Relief, confusion, surprise.

“Chairman, Jericho—y-you’re back!” one of the peacekeepers approached them briskly. It was the second chair of the department. Marcella Amaretto. “What happened? We were almost about ready to submit a missing person’s report to the Assignment Department.”

Another peacekeeper pressed, “We thought maybe some saboteur of the election targeted you or maybe that…” She stared at Jericho.

Leona’s eyes narrowed as she scanned the agents. “What? Do you think that lowly of me and the person I selected as my vice chair?” Turning, she moved to pull the bag off from Alpha’s head. 

Alpha blinked slowly as he appeared to adjust to the light. His gaze swept past Jericho, Leona, and the peacekeepers and drifted to the walls and halls. Then, he smiled.  “Oh… No wonder it felt so familiar. I see the color scheme was kept.” 

“Is that…?” one of the agents whispered.

“Alpha,” Leona confirmed, her gaze sweeping over them all. “Marcella, I need you to put all agents of the department on alert. Recall everyone who’s on a field mission. ELPIS is planning an attack on the Prognoikos Aurora Reservoirs and will most likely attack here as a means of distraction. The attack will most likely happen next week as the last round of the votes are cast.”

All the surrounding peacekeepers tensed, their raised brows becoming furrowed, their narrowed eyes widening.

“What? Why—”

 “I would also like for you to announce to the public that I’ve successfully captured the ELPIS Leader Alpha who is responsible for the abducted children across the continent,” Leona continued. “Even in circumstances like this, publicity should be maintained. The one who wins this election will dictate the future of Signum.”

“Shouldn’t publicity be the vice chair’s job?” Marcella complained.

Leona studied Jericho. “No, I have business with my vice chair. Carry on.”

Alpha chuckled at Marcella’s deepening frown and offered a smile. “You don’t have to listen to her, you know? She isn’t what she seems.” 

* * *

The ride down to the Black Constellation Detention Center was quiet save for the hum of the elevator as it glided downwards. Again, Jericho studied the light through the small slit between the doors. Light, dark, light, dark—no. The in and out reminded him too much of Werner’s condition on that night. 

Jericho turned to his left to study Leona who was staring impassively straight ahead. He then turned to his right and stared at Alpha. The man was still smiling faintly, but as a slit of light passed over the man, Jericho saw something strange: a glistening streak of wetness trailing from the corner of the man’s eyes to his chin.

The elevator dinged.

Jericho looked ahead. 

An unfamiliar dark hall unfolded before him. Glass panes were spaced evenly along the walls perfectly opposite to each other. In-between each glass pane was a familiar metal door. Behind the panes appeared to be rooms that were identical to one another. Inside each: a  small bed in the corner, a metal desk along the wall, and a restroom area. 

Jericho noted, “I have never been to this floor before. Intuition: this is new or very hidden. This is deep.”

“We’re at the pit of the detention center,” Leona explained, proceeding out of the elevator. Her heels click-clacked on the linoleum floor as the overhead v-lights buzzed above her.

“The pit?“ Jericho followed her out, looking into the cells. There were two men and two women in the closest cells whom he did not recognize.

“Where we keep other True Conductors,” Leona explained. “And where we started to temporarily hold ELPIS Leaders here for the maximum of two days until we can transfer them elsewhere for the safety of the peacekeepers and the True Conductors here—a lesson from Gamma’s escape last year. The cells here are fortified with insulation and material similar to the insulators used in suppression cuffs. This makes it difficult not only to conduct in general but also for True Conductors to communicate with people in their circle.” 

Jericho stopped short, ignoring Alpha as the man crashed into him from behind. He found his gaze then drawn to the side. Sitting in the corner of the cell on his left was Hilton Tyler. He was curled up into himself, staring listless at the wall across from him. The food tray resting on the metal table in the room was empty, the food—slices of apple and crackers— all lined up in neat little rows on the floor.

Slowly, Jericho turned his attention to his right. There laying on her back at the center of the floor was Louise Bonnefoy. Her straw blonde hair looked dried and frayed, spreading out like sun rays around her head. Her gaze was fixated on the ceiling—her lips unsmiling. He could not tell if she was awake or not.

Louise—

Jericho’s head buzzed as he suddenly felt the walls closing in around him. The ones in the cells were in the same position he had been. 

A hand pressed against his arm. He turned at the touch. Werner.

Nodding, he slipped his hand briefly into his pocket. Brushing past four pieces of folded paper in there, he felt around. There: a familiar, cold metal disk. He slid it in-between his middle and index finger and walked forward to the glass behind which Louise resided. He pressed the same hand onto the window and then slapped it.

Ack! Saints—more subtle, detective! More subtle! 

 The disk stuck to the wall, and Jericho felt a familiar cold liquid spill out beneath his hand. A small barely visible burst of copper light seeped through his fingers a moment afterwards. 

“They can’t see you,” Leona said. “But if you’re concerned, don’t be. They’re treated with care here. We’re not savages unlike so many others here.”

Heart hammering, Jericho formed his hand resting there into a fist. No stain. No disk-shaped conductor. Application: successful. Risk: present, but acceptable. He then stared into the cell. Now that he was closer he could see that Louise’s eyes were open. Open and wet. He felt his chest throb. 

“No,” he disagreed, “it is more than that. I was in a similar place here. It is not enjoyable. You can’t see anyone, but everyone can see you. You are being watched. It is unpleasant. You are alone.”

He drew closer towards the glass, and the way the overhead v-light bounced off of it made it so that his reflection was captured on its surface—his reflection and the reflection of the other five. All in the distance, but all close and watching.

He was not alone.

Saints, detective, Cadence thought. I thought we’d have ta play a little bit of footsie to get access to this place and land the kid’s conductor here. Somethin’ about this doesn’t sit right with me. Call it paranoia or call it Scorpio. Too easy. Then again, that’s life sometimes, ain’t it? Too easy, too hard. Never in the middle.

We do need to maintain caution. Werner. A success at the beginning is not indicative of success at the end.

“This is also where Ilseong Jin died,” Leona continued, walking to an empty cell at the end of the hall, “although death itself is a temporary state.”

Jericho could feel Olive startle at this, and he turned towards Leona in surprise. 

Claire…

Leona beckoned for him. Jericho pulled Alpha along and joined her in front of the iron door there.

“Remove your clothing, Proteus,” Leona ordered. “There’s a fresh set waiting inside for you. You’ll be moved soon so don’t start getting comfortable.” She nodded at Jericho. “You can remove his suppression cuffs now.”

Jericho hesitated for a moment before glancing over Proteus’s shoulders and meeting Maria’s eyes. Nodding, he removed the cuffs and hooked them to his belt. Alpha smiled at this before slowly shedding his naval officer’s uniform. First went his dirty navy jacket, then his buckle, then his pants—

Okay, staring’s kinda weird, Jericho… Can we just… look away?

—and then his blouse. 

Jericho’s eyes widened as he registered Alphas bare back and torso. The man’s entire front and back were threaded over with one long and intricate snake tattoo. It spiraled around his abdomen, its tail constricting his left arm and its head ending at his right wrist. Upon closer inspection, Jericho came to realize the snake was made up of many iterations of the word ‘ELPIS.’

Turning to Jericho, Alpha closed his eyes, peeled off his eyepatch, and dropped it on the floor. Humming to himself, he slowly opened both of his eyes. They were both intact. One brown, the other a pale gray.

Oh…? Curious.

Leona grabbed the ELPIS Leader by the arm before guiding him into the cell and shutting the door behind him. Alpha moved to the table inside where a new set of white clothing awaited him. He dressed himself quickly before taking a seat on the bed inside. After a pause, he turned in their direction. He smiled.

“Are you satisfied, Jericho?” Leona asked.

Jericho was satisfied he’d placed Francis’s gate covertly and successfully, but he was unsure of his satisfaction regarding Alpha. Alpha was a continued existence. Continuation. Unended. To continue doing the same things over and over again. Injustice. Reason: none.

“I—”

“Saints—is that who I think it is? Welcome to the treasury, partner.”

Talib?

Jericho perked up and turned to find Scorpio walking slowly towards them. The elevator was open behind him, its light accentuating his silhouette. 

“Scorpio,” Leona acknowledged him. 

“Leona.” Scorpio spread his arms as he approached. “It’s good to see you back, dear old friend. I was worried when you didn’t touch in for a month. I mean—here all of us chairmen are campaigning in Cancer, Leo, Capricorn, and the like, but there wasn’t even a whisper about any campaigning from you for an entire month! Surely you must have this election in the bag to not feel the need to put yourself out there anymore.”

Damn.

Scorpio continued approaching them, stopping short in-between the cells containing Louise and Hilton. He cast a glance in Hilton’s direction and then in Louise’s direction. His smile became crooked.

Damn.

Scorpio, however, continued forward, coming to a stop in front of Alpha’s cell beside them. He tapped the glass and peered inside. “What an irritatingly pitiable man. He wants nothing but wants everything. He claims to not care about us, but the way he’s using his vitae now mimics us. Love, worship, hatred, and disdain. Passion cycles these emotions quite easily. This is especially true in someone who’s hollow on the inside.” He glanced at Jericho. “Right?”

“I don’t understand the analogy,” Jericho answered honestly.

Scorpio merely chuckled. “Say— you were in a place like this when you were younger, weren’t you, partner? Right before that Shion Myosotis handed you over to Psychological Evaluations?”

“Shion Myosotis.” Jericho stared. “She gave me to Alice. She committed suicide ‘on paper.’” He paused. “Did you kill her? Did you… know she was—”

“A seemingly insignificant simple woman who proved rather significant,” Scorpio hummed, still tapping the glass. “What isn’t remembered obviously isn’t important though because you didn’t opt to hold it in your memory.” He turned to Leona. By the way, the head chairman called for a meeting half an hour ago, so I’m surprised that you’re idling down here, Leona. Not as surprised as I am about you bringing my partner down here.” He eyed Jericho. “And why exactly are you down here?”

“I wanted to see him imprisoned,” Jericho answered. “The one.”

Scorpio chuckled. “Ah, seeing your passions through, I see—well, partially through at least. If only you could crumble him to dust, right?”

Jericho returned his attention to Alpha.

“But oh dear—you must abide by the rule of your first chair.” Scorpio chuckled, walking back to the elevator. He turned to face them as he leaned against the back wall. As the doors began to slide to a close, however, he extended his hand and held it open. “Aren’t you two coming along? Part of the discussion is election proceedings, so vice chairs have been invited too.”

Leona unfolded her arms, nodded at Jericho, and walked into the elevator herself. As Jericho followed the two into the lift, he threw one glance back at the glass widow of Louise’s cell. Confirmation: the gate had been placed. 

Perfekt.

* * *

The ride up the elevator was quiet. Jericho stood directly behind both Scorpio and Leona who stood side-by-side facing the elevator doors. Jericho was not sure whether the atmosphere was tense or awkward or something else. 

When the elevator dinged, Scorpio and Leona stepped out. Jericho followed behind them before realizing he was now in the meeting room where the preliminary elections had been held. He watched as Leona and Scorpio took their places across from each other at the central oval table before scanning the area. Several first chairs were already present and seated including Seamus Dolby who flashed a charming smile at Jericho when their eyes met, Saddine Agwuegbo whose head was buried in his hands, Katharina Groth who studied Leona with a frown from the distance, William Saovàng who also stared at Leona with a grimace, and the head chairman himself who regarded Jericho without expression. Some vice chairs and other first chairs were clustered together in different corners of the room. Noted detail: most of them were staring at either Leona or at Jericho himself. 

“Jericho!”

Jericho turned. Alice, Ferris, Nadinaline, and Gabrielle were conversing in the far left corner of the room. At the sight of them, he felt his chest lighten. He briskly paced towards them only to be met by Alice halfway there.

“Where have you been?” Alice asked calmly, gaze sharp and almost mindreading. “We were supposed to have specific sessions twice a week. You didn’t call.”

Jericho was somewhat caught off-guard. “Things ‘happened.’”

Alice clicked her tongue, eyes narrowing. “There is no complete resolution for that particular condition. No complete recovery. That’s why in the initial stages of ‘recovery’ having these sessions is especially important to target the source of the problem.”

Jericho’s heart skipped a beat. “I am sorry, Alice. Things happened. Out of control. One after another.” He dipped his head and thought of Maria. “I didn’t know what to do. I am sorry for not keeping in contact. Will he be okay?” 

Alice studied him for a moment before she let out a breath. “Given what’s been happening this past week, I doubt any of us will be considered ‘okay’ in the end. ” She crossed her arms and studied the chairmen. “We can resume our sessions now that we’re in contact again—if we remain in contact.”

“Continue…?”

“Even at times like this, these practices shouldn’t be neglected,” Alice explained. “In fact, in times like these, these practices are needed more than ever.” After a pause, she whispered, “I was worried, Jericho.”

Jericho dipped his head again.

“That must’ve been one interesting elevator ride down,” came another voice.

Jericho looked up to see Gabrielle, Ferris, and Nadinaline approaching them. 

“Leona decide to go on a sudden vacation?” Gabrielle continued, sliding her hands into her pockets as she stopped in front of them. “Or was this disappearing act for her campaign—for show?”

“Alpha,” Jericho replied, offering her a greeting wave, “we captured Alpha. Now, we are preparing for an ELPIS attack.”

“An ELPIS attack?” Nadinaline’s lips thinned behind her veil. “Now? In the middle of all of this…?”

Some of the other surrounding chairs and vice chairs quieted at Nadinaline’s whisper. Jericho did not pay them any mind but stared at the woman instead. Why was she here speaking with them? Was she now a part of Gabrielle’s circle? Jericho felt uncomfortable with this addition.

“In one week,” Jericho confirmed. “The department is preparing for it. I think you will hear about it soon.”

“Now, now,” Seamus called out suddenly, clapping his hands together, “let’s start this meeting, shall we? Let’s save the gossip circles for tea time. The head chairman took the time out of his day to arrange this, after all.”

The chairs and vice chairs who were standing around in circles slowly began to filter to their respective chairs. Reaching into his pocket and rubbing the four folded pieces of paper there, Jericho looked between Seamus and Alice, Gabrielle, and Ferris. Then, he moved forward and embraced all the latter three one-by-one. Simultaneously, he slid his hands into their suit and dress pockets and dropped the folded pieces of paper there. When he pulled back from his final hug to Alice, he found Ferris and Gabrielle staring at him

“I missed you,” Jericho tried.

When Gabrielle and Ferris continued to stare, Jericho winked at them. The action felt odd so he slapped a hand over the winking eye and turned away. He took his place behind Leona. This was when he noticed that each first chairman had a small envelope resting on the table in front of them. 

The head chairman gave a curt nod once everyone was situated and all the first chairs proceeded to peel open the envelope and pull out the slender card inside. Jericho peered over Leona’s shoulder to read it.

99th Round of Election Results. 

Psychological Evaluations Department: Talib Al-Jarrah – 1,545 votes

International Relations Department: Seamus Dolby – 1,088 votes

General Investigations: Gabrielle Law – 875 votes

ELPIS Investigations Department: Leona Gloria-Angelo – 870 votes

Conductor Regulation: Katharina Groth – 620 votes.

Reservoir Conservation Department: William Saovàng – 519 votes.

Conductor & Vitae Research Department: Moraeni Pōʻai – 421 votes

Commerce Regulation Department: Luca D’Angelo – 398 votes

Communications Department: Saddine Agwuegbo – 301 votes.

Assignment Department: Nadinaline Delacroix – 201 votes

Medical Department: Hårek Ohmdahl – 196 votes

Conductor & Vitae Research / Literary Department: Sera Aliz – 182 votes.

Ya know I’m not the greatest at math, came Cadence. But—I think this warrants a long night of drinkin’. 

I can’t believe Gabrielle didn’t even come in secondcame Olive’s incredulous thought.

Jericho blinked then glanced over at Alice and Gabrielle who both seemed grim and tense. Other chairs appeared disappointed, while more so looked relieved. Seamus Dolby continued to wear a smile.

“Well, look at that… I remember when you were in first place, Leona,” Scorpio noted, breaking the silence first, “and now you’re not even in third. I’m sorry to see that—especially since you’ve been working so hard on your cases this past month. Let’s see…” He scanned the room, before locking eyes with Gabrielle. There are only 500 votes left to be tallied and even if another chair won all of them, the results wouldn’t change at all, would they…?” 

Silence.

“I suppose this means that I’ve… won?” Scorpio offered a sheepish smile. He offered a warm smile around the room. “This was a fair run, everyone. I know times are especially tense, but I promise you that I’ll guide us to a kinder and better future where we can all understand each other—”

“Well, I wouldn’t say 500 votes is all there is, Talib,” Seamus interjected suddenly, garnering the attention of everyone in the room. “There is a particular clause that exists that states that if there is more than one contender who has over 1,000 votes allocated to them, the other contenders with over 1000 votes can allocate their votes to another contender so long as 80% of those who voted for them agree on the contender’s candidate of choice—”

What? That’s ridiculous.” First Chairman Katharina Groth frowned. “Cease this shameless obstruction—”

“But it’s true.” Seamus smiled. “You can check if you’d like, Katharina. It’s a thoughtful clause that exists in consideration for the second majority. And there’s even a clause that states that the candidate who received the donated votes can’t donate their votes to another—so it’s not a thoughtless clause.”

“What are you planning, Seamus…?” Nadinaline asked, voice denoting what seemed more like curiosity than contempt.

“If I petition successfully,” Seamus continued, smiling blindingly, “I would elect to donate my votes to Gabrielle.”

“What?” Gabrielle gawked.

Gabrielle would pull ahead just barely ahead of Scorpio then, Olive reasoned. This is good…. right? That guy is super annoying, but this is really good…?

Talk about playin’ up the dramatics. Cadence chortled. That’s my political douchebag. 

With 500 votes remaining, there is a possibility that Scorpio will still win, Werner clarified. We shouldn’t celebrate yet. The next 500 votes will determine the end result— He paused. Wait—

“Well, if that’s the case,” Scorpio noted with a hand on his chin, “then I’ll just allocate my votes to Leona.”

The atmosphere in the room became thick and strange. All gazes flicked back and forth from Scorpio to Leona.

“I’m sorry to say, Gabe,” Scorpio drew, casting Gabrielle a sympathetic smile, “that I don’t have the faith in you that I used to. As the first chair of Psychological Evaluations, your recent behavior concerns me. In light of everything that’s been happening in this continent so far—I just don’t think you’ll be able to handle it properly.” He turned to Leona who sat stiff and still. “You wouldn’t mind if I handed over my votes to you, would you, Leona?” His smile became pleasant—almost Talib-like. “That wouldn’t hurt your pride—being given a victory—would it?”

Jericho moved to place a hand on Leona’s shoulder. He was not sure why he did it. Upon receiving stares, he removed his hand. 

“The final result won’t be known until the final votes are in,” the head chairman interjected. “Therefore, let’s move on to the next more urgent topic on the agenda: the political tension between Leo and Aquarius.” He gestured to Seamus. “Seamus, if you will.”

“I’d be happy to.” Seamus continued smiling before gesturing to them all. “I’ve spoken personally and privately with the president of Cancer, the premier of Aquarius, and the monarchs of Leo just this past weekend. The Leonian throne claims that their search for the missing—runaway—Princess Ilunaria ended with them finding her mangled corpse in an inn near the Aquarian embassy in the country. They claim that hallmarks of a Yastreby assassination were found onsite and even provided pictures as evidence—which have surely hit the local papers by now—but they wouldn’t give my department or General Investigations access to the actual crime scene. The Leonian crown informed me that if the Aquarian government didn’t admit to the offense and make reparations for the alleged murder by an undisclosed deadline, they would move to drastic measures.” 

Nadinaline exchanged a look with Hårek who sat across the table from her.

“The premier has denied the accusations, of course. And so, I offered to help launch an investigation using our department’s resources jointly with General Investigations.” Seamus nodded at Gabrielle who frowned. “But my proposal was shot down. My team and I are currently developing alternative paths to foster more succinct communication.”

Silence lapsed and stretched on thin and long.

Finally, Chairman Willian shook his head. “Despite all this, Capricorn and Aquarius still refuse to remove their joint training sessions away from Aquarius’s border with Sagittarius.” He frowned. “They refuse to de-escalate.” 

“Why would they listen to the request of someone who’s tariffed them to hell and back?” Chairman Luca shrugged. “Sagittarius brought that onto themselves. Dragged Aries into it too actually—but the current Ariesian crown’s never been quite as effective as the previous crowns, have they?”

“Watch your tongue, Luca,” William interjected. “A first chair shouldn’t be making such blasé comments about another country in times like these.”

“Peacekeepers aren’t supposed to be attached to political ideologies and countries either,” Luca returned. “So I’m free to state as I please behind closed doors, aren’t I? You’re too uptight, Will. What? Are you upset about what I said about Aries?”

Jericho felt his stomach churn.

Scorpio leaned forward, lips dipping yet eyes glistening. “Well, I think at this point we shouldn’t be making plans on how to prevent war but on what to do once it’s begun—wouldn’t you say, Seamus?”

Seamus studied him, the corner of his lip twitching.

The elevator dinged again. 

Jericho turned to see an unfamiliar peacekeeping agent walk in. The peacekeeper tensed as he looked around the room before his face brightened as he registered Seamus. Seamus seemed to recognize the man too because he gestured him forward. The peacekeeper obeyed, handing Seamus a slender envelope before Seamus sent him back up the elevator with a wave and a pleasant smile.

The room remained silent as Seamus opened the envelope and read the contents of the letter inside. After a couple minutes, Seamus let out a long and quiet sigh before he closed his eyes. Wordlessly, he handed the letter to William who sat to his left. 

William looked around the table before scanning the letter himself. His face became pale and he would not meet anyone’s eyes as he handed the letter to Katharina beside him. Katharina’s expression remained stolid throughout her entire reading of the letter. She too handed the piece of paper over. Katharina’s and William’s vice chairs took several steps back and exchanged shaken looks.

Slowly the letter continued around the room: handed off  in grim silence. When the letter reached Nadinaline, Ferris who stood behind her gasped, scanned its contents over her shoulders, and then pressed her hand over her mouth. She leaned in close to Nadinaline and whispered something almost desperate into the woman’s ear. Nadinaline nodded slowly in response. Ferris detached from the women’s side in turn and darted to the elevator. A moment later, she was gone.

When the letter passed into Gabrielle’s hands, Gabrielle grimaced, slammed her fist into the table, before passing the letter on over. Scorpio, on the other hand, didn’t even glance at the letter when it reached his hand and passed it down the chain.

Finally, the letter came into Leona’s hands. Jericho looked over her shoulder to read it.

Joint Resolution Between the Cancerian Republic and the Kingdom of Leo 

This past week on May 26th of the year 1942, the Leonian princess Ilunaria Solnaciente was found dead in an inn on Leonian soil near the Aquarian embassy. Clear evidence was found that this murder was done at the hands of Aquarian’s infamous spy organization, the Yastreby. 

As the princess was to be wed to the Duke of House Lune in this year’s winter, this assassination has been viewed as an attack on both the Leonian crown and the governing body of Cancer. The Crown of Leo demanded communication with the Aquarian governing body by June 1, 1942, but received no answer. Given the country of Aquarius’s past deeds in the past two decades, including alleged mishandling of modified conductors and its disregard for the borders of sovereign countries, it is believed that these transgressions will not end here and it is deemed that the Peacekeeping Organization of Ophiuchus has not and will not handle this danger effectively.

Therefore, to protect the sovereignty and safety of our nations, on this day June 5, 1942, the Cancerian Republic and the Kingdom of Leo mutually declare war on the Aquarian Union. 


A/n: Sorry for the late chapter. Dealing with some things™ and mini crises™—I’ve decided to pursue another bachelor’s degree simultaneously along with my master’s degree. No boom-boom action this chapter but hey we have war \o/. I also wanted to thank the people who were supportive on twitter recently after a mini-crisis. I really appreciate all of your tweets and responses and they live eternally in my head. Also thank you to the people who’ve donated over these past few months too o/. And thanks for reading! After the next chapter, we are heading into the finale!!

MORE CHARACTER TRAILERS AND TRAILERS IN GENERAL IF YOU SO DESIRE TO LOOK:
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26.5: Atienna & Albertine: An Emerald Agreement

Atienna remains uncertain about the decision the other five have made to resist the will of the Saint Candidates. Still, she acts alongside their wishes and befriends Albertine Echecs who has just become a True Conductor himself—in a bathroom of all places. As she fosters this alliance with him, something that has been long brewing begins to…


Secoursonne, Cancer

Albertine was a… unique presence. Although he was not as provocative and forward as his brother Aldéric, he was still—as Cadence not so gently put it—a lot. Atienna’s explanation to him about True Conductors had been the bare minimum due to the circumstances at the time of their meeting in that bathroom. Serious conversations during a short bathroom break were rather odd, after all.

She touched on the topics of shared thoughts, feelings, memories, death, life and briefly expanded on the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis while highlighting the importance of staying under the radar. Albertine looked as if he was clinging to her every word like it were a lifeline and did not interrupt her even once. At the end of it, however, all he had asked was—

“So there’s no way to undo this? You’re absolutely certain?”

It was like looking into a mirror of the past. It wasn’t too long ago that Werner pressed for the same thing. An inconvenience, a complication, a detriment—these were the things Werner had attributed to the connection and these had been reflected in Albertine’s eyes.

Atienna had answered his question with a confirming nod which had resulted in Albertine’s knees giving in. Atienna had caught him—of course—before his head cracked against the sink basin behind him, but she had to politely explain to him that she couldn’t carry him all the way out from that bathroom to the v-ehicle. Too suspicious among other things.

Atienna managed to assuage the man and—with some of Cadence’s help—convinced him to keep calm and quiet until they had a better chance to speak privately. 

Following this, Atienna had made the return journey to Secoursonne along with Dimka, Sefu, the two Échecs brothers, and all of the latter’s guests. With the good relations between Virgo and Cancer solidified and Dimka having achieved his purpose, Atienna was set to leave with him, his guards, and Sefu at the end of the week. She was thus left preoccupied with figuring out how exactly to maneuver around this set departure—all while Albertine continuously begged her with his eyes to stay, stay, stay. Fortunately—or perhaps not—on the eve they were set to leave, Dimka received a formal request by phone from a Cancerian diplomat to stay in Cancer for a while longer in order to hold an open discussion about economic relationships and foreign policy. No doubt this was triggered by the Yastreby’s appearance in Cancer and made socially acceptable in the public eye by their prolonged stay in the country. 

As Dimka’s booking at the inn had expired on the day they received such an invitation, Aldéric generously procured another invitation—one for them to stay in Cancer in his manor for the remaining time. Dimka accepted the offer graciously. Albertine seemed just as grateful. 

Atienna thus found her time split largely between discussing the etiquette, formalities, and other matters of the Cancerian political sphere with Dimka and exploring the duke’s manor a bit more deeply. She found the latter activity far more engaging.

For instance, on the seventh floor of the estate was a long hall with walls lined with water color paintings of different men and women all wearing somber expressions. Half of the works depicted the men and women encircled by reaching arms and hands. Some of the depicted wore those limbs and digits like gowns, others like wreaths and halos, more so like chains.

Below each portrait was a small plaque labeled with a Cancerian name and a time period. The names ranged from rather complicated and long to short and simple, while the years ranged from the 1500s to the present.

Benì.

Atienna turned her head and found Jericho synchronizing in beside her. He came in rather strongly, so she was able to see that he was sitting alone on a stool in the exitless piano room. His sketchbook rested dutifully on his lap, but he had yet to touch pen to paper.

I wonder how he’s doing, Jericho continued. Clarification: Benì.

“I wonder too…” Atienna murmured, side-glancing at him from the distance. 

It was rather unfortunate. People who rejected people somehow drew people closer, while people who wanted connection always found such binding strings clipped away by tragedy and circumstance.

Atienna found herself drawn to a particular painting at the very end of the hall and drifted on towards it. Captured in a golden frame was a long-haired woman standing up on a pedestal of hands. Adorning her thin, pale neck was a chain of interlocked hands—a necklace almost, squeezing tight.

“If you mix two colors together,” Jerichosaid, pointing to a blush of purplish pink that colored the sky behind the saint candidate, “you can get a new, unique, ‘beautiful’ color. It will be tempting to add more different colors to get a more ‘enticing’ shade. Warning: if you become too eager and add too much”— he moved to point to one of the grayish hands wrapped around the candidate’s neck — “you will eventually end up with the same shade as everyone else. An ‘ugly’ color.” 

Atienna turned to Jericho in surprise. 

“That is a quote from a book written by P.S. Cies,” Jericho elaborated. “Francis gave it to me recently. He knew I would like it. Somehow.” He glanced at her. “Nico also gave Werner a book recently. Conjecture: Nico and Werner’s relationship is similar to my relationship with Francis. Is this assumption correct or am I misinterpreting again?”

Before Atienna could make a loose remark about the over peculiarities of the book author’s name, she finally digested with confusion and amusement the last half of Jericho’s sentence. “Oh dear—wait a moment, Jericho. I… believe that the situation between Werner and Nico is far different from what your situation with Francis.”

“Yes, it does feel different.”

Humor aside, Jericho did bring to attention a question Atienna had been purposely neglecting to address. How exactly would they approach relationships from here on out…? Troublesome… but romantic.

 “Intuition: the same concept applies to saint candidates,” Jericho said, returning his attention to the painting and drawing Atienna’s attention as well. He paused, fists clenching. “The One—Alpha—too. If I am using this analogy correctly: he would be the ugliest color.” 

Feeling a familiar heat beginning to boil at the pit of her stomach, Atienna turned to face Jericho. He looked rather forlorn instead of angry, however. 

“Do you like your siblings, Atienna?” Jericho asked suddenly. “Observation: Werner’s relationship with his siblings is ‘awkward’. It is more difficult for him to talk to them than it is for him to talk to us. I think I am both happy about this and sad for Werner. You?”

Atienna considered this. “I’ve been rather blessed—if using such a term is wise—in that sibling department.” She chuckled, hiding her smile with her hand. “I’ve taken care of the three of them since they were quite young, so viewing it as awkward is awkward in itself. We’re… close—as I’m sure you’ve seen. From an outsider’s perspective though—I suppose it might appear awkward.” 

Jericho nodded.

After a lapse of silence, Atienna wondered, Is there a reason you asked?

“I’ve been thinking about it recently,” Jericho replied. “About siblings. About the past. I wonder how it would feel to have them. Clarification: have them myself. Not through any of you.” He paused before looking at her seriously.  “I do like your siblings. Bachiru is ‘cool.’ Your sisters are ‘sweet.’”

I understand.

Jericho nodded, then abruptly stated, “Intuition: you took care of your siblings because of what happened to your mother. The ‘roles’ changed. You had to take on more responsibility.” He added after a pause— “Like Werner had to after what happened to Ludwig. An anchor.” 

Atienna felt her smile pull tight. “Ah, yes, that’s right. You’re getting quite good at picking people apart, aren’t you?”

Jericho studied her, brows knitting slightly. “I am… sorry if that was rude. I was… curious. Because of how Olive thinks of you. I am s—”

“No, it’s alright.” Atienna looked away. “Sometimes pleasant things follow unfortunate events, don’t they? Sometimes unpleasant things follow fortunate events. You’ve experienced it yourself too, haven’t you?”

Jericho’s expression tightened ever so slightly. Atienna felt her heart sink. Why had she gone ahead and said something like that for?

Before Atienna could amend her words, she was moved again down the hall and found herself standing in front of the more peaceful portrait of a young fair woman being presented flowers of various shades and types by sunbathed hands. The woman wore a peaceful smile, her face illuminated by the reflection of colors bouncing off from the flora.

These are very good, Jericho thought. When I look at things like this, I think I can ‘feel’ what the person who made them felt. It is like this connection. Except through time. Without vitae.

“Can you?” Atienna wondered, searching the painting for exactly what he was referring to. “Ah, do you mean the meaning behind it?” She placed a hand to her chin and studied the painting further. “I wonder… this could be an example of the relationship this particular candidate had with the Cancerian public during this time period—the 1600s, perhaps? I wonder—” 

“No, not that. Not ‘analysis.’” Jericho shook his head. “Feeling.”

Ah—curious.

“I want to be able to do the same,” he continued, “with my art.”

Atienna smiled faintly again. “You’re already skilled in that department, don’t you think? Your sketch of Fenrir—”

“No. Not yet.” Jericho shook his head again. “Not yet.”

Again—curious.

Atienna wondered if Jericho’s fascination and attraction towards different forms of arts was because the process inherently involved creation. Creation—the opposite of his conducting. Perhaps he was trying to find some semblance of balance—

“I… just like it, Atienna.” Jericho stared at her before looking towards the painting again. “I am trying to find something else. Like everyone said. Conjecture: After Alpha is gone, I will be able to convey feeling better.”

Atienna’s smile dipped slightly.  “I’m sorry, Jericho. I didn’t mean anything by it…” 

“It is okay. Those were ‘private’ thoughts. Like your thoughts about Werner and Maria. Like your thoughts about Olive’s idea about going against the deal. Alice said it’s normal to have these thoughts from time to time. We keep it inside. Sometimes it slips out.”

The silence that followed stretched allowed the guilt simmering at the pit of Atienna’s stomach to intensify.

After a while, she asked, “Have you tried experimenting with different styles, Jericho?”

Jericho cocked his head.

“You’ve been experimenting with a lot of different mediums lately. It’s very impressive, don’t you think? Photography, charcoal, water color, ink…” Atienna elaborated, pointing to his sketchbook. “Since you’ve tried all those different mediums, perhaps you could consider venturing into different styles? Impressionism, realism, abstract, surrealism, and so on. Perhaps looking at them could help you solidify your own style? Ah, it’s just a suggestion. You don’t have to listen to it.”

Jericho stared for a while before saying, “I don’t think I know what those ‘-isms’ are.”

Atienna chuckled. “I don’t really know either, but I can definitely look into it more for you. This manor has a rather extensive library and Cancer is stereotyped for its refined arts, so I do believe I’ll be able to find something for you… Would that be alright, Jericho?” 

The corner of Jericho’s lips twitched slightly. “Yes, I would like that—”

“Atienna!” 

Atienna turned away from Jericho and the Cancerian portrait to find Albertine briskly approaching her from down the hall. He was dressed in an elegant silk dark purple tuxedo, but his bowtie was half-hanging from his neck. As he neared her, she could see that he was sweating rather profusely. Upon reaching her side, he grabbed at her wrists and panted—

“Can we talk again—”

Atienna grabbed Albertine’s wrist with her other hand and ripped his hand away from her own. Albertine startled at this action and stared at her befuddled.

Atienna side glanced at Jericho who’d risen to a stand beside her. 

Jericho frowned, releasing Atienna’s hold on Albertine’s wrist. “Sorry. I do not think I ‘trust’ him. He knows Aldéric uses chlorowheat, but he doesn’t do anything.”

I understand, Jericho. Atienna nodded sympathetically in his direction before returning her attention to Albertine. To him, she offered a practiced smile. “I’m sorry for that, Albertine. You startled me… Is there something you’d like to talk about?”

* * *

Every other night Albertine would seek Atienna out and confide in her about the progress of his relationship with the mysterious other in his circle. She had advised him to approach the mysterious other with sympathy and understanding since they were most likely just as confused as he was. Offering some information about himself to earn their trust was something else Atienna had suggested. However, that mysterious other was a person who didn’t care for or about being found. So, this particular approach had earned Albertine only a handful of information so far—

Firstly, the mysterious other was not a native Cancerian. Secondly, they were not from a place of wealth and spent long hours doing a laborious task as their occupation—an occupation that remained wholly unknown to Albertine. Thirdly, the individual was an earth Elementalist and, as a result, had extensive knowledge on different types of rock formations. And lastly, they adored First Chairman of the Psychological Evaluations Department Talib Al-Jarrah—an adoration that started when the man had visited one of their worksites—also unknown. This didn’t narrow the search by much which made Albertine visibly nervous. Thus, Atienna was unspokenly given the task to uncover who exactly this mysterious other was. It wasn’t as if she was unused to the activity. She’d been the one to gather information on potential True Conductors during their True Conductor hunt, after all.

Atienna was rather unaccustomed to Albertine’s rather constant presence. To put it in less discourteous terms, it had been some time since Atienna had much company outside of the other five that wasn’t strictly politically related. Then again, Atienna supposed her interactions with Albertine were also political in nature.

“I had to host a dinner party,” Albertine said to her once he’d pulled her into a private study room on the fifth floor of the manor. “I ‘synchronized’ as you call it and ended up raving about Talib Al-Jarrah during a toast to our ‘wonderful’ president. It seems as if my so-called headmate cares little about the whole saint candidate conspiracy—though on this part I don’t blame him.” He slowly brushed some stray strands of hair from his eyes. “Conducting without a conductor? It still seems like something I have to see for myself to believe.”

The study room here that they frequented—which Atienna had cleared of any potential mediums with Olive’s conducting—was a surprisingly small space compared to the other rooms in the manor. It was a square area that stretched only two of Atienna’s own arm lengths across. Shelves guarded two of the walls, while a mahogany writing table piled with newspaper clippings prostrated at the center. A single window taking up half the wall allowed in outside light. At the moment, a faint drizzle was pattering against the glass. 

Winter had already passed for this country, Atienna realized as she gazed out the window and took a seat at the table across from the already situated Albertine. Time passed by so fast. 

“Oh, I see…” she said, offering a sympathetic smile. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“It was rather embarrassing.” Albertine nodded, ripping off his bowtie. “However, now that I think about it, it’s not such a bad thing. Maybe this will convince them not to invite me next time. At the rate things are going in this country—no, in this continent—these ‘dinner parties’ will just become political funding campaigns.”

Atienna allowed a moment of silent to rub away the tension in the atmosphere before she asked genially, “Is there something specific that you wanted to talk about…?”

Albertine leaned forward. “Oh, of course. My apologies. Well— I’ve found a way to dampen this—this connection.” His eyes began to sparkle. “You know how my brother has certain activities that you were kind enough to keep quiet about…?”

Atienna started feeling faint.

“Checking in on Aldéric and his swoon of the week has gotten me something other than heartache and a headache,” Albertine continued, grin wide and strong. “Chlorowheat—somehow it can make all the voices go away.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small wax packet. He didn’t need to open it for her to know what it was.

Atienna resisted with all of her might thinking of Werner. She understood that from Albertine’s perspective he was justified in his approach to this. Being so suddenly connected to someone on such a deep level was disconcerting—she knew this first hand. Searching for an escape route was natural to some in such a situation. Sometimes escape was a necessary choice, but—sometimes escape was a form of burning down a bridge.

“Albertine,” Atienna finally managed, reaching across the table and placing a hand on his arm. The contact felt unnatural but Atienna remained steady, “please don’t go that route.”

Albertine looked down at her hand and then up at her in surprise.

“I… I haven’t used it myself,” she said quietly, “but someone—someone… close to me has. And…” 

Ah, this was unpleasant. She didn’t want to talk about this—not with someone outside of the other five. Oftentimes she didn’t even want to talk about it with the other five either.  Werner was already on the path to recovery. There was no need to look back, was there? Choosing to avert one’s eyes in this case—would be falling into the same patterns. Being comfortable—comfortable and routine just like how True Conductor hunting had been. Ah—

“He believed he had it under control,” Atienna drew, averting her gaze. “It helped him dampen our connection. He wanted to stop us from feeling his pain.” She quieted, then said. “He wanted to stop himself from feeling it. It… went too far. He became sick.” Slowly, she lifted her gaze to meet Albertine’s. “You and this other person may have more things in common than you realize. Even the smallest of similarities can act as a bonding agent, don’t you think? I’m sorry if I’m being rather forward this, Albertine—and you don’t have to take my advice for this of course—but if you attempt to cut this off in such a dangerous way at such an early stage, I wonder if you’ll end up with regrets…”

Albertine regarded her for a moment before curling his hand around the chlorowheat. Wordlessly, he tucked it back into his pocket. Following this, they sat in silence for some time. The rain outside intensified

“Oh, I have more clues on who this person is,” Albertine said after a while. He tapped his temple. “Recently they’ve been working on some sort of dig site—I’m rather fuzzy on the details—but I believe they’re performing a rescue op on some sort of disaster. So…” He gestured to the articles strewn on the table. “I did some research and came up with a couple scenarios. I was hoping you could help narrow my field of search—so to speak.”

Atienna tensed slightly. “Did you collect these yourselves or did you request someone to do it for you…?”

Albertine arched a brow. “Well, I can’t busy our maids and butlers with every menial task I think of, can I? So I collected these myself. Is… there an issue that I’m not aware of?”

Atienna felt some of the tension leave her shoulders. “No, that’s very kind of you, Albertine. And it was a good choice…” She glanced at the articles. “It might be better not to involve even those closest to you in these types of… things. Just as a precautionary measure… I also think it might be wise to make sure there’s no one watching when you… research like this.”

Albertine frowned. “You’re saying I can’t even trust my maids and butlers.”

“I’m saying that you might not be able to trust whose eyes are watching from behind theirs.”

“Right. True Conductor hunters and saint candidates.” Albertine’s brows rose but instead of speaking, he pushed one of the articles towards her.

ELPIS ATTACK IN THE HEART. ELPIS DEPARTMENT INVESTIGATING. RESCUE SLOW BUT UNDERWAY.

“Perhaps they’re a peacekeeper?” Albertine suggested.

“Perhaps.” Atienna smiled before moving onto the next one.

A RISE IN MISSING CHILDREN IN LIBRA. IS THIS CONNECTED WITH THE ELPIS ABDUCTION OF CHILDREN THROUGHOUT THE CONTINENT.

“Another ‘perhaps they’re a peacekeeper,’” Albertine pressed again. “I know it doesn’t quite line up but maybe….”

Atienna silently moved onto the next article.

STRANGE VITAE ACTIVITY CONTINUES NEAR THE GREAT TREE OF VIRGO. RESEARCHERS FROM THE CONDUCTOR & VITAE RESEARCH / LITERARY DEPARTMENT SENT TO INVESTIGATE.

She gently pushed this article aside as Albertine pushed another one into her view.

ANOTHER CHLOROWHEAT DEN DISMANTLED IN CAPRICORN. MEDICAL DEPARTMENT ALLOWED ENTRY AND INTERVENTION.

Atienna pushed this one aside as well before pulling one of the last few towards her.

HORRIFIC ROCKSLIDE AT THE OKÖR MOUNTAIN RANGES OF TAURUS. 

SURVIVORS: UNKNOWN. 

NUMBER OF PEOPLE TRAPPED: UNKNOWN.

Atienna paused and plucked the article from the table. 

Rockslide. Rescue. Earth Elementalist.

“Talib visited Taurus on a campaign two months or so ago, right…?” she asked.

“Mr. Al-Jarrah? Or—Scorpio as you call him?” Albertine frowned. “He did, yes. There were a handful of news articles and radio talks about it.” 

Atienna stared at the monochrome photograph taking center stage of the article—a large pile of stones piled up on top of each other on a mountainside. Branches and dirt dotted the spaces in-between the stones.  “I believe if we look into the list of technicians on this  rescue operation, we’ll be able to identify them. Since Taurus has a select few isolationist policies, it’s most likely that the person connected with you is Taurusian and not some outsider lending a hand. Have you… noticed your skills in Taurusian improving any?”

Albertine shrugged. “I was tutored in all the languages of Signum, so it’s hard to say.”

“Very impressive,” Atienna humored him.

“Oh, you flatter me.” Albertine smiled briefly before he sighed. “So… we finally are closer to identifying who this is. They’re awfully difficult, aren’t they? It would be so much simpler if they just flat out told us. Difficult. Like a Taurusian. Sensible enough of a theory.” After a pause, he asked, “You’re rather good at this, aren’t you, Atienna?”

“I wouldn’t say that.” Atienna offered a half-smile.

He held her gaze. “Louise Bonnefoy—you’ve heard of her. They say she’s ill, but that’s not true at all. She ran from home.”

Atienna felt her heart skip a beat.

“She was one, wasn’t she? A True Conductor?” He cast a glance out towards the rain pattered window. “That’s why she ran away. Well, she always wanted to leave, but… she was so different in the days before…”

Atienna could hear her heart drumming in her ears.

“Did you know her, Atienna?”

“Know her….?

“Yes, well—I figured that since True Conductors seem to constantly cross paths according to your stories, you might have come across her. Or perhaps you know of another True Conductor who knew her?”

How to approach this… 

Lie. Easier. Easy was really needed at this particular point in time. Then again—

Truth. Harder: yes. More ‘right.’ Better. Harder in short term. Easier in long term.

And less chance of fallout.

Here was where the path diverged once again.

“I believe I actually physically came across herself myself once—although I didn’t realize who she was.” Atienna tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and studied the articles. “When I was up in Aquarius acting as an advisor for the Virgoan diplomat to Aquarius and Pisces at the time, there was a terrible blizzard and we all ended up having to stow away in the Zatenminye Caverns. Louise was already there when we arrived—taking shelter from the storm.”

“You mean the debacle that happened with the tripartite meeting?” Albertine’s eyes became saucers. He did a double-take. “Louise was all the way in Aquarius?”

Atienna held her silence. 

“Atienna?”

With reluctance, she nodded. “Louise said she was ‘extreme touristing’… She was very lively.”

“What happened…?”

Atienna chuckled, clasping her hands together tight as Kamala’s corpse flashed through her mind. Then came Yulia’s corpse and Kovich’s on top of it. “Forgive me if I’m being presumptuous, but it seems like you’re aware of what happened, Albertine. It was everywhere in the papers, wasn’t it?”   

Albertine blinked and pulled back. “Yes, it was… Although from what you’ve told me, I can’t even trust the news anymore.”  He studied her before clearing his throat. “I apologize if I was tactless there, Atienna…. I’m sure that experience was difficult for you.”

Atienna merely continued with a smile, “Louise escaped safely from the caves. We ended up  together in the Twin Cities briefly, but we parted ways after that… I didn’t realize she was a True Conductor until we’d known each other for some time.”

“Twin Cities…?” Albertine shook his head. “Right… that ELPIS Leader—a Specialist among Specialists. And… somehow an ally.” A grimace touched his face when he mentioned the organization but he smoothed it out with a tight smile “You kept her identity as a True Conductor a secret after that—I have to thank you for that.”

That wasn’t a falsity. Atienna’ hadn’t told anyone Louise was a True Conductor. Scorpio had already known.

 “Do you know where she went after that?”         

Ah, right. Albertine was out of the loop regarding Louise’s most recent appearance since Aldéric had asked for their silence. A promise kept to ensure trust and yet going against another’s trust. Peculiar how that worked.

“I’m sorry if these questions make me seem like a stalker.” Albertine pulled back. “It’s just with all this ‘True Conductor hunting’ going on… I’m worried. Louise—she was my brother’s childhood crush, but she was also my childhood friend.”

Louise’s and Renee’s paired desperation as they clung desperately to their freedom still rang clear in Atienna’s mind. Thinking ‘if they were in her position, they would do the same’ didn’t quite act as comfort since Hilton had proved the opposite. Though—perhaps now he had regrets. Then again, Renee had proven that also somewhat opposite. 

“I’m…. sorry,” Atienna murmured, clasping her hands tighter. “Her missing status made it easier for her to be…”

Albertine’s face slowly drained of color.

“She’s safe,” Atienna assured him. “The saint candidates treasure True Conductors, so they’re generally not harmed and allowed to live comfortably.”

Albertine did a double-take. “Right—they just take away our freedom. Physically or metaphorically. They took away Louise’s freedom in both senses there.” He frowned before he chuckled. “Can you imagine? Me—a wealthy brother of a duke given wealth without responsibility complaining about personal lack of freedoms?”

Atienna thought of the memories Maria had obtained from Leona through Epsilon—the memories of Leonce and Stelleona. “Yes, I can imagine it…”

“Do you know how…?” Albertine pressed. “When….?”

Atienna quickly but quietly replied, “I believe there might be an operation of sorts that might help her, so I want to reassure you that—”

“An operation? A rescue…?” Albertine shot to a stand. “Can I help somehow?”

She offered him a sympathetic look. “Albertine… You’re still new to this. It might be best if you didn’t strain yourself too much. With synchronizing—it can be head-turning if you’re still novel at it. You might draw unwanted attention.”

Albertine slowly seated himself and looked her over. “Am I… able to trust you, Atienna?”

* * *

The questions Dimka brought to Atienna prior to his outings with the Cancerian diplomat slowly, steadily, subtly became more tailored to one particular subject. There were times when questions were so specific that Atienna had to spend an entire day researching the topic before being able to advise him. And the topic so heartfully and curiously ventured into? Cancer’s deep-rooted relations with other countries. Countries of note were Aquarius, Capricorn, and Aries.

One night after a particularly long consultation with Dimka, Atienna returned to the seventh floor of the manor to survey the paintings. She had been invited to attend an extravagant dinner party on the first floor by Albertine, but she had declined in order to find some solace and think in peace here.

Now that she had time to herself, she thought. The other five were rising together towards some sort of climax—facing a cliff with such a steep angle that Atienna couldn’t imagine climbing it. They fueled each other’s desires and drives. While Atienna had always found this aspect of their connection a pleasant thing, at times like this it was rather dangerous. So many strings… Even with Werner’s organization skills, tying them all together seemed impossible. Werner—

Albertine came to her before Jericho was able to synchronize in and talk about the paintings. As per usual, Albertine looked rather out of sorts—his suit disheveled, his hair lacking its usually tame comeback, his tie askew.

“Aldéric asked me to pontificate about Mr. Al-Jarrah out of the blue,” Albertine panted, whipping his tie off. “And oh did I pontificate. No one has pontificated like I pontificated right there. It was embarrassing. So embarrassing—” 

Just as Atienna was about to press him for more details and offer him a word of sympathy or two, the door at the far end of the hall creaked open and a figure approached brusquely. It was her guard Sefu, walking forward with purpose. He drew near to them, saluting her with the usual fist on the chest. Atienna offered him a cautious nod and shyly waved away the formal gesture. 

“I was asked to retrieve you by Dimka, Atienna, but….” Sefu explained, eyeing Albertine with a frown. “But—I would like to talk.”

“Talk…?”

“We haven’t spoken in a while, Atienna,” Sefu elaborated, gaze flicking between her and Albertine. “Truly spoken.”

“Oh, that’s right. I’m sorry, Sefu.” She offered him a sympathetic smile. “Things have gotten rather busy and strange lately, haven’t they? l do miss our talks.” She paused, studying him pensively. “What would you like to speak about…?”

Sefu eyed Albertine. “Something in private preferably.”

Albertine raised his hands. “Oh don’t mind me.” He proceeded to walk two meters down the hall, parked himself in front of a painting from the 1700s, and offered an affirming wave.

“Cancerians…” Sefu frowned, whispering low. “All flair, no etiquette…. At least they can cook.”

Sefu,” Atienna chastised quietly before drawing nearer. “What is it…? Is it something urgent? Are you alright?” 

“Bachiru wrote to me,” Sefu explained. “He said you haven’t written to him this past month. Unusual for you, my lady. He was concerned… So am I.” 

Atienna opened her mouth, then closed it. “Oh, I’m sorry. II didn’t want to worry him—or you… It’s just that there have been some… things going on… here and elsewhere.”

Studying her carefully, Sefu nodded. “Is everything alright—”

The door at the end of the hall creaked open again rather noisily. It remained ajar as a suited man entered and approached them—one of the estate’s butlers, holding a bottle of wine in one hand and a champagne glass in the other.

“Oh that’s Manon,”  Sefu whispered to her, “he works in the kitchen here. I met him when we first came before our trip. We bonded over football, and now he sneaks me food from the kitchen sometimes.”

Oh, Sefu…

Manon continued forward, coming to a stop a meter or so away from them. He then held out the bottle of wine and the glass. Sefu arched a brow in confusion before reaching out for the items. Heartbeat quickening as the hairs on her arm rose to a stand, Atienna grabbed hold of Sefu’s wrist and pulled it back. Sefu now arched a brow at her.

Manon smiled at her in response. “You’ve been distant, Atienna, this past month. Quite hurtful in all honesty. We’d bonded quite a bit, didn’t we? Are Now why—”

“—would you suddenly pull away after doing something like that?”

And then Atienna felt it. The familiar yet foreign ominous dread. It seized her stomach tight and squeezed, squeezed, squeezed as cold sweat broke across the back of her neck.

Slowly, she turned her attention towards where the second, familiar voice had originated from. Another figure approached from down the hall walking at a steady, relaxed pace. The dread in her stomach  built and built and built as the figure drew nearer and nearer.

Atienna couldn’t quite dissect why she was feeling such dread since she and Werner had encountered him many times before through his mediums and Jericho had encountered him many times in person. Perhaps it was because he was always shrouding himself in sheep wool in those instances. Or—perhaps it was because she personally had never encountered him in person before this very moment.

Yes. Talib Al-Jarrah—Scorpio—in the flesh was proceeding on down towards them. He walked close to the left-side wall and trailed his fingers along its surface—dragged his fingers across the hanging paintings there.

Almost immediately, Atienna felt the other five pull in close—synchronizing in almost fully. Werner arrived first followed by Jericho and then by Cadence and Olive and finally Maria.

Cadence was the only one to offer her thoughts—Well, damn.

“Saints…” Albertine whispered. “Is that who I think it is…?”

“Isn’t that the chairman?” Sefu wondered aloud. “The Saint Candidate—”

“Sefu,” Atienna warned, placing a hand on his arm.

Sefu eyed her briefly before some sort of realization dawned and he whipped off the spear conductor from his back and held it firmly. Meanwhile, Scorpio was drawing closer and closer still, keeping close to the walls.

“Usually people become distant because something unexpected happened in their life or because they’ve grown to dislike the people they’re becoming distant from,” he drew as he came closer, closer, closer—now less than a meter away. “So what would be the cause for you—Atienna, who has nothing at all going on, who is disturbed by nothing, who is living exactly as desired, who wants to keep friendly and positive relations with someone like me—to be keeping away?”

Atienna tensed—but then he passed her by and proceeded down the hall. He continued pacing forward even as he reached the end of the hall and continued onto the right side wall. His fingers trailed the wallpaper and paintings all the way.

“What are you doing here, Mr. Al-Jarrah?” Albertine asked curtly, voice stiff, turning so as to seemingly not let Talib slip from his sights. 

“Your brother invited me since I was in the area campaigning,” Scorpio replied, studying him closely. “Why do you sound so cold, Monsieur Échecs? I mean, you spoke of me so lovingly at the dinner earlier. That speech of yours about me was rather moving by the way. It’s a shame that you had to run along before I made my entrance shortly after.”

Atienna realized—he was being too flamboyant, too open, too forward in front of someone who alleged knew nothing about saint candidates and True Conductors

Intuition: he knew.

Now, Scorpio was approaching them again, hand still pressed against the right-side wall. His gaze, however, was no longer trained on Atienna. “Albertine, Albertine, Albertine. Brother of a duke. Living lavishly in wealth without having to take on any responsibility for it. If only you were an absentminded man, then you would be able to enjoy yourself to the fullest without a care in the world—without feeling the crippling guilt of uselessness. Aldéric might be an antique piece of furniture put out on display, but you are not even an ornament.”

“Excuse me—”

Atienna grabbed Aldéric by the warm, startling the man and cutting him off short. She shook her head subtly. 

“Dear Atienna, you’re just like that Alma of Cadence’s, aren’t you? Charming people left and right, drawing them in yet remaining at an arm’s length. I suppose that’s what makes you a good hunter, Atienna.”

Albertine stared at her.

“If you’re aiming for romantic pursuits, Albertine, I would stay away from Atienna here. You too, Sefu. She’s more cold-hearted than even Libra. You can’t even imagine it.”  

Olive grimaced. He really likes to talk, doesn’t he? Is there a point to rubbing his hands all over the walls?

“Now some rather curious things have been happening recently, haven’t they, Atienna dear?”

“There are always curious things happening,” Atienna replied lightly.

“Hm, true,” Scorpio agreed. “But it’s quite peculiar that I lost sight of Alpha with my mediums around the same time Leona’s and Jericho’s leave of absence, wouldn’t you say? Would my partner happen to know where she’s gone off too?” He hummed. “Well, no matter. If Leona is currently in a situation of humiliation, I would like to see it for myself. Her half-heartedness paired with that arrogance…” He waved a hand in the air dismissively. “As for Alpha? Well, I’m sure my partner would be glad if that particular ELPIS leader met misfortune, right? His happiness is my happiness.”

Jericho’s presence became intense.

“Yes, that’s all very peculiar…” Atienna murmured. “I can’t speak for Jericho, but would you happen to know anything about it?”

Scorpio didn’t reply.

“Alpha,” Atienna tried, “the one who’s been abducting the children….”

The one.

“You’ve encountered him, haven’t you?”

“I personally haven’t—no. His actions do seem rather concerning. Even if he somehow isn’t in the picture any longer, are you not concerned about his followers? Are they not a detriment to your plans?”

Scorpio chuckled. “Let Alpha—Proteus—and his followers run amuck if they so desire. They’re just accelerating the syzygy with all of their reckless abandon.” He frowned, a brief look of irritation crossing his face. “Though Alpha claims to hold no passion at all. In fact, he claims to want nothing—and yet he’s still here, isn’t he? If he wanted nothing—if he truly reached that point of despair—he would have smashed that resistor of his a very long time ago. Still, he lauds the concepts of non-attachment and embracing nothingness—the gall. He doesn’t know what he wants. I do, of course.”

Irresistible curiosity began to prick at Atienna’s mind. It itched and itched and itched—

Atienna, Werner warned.

“These are rather cruel things to say about someone who was a Mathitís of yours and someone who is a fellow Knowledge Bearer, don’t you think?”

Scorpio paused, turning to her slightly. “And where did you hear that terminology from?”

“Theta,” Atienna replied evenly with a tight smile. “A while ago, so I’ve been thinking on it all this time. Who else would I learn that from?”

“Theta you say? That doesn’t sound like something they’d tell you—though maybe Francis would. Besides, Alpha was no Mathitís of mine. No, no—he kissed the feet of another saint candidate.” 

“I see…” Atienna studied him. “I hope this isn’t presumptuous of me, but the way Theta was speaking of the past made it seem as if you weren’t particularly for the syzygy in the beginning. Until… you conversed with Virgo.”

Scorpio stared at her causing a cold shiver to run down her spine yet also intensifying her curiosity. Then, he chuckled.I do like this little game of ours, Atienna dear.” He passed by Albertine and continued down the hall towards the door—hand still dragging. “So, for irony’s sake, I’ll let you in on it briefly.”

Ya don’t really have to pry information from him, do ya? He’ll just silver platter it for the laugh, Cadence thought, peering at Scorpio cautiously through Atienna’s eyes and from behind Werner and Jericho. ‘Course there’s that thing that they call being selective in dealin’ your cards.

“Virgo’s way of being attunes her to the world around her. Dare I say this attribute makes it so that Virgo loves you people even more than I do. Passion at its finest. But with deep love comes disappointmentas I’m sure Leo is astutely aware ofand deep empathy and sadness. When someone or something you love is in pain, you want to relieve that pain, don’t you?”

Cadence frowned.

“But sometimes the pain and injury is so great that you feel helpless because you can do nothing to relieve it. Well, nothing but one thing.” He tapped his chest. In that moment, I connected with Virgo, I felt and understood her pain—though I’ve grown out of it. I’m sure you understand it yourself, right? Haven’t you felt the same towards your own mother? Haven’t you thought of just offering her that mercy dear Maria always throws around—oh, has she gotten any closure on that pursuit of passion of hers? That endless search? Well, anyways, mercy isn’t always offering life, is it? Mercy can also involve a present of death.”

Maria placed a hand on her hip, cocked her head, but didn’t think anything.

Atienna, on the other hand, clenched her fists as she felt her palms itch. The implication—the insinuationwas clear.

“You have considered it, haven’t you?” Scorpio drew it out regardless. “Taking a silk pillow from your bed, walking over to your mother’s chair, and just—well, you get the picture. Mercy.”

Finally, he reached the last painting on the wall, tapped it, removed his hand, turned to face them.

“What do you want?” Albertine asked, tense. “For me to come with you?”

Saints. What an idiot—

Well, if Scorpio didn’t know then, he knows now.

“Did you think I came here just to greet you and retrieve you, Albertine? To reprimand you, Atienna?” Scorpio gestured for Manon who popped the wine bottle open, poured a glass, and handed it to him. Scorpio in turn raised the glass in the air. “No, no, no. I’ve come here to celebrate.”

“Celebrate?” Albertine asked in barely a whisper.

“Yes, yes, celebrate.” Scorpio hummed, taking a sip of the wine. “And to relieve you of your duty, Atienna.”

What? No

“You needn’t worry about any of the others being whisked away by us anymore though. You’ve played your part and you shall be rewarded handsomelythat’s the natural order of things, isn’t it?”

Scorpio lifted his free hand.

All the paintings in the hallall the ones he had touched-began to become outlined in dark blue light. Seemingly guided by his orchestral direction and a flick of his hand, the paintings peeled themselves from where they were pasted and began to float in the air. 

Sefu muttered a swear as his grip on his conducting spear tightened.

“This land that we stand onthis celestial bodyis one of many.” 

Scorpiowaved his hand loosely through the air. The paintings began to fly forward, tornadoing around the room and enclosing Atienna in a swirling tomb of paper and paint.

“Saints…”the tremble rang clear in Albertine’s voice

 “We are all expanding forward, forward, forward out into spacepushed by some great event that occurred even before us saint candidates came into being. No amount of force can counteract this predetermined paththough struggle as you all might to resist. Forward, forward we go together. However, expansion is finite.”

The swirling paintings stilled in placehovering in the air.

“Once we reach that ending point, everything will move backwards, backwards, backwards in the direction where everything came until everything is back in its initial state. Then, the expansion happens again. A cycle. Equilibrium. An eternal return.”

Scorpio lowered his hand. The paintings rushed outwards, fluttering back to the wallsno, to the frameswhere they took back original positions at the center of their gilded frames.

“In other wordsI’m here for a front row seat for that re-run.”

I don’t really wanna see any type of show that that guy’s looking forward to, Cadence noted.

Olive added half-biting, half-nervous, Did he really need to make a whole scene about? What was the point of that?

Their thoughts were a comfort.

“Can’t you feel it, Atienna? The syzygy—the pulse of it?” Scorpio looked up to the ceiling, raising his now empty glance towards it before looking back down to meet her gaze. “Well… maybe not. You do enjoy spending your time idly averting your eyes. Don’t. You. Think?”

Atienna asked quietly, calmly, “What did you do?”

Scorpio shook his head and clicked his tongue. “How many times must I tell you, Atienna? You’re more intelligent than this, aren’t you? I didn’t do anything. You’ve naturally brought yourselves to this point. Choice by choice, decision by decision.” He turned on his heels towards the door. “It’s too late to find any escape route. The hand of fate has pushed this stone down the sloping hill of time. This momentum has been building since the very beginning and no amount of friction can counteract it. The only thing you can do now is to do what you’ve always done best, Atienna. Stand by and watch.”

Jericho placed a ghosting hand on her shoulder as Scorpio headed towards the exit. 

“Don’t worry,” he said, offering a wave as he passed over the threshold. “You’re all very valuable and dear to us—to me. So you’ll be safe and—” he chuckled “—‘protected’.”

Werner tensed.

Scorpio was gone the next moment.

The other five began to buzz noisily at the back of Atienna’s mind did Scorpio know what they were planning? If so, how much did he know? Did it matter if he did? Why was he taking them off of their task and letting them ‘run free’?

“Are you alright, Atienna?” Sefu’s words barely filtered into her perception. He touched her arm but she pulled away from him.

“Am I screwed?” Albertine whispered to her, searching her face. 

Mind still buzzing with thoughts from the others, Atienna stared at him wordlessly. In turn, he detached from her side and stormed out of the door. Shaking herself, Atienna darted out after himor tried to. The outside hall was flooded with men and women running back and forth along the Sagittarian carpeting. Their voices saturated the air, while their foods clambered noisily against the hardwood floor hiding beneath the carpet. 

Sefu was at her side in an instant, pushing away those who came too close. With difficulty, Atienna pushed past them all herself and spied Albertine standing bewildered by the stairwell. She caught sight of him descending and followed on after him. As she went down flight after flight tailing him, she came across different levels of chaos on the lower floors. 

On the sixth floor people were crowded around all the phones stationed around the room. The people shouted at each other, fighting for the devices. The phones themselves seemed to be trapped in a constant state of ringing and trilling. On the fourth floor guests were hysterically speaking over one other, pointing fingers at each other, gathering in clusters around all the statues and decorative objects dotting the room. Some of the statues had toppled over and glass shards from shattered vases littered the ground. On the second floor there was silence, however. Some sat quietly on lush sofas with their hands clasped together while others stood with their heads bowed. 

Upon finally reaching the first floor,  Atienna pushed past all the cloistered men and women and maids and butlers and made her way towards the dining hall. The crowd thinned as she neared it which piqued her curiosity. At the entrance of the dining area, she spotted Albertine. His hands were clasped tightly in front of him, his gaze was focused aheadtowards Aldéric who sat at the main white-clothed table centermost in the hall. 

Aldéric’s head was buried in his hands. Whether it was to hide his face or to block out the whispers from the aged and suited men and womenpoliticians Atienna could identify by namegathered tightly around him was unknown to her. Despite the grim expressions the politicians wore, there was a sparkling intensity in their gazes. 

Atienna stopped short several meters from Albertinehesitating.

“Atienna,” Sefu said, panting behind her as he finally reached her side. Touching her arm again, he whispered, “What

Before he could finish, Dimka suddenly appeared before them. He trained a glare in Sefu’s direction. “Sefu, what took you so long?”spoken quietly in his native tongue. He turned to Atienna herself and grabbed hold of her arm. “Atienna, we must depart immediately.”

Depart…?” Sefu did a double-take. 

Dimka’s lips pressed into a thin line as he held up a silencing hand“The Princess of Leo is dead. Murdered. Assassinated.”

What…?

Atienna’s head spun as alarm from the othersstill synchronized stronglycombined with her own.

“Wait,” Olive stammered. “Assassinated?” He paled. “How? Isn’t she missing? Why would they…? International Relations can step in, can’t they? They know” 

A political ploy. How coy.

No. This is

Olive cast a look in Werner’s direction. “What’s the goal? The point?” He paused, eyes widening. “Is it to

 “No one knows who did it, but everyone is assuming that it was done by the Aquarian Yastreby,” Dimka clarified. “The princess’s brother is a vehement person. I believe he’ll press the governing body to declare…” He silenced himself, looking around cautiously. “Pack your things,” he said with an air of finality as he swept away. “We need to leave now.”

Werner stiffened subtly through their connection. Atienna could already see him plotting out the points, reasoning the probabilities, estimating what would follow. The lines that divided their countries began to become more and more prominent

“I’ll get your things,” Sefu whispered into Atienna’s ear before heading off into the crowd. “Stay here please, my lady.”

Atienna stared after him for a moment before turning towards Albertine. Finally, taking a deep breath, she approached him.

“Albertine…”

Albertine glanced at her before turning his attention back to Aldéric. “It seems as if another one of my brother’s loves has been taken away…” He sighed. “Leo and Cancer were tied together by the mere thought of this union. Where Leo goes, Cancer is sure to follow. Hm. Virgo is rather friendly with Aquarius, isn’t it…?”

“I’m sorry for your brother’s loss, Albertine, but… not everything is as it seems. And in light of everything that’s happeningthat might come to happenI… believe it would be best if you came with me,” Atienna whispered. “Come to Virgo. It was once an isolationist country and has cherished neutrality ever since then. I’m sure they will welcome anyone in with open armsbefore things reach a dangerous point, at least. It might be the best option given where you stand, don’t you think…?”

Albertine gave a one-note laugh. 

“Even though you’re an important figure in the public eye and even if Scorpio says he will not touch you,” Atienna tried again, “we cannot trust their whim…”

“Atienna, you truly amaze me with how you can separate yourself from everything that’s going on…” Albertine stared. “Did you promise the same to Louise?”

Atienna fell silent, her stomach tightening, before she shook her head. “I didn’t offer her anything at all.” However, Louise had offered her many things. Food items, yesbut it was still an offer.

Albertine took in a breath and shook his head. “I apologize if that sounded rude. You’ve only been a great help to mebut at the moment, this True Conductor business is the last thing on my mind. I… need to stay with my brother.” He turned his attention back to Aldéric. “I’m sure if you were in my position, you would agree with my choice. And I’m sure if I was in your position, I would agree with your choices.”

Sefu, Dimka, and Dimka’s guards were at her side a moment laterbags and luggage in hand. Atienna momentarily turned over the idea of staying as her gaze flitted between them and Albertinestaying just like she had done in Capricorn. However, she soon came to understand that this was no Capricorn. This was not the conclusion of unrestshe knewbut the beginning of it.

And so, Atienna allowed herself to be ushered out of the manor by Sefu and into a v-ehicle waiting on the outskirts of the estate. As everyone loaded inside the v-ehicle and it pulled away from the manor, she cast a look back at the retreating buildings and gardens.

It seemed that while the other five had readily formed or reforged alliances, she had been slowly whittling them all away. Though did such alliances remain pertinent at this point? The syzygy was one thing. This was another.

Ironicit was just as Alpha had said and just as Scorpio had implied. They were both right in a sense despite their conflicting ideologies. The first domino had fallenand the rest were sure to follow. A spider web spun from the eclipse of time. Alpha truly had known everything and Scorpio tooat least in that moment. Most likely, they knew because they had seen it happen before. Or perhaps it was all very obvious.

In the distance, Atienna could hear the bells toll. A note preluding the drums of war.


A/N: chapter is a bit ‘shorter’ than the usual one. sorry if it was not as action-y and exciting as the other ones and for the tardiness. was feeling a bit down while editing it but i powered through. hurrah–thanks for reading uwu

BY THE WAY. THERE ARE CHARACTER TRAILERS. PLEASE LOOK AND SEE IF YOU SO DESIRE:

SUITCASE SON TRAILER

PEW PEW SON TRAILER

26.4: Maria & Leona: A Link in Gold

Re-cap:

Choosing to face Proteus alone, Maria has lost not only her arm but also her grounding. As everyone prepares for a resistance around her, Maria—

( )

The bells continued to ring at the back of Maria’s mind long after she’d left the Monadic Temple behind. The sound reverberated from the base of her skull, down her spine, through her limbs, and down all the parts that extended out from them. The one area where the trembles did not travel was her left arm just above her elbow. In that area, she only felt a numb prickle. Yes, she could still feel it there—her arm. 

She had stayed awake staring at the dim brown ceiling illuminated by candlelight as Nico’s father had removed it—snip by snip, cut by cut, incision by incision. She had studied the way the shadows danced back and forth, how the light stretched and compressed, how it all blended together. It reminded her of when she’d used to play shadow puppets with Conta  at the orphanage deep into the night. They’d sneak out from their rooms and hide beneath the cloth-draped tables of the dining hall by candlelight. As Maria would make shadows stretch across the makeshift screen with her hands, Conta would chant—

“A golden beast, ready for a feast—”

The surgery wasn’t as painful as Maria thought it’d be—it had hurt a lot more when she’d driven her hand through the wall of Rho’s vitae. Werner was out cold and Jericho’s view of pain was quite different, so they didn’t deal with her pain too much. The others did not cope with the pain too well though. Cadence and Olive agonized through it. Eventually Cadence passed out from the ordeal, while Olive laid curled up and heaving in his private room on his train bound to Ophiuchus.

Maria was quite used to dealing with pain from the others because Jericho was accident prone as was Cadence—for vastly different reasons. What she was not used to, however, was the others taking on her own pain. She rarely injured herself, after all. Having the others feel her pain was not pleasant at all. She figured she could handle it by drawing all of the pain into herself—but she couldn’t. Perhaps it was because she had never had to really do it before. If she had enough practice, she was certain she’d be able to—but getting that ‘practice’ in would mean having to get injured repeatedly. And she was strong so that was impossible. Impossible—

Simply put—Maria didn’t know what to do. 

After the surgery was finished, Nico’s father informed Maria that it would take around a month for the wound to heal and up to a year for ‘the residual limb’ to stabilize in size and shape. There were a lot of numbers involved with it all, but Maria had never been limited by such things. He pressed for her to remain in bed at least three weeks which Maria felt was too long. She felt fine—just a little sleepy. However, the others worried immensely, so she stayed put just for them. 

The first day after Nico’s father removed her arm, Olive came to her bedside, sank to his knees, and bit his lip as he held her gaze. He tried very hard not to cry but in the end the tears leaked out and he buried his face into her sheets.  

Maria was quite surprised by his actions. He made it seem like something truly awful happened to her—which she didn’t think was the case. In fact, she had at first thought he’d come to cry about Werner. It wasn’t until he mumbled—“It’ll be okay. I’ll figure out a way to make things better, Maria. I promise”—that she realized his tears were for her. He had shed tears for her before—for Conta—but this time felt different.

Maria didn’t know what to do.

Cadence’s visit—visits—were a bit more happy. Whenever Cadence came physically, Cadence would go on and talk about things she saw that day or bring Maria a ‘souvenir’ she ‘found’ while outside. When Cadence synchronized from some other place, she would show Maria some wintery scenery or play Maria a song from the piano in one of Francis’s other rooms. 

Cadence was quite talented.  Her sounds were always vibrant, colorful, and happy. No one could play quite like her.

One day, however, Cadence suggested that Maria have a conversation with Gilbert through her. Maria couldn’t quite understand why. Maria did like Gilbert a lot since he was Werner’s,  but she didn’t feel much like speaking to him at all. Cadence seemed sad at this bled thought—which was quite peculiar to Maria.

Maria didn’t know what to do.

Jericho visited her often as well—although she technically visited him before he started visiting her:

It was only two days or so after her surgery that she felt an intense wave of boiling yet chilling  hatred simmer at the pit of her stomach. She knew immediately that it was Jericho and so—despite warning and protest—she swept herself out from her bed and to the room Jericho was holding Proteus and Leona in. Upon entering, she found Jericho straddling Proteus and squeezing his fingers over the latter’s throat. Epsilon was hovering over him, looking faithfully from side to side.

Maria could feel the pounding hatred coursing through her veins—stronger than anything she’d ever felt before—but still she managed to move forward, pull Jericho aside, and hold him in place. Epsilon meanwhile came to Maria’s side and flashed her a smile of relief.

You seem like you are in a bad mood, Jericho, Maria noted as she stared over the man’s shoulder towards Proteus who was staring up at the ceiling without seeming disturbed. Let’s cheer up! 

Maria looked over at Leona who was still bound upright across from Proteus. When their eyes locked, however, Leona’s gaze moved to Maria’s left. Then, Leona made a soft clicking sound with her tongue and shook her head before turning her attention to Epsilon.

“It’s his fault,” Jericho muttered to Maria. “For everything. It is him. All of it. He took everything, Maria. He started everything. ELPIS, the chlorowheat, Ayda, Altair, Vega, Omicron, Francis. Me. You.”  

Bright blips of faded scenes—white on black—flitted through Maria’s mind eye. Proteus, Ophiuchus, Altair, Vega, Mathitís, and everything in-between. With it came Jericho’s burning hatred.

Maria followed the man’s gaze to Proteus and nodded. “He did many bad things, ye—” She shut her mouth and tightened her grip on Jericho’s arm. “He did bad things. I don’t think I will forgive him for it—but I think Werner and Atienna want to keep him alive. He still has my crew and Cadence’s children. We should wait. It is more fun when there’s build up, isn’t it?” Her smile thinned as she stared at Proteus and she felt her upper left arm begin to pulsate.

Jericho frowned.

“But for now we should show mercy, Jericho,” Maria continued. “Mercy is—”

“—is a virtue only the strong hold.” Proteus chuckled. “You’re certainly dazzling, Maria. Every time I see you, I do truly see Leo.”

You need to get your eyes checked then. I am Maria, not Leo.” Maria continued to hold onto Jericho’s arm.  “You took my ship and my crew and my spirit crew’s crew. And now, we’ve taken you. So—where are they?”

“Vengeance, I see….An eye for an eye…” Proteus shrugged. “I’m not with them now, am I? That’s a strange question to be asking someone who hasn’t set foot on that ship in—how long has it been now?” 

Maria thought on it. “You said you know everything, so wouldn’t you know where they are?”

Proteus continued smiling. “You’re holding onto those types of things still—the both of you. Corporeal and incorporeal. Little Maria and Jericho. You’re clinging to each other too.” His eyes fell half-lidded. “Haven’t those things only brought you unhappiness?” His gaze rose to the ceiling. “Leo, you would know, wouldn’t you—what happens when you hold onto something too tightly or for too long? That is a self-inflicted prison. I’m sure you learned that way before me. That is—through whatever happened in the 1600s and during the war. Oh, I mean the latest war, of course.” He chuckled and then looked past Maria towards Epsilon. “Epsilon has certainly brought some things I’d long let go of back into the forefront of mind. The higher the pedestal, the harder the fall. Freedom is so easy to obtain but we’d much rather choose imprisonment. Well, you’re free to listen or to ignore or both—as always.”

Maria pulled Jericho a bit closer and motioned for Epsilon with her head. Then she offered Proteus a thinning smile. “I don’t want to talk with you anymore, so we’ll be leaving now—but I will be back.”

With that, she directed Epsilon and Jericho out of the room through the gate. When they arrived on the opposite side of the gate into another one of Francis’s room, Maria felt resistance on Jericho’s end. She stopped short and swiveled around to face him curiously.

 Jericho—

Are you mad at me? Jericho searched her face. “You don’t feel mad but Cadence said that if someone stops using a ‘nickname’ with you that means they are upset with you.” He looked over her shoulder. “You didn’t say… ‘my dear Jericho’.”

Maria cocked her head.

Jericho slowly returned his gaze to her face. “Intuition: it is something else. Alpha is the beginning. But who you are and who I am: it is ‘shaped’ by something else. For you it is before that ‘beginning’ and for me it is after. I…” He seemed to struggle for words. “Would you like to talk about it?” 

Maria held his gaze momentarily before offering him a smile. “I’m not upset with you, Jeri. You worry too much.”

Maria wasn’t mad at all. She just didn’t know what to do.

* * *

Maria’s visitors did not only include her spirit crew but her ship crew as well. 

Simon was a constant. He had claimed a chair in the room’s far corner as his own and would frequently bring it over to sit by her bedside in silence. Maria would fill in the silence by idly chatting about whatever came to her mind, but at some point, she reached a point where she couldn’t think of anything else to say—a rare occurrence.

On the second day of silence, Maria asked absentmindedly, “Could you tell me more about yourself, Simon?”

“You mean why I joined?” Simon smiled faintly. “I already answered that, Captain.”

Maria shook her head. “No, about you, Simon. Before me. Where did you start?”

The beginning.

“Does it matter?”

“I will know when you tell me,” Maria replied with a smile.

Simon regarded her for a moment before chuckling. “Well, I grew up in Trastámara—that’s a city in central Leo. My father was the head priest of the city, so you can see that I… followed in his footsteps. I didn’t really think there was any other career choice for me, really. It’s not as if the beliefs in Monadism are bad or anything so I had no qualms about doing it.”

“So you are always following something or somebody?” Maria inquired.

Simon placed a hand to his chest. “I suppose you could say that…” He looked at a far point in the wall. “I can’t say I was particularly social, but that made me better able to focus on my Monadic studies. So, I was able to move up within the ranks of the Monadic Temples quite easily. Soon, I was appointed to be a priest at one of the Gloria orphanages.”

“Oh.” Maria cocked her head. “So you could have met Conta and me! Maybe you could have been our priest instead! That would have been fun.”

Simon chuckled. “I’m not that old, Captain. That actually… hurt a bit. I think we’re around the same age…” 

He cast a glance to the side towards Lita and Albatross who were sitting together on the sofa against the wall. Maria followed his gaze and noticed that there was a large gap of space between the two. Albatross was looking in Lita’s direction but Lita was looking ahead at nothing—simply listening.

“I learned about the process of selecting potential saint candidates and what the orphanages were really for during my training for the role. I learned what the saint candidates truly were—in a sense.” Slowly, Simon lowered his head until his eyes met Maria’s. “Believing what you believe because you choose to believe it on your own merit—the pride in that action…? That is what the pillar of victory stands for.” He gripped his chest. “Indoctrination and forcing beliefs. Saying ‘devote yourself’ or be unloved and punished. Obsession… lack of compassion… The children who couldn’t become the Saint Candidate of Leo…” Simon let out a long and quiet sigh. “The priests force them to cut their vocal chords as a vow of silence. Some orphanages require them to remove their tongues. Mine was one like that. That way the secrets stay within closed doors.” He shook his head. “As if they aren’t brainwashed into staying quiet in the first place. That… fervor… it’s… terrifying. Those children become—”

“They become Andres,” Maria finished.

Simon grimaced briefly with a nod before he continued, “I couldn’t handle the guilt of it so I left. I didn’t quite give my two weeks’ notice, Captain, but they replaced me rather quickly. My father actually found me after I ran away just to tell me that I was disowned. Seems archaic, doesn’t it? I figured it was good enough punishment for me just turning tail and running. I didn’t know what to do, who to tell, and I still don’t quite know, Captain. It was awful. I was… desperate for an escape from the guilt. And then… I met you. The moment I saw you and Conta, I knew. You—Maria—were one of those children. But somehow, you’d escaped—freed yourself.

Escaped? Freed? Taken. Saved.

“I know this is awful of me to say, but I was saved in that moment. I was ready to tell you everything, Captain,” Simon whispered, “but you were searching in an entirely different direction, so I… thought the least I could do was to—”

“Oh, so the reason you stayed in my crew—I made you join but you stayed on your own choice—was because of that?” Maria closed her eyes as she hummed. “You did not stay because I was me or because you wanted the adventure. You stayed because I was a potential saint candidate for Leo. You stayed because you felt guilty.”

“Captain…” 

Maria flashed him a smile again but did not open her eyes. “That is not a bad reason to do something, is it?”

Did his answer really matter? Of course not. The adventure and the experience was all that mattered. She was herself, and that was that. But—did she think like that because she had been taught to think like that? Of course not. She was herself, and that was that. But— 

The thoughts looped in a cycle in her head over and over again.

She didn’t know what to do.

* * *

Lita and Albatross were also almost always there too whenever Simon was. Lita, however, would hover far off in the corner—silent. Whenever Maria called out to her, she would escape through Francis’s gate and Albatross would follow on after her. Maria tried to chase after her whenever that happened, but she could never find which of Francis’s rooms Lita was hiding in. A constant search. Again.

Proteus’s gaze came to Maria after these fruitless searches and his words would echo in her mind. Why was she searching for something—attaching herself to someone—when it hindered her freedom? Why be tied down from her adventure? It was because she had become attached to the children and to her crew and it was because she had become refocused on searching for Proteus that she had stopped adventuring and exploring and having fun. In fact—now that she thought more on it—attaching herself to all of these things had made her lose even more of her freedom. It had made her lose her—

No.

The answer was because it was Lita, and Lita was hers. There was no other reason for her searching. But the idea of ‘things being hers’—Maria wondered if that idea was originally hers to begin with.

That chase aside, the other children—her children and Cadence’s—also visited. Maria enjoyed their company. They were fun and energetic and didn’t look at her with the same sort of sadness that the other five and her other, older crew members did. She would tell the ones who had chosen to stay with Cadence  long tales and stories of her past adventures, and reenact all her battles with vigor. However—despite the children hanging onto each and every word—they would always end the day by staring at the left half of her body. Maria didn’t usually mind it but for some reason now she did.

She didn’t know what to do.

* * *

During the short lapses of time when she had no visitors, Maria would experiment with her left hand—rather, the lack of it. 

Today was no different. 

In the beginning, whenever she would try to wiggle her fingers, she would feel throbbing pain above her elbow where her arm had been severed. There was less pain when she did it now so she was able to focus on the other sensations from the action. Specifically, she was able to feel the tingling sensation that went down her absent appendage. She could feel an itch at the base of her non-existent palm and feel a prickle of pin-needles up the area. Phantom limb, Nico’s father said.

It was quite a funny feeling. Something there but not truly there. Like Conta—

“You changed your style of speaking.”

Maria looked up from her bed to see Conta entering the room through the gate just across from her bed. 

Conta frequented the room often. Actually, she always seemed to be there—hidden in the corner and remaining silent. Whenever Simon or Maria would try to speak to her, Conta would stare them down wordlessly. She only ever spoke to—greeted—Lita who would occasionally hesitantly come to her side. Lita wouldn’t say anything, however, and they often stood together in silence.

“Did I?” Maria cocked her head at Conta. “Well, trying new things out every once in a while is fun, isn’t it?”

Conta stopped a meter away from Maria’s bed before moving to recline against the wall with crossed arms. “This is not trying out something new. This is you trying to cope with your mistake and with what you’ve learned.”

“A mistake? What I’ve learned…?” Maria thought on it and felt a static run up her left arm. “Yes, I… made a mistake. And I have learned some new interesting things too… About Leo, about our orphanage. Mistakes can be fixed, can they not?”

“Fix this mistake? Because you can do everything?” Conta pointed to Maria’s limb. “Can you regrow that limb of yours?”

Maria’s head buzzed and felt her arm begin to throb.

“That Capricornian military officer that’s staying in one of Theta’s other rooms,” Conta continued. “He’s obviously connected with you, and there’s obviously something wrong with him. Can you fix him?”

“I have not tried any of those things yet…” Maria drew. “But maybe it is that all the possibilities have not been tried yet—”

“Do you hear yourself?” Conta interjected, shaking her head and throwing out her arm. “You’ve realized how ridiculous you sound, but you’re not fully acknowledging it. Yes, there’s a possibility that some time in the future things like this can be fixed or solved but you will not be the one to do it.”

Conta was saying unpleasant things again.

Maria tried to brush away the thoughts. “You were very heroic when you carried me out of the temple, Conta. I was very surprised. We switched roles for a moment. Why did you do that—”

“I loved you.”

Maria looked up to find Conta gazing at her without waver. 

“Even in a hot country like Leo, everything felt cold,” Conta continued. “The head priests, the caretakers, even the children who were there with us. The priests said the same things. The children acted the same way. You were different. You were bright.”

Maria blinked before her heart skipped a hopeful beat. “You are Conta.” 

But not really.

Maria pushed the thought aside again and chuckled. “Leo wasn’t so bad, was it? You were very bright too in my eyes. And I also love—”

“No, you don’t,” Conta interjected, crossing her arms slowly. “We were taught to ‘love’ everything and everyone equally—that was probably why I was a failed potential candidate. I showed ‘difference’ in my love.” She shook her head. “Anyways, someone who loves everyone and everything equally truly deeply loves no one.”

Favoring one person more than another and the importance of ‘love’ as a word to Cadence—

“I admired you more than anything else,” Conta continued. “Through all of their adventures across the sea and lands inside and outside of Signum, I found you more vibrant and beautiful than all of the wonders we saw. Being in your presence was more than enough—but you shared that warmth equally with everyone. You would retract it without discrimination and care too—though, I thought that added value to being in your presence.”

Maria opened her mouth but then closed it a moment after.

“But then I became Beta. Or I became Conta.” Conta unfolded her arms. “The directional flow doesn’t really matter as time bleeds on—on this subject, I do agree with Theta.” She paused, gaze trailing to the gate across the room before returning to Maria. “After becoming who I am now, I came to a realization: you’re just a byproduct of their folly. Just as I was a byproduct of their folly as Conta. I was one of millions, and you were one of thousands.”  She looked to the side briefly. “I have no idea what Leo was thinking—developing a system like that. Perhaps it was a way for them to escape imperfections or a way for them to be distant from the people they called theirs…?” 

There was a long lapse of silence.

Maria finally said quietly, “I didn’t save you in time back then, Conta. Lo siento. Lamento. You had to experience, see, and remember many unpleasant things because of that. I was your captain, but I did not rescue you properly. I did not rescue Lita and the other children properly. I could not rescue Werner properly either nor Talib nor Benì—even though they are important people.”

Conta didn’t respond.

“Do you… not love me anymore, Conta?” 

“I don’t love you anymore,” Conta concurred, nearing Maria’s bed and looking down at her. “Not in that way and not because of your failures. If anything, I pity you. And through that pity”— she lifted her hand and left it hovering by Maria’s cheek— “I care for you. You saved me back then and I feel indebted as a result. So much so that your status as a True Conductor is almost pardonable. You didn’t choose to be one, after all—just like you didn’t choose to be a child raised to be the next Leo.”

Maria stared.

Conta dropped her hand. “Even though we have Alpha, more obstacles continue to be in our way. The syzygy seems inevitable at this point and yet we’re still being so selective in our path… So, I ask now that your eyes have been opened a bit wider, do you have any solutions, Captain?”

* * *

It was shortly after this that Werner finally came to visit Maria again. He did not come to her often because whenever he did come, an intense wave of pain would radiate out from them both and into the others. 

Werner was kind in this respect, Maria thought—always thinking for the others and his crew. He had been hurt rather badly recently—in a way that was more than physical—and Maria was beginning to realize she had exacerbated his pain. Her stomach churned when she thought about it—

Still, she was pleasantly surprised when he reached out to her out of the blue on some pretext of acting on the concerns of the others. She was even more surprised when he moved forward to cusp her cheek and delivered to her gentle words instead of a reprimand like he usually would.

In that moment, as he held her cheek, she saw him radiating clearly—the things that he had been given since he’d been younger: the shape he had molded himself at the expectation of others because appearances were everything and what he had been imposed upon him by Scorpio. Things given to him—yes—just like everything that had been given to her. It was a bit different, of course, but Maria understood what he meant. ‘It was not bad if it was not yours to begin with’ was what he was saying. Many things were built upon aspects of other things and improved upon further from that blueprint.

“Maria,” he said in the end, “I still find your unpredictability problematic—especially in high-pressure and delicate situations—but these are aspects that I associate with you and you alone. Your positivity and optimism are important to the morale of this group, and I admit that at times those things have given me the drive to continue forward in moments of weakness. You have made these characteristics your own.”

His words were quite kind and reassuring. But when she looked into his eyes, all she could see were the things that she could not prevent and the things she could not do. Being able to do anything and everything: perfection—nearable but impossible to obtain. And also with all of that—the necessity of an anchor. Not a chain to freedom but an anchor to hold steady. A necessity for any ship.

Maria stared into his eyes afterwards. “I love you, Werner.” 

Werner stiffened.

“I do love you, Werner, don’t I?” Maria pressed. “You can feel that I love you?”

Werner regarded her for a moment before letting out a breath. “I’m unable to answer that for you, Maria, but I do feel affection through our connection.” He continued a beat after, “I can tell you this with certainty: you have the ability to control everything within your vicinity and within yourself. This is a valuable characteristic to have. However, that being said, in general it is very difficult to control external factors. You can account for them and set up preventive measures, but you cannot stop them. Impossible—within your current ability and limits—is a possibility. Even you cannot escape this law. In fact, it is through acknowledging this that you can better adapt to the implications of the impossible.”

As his words and touched slowly seeped into her, Maria finally admitted it—she could not do everything. Not everything was within her grasps. Some things easily slipped through. And when they did…

Maria didn’t know what to do.

* * *

It was two weeks afterwards that Maria was finally able to catch hold of Lita. It was when Maria was waking from a deep slumber that she found Lita and Albatross snoozing side-by-side and resting their heads on her bed. Upon seeing them both, Maria hesitated for just a moment before placing a hand on top of Albatross’s head then on top of Lita’s. The latter stirred before stiffening and tensing and then pulling away. Maria released her and did not give chase. This gave Lita pause.

“Lita, why do you always run from me?” Maria asked as Albatross lifted his head. “I may be the Golden Beast, but I do not want to feast on you. We haven’t spoken in almost a month now. I do miss speaking with you.”

“Captain,” Albatross mumbled, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He perked up, gaze fliting from Lita to Maria. “Captain, you have to understand. Lita—”

“I-I can say it for myself,” Lita stammered, balling her fists. She turned in Maria’s direction. “I’m sorry about avoiding you… I…I know you’re going through things, Captain.” Her lips trembled slightly but she pulled them thin. “And I know what you’ll say after I tell you what I want to tell you—that I’m still me—but it’s more than that and I… don’t want you to think that I’m weak or leave or that I’m dirty—”

Maria reached out and touched Lita’s arm. “Your vitae is white now, Lita?” 

Lita’s face crumpled and she followed Maria’s extended hand and arm to her bed. Then, she buried her face into Maria’s shoulder.

“I-I’m sorry, Maria… I…”  Lita took a deep breath. “Some of the others—Maria, they… I don’t know how t-the man did it but they… Maria, they agreed to bleach their vitae.”

Maria felt something in her chest sink and then burn brightly with indignation and fury. 

“I knew it was wrong but I…. I couldn’t think of how to convince them to stop, so I….” Lita swallowed and sobbed. “I made a deal. I thought I was being smart like Cadence. That man treated me like I was someone important, so I… I asked him if he would stop letting the others go through that if I did it instead.” 

Another defeat. No, more than a defeat. This was not about her but about Lita.

Ah. Maria felt her heart crack.

Albatross dipped his head, distraught lines folding across his face. 

“Lita, I would never think you were weak or dirty because of something like this,” Maria drew after a stretch of silence. Placing a hand on top of Lita’s head just as Werner would, Maria pulled Lita closer and tucked her beneath her chin. “This is not your fault. I… I did not get to you fast enough. I’m… sorry.” 

“Maria, it feels wrong,” Lita whispered. “The man… he talked about cycles and returning to them and not returning to them. Will I not return to the cycle now? I-I’ll be gone—”

“You will be fine, Lita,” Maria interjected. “I will make sure of it.”

Lita fell silent.

Maria felt her lips pull tight. Maybe this was… another thing she could not conquer. 

Not alone. 

“You know the peacekeeper who speaks a bit strangely sometimes?” Maria drew. “You saw him when we found you, I think.”

Lita nodded. “From Capricorn.  He…” Her brows touched. “He said some really weird things when we met again, but…”

“He is Jericho,” Maria told her. “He is someone very, very important to me—important like how you are to me. He is a treasure, and he has gone through something similar to you. I think he will be better at talking with you about something like this than me.” She thought more on it. “Maybe you could help him too.”

Lita nodded slowly before reaching an uncertain hand forwards. She reached, reached, reached, until she finally touched what was left of Maria’s left arm.

“Maria, it’s…” Lita’s face crumpled further. “… gone.”

Pale and with a faint expression of disbelief, Albatross looked away. 

“Yes, yes, it is.”

* * *

Sometime later Maria received an unexpected but exciting visitor. It was Andres accompanied by an unusually serious-looking Jericho. She recalled from Jericho’s end of things that Andres had been kept in another one of Francis’s more furnished rooms alongside Dominic. Jericho had visited them every so often to bring them food. During these visits Andres had always asked about whether the other orphanage children outside of Dominic had been found and about Maria herself. Dominic meanwhile would always act feral—as Cadence put it. The first time Jericho had come to the two, Dominic had lunged at him. However, because Dominic was still affected by Alice’s vitae particles, his movements were slowed. And so, Jericho had reflexively punched him right in the face. Jericho had apologized afterwards but ever since then Dominic had kept away from the man. Cadence reasoned Dominic was intimidated by Jericho— “Must’ve never been punched in the face before then. Probably was humblin’.”

Now as Andres approached her with Jericho just a step behind, Maria found herself wondering what exactly he was coming here to her for and… why he hadn’t come earlier.

Andres pulled out a notepad from his robe pocket as he approached and scribbled something down on it. Once he was at Maria’s bedside, he flashed her what he’d written—

I’m deeply, deeply sorry. 

Maria merely laughed. “What are you sorry for?”

Andres wrote, Your arm.

Straight to the point. That seemed to be the focus of everyone’s attention. Her arm. Her loss.

Andres scribbled some more on another page. Dominic is not yet the saint candidate of Leo and yet I caved into him. He’s someone that I need to save, not follow. I apologize for not helping you. I know apologies do little, but I truly am sorry. I also apologize for coming with this apology too late. He flipped to another page before continuing to write— For waiting until now to apologize. Claire visited me physically—Andres smiled briefly—and made me realize keeping away is not the ideal solution. I’m sorry. You are an ally and I should’ve treated you more as such. 

Apologies? Not helping her? But needing help was a sign of…?

“I would have rejected your help at the time anyways, Andres,” Maria drew slowly with a faint smile. “I rejected everyone else’s help, after all—even the help of people who were closer to me than you. But! I accept your unneeded apology anyways!”

Why?—at the same time Andres wrote this and showed it to Maria, Jericho also thought the same question. Why did you try to do it alone?

Jericho detached himself from behind Andres and came to Maria’s bedside.

“I wonder…” Maria murmured, staring off into the distance. “I think I wanted to show Proteus—no, I wanted to prove to myself—that I… That I am me. That I could do anything and what was mine was mine and no one else’s. But if I feel the need to prove to someone that I can do it then…”

—but you are Maria. There is nothing to prove. Jericho glanced briefly at the gate on the wall. I spoke to Francis recently. About Alpha. About Leo. The candidates and ELPIS. Francis said we are fragments. Of vitae. Like glass. Made up of things given to us by the people who came before us. Not made of original parts but the final image we make is original.

Maria stared at Jericho and for a moment she caught a glimpse of a memory in his mind’s eye—a memory that matched one of her own: the stained-glass windows of the Monadic Temple she’d frequented during childhood. Shards of blues, reds, greens, yellows—fitted together to form one image. 

Slowly, Maria turned to Andres. “And how about you, Andres? Why did you follow what Dominic said to begin with? Because of his potential saint candidacy? Is following fun? You know what the saint candidates really are.” 

He believes he has no other purpose, Jericho answered. He believes this path is the right one. There is nothing else.

What other purpose do I have? They are greater and more noble than us, Andres wrote, confirming Jericho’s thoughts. He paused, flipping over his notebook and writing quickly on the same page. When he flipped it back over to her, the second line had been scribbled out and a new line had been written: The others in my circle have said their peace. I see their perspective, but the pillars give me comfort. I don’t want to abandon it. It’s what I’ve always known. 

Jericho peered at the man’s notebook and nodded. “You are trying to understand. Other perspectives. The truth. You want confirmation. To see it with your own eyes. I understand.”

Andres turned to meet Jericho’s gaze and returned the nod.

Maria thought on the two men for a moment. They were a bit alike, but went in opposite directions. And—she could not prevent what had happened to them either.

Andres turned to Maria again and wrote, You were also raised in a Gloria orphanage like me?

Maria cocked her and nodded.

But you are neither the star nor the night sky, Andres wrote.  My intention isn’t to be rude, but: if you are neither of those, then what are you?

* * *

Atienna synchronized in frequently with Maria, but whenever she did there was something in the atmosphere that Maria could call ‘tension.’ Maria had heard Atienna’s rather angry thoughts regarding her choice to face Proteus alone—like served her right among other things. Maria admitted that she’d felt a sharp pang in her chest when Atienna’s thought had flowed on down to her, but Atienna always went away whenever Maria was prepared to ask her about it.

Atienna’s synchronization visit this time shortly after Andres’s visit, however, felt a bit different. She sat quietly at Maria’s bedside with a book in her hand and with her Cancerian surroundings faraway and distant.

“I think you know why I’m here, Maria,” Atienna said quietly. 

Maria glanced over at her and nodded. “You finally can talk about what you’ve been thinking this entire time?”

Atienna studied her for a moment before averting her gaze. “Werner won’t say it because he feels responsible for it, so I suppose I have no choice but to say it: you put everyone in danger by pushing us all away like that. You are responsible for what happened.” She folded her hands together. “Werner as well in his own case…. There is a thing they call ‘tempting fate’. Paired with denialism it can be a very troubling thing—especially when in the mind of talented and powerful individuals…” She clasped her hands together. “Maria, you always charge so recklessly into things, don’t you think? Your confidence is something  is unmatched. ‘As expected’ as Werner says—that’s what this outcome is. It would’ve happened at one point or another…”

Maria remained silent.

“We’re opposites, so… it’s very easy for me to condemn you like this. The distance…” Atienna studied her hands. “I wonder if you’re following in Leo’s footsteps after all—folly, a star falling, disappointment—”

“I am not Leo,” Maria interjected.

Atienna looked up in surprise before her face softened with sympathy. “I know it doesn’t seem like it with everything I’ve said and thought, but I do care about you, Maria. Deeply. If you hadn’t moved me to act when we first met, I would still be in Virgo. And…” She reached forward abruptly and gripped Maria’s empty shirt sleeve. “That’s why—why did you do such a stupid thing?” 

A dull throb pounded at Maria’s chest.

Atienna pulled her hand away, averted her gaze for a moment, before shaking her head and meeting Maria’s eyes again. “I’m… concerned now. I know it is contradictory of me when I say this, but your recent behavior—this shift in the way you speak and your perspective—is… cognitive dissonance. Everyone faces this at one point or another… however, the way you’re acting is… I wouldn’t have expected this…” Her lips pressed thin. “And I’m worried, Maria. What is wrong? What’s really wrong? Is it… what they taught you at the orphanage? Even if who you are is built off from those founding blocks, you are still you.”

“That’s what everyone’s been saying… but you are the first to ask me that question,” Maria noted, brows raised. She contemplated the question for a moment before she felt her brows furrow. “Atienna, you don’t know—just as you always say. It’s more than that. The reason why I push things aside easily as you say is because I believe I can overcome anything. This is who I am. This is who I have always been. I am strong. But all of it is… ” She turned to Atienna, searching her face. “If I say it for what everyone sees it as then…” 

Atienna’s brows knitted.

“Werner said to make it my own, but making it my own would be acknowledging that this wasn’t mine to begin with.” Maria pressed a hand to her chest. “It is mine. Because if it is not mine, then what is?” 

Atienna’s eyes widened a fraction before she drew nearer to Maria. She remained silent for quite some time before saying, “You’re… at a definitive crossroads, Maria… It’s certainly ironic for me to talk about this topic, but… usually when a choice needs to be made… there is the need to find the right question to ask pertaining to the path to be chosen. I don’t mean to sound egotistical but I’m rather practiced at finding this question—” She let out a breath. “—I’m just terribly at answering it…”

Maria looked down at her left hand—at where it was supposed to be, at where it was not—and acknowledged that it was gone. Gone like Conta’s love. Gone like the feeling of being able to do absolutely everything. Gone like that feeling of endless freedom.

Reality sank in. The hill loomed ahead—

—but there was value in realizing the ephemerality of things.

“So—what makes you different from all of them? Different from all of the others? Why does Epsilon think you’re Leo and not Leona herself?” Atienna murmured, slowly taking hold of Maria’s only hand and squeezing tight. “Those are the questions that you want to have answered, don’t you think?”

Oh? What made them different?

* * *

Moved by this question, Maria decided it was time to face Oros once again. But she did not intend to face Oros alone. She swung by the room containing Andres and Dominic and invited them along for the journey. Andres hastily accepted the invitation while Dominic brushed her off. So—without much ado—Maria and Andres bound the boy quickly and brought him along with them.  

Halfway through traversing through the gates to the room where both Alpha and Leona were kept, however, Maria encountered El who stumbled into her path out from a gate. Maria saw El every once in a while, but had requested El to spend her time caring for Morandi—which she’d abided by. Needless to say, Maria was surprised by her arrival.

“I heard from Andres about what you’re planning,” El explained, breathless. “I can’t explain myself properly because of my situation, but I am Leonian and I-I’d like to know. It’s my country so I… can I also be a part of this?”

Maria was quite curious about El’s reasoning but allowed El to join her without forming that curiosity into a question.

Collectively they entered the room where Proteus and Leona resided. Jericho was not on stand-by as usual but Epsilon was. Epsilon perked up at Maria’s arrival and waved wildly as she approached him with the others. 

Proteus smiled and said nothing before looking away with disinterest, while Leona evaluated them with a sharp eye. Maria studied the former and tried to catch his gaze—but he would not meet it. 

It was disappointing, Maria realized. She had imagined what her reunion with Proteus would be like for years. After learning who he truly was, what he had done, and what he believed, she found that he no longer matched up with the mysterious, grandiose, imposing image she had of him in his mind. Her curiosity had been replaced with something she couldn’t quite describe. Pity? Maybe not. Hm—

Maria wondered if this was what Conta had felt towards her after becoming Beta. She wondered if this was why Atienna didn’t want to know everything. Curiosity was fun, but truly discovering was…?

“Leo, Leo! You’re up! Are you alright to be walking around?” Epsilon crowed, pulling Maria’s attention away. “Jericho and Theta brought me some newspapers yesterday. Did you see that they’re renovating something called the Dioscuri Bridge in Gemini?  Apparently, they’ve gotten more ley-lines there to direct more vitae from the reservoirs to it so that’s why they can renovate it—” His face fell for a moment. “I don’t think that’s very good for our goal, but it still is something, isn’t it?”

Oh, Epsilon. He treated her the same as always. It was quite refreshing.

Maria beamed him a smile. “That is amazing! I will take you some time to see it if you want! Before that…” She tapped him on the chest. “Could you do something for me?”

Epsilon stilled, nodding seriously. “Anything.”

Maria lifted her finger and pointed to Leona. “I want to see what Leona remembers about 1600s. Anything from around that time.” She gestured to Andres, El, and Dominic. “I want you to show all of us.” She met Leona’s widening eyes. “I want to know the difference between me and you, Oros.”

Leona paled—a peculiar sight. “Epsilon, don’t you dare.”

Epsilon glanced at Leona for a moment with a frown before he turned back to Maria with a slow nod.  “Okay, whatever you want.” With that he began approaching Leona with his conductor-gloved hand extended.

Leona pulled back away from him but he successfully made contact with her temple and reached out for Maria who closed the distance between them. As soon as Maria touched her temple to his other gloved hand, a warmth shot through her entire body—

The year is 1613. The month is July. The day is the 27th. The bells on top of the royal palace give their blessings to the birth of twins—a boy and a girl. 

Isabella listens to the toll from the steeple of a Monadic Temple adjacent to the palace and watches as a procession of men and women clad in shimmering armor dappled with gold march forward carrying flags embellished with a vibrant lion’s mane. Behind them, more men and women—this time swathed in folded robes woven with bits of gold and silver—move forward pulling a small carriage of wood. The carve is carved with furling ferns that join together to form a lion’s head guarding its front. Although a thin veil conceals the passengers of the carriage, Isabella can make out two small shapes 

“We’ve performed all the tests, Leo,” comes a voice from behind her. “Both of them are potential candidates…”

Isabella turns and spies a young man in dark robes standing beside the bell in the tower behind her. This is Alonso, a newly indoctrinated priest of Monadism. Infant religions like Monadism tend to draw in the young. Youthful vigor is quite easily melded into devout fervor. Alonso is no Epsilon, of course. 

“This is a time of peace,” Isabella notes, gazing out towards the procession once again. “I doubt that you will require any guidance in this century, yes? You should take pride in being able to move forward on your own, my dear.”

“It’s just a precautionary measure,” Alonso mumbles. “The head priests are worried for some reason…”

Head priests. They are nothing like the Mathités. They don’t pursue knowledge nor do they try to advance it—no, they merely use it and discard it. However, they are all still hers. And regardless, Alonso’s words have warmed her chest. 

“Stelleona and Leonce—twins, are they?” Isabella tests the names on her tongue. “Those are peculiar names, yes?”

“Twins. Absolutely identical—aside from certain parts, of course. The king and queen wanted to show their gratitude so they named the two in your honor, I believe,” Alonso reasons. “And they were amazed to have given birth to two potential saint candidates. This is the first time it’s ever happened.”

“This kingdom is quite young for such words, yes?” Still, Isabella smiles at this. “Though, I do see why it’s a celebratory affair.”

“Since there are two possible candidates,” Alonso presses. “What do we do? Who do we choose when the time comes?” 

“Is that why you summoned me?” Isabella places a hand to her face and sighs. “My dears, are you so hopeless without me?”

Alonso merely dips his head.

“Simply choose the one who contains the most of my vitae—even if it’s by a miniscule amount,” Isabella answers, before she scans the clear blue horizon and the sun passing its rays over all of her people marching below. “However—this time period feels peaceful, doesn’t it? I doubt you will have to make him the Knowledge Bearer in this era.”

“Knowledge Bearer?” Alonso cocks his head. 

Of course. As the duty of baptism has changed hands, so has the linguistics—so has the meaning of it all. The fact that Ophiuchus has shut its gates to outside countries has only accelerated the change. Most of the continent has forgotten about Knowledge Bearers and the intricacies of vitae. The records have also been actively torn apart by Monadic priests—to keep the matter and knowledge sacred. Ludicrous. Soon the common people will no longer understand the cycle—perhaps it will become myth and legend to them.

Ah, but she still loves them for they are hers.

 “The next Saint Candidate of Leo,” Isabella amends. “Besides, I am still here, no? I am not old.”

Alonso hesitates.

“Speak,” Isabella orders, “my dear.”

“The head priests told me to tell you that you can rest and return to the reservoirs after you advised us, Leo,” Alonso says, dipping his head. 

‘Rest?’

A blip of irritation furls out from Isabella’s chest as she turns to Alonso. They dragged her to the reservoirs in Ophiuchus just last week against her will with vague explanation, dressed her in the ceremonial, and—when she showed the last signs of resistance—pushed her into the reservoirs. She—of course—realized the importance of her baptism after the fact, but the lack of tact in the delivery is repulsive. She has taught them better than this. The Mathitís always treated the potentials with tender care. These people—

“Thank you for your services. We’re eternally grateful.” Alonso dips his head further. “Without your presence, we would not be able to be the nation we are today.”

—are still her people. 

This is the choice of her people. 

So be it.

The unpleasant irritation is gone in an instant and is replaced by affection.

*

When Leo returns into something akin to consciousness, he is walking up a long, spiraling, marble staircase to a familiar raised platform. Below him, a pool of glowing light swirls and pulsates—beckoning him. 

As he continues to ascend those marble steps, he comes to realize he has become Leonce. Or perhaps it is the other way—Leonce has become Leo. The direction of flow has become hard to determine with each continuing iteration.

Memories of a sunny childhood treading through dance halls, long games of hide-and-seek in a rose garden, and reading in the dead of night by candlelight  shimmer through his mind. During these types of play and rest alike, he had one sole companion: Stelleona. She had always been by his side—a smiling reflection, a reassurance of his own identity, his platonic other half.

At the thought of her, Leonce feels a warmth rise up from his chest and thread itself through his limbs and hands. He can still recall her sweet rosy smile, her unkempt blonde hair which he earned how to braid at the age of five, and her bright smile that always sparkled with curiosity. 

Then comes the memory of their shared eight birthday—the day they were taken from each other’s side. Stelleona was raised in the palace among the ministers, while he was raised in the royal academy amongst the scholars. A queen and a candidate—separated as higher powers deemed necessary. He hadn’t seen her for five years now, but he’d been counting the days on the calendar ever since then in expectation for this day—this day he was to be reunited with her again at her coronation ceremony and at his baptism.

Poor children, Leo thinks. Moved forward by powers greater than their tiny hands could fight.

“Your sister is going through her coronation ceremony as we speak,” the head priest waiting at the top of the steps informs Leonce when he reaches the platform. “We are to meet her and present your candidacy. Do you recall?” 

“Yes, I recall, my dear Alonso,” Leonce informs him. When the priest’s face brightens, Leonce offers him a fond smile before lifting his arm and inspecting the golden chains and artifices that hang from his limbs. “A Saint Candidate at the age of thirteen—that is… rather different, yes? And so is a queen sitting upon the throne at the very same age.”

“These are troubling times, Leo,” Alonso informs him. “We were hoping for your guidance.”

Leo gives a nod of approval before he looks past the Monadic priests towards the pristine white building that is surrounded by pillars tall and strong several meters away . Behind those pillars, Leo spies unfamiliar yet familiar figures peering in his direction.

“The Ophiuchians have given us passage for just the hour for our religious ceremony,” Alonso says, ushering Leo forward. “We should make haste.”

As Leo passes the Aesculapium with the priests as his entourage, he makes eye contact with the crowd standing on the opposite side of the pillars. To the one standing first and foremost in that gathering, Leo offers a nod. Then—he spies a man among them who offers him an energetic wave and smile.

Epsilon.

To him, Leo gives a subtle wave and a slight smile.

Once Leo reaches the outer border of Ophiuchus and he is changed into clothing suitable for a saint candidate—an armor plated with gold that spills out draping red cloth—he boards a horse-drawn carriage with the priests and heads to the capital of his country. On the way, he spends time admiring how his countryside has changed in these past few years. The carnations and roses blooming in the bushes in the far distance glow in the summer sun. His people ride alongside him on the cobblestone roads, while children chase each other through the grassy pastures lining the path.

However, when Leo tunes his ears to the people, he hears unpleasant things: 

“What a cruel queen,” the people on the street whisper. “Did you see what happened to the minister who tried to lower taxation in the central districts because of their poverty?”

“She executed him,” whispers another. “She’s wicked.”

“Heartless.”

“Pure evil.”

“Despicable.”

Leonce frowns at all the gossip up until he reaches the royal palace’s gates. It stands just as rigid and tall as it did five years ago when he was taken away. Crowned pillars the color of sand and long bridges that connect them are the epitome of elegance. Draped across 

A red carpet is rolled out from the gates through the hexagonal gardens to the entrance of the palace. Leonce walks along the path that is set out for him and enters the vast hall with walls painted with vibrant swirling murals of the countryside. The hall is lined with wealthy aristocrats, governing ministers, and armored knights all standing in a line, and they all begin whispering amongst each other as they lay eyes on him.

Leo pays them no mind because his attention is captured by what lies ahead:

Sitting dainty upon the gold-leaf encrusted throne is a girl just eclipsing the age of thirteen. Her blonde hair is threaded through with roses, and the dress she wears is embroidered with gemstones. Although she wears no crown upon her head and her eyes are free from crow’s feet, her blue gaze is regal, cold, and sweeping.

It has been five years since Leonce has seen her—yes—but Stelleona is just as adorable as he remembers her to be. As he looks her over carefully, he thinks that she is no different from the girl he once played hide-and-seek with in the sprawling royal rose gardens of the palace. Yes, she is no different from the tearful girl whose hair he once braided as he too cried in a quiet twilight garden. He still sees her in there—that eight year old girl.

His reminiscing is cut short as he is summoned to stand before her. He does as directed and kneels before her throne. She rises from her seat slowly, lifts her layered dress above her ankles revealing her ruby red shoes, and descends the tiered steps. Stopping before him, she extends her hand.

Leo in turns lifts his right hand and allows a liquid line of gold to spill out from his fingertips. Waving his hand in a circle, he draws golden petals from the fine line and directs them to form a crown above Stelleona’s head. The ministers and knights gasp but he ignores them and focuses on Stelleona’s face which has become rosy with awe. Pleased with his single-person audience’s reaction, he snaps his fingers and dispels the petals of vitae into a glittering rain of light. He takes Stelleona’s hand in his own and places a kiss on it as the ceremony requires.

Stelleona lifts her head at this before the regal facade cracks and a giddy blush takes over her expression completely. 

“Leonce!” she cries, flinging her arms around his neck. “I’ve missed you so much!”

Leonce doesn’t hesitate to return her embrace just as tightly. “I’ve missed you too,” he responds quietly. “Worry not. I won’t leave you from now on, my dearest.”

Leo has never felt a filial affection this strong before. Perhaps, it is because Stelleona is Leonce’s twin. Or perhaps it is because Leonce is so young that his feelings of attachment are especially intense.

The aristocrats let out gasps, while the ministers let out exasperated sighs. 

“All hail the Queen of the Kingdom of Leo and the Saint Candidate of Leo,” the head knight proclaims, ignoring all dramatics.

The rest of the ceremony proceeds smoothly. Ministers, aristocrats, nobles and the like approach both Leo and Stelleona, giving their blessings and placing kisses upon both of their hands. The ministers treat Leo with a bit more reverence than the nobles and aristocrats do. Just like the previous generation of ministers and the previous ruler, they are well-aware of what ‘saint candidates’ truly are.

Leo accepts the gestures with a warm and welcoming hand and smile. All these people are certainly worth his while—or so he thinks until he is approached by a middle-aged man dressed more simply than the rest. His velvet-crafted suit is barely touched with gold and there is but a single ring on his bony fingers. This is—

“I am Minister Pablo Fierro-Batista,” the man introduces himself. “Although I am well acquainted with the crowned queen, I have yet to meet the Saint Candidate of Leo, so it is an honor, Leonce.”

Leo can smell the corruption on the man. He remembers it as well from even before Leonce’s age. He has seen this man sweeping the Leonian courts for decades through Isabella’s eyes—although he has never felt such disdain for a person before. This must be Leonce’s intense dislike. Regardless, the corruption stinks more than anything, and so before the man can place a kiss upon his hand, Leo pulls away his hand and folds it behind his back.

“Leonce!” Stelleona gasps. “Don’t be so rude! This is Pablo, my best minister. He always handles things for me when it gets too much.” She extends her hand so Pablo can place a too-long kiss upon it. “Just last week he helped me solve the issue with the late payments we’ve been dealing with from the Amarillo District for the past five months.”

“The Amarillo District?” Leo frowns.  “They’re one of the wealthiest districts here and have always been pleasant and generous.” 

Generosity is a virtue the strong and proud maintain, after all.

Were pleasant and giving. In the past five years, they’ve grown more and more dissident,” Pablo replies calmly. “No doubt it’s because of the dense ethnic Scorpioan population that’s lived there since this country’s founding. Fresh Scorpioans keep coming in too. A majority of them aren’t even Monadic.”

Xenophobia. How foolish and weak—blaming things on other people. Leo remembers when he and the other eleven celebrated eliminating such a concept from their land. A victory declared too early. Embarrassing. At least the other prejudices they’ve excised have yet to return.

Leonce ignores Pablo and turns to Stelleona with a smile. “How exactly did you get them to procure payment?”

“We set an example,” Stelleona replies cheerily, pressing her fingertips together with innocence. “They paid up right away. Much more than we asked for actually! Pablo is using the extra money to fund some infrastructure programs around the capital.” 

“I see…” 

Pablo offers a genial smile at the end of explanation, and it infuriates Leo. The sheer disrespect—Leo can see the thoughts spinning in the man’s mind as well as in the minds of the other ministers: we can play these two children like puppet strings even if they are a queen and a candidate. A child is a child.

So, Leo meets Pablo’s gaze evenly and holds it. Pablo tenses and takes a full step backwards as do the surrounding ministers.  Stelleona does not take notice and continues to smile as she greets other ministers who dare hesitantly move forward.

Leo supposes he can’t despise them nor hate them. He has helped to advise the growth of this country, after all. In a sense, his people are the result of his hard work—his pride.  

*

Leonce keeps by Stelleona’s side as promised for the years that follow. His role is more of a servant and babysitter than an advisor for the queen, but he is surprised to find that he doesn’t mind it one bit. He gets to spend his days idle braiding her hair while she speaks about the Leonian carnations in her garden. Most days are spent reading and discussing Leonian poetry of past and present. Occasionally, he brings her tea in the evening and they discuss the beauty of the seaside towns of the countryside. Sometimes when no one is watching they escape to the gardens and play hide-and-seek, pretend, or other Leonian-staple childhood games—ones that Leo designed himself not too long ago.

Leo certainty has pride but Leonce doesn’t find playing these games shameful at all.

On rare occasions, Leo does sneak away to Ophiuchus where he greets the ELPIS leaders in what was once the Aesculapium. While Theta turns away in shame and murmurs something about puppet children strung up on strings of pain, Gamma moves forward and presses for the next steps of their prevention plan. Epsilon, as always, offers his presence and his ears. Once Epsilon learns about Stelleona, he eagerly requests if he can meet her in-person. Leo does fancy the idea—a meeting between two people he holds in high regard—but it is impossible without implicating this alliance he holds with ELPIS. Then again—impossible is something to be broken by the strong.

Every time Leo returns home from these trips, however, he always finds Stelleona sitting up her dainty throne with the ministers encircling her like vultures. They whisper into her ears words like honey and coax out of her orders and decrees she enacts without a single thought.

“Okay,” Stelleona hums to one minister. “If we have extra money, you can use it as you like. Just make sure you put some money into my gardens, okay?” To another who’s earned her favor, she hums, “Oh? Are we lacking in funds for the military? You can just get the money from the people, can’t you? Like we always do? Let’s have cake later, okay?”

Stelleona holds a cruel innocence, while the ministers are simply cruel.

They will learn and get better, Leo tells himself. They are his people, after all. He has helped lay down the foundations for them. They may stray but as long as the foundation is strong and steady so will they be. He may be bound by the free will clause to only advise and not act, but he is certain what he has already laid out is enough. 

That being said, he also knows he should love his people equally. Favoritism is something the strong should not show. Yes, love and care and affection should be given equally.

*

“Do you know what marks a good ruler?” Leonce asks Stelleona one day during tea time.

They are sitting out in the garden enjoying the morning sun. Leonce has just plucked a carnation from the surrounding bushes and placed it into Stelleona’s hair. 

Stelleona sighs, twirling a lock of hair absentmindedly around her finger. “An imposing figure, elegance, and pride.” 

Leonce frowns then chuckles. “No, my dearest Stelleona. A good ruler is one who is a great leader.”

She frowns, plucking the rose from her hair. “Isn’t that the same thing as a ruler?”

Leonce shakes his head. “A leader is someone who walks alongside the people below him—or her—and directs them towards the goal they wish to achieve. A leader is someone who knows when to condemn and when to offer mercy.”

Stelleona pouts. “Would you lecture me like this if you weren’t the Saint Candidate of Leo? You’re always telling me what to do now. You didn’t used to do this before…”

No, that was the ministers.

“I’m not telling you what to do, Stelleona,” Leonce replies. “I’m merely providing you with knowledge. That is all.”

Stelleona peers at him hesitantly. “You’re… still Leonce, right? You’re still my brother?”

Leo turns to her and sees fear in her eyes. He dislikes seeing such an emotion in her gaze, so he offers a smile to dispel it. “Of course. Always.”

*

Despite all of that regality and power, Stelleona is still like any other girl. At the age of fifteen, she falls for a fair Cancerian duke who lives halfway across the world. They are betrothed two months after they met, and Leo truly wishes them the best. 

The fair duke of Cancer, however, becomes infatuated with someone else: a passing fair maiden from the Amarillo District near the seaside ports. There are many immigrants there, flooding in from countries far west. 

In the end, in a twist of events, the duke breaks off his engagement with Stelleona and proposes to the maiden. Despite the maiden rejecting the proposal, the people romanticize the event and woo over their never-to-be romance.

Overcome with fervent jealousy, however, Stelleona soon becomes obsessed.  Whenever Leonce visits her in her chambers, he finds her weeping into her pillow or cradling a vibrant painting of her and the duke’s engagement party.

“You shouldn’t shed tears for such a simple man,” Leonce assures her when she weeps in his arms. “You will find someone better or you will find that you don’t need anyone at all.” 

Leo, of course, is also insulted by the duke’s actions. How disrespectful and ignorant. Careless. His own people would never act in such a way. 

*

One day while returning from a covert visit to Ophiuchus, Leo finds Pablo speaking to Stelleona privately in her chambers. Instead of heading in or waiting outside at a respectful distance, Leonce hides himself and listens into their conversation. Spying and eavesdropping are distasteful actions, but he cannot help but feel that in this case it is necessary.  

“Ah yes, that woman is Scorpioan,” Pablo is saying to her. “The country in itself is a reprehensible country. The majority of its country is not Monadic. In fact, they are—” He whispers something into Stelleona’s ear that causes her to frown. When he pulls away, he offers a sympathetic smile and ends it with a quiet line: “It makes sense that its people are also immoral and reprehensible. They have made you a laughing stock to the rest of Signum.”

Leo feels his frown deepen.

“Who is she?” Stelleona whispers. “Where is she from?”

“I believe that woman lives in the Amarillo District,” Pablo continues. “I fear that the duke must have been bewitched by her while wandering the countryside there. Why else would he break off your long-held engagement?”

Finally, after quite some time has passed, Stelleona beckons Pablo closer and says in a quiet voice—“I want to see that wretched district burn.” 

Leo startles at the cruel, vicious request before he storms into the room. Drawing his hand in an arc, he produces blades of vitae from his palm and directs them to Pablo’s throat. Before the blades reach their execution site, Leo is stopped by arms around his waist.

“Leonce, stop!” Stelleona shouts, squeezing tight. “What are you doing?”

“Do you understand what you’re asking, Stelleona? Answer me!” Leo demands. “The people you are condemning to death are your people.” His people. 

Stelleona trembles momentarily beneath his gaze before she says evenly without even being phased, “I’m the queen and you’re my saint candidate. Your purpose is to give me knowledge and advise me. Not to control me! Am I not one of your people too anyways? Are you my brother or are you not?”

Her question rings clear.

Leonce falters. He cannot say no to her. And so, he abides by the free will clause.

In the end, everyone else also bows to the queen’s royal order. The Amarillo District is pillaged overnight. Buildings burned—red, bright—briefly matching the colors of the district’s outer gardens before they are faded to ash. While blood flows through the streets, the wealth of the district flows into the pockets of the distant ministers and aristocrats. Conductors—tools meant to lead to technological advancement and build the path to peace—have now been turned into weapons of murder and war. All it took was a century or two. Truly abominable. 

When Leonce returns to the palace making sure to have washed off his blood stain sleeves, Stelleona greets him with giddy glee— “Leonce, Leonce, let’s drink tea!”

The reservoirs grow—Leo can feel it.

*

The next few months unrest begins to grow. But Stelleona continues living lavishly in luxury and in ignorance. Although Leo keeps his ears peeled to his people’s dissent, he still finds time to spend with his sister. Tea time still remains the best.

Upon exiting the chambers one day after a particularly grand tea time, Leo steps out into the now wilting rose garden and spies someone tending to a dead royal Poinciana tree at the garden’s center. It is a dark-skinned woman draped in colorful, vibrant, patterned cloth. 

“Virgo,” Leo realizes as he approaches her. “What are you doing here?”

 “My current chieftain has an audience with your ministers,” Virgo explains before peering at Leo curiously. “Did you not know?”

Leo frowns at the insult.

“You should be careful, Leo,” Virgo continues a moment after. “Part of being a Knowledge Bearer is to offer guidance. Just like a book. Books speak to you, influence you, cause change in you.” She breaks off a dead branch with care and holds it out to Leo, ever so slightly pointing it at his chest.  “Books themselves remain unaffected.”

“I must object to that proposal, my dear Virgo,” Leo replies. “Books are renovated and edited in new editions, yes?”

Virgo smiles, flicking her wrist. “Yes, that is true. Records are updated by authors, book editors, and the victors of war. But the book doesn’t change on its own, does it? There are dangers when that happens.”

Starting from the point where Virgo’s hand grips the wood, dark green light begins to slither across the branch, sprouting familiar petals at its very ends. When the light shatters, Virgo is holding a branch in full blossom. Her conducting is a bit different from how he remembers.

“Your blossoms truly are the best,” she notes, drawing the flora close to her face. “Be careful of what you do next, Leo. Scorpio is quite interested in what’s going to happen here since his people are involved. Do remember the free will agreement.”

“I need no warning.” Leo lifts his chin. “How haughty of you to think I need advice. This is my country.”

*

As expected, in the end, the people have had enough. Rage amplified by conviction and misfortune and injustice, the people begin coming together all against the queen. Marching all across Leo’s glorious land, a noble knight—a survivor from the Amarillo District—leads them forward with a conducting blade in hand. Soon the masses reach the capital—

When the news of their arrival reached Leo’s ears, he lets out a quiet sigh. It appears as if it is time for someone to die—there is no other way for his people to be satisfied. Should he feel proud of his people for rising against his injustice? Or should he feel outraged that they dare raise a hand against someone who rightfully rules this country of his—someone who shares his blood? 

Soon the capital knights are overwhelmed by the encroaching mob—after all they are more familiar with attack and less with defense. The ministers of the court proceed to flee one-by-one while the Monadic priests far and wide began to gather close as the masses descended.

Leo can easily wipe them out with a flick of his wrist if he so desired, but the people knocking down the palace walls are his people and they are not wrong in their demands. The free will clause holds an iron grip—like a rope around the neck. So instead, he quietly recluses to his sister’s chambers with a blade of light in hand and with Monadic priests tailing his feet.

There trembling on a silk bed, a girl eclipsing 18 sobs with only her favored minister at her side. She looks up as soon as Leo steps into the room. Ignoring the priests, she throws herself into Leo’s arms.

“Leonce, I’m scared. What’s happening?”

Leonce dispels his conducting blade and moves to wipe a tear from her cheek. “The people want your head.”

Pablo rises from where he’s been kneeling by Stelleona’s bedside and approaches them. “The disrespect! How dare they!”

Leo regards Pablo. Although the man is manipulative and slyer than a snake, he has shown more loyalty than all the other cowardly ministers who have woven this fate for themselves. Yes, he is one of Leo’s people.

Stelleona sobs even further. “Leonce—”

Leonce lifts her chin so that he can meet her eyes. Despite what has fallen on his country at her careless decrees, the only thing he can see in her gaze is the eight year old girl whom he played with in the royal gardens—innocent and sweet. 

“They won’t get their way,” he tells her, affirming his decision. “We’re twins. We look exactly alike. Therefore, I will take your place while you make your escape. They won’t know the difference”

The Monadic priests behind him begin whispering amongst each other. Stelleona pales. 

“If they call you the epitome of evil, then I am too,” Leonce continues evenly, “because our blood is one and the same, yes?”

While the priests begin muttering the thirteen pillars under the breath and praising his sacrifice, Stelleona’s face folds. “Leonce, you can’t.”

“This is the role that I will play with this iteration of mine, my dear,” Leonce affirms, taking in the priests’ prayers and his sister’s gaze. “You are one of my people, are you not? Besides, I am not like you. I will not truly die.” He turns his attention to the Monadic priests behind him—gaze focusing on Alonso.  “I don’t ever make requests. I’ve never had the need to, but just this once I ask that you follow this request of mine. Take Stelleona far away from this place. If you require another saint candidate, find someone else. There are plenty to choose from.” He turns back to Stelleona and pinches her cheek. You would like to experience freedom, yes?”

Favoritism. Nepotism. Mercy.

Alonso bows his head in acceptance as does Pablo.

And with that, their fate is sealed.

And so, Stelleona escapes. Leo’s people storm into the royal palace as Leonce awaits them on his sister’s throne in his sister’s magnificent gown. He can hear their shouts and storming from a distance. He even faintly catches onto an invigorating speech echoing through the royal halls: freedom, justice, pride. Yes, pride. He has laid down the groundwork for his people well for them to unite against like this. However, as his people enter the throne him, surround him, and show him their visage—covered from head-to-toe in blood—he cannot help curl his lips in disgust:

“And you call yourselves Leonian?”

*

The day and location of the execution is swiftly set in stone. The Monadic priests easily pull strings—after all, there are still many believers among the people—so the time to die is set on the day of Leonce’s birth and in the location of Leo’s birth. 

The Leonian people are granted safe passage into Ophiuchus and Leo marches to the jeers and jowls of Leonians while he bares the pitying stares of the Ophiuchians who peer at him from a distance with curiosity. He moves forward, chin lifted high. 

Upon reaching the Aesculapium, he is put in a makeshift cell illuminated only by moonlight and provided with a Monadic pendant to say his final prayers. How ludicrous—praying to himself?

He is visited by two Ophiuchians. A familiar woman and a man. Theta and Epsilon. Theta’s dark brow is knitted with pity while her eyes are clouded with a morose gloom and something akin to rage—most likely directed at the grievances that have been put upon children so young. Epsilon on the other hand looks like he is on the verge of tears.

“It’s you, isn’t it, Leo?” Theta asks quietly, peering at him through the bars. “You can speak honestly. Only Epsilon and I are here now. The others are elsewhere throughout the continent.”

Leo merely lifts his chin high and says, “Theta, don’t record this event.” 

“Leo.” Theta’s expression folds with sympathy. “If we remove records because of shame then we will not learn anything. Learning from defeats is just as important as learning from victories. We cannot let this happen again.” Her lips press thin. “It shouldn’t even have to be recorded, but that is how things have become. It’s as if we’re regressing to a time before United Signum was founded.”

A cycle.

“I won’t let it happen, Theta.” Leo looks past her shoulder, meeting Epsilon’s eyes. “And I am not ashamed.”

Epsilon nods. Leo knows he will do away with the records when Theta turns a blind eye. Loyal Epsilon. Leo still holds onto the hope that Epsilon will be able to meet Stelleona.

“I know you’ll be fine returning to the reservoirs,” Epsilon mumbles suddenly, “but is this really necessary? Can’t you just… run away here? It’s cruel, Leo…”

“You’re just a child…” Theta agrees, closing her eyes briefly. “Is it because the life a child has lived is so much shorter than theirs that they find it so easy to take it away? Evaluating something that cannot be evaluated. They were once children before so one would think that they would understand that a child cannot lift such a cruel hand as seen, but I suppose it is the same in regards to the poor who become rich—they are no longer part of that group and that is the end of it.”

Leo frowns but isn’t surprised by the lack of tact. Omicron isn’t here, after all.  “I know my people,” he answers in a steady beat, “and they will not be satisfied until the one they believe is responsible for the crime is punished completely. Besides, this is the best way to mitigate the syzygy. With ‘Stelleona’s death, they will be satiated.” 

For the time being.

Theta does not call Leo’s people fools even though Leo can see the word on her tongue. She waits beside him up until the final hour before departing with a somber ‘I will see you again.’ Epsilon meanwhile stays on hanging close up until the executioners enter the cell. As he is pulled away, he makes one final promise—

“I’ll keep you company next time—”

When the hand reaches the final hour, Leo is brought out of the Aesculapium and out onto the platform that hovers above the reservoirs. A noose is slipped around his neck as he is guided to the edge. The crowd that gathers around endlessly demands ‘Repent!’ Meanwhile the Monadic priests hanging near the back and seem to lament.

Leo turns to face the people he cannot help find pride in even as they look upon with eyes of hate. Closing his eyes, he lifts his chin and meets his fate. Given a final push, he tumbles down and down until the rope tauts.  His breath is taken from him as his throat is squeezed tight and pressure in his head begins to build. There is a snap and suddenly he cannot move anymore. But he does not die, of course.

It does not take long for his people to realize the development. They tremble in fear and confusion before they raise their weapons and stakes and start their final onslaught. Blade, whip, bludgeon—all of them pierce into him as his people’s cries rise and rise. Jubilation and justice, jubilation and justice, jubilation and justice.

Finally, finally, Leo feels himself spilling out, emptying his vitae and knowledge into the reservoirs no doubt—

In the far distance, he hears the bells ring, echoing a memory of when they celebrated the birth of twins—a boy and a girl. 

Somewhere along the line, Leonce finally ends.

*

When Leo comes to something akin to consciousness, he is laying in a bed shrouded with familiar drapes. They are pink—Stelleona’s favorite color. These are her drapes. This is her bed. Slowly he reaches forward and pulls back the drapes as his—her—memory slowly returns to him—her.

At the foot of Stelleona’s bed Leo finds Alonso—looking only slightly more grayed—kneeling with a head deeply bowed. Beside him sits a bowed-head Pablo in a gloomy shroud. Behind them kneel knights and priests.

“With no successor to the throne, there has been in-fighting on who should ascend,” Pablo explains. “Hundreds of thousands have died in the past year alone in this barbaric succession war.”

“We need your guidance,” Alonso elaborates further. “I know you asked us not to, but this was the most common sense option, Leo—you must understand.”

“Stelleona is dead in the public eye,” Pablo continues, “but Leonce is known to be alive. My suggestion is to take up Leonce’s identity and reclaim the throne. It is yours to begin with.”

As Leo rises to a stand, he realizes he has become Stelleona.

Memories of a sunny childhood treading through dance halls, long games of hide-and-seek in a rose garden, and reading in the dead of night by candlelight shimmer through her mind. During these types of play and rest alike, she had one sole companion: Leonce. He had always been by her side—a smiling reflection, a reassurance of her own identity, her platonic other half.

At the thought of him, Stelleona’s feels a warmth rise up from her chest and thread itself through her limbs and hands.  She can still recall his boyish and innocent smile, his unkempt blonde hair which she learned how to comb down neatly at the age of five, his bright blue eyes that always sparkled with warmth. 

Then comes the memory of their shared sixteenth birthday—the day he was taken from her side. She was in the crowd, covering her whimpering mouth with a shaking hand as they hung him as if the reservoirs were the gallows. She squeezed her eyes shut when they began to desecrate Leonce’s hanging body with conductors and whatever they could find. She remained there for days after the execution’s end. It was with great difficulty that Alonso was able to finally drag her out of Ophiuchus back to Leo. After that, she was taken by the priest to a small town Monadic Temple where she spent the next several years helping to raise children orphaned by her own hand. Penelope, Rosa, Michaela, Luis—she grew fond of them all and hoped to grow old watching them grow old even if she realized she didn’t deserve as much. But then Pablo came to the Temple with an entourage of knights and conversed with Alonso into the late hours of the night. After that—

When the memories stop spinning through Leo’s mind, Leonce realizes he’s been betrayed by his beloved people whom he has forgiven, shown mercy, and pardoned time and time again, while Stelleona realizes she has been played like a puppet for all the years of her life by her own people. Everything Leonce has sacrificed for her has been for nothing. All the hardships Stelleona has endured repenting and learning from her mistakes has been for nothing—

And yet here they’re still bowed down at her feet after hanging him from a noose and playing her like a marionette.

What more do they want? Could they do nothing on their own? Did they only know how to create messes, cause destruction, desecrate the beloved carnations and dahlias of her countryside, and reap the tears of her common people? No, no, no. Her common people are no better: storming through her castle all those years ago and felling every brave knight—young and old—without mercy; demanding the execution of a sixteen-year-old girl despite knowing full well she was too young to be fully behind the atrocities that spilled out beyond the royal palace; greedily coveting wealth within their own defined borders.

How many times will they do this over and over again? How many times will they crawl on their knees and beg? How many times will she have to humiliate herself for them?

But—she laid out this groundwork, this infrastructure, this system of governance for them. She directed them in the right direction whenever they stumbled. She was present in the moments they chose the wrong path. So… if they have failed and proven themselves weak, then that meant that she also—

 Execute them.

The two words that Stelleona tossed around carelessly many times before ring through Leo’s mind. Without so much as a thought, Leo lifts her hand and draws a ray of gold above her head. With a flick of her wrist, she brings it down on Pablo’s head. 

Red bleed into gold.

They manipulated his beloved sister.

Leo flings out her hand in an arc, generating circlets of gold that expand outwards and bisect the fleeing Alonso and his fellow priests.

They manipulated her beloved brother.

She steps out from her chambers and greets the knights and priests waiting there with a raised hand. 

They can’t even keep a promise.

She paints the muraled walls red with their blood. The priests do not dare to lift a hand against someone who they’ve been taught to worship like a god and take their punishment like cowards, while the knights point their conductors at her like barbaric insurgents. 

Stelleona doesn’t stop at the gates of the castle. No, she sweeps through the streets and paints them red too. The family strolling down the road and eating tomatoes together without a care in the world—disgusting. Gone in three quick slashes. The merchant pulling his wagon of fruits while riding on his trusty steed—putrid. Beheaded with a golden hatchet, but the horse is allowed to ride free. Horses are her—Stelleona’s—favorite animal, after all. 

The people scream and cry and shout as Leo continues through the royal city. Some beg for their lives but the behavior just disgusts Leo even more so. She ends them in a blanket of warm gold. She doesn’t want to see them. She doesn’t want to see this disgusting disappointment any longer. 

If they want to live like pigs then she would let them die like pigs.

By the end of it all, Leo finds herself standing alone in a small garden of carnations and dahlias—a small patch of green, pink, and blue among the red that now flows through the city’s streets. It is only after she plucks every single petal from all of the blossoming flower stems that she realizes what she has done.

Now that she has gone this far she cannot go back.

“Leo…”

Covered from head to toe in blood, Leo turns and finds a familiar man wrapped in a pure white toga among all the red. Epsilon. The man moves forward without hesitation, and before Leo can lift a finger, he wraps her in a warm embrace.

“What do you want me to do?” he asks.

Oh, right. Epsilon has never asked for anything. Epsilon has only ever given. And he had always kept his promise.

Maria was pulled abruptly out from the memory, and it took a moment for her to recollect herself. Andres stood stiff beside her, while El and Dominic sat trembling on the ground. Andres quickly aided El up to her feet and then Dominic. With El, he cast a hesitant look at Epsilon and Leon.

Andres’s brows furrowed as he studied the two before he put a hand to the pendant hanging at his neck. Meanwhile, Epsilon pulled his hands close to his chest and studied Leona with a tight, pale frown. Leona held the man’s gaze.

“You…” El managed. “Slaughtered ou—your own people.”

“You were weak…” Dominic whispered before he shook his head. “No, you were strong.”

Leona remained stiff. “They proved that they were no people of mine. Even after that, they created the Gloria Houses as an attempt to prevent a so-called atrocity like that from happening again. It was a means to control the next candidate. It’s ludicrous. As if they could control me. It wasn’t even worth tearing down, so I allowed it and approved of its continuation. I don’t want to be baptized into someone of lower qualities anyways.” She narrowed her eyes at El.  “And you? What do you do but run like a coward away from your people?”

El took a step back.

“I know who you are.” Leona chuckled after a beat and looked in Maria’s direction. “This is where the myth of the golden beast truly originated, Maria. That tale certainly isn’t yours. It was mine from the very beginning. You truly are a pirate—plundering and stealing what isn’t truly yours.” Briefly, she cast a glance at Epsilon.

Maria felt something uncomfortable churn in her stomach at Leona’s words but she continued to think on what she’d just seen.  “You could not save Stelleona,” she drew. “You could not save Leonce. You’re people turned against you. You were proud of them for everything they accomplished, but then things changed. You thought they were no longer your sparkling treasures. You were ashamed of them. No, you were ashamed… of yourself because you viewed them as yours. Ownership…. responsibility?”

Leona regarded her. “How did you feel when your crew mutinied against you after everything you’d done for them? Your leadership was inefficient and sloppy—obviously—but you still offered them a place to stay and protection. They threw all of that away and continued to ask for more: for forgiveness. Pathetic.” 

“…I was angry—but I don’t think I understood that at the time,” Maria admitted. “I was… very angry. Like how I was angry at Beta for taking Conta. Like how you were angry that they took Stelleona. And then I was disappointed…”

Leona’s gaze narrowed again.

Maria thought of Olive and Werner. “People who take their disappointment in themselves out on themselves are very sad to me.” She then thought of Cadence and Atienna. “People who take their disappointment in themselves out on other people are… people who have a moment of weakness. I don’t know how to feel about them in those moments, to be honest.” Finally, she thought of Jericho. “People who  are still discovering what it is to be disappointed in themselves are people I can understand. They are like me. Like you.” 

“I’d rather not be held in comparison to someone like you,” Leona responded evenly. “You are a mere tool necessary for the syzygy—”

“You have taught many things, Leona,” Maria continued. “You really did love your people. But they were not yours—not really. Like these things were given to me, those people were given to you… yes? I am starting to realize that things can get confusing if you keep thinking things are ‘yours.’”

Leona offered only a mirthless, dry laugh in response. 

“Cadence speaks of pedestals quite often. She speaks of people falling off of them specifically. I think I have fallen off a couple pedestals now—like you.” Maria thought of Conta briefly as she went over everything in her mind. “But once they are off and on the ground, why is the choice to just be disappointed in them? To turn away from them? Why is the choice not to help them back onto their feet?” 

There was a stretch of silence.

“I… know the difference between me and Leo now.” Maria nodded definitively. “I showed mercy. And I don’t—I will not—give up even if I am disappointed. Yes, I can’t do everything, but there are others who can fill in the parts I cannot do.”

Leona remained silent and merely looked away.

“I will continue to show mercy,” Maria decided, looking away from Leona and toward Proteus. “And I will continue to make it so everything that you, the priests, and everyone else has been kind enough to give me truly become mine.” She nodded in affirmation. “Yes, so thank you.”

Proteus was no longer smiling and instead gazed at her with an unreadable expression.

Maria now had an idea of what to do.

“Oh, I believe dear Olive has a plan,” Maria continued, turning to face El and Andres. “So, we should increase the size of our crew for this! We… don’t want to lose anything else, so let us be a little bit more cautious this time around…. yes?”

* * *

Comientzo, Leo

Morandi was awake when Maria entered his hospital room. His face was much fuller compared to when she had last seen him, but his hair was much grayer too. As soon as he laid eyes upon her, his expression brightened but then became pained. He shot up immediately to a sit, but El, who had returned to tending to him at his bedside, pushed him back down.

Maria felt an uncomfortable pang in her chest at this sight—a pain she could not prevent, something else she could not do. In fact, she was the cause of it.

“Captain, I was worried for you,” Morandi said as she drew nearer. His eyes sauntered to her left—her empty sleeve. “I see you’ve…” He reached out and gripped the sleeve and shook his head, eyes watering. “Maria…” 

Maria sank to her knees and rested her head on his lap. “Morandi is a very nice surname, dear Morandi. So… Can you give it to me?”

Morandi at first stiffened at the action and stiffened even further at the question. His next words were, however, spoken in a gentle tone, “Captain, what’s gotten into you?”

Maria didn’t answer him. After a long while, she felt a hand warm her head. 

“Please get better, dear Morandi,” she said to him quietly. “And then we can talk a lot more. And then I can get to know you better.” She closed her eyes. “I’ve discovered recently that adventure is not limited just to physical things, yes…? You can adventure through things you cannot touch too. That is freedom too. I would like to adventure through those things with you. If you want, of course, dear Morandi.”

A pause.

“Of course, Captain.”

* * *

Hapaira, Pisces

Maria was eager to find Veles and knew exactly where was. Rather, Jericho had some intuition on where he might be. And Jericho was quite good with intuition, so she followed it without question.

Entering on through one of Francis’s gates with Andres and Albatross accompanying her, Maria made her way to the familiar old surfboard shop that she had first met Lita in. She barely entered the shade of the store before a familiar rumbling reached her ears. Upon turning, she spied the canals spider-webbing through the town in the distance. They were beginning to pulsate with purple light. In the blink of an eye, those waters burst out from their containments and hurtled down towards them—rising, rising, rising with each crashing wave.

Albatross took a startled step back, while Andres remained steady.

The taste of the sea and the brush of the ocean breeze graced Maria’s senses before the towering wall of water loomed before her. She greeted the rumbling wave with a wave of her own and was not surprised as the wave stopped short only meters away from her.

A faint mist rained down as the moving mass groaned and lurched, and Maria wiped her face clean of it as she looked back at Albatross and Andres. Albatross was trembling while Andres appeared impassive. So, Maria reached out and offered Albatross a squeeze on the shoulder and a reassuring smile.

“You dare stand before me again?” Veles’s deep voice abruptly boomed all around them as the waters glowed and shook. “After you have dared to betray my trust? Without bringing before me the one I demand?”

“There are some things I cannot do,” Maria shouted back, cupping her hands around her mouth, “and understanding people easily is one of them. I got better at it but I failed to continue getting better at it, so I am sorry for not understanding you! Beta took your people from you and hurt your guild members! I would also be very upset if that happened to me—I would be more than upset. I would be furious! Having people taken from you is not a good feeling!” 

The rumbling stilled and the water itself stilled—so much so that it more resembled a wall of ice than anything else.

“And having a crew member or guild member not understand that and brush that away would make me very sad!” she continued. “But you were kind, yes? You showed mercy! By not going after Conta after you saw how important she was to me! I am sorry for not realizing!” 

The waters parted like a curtain and out from the newly formed gap stepped Veles. He looked the same as ever.

Maria brightened at the sight of him, and she could see him brighten too before a seriousness eclipsed his features.

“Your apologies are heard and accepted because—as you say—I, Veles, am merciful,” he declared, nodding as he neared her. “So I expect that you are coming here to announce that you will bring Beta’s head to me.”

“I’m sorry, dear Veles, but another thing I cannot do is hand over Conta to you,” Maria replied. When Veles’s gaze visibly darkened, she pressed. “What I can do for you is to make it so Beta never returns again.”

“What?”

“Beta is an ELPIS Leader,” Maria explained. “The only reason Beta is here is because of the saint candidates and this syzygy, yes? You learned more about it through your people near the Aquarian-Capricornian border, no?”

Veles’s eyes widened a fraction, and he opened his mouth to respond before startling abruptly. He rushed towards her and took hold of her armless sleeve. “Your arm…!” He pushed his face into hers and studied her. “Impossible. How could this happen? Did you do this out of your own volition? You had to have. You are only one step below my own prowess, so it’s impossible for you to be injured like—”

“I lost,” Maria admitted, heart sinking again. 

Veles regarded her in stiff silence. “You lost…?”

Maria nodded. “And because I lost, I know I cannot do everything on my own. I am strong, but even I cannot do that much, yes? You probably heard from the others—like I said—about the situation with the saint candidates. But I  know you are different from them, so I wanted to apologize to you and ask you directly. You deserve as much, no?”

Veles slowly released her sleeve. “Yes, I’m glad that you realize my significant difference from those around me and my individual greatness…” His brows furrowed. “‘Ask me directly’—you say? Ask me what?”

“I know you have helped me a lot already”—Maria beamed— “but, dear Veles, can you help me again?”


a/n: this was almost 17k words. also day 160000 of regretting using colored text in this story because it takes fifteen years to format coloring. the next chapter will probably be out next wednesday and another chapter maybe that sunday ((not saturday because i’ve been invited to a wine festival with a friend))

anywho anhow–thanks for reading. we’re almost at the end of this part–yeehaw im dead inside. oh late chapter because work + i’m doing an online bootcamp thing but i think i’m going to set the bootcamp aside to just write + work until p4 is finished because my priorities are straight. so hopefully back on track version 1000

O->–<

oh i also wanted to thank the people who’ve been supportive to me on twitter recently!! i really appreciate it even though we don’t talk much!! i shall remember you forever!!!

26.3: Werner & Nico: An Indigo Affair

Re-cap

Werner was sent by Scorpio to investigate possible True Conductors in the AAC movement. Unbeknownst to anyone, Werner had begun to medicate himself using chlorowheat in order to suppress the impulse to protect that was beginning negatively impact his daily life. After an episode overdose, however, his addiction was laid clear and he was set to recovery.

Now Werner…

( )

The first six minutes following his admittance were a haze he was not fully mentally present for.  There were questions asked, answers given, and instructions disseminated. Individuals entered and exited his vicinity. It was a blur of motion. 

It was only six hours after his admittance—-as he rested uncomfortably on the small bed that had been provided for him—that shame hit him full-force. The words he had carelessly said and the damage they had caused paired with the reality of the weight of his actions seized his thoughts and would not let go. 

This was a mistake—an error—he couldn’t rectify. Despite the clear salience of this error from the very beginning, he had not been able to recognize it for what it was. Up until that moment just before Cadence and Olive had looked at him with stricken horror, he had believed there was nothing amiss and that everything was under control. Only when he had felt their curling pain and hurt, only after Atienna had stepped between him and them, only after Maria had come in physically to push him back, only after Jericho had gently offered him help through Alice that was he finally able to admit it.

The admittance: he was addicted to chlorowheat.

Appearances were everything. And yet he had just dismantled his image in the eyes of the people that mattered the most to him with his own two hands. Instead of appropriately addressing the fates of his subordinates, he had opted for an escape. Instead of protecting, he had neglected. It was unacceptable. He was insufficient. 

His shame and guilt only increased tenfold when Cadence and Olive returned to his side following his outburst. Their eyes, however, did not seek to blame—nor were they filled with anger. Instead their eyes sought comfort and to be comforted. Their immediate acceptance of his apologies just drove the knife further into his chest. Being forgiven for such egregious actions felt unnatural. The pain and discomfort, however, was temporarily numbed when they both had come to his side, held his hand, and remained at his side.

Stay,” had been Cadence’s singular request.

It was a simple one. 

The proceeding six hours following this were agonizing. He had sustained numerous injuries on the field prior to this and he was always able to bear them while continuing on with his services without detriment. This pain felt different: radiating out from the core of his body instead of pulsating out from a more exterior surface. The pain came in waves and was paired with  nausea, vomiting, headaches, feverish rolling shakes, trembling that prevented him from holding his hands steady, and profuse sweating. It was an unsightly condition and—

Protect, protect, protect.

The thought continued to pound in his head ceaselessly as time passed on. From this locked room in Francis’s jurisdiction, however, he was unable to even lift a finger to act on the thought. In fact, he was doing quite the opposite: spilling pain out onto the others through his connection with them. The guilt was crippling. However, he had put himself into this position—he knew—so there was no point in feeling pity for himself. He needed to recover quickly in order to minimize any further potential leakage of pain and to be able to return to his duties. 

That protect, protect, protect, however, was not the only thing that would not leave him.

He could not elude the thought either: just one more taste, one more perfectly measured amount, and then—he could be free. Free for just one moment, one hour, thirty-five seconds, two minutes. The time-frame did not matter. The freedom did: absolutely nothing, complete silence, and with a pleasant spread of airy euphoria fitted perfectly in-between the two. One more time would do minimal damage—

No. No more.

He berated himself for his cravings as he feared his thoughts could spill on towards the others, but it was not something he could control no matter how hard he tried. Regardless of his failure, everyone was kind. As they had promised, they visited him frequently both synchronously and physically. He was not, however, fully cognizant during their initial visits. But he still felt them. He was not one to be poetic; however—taking a passage from one of Atienna’s more favored fiction books, their presences were a “warm light in the dark.”  They distracted him from the pain, the cravings, and the thoughts as did the first few sessions he had with Doctor Alice Kingsley through Jericho. Distractions had always been something that he had labeled as a negative, but in this instance he could only attribute positives.

However, the shame and pain remained.

Nico had offered temporary solutions to the latter: benzodiazepine derivatives and pain killers. Taking medication used to be something Werner had formerly found unnecessary and something to be used as a last resort, but he now found himself accepting it rather easily. The former aided in dampening the connection he had with the others during the more intense waves of pain. It also dampened the pain itself and the pounding protect, protect, protect. It, however, did not come with the light and airy feeling that accompanied taking chlorowheat. 

Werner took the medication on the day Maria was to confront Alpha. In his condition, he knew he was only a detriment. He was certain that if Maria confronted Alpha while synchronized, she would have an advantage in battle.  However, when he awoke as the medication wore off on the day of, he was met with chaos. Throbbing pain and exhaustion, panicked thoughts, fear, anger, apprehension—it was disorienting but he straightened himself and evaluated the situation. 

The ones who were closest to the matter were Jericho and Maria, so Werner reached out to them through their connection. A clouded wall prevented him from successfully contacting Maria so he pressed further for Jericho. Information descended to him shortly after: Maria’s encounter with Alpha, Maria’s arm, the poem, Maria’s arm, Jericho’s arrival with Leona, Maria’s arm, Alpha’s and Leona’s capture, Maria’s arm. 

In the distance, Werner could see Jericho standing in between a bound Alpha and a bound Leona in one of Francis’s less furnished rooms. Faintly, Werner could feel his distress.

Werner—

“Jericho, having Leona in custody here is dangerous,” Werner managed through his own haze as he pulled himself out of bed. “We’ll gain unwanted attention from Scorpio as soon as her absence becomes apparent. We need to return her somehow—no. She may divulge sensitive information about our processes here. We need to regain control of the situation.”

“I thought we could work ‘something’ out.” Jericho said out loud, seeming to try at increasing the synchronization on his end. He whipped around, stared past Leona’s shoulder, tried to meet Werner’s gaze. “I have it under control, Werner. This is okay. I think. But. Maria—she. Werner, it did not go ‘as planned.’ What do we do?”

Werner could not think of how to respond because his thoughts were soon clouded by thoughts of Maria—just as everyone else’s were. Moved by such thoughts, Werner reached out through his connection with Jericho to place a confirming hand on the man’s arm before physically traversing to Maria himself through Francis’s gate. 

The surgical procedure Maria had gone through had been completed an estimated 16 hours earlier according to the thoughts that were filtering in from the others. Maria herself had been awake for a portion of the surgery and was still awake. The others had all visited her within this timeframe. 

Upon entering the designated room, Werner first registered Maria’s who was laying on a small bed placed along the middle back wall. She was conscious, covered in sweat, and surrounded by blood-soaked linen and various buckets of water cluttered with surgical tools. Doctor Fabrizzio—who he faintly recalled performing the operation—was nowhere to be seen. Present were Conta, Simon, and Raul who were seated on a sofa in the corner. 

Simon startled as he entered. “You’re—”

Werner offered the priest a curt nod before briskly making his way over to Maria’s bedside. Maria smiled at him as he approached. She even waved with her right hand. He could not focus on any of those aspects. His attention was fully captivated by the emptiness that occupied the area where her left arm was supposed to be.

“Maria, you…” Werner’s hands hovered. Touching the area further could cause potential infection or exacerbate the pain. The numbers, studies, and statistics were there. Chance was non-existent so he would not take it. And so, he lowered his hands which was when came to a realization: this was her dominant hand.

Werner clenched his fists.

He wanted to berate her for her recklessness for rejecting the others during a pressing moment, but couldn’t bring himself to. How could he? He had done the same. Not only that but he had not been present at all. What had he been thinking approving of her confrontation with Alpha? They should have waited and made more concrete plans. 

In the end, he had made the same mistake once again. He had been absent in a moment of need. As a result, he had failed to protect. Someone he held dear had lost their—

No. This was not about him. This was about Maria.

Maria.

“Oh, Werner, are you worried again?” Maria studied him with a smile, eyes bright despite the clear fatigue.  “I’m sorry if I reminded you of bad things that happened with Gilbert, but this is nothing. We have Alpha now. Everything will be alright, Werner.”

She didn’t sound quite right.

Werner couldn’t remember the details of the rest of this encounter because Maria’s pain began to bleed into his own and his into hers. He felt her slip into unconsciousness before he followed her into the dark. When he woke up an unknown amount of hours later, he was back in his bed with Nico by his side.

****

Werner began to try redirecting the other four to Maria whenever they visited or synchronized with him. They were already evenly splitting their visits between him and Maria, but he rationalized that Maria would profit more from them given her condition. This, of course, would leave him alone more often with his thoughts, but it was a reasonable cost compared to the benefit. Regardless of his instruction, however, their visitations remained as scheduled.

He felt useless. Time slowed. 

Then one day Werner awoke to discover an alarming development unfolding on Olive’s end. The fibers of the development wove their way into his consciousness slowly: a train, a skirmish, a decision, a connection, a gamble. Reality solidified when the gate to his room and Olive physically stepped on through.

“Werner—I can explain,” Olive stammered, hands raised as he walked briskly forward and stopped short a foot away. “I-I have a plan.”

Werner rose to an unsteady stand as the full details of Olive’s latest escapade filtered down to him. His head spun from nausea. “Olive.”

“I have a plan, Werner,” Olive insisted, looking up at him. “Don’t stress out. We need allies—like you said a while back. I mean, we were doing good with that in the beginning, I think. Then… things got out of control—but that doesn’t matter. Now we really need them.”

“Olive—”

“What happened during the Week of Blindness was a turning point for us,” Olive continued. “But that was their turning point. We need to make our own turning point, Werner.” 

Werner felt something stir in his chest and regarded Olive in surprise. Those had been rather moving words. 

Olive averted his gaze then and mumbled, “I mean… I don’t think they—the Sagittarians—would gain anything by spreading information about this place. And… we can’t have another Sagittarius—like you said—flying around again. We have to…”

Werner placed a hand to his mouth as he turned over the secondary and tertiary possibilities and routes and then compared them to the current route Olive had selected for them. After a pause, he asked, “You’re confident that you can reach an agreement with the Sagittarians?”

Olive startled, stiffened, before he met Werner’s gaze and nodded firmly. “Cadence gave me some ‘negotiation’ suggestions and I… think they’ll work—but I’m still being careful.” 

Caution was good. 

Finally, Werner let out a breath and nodded. “Given our recent losses”—his chest throbbed and he felt Olive’s gaze intensify—“I do agree with the need for stronger alliances. Your call was correct. Good work. I just wished you would have communicated your plan to the rest of us prior to acting.”

Warm relief spilled out from Olive’s chest into Werner’s at the approval. After regarding Olive for a moment, Werner found himself reasoning that it would be best if he made himself useful at least in this instance. Meeting with the Sagittarians under a guise seemed reasonable. 

Olive frowned. “Wait. No, Werner, you need to rest—”

No, he had rested enough. He needed to protect

“Werner…” Olive stiffened and frowned, reaching out his hand before retracting it.  “Can we… just wait a minute and talk? Like… talk talk?”

A distraction?

Protect, protect, protect. 

Werner held his gaze. “What would you like to discuss?”

“Just… things…” Olive muttered, staring at the wall past Werner’s shoulder. “Not… serious things, but sort of serious things. Not a distraction—I promise. I… it’s stuff that’s been bothering me.”

“Bothering you?”

Protect, protect, protect.

“Do you have the time to discuss this right now?” Werner asked. “Building an alliance with the Sagittarians is of high priority at this time. If this discussion is regarding me, it can wait—”

“Wait, no—Cadence says that I should ‘let ‘em stew’, so Sagittarians can wait.” Olive nodded slightly before he made a face. “Sometimes I think she enjoys herself too much whenever she offers advice like that…” He moved forward hesitantly and sank down at the edge of Werner’s bed. “So…?” 

Stiffening slightly and wishing he’d made his bed before addressing Olive’s arrival, Werner nodded and sat down beside him. They sat in mutual silence for a moment.

“Werner… about the… uhm… well—”

“—Olive, I apologize for reacting negatively earlier when your only intention was to help me.”

Olive startled. “What? Werner, it’s fine. You already apologized so many times for that anyways…”

Werner studied Olive carefully as Olive’s faint concerns slowly slipped on down to him. He pieced together the boy’s fragmented thoughts and feelings to form a coherent picture of doubts and fear. 

So that was how it was, Werner thought. A false belief in need of correcting.

Despite the answer being clear, Werner struggled for a moment to properly put his thoughts into words. Speaking of numbers, strategy, gains and losses came easily to him. Conversations like this had always been difficult. Finally, however, he managed, “I… also apologize for making you doubt that I cared for you—”

A confused look spread across Olive’s face before he flushed “Oh—you heard that? That was just… It’s fine—” 

Werner’s lips pressed downwards. “I know this is something that has been bothering you for some time. It’s why you wanted to speak now: am I correct? I ask that you be honest with me, Olive. I know this is a forward request since I was dishonest with you regarding my—”

“No, no, it isn’t,” Olive interjected quickly, flailing his hands slightly. “I… It’s not forward at all… It’s just my thoughts are… stupid… sometimes… ”

“You are nowhere near stupid, Olive.” 

Werner said nothing else. Instead, he waited.

“It’s pretty… pathetic,” Olive muttered finally after a long stretch of silence. “I just didn’t have a lot of people in my life before all of this, okay?”—he gestured around the room— “but that’s my own fault. Anyways…  I don’t know. I… Sometimes I wonder if the only reason we’re all ‘together’ is because this connection is making everyone like each other…”

Werner digested these words before asking, “What is your feeling regarding this connection and the group?”

Olive snapped up to look at him. “Wha—of course I care about you guys. I really do—but… like you and Cadence always say. I’m also naive or whatever, so…”  He trailed off.

“This connection does help facilitate feelings of affection,” Werner drew after a beat. “This is something we cannot deny.”

Olive stilled and quieted.

“However…” Werner paused to collect his thoughts. “What makes you think we feel any different from you?” 

Protect, protect, protect—

Olive’s relief melted into concern and apprehension. “Scorpio…”

So that was the concern. 

Werner ruminated on this and on one of the first sessions he’d had with Alice weeks prior. “I admit I found this connection a detriment and a complication in the beginning. We are divided by nationality, values, goals, and politics. Our respective different statuses, political beliefs and standings, and aspirations could cause conflict not only within our group but external to our group as well.” He let out a breath. “I still believe this. However, there are other things that are more important to me than those realities at the moment. I’m unable to pinpoint the exact moment when this scale of importance changed—” 

Olive peered at him cautiously.

“—but know this: I cared for you before our encounter with Scorpio just as I care for you now. When we were dealing with ELPIS in the Twin Cities, you and the others were concerns of mine. This was outside of the political developments at that time.”  He  reached out and placed a hand on Olive’s head. “The difference is that I’ve now realized the fact—”

Werner was cut off as Olive abruptly flung his arms around him and squeezed tight. After a momentary pause—originating mostly from the aching muscle pain that resulted from the hug—Werner returned the gesture. He did not return it gently like he’d done back in the capital, however. Instead, he squeezed back just as hard.

An anchor: this was what Olive often felt dragging down his chest in his darkest moments—Werner had become steadily aware of this. He also had become aware of the fact that instances like these relieved the weight of that anchor from Olive’s chest. 

Werner too felt had started to become familiar with this anchor. Contrarily, however, it only appeared for him in moments like these. Unlike Olive, Werner found comfort in this anchor. It held him in place and temporarily assuaged the protect, protect, protect.

To find relief in such a thing from someone nearly a decade younger was unorthodox and undignified. Werner was well aware that both Olive and Cadence looked up to him, so feeling this particular way was unseemly—

No, I… I know you’re only human, Werner… I—this is normal,” Olive mumbled, slowly pulling away. “I don’t think you’re perfect or something. That’s not why I… look up to you… that’s not why I look up to Maria either. You both are… Even when things get bad, you both keep going. I… I didn’t. Not until I met you guys.” His lips thinned and he rubbed his eyes. “I know I say this whenever something bad happens but. With Maria—what happened when she was younger and now… it’s… just really sad… It’s awful. What do we do…?”

A familiar question that Werner was still having difficulty answering.

“Uhm… Sorry for being over-emotional or whatever…”

“You needn’t apologize. You have a good heart, Olive,” Werner drew after a pause. “Although I still don’t believe emotion should motivate action, having set goals often requires a person to maintain forwardness and a strong mental fortitude in order to achieve that goal. Or: heart. A drive to find a solution in other words. That is admirable.”

Olive was beginning to pinken again and he mumbled something incomprehensible under his breath.

Werner evaluated Olive carefully, recalling the first time he had synchronized with Olive in that town near the border of Aquarian and Capricorn and comparing it to what he recalled of Olive’s confrontation with the Sagittarians. “I don’t believe in giving praise unless it’s warranted, so believe me when I say this,” he finally said: “It’s been a pleasure to have witnessed your growth over this past year, Olive.”

There was a beat of silence. 

Olive opened and closed his mouth. “I-I-I—uh—T-Thanks, Werner. I mean—you too. I mean, I feel the same—not that I’m older than you and watched you grow. But—”

“There is still room for improvement, of course, as there always is.”

Olive pursed his lips.

“I appreciate you coming here and the time you’ve taken out of your day to see me,” Werner continued gently, “but again: you should visit Maria more often.”

Olive’s eyes widened and his brows furrowed. “I do, but Maria… won’t talk with me. With any of us. Really talk, I mean.” He started playing with a strand of his hair.  “I think… Atienna’s also having some issues with Maria. Atienna is—”

Werner conjectured Olive held the same concerns regarding Atienna as he had held with him.  

“Atienna is only doing what she believes is best,” Werner interjected. “Given my current condition at the moment, I put my trust more in her judgement than my own—”

“That makes me feel both honored and nervous. It’s a wonder what compliments can do, don’t you think?”

A buzz at the back of Werner’s head followed this statement, and he turned slightly to register Atienna synchronizing in beside him. He could only faintly make out her surroundings, but from the memories trickling down to him, he conjectured she was in a bedroom at Aldéric’s villa. 

Olive hid his face from her briefly as a wave of embarrassment spilled from him into Werner’s chest. Olive then let out a breath and looked up to Atienna. He opened his mouth to speak, but Atienna spoke first:

“Is there something else bothering you, Olive?” she asked gently. “Other than what you and Werner just discussed now?” She smiled faintly and held up a placating hand. “Oh, please don’t worry—I didn’t intrude on your private discussion. The privacy rule is still very important, don’t you think?”

Werner tensed at the silent accusation until Atienna offered him a wan smile. 

Atienna returned her attention to Olive and studied him for a moment as silence stretched on. With a cautious yet deliberate demeanor, she proceeded to ask, “How is Lavi?”

Olive abruptly fell back onto the bed and covered his eyes with a grimace. “I mean… she’s still Lavi. I’m still working on how to separate her from Aries and how to make it so she can actually exist without me…” He paused. “Aries—if it weren’t for Aries, I would’ve died on the day of the Tragedy. And it’s not just that dream I had that’s making me say that. It’s just…”

A stretch of silence followed. 

“My aunt and uncle knew about Lavi’s candidacy. My parents had to know too. But if they knew…” Olive lifted his hand to look at Atienna then at Werner. “If they knew…”

His eyes were wet, Werner realized. His pain was sharp, and in his mind,  Werner could see that he was comparing Werner himself and Atienna to his late parents.

Protect, protect, protect—-

His concerns about them truly caring for him stemmed from his concerns about his parents not caring for him and his sister.

A sharp observation.

Atienna looked over at Werner.  This topic is difficult to approach, don’t you think? Though—reassuring people that you’ll be a constant presence of support will better help instill in them confidence to stand on their own. 

Atienna was always knowledgeable about the most surprising subjects.

After my mother’s accident, I did some rather embarrassing deep-diving on topics regarding… parenthood. I suppose I was a bit too serious at the time… That being said, I can’t let you handle the reassurances all on your own, can I?

Atienna passed Werner and came to Olive side. She reached towards Olive’s face and rubbed a ghostly tear from Olive’s cheek. After a pause, she asked, “I wonder—would the truth change anything about how you feel, Olive?”

Olive held her gaze.

“I’m sure it would change some things,” she continued. “All added truths cause a change in perspective, but the question is how much will it change…? Adding white paint into a bucket of black paint won’t result in white paint no matter how much of the former you add, wouldn’t you say?”

Olive’s hand cusped her own and he gave it a squeeze before he sat back up and rubbed his eyes.  “I should probably go back to the Sagittarians now.” He rubbed the back of his neck as he approached the gate and mumbled, “Uhm… thanks, you two… for… literally everything.” He dipped his bed. “And I hope you feel better soon, Werner.”

With that, he exited the room through the gate leaving Werner alone with Atienna.

“We’re filling out quite interesting roles now, don’t you think, Werner?” Atienna offered him a genial smile.

A tease. Werner never knew how to respond to this side of Atienna even after all this time.

“How are you feeling?” she asked. 

Atienna’s own personal visits had always been pleasant. Her choice of books varied from novel new fiction series to dense non-fiction texts. Her focus in dissection of these works no matter what genre was something Werner admired.

“Nico believes my”—he paused, shame unfurling his chest once more— “symptoms will alleviate by the end of the week at the latest. I’ll be able to be more useful and more involved following this.”

Atienna hummed in response, but Werner could not dissect the sound’s tone. 

“How are the developments with Albertine?” Werner inquired. “I see you’ve been able to maintain his cover for the time being.”

“Yes… Albertine’s connection is still in its early stages,” replied Atienna slowly. “His synchronization with the person in his circle is—well—rather asynchronous. It’s like Claire explained to Olive back then. Albertine and his other are communicating through only past memories at this point. Their ‘times’ haven’t yet… ‘aligned’ properly in a sense.” She placed a hand to her cheek and seemed to ruminate. “I wonder if things will improve once their synchronization improves. From what I understand, it doesn’t appear as if he gets along too well with the person he’s connected with. It does make you think, doesn’t it?”

“We were lucky to have found connection with people who were agreeable,” Werner surmised her thoughts.

“To think the ones in our group who we all thought were least agreeable ended up being the most agreeable,” Atienna responded with a faint smile, “while those we thought were most agreeable ended up being quite the opposite.” 

Werner regarded her.

“Setting that aside, our case is a unique one, don’t you think…?” 

She was referring to the mysterious seventh. The potential identity of this seventh: Shion Myosotis. 

“Werner… do you remember anything from that time we overrode you around the Week of Blindness?” Atienna murmured. She studied her hands and then his gloved ones from a distance. “Anything from interactions with Scorpio perhaps? Anything at all?”

“I can only recall vague feelings,” Werner replied just as he had all the times she’d asked before. “I know something occurred, but I can’t recall what it was.”

“Perhaps that failed recollection is for the best,” Atienna murmured.  She returned her attention to her hands. “These people we find ourselves constantly facing share a commonality in projecting their inner disdain onto the exterior world, don’t you think? Alpha has a sense of disappointment towards not only Ophiuchus but himself and that’s reflected in his ironic obsession with lack of attachment and freedom. Scorpio’s fixation on the inevitably of repeated mistakes made him indirectly cause mistakes to be repeated in themselves. Even Theta’s own disappointment fed further into itself what they did in the Twin Cities. Of course, that’s merely simplifying them into a sentence, but… Well, what do you think, Werner?”

“That is a succinct analysis, Atienna.” Werner nodded. “The question is in what manner can we apply this?”

Atienna faltered. “I am sorry to say that I don’t have any use for this information quite yet… They are just my thoughts…”

Thoughts…

“I wonder if I can face her…” Atienna’s lips pressed thin as her image sank down beside him. “I’m referring to Maria, of course. You’ve… heard my thoughts about her. I’m sure everyone has. I feel terrible about it, but…”

Werner had indeed heard Atienna’s thoughts regarding Maria. The anger behind them was not something he could fully understand. He could, however, align with her feelings of frustration and disappointment. It was best to keep one’s emotions in check during these types of situations, however. 

“Your feelings are understandable, but I believe it would be best to communicate your regrets directly to Maria. Middlemen are inefficient.” 

Atienna again offered him a wan smile.

Werner had also heard her thoughts regarding himself. Her perspective and criticisms had, however, provided him a guideline for him to follow. There was always room for improvement, and he admitted he had been too lenient as of late. He had to approach this logically—even if he was failing to protect by doing so.

“Werner…” Atienna moved closer to him. “My thoughts are just that—thoughts. If I ever go along with those thoughts or if they ever come to be, I know I’ll only be disappointed and dissatisfied with the outcome. That’s just how I am—although admitting it doesn’t do much, does it?”

Admittance was the first step, as Alice had said. 

Atienna reached out a hand to his face, dropped it, reached out a hand to his hand, dropped it.  She then slowly leaned against his shoulder leaving a ghost of a warm impression. “Please do understand—I prefer you just as you are just as I prefer Maria just as she is…. I’m just someone who is never satisfied…” 

Werner allowed himself to enjoy this anchor she provided him momentarily before he said, “You should still try to reach out to Maria. Miscommunication is the downfall of every group.” 

“I wonder about that…” she lifted her head. “From the very beginning, Maria and I have been opposites… but I should try to talk with her again…” She closed her eyes briefly. “My perspective is just too different from everyone else’s—even yours, Werner…” 

“I believe a perspective like yours is absolutely needed, Atienna,” Werner replied. “There are times when that perspective is the best one to utilize in order to achieve the most favorable outcome.”

“Maybe. Maybe not.”

****

Deciding to address the concerns the others had with Maria promptly as well as following up with his own concerns, Werner headed to Maria shortly after. He took the last of his painkillers and the derivative and waited for them to take effect before he went to see her. When he entered her room again, he took note of the fact that Simon and her other companions were not present. Maria, however, was fully present. In other words, she was conscious.

“Werner!” Maria exclaimed, waving as he stepped into her arm. “Simon and the others are off in a different place, I think. My mini crew and my big crew were getting bored with being in here all the time, so they went around to the other rooms. Francis was very nice about it. I was thinking I should join them soon. Oh—unless you wanted to see Andres and Dominic? They’re in another room too—”

Werner neared her bedside, folded his hands behind his back, and evaluated her condition. She seemed no different than before—at least on the surface.

 “I wanted to see you, Maria.” He unclasped his hands. “The others have brought me their concerns about you.”

“The others? Concerned?” Maria cocked her head to the side. “A lot of things have happened recently, but this is still my story. This is my part. It’s mine. No one gave this to me but myself, do you see? So, of course I’m alright—”

This was what Maria truly believed. Werner could tell as much. However, he could perceive something existing on a deeper level that his eyes could not exactly see.

Protect. Protect. Protect—

Werner reached out his gloved hand. He did not place his hand on top of her head, however. That was not what their relationship amounted to and that would not be the correct method of approach. Instead, he placed his hand on her cheek.

“Oh? You are being very gentle and nice, Werner,” Maria noted, still smiling. She reached out her good hand and cupped his cheek too. “I like you when you are like this. If you were like this when we first met, we would have gotten along much better.”

“Maria, I dislike making presumptions but I believe you may be going through something similar to what I went through during the fallout of the Week of Blindness,” Werner drew slowly. “Sense-of-self, purpose, identity: I admit that your strength in these areas far exceeds mine. However, no one is infallible in any area. Perfection can be neared. Not obtained.”

Maria’s smile slowly began to drip from her face.

“I dislike commenting on nebulous topics or ones that involve psychological concepts, but even if something is given to you—forcibly or not—” he continued “—you can still make it your own.”

Maria pulled her hand away from his cheek and instead cupped his hand. “Oh my dear Werner. You worry too much. It would be nice to understand easily like you do.”

****

Not so long after this conversation, Jericho came to physically visit him in his room. Werner was surprised as Jericho had started to bide most of his time trying to extract additional information from Alpha and Leona.

Jericho brought with him into Werner’s room his suitcase. He walked rigidly over to Werner’s bed just as Werner was rising from it and sat down promptly before Werner could even pull his covers off. Upon situating himself at the edge of the bed, Jericho opened his suitcase and procured his sketchbook and his pencil. He proceeded to start sketching without any further explanation.

Werner took a moment to pull himself fully out of his sheets, straighten his clothes to appear somewhat presentable, and checked his pocket watch.

“… Good morning, Jericho.”

“Good morning, Werner.”

Werner watched him draw for five minutes before he said, “We still need to address the issue with Leona.”

Jericho nodded. “Yes, okay. I will work something out with her. Don’t worry, Werner.”’ He smudged a line of graphite with his thumb. “I am just spending time with you today.”  He brushed away eraser shavings. “I spent time with Maria earlier. It was different than before. Did you say something to her?”

Werner nodded. “I addressed some concerns.”

Jericho returned the nod. “Do you still want it?”

It—meaning the chlorowheat. The straightforward and abrupt question startled Werner. Although he tried to not let his surprise show physically, he knew the emotion had already bled through to Jericho through their connection. Denial would achieve nothing.

“Yes, Jericho. I do.”

It was an itch that could be scratched but one he didn’t want to scratch.

Jericho’s brows met and his lips pulled downwards: a rare show of expression. “I am sorry, Werner. I can help take away the pain, but I can’t take away that. I don’t know how to.”

“You aren’t required to take away anything, Jericho,” Werner amended. “You have other priorities you need to deal with. Taking on my symptoms will only deter you. On the other hand, I am completely un-preoccupied at the moment.” And insufficient. 

Jericho’s brows furrowed slightly but he returned his full focus to his drawing. A line there, a circle here, a broad stroke there. The sound of the graphite dragging down the bumps of the parchment paper was pleasant and comforting. Werner closed his eyes briefly to enjoy it.

“Did you not trust us?” Jericho stopped moving his utensil. “Trust me?”

Werner opened his eyes, frowned, and turned to find Jericho staring at him. “Of course not, Jericho. I do trust all of you.”

Jericho started sketching again at a slower pace. “Then why did you not tell me? Tell us? You hid. Like Cadence hid from Francis. Like I did…” He stopped again. “I understand: you wanted us to not ‘be hurt.’ But addition: you also didn’t want to ‘be hurt.’ That was the easier way. Yes, I understand. Because I thought the same.”

Werner clenched his fist as the unwitting accusation was laid clear. 

“Yes, you’re right—” 

Jericho pushed the sketchbook into Werner’s hand. “For you.”

Werner studied the sketch and immediately recognized what it was. Dark fur. Wide eyes. Pointed ears. Fenrir.

“I can feel that you miss her,” Jericho explained. “I drew her from your memories. It is not exactly ‘right,’ but I hope I was ‘close enough.’”

Werner held the piece delicately as he took in all of the fine details. “It’s perfect, Jericho.”

“Perfekt?”

Werner nodded. “Thank you—”

“You helped me, Werner.” Jericho set down his utensil and stared at the sketch. “In the Twin Cities. In Die Hauptstadt.” He perked up suddenly. “Intuition: I should avoid cities.” He looked back at Werner. “You should too, Werner. Nothing good ever happens in a city…” He ruminated for a moment. “No. Correction: I met Olive in New Ram City, I met Cadence in the Twin Cities, and I met all of you in Die Hauptstadt in person for the first time. That was good.”

Werner felt the corner of his lips twitch slightly at Jericho’s thought process. “Yes, I admit I felt a sense of relief at that meeting. It’s difficult to fully describe the reason.” 

Jericho reflected the smile faintly. “Yes, it was the same for me.” His gaze trailed to the side. “Maybe there is no reason needed, Werner.”

Reason. Alpha. The One.

“…I would like for you to trust me like I trust you,” Jericho continued. “At the same ‘level.’ I want to help you like you helped me. No: help everyone. I want you to be able to rely on me. I want the others to be able to rely on me. I tried to do that by helping you talk with Alice, but it’s hard to do that now because of Leona. I apologize.” He paused. “I rely on you, on Atienna, on Maria, on Cadence, on Olive. I want to be relied on—”

“We do rely on you for your—”

“No, not in that way.” Jericho’s brows furrowed. “Not like in the way the others rely on you, Atienna, and Maria. I know. I’m different. I know I’m strange. I know I’m strange…”

Protect—

Werner felt his lips pressed down and reached out to place hand on the man’s arm. “You’re not strange to me, Jericho.”

A beat of silence. 

“You’re not strange to me either, Werner,” replied Jericho. “You are just Werner.” Lips pressing down a moment later, he cast a glance at the gate on the opposite wall. “Benì and Talib—I don’t want to lose anyone else in that way again: they are still here, but they’re not really here.”  His brows furrowed again. “I… don’t want to lose you or Maria in the same way, Werner.”

Guilt began to expand out from Werner’s stomach to his chest and melted together with the pain beating in Jericho’s chest. It was an uncomfortable feeling that Werner was becoming more and more familiar with. 

“Would you like a hug, Jericho?” Before Werner realized it, the question had slipped from his lips. 

Jericho perked up immediately. “Yes.”

Werner tensed in response and shook his arms slightly before he turned to Jericho arms spread. Jericho was already waiting for him—arms spread. Admittedly, Werner felt rather awkward initiating such an intimate gesture, but Jericho 

Another anchor.

Werner then recalled his short but prominent sessions with Alice that were completed through his connection with Jericho.

“It’s not about what I want to hear, Werner. It’s not about me at all,” Alice had told him at one point. “It’s about what you need to tell me. It’s about what you feel like you need to say. Discussing your feelings can allow the unpleasant feelings to go away. Discussing them can help you understand them when they come back.” The last thing she had told him before the last session was, “Simple approaches are just as effective as complicated ones, Werner.”

Jericho began to pull away which stirred Werner from his recollections. He proceeded to push up his glasses and offered Werner a thumbs up.

“Thank you,” he said. “I will try and ‘negotiate’ with Leona now.”

Werner nodded before quickly gathering all of Jericho’s belongings, stacking them neatly, and handing them back to him. The only object he did not help pack and instead kept for himself was the sketch of Fenrir.

****

Werner still found it shameful to be treated as someone who needed to be handled with care. It was indicative that there was something wrong with him—which there evidently was. The unpleasant feeling of uselessness and weakness were ebbed away to some degree as a result of his conversations with the other five and with Greta and Gilbert whenever they managed to come, but the feelings still remained. They were, in fact, connected together by the strongest feeling of all: shame.

The only moments Werner would not feel the faintest hints of shame at all were during Nico’s visits. This was because Nico expected nothing. Werner knew this because Cadence knew this, but unlike Cadence, Werner found comfort in the particular attribute of his.

Nico shared a rotating schedule with Greta and Gilbert with medically-oriented visitation.  Sometimes Nico would come by prescribing additional medication and painkillers. Other times he would merely do a physical checkup and spend the rest of the time talking idly.

Today, however, Werner took the forward approach. As Nico entered the room through the gate as scheduled, Werner greeted him as per usual before requesting a refill on his bottle of painkillers and benzodiazepine derivatives. It was a reasonable request. He would only take it up until his symptoms cleared completely, and he had just finished off the last pill this morning.

Upon hearing the request, however, Nico led Werner back to his bed, sat him down, took the pill bottle, and rolled it in his palm. “Werner… we can’t have you takin’ this almost every day.” He pocketed it and studied Werner’s face as worry knitted his brow. “This stuff can mess you up too… It’s not as addictive as stuff like morrowheat but it’s still… dangerous.” 

Werner tensed. “I understand. I apologize. The repercussions should have been obvious—”

“Hey, no—I get where you’re comin’ from. It’s just risky since we’re tryin’ to wean you off somethin’ right now.” Nico raised his hands. “It’s faster goin’ cold turkey like we’re doin’ now to get you back where you were, but we need to be extra cautious.”

Werner nodded stiffly, acknowledging the truth that he had almost slipped into another form of escape. After internally berating himself, he allowed Nico to go through checking and monitoring his vitals. A stethoscope to the chest, a light to the eye, a sphygmomanometer around the arm: a stepwise and familiar procedure. Following this, Nico packed his devices in the satchel he’d brought with him and gave Werner a light tap on the back.

“Looks all good, Captain,” he said before proceeding to fall back on the bed with a heavy sigh.  “Mind if I rest here a tiny bit? Just for a wink?”

Werner was quite familiar with this development so he gave the man a nod. Nico let out an even heavier sigh in response—this time one of relief.

“You’re a life-saver, Captain. I’m not bein’ dramatic. For real. I owe you.”

Suppressing a chuckle at the dramatics, Werner nodded before reaching under his bed and procuring a small notebook no larger than the size of his palm. “I actually have something for you.”

Nico sat up immediately.

Werner handed the notebook to him. “I saw through Cadence that you were having difficulty keeping track of AAC members so I created a list of names for you and wrote comparative adjectives that you can associate with them. It’s lightly coded as a precaution, but I hope this aids you in the operation.”

Nico gingerly accepted the notebook and flipped it to the first page. “Werner, you didn’t have to—oh, what’s the rest of this stuff?”

“I also noticed you having difficulty sleeping and I know there is little to bide your time when you’re not undercover. I understand it’s difficult to find entertainment in an isolated town such as Polovinastadt,” Werner explained. “I transcribed and translated some poems that Atienna has read through in the past few weeks in there as well. They can also help serve as cover for the notes on the initial pages.”

“Aw, Werner…” Nico began to slowly flip through the notebook. “Thank you—oh, wow. Your handwritin’ is really pretty—pretty neat.”  He rubbed his thumb over a stanza and whistled. “It’s literally just like it’s right out of a typewriter…”

Werner cleared his throat. “They taught handwriting in the language courses at the military academy. Others who graduated from the academy have similar handwriting. It’s nothing—”

“You call in nothin’. I call it talent—art!” Nico gently placed the items to the side before flipping open his satchel.  “Anyways, I got you something too. I was goin’ to save this for later, but…” He pulled out a thick, small pastel blue book and handed it over.

Werner accepted it tentatively. The title read, 1000 Cakes.

 “To keep you busy,” Nico explained. “I know Francis’s taste in things is really peculiar now so I figured the books here can’t be the most excitin’ reads or align with your tastes much. I remembered you mentionin’ that you really enjoyed bakin’ that cake for the prince, so… ” He tapped the cover. “I asked around a bit and got this from an AAC member at a meeting. Apparently, there’s only 20 copies of this. Rare stuff. Checked it for mediums so no worries about that.”

Werner flipped it open and was rather pleased to find that the recipes were written in a uniform and orderly fashion with ingredients listed on the left and instructions on the right. A unit conversion scale was at the far left corner of every page as well as a sketch of what the final product should look like.

“Everythin’s exact to the T. Went through it myself and tried to bake somethin’—didn’t turn out to great, but I never was the best with bakin’. Cookin’ is a different story though. I’m even better than Fortuna and Carl at that.”

“I don’t doubt that statement.” Werner smiled briefly. “Thank you, Nico.

“No problem, Captain,” Nico chimed. After a beat, he asked, “Mind listenin’ to me complain again?”

Werner set the book neatly on top of his pillow case. “Is this about Cadence and Gilbert’s behavior?”

Nico sighed and sank back onto his back. “You’ve seen them, right? They’re always at each other’s throats—well, Gil’s at Cadence’s. Look. I really like Gil and all, but I’ve known Cadence for way longer. So—I mean, I love Gil—but I have biases…

Werner remained silent, listening.

“Why do you think they don’t get along? I mean—besides from the things that happened in…” He cast a glance in Werner’s direction. “…the Twin Cities… It just all feels like a lot more than that. But it’s weird… ‘cause Gil and Cadence both get along with almost everyone. And Gilbert doesn’t seem the type to hold grudges.” He let out another long sigh before he stared up at the ceiling. “Carl and Gilbert are kinda alike, don’t y’think? Or maybe Gilbert and Allen?”

It was these types of conversations that allowed Werner to feel some semblance of normalcy. 

Werner chuckled briefly. “Yes, I’ve also given that comparison some consideration. Gilbert is reliable, amicable, and trustworthy. However, he can be disagreeable at times.” He recalled Gilbert during their academy days and almost smiled fondly at the memory before he straightened himself and said seriously: “They’re adults. Acting as a middle man in their case may exacerbate things given your relationship with them.”

Nico looked away, smile falling as he sighed. Werner was troubled to see it go.

“Yeah, you’re right.” Nico hummed. “Well, enough about me. How are you holdin’ up? It probably gets pretty borin’ in here even with the connection with the others—hey, if you ever need anyone outside of them to lend you an ear, I have two of them. Can even transmute a third or fourth one for you if you want.”

Werner chuckled briefly at the proposition before he thought of Alice’s lingering words. What she labeled as important had been labeled as least important to him: communication regarding feelings. Perhaps, however, his negative impression on this type of communication stemmed from his difficulty engaging in it. It was even difficult engaging in this communication with the other five.

“There is something I would appreciate your perspective on,” Werner tried carefully.

Nico sat up slowly as he studied Werner’s face. “I’m all ears, Captain.”

Werner presumed it was his familiarity with Nico through Cadence’s familiarity that made it easier for him to speak more openly like this.

“Scorpio: you recall how he operates with his mediums and spores? The mechanism of action and the effects?”

“Yeah, I remember.” Nico nodded. “He messes with your head while his vitae is inside of you and… somehow… become hyper-focused on one thing after he leaves you.” 

“Yes, that’s correct.”

“Yours is…” Nico smiled just slightly. “…more heroic than other people’s though, Werner”

Heroic. For a reason Werner could not exactly place, the word gave him a pleasant feeling. It was rather ridiculous.

“What is it?” Nico murmured. “Do you… Do you hate it? That… ‘protect’?”

“No, it’s not that.” Werner clasped his hands together in front of him as he leaned forward. “I do value this purpose despite its origin. I dislike speaking in terms of personal satisfaction, but being able to be someone that people can rely on and to be someone people seek shelter in—it brings me something akin to happiness.”

Nico’s gaze softened. “Werner…”

“But… at times it’s so loud, Nico.” Werner put a hand to his temple as he tuned into the quiet impulse whispering there. Quiet—for now. “It’s—” He resisted a grimace as he forced himself to make the admittance once again: “—debilitating. It’s becoming difficult to make the logical choice that leads to the least amount of loss. It also makes me increasingly aware of my failures. I failed to protect Otto. I failed to protect Brandt, Bergmann, and Kleine—”

“Hey, hey—I read the papers, Werner,” Nico said quietly, peeling Werner’s hand away from his face. “They couldn’t fully identify half of the bodies that were there. They were just goin’ off the military tags. There’s a chance that those three pulled one from the old book and made it out of there alive. Like you always say—nothing’s concrete and confirmed until you have all the evidence laid out, right? And callin’ it a failure is a bit much, isn’t it? You don’t have responsibility for things that are way beyond your control. Not havin’ control sometimes is a part of life.”

It sounded like an excuse. Regardless, Werner turned to face Nico and continued with difficulty, “I’m afraid all of these complications will cause me to harbor negative feelings towards this purpose. I don’t…” He struggled again. “I don’t want that to happen. I don’t want the others to feel that happening.”

Nico held his gaze for a moment. “Werner… sometimes we love the things we’re passionate about and sometimes we hate it. It’d probably drive a person insane if they loved somethin’ on maximum overdrive all the time. That’s when passion becomes obsession.” He stared at the ceiling for a moment before he continued, “I feel that way sometimes about medicine. Sometimes the pressure and stress and death is just too much—I just wanna just rip myself from it and run away. Then I spend some time away from it and do some other things and then I realize I can’t give it up ‘cause I love it too much.”

“Focusing on another activity is what Alice recommended.” Werner provided. He digested Nico’s words before looking the man over. “I’ve said this previously, but you can be surprisingly philosophical at times, Nico. Now and back then.” 

“—oh, are you talkin’ about the umbrella thing?” Nico chuckled. “I’m surprised you remember that.”

“It was a memorable moment,” Werner replied. He let out a breath. “Thank you, Nico. For listening and for your words.”

“Aw, no need for that.” Nico shrugged. “I’d like to think that Francis is rubbin’ off on me and makin’ me sound wiser than I actually am.” He stared at his feet for a moment. “Anyways, I’ve been thinkin’ about some things recently, so I gotta ask: have you gotten any clues on this ‘seventh’ person in your group? It’s just a bit sad thinkin’ about it. Bein’ forgotten, I mean…”

“Atienna brought that subject up recently, but I… haven’t given it much thought as I should,” Werner admitted after a pause. He leaned forward slightly. “Olive has many opinions and feels strongly about learning more about them. I also have my own curiosities, but we also need to focus on the present. I don’t want to but we have to approach this realistically.” 

“Well if it helps, you mentioned a while back that Francis suggested lookin’ into weird past behavior, right?” Nico leaned forward too so they were eye-level. “I did notice a couple of weird Cadence-y things when we were younger. If that helps….?”

“Could you elaborate?”

 “Yeah, no problem.” Nico chuckled briefly. “Though I have to warn you—Cadence was a pretty weird kid. Well, we were all weird. It was a weird time.” He seemed to think more on it and laughed. “Now that I think about it, times are even weirder now. We’ve probably only gotten weirder too.”

Werner tried to recall his own childhood. He did not do so often as reflecting on the past didn’t feel a good use of time, but as he tried to do so now, he could only touch upon Cadence’s childhood memories.  “I do recall some fragments from Cadence’s childhood memories that are… somewhat alarming.”

Nico chuckled. “Uh-oh.”

“I know I’ve said this before, but you’ve changed a considerable amount since you were younger.” 

Nico flushed, then laughed again. “Well, I hope so. Can you imagine? Someone points a conductor at me out there and I just run cryin’ and screamin’ to you or Gil?”  

Werner considered the idea. “It would be detrimental behavior and you’d be discharged almost immediately, but”—Otto abruptly flashed through his mind again followed by Kleine, Bergmann, and Brandt. 

“…Captain?”

“—but I will admit that the behavior was somewhat endearing.” Werner paused, unsure of why he’d even said such an odd thing. Perhaps it was bleed through from one of the others. 

“Endearing?” Nico chuckled. “Well, if we want to talk endearin’, I actually had a kid crush on Cadence when we were younger.”

Something stirred in Werner’s chest. It was uncomfortable, but manageable.

“She just seemed so heroic at times,” Nico explained. “I have a thing for heroics, you know? I probably played the damsel in distress a little too well back then. I’d like to try being a knight myself one day though—preferably the fairy tale kind, not the Cavallo kind.” He offered a sly smile “And maybe better than the Cadence kind.”

“The white knight and the black knight of the Romano Family,” Werner recalled the monikers. 

“You think I could play the knight in Cadence’s case nowadays?”

Werner hesitated. “I don’t think I should comment on your personal relationships, Nico. It would be… inappropriate.”

Nico merely smiled in response.

“Goin’ back to the whole ‘mysterious seventh’ thing…” Nico glanced at him. “Cadence did protect me a lot from bullies when I was younger. Got a few punches in too—took a couple of hits even. Do you think… that might’ve been… one of you?”

Werner frowned. 

“I mean—you probably synchronized some when you were younger if you were connected back then, right?

“Cadence cares for you, Nico,” Werner replied. “I don’t believe it’s unreasonable to think Cadence’s childhood acts of protecting you were of her own merit.”

“Yeah, I know Cadence’s defended me a lot in the past—which I’m grateful for—but her bravery’s kind of a different flavor than throwin’ fists and givin’ encouragin’ speeches.” Nico studied him for a moment longer before he pulled back and ruffled his hair. “Well, I guess it doesn’t really matter too much. I just thought I’d test the waters, Captain—-” He trailed off, gaze wandering to Werner’s cheek.

Werner resisted putting his hand to the area. 

The tattoo—it must have made its way back onto his face.

Nico seemed to notice the twitch of his hand, however, and visibly blanched. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to stare. It just—when it moves—”

“It’s alright, Nico,” Werner responded stiffly. “It’s of little importance.”

“Hey, I know it bothers you,” Nico said, leaning forward.  “It’s normal for those sorts of things to bother people, isn’t it? I mean if I woke up one day and found a tattoo of a banana or somethin’ on my arm without me askin’, I’d be pretty upset.” He leaned forward even further. “I’ve been reading around a bit and I think I can figure a way to get out without doin’ too much damage. For real this time.”

“You don’t have to go out of your way,” Werner replied after a moment. “You have more important things to be focusing on at the moment than something like this.”

“What? Like idlin’ around the AAC since they halted our investigation? Tryin’ to avoid my dad whenever I can?” Nico smiled and tapped his temple. “Multi-taskin’, Captain, multi-taskin’. Isn’t that what you’re always sayin’?” He eyed Werner’s cheek again. “What that guy did to you, to Cadence, to all of you—-I get that he used to be the friend of that detective Cadence talks about sometimes, but what he put you all through was awful…”

Scorpio.

Nico lifted his hand. “Can I?”

Werner paused, considering. Nico had inspected the tattoo numerous times before in attempts to remove it in more controlled settings. This was no different than the physical examination Nico had conducted half an hour ago. Thus, Werner consented with a nod.

Nico moved his hand to the left side of Werner’s face and his thumb brushed against Werner’s cheek. It tickled due to the gentleness of his touch as his usually did. Nico tilted Werner’s chin up slightly as he leaned in even closer—but his eyes were not trained on the tattoo. Rather, they were trained on Werner’s own eyes.

Werner froze, his mind unable to determine whether this was an unusual or commonplace action—whether this was a familiar or unfamiliar sensation. Head tilting to the side, Nico leaned in closer and closer—so close that Werner could see the flecks of gold hidden in the brown of his eyes. Those flecks of gold disappeared, however, as Nico abruptly closed his eyes. Still, he drew nearer, nearer—and then suddenly Werner felt something warm brush against his lips.

Werner’s heart began to pound ferociously in his chest as he tried to logic out exactly what was developing. A pleasant haze bled. Nico leaned in further as the feeling continued, and Werner found himself mirroring the man: leaning forward, tilting his head to the opposite side, and closing his eyes. It was only half a second afterwards that Werner reached his conclusion: this was a—

Werner tensed and his eyes snapped open as he fully realized and understood the development. Stiffly, he pressed his hands against Nico’s shoulders and pushed him away. 

Nico.”

Nico startled, eyes snapping open. His cheeks reddened and he suddenly looked as if he’d been slapped. “I-I—sorry, Werner. I should’ve asked. Wait, no. I shouldn’t have even done it to begin with. know you’re going through a lot. I don’t want to take advantage of you or anythin’. It’s just that with everythin’ that’s happened between us. And then on the train with Cadence. I thought—” 

“I understand that, and I am aware of what happened during your train ride with Cadence.” After a pause, he added, “I’m glad you two made amends but—”  

Nico flushed deeper and began to chuckle nervously.

“But there’s a reason I haven’t discussed that with you.” Werner held Nico’s gaze before looking away and saying with an air of finality: “We don’t have time for these things—these distractions, Nico.”

“Distractions…’” Nico’s face fell. “Yeah. You’re right—”

Werner felt an uncomfortable feeling stir his chest as he registered the man’s expression. “I apologize. Labeling this as a distraction was overly callous of me.”

Nico’s expression fell even further. 

“I’ll be curt and honest with you, Nico, because I don’t believe it’s fair to leave you without a concrete explanation—”

“It’s alright, Werner, really—”

“I’m also uncertain if my feelings towards you now are a result of Cadence’s own personal feelings or if they are my own.”

Nico paused. “Cadence’s feelings…? Towards me?”

Werner nodded. 

Nico stared. “You’re… connected to her, aren’t you?”

It was a peculiar question with an answer that Nico should have known the answer to. Regardless, Werner affirmed: “Yes, that’s one of the criteria for being a True Conductor.”

“I mean…” Nico blinked and pointed to Werner’s chest. “Cadence’s feelin’s for me? Are you talkin’ about our… relationship? I mean, our relationship with each other? Me and Cadence?”

Werner nodded. “It’s not my intention to intrude on your… overall relationship with her, but her feelings towards you do bleed into mine.”

Nico scrutinized him. “But you know—you’re connected to her—Cadence is a…”

Werner nodded again. “Her sense of self is rather formidable and her feelings can be intense—” 

Abruptly, Nico laughed long and hard. His laughter wracked his entire body and he even threw his head back. 

Werner studied him in alarm, trying to gauge the tone of his laughter. It clearly was not a morose chuckle. There was no sign to indicate that he was in any emotional pain. In fact, it was quite the opposite. 

Unable to determine the appropriate course of action, in the end, Werner opted to remain silent. Eventually, Nico’s laughter subsided into quiet chuckles.

After counting fifteen seconds in his head, Werner regarded Nico cautiously and asked, “Are you… alright?”

“You don’t need to worry about me, Captain.” Nico wiped a tear from his eye. “Your health is more important to me than any of that. Honest.”

Werner felt uncertain about Nico’s answer and proceeded to clarify his thoughts: “I will tell you this Nico: your medical knowledge and expertise are some of the best that I’ve seen during my service. Your constant presence, charisma, and reliability were beneficial to the unit’s morale and therefore their performance. You, Gilbert, and Greta are the three people that I… trust the most outside of the other five.”  

Nico nodded.

 “I hope this does not damage things between us and that we can continue on as we were.”

Now, Nico smiled and rose to a stand. “Like I said, no worries, Captain. Nothing’s changed.” He stretched a moment later, swung his satchel over his shoulders, gingerly picked up the notebook Werner had gifted him, and looked at it almost fondly. “Thanks for this again. I’ll definitely be goin’ through this tonight.”

Werner rose to a stand as well and bid Nico a casual farewell before leading him to the gate. Once Nico stepped through it, Werner headed back to his bed, sat down, and stared at the gate for an unknown amount of time in a slight daze. By the time he recollected himself and checked his pocket watch, he discovered that two whole hours had already passed. After a pause of consideration, he paced back up to the gate slowly and placed a hand against it. Still faintly warm.

That had been an unprecedented development, but it had ended acceptably. Yes, Werner was certain that—

Oh-ho?

The gate began to hum with familiar pale orange light beneath his palm. A new visitor, he realized—and he was already aware of who it was. He took one step back as Cadence—just shedding off her transmuted guise as Dieter—emerged from the gate. As soon as she stepped fully into the room, Werner became cognizant of everything she had been engaging in the past day and a half: the confrontation with Ricardo, the set timeline of Alpha’s plan, and the revelation regarding Seamus Dolby.

Werner tensed. “Seamus Dolby is a True Conductor—”

“Hey now—aren’t we changin’ the subject a little too quickly, Captain?” Cadence slinked forward, rapping a knuckle against his chest. “You and Nico had an interestin’ thing just now, didn’t ya?” 

“That was a civil conversation between adults, Cadence,” Werner stated evenly. “It’s irrelevant in light of what you’ve just discovered. Alpha’s timeline and the new True Conductor circle—”

Adults, huh? How adult are we talkin’ here?” 

“Cadence, this is serious.”

“Werner.” Cadence patted his chest. “It is serious. I only got half the details here. I need more.”

She was being difficult.

Feeling something uncomfortable burn at his cheeks, Werner turned away from Cadence then and paced to his bed.

Cadence chortled, trailing along behind him. “Ya’ve killed over a hundred men and ya know all the strategies in the book, but ya still get all flustered when it comes ta dealin’ with feelin’s.”

Werner proceeded to re-straighten his bed while simultaneously attempting to hide the book Nico had gotten for him beneath his pillow.

Cadence gasped suddenly, causing him to turn to her out of concern.  “That was your first, Werner! It was your first, wasn’t it? Werner—you’re a novice! I think even the kid’s had his first kiss before already! Aw-”

“Cadence, we need to focus on the topic at hand—”

A strange sharp sound that reminded Werner of an unoiled door hinge cut him off short. He turned as the sound resounded again and soon realized its origin. It was emanating from Cadence’s suit jacket. 

Cadence lifted the left flap of her suit, reached into the inner hidden pocket, and procured a small white object. A mewling sound confirmed its identity. It was a kitten no larger than the size of her palm.

“Ta-da!” Cadence sang, presenting the animal fully to Werner so that he was now able to see the sky blue of its irises. “Imagine I did that but with a rabbit instead. Like a magic trick.”

Werner stared at the kitten in confusion.

“Seamus gave it as a gift…” Werner realized as the memory of the event reached him. “Did you check it for mediums?

“Yeah, I did—no worries. Seamus’s an interestin’ one…” Cadence shrugged. “Anyways, I named her Alice ‘cause of the blue eyes—”

Werner frowned. “That’s inappropriate, Cadence.”

Cadence merely shrugged again before she held Alice out to him with a sly grin. “Wanna pet her?”

Werner held up a hand. “That’s alright.”

“What?” Cadence chortled. “Not much of a cat fan? Usually quiet, shy types like you are alI about feline companions, ya know? Though I guess ya bein’ more of a dog person makes sense. You’re a military man. Huh—do they even have military cats?”

After a pause, Werner reached out and placed a gentle and hesitant gloved hand on the kitten’s head. It mewed in response and began to purr. Werner admittedly was pleased with this development and continued to stroke the cat until it abruptly let out one loud meow and bit down on his finger. Frowning, he retracted his hand and returned his attention to Cadence. 

“This new information is extremely useful, Cadence. Good work—”

“Wait…” Cadence’s smile fell and she put the kitten down onf the ground. “Before we get into that—I… have somethin’ I need ta tell ya.”

Werner studied her for half a second before the memory of her phone call with Viktoria finally reached his awareness: Mother was ill. His heart seized in his chest and a numbing coldness spilled out from the area into the rest of his limbs at the revelation.

With difficulty, Werner maintained his composure. “When?”

“A coupla days ago,” Cadence explained. “Toria didn’t have a lot of details. Even the doctors seemed confused apparently. I… tried ta tell ya earlier, Werner, but ya were in and out.”

He’d relied too heavily on the medication Nico had given him. This failure of communication was his own fault. 

“I apologize for that,” he stated. “Thank you for telling me.” 

There was a lapse of silence. 

Protect, protect, protect.

Werner tried to gather his tumbling thoughts and form a coherent sentence but the words slipped through his fingers before he could catch them. 

Mother was ill. 

“Do ya want me to visit her for ya, Captain?” Cadence pressed. “Things with the AAC are a lot more complicated now than before, but we got Seamus and the lot half-on on board. Veles’s got a terrible relationship with Maria though. I dunno. I was thinkin’ maybe Maria could patch things up with him somehow. Either way, I can still go down for you as myself—”

Protect, protect, protect.

Thinking of Nico’s and Alice’s words, Werner grounded himself with the pounding thought.

“No, Cadence”

Protect, protect, protect.

Using this as the groundwork, he began to piece together the information he’d just received from Cadence to structure a logical method of approach. A plan. A blueprint.

“No…?”

Protect, protect, protect.

Then, he reached a successful conclusion.

“No,” Werner stated with an air of finality. “We’re now aware of what day Alpha plans to invade Ophiuchus. From what I understand, the ELPIS leader Rho will still move forward with her invasion even though she doesn’t have contact with Alpha at the moment. We can use this opportunity to our advantage.”

“Opportunity?” Cadence did a double-take. “But—the kids—”

“Prevention is always the best strategy. In this case that would be preventing the captured children from stepping foot in Ophiuchus. However, given our lack of information on their current location, we cannot go this route.”

Cadence frowned slightly.

“I’m not saying that we abandon the children,” Werner elaborated. “The children will remain our priority. However, we will use the invasion to our advantage. While the saint candidates are distracted and preoccupied with the ELPIS raid, we’ll have the opportunity to  launch a multi-pronged, synchronized rescue operation and retrieve the hostages the saint candidates have against us all at once. If the parameters allow, we can also attempt to retrieve Hilton and Louise. And retrieve the children.”

Eyes widening, Cadence whistled. “Can’t believe I’m the one sayin’ this but that sounds risky, Captain.”

“It is a risk,” Werner agreed. “However, there will be no better opportunity to make for an escape out of the restrictions of the saint candidates. We can’t arouse any suspicion prior to this, and visiting Mother may draw unwanted attention. We also need to factor in Jericho’s situation with Leona and consider utilizing any alliances we currently have since this will be a reasonably large operation.”

Cadence whistled again before she abruptly frowned—he could feel her digging through his thoughts. “Wait…”

“Nico has informed me previously that I’ll be able to be ‘discharged’ in a sense at the end of this week,” Werner continued. “I’ll use that opportunity to contact Weingartner and Heimler and recruit them into the operation. I believe they’ve been biding their time and expanding their resources, so—”

“Wait, wait, wait. The last time we saw Weingartner, he was in Zhūshā Cheng, Werner,” Cadence interjected. “That place is a hotbed for morrowheat, chlorowheat, all-the-above wheats.”

“I’m aware.”

“Are ya sure you’re up for that, Werner?” Cadence’s eyes were wide, fear leaking in through their connection. “Wait no. Let me go instead of ya. You can take your place back at the AAC—wait, no. That’s just as iffy—”

“Cadence, you are handling not only the AAC investigation but also Seamus’s new True Conductor circle and the Romano relations. Your hands are full.” He reached out a hand towards her head. “You’ve done more than enough—”

“No!” Cadence snapped, pulling away. She looked just as surprised as he felt by her outburst but pressed regardless, “Ya don’t understand, Captain. I haven’t. I’ve barely even scraped the surface of makin’ things up ta ya.” She ran her fingers through her hair. “Almost all of the problems ya had were because of me. And ya still keep doin’ things for me.”

Protect, protect, protect.

“Cadence, I need to do this—”

Werner,” Cadence pressed, shaking her head. “I know we went over this already, but I don’t want this all just ta be brushed aside and things to return back ta how they were—actin’ like nothin’ happened and actin’ like I didn’t do anythin—”

“It’s not as if I haven’t wronged you either,” Werner responded evenly. “I inappropriately lashed out at both you and Olive. In that moment, I said something that I knew would hurt you. I used our connection to my advantage and I used chlorowheat despite knowing your history with—”

Before he could finish, Cadence abruptly closed the distance between them and slowly wrapped her arms around his waist. She then buried her face into his chest. “Yeah, ya pulled a real jerk of a move. Hurt and still hurts like hell.”

Werner’s heart sank at this and he moved to wrap his arms around her. “I apologize.”

“See—I’m acknowledgin’ that, ain’t I?” Cadence mumbled. “So you gotta acknowledge my mess-ups too.”

Werner moved one of his hands to rest on her head as he listened. “Okay.”

“Please just let me help ya, Werner. Like really help ya. Not just a one and done deal. That means if I ever become a billionaire, ya gotta let me spoil ya rotten and take care of ya. Ya can finally kick back and relax and—ya know what I mean.” 

Ridiculous. However—

“I understand.” Werner held Cadence just an increment tighter. Another anchor.

“… sorry if that was out of the blue,” Cadence mumbled after a pause. “I’m just a bit wrung out with everythin’ that’s happened with Ricardo, Seamus, and—well—everythin’.”

“It’s alright, Cadence.”

“Werner…”

“Yes, I’m still listening.”

“Your mom…  my mom…. our parents…” Cadence tightened her hold, burying her face deeper into his chest. “They’re—we can’t keep makin’ up excuses for ‘em and tryin’ ta reason it all out.”

Werner tensed at the suggested disrespect, and his palms began to develop a familiar phantom itch.

“Francis said this a while ago, so—yeah—I’m takin’ one from him, but basically all kids deserve good parents but not all parents deserve kids. I know you’re an adult now but… She hurt you, Werner. I-I know I hurt ya too, but… she’s always hurtin’ ya. She’s the main reason why it still hurts so much. Ya know I’m right.”

Werner’s lips pressed thin as he tried to logic and reason out why and how Cadence was wrong in this area—no, he was trying to think of an excuse. That reality was unpleasant to come to terms with and caused an uncomfortable pressure in his chest. Still, he nodded. “I understand, Cadence. It’s just… difficult for me.”

“Okay, I gotcha.” Cadence relaxed in his hold. “That’s reasonable. As long as ya understand.”

Understanding. Werner conjectured that if anyone understood him best it was Cadence and if anyone understood her best it was him.

They stayed like that for a bit longer. Werner didn’t bother counting the seconds—the minutes—as they passed by.

“I need to do this, Cadence.”

Cadence grimaced, sighed, and then looked up at him. “Okay… but if you’re really gonna try to contact Weingartner, let Nico come with ya.”

****

Zhūshā Cheng, Xing Clan Territory, Sagittarius.

Stepping back out into open air felt peculiar. The evening streets of Zhūshā Cheng were dense, heavily populated, loud. The windows of the skyscrapers leaked out cold blue light, while the lanterns hanging from the fronts of the slightly shorter, roof-tiled buildings bled out red light from the lanterns lining their fronts. 

Werner did not allow himself to linger long on the sight for longer than six seconds and instead turned his attention to the pedestrians and passersby. The crowds keeping to the sidewalks were densely populated, while the skies were streaked with air Elementalists riding on conductors. The commotion stirred a faint pounding at the back of Werner’s head and nausea in his stomach. Still, he maintained his composure.

The pocket watch weighing down in his chest pocket acted as a reassurance that he was carrying out this operation within the correct time-frame. The pistol strapped to his leg acted as a reassurance that he would be able to carry this operation out undeterred. It had been approximately one month since he had last carried a weapon and approximately five months since had carried one assigned for military use. Still, it felt natural to have it by his side. An additional reassurance was—

“Saints. This is somethin’ else.”

Werner paused and turned to look over his shoulder. Nico stood two meters behind him, taking in the city view. He was wearing one of Olive’s Marta-rings and had donned the guise of a middle-aged Sagittarian man of the Xing Clan: silk garments, dark hair and eyes, and a mustache. Werner wore a similar guise—although the one he’d transmuted for himself was of much younger appearance.

“It’s like the Twin Cities,” Nico marveled, “but… colder… and—” He chuckled. “Bluer.”

Werner nodded. “Yes, the infrastructure appears to be somewhat similar, although the designs are unique in themselves.” He paused and studied Nico. “Do you have a preference between the two?”

Nico arched a brow with a smile. “I’m still Twin Cities through and through, Captain.”

Yes: things were normal.

****

Following along with the memories from Olive’s last visitation of this city, Werner—with Nico just a step behind—wove through the noisy streets, dipped down several alleyways, before finally reaching a familiar pair of sliding doors nestled in a dark alleyway. This door, however, was covered in yellow tape marked with Sagittarian characters.

“It’s police tape,” Nico murmured, inspecting the tape further. “Says ‘crime scene.’”

Werner tensed.

“You know—I wanted to be an officer when I was really young,” Nico added suddenly in a whisper. “Was charmed by Giustizia of all people.”

Suppressing a chuckle, Werner carefully slid open the door without disrupting the tape, stepped inside of the dam, quiet room, and scanned the darkness. There were two familiar beds pressed against the wall but they were bare. The entire room shared similar bareness.

Werner approached the empty singular shelf beside the cold fireplace at the back of the room and began to search it for possible clues. As he ran his fingers along the top shelf, he felt a small lump in the far corner. He extracted it and inspected the object in the darkness. It appeared to be something wrapped in plastic. Only half a second later he recognized what that something was. That shade of green was one he’d become accustomed to seeing.

Chlorowheat.

Werner’s heart hammered ferociously as he stared at it, and he felt sweat begin to break across his back. He could almost taste it, could almost feel the euphoria, could almost feel the tendrils of oblivion reaching the edges of his mild.

It was such a small amount. Perhaps it was 25 mg at the most. It probably wouldn’t have that strong of an effect even if he took it. Yes, it most likely would not affect him operationally at all. Even though he had cleared it from his system, taking this small amount would not disturb the equilibrium he had just recently achieved. It was best to hold onto this for safe-keeping. A situation where using it would prove necessary was a possibility. Therefore, Werner reasoned that holding onto this chlorowheat was sensible.

He proceeded to slide the packet into his pocket—

—but a hand on the wrist stopped him short.

Upon turning, Werner registered Nico standing directly behind him and studying him with a frown.

“Werner…” 

There was no disappointment in the man’s eyes. Only concern. That alone brought Werner back to reality. He allowed Nico to take the chlorowheat from him and watched as the man threw it into the fireplace. 

“That is literally… everywhere…” Nico muttered. “It’s pretty terrifyin’ actually…”

“Yes,” Werner agreed, lowering his hand. He regarded Nico for a moment before saying, “I apologize. Thank—”

The paper doors behind Werner abruptly flew open, cutting him off short. He turned just in time to see two men barge into the room waving flashlights around in the dark.

“Excuse me, sirs,” one man said in the language of the Xing Clan. “What exactly are you doing here?”

“This room is under investigation by our department,” the other man said. “State your purpose here. You’re trespassing.”

Police officers.

Werner berated himself for his lack of caution and for being distracted by the chlorowheat as the officers approached them. He resisted wincing as one of the officers beamed the flashlight directly into his face. After his eyes adjusted to the sudden light, Werner was able to make out the officer fully.  The first thing he noticed about the man, however, was not his graying beard nor the pressed badge—engraved with the characters 警察— hanging on his chest. No, the first thing Werner noticed was the familiar curl of dark blue on the man’s skin just barely visible beneath the collar of his uniform. 

Spores of Scorpio.  Why were they here? The most logical conclusion was that Scorpio had discovered Weingartner and Heimler’s activities in this area and was now launching a full investigation on them. This was dangerous.

“I asked you a question,” the officer shining the light in Werner’s eye pressed.

Werner reached out to Cadence for assistance, but before he could make full contact, Nico stepped forward and bowed deeply.

“I am so, so, so sorry, Officer,” Nico replied in the language of the Xing Clan and in a pained tone. Abruptly, he reached over and cuffed Werner’s head. “My son here is always getting into trouble—hanging out with the wrong people and crowds. His ‘friends’ dared him to break into this place for money, and this stupid son of mine went ahead and did it. I have been searching for him all night, officers.”

The officers exchanged looks.

“Lock him up!” Nico snapped abruptly, grabbing hold of one of the officer’s arms. “For at least a week—no, a month! No, a year! No, a decade! Then he’ll learn. I can’t teach him any other way. He—” 

“Er—” the officer began in concern. “That seems excessive, sir—”

Nico whipped around to face Werner and placed a hand to his chest. “You’re always breaking my heart. Can’t you see that?”

There was a stretch of rather awkward silence. 

Nico jerked his head slightly.

Werner fumbled for a moment before pressing, “Father—”

“This is evidently a domestic dispute,” the other officer interjected. “Please keep this within your household. We’ll let you off this once but don’t ever come back here again.” He paused and frowned at Werner. “And you—be grateful for your father’s sacrifices.”

Nico gave a grateful bow in response before dragging Werner quite literally out of the building, down two alleyways, up five streets, before finally doubling over and letting out a heavy sigh. He laughed lightly. “Haven’t done that in a while.”

“That was… impressive,” Werner noted. “Good work.”

Nico perked up with an arched brow and a slight smile. “I’m not as good as you-know-who with these kinds of things, but I did pick up a thing or two back in the day.” 

Nico proceeded to reach into his pocket and pulled out a black notepad.  Its cover was imprinted with the characters 警察 in gold. Stolen from one of the officers, Werner realized.

“Lucky for us, the police take good notes.”

Werner took the notebook from Nico and began to flip through and soon discovered that the police had narrowed their search of Weingartner and Heimler—accused of chlorowheat smuggling which was most likely a lie and a cover-up—to one section of the city. 

****

Following along with this lead, Werner made the decision to divert their attention temporarily to surveillance. A better scope and understanding of the locations where Weingartner and Heimler were expected to appear would be useful in locating the two men.

Pulling on a synchronization with Cadence, Werner was able to talk his way with Nico to gaining access to the roof of a six-storied hotel at the center of the police investigation radius. Soon, they were up on the hotel’s roof and peering down into the city below. Some of the city’s lights had begun to dim, leaving patches of black in the network of glimmering ruby and sapphire lights. Despite the height of the building, Werner was still able to see pedestrians moving up and down the streets and sidewalks below him. The crowds had died down some, it seemed. This was an advantage: it was now easier to scope out the area.

“It’s pretty, isn’t it?” Nico noted after approximately two hours had passed. “So pretty it can almost make you forget everything that’s happenin’ below the city… or around it, actually.” 

“It is beautiful,” Werner agreed, “but we should maintain our focus—”

A commotion from two blocks over caught his attention. Faintly in the dark, he could make out two figures dashing down a narrow alleyway. Tailing behind them were five police officers—two of whom had sputtering blue conducting blades drawn out. 

Werner couldn’t quite make out the running duo’s faces so he instead turned his attention to the path ahead of them: it was a dead end. The two men soon reached the dead end wall and turned to face their pursuers. It was only when they turned that Werner was able to identify them:  Weingartner and Heimler.

Weingartner conjured a pistol, while Heimler pulled out his own pistol. The police officers slowed as they approached, and several of them drew out conductors and pistols. They did not make any movies and neither did Weingartner nor Heimler. A stand-off, but Weingartner and Heimler were at a clear disadvantage here. 

Werner pulled out his pistol, calculated the wind speed and direction, considered the angles of height, and proceeded to line the mouth of his weapon up with the back of the conductor-wielding officer that stood closest to his captain and former subordinate.

Just as he was about to move his finger to the trigger, however, a metallic rattling stopped him short. It took him a second to realize what it was: his hands were trembling and the pistol’s parts were clacking against each other as a result. Werner stared at his hands, unable to fully comprehend the development.

Why? Withdrawal symptoms still? Or was it because he had tried to take some of the chlorowheat earlier? Was it because he neglected practicing his skills when he’d been contained in Francis’s room? No—

Protect, protect, protect.

He had to be useful. He had to protect the others. He had to reach Weingartner and Heimler. As he was now, he was insufficient—

A pair of hands abruptly wrapped around his own and steadied his shakes. The pistol stilled in his hand. Werner’s eyes followed the pair of hands to their owner: Nico.

“Can you see?” Nico mouthed the words.

Werner could see. He could see Nico’s warm gaze clearly through the transmuted guise.

Shaking the thought aside, Werner nodded before returning his attention to the scene below. After quickly ensuring that his pistol was still aligned properly and re-evaluating the wind direction and angles and heights, he pulled the trigger.

The bullet whizzed through the dark before it struck its target head on. The officer let out a yelp before collapsing onto the ground. The officers around him startled in alarm before whipping around and searching the darkness blindly.

Perfect.

Werner proceeded to aim the pistol once more and—with Nico steadying his hands—he fired again and again and again. Soon, all the officers were on the floor groaning or unconscious. As expected, Weingartner and Heimler both startled and began backing away as the bodies dropped around them. Werner had their attention. It was now time to utilize it.

Pressing his fingers to his lips, Werner proceeded to produce a three-note whistle. Weingartner and Heimler both straightened at the sound, indicating that they’d heard. A moment later, they exchanged looks before darting back down the alley in the direction where they’d come from.

“Was that a Capricornian signal?” Nico whispered beside Werner, hands still wrapped around Werner’s own. “Now what?”

Werner nodded. “Now we head to the tallest building within a twenty mile radius and wait.”

****

It took approximately one hour to locate the designated area which was located twenty blocks down from their building. Nico went to the building’s edge as soon as they gained access to the roof and peered down into the glittering lights below. After ruminating for five minutes, Werner joined him. 

“Things are always so complicated these days, Captain.” Nico sighed after a stretch of silence. “I mean things were complicated back then, but it’s even more complicated now. Not only the situation—but people too. It’d be nice things—if people—were simpler. It’d be easier to be honest and communicate. ‘Productivity,’ like you say.”

He was mostly referring to his confrontation with Allen.

“Yes,” Werner agreed after a beat, “it would be nice if things and people were simpler, but that’s simply not the case.” 

A creak followed by padding footsteps drew Werner’s attention away from the city lights. Upon turning, he registered two figures approaching him out from the doorway leading to the rooftop. Weingartner and Heimler. They both looked aged and worse for wear, but their eyes were still sharp and focused.

Werner resisted throwing up a salute as the two men hesitantly approached them.

“That was an interesting call signal you used,” Weingartner drew, coming to a stop two feet away and looking Werner and Nico up and down. “I don’t mean to sound rude, but you don’t look like the type of person who would know what that signal means.”

“Appearances are deceiving,” Werner replied. 

“So they are.” Weingartner nodded. “Now: am I being deceived now or is this something else?”

“I have an opportunity for you,” Werner explained, “but I feel it would be wise to disclose this opportunity in more private conditions.”

“Private conditions?” Heimler pressed, exchanging a look with Weingartner. 

Werner nodded, clasping his hands behind his back. “I’m aware that you have an additional person—a non-combatant—in your group—”

Weingartner tensed at the mention of his daughter.

“—but I was hoping that you would have additional members in your group. That resource would be very beneficial in the context of this opportunity.”

“I do have resources,” Weingartner provided, regarding Werner carefully. “Do you have an estimate of the likelihood of success of this… opportunity?”

“I don’t have the exact estimates which I apologize for,” Werner acknowledged, extending his hand, “but I assure you this opportunity has the highest probability of what we can ‘consider’ success.”

Weingartner reached forward and accepted the gesture before offering a wan smile. “It’s good to see you again.”


A/N: I had a mental breakdown editing this chapter. anyways HA you thought werner was emotionally stable enough to hold a relationship–well, i guess most of you must’ve figured otherwise. i know the chapters for this section are a bit on the longer end but we’re actually heading into the finale after this section so //fingerguns. anyways, i nearly punched a wall writing certain scenes of this chapter

26.2: Cadence & Francis: A Copper Pact

Re-cap:

Cadence’s lies have caught up to her. Concealing the fact that the Romano and Foxmans have been working together to ship out chlorowheat has led to a fallout between herself, Carl, Allen, and Fortuna and Francis. The chlorowheat’s reach has extended far beyond this, however, as it is revealed that Werner suffers from a chlorowheat addiction. In the days following, Maria falls in her confrontation against Alpha and loses her arm. But, there are some victories: they have managed to capture Alpha and Leona, and Olive has potentially brought the Sagittarius royals into the fold.

Cadence now maneuvers around the AAC, trying to fill in not only Werner’s shoes but Maria’s as well.


Polovinastadt, Aquarian-Capricornian Border

Playing Werner was easy. Playing Dieter was even easier. Then again, Cadence had helped create Dieter so it didn’t really count. Well—actually the fact that she’d molded Dieter was just all the more credit to herself. 

Since Cadence had stepped in for Werner a week or two ago, she’d gone to at least three high-level AAC meetings. Though most meetings involved kicking it back and inhaling copious amounts of chlorowheat, there were occasional serious discussions about protests, politics, conspiracy, and—of course—many, many, many conversations surrounding Seamus Dolby who was making his way down from Ophiuchus. 

Frankly, the chairman elections were the very last thing on Cadence’s mind. She figured it’d slowly made its way to being at the bottom of the list of important things to worry about for the other’s too. Ironic—since this whole thing had started with the elections at the top of the list of things to grow gray hairs over.  Funny how that worked. You could cry your heart out about someone or something for years but then suddenly throw it all on the backburner as soon as something else got your attention. ‘Course there was the bit when something would stick with you no matter how hard you tried to slough it off—and sometimes you even liked the fact that it stuck with you. 

Cadence wondered where Alma fell in all of that. She also wondered where chlorowheat fell, where Maria fell, where Werner fell. 

Cadence hated it—the chlorowheat—and she rarely hated anything. Sure, she’d occasionally have to wander into a couple of morrowheat dens back in the city on odd jobs, but she never had to sit down across from someone having a puff. And sure, she might’ve turned a blind eye when she used to work for smaller crime organizations who dealt that stuff, but that was before… Before what? Before nothing because that was all afterafter her parents were ruined by it. Or was it better to say after her parents ruined themselves with it? 

Not so clear-cut.

Long-story short: whenever Matthias and the other upper-AAC members invited her down to their smoking den, she had half the mind to just rob them blind—maybe steal their identity or frame them for robbery or worse. Served them right for even thinking of handing Werner that stupid syringe—but bah! She couldn’t do that. She understood that the poor bastards had meant no harm. They really thought they were doing him a favor. Just like Werner thought the chlorowheat was helping him and he had it under control. Just like Maria thought she could juggle Alpha, the kids, and the whole Leo spiel like it was nothing. Just like Cadence herself thought that she, Carl, Allen, and Fortuna could just keep the entire Foxman-Romano shipping shebang away from Francis.

‘No harm done’ and ‘it’s necessary’ were the assumptions.

Damn.

Cadence admitted it: she messed up big time with Francis and the whole chlorowheat deal in general. There was ‘situation and circumstance’ but all that just provided context—not an excuse. She got that. She accepted that and the consequences of her actions. But as for Werner and Maria? As for what they did and what had happened to them? They were never perfect in her eyes, but… It just didn’t feel right saying that they were responsible for what happened to them. 

Werner.

Every time Cadence passed by that restroom she’d found Werner in at the inn, she felt her heart-rate skyrocket and her vision blur and nausea grab a fistful of her stomach. She remembered everything that happened in that moment with excruciatingly painful detail. The smog, the glass, the smell—

Cadence wanted to be there with Werner—at his side—in Francis’s room. But she couldn’t. In order to keep him put, she had to be out here making excuses to Matthias on why ‘Dieter’ wasn’t feeling up for another round of smoking. 

Among the many excuses she used to avoid chlorowheat were ‘still recovering from that last bad trip,’ ‘my stomach’s been too upset lately,’ and ‘it just doesn’t feel the same anymore.’  She even managed to get Matthias and some of the other AAC members to drink during meetings instead of smoke. Wasn’t that much better but better was still better.

Cadence couldn’t be by Maria’s side either. She didn’t even know if Maria wanted her to be. Every time she swung by physically and psychically to Maria at Francis’s place, Maria would always be all sunshine and smiles like always. The sunshiny demeanor just made Cadence feel like she was intruding on Maria’s good time. If Cadence brought up what happened in Leo, Maria would just get a scary look in her eye before ushering Cadence to do fun things and not to worry.

Being by Francis’s side was also a no-go because Cadence had taken yet another ax to that bridge. As for being by the side of the children that they did manage to rescue from Alpha? Well, she was by no means a therapist. Fun little ‘magic’ tricks only did so much cheering up in light of being kidnapped.

Bah. 

Here she was stretching herself thin for a bunch of uptight men, a dozen or so children, and a handful of out-there women. The latter bit came to her naturally but she never thought she’d do the former two in a million years. 

The only thing she really had a handle on was the AAC. She had an aerial view of the playing board, and —needless to say—the AAC was getting a little bit out of control. But not in the normal sense. Cadence was familiar with powerplay and politics and the whole scramble to come up top-dog that colored the interactions in the Twin Cities. That wasn’t the case with the AAC. Here, they all followed along the weirdly-shaped hierarchy with Matthias and Constanza at the top. Frankly, it was hard to even pin those two as ‘leaders’ like Werner seemed to see them as—though Cadence reasoned his judgment was probably affected by all the chlorowheat he’d been taking. The duo tended to heed the opinions of their fellow members a little too well in Cadence’s opinion. Hard to get anything done if you listened to everyone. That was why that poor secretary was still tied up in that room. 

The secretary’s status was a frequent subject in the Werner-ified reports Cadence gave to Kramer. However, it wasn’t exactly a trending topic with their peacekeeping contact Otto Erinneridt—of all names it just had to be Otto. 

Sad reminders aside, Cadence was very well-practiced at keeping the story straight. They ended up collectively deciding not to report  the secretary’s status to Ophiuchian-Otto. In fact, their entire operation had been put on a halt because one Seamus Dolby was making his way down to this border-city to ‘handle’ the AAC issue. Cadence wasn’t sure whether she should celebrate how easy her task had become or stress over what Seamus’s arrival meant. There was also the issue with Scorpio and Werner’s True Conductor hunt. But it was easy to lie and say she—Werner—was still investigating whenever Scorpio would check on her through one of his spores.

“Well, that’s quite unlike you, Werner,” Scorpio said once through the lips of lower-tiered AAC member when checking in one day. What happened to the ‘Cold Eye of All Things Clerical’? You do know the clock is ticking, right?”

“I apologize for my lapse in judgment,” Cadence had replied, “but I now have the situation under control. I am very well aware of your vigilance and the tasks we need to complete.”

“Awareness and negligence can coexist, dear Werner,” Scorpio had replied to that as he departed. “I hope both don’t occupy your heart simultaneously. We both there’s only one pursuit of passion for you, don’t we?”

Ack. What an annoying guy.

Those types of unpleasant encounters aside, both Kramer and Knovak were a little bit weary and confused whenever Cadence gave the aforementioned reports—like they were questioning whether she was really just Werner after all—but they’d adapted quickly. Greta on the other hand was a different story. Whenever the woman wasn’t having her cute little subtle romance with good old Gilbert at a handful of the AAC meetings, she’d be sending Cadence occasional worried looks. 

Cadence couldn’t reassure her out in the open because of Scorpio’s eyes—hence the Wernerification of all her oral reports—but she thought of a work-around. Two days into her stay as Dieter, she lit Werner’s room at the inn on fire in the middle of the night. Sorta. Synchronizing with Olive, she ran a flame-coated hand over every square-centimeter of that room—burning and snuffing out any of Scorpio’s possibly planted mediums and spores.

Gilbert called her crazy for it and he almost rang in the firefighters halfway through the incineration. Nico managed to stop him before disaster struck, however, while Kramer and Knovak burst into the room half an hour later in alarm. The room smelled like smoke for two days afterwards but it was a loss Cadence felt was acceptable

The gamble was that Scorpio had too many mediums to care if a handful of them suddenly disappeared. ‘Course there was his creepy little obsession over Werner to consider, but Cadence was sure it was fine. If Scorpio came knocking? Blame it on a brief mental breakdown and an override. Hell—Scorpio would probably be happy if he heard Werner went through that. Bastard. Damn, she missed Talib. Amendment: she missed him a lot. At least Talib was cute. 

Thus with that room set up, Werner’s ‘squad’—as in Kramer, Knovak, Gilbert, Greta—and Nico holed up inside and touched-point. Greta came in through the window—which Cadence would’ve found funny if the situation weren’t so terrible. The others filtered in through the doors like normal people.  

Cadence maintained her disguise as Werner as a precaution, and they all exchanged information and discussed a bit—reassured each other in a subtle way that nothing in their life had changed at all. She’d decided to make this a habit: wait in the room until the absolute dead of night before returning back to Francis’s exitless room—home. Safer that way.

There was tension in the room at first, of course. An AAC member, two Aquarians, a Capricornian, and two people who were involved in shipping weapons all together in one room? Sounded like the beginning of a really bad joke. The only thing tying the lot together were their relationships to Werner.

Cadence managed to smooth things over a bit with a whole ‘we all agree that chlorowheat is bad for the AAC and Capricorn and Aquarius, right?’ paired with a card game around a small round table. She took it full-stride from there. Or at least she tried to. Gilbert made it difficult. He really had it out for her.

“Funny that you of all people say shit about chlorowheat being shit…” Gilbert replied, not even bothering to participate in her card game. “…since you were the one who played that fucking card to the Argoans.”

Hurt like a knife to the gut. Easy thing to do was shift blame, but she knew she couldn’t do that. Not really. Not anymore.

“Yeah,” Cadence muttered in agreement, “it’s on me….”

“It’s… not her fault, Gil,” Nico interjected. “It’s more complicated than that…”

Felt nice to have Nico at her side again. The fact that he could actually play a decent game of cards was a bonus. Damn. She’d missed him. Should’ve treasured him more as a person rather than just a presence to begin with.

Before Gilbert could retort any further, Greta pulled him back from behind, held him still, and offered Cadence a wary but sympathetic look. 

Gilbert merely grimaced. “Can’t fucking stand you, Morello, you know that? But if I fucking treat you bad and you feel sad, then he would probably feel it too, right?”

“Yeah… usually…” Cadence half-shrugged. “He’s been sleeping a lot these days. Connection weakens a bit in altered states, I think. Probably wouldn’t really know about it until a bit later. Do as you like. I don’t blame you.”

Gilbert said nothing to this, while Knovak and Kramer exchanged looks.

Knovak, who was quite invested in the card game, rolled his eyes a second later. “Capricornian drama bullshit. He’s strong. He’ll be fine.”

And thus they fell into a new routine.

During the negative exchanges Cadence had with Gilbert, Nico would continually try to assuage the man. Greta too. Greta. Oh Greta. Always wary and staring Greta—like Nico except much softer around the edges. Sure, Greta and Gilbert were cute together, but Cadence thought Werner and Greta would look pretty cute together too—if Werner were into that type of thing.

“Doll,” Cadence told Greta when their eyes met one day when Cadence had been playing a small game of cards with Nico, “it’s just a transmutation. An illusion.” When Greta flashed a nervous or hesitant smile at this, Cadence snapped her fingers and transmuted Greta’s own image over herself. “Or is it?” She quickly snapped her fingers and threw Werner’s image back over herself.

This earned a gasp from Greta, a death glare from Gilbert, and a slight head shake from Kramer.

Kramer usually remained eerily silent during these get-togethers outside of the information exchanging. She’d always ask about Francis’s gates though. Seemed she had a couple of ideas floating around in her head. Cadence just had to reel them in.

* * *

It was after her sixth or so AAC meeting that Cadence figured she should test the waters on how Werner’s ‘allies’ took to Olive’s resistance ideas. Cadence herself was more of a lover than a fighter, but she reasoned sometimes the two went hand-in-hand.

So, during the tenth get-together with Werner’s ‘allies’ in their little secret base, she tried, “The secretary. Poor bastard. Wasn’t enough that he had an old boring job taking notes for a bunch of geezers but now he’s locked up in a room with a bunch of…” She frowned. A bunch of addicts. 

Despite the touchy topic, she maintained a casual appearance and started a game of cards with Nico and Knovak at the small coffee table at the corner of the room. Kramer who was seated there with them, eyed the game with mild interest. 

Nico looked to Greta who was nervously sitting beside a disgruntled Gilbert on the man’s bed. “How’s his condition? You’ve been checkin’ on him, right?”

Greta eyed Nico curiously for a moment before nodding. “His physical condition has improved but I…”

“The guy’s still stuck there,” Cadence interjected. “Which makes things a bit complicated on the moral and political scale, am I right?”

“Yes,” Kramer agreed.

“I think I can talk some sense into Matthias and the lot,” Cadence drew, “but that’d require me giving that ‘Ophiuchian’ contact of yours a heads up.” She pointed to the area around them. “And technically that would involve old Eyes-y knowing about it too?”

Kramer and Knovak exchanged looks.

“From what I understand of what you told me about what happened in Capricorn,” Kramer responded carefully, “Scorpio knowing about this development—if he hasn’t already discovered it—would merely give him another way to harvest vitae from the reservoirs. He would incite a deadly event.”

“Not exactly. According to the saint candidate’s free will clause thing, that’s a no-no,” Cadence explained. “No interference. A ‘We humans destroy ourselves on our own terms’ kind of thing.  Libra’s on active duty and she leashes Scorpio, basically, so Scorpio running amuck won’t happen. Probably…”

Kramer’s lips pressed into a thin line.

“Tip-toeing around and saluting your probable executioner must be a hard thing to play,” Cadence drew slowly, wringing out the sympathy in her voice. “It’d be nice if we could all run around freely like before, right?”

Kramer’s eyes narrowed. “What are you suggesting, Miss Morello?”

“Like I said before”—Cadence flashed a smile— “call me Cadence. Or Werner. Or Dieter. I think we’ve experienced enough crazy together to be on a first name basis, right? Can I call you Dunya? Or Miss Dunya?” 

Kramer regarded her. “Miss Dunya is fine.”

“Old-fashioned—I like that.” Cadence began to deal the cards out to Kramer without invitation. “So, Miss Dunya, what do you think I’m suggesting?”

Knovak snorted and muttered to Kramer in Aquarian, “I don’t know much about how this True Conductor shit works—-but, Captain, this is the one who was sobbing on the floor when we were in that tent with Cvetka, right? Pissing her pants while Nico was trying his transmutation on her? Should we really be listening to her?”

Ouch. Really?

“Okay. I admit I have a low pain tolerance and that was not my best moment,” Cadence informed him in Aquarian. She lifted her left hand and pointed to it with her right. “But you try having some Manipulator’s vitae forcefully removed from your body when you’re wide awake! I read about it, you know—they usually put people under some sort of anesthesia for that!” She fell back and spread her arms. “But I digress.” She returned her attention to Kramer.” I just couldn’t help but notice you have a keen interest in our little gates recently.”

Kramer regarded her before picking up the hand of cards Cadence had dealt her. “They’re quite… a useful resource. Do you happen to know where all these gates are placed exactly?”

“Well, not exactly,” Cadence replied, inspecting her own cards. “But they can basically be anywhere you want them to be.”

“From my perspective,” Kramer said after a stretch of silence, “their practicality as being used as escape routes is something worth exploring.”

“I’m listening.”

“But its usefulness as an escape route is difficult to develop when under constant surveillance.” Kramer set her cards down. “It’s not only us being watched but people

 “Yeah, that is our issue, isn’t it? Hostages and all that.” Cadence sighed. “But we gotta keep in mind that even gods slip up sometimes. It’s just that we put them on too high a pedestal to notice. I’m not one for strategy but we just have to keep an eye out for that chink in the armor.” She set her cards down too. “All it takes is one moment really. One single moment—and everything can change.”

Kramer thrummed her fingers on the table briefly. “Well, if you find this moment, Werner, please do let me know. I’d be interested in exploiting this chink in the armor with you.”

“Noted.”

Did Cadence have an actual solid plan? Of course not. But that’s how investment worked. Buy in before it was profitable and wait to see it skyrocket. Better to have one foot in.

* * *

The next AAC meeting was filled with buzz about Seamus Dolby’s arrival. Cadence again managed to convince Matthias, Constanza, Milkovich, and the other AAC members to spend the meeting drinking instead of smoking. They gathered together on the sofa on the level just above the smoking den and passed around some sharp-tasting concoction that combined vodka and beer. Not up to Cadence’s taste since Geminian wine was far superior, but she stomached it well enough. Helped to drown on that terrible, sweet, curling smell that clung to every surface inside the building.

“Say, Dieter,” Matthias drew suddenly from Cadence’s right, “when do you think you’ll be going up to vote? For the chairman elections?”

Aw, hell. That was right. Werner hadn’t cast his vote yet. When was he supposed to do that again? Cadence couldn’t really recall the date. Damn. She didn’t want to have Werner pay the scam of a late fee for it.

“Do you have any idea who you’re going to be voting for?” Matthias continued, taking a large gulp of his beverage. “You know what I always say—”

“When in doubt,” Constanza concluded for him, “you might as well vote Seamus.”

Matthias shrugged. “I mean, Seamus is really putting his neck out for us coming down here to meet us in person. I don’t see the ELPIS Department’s first chair down here even though the other agents in that department are blanketing this place.”

Well, there was a reason for that, Cadence thought.

Matthias frowned. “They’ve been down here for almost a month already and what do they have to show for it? Absolutely nothing.”

“I mean, we could always give the ELPIS Department the information we have on the kaiser and the premier,” Milkovich suggested, taking a swig of his drink. “They can’t work with what they don’t have. I know it’s not their department, but…” He took another swig. “We could give it a go anyways.”

Matthias and Constanza exchanged looks.

Constanza shook her head with a loose shrug. “And then what? They’ll demean what our entire movement stands for. The kaiser and premier will just paint it as all of them just ‘finally getting along.’ The Yastreby’s dance in Cancer? ‘Just some wayward extremists,’ they’ll say. ‘Nothing governmentally related.’ And the Capricornian-Aquarian training session at the border of Sagittarius? ‘Nothing out of the ordinary,’ the ELPIS Department will agree—because they’re cowards.”

“Seamus, on the other hand, is a different story,” Matthias interjected quickly. “He’s actually coming to speak with us—not the people up top, but us. If he hears it from us, he’ll understand and—well—he’s the First Chair of the International Relations Department. He deals with this kind of serious stuff on the daily.”

It all felt like rabbit logic—jumping from one place to the next and thumping around in no direction—but Cadence kept that to herself.

“Yeah, yeah.” Cadence nodded enthusiastically. “I hear you. I hear you. He seems to care a lot more about the important things than the other chairs. He’ll definitely lend us an ear.”

“Exactly!” Matthias’s face brightened. “He’s International Relations! Do you know the amount of training and school you have to go through to be accepted into International Relations—let alone step up as its first chair?”

Damn.

Olive was right about everyone being obsessed with Seamus Dolby. Unlike Olive, however, Cadence could see the man’s charm. Seamus was like an Ambrose Campana—before Ambrose kicked the bucket and became sun-shiny Epsilon. Seamus was good with his words and good at making himself seem charming, affable, caring, knowledgeable—the definition of ‘the academic friendly-type’ basically. 

“We’re not acknowledging the scars of the past,” Seamus had said during one interview, “so how can we address future problems? Future aspirations—structures—are built on the framework of the past. So we need to first fix the framework: the scars and the wounds left behind by the Reservoir War. Hate still runs deep. Until we mend these beams that support our continent, we cannot start stacking the building blocks of peace.”

Constanza and Matthias had literal newspaper clippings of him they’d started taping onto walls this past week. Kind of funny now that Cadence thought about it. Lyrs was pro-Seamus too. Technically, the kid and Claire were also pro-Seamus—political maneuvering aside. Was it just a True Conductor thing to be pro-Seamus? Maybe it had to do with socioeconomic status, ethnicity, sociopsychology, and the other fancy words Atienna used to like throwing around—

Wait a minute.

Cadence nearly choked on a sip of her drink as she straightened in. She waved off Matthias’s guffaw and laughed into a slap on the back from Milkovich as her mind raced.

There was no such thing as coincidence. Not really. 

Truly, full-blooded, pro-Seamus True-Conductors: Lyrs, Matthias, Constanza. Lyrs was connected to Veles, while Matthias and Constanza were connected to each other. Was there another string tying them altogether somewhere?

“Say,” Cadence tried, “I heard that some princes ended up endorsing the heck out of Seamus in Scorpio of all places. That can’t be true, is it? I mean, that’s high profile—”

“Oh!” Matthias straightened. “That’s completely true. I promise you.”

Cadence arched a brow. “Really? The tabloids always blow stuff out of proportion. It’s a wonder how we get any real news nowadays.”

Matthias insisted, “It really happened—”

“I won’t believe it until I see it with my own two eyes.” Cadence waved him off. “All this praise about Seamus could be fake too actually, now that I think about it.”

“Look.” Matthias fell silent for a moment, glancing at Constanza who was subtly shaking her head. “Okay, I have a friend who was down in Madat when the Sagittarian prince and Ariesian prince made their endorsements. He saw it happen.”

“A friend, huh?” Cadence rubbed her chin. “And how do I know you didn’t make this friend up?”

“What?” Matthias did a double-take. “He’s real. He spoke to both princes personally. They’re really for Seamus!”

Saints. Matthias was easy to play. Cadence almost felt bad for him. Almost.

Anyways, this pretty much solidified her theory that Lyrs was connected to this duo too. Explained their mutual obsessions with Seamus. But—why Seamus? A priest, an ex-spy, an ex-soldier, and a bounty hunter being obsessed with one politician just didn’t make sense.

Unless—Seamus Dolby was also in the loop somewhere? Well, that seemed out there. Seamus Dolby—a True Conductor? Just how did he stay under the radar that long if that were the case? Was it because he was a politician? That could partially explain how he rose so quickly in the International Department—he had a foot in like four different countries. Time to test the hypothesis.

“Okay, say I believe you,” Cadence drew, “I’m still a bit iffy on the guy. It’s good that he cares more than other chairs, but what does he stand for exactly? What are his… policies?”

Oh boy did Matthias and Constanza know all about Seamus’s policies. They knew the ins-and-outs of what he believed and stood for—increased regulation of countries, official adoption of the Common coin, etcetera—and somehow managed to paint him like he was a saint even though he’d suggested once to force Virgo out of isolation before it had exited it itself. Their rambling lasted almost two painful hours. But those two hours sealed in the details. Details, details, details—very important things.

“How did you even find out about Seamus?” Cadence arched a brow after they finished. “I honestly didn’t know about any of the first chairs until I joined the AAC.”

Matthias and Constanza exchanged looks.

“Well,” Matthias drew, flashing a small smile at Constanza, “let’s just say that we both had a mutual sort of revelation following a touch with death.” He turned his attention back to Matthias. “I read a lot of the papers Seamus wrote in the hospital after I got into a car accident back in the day. Quite a lyrical guy.”

Hah. They thought they were being cute and subtle with each other, but they’d kinda just sealed the deal. So that was how it was. Oh. Everything else around her was a mess right now, but this? This was a ripe cherry for the picking. The International Relations Department was big. And right now, Cadence and the others really needed big. Big allies, big money, big everything.

Anyway—long story short? 

Cadence lifted her glass at Matthias then at Constanza. “Well, you make a convincing argument. Guess I’ll check that box off when I go vote then.” 

Bingo.

* * *

Or so Cadence thought. Not so long after that whole revelation, Olive decided to bring a whole Sagittarian party into Francis’s place. She’d always told the kid to take a gamble and risk every once in a while, but she didn’t mean to empty out the entire bank account. 

In hopes of rescuing the mutual savings account she now shared with the other five, Cadence decided to risk heading back to Francis’s place early after her AAC meeting concluded. She’d planted a gate beneath Werner’s mattress at the inn for ease of access so she made her way through the snow from Matthias’s place while weighing exactly how she should approach the situation.

As she entered the inn through the squeaky front doors, the clerk at the front desk waved his hand wildly to get her attention. Once he got it, he pointed to the phone booths nestled in the corner of the lobby. It was ringing.

Cadence arched a brow.

Seriously?

The clerk pointed at the booth again.

“Yes, I understand,” Cadence replied before heading to the trilling booth. She stopped short in front of it and eyed the receiver. 

Cadence knew the drill. Mother—Werner’s mother—was probably calling back to try and make amends. Maybe she’d apologize for being insensitive and for taking up his time. Maybe she’d comfort him and tell him that his subordinate’s deaths weren’t his fault—it was theirs. Maybe she’d reminisce about how things used to be, about how he was when he was younger, about how she missed him. Maybe she’d tell him that she loved him and was proud of him.

That was why and how Werner was continually ensnared by her. That was probably why a lot of other people like him were ensnared by people like his mother. Stab, put a band aid over, stab, put a band aid over—and so on and so forth. 

Cadence tentatively reached out to Werner but was met with a fuzzy wall. Sleeping still. Good, she thought as she moved to pick up the phone.

“Mother,” Cadence said tersely as she placed the handset to her ear and rolled her eyes, “I told you—”

“Werner…?”

The voice was soft, gentle, whispering—and it was the last one Cadence had been expecting to hear. For a moment, she thought she was dreaming just by hearing those words rattle through the device.

‘Toria?” Cadence winced internally at her slip-up but recovered quickly—“How did you get this number?”

There was a pause from the other end. As expected. Viktoria was a bright girl. She’d probably figured out that something wasn’t quite right and had connected the dots. 

“From… our… mother,” Viktoria answered slowly. “I came back home earlier this week. Ludwig’s here too. We’ve been trying to reach you this entire time.”

Cadence felt her heart begin to pound. “I see. I apologize for missing your calls. I’ve been preoccupied.”

“… are you busy, right now?”

Viktoria was asking about Werner. Aw, shit. Cadence knew Werner would definitely not want her to tell Viktoria what was really going on. She herself had a cover to maintain too.

“Yes, in a sense,” Cadence replied carefully. “As I’m sure you’re aware, I’ve been put on a covert assignment. At the moment, it’s difficult for me to communicate… as normal.”

There was a beat of hesitation before Viktoria tried, “Are you… alright?”

Cadence paused for a brief moment, considering. “Everything will be fine. You needn’t worry yourself.”

There was another pause. “Should I… call back later?”

“No, no—it’s better if you tell me now,” Cadence said quickly, internally wincing at the poor acting attempt. “What’s the reason for your call?”

“I…” Viktoria hesitated before she let out a breath. “Werner… mom’s sick.”

Cadence felt a cold wave of dread wash over her.

Sick?”

“She’s really sick,” Viktoria continued. “She’s been in the hospital for the past week. The doctors… they—they don’t know. They say she’s… frail.”

Now Cadence felt like puking.

This had to be a joke. Why couldn’t the world just give them a break? Or at least let only one of them be the universe’s punching bag at a time? Why did everything have to hit the fan for all of them at once? Why couldn’t they take turns—

“Are you”—Viktoria’s voice cut through Cadence’s thoughts— “still there?”

“Yeah—yes, I hear you. I… understand,” Cadence managed. “I will visit as soon as possible.”

There was another pause before Viktoria let out a shaky breath. “Okay… Please be careful. I love you, Werner.”

The line went dead before Cadence could think of a response. She pulled the handset away from her ear for a moment and stared at it blankly. It took all of her willpower not to slam the damn thing back onto the base, but she managed to hook it back gently.

Shit.

Her mind immediately went to how she could hide this from Werner—he was in no state to be hearing this type of news. She immediately wanted to punch herself for even thinking of that a second after. She had just seen how lying and keeping things from Francis—no matter her intention—played out in disaster and here she was thinking of doing it again?

Damn it.

* * *

(       )

A couple minutes afterwards, Cadence sauntered back into her room in Francis’s exitless place with a hanging head. Upon arrival, she snapped her fingers to disperse Werner’s mirage before throwing herself onto her sofa in the corner. Needed to rest a bit before she addressed things on Olive’s end.

After a minute or so of lying face-down like that, a soft fluttering sound from the corner of the room by her head caught her attention. Upon lifting her head, she registered a shadowy figure standing only a foot or so ahead of her and facing the wall. Cadence yelped, leaping to her feet as she threw herself backwards.

 The figure turned to her with a familiar frown. Snake tattoo. Book-in-hand. 

“F-Francis…?” Cadence placed a hand to her chest and felt her heart beating there like a hummingbird.  “Ya nearly gave me a heart attack!”

“I was expecting you to come to me,” Francis drew slowly, closing his book, “but I ended up being the one to come to you.”

“Kinda hard for me to come to you when I don’t know where you’re at,” Cadence reasoned, letting out a sigh of relief. 

Francis said nothing and held her gaze. Cadence felt her chest squeeze a bit.

“Look. Francis.” Cadence let out a breath as she swung her legs off the bed. “I’m sorry. I know ya’ve heard me say it a buncha times before but I really am sorry… for lyin’ to ya, for thinkin’ that ya needed ta be lied to, for lettin’ it all happen ta begin with.” She looked up and met his eyes. “Honest.” 

Francis said nothing.

“Ya don’t have ta accept my apology,” Cadence continued. “I mean it’d be the tenth one of mine ya’ve accepted at this point. I was just… worried about ya—I know I shoulda said something if I was worried but… I thought… I don’t even know. I just didn’t want ya to run off again.”

Just like how she didn’t want Nico to. Just like how she didn’t want to give Werner another reason to think chlorowheat was a good escape by telling him about his mother.

 “I’m speakin’ from the heart—no lie,” she drew, “but that only goes so far—I know. Like I said, it’s okay if ya don’t forgive me. I just don’t want ya ta think I… I just don’t want ya ta be hurt or anything’. Ya can hate me if ya want to—”

Francis’s brows furrowed. “I can’t hate you, Cadence. You know I can’t. How could you even suggest that…?” 

“I mean generally people love me or they hate me,” Cadence admitted with a shrug. “Can’t find a way ta just be down the easy middle when it comes ta likeability…”

Francis drew closer to her and gently laid his book on the arm of her sofa. “We’ve known each other since we were children, bled and fought on the same streets together, grew up from the same barren soil—”

Looked like he was whipping out the poetry again.

Francis paused mid-sentence, sighed, looked up at her. “I forgive you.”

Cadence startled. “Huh?”

“I’ve lived long enough to understand your position. Although you acted in falsehood, I understand your intentions were well-meaning. I am in no position to say that intention forgives action, however, it does offer perspective.” He frowned. “I am not a child, Cadence Morello, so don’t treat me like one. If you care for and respect me, then you will be honest with me—like I’ve done to and for you.”

Cadence honestly had been sort of expecting this. Didn’t mean she didn’t feel both a sense of relief and guilt at his words.

“Besides, I did tell you that I’d let you swindle me one last time back then, didn’t I?” Francis clasped his hands together. “Just this once we can consider this bit as part of that equation.”

Ah, damn.

Cadence hung her head at this. “Ya’ve only been good ta me, Francis… and I just keep pullin’ the wool over your eyes again and again…” She thought of Alpha’s bright white memories. “Francis, it’s all my fault. You were right when you said it’s all no good now.” She grimaced, her chest starting to hammer rapidly, uncomfortably. “And now Werner and Maria are…”

“Maria?” Francis frowned. After a moment, he sank down beside her. 

“You can’t undo it once it’s been done,” Cadence rattled on, thoughts running from Maria to Werner to Werner’s family to everything in-between. “Atienna said somethin’ fancy once about a drop of black paint fallin’ into a bucket of white paint before. She said somethin’ about it no longer bein’ able to go back to the original color. It’d always be a slight shade off or somethin’. Ya know—hopeless, inevitable, yada yada.”

Damn.

She was stressed as hell.

“…I did say those things—that it was hopeless and many other somewhat dramatic statements—but that was just quitter talk,” Francis drew slowly, leaning forward so he could meet her eyes. He studied her for a moment. “There’s something wrong, isn’t there? Tell me.”

Ah. Reading people like Francis, but direct and to the point like Vega.

“I’m supposed ta be grovelin’ on my knees and apologizin’ ta ya.” Cadence arched a brow. “But here ya are given’ me a pat on the back.”

Francis stared at her blankly. “You did the same for me, did you not?” A smile thinned its way across its lips. “What? You don’t trust me?”

She wanted to laugh but couldn’t bring herself to.

“I-I’m terrified outta my mind, Francis,” she finally admitted as she stared down at her hands. “Atienna’s—I don’t know what she’s doin’ but I need her really badly right now but she’s…” Cadence collected her thoughts—or tried to. “My parents… They…. They went through the same thing and—and one of ‘em came out crazed and then dead and the other…” For the first time, Cadence allowed herself to scoff at the father who’d abandoned her. It was also the first time she’d physically told anyone about her parents since she’d talk Nico when they were younger. “…who knows where he’s at.” 

He’d abandoned her. Took the money and left. No excuses. No situation. No circumstance. He had a choice to make and he went off with it. 

Cadence shook her head and stared at a point on the wall. “When Werner was yellin’ and shoutin’ like that… all I could think of was my mom. But, Francis, he’s not her. I know he’s not. He’s better than them both put together, so seein’ him like that… Bah, I don’t know what I’m sayin’.”

There was a lapse of silence.

“I see…”  Francis’s eyes widened and his brows furrowed. “I understand what you’re saying, Cadence. Don’t worry.”

“It’s…” Cadence felt her voice crack despite herself as she felt the weight of Werner’s and Maria’s absences weigh down on her shoulders—as she felt the weight of the shoes she’d been trying to fill. She’d spent all her life playing different characters and filling shoes but playing as them and filling theirs felt wrong and incomplete.   “…all my fault.” 

Cadence bent over to hide her face from Francis. Ah, damn. She’d already gone through this with Nico and here she was doing it again. She wanted to transmute another disguise over herself to hide the tears that were beginning to leak from her eyes, but that would just be another lie to Francis.

 “Werner’s only been good ta me too and I kept pullin’ the rug out from under him,” she mumbled. “Things were gettin’ better after a while but—but Scorpio.” She clenched her fist then released it. “I don’t know what he did but he just— it’s awful. The things that are good are mixin’ with the things that are bad. Really terrible paint. Need ta get a refund…” She pushed out a laugh and shook her head. “Ya know what? I’m really supposed ta be apologizin’ ta you, but I’m just makin’ it about myself—”

Silence answered her.

Collecting herself, she unfurled to face Francis. Before she could say anything, however, she was met with a slow and soft embrace. Needless to say, she was startled by the action and her hands hovered in confusion as she stared over Francis’s shoulder.

“Er—”

“You poor child…” Francis whispered.

Eh. Okay. Kinda weird hearing that from Francis, but if she kind of pictured him as Vega or Theta it wasn’t too strange. Anyways, it felt a bit nice. So, she slowly lowered her arms and returned the gesture. He smelled like cigarette smoke, old books, and rain. 

They stayed like that for a stretch of time.

“I apologize for saying those things about chlorowheat and Herr Waltz,” Francis finally said. “Even if I was justified in my anger, I shouldn’t have lashed out. I’m sorry if I’ve dug up old wounds.”

Cadence felt the tension leave her shoulders as she leaned more into his embrace.

“I’m on the same page with you, Francis,” Cadence said, pulling away from him. “The chlorowheat’s gotta go. We don’t need that. We need the rest of the kids. And this… syzygy’s the thing we need ta focus on. That and whatever Alpha’s plannin’…”

“Yes, I…” Francis frowned. “I actually left to try and handle the chlorowheat aspect of that issue.” He paused. “Were you aware that I—that Theta—took in Mr. Ricardo when he was younger?”

“I had an idea…” Cadence admitted, wincing slightly. “Honestly it didn’t seem that important at the time. Kinda weird ta bring it up in conversation, ya know? The old man’s like a father ta me. It just felt awkward.” 

Francis let out a quiet sigh before he explained to her that he’d just returned back from a trip with Tau to the Twin Cities—specifically a trip to see old man Ricardo, specifically to negotiate. Apparently, however, the whole thing had ended in ‘utter failure.’

“I ended up berating Mr. Ricardo the entire time.” Francis pinched the bridge of his nose before rubbing his hand down his face. “In retrospect, it was probably not a good idea to have Tau act as my advisor and partner in our discussion.”

“You…” Cadence choked out a laugh and wiped a tear from his eye. “Ya brought Tau? Francis, come on. The old man might know about the whole ELPIS spiel now, but he probably looks at Tau and just sees plain old Giustizia. Plus Tau is—I mean, he’s entertainin’ for sure, but…”

“He moonlit as what you would consider a lawyer back in the day,” Francis explained before offering a half smile and shrug. “It seemed like a good investment at the time.”

“Huh.” Cadence arched a brow. “I thought he was just a Mathitís, but he’s got a couple of tricks in the bag I guess—” 

Francis paused and turned to her. “How do you know that word…?”

Oh. Right.

“A lot’s… happened,” Cadence drew slowly, “during your little short trip ta the cities. Ya heard us jumpin’ back and forth between your gates, right?”

“Yes… I heard you.”

“Yeah so… some things happened.” Cadence gripped her left arm and offered an easy smile. “Well, on the bright side of all the zaniness that went down, we did get the other half of Alpha’s poem. I don’t read much, but I don’t think I’m far off the mark when I say I think he could work on his prose a bit.”

Francis tensed and turned, worry furrowing his brow. “You… encountered Alpha?”

“We didn’t just encounter him.” Cadence indicated the gate across from them. “He’s taken up residence in our little estate here. Leona too.”

“What…?” Francis rose to a stand. “Then the children—”

Cadence proceeded to explain everything that had happened on Maria’s and Jericho’s end of things. Alpha, Leona, the children, Maria’s arm, Jericho, Epsilon, and the poem.

“I see…” Francis put a hand to his mouth afterwards. His shoulders seemed to lose some of their tension briefly but they tensed a second after. “I’m glad at least some of them are safe. As for Alpha—Rho will most likely move forward without his direction.” He mumbled something  into his hand. “I’m sorry to hear about Maria. If you would like, I can—”

Cadence held up a hand as she rose to a stand too. “Maybe it’s better if we don’t do that right now… She’s still—ya know—outta it.” She shifted from foot-to-foot. “Ya know Maria. She’s  usually all sunshine… but I guess there’s somethin’ that can be too much sunshine sometimes.”

Francis regarded her for a moment. “Are you having trouble with the others?”

Ack.

“Speakin’ of relationship troubles,” Cadence drew quickly, shifting gears, “did ya happen ta see Allen while you were out and about? Carl’s been worried about ya. He’s real sorry too. I’m sure Al—”

“I would rather not speak to Allen at the moment,” Francis interjected, eyes narrowing.  “I know you were just following what you believed was right, I know Carl is just… Carl, and I know Fortuna is still young and acting in a way she believes is necessary based upon how she was raised—but Allen is a different story.”

“He’s your blood brother, Francis,” Cadence reasoned. “I know he lied—” She stopped short. “Yeah, I can’t touch that topic with a ten foot pole, but ya know what I mea—”

“He spoke against me, Cadence, during my meeting with Ricardo,” Francis interjected, his voice taking on a familiar yet rare hard edge. “I know some people can somehow view profit margins as more important than the lives of children, but this with Allen—this goes beyond poor moral obligation. Can’t you tell, Cadence?”

Yikes. This obviously was more deep-rooted than the current issue with the chlorowheat. Cadence had witnessed a couple Foxman blow-outs herself back in the day, but Francis usually maintained a calm demeanor during them and always ended things by stalking off. Though the last time he’d done that he’d—

“He’s been this way ever since we were kids,” Francis muttered, shaking his head as he paced forward. “Hiding things from me. Kept saying I was too young and naive. Took me forever to earn the respect I needed to be out there with both of them.” He whipped around, throwing out his hand. “And now he does this? He’s just doing it because he wants to hold onto the idea that he’s in the ‘right’ when it comes to doing right by us and the kids. He cares for the children—I can tell—but he’s focusing too much on the present and not enough on the future. He keeps throwing around the phrase ‘he’s an adult’ or ‘she’s an adult’ but he has no respect for anyone in that regard.” Francis turned to her. “He was the one who asked everyone to lie, wasn’t he?”

Double yikes.

Francis held her gaze for a moment before he seemed to catch himself and let out a quiet sigh. The gloomy calm slid over his shoulders again. “I apologize for my outburst. Lashing out and getting worked up solves nothing but exacerbates everything.”

“No problem, Francis. Ya know I’m always all ears.” Cadence offered him a reassuring smile. “Do ya… want me ta… help out with the Ricardo thing? Is that why you’re here?”

Francis paused as a look of guilt cut clear across his face. “I want you to be aware that my intention coming here was not to solely ask you this but… I believe your presence may be of use in convincing Ricardo to give up his pursuits of chlorowheat and to redirect the family resources elsewhere.”

“Ya didn’t even need ta ask, Francis.” Cadence chortled, pacing up to him. “The old man might be my old man but you”—she gave him a light punch on the shoulder—“you’re like a brother from another mother. Besides, ya might given out forgiveness like a philanthropist but I still gotta make it up to ya.”

Francis offered a sympathetic smile of all things before he looked towards the gate on the opposite wall. “I was hoping to head there right away, but it seems to me like we’ve got a couple things that probably need addressing first.”

“Oh yeah…” Cadence ruffled the back of her hair. “Right.”

* * *

And so, Cadence headed with Francis into the exitless room where they were keeping Alpha and Leona. She knew Jericho was waiting there already in front of the gate for them and had an extensive mental conversation with him beforehand. The poor detective was worried sick about his ‘friendship’—Cadence wasn’t sure if she’d call something so complicated that exactly—with Francis. She reassured him that out of all the people Francis was angry at, Jericho was probably near the bottom of the list. Sorta. Regardless, she went through different scenarios and apologies with him on her way over.

“Francis, I apologize,” Jericho said as soon as Cadence stepped into the room through the gate with Francis which caused Francis to startle back slightly. “I also knew about the chlorowheat, but I said nothing. I am sorry. I broke your trust. Omicron. I knew, but I didn’t say. That’s like lying. Truth is important, I know, but—”

Uh-oh. 

Cadence winced.

He was jumbling around the different apologies she’d practiced with him a second ago and mixing them all into one.

Jericho glanced at her, and although his face was calm, she could feel the alarm seeping through their connection. I am not good at apologizing. Cadence, help—

Francis held up a hand before placing it on Jericho’s shoulder. “It’s alright, Jericho. I’m not angry with you.” 

“You’re not.” Jericho stared. “But…” He glanced at Cadence. “I saw… everything that happened.” His face fell noticeably. “After Werner…” He stared at a spot on the wall for a while before Cadence nudged him through their connection. He returned his attention to Francis. “You were very, very angry. At everyone. At… Cadence.”

Francis offered a calm and sympathetic smile. “It’s a bit different with Cadence…”

Cadence arched a brow at Francis when he looked at her over his shoulder.

“I understand what you were trying to do, Jericho. Intention cannot serve as an excuse but it can offer a perspective like I’m sure you’ve heard me say through Cadence. Even if that’s the case, I haven’t blamed you for anything,” Francis continued gently. “Me asking you to apologize is…” His face become somber. “…wrong after what’s happened between you and the previous Theta.”

“No.” Jericho shook his head. “It wasn’t you. It was, but you took us in. You taught us and were kind to us. It’s different. The person who’s at fault—the one who made us believe in all of that—is… is not you.”

Francis frowned. “Jericho—”

“Is that you, Vega?” called an unpleasantly familiar voice from behind Jericho.

Cadence peered around the man and spied one familiar Alpha sitting bound to a chair at the center of the room. Despite the situation, Jericho’s smile was calm and pleasant. He didn’t look happy, but he didn’t look sad either. An unreadable smile.

“Vega—Francis Foxman,” Alpha drew, squinting at them almost comically, “and… Cadence Morello. Black Knight of the Romano Family. Or are you working with the Foxman Family right now?”

What the—saints. What a creep.

Jericho stepped in front of her and pushed her slightly back. Cadence peered around him anyways. Now that she could actually see Alpha with her own eyes, she understood the unease some of the others had felt around him. His eyes were empty. Black, bottomless pits that absorbed all light. Cadence couldn’t glean anything from his gaze. But apparently, he already knew all about her. Because he knew everything.

Before Francis could respond, a smooth, honey-like voice across from Alpha drew his attention away—“So you’ve really been divided to this point… and yet you still resist in your small, individual ways…”

“Leo…” Francis murmured.

Leona, Cadence realized as she looked the golden woman up and down from where she’d been bound to the chair across from Alpha. Again—Leona was dazzlingly beautiful. Straight out of a magazine. Bombastic. Like a film star.

Is she? Jericho didn’t seem convinced.

Still, it was weird to Cadence that while she’d only met Leona physically in person once last fall, she’d literally seen her through Jericho’s eyes every day for the past couple of months. Another one of those ‘I know you but you don’t know me’ type of things that Olive thought about sometimes. Well, Cadence supposed she thought about it to—especially when it came to Gilbert.

“How are you faring, Theta?” Leona asked calmly as if she were in casual conversation. “I again offer my condolences for Omicron’s death.”

Francis’s expression tightened before he walked forward and came to a stand in-between the two. Jericho peeled away from Cadence’s side and followed him. While Francis’s gaze remained solely focused on Alpha, Jericho’s gaze flickered back and forth between the man and Leona.

“It’s sad to see you like this,” Francis finally said. “What is your goal, Proteus? What are you doing with the children? Where are they—”

“Oh, so you know my name now?” Alpha chuckled lightly. He shrugged a moment after. “I don’t have a goal, Vega. Not really. And the children? I’m sure you’ve seen them, haven’t you? I haven’t done anything to them that they didn’t want me to do.” His smile thinned as he held Francis’s gaze. “I’ve seen you do the same thing over and over again, century after century. You bring in children and keep them close, placing them in your captivity—and when you leave? Those children who’ve never tasted freedom in their lives—”

Cadence felt Jericho clench his fist. Before the man could strike Alpha across the jaw, she darted forward and grabbed him by the wrist. Both Jericho and Francis turned to her at this, but she merely thought to Jericho—

Easy, detective. No point in swingin’ except temporary satisfaction. 

She looked back to Alpha and found him gazing with that same pleasant smile at her. Wait—no. There was something glinting there in his usually empty eyes. Jealousy? No—something similar to that, but just a shade off.

“Ya had a thing with Ophiuchus, didn’t ya?” Cadence drew, staring down at Alpha as she slowly released Jericho from her grip.

“Oh, Ophiuchus.” Alpha chuckled. “I was her Mathitís—yes.” He studied her for a moment. “Ah, Jericho showed that to you, I see. Interesting times, wouldn’t you say?”

“Not much of a history enthusiast, so I’ll just keep my peace,” Cadence returned. “Gotta say though… Ophiuchus really was somethin’, so I don’t blame ya for havin’ a bit of a thing for her—”

Francis frowned as his gaze narrowed—yikes. Cadence glanced at him for a split-second to reassure him that she meant nothing by it. 

Alpha meanwhile stared at Cadence long and hard before laughing lightly. “I wouldn’t say I had a thing for her. Ophiuchus was Ophiuchus. That’s all really.”

“Right, right. ‘Ophiuchus was Ophiuchus.’” Cadence spread her arms. “In other words, no one could replace Ophiuchus, could they? She was special.”

“Special—like Alma Miraggio?” Alpha asked only a second afterwards. If he was bothered by her words, he sure didn’t show it. 

But Cadence didn’t show she was bothered ever despite her stomach twisting and her heart soaring. Words hurt, but she’d been anticipating these particular words. So, time to gather information—rather, time to let him just spill it to her. ELPIS and saint candidates shared one thing in common: they sure liked to talk.

“Alma speaks fondly of a ‘Cadence.’ Whenever she plays the piano for the children, she brings a ‘Cadence’ up. I thought she was talking about a musical cadence at first, to be honest with you,” Alpha continued before he chuckled briefly. “I think she’s a bit attached to you. You are to her too, right? It’ll only bring you both suffering in the end.” He seemed to study Cadence for a beat. “She’s with that Enzo and chasing after a bygone and materialistic dream, it seems. A mirage. Dreams drag you down too.”

“But that’s what life’s all about, aint it? Chasin’ after those things. If ya don’t chase after somethin’, then is that really livin’?”

So Alma was safe and playing piano for the kids, Cadence thought. Didn’t seem to care she was riding it out with a crazy man. Sounded about right.

“Anyway, yeah—I’m a hopeless adorer.” Cadence shrugged, feeling a weight lift from her shoulders. “What can I say? Well, I can say this: I get the feelin’ that you’re one too. Ya say ya ain’t goin’ to Ophiuchus the country for some kinda revenge party. No, you’re goin’ for the real Ophiuchus, ain’t you?”

Alpha remained smiling. 

Damn. It didn’t seem like she’d be able to get any more out of him.

“Wait…” Leona drew suddenly from behind them. “You can’t possibly be intending to try to rebaptize Ophiuchus, are you?”

Francis’s eyes widened as Alpha’s smile fell.

“All of this?” Francis murmured. “For that? It will never work… It’s impossible.”

“‘Impossible is something to be broken by the strong’”—Alpha replied “—that’s something Leo always used to say, isn’t it? You’ve always given up far too easily, Theta. You only gave up even more so after coming together with Altair.”

Francis bristled, so Cadence had to hold him back by the wrist too. His expression then became somber.”

“ I know that it’ll work because I know everything,” Alpha continued. “And if it somehow doesn’t work?” He shrugged. “No loss. Not really.”

“Why would you risk the lives of our members and the children for something so…” Francis’s brows furrowed. “…ephemeral?”

“Good question,” Alpha hummed. “Who knows.”

The silence that stretched on was long and thin.

“I know what day you play to have your raid,” Francis finally drew. “Your riddles have lost their shine, I’m sorry to say.”

“I’m eager to hear your answer,” Alpha replied.

“Signum is a circular continent. You could very much imagine a clock face over it. Associating each hour with the month and combining that with the cardinal directions you’ve laid out in your prose…” Francis let out a sigh. “You plan to enter Ophiuchus on June 6th.”

“Wha?” Cadence did a double-take The beginnin’ of next month?” She glanced back at Leona whose expression remained unaffected. “Is… Ophiuchus prepared for that…?”

“The election announcement date,” Leona drew. “How childish of you.”

“Oh? Is that when the election results are announced?” Alpha chuckled. “Oh, right—it is. Honestly, that’s entirely coincidental.”

Cadence didn’t believe in coincidence. Not really.

* * *

The next stop was the room where Olive was hosting hisdiplomatic relationswith the Sagittarian royals. Francis remained silent the entire time of their transversal—most likely thinking about that date they now had marked on the calendar. Cadence was thinking about it too of course, but it wasn’t like it was the only thing she was worried about.

As soon as she stepped into the room with Francis and Jericho, she could feel the atmosphere thin. The chair-bound Sagittarian royals ogled their arrival—rather, they ogled the tattoo on Francis’s face. Olive’s uninitiated—pun intended—friendly company joined in on the ogling. Epsilon who was lounging in the corner of the room perked up and bounded over to them with a relieved wave. In the opposite corner, the caporegimes and Carl watched them silently, tensely.

Mai whispered under her breath— “It really is an ELPIS leader…”

The entire scene made Cadence personally feel a bit nostalgic—except that Francis was standing on their side now.

Cadence broke off from Francis with Jericho and made her way over where Olive was standing in the far corner with Claire, Arjun, Lyrs, and Derik, while Francis headed over to the capos and Carl.

“You’re the one who was sobbing on the floor back in Aquarius in that tent last year, aren’t you?” Claire greeted Cadence with a handshake once she introduced herself.

Damn. Was that all that people remembered her for? Didn’t they know she’d once put piano keys up in the skies over the Twin Cities?

“Ah, shit.” Derik sneered. “The groveler. Where the hell is the captain?”

Ignoring the nausea that came over her at Werner’s mention, Cadence merely reflected her smile and accepted Claire’s gesture. “And, Yuseong Claire, you’re the one who took off ta the skies in Capricorn, right? Don’t blame ya. It was the situation, wasn’t it?”

Claire remained smiling although his eyes sharpened. He then turned to Olive and said, “I really like the people in your circle, Ollie. They’re flashy.”

Cadence tipped her hat at him before turning towards Olive. She had felt Olive’s relief at her and Jericho’s arrival. The kid had definitely taken a big gamble bringing this lot here, and his adrenaline was just about running out. 

“So…” Cadence thumbed behind her. “Ya’ve got new friends?”

“I… have kind of a plan,” Olive tried to explain, glancing up at Jericho. “Not really but… sort of…” He glanced over at Derik. I thought Werner would be up, but he…

“Yeah…” Cadence rubbed the back of her neck. 

Werner and Maria had been awake very briefly half an hour ago before they’d both slipped back into sleep.

Cadence reached out and cuffed Olive on the shoulder causing him to scowl—but she could feel that he appreciated the gesture. “Anyways, I’m sure we’ll have this all worked out before that train of yours docks at Ophiuchus.”

If things do not resolve easily here—and you shouldn’t be upset with it if it doesn’t, Olive—it would be best to think of a way to return everyone, don’t you think? Atienna—with one toe dipped into the water. Drawing unwanted eyes in our current situation is…

“It’d be pretty weird ta have a train dock into a station missin’ some high-profile passengers,” Cadence agreed.

I know… Olive started playing with a strand of his hair again—a nervous tick of his that Cadence found a bit endearing. 

Cadence  then turned her attention to the corner of the room where Francis was conversing with Carl and the caporegimes. Agape and Bendetto looked tense, but Cavallo looked at ease and Carl merely looked as miffed as he usually did. Francis, however, appeared gloomy, grim, serious—but not angry. Rolling her shoulders, she made her way over to them.

“Heard ya had an unpleasant trip down someone else’s memory lane,” Cadence noted as she neared them. “Thought ya’d be more wow’d by bein’ in the presence of royalty by the way. Did ya happen ta get any enlightenment?”

Agape, arms crossed, evaluated Olive from the distance. “‘Enlightenment…’ What a silly concept, Cadence.” She glanced at Bendetto, Cavallo, and Carl. “I’d rather avoid seeing something that affects how I function in everyday life.”

Averting one’s eyes

“Ya shoulda looked, Agape,” Cadence noted. “Might give ya some insight.”

Agape’s eyes narrowed.

Agape was a heartless woman but Cadence knew she did have some sort of twisted affection for her workers at the Casa de Bambolle. It was a shame Agape didn’t take a peek at the memories. Cadence was sure they would’ve really shaken her up and over to their side.

Bah. Sounded manipulative now that Cadence thought about it. Probably was. Maybe she was rubbing off on Olive in the wrong way.

Keeping one eye on Francis, Bendetto grimaced. “The only thing I got out of that was feeling sorry for the poor bastards in my unit who were stuck in barbed wire and trapped beneath those boulders earth Elementalists threw around for fun. We were ordered to put them out of their misery. Thought I was mercying them.” He rubbed his chin “Is everyone I put a vitae bolt through like that? Worming around in the reservoirs? My wife fought too, you know? She’d cry if she ever found out.”

A sharp pain pricked Cadence’s chest.

“Eh, I don’t really know ta be honest. The whole different energy level spiel might affect things a bit?” Cadence scratched her head and pushed away the feeling. “Because the kid doesn’t know. He’s usually my go to for all the vitae and conduct hijinks.” She glanced at Francis. “Francis…?”

Francis remained silent.

After looking to Francis briefly, Cavallo regarded Cadence and spoke in a low voice, “I still don’t understand exactly what your associate was trying to do or convince us of. He’s quite… young.”

Cadence could feel Olive tense and whip towards them. With difficulty, she managed to redirect his attention back to some weird conversation about coronation outfits he was having with Claire.

“I suppose that was a scare tactic of sorts?” Cavallo pressed. “I do hope he knows exactly who he’s dealing with. A sign of mutual respect.”

“Oh, he knows real well,” Cadence noted, “‘cause I know.”

“If it was a damned scare tactic,” Carl muttered, “then sure as hell worked on me.” When he caught Francis’s attention with his statement, he cleared his throat and reached out a hand. “Look, Francis, I’m real sorry for lyin’ to you—”

Francis caught his hand and put it down gently. “It’s okay, Carl. I forgive you.”

“I said, ‘I’m sorry—’” Carl stopped and did a double-take. “Uh—what? Are you sure? Why—”

“Mostly because I need you right now,” Francis explained.

Need me?” Carl arched a brow. “Why…?”

“I take it that your escapade to Ricardo didn’t go as planned?” Cavallo inquired calmly. “So you convinced Cadence through weaponizing her guilt and she requested a favor of the Ariesian prince. The Ariesian prince then came here to show us and convince us to fall more in line with your perspective.”

“‘Ey, Cavallo, come on. That was entirely coincidental. The kid called his own shots,” Cadence interjected, “and the kid isn’t just throwin’ up some mumbo jumbo.”

‘Kid.’” Agape’s eyes narrowed.

Cadence didn’t take the bait but instead moved to elaborate— “Okay—yeah—the whole execution of the kid’s plan was a bit… on the questionable side—”

Really?

Kid, come on.

“—but I can see it affected  all of ya. The general idea is that we need ta come together ta handle whatever the saint candidates are gonna throw at us. Ya know. Just like a deal. But maybe instead of it bein’ a deal through deception, it could be an honest deal. A ‘we’re all in the same ballpark and field’ type of deal. A ‘better be friends than enemies or get in each other’s way’ agreement. Maybe… even a shift in perspective.”

Carl snorted but quieted when he received a frown from Francis.

“Those are a lot of buzzwords, Cadence.” Agape frowned. “Buzzwords hold no substance.”

“You want to utilize the Romano Family’s dwindling resources to prevent this syzygy, ” Cavallo surmised after a pause, “which Francis still doesn’t fully remember and understand. You want to  stop these vitae levels from rising. And you want to clean out the family in a way that you think is righteous from your perspective.”

Okay. He didn’t seem too convinced.

“I mean our big goal here is ta stabilize the family, right? For reach, money, power, dreams, and so on, yeah?” Cadence pressed. “That’s why we all came to this city. For that ta happen, ya generally need people. If you wanna be a musician, ya need people ta listen ta ya. If you wanna be a writer, ya need people ta read your story. If ya wanna be filthy rich, ya need people ta print the money and ta compare yourself against. Ya get the picture. The syzygy does away with the people aspect of human society from my understanding of it. And chlorowheat? Short-lived profit—yeah—while forever damaging your consumers—the people you’re makin’ money off of.” 

Cavallo arched a brow. “You do realize weaponizing chlorowheat is an effective measure against these saint candidates and elevated vitae levels, don’t you?”

Cadence’s lips thinned at the comment. Couldn’t he have at least tried to pretend to give the tiniest damn about her? 

“Yes, that’s something I’m becoming more and more aware of that fact with each passing moment,” Francis murmured before glancing at Cadence, “but at the moment it’s clearly out of control. Mass consumption should not be its main use.”

“You speak strongly for someone who nearly brought the ceiling down over us,” Agape said thickly. She looked over at Cadence. “Cadence, I hope you know where you’re playing your cards.”

“I do,” Cadence said firmly.

Francis held Cadence’s gaze briefly before turning to Cavallo again. “That being said, I’ve come here to tell you this to be open to you. To not deceive you unlike you’ve done to me. Hopefully, this can improve our relations from now on.”

“I see… Well, while I may be a caporegime,” replied Cavallo. “but I share this role with several others. And these others and I are only the second rung of the ladder. You need to take this matter above us.”

“I’m aware of where your power falls in this ‘family,’ Cavallo,” Francis replied calmly. “Just as I am aware of how to approach Mr. Ricardo. I did raise him with certain values, after all.”

“Wait—what?” Bendetto exchanged a look with Agape.

“Certain values??” Carl arched a brow.

And finally Francis’s thought process clicked in Cadence’s head. 

“Weaponizin’ the thing that’s been weaponized against you.” Cadence scratched the back of her head. “That’s quite devious of ya, Francis. Maybe a bit heartless too. We probably gotta talk ta the Al, Fortuna, and the others first though. Nico too probably.”

Francis’s brows furrowed slightly but he nodded. 

Carl looked between them in confusion before shaking his head and grumbling, “Don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, but let’s have this dumb damned intervention.”

* * *

Nico, Fortuna, Allen—the trio arrived into the room Cadence had cleared out with Francis and Carl in exactly that order.

Cadence was distracted by things unfolding on Werner’s, Olive’s, and Maria’s side of things so she wasn’t paying too much attention to the passing time. Both Maria and Werner had finally fully woken up—Cadence couldn’t find the right moment to tell Werner about her phone call with Viktoria, however—and were dealing with Olive’s whole debacle with the Sagittarians along with a synchronized Atienna. Jericho was there too—though he’d physically stuck to Alpha’s room. Cadence was psychically shimmying in-and-out of the two locations the entire time so she only gave Nico a nod and Fortuna a wave upon their arrivals.

To Cadence’s knowledge, Fortuna hadn’t participated in the whole Epsilon-vitae-sharing spiel, so Cadence was surprised that she’d even showed up after Cadence had reached out to her. When Carl pressed her about it, Fortuna merely pinned it on ‘investing in her interests.’ Needless to say, there was tension between not only Fortuna and Francis but also Fortuna and Nico. Too many unsaid things.

The moment Allen stepped in, however, Cadence pulled away from the other five and focused fully on her current surroundings. 

The room they’d chosen for this confrontation was one of Cadence’s favorite rooms: the piano room. At the moment, she was seated not at the piano but at the round table across from it. Fortuna, Nico, Carl, and Francis were seated all around her—wearing varying expressions of contempt and nervousness.

Allen didn’t even sigh as he entered the room and noticed them all. “This isn’t the place I asked to go, Francis. What is it now?”

Ack.

Francis remained silent, eyes narrowing.

Allen held his gaze for a moment before nodding at Cadence. “You alright, Cadence?”

“Could be better,” Cadence answered honestly. “But the dear captain—well, both of them—are improvin’ so so am I.”

“Nico?” Allen asked next.

“Doin’ as good as usual,” Nico replied slowly, side-glancing at Francis.

Francis rose from his seat. “We need to talk.”

“We’ve already talked,” Allen replied. “We talked for hours at Ricardo’s place.”

“A one-sided conversation is not talking,” Francis replied thickly. 

Allen studied him for a moment before walking up to him slowly and looking him up and down. “You’re the one who had the one-sided conversation.”

Cadence hopped up from his chair and stepped between them, hands raised. “Hey, now—let’s just take it down a notch.” 

“What is it? You want me to apologize to you?” Allen asked calmly, thickly. “For keeping you from running off again? For keeping you from doing something dangerous and stupid? You’re still not right in the head, Francis—”

Cadence tried, “Hey, Allen…”

“And your head’s not right either, Cadence,” Allen stated, glaring down at her. “I haven’t said anything because at least you’re able to keep your head on straight. But after that whole thing in Capricorn, you’ve been acting out more and more. Not being start.”

Cadence felt something in her chest bristle at the insult, and she had to restrain herself from biting back at him.

What’s his problem? Olive. Cadence, I don’t think any of your decisions have been that stupid at all.

“You wanna cut chlorowheat off completely? Destroy what we find and what we have left?” Allen pressed. “I get it, Cadence. It messed up you and your friend. I’ll talk around and make sure that we cut flow to Capricorn and Aquarius after we get things under control.”

“A-Allen,” Cadence interjected, “that’s not enough—”

Allen’s gaze narrowed. “How will we find the rest of the kids?”

Cadence tried, “Fortuna said she’ll—”

“I know Cadence’s probably won you over, Nico, so”—Allen turned to Fortuna— “why are you here, Fortuna?”

“I’m merely investing in my own interests,” Fortuna replied from her seat. “I do find that our investments in chlorowheat have fallen short of expectations.” She slowly looked over at Cadence and held her gaze. Something akin to worry and sympathy were there. Maybe even guilt and regret. “We need to cut production and shipment and search elsewhere.”

Well, that was surprising. 

Really?” Allen stared Fortuna down. “This isn’t about your dad not giving the full reins of the family to you even though you united the Romanos with the Campanas? This isn’t some tantrum?”

Fortuna’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t know who you think you are, but our relationship isn’t one where you can speak so condescendingly to me like that—”

“He thinks he’s the head of the household is what it is,” Francis interjected, frowning. “He’s taking hold of an illusion of control—”

“Ey.” Carl pulled on his suit collar with an uncomfortable expression. “Wait a minute, Francis—”

“Illusion of control?” Allen looked Francis up and down. “To me, that seems more of your thing, Francis. I’m not holding any leashes. You’re all adults and can do whatever you want—”

“So you keep saying,” Francis interrupted. “You may not be holding any physical leash, but there is more than just one way to bind someone. Feelings, lies, empty promises, reassurances. These things tie others down. Don’t act as if it’s a foreign concept, Allen. You’ve seen it since childhood and now you’re using it yourself. Just like your fat—”

Allen visibly bristled and raised his hand. Cadence reflexively flinched as did Francis. From the corner of her eye, Cadence could see Allen’s eyes widen slightly. Thinly veiled realization, guilt, horror. Allen’s body jerked forward suddenly. It took a moment for Cadence to realize he’d been pushed—by a small body that now had its arms wrapped around his legs. It took another moment for Cadence to recognize that it was Kent.

“Please don’t, Mr. Allen!” Kent stammered, tightening his grip. “If you do it once, you’re gonna do it again. It always happens like that. Please don’t—”

“Kent?!” Carl exclaimed, snapping up to his feet. “Where the hell—heck did you come from, you brat?”

Allen stared down at the boy in disbelief as did Francis. Allen lowered his hand and jerked his head towards Francis. Gaze softening, Francis stepped forward to scoop Kent up in his arms. 

Cadence slid forward and took Kent from Francis next. “Come on, Kent,” she said. “How’d ya get in here? This place’s off limits for hide-and-seek, ya know?”

Ignoring her, Kent whipped to Allen. “Don’t.”

“I won’t…” Allen said quietly, lips pressing downwards. He paced over to the piano and sank down into the chair in front of it. “I could never.” He grimaced and looked over at Francis. “But how could you even compare to that bastard?”

Francis’s brows knitted as regret folded over his features. “Al, I’m sorr—”

Allen jabbed a finger in his direction. “You talk like you’re on some moral high-ground and that you know better than everyone. I thought you did too. That’s why I thought it’d be fine sending you off to Scorpio. Seemed like you had a good handle on it. Sure, you and Cadence might have more know-how in what’s what in this syzygy department. But”—He folded his hands together and studied Francis—“You know what happened the last time we had a big fight and you stormed off, Francis?”

Cadence felt her face drain because she knew where this was going. She hadn’t predicted that he’d say this—she’d never been able to really read into Allen—but now that he was saying it, it was perfectly clear. Like a slap in the face. Francis seemed to sense it too because his eyes widened. 

Allen turned his attention to her. “You know what happened last time Alma came back into the picture, Cadence? You were played like a damned fiddle and you nearly ended up dead.” 

“Al—”

Allen jabbed a finger at Nico. “You know what happened last time when you ran off to meddle in Capricornian and Aquarian business, Nico?”

Nico’s face flushed slightly. “That’s—”

“And Fortuna, do you remember the last time you tried to tie the Romanos and Campanas together?” 

Fortuna stiffened, her expression becoming sympathetic, before she bristled. “Allen, you aren’t—”

Allen held up a hand. “Don’t you understand why I do these things? You are all I have.” 

There it was—the admittance. And paired with came that familiar thick and heavy silence that was so suffocating the lack of oxygen made Cadence think she was in a dream. 

“You and these damned kids,” Allen continued. “We need money. I couldn’t give you good lives without money. I can’t give them a good life without money. It’s all down to the money. Money gets you education, gets you food, gets you a roof over your head, pays off stress, gives you time to relax. You know what happens when stress builds up and you don’t get time to relax? I don’t care how good of a person you are, but eventually you’ll snap and do things you regret.”

Cadence thought of Werner, then of Atienna, then of Maria. Oddly enough, she also found her thoughts straying to Leonhart.

Francis’s expression became clouded. 

“You and Cadence used to understand that. Our joints are not enough. You’ve seen the numbers, Francis. They’ve been going down in profit since the beginning of the year because people on the street think there’s a war coming. We might have to close them. And then we’ll really be in the shits.”

Allen cared. Cadence had known this already but his care had always been a little bit subtle. He had put down the down payment for her first apartment. He’d also bought her a new pair of shoes after she’d worn them out when she was ten. He probably viewed himself as their caretaker and protector—just like Werner probably viewed himself as one for her and the other five.

Fortuna was looking at her hands now, Nico at his shoes, Carl at a spot on the wall.

“But yeah.” Allen looked Francis in the eye again. “I’m sorry I lied to you, Francis. It was a bad call. Doesn’t change anything though, does it?” 

“No, it doesn’t change what happened,” Francis agreed, closing the distance between them until he was foot-to-foot with Carl, “but apologies do help.” He stayed there for a moment before sinking down to sit beside him. “I’m sorry for comparing you to that bastard, Al. My head wasn’t right—in that moment. Besides that lapse in judgement, however, my head is perfectly on my head. So is Cadence’s. That’s how things are now. It’s something that must be accepted. Rejection will only bring more pain.”

Allen grimaced.

“I’m an adult and I do have years on you, Allen. That’s just fact—but you’re still my older brother and I love you,” Francis continued. “I understand your concerns and fears, and I apologize for not considering them before. It saddens me that you had to take those responsibilities on at such a young age.”  He closed his eyes briefly before he glanced over at Kent. “The status quo is not something that can be maintained. It must be changed and made better as each generation changes and does better. If we can’t convince Mr. Ricardo of this, then positions must change.”

Fortuna nodded.

“Chlorowheat’s poison, Allen,” Cadence added, “and we needed ta really start directin’ resources to the right areas that really matter.”

“So you all keep saying,” Allen muttered, eyeing Kent.

Francis reached for his own belt and pulled out the pistol still strapped there. He held the pistol out to him briefly.  “I apologize for not fully recognizing your perspective, Al.”

Allen frowned, appearing troubled

 Francis curled his fingers back over the pistol and reholstered it. “So, in consideration of that, I’ll be keeping this a bit longer.”

Allen looked visibly relieved by the action. After a beat, he shook his head. “You came here because you want me to come with you to confront the old man, right? Do the same thing you’re doing to me to him.”

A hurt look crossed Francis’s face and he glanced briefly at Cadence. In turn, she set Kent down, ushered him over to a disgruntled Carl, and approached the two men. Allen arched a brow at her, waiting expectantly. 

“We all have issues we need ta work out with each other, but the only people who’ll look out for us is us. We all know that,” Cadence drew slowly. “But. But, but, but—how does that correlate ta screwin’ everyone else over exactly? The way ta get rich is by investin’, isn’t it? The old man is—well—gettin’ old. Not sayin’ that we should kick the guy completely outta the picture. Gotta keep around the past and work together with it ta learn. But… the helm… needs ta change. Please, Al?”

Allen regarded Cadence for a very long time before he let out a sigh and nodded. “Alright. Let’s go handle the old man then.”

* * *

Twin Cities, Gemini

Cadence felt a bit weird wandering through the streets of the city out in the open. Felt even weirder walking with the whole gang around her—well, most of the gang. Nico was absent as was usual, but he was also keeping her dear lieutenant—captain—company so it was all good in her book. Felt real nostalgic though—walking down the sidewalk with Fortuna a step ahead of her, Francis beside her, and Carl and Allen just behind. All that was missing was Nico on her opposite side, but again—captain-company.

For some reason, as Cadence walked up to Ricardo’s gated mansion down the block, she found herself thinking that it wasn’t as big as she remembered it. The doors that his men let them all in through were not as grand as she remembered them either. The spiraling staircase they were led up seemed much shorter now compared to when she was a kid crawling them up. The doors leading to Ricardo’s office seemed less daunting than before too. And when Cadence passed through those doors, stepped out onto that Sagittarian carpet draped of the hardwood, and laid eyes on Ricardo who sat calmly at his desk against the back window, she couldn’t help but think that the old man looked a lot smaller than she remembered. 

Ricardo regarded them all as they entered—eyes sweeping slowly from left to right.

“Allen, Francis”—Ricardo nodded his head at the two men first. “Back so soon?” He then cracked a smile. “What brings you all here? Fortuna?”

“You know why we’re here,” Fortuna said, “father.”

“Clarify that for me,” Ricardo replied. “Francis, I’ve already told you where I stand on your own stance.”

Francis nodded. “When I came here initially, I was hoping to reach an agreement of equal grounds with you, Mr. Ricardo, but obviously that sort of compromise won’t work.”

“Then—”

“I’m taking over, father,” Fortuna stated.

“You’ve already taken over—”

“No, that’s mere puppet play,” Fortuna interrupted. “I’m taking the official title as don from here on out. I’m the one binding us to the Campanas, and I’ve proven myself more than enough already. From here on out, the family falls under me.”

Ricardo thrummed his ringed fingers on his desk for a beat in response. “And suppose you take the lead now. What are your plans?”

“We’re going to cut production of chlorowheat,” Fortuna replied just as they’d discussed. “And we’re going to redirect our resources to addressing this Alpha and the syzygy since they negatively impact our business exceptionally.” 

Ricardo leaned back in his chair and seemed to take them all in. “So, I see you’ve all come to try and take power away from an old and frail man.”

Ah, damn. 

Cadence did feel kind of bad now—all of them ganging up on an old man they probably all considered to be a pseudo-father at one point or another.

“Come on, Ricardo,” Carl scoffed, “you ain’t frail.”

Ricardo chuckled at this. “You speak of negative impacts on the family business, but stopping chlorowheat profits will also have negative impacts on the business. So, how are you going to address these red margins?”

“Francis can literally open up little portal things anywhere he wants,” Cadence reasoned. “We can always find some other product to sell. One that doesn’t…” She frowned. “…end up messin’ people up. Not all illegal things are bad, after all, ya know? Some people and countries out there are up-tight. We can profit from uptightness.”

“There are rites of passage and ceremonies that you need to go through before any titles can be passed on,” Ricardo drew. “You would need the approval of the other capos.”

“Yeah, pretty sure Bendetto and Cavallo are on board about that,” Cadence noted, rocking on the balls of her feet. “Might take a bit to convince Agape, but I think we can manage that.”

Ricardo remained silent.

“This is a decision that all the ones who’ve come before the younger generation must make,” Francis spoke finally. “Well, rather than a decision, I’d say it’s a necessity. The decision lies in whether one releases this role genially or grips onto it—dragging everything to the ground in the process. Will you take this passing with grace or dishonor, Ricardo?” 

Ricardo’s gaze slowly swept from left to right—from Fortuna to Carl to Allen to Francis and finally to Cadence herself. He proceeded to let out a long and quiet sigh before he began to peel off all the rings that glistened on his fingers and place them on his desk. Finally, he removed his tie and set it down too.

“Okay, so be it.”

* * *

Polovinastadt, Aquarian-Capricornian Border

When Cadence—guised as Dieter—popped herself out of Werner’s mattress through Francis’s gate, she was met with one startled and shrieking Gilbert. If it weren’t for Nico grabbing the man and pulling him back, Cadence was pretty sure he would’ve socked her in the face.

“Where the hell have you been?” Gilbert demanded as Cadence pulled herself fully out of the mattress. “Scared the shit out of me.”   

“Didn’t Nico tell ya?” Cadence asked, brushing herself off. “We’ve got a couple of things boilin’ in the background.”

“Yeah, I heard a thing or two,” Gilbert muttered, looking her up and down. “How’s Werner?”

Cadence glanced at Nico. “Well, I think Nico could tell ya some more about that—”

Nico, who was rummaging through his luggage, startled and whipped around to send her a glare at this.

Gilbert looked between them in confusion. “What…?”

Cadence looked away. “Anyways—yeah—he’s alright… Doin’ better… I guess…” Again, she felt the urge to be by his side and by Maria’s side. Werner had promised her that he’d stay, but that unease from her parents’ departure still squeezed her stomach tight. Brushing it aside, she took a quick glance around the room and asked, “Anyways, what did I miss? Where’re Greta and the Aquarians? No homecoming party for me?”

Gilbert merely jerked his chin towards the far window. “Take a look for yourself.”

Arching a brow, Cadence maneuvered to the window, rubbed the glass, peered out. 

A crowd  gathered in the yard below—packed together on top of the snow. Photographers swayed at the inner-circle with their cameras pointed up at the crowd’s center: a raised platform occupied by familiar men and women. There stood Matthias, Constanza, Milkovich, a handful of other AAC members, the damn secretary that the AAC had kidnapped, a handful of peacekeepers, and one blindingly smiling Seamus Dolby. 

Cadence was beginning to consider Olive’s whole theory about the guy being a saint candidate because for some reason he was perfectly able to turn directly towards each photographer and smile just as they snapped a shot.

Okay. Talk about flashy. Literally. 

“So that guy finally came down, huh?” Cadence asked. “I bet he had a noisy arrival.”

“Yeah,” Gilbert grumbled, “he actually met with the AAC ‘heads’ two days ago. Talked for two days. And then they all came out hunky-dory. There was buzz in the AAC meetings about him. Apparently, he’s going to make a statement today. Hence, the ravers out there. The Aquarians are already out there.”

What? Damn. How had that all happened in the short time she’d been away? Talk about a missed opportunity to gather information and test her hypothesis. Still—

“Interestin’…”

Cadence then headed out of the inn with Gilbert and Nico a step behind her. She spied Greta, a guised Kramer, and a guised Knovak among the crowd. Interest piqued, she wove her way to the crowd’s center just in time to see Matthias shake hands with Seamus on the platform. Matthias proceeded to brush past Seamus and hug the secretary tightly. The secretary tensed, eyeing Seamus who gave him a nod before returning the gesture. The clapping and cheering that boomed in response rattled her bones in her skin. The last time people had been this riled up, the kaiser was killed. 

Anyways, this was definitely going down way too easily. Wasn’t anyone else seeing that?

The silence died down when Seamus lifted his hand and waved. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ve heard everything you’ve had to say and you still have my ears, my eyes, and my heart—”

Ugh.

Cadence didn’t personally think it was too bad.

“—We will resolve this issue peacefully, and I will address all of your concerns with the kaiser and the premier. Secret alliances are threats to Signum’s peace,” he continued. “I won’t let your voices be unheard any longer. International Relations is about respecting different nations, after all. And respecting trust. So, please trust in me.”

The crowd died down after that, dispersing into different areas of the town. Cadence was a bit disoriented with the dispersal at first because, as she watched them go, the Cancerian town from Atienna’s surroundings—the quiet cobblestone buildings, the musty air recently quenched with rain, and the fireflies blipping through the air despite the cold—became overlapped with her own. For a moment, she didn’t know where she was.

It was a bit terrifying at first. She hadn’t experienced anything like this since this whole synchronization thing first began. A quick are you alright? from Atienna and a tap on the shoulder from Nico brought her back to reality.

“We’re headin’ back now,” Nico said, thumbing Gilbert who was alright trudging away behind him. “Are you comin’ with.” 

“I think I’m gonna slink around a bit,” Cadence replied slowly, “but you go on home.”

Nico hesitated for a moment before following Gilbert back in the direction of the inn.

Cadence pretended to head off in the direction too after a couple minutes. Instead of heading on in, however, she hopped behind one of the evergreen trees growing adjacently to the inn. After transmitting an illusion of invisibility over herself with a snap of her fingers, she slinked her way back through the snow—ensuring that she walked in footsteps left in the snow by others.

Eventually, she made it back over to the stage and studied Seamus, Matthias, and Constanza as they spoked animatedly about politics for a boring half-hour. Cadence spent the time trying to synchronize with Werner and Maria. Eventually, Matthias invited Seamus and Constanza back to his house. Milkovich and the other AAC members didn’t receive the same invite and instead headed down to the local bar. Suspicious, definitely. Seamus accepted the invitation after handing off the secretary to one of the idle peacekeepers.

Cadence proceeded to follow the trio back to Matthias’s place and slipped in through the backdoor with just a wee bit of lock-picking magic. Much to Cadence’s relief, Matthias did not bring Seamus down to the smoking den. Instead, she found Matthias, Seamus, and Constanza in the kitchen adjacent to the living room that was closed behind a locked door—she had to shimmy her way in through the back window to get in. A bit more muscling around than she was used to.

The kitchen itself was a lot more clean than the rest of the house. Kind of felt like walking into another world. The black-and-white tiled floors were scrubbed clean, while the kitchen counters were absolutely spotless. The walls were decorated with various photo frames containing pictures of mountain ranges, planes, rivers, reservoirs. Clean dishware and even a polished knife set rested by the sink in the corner. Nothing like the mess of the living room and the smoking den. 

It was like Matthias was trying to make it nice for Seamus’s arrival. Or like he was trying to scrub the room clean of any possibly placed Manipulator mediums.

Seamus was leaning cross-armed against the counter with a glass of wine in his hand. Constanza sat at the small round table at the corner of the room with her arms crossed on the table and her head buried in her arms. Matthias meanwhile paced back and forth from wall to wall—to a steady tick, tock, tick, tock that resounded out from somewhere throughout the room.

Cadence scanned the room for the sound’s source. 

There.

An intricate wooden clock rested above Costanza’s head on the wall. Its clock face was shaped like a pentagon with five corners dotted with small gold stars. It was a Waltz model. Probably designed by Viktoria. Cadence could tell. She was a bit proud of the fact.

Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.

Then Cadence remembered Werner’s mother.

“—about as supportive as it gets, isn’t it, Sea-sea?” Matthias spoke suddenly, abruptly, brightly. “That’s basically the entirety of the AAC, isn’t it? They’ll pass the word on to their friends and families and you’ll have even more people voting for you. You give the people what they want.”

‘Sea-sea’? Talk about bad nicknames.

Seamus took a sip of his wine and stared into the glass.

Matthias stopped pacing and sighed as he looked in “What? You’re still not satisfied? I mean, you have the AAC under your belt and endorsement from those two princes from Lyrs, right?” 

Okay… Wow. Bingo. Ding, ding, ding.

Seamus took another long sip of wine before smiling. Finally he spoke, “The Ariesian prince’s endorsement is much more meaningful than the Sagittarian’s prince’s, Matt.” His lips dipped down a moment afterwards. “Talib, Gabrielle, and Leona are still stiff competition. This will probably maybe put me in the top three. However…”

Saints. This was as incriminating as it got. Didn’t these people have any sense of self-preservation? And damn. Talk about using a political movement to your political advantage. Politicians were really terrifying. Heartless, even—especially if one considered the fact that Constanza and Matthias were chlorowheat users. They might not even have touched the drug if it weren’t for whatever political game Seamus was playing out here. Werner might not have—

Wait. Did this Seamus guy not care? 

Cadence admitted it. This Seamus guy kinda pissed her off, and people rarely pissed her off. The only redeemable feature about him at this point was that he had cute pet names for the others.

Constanza finally lifted her head and rubbed her eyes as she looked over at the men. “Nothing’s more needed now than someone who knows the ins-and-outs of diplomacy—especially with what’s going on with Leo and Cancer right now. You worry excessively, Seamus.” She frowned. “The kaiser and the premier… Using us like chess pieces—no, like fuel.” She scoffed. “Fighting for fuel just to become fuel ourselves.”

“That’s why we’ll make them our chess pieces,” Seamus replied. “Our fuel.” He took another long sip of his wine before offering a charming smile at no one in particular. “There’s no better time to move the world in the direction you want it too than when the world itself is trembling at the brink of war.”

Eh. Dramatic. Seemed like a good time to one up him with a dramatic reveal.

“That is some big talk with gusto,” Cadence noted in Capricornian and a deep voice.

Constanza leapt to her feet, while Seamus tensed and swept the room with his eyes. Matthias darted to the counter, ripped out a large knife from the knife set, and brandished it threateningly around the room.

Okay. So no big, dramatic, grand reveal just yet. Didn’t want to be skewered.

“I thought you said you cleared this place out,” Seamus whispered under his breath. 

Matthias moved to place his fingers to his lips. Gauging by the way the man’s eyes flickered between Constanza and Seamus, Cadence could tell that he was conversing with them through their connection.

“Woah, woah, let’s take it easy,” Cadence drew, backing her way towards the door. “I’d probably be a little more careful about speaking so openly even in close quarters like this—like you can see by my example here—”

Matthias threw the knife in her direction but she ducked to the side quickly, nearly collapsing onto the floor as she did so. She managed to pick herself up a second later and glanced back to see the knife embedded in the door behind her.

Scooching to the side, Cadence spoke quickly, “Hey, hey, hey, now. I haven’t even explained myself yet, have I? Let’s not act or speak before thinking. Who knows who else might be listenin’ in. I know you’re the cautious type, Dolby, so that warning was more for Veles.”

Constanza and Matthias paled.

There was the hook.

Seamus held up his hand. Matthias, who was grabbing another kitchen knife from the set on the counter, stopped short.

 “Good news is that I’m pretty sure I’m on your side here—even if you’re manipulatin’ some people I care about.” 

“Who are you?” Seamus asked calmly.

“I’m a friend for now. And you’re Seamus Dolby—first chair of International Relations—in the flesh,” Cadence noted, continuing her maneuver around the room.  “Who knew you were also a True Conductor?”

There was the line.

Seamus tensed. “How do you know about that word?”

“I know it for the same reason you know it.”

Seamus let out a breath before he peered into his glass of wine. He took a very, very, very long and loud sip. Then, he asked, “What do you know?”

How to answer…

“From your perspective”—Cadence thrummed her fingers on her chin in thought before she procured a smile — “I know everything.”

And there was the sinker.


A/N: Sorry for the late update again. I was frozen in extreme stress by finances, the final semester-ending school projects, and work changes. Cried a bit this morning, got over it. Sort of. Anyways, I intend to return to the normal—possibly accelerated—updated schedule. Maybe. That is all. Thanks for reading. 16.7k words, this chapter is.

I was going to be a joke comment about the chapter but I forgot what it was… may update this later with the joke if I can remember it. Oh the joke was- a part 4 chapter without an action scene? the twin cities folks are lovers not fighers

26.1: Olivier & Claire: The Crimson Alliance 

Re-cap:

Olive has agreed to help Claire locate the next Saint Candidate of Sagittarius so that Claire may become emperor and lift his country’s tariff on Capricorn. With the help of a Monadic priest—also suspected to be a True Conductor—named Lyrs, the two have located and captured Arjun, the potential saint candidate. During their journey, Olive has had to face off against other opposing clan members and has even faced off against another True Conductor—Hideyoshi Kuroihoshi—whom he has helped escape from Scorpio’s ever watching eyes.

After witnessing the effects the True Conductor hunt has had on people close to him, Olive makes a resolution to resist. Not everyone around him, however, is so willing to do the same.


“I was wondering why you were so adamantly defending this small village in the literal middle of nowhere.” 

The familiar sound of crackling reverberated low like a whisper.

 “At first, I thought it was because you were fond of this particular physical location, but now I can see it’s because you’re fond of these people. No, it’s because you want them to return to the cycle and suffer as such.”

Olive stood in a familiar barren field littered with bodies. Ashes snowed down from the skyline meeting the smoke pillars that rose up from the ground. Bodies dotted the spaces between the pillars. A familiar man whose hair caught the faint sunlight falling in-between the gaps of gray oversaw this carnage—back sturdy, shoulders broad, stance firm. He was beautifully golden.

Leonhart, Olive now recognized from Oros’s memories Maria had received from Epsilon. There was a woman standing behind Leonhart and behind her crowded a cluster of men, women, children, soldiers—faces smudged with fear. Behind that group stood the remains of what once must have been a village. Now, it looked like a black skeleton forest. 

“Leo…” the woman behind Leonhart murmured. “Everything will be okay, right?”

It was Epsilon, Olive realized.

“This carnage is unnecessary,” Leonhart responded calmly. Excessive. This village isn’t in the path of your campaign—”

“It’s a war path, Leo.”—Olive realized it was he himself who said this or at least it felt like he was the one who said it. His lips moved in sync with the words and a sigh escaped from his lips. “So you’ve been in contact with them this entire time. That paints you in a questionable light.” He clicked his tongue. “It’s pretty aggravating, you know? Seeing you standing there like you’re proud—”

“I will not abandon these people,” Leonhart drew, rumbling voice filled with absolute certainty. “I refuse. If you continue on this path, I will stand against you with Altair, Vega, Deneb, and the others.” When he turned his head, his molten amber eyes were filled with disappointment. “Do you not have any pride for everything we’ve gone through to build this place from the ground up?” 

An unseen force guided Olive’s arm up and straightened his hand to point at Leonhart. Sparks erupted at his fingertips. Crimson. A familiar color. The color of his vitae, of his sister’s vitae, of Aries’s vitae. 

In response, Leonhart threw his hand in an arc and familiar line of gold light wove out from his fingertips. 

The scene cut to black. 

When Olive’s vision returned to him, he found himself standing in what he thought was one of the rooms of the Serpens Establishment. The walls were white as were the pillars that rose up around him—wait, no. These walls and pillars were not pure white but stained red. Some of the pillars were toppled over on their sides, caging in bodies clothed in familiar white robes. The Ophiuchians—born out from the Ophiuchus District of United Signum. The white snake tattoos visible on some of the bodies of the corpses classified them further. These were ELPIS leaders.

Realization dawned. 

This was Pandora, Ophiuchus; and this was the hall that led to Ophiuchus’s chamber.

Moved again by an unseen force, Olive lifted his head and scanned the room. His heart nearly leapt out of his chest as he registered Nareen—dressed in a dark blue military uniform that was decorated with medals—sitting on a toppled pillar across from him. Pacing around in a circle beneath the fallen ceiling to her right was a yawning Jin. Nareen’s attention was not focused on Jin, however. Instead it was focused on the russet-haired man who stood directly across from her. He too was dressed in a decorated military uniform.

The Saint Candidate of Libraduring the war. Arthur something-or-other—Olive had been slacking on the history texts this past year with good reason.

“This was not what I meant by equivalent retribution.” Libra’s eyes were stone cold as he scanned the room. “This is too far.

“What?” Jin whipped around, slipping her hands into her pockets. “Practically wiping out an entire country and its people isn’t equal retribution for our old friends pulling wool over our eyes for a couple of centuries?” She raised a finger. “For the unaware, that was sarcasm.”

“I know you enjoy pointing your finger at me, dear Libra,” Nareen drew, lips curling, but I assure you what happened here was not my doing. It’s the natural order of things. Outside of the inner machinations we have going on here, wouldn’t you say the course Ophiuchus and all of them have taken has stalled the syzygy by decades? Therefore—if we go by your flavor of law and order and your scales—shouldn’t this be an expected development?”

“Ophiuchus was supposed to stand trial for the actions of ELPIS. They were not the true accused. ELPIS itself was the party suspected of going against our deal. They should have been captured and then tried before all of us.” Libra gestured to the doors across from him. “How do we deal balanced punishment when we don’t understand the weight of the crime?”

The doors were ajar, revealing another room that housed an empty stone table. This was where Ophiuchus had been laid, Olive realized. This was where Leonhart had—

“You know how Ophiuchus’s vitae is,” Libra continued. “This is absolutely unjust—”

“Seriously?” Nareen sighed before swinging off of the pillar. “Dear Libra, you should have been clearer then. You say something so invigorating like ‘we need equal retribution’ and then you’re confused when people are moved forward by your words? That’s like dropping stone into a puddle and not expecting ripples to form.”

Libra stared through Nareen.

“Why’re you still glaring at me?” Nareen returned his gaze. “I’m not the one who did this.”

 Libra scanned the area before his gaze became drawn to the blood-stained floor. I see Leo’s vitae concentrated below us…” 

“Yep, he’s checked out—returned himself to the reservoir,” Jin replied. “Emptied the last bit of himself just as I flew over the area. So did some of the others. Leo got here first before them so…” She shrugged and gestured to the corpses. I don’t think it’s that hard to connect the dots.”

“I didn’t think Leo had it in him,” Nareen hummed. “Well, I knew he was capable of this”—she gestured to the massacre—but it’s a bit… inelegant for him, isn’t it? Well, perhaps he was this way all along. You know, outside of our one get-together not too long ago, I haven’t spoken to him much since this war began…” 

“Aries, do you have anything to say about it?”

Olive’s heart hammered wildly as Jin, Nareen, and Libra turned to look at him. 

 “No,” he found himself saying, “We only had one face-to-face skirmish several years ago. I haven’t spoken with him since—besides that meeting.”

Aries had lied…?

Nareen inspected her nails. “Well, no matter. Since Ophiuchus is gone and our bargain is through, then we should move forward with the syzygy without any problems. The reservoirs still haven’t reached full capacity yet even with all this man-made carnage, so I suppose we should do a little more work ourselves—”

“No,” Libra said.

“No?” Nareen’s lips drew down into a frown. “What do you mean no? They broke the deal—”

“And we went against our end of the bargain and accused and condemned without trial,” Libra replied. “The actions taken here against Ophiuchus today have balanced the scales that were unbalanced by the alleged actions of the accused. No, they have now unbalanced the scales in the opposite direction. Now we must make retribution.”

What? That’s ridiculous.” Nareen’s gaze narrowed. “Where do you exactly stand on the syzygy, Libra?”

“I’m on neutral ground.”

“Neutral ground’s practically being for the syzygy anyways, right?” Jin arched a brow, looking between the two. “And would you mind not flirting anymore? It seriously gives me a headache, and I kinda wanna puke in my mouth a little. Not pleasant.”

“Think what you want. Your view is perception, not reality. As always, I have no stance on this,” Libra replied calmly. “I will uphold the bargain and see to it that everyone else here upholds it as well.”

Jin looked away, rubbing the back of her neck, while Nareen held Libra’s gaze. The latter walked up to Libra and stopped short only a foot away from him. Then, she looked over Libra’s shoulder and asked–

“What about you, Aries?”

There was a stretch of silence. 

“Would you feel any sense of accomplishment if you push the syzygy with your own hand?” Olive found himself asking after a pause. “If we cause the syzygy ourselves, then would we be proving anything? Would that bring you any satisfaction?”

“That would be pretty unsatisfying,” Jin agreed, side-glancing at Scorpio. “You know how it is. You cook food yourself and it’s alright, but when someone else cooks you that same food it’s just.” She kissed her fingers.

A look of irritation knitted itself into Nareen’s face. “Haven’t we seen enough of that these past centuries? The story won’t change when you read the book again. The only thing that changes is perspective.” Her irritation melded into amusement. “Perhaps on the third read through you’ll see the hero as a villain and the villain as the hero. Perhaps you’ll see the neutral judge as a slovenly observer.” 

Libra shook his head.

“Either way, when you get to the last page, it will say ‘the end.’ Nothing changes.”

“Yes, like you’ve said–we’ve already seen the world sauntering vaguely downwards for the past handful of centuries,” Aries drew. What’s fifty or so more years to it? At least this way we’ll know for absolutely certain. You still care for your people, don’t you?”

Nareen’s eyes narrowed before she took a step back and placed a tender hand to her heart. “I’ve never stopped loving them for even one second. I only want to bring them true peace.”

Libra nodded and straightened himself as he looked ahead into the chamber where Ophiuchus once laid. “From hence on we will maintain the agreement we struck with Ophiuchus when this all began. The syzygy will move forward—as instructed by the free will of the people—”

A loud, thunderous rumbling resounded throughout the building. The walls then shook and dust rained down from above. Libra’s eyes widened and then trailed to the floor that was beginning to form cracks.

The man’s eyes widened. “Our reservoirs—”

Olive looked down to the floor as well just in time to see white rays of light seep up from the growing cracks. “What—”

The scene cut to black again.

Suddenly, Olive found himself standing haphazardly on the branch of a great oak tree. His gaze was focused on a point in the distance—a thick column of smoke that rose from the center of a pristine, white city. It took him a moment to realize that point was where he—rather Aries—had been standing only a moment before.

“Damn, you’re all heavy,” came a sigh from behind him.

Upon turning, Olive registered Nareen, Libra, and Jin standing behind him. Nareen was leaning against the trunk of the tree while Libra observed the smoke tower before them. Jin was sitting a step away and swinging her feet with a bored look on her face. She must have flown them here before the entire building collapsed, Olive realized.

“Seriously?” Jin grimaced, squinting at the smoke. “Now who in the world did that? Talk about excessive. I… guess we won’t see some of the others for a while.”  

“It was most likely their desperate last resort,” Libra reasoned.

“And you still want to uphold this deal, Libra?Nareen drew, eyes narrowing. “After they did this?”

“Yes, of course. It’s only what’s fair.”

“Fair?” Scorpio chuckled. So you say. I can see you, Libra. The truth is that your brand of unmoving justice is just embodying the fact that you don’t want to move and choose. Slow-moving justice is ultimately useless.” She sighed, smile thinning. “No matter. I suppose we should be patient then—be virtuous and the like.”

Jin snorted. “You’re the least patient person I know.”

Nareen continued to smile. “Say now… who do you think is the tortoise in this ‘the tortoise and the hare’ story? Us or them?”


In-Transit, Sagittarius 

Olive shot up and gasped for air as Derik burst through the door of his private room. Just as the door was about to crash into the wall behind it, Derik caught it by the edge. 

No need to pay for damage fees this time. Hurray.

Derik arched his brow. “Huh. You’re awake. Good. Still feel like shit?”

In response, Olive bent over the side of bed and puked into the bucket that he’d been keeping there for the past week and a half. Derik grimaced in response. 

“That’s gross as hell.”

Olive wiped his mouth with his arm.

“Ugh. Don’t you know that’s fuckin’ unsanitary?”

Ugh.

Unfortunately, Derik was an eerily clean person, so there were no biting remarks Olive could make—not that biting remarks did any good. The only dirty thing about Derik was his mouth really. And oh saints did Derik show how dirty his mouth was when Alexander had tried to accompany Olive on his journey back in that small Scorpioan town. Somehow Derik had managed to bring out Alexander’s less charming side in their shouting match, and eventually Alexander had given in—leaving Scorpio by himself to head back to Aries.

Olive scowled  before he stumbled out of the room and into the bathroom across the hall. He scrubbed his face over the sink, rinsed his mouth, then stared into the mirror. In the reflection there, he saw Werner curled up on that thin bed in Francis’s exitless room. The pain and cold and shivering had lessened substantially in the past week and a half, but the hunger still remained at the pit of the stomach and so did that small whisper of desperation for that single instant of temporary relief—

In alarm, Olive reached out to Werner—Hey, I’m working more on the conductors later again. Can you come look at it later?

Werner visibly stiffened at the request. There was hesitation still on Werner’s end of things. The lingering guilt, regret, and shame were still present—Olive could feel it.

Your expertise in that area is greater than mine, Werner finally answered. I don’t believe I would be of any assistance. 

Yeah, but… I… Olive grumbled then sighed. I want company, Werner. Your company.

There was a pause.

Werner nodded. I understand. I’ll come when you call.

Olive couldn’t help but all the other times Werner had promised that before. He had maintained that promise throughout these months and had only recently broken the chain. Protect, protect, protect—was that the only reason Werner stayed…? 

Olive pushed the thought aside before it could reach Werner. Keeping him busy was good for now.

The bathroom door rattled suddenly, jarring Olive from his thoughts.

“What the fuck is taking so long in there?” Derik snapped, giving the door another pound. “Is there a masseuse in there that I don’t know about? Hurry the fuck up.”

Olive hadn’t told Derik the full circumstances behind what had happened with Werner yet. All Derik knew was that Werner had been ‘poisoned’ and was in recovery—which wasn’t too far from the truth in Olive’s personal opinion. Chlorowheat—it was poison. It clung like smoke to a person’s insides, blackening and staining everything. Like soot and ash, it was difficult to remove. Each scrub drove it deeper into a person’s skin. Could it even be removed?

Olive blinked again, and the reflection in the mirror rippled. Grimacing, he rubbed his eyes. When the stars cleared from his vision, he registered Maria not Werner reflected in the mirror. Maria too was in one of Francis’s rooms—separate from Werner since the close proximity between them had only amplified their ability to feel each other’s pain. Maria had been running a high fever for the past several days and had only stumbled out of bed to stop Jericho from squeezing the life out of Alpha a day or two earlier. Her fever had broken half a day ago, but she was still keeping to her bed. 

While Olive was afraid about something that would never leave Werner, he was afraid about something that would never return to Maria.

Tentatively he reached out to her—Hey, Maria, I want to show you something I’ve been working on later. Can you… swing by?

Something to show me? Maria shifted in bed, turning to face him through their connection. I don’t understand conductors as well as you do. It would not be very fun for you… no?

She didn’t sound right.

Please, Maria?

There was another pause.

Okay, my dear Olive.

Olive blinked. His own reflection stared back at him. He balled his fists. There was no time to feel sorry for himself. He had work to do.

* * *

With Derik just a step behind him, Olive made his way into the main private train compartment that he’d rented out with Claire. The compartment was empty save for two tables. One was occupied by Claire, Eunji, and Lyrs; and it was piled on with various Seong Clan dishes. Pickled vegetables, rice, meat, and other colorful foods. The table across from them was occupied by Arjun who was sandwiched between Soha and Felix. 

For the moment, Arjun was free from the cuffs that he’d been shackled in earlier. Despite his situation, the young man was calmly spooning rice into his mouth and helping himself to the tofu platter on the table in front of him. As Olive passed him and headed to Claire’s table, Arjun looked up and held Olive’s gaze.

Olive looked away from Arjun only when he slid himself down into the seat across from Claire. Derik slid in beside him and began to immediately help himself to the food. Upon studying Claire, Olive was reminded of the feverish devotion Andres had displayed to Maria and Jericho in that Monadic temple in Leo. Olive’s hand immediately went to his left arm as the memory played out in his mind again.

Claire eyed Olive’s arm and maintained a tight smile. “Good morning. How’re you feeling, Ollie?”

“Morning…” Eunji mumbled, looking between them hesitantly.

“Must be nice to sleep in, huh?” Lyrs yawned and took a loud slurp of his coffee. “Youth.”

Olive wasn’t sure whether to go with “Are you implying you’re old?” or “You slept in past noon every single day this week.” He opted for neither option in the end. Although he was annoyed by Lyrs’s comment, he was glad that Claire had asked that question. It showed that at least he cared in his own sort of way. Friends—or so Jericho liked to insist.

“Not good, Claire,” Olive replied.

Derik frowned beside him.

The honest answer seemed to throw Claire off. “Ollie, I—”

Ugh.

Olive waved his hand, picked up a stray fork, stabbed it into a peeled hard-boiled egg sitting in a bowl at the center of the table.

Claire watched him for a bit. “I tried, Ollie. I really did.”

Olive merely grunted in response as Eunji exchanged a look with Soha and Felix and Derik a look with Lyrs. He downed the dryness off the egg with a glass of water before moving to the more appealing ruby red strawberries sitting at the corner of the table. He popped ten in his mouth, hoping that their sweetness would distract both Maria and Werner from their pain.

“You say that every morning,” Olive replied finally. “And I always say the same thing.” He glanced at the others at the table. “And after I say the same thing, I say ‘should we really be talking about this here?’

“Things generally aren’t suspicious until you paint them as suspicious,” Claire answered matter-of-factually. “Besides, I think we’re being just vague enough to be a little bit irritating and nothing more.” He glanced down at his sister beside him. “Isn’t that right, Eunji?”

Eunji scowled.

Claire pulled back from his sister and returned his attention to Olive. “How is she…?”

“I don’t know….” Olive looked away and clenched his left fist. “I know, but I don’t know.” He glanced at Claire again. “How is he…?”

“I know but I don’t know,” Claire responded. He leaned back in his seat. “Really…. I tried.”

Were all these words a result of Claire’s own guilt? Andres’s? Both? Guilt was a good motivator, but it was useless and even harmful if a person didn’t act on it. 

“It’s messed up,” Olive muttered, recalling the clamor of the bells on that day. “What they did to them.” He glanced over at Lyrs. “Monadism…”

Lyrs choked on his coffee at his comment and set down his cup with a frown. “Now what’s this about Monadism?”

Olive figured that remark was probably not a good move in his plan to foster friendship with Lyrs. It wasn’t as if all Monadic people were cultists who brainwashed children and kicked them into reservoir, after all—just like not all ELPIS leaders were explosion enthusiasts. All-in-all, Olive was surprised that Lyrs had even taken offense to it. Lyrs didn’t seem like the type to be fully devout. 

Lyrs stared at Olive expectantly. Olive glanced over at Claire in turn, but Claire just looked out the train window.

“It’s just sketchy sometimes,” Olive tried haphazardly. “That’s all. Belief—”

“Hm. It’s generally not the belief that’s evil or ‘sketchy’ when it comes to Monadism,” Lyrs said, taking a long sip of his cup. “It’s the people who interpret our beliefs that can be ‘sketchy’ or evil.” He held up a finger and smiled like an annoying politician. “Actually, technically speaking, an evil belief can even be turned ‘good’ if the right leader takes the reins. All you need is the right concept at the right time being implemented by the right person.”

Olive exchanged a look with Claire. Where in the world had that come from? 

“And where do you fall in all of that, Lyrs?” Claire asked, propping his elbows up on the table. “Out of curiosity.”

Olive had already informed Claire about his suspicions about Lyrs being a True Conductor. Claire’s response had been an arched brow and an “Oh, I think I know who they’re in a circle with then.” When Olive had pressed him for who that might be, Claire had laughed and waved the thought away—“No, no. I don’t want to tell you now in case I’m wrong. I’d be embarrassed, Ollie. Just let me test the waters first.” Olive knew Claire had obviously meant Veles—just as Olive himself had suspected, but at the time of the conversation, he had been in too much pain to press any further. 

“I’m but a humble and devout follower,” Lyrs replied, placing a hand to his chest, “not a leader, so I can’t really answer that, can I?”

Claire studded him curiously for a moment before offering a smile. “Well, that was a middleman’s answer. Are you sure you’re not secretly moonlighting as a politician?”

Lyrs placed another hand to his chest. “I’m not a man of the material world—”

Olive scoffed despite himself. “You drank all of Claire’s sake last night.”

“Yes, true. But did you know,” Lyrs interjected, lifting a finger, “that the pillar of Scorpio used to be known as one of pleasure—”

“Yeah, you keep mentioning,” Olive replied thickly before he could stop himself. “‘Pleasure and passion—’

‘A thin line between them.’” Lyrs nodded.

Olive opened his mouth to retort but thought better of it.  The conversation thus lapsed into silence, and Olive shoved another strawberry into his mouth as he scanned the room.  His eyes found Arjun again, so he glanced back at Claire. “So. Now what?”

“Huh?”

Olive indicated Arjun.

“Oh.” Claire avoided Arjun’s sweeping gaze. “Now we consult with the Monadic priests in Ophiuchus.” He smiled calmly as Arjun turned to look at him. “They’ll do a consultation with Arjun there and then he’ll go through the ceremony—”

Static filled Olive’s vision as memories of Benì walking down that metal bridge flooded his mind. Clang, clang, clang, splash. Just like Talib—

After shaking the memory away, Olive found everyone at the table staring at him. He frowned. “What?”

Lyrs repeated, “I said… And that’s when you’re going to endorse Seamus Dolby, right? I saw your licenses. You’re both due to vote at the end of the month, right? Might as well kill two birds with one stone.”

Ugh. What was with everyone’s obsession with Seamus Dolby? They were acting like he’d saved their children,  their family, their livelihoods. At least Scorpio had something to show for it—cringe-worthy billboards, empty promises, and fear. All Seamus really did was smile handsome for the pictures and throw in a couple of one-liners. What? Was he secretly some sort of saint candidate whose conducting ability made everyone fawn over him? What a nightmare. Wait, no. Seamus was Libran—at least on paper—so that whole saint candidate theory wouldn’t work out… right?

Olive’s mind was too boggled by crisscrossing memories from Leo and Alpha for him to think straight about saint candidates and ELPIS.

Waving the thoughts aside and ignoring Lyrs’s remark, Olive arched a brow at Claire. “Is that going to work? Do you think Arjun’s going to go willingly before and after the ceremony?” He forked another strawberry into his mouth. “Shouldn’t we bring him to your dad first?” Stall, in other words.

Arjun set down his spoon and folded his hands on the table. Soha and Felix tensed at this but he didn’t acknowledge them.

“He’s not the saint candidate of Sagittarius yet,” Claire replied. “There wouldn’t be any point. If I brought him into Sagittarius now, I’d be putting him in danger since there’ll be more people after him.”

Olive frowned. “And you’re not putting him into danger doing what you’re doing now?”

Claire pouted slightly. “Hey, I thought we had a heart-to-heart.” His expression lessened as his eyes trailed to Olive’s left arm. “I guess we didn’t really get to finish it, did we? And we didn’t get to finish our heart-to-heart after that one either.”

“We didn’t have a heart-to-heart after that.” Olive arched a brow. “Talking about what you should wear at your coronation ceremony isn’t heart-to-heart talk. And—yes—I still think that wearing a shirt that says ‘winner’ is like asking for a target on your back. Aren’t you hated enough already by your siblings?”

Claire chuckled, unaffected. “We have very different definitions of heart-to-hearts and what’s socially acceptable then.”

“Yeah, we do.”

Claire gaze trailed to Olive’s left arm again. “I know what you’re thinking, Ollie, but please do remember what you have at stake too.” He drummed his fingers on the table. “That’s that.”

“That’s that?” Olive frowned and then reached for his left arm again as he looked away from Claire. 

“That’s… that.” Claire nodded slowly, watching him. “I ascend the throne. We work out all the politics.  Everything is nice and peaceful and we return to our daily lives.”

Olive frowned. “For a short time.”

Eunji and Lyrs exchanged looks of confusion as did Soha and Felix. Meanwhile, Arjun’s gaze remained constant and clear.  Alpha’s words of omen rang in Olive’s ears all the while.

Syzygy. Lavi. Werner. Maria. Tariffs on Capricorn. Arjun, emperor, Saint Candidate of Sagittarius. Saint Candidates in general. Alpha, ELPIS, their plans destroying reservoirs. Chlorowheat. The deal with the Saint Candidates. 

Temporary solutions…?

* * *

As per usual after breakfast, Olive made a call to Trystan’s hometown to check up on the project there before he headed into the compartment he’d rented out for his research. Cadence had been badgering him about how it was important to save money now that he’d officially ‘checked himself out of the royal bank account.’ 

Olive had sold everything he’d taken with him from home in Scorpio with Cadence’s assistance back in Scorpio, and he sincerely believed Cadence had cheated the market merchants out of at least five hundred common coins—which he still felt guilty for. All in all, because of that, he wasn’t too worried about finances at the moment. Or maybe he was just privileged to be thinking that way. 

Cadence had been buzzing around more than usual lately about this and that. Olive figured she was trying to keep things bright and rolling—stepping in for Maria and Werner most likely. Olive had expected to see that from Atienna, but he supposed her occasional visits were enough.

Upon entering his compartment, Olive rolled out his tools onto the long desk at the far corner of the room. Derik meanwhile threw himself onto the small cot on the opposite side. The man was snoring in seconds. Olive stared at him for a minute before sweeping his gaze across his work station. 

His object of interest was not the sphere that rested at the corner of his table, but the cylindrical object concealed by a thin white cloth. The grooves and curves of its slender body were still visible from beneath the sheet. Beside it rested an advanced conducting circuitry textbook and a textbook on human anatomy. 

The proto-conducting sphere filled with Alice’s vitae that he’d been working on exhaustively following Benì’s ceremony had been put aside. When they had made a pit stop by a border-touching Scorpioan town earlier that week, Jericho had passed through a gate to provide Olive with some of Alice’s vitae so Olive could fill his own version of the sphere. But Olive had not touched the sphere since filling it because now he was pouring his entire time into the project he’d been working on for Werner, for Gilbert, and—now—for Maria.

Taking in a deep breath, Olive reached out to both Maria and Werner and pulled on their shared connection. Werner manifested first, flickering like a flame. His dim surroundings came to Olive in the same fashion as did his nausea and pounding headache. Maria came in second like a lightning bolt, and her surroundings followed suit. An electric ghost pain in Olive’s lower left arm followed shortly after.

They both looked very, very tired. There were twin dark circles beneath their eyes, and their foreheads were dabbled with sweat. Upon registering each other, they stared.

“Maria…” Werner’s gaze trailed to her empty sleeve. “I see.” 

Olive sensed they had spoken previously about what had happened in Leo, but he hadn’t been privy to what they had spoken about. Before Olive could think any further on the fact, locks of black hair flashed out of the corner of his eyes and drew his attention away.

“Maria! Werner!” 

Lavi. 

She phased into existence at Olive’s right and threw her hands up in the air. A second later and she was bounding over to Werner. She flung her arms around the man’s neck before moving on and doing the same to Maria. She returned to Olive’s side a moment later and murmured as she studied both Maria’s and Werner’s faces, “I hope you’re both feeling better…”

Maria and Werner exchanged looks before Werner nodded and Maria offered a tired wave and smile.

Werner seemed to catch onto Maria’s sluggishness, and he asked after a beat, “Are you well enough to be here, Maria?”

“What? Of course I am,” Maria replied, leaning forward and peering into his face. “Sonrisa, my Werner. You are supposed to be relaxing.”

Werner studied her, brows knitting almost unnoticeably. “You as well, Maria.”

Olive stared at Werner in surprise as did Maria. 

Werner returned his attention to Olive. “You were going to show us your most recent project?”

Olive nodded “Oh, right—”

But before Olive could move forward to unveil the conductor he’d been working on to them, he felt a faint buzz at the back of his mind. A buzz that melted into a gentle touch.

Atienna. 

Olive swiveled around and registered Atienna’s apparition seeping into existence behind him. She looked as surprised as he felt.

“Oh,” she murmured, “this hasn’t happened in quite some time.”

“An accidental synchronization,” Werner observed.

Atienna nodded before her gaze swept to Werner and Maria. She did not meet their eyes and instead flashed Olive a wan smile. “If this is just between you three, then I can try my best to leave—”

Olive shook his head. “No, no! It—it doesn’t…really matter…”

Atienna’s brows rose in surprise before her smile became at ease and then coy. “Alright, Olive. I’m honored.”

Now Olive felt like he had to pull everyone else in. Cadence was, however, dealing with the AAC movement at the moment and Jericho was juggling both Alpha and Leona—so the two had their hands full. Although Olive knew Cadence probably wouldn’t mind missing a ‘meeting,’ Jericho was a different story. Jericho—although he didn’t vocalize it or express it noticeably—always got a bit sulky whenever he missed unplanned meetings. 

There was also the fact that this whole situation now felt entirely awkward. There was some weird three way tension going on between Werner, Maria, and Atienna that Olive was only vaguely aware of. He could get down to the bottom of it if he reached hard enough, but it seemed personal. He didn’t want to trespass their privacy rule even if Werner had taken advantage of it.

Werner stiffened slightly.

Olive waved the thought away hastily, shook himself, and nodded before moving to remove the rag on top of the cylindrical object. He tried his best not to do it with a dramatic flourish—he was no Cadence, after all—but he couldn’t help but search their faces expectantly for a reaction. They were aware of his research, of course, but recent events had discombobulated synchronization meetings and his ability to constantly update them with his research.

“So… this is it…” he tried.

The cylindrical object that now captivated all of their attentions was not quite cylindrical. It was composed of three segments with each segment smaller than the previous one. The last segment was  trapezoidal in shape and sprouted five thinner rectangles broken up by ball-and-joint sockets. Fingers connected to a hand. A hand connected to an arm. It skin was composed of a network of metal casing threaded through with copper wires and cables. Its skeleton—which was visible between the large gaps of metal—was supported by clear insulating tubes that ran to the central conducting core resting at its palm.

Maria’s expression tightened as she laid eyes on the prosthetic arm. Olive could feel something bubbling inside her chest, but he couldn’t tell what. He looked to Werner and Atienna but both had their gazes trained on Maria. 

“It… You can use it as a proto-conductor and a regular conductor,” Olive tried, pulling the prosthetic out so Maria could see it better. “It’s not exactly finished yet, but it’s getting there.”

Maria stared at it just a second more before turning to him and chiming,  “Gilbert will enjoy this.”

Olive studied her with concern.

“It is very impressive,” Werner said as he inspected the object closer. “…Olive.”

Olive felt his nerves ease slightly, although it was quickly followed by a wave of nausea.

Werner looked up at him. “How does it operate?”

Olive cleared his throat, gaze trailing from Maria to Werner. “Theoretically, a Manipulator’s vitae is stored in its main conducting core just like how it is with regular proto-conductors.” He gestured to the gray nodes at the end of the upper arm of the prosthetic. “These little nodules here connect to your nerve endings and they take just a bit of your vitae to kickstart it. And….”  He studied Maria’s expressionless face. “You control the proto-conductor aspect of it through these nodule connections. The Manipulator’s vitae moves the mechanical parts of the proto-conductor and—again—it’s not finished yet but…” 

“Oh my…” Atienna leaned in and the ghost of her hand touched his shoulders. “That really is amazing, Olive.”

Olive squirmed. “It’s… not too impressive. I mean, I haven’t even finished it yet…”

“It’s innovative despite it not being completed,” Werner corrected slowly, clearly choosing his words carefully. “Each conductor you’ve developed so far has shown marked improvement from the last one you’ve made. There is replication, then there is innovation. To have accomplished this much in such a short amount of time—it’s more than commendable.”

Olive could feel it. Their pride in him. It was a pure and true feeling untouched by anything that had happened in these past few months. For a moment, that feeling cleared away his worries and anxieties surrounding Claire, Arjun, Hideyoshi, Aries, and Lavi. He had made something good, and perhaps now he was even a bit proud of himself for it.

Lavi nodded enthusiastically. “Ollie’s been working so hard on this.” She peered into his face. “You know, Ollie, Eunji is really good at this stuff too. You could ask her to help. Two heads are better than one—oh, and you’ll finally make a girl friend!”

Olive scowled immediately. “What’s that supposed to—”

“I don’t need something like this,” Maria said suddenly, smile light. “This is for Gilbert, right? That’s why you’re showing this to Werner?” She turned to Werner. “I’m sure he will like it, Werner!” Her smile became tighter as she faced Olive again. “Conductors are bad things, aren’t they? Why do we need conductors like this anyways? We can do things without them, can’t we?”

“Maria…” Lavi murmured, gaze flicking back and forth nervously. “I mean…”

Maria stared down at Lavi with an unwavering gaze. Lavi squirmed uncomfortably. A knot formed in Olive’s stomach. 

Maria.

Maria looked up at Werner then at Atienna before breaking out back into a bright smile. “This was a very cool thing you showed us, my de—Olive,” she chimed. “You are really something! It was very amazing to see, but I’m not sure why you showed me this. What are you trying to say?”

Before Olive could respond, Maria pulled away from the synchronization and faded away from his sights. His heart immediately sank into his stomach. 

A ghosting hand on his shoulder temporarily assuaged the anchor that began to drag down his chest. 

“It’s alright, Olive,” Atienna, squeezing his shoulder slightly. 

“The meaning behind her words are not what you’re interpreting them as,” Werner added gently. “It is most likely that her frustrations are directed at herself, not you.” He paused, lips thinning. “Although it’s hypocritical for me to say this, it is unacceptable behavior. I can speak with her if you’d like—”

“No… She’s right. We shouldn’t be using conductors,” Olive managed, leaning against the desk and gripping its edge. “But… if there’s anything a conductor should be used for,” he managed, grip on the table tightening, “it should be this.” He bit his inner lip.  “If I’d just been doing stuff like this instead of just laying around feeling sorry for myself for years then maybe I’d be further and—”

“Ollie…” Lavi murmured.

Werner and Atienna studied him in silence.

“You’re doing it now, Olive,” Atienna said finally. “That’s… what’s most important.” 

Olive could hear a counter-argument lurking at the back of her head. If something is done too late, would it sometimes have been better to not do it at all? But the bitterness seemed more directed at herself than at him. 

“Olive, as I’m sure you’re already aware,” Werner continued just behind Atienna, “it’s good to acknowledge one’s past mistakes. It helps ensure the same mistakes won’t happen again. That acknowledgement is something few people can bring themselves to do.” He paused. “I know I have no place to say this at the moment, but I do believe the path you’re on is the correct one. The progress you’ve made is something that you should acknowledge and be proud of yourself.”

The compliment felt good—normal. Olive could almost forget that the past month hadn’t happened if he focused hard enough. Nodding, he peered at Werner and Atienna but paused when he was able to catch onto their tired features—felt their fatigue in himself.

These people that he looked up to and relied on were crumbling beneath the weight of… everything. He’d been relying and leaning on them this entire time, but now…? He needed to step up himself. He was 17 as of last month. Still young and still a kid, but he was still able to do something.

Olive’s gaze drifted to Lavi, and he perked up. “Oh, I’ve been having this recurring dream lately…” He allowed his memory of his dream with Aries, Nareen, Jin, and Libra to be filtered out to them.

Afterwards, Atienna and Werner exchanged looks but said nothing.

 “I know it’s wishful thinking but maybe…” Olive drew in the silence as he glanced towards Lavi. “Aries was…” He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “I’m not sure if this is useful or not but maybe… I mean—the saint candidates are inhumanly strong. They’re one-person armies, so… if we could just have one on our side…” He waved his hand. “Nevermind. It’s probably useless information…”

Werner shook his head. “In this case, Olive, I do believe that information is of use. Thank you.” He placed a thoughtful hand to his chin. “Being able to identify which saint candidates are less likely to be our adversaries is a definite advantage. Contrarily, however, we can’t be presumptuous enough to assume that any of them are our allies. Ilseong Jin—” 

“We can’t turn Arjun in,” Olive said, following the line of thought.

Werner nodded slowly. “Assuming Ilseong Jin is no longer in commission, it would be in our best interests to prevent another Saint Candidate of Sagittarius from emerging. Even if Sagittarius appeared to have poor relations with the other candidates, we cannot take any chances—”

“It’s more than that,” Olive murmured, looking up at the man. “Right…?”

Werner’s brows knitted ever so slightly as he held Olive’s gaze. Olive could hear the pulse now that they were more tightly synchronized—protect, protect, protect. Slowly, Werner nodded and opened his mouth, before he abruptly stiffened and turned towards the door. 

Olive followed suit, freezing upon registering Eunji standing at the threshold there and the door ajar. 

“Eunji!” Lavi beamed.

“Are you… talking to yourself?” Eunji scanned the room, gaze lingering on Derik. 

Olive stared at her for a moment. “Yes. Yes, I am. Why?” 

“Uhm… okay.” Eunji took a step inside but hovered by the door. Her gaze flitted over Lavi. “Is Lavi here…?”

Olive gestured around the room. “Do you see her?”

Eunji studied him, avoiding his eyes as her cheeks pinkened. “Okay… whenever you can make her appear again, can you ask her if she wants to hang out later?” She waved and looked around the room. “Bye, Lavi.”

Lavi waved enthusiastically back.

Before Olive could even think of what to say, Eunji swept out of the room.

* * *

In-Transit, Sagittarius

Several days later as the train passed over the border of Scorpio into Sagittarius on its way to Ophiuchus, Olive pulled Claire aside in a private bedroom in their private train compartment. Derik followed in with them, while Soha and Felix remained vigilant by Arjun’s side. 

Claire threw himself onto the bed inside immediately only to be slowly, carefully pushed off by Derik who then claimed the bed for himself. Claire landed on his rear on the floor before perking up in Olive’s direction. 

Claire chirped,  “I take it good old Derik hasn’t gone through any of the Ariesian royal guard’s training regimen yet. They do teach etiquette in that, don’t they—”

Derik shot up. “Did you just fucking call me old in Common…?”

“Is that what you got out of that?” Claire queried with a good-natured smile. He amended, “It’s just a general term of endearment.”

“I think you’re rubbing off on the Sagittarian,” Derik muttered, nodding at Olive. “In a fuckin’ bad way.”

Claire continued to smile at this before he spread his arms. “So why whisk me away into your private quarters, Ollie? Another heart-to-heart?” He thumbed Derik. “With Derik too this time?”

“I know you have a lot of bad history with Arjun,” answered Olive, cutting to the chase.

Claire’s smile faltered slightly before he picked himself off the ground. “Yep, that was what our second heart-to-heart conversation was about. Arjun’s a real jerk, isn’t he? Just sitting there and eating calmly like everything’s all peachy.”

“I mean… he’s being pretty well-mannered for someone who had the literal wind knocked out of him,” Olive reasoned, crossing his arms. “For someone who was kidnapped.”

“It’s just an act,” Claire argued after a beat.

Olive sighed before he began to rub a strand of his hair between his fingers. “Don’t you think he should… at least know what he’s really getting into?” 

The memories that Jericho had disclosed to them all about the 1400s and Oros’s memories from the Reservoir War that Maria had received brushed the edges of Olive’s mind. The unbalanced relationships, the pedestals, the worship, the ideals, the misunderstandings that went unaddressed and ate away at the framework that held up United Signum—repeating even in this time period.

Olive managed after a pause, “I think it’s better to… communicate clearly now so you don’t have to deal with those annoying, cliché misunderstandings and so you don’t have any regrets later…”

Claire’s lips finally pressed down into a frown.

Olive dropped his hand as he looked Claire over. He thought of Lavi and then of Aries, Francis then of Theta, Conta then of Beta. “Claire, you know I hate saying stuff like this, but–he’s still family.”

* * *

“So you would like to sit down for discussion now, Claire?” Arjun asked calmly as he took a sip of the chai tea that Olive had bought earlier in order to win him over. He inclined his head in Olive’s direction. “You were the one who arranged this, correct?”

At the moment, Olive was sitting across from Arjun in a small booth in their private train compartment. Claire was at Olive’s left and was staring clear daggers into Arjun’s face. That sharp gaze contrasted eerily with Claire’s pleasant smile. Lyrs, Derik, Soha, Felix, and Eunji had left this compartment on Olive’s and Claire’s orders so it was just the three of them in here.

“It’s always a good thing for the next emperor to speak with his people, isn’t it?”  Claire returned.

“It would be good for the future Saint Candidate of Sagittarius and the future emperor of Sagittarius to be good on terms, yes,” Arjun provided, “regardless of how the two came to be.” He let out a quiet sigh. “I’ll refrain from speaking my opinions regarding this path you’ve chosen, but I’m sure you’re already well aware of my feelings regarding it.”

Claire’s smile dropped slightly.

“You could have asked nicely for me to come with you,” Arjun said after a beat, “instead of throwing me against the wall.” He nodded at Olive. “I would have much preferred exchanging information like Prince Chance here had suggested initially—”

“Would you have come if I asked nicely?” Claire returned, still smiling. “I mean… I sent some of my vassals to deliver you messages back in the day during your exile, and you sent each one of them on their way. You even sent one back with a broken arm—”

“Ho-sook.” Arjun closed his eyes briefly. “Yes, I remember him.”

Claire frowned fully.

“That was an accident,” Arjun continued, dipping his head towards the table. “Sincerely, I am sorry. I covered the medical bills to the best of my abilities, but I was cut off from my clan’s funds during exile—”

“There you go acting like you’re a saint again,” Claire said lightly, smiling again. “You truly do embody the Saint Candidate of Sagittarius, don’t you?”

“I’m being honest,” Arjun replied calmly. “I am no saint, but if that’s what you wish to use me as, so be it.” 

Claire’s smile twitched. “You just accept everything so easily, don’t you? And criticize while you’re at it? I should ask Lyrs if that’s one of the Saint of Arrows and Direction’s pillars.”

“If you’re referring to father,” Arjun responded, a frown finally forming on his lips, “then I take it my actions are clear where I stand regarding him.”

Okay then.

Olive had not been expecting for them to immediately get to the point like this. He figured he’d have to squeeze it out of them first. Then again, he supposed it made sense since Claire was an extrovert—although wearing his feelings openly on his sleeve like this was very un-Claire-like. Olive wasn’t sure whether this openness was due to what happened in Zhūshā Cheng, what happened when they’d captured Arjun, what had happened with Andres, or if it was all of those things combined.

“How exactly are your actions clear?” Claire chuckled once. “You’re just going along with becoming a saint candidate for my emperorship just like that. You refused to return home after your original exile ended and…” He leaned back in his seat. “You… basically just ran away, didn’t you? You ran away after acting like some noble hero and taking the fall for what we did when we were kids. Did you just want to look good in the moment? Make us feel bad for letting you go afterwards?”

Oh, saints. Claire was on a roll. Even so, Olive figured it was good to clear the air rather than have feelings like that fester on the inside.

Claire continued speaking lightly and smiling— “We were waiting for you to come back, you know? It only felt right. Keeping our heads low and waiting, and then you just…” He thrummed his fingers on the table’s edge. “…ran away.”

“Claire…” Arjun frowned. “I didn’t run away. You can’t change the system when you’re actively participating in it. And I…” He studied his half-brother. “There are things that are going on in this country that you wouldn’t understand.”

“Oh, why of course! Ah, it’s easy to paint yourself in a heroic light, isn’t it?” Claire responded lightly. “I looked up to you when I was younger, you know? I wasn’t ashamed to admit that back then but I’m pretty embarrassed to admit that now.”

Oh.

 Olive could finally truly see and understand it now. He’d seen it in Leonhart’s eyes, he’d seen it in Proteus’s eyes, he’d seen it in Werner’s eyes and Atienna’s eyes—although with Leonhart and Werner, Olive was certain some of it was self-directed: disappointment. 

The only direction to go when you were on a pedestal was down and off.

“Anyways, let’s get to the point. You’ve met Ollie, right?” Claire thumbed Olive. “He’s my friend. We met back in New Ram City. He’s a bit of a bleeding heart.”

“Yes, the Ariesian prince. You call him a bleeding heart,” Arjun replied, “but I see a person who has an open heart.” He inclined his head in Olive’s direction. “I do appreciate your offer earlier and I hold nothing against you in these circumstances.”

Urgh. It was a compliment and an earnest one, but it was just so old-fashioned that it almost sounded cringey.

“Look…” Olive held up a hand. “I’m really not into whatever family drama play you’re enacting right now. Honestly, I don’t even know how you’re not embarrassed by laying it all out in front of me…” He waved his complaints away. “The reason why we’re sitting here is to let you know what it really means to be a saint candidate.”

“What it means to be a saint candidate?” Arjun inquired.

Claire glanced over at Olive. 

Olive held his gaze. “It’d be better if you told him, wouldn’t it? It’s only fair.”

Claire hesitated for a moment before nodding and meeting Arjun’s eyes and then looking at a spot just over Arjun’s left shoulder. He proceeded to explain the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis, the vitae energy levels, baptismal ceremonies of saint candidates and what they really entailed and required. Olive filled in the spots Claire didn’t exactly summarize correctly and the spots he left out. 

After the explanation, Arjun closed his eyes and let out a quiet breath. 

“You can believe me if you want or you can just think I’m crazy,” Claire replied evenly, folding his hands. “What’s going to happen is set in sto—”

“No… I believe you.” Arjun opened his eyes. His gaze was crystal clear.  “During my exile, I visited many of the temples around our country—not one’s dedicated to Monadism, of course, but our natural temples. Even though they weren’t Monadic, they had… interesting records regarding Monadism and vitae that were written by previous saint candidates. I was particularly interested in the entries written by the one before Aunt Jin: Pema of the Tārā Clan. It was… concerning, but I wasn’t able to reach any concrete conclusions. Until now.”

Olive glanced over at Claire but his friend remained silent.

Finally, Arjun spoke again—“So, you’ll have me become somebody else then, Claire?” There was a faint hint of hurt in his voice and even a dash of disappointment. 

“I need to protect my clan and better Sagittarius,” Claire replied evenly. “You can’t be a leader without making sacrifices. You can’t have everything. Like you wouldn’t do the same if our positions were switched.”

Scorpio’s words began to buzz at the back of Olive’s mind but he brushed them aside before they fully formed.

“…I’m truly sorry for not returning without saying anything,” Arjun drew, lowering his gaze. He folded his hands together in front of him. “That was wrong of me, and I don’t expect you or the others to forgive me. Perhaps, the others have even moved on from this. It has been some time…” He lifted his gaze to meet Claire’s eyes. “The truth of the matter is that I didn’t want to come home empty-handed. That and I was afraid of what would may have happened if any of you became involved with me.”

Olive rolled his eyes.

Claire rolled his eyes too. “Oh, please… Don’t give me that excuse.”

An excuse? A reason. But maybe this time it was one that needed to be heard.

“Claire, I’ll accept what is to come,” Arjun replied quietly, “since my neglect and lack of care and tact has resulted in things reaching this point. That’s how the karmic cycle turns. However, you must understand: becoming emperor in the state that Sagittarius is in and in the state that Signum is in is just a temporary solution. I have utmost faith that you can implement the changes that we had in mind when we were younger. I have faith that, unlike father, you won’t be dragged into whatever these saint candidates have planned. You won’t be a puppet. I have faith that you won’t use our people so callously either. If the situation were different, I would like to be by your side assisting you instead of perhaps becoming your enemy through this saint candidacy.”

Claire stiffened.

“But whatever you do will be undone by them or by people influenced by them. There is a chance that perhaps it will be undone even by our wayward descendants,” Arjun continued. “Although we have little control over the latter possibility, we have absolute control over the former one—”

“Just stop, Arjun.” Claire held up his hand. “That’s not going to work on me.”

“Claire….” Olive grimaced. “I know you’re trying your best, but Arjun is right… The clan system is one thing but the whole way everything is in Sagittarius and the rest of Signum.” His mind scrambled for words as Claire turned on him. “Uhm, Zhūshā Cheng too. There’s a lot more than jus—”

“What the hell do you know about my country?!” Claire snapped abruptly, shooting up to his feet.

Olive startled, heart leaping to his chest.

 “You’re just a foreigner! And still you come in here waltzing and pointing out things with disrespect and with your head held high and with some sense of twisted moral superiority! And you even have the gall to offer me suggestions? You don’t think I know–we know–everything that’s wrong with our country? We live it! Look at your own country before you look at mine!” 

Olive felt his cheeks burn and felt a defensive insult curl on his tongue. Instead of spitting it out, however, he thought of how Werner had lashed out defensively at them all and how it had made him feel. Taking in a deep breath, Olive collected himself and drew slowly just like Werner and Atienna would—carefully choosing his words— “I… I didn’t mean it like that, Claire. I just meant with all of these things going on in the background… things might not turn out the way we want them to. There might not even be a point to doing it—and I don’t mean that in the same way I meant it when we first met. Like I’ve said, I’ve always admired what you want to do for your clan and country… You even wanted to do it since you were really young, so that’s even more impressive… I guess…” He looked up and locked eyes with Claire. “There’s a bigger problem here that affects everyone.”

Claire ogled him for a moment before he sighed and sat down. “So you set up this conversation because you wanted us to talk it out…”

“That’s why you agreed, isn’t it?” Olive mumbled.

Claire sighed. “It’s too much, Ollie…” He leaned forward and buried his head in his hands for a moment. “It’s just too much right now.”

 For adolescents reaching for adulthood, it was definitely rather too much, right?

Olive awkwardly reached out with his right arm and gave Claire a pat on the shoulder. 

Arjun frowned sympathetically. “Claire…”

“I don’t want to stress you out even more, but there’s also something that’s been bothering me…” Olive frowned as he pulled away tugged on a strand of his hair in thought. “We know saint candidacy potential can be passed down through the bloodline—there’s something weird there with the ‘original’ saint candidates—but in your case…” He looked between Claire and Arjun. “Which side of the family are you inheriting that potential from…? I know it’s all written down that it’s specific people who’re potential candidates, but what if that’s just listing the people that’re more likely to not be ‘failed’ potential candidates? Maybe the listings have to do with the concentration of high-energy level vitae a person has inside of them? I mean, that would make sense, wouldn’t it? Especially if you consider that there’ve been saint candidates from different clans in the past?”

Claire and Arjun froze and stared at each other.

“What happens when Arjun returns himself to the reservoir?” Olive gestured to himself and bit his lip as he felt his stomach twist. “If my sister was successfully r-returned to the reservoir, I’m guessing… either I would be… or some cousin of mine would be…” He shook his head and glanced at the two half-brothers again. “But for you guys it would make sense—through all the inter-marriages I mean—if…”

“Eunji…” Claire whispered, paling. 

“Or yourself,” Arjun added. 

Claire scoffed. “Of course father’s searching for another saint candidate even though he can just become one himself. Coward.” He fell silent for a moment before he murmured, “If I become emperor, I can stop that from happening. In Sagittarius at least—I can stop the ceremonies.” 

“Monadism is separated from the state in almost all countries, Claire,” Arjun corrected, earning a glare from Claire. “It’s going to be very difficult to do that.”

“Claire, look at what they’ve done,” Olive pressed. “What they’ve indirectly done. You’ve seen it firsthand. What they did to Maria… to Andres.”

“Andres, isn’t…” Claire fell silent.

“What’s the point of being the ruler of a country when there’s not going to be a country left—when there’s not going to be a world left—to fix?” Olive clenched his fists as he thought of Werner, then Maria. “Temporary victories like this—” he gestured between Claire and Arjun “—and temporary solutions are just that. Temporary. I know you two have a lot of history that you need to work out, but you’re also the only two people with power in your country that  know what’s really going on.”

Claire chuckled. “It’s going to take a lot more than just the two of us to stop whatever this is.”

“You’re right. But like I said before,” Olive continued, “we were born with privilege. If we wanted to, we honestly could just do what we want to do and… run away when things get bad.” He looked up at Claire, then at Arjun. “But I know you’re not like that, Claire, and I’m assuming Arjun isn’t like that either. We have a responsibility not just to the people close to us”—his mind drifted to Hideyoshi and Louise—“but we have a responsibility to people outside of us too. I mean what’s the point of having all this ‘power’ when we don’t do anything actually use it when the time calls for it?”

Arjun nodded at Olive. “I agree with your perspective, Prince Chance.” He returned his attention to Claire. “Whatever it is you have in mind–if it is for the true benefit of our people, Claire,” he drew slowly, “I’ll work together with you.” 

Claire looked between them before pinching the bridge of his nose. He sighed. “You do realize a decade of grudges isn’t going to be solved with a twenty minute conversation, right, Ollie?”

“Well…” Olive scowled. “Then—”

Claire smiled and gestured to the exit doors of the compartment. “Would you mind  leaving Arjun and I alone to have a heart-to-heart for a bit?”

* * *

“So…” Lyrs thrummed his fingers on the table. “What’s going on here exactly?” 

“What do you mean?” Claire chuckled. “We all just had a heart-to-heart and got to understand one another, so it’s all worked out now. All’s well that ends well.”

Olive let out a long  but quiet sigh before pulling out the spherical proto-conductor filled with Alice’s vitae from his pocket. He had promised to show Eunji how it worked two evenings ago and had even planned to do a sort of play date with her and Lavi today while showing her, but Claire had swept him away just as he was reaching out to her this morning. 

Claire had spent the previous three-days having a ‘heart-to-heart’ with Arjun. Olive was half-convinced one of them would come out dead at the end of it, but t that fortunately wasn’t the case. Just that morning, Claire had invited Lyrs, Arjun, and Olive himself out into this compartment for a ‘real heart-to-heart.’ Derik and Felix had tagged along as guards, while Soha had brought Eunji—despite her protests—into a private room located at the end of the compartment.

At the moment, Olive was squeezed between Derik and Lyrs, while Arjun was wedged between Claire and the window.  Olive admitted he was somewhat curious about what Claire and Arjun talked about, but at the same time he was glad he didn’t have to witness any more melodrama.

“Okay,” Lyrs drew slowly, glancing over at Arjun hesitantly. “No hard feelings about me turning you in then, right, Arjun?”

Arjun offered an eerily serene smile. “No, hard feelings. There’s no point in holding grudges, is there?”

Saints. It was eerie how princely he was. No wonder Claire had some sort of complex about him.

“Right…” Lyrs returned the smile, although the nervousness in his voice was clear. “You’ll be a fine Saint Candidate of Sagittarius.”

Claire and Arjun exchanged looks.

“Yeah, I changed my mind about that bit,” Claire replied. “I’m not going to take Arjun in for the candidate ceremony stuff.”

Olive relaxed back into his seat.

“Oh…” Lyrs studied them. “But you’re still voting and endorsing Seamus, right—”

“So, Lyrs.” Claire interjected, leaning forward. “I figured we should get down to the nitty gritty while we’re all here. You know Veles, right?”

Olive tensed and scanned the compartment nervously. They’d rented this compartment out for just themselves and had done a clean sweep before settling into it but still—one couldn’t ever be too cautious as Werner always said. What was Claire thinking?

The smile immediately slid off of Lyrs’s face, and he leapt to his feet. In one quick fluid motion, he reached into the pockets of his robes and pulled out a pair of conducting gloves. Before he could put them on, however, Felix’s conjured blade was at his throat. Derik meanwhile had plucked a teaspoon from the table and was gripping it threateningly.

Felix looked to Claire for instruction.

Claire held up a placating hand, signaling Felix to lower his weapon. “Veles, come on. You don’t have to keep me in the dark like this. We know each other. I mean, obviously not that well since we’ve been keeping quiet about all the people in our circle, but we can change that. A lot’s happened, hasn’t it?” He dipped his head and placed a hand to his chest. “As your humble supporter, I ask that you allow us to gift us and to bestow with your trust and ear for a little while.”

Felix did a visible double-take, and Olive imagined the man was gaping from beneath his mask. 

Lyrs glanced over his shoulder for a moment. A look of annoyance crossed his face as he looked over his other shoulder. He then moved to stare over Felix’s shoulder and then over Olive’s own shoulder. Finally, he shook himself and then straightened as his entire demeanor changed.

“Fine,” Lyrs said, relaxing. “I will let you be graced by my trust and time, Claire. But do remember that this would be the twentieth time I’ve given you such a gift.”

Derik made a face and arched a brow at Felix.  Olive assumed Felix was reflecting the same back at Derik with a little bit of indignation.

“Of course, of course,” Claire sang. “Thank you for your generosity.”

Arjun’s brows were knitted.

Lyrs—Veles—sank back down into his seat, flourishing his hands as he did so.

Saints. It was always so weird to see another person go through an override. Olive couldn’t help but feel embarrassed as he recalled all the times he himself and the others went through it similarly. Werner always got the short end of the stick when it came to these things though. 

“What do you desire to tell me?” Veles pressed.

Claire proceeded to explain their situation regarding the saint candidates, their watchful eye, and the True Conductor hunters.

After the explanation, Veles leaned back in his seat and folded his arms over his chest.  “I see, I see. So there are True Conductor hunters.” He boomed out a painfully loud laugh. “How funny! Do they think that they can hunt the ultimate hunter?”

“Aren’t you a guild master?” Olive muttered. “Not a hunter? You made a big deal about it in the beginning—”

Veles waved a hand in the air. “I am many things and everything.” He paused and stared. “And who exactly are you to be speaking to me so familiarly?”

“It was fuckin’ weird when it was the captain,” Derik muttered under his breath, “and it’s still fuckin’ weird now.”

Olive’s annoyance at Veles quickly faded into sympathy as he recalled the fact that he too must have been picked up at some point by Alpha.

“Anyways, as you can see, Veles,” Claire continued, spreading his arms. “We’re dealing with quite a lot. I know you already offered us a lot of your help last year in Capricorn, but I was hoping we could get on the same page about these—”

“My attention is captivated by another hunt at the moment, Claire,” Veles drew. “I’ve recently found that I have put my trust in a person of ill character—yes, even someone as grand as I can make mistakes.”

Olive’s stomach twisted into knots again and glanced out the window. The sky was gray, and it was starting to pour down in sheets.

“However,” Veles continued. “I can lend you my hand for the time being.” He gestured to himself—rather to Lyrs. “You did help this dear guildmate in his own task. I am gracious enough to return generosity when it is offered.”

“Yeah, about that. I have to ask”—Claire leaned forward-—“why is Lyrs pushing us to vote for Seamus for? Is it that—”

Before he could finish his sentence, a loud series of metallic bangs and thuds resounded from over their heads. The ceiling shook from the sound and v-lights lining the walls began to flicker on and off.  Claire immediately leapt to his feet and eyed the ceiling, while Olive tensed and pocketed his proto-conducting sphere. 

The banging and thudding continued, increasing in intensity until the entire train was shaking from the rumbling. As the pounding dragged on, Soha and Eunji stumbled out from the private room at the end of the train compartment before quickly making their way over. 

“They’re here,” Soha said gravely, sweeping the room with her eyes as the entire compartment began to lurch back and forth.   

Lyrs seemed to have retaken hold of himself and was gripping onto the edge of the table seemingly for dear life.

“Looks like we’re going to have an unprecedented family reunion,” Claire drew, holding out his hand to Felix. 

Felix, in turn, immediately conjured a familiar thin cylindrical object and handed it to Claire. His staff conductor.

Olive returned his attention to Claire and grimaced. “Did you really just say that—”

An ear-splitting screech resonated through the entire train compartment, shaking the windows in their frames. The tables began to shake from the vibration as the plates and tea cups resting on them slid off and shattered onto the ground.

They were compressing air around the outside of the train, Olive realized incredulously. Were they stupid

Before he could answer the question with a ‘yes’ inside his head, the windows imploded inwards, sending glass shards tornadoing through the air.  Claire immediately wrapped his body around Eunji while Soha and Felix formed a cage around the two. Olive only got to glimpse the sight for a moment before he was tackled to the ground hard by Derik. Lyrs meanwhile stumbled forward and landed flat on his face. 

Olive squirmed underneath Derik’s weight and managed to squeeze out from under him just in time to see a gust of light-speckled wind take Arjun right out the window. 

“Arjun!” Claire shouted in alarm before whipping his conductor out and following the man through the window in a gust of air. He was quickly followed out by Felix who maneuvered like a spider out the window and up the side of the train.

“Claire!” Eunji cried before she too whipped out a staff and shot out the window. A second later, Soha was scrambling after her.

Olive froze, heart hammering. Then he scowled.

Ugh. Seriously? Why was his luck on trains so bad?

Olive grimaced as he scrambled to his feet, crawled over the glass-ridden table, and poked his head out the window. He was immediately met by a torrent of rain to the face. Now dripping wet, he pulled back inside, darted down the hall, and burst outside through the door at the end of the compartment.

As expected, as soon as he stepped foot outside, he was lambasted with another waterfall of blinding rain. Wiping his face again, he turned on his heels and squinted up at the compartment’s roof.  There was movement up there, and he could hear someone faintly speaking above the pitter-patter of the rain. Letting out a shaky breath, he ascended the ladder beside the door and climbed up onto the top of the compartment. 

The rooftop was slick with water, making it difficult for him to balance. The drizzling rain had now seeped thoroughly into his shirt and had completely matted down his hair. Still, he shook and steadied himself before scanning the area.

At the very center of the roof stood Claire and Arjun back-to-back. Eunji was wedged between them while Felix and Soha flanked their left and right. They were surrounded on all sides by masked figures headed by unmasked figures. From rival clans obviously. Olive could gauge vaguely where they were from by the way they were dressed. It looked like there were four different clans here total.

This was not good.

Olive registered Mai and Kai were standing on the far opposite end of the train and were surrounded by their masked guards.  On the train’s right stood Kaworu, fanning himself with his conductor. He too was surrounded by his guards who were all wielding various conductors. Two of them were not armed, however, and together held a large paper rain umbrella above Kaworu’s head. On the train’s left side stood Trang. She was alone, a gun in her left gloved hand and a knife in her other. 

“Fucking finally…” came a sneer from behind Olive. Derik, pulling himself onto the roof. “I was getting bored out of my fucking my mind.”

Trang turned and stared at Derik. “Youagain…” She glowered. “I’ll take your arm.” Her gaze returned to Arjun. “After I take you, Arjun.”

Shit, kid.

Cadence. Olive could vaguely see that she was at an AAC meeting so her synchronization was weak. Her dazzling, relaxed presence was still a comfort—but it would have been better to have one of the others synchronize with him.

Hey—

Olive reached out reflexively for Werner and Maria but was met with a foggy wall of resistance. Both sleeping, he realized. They always slept nowadays.

I can wake ‘em or Atienna can—

No. He had to try handling this on his own first. 

Kid, Cadence began, increasing her synchronization with him. Don’t wanna rub salt in the wound, but don’t ya remember what happened last time—

No, no. Olive wasn’t going to do what Maria had done in the temple—no. If he needed help, he would seek it. But for now​​ he had to handle it on his own.

“Saints…” came another whisper from behind him.

Olive looked over his shoulder to find Lyrs climbing up the ladder onto the roof. The priest haphazardly pulled himself up onto the rooftop and immediately began to shiver in the cold.

“What are you doing up here?” Olive whispered, doing a double-take.

“Do you think I wanted to come up here?” Lyrs returned with a grimace. 

Olive shook his head and returned his attention to the tension building in front of him.

“Arjun is under my clan’s protection now,” Claire said, holding up a hand. “I found him first. Therefore—”

“—therefore we can take him as we please,” Mai finished. 

“Hey, Arjun.” Kai offered a wave, revealing a conductor-gloved hand. “Good to see you again. Almost didn’t recognize you there.”

“Kai. Mai.” Arjun nodded at them before turning to acknowledge Trang and Kaworu. “Trang. Kaworu. It’s been some time.”

There was a tense stretch of silence. 

“There are other potential saint candidates of Sagittarius, you know?” Claire tried. “Ones that aren’t being heavily guarded—”

Kaworu sighed and snapped his fan shut. “Claire, what’s the point of saying that now?”

“I thought I’d try.” Claire shrugged before he glanced at Soha over his shoulder. “Soha, take Eunji and go—”

Mai lifted a hand, and all of the guards on her side of the train lifted their conductors. “None of you are going anywhere. Eunji is as much a part of this race for succession as you are, Haneul. We can’t have her claiming Arjun for herself.” 

Mai flourished her hand in the air. In response, one of the guards behind her activated his conducting blade and hurled it directly at Eunji. Soha moved forward immediately, striking out her own conducting blade and whipping the oncoming one out of the air. The offending blade rebounded and hurtled towards Kaworu who waved his fan and generated a burst of air that sent the blade flying to Trang. Trang startled and ducked out of the path of the blade just in time before glaring at Mai.

“Seriously?” Kaworu sighed, frowning at Mai before lifting his hand and signaling his own guards to raise their weapons. “Throwing around words and weapons as if we aren’t even here. How typical of you.”

This was going to be a bloodbath. 

Olive scrambled forward in a panic, nearly sliding off the roof as he did so. As he reached Claire’s side, he threw out a wreath of fire causing the surrounding guards and other royals to skirt back to the edges of the roof. His flames however died out within seconds beneath the pounding rain. 

“That conducting really is something else…” Kaworu noted, waving the smoke away with his fan. 

“Wait! Just stop. No one move!” Olive stammered, watching as Derik stormed over to his side. “Arjun is under my protection now—under the protection of the—”

Trang flung the knife in her hands at him. It whistled through the air, hurtling closer and closer—its point sharp and glinting in the rain. Too fast. He couldn’t raise his hands fast enough to produce flame—

—before the knife found a spot between Olive’s eyes, however, Derik darted forward and caught it by its hilt. Olive panted in relief and sent the man a grateful look. Derik scowled in turn.

How about askin’ for help now? Kid, you’re really stressin’ me out—

No, not yet.

“I’ve told you already,” Trang drew, as she conjured another knife, “your status as prince means nothing to me—”

“Are you insane, Trang?” Mai snapped before turning to Olive. “I apologize for my sister’s behavior. Her actions do not reflect the whole of my country—”

“Aren’t you the bitch who sent those assassins after us?” Derik snapped. “I recognize the get-up of your sheep.” 

“That was an accident,” Mai explained, holding up a hand. “Prince Chance, I sincerely ask you not to get any further involved in the politics of our country. I don’t know what Haneul has told you, but it’s more complicated than you realize.”

“I’m not budging from this spot,” Olive returned before gesturing to everyone around him. “We need to talk.”

Trang scoffed while Kaworu hummed and fanned his face.

“Look at this foreigner,” Kaworu drew in his clan’s language, “stepping foot where he doesn’t belong.”

“It must be easy for him to spout nonsense when his inheritance is served to him on a platter,” Trang agreed in her clan’s language. “And that Capricornian that’s with him—a mercenary? How shameless.”

“I was kind of surprised when I met him the first time,” Kai replied in Xing Clan language. “I don’t mean to be mean, but he looked more like a servant than a prince. I feel kind of bad for him—look at him. Shivering in the rain like that.”

Kaworu tutted. “He’s probably never worked a day in his life.”

Yeesh. Cadence whistled low. Talk about a tough crowd. Don’t take it ta heart kid. Ya know what ya should take though? You should take my advice and get the others—

“I can understand you!” Olive snapped, cheeks flushing.

The half-siblings stiffened in surprise.

“Oh yeah…” Kai chuckled. “Forgot about that.”

Olive was momentarily distracted from his indignation by a point in the distance that was closing in on them. A series of tunnel-like bridges overseeing the tracks loomed ahead of them. The bridges looked long and wide—meaning they would be in darkness for long stretches of time. Not good.

The Sagittarians seemed to have noticed the oncoming tunnels too. Collectively they tensed, the guards tightening their grips on their conductors and the royals locking eyes with each other. The first tunnel was coming closer and closer now. No—it was here. The first compartments slithered into the darkness of the tunnel first, then the next ones, and then the next ones after that. Finally, the compartment Olive was on top of reached the tunnel and darkness immediately fell over him and those around him.

Olive barely had the time to let out his breath before chaos broke out. Flashes of light erupted in the dark as conductors activated in pops. The slivers of light began to dance around in the pitch black as light-dotted wind howled through the area. Every so often, Olive caught sight of glowing blues, reds, greens, and purples sparking up against each other in blinding bursts of light. Thuds, shouts, cries, screeches echoed cacophonously from every direction.

A point of light appeared in the far distance. The end of the tunnel. The light grew and grew in size until finally the train emerged from the darkness. As Olive’s eyes adjusted to the sudden brightness, he registered a Sagittarian guard hurtling towards him with a drawn conducting blade. The guard seemed to be as surprised as Olive was gauging by the way he tried to skid to a halt—but to no avail.

Olive managed to duck beneath the swing of a blade just as it skirted his neck. He stumbled forward, whipped around, and sent his legs sweeping beneath the guard’s—just like Derik had taught him. The guard smacked forward onto the roof before rolling down its side. Olive didn’t have long to enjoy his victory, however, as he slipped a second after and was sent rolling down the side of the roof as well. Clang, clang, clang—he just barely managed to grab on the edge of the roof before he went flying off its edge. Derik was at his side immediately, pulling him back up with a scowl.

“You’re a dumbass,” Derik informed him helpfully. “But that was good.” 

Olive grimaced as he steadied himself and surveyed the area.

The fight had spread across the other adjacent compartments now, and Olive couldn’t tell who was who and what was what—wait, there

Lyrs stood only a couple feet away ahead of him. In front of the priest stood two guards from the Xing Clan and two guards from the Hoshi Clan—gauging by their clothing. Lyrs was thrashing both of his now conductor-gloved hands wildly in the air as the guards approached him with cautious confusion. 

As Lyrs continued to wave his hands wildly, glowing gray-blue water droplets rose from the roof of the train into the sky and sprayed out in every direction in a wide circle. The glowing mist rained down on every single person standing on the rooftops—including Olive himself—but otherwise did nothing else. Despite being on evidently opposing sides, the guards in front of Lyrs exchanged almost friendly and amused looks of confusion.

Veles’s conducting, Olive realized—but he was certain Veles was more powerful than this.

Abruptly, Lyrs took a step back and clenched his left gloved fist. The puddle of water beneath the guards’ feet began to glow gray blue—as did the layer of water soaking the guards’ uniforms. A crackling spark of almost electric-like light formed between the two different bodies of water and then—

Clang!

Drawn forward by an unseen force, all four guards suddenly were slammed down onto the ground. Electric lines of light sparked between their uniforms and the puddle they were now face-planted into. The four struggled in place but couldn’t seem to pull themselves off of the roof.

Woah.

The gears in Olive’s head turned.

“Your vitae particles act like charged magnets?” Olive tried, running up to Lyrs’s side. 

Yes, that had to be it: vitae particles latching onto surfaces and then attracting each other like charged particles—pulling together whatever objects they were attached to at the same time. It was vaguely reminiscent of the qualities of high-energy-level vitae.

“When you say it like that, it sounds pretty pathetic,” Lyrs sighed. “But yes. Sort of. I can bring together whatever my vitae particles touch. Veles’s conducting helps spread it around a bit, but…” He squinted at Olive. “I still don’t know where you fit in all of this, Prince Chance. Anyways…” He placed a hand to his chest. “As a Monadic priest I am bound to non-violence so”—he spread his arms—“I’d rather not get my hands dirty with this right now, so I’ll just head out—”

“Why the fuck,” Derik interjected, stepping forward, “are you talking about this when there’s people trying to decapitate other people five steps next to us?”

Unsure if that was enthusiasm or annoyance in Derik’s voice, Olive grimaced and glanced at the next  tunnel-bridge coming up ahead. 

Wait a minute.

He looked left and right, taking in the thick forest of trees that dotted the opposite sides of the train. He recognized this place. Francis, Jericho, Cadence, and Maria had swung by this area during their long search for Alpha a couple weeks ago. That meant that there was a gate here.  Yes, inside one of the tunnels. Right. Olive could feel the visages of a plan forming together in his mind. Not a perfect one. A risky one. Still

Kid—

Olive reached out to Jericho desperately—but not for combat assistance. Once Jericho answered his call, Olive whipped back to Lyrs who startled at his attention. “Lyrs, your vitae particles are on me, right?”

Lyrs nodded.

“I want you to use your conducting and bring everyone towards me when I say so. Including yourself.”

Lyrs stared. “You want me to flatten you into a pancake by smashing everyone against you?”

Ugh.

“Just trust me!” Olive clicked his tongue in annoyance as he grabbed Lyrs’s arm and began running down the roof. 

The sound of sloshing just behind Olive signaled to him that Derik was following close at his feet. He continued down the top of the train until he reached the end of the compartment where he skidded to a halt. Just across the train link one compartment over, Olive could see Claire and Arjun and Eunji darting back and forth. Soha and Felix maneuvered around them, deflecting oncoming bullets and vitae blades.

“Claire! Everyone!” Olive called out, waving his hand wildly. “Over here!” 

Claire didn’t hesitate for even a second before he grabbed Arjun and Eunji by the wrist and headed over towards him. With a twist off his staff-conductor and a burst of wind, Claire easily leapt over the gap separating their carts and landed unsteadily in front of Olive with Arjun and Eunji in tow. Felix and Soha were just a step behind him. As soon as they all reached Olive’s side, he motioned for them and took off down the roof. They followed suit. 

Once Olive reached the end of the compartment, he leapt blindly onto the next one. He nearly slipped and rolled down its side and brought Lyrs down with him, but Derik caught them both by the scruff.

“What the fuck is the plan, kid,” Derik demanded. “Fucking run around. Let’s just bl—”

“Just wait,” Olive panted as he pushed forward.

Down the train they continued, leaping from cart to cart with the other Sagittarians tailing them from behind. Finally, they reached the very last compartment at the back of the train and they were immediately surrounded by the other Sagittarians. The front of the train was just beginning to enter the tunnel ahead.

Olive stepped forward and threw out a wreath of flame causing the enclosing Sagittarians all to skirt back. 

The train was halfway through the tunnel now.

Olive continued throwing out flame and after flame forcing the Sagittarians back further and further. As soon as they were outside of the range he had calculated, he pulled out the proto-conducting sphere from his pocket. 

Now the compartment they were on was beginning to pass into the tunnel and darkness fell over them.

Olive locked eyes onto the barely visible black spot on the wall of the tunnel just ahead. The gate.

Jericho!

The black spot on the wall burst open with light, nearly blinding Olive in the darkness.

“Lyrs, now!” Olive shouted, running to the very edge of the compartment.

Lyrs hesitated, glancing over his shoulder—most likely looking at Veles through their connection.

“Saints, Veles, Prince Chance, you’re both crazy.” Lyrs clenched his gloved fist.

Olive’s clothing began to glow faintly with gray-blue light as did the clothing and bodies of everyone around him.

“Ollie…” Claire drew slowly, looking over his glowing body and then Eunji’s. “What’s going on here?”

Estimating the velocity and the distances and angles of himself and the others in relation to the gate inside his head, Olive launched himself off the edge of the train while simultaneously activating the proto-conductor sphere. A familiar ring of light expanded outwards from the sphere’s body. The opaque light passed through Olive’s body and the bodies of those gathered at the very edge of the train’s roof until it touched the circlet of the opposing clan members surrounding them. Then, the light intensified. All of the opposing clan members immediately fell limp but did not collapse onto the roof of the compartment. Instead, their bodies began to float towards him.

Olive faced forward as he floundered in the air for a second before he fell through the pale tangerine gate on the side of the bridge—

(  )

—the rain stopped as Olive made it through to the other side of the gate. He barely had the time to enjoy the reprieve from it before he crashed into something sturdy but soft. It was not the crash-landing he’d expected.  As he felt a pair of arms wrap around his body, he looked up and found himself peering at a familiar pair of square glasses and a blank face.

Jericho, blinking up at him from where he lay flat on the ground.

Are you alright, Olive?

In the distance, Olive could feel Cadence relax.

Before Olive could nod or let out a sigh of relief in response, a crescendo of thuds resounded behind him. He peeled himself out from Jericho’s embrace and scanned the area. The gate on the wall across from him was beginning to dim. The floor beneath that gate was littered with bodies—the Sagittarians, Derik, Lyrs, everyone. It seemed as if Felix had managed to conjure a large mattress beneath them all just in time to break everyone’s fall. 

“Kid!” Derik shouted in alarm from where he’d landed at the corner of the mattress. He scrambled up to a stand  and darted to Olive’s side. His eyes were wide and wild with an unnatural fear. “Kid—you fucking brat—are you okay?”

Olive nodded silently, somewhat alarmed as Jericho guided him back up to his feet. 

“Is this another one of your conducting things at work?” Claire asked, popping up to a stand and helping his sister to her feet as Soha and Felix made their way over to him.  He glanced at his unmoving half-siblings and their guards. “The others can’t move?”

Olive nodded.

Arjun and Lyrs picked themselves up off the ground and looked around the room with quiet wonder. They stopped short as they stared off into the corner of the room. Olive followed their gazes and found Cavallo, Bendetto, Agape, and Carl staring back at them from the corner table they were occupying. They appeared only somewhat alarmed.

Ignoring them, Derik eyed Jericho with a frown and jabbed a finger at his chest. “And who the fuck is this? Wait… You look kind of familiar…” He snapped up to his feet and pointed to where the caporegimes and Carl sat. “Wait a minute—who the fuck are these people? Wait…” He squinted at Carl. “I know you…”

“Shit…” Ignoring Derik, Carl rose from his chair. His eyes were glued to Olive’s face.  “I’ve seen you in the papers…” He paused, looking around. “Cadence is no joke connected to—”

“Ariesian and Sagittarian royalty,” Cavallo acknowledged, nodding at Olive then at Claire. “I take it you’re the infamous Ariesian prince that’s been making the headlines recently?”

* * *

“A corrupt peacekeeper and a handful of criminals from the underbelly of the Twin Cities,” Mai scoffed from where she sat being bound to a chair by Jericho. “So this is who you’ve been hanging around, Haneul.”

Jericho stared at her as he tightened the rope around her wrists. “I am not ‘corrupt’.” He turned to stare at Kaworu who was already tied up next to Mai and then stared at Trang who was tied up next to him. “I am not—”

“How dare you touch the princess of the Xing Clan!” one of the guards bound behind Mai snapped.

Jericho stared at the guard until he looked away. “I am not touching her a lot,” he explained. “I am being respectful—”

Wincing as he watched the entire thing unfold, Olive walked over to Jericho and pulled the man back. It’s not worth it. Trust me.

Jericho nodded. Derik, who stood just behind Olive, scoffed.

“Mai—my dear sister—it’s actually my first time meeting these gentlemen actually,” Claire answered Mai from where he was shaking hands with Cavallo, Agape, Carl, and Bendetto at the table in the far corner of the room. He turned on his heels to face Eunji who kept close behind him. He ruffled her hair. “Sorry for bringing you into all this, Eunji.”

Eunji still looked too flabbergasted to respond. “There… aren’t any… doors or windows…”

“Yep!” Claire marched back over to where his half-siblings and their guards were bound in front of the gate. “And  by the way, Mai, it’s not just so-called ‘corrupt peacekeepers’ and ‘criminals’ in this place.” He thumbed vaguely behind him before spreading his arms. “This is actually an old ELPIS hideout!”

Olive grimaced. Seriously?

“ELPIS?” one of the bound guards whispered.

Mai and Kai paled while Trang and Kaworu exchanged looks.

“You’ve lost it…” Kaworu tutted sympathetically. 

Olive resisted facepalming.

“So?” Carl gestured vaguely at Olive from beside Claire. “What is this? Are we holdin’ ‘em up for ransom?” He eyed Jericho then Olive. “Well? What the hell is this, Cadence?”

Olive frowned at him.

Carl’s eyes narrowed before he stomped over to Olive. He stopped short only a foot away and peered into Olive’s face. “Well? Cadence, are you in there or what—” 

“Step the fuck off,” Derik interjected, shoving Carl away.

Carl stumbled back and bristled immediately before rolling up his sleeves and jabbing a finger at Derik’s chest. “And who the hell do you think you are? Wait, I recognize you—you’re one of those damn Capricornians.”

“Carl,” Agape said warningly. “Let’s be civil.”

“I’m not just any damn fucking Capricornian.” Derik slapped Carl’s hand away. “Private Derik Stein of the—”

“Only a private, huh—”

“What the fuck did you say—”

Both men lunged at each other a second after. Before they reached each other, however, Jericho stepped between them and caught them each by the wrist. 

“No violence. Not here,” Jericho stated. He released them after they stopped struggling against him and he proceeded to point to his white armband. “I am a peacekeeper. I will… facilitate things. And keep the peace.”

Derik looked Jericho up and down before recognition finally seemed to dawn on him. “Wait a minute—you’re that fucking crazy peacekeeper who was in the captain in the capital, aren’t you? The one who nearly fucked us all over—”

“Hey!” Olive frowned, stepping forward. “He’s not crazy… Don’t call him that…”

“Okay, fine. He’s not crazy—but he did almost fucking kill us, right?” Derik pressed, glancing at Olive. “Not that I would’ve fucking died, but—” He whipped back to Jericho before relaxing slightly. “—but you helped us fuck over the old kaiser, didn’t you? Yeah. I guess you’re alright.”

Olive sighed. Sorry about him, Jericho.

Jericho offered a silent thumbs up. Question. Why did you bring them here? This is—He not-so-subtly eyed the Sagittarian royals—what Werner would call a ‘compromising’ situation. 

“What the fuck is up with the quotation marks…?” Derik muttered, arching a brow at Jericho’s air quotation marks. He looked between Jericho and Olive. “Oh—you’re doing one of your weird head conversations?”

Olive sighed. “Can you get Epsilon for me, Jericho? I… think I can work something out with everyone… maybe.” 

Jericho cocked his head slightly in response. Olive allowed his haphazardly, half-formed plan to bleed into the man in turn. Jericho nodded a moment after before leaving through a gate. He re-entered a second later with Epsilon in tow. As Jericho brought the ELPIS leader to Olive, Olive offered the man his hand. It felt awkward. He didn’t understand how Cadence and Werner could do it so casually and frequently.

Epsilon studied Olive cautiously before accepting the gesture timidly. “I’ve seen you before and read about you. In other people’s vitae. You’re a prince. The Ariesian prince. The twenty-third one, I think, right? Olivier Chance.”

“Just Olive is fine.”

Epsilon grinned. “Okay, just Olive!”

Claire leaned in and thumbed Epsilon before nodding to Mai with a pleasant smile. “Oh—here’s an ELPIS leader, like I was mentioning before!”

Mai tensed and said nothing.

Olive dropped his hand and stared at Epsilon for a beat before trying, “I’m not sure exactly how you do it, but you can extract specific memories, right? From the vitae? I’m guessing it has to do with how memories are coded into each vitae particle? I’ve seen you do it two ways. The first one is from extracting it from the vitae particles in a person’s blood and the second one has to do with contact, right? Maybe through something akin to transmutation—”

Epsilon beamed. “Woah, yes—that’s exactly it! You’re really, really bright!” 

Epsilon was the one who was bright, Olive thought. Blindingly bright. 

“I prefer to do it by extracting the memory from the vitae particles in the blood itself,” Epsilon explained, “but sometimes there are weird cases when it comes to maneuvering around certain types of people with special vitae, so I developed a different way about two or three centuries ago? I wrote it down in some of the records here! I didn’t start using it until recently this time though since I had to make sure I was doing it right.” He pointed to Jericho then Olive. “The second way is much faster and much more flexible, but it can be… kind of painful?” His smile fell slightly. “Right—I think I developed it to help Leo back in the 1600s, but I’m not too sure!”

Wow. Epsilon liked to talk a lot.

He is good company, Jericho reasoned. And he also does not like Alpha now. So he is good—

“Wait a damned minute!” Carl snapped. “You mean we didn’t have to chug damned blood like—”

Epsilon held up his hands. “I didn’t know about it until I read my notes in Theta’s records! But I can do it now, so we can do it that way from now on! But it’s not pleasant, like I said….”

“I’d like you to share some of my memories with some of the others for me,” Olive interjected.

Epsilon stared.

“I know you don’t really know me but—”

“Of course, I can do it for you! You’re Leo’s friend, right? Because you’re Jericho’s friend and Jericho’s Leo friend—so you’re also my friend!” Epsilon beamed. “You don’t even have to ask! Who am I sharing it with?”

Olive squirmed inside at the lie. He was rather surprised at how willing Epsilon was to go along with this and how oblivious—or seemingly oblivious—he was to everything. Olive, however, figured he should’ve expected as much from what he’d seen of the man through Maria’s, Jericho’s, and Cadence’s eyes. Epsilon was the type of person who was happy to please others. Still…

 “Uhm, thanks, Epsilon. I was hoping you could share it with them,” Olive tried, gesturing to the line-up of Mai, Kai, Kaworu, and Trang, “if you could…?”

“That’s absolutely ridiculous,” Mai scoffed. “Memories in vitae? You expect us to believe something like that?” Her eyes narrowed at Olive. “I hope you understand, Prince Chance, that you’ve directly acted against several Sagittarian clans by—”

Ignoring her, Claire approached Olive cautiously.  “Wait, I thought you were just going to hole up everyone here while we—y’know—went about our business.”

Olive frowned. “What kind of plan is that…? It’s not like we can do this all alone….”

True, but my siblings are pretty hard-headed,” Claire drew, waving at Mai as she scowled at him. “I don’t think ‘sharing memories’ like you say will change their minds much. Blood succession war and bloody sibling rivalry and all that. Even if we sat down and explained everything, they’ll still say we’re lying. Trust me. I’ve never won an argument with any of them.”

“The way Epsilon’s conducting works,” Olive explained, “is kind of how it feels when we synchronize or connect or whatever with people in our circle. I think.” 

Claire’s brows rose in surprise.

“Anyways, I just have to show them the right memory…” Olive drew, recalling how Trang had wept over her injured guard at Bodhi Temple. He shook his head and returned his attention to Epsilon. “Can you, Epsilon?”

Epsilon perked up and nodded before he began counting the heads of the bound Sagittarian royals. “The four of them?” 

“Well…” Olive cast a glance over to where the caporegimes sat and then eyed Carl. “Actually… I’d like to show them too.”

“Hell no. You may be a damned prince,” Carl snapped, “but you’ve got no authority here.”

Olive frowned and grumbled, “Really, Carl? Come on…”

Carl pulled back with raised brows. “It’s really damned creepy—you talkin’ like you know me.”

Olive felt a pang of hurt at that statement, so he retorted with a—“And it’s creepy that your bank saving’s account password or whatever is the last name of your first girlfriend from when you were fifteen”

Carl stiffened and looked around quickly as if to make sure no one else had overheard. He half-whispered, half-spat, “Cadence said she wouldn’t tell anybody that.”

“Yeah, she didn’t,” Olive replied. Before Carl could react to that statement, he said to Epsilon,  “The memory I want to share was when I was in Capricorn and stuck in an override… It was around mid-December last year—”

“The Week of Blindness…?” Claire asked before his eyes widened and empathy bled out from his gaze.

“We’re already well aware of what happened during that week,” Cavallo said calmly. “We’re being quite hospitable with you suddenly entering this place—all things considered—so proposing this so suddenly is rather… daring.”

Olive frowned. “You may have heard about it, but you haven’t seen it.” He turned to Mai and Kai. “And you both… were lucky enough to escape it before you saw it.”

Claire frowned. 

“You think you can move people with your words,” Cavallo drew as he finally rose from his seat Prince Chance?”

“Not someone like you,” Olive muttered. “But…”

“Again. Hell no,” Carl snapped. “I’m not goin’ through that shit again.”

“Don’t you want to see what Francis was doing during that time?” Olive muttered before he mumbled. “You know to fulfill that weird sibling complex of yours—”

“What the hell did you say?” Carl snarled. 

Cavallo placed a hand to his chin. “You do offer a callous yet interesting proposal, Prince Chance—”

“Just Olive is fine. Like I said.”

Cavallo offered an eerily polite smile. “I would like to see what information we can garner from the memories of a person of high political standing… so I will take up your offer, Prince Chance.”

“I’ll refrain,” Agape said, folding her hands in front of her.

“I won’t,” said Bendetto’s a second after.

Carl grumbled for a moment before he grimaced. “I won’t either then.”

Epsilon placed a hand to his chin in thought. He peered at Olive and drew slowly, “Would it be okay with you if I did it my new way? The only caveat is that—I still haven’t worked out the kinks yet—you would… live through the memories again. It won’t be pleasant, like I said.”

“You mean like what happened with Alpha?” Olive wondered.

Epsilon’s lips pressed thin but he smiled a moment after. “Yep! Just like Alpha!”

Olive looked over at Jericho and held the man’s gaze for a brief moment before he nodded at Epsilon. Epsilon proceeded around the room, placing his gloved hand to the temples of the people designated to receive the memories—namely Claire’s half-siblings, Bendetto, Cavallo, and Carl. Claire volunteered himself as did Arjun, Derik, and Jericho—the latter offering a thumbs-up and saying something about ‘being all-in together.’ Olive figured Jericho was beginning to pick up slang from the Twin Cities people so he didn’t question it. 

Epsilon finally came back to Olive and placed a gloved hand to his temple. Olive nodded at him in turn and watched as Epsilon clenched his fist. A warm fuzziness buzzed sprouted out from the back of Olive’s mind and fogged his thoughts.

 It was quite pleasant. That was at least until he abruptly remembered that awful day. The memory forcefully dragged itself up from the recesses of his mind—

Falling into the depths below the capital of Capricorn with Claire and the others. The explanation about the levels of vitae. Alwin launching himself on top of him after he’d run away because it was all too much; Alwin wrapping his fingers around his throat; Francis stepping in. And then—Marta’s screaming. Trystan, pushing him away before melting like butter coalescing together into one with Marta. 

The scenery shifted.

Now he was standing in the cold streets of the Capricornian capital. A sickening blazed bright just a few yards ahead of him—a mass of vitae, swarming at the very end of the road. Yes, the thing that was once Marta, Trystan, and who knew who and what else. The people he couldn’t help and couldn’t save. His friends. His people. 

Guided by the memory of what he’d done all those months ago, Olive lifted his hand and threw out an intense burst of flame that consumed the two people he had only recently finally admitted to having been his friends. The pain, anguish, and guilt eating him out from the inside burned more intensely than the flames. Losing something he’d tentatively held close. Again. 

The pain consumed Olive’s whole chest and spread out to his limbs.

Good. 

This was enough—

But the scene shifted.

Beni was falling now—falling down, down, down into the pulsating vitae swirling in the reservoir below. As he hit that viscous light and lost himself in the brightness, the scene shifted again. Olive found himself straddling Francis and pinning the man to the ground. Rain pattered down around them in sheets.

“Wait.” Olive squirmed in alarm. “This isn’t—”

Francis disintegrated into sand that spread out around Olive’s feet. The air buzzed hot and humid around him as the sound of flapping tents echoed in the distance. Someone was holding his hand and dragging him forward. Sand dusted his eyes, so it was difficult to make out that someone’s face. 

“Come on, Ah-hee,” that person begged. “You promised—”

The scene melted under the pressure of the blazing heat from above, and now Olive found himself standing in front of a three-fold mirror in a room lined with paper doors. In the middle mirror, Olive found a young boy with dark hair and dark, foxlike eyes. His arm was strewn up in a cast, and his eyes were brimming with tears. In the left mirror, Olive found the reflection of a young girl with icy blue eyes, a hooked nose, and short blonde hair. In the right mirror, Olive found another girl with dark curls and tanned skin.

Claire. Sigrid. Andres?

“Why are you crying?” Sigrid’s eyes were sharp and cold. “You have food on your table and a warm bed to sleep in. That’s nothing to cry about.”

“No one wants me here,” Claire whimpered. “I can’t even trust my hand maiden. They’re all trying to get rid of me… the assassins…”

“It’s okay, Claire,” Andres consoled him. “If you can’t become something, then just become something else. Something that can support something greater. That’s what they tell us.”

“W-Wait a minute. What’s going on—” Claire’s disembodied voice echoed at the back of Olive’s mind. “Olive, what is this? Stop—”

One of the sliding doors flew open, letting in blinding light. When Olive’s eyes adjusted to the brightness, he found another small figure standing in the doorway. Dark skin, dark hair, clear eyes. A young Arjun. 

Arjun’s clear eyes became clouded with worry as soon as he seemed to register the tears, and he immediately rushed towards Olive—towards Claire. “Are you okay—”

The scenery flickered again.

Olive now knelt in at the center of a familiar courtroom. Around him in the stacked pews sat men and women in varying styles of clothing—all looking down at him and those kneeling beside him with disdain. The person kneeling to Olive’s immediate left rose to a stand before turning on his heels and exiting the courtroom. Olive was able to turn his neck and see the person’s broad, proud, heroic retreating back.

Arjun.

Pain, admiration, guilt, duty—followed by the desire to be free from the weight of it.

The scenery melded once more into another one. 

An all too familiar throne room stood before Olive’s eyes. His body moved on its own, turning away from the twin thrones sitting on top of that high platform and then charging down the hall opposite. Someone’s hand was in his own. Lavi’s. They were running together—no, they were escaping. Crimson flame ate away the banisters hanging on the wall. Blood stained the marble at his feet. Too much smoke—

“No, no, no—” Olive flailed his hands out blindly. “Too far! Too far—”

Crack! Thud!

Olive opened his eyes as his vision swam. He was standing back in Francis’s exitless room. Epsilon was on the ground and holding his cheek. Jericho hovered over him, hand still curled into a fist.

“I apologize.” Jericho dropped his fist and offered Epsilon a hand. “Reflex.”

“No, I’m sorry!” Epsilon accepted Jericho’s gesture and hopped to his feet. He placed a hand to his face. “I should have realized. Things are a bit different with True Conductors, right? Things can crossover and get a bit messy—I have to look into it a bit more to really understand it.” He pointed to Claire who swayed in place a few feet away from Olive. “That was dangerous, mister! You should have told me you were a True Conductor who wasn’t connected to Olive.” He brightened a moment after. “It’s alright though! We avoided disaster… whew!”

Jericho turned back to Olive. Olive in turn offered the man a thumbs up which Jericho reflected back. 

Claire rubbed his eyes and hesitantly eyed Olive. “Did you see…? Did they all see…?”

Olive nodded silently.

Claire sighed. “Well, that’s embarrassing—”

“W-What the hell was that…?” Mai stammered, tugging on her bindings. Her eyes were wide, and she looked back at Kai and her guards with a mixture of fear and alarm and worry—as if she expected them to melt down into a viscous groaning mass of vitae just like Trystan and Marta had. “What was that thing?”

Mai’s sibling and half-siblings next to her were just as pale and pallid as she was. Bendetto, Cavallo, and Carl appeared to have fared a bit better but they all appeared grim. Across from Olive, Arjun had sunken down cross-legged onto the floor and was now staring at a spot on the ground with a frown. His eyes were clouded. Derik stood just beside him with crossed-arms and a scowl. 

“That was a human being,” Olive replied, wiping the wetness from his eyes. He waved Jericho away when the man peered into his face with concern. “You should already know how it—how Trystan and Marta—became like that… You saw the explanation.” He held his chin up high and then swept his gaze across the audience that had just bore witness to his memories and feelings—as embarrassing as it was to think about. “We still don’t know what the syzygy is, but we know that it involves turning people—our people—into vitae. This goes above all of us. So, if you all just want to continue fighting over a puppet crown, then go ahead. Just know that whoever ascends to the throne will have to deal with your people’s blood being on their hands.”

“This ‘syzygy’ that keeps being mentioned,” Trang drew after a pause, holding Olive’s gaze and then glowering with a tight expression, “when is it supposed to happen?”

Olive frowned. “We don’t know exactly.” And that was what scared him.

“Not having a schedule is pretty rough,” Claire noted, rubbing the back of his neck. He eyed his half-siblings before pressing, “So, Ollie, what was your big plan here exactly…? I’m still all for just locking them up here for the time being by the way—”

“Hey!” Carl snapped at Claire. “I don’t care if you’re some Sagittarian prince, but this joint ain’t a storage facility.” 

Ignoring Carl, Olive sighed as he felt Werner and Maria finally stir into consciousness. “Well, if I’ve said anything that convinced any of them to change their minds, I was thinking we should actually head back to Ophiuchus.”


half-manic author’s note:

//looks at my previous author’s note. WELLL. This is awkward.

So the story is that im still working and schooling at the same time—although I am only working one job again. Work isn’t the killer at the moment though but school is;; the semester is coming to an end and I have a bunch of projects due—one about HPV and its vaccine + a presentation on it and another about running a regression for the framingham heart study ((+ a presentation for that for some reason)) that I haven’t even thought to take a look at yet—and some other miscellaneous assignments. 

—that is all a long explanation for the lateness of this chapter ((also the fact that this chapter is literally 19k+ words long))and why I don’t think I’ll be able to get a chapter out this coming weekend. I have to work on that one of those final projects I haven’t started on yet that’s due this weekend aiweoruewioruoi. The semester ends in 1-2 weeks though so I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to return to the 1x/2x chapter update schedule then ((this is the third time I’ve said this but shhh)). I really want to finish this part by the end of may and release the beginnings of part 5 around then too so—//fingerscrossed!! 

End chapter comment note: olive is 10x more productive than I am awiuorweuior. Also dream sequence in the beginning is a callback/finisher thing of the dream sequence that this part opened with. I also have no idea why this chapter is so long but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ actually I do but that’s a future me problem //jingerguns.

Oh! if you want more accurate update timelines ((and if you want to see me have a stress-induced mental breakdown every other day or if you just want to talk)), you can join the discord ((we have SC-themed emotes!)), follow me on twitter, or follow the story twitter //fingerguns. Also there’s an SC quote tweet bot here too. 

Finally, sorry for the wait and thanks for reading!!  and for reading this half manic author’s note. this author’s note is super long but hey the chapter is super long so why not.

:(´ཀ`」 ∠):

I-i am free;;;;;

???

time to make banana bread

。゚(TヮT)゚。

oh and good luck to everyone who’s finishing off their semester this month o/!!

25.(): War & Terroristas

( )

When Alpha opened his eyes, he knew exactly where he was. He knew everything, after all: the beginning, the middle, the end—although, he admitted that the middle was always fuzzier than the former two parts.

This here was Vega’s private rooms that had served many roles in the past: a laboratory, a meeting office, an experimental place of residence, an archive storage facility, and—now, by the looks of it—a home.

The room’s floor was littered with familiar candles, while the walls were lined with shelves. A record player sat upon a small maroon table in the corner of the room. A series of crudely drawn doodles were strung on string near the ceiling. Across from him on a wooden chair sat Leona whose hands were bound behind her with rope. It seemed like she’d awoken before him. How attentive of her. 

Alpha chuckled. “Well, it’s nice seeing you again, Leo. I haven’t seen you since the war.”

Leona’s gaze narrowed. “So you’ve been extending yourself using Epsilon’s ability. How pitiable. Are you a fool?”

Alpha shrugged. “If I am then you must be too for being captured and bound like this with me.” He scanned the room. “The pace that conductors are developing is astounding, isn’t it? At this rate the syzygy that you covet will most definitely happen—maybe sometime around August or July of this coming year? Oh, definitely. I hope what I’ve been doing around the continent hasn’t threatened your timeline any.” 

“You’ve made a nuisance of yourself, not a threat,” Leona replied, somehow still sounding refined and elegant despite the fact that she was bound. “What exactly are you trying to achieve by running around Signum plucking children from their homes?”

Alpha shrugged. “It started off as a whim, honestly. It’s not as if I had any premeditation to it. It just sort of… happened.”

“Did it?” Leona challenged, unconvinced. “Or did those children remind you of yourself? Was taking them to spite Theta? Was taking them to spite me?”

Alpha held her gaze. “It’s interesting that it’s the two of us that are in this position, isn’t it? You, someone who didn’t properly go through the baptismal ceremony and someone who didn’t take on enough vitae to truly be considered ‘Leo.’ Me, who took on vitae and the memories associated with them despite technically being unable to. We’re both pseudo-Knowledge Bearers.”

The black-painted door on the wall to his left burst alive a pale tangerine light.

It was a rather ugly color. 

Into the room stepped two figures—as Alpha had been expecting. Epsilon and Jericho. Now that Alpha could see Jericho up close, he could see that Jericho certainly had grown to an impressive height. Growth spurts were quite something. While Epsilon looked as if he’d been crying recently, Jericho’s gaze was hard and cold.

“Epsilon…” Leona muttered under her breath as her gaze drifted between the two men. “Jericho. Do you both realize what you’re doing?”

“It’s ‘discretion’, Leona,” Jericho said after a pause. He turned his eyes on Alpha and the cold fire in them intensified. “We will talk about more ‘discretion’ after I speak with him.”

“A-Alpha,” Epsilon stammered, “you—how could you do that to Leo? You… went against everything that you promised me. I’m not going to hold any more vitae for you.”

“You should’ve already realized it, Epsilon,” Alpha said lightly in response. “You haven’t deteriorated that much, have you? Maria hasn’t healed as a saint candidate should. She isn’t Leo.” He jerked his chin towards Leona. “She isn’t Leo either, but she’s certainly closer to Leo than Maria is–from one point of view.”

Epsilon’s gaze drifted momentarily to Leona but he looked away before meeting her eyes. “No, that’s not Leo. I know it isn’t.”

Leona’s face was unreadable.

Jericho approached Alpha, Epsilon trailing behind. Both came to a stop before him.

“You really are tall,” Alpha said with a chuckle once Jericho was right in front of him. “I—”

“You won’t get what you want from him, Jericho,” Leona interjected. “I promise you that. If you look into his eyes, you should be able to tell nothing is there. You can’t get something from someone who has nothing.” After a pause, she continued, her voice becoming steel, “If you continue to act against the ELPIS Department, even I won’t be able to show you this discretion we agreed on—”

“I have to know,” Jericho insisted. “No. I want to understand, but not the reason. Alice says there is no point in finding the reason. I want to know everything else.” He nodded at Epsilon. “Thank you. Ahead of time.”

Epsilon moved forward, placing one conducting glove on Alpha’s temple and the other on Jericho’s.

“Oh, you sad poor thing.” Alpha sighed. “You’re being contradictory, aren’t you? I already answered your questions and you’re still not happy.”

Epsilon’s conductors began to hum with white light and an uncomfortable nostalgia began to burn at Alpha’s temples. 

He continued nonetheless: “You and Maria both are still searching for the answer to the beginning, but I’m sorry to say that—”


✧ I ✧
July 30, 1441
θαυμασμός

Ophiuchus District, Newly United Signum

The first time Proteus lays eyes on the Knowledge Bearer of Ophiuchus he thinks he is dreaming. He is standing at the lip of a cheering crowd as a procession glides down the dirt street. There are thirteen central robed figures in this procession—each separated by about 13 meters from the other. These are the Knowledge Bearers. They are each surrounded by a flock of men and women who drip with elegance and scholarliness. These are the Knowledge Bearer’s Mathités, their disciples, their learners—but also occasionally they serve as their teachers. These individuals are hand-selected by the Knowledge Bearers themselves and were once alumni at the Aesculapium. They are honored and revered and dripping with a different flavor of wisdom compared to the Knowledge Bearers.

As Proteus nears the front of the crowd, he catches a glimpse of a dark-skinned man with an equally dark head of shiny curls at the center of the procession. Proteus has seen paintings of this man being sold at high prices in the marketplace. This is Narci, the Knowledge Bearer of Scorpio.

The man seems to notice Proteus’s attention and offers him a smile and wave. Flushing, Proteus returns it.

Soon the procession reaches the town square—the forum—where the old and aged Orator Promptus Ageptus addresses the crowd while standing on a raised stone platform surrounded by white pillars. The thirteen Knowledge Bearers and the Mathitís make their way up onto the platform as cheers ripple through the crowd.

Moved by all the yipping and hollering, Proteus cheers too. He shouts so loud and claps his hands so hard that he nearly passes out from the fervor of it all. Thankfully, his father has followed him to this point and catches him before he falls back. His father then hoists him onto his shoulders, and so Proteus is able to see the stage clearly.

The crowd silences and Promptus steps forward.

“After nearly over half a century since settling on this continent,” Promptus booms, “we are finally gathering here today to officiate our great United Nation of Signum.” He gestures left and right towards the Knowledge Bearers. “It’s only because of the wisdom given to us by our Knowledge Bearers that we were able to make such fast-paced progress following our exodus to this land. We were once nomads but now we are citizens.”

The Knowledge Bearers step forward and flourish their hands. From their fingertips spark dazzling bursts of light—red, blue, green, and every color in-between.

That is vitae.

This is conducting

Proteus has heard gossip about it in school, has heard his parents wonder about it at home, has heard it mentioned here and there in the marketplace. Using one’s body to conduct one’s very soul along with the memories that paint them? They have truly embraced the future, shedding the scars of the past behind them—or so Proteus’s parents animatedly discuss during dinner time.

The psychedelic lights continue to speckle the air as everyone looks on in awe. Shimmering water meets pulsating fire. Glimmering air is shattered by rays of golden light. Only one Knowledge Bearer doesn’t add to this colorful light display. Instead, she stands in the middle of their row with her hands clasped over her abdomen. Once the light display ends, she steps forward beside Promptus.

This Knowledge Bearer is different from all the others. While the other twelve are colored in red, blue, green, and every color in-between, this Knowledge Bearer is white. Pure white. Her skin, her hair, her toga. The only trace of color is in her eyes: they are black like the smooth stones Proteus skips with his friends on the nearby lake. 

Black. The absence of light.

 White. The absence of color.

Beautiful.

No. She is not beautiful. Beautiful is too simple and small a term to label the aura that exudes from every pore of her body.

The Knowledge Bearer looks to him in surprise, and Proteus suddenly feels embarrassed for being on his father’s shoulders. Due to the extra height, he is directly in her line of sight. His worries fade away as soon as she offers him a smile.

“We will remember the mistakes of the ones who came before us,” she says, gaze sweeping across the crowd. Her voice is like milk and nectar—smooth and sweet. It’s unlike anything Proteus has ever heard before. “We are descendants but we are also ancestors. We are inheritors but we are also cultivators. That’s how the cycle of the world turns. Everything that is taken is returned. That is the new gate that has been opened up for us due to vitae. Like soft fibers woven together of a parent’s homemade quilt, we are connected by our pasts, feelings, aspirations, futures. This is the era of eternal peace!”

Proteus suddenly feels his heart falter as disappointment settles it. He doesn’t believe her words. He doesn’t believe in eras of eternal peace. All eras end one way or another. And for what reason does he think this? It is because the man whose shoulders he’s sitting on isn’t truly his father. His blood father’s corpse is buried beneath rubble hundreds of kilometers outside of United Signum’s borders.

Yes, Proteus is an orphan from the war torn areas outside of this united country. His real name is not even ‘Proteus.’ It was one given to him three years ago in order to help him integrate better into this country. Yes, three years ago he was taken in as a refugee and given a soft-citizenship in this Ophiuchus District of Signum and then given a new man and woman to call father and mother. He loves them dearly, but he knows they are not like him. They have existed in peace for all of their lives and ‘war’ is almost a foreign term to them—just like it is to every other resident here in this newly founded country. 

Just as Proteus is about to request his father to let him down, Ophiuchus suddenly flings her arms out wide. White globules of light spill out from her fingertips and float out towards them. They are pale and translucent, drifting through the air weightless like dandelion puffs. Out of curiosity, Proteus reaches out for one as it drifts towards him. It pops like a bubble as soon as his fingertip touches it, but—

—suddenly Proteus can feel it. Feel her. Feel her joy, her gentleness, her warmth, her wholehearted belief in an era of eternal peace. Images flit by in his mind’s eye. Conversations with old, young, tired, energetic. Pointing and jabbing fingers becoming replaced by firm shaking hands.

Memories.

Eternal peace is a reality.

Proteus believes it.

‘Proteus’ truly begins here.

Half an hour later, the Knowledge Bearers take audience with the crowd. Proteus tries to direct his father to the front, but they are pushed back by the raving attenders and Proteus’s father eventually leaves to return to work.

By the time Proteus reaches the center of the forum, the thirteen Knowledge Bearers are no longer in sight. Only a few of the Mathitís remain chattering with each other. They are all so tall, sagely, and intimidating that just thinking of approaching them causes butterflies to swarm Proteus’s stomach. The butterflies subside when Proteus spots a female Mathitís sitting alone away from the others on a stone bench pressed up against the stage. Sitting before all the whiteness, she stands out like a sore thumb. Her hair is jet black and long as are her toga. Unlike the other Mathitís, her arms and neck are unexposed to the beating sun. Instead, her toga sport a black lace turtleneck and sleeves that conceal her skin. The gold bands on her wrists and the laurel on her head designate wealth. There is a book in her hands. The pages blinding white in the sun but that doesn’t seem to deter her at all.

Proteus tentatively approaches her. She does not acknowledge his presence even when he stops short a foot away from her. Clearing his throat doesn’t get her attention either.

“E-Excuse me—” he tries.

Finally, the woman turns. “What is it, young man?”

Her eyes are cerulean blue. 

She’s pretty.

It takes a moment for Proteus to find his words. “I—do you know where the Knowledge Bearers went?”

The woman pulls away, disappointment and something akin to disdain etching itself onto her face. She returns to her book and flips a page. “Is it not customary to humbly ask the name of the person you’re requesting information from first?”

Proteus feels his cheeks burn. “Uhm, sorry. What’s your name, miss?”

The woman hums. “You can call me…” She pauses for a moment as if considering. “…Vega.” 

Vega. Proteus knows that name. He’s heard whispers about her in the marketplace. Her family is one of the wealthiest in Signum and often does philanthropy work near the borders’ edges.

“What is it? You should speak now if you have a question. If not, I’m certain you’ll have regrets.” After a pause, she adds, “Shame should never come from asking a question as long as a desire to learn is the reason behind it.”

Her words confuse Proteus, and he can’t tell whether or not she’s annoyed by him. Mustering up some courage, he manages, “H-How can I… learn under one of the Knowledge Bearers like you? How do I become a Mathitís?”

Vega looks down at him again, and Proteus can’t help but squirm under her cold gaze. “Learn under a Knowledge Bearer?”

“Uhm…” Proteus mumbles. “I’d like to… study under Ophiuchus…. specifically.”

“Why?”

Proteus opens his mouth then closes it. He doesn’t have a reason. 

“Do you not know?” Vega shuts her book and rises to her feet. “You are making a decision to dedicate yourself to something that will consume the better half of your life and you’re unable to grasp the reason.”

She’s cold.

“D-Does there need to be a reason?” he half-angrily grumbles to himself.

“There is always a reason,” Vega responds. “Every reaction is caused by a catalyst. Whether or not we need to know that reason as human beings is the question that should be asked.” 

Before Proteus can respond, Vega tucks the book under her arm and descends from the platform. 

Proteus, cheeks still burning yet filled with renewed determination, chases after her. Just as he hits the ground level, however, he is pulled back by the back of the scruff. Upon craning his neck, he spies the smile of a tall blonde woman with short hair that falls above her ears. She cuts a gallant figure with her broad back and firm arms that are further accented by her tight white and gold toga.

“Don’t mind it too much, young man,” she says. “That’s how most of the Mathitís are.”

It’s Altair. She’s the daughter of one of the very first settlers of Signum. In fact, her father is one of the founders of the District of Ophiuchus that Proteus currently resides in. She’s a current alumna at the Aesculapium and often brings books from the Aesculapium’s grand library to the elementary schools in the heart of the city. She is fun and bright and dazzling and charming. 

“They’re all so focused on academics and so serious that they neglect something the common people call ‘socialization.’”

Her words reassure Proteus.

“You’re not one?” He asks curiously. “A Mathitís?”

Altair chuckles. “It’s just not the sort of activity that I think I’d enjoy doing. I’ve never thought once about joining them, to be frank. It just doesn’t fit my character. Learning isn’t something I cast aside. But with the Knowledge Bearers—I feel as if I would be the type to worship them instead of learn from them.”

Altair’s words go over Proteus’s head. He’s only nine, after all. 

Altair places a hand on Proteus’s head and gives it a rub. “Well, if you really want to become a Mathitís, just study hard, young man. Oh, and don’t give up if you face any setbacks. Hard work beats everything.”

✧ II ✧
July 1452
μαθητής

Ophiuchus District, United Signum

Proteus spends the next eleven years studying hard. Mathematics, literature, history, poetry, science, and everything in-between. Vitae theory is all still so nebulous to him. The information changes and contradicts itself every day as new discoveries are made, but Proteus strives regardless. When he reaches the age of 16, he is permitted to enter the Aesculapium.

The Aesculapium is a prestigious academy dedicated to the sole study and research of vitae. It serves as the location where Knowledge Bearer baptismal ceremonies are conducted and is where the first vitae reservoirs in Signum were discovered. History is still fresh about how the thirteen original founders bathed in those pools and received knowledge in exchange for the pain they endured. It’s funny how mythological history sounds.

At the Aesculapium, Proteus quickly befriends a young man named Pothos who has dedicated himself to the study of vitae application and a young woman named Eurydice who has dedicated herself to the study of vitae theory much like Proteus himself. They form a fast friendship due to their similar interest in the Knowledge Bearer of Ophiuchus and since they are the first in their family lineage to attend the Aesculapium. Bonding through their mutual stress over Vega’s theory classes just strengthens their bond.

Personally, Proteus has biases towards individuals who choose to study vitae application instead of vitae theory. They seem so much more brutish and less-deep thinking than his peers that study theory. Pothos is an exception. Pothos is emphatic, energetic, contemplative, and engaging in discussion. He is good company and humorous. Pothos quickly becomes his best friend.

At the age of 19, Proteus finally stands before the Knowledge Bearer of Ophiuchus in the great white selection chamber of the Aesculapium along with Pothos, Eurydice, and a row of his fellow alumni. Despite the chamber being open to the sun beating down above, Proteus can’t help but feel that the white pillars that hold up the open roof feel like bars of a cage. It’s a poor allegory for something he’s been striving forever for, but his nerves are getting to him.

On the raised platform ahead stands Ophiuchus, basking in golden sunlight and looking just as she had all those years ago. In the brightness, she glows white. On her left stands Vega who is dressed in her usual dark garb. To Ophiuchus’s left stands Altair, draped in white and gold. 

Yes, despite proclaiming disinterest in it, Altair has indeed become a Mathitís in the time between that past conversation and now. Perhaps that is due to Vega’s influence. Why else would the two throw those gentle glances at each other behind Ophiuchus’s back?

Ophiuchus begins calling up each alumnus down the row one-by-one. She converses with them in what appears to be tense and serious debate on her platform, but they speak so quietly that Proteus can’t even chance to hear them. After speaking with her, each alumnus descends with an unreadable expression before exiting the chamber. Soon it’s Pothos’s turn and Proteus offers him a thumbs as does Eurydice before Pothos ascends. When Pothos descends fifteen minutes later, he wiggles his eyebrows. 

Success!

Soon, it is Proteus’s turn. He ascends deliberately, carefully, feeling Vega’s, Altair’s, and Ophiuchus’s stares intensify with every step he takes. 

Ophiuchus is majestic, he thinks.

Vega places a thoughtful hand to her mouth and glances over at Altair who cocks her head in response. 

“Oh, I remember you,” Ophiuchus says as she studies him carefully. “You were at the founding festival.”

“You recognize me?” Proteus feels a sense of jubilation bubble up from his chest and express itself as a smile on his lips.

“Of course.” Ophiuchus chuckles. “I remember everyone. You were that young boy who rode on his foster father’s shoulders, aren’t you?”

Proteus stiffens. “You know—” 

“When you connected with me, I also connected with you. Your memories, my memories, your feelings, my feelings—that’s how my conducting presents itself. I do apologize if you found that intrusive.”

“No, it’s… fascinating,” Proteus murmurs in response. A desire to replicate such a form of conducting worms its way into his mind.

Ophiuchus smiles at this. “A curious mind. That’s good. Now, I only connected with you briefly back then, so I don’t really know you. Answer me this kindly then, Proteus: who are you?”

It takes a moment for Proteus to calm his giddiness at such compliments and at such admittance of closeness. When he recovers himself, his cheeks pinken as he realizes he’s been standing in silence for well over half a minute. Nerves jittering, he turns the question ten times over in his head before he answers—

“I’m no one—because I am what everyone perceives me to be. You, who have just met me, have no opinion of me yet despite connecting with me for that short instance. Therefore, Ophiuchus, in your eyes I am nothing. I am no one.”

Ophiuchus hums. “That is certainly a unique answer.”

“As you see fit,” Proteus answers. “I’m a sponge, ready to take in whatever is around me.”

Ophiuchus looks back at Vega. 

“A sponge?” Vega presses. “Are you suggesting that the knowledge we offer you is dirty and it needs to be cleaned away? A sponge can only absorb what it is given and can only regurgitate what it’s absorbed. It contributes nothing.”

Proteus feels winded. 

Altair winces and gives Vega a look. Vega holds her gaze before she amends—“Or are you highlighting your capacity and willingness to learn?”

“T-The latter. Yes.”

“I suggest to you this first lesson then: think of less loop-hole ridden and cliched allegories and be prepared to defend your ideas from now on.”

And it is so. In the end, Proteus passes Ophiuchus’s and Vega’s judgement and joins Pothos as an official Mathitís to Ophiuchus. So does Eurydice. They celebrate as a trio together at midnight and drink well into the next day. 

Their first private lessons with Ophiuchus and other Knowledge Bearers are held in the lavishly furnished Mathitís Hall of the Aesculapium that only the Mathitís can access. Such lessons are unlike any other lesson Proteus has attended before. The Knowledge Bearers speak about vitae from firsthand experience and they answer all questions thoroughly. They challenge ways of thinking and foster curiosity. It is not just a lecture but an experience.

Proteus prefers Ophiuchus’s lessons above all the others. Pothos does too. In fact, Pothos’s devotion to Ophiuchus almost rivals Proteus’s own. Almost. Almost is still enough to stir some unhappiness in Proteus’s chest but he combats it by finding a mutual sense of camaraderie with Pothos in their mutual admiration of Ophiuchus. Proteus also finds camaraderie in the other Mathitís of Ophiuchus—particularly in Bolina and Soteria. They too immigrated into the country at a young age. They too feel the dissonance that Proteus himself occasionally feels.

At Ophiuchus’s side and among the Mathitís, Proteus feels as if he had finally found home where he belongs.

February 1458

Conversations with Virgo are cerebral, with Scorpio enlightening, with Cancer emotional, with Gemini humorous. Their faces have changed many times over these years that Proteus has served as a Mathitís. 

In the beginning, he feels uncomfortable about it:

One moment, he is helping a student through a course on vitae theory and the next that very same student is a Knowledge Bearer helping him through a formula relating vitae wavelength to velocity and energy. After performing some baptismal ceremonies himself at the heart of the Ophiuchus district, however, Proteus becomes somewhat accustomed to it—although it unnerves him still despite the vigor and enthusiasm all potential Knowledge Bearers display before going through the ceremony.

The selection process remains quite mysterious to Proteus and involves one-on-one consultation of the potential Knowledge Bearer with other Knowledge Bearers and sometimes even the Knowledge Bearer they are to take the role from. Whenever Proteus has asked Vega about it, she merely tells him the information will be disseminated to him with time. Patience, she always says.

The only Knowledge Bearer who does not change face over the years is Ophiuchus’s. Proteus frequents her often as one of her Mathitís. He attends all of her private lectures and even the public ones for the general alumni at the Aesculapium. She speaks profoundly and doesn’t look down on anyone as she teaches. She smiles at everyone fairly and answers all questions no matter how simple. She is a bright light that draws all eyes. Proteus thinks that she shines even brighter than Leo despite all of Leo’s gallantry and charisma. 

Proteus has one-on-one sessions with Ophiuchus every week. They discuss the origins of vitae particles, the natural cycle and energy levels vitae particles go through, the Ceremony of the Return in which individuals who are near death visit vitae reservoirs to offer themselves to resupply it, as well as politics and philosophy which surprisingly go hand-in-hand. Sometimes when Proteus is close enough to her to see the ebony of her eyes, he can’t help but think he sees loneliness there.

One day while they are discussing the concept of enlightenment, freedom, and inner peace, Proteus suggests the idea that a longer life leads to more attachments combating the wisdom a longer life tends to bestow. It’s a half-formulated concept that he’s been considering for a little over a month, but he still feels comfortable enough divulging to Ophiuchus his scattered thoughts.

Ophiuchus considers his point before she responds with a question of her own: “Are you saying that I’m the least peaceful out of all the other Knowledge Bearers since I’ve been ‘here’ the longest?”

Proteus backpedals immediately but Ophiuchus merely chuckles good-naturedly in response. 

“That’s an interesting perspective,” she says, still smiling. “You shouldn’t be ashamed to have a perspective as long as you’re able to explain and support it with facts. In fact, I think you in particular can offer a particularly unique perspective, Proteus. I would like to hear more from you on that.”

“A unique perspective?”

“Yes, from your childhood years outside of United Signum.” Ophiuchus adds gently, “If you feel comfortable, of course.”

Proteus doesn’t like to talk much about his past before being brought into Signum—not even to Pothos, not even to Eurydice. But Ophiuchus feels just slightly different. 

“Aren’t you and the other Knowledge Bearers the same?” he tries after a while. “You have… also lived outside of this peaceful land.”

Ophiuchus’s smile thins. “That does make one wonder, doesn’t it? That is: how we’re able to bring in a peaceful era despite not truly understanding what peace is and having never lived in peace before. I’ve had lengthy discussions with Vega about this.”

There is a pang in Proteus’s chest at the latter revelation. Ophiuchus seems to somehow read his thoughts because she reaches across the table to hold his hand.

“Each one of you is special to me, Proteus,” Ophiuchus says, placing a finger to her lips. A secret. “Our ultimate goal is peace, freedom, and tranquility. While we teach that the pursuit of knowledge is a way to live by, we still uphold lack of attachment as the key to internal peace and true enlightenment since everything returns to the cycle. Passions can drive a person mad, after all. Even so, I’m still human in the end.”

Proteus understands what she’s implying. Although the admittance warms his chest, with it comes a general feeling of uneasiness. Above the uneasiness, however, is a sense of pride—pride that Ophiuchus trusted him with this information.

“I… thank you, Ophiuchus, for telling me this,” Proteus says. After some time, he returns to the previous conversation: “Attachments… One could argue that having a name is a form of attachment. Therefore, is it that potential Knowledge Bearers abandon their name to limit that number of attachments? And for the current names you bear… do you believe that is a form of attachment? Since you’ve held onto it for so long?”

“Well, conversing with a large group without having a name is quite difficult, so the usefulness of names overrides what you consider an ‘attachment,’” Ophiuchus muses after some thought. “Actually… the names that you call us and the names you’ve named the thirteen districts are not our actual true names. We selected those names for ourselves after we became the first Knowledge Bearers.” She presses a finger to her lips again. Another secret. “My true name is actually Pandora.”

“P-Pandora…” Proteus turns, heart pounding. “But… Where did you get the names Ophiuchus, Scorpio, Leo, Libra form?”

“Names are always derived from the past, aren’t they?” Ophiuchus doesn’t elaborate further and merely says, “This is our secret, alright?”

Secret. Trust. Proteus is honored.

Over the years, their relationship grows stronger and stronger. Proteus remains wholly dedicated to Ophiuchus, while some of the other Mathitís gradually find their dedication split between each other, their research, and other outside responsibilities. Proteus’s relationship with Ophiuchus is incomparable to any other—he knows. He understands her, and she understands him. 

November 1465

Aesculapium, Ophiuchus District, United Signum

“Is it not cruel?” Proteus wonders.

Vega looks up at him from across the Itero Recino board game table. They have just retired from presenting a dual lecture for the younger students at the Aesculapium. The materials for the past few lectures were quite trivial, so Proteus began weaving little riddles into lectures. Vega caught on quickly and began weaving them into hers. For the past twenty lectures, they’ve been sending each other riddles interwoven within their lessons. 

Vega has warmed a little since Proteus first laid eyes on her during that founding festival two decades ago. Proteus has found it easier to talk to her in recent years and often confides in her things he does not wish to confide in Pothos, Eurydice, or even Ophiuchus–though he feels guilty for the latter bit. She always listens much like Ophiuchus does, and perhaps this is a skill she has developed due to her recent interests. Vega has developed an apparent fondness for children, going so far as to teach in rural regions near the borders of the country. Proteus wonders if this is due to Altair’s influence. He’s not quite sure how he feels about their relationship.

Vega’s brilliant, after all. Over these handful of years, she has proved the theory of the linked spatial factor shared between vitae particles. Her research has now shifted to the application of such theories. 

Vega is also one of the handful of Mathitís who worked on developing the mechanical conductor able to mimic the way the Knowledge Bearers conduct their vitae through tapping into the vitae within the bloodstream. It has not become mainstream yet, but it shows promise. Alternative forms of conducting have been suggested in recent years but Vega doesn’t look upon them fondly because she is old-fashioned. There is an ‘intimacy’—or so she says—with conducting that needs to be respected since it is utilizing memories and soul.

In recent years, however, she has become less and less focused on her research and more focused on teaching those children on the outskirts and—more focused on Altair. 

“When Knowledge Bearers are chosen, they generally serve for only a handful of years or even a handful of months,” Proteus says, moving the black piece marked with ‘α’ over the white piece marked ‘θ’. He palms the latter piece with a frown. “After that, they return themselves to the vitae reservoirs… The only exception to that has been Ophiuchus. Would you not say that that’s cruel? For such young individuals to inherit such a taxing and short-lived task?”

“When one becomes a Knowledge Bearer, one quite literally becomes a lexicon of information,” Vega replies. “One that is given consciousness. That’s quite a dangerous state of being.” She looks across the library terrace towards the open window where Proteus can see Altair enjoying the sunlight. “A change in perspective is also a necessity. That’s what the District Elects believe. The only exception is Ophiuchus.”

For now, Proteus thinks with worry.

“That is due to the fact that her role is somewhat different from the others.…. but I do believe I understand your perspective.” She puts a hand to her mouth as her other drifts across the board. “It’s quite a burden to place on the coming generation. One could argue that at least they’re taking on that burden for their current and future generations, but still…”

Proteus studies her.

“An alternative means should be found, yes. What we’re operating on is tradition—however young it may be.” She eats two of his pieces. Then three. “I’ve taught many who have grown to become Knowledge Bearers, and I have been taught by them in turn. The cyclic process is also tradition… Whether to become attached to tradition or not…” 

“Attached? I’ve discussed that topic with Ophiuchus recently.” Proteus watches Vega’s face to see if there are any hints of jealousy there. He quickly divulges some of the contents of his most recent conversation with her.

Vega only shows mild interest. “I see. That must have been an interesting conversation. The path to enlightenment is not far from the path of passion. They are connected through the bridges of attachment and obsession. Only freedom can sever that connection. Or so Sagittarius once said.”

Vega finishes maneuvering her pieces on the board. Unsurprisingly, only white pieces remain. Proteus has lost. 

✧ III ✧
August 1490
ευλάβεια

Something in the universe changes. It’s as if a switch has been flipped: an instantaneous reaction. The world blackens. 

Proteus doesn’t notice it himself at first. He is too busy basking in the light that is Ophiuchus’s presence and enjoying his position, studies, colleagues, and research at the Aesculapium to detect any sort of wrongness. The darkness reaches his eyes one day when he is perusing the Aesculapium’s white marble library with Mnemosyne. 

Mnemosyne is a bit of an oddball. She is a Mathitís for the Knowledge Bearer of Ophiuchus, but seems more like she is one for Leo. Frankly speaking, she acts more like a fevered fan than a learner or a teacher. She adores Leo and almost seems to worship the ground he walks on. The love and adoration is fortunately—or perhaps unfortunately—returned in kind. It’s not difficult to discern that Leo dotes on her even more than his own Mathitís. The history there is unknown to Proteus but he isn’t curious enough to pry. Regardless of this, he respects Mnemosyne for the progress she has made in quantifying the relationship between the vitae particle and memory. She has even managed to consolidate the theory into a form of conducting.

Proteus is discussing the potential ramifications Mnemosyne’s discovery will have on Knowledge Bearers when Altair and Vega storm into the library. They do not head to the glass bookshelves that line the pristine walls nor do they move to the central marble table where weekly debates are held. No, instead they head straight to Leo and Scorpio who are conversing out on the balcony in the evening light. Both Leo and Scorpio turn to the approaching two in surprise and offer greeting smiles. This warm gesture is not returned by either Altair and Vega.

Explain yourselves,” Altair demands through gritted teeth as she shoves a stack of papers into Leo’s chest. “What is this?”

“What are you doing to the children in the Virgo region?” Vega presses. Her countenance is calm, but the brooding storm in her eyes bleeds out into the rest of the library. Out of respect, some of the alumni who are perusing the shelves quickly exit the chamber.

Mnemosyne, on the other hand, stiffens and then blazes over to Leo’s side. Leo holds up a hand, stopping her short at the threshold of the balcony. Proteus, curious and somewhat afraid, joins her. By the time he nears, the papers that were shoved into Scorpio’s hands are scattered in disarray on the floor.

“No, no, no.” Scorpio shakes his head as his hand sweeps wide. “Virgo would never do something like this. Your presumptions are—”

Leo moves forward and picks the papers from the ground. He scans them, gaze darkening “What is this…?”

Altair visibly bristles. “Don’t act ignoran—” 

Vega places a hand on Altair’s shoulder. “Would you mind elaborating, Leo?”

Leo looks at her sharply, a frown pressing down his lips. “Why would you think I would be involved in something like this? You think that lowly of me, no?”

“The high opinions we hold of the Knowledge Bearers have been proven incorrect rather recently,” Vega replies evenly, “so forgive us if we are presumptuous.” She slowly points to the paper in Leo’s hands. “Both Virgo and Pisces are clearly implicated in this. It would be irresponsible of us not to consider the others.”

Leo’s frown deepens. “You have confronted others about this, yes?”

“Ophiuchus,” Altair replies. “We went to her before we came to you. She was aghast—”

No,” Scorpio repeats defiantly. He sweeps out of the balcony into the library and heads to the exit. “I don’t believe it–”

“Where are you going?” Leo calls after him.

“I’ll confront Virgo myself about this,” Scorpio replies without stopping. “There has to be some sort of mistake—a misunderstanding.”

“Don’t be reckless, yes? Be strong. Be smart,” Leo says, warns Scorpio, before turning and finally beckoning Mnemosyne near.

“What’s going on…?” she asks tentatively.

After consulting with Leo and Vega privately, Altair tells Proteus and Mnemosyne everything and it horrifies Proteus. Vitae is being harvested—not from the reservoirs but from humans. From children. The immigrant orphans that live at the border’s edge. And why? Because certain districts have begun to experience a drought of reservoirs. The people demand more. Then—there is this talk about this so-called ‘syzygy.’

The lack of patience, empathy, and care is astounding. The lack of proper education and humane solution is revolting. They are a civilized nation but they still resort to something like this? Proteus is certain that if reservoir conservation policy and appropriate distribution measures are put into place, this issue could be easily resolved. It will just take time.  It’s almost unbelievable that anyone would think of a solution like this instead. 

At the same time, however, Proteus is not surprised. 

The world blackens further. 

The Knowledge Bearers hold council in the Mathitís hall a week or two later. By this time, word has spread to all the Mathitís; and they gather together to watch the outcome of the discussion. Pothos and Eurydice who flank Proteus’s left and right from where he stands behind Ophiuchus’s stolen chair are both disgusted. 

It is evident that the Knowledge Bearers are divided into three factions: those who are against, those who are for, and those who hold neutral ground. How one can be apathetic and hold neutral ground in this situation astounds Proteus.

“The people demand more reservoirs, Scorpio says, breaking the silence first. “It’s not as if they won’t eventually become part of the reservoirs eventually. Why not meet the demands of our people while simultaneously moving forward with the syzygy?”

Something has changed in that single week since Scorpio has allegedly confronted Virgo. It unnerves Proteus. He doesn’t recognize Scorpio anymore. He wants to ask what happened but he knows knowing will do nothing.

“The syzygy,” Capricorn repeats with disdain. “Is that what you’re calling this reprehensible plan of yours?”

“It’s not so much a plan,” Scorpio responds, “as a sequential series of events. A chain reaction started by a catalyst long ago. It’s inevitable—” 

“You’re a fool, Scorpio.” Leo’s eyes narrow. “Do you hear yourself?”

“The people have made this decision,” Pisces replies, folding his hands together and smiling pleasantly. “Our purpose is to aid our people and that’s what we’re doing.”

Your people,” Taurus replies evenly. “Not ours.”

“It’s not even the people… Cancer mumbles. “It’s the District Leaders…”

Scorpio smiles sympathetically and extends a hand. “You don’t understand now, but you will. This is fact.”

Gemini lifts her head, eyes widening as if in realization. “You idiot. You tried to use your vitae on Virgo, didn’t you…? That’s why—” 

“So the plan is to decimate a quarter of the people to supply the people, no? And then what afterwards?” Leo interjects, amber eyes burning bright. “Why would you even suggest that route to them? Have you no pride? And this—this syzygyDisgusting!” 

Leo rises to a stand and swings out his hand. A ribbon of gold spills out from his palm and spindles into six blades that hover in the air. Without hesitation, he flings his hand out and the blades hurtle across the table towards Scorpio who continues smiling pleasantly. Before the blades reach him, a burst of crimson flame erupts over the table and the blades of vitae are disintegrated in an instant.

Aries.

Proteus immediately thinks of his childhood as memories of mortar shells, gunfire, and the rumble of detonators flood his mind. The gasps that fill the room barely reach his ears as his mind reels. He is only brought back to reality by Ophiuchus’s voice— 

“Stop this at once!”

Ophiuchus captures the attention of the room almost immediately. As the smoke in the room clears, guided by Sagittarius’s tense and waving hand, Ophiuchus rises to a stand. Her gaze sweeps the room and she looks at all of them sympathetically, warmly.

“We cannot fight like this. Arguments should be settled not with fists but with words—no, with understanding, compromise, and patience. What sort of examples are we setting by using our fists instead of our heads?” she asks, before folding her hands together. She gazes across the table towards Pisces and Scorpio. “I have a proposal that may satisfy all parties.”

“Oh?” Pisces reflects her smile back. “And what is that?”

“I suggest that… you have a little bit more faith in our people,” Ophiuchus says. “You’re pushing for vitae harvesting and this syzygy and claim it is for them. As Knowledge Bearers, our purpose is indeed to offer a guiding hand to our people, but perhaps we have grown too involved and attached.” She gestures to opposite ends of the table. “We should not be actively deciding the fates of our people. I think this development makes that clear regardless of where you stand. I suggest we take a more hands-off approach from now on. I repeat: we should have faith in our people. If their path leads them to this ‘syzygy’ as you call it then so be it, but if not, then why should we push for it?

“That’s ridiculous, Ophiuchus. You know it.” Scorpio stares at her with sympathy. “It’s just delaying what is already meant to be.” 

Ophiuchus responds only by reflecting his sympathetic look.

“The only person who benefits from this sort of agreement is you, Ophiuchus,” Libra interjects calmly. She has remained so quiet the entire time that Proteus has almost forgotten her presence. “You are asking without giving in return.”

Leo bristles. “And this is you taking a neutral stance, yes?”

“I am being neutral. I’m stating as I see fit and fair,” Libra responds calmly. “The opposing party will not be satisfied with this. This ‘syzygy’ that they believe is the key to peace—”

“Key to peace,” Capricorn scoffs.

“—is pushed back by your deal proposal so they must pay with time,” Libra continues. “The challenging party receives only benefits and loses nothing.” She extends a hand out to Ophiuchus’s and Leo’s direction. “I suggest you offer an equivalent wager.”

Ophiuchus takes a long and sweeping of the hall before she lets out a breath and gestures to chest. “I wager myself.”

Proteus doesn’t understand what she’s implying.

“I have not gone through a baptismal ceremony since taking my role here,” she says. “And I will not go through any from now on. Our bodies are held together by the vitae particles inside of us, but we still face the ravages of time. Since they must wait during this deal, I will do the same to extremity.” 

Libra frowns. “Ophiuchus… I care for you and respect you, but do you think your stagnation is enough?”

Ophiuchus’s gaze does not falter. “It’s up to the opposing party to accept this proposal, isn’t it?”

Scorpio exchanges a look with Pisces, before Scorpio smirks and Pisces offers a calm nod.

Proteus world cracks in two.

Proteus gets on his knees, crawls along the floor, and grovels at Ophiuchus’s legs. All of Ophiuchus’s other 23 Mathités that ring her look down at him in surprise, pity, disappointment. Pothos is among them and moves forward to try to bring Proteus back up to his feet, but Proteus pushes him aside. 

“Please, Ophiuchus!” he pleads. “You have to see how foolish this deal is! The ones who benefit from it are the ones who want the syzygy to happen! You know what people are like, Ophiuchus. You know! It’s all for naught!”

“Proteus,” Vega warns. “Respect Ophiuchus’s choice.”

“You’ve lived long enough to know that I’m right, Ophiuchus!” Proteus continues, before whipping towards Vega. “Vega, you’ve seen how it is near the outskirts, haven’t you? You’ve seen what those children have gone through before they’ve come into our borders. It’s no use!”

Vega seems to consider his words. Proteus reaches for her, but Altair pulls her away while casting a sympathetic look in Proteus’s direction.

Altair

“Proteus, please have some faith in your fellow humans,” Ophiuchus says gently as she falls into a crouch in front of him so they are eye-level. “Please have a little bit of hope.”

Hope.

Proteus grabs onto her hand. “I was no one before I met you, Ophiuchus

Ophiuchus’s face folds and she pulls away. “I see I have taught you incorrectly, Proteus. I’m sorry for that–” 

“Why can’t you see? Why can’t you see?!” Proteus cries, scrambling to his feet and stumbling towards her. Before he can reach for her hand again, the other Mathitís pull him back. “How can you all just sit by and let this be? She’s our teacher! She’s given us everything we know!”

“Proteus! Stop it!” 

“That’s enough, Proteus…”

Proteus stares at them all in disbelief.

Why can’t they see it…?

It is then that Proteus shakily raises his hand to his left eye, digs his fingers into his eye-socket, and—squelch! Someone screams. Proteus ignores them and fixates his remaining good eye on Ophiuchus as she turns to him in confusion. Her hand flies to her mouth as he shrugs himself forward out of the ones who hold him. He offers her his eye.

“If you can’t see it with your own eye, then look through mine! Connect with me! You have to see!” Proteus pleads. He stumbles towards her again, but his legs buckle beneath him as blood loss settles in. 

Ophiuchus’s voice echoes in his ears—“Please get him to a medical…”

As his vision dims, the last thing he sees is her retreating back.

The next year Proteus and Ophiuchus’s Mathitís as well as other Mathitís press the limits of their research capabilities away from the eyes of the other Knowledge Bearers. In the end, they postulate a number of steps they can take to mitigate this ‘syzygy.’ These measures are arguably unethical, but it is their best option. It’s not as if the pro-syzygy Knowledge Bearers are doing any better, after all.

Their first countermeasure is bleaching vitae. It brings vitae to such a lower energy level that they hypothesize it is unable to return to the cycle. The older Mathitís find this method reprehensible since it disrupts the natural cyclic nature of vitae. It’s no better than what Pisces and Virgo did, they say. It’s simply doing it in the opposite direction.

Second, there is the practice of actively siphoning away vitae from the vitae reservoirs. It is the younger Mathitís that object to this idea. It’s retroactive, they say. It’ll just make the common people and the District Leaders more desperate for vitae.

Their reluctance irritates Proteus. He wishes they would just let go of their hesitation. If they would just let go of it, then they would be able to achieve anything. But Ophiuchus has always taught patience and understanding, so Proteus keeps his feelings to himself. Throughout the entire ordeal, no one mentions his missing eye, but he occasionally gets curious looks, disdainful looks, admiring looks.

This inconvenience aside, even in light of their discoveries, the world continues to spin against them.

Sagittarius who has remained neutral is rumored to have switched their stance to pro-syzygy. Gemini as well. Proteus doesn’t know what has caused the change in tide but he suspects it will soon reach the other Knowledge Bearers. 

September 1, 1491

Proteus does not attend the day the pact is meant to be sealed. He hears about it despite not wanting to. Eurydice describes it in great detail between weeping tears:

In a dark chamber where light did not touch, Libra met with Ophiuchus. Under Leo’s and Pisces’s gazes, Libra reiterated the points of their deal—the free will clause on both parties, non-interference, and the observer resolution. After that, Libra drove her vitae straight through Ophiuchus’s chest, effectively paralyzing her and her vitae. Ophiuchus—still conscious—was subsequently laid down to rest on a stone table that would serve as her bed for an unknowable amount of time to come.

An hour or so after Proteus learns of this, a public announcement carries through the Ophiuchus District by paper and word-of-mouth: The United Signum is united no more. Each district has laid claim to its own independence and has become a fully functional state. 

Eternal united peace?

Folly.

It’s gut-wrenching.

“You should have been there,” Pothos says bitterly when he finds Proteus later that evening. “Ophiuchus would’ve wanted you to be there.”

Proteus tries to ignore him.

“She’s going to spend who knows how long trapped in that chamber,” Pothos continues. “Think of how lonely she’ll be when we’re gone.” 

Ophiuchus’s loneliness—Proteus feels guilty for not considering it, but he still is angry that she clings so tightly to her belief despite knowing better. Is he disappointed? No. Just sad. The thought of her potential century-long loneliness is enough to swallow bitter feelings. He has to do something, he knows. He needs to do something for her before he is gone. But if offering his eye to her is not enough, then what…? 

1500

The world continues to turn. In what direction? Proteus does not know. The leaders of each of the decade-old states have decided to relabel the Knowledge Bearers as Saint Candidates. There is irony behind the meanings of the differing titles that does not escape Proteus.

An idea sparks inside Proteus’s mind a couple decades after Ophiuchus is sealed: a way to stay by Ophiuchus’s side, a way to mitigate her loneliness, a way to help her. He thinks of it after spying Mnemosyne wandering by Leo’s side in the Aesculapium’s halls during one of Leo’s covert visits.

Proteus locates Vega in the library at the dead of night not soon after. He spills to her his ideas, his dreams, his plans, his hopes.

“We need to resist,” Proteus insists. “We don’t know if the Knowledge Bearers will uphold their end of the bargain, so we must–” 

“Resist?” Vega frowns. “By making us resistant to the turn of the cycle? By resisting Ophiuchus’s wishes and sacrifice?”

A gloominess has shrouded the woman’s face in the past year and an invisible deep sadness seems to weep out from every pore in her body. 

“We have to,” Proteus insists. “We have to actively try to stop the syzygy from happening. We cannot blindly put our faith and hope in the future generations! Shouldn’t we take that burden from the children coming on after us?”

His pleas do not reach her.

“I will follow along with Ophiuchus’s request,” Vega says. “Proteus… I suggest you do the same. Out of respect. Out of a sense of responsibility.”

Proteus is devastated by Vega’s answer. He needs her brilliance to move this plan of his forward. He needs her reputation to draw more people towards his ideals, but now—

Suddenly, Proteus thinks of Altair. He knows that Altair is the one who followed Vega to become a Mathitís, but he also knows following is not a one-way route. And so he begins to whisper into Altair’s ear. He appeals to the woman’s knightly nature, to her desire to serve, to her sense of justice, to her sense of righteousness. He drops the seeds of his ideas here and there and waits for them to take root.

It only takes two weeks. The bitterness in Altair’s heart takes hold, and she finally realizes that standing idle is insufficient. She agrees to his proposition. When Vega learns of this, there is expected conflict. Proteus overhears snippets of the duo’s late night argument in the libraries from where he hides out of sight behind a bookcase.

“Darling,” Altair says, “I won’t be able to live with myself if I die and return to the cycle without having done anything to try and stop this madness. I cannot allow Ophiuchus’s sacrifice to be in vain—”

“You won’t be able to return to the cycle at all,” Vega returns, “if you go through with what Proteus has laid out. It’s wrong, Altair. You know it. Ophiuchus would not approve of it.”

Altair moves to hold Vega’s face in her left palm. “Darling, I want to make sure there is a Signum for your vitae to return to every time your cycle is turned. I want to make sure the cycle is still present for those who come after us.” She traces Vega’s cheekbone and wrinkles with her thumb. “I will not go immediately and will remain here as long as possible, darling, so you won’t miss me much. I promise.”

When Vega doesn’t respond, Altair pulls away. She is prevented from fully retreating, however, by Vega’s hand which wraps around her wrist.

“You’re a ridiculous person.” Vega sighs, pulling Altair back gently towards her. “Why would you think I would not follow you if you chose this path?” She carefully cups Altair’s hand in her own. “You will always be my precious magpie. Wherever you fly, I will follow—just for the chance that you will alight in my palm so I may hold you as long as possible.”

“Darling…”

A kiss seals their fate.

Proteus feels relief. 

With both Vega and Altair on board, it does not take long for the other Mathitís to follow. The younger follow in the footsteps left by the elder no matter the time and place.

1509

Nearly a decade later, the development of the resistor reaches completion. Those Mathitís who still remain gather at Proteus’s beckoning in the Mathitís Hall of the aged Aesculapium. Despite the passage of time, the marbled walls remain pristine and the pillars that uphold the stone roof still stand pure white. It is a sign of reassurance or perhaps an attachment. Either way, it is an anchor. 

This will be their final forum discussion before they bleach their vitae, and Proteus addresses their final concerns, worries, hesitations to the best of his ability.

“We’ll be the enduring hope in the resistance against the syzygy,” Proteus says in his closing lines. “We will be Ophiuchus’s”—Pandora’s, he thinks— “ELPIS.”

Everyone solemnly nods as silence falls. 

“It’s still damned unnatural,” Themis, a Mathitís of Libra, spits and breaks the silence first. She has been brought in through her association with Pothos, Vega, and Altair. “I understand that and I bitterly admit that Libra made an incorrect judgment, but…” She gestures to her chest. “Removing ourselves from the cycle? Is it ethical? Have we filled out all the proper paperwork? Brought it to the review board? No! Because we’re doing it under the damned table and breaking a contract!”

“If you don’t like it…” Bolina sighs. “… then why are you here, Themis?” She glances over to another middle-aged woman beside her. “And you Hatsya? You’re a Mathitís for Scorpio, aren’t you? You used to be so flirtatious with him, and you see how he is now. How can we trust you?”

Hatsya clicks her tongue in annoyance. “I still know what’s right and what’s wrong outside of my personal relationships. Check yourself before you go judging others.”

“Just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean I won’t go through with it,” Themis agrees. “As Hatsya said, I know what’s right and just.”

The whispers of disagreement begin to blossom around them.

Vega silences it all with one sweeping look. “We will need to keep records. This is how we shall combat the stagnation bleached vitae brings. We will need to be our own bearers of knowledge. If not, we will not learn what works and what doesn’t. We won’t grow from our mistakes,” she says. “I suggest we store such records in the laboratory Altair carved out for me 20 or 30 years ago. We can use those rooms as an operating base as well.”

“We should lay some ground rules in place now and let any objections and discussion on the path ahead be displayed out now,” Altair adds. “Having these discussions after the fact is kind of pointless.”

Vega nods. “I will start notating now. This will be our first record.”

“We won’t be ourselves anymore after this, right, Vega?” someone murmurs. “Not really.”

Vega nods quietly.

Morose silence again falls over them all.

Proteus can see reluctance mounting but it never reaches full fruition. He then suggests after some more silence–“Then we should abandon the names we currently have. It’ll be a sign of our choice and our removal from the cycle.” He placed a hand to his chest. “We end here.”

“We die here,” Vega agrees. “That being said, if you would like to approach this matter poetically like so, what names would you suggest we take on, Proteus?”

Proteus thinks for a moment as he regards Vega and then recalls the numerous rounds of Itero Recino they’ve played over the years. He swiftly counts the heads in the hall before he offers his suggestion.

“Ah, how childish,” Vega says in response, tone fond. 

“Since you started it, you should be Alpha, Proteus,” Eurydice offers in a clear attempt to warm the mood. “I’ll be Beta.” 

Pothos steps forward, gesturing to himself. “I’ll be Gamma—”

“Wait a damn minute!” Themis bristles. “How come you get to choose your names first? Where’s the fairness in that!” She pauses to hack a cough. “I say we draw—”

Foreign footfalls cut Themis off short. Proteus and the others turn towards the threshold entrance where a woman with golden curls and amber eyes stands. It is Leo, now wearing a different face. 

“Please do continue, yes?” she says. “Oh. I apologize if my entrance has… distracted you.”

“Leo!” Mnemosyne greets the Knowledge Bearer with pure enthusiasm. “You made it!”

Mnemosyne is given tense looks of disapproval. 

“What are you doing here, Leo?” someone asks, tense, distrustful.

“I’ll assist you in your efforts, yes? Mnemosyne has told me everything,” Leo replies calmly, walking forward and standing at the center of their gathering. “I cannot stand the idea of going back on everything that we’ve built, no? It is pure nonsense.”

Some glance at Vega, others at Proteus himself.

“You’ve known me all of your lives, and I’ve known you all of mine.” Leo’s gaze sweeps over them all. “You’ve seen where I stand on this situation, yes? Just as you cannot let this be, neither can I.”

Proteus regards Leo. Leo was one of the few Knowledge Bearers to stand by Ophiuchus’s side in the previous decade. Leo is trustworthy. Vega seems to agree because she offers a nod of approval.

“To assist you best, I will pretend to side with Scorpio, Pisces, and the others for now. I dislike doing dishonorable things like going against deals, but in this case I must, no? Discreetly.” Leo looks them over again. “And how will you handle your own discreteness? The others will realize what you are doing soon.” A sympathetic look passes over her gaze. “You are sure of your choice?”

“We’re as certain as you are,” Altair says.

“We’ll apply the observer clause in this case,” Vega answers the first question evenly, “when this comes to the attention of the other Knowledge Bearers… To stay by Ophiuchus’s side and ensure the other party upholds their end up the deal—this will be our explanation. Will that be sufficient in your eyes…?”

Leo inclines her head. “I know the path ahead seems impossible, but I will tell you this. Impossible is something to be conquered by the strong. I admire your bravery.”

They finally enter Ophiuchus’s chamber a week before it is to be done. Ophiuchus has aged slightly in the past decade and has become noticeably thinner. Pothos kneels at her side and holds her hand, while Vega holds her gaze gloomily. 

Proteus tells Ophiuchus what is to be done. Ophiuchus, who can no longer truly speak, merely holds his gaze. He cannot decipher her expression. Perhaps if he had both of his eyes he would be able to.

As the time nears, fear stirs Proteus’s heart, but it is not fear for himself or for the others. It is fear that Ophiuchus will still be alone. They will forget with each initiation, but she won’t. He does not want to forget any moments he experiences with Ophiuchus from this point on either. He wants to record everything that their written records fail to capture. This will be key in their resistance effort, he convinces himself. And so he takes Mnemosyne aside and makes a request. 

“With the help of your conducting, I’ll become a pseudo-Knowledge Bearer,” he reasons, trying to reassure both himself and her. “I know the others will object to this, so this should stay just between us—”

“A pseudo-Knowledge Bearer?” the woman mutters fretfully, biting her nails. “That’s… not right. You know it’s not.” 

Unable to suppress his frustration, he takes a hold of her sides and shakes her hard. “Leo is sacrificing his entire life to help us. Do you want him to be alone in all of that? We’ll forget, but he won’t! Ophiuchus won’t!”

Mnemosyne crumples under his words. Her affection for and attachment to Leo is strong. So, a day later, the two of them select a trusted alumnus at the Aesculapium named Julius to be the donor of vitae and memory for the coming years. Julius thus becomes the first true non-resistored ELPIS member. Proteus knows there will be many more to come until this cold war they have with the pro-syzygy Knowledge Bearers ends. 

Proteus goes through the vitae bleaching ceremony first. Vega and Mnemosyne are the ones who apply the procedure. As he lays down on the stone slab table in Vega’s exitless room, he stares up at the ceiling and thinks over his entire life: from the time he was hiding from bullets and bombs outside of Signum to him being taken into his foster parents’ care to him basking in Ophiuchus’s light for the first time to attending and giving lectures with his fellow Mathitís at the Aesculapium.

Ophiuchus has always been his beginning. He hopes that she will be his end as well. Despite all of his reservations about the choice Ophiuchus has made, now that he really thinks about it, he still believes in her version of eternal peace.

Peace. Hope. Love.

Attachment.

Yes, those are ‘right’ things and they are in the right.

The searing hot pain that scorches through his vein marks the turning point.

Proteus ends here.

Alpha begins here.


Twin Cities, Gemini

Francis Foxman carefully wove his way through the damp streets he’d known since childhood. His gates had covered almost every meter of the city near the end of last fall, but many had been scrubbed away by the ELPIS Department in the weeks following that. He managed to set up a handful of supplementary gates around the east and west corridors in the past few months, but it was exceedingly difficult to do so without drawing the attention of Scorpio’s spores. This especially held true regarding areas surrounding Romano and Foxman footholds. At the moment, however, encroaching on this territory was a necessary risk. 

“I bet they don’t even pay their damned taxes.”

Francis glanced to his right at Tau who paced beside him. Tau had always been stringent about law, justice, legal agreements, order—perhaps too much so. But this was exactly why Francis had brought the man with him. Without Tau’s assistance, Francis doubted he would be able to achieve the goal he currently had in mind. Perhaps, in the past he may have been able to, but not as his current self.

As he rounded a street corner of one of the wealthier districts on the outskirts of the city, he observed the large mansions that were spaced far and wide from each other behind the gates at his left. Such signs of wealth when compared to the poverty at the heart of the city highlighted the disparities that came with the modern age. It was troubling.

After wandering around somewhat lost for the better part of half an hour, Francis and Tau were approached by two suited men holding an umbrella. Francis reached for Allen’s pistol at his belt in response but felt rather foolish for such a violent action when he came to recognize the two men. They were Romano men. Verano and Lidio—if Francis recalled correctly.

The two stared at the right side of his face for a while before they exchanged looks and Verano said, “The boss has been expecting you for the past couple of hours. He sent us out to look for you when you didn’t show…”

So Ricardo was already aware of his discovery. 

Tau frowned. “Expecting us? The gall!”

“I see,” Francis said. “I would appreciate it if you took me to Mr. Ricardo’s residence then. I can’t seem to remember where he lives.”

After exchanging another look with Verano, Lidio nodded and held out the umbrella over Francis’s and Tau’s head. Francis finally realized it was raining.

* * *

Francis and Tau were brought into a large, maroon manor at the very edge of the city. The gold gated bars that caged it in swung open for them as they approached. Upon entering the lavish house, Francis’s suit-jacket was taken from him and he was handed a towel to dry himself with. Tau received the same treatment.

Afterwards, Verano and Lidio led them up a tall, red-carpet staircase and to the familiar oak doors of Ricardo’s office. Upon entering the office, Francis took note of the familiar warm maroon walls, the wooden furniture lining them, and the fire crackling in the far right corner. At the robust mahogany desk resting before the rain-splashed window at the very back of the room sat Ricardo Romano. 

“We found him,” Verano said, thumbing Francis as he stepped before Ricardo. “He got lost apparently. Also brought company—”

Tau surged forward towards Ricardo’s desk. “You conniving old, lawless, pseudo-socialite of a man! Do you understand what you’ve done? The laws you’ve broken? Well, I know you have. You’re already being punished for breaking conducting law and now you’ve just moved on to this nonsense? The criminal justice system of this country is absolutely—”

Verano and Lidio exchanged looks before moving forward towards Tau.

Francis raised a hand to stop them. “Tau, calm down,” he said.

Tau shut his mouth and whipped around to study Francis. With reluctance, he obliged and retreated to Francis’s side. He crossed his arms, pushed his skewed glasses up the bridge of his nose, and shook his head. “Bastards—the lot of you.”

Seeming more amused than disturbed, Ricardo waved his hand, in turn. Both Verano and Lidio exited the room. 

“Francis,” Ricardo finally greeted him. He gestured to the fireplace. “How about you and our guest dry off some before we start our discussion—”

Tau scoffed. “Are you bribing us now?”

“Well, no—”

“Mr. Ricardo,” Francis returned, rejecting the offer by walking forward. “I’d rather not accept any sort of hospitality from you at the moment—”

“You got lost, Francis? Did you have to bring Tau?”

Francis turned sharply at the familiar voice and registered his oldest brother sitting in a suede chair at the back wall. “Al…” Realization settled in. “I see. So you were the one who informed Ricardo that I’d come.”

“Barging into a place of a business associate unannounced isn’t exactly polite,” Allen replied. “You had me worried, Francis. I don’t want you to do something you’ll regret.”

“‘Polite.’” Francis muttered. “Is it customary for someone who sells something like that to worry about something like politeness and decency?”

“Despicable,” Tau added.

“The chlorowheat,” Ricardo acknowledged. He opened his arms. “You’ve come here to discuss it, right, Francis? So—let’s discuss it. Your brothers, Fortuna, and I have been in a partnership to distribute chlorowheat to Argo since the end of last year. We cultivate; you ship. We exchange money. Are the terms not to your liking—”

“Do you have any additional chlorowheat stored elsewhere?” Francis interjected.

“…That’s something that our side handles without needing to consult with your side,” Ricardo responded calmly.

Tau leapt forward again. “And is that written down in the business contract between the two of you? Huh? Is it?! Scum-of-the-damned-world illegal-trading and drug-dealing aside, you have the damned impudence to go back on even the laws of the underground world? Breaking the laws above just wasn’t enough for you? Huh? Hu—” He paused to hack and cough. It seemed as if he’d once again choked on his spit.

Francis’s lips pressed thin and he used the opportunity to say, “You haven’t learned. You still sell product that damages the lives of children and those outside of you. Your apathy is….” His gaze narrowed. “Cadence suffered for it this time.”

Allen’s frown deepened.

“So I’ve heard.” Ricardo nodded seriously. “But I’ve also heard that her condition is improving.” He sighed. “We live in a capitalistic society, Francis. It’s what we have to do to live and survive. People are not always giving and kind. You can’t always rely on a stranger’s generosity. The only people you can rely on are yourself and family. We need to make do with what we have. You have children to care for, don’t you? Many children. Money—”

Again. The same card was being played.

Tau clicked his tongue in disgust.

Ricardo glanced at him momentarily before returning his attention to Francis. “Are you disappointed in me?”

An odd question.

“Disappointment would be an understatement,” Francis snapped more than he’d intended to.

“Well… That’s quite saddening to hear,” Ricardo drew, leaning back into his leather chair, “Theta. The last thing I’d want to do is to disappoint you.”

Francis paused at the change of tone in Ricardo’s voice. He slowly looked back at Allen and found his brother tense and grim.

So that was how it was.

It was not difficult to connect the dots. The over-familiarity with which Ricardo had spoken to him during Fortuna’s wedding; the tension between his brothers, Fortuna, Cadence, and Ricardo; the lies that were already in place. Disappointment began to blossom in Francis’s chest—but it was directed this time at himself.

“I see… So this is what Fortuna was trying to tell me earlier.” Francis let out a quiet breath before turning to his brother. “And I’m assuming you, Carl, and Cadence knew about it and elected to keep quiet. Jericho as well?”

“Not sure about the peacekeeper,” Allen replied. “But the others—yeah.”

“Do you not respect and trust me?” Francis frowned. “You know me, Al.”

“I know you,” Allen agreed before gesturing to his head. “But this whole Theta-ELPIS thing—”

It was yet another knife wound to the chest. Francis frowned, looking away. Tensing, Allen shut his mouth.

“Al, you’re clinging to the past,” Francis finally said. “Things won’t return to the way they used to be—especially not with the syzygy on its way. You need to look at the bigger picture.”

Tau looked between them, appearing somewhat befuddled.

“A man named Theta took me in in the 1880s,” Ricardo finally said aloud what Francis had realized. “Raised me like his son. I always thought something wasn’t quite right with him, but he taught me how to read and to lead.” He folded his hands. “I’ve lived by what you taught me, Theta. It’s because of what you taught me that I’m able to sit here comfortably and give the people under me comfortable lives. I was able to give Fortuna a comfortable life. I was able to give Cadence and you and your brothers opportunities too. I wouldn’t do these things or even have the ability to do these things if it were not for what you did for me and taught me back then.”

Was that meant to be a compliment? It felt more like an insult.

Tau’s eyes widened and he snapped to Francis in disbelief. “Theta…”

Thunder rumbled in the distance.

“Then I’ve taught you incorrectly,” Francis murmured. “And you’ve taught me, my brothers, Fortuna, Cadence, Nico incorrectly in turn.” He placed a hand over his mouth as he digested the information. “So it turns out that the responsibility for this chlorowheat pandemic is the result of time and my own hand.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Ricardo drew. “The people who raise us affect who we become, yes, but we’re all still responsible for our own actions. That’s what you taught me. By extension, if you apply this to people who purchase and use our products…”

“That’s too simple of an interpretation,” Francis said, now somewhat frustrated. “There are other factors involved—other facets that are compounded. Risk, relevance, blame…”

The rain pattered against the window.

Tau remained silent for once. 

Thunder continued to rumble.

Francis thought of Cadence, Omicron, Jericho.

“I have a new proposal,” Francis finally said once his thoughts were somewhat in order.

Allen visibly startled. Even Ricardo looked surprised.

“A proposal? A business proposal?” 

“As you’ve said, Mr. Ricardo, times change and so must the way we handle things. I cannot approach this with the moral scale we used to apply.” Francis turned to Tau. “Is that not correct, Tau?”

Tau grimaced.

“I am wholly against the deplorable products you sell,” Francis said, “and I want it all destroyed immediately.”

“That’s a lot to ask for, Francis,” replied Ricardo.

Francis nodded in acknowledgment. “In return, I will offer you something else equivocal.”

Ricardo arched a brow. “Putting aside your philosophies on moral scales, might I ask what spurred on this decision?”

“This world will cease soon,” Francis explained plainly. 

There was a beat of silence.

“Yes…This mysterious syzygy.” Ricardo rubbed his chin as he searched Francis’s face.

Francis nodded before offering his hand. “I doubt in this world’s political climate, we will be able to gather the necessary resources to combat it. Despite the peacekeepers’ iron hold, you are still able to exist peacefully. You still have your resources. I would like to utilize them.”


Okör, Taurus

“And what exactly are you thinking about?”

Gamma looked away from the black smoke pillars rising from what was once the central conductor generator facility of this small town of Okör. From where he stood on this mountain flat kilometers above the smoldering town, he could still make out the bodies that littered the front of the facility and the small town houses surrounding them. Most of those bodies—those corpses—were dressed in suits and had white bands fastened to one of their arms.

Ophiuchus might be saddened by the sight–Gamma thought–but she was no longer here. Besides, they were right. They had to maintain and hold to the hope that she had clung tightly to.

“Well?”

Gamma turned to find Delta approaching him from behind.

Delta sighed as she neared him. “They’re becoming quicker and quicker with restoring generator conductors and ley lines, aren’t they? I was just here not too long ago…”

“You’re late,” was all he said in response.

Delta shrugged her shoulders before spinning on her heels and gesturing to the path behind her. Four figures were ascending the mountain towards them. “Is it alright to be late when I’ve made a meaningful… ‘discovery’?”

Gamma registered the first approaching figure as Iota. The other three appeared to be Capricornian gauging by their military-wear. Gamma thought he recognized one of them—the one wearing the glasses, but he wasn’t quite sure. 

While Iota immediately came to Gamma’s side, the other three lingered back—clearly apprehensive. 

“Where have you been, Iota?” Gamma asked, frowning.

“Looking for you!” Iota replied in exasperation. He paused for a moment to fix his bowtie and style his hair. “Lamendos is gone! Did you see? It’s been absolutely, bloody obliterated! I’ve been jumping around just trying to find you! I managed to capture—”

“Yes, it was destroyed by Alpha’s group,” Gamma explained.

Iota recoiled. “How could they—” 

“Who are they?” Gamma questioned, gesturing to the trio behind him. “Recruits? Converts?”

Iota glanced back at them. “It’s… complicated. Oh, but I did manage to capture—” he thumbed behind him. “—well, I’ll show you.”

Gamma glanced at the sole woman of the trio. She had been eyeing him this entire time. He wondered if she recognized his face.

“Oh?” Delta pulled away from Gamma and peered down the edge of the cliff. “Survivors? Why don’t you take a look, Gamma?”

Gamma glanced down towards the village below to find two lone figures entering its premises. He recognized the duo immediately. It was them again. Wtorek Elizabeta and Taurus.


✧ IV ✧
1500s
πενθών

The first century passes by in a blur. Monadism is founded as a religion to continue the baptismal ceremonies that the Mathitís used to oversee. Monadics are zealots and the newly-minted leaders sitting in positions of power weaponize that religious fervor. Conducting meanwhile evolves and changes rapidly and conductors enter wide circulation. Strict conducting-type categories are developed, restraining freedom and individualism. 

The first batch of ELPIS leaders are initiated by Leo. When Alpha awakens, he looks upon the changes of the century with disdain. So do the others. Conducting has been defiled, and the cycle is showing cracks. Aside from the disdain, there is evident discomfort. 

As a reminder of his dedication to Ophiuchus, Alpha decides to remove his left eye. It does not hurt like last time, and he briefly worries if the lack of pain means that the gesture has lost its meaning. The worry passes with time.

After seeing how uneasy the first initiates are having ‘awoken’ so relatively close to their ‘deaths’, Alpha elects to initiate Theta and Omicron to serve as guiding hands. But Theta is initiated incorrectly into a Monadic priest. She—he—becomes unrecognizable, a zealot, a passionate worshipper. Still, Omicron loves him with all her—his—heart. In the end, Theta is burned at the stake for religious heresy. Omicron mourns so deeply that he becomes listless, depressed. Leo offers Omicron comfort and reassurance while the others begin to recoil at how rapidly the world has changed.

Their first century as ELPIS is thus wrought with mistakes, miscommunication, and hesitation—especially following Theta’s death. They notate these developments all down in their records and hope for improvement in the next iteration. 

Acting as a familiar teacher, Leo organizes for them a way to siphon reservoirs in a methodical, holistic, and safe manner. Despite representing the pillar of victory and now having taken on the title of Saint of Victory, Leo gives them direction. Reassurance.

Theta’s second initiation goes smoother. Soon the unease from the circumstances surrounding Theta’s first death are forgotten by everyone besides the records and Leo. The scars are wiped away.

Alpha supposes this is one of the bonuses of bleached vitae, although he does not benefit from it. Not really. He remembers Theta’s burning fully into his third initiation after Mnemosyne provides him with memories and vitae from Julius. But it is not all torture. From Julius’s vitae, Alpha also remembers his late night philosophical conversations with Theta and Gamma; and most importantly of all, he remembers his early morning visitations to Ophiuchus’s side nearly every day as well as every moment in between them.

1600s

The second century passes by a bit easier. Leo is, however, absent during this century. Meanwhile, the religious monarchy that has formed in Leo’s domain crumbles. 

Theta begins a habit of taking in stray children. It seems to act as a form of reassurance and comfort to them. Alpha wonders if it’s just Theta subconsciously trying to attach themselves to the world–if it’s just their subconscious attempt to combat the way bleached vitae has detached all of them from it. He wonders if he should give it a try himself.

Alpha does not remember much of this century as Epsilon is by Leo’s side for a large portion of it. The history books don’t seem to remember it either.

1700s

By the time the third century comes around, Alpha no longer recognizes his friends, his alumni, his fellow Mathitís, his colleagues. It’s not as if he doesn’t remember who they are. He knows and remembers everything. It’s that they don’t remember who they are—not fully. Gamma has lost—forgotten—Pothos’s boyish enthusiasm and charm. Meanwhile, Beta—Eurydice—claims that Alpha himself has become strange when in reality is she who has become strange. Theta’s—Vega’s— gloom thickens. Tau’s—Themis’s—tirades of justice have become a one note character-trait because he remembers little else. The worst is Lambda. Lambda has been initiated the most out of all of them due to her unique knowledge of the healing capabilities and plasticity of vitae, but she has suffered for her willingness and kindness. Her wisdom has become worn away and an airiness has started to occupy her gaze.

The realization drowns Alpha in guilt even as they continue to deter the growth of the vitae reservoirs. 

Something has gone wrong. This cold war has gone on longer than it was supposed to. The hope has been that this would have all ended within a century, but now it’s spilling over into multiple centuries.

In panic, Alpha brings this to the attention of Ophiuchus even though he knows she cannot answer him. He pours out his feelings, his pseudo-Knowledge Bearer truth, his heart, his everything out to her. Ophiuchus holds his gaze with her frozen countenance. Her lips move but no words come out. Still, Alpha can understand what she is saying—

“Have hope.”

Why can’t she see?

✧ V ✧
August 1911
ιδεοληψία

A sweeping and wide war scars the entire continent. The monarchs, presidents, premiers, and oligarchs sit peacefully on their thrones as the common people spill their blood across the land. It’s a familiar sight. The other ELPIS Leaders don’t seem to think so despite it being recorded in their records. They still cling to hope that all of this will soon end, that Ophiuchus will win this bet, that their hope will prevail.

Alpha anguishes in silence and tries to find subtle comfort in Leo since Leo has witnessed these things too and still remains with them. But Leo does not show the fallacies that feel like they’re poking their way out from Alpha’s insides. And so Alpha continues to empty out from those holes that those fallacies leave behind.

February 1926

The war takes Omicron’s life; and like clockwork, Theta becomes listless and morose–as he has every single time. His leadership becomes shaken, and he tends more to the orphan children he’s rescued from the war’s devastation than to his responsibilities as the designated leader. Theta, however, is still a constant. He has not been initiated as much as the others have, so much of Vega’s original self remains in him.

Alpha has concerns about the war’s effect on Leo’s alliance with them and so he brings it to Theta’s attention. Theta, however, remains steadfast in his belief in Leo.

“Why do you have so much faith in him?” Alpha wonders in confusion after their short debate. He also wonders why Theta has so much faith in Ophiuchus’s decision and why he himself still has so much faith in it too–but he doesn’t voice this out loud.

“Leo has proved himself from the very beginning and throughout these years,” Theta replies. “You should not doubt those who are close by your side lest your aim is to drive them further away from yourself.” He mumbles into his hand. “Ah, now that you’ve brought this topic to my attention, I realize it now: I’ve been too distant from Leo lately… I should attend to that. He has helped us so far…”

Alpha isn’t satisfied by Theta’s answer and makes it known with a sigh of frustration. He is prepared to disclose his personal feelings regarding the war and siphoning the reservoirs that have been building in his chest for decades now, but Theta beats him to the point—

“I see you have some personal concerns and emotional worries beyond this,” Theta notes, tactlessly getting to the heart of the matter much like Vega would. “Perhaps it would be best if you discussed your personal thoughts with one of the others.”

Alpha doesn’t comprehend Theta’s words immediately because they are so nonsensical to him. “Why would I go to one of the others about this? Why not you? ”

Theta regards him for a while before something akin to sympathy folds across his face. “I see… Despite the few times I’ve been initiated, it seems as if I have lost a measurable amount of vitae. If I have been insensitive, I apologize. I will review the records, but if it’s an urgent matter, I would appreciate it if you informed me what the nature of our relationship was.”

Only then does Alpha realize how much Theta has deteriorated and forgotten. Through all that deterioration, however, Theta’s affection for Omicron somehow remains. But why just Omicron?

The ELPIS Leaders are forgetting themselves–Alpha thinks–but they are also forgetting each other. They are forgetting him. And it’s all his fault.

Incredulously, bitterly, Alpha stares at and through Vega—no, Theta. No, not even Theta. This is not even a full person. Before Alpha knows what he’s doing, he’s on top of Theta and squeezing his fingers around the man’s throat.

Theta struggles beneath him for a moment as confusion floods his eyes. Eventually, however, his arms fall limp. But he is not unconscious. The fight has merely left him. Apathy? The dead look just infuriates Alpha even more. And so, Alpha squeezes down harder and harder until he hears a snap.

March 1928

In Theta’s absence, Alpha is the leader elect of ELPIS again. The governing bodies of Ophiuchus begin to feel the pressure from the war and come to him out of all people for advice. Alpha finds it ironic how close he is coming to being a true pseudo-Knowledge Bearer with this development. However,  Alpha doesn’t know what to do. Leo has cut relations with them. The golden hero that is supposed to represent the ultimate victory has admitted a quiet defeat of self. 

Alpha is left disappointed once again.

Despite the memories upon memories that Mnemosyne has filled him with, there is a hollowness eating him inside out.

On a whim or out of desperation—he’s not sure which—he suggests to the governing Ophiuchian bodies an all-out war. If not, he says, they will be consumed by the other countries desperate for vitae. Fear and attachment move the country forward.

May 1929

Ophiuchus crumbles—both the country and the Knowledge Bearer. Before Leo storms the country Alpha has called home for centuries, before Leo drives Libra’s vitae further into Ophiuchus’s chest and shatters her, Alpha visits Ophiuchus one last time. He enters her chamber; and once inside, he looks over her body and holds her gaze once more. He has done this over a billion times since he has become Alpha; and—he now realizes—each time he looks at her, he feels less and less. She is just flesh and bones now, having been worn away by the passage of time. Just as he himself has. For a moment, he reaches down and wraps his fingers around her throat— but he releases her after some more thought.

Part of him wishes to go back to that day of the Founding Festival when Ophiuchus touched his heart just so he could feel that jubilation again. But the only thing left in his chest now is a void and disappointment. He and the other ELPIS Leaders have sacrificed so much, while Ophiuchus has just laid here uselessly. That and she has evidently lost her end of the bargain. 

It’s pitiable, really.

Alpha leaves before Leo storms the Aesculapium. He returns to the chamber half an hour later and runs his fingers along the dust scattered on top of the now empty stone table where Ophiuchus once laid. He’s not sure what he feels, but he thinks it might possibly be ‘nothing.’ Afterwards, he exits the chambers and descends down towards the reservoirs below. There, he finds Leo committing the ultimate betrayal.

Leo and I are the same, Alpha thinks as he watches Leo empty himself out into his reservoir. They have been disappointed by others so many times, but the person who has brought them the most disappointment is themselves. 

Living with that disappointment is unbearable. Therefore, it is best to detach oneself from such disappointment. 

Finally, Alpha is free.

✧ VI ✧
October 1929
απάθεια

Victors write—rather, re-write—history. Ophiuchian culture is bled dry–the best parts plucked out and hammered down into something that is fashionable for the new peacekeeping settlers. The Aesculapium becomes the Serpens Establishment, the ceremonial baptismal reservoirs are slandered by being given a name—the Prognoikos Aurora Reservoirs. 

In the years following the war, Alpha listlessly follows along loosely with ELPIS’s cause. Vitae reservoir elimination, generator conductor destruction, ley line dismantling. He does not operate with care or caution as they have done with previous years nor does he heed civilian casualties. It’s not difficult convincing the others who are initiated after the war’s end to do the same. They have lost their home, after all, and their belief in the cycle remains strong as ever. Since Alpha’s current body and self have lived and survived through the war, the other ELPIS Leaders defer leadership in the new age to him. Even Theta who is re-initiated into a Cancerian war widow agrees with his leading position. 

It’s laughable. Alpha does not suffer from repercussions from murdering the previous Theta. Him killing Theta’s previous iteration has no meaning. Him extending himself out this long has no meaning now that Ophiuchus is dead too. Dead? Death has no meaning. Nothing does. Everything repeats, disappears, or remains stagnant. There is no other path. 

With that realization, the world suddenly becomes easier to live in.

A select handful of ELPIS Leaders who are not initiated frequently, however, do notice discrepancies in Alpha’s behavior. Omega is one of the few who confront him about it. 

Flipping her hair with a lazy hand, she addresses him casually after they decimate a large conductor generator fueling a small Cancerian town: “I know what you’ve been doing, Alpha, with Mnemosyne.”

Alpha is not alarmed by her accusation.

“You’re different now.”

“You’re different too,” Alpha responds lightly. “But in the opposite direction, right?” He chuckles. “This conversation won’t matter much, will it? You’ll die soon and forget all about it.”

Omega merely flips her hair again. “Why?”

“Why indeed,” Alpha wonders. “Initially it was because I wanted to remain by Ophiuchus’s side and help as much as I could—ah, do you even remember what Ophiuchus looks like?”

“No, I don’t. But back to what you were saying.” She curls a lock of hair around her finger. “That was your reason then. How about now?”

Alpha thinks on it. “I don’t have a reason now. No reason at all.”

January 1931

Theta has died again at the hand of the so-called Ophiuchian peacekeeping agents. This time she has left behind a cluster of children who weep at her ‘death.’ Alpha returns just in time to greet the children she has left behind.

One child—face smudged with soot, sand, blood—looks up at Alpha for direction. Although the child does not speak, his eyes ask ‘Why?’ and ‘What now?’

Ah, yes, Alpha thinks, this child worshiped Theta just as Alpha himself worshiped Ophiuchus. This child will become nothing too, Alpha knows. So, therefore, he might as well make use of that nothingness—even though it’s all quite pointless.

“Do you want to keep Theta’s memory alive?” Alpha asks the boy and the other children in the end. “Do you want to live for what Theta stood for?”

As expected, they answer yes and Alpha swallows them into ELPIS. As for why he has chosen to do such a thing to them despite no longer caring for ELPIS’s goals…? Spite towards Theta? Spite towards Ophiuchus? Alpha isn’t quite sure. Maybe there isn’t a reason. He’s certain it doesn’t matter. Not really. 

1932

Alpha spends the next year wandering without purpose. He has no destination in mind. Rho and Nu stumble upon him at one point and join him on his journey. Eventually, they steal a ship for themselves, collect a motley crew, and start calling themselves adventurers. Really, there’s no reason at all for this.

When they pass by a seaside town on Leo and Alpha spies a Monadic temple glistening on its seaside cliff, he decides to raid it on a whim. There, Alpha encounters Maria.

Maria is golden. Something about her charisma just draws Alpha’s eyes and stirs his heart. He cannot help but sweep her and her friend Conta onto his ship.

It is clear to him that both she and Conta have been indoctrinated by Leonian Monadic Temples. Maria claims to know and embody freedom, but such freedom is false. Alpha tries to teach her about what it truly is—that lack of attachment—but she remains attached to her beliefs in her certainty.

It’s dazzling. Beautiful. No. She is not beautiful. Beautiful is too simple and small a term to label the aura that exudes from every pore of her body.

July 1935 – September 1941

Attachment–

It’s happening again, Alpha realizes, as he draws closer to Maria and Conta. He cannot stand another Ophiuchus, another Leo, another disappointment in himself and another. So, he leaves Maria and continues to spend his time wandering from place to place without purpose. 

On occasion, Alpha returns to his resistor, is re-initiated, and fulfills his duties as an ELPIS Leader. He is there for the Tragedy of Aries and has a short spiel in Libra and Cancer. Whenever Epsilon returns the memories that have been stored and recorded over the years, however, Alpha always departs again. His time serving in ELPIS is all meaningless —but it is fun to enjoy those small bits of care and concern every once in a while. 

October 1941

Theta’s rumble through the Twin Cities of Gemini stirs memories in Alpha’s mind. Theta’s rage and familiar disappointment revitalizes something inside his heart. His head is full of memories from the past and his chest is full of only emptiness. The beginning, the middle, the end—he can see it all.

It is time to change faces, he thinks. It is time to change paces.

He is no one, and no one understands him. Therefore he can take in everything and everyone. Including Ophiuchus. Maybe then, she can see.


( )

Proteus’s head and vision cleared. He registered Epsilon pulling away from him and Jericho taking a step back. 

“Well, that was unpleasant.”

Jericho’s expression was unreadable.

“I told you there was no reason…” Proteus drew with a frown. “You probably weren’t able to tell since those memories were from a perspective of another, but I didn’t spend that much thought on it at all. I’m sure if you look a little further, you’ll see that I actively recorded—so to speak—how I felt about different events. If you want to look some more—”

“You tricked everyone,” Jericho interjected. He was shaking, but there was no sympathy or pity in his eyes. “You are the one who gave them false hope. You spread it. You… are the beginning.”

“Oh, Jericho.” Proteus offered a look of sympathy. “Labeling things as the beginning and end is just another restraint—”

Suddenly, Proteus was on the ground and Jericho was on top of him. His fingers wrapped around Proteus’s neck just as Alpha’s hands had wrapped around Ophiuchus’s neck and Theta’s neck. His fingers squeezed tighter, tighter, tighter.

“Jericho!” Leona’s voice reverberated through the room. “We need him alive to extract information. Epsilon, stop him!”

Proteus’s vision began to dim. Again, his memories and those of others began to flash through his mind. Swirling around without meaning.

Abruptly, the constricting fingers loosened themselves from his neck and the pressure on his chest disappeared. Proteus wheezed and gasped as air flooded his lungs. It took a moment for his thoughts to become coherent again. When he peeked forward, he found three figures standing at his feet instead of two. It seemed as if another person had entered the scene.

Ah, it was little Maria—as expected. She stood close at Jericho’s side with an unreadable expression. The first thing Proteus noticed about her was the bags under her eyes. The second thing he noticed was that her left sleeve was empty and tied into a knot. Her good arm was linked with Jericho’s own. Proteus knew such closeness was natural given their nature as True Conductors, but he also knew their twin lights just dimmed the other’s light. They were bound to each other—chained, imprisoned by that connection—and yet they earnestly believed they were free. Just as he himself had previously been. 

Alpha supposed it didn’t matter.

Not really.


[Alpha Mood Theme]

Leona and Alpha, art by jowiszca

25.6: Advisor & Otro 

Re-cap:

Atienna is in Lueur de Fée, Cancer alongside the Duke of House Etoile Aldéric Échecs and his brother Albertine Échecs. She is accompanying Dimka on a diplomatic mission and has Sefu at her side, but her true purpose is to find Louise Bonnefoy, the True Conductor. And that she does but not before witnessing Aldéric’s true affection for Louise. Even so, Atienna chooses to coldly turn Louise over to Scorpio after dueling with Reneé. Slowly, the fallout from her decision to work with the saint candidates reaches her.


Lueur de Fée, Cancer

The phantom tendrils of Scorpio’s embrace clung to Atienna’s body like wet cloth. No matter how hard she scrubbed herself in the bath in the following days, his cold warmth still lingered. It felt almost as if he occupied the minuscule spaces between her skin and bones—deep-rooted and impossible to remove without injuring herself. 

Two nights after Louise had been turned into Scorpio, Aldéric visited Atienna’s room. He gave a knock at the door before sweeping in with an air of gusto that seemed completely opposite to the desperate moroseness that exuded from his pores when he’d stumbled upon Louise in the caverns. Atienna wondered if his feelings surrounding Louise were able to be likened to Cadence’s feelings towards Alma. A longing for someone who just wanted to escape.

“The sights of Cancer are really something else, aren’t they?” Aldéric said as he walked up to her window. He leaned against the glass and peered out at the town’s night scenery. The moon eclipsed the buildings with silver light. “I’m sure Virgo has its own flavor of beauty.” He smiled as he took in a breath and turned to her slightly. “If it matches your own beauty, I dare say it might be greater than Cancer’s.”

He was here to touch base about Louise most likely or to divert his attention away from his concerns with small flirtations—a coping mechanism—but Atienna was in no mood to entertain him or anyone

Atienna had spent these past few nights—when everyone but Werner was asleep—walking around the town and revisiting that light-bound cavern and pounding its stone wall over and over again with her fist. She was aware she was doing just as she had done in the Zatenminye Caverns when she had first met Louise. A cycle. Perhaps, she was hoping to find Reneé somewhere on her short walks, but she never actually did. How cruelly humorous the irony of it all—her relationship with caverns, fists, and Louise. 

Every night, Werner had synchronized with her on her fiftieth kick or fist swing and calmly advised her to rest and care for her hands. He also advised her to be cautious of waking the others. Sometimes he even stayed with her and aided her in hand bandaging. 

The fist-throwing excursions officially ended when Sefu had found her one night in the cavern after he’d noticed she’d been missing from her room and had followed her. Surprisingly yet unsurprisingly, he had offered her not protection but company. From then on, he’d frequently bring with him assortments of food as additional company and even admitted several times to having stolen it all from Aldéric’s pantry.

“You should have seen the amount of food they have in that place,” Sefu had said when Atienna had subtly teased him about it. “I swear you can feed the entire Tribal Council twenty times over! Too much for just two brothers.” 

Brothers. Siblings. Bachiru, Kamaria, Kichea. Family. Blood family.

Again, Atienna had felt the longing to return home. She knew as soon as she faced her feet in the direction of Virgo, however, she’d feel the overwhelming urge to escape lest she become rooted to the ground once again. Besides, going along with that course of action would be avoiding responsibility for her actions.

“I must admit that this place is mesmerizing,” Sefu had admitted during his second time accompanying her. “It’s beauty is almost akin to that of the Great Tree.”

The Great Tree, she had thought. Home. 

She hadn’t written back to her siblings and father since she’d arrived in this Cancerian town. It was quite a ridiculous feeling, but she felt as if she’d stain them with her misdeeds somehow—with her letter serving as a vector for some disease. How troublesome.

“That… Louise…” Sefu had said on his third day with her. “I know it is unwise to speak of the politics of another country when you do not live in it, but I have to admit that… seeing Aldéric ‘let go’ of Louise reassured me of his character and the character of Cancerians. Perhaps Cancerians are not all just for show in the end.”

Let go? Atienna had wondered about that statement. “Yes, but I do wonder… if that was freedom for her or for him…”

Either way, she had chained both Louise and Aldéric back once again. Notably, Louise was the only one cognizant of her prison.

Back in the present and pulling herself away from her thoughts of the recent past, Atienna offered Aldéric a small smile. “Your words are too generous, Aldéric. I do wonder though—they say the most beautiful things are ephemeral. There’s quite a debate about it in art. Ephemerality versus eternity. The beauty in permanence—carved by time and history—versus transience—which disappears in a moment’s notice. I believe a widely popular Cancerian artist in the 17th century believed that transience held more meaning than permanence, since things—or people—that are rare tend to be held with more value.”

Aldéric chuckled. “My, my, yes, that was the great artist Abel Échecs. He was actually my great uncle. You certainly do know your history—” He paused, eyes widening as if the true meaning behind her words had sunken in. The smile left his face, and he set the wine glass he’d brought with him on the windowsill. “What exactly are you implying…?”

Atienna placed a hand to her mouth. “Oh, I… wasn’t implying anything. I was just rambling about something I’ve been reading recently.” She lowered her hand and met his eyes. “I’m sorry, Aldéric, if you interpreted it as something else…”

Aldéric’s jaw tightened before he seemed to relax slightly. He spread his arms as he approached her. “I’m sorry, Atienna. I can’t help but feel slightly on edge after what happened with…” He quieted and smiled. It seemed genuine for once. “I do appreciate your discretion.” 

“I think I understand your feelings, Aldéric. I have a friend,” Atienna continued gently, “who was—and still is—in love with someone who grew up in an environment that made them feel caged in. All they wanted to do was be free. My friend was willing to do anything for that person—break any rule, law, or status quo. Beyond that, however, she didn’t stray far from the path. No, she followed it regardless of the plights of everyone else.” Atienna chuckled. “The path itself was a technically lawless one, but… I wonder… what were her actions more of: selfless or self-serving?”

Slowly, Aldéric’s smile fell from his face and his eyes darkened again. Confusion, however, overtook his expression a moment after. He’d only known the ‘proper’ side of herself, after all. He viewed her only as kind and shy. 

Aldéric neared her, running his hand down her arm. “I think I might be misinterpreting what you’re saying again, Atienna. Perhaps you read too much or I not enough.”

“It’s most likely that I’ve been thinking too much rather than reading too much,” Atienna murmured. “I wonder… if it’s courageous for people to run from the situation they’re in and cowardly to stay in place… or vice versa? It’s always the opposite interpretation in books, but reality is more nuanced, don’t you think?”

Aldéric’s expression darkened again. 

The reality of it was that she had nowhere to put her frustrations so that was why she was saying these things. She was tauting his strings just as Scorpio had tauted theirs. The gruesomeness of it was that she hadn’t picked up this trait from Scorpio—no. She had used this technique on Werner back in the Zatenminye Caverns and on Cadence back in the Twin Cities—although it didn’t work as effectively on the latter. Back then she’d been pressing, pressing, pressing them both and hoping to uncover—what? Atienna didn’t know then and now. Curiosity had been the cause of her prying back then, but now…?

Did she want someone to blame? For instance, if Aldéric had forced Louise to stay and return home then Louise would once again become an ‘important political figure.’ The saint candidates would elect to watch her from a distance instead of sweeping her into the depths of the Serpens Establishment. A shift of perspective. 

Atienna knew the folly of that thought, of course. It was a naturally conceited way of thinking meant to sooth the ego.

“The figureheads versus the political heads of a country,” she continued. “I wonder if such a relationship is prominent throughout all countries in Signum that still have monarchs in place. People either blame the figureheads or the political heads, but both should be held with accountability, don’t you think?” She sighed. “I wonder… you’ve been writing letters to Ilunaria this entire time just as you and Louise wrote to each other in the past. It makes one think what the common variable between them is and perhaps if they’ll share the same path—”

Aldéric lunged forward, hand swinging, but she caught him by the wrist before his hand contacted her cheek. They locked eyes. 

Aldéric searched her face before he flushed a second after and pulled away. “I—m-my apologies, Atienna.” He straightened his suit and reached for her arm again—most likely to try for another caress—before pausing and dropping his hand. He searched her face almost fretfully. “I do have your discretion, don’t I? About her?”

Despite his increasingly reddened cheeks, he pushed on. Conquering his shame as if he were Maria.

Shame. 

Atienna was familiar with the feeling herself. Or was she? Was that nausea she felt after she’d turned in Louise disgust? Was it guilt? Or did she only feel nauseous because she didn’t feel any of those emotions she knew she should have felt? Or was it because she’d tried playing Scorpio’s game and lost?

A creak at the door prevented Aldéric from going any further. Hugging his conducting spear to his chest, Sefu stood at the threshold behind her.

“Excuse me, Monsieur Échecs,” Sefu said, “but I would like to mention that in Virgoan culture, respecting one’s privacy is of utmost importance. Paired with our general politeness, when we feel uncomfortable and intruded upon, we don’t usually say it flat outright. However, one generally understands the feeling.”

Aldéric pulled away from her and relaxed visibly. “Oh, I see.”

* * *

The following morning, Aldéric decided to take them all out for a walk along the river and for a swim. Atienna wasn’t quite feeling the latter activity, so she’d purposefully forgotten the swimwear Aldéric had gifted her back at the inn. Dimka, on the other hand, seemed very excited about the entire experience. He was from a tribe that preoccupied Virgo’s eastern sea bank, so his fondness for waters was akin to Giorgio’s Atienna supposed.

Giorgio… 

Aldéric took the entire flock—Dimka, his guards, Sefu, Atienna herself, and other high socialites—along and proceeded to orate his own historical narrative of the background of the waterfalls. He mentioned his great grandparents and his wealth and estate while somehow simultaneously throwing flirtatious remarks here and there. When they passed by the caverns, he gave it a passing glance before moving on ahead.

Near the end of the trip, they reached a small sandy bank at the very edge of town. While Aldéric slowly—almost seductively—sloughed off his suit to reveal his swimwear to several of the female socialites, Albertine whipped off his shirt and immediately dove into the waters. Dimka moved to chatter with Aldéric meanwhile. 

The previous night had seen Atienna reviewing with Dimka the proper etiquette on beach behavior in Cancer. When Atienna subtly touched on the topic of the growing political tensions around Signum during their information session, Dimka had stated that his focus was on improving relations not worsening them. Dimka’s enthusiasm and positivity was once again unparalleled—or perhaps he was averting his eyes unwittingly. Atienna wondered if the same could be said about Maria.

As everyone else moved to enjoy the waters or bathed in the light emitting from the river, Atienna sat on the bank’s edge, tucked her knees beneath her chin, and put her toes in the water. It was warm. Sefu sat beside her with two warm, buttery croissants in hand. He offered her one, but she declined and watched as he inhaled them both without trouble.

Dissonantly, she gazed across the river at Albertine who swam back and forth along its length. The deep light from below cast him in green light, yellow light, blue light—each shade causing him to appear as if he were a different person. He dove down a couple times before emerging and floating on his back only to go back down again several minutes after. Atienna’s vision strayed from him towards Aldéric. He was still chatting amicably with Dimka and a handful of other socialites. Oddly enough, he didn’t seem to be flirting any despite his earlier behavior. He had to keep up appearances, most likely. Seeing him so cheerful made Atienna feel as if his encounter with Louise had not even occurred at all.

Life moved on even when one was gone—contrary to Francis’s point on mourners. Jericho’s recent conversation with Nadinaline gave Atienna much to think about in that regard, however.

She glanced back at the river and perked her head up with a frown. The waterline was empty. How long had it been since Albertine had last resurfaced—

Abruptly, a waving hand popped out of the water, startling Atienna. It was Albertine. Before she could even process the development, Atienna launched herself into the water and began swimming towards him. Sefu shouted her name while Aldéric cried for his brother. Ignoring them both, Atienna pushed forward through the cold. As she neared Albertine, however, he slipped from her sights and sank into the depths. Taking in a deep breath, she submerged her head and scanned the water only to be nearly blinded by the intense light that met her eyes. Despite the vitae stream pulsating like an artery hundreds of meters below, its luminescence touched every inch of the river. 

The fish, the seaweed, the algae, the delicate features of the rock bed and smooth stones. Every detail was clear—but where was Albertine?

There. 

He was sinking downwards, twitching slightly, fidgeting, being illuminated by the shifting light several meters below.

Atienna broke up into open hair and took another deep breath before diving back below. She reached Albertine in a few seconds, but by that time, he was already unconscious. However, this wasn’t a negative development from Atienna’s perspective. He would be dead weight now and easier to transport. After wrapping her arms around his waist, Atienna sought the surface light. But it was disorienting—a streak of light coming from below and a streak of light coming from above. It was difficult to tell which direction was up and which was down. After deliberating a second more, she went with her gut and began to kick both of them up in the direction she believed was up, up, up. She broke back up to the surface of the water a moment later with Albertine in tow and began to paddle back to the bank. Sefu met her halfway, and together they managed to bring Albertine back to shore. They laid him flat on his back before they were crowded by the others.

Aldéric was in hysterics, clawing at Albertine’s body and pulling it closer to him as if he could resuscitate Albertine by touch alone. With difficulty, Sefu managed to shove him away.

“A Transmutationist!” Dimka called out. “Is there a Transmutationist around?”

People whispered, but no one moved forward.

As Atienna observed the chaos with dissonance, a faint sensation of deja vu wafted over her. One of the others had experienced something similar. Werner and Maria. 

Tulio—an old crew member of Maria’s ship who had left after Leona had incited a mutiny—had once fallen overboard the ship. While Maria had been able to dive into the ocean and pull him up back onto the ship, he had already taken in a lot of water. Before Maria could even think of what to do next, Conta had leapt on top of him and had begun performing compressions. At the end of it all, Tulio was successfully resuscitated and had smothered Conta with an embrace.

“You’re amazing, Conta!” Maria had cheered along with everyone else afterwards. “I didn’t know you could do that!”

“I learned from a book,” Conta had mumbled with embarrassment afterwards. “It’s nothing really.”

“Really? Why?”

“I want to be useful to you, Captain,” Conta had answered, flushing. “So I’ve been trying my best to learn things to help you in areas that you’re not as strong in—n-not that you’re weak! I-I just want be useful.”

Werner, on the other hand, had learned the entire procedure initially from Maria’s memories. He, however, wanted practical experience in the procedure so he’d pulled Nico aside in during their shared lunch break several months back in the capital and had politely requested to be taught the ‘procedure’ hands-on. Nico happily obliged although it was apparent he found humor and amusement in the seriousness with which Werner handled the situation as well as with the fact that they were in an office setting.

“Usually we have a dummy that we practice on for these types of resuscitation procedures, Captain,” Nico had remarked. “It’s kinda awkward if we don’t have a model.”

“There’s nothing awkward about learning,” Werner had replied evenly. “Just show me where I need to put my hands.”

Moved by these memories, Atienna crawled forward and positioned her hands over Albertine’s chest and began to pump to the beat Nico had taught Werner and Conta had taught Maria. Then, she moved to blow air into his airway. Over and over again. She repeated this several times and watched with a foggy head and ringing ears as his face became more and more blue. Still, she kept at it. Finally, his body jolted and he hacked and coughed as water sputtered out from his mouth. Heart hammering, Atienna rolled him onto his side and watched as even more water dribbled out from his lips. 

Aldéric scrambled forward and held Albertine’s hand. Albertine groaned, and several of the socialites drew nearer. Some even started clapping.

“Stay away from him!” Aldéric snapped at them, eyes wild, diplomatic and amicable nature gone. “Stop clapping!”

Filial affection. 

Atienna started to pull away but Albertine grabbed her arm before she could make an escape.

“I was knocking on death’s door there.” Albertine let out a sigh of relief before falling back onto the sand. He took in a deep, long breath and held her gaze. “You saved my life. Thank you.”

Atienna felt the urge to submerge herself back into the river because she could feel him again. Scorpio—crawling beneath her skin. Regardless, she offered him a tight smile and a nod.

Not so long afterwards, Olive encountered Hideyoshi Kuroihoshi. The vehement in that man’s eyes was directed at herself, Atienna knew. And yet Olive had offered a helping hand once again.

Werner’s shivering pain struck at midnight only a few hours after that.

* * *

The consequences of that choice had been direr than Atienna had expected—although using the term ‘expected’ seemed callous. The path she’d opened up for herself and the others when she had shaken Leona’s hand was one she knew strayed between right and wrong—as every choice did. To choose the other five over the other True Conductors wandering around Signum—rather it was to value those close to her above those distant or, as Cvetka preferred to iterate, to become a villain.

Only Werner and Cadence had a non-negative reception to her decision, and it had taken quite some time for the others to stop holding her at a distance—well, not quite a distance but a ‘tentativeness.’ To be slightly more exact, it had taken around two months for Olive and Jericho to come around to speak casually with her again. From an outsider’s perspective, Atienna knew that didn’t seem quite a long time. However, since their connection ran so deep, it felt like a very, very, very long time period of cold shoulders. Atienna wondered about it often—the aspects that made this connection a blessing and the aspects that made it otherwise. Support, reliance, dependence—the line in-between it all.

It wasn’t right what they were doing to the other True Conductors, but it wasn’t wrong either. No, it was both ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ Wrong for the people outside of them, but right for their circle and for their close friends and family members.

Werner worked proactively alongside her the entire way. They had come to a silent agreement together following the events in Capricorn—coming to terms on what was truly important. It was quite a point of unity between them and it involved many late night private conversations. Atienna liked to think that such conversations drew them closer and closer together. Werner, of course, outside of this was always preparing for something. Perhaps he was readying himself for the syzygy itself. In the beginning, he spoke of key allies and preparation and timelines—although as time went on, he spoke of it less and less. Nothing was concrete anyways.

She found cruel and minor comfort in the fact that when she received the black order to finally go on the hunt, Werner received that mandate too. It was a terrible feeling to adopt—she knew—but it found home in her heart. He thought and felt similarly to her: necessary distance, unaffected condemnation, and pragmatic execution. Yes, a kindred spirit.

Her presumptions, however, had proven incorrect. 

Werner was not like her at all. He was not as unmoved as she was nor was he able to maintain a pragmatic distance. The logic was there, but the necessary cold-hardheartedness was not. From the very beginning, he had been deeply afflicted by the repercussions of the hunt. Atienna knew she should have deduced as such not only given the fact that he was the center of Scorpio’s machinations during the Week of Blindness but also due to his deeper nature. Perhaps, she’d once again averted her eyes from that too—just hoping that the oddities that she noticed would ease away with time. 

But—

The chlorowheat. Oh, the chlorowheat.

Atienna had never dealt with anything like this before. It had been a rare subject in the books she read—both fiction and non-fiction. It was something resolved with hand-holding, hugs, and sometimes even some roughhousing in the more questionable books. To see it happen in reality—to see someone whom she loved and held dear suffer—on the other hand…? It had been Werner of all people too. 

Cadence had come to Atienna after Werner was drawn away by Francis and Nico. She’d come asking for direction and comfort, but Atienna frankly had no idea what to do. So, she’d consulted her books and had chosen to approach with an intervention. In the end—after some rather horrifying words had spilled out from Werner’s mouth—Werner had accepted their help. It was not like in her novels at all—not tied with a pretty and neat bow in the end. The reality lingered over them all. The shame she knew Werner felt was most likely crippling as was his guilt and remorse. 

Atienna had allowed herself to cry afterwards as her thoughts swirled with what ifs. What if Werner never recuperated? What if this addiction bled into the other four? What if this reached Virgo? What if Bachiru got his hands on something like this? Kamaria? Kichea? What then? From what she’d seen from Jericho’s end of things, the Medical Department didn’t have any grasp at all over this chlorowheat situation. Jurisdiction, respect of sovereignty—there were ‘too many’ variables involved. Atienna wondered if that was truly the case. No, she supposed it did matter. 

“I’m sorry,” Werner said to her afterwards when she’d synchronized with him during a promised visit. “There’s no excuse. I’m sorry.”

Atienna wasn’t like Olive, Cadence, Maria, or Jericho. She didn’t know what to do or say. She didn’t know fully how to comfort someone like him. So, all she did was remain by his side.

With Werner out of commission, the responsibility of the group fell solely on her shoulders. Or so she thought. In the end, both Maria and Olive had stepped forward and put down their feet. They had made a decision—one to resist. Atienna herself was uncertain of it—even more so now than before. One could always easily add something to a mixture or a garden, but removing it afterwards proved far harder an effort. Atienna’s family was still under Scorpio’s surveillance as were the families of everyone else. Atienna had already made her choice, but everyone else seemed to have chosen the opposite. 

One needed either a powerful voice, charisma, or the majority to move people in the direction one wanted them to move. Unfortunately, Atienna had neither of those things. So the others moved on without her—Maria, especially.

Alpha—rather, Dominic— knew exactly how to push Maria’s buttons. They were raised to be the same, after all. The set up was premeditated. The reflection put up, the spotlight shone. Under that heat, Maria pushed Atienna and the other four all away—to prove herself to herself, Atienna knew. Maria processed things differently than the average person, but she was still human in the end. When made to question herself and her existence, she rebuked it without a second thought and with brimming absolutism. When rebuking wasn’t enough to throw off assailants to her ego, she fought tooth and nail.

When Atienna finally was able to feel Maria again on that day she faced Alpha, all Atienna could feel was Maria’s pain, her distraught, her confusion, her trembling will remaining iron hot. Atienna nearly fainted when she saw the state of Maria’s arm through Jericho’s eyes. What had followed was a complete blur.

Atienna slipped between synchronizations with Jericho, Cadence, and Maria—doing whatever she could to stay as long as she could by Maria’s side. Nico’s father and Nico himself were called in to assess Maria’s condition. The two men worked alongside each other silently, stiffly, until they reached the conclusion Atienna had been dreading. In the end, the damage from Rho’s vitae was too great. Maria’s left arm had to be removed from the elbow down. 

There wasn’t enough time to calculate the appropriate amount of anesthetic to use, so Maria had been fully conscious during the entire procedure. She hadn’t even cried or shouted. She’d remained silent as the incisions were made and had only looked away after Doctor Fabrizzio politely requested her to. The portion of the anesthetic that did work made it difficult to feel the extent of Maria’s pain and to hear her thoughts. Despite everything Atienna had come to learn over this past year, she couldn’t bring herself to look during the procedure nor hold Maria’s gaze. She had averted her eyes, but so had Cadence and Olive. Jericho was the only who stood in place—gaze unaverted and gripping Maria’s good hand tightly all the way.

Afterwards, Atienna had caught only a glimpse of Werner’s reaction to the fallout when he regained consciousness an hour or so later. Just as he had done with Gilbert, Werner had held the empty sleeve of Maria’s shirt and had said nothing. From this too, Atienna looked away.

Atienna again allowed herself to cry again afterwards as ‘what if’s assailed her once more. What if Maria wasn’t able to recover completely—not only physically but emotionally and mentally? What if Rho decided to stop by Virgo? What if Rho swept up Kamaria and Kichea? What if—

But they were useless thoughts and tears and accomplished nothing. While she knew it was good to sit down and cry and think once in a while, she couldn’t help but feel a sense of indignation at her body for squeezing tears and thoughts and nothing else out. She also felt furious—furious at Werner for thinking he could control himself with chlorowheat, furious at Maria for even wanting to try to face Alpha alone, furious at Cadence for trying to maintain such a ridiculous lie, furious at Alpha for knowing which of Maria’s buttons to press, furious at Jericho for bringing Leona with him without consulting her and the others first, furious at Olive for making that penultimate decision to resist on his own.

Now a lesson had been learned. It was a terrible lesson to learn, but it was still a lesson—‘You are not invincible’ and ‘You are not always in control’ and ‘Things will not always turn out the way you want them to.’

This was reality, not a fairy tale or a novel. One was not impervious and invincible to failure and accident. Mistakes had consequences. Consequences taught lessons. If one didn’t learn and acknowledge their own faults, failures, vulnerabilities, and these consequences, then one could never learn and could never change. A balance needed to be maintained between self-belief, self-criticism, and self-realization.

How could Maria be so foolish—putting herself in danger like that just because of her belief in herself? Although such a belief—Atienna supposed—was not an ‘incorrect’ way of thinking, just look at what had happened as a result of her choice.

Along with this reasoning, a faint thought echoed at the back of Atienna’s mind: it served her right. Atienna despised herself for thinking in such a way. No, she was furious at herself for it. She was also furious at herself for trying to play Scorpio’s game and win against him in a game of passive-aggression, for trying to act as if they were on the same playing field—as if it was all a game. She was furious at her hesitation in not taking the reins after Werner was no longer able to hold them. 

And yet despite all of her fury, she had been the one who embraced Scorpio despite everything he’d done and she had been the one who pushed them into this deal with the saint candidates. She was also the only one who didn’t want to rescind their hand in this deal. 

The reality of it was that the others were naturally ‘good’ people at the core. If they were not ‘good’ people at the core, then they were becoming ‘good’ people. Atienna, however, was neither of these things. Then again, taking a look at the situation from a different angle, would spell out a very different story.

Atienna disgusted herself for thinking this way—or maybe it was one of the others who felt some manner of disgust towards her.

* * *

Aldéric wanted to move back to Secoursonne. He cited home-sickness, but Atienna knew he wanted to get as far away from the falls as possible. Atienna, chest still constantly aching from Werner’s withdrawal symptoms and left arm pulsating from Maria’s phantom pain, didn’t feel like doing anything besides lying tangled in her sheets all day. She didn’t even have the energy to turn the page of the Cancerian fable she’d taken to reading since she arrived in Lueur de Fée. The pain itself would come in waves. Most likely that was the result of Werner reeling it in whenever he could. 

Albertine seemed to share her sentiments, although unlike herself he was quite vocal about his reasons. 

“Aldéric, my head is pounding,” he complained at breakfast. “I don’t want to go anywhere.”

Aldéric had opened a sort of mini-breakfast banquet in the dining hall of their inn. Platters piled high with an assortment of breads, baked goods, eggs, meats, and cheeses lined the long table at center of the hall, while circular tables ringed around it. Atienna sat at one of these tables with an amicably chattering Dimka and Aldéric, a food-inhaling Sefu, a disgruntled-looking Albertine, and several other socialites.

Aldéric merely waved him off. “Nothing a little bit of painkillers and a breath of fresh air can’t fix, dear Albertine.”

Albertine scoffed in response and muttered off to the side—“It’s always easy to wave off problems and push for those sort of remedies when you have money lining your pockets, isn’t it?”

Aldéric stiffened at the comment and glanced around the table as several of the socialites began to whisper amongst each other. He quickly moved around the table and bent over to whisper something into Albertine’s ear.

Albertine cleared his throat and straightened himself afterwards. “My apologies, everyone. I was merely making a jest. We all know wealth comes with problems of its own.”

And that’s how he tries to recover from what he just said?

Olive. Just a stray thought, fortunately. If he were fully synchronized, then… it would be troublesome.

Atienna felt the hairs on her arm begin to rise to a stand. She cautiously glanced at the corner of the room where Albertine’s v-ehicle driver was happily helping himself to a plateful of cinnamon-dusted toast. It didn’t seem like he’d noticed the discretion. Nervously, Atienna watched as Albertine excused himself from the table and exited the hall to rest.

After a moment’s hesitation, Atienna rose from her table to follow him, but an arm around the waist directed her back to the food line. Soon, she was standing in front of ten trays piled high with colorful orbs of fruit. At first, she thought it was Aldéric, but then—

“And how’s the headache? That has to be one of the more pleasant withdrawal symptoms, right?”

Albertine’s driver. Scorpio. His words grated her ears. His smile as he scooped up a heap of blueberries from the display bowl onto his plate grated on her nerves.

Atienna reached forward and picked up one of the set out plates and a fork so as to not appear out of the ordinary. “You knew.” But how much did he know?

“And you didn’t,” Scorpio noted. He offered her some berries with the spoon. “Or should I say you didn’t want to know. Curiosity disappears as soon as you encounter reality. Reality is disappointing, so it’s more enjoyable to explore possibilities instead.” 

Atienna declined his offer. “It’s interesting you bring up exploring possibilities given your recent conversation with Gabrielle and Jericho. A possibility that one of Gabrielle’s associates might not be entirely with her. From what I’ve garnered from passing, you’re quite… against Gabrielle’s… pursuits… I wonder… It’s just strange even if you’re trying to sow seeds of doubt, don’t you think? Helping her when—”

Scorpio continued smiling“We’re talking about our dear Werner, not Gabrielle, right? Werner—he pursued his passions and had quite a time with it. He certainly did enjoy himself. I can see though now that he’s happily returned to his post. You’re all handling the withdrawal symptoms better than I expected. I suppose it makes sense. Appearances and all that.” He chuckled. “I am curious about the drama that unfolded afterwards. I did spy Cadence running her little way through Polovinastadt without even a winter coat on that night. Of course, you all disappeared and reappeared before I could manage another sit-down with Cadence, but… she has quite a history with those types of substances, doesn’t she? Werner, meanwhile—well, I’m sure you can see it—is the perfect type of person to be susceptible to something like that.” He placed a hand to his chest. “Irony aside, it was inevitable from the very beginning.”

Atienna clenched her fork and plate tightly.

“I do admire the deepness of the connection True Conductors share as I’ve said many times before.” He turned to her, smirking. “Collectivism at its finest—at least, that’s what it should be. When wills and morals and priorities are off-balance, I bet it does cause quite a conundrum. Your group is certainly—”

With a roar, Atienna spun on her heels and smashed the plate against the man’s face. As shrieks erupted and fruit went flying, she jabbed her fork into his below. And as Sefu and Dimka shouted at her in alarm, she picked up the pieces of her shattered plate from the ground and began to gouge them into Scorpio’s flesh. Red stained her hands, his shirt, the carpet, but she didn’t care anymore.

This was her decision—

—or so Atienna imagined. Back in reality, she set the fork down on her plate and her plate in the dirty plate bin, offered Scorpio—who was still looking her over with interest—a polite smile, and walked away. 

* * *

In-Transit, Cancer

They set off back to Secoursonne the next day. Again, Atienna rode in a v-ehicle with Aldéric, Albertine, Dimka, and Sefu. Atienna offered to sit in the front with Albertine’s driver much to Dimka’s delight and Sefu’s disdain, so Albertine could ‘rest in the back’—or at least, that was how Atienna had sold it as. For the time being, she wanted to keep Albertine as far away from Scorpio as possible. She intended to do so until she gauged whether or not her deductions were right.

Two hours into the v-ehicle ride and they pulled into a rest stop and the men stumbled out to relieve themselves. As soon as the men left, Albertine’s driver turned to Atienna with a pleasant smile. Before Scorpio could say a word, however, Atienna excused herself too. She made her way around the central log cabin of the rest stop to the restroom block in the patchy woods just behind it. She had spied Dimka and Sefu in the window of the former and immediately realized she had to move quickly. As she neared that long, flat building that served as the restroom house, she caught sight of Albertine and Aldéric entering the men’s room together. Swiftly, she went around the building and scanned the back wall.

There.

A small square window opened up on the far end of the wall and seemed to lead to the men’s room. Only feeling slightly ashamed, Atienna clambered onto the pile of wood stacked just below it and then peered through the window.

Inside, she found Albertine doubled over in front of one of the restroom sinks. Aldéric stood just behind him.

“Aldéric, something isn’t right,” Albertine groaned as he buried his head in his hands. He waved his hand in the air, gesturing to the flickering v-bulb above the sink. “I keep… My head’s not right. I think I have brain damage from the accident.”

Aldéric snorted. “Usually people celebrate when they’ve survived a near death experience not pout about it.”

Atienna was both surprised and unsurprised at the lack of grace and informality in their behavior. Appearances were deceiving, after all.

“I’m serious, Aldéric! I think… I really do think I have brain damage. Hypoxia or whatever they call it.”

“Albertine, you’re being ridiculous.” Aldéric rubbed his brother’s arms. “Straighten up a bit, would you? All we need to do is look well enough and have this silly little wedding with ‘Ilunaria.’ Then you act as a supportive brother, give your congratulations, and then we’re on our way again out of the public eye. Cancer and Leo united, hand-in-hand. The politicians can have a field day, while we go on vacation.”

Albertine scoffed. “And what happens when the Leonian politicians decide to use Ilunaria’s absence to stir the pot of Signum? Are we supposed to be stirred along with them?”

Aldéric’s gaze narrowed. “We don’t know she’s missing for sure.”

Albertine snorted. “I’m pretty sure there’s little other explanation for her lack of show face. Soon, they’ll be saying that she’s too ill to come out into public. Just like Louise—”

Aldéric grabbed hold of him and shook him hard once, twice, thrice. “Albertine, what’s gotten into you?” 

Albertine stared at him for a moment before holding his temple and grimacing. “Sorry, Aldéric. You know I didn’t mean anything like that. I know how much Louise meant to you.”

Aldéric pulled away and sighed. “Just… Sleep it off, Albert. We’ll be fine. Just freshen yourself up, and then we came go home.” And with that, he swept out of the bathroom.

Albertine returned his attention to the mirror then and stared into his reflection as his grip on the basin tightened. “Who are you? Why are you doing this to me? Why are you so rude?” He continued staring for what seemed like half an hour before he dipped his head. “I’m talking to myself. I’m going insane.”

Atienna felt her heart drop into her stomach as she watched him turn and head to the bathroom’s exit. Her suspicions were now completely confirmed. He was a new one. A new True Conductor. Newly-minted. Freshly connected. Ripe for the saint candidates’ picking. 

They had already captured Leona—although Jericho didn’t seem to define it as such. Soon, Scorpio would grow suspicious of her absence and start looking into the matter. Thus, they needed a distraction to keep Scorpio away while they got their bearings together. So, what better distraction was there than presenting him with a new True Conductor? It was not a good choice, but it was not a bad choice either. In fact, the cons were far and few in-between. This held true especially for Albertine’s case since he was someone in the public eye. The saint candidates would leave him well enough alone while they searched for the ones he was connected with. He would be alright for a short while. That and he would be given their protection. For the time being, wasn’t this choice the preferable one?

Yes, she could leave right now and inform Scorpio of her findings without interacting with Albertine directly. She’d be able to hold herself at a distance from the Cancerian-but it was wrong.

Contrarily, Albertine’s true freedom would be taken from him. Contrarily, he would most likely be pressured to find other True Conductors too. Contrarily, he would become more of a puppet than he already was. Contrarily, he would be put under tight stress and pressure by the candidates before even fully forming meaningful connections with those in his psychic circle. Contrarily, he would suffer for her sake. Contrarily, the other five would also suffer in turn. Werner’s heart was too fragile, Jericho too unstable, Olive too goodhearted, Cadence too strained by consequences, and Maria too bright to handle another Louise.

But what of their family? Their friends? The playing pieces Scorpio was laying out against them?

Atienna buried her face in her hands.

Again and again she was faced with these decisions. Again and again she made choices that were both wrong and right. The other five made their choices so easily with such intense belief in the choices that they made. Although her choices changed just as theirs did, unlike them, the person she was inside remained the same. Even so—

Atienna hoisted herself up onto the threshold of the window and then down into the bathroom. She landed on the sink deftly before slipping onto the floor. The rubber soles of her shoes squeaked against the wet tiled floor, but she did not flinch as much as Albertine did.

Albertine whipped around, eyes widening as his mouth drew ajar. Atienna was on him immediately, slapping a hand over his mouth and pressing a finger to her lips. His brows furrowed, but he nodded, and so she released her hand.

“Saints!” He gasped. “Miss Imamu—what…?” He looked around. “This is the men’s restroom!” After studying her for a moment, his gaze strayed up to the ajar window and he paled. “How much did you hear?”

“Enough, Monsieur Albertine.” Atienna took a step back. “I know that you’re experiencing headaches, nausea, and maybe even some deja vu. You always feel like you’re remembering things that you’ve never experienced before. Perhaps you’re even starting to hear voices and see people who aren’t there.”

Albertine paled. “How do you—”

Atienna extended her hand and smiled gently. “I’m just like you, Albertine. And I must say that this world is becoming more and more dangerous for True Conductors every day. So, it would be best to accept some form of assistance from a party in the know, don’t you think?” 


a/n: thanks for reading!! this chapter was definitely on the hsorter nnd ((At least for me)) so there’ll be an exxtra chapter coming out this tuesday/wedesday. i’ll put the officially-ish date up on the index around monday probably. but! form them on we are returning to the rotating schedule of Undecdied Weekday & Saturday / Saturday…. if that makes sense;;; have a great weekend o/

25.5: Peacekeeper & Alianza

Re-cap:

Jericho is traveling to Leo with Leona in order to support her campaign. He has lost another friend to saint candidacy, and the loss is on his mind as Leona and Gabrielle begin exchanging war stories.

Some days later, Maria has finally confronted Alpha in Alfablanca. She struggles to save her crew who are hanging by a chain from falling to their deaths while facing the potential Saint Candidate of Leo Dominic. Jericho arrives on the scene with Leona as Maria’s struggles reach their peak.

The events that span the former and latter events are…


In-Transit, Leo

Jericho realized that Leona’s ‘war’ story did not ‘match up’ with what he had gleaned from Oros. At the same time Leona and Gabrielle started exchanging their wartime experiences, Maria had received Oros’s memories from Epsilon. From Jericho’s understanding, Epsilon’s reasoning for offering those memories was this: to ‘cheer’ Maria up. Jericho was aware he himself wasn’t the ‘best’ when it came to social norms, but he was certain that memories of war were not ‘comforting’ or ‘cheerful’ gifts to receive. 

The memories did not come to Jericho immediately, but instead were passed down second-hand gradually piece-by-piece as Maria shifted through them afterwards. By the time Jericho digested the information completely, both Leona and Gabrielle had ended their conversation. The two now sat in silence. Leona’s eyes were closed, while Gabrielle stared her down from beside him. 

While Oros’s vision displayed a long and drawn out war, Leona’s tale highlighted only her accomplishments on the battlefield and the failures of others. There was no mention of Leonhart working with ELPIS nor was there any mention of her slaughtering the ELPIS leaders in Pandora. Addition: Leona spoke as if Leonhart was herself the entire time. Sense of self was something Claire had applied only to True Conductors, but intuition: it applied to saint candidates also. And ELPIS leaders. Jericho was not good at reading faces but Gabrielle seemed to be unnerved by Leona’s way of speaking. Jericho himself didn’t like it either. It thinned the line between Scorpio and Talib and Cancer and Benì.

Benì. 

Jericho also had a difficult time grappling with the glimpses of ELPIS that he’d seen: ELPIS before they became ‘ELPIS.’ The mundanity in their lives before the war. Again the question arose: why? Francis Jericho could accept. People whom Cadence, Francis, Atienna, and Werner deemed as necessary allies he could accept. Tau was on the borderline. Jericho did not like him. He preached justice but his actions said otherwise. What they had done and made others do—the incongruency of it compared to what they had been before. What was the switch? Did it matter? The reason. Maybe he didn’t truly want to know.

Jericho wanted to speak with Gabrielle about it. Amendment: he wanted to speak to Gabrielle about everything. He had not spoken with her in some time. He had not spoken with anyone from Gabrielle’s inner circle for some time. The exception was Ferris, but their positions as vice chairs had made their meetings ‘far and few in-between.’ Scorpio’s eyes made it even more difficult.

Cadence’s only comment on the Leonhart situation was, Glad I was too young ta see the brunt of the war. Took my parents to their wits’ end, I think. Bah—but nobody wants ta hear about that. When she had relayed the information to Francis, all he said was, “Yes, that some portions in our records regarding Leo’s assistance of us did survive damage, but again it’s no longer pertinent. That time has passed. The hands of time turns over alliances just as it changes people.”

Werner and Atienna both advised Jericho to keep silent about the revelation. Jericho still recalled that night Atienna was embraced by Scorpio. He had not known what to say to her then. She had consistently avoided the topic whenever it was brought up. That was not peculiar of her, however. On the other hand, Werner seemed strange lately. Jericho’s intuition told him something was wrong, but Werner had asked Jericho to trust him and so he did. 

* * * 

Oroslita, Leo

The train arrived at the main station Leonian capital of Oroslita several hours later. As soon as Jericho stepped off with Leona and Gabrielle, he was immediately greeted by a station platform flooded with men and women holding notepads and flashing cameras. The camera flashes seemed endless. 

In attempt to shield his eyes from the assaulting light, he raised his hand over his eyes. He lowered it only when a reporter stuck a camera right in his face and took a snapshot. The bright light left stars in Jericho’s vision, and when he could finally see again, he was staring into the face of a man with a heavy mustache. A paper badge was pinned to the man’s chest. It read PRESS.

A reporter.

The reporter lowered his camera and spoke quickly—“There’re rumors that you’re a former associate of the terrorist group ELPIS. Is that true? If so, did that affect your entry into the ELPIS Department? What’s your surname? Don’t you think that your alleged past is a detriment to Leona’s campaign and what the ELPIS Department stands for?” 

Jericho lowered his hand and stared at the reporter. His ears rang. How did he know—

No need ta get worked up, detective. Cadence synchronized in very lightly, so he could barely make out her surroundings. It makes sense. You’re in the public eye now. Reporters are somethin’ else. They dig up literally everythin’ ya got buried. I remember one time they got dirt on the old man and Allen all in one go. Had ta be paid off and all that. That or tossed, if ya know what I mean. That’s only if ya’ve got the money though. Anyway, long story short. Just play dumb and casual. Maybe intimidate ‘em a little.

Thinking deeply about Cadence’s proposal, Jericho continued to stare at the reporter. For some reason, the man tensed and backed away slightly. Gabrielle fell in place beside him and pushed the reporter’s camera away.

“Close up is extra,” Gabrielle noted with a half-smile.

Jericho stared at the reporter for a little while longer before finally answering, “No comment.”

Leona came to stand beside Jericho’s other side and looked down at the reporter. “What question have you just troubled my vice chair with? Something regarding the future of Signum? Or irrelevant questions about the past?”

The reporter tensed before repeating the questions he’d just asked Jericho.

“Are you questioning my judgment in choosing my vice chair?” Leona asked, lifting her chin. Her molten gaze swept across the mass of cameras and her voice carried over their commotion. “If his past is as you say it is, then that just proves how effective the ELPIS Department is. It’s heartless and dishonorable to turn your back on people who want to change.”

Huh…

Another reporter stepped forward, notepad in hand. She gestured to Gabrielle then to Leona. “You two just came off the same train, didn’t you? Did you ride in the same cart? Is there a reason that you two and several other first chairs are here? Is it just coincidence or is this a planned meeting?”

Leona’s eyes narrowed.

A wave of whispers abruptly spread across the crowd starting from the very back. Slowly, the crowd parted as a quintet of silhouettes made their way towards them. The familiar sharp and poignant smell of formaldehyde made wafted into Jericho’s senses followed by an even more familiar sound:

Bahshhhhhshhhhhh.

Bahshhhhshhhshhh.

The crowd-parting figures finally made their way through the crowd and stopped short across from Jericho, Leona, and Gabrielle. Jericho instantly recognized the two who stood front most. Hårek, First Chair of the Medical Department, and Nadinaline, First Chair of the Assignment Department. Flanking Nadinaline’s left and right were the veiled peacekeepers he’d seen constantly at her side. Correction: they were corpses. Corpse bride. Corpses: like on the battlefield from Oros’s memories.

Clenching his fists, Jericho stared at Nadinaline long and hard. 

She had been the one to bring Benì in to be baptized. She was the reason—no. She was only part of the reason, he realized. The saint candidates also were another part of the reason. ELPIS too. And Monadism. Monadism: the Monadic priests had also done things to Maria—

Jericho’s thought cut off as he registered another smaller figure stepping out from behind Nadinaline. The bright purple shade of their hair made them instantly identifiable.

Ferris.

“Gabrielle! Jericho!” came her sigh of relief. “I—” She glanced to her left at Nadinaline and shut her mouth.

Jericho felt the tension in his stomach lessen slightly. He then registered Moraeni of all people coming to a stand beside Ferris.

“Moraeni,” Gabrielle greeted the man. “Ferris, you too, huh? Now how did you get both here before me when our train left first?”

Moraeni shrugged half-heartedly in response.

A beat of silence passed. Then came the explosion of camera shutters and voices shouting over each other—

“What are five first chairs doing here?”

“Are you all here for the campaign?”

“What do you have to say about the chlorowheat issue?”

“Aries and Sagittarius have—”

“Near the Aquarian-Capricornian border—”

Gabrielle cupped her hands around her mouth and spoke over them: “Do you think we can put politics to the side for a moment and all grab lunch? I’m starving!”

* * *

Jericho felt awkward. At the moment, he was sitting at the far end of a long table inside a fine dining restaurant at the heart of the city. The interior decor of the restaurant reminded him vaguely of the Rosario Round of the Twin Cities: pillars holding up the ceiling, red carpeted flooring, and crystal chandeliers dangling from above. Sitting on his side of the table were Ferris and Gabrielle. Directly across from him sat Leona and beside her sat Moraeni, Nadinaline, and Hårek in that order. Nadinaline’s mediums were ‘parked’ on the bench just outside of the restaurant. From where Jericho sat, he could see them through the restaurant’s glass windows. Occasionally they would sway side-to-side.

The restaurant itself was half-full of men and women in suits and dresses. Occasionally, the men and women would cast glances in the direction of Jericho’s table and whisper amongst themselves. Most eyes —Moerani’s, Gabrielle’s and Ferris’s too—were glued to Leona.

A waiter approached their table, carefully balancing a tray full of food on his shoulder. He set down the tray on a stand and began nervously passing platters of food around the table. Twin soups for Nadinaline and Ferris, while Gabrielle had an artisan burger and Hårek had what appeared to be saucy meatballs. Moraeni had some type of rice dish. Much to Jericho’s surprise, the waiter moved to place a noodle dish in front of him. He hadn’t ordered anything.

Jericho grabbed the waiter’s wrist as the man turned to leave. “There is a mistake.”

The waiter startled.

“No, there isn’t,” Leona interjected. 

Upon looking across the table, Jericho found that Leona had a similar dish placed in front of her. Leona held his gaze for a moment before picking her fork up and beginning her meal. Jericho stared at her and then at his plate for a moment before releasing the waiter. 

“I’m sorry.”

The waiter dipped his head and scuttled away.

Nadinaline hummed as she lifted her veil just high enough so she could sip her soup with a spoon. “It’s not quite as good as what we have back home, no?”

Spoon half in mouth, Ferris glanced over at Leona tensely but said nothing.

“Seamus is stiff competition,” Nadinaline continued after a while, “especially with endorsement from the Ariesian prince and Sagittarius’s Seong Clan prince.”

Gabrielle, Leona, Moraeni, and Ferris all looked at Jericho simultaneously. Jericho stabbed his fork into a thick of pasta and shoved it all into his mouth.

“If Seamus’s journey and peace talks at the Aquarian-Capricornian border pay off—which I do hope it does—he’ll be an instant pick for many.” Nadinaline set her spoon down. “How troublesome these rolling elections are. It’s always the ones who do the most at the very end that reap the praise and rewards. The tortoise doesn’t win in this case, but the hawk that swoops in at the very end.”

Hårek arched a brow. “Is that a reference to the tortoise and the hair? I reckon you should at least offer some context before you make vague references like that. It’s poor communication.”

“Speaking of communications,” Nadinaline continued. “Saddine’s somehow become quite popular lately and Katharina’s moved down some since they found out her relative’s a member of the AAC.”

“I thought we agreed we weren’t going to speak about politics,” Gabrielle said, arching a brow and setting her burger down. 

“Please, Gabrielle.” Hårek dabbed his lips with a napkin. “What else would we have to talk about. The weather? It’s terrible.” He drummed his fingers on the table. “The biggest hot topics right now—rather, the topics of greatest importance in the mind of the people—are ELPIS’s erratic behavior in the past few months and the missing children, the chlorowheat epidemic, and the cold war brewing between the northern and southern countries.”

Jericho’s head pounded.

Chlorowheat…

He put his hand to his head, unsure of where the thought had come from. Cadence, most likely.

“It puts the Medical Department, the ELPIS Department, and International Relations in a unique spotlight,” Nadinaline rationalized. She glanced at Hårek. “You do have a lot on your plate, don’t you, Hårek?” 

“The election is just taking away from the crisis we have here.” Hårek frowned, jabbing his finger down on the table. “There are anti-chlorowheat campaigns in Capricorn and Aquarius, but I have reason to believe that Capricorn’s medical board has been—”

“It would be best not to discuss sensitive matters in public,” Leona interjected, holding Hårek’s gaze. “This isn’t tableside gossip, but another country’s affairs. I suggest that you have a bit more pride.”

“A lecture in appropriateness from someone younger than me. It’s the people’s issue, so should it really be discussed behind closed doors as opposed to an open forum?” Hårek challenged. “Not that I’m suggesting we adopt the Ophiuchian way. However, since we’re in your country, I’ll respect your opinion.”

Leona frowned.

Nadinaline placed a hand on Hårek’s back. “I’m sure it’s just the stress, yes, Hårek? You have double the items to manage since Miss Wtorek is gone.” She glanced across the table at Gabrielle. “Do you have any clues on that, Gabrielle? You were quite close with Miss Wtorek, were you not?”

Gabrielle held Nadinaline’s gaze. “You have no idea how much I wish she’d tell me where she went off to before she left.” 

Nadinaline remained silent before she added, “Is it something that has to do with Izsak—”

“You speak lightly of heavy topics. It makes it difficult for me to imagine how callously you’d speak of light matters.” Leona rose from the table. “Jericho, let’s go.”

Jericho stared at his now empty plate. “I’m not done eating yet.”

Leona’s gaze narrowed but she reached into her pocket and pulled out a slip of paper for him. “Fine. This is where we’ll be staying at. I expect to start our rounds at 7 am in the morning.”

Jericho accepted the paper and pocketed it with a nod. After offering Leona a wave, he watched her depart, then watched as Nadinaline and Hårek left too after they finished eating. Ferris stayed behind, but Nadinaline didn’t seem to mind it. Now only he, Gabrielle, Moraeni, and Ferris remained.

They sat in silence for a stretch as they finished up their meals. After a while, Moraeni said, “You’re doing good in the polls, Gabe.”

Gabrielle looked up at him and rubbed the back of her neck. “Neck-in-neck with Seamus of all people. If he cleans up things with the AAC by the end of this month, he’ll be five necks ahead of me. It’s like the perfect setup.”

There was another lapse of silence. Ferris held Jericho’s gaze and bit her lips.

“I still believe in you, Gabrielle.” Jericho offered her a thumbs up. 

Gabrielle snapped up to look at him. Her expression was stricken, and her shoulders sagged slightly as she leaned back in her chair. “Do you know what happened to the two last people who said that to me?” 

Intuition: Talib and Izsak.

“Sometimes I wonder if there’s even a p…” Gabrielle shut her mouth and yawned instead. “Anyways, it seems like our prince is getting involved in politics after all. Any idea why he’s giving the sudden endorsement?”

Jericho thought on how best to put it: “Messy politics. Blackmail… A bribe?”

Gabrielle sighed and rubbed her neck again. “What sort of mess has our prince gotten himself into this time?”

“He wants Aries to lower the tariffs on Capricorn,” Jericho replied plainly. “Aries’s joint tariffs with Sagittarius.”

“Capricorn…” Gabrielle drew slowly before her gaze softened a bit. “I see—”

“Oh, Gabe, Gabe, Gabe.”

Jericho looked up to find the waiter from earlier approaching their table with three bottles of wine in hand. The man set them on the table before popping a bottle open with a cork.

“I’m sorry, but we didn’t order these…” Ferris began before her eyes widened as her gaze flitted up to the man’s face.

Jericho followed her gaze and saw a familiar tattoo in the shape of a scorpion crawling from the nape of the man’s neck down his collarbone. 

“Scorpio,” Gabrielle greeted the man with a curt nod. “Appreciate the visit, but aren’t you too busy with your campaign to be stopping by here? I saw your billboards in Scorpio—the country. They were nice. It was nice of your parents to put them up for you.”

Scorpio remained silent for a moment before a thin smile split across his lips. “Aren’t you going to finish what you were saying earlier? A leader should finish everything they start, shouldn’t they? Or else the sheep will wander around lost forever.” 

Gabrielle arched a brow. 

“I’ll remind you. You were saying that you’re not sure if there’s any point in participating in or even winning the election,” Scorpio continued. “You’re right on the mark. There is no point in winning this election. There never was. At least not for you. If you win the election, what do you hope to change? Every policy you push will take decades to implement and only weeks to overturn and amend. And you don’t have decades, Gabrielle.” His smile fell slightly. “The syzygy is just around the corner.”

The syzygy. Conta and Tau had not been very revealing of anything on that topic. Lack of trust.

“Has Cadence learned anything from the ELPIS leaders that I assume she’s working with now? Perhaps little tidbits here and there? Even if you gain the knowledge, the most you’ll be able to do is push back the time frame of the inevitable.” He snapped his fingers and turned back to Gabrielle. “By the way, I took a peek at the preliminary voting tickets after it was all over and done with just for fun—”

“Are you willing to say that on record?” Gabrielle interjected.

“Both Nadinaline and Hårek voted for you during the preliminary round of the elections, Gabe,” Scorpio continued. “Seeing how they chose Elizabeta and Ferris as their vice chairs, they might have a soft spot for you.”

Yes. Jericho remembered Atienna mentioning that peculiarity.

“William Saovàng voted for you too. That’s Ariesian loyalty for you.” Scorpio gave a singular clap. “That does bring certain loyalties into question though…”

“What are you implying…?” Moraeni pressed, frowning.

“Someone in your inner circle didn’t vote for you, Gabrielle,” Scorpio finished, pulling back with a smile. “You’re bright. I know that paranoia’s been swimming around in the back of your head like a fish. It’s only natural for a wayward leader to have wayward sheep.”

“Stop heckling her, Talib,” Ferris murmured, fists clenched on the table. 

“I’m helping her, Ferris, not heckling,” he replied calmly before placing a hand on his chest. “You always think help is heckling when you’re young. Then you grow old at the end of the road and realize the slap on the wrist was actually an extended hand.” 

Jericho frowned too.

“Speaking of sheep and shepherds…” Scorpio turned to Jericho and leaned across the table to face him. “I’ve warned you already, partner. I’m not one to stop people from following their passions and feelings. People pursue their passions and what makes them content and happy. That’s why Benì decided to step into the role of Cancer. Oh—I’m sure he’d still enjoy taking photos with you from time to time, by the way, so don’t feel shy. He still is Benì, after all.”

The flashes from the camera shutters of the reporters Jericho had seen only two hours before echoed in his mind.

“The point is that I still care for you, partner, just as I care for everyone you’re connected to.” He leaned in even closer. “The vase is about to break. Like I said, the hairline fractures were already there to begin with.” Abruptly, Scorpio pulled back and stared out the window. When he turned back to Jericho, there was a confused look on his face. He pointed to the bottles of wine on the table. “Did you… pay for that already?”

Silently, Gabrielle drew out her wallet and handed the man a thick was of Ariesian bills. The waiter grimaced slightly in turn before flashing a smile.

“Keep the change,” Gabrielle added.

The waiter walked away with a hop in his step.

“Gabrielle,” Moraeni said suddenly, placing a hand on Gabrielle’s arm from across the table. “I owe you my life. Please don’t doubt yourself. Ever.”

Gabrielle blinked, appearing dazed. She then chuckled. “When you come in out of the blue saying reassuring stuff like that, it really hurts the ego, you know?”

Moraeni released her. “I was a potential saint candidate for Pisces in the past,” he drew slowly, meeting Ferris’s eyes then Jericho’s. “I haven’t told anyone this before, but I was chosen near the end of the war.”

Gabrielle frowned at him. “Why are you telling this story now—”

Ferris tensed, her face becoming pale. She scooted back slightly and her arm brushed Jericho’s elbow. “But…”

“I had nothing left after the war ended. I figured that dedicating myself to Monadism wasn’t such a bad thing.” He glanced at Gabrielle and his expression became briefly pained. “Izsak and Gabrielle swept me away into Ophiuchus instead. Gabrielle said we could do better things that way. Gabrielle, you said that even though we might not be the ones to see the better thing, it would still be worth it. I still believe that. Your ideas are good. You do good.” He looked back at Jericho then Ferris. “If it weren’t for them, I’d be just like…”

Ferris looked back in the direction of the waiter as a lapse of silence passed.

“Just trust me when I say to trust her,” Moerani finished.

“We are almost there.” Jericho nodded at Gabrielle, offering a thumbs up. “Don’t give up.”

* * *

The following morning, Leona tasked Jericho with handing out flyers, checking out billboards, and making promotional statements to passing pedestrians. He carried all the promotional materials with him in a large satchel and his suitcase. He felt odd: like a mailman from the Communications Department instead of a desk worker in ELPIS investigations. After comparing the two positions in his head, Jericho suddenly felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. They were not so much different. 

“Vote for Leona,” he said to one passerby as he held out a flyer stiffly into their face. “Maybe.”

Cadence and Olive occasionally kept him company as he made his rounds, but they had to leave eventually to handle things on their ends. Jericho wished he could be with Cadence and Maria in their search for the one instead of being here.

“Vote for Leona…” he said to another, handing out a pin this time. “Or vote for someone else.”

As dawn transformed into dusk, Jericho found himself passing by a water fountain at the very center of the city. It was a stone structure with a spout in the shape of a lion’s head and a holding bowl accented with carved feathers. The square surrounding it was empty much to his surprise. He approached the fountain and stared down at his reflection in the basin. He did not find any of the other five there. 

“You shouldn’t be out late. You’ll be swept away by the golden beast.” 

Bashhhhshhhhshhhhh

Bshhhhshhhshhshhhh.

Jericho turned sharply and found a trio of figures approaching him out from the narrow sidewalk to his left. Their faces were cloaked in black veils. Nadinaline and her mediums.

The woman chuckled. “That’s a little urban legend that’s made its home here, by the way. For this ‘context’ that Hårek was harping to me about earlier.” 

There was an addition that Jericho had not fully considered about her earlier: he remembered seeing her during the war. She had directed an army of corpses at the borders to overtake enemy forces. Each person her mediums killed was resurrected as a puppet—unable to return their bones to the earth. An interruption of the cycle…?

Nadinaline came to a stop in front of him. They stood there in silence.

After an unknown amount of time passed, Jericho pointed to her closest medium. “Why?” 

“Hm? Why I’m here? Well, I have an appointment that I need to get to. Or were you wondering why Ferris isn’t with me, dear? I gave her tonight off.”

Jericho shook his head. “I think… that this is something people would consider ‘not normal.’ They are corpses.”

Nadinaline motioned for one of the mediums with her hand, and it approached her stiffly. “Yes, they are. It’s completely legal. They’re no longer alive.”

“Who are they?” He paused, then amended: “Were they?”

“This is Marc,” Nadinaline explained casually, placing her hand on the medium’s shoulder. She gestured to the distant-standing medium. “That is Ilya. They were two peacekeepers who worked with me in my department half a decade ago. We became quite close before their untimely deaths. Dear Marc here even introduced me to his wonderful parents. They’re quite old—his parents. His mother is a bit off.”

“They were your friends,” Jericho concluded. He frowned.

Nadinaline’s head perked up at this and she seemed to appraise him through her veil. After a moment, she brought her hand up behind the veil over her mouth and laughed. It was a long and clear note. “Oh—oh dear. You’re more innocent than I thought.” After a moment, her laughter subsided and she folded her hands in front of her. “Do you not want to keep your friends by your side?”

Abruptly, Jericho recalled Francis’s words in Leo several months back: “People mourn for the dead but the dead are the ones who are at peace and have left everything behind as they return to the cycle. We should have sympathy instead for the ones who cling still to those who have passed and found peace. Desperately clinging to what remains of them and wishing them to return. We are selfish in our imaginations and our desires.”

“Oh?” Nadinaline blinked. “I just called you innocent and then you turn into a poet before my very eyes.” She chuckled. “The thing with mourning is that it passes with time. Not while one is living, of course. Mourning only stops when the mourner is dead. It’s not a permanent feeling, and there’s beauty in permanence—permanence as in nothing is lost or gained.” She hummed in thought. “Ah, well, mourning itself is a cycle. Once the mourner dies, another mourner to mourn them is created. And so on and so forth. That isn’t permanence either.”

Jericho stared. “What does this have to do with your mediums being corpses?”

In response, Nadinaline walked over to the fountain and sat down on its thick rim. She motioned to the area beside her.

He stared at her blankly, fists clenched. After some more thought and staring at Marc for a while, he moved to sit down beside her. 

Silence.

Half an hour later, a small figure hobbled into the square: an old woman with a hunched back and walking with a cane. As she came nearer and nearer, Jericho could make out that her eyes were a milky white color and that her face was lined with wrinkles in the darkness. Once she stopped only half a meter away from him, she looked around as if lost. 

“M-Marc?”

Nadinaline lifted her hand. Marc moved forward from where he stood beside her and stopped in front of the older woman. The woman in turn squinted up at him before reaching up past his veil to touch his face.

A beat of silence passed.

“Ah, there you are, Marc.” The old woman sighed and rubbed his face as he dipped his head low so she could better reach him. She squinted in Jericho’s direction. “Nadinaline, is that you?”

“Yes, it is, dear,” Nadinaline replied.

“How has my Marc been?” The old woman asked as she was guided over to sit at the fountain by the Marc-medium.

Nadinaline lifted her ringed fingers, seeming to direct Marc to sit beside the older woman. The medium then moved to hold the old woman’s hand.

“Oh, he’s been very good,” Nadinaline replied. “Very hardworking. Never leaves my side.”

“Just like his father!” the old woman laughed. “He always wanted to do good things—Marc. He has a good heart, you know? He always tried his best when he was younger.” She looked up at Marc. “It’s a shame that your voice is still damaged from your assignment two years ago. You had such a lovely singing voice…”

Something in Jericho’s heart stirred. He could not put his finger on it. Disgust, pity, empathy, warmth: all of it stewed over in his stomach. He wondered what Olive would think. Cadence always said Olive had the best moral compass. So: Good? Bad?

After the old woman spoke some more about her back aches, her garden, her cooking, and her husband to Marc, she started to yawn and rub her eyes. “Oh, I’m getting old. Getting too tired, too quick. Oh, but I can’t stay a little while longer. I haven’t seen you in forever, Marc…”

“Oh! Marc signed to me that he wants to walk you home,” Nadinaline added gently. “I think that’s a splendid idea.”

“Oh, I suppose that’s alright… You can’t leave me alone when you see me, can you?” The old woman mumbled with flushing cheeks and a pearly smile as Marc took her hand and guided her towards the alleyway she’d come from. “I’ll just borrow him for a moment then.”

“She’s senile,” Nadinaline explained afterwards, her gaze distant, her ringed fingers moving up and down as if they were playing a piano.

“But it’s a lie.” 

“A lie of comfort,” Nadinaline seemed to agree. “Sometimes lies of comfort are required to allow people to continue forward. Is it so bad if it harms no one so long as the lie is kept constant? Only the privileged can apply morals and condemn things like lies so easily. Only the privileged can flip labels so easily too without consequence. At one point I was a war hero, you see? At another point a war criminal. And now I’m the first chair of a—how should I say—well, I shouldn’t say.” She tapped her free fingers to her lips. “You shouldn’t say things that aren’t respectful, should you?”

A lie of comfort.

Jericho thought of Francis and Cadence and the chlorowheat.

“A useful lie is one that has permanence,” she continued, glancing at Ilya. “One that never decays…”

Jericho frowned. Truth and lies. He had tried to tell Benì the truth but—“Benì. He became a saint candidate.”

“Yes, he did.” Nadinaline nodded. “Just before I left for Leo, in fact. I have to thank you for looking after him while I was busy with election materials—” 

“Do you know what happens to people who become saint candidates?”

There was a beat of silence.

“If you’re talking about the elusive and mysterious ‘baptism’ of saint candidates in the context of the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis, then I must say I have an inkling.” Nadinaline’s eyes became half-lidded beneath her veil. “It’s not explicitly stated in the red folder that we receive when we become first chairs. No, it’s not listed with the information regarding energy levels, the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis, nor the manner in which ELPIS operates—though I doubt the details there are completely accurate. Intuition can, however, get one very far.” She let out a breath. “I was very fond of Talib. He was the best conversationalist. Always knew when to talk and when to listen, you see…?”

Jericho felt his chest seize again but refrained from reaching out to Olive. “Then why?”

“You want my reason?” Nadinaline smiled thinly. “I’m sorry, dear, but I don’t have one to give you. It was his choice in the end, wasn’t it?”

Jericho unclenched his fist. “He didn’t know any better.” Like Jericho himself had not known any better all those times before. An excuse? A reason. After turning over the two words over and over again in his head, he finally asked: “Did you have a reason for why you and Hårek voted for Gabrielle?” 

Nadinaline turned to him sharply. “Who told you that?”

“Talib,” Jericho answered. “Scorpio.”

Nadinaline looked forward again. “I see…” She lolled her head slightly to the side. “Not to stereotype people, but Gabrielle has that Ariesian spark.”

Jericho cocked his head. “Ariesian spark.”

“Oh, dear, I’m sure you have at least one Ariesian friend who has the Ariesian spark. They just have something in them that lets them ignite action in others. Inspirational. All you have to do is witness that spark and you’ll catch flame yourself.” She hummed. “Or maybe it’s all just chance.”

Jericho thought of Olive during their very first synchronization meeting. His calling. Conjecture: a spark?

“This world doesn’t quite make sense, but we still choose to live and survive in it through little pains and big pains. When there’s a person who offers a moment of clarity, I can’t help but be drawn to them. That and Gabrielle’s woes and goals coincide with mine and she’s a far better public speaker that I’ll ever be, you see? She’s managed to prevent her title of ‘war hero’ from being tarnished.”

Jericho waited until Marc returned to Nadinaline’s side before he left. 

* * *

Several days later, Leona brought Jericho with her to visit a string of Monadic temples in the city. Whenever they would enter one of the temples, Leona would be greeted by deep and reverent bows from the Monadic priests, temple attendees, and Espadas alike. Some—mostly the Espada—would even get on their hands and knees and touch their foreheads to Leona’s feet. Almost always after Leona gave her campaign speech to them and Jericho handed out fliers, the priests would gift them with large baskets full of wines, foods, and other items.

A bit much, ain’t it? Cadence noted when she swung by in a light synchronization. They call ELPIS cult-y but this is pretty extra. Well, that’s what happens when ya pedestal things too much. Ya see, detective, it ain’t too hard ta be drawn into bad things. No character fault of your own.

Excuse. Reason.

Atienna on the other hand seemed less curious about the devotions of those in the temple and instead. I wonder… Given how Monadic Leo as a country is, you would think that most Conductors would plan to vote for Leona just because of her status as their saint candidate. Leonian Conductors make up only 5% of the votes, so while it’s good to invest time here, it would be better spent cultivating votes elsewhere—don’t you think?

Although Jericho didn’t understand politics, he relayed this question to Leona after they completed their greetings with the Monadic priests. 

“It’s good to gather new sheep and collect more ants,” Leona explained quietly once the priests and Espadas had left to retrieve gift baskets for them, “but you shouldn’t neglect the ones that are already beneath your boot or in your care. You should have pride in everything that’s in your domain…” Her eyes narrowed as her gaze trailed towards the returning priests. 

The words rang in Jericho’s head as his thoughts drifted again to Oros’s memories. He eyed the plastic-wrapped gift baskets in the priests’ hands. As he attempted to make out the contents of the baskets, he suddenly felt a shiver explode out from his back and spill into his hands. His legs gave in beneath him, and he tumbled to the floor. Leona caught him just in time and he was assisted to one of the pews by the Monadic priests.

Leona knelt beside him. Eyes narrowed, she whispered, “What is it? Who?”

Jericho remained silent. Eventually, Leona left to speak with the priests. Jericho was still not familiar with the feeling.The pain. The shivering. The nausea. His heartbeat didn’t feel right either. One of the others. It had to be.

After some time passed, Leona returned to his side and guided him out the temple. They wove through the city and returned to their hotel room where Leona sat him down with a glass of water. Jericho was uncertain about her gestures but the sickly ghost pain was more on his mind than she was.

It was not too long after that the answer arrived: Werner.

The fallout that followed this was overwhelming: chlorowheat, Francis, the lies, Werner, denial, shouting, Cadence and Olive, and then finally Maria. Jericho’s intuition had been right—there had been something wrong— but he found no pride in it because he had not acted on it.

Seeing Werner was like that reminded Jericho of Benì’s recent fall and of Scorpio and Talib. Someone was once again slipping away. Jericho therefore held on tightly with all his might. He slotted times to synchronize in with and visit Werner and even convinced him to speak with Alice. 

It was like that unspoken phrase Olive said.

Hope for recovery.

A spark.

* * *

The next several days were a blur. Jericho spent most of the time in bed: his limbs and head aching unfamiliarly yet familiarly. This feverish, sweating, too hot yet too cold feeling reminded him of the time when he’d been deathly sick when he was much younger. It was a faded and worn away memory. He couldn’t remember who had taken care of his younger self at that time: his mother or Theta. He did his best to take on the pain as he had offered to do so for Werner and the others.

It took approximately a day afterwards for Jericho to feel well enough to get out of bed. Correction: it took him one day to feel well enough to open his eyes. When he did, he found himself in the bed of his hotel room with Leona at his side. There was a book in her hands.

“You’re awake.” Leona’s eyes narrowed. “What happened?”

Jericho stared at the ceiling. He tried a lie, “I had a heat stroke.”

He thought to himself again: he should have trusted his intuition, but instead he had trusted Werner. Werner had lied, just as Jericho himself had lied to Francis. Intuition and truth was not enough. Lies.

“Don’t insult me,” Leona said thickly, “You’re a True Conductor. It isn’t difficult to connect the dots. I’m sure Scorpio’s connected them already.”

Jericho blinked at her, thinking. “You don’t know. He hasn’t told you. Or he doesn’t know either.”

Leona regarded him for a moment before she said gently, “You can trust me. I do care for your well-being.”

Trust. Werner’s word. Theta and the other ELPIS leaders had trusted Leona too.

“But you lied,” Jericho scrambled internally to reason. They were not a part of this deal anymore, so he had no reason to disclose the information to her. Even if the deal was still active, he wouldn’t have disclosed it either. “On Maria’s ship—you lied. You said you were the Golden Beast. You’re not.”

“What? That’s ridiculous. Besides, you do realize the golden beast is a Leonian old fable, right?” Leona sighed and crossed her legs. “I do admit she’s made it her own and revived it from unuse, but it wasn’t originally hers to begin with.” 

Alpha’s voice rang in Jericho’s ears: Everything that you have right now is not really yours. Everything was taken from someone else or given to you by someone else. 

“Alpha…” Jericho clenched the sheets as the name slipped out from his mouth. Another wave of nausea wracked his stomach but he fought against it and rose to a sit. This uncomfortableness was unfamiliar to him. A new experience. An unpleasant one.

“Alpha?”

“You’re not concerned about him,” Jericho said, staring at her. “He took children. He spread chlorowheat. He will attack Ophiuchus. But you’re not concerned.” The back of his head buzzed. “You want to refuel the reservoirs with his attack.” He frowned. “But he has bleached vitae. The vitae won’t elevate as much. Why?”

“Would you be concerned by the buzz of a fly?” Leona asked calmly. After a pause, she frowned and her eyes glinted. “Do you not realize how insulting your words are? How long do you think I’ve dealt with Alpha as an adversary—” 

“Fifteen years,” Jericho said. “That is not a long time. From your perspective.”

Instead of replying, Leona’s eyes narrowed and asked, “It was the Capricornian, wasn’t it? The one causing your pain right now?”

He perked up but then looked away. “No.”

Leona chuckled lightly and strangely before sighing. “Scorpio has put him as a person to keep an especially keen eye on since he and one other are the most likely to find themselves in danger. In Herr Waltz’s case, it’s a danger from within.” She paused as if letting the words settle in. “We’re aware of a particular issue he has, although I’m not sure if you’re aware of it. Since Scorpio is Herr Waltz’s direct contact, he is the one who handles him—though I’m sure you’re aware of how Scorpio handles people.” Another pause. “And by particular issue, I mean a chlorowheat issue.”

They knew. And they did nothing. Jericho tried not to listen and felt his cheeks burn. Werner would feel ashamed if he somehow overheard.

“I’ve heard, however, that Herr Waltz is continuing his operation at the border as normal.”

Jericho reached out for Cadence. She answered his call, despite being in the middle of an AAC meeting. As soon as she got her bearings on his situation, she swore. 

Best ta play this easy.

“He had an incident,” Jericho admitted. “But he is okay now. He is better—”

“You must be disappointed.”

Jericho frowned, and he felt Cadence frown too.

After a while, Leona continued, “What were you saying about fifteen years ago?”

Jericho tensed. He had led that information slip on accident—

Wait! Saints. I dunno how I didn’t think of it before. This is the perfect blackmail! Leo was goin’ against the frickin’ saint candidates this entire time before turnin’ face. How do ya think they’d react if they found out Leo here was battin’ for the other side?

Jericho lifted his head and locked eyes with Leona. “You’re from here.”

Leona smiled as if amused. “I am the Saint Candidate of Leo, Jericho.”

“You were Leonhart.”

Leona merely chuckled. “Yes—”

“Did you pick me as vice chair also because I reminded you of Epsilon? Because I am ‘innocent.’”

Leona stopped short.

“You helped ELPIS during the war and before it. And then you betrayed them—”

Leona was on him in an instant, leaping on top of him and pinning him by the throat to his bed. After staring at her in confusion, he pushed back against her with difficulty until she pulled away. She stood there at the foot of his bed breathing heavily. Even still, somehow, she held an air of elegance.

After a pause, she eased back down into her chair and her breathing calmed. “Did you finally discover this through Theta’s records? I assumed Omicron destroyed them all—”

“No. Through Epsilon.”

Leona stiffened again. “So he’s with one of you. Epsilon would never show you—”

“He showed Maria.”

Leona showed no change in expression.

“Why?”

“What makes you think you deserve to know my reasons? It’s simple: disappointment.”

Jericho considered it. “Disappointment in other people does not make me want to abandon them. It makes me want to help them.” A voice whispered in the back of his head: “Disappointment in oneself, however, might cause one—”

“You should watch your tongue, Jericho,” Leona interjected in a steely tone. “You’re valuable as a True Conductor, but there will always be more to replace you.” Upon looking him over, she added in a gentler tone: “I’m assuming those words weren’t from you, so I advise you to hold their tongues.”

Jericho continued, “If the other saint candidates discovered that, what do you think they’d do? They don’t know. You’re lying to them.”

Cadence squirmed in the distance as Leona’s eyes narrowed. 

“The strong don’t have a need to lie,” Jericho said. “That’s what Maria says. Intuition: that’s what they teach in the orphanage. Like Maria. You were both in Gloria houses.”

“As I said—watch your tongue,” Leona replied thickly. “I am nothing like that woman. I took on this role, while she decided to be swept away.” She added after a beat: “Do you find any fault with me killing the people who would eventually become ELPIS leaders? You have a personal vendetta against them, don’t you? That’s why you joined my department.”

“At that point…” Jericho felt the gears in his head turning. “They… hadn’t committed any crimes. At that point, they didn’t need to be brought to justice. You could have stopped them if you stayed with them.” He ruminated. “You said ‘disappointment,’ but why? Why was that a reason?”

Instead of addressing the question again, Leona returned, “Where is he? Where is Epsilon? He’s with Theta, isn’t he—”

“He is with Maria,” Jericho answered.

Leona’s jaw tightened. 

Silence.

“So… it appears as if we’re at a sort of impasse.” She crossed her arms. “Usually, such rude and demeaning threats and accusations would be met with equivalent retribution, but I’ll be lenient this time. For now, I’ll allow whatever you’re machinating in the background to continue as is as long as you continue to bring in True Conductors. It’s not as if what you do will matter in the end anyways.”

That’s one way ta say ‘let’s both look the other way.’ Saints, Cadence finally thought, breaking her silence. This is why politics is always a pain. Never know what ground ya stand on.

“They all looked up to you, Leo,” Jericho said after a beat.

Leona regarded him. “Did they hold me on a pedestal or did I hold them on a pedestal? Who disappointed who?”

Silence again.

“The bells.” Jericho fell back on his bed and stared up at the ceiling. “Do you hear them?”

“They’re always ringing.” Leona rose from her chair. “Your health is worth more than my campaign here. You’ll rest until your counterpart recovers completely. I expect you to use my discretion wisely and I expect your discretion in turn.” 

Would ya look at that, came Cadence’s thought. Leona’s more human than we thought. Well, we should probably still keep the whole Alpha issue we’re dealin’ with on the down low. ‘Cause—ya know—most people can’t look the other way forever.

* * *

Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

A day after, Jericho attended a synchronization meeting in which Maria disclosed the location where she believed Alpha—the one—requested to meet her at. Her orphanage. Her beginning. But not her end—she had clarified. She said Alpha was not his end either. Yes. Jericho was glad that she said this, but at the same time something about the intensity in her eyes ‘unnerved’ him. It was a different brightness than the one he usually associated with Maria.

That night when he was feeling somewhat well enough, Jericho slipped back into Ophiuchus while Leona was asleep. He walked the entire way from the gate located on the outskirts of a train station halfway between central Ophiuchus and the border of Leo to the living complexes at the edges of the Serpens Establishment. Once he reached the apartment that was his destination, he rapped on its door again and again and again. After the sixth rap, the door cracked open and Alice’s head poked out.

Jericho?” she pressed, adjusting her glasses. “What are you doing here? I thought you were headed to Leo.”

Jericho blinked down at her. “Vitae, please. Olive is asking a favor.”

Alice stiffened, glanced back and forth down the terrace before jerking him inside. 

“Do you know how dangerous it is for you to be moving around through—” She stopped short after studying his face. “What happened?”

Instead of answering, Jericho wrapped his arms around her.

Alice stiffened again before returning the gesture. She brought him to her kitchen table and sat him down with a cup of warm water. “Do you want me to listen or do you want my advice?”

“I don’t know.”

Alice nodded. After fifteen minutes passed, he began to tell her everything that happened in the short time he’d been away. He also elaborated on all the things he had kept discreet regarding Alpha. She listened to the entire story from beginning to end without speaking. 

Afterwards, she ruminated for a long while before asking, “Werner—that’s the man that Scorpio’s vitae entered back during the Week of Blindness, correct?”

Jericho nodded. 

Frowning, she set down her tea. “Whoever prescribed him that medication doesn’t deserve to be called a doctor. I also have concerns about this so-called prescribed morrowheat and chlorowheat that’s being circulated through Capricorn. I’ll bring it to the attention of the Medical Department myself so that you’re not implicated.” She held his gaze. “I believe Werner in this case may be one of many victims in a corrupt system that favors productivity over health.” 

“I had intuition, Alice. I knew—I had a feeling something was wrong—but I trusted him.” He bowed his head as he recalled the rumble that had torn through “Like Francis trusted me.” And he still hadn’t faced Francis since then.

Not a lie of permanence. 

“I’ll make special time in my schedule for Werner.” Alice reached across the table and held his hand. “Although it’s not my area of expertise, I’ll try my best after consultation with some of my colleagues familiar in this field. Given the tightness of our schedules, I would like for these appointments to be on time.”

“Werner is good with schedules and deadlines,” Jericho reassured her. “He never misses anything. Except when…” He trailed off.

Alice nodded, moving to take another sip of her tea “And this Alpha… Other than searching for him due to his crimes, I suspect you have a secondary motivation.”

“He is the one, Alice. He… lied. He manipulated us. Tricked us. And he’s the—” 

“He’s the reason—perhaps,” Alice replied, “but you’re also seeking a reason from him, aren’t you? The difference in the way you and the others and Maria were treated. His apathy now versus his push for you to fulfill ELPIS’s goals back then.”

Jericho remained silent.

“People don’t need a reason from people who’ve hurt them,” Alice continued. “The reason will never be enough—especially in your case, Jericho. ‘Reason’ is not the same as ‘closure.’ You’ll constantly be searching for it, and the answer may never satisfy you.”

Again, Jericho remained silent.

Afterwards, Alice spilled her vitae into the device Jericho had constructed with Olive’s instruction over the past few days. Up close, the white tubes crisscrossing the sphere in an ordered fashion were visible and soon 

“It is like a proto-conductor,” Jericho explained. “But improved with Marta John’s modification to the proto-conductors.”

“Marta John…” Alice drew slowly. “That’s the Ariesian conductor engineer who developed the vitaespetrophotometer.”

Jericho felt something tighten in his chest. He nodded. “Olive says it works like a donut.” He made the shape with both of his hands. “People who are at the center of the donut are not affected, so if you activate it you will not be affected. Only people in the ‘dough’ of the donut will be affected. Immobilized. ‘Theoretically’.”

Alice sighed, placing a hand on her hip. “To be frank with you, what your proposing this device does sounds like a miracle. My vitae wasn’t strong enough to completely stop… Scorpio”—she paused— “in Capricorn back in winter. Is this powerful enough to stop a saint candidate or someone who has an unusual amount of vitae inside of them?” 

“I don’t understand the ‘science’ behind it but the effect is ‘amplified,’” Jericho explained to her promptly, “but it is a ‘trial run’.”

* * *

Oroslita, Leo

Upon slipping back into his hotel room, Jericho discovered Leona awake and waiting for him in their shared living room. She was sitting on the sofa with a book in her lap and glanced up at him as he slipped through the door. 

Jericho avoided her gaze. “I had late night cravings, so I went… to satiate them.”

Leona let out a long and quiet sigh. “Jericho, let’s not play these meaningless games.”

“Games?”

“Your life as a True Conductor is inexplicably valuable to me.” Leona slowly rose from her chair. “Does this matter have to do with Alpha? You do realize that I’m still the first chair of the ELPIS Investigations Department. Your complaints regarding what you perceive as the mishandling of the Alpha case have reached my ears.”

Jericho looked to the side.

“Alpha was the one to take Maria when she was younger, was he not? That’s not difficult to deduce from history. He has also taken several of the children from our orphanages. He has Rho at his side as well as children he’s converted.” Leona approached him. “I assume from the remnants of ELPIS skirmishes our department has been keeping track of across Signum, Maria has crossed him at least once. They’ve both been rather elusive, but I’m assuming they’re bound to meet again soon.” She crossed her arms. “Do you believe in Maria’s strength to face Alpha?”

“Yes.”

Leona held his gaze. “Alone?”

Thinking otherwise felt like a betrayal of Maria, but Jericho still found himself saying, “We have other reasons to face Alpha-reasons that would be ‘bad’ for us if…” He struggled to explain himself as Cadence and Olive rattled at the back of his head. He eventually settled on, “Discretion. Like you said.”

“I don’t need assistance in handling someone like Alpha if you’re concerned about the other saint candidates or your fellow departmental agents discovering your hobbies, Jericho,” Leona replied. “All I care for at the moment is the safety of our assets for the syzygy.”

* * *

Alfablanca, Leo

Jericho—suitcase in tow—and Leona were on the train bound to Alfablanca that night. As morning rose, they reached the lip of the city right when Maria was laying down the gates in her old orphanage. They moved through the town and up the cliff at the town’s edge as Maria headed into the temple to confront Alpha.

When Jericho and Leona were halfway up the cliff, Jericho heard Dominic challenge Maria to a duel. As he tried to offer his assistance, he was immediately shoved backwards through his connection with her. The force of it caused him to stagger slightly. “She is pushing me away.”

Leona held him steady as they continued forward. “Your connection with each other must be exceptionally strong for her to be able to hold you at bay—that’s good for the syzygy. Of course, that may just be her sense of self coming into play.”

It was terrible: the anxiety that built and built as Jericho neared the temple at the very top of the cliff. The fear. These feelings were unfamiliar to Maria—Jericho knew.

When the temple loomed into view, Jericho recognized the group of suited men standing at its entrance. The Foxman’s men. Just in front of them sat El, Epsilon, and Andres. A searing pain began to bubble up his left arm as Jericho finally brushed past them and entered the temple alongside Maria. He was immediately met with the sight of a blinding white fog caging the inside of the temple. Up above hung familiar brass, copper, silver bells. Just below them—

There she was. On the ground. Maria. Her arm was entangled in a chain that extended out of the open doorway on the opposite side of the temple where the one and Rho stood calmly side-by-side.

No. That was not the most important thing. Maria—she was in pain, but despite this she held onto the chain tightly. Maria. In pain—throbbing up the left arm. Losing. Maria and losing: two ideas that did not coexist together in his mind. His Maria—just like he was her Jericho. Like Ayda, Talib, Benì, Werner.

No

“Maria!”

Jericho did not realize it was himself who had shouted Maria’s name until his voice was ringing in his ears. He stepped forward, intending to blow through the wall of mist. A ghost of a hand stopped him short. Upon turning, Jericho registered Olive. His eyes were wide and wild. 

“You’ll get hurt too, Jericho.” He turned to snap at “Claire, come on—!”

Claire. Andres.

Jericho whipped his attention to the side and registered Andres kneeling on the floor and muttering a prayer to himself. El and Epsilon sat beside him, shaking the man roughly. Leona’s eyes were glued onto the very latter.

“Epsilon…” Leona’s eyes widened. She hesitated for a moment before extending her hand out to him. “You need to leave immediately.”

Epsilon recoiled away from her in clear confusion. “Wha? Who are you? I can’t. Leo…” His gaze trailed to Maria. “We have to help Leo—”

I’m Leo,” Leona pressed, grabbing a hold of his arm. She pulled a conducting blade from her waist and activated with a flick of her hand. The gold light warmed her face. “They’ve been deceiving you. You need to leave. I’ll handle this—”

“What? No, no, no. You’re… You’re not Leo. How could you even call yourself that?” Epsilon murmured, shaking his head and meeting Leona’s eyes after glancing at her conductor. “Your conducting is the same, but I can look in your eyes and I can tell. There’s no warmth.” 

A perturbed look crossed Leona’s face.

No, this was not important.

Jericho returned his attention forward.

There: Rho, standing idly beside Alpha.

Jericho clicked open his suitcase and ignored the papers and fliers that spilled out from it. He grabbed his conductor from within as the colorful sheets were picked up by the wind and thrown around the temple. The bells began to ring. With all of his might, he aimed his suitcase and threw it at Rho. The suitcase hurtled across the distance before—crack!—it collided with Rho’s chest. The sheer force of it sent the woman flying backwards out the temple and onto the field behind the temple. She rolled to a stop near the edge of the cliff.

The white wall of mist dimmed slightly and began to lose its shape, but did not go away completely.

Regardless, Jericho whipped off his suit jacket, wrapped it over his head, and charged through the mist. As soon as he broke through the veil, he darted to Maria’s side. The floor beneath her body was soaked in her blood but she still gripped the chain wrapped around her arm tightly. He tried to hold her, but she pulled away and locked eyes with him. Her eyes—they burned with a fiery intensity.

Jericho understood. He reached for the chain, but before he could grip it, a flash of gold suddenly seared across his vision. He barely activated his conductor fast enough to throw out a whip to block the incoming blow. The golden blade shatter as soon as it contacted his vitae, and its wielder stumbled backwards.

Dominic. 

“See, you can’t even beat me on your own!” the adolescent snapped, lifting his chin. He looked Jericho up and down. “Who are you?” He eyed Jericho’s armband— “A peacekeeper?”—and then Jericho’s vitae with a frown— “But your vitae… it’s almost white…”

Jericho rose to his feet and tightened his grip on his conductor as he held Dominic’s gaze.

Dominic: A child. An arrogant one, but also someone who was also tricked. Someone who deserved pity?

Jericho eyed the conductor in the boy’s hand. Yes. He would destroy that instead. He lifted his conductor to follow through with the action, but was abruptly tackled to the side by another person and subsequently pinned down by the arms.

Andres.

Andres said nothing, locking eyes with Jericho as he continued to push him down. Words did not need to be said. The context came from the flashes Jericho received from Maria. Jericho realized it then. He was looking into a mirror of the past: at himself when he’d been wholeheartedly dedicated to ELPIS’s belief system. The cycle, the turn of it, the corruption and sin that conductors brought. The desperation to dedicate and to please. To prove dedication. 

Grimacing and apologizing internally, Jericho kicked the man back with all of his might. Andres flew backwards, crashing into Dominic behind him and sending them both flying to the ground. The two struggled to a stand as Leona finally moved forward away from Epsilon. She threw seven activated vitae blade at the shroud of mist—one after the other. The first two disintegrated as they passed through the first wall of mist, but created a path for the five other blades. The third and fourth blade were dissolved by the last wall of mist, but once again created a path for the other blades to follow. The remaining blades skewered Alpha’s left arm, causing him stagger back. 

“Beta,” Leona said out loud, peering through the fog at the field beyond it where Conta, Albatross, and Simon were holding steadfastly to the chain. She reached for another conducting blade.

T-This is getting too out of hand. Jericho, try—

Mind racing, Jericho reached into his pocket and pulled out the sphere he’d brought with him and slapped his finger down at the small nodule at its head without a second thought. A high-pitched whine emanated from the sphere before it began to pulsate with light. All eyes turned towards Jericho—towards the sphere—before a large ring of light expanded out from the sphere’ body and hurtled outwards, increasing in intensity as it grew. 

When the ring of light faded just at the very outskirts of the temple, a collection of thuds echoed around Jericho as the bells above rang loud and the campaign leaflets cascaded downwards. 

As Jericho’s eyes fully adjusted, he registered that Leona, Andres, Dominic, and Epsilon were on the floor motionless. Alpha too. Their eyes were open and flicking side-to-side, indicating alertness. The ones standing on the outskirts of the temple—Conta, Simon, Albatross, and even Rho—remained unaffected and appeared confused.

Rho surveyed her surroundings before she shrugged, turned on her heels, and leapt off the cliff without warning. Conta made to dart after her, but stopped short and continued to hold onto the chain extending off the cliff alongside Simon and Albatross.

“Jeri…” Maria whispered, drawing Jericho’s attention downwards. She was still gripping the chain. “Help me.”

Jericho felt his heart drop. He wrapped both of his hands around the chain and began to pull, pull, pull with all of his might alongside Maria, Conta, Simon, and Albatross. Slowly, painfully, they collectively brought the chain further and further up into the temple. With one final tug, they pulled the mass of bodies tied together back up onto the cliff. Those entangled in the chains clambered on top of each other; and two sides seemed to be struggling against each other. Among the chaos, Jericho saw Emmanuel jump on top of a child and pin them to the ground. Eventually, Emmanuel’s side overpowered and subdued the other side.

Maria finally fell backwards as she registered this. Jericho moved forward quick enough to catch her head before it hit the floor. He stared at her, vision swimming as he stared at her arm. He didn’t know what to do. 

Calm down— 

Let’s think—

El’s a Transmutationist— 

Craning his neck back, he called out for El.

El, shrouded by one of the suit jackets belonging to one the Foxman’s men, immediately darted through the mist and skidded to a halt beside Maria and Jericho. She cast a concerned glance back at Andres before moving to assess Maria. Only after a second after doing this, El looked up at him sharply.

“We need to get her to a hospital. Or to the ELPIS leader’s room—

Jericho immediately whipped out his conductor and severed the lower part of the chain from Maria’s arm. He swept her up with difficulty into his arms and began to stumble towards the entrance of the temple with El at his side. Before he could make it past the threshold, Conta was beside him.

“Let me take her. I said let me take her!” she snapped, prying Maria from his arms. “You need to be gentler. You’re being too rough.”

Jericho stared at her in surprise but—after some resistance—released Maria into her arms. He walked alongside the two, gripping Maria’s good hand tightly the entire time. Once they entered the adjacent orphanage, El ran up to and opened the gate on the chalkboard inside and began to help Conta carry Maria through it.

Jericho started to follow them through, but—

“Proteus, Jeri,” Maria managed. Proteus. My children. My crew—

Jericho stopped short, still gripping Maria’s hand tightly. Holding her gaze for just a second longer, he released her and turned on his heels. 

Upon re-entering the temple, he passed by Andres, Leona, Epsilon, and even Alpha—

The kids. The kids—

He exited out the opposite side of the temple, brushed past the crowd at the edge of the cliff, and peered down the steep drop. Below, the ocean waves surged wildly against the rocks. In the distance, he could spy a familiar wooden ship sailing south. Too far to reach.

Damn it.

Gripping his fist, Jericho returned to the temple and came to a halt before Alpha. The man was flat on his back and staring up at the bells that swayed up above them. Upon registering Jericho, he managed a smile despite the damage to his arm. 

“Ah, so we meet face-to-face, Jericho,” he said. “You’ve grown super tall, haven’t you? Oh? And you wear glasses now? Well, I knew that already.” He laughed. “That’s quite an interesting conductor you’ve got there. Absolutely fascinating. To be able to hold down Leona and me—well, we’re nothing compared to saint candidates—but it does make you think.”

Jericho sank to his knees before the man and stared down at him. 

“What do you want from me now, Jericho?” Alpha pondered out loud. “I already gave you an answer. Are you still unsatisfied? I thought you of all people would understand the importance of freedom and letting go. You let Ayda and all your friends go, didn’t you?”

Jericho’s eyes widened and he cracked the man hard across the face. Blood flew out from his mouth.

Alpha merely laughed through his blood-stained teeth. “Jericho, you need to let go.”

Jericho cracked him again.

It was his fault. Alpha. The one. Ayda and everyone. And everything.

“You chose to follow what we asked and that’s all—”

And again. And again.

“You decided it wasn’t right for you in the end and left.”

And again. Again. Again.

“Nothing more and nothing less—” 

Jericho, that’s enough!

Jericho stopped short and turned to find Olive’s image at his side. Olive placed a hand on his shoulder, causing Jericho to recall how Olive had stayed with him after what had happened to Benì. Slowly, he dropped his fist. That was when he noticed that the Foxman’s men were ringed around him. They wore varying expressions: surprise, fear, reluctance. Maximillian, who stood among them, grimaced.

“Shit…” he grumbled. “Remind me not to get on your damned bad side. Anyways, what the fuck do we do now? Obviously, this wasn’t part of the plan.”

“We need to help the others into the gate,” Jericho said stonily, glancing out the back of the temple towards the cliff where Simon and Albatross were helping free the ones entangled in the chains. “If Scorpio has any medium’s here, they have been disintegrated by Rho’s conducting. Intuition: he may come to investigate. Solution: we move quickly.”

Maximilian jerked his head towards the crowd standing at the cliff. Maria’s crew seemed to still be struggling against a few of the children Alpha had converted. “What about them?”

“Solution.” Jericho cracked his fist one more time against Alpha’s head, knocking him out cold. He proceeded to slap the suppression cuffs from his belt over the man’s wrist. He put two more on for good measure. 

“Some solution,” Maximilian grumbled. He jerked his head to the side. “What do we do about her?” 

Jericho followed the man’s gaze to Leona who laid between Andres and Dominic. 

Cadence, Atienna, and Olive fogged the back of his mind. They were only partially synchronized in with him. Maria had most of their attention. To leave or to take was the decision to be made. Atienna was silent in the discussion.

Silently, Jericho approached Leona and locked eyes with her. He knelt to the ground and pulled another pair of suppression cuffs from his belt. “Discretion,” he said before slapping them over her wrists. When she fell limp, he stood up, pointed to her, and addressed the suited men: “Could you carry her back too? Temporarily. And the boy and Andres. And Alpha.” He added afterwards: “Please.”

Maximilian and the other men displayed clear apprehension but eventually nodded and moved forward with the transportation.

After ten minutes of struggling, Jericho and the Foxman’s men managed to usher and to carry almost everyone back through the gates in the orphanage. The only people who remained on the edge of the cliff were Simon, Albatross, and Lita. The former two appeared to be trying to coax the latter down.

Head heavy from exhaustion and swirling with thoughts of Maria and Alpha, Jericho approached them in slight confusion.

“—leave me alone, Albatross!” Lita pulled away from both Simon and Albatross with intense ferocity. “You don’t understand. Maria won’t—I—”

Jericho stopped short. He did: he understood what had happened almost immediately. He didn’t know why it had happened, but he understood it. 

Jericho stared at Lita for a stretch of time before he quickly approached her and placed a hand on her shoulder. She swung a blind fist at him, but he caught it with his hand. He then moved to lift the conductor hanging from her neck over eyes. 

As she looked him over through the glasses, her milky eyes widened. “You’re… the one from before. From Capricorn.” She paled. “I—”

“I am okay. Maria still accepts me as I am.” Jericho wrapped his fingers around her small hand. “You don’t need to give her a reason. She will understand, and she will want to see you. Especially since she is hurt. She fought for you.”

Lita paled even further. “Maria’s hurt…?” 

“Yes, but she is strong.” Jericho nodded, convincing himself of this fact with all his might. “So, it’s okay. For you, there is no reason needed. So please come home.”