Chapters

11.2: Werner’s (Fidato) Command

Re-cap:

The Twin Cities is in chaos as ELPIS reigns through the streets. The six have come together to formulate a plan in order to resolve each of their interconnected issues. Cadence has successfully completed her portion of the plan and has captured the ELPIS leader Theta with Jericho’s assistance.
Werner is out of commission due to an override by Cadence but was previously looking into Colonel Fritz von Spiel’s invovlement with ELPIS after it was brought to his attention by Private Derik Stein. Von Spiel has been revealed to be a True Conductor connected to a child owned by the Campanas and to Aquarian secretary Yulia through Cadence’s and Atienna’s investigations.
As their plan unfolds, Werner’s role begins to come into play. And it’s all about trust.

Twin Cities, Gemini

Werner Waltz opened his eyes.

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

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

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

Werner frowned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The colonel. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was no point in lying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Werner stiffened, unsure of how to respond. For once, however, he did not feel shame.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nico’s brows rose. “Cadence did?”

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

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

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

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

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

An odd tenseness in Werner’s shoulders released. 

“Stein is awake?”

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

“Nico, I’m fine.”

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

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

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

Twelve hours exactly.

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

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

Werner could remember when this photograph was taken. 

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

It was a warm memory. 

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

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

Werner turned.

Gilbert was leaning against the doorframe, arms crossed. 

There were three seconds of silence.

“You feeling alright? Sleep good?”

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

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

“And?”

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

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

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

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

Reassurance. 

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

The thought unnerved Werner.

Regardless, sacrifices were necessary.

“Werner… ?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was that word again.

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

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

This was trust.

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

Was it?

Werner’s head buzzed.

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“You too, Lieutenant.”

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

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

Werner nodded at him before he began his debriefing:

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

Bergmann sank down into her seat, bunching her pants legs in her hands. 

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

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

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

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

“Stein, no one asked—”

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

The two quieted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then—

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man was obviously scrambling

The clouds darkened above them.

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

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

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

“Alright then,” the colonel said. 

There was a pause.

The colonel’s hand darted for his waist.

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

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

“Dammit…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bars hurtled downwards—

—and then Kleine stepped in front of Werner. 

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

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

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

Omicron. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omicron’s eyes narrowed. “So do I—”

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

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

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

A truth twisted into a half-lie.

“Their demands are—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jericho.

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

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

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

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

Werner suspected she was thinking of Omega. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I know, Werner. Be careful. 

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

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

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

The colonel abruptly fell silent, hanging his head, before he turned to Werner suddenly and held out his wrists. His expression was eerily calm. Werner signaled Stein with two fingers. 

Slinging his conducting rifle over his shoulders, Stein moved forward and cuffed the colonel. Before Stein pulled away, however, the colonel grabbed hold of Stein’s wrist.

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

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

Gilbert joined Stein on the other side of the colonel and together the two jailed him in tight, secure. 

Werner ordered Bergmann to sweep the streets outside of the alleyway with Kleine. As Werner watched the two set off down the alley, he collected his thoughts. 

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

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

They were ahead of schedule—

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

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

Something had gone wrong. 

On Atienna’s and Maria’s end.

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

This suffocating feeling belonged to—

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

—Maria?

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

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

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

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

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

And then something went wrong on Cadence and Jericho’s end.

Before Werner could even comprehend the events that had unfolded so shortly one after another, a terrible, inhuman screeching whine clawed its way through the air. It resounded from all directions. From below, from above, from beside, from between—from the black spot on the alleyway wall that Omicron had stepped into. A crack of white appeared there, stretching open wide and wider until it took the shape of the familiar glowing door. But no one stepped out from it. 

“Saints. Werner, look…” 

Gilbert was pointing at the sky. 

The smog clouds were afire with the reflection of pale—almost white—tangerine light. 

But this was not an event restricted only to their square in the city.

Werner could see it all—through the eyes of all those within the city whom he was connected with:

Every single street corner, every single building, every single surface in the Twin Cities was littered with glowing portals. It was as if every single gate Theta had within the city was now wide and open. 

And from all of those spatial distortions, a singular, familiar voice cracked out in anguish: “There really is no hope.”


“Colonel Fritz von Spiel’s remarkable achievements in the past three years are exceptional. Once hailed as the record-holder for Capricorn’s most military failures, Von Spiel has flipped every single one of his defeats into a victory. He has shown heart, passion, and dedication to improvement. Moreover, he has shown the Capricornian public that any soldier can rise to bring good to Capricorn regardless of past grievances. 

As his father states with utmost affection: It’s almost as if he’s become a different person.”

Der Militärzeitung, Wöchentliche Ausgabe #78, 17 August 1939

11.1: Cadence’s (Sincero) Deception

Re-cap:

Cadence Morello has faced her own self-deception and self-illusion. She has learnt that Donato of the Romano Family was the one behind Francis’s stabbing and that the man is working together with Enzo of the Campanas. But the city has been moving quickly without her notice. Theta (?) has decided that it is time for ELPIS to make their move, and the Twin Cities begins to fragment under ELPIS’s terror and ‘hope’. Now, Cadence and the other five must come together and decide to…

Twin Cities, Gemini

Cadence opened her eyes.

She was flat on her back with the dampness of the pavement beneath her soaked into her suit jacket and pants. Pain throbbed up and down her limbs which was unpleasantly paired with the taste of iron in her mouth.

She blinked and squinted.

It was pitch black. She couldn’t even tell if she was looking at the sky or the ground. If it were the sky, she figured she would at least be able to see the city lights reflected back by the smog clouds, but there was nothing.

Was she dreaming? No. It’d be a terrible dream if she felt this awful.

Was she dead?

And then she heard the screams; the pit-pat-pit-pat of gunfire that reminded her more of Werner’s side of things than her own; and the blaring of sirens.

Maybe she was in hell.

“What in saint’s name…”

You lost consciousness.

Jericho’s face eclipsed her just as a sudden burst of burning white light became reflected on the smog clouds above her.

“Yep. Seems so. From pain instead of drinkin’ this time, though.” Cadence grimaced. “Great.”

The white light faded from the sky, leaving her in complete darkness again.

“Detective… what the hell is goin’ on here?”

ELPIS made their move. They cut the ley lines connecting the generator conductors around the city to the vitae reservoirs’ generator conductors around three hours ago. ELPIS members are on the street. Targeting civilians and searching for members of the Romanos and the Campanas. Bendetto has gone missing.

What…?

I’ve been put on a task force set to hunt the ELPIS leaders who are confirmed to now be present in the city. Theta, Omicron, Iota. A pause. Then Jericho added as if an afterthought—I also…

The memories of Omega’s execution in the damp, dark warehouse flooded Cadence’s mind. The anger, the hatred, the righteousness, the minute satisfaction. And the emptiness afterwards.

Cadence’s heart started thundering in her chest.

We have not located Theta yet. Another pause. I have not informed Leona of the connection between Theta and Francis either.

Relief.

Thanks, detective. But… 

“I… I don’t get it.” Cadence pulled herself up to a sit and groaned. “Why are they actin’ now? Thought they were aimin’ ta lie low till they found that mystical third vitae reservoir. Use the Families against each other.”

Yes, Leona believes ELPIS has uncovered the location of the third reservoir, and they are now aiming to destroy the three central generator conductors hooked to them simultaneously. She has increased the number of agents guarding them, but given Theta’s ability, it may not be sufficient. The city conductor engineers are attempting to restore power.

“Leona?” Cadence struggled to a stand and began to drag herself blindly forward, hoping she wasn’t walking towards a dead-end. “You tellin’ me that Leona knows that there’s a third vitae reservoir in the Twin Cities? That there actually is one?”

Another memory flashed into Cadence’s mind.

The limestone pillars at the front of the Leonian Monadic Temple in the Monadic District. Then the pews within, pointing towards the faceless statue at the back. Then the back room behind that statue, and then the trap door within the backroom that led to a descending staircase. Up from the depths of those stairs bled soft light and intense heat.

“Beneath the Monadic Temples…? Seriously? Brain’s a little mush right now, so I can’t even think of a good joke.” Cadence chortled and winced at the pain that followed. She pushed forward, drawing closer to a barely noticeable streak of light several meters ahead. “How did Le—”

“The first chairmen of all the Department of Ophiuchus receive confidential reports from the different countries of Signum about newly formed vitae reservoirs bi-annually,” Leona had informed Jericho at the crowded round table meeting within the Abaccio. “Of course, the countries are free to do what they please with these reservoirs as long as they follow conductor regulation and don’t start conflict over them. This particular reservoir formed one year following the end of the war and was delegated to be harvested in only times of emergency.”

“So, the official papers say,” Cadence muttered.

Finally, she reached the streak of light—the end of the alleyway. She stopped at the threshold and peered out onto the street.

“What the…”

The street itself was lit by a handful of trash fires spotted in front of tourist trap shops that had either boarded-up or broken windows. The walkways were scattered with shards of glass. Men in suits, women in dresses, men in rags, women in rags stampeded up and down those walkways, shrieking at the top of their lungs. A v-ehicle blitzed on and off-road, nearly taking out a v-lamp and a group that was running down the sidewalk waving clubs and bats. Chasing after that group were three police officers waving batons in the air.

As if that’s gonna help. 

Cadence took a step forward flabbergasted, only to be rammed and shoved sideways first by a woman in high heels and then again by a man with a bag full of Geminian cens slung over his shoulders.

“Screw the Romanos! Screw the Campanas!” the man whooped, fist-pumping the air and shoving an old woman who was coming up in the opposite direction. “This city belongs to us—”

A white ray of vitae cut across the darkness and struck the man mid-sentence. He was thrown to the ground instantly, the coins in his bag spilling out onto the street.

Cadence ducked back into the alleyway just as a crowd of men and women darted in the direction of the fallen man. She peered around the corner and found them all scrambling on the ground and shoving the scattered cens into their pockets. Cadence scanned the road opposite where the vitae ray had emerged from but it was empty save for two pacing girls. The two crossed the road and came to the aid of the old woman who had been pushed to the side by the man earlier. They helped the woman to her feet and escorted her across the street away from the scrambling crowd. They sat her down there in front of a coffee shop with boarded-up windows.

Cadence recognized one of the girls immediately. The butterfly-shaped birthmark was undeniable.

Matilda.

Keeping low, Cadence forced herself forward again, crossed the road, and approached them with a wave. “Hey, Tilda, ain’t you a good samaritan?”

Matilda jumped and turned on her heels. “Cade—oh, saints.” Matilda’s relief folded into horror. “W-What happened to you…?”

“Long story. Been out a bit.” Cadence thumbed a man throwing a trash can into the window of a bookshop two blocks down. “You been in contact with any of the Romano capos in the past few hours? Can’t imagine they’d let this go down even if Bendetto’s been spirited away like everyone’s been sayin’.”

“Bendetto.” Matilda swallowed, shook her head. “You—Cadence, it’s completely nuts. There’s… ELPIS members’re running around saying that they’re cleansing the city of all the Families. A-And people have been saying that a couple of Romano executives were rigged with conducting grenades and sent off to Romano fronts. A-And all the smaller gangs in the city are taking advantage of all the chaos.” She frowned. “I… haven’t reached out to Cavallo… The Campanas, the Romanos—I-I don’t know, Cadence. But ELPIS really is here. I-I saw them. I saw the Ophiuchians too. I saw…”

Cadence placed a hand on her shoulder. “What did ya see, Matilda?”

“You… You wouldn’t believe me. What I saw…”

“Try me,” Cadence said before she cracked a grin with effort. “I mean, I’m an illusionist.”

Matilda took a deep breath and informed Cadence of her experience in the casino right before ELPIS unleashed their brand of justice, about her experience with Theta—Francis—at the highest floor of the building, about how Bendetto had been tied and gagged and captured.

“He let me go afterwards. Told me to get out of the city…” Matilda finished.

“And why didn’t ya?”

Matilda frowned. “Where do I even go if I leave?” She nodded to the girl behind her. “Some of the people in my group can’t afford to leave either. They have family here, and they’re my family.” She grimaced. “That definitely wasn’t Mr. Francis. He was looking at me like I was the saddest thing in the world. I hated it. Like, this city might be awful, but it’s good too. People like him scare me… Saying that he needs to destroy it to fix it. Why not just fix it?”

Cadence studied Matilda for a moment and felt an odd swell of pride in her chest. “That’s my girl, Tilda.” She nodded at the old woman. “And the super-heroism?

Matilda shrugged. “If this all blows over, then I have a bunch of people who owe me. Simple as that.”

Cadence ruffled the girl’s hair. “Well, don’t overdo yourself, girlie.” She pulled away and turned on her heels. “And stay safe, will ya?”

“Wait, where are you going?”

Cadence waved. “For a drink.”

***

Cadence wove herself through the city streets that she knew like the back of her hand. She dodged a couple of delinquents swinging around metal pipes, misdirected a robber away from a group of cowering children hiding in an abandoned v-ehicle, and eventually found herself in front of the Sognare. A sign was posted at the front: CLOSED until further notice.

She peered inside through the window. Empty. She tried the door. Unlocked.

Cadence slipped into the bar and collapsed on the bar table inside. The bartender—as expected—was nowhere to be seen, so Cadence rounded the counter, poured herself a spritz, and downed it in two gulps. She slapped the glass down and slid to the ground against the wine cases at the back of the bar.

“Guys…” Cadence tried. She lowered her head and tried again, this time with feeling as she reached outwards: “Guys! Please!”

Slowly, gradually, the other five filtered into her view. Maria sitting up on the bar counter, Olive and Atienna leaning against it, Jericho and Werner standing to the side. Lavi didn’t seem to be around, but Cadence figured that was a good thing.

All of their intense feelings that she had felt wavering beneath the surface came at her like a tsunami upon synchronization. It took her a moment to separate her own anxiety from theirs. When she did, she found them all looking at her with varying expressions—but they all shared a similar emotion: concern.

Cadence buried her head in her hands as that warmth bled into her.

Damn.

Atienna moved forward and knelt down beside her, placing a hand on her cheek at the exact spot where she’d slapped her.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Cadence said, lifting her head and cracking a grin. “Now that you’re here, doll.”

The attention then turned to Werner. There was still a void of darkness stretching behind him, and there was a somewhat distant look in his eyes.

“I’m fine as well,” Werner stated. “That isn’t what’s pertinent at the moment.”

“Right.” Cadence spread her arms wide. “Well, we’ve got a saint candidate peacekeeper who’s workin’ with ELPIS, obviously. We’ve got a colonel True Conductor who’s workin’ with ELPIS and who’s connected to a murderous Aquarian advisor. We’ve got a buncha kids stuck in a hellish slavery bit. And we’ve got ELPIS mowin’ through the city like maniacs.”

Maria pressed her hands together. “It is rather exciting, yes? So many things happening at once!” She peered into Olive’s face and beamed. “And let us not forget that amazing conductor trick you did!” She looked around the bar at them. “I don’t really understand it, but if this is a True Conductor thing, does that mean I can do it too?” She leaped off the counter and slipped in between Werner and Jericho, beaming. “Both of your conductings are very cool! I would like to to try—”

“That development is rather interesting, Maria,” Atienna interjected with a gentle smile, “but we should try focusing on the immediate issues, don’t you think?”

“Right. And there’s only one way we’re gettin’ out of this damn mess,” Cadence said, struggling back up to a stand. “And that’s by workin’ together. We need ta be honest with each other.”

There was silence.

Olive arched an eyebrow at her.

“I know, I know. I’m the last person in the position ta be sayin’ that. I’ve been sayin’ I’m sorry, but it’s not enough.” Cadence grimaced. “But, we’re all bein’ dishonest here. With ourselves and each other. I’m not trynna make execuses for myself. We gotta—me included—stop lookin’ at this whole True Conductor thing like it’s just a situation that’ll go away.” She took in a deep breath. “It ain’t. Our lives are literally on the same chord. One note off, and it’ll be a cacophony.” She held her hands out. “I’m not sayin’ we should be all holdin’-hands-like, frolickin’ in the fields or anything. I ain’t that optimistic. But we should be on the same page, feelins out. We’re livin’ together literally; and—like it or not—we’re probably gonna end up dyin’ together; and we’re gonna end up carin’ for each other if we don’t already do. It’s hard not ta. The more we try ta deny, the more we’ll butt heads.” She tapped her temple. “It might be a lie. Who knows? I mean, appearances—feelings—are deceiving. But sometimes a lie can eventually work its way into becoming a truth. And it’s just as—if not even more—valid.”

There was a beat of silence as Cadence took a minute to catch her breath. The silence continued afterwards. If she were Olive, she might’ve felt embarrassed.

“Aw, come on, guys.” Cadence chuckled, wincing at the stomach pain that followed. “I know I’m ramblin’ here, but I’m pourin’ my heart out ta ya. Please don’t leave me hangin—”

“Honestly, that reminded me of one of those drama plays my aunt and uncle used to force me to watch,” Olive interjected. “And I’m pretty sure you contradicted yourself twice there, but…” Olive met her eyes and nodded. I understand. 

Jericho gave a silent thumbs-up. Maria offered her a small, but cheery clap with a beaming smile, while the corner of Atienna’s eyes crinkled. Werner remained impassive.

As expected.

“Honestly, right now,” Cadence drew, “all I wanna do is ta get myself, the Foxmans, Fortuna, and Nico the hell outta this city; or at least get whatever the hell this is fixed.”

Despite everything, Alma flashed into Cadence’s mind. She grimaced and shook her head

“All of those guys are like family ta me before all this True Conductor stuff. I’m still pretty selfish so I can’t think beyond what I wan’t and what’s important ta me. Not the Families or even ELPIS,” Cadence admitted, gesturing to herself. As soon as those words left her mouth, she felt a weight lift off her chest. She then nodded at each of them. “Werner wants ta bring down Colonel Douchebag for Capricorn. Atienna wants ta keep that crazy secretary chained down and stop her from muckin’ things up with the diplomacy thing. Maria wants ta save the children the Campana’s are sellin’ ‘cause she feels like it—”

“Ay, you know me so well,” Maria hummed.

“—and Jericho wants ta save Alice and wipe all trace of ELPIS outta the city. Olive wants ta complete the State Conducting Exam—”

Olive uncrossed his arms. “I—”

“—and he wants us ta all make it outta this stitch alive, and save Lavi along the way, and also for all of us ta get what we want. Pretty greedy if ya ask me,” Cadence finished. “Anyway, I’m not satisfied with just a win on my end. I want there ta be a win on your guy’s sides too. Honest. There’s gotta be a way for all of us ta hit these marks. I mean, I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, but all of ya are pretty brilliant.” She paused. “Any ideas?”

There was a stretch of silence; and in that silence, there was rumination. Ideas zipped from one end of Cadence’s mind to the other, and she could barely catch hold of them before they were discarded in favor of a different idea. The others were shuffling through their fasters faster than a shady dealer shuffled a deck of bad cards.

And then, it clicked. For all of them. It wasn’t that one person had come up with a completely brilliant idea; rather, it was more like they all came up with a part of an idea that somehow all came together to form a singular, coherent concept.

It was an odd feeling—the way it all coalesced together in Cadence’s mind. She figured—as she felt Werner smooth out that idea’s rough edges within his own mind—that this was what synchronization was about.

“Yes, that could work,” Werner finally said, a thoughtful hand over his mouth, “but it’s based on relying on many assumptions. Our timing also would have to be exact.”

“It’s a gamble,” Cadence agreed. “But I’m feelin’ a bit lucky this week.”

“There’s no such thing as luck, Cadence,” Werner corrected. “But given our few viable options, that is the route that seems the least… risky.”

“Great,” Cadence popped, leaning back against the wine cabinet as she took in a deep breath. “Hopefully, the cards’ll fall in our favor….” She paused, unlatching herself and approaching Jericho hesitantly. She looked him up and down and then swallowed. “Look, detective, I know how you feel about ELPIS. I understand. But please…” Her voice cracked despite her efforts. “He’s still Francis.” She placed a hand on the peacekeeper’s arm. “He’s still Francis. His vitae wasn’t ‘returning to the cycle’ or whatever that means when they used their resistor on him, so it’s still him. I know I’m bein’ so selfish right now, but please just wait until… I honestly don’t know… but please, Jericho.” She tightened her grip. “We can figure something out. Just wait. For just a little bit.”

Cadence knew the peacekeeper could feel how much Francis meant to her. The childhood memories of them wandering the late-night streets in search of tourists to pickpocket in their prepubescent years was just as much burned into his mind as it was hers. The thing was that she didn’t know if that was enough—

“Okay. I will,” Jericho agreed after a beat, taking hold of her hand on his arm. “For you. Because he is still Francis.” Then something in his eyes sharpened. “And I would like to speak with Theta.”

“Got it.”

Cadence turned to Werner then who was standing right beside Jericho. She met the man’s gaze, curled her hand into a fist, and lightly tapped it against his chest.

“I will make this right, Werner. I promise.”

***

On the day of the plan’s execution, Cadence got a tip-off from Matilda on where Theta was. The girl informed Cadence that one of her workers—one of her friends—had told her that Theta had been inviting a cluster of children every so often to join him at a particular location within the city. The location itself was completely out of the woods, in Cadence’s opinion, and she wondered if he would truly be there. But it was her only lead.

And so, Cadence slid on the proto-conductor rings she’d stolen from Russo, transmuted the guise of Matilda over herself, and took the streets. The police had ordered a citywide curfew a day or two ago, but as usual, no one heeded it. The darkened streets were crowded with ambling gangs of thieves, delinquents, and hustlers, all sneering and jeering as they stalked their newly minted territory.

Cadence ducked past them, swept through cement walkways that bled into cobblestone streets, strolled through one of the city’s few metropolitan parks, and made her way over to the one place in the city she had never stepped foot in. The Twin Cities Library.

It was a large building that resembled more of a Monadic Temple than anything else. Guarded by two large stone pillars that held up a triangular roof, the library loomed over the empty cobblestone walkways and stretched shadows all across the street. A white limestone staircase unfurled up to the entrance of the building, where a pair of twin statues of cupids stood erect.

As expected, the streets around the establishment were empty. No one in the city wanted to steal books, it seemed. Cadence could feel Atienna’s relief at this.

Sucking in a breath, Cadence crept her way up the stairs and slipped inside. The smell of old, musty books greeted her immediately. The interior was dark, and she could barely make out the outlines of towering bookcases lining the walls. A small sliver of light bled out from the back of the library. After making her way around the bookcases and towards the light, she found a wooden door that was slightly ajar.

Steeling herself, she slipped inside. The room within was small with a large, oak desk sitting front and center. The table was cluttered with stacks of books and littered with wax candles. Gathered around the wealth of knowledge and light were Theta and a group of children and adolescents. With everything going on in the city, the group’s serenity seemed out of place, illusory.

Some of the children gathered recognized Cadence—rather, her guise of Matilda—and leaped to their feet, beaming.

“You came!” they exclaimed. Their expressions fell, however, when they registered her carefully practiced expression of panicked fear.

“T-Theta…” Cadence stammered, stumbling forward. When Theta looked up at her in mild surprise, she took a step backwards. “I-I know you told me to leave, but I… I couldn’t. Some of the others wouldn’t. And…” She forced tears to spill from her eyes. “A bunch of men… the gangs… t-they… they attacked us… They took Marzia and the others. I-I don’t know who to go to… There’s no one. I… I-I…”

Theta shut the book in his hands with a snap, rose from his seat, and paced over to her. The children parted as he did so, all wearing varying expressions of guilt and worry. When Theta reached Cadence’s side, he wiped the false tears from her eyes with his thumb.

“Use my proto-conductor as I’ve shown you,” Theta addressed the children behind him. “And leave this city.” He knelt down and met Cadence’s eyes. “Tell me where, Matilda.”

Cadence swallowed. “W-Warehouse 13. The—”

“One near the docks, running along the center of the city,” Theta finished. “Do they have conductors?”

Cadence nodded.

“I see.” The light in Theta’s eyes changed. “There’s no reason to be afraid. I’ll help you.”

The one good thing about Francis being Theta was that Theta was a bit gullible, Cadence thought. She didn’t quite know how old ‘Theta’ was, but she figured seniority could make people just as naïve as youth did in certain situations.

Theta extended his bare hand, and Cadence accepted it hesitantly. The man then pressed his gloved hand against the carpet beneath them, which Cadence now noticed was stained black. The stain glowed pale tangerine at his contact, and they began to sink down into the blindingly bright portal.

Cadence winced at the light and shut her eyes. When she opened them a second later, she found herself standing in a cool, dark, familiar warehouse.

Empty metal trash bins were rusted into the ground, and piles of metal pipes cluttered the dirt floor. A hull of a ship rested at the center of the warehouse, looking the same as it had when Cadence had come into this place several months prior.

Theta scanned the darkness from beside her. “Where are they?” He looked down at her, expression impassive. “Matilda, tell me—” Theta’s eyes widened, and something flickered in his eyes. “Are you… Cadence?”

Cadence’s heart skipped a beat.

How had he known her name? She’d never encountered Theta as herself before, so that could only mean… Francis and Theta were starting to bleed into each other.

No…

“T-The swindler? She wasn’t the one who took them.” Cadence feigned confusion. She shook her head and scanned the dark. “They were just here. I swear. The gang must’ve—”

“Enough.”

Cadence tensed and turned to meet Theta’s eyes.

“You deceived me.” The man’s eyes narrowed, and he lifted his gloved hand. “You—”

Now!

Before Theta’ could finish his sentence, Jericho leaped down from his perch on the steel beam above their heads just as planned. The peacekeeper tackled Theta to the ground, pinning the man’s hands behind his back before slapping on a pair of suppression cuffs over his wrists. Theta went slack immediately, allowing Jericho to pry his conductor glove off of him. Jericho remained planted there unmovingly as he stared holes down into the man.

Jericho.

Jericho glanced at Cadence and removed himself from the man’s back. Snapping her fingers to dispel Matilda’s appearance, Cadence moved forward, stopped only momentarily by a hand around the arm. Jericho again. Cadence patted his hand; and he released her, allowing her to sink to the floor and crawl over to the unconscious man.

Come on, Cadence urged as she studied his face. Please let the kid’s idea work.

The man’s eyes fluttered open as soon as the thought left her, and a quiet groan escaped from his lips as he blinked blearily around. When his eyes locked onto Cadence’s face, he stared. “Cadence…? What happened to your face?”

Cadence scrambled forward. “Quick. Tell me something only Francis would know.”

A perplexed expression flashed across the man’s face. “When I was fourteen years old, I snuck out with a girl one night to go to some party. You agreed to be me for the night so Allen wouldn’t find out. You still use that as blackmail to this day.”

Cadence brightened immediately, but then frowned. “Theta might know that too with the way this whole thing works. There’s gotta be somethin’ else.”

“How about we play a round of cards,” the man suggested. “If you win, then I’m Theta. If I win, I’m Francis and you can be Theta.”

“Okay, Francis, no need ta push it.” Letting out an internal sigh of unmeasurable relief, Cadence helped him up to a sitting position. “Take it easy.”

“What’s going on? Where are we?” Francis asked, scanning the warehouse. “Is this Warehouse 13?” He tried the cuffs behind him, eyes darkening. “What is this?”

“You are under the jurisdiction of Ophiuchus,” Jericho stated from behind Cadence. “We have placed suppression cuffs on you in an attempt to suppress Theta’s vitae in hopes of also suppressing his memory and influence. We have succeeded.”

“The suitcase peacekeeper…” Francis studied Jericho before his eyes widened. “You’re the Ophiuchian who came down here to investigate that other peacekeeper’s disappearance a couple months ago.”

Jericho stared down at Francis. Cadence could see in the peacekeeper’s mind eye that he was staring down into the past. Affection and hatred twisted together as one. It made Cadence’s stomach do flip-flops.

“Yes, that was me,” Jericho finally said.

Francis continued to study Jericho before he suddenly startled and whipped to Cadence. “Allen, Carl, and Fortuna—”

“Slow down, Francis,” Cadence said, squeezing his shoulder. “The city is lookin’ like a bad bar fight right now ‘cause ELPIS’s decided ta make their entry into the spotlight.”

Francis paled. “Did I…” He shook his head, eyes sharpening. “The Ophiuchians—”

“Aren’t really involved in this whole thing we got goin’ on right now.” Cadence thumbed Jericho. “He’s a bit of a black sheep with ‘em and he’s pullin’ one out for me, but he’s the best in my book. A friend of his that’s helpin’ us is comin’ along in a bit too.”

Francis seemed to digest this information slowly. “So, what’s the plan here then?”

“A couple of the execs of both sides are comin’ down here in a couple,” Cadence explained. “From the Romanos and the Campanas.”

Francis blanched. “How in the world did you manage that?”

Cadence rubbed the back of her neck. “I… kinda had ta tell them that I got the one behind orchestratin’ this entire thing on a leash.”

“So, they’re coming here for me,” Francis surmised.

He did not look happy, Cadence thought with a grimace.

“Look. They’re our best bet at gettin’ control of the city, and they all need ta get on the same page,” Cadence explained. “The police ain’t in any state to get the reins in, and Ophiuchus is focused on ELPIS. Plus, we can explain the situation with you too. And Enzo and Donato—”

“Enzo and Donato?”

“Yeah, I’ll explain that bit later.” Cadence waved her hand. “But… I can call the executives off if ya’d like.” She scratched her head and sighed. “Though… I kinda pushed them ta do me an additional favor, so if I back out now, I’ll be in the ruts.”

“An additional favor?”

“Yeah, long story short, I asked ‘em both ta destroy any evidence that they’d been dealin’ with the Capricornian Army.” She poked him in the chest. “Mind if I ask ya ta do the same in exchange for me gettin’ your head half on?”

“Wait. Are the Capricornians pulling out of the deal?” Francis frowned. “I would have to consult Allen and Carl about that first. We keep records for a reason, Cadence.” He arched a brow. “And why are you pushing for this? Did they pay you?”

Cadence flashed a grin, placing a finger to her lips. “A secret.”

Francis shook his head, amused. “Well, it wouldn’t be very business savvy of me to just go and accept those terms, would it?” The very faint smile he had on fell. “Jokes aside, what’s going on with my brothers?”

“That part of the plan is in action as we speak. Don’t ya worry about it,” Cadence elaborated before she chortled. “By the way, how’s it feel to be a damsel in distress?”

Instead of receiving the slightly annoyed chuckle from him as she’d expected, Francis suddenly slumped forward.

Cadence caught him. “H-Hey, talk ta me, what’s goin’ on?”

“Sorry, Cadence. I’m just… really… tired….” Francis shook his head, his eyelids drooping slightly.

Cadence reached over and lightly slapped him on the cheek. “Come on, Francis, stay with me.”

Francis blinked and shook his head again.

“Say… Cadence…” he murmured. “Who do you think has the moral high ground here?”

Cadence’s heart skipped a beat, and she grabbed Francis by the shoulder. “Francis.” She squeezed. “Look at me. We’re not the ones throwin’ this city into the shit.”

She was about to mention that they weren’t the ones who were taking advantage of children either, but then she remembered Matilda and then the Specialist children. Damn. What they had been doing was wrong. No two cents about it. But still—

Cadence continued, “We ain’t the ones runnin’ around actin’ as judge, jury, and executioner. And we ain’t destroyin’ lives on an international scale.”

“Aren’t we?” Francis stared into her, and Cadence couldn’t help but stare back at the snake tattoo on his face. “I mean all of the conductors that we’ve been shipping out, that the Romanos have been selling… we’ve been indirectly taking lives since we were teenagers… Those people may have been using the conductors we’ve been selling to protect their countries and families, but what’s our reason?”

What was this…?

Cadence reached out with both of her hands and grabbed a hold of Francis’s face. He stared back at her with raised brows. Cadence figured he was wondering if she was the one out of the two of them who was losing their mind. She figured she was.

“Francis, look. I’m not even sure if there’s even a ‘lesser of two evils’ thing here. I’m pretty shit, you’re pretty shit, they’re pretty shit,” Cadence said. “But unlike them—despite all their talk about responsibility, yada, yada—we can change. Them? As soon as they kick the bucket and return ta their resistor, they’re back ta square one. They can look through all the records and bookshelves they keep all they want, but they ain’t actually learnin’ anythin’ from it. They can’t take responsibility—don’t care ta—‘cause they can’t even feel the guilt or consequences of what they do. ‘Cause they don’t even remember it.” A heat twisted in her chest and she shook her head. “All they do is spew some sorta rhetoric that the world is in the dirts now and spread the false hope that everything is gonna be peachy after they do their ‘work’.”

Francis arched a brow at her.

“Sorry. Got kinda heated there, but I really mean that first bit.” Cadence released him from her hold. “But, it’ll be okay. You’ll be okay, Francis. We’ll fix this and get everything back ta the way it was. I promise.”

Francis studied her before he lowered his head and chuckled. Musically. A wonderful sound. “Alright, Cadence. I’ll let you swindle me a little while longer.”

10.(): The People of Sin City

Re-cap:

The captive Fortuna, Allen, and Carl have learned of Theta’s true nature as Francis. The two crime organizations of the Twin Cities are at war. Comissario Vincente Giustizia—Tau—has learned what Omicron has kept hidden from Theta. Omega has been killed by Jericho. Young Matilda is still trying to find out why her coworkers—her friends—are leaving their shipping business. The people of the Twin Cities prepare for the curtain call as something within ELPIS begins to change.

Fortuna requested another round of Itero Recino. Theta didn’t question her about it when returning alone several hours after ELPIS’s colors were revealed, didn’t even question Tau on how he became locked in the room with them. When Tau left after receiving another proto-conductor from him, Theta settled into the requested game as if nothing had happened.

However, instead of inquiring about the whereabouts of another warehouse after winning the match, Theta asked her, “Why do you still insist on playing?”

Fortuna answered without answering. “Obviously, I have a question I want to ask.”

Fortuna Romano didn’t fear Theta. Not anymore, at least. She admitted she was afraid at first—but only because she’d never dealt with an organization like ELPIS before. But fear faded with familiarity. She had learned this firsthand. Sneering, towering executives in the family that made her shrink backwards were now playing pieces in the game. Conductors that she had been once afraid to touch, she now easily turned over in hand as she inspected them for salability.

“Perhaps I should lose a round and satiate my curiosity.” Theta chuckled when Fortuna stiffened.

“… Please do.”

Fortuna consulted Allen with a glance, moved a piece. “I assume that ‘Lambda’ has resolved your…. allergy issue?”

Theta didn’t look up at her, ate one of her pieces with his own. “Yes. ‘Lambda’… You’re observant. It’s a pity that you’ve spent your skills in less favorable professions.”

“And you?”

Theta met her eyes.

Fortuna knew she was straying the line between arrogance and bravery.

“I was a teacher before becoming what you call a terrorist,” Theta explained. “Is it customary not to think that a favorable profession?”

Fortuna glanced at Allen again. Ate two pieces. “It certainly is more favorable than being an executive in a crime organization, but I doubt it pays as well.”

Theta paused.

“I’m not a psychologist nor a Conductor by any means, but from what I understand, you’re still an executive of the Foxman Family. Don’t you think there’s a conflict of interest here?”

Theta moved a piece. “I have put some thought into it. A dichotomy exists. I won’t deny that. The fact that I trusted you to tell me the locations of the warehouses if I won proves that I am more influenced than I initially believed. Or maybe that shows my personal naivety.”

“Then—”

“But that’s why I can rely on Omicron,” Theta said. “If I can’t follow through, Omicron always will… I recommend that you find someone you can truly rely on too. Even if it’s just one person, that is all you need.”

It sounded like advice.

Silently, Fortuna moved a piece, leaping over six of his in one move. Theta stared at the board in mild disbelief. The only piece left on it was hers.

“You won.” Theta looked up. “What do you want to ask?”

Fortuna swallowed despite herself under Theta’s gaze. “I need time to think about it actually…”

Something abruptly flickered in Theta’s gaze. “The Romano Family has decoy warehouses.”

Fortuna pulled her hand away from the board and stiffened.

“Yes, you told me—Francis—when you were much younger. The higher-tier executives like the capos and you use the destruction of decoy warehouses to send signals to each other.” Theta studied her. “You deceived me.”

Fortuna remained like a statue.

Theta rose from his chair and stared down at her. “The people of this city do not make any sense to me. They lie and lie and lie habitually despite not changing the outcome. But rest assured. I will ensure you take responsibility for everything you’ve done.”


When Omicron stepped in half an hour later, there was a kid riding on her shoulders. She did a quick sweep of the room, looked disappointed that only her prisoners were present, and sent the kid back off through one of the gates with some sweets she’d brought in a bag.

“That doesn’t have nuts in there, does it?” Allen asked from beside Carl.

Omicron glanced at them. “No, it doesn’t.”

“If you guys are foodies, you should try givin’ him some beef wellington. It’s Francis’s favorite,” Carl said, shrugging. “If you’re gonna treat my brother, you gotta treat him damned right.”

Carl had a long conversation with the peacekeeper about Francis. Alice didn’t believe in coating words with false hopes, and Carl liked that about her. She’d said transmuting a small amount of a Manipulator’s vitae from a victim was already hard enough. Removing an entire person’s vitae was unheard of. But Carl was used to being dealt bad cards. Bad situations could be muscled into good situations.

Omicron looked them over.

“So how long have you two been together?” Carl continued as she set the bag of sweets onto the game board in front of them. “You and Theta.”

The gears in Omicron’s head were turning. Carl could tell. He could tell she was trying to figure out what he wanted. He could also tell that she was in love. And from his experience with working with underlings who were in love, love tended to become loose-lipped. Maybe even a bit stupid. And Carl knew all about being stupid.

“Sixty-nine years.”

Carl’s jaw hit the floor. “Saints… you’re old then.”

Omicron frowned.

“Anyway, how’d you guys meet?”

“Through work.”

There was something dignified in the way she held herself. Reminded Carl of the Ariesian royal guards he’d read about in the newspapers.

“I don’t understand the people of this city,” she said. “One moment you’re terrified of me, the next you’re angry, and now you want to converse. You change face too quickly. Accept everything too easily. Complacency. Lack of self-discipline. No sense of responsibility… Your circumstances don’t change simply because Theta happens to be related to you.”

“Yeah, Theta said he could rely on you ‘bout that.” Carl shrugged. “But from my point of view, my brother just happens to be Theta.”

Omicron paused. “You’re taking it in well.”

Carl shrugged. “Cooled my head off. Thought a bit. Still wanna hunt down and strangle the bastard who did my brother in, but if you’re not pulling my leg about not bein’ involved in what happened to him, then you’re not on the list.”

“And this is after you’ve put some thought into my position as your captor and executioner?”

“Yeah, Francis ain’t gonna go through with that.” Carl waved her off with his head. “I know my brother.”

“And I know Theta.”

“Theta’s an explosion enthusiast then?”

Omicron went silent.

“When you guys get married?”

Omicron cleared her throat.

Carl did a double-take. “…The hell? You’re slapping matching tattoos on each other’s faces, callin’ each other pet names, been together for over sixty years, and you’re not married?”

“They were different times,” Omicron huffed, straightening her suit.

The love-struck stupidity was leaking through.

“So you weren’t lyin’ when you said you’re from way back when,” Carl continued. “So you know what’s what when it comes to modern tech. That mean Theta doesn’t know how to use a telephone?” He glanced at Allen. “They didn’t have those back then… right?”

“Theta did struggle quite a bit…” Omicron admitted before she chuckled lightly. “It was actually a bit cute…” Omicron sighed fondly at some memory before turning to them tersely. “You have no idea how fortunate you are to have these things. But instead of working further to develop them, you decide to develop weapons instead.” She shook her head. “It makes no sense to me.”

“They say you should never mix business and pleasure,” Agape interjected suddenly. “Working with your partner never works out. You’ll either lose sight of what you’re doing or of each other.”

Carl had thought that Agape had fallen asleep again with how quiet she’d been, but he figured it made sense that she’d speak up when it came to this kind of topic. She was in the business of love, after all.

“It must be very convenient,” Agape continued. “Your relationship. If you ever have a big fight, you’ll just forget about it the next time your resistors are used. Like it never happened.”

Omicron tensed. “That’s not—”

Theta entered the room before she finished

Omicron made her way to Theta’s side and took his hand in her own.

Theta stared at her. “What is it?”

Omicron opened her mouth, closed it, smiled. Finally, she said, “I’ve been thinking. It’s something akin to a miracle that we’re here at the same time. I’m just hoping that you will hold my hand until the very end.”

“You’re a ridiculous person.” Theta sighed after a beat. He cupped her hand in his own and said gently. “You are my precious magpie. My hands may be cold, but I want to hold you in them for as long as possible. Every single time.”

Omicron’s expression fell slightly at the last remark.


Theta was alone perusing the bookshelves a couple of hours later. Allen cleared his throat to get the man’s attention. The other executives were watching him like a hawk. Let them, Allen thought. He didn’t give a damn. Not anymore.

“Trying to find something?” Allen asked.

“I’m trying to find our records from around ten years ago,” Theta murmured after a pause. “But, as I suspected, they must have been lost some time ago.”

“Why you looking for records?”

“Why do you think people wade through them?” Theta continued scanning the shelf. “I’m sure of it. I was definitely active then.”

Allen grunted in response.

“You feel guilty for what happened,” Theta said suddenly, turning to him. “But you don’t feel guilty for everything else that has happened due to your underground businesses. The fact that you are shipping weapons of mass destruction does not give you any pause. Cognitive dissonance.”

Allen thought of Francis bleeding out on the dirty alleyway floor surrounded by a circle of their men and he grimaced. “Comes with the business territory—”

“I’m not referring to Francis being stabbed with my resistor,” Theta interrupted. “I’m referring to your guilt about not being able to protect your brothers from all of your father’s abuses.”

Allen stiffened and felt his skin crawl. “So, you got some of those memories then.”

“Yes. It’s only a small amount at this point, but it’s enough for me to see that you were a good brother.” Theta returned his attention to the bookcase. “As they say, every child deserves better parents, but not every parent deserves a child.”

“Hey. It’s not normal to bring stuff like that up casually in public,” Allen said. “Not polite.”

“What happened with your father was beyond your control,” Theta continued regardless. “But what’s happening in this city isn’t.”

Allen didn’t feel like continuing on this path so he switched the topic. “Sounds like you like kids.”

“They’re inheriting the world from us.” Theta turned to meet his eyes again. “Just like you inherited it from us.” Then Theta looked to the side. “Or maybe it’s more appropriate to say that we’re borrowing it from all of you…”

So damned gloomy. Not even close to matching the manic energy Allen had seen when Theta had taken them up to the Dioscuri Bridge earlier.

There was a flash of pale tangerine light from the corner of the room, and Iota suddenly stormed in. She started knocking down bookcases and stomping out candles with her foot as she entered wailing like a banshee.

Allen noticed with muted surprise that the woman was missing her lower left arm. There was a bandage going around the stub’s end. Unsurprisingly, the handicap didn’t stop her from thrashing everything in her sights. She eventually roared her way over to Carl and lifted her fist with a snarl, but Theta stepped in between them without expression.

“Iota, enough,” Theta stated. “What is this really about?”

Iota froze and stared holes into him. Wordlessly, frigidly, she pulled something out from the folds of her dress and held it out to him. It was a resistor. There was something swirling at the very corner of its glass handle. A drop of white vitae that was barely larger than Allen’s two fingers put together.

“This is Omega’s,” Iota murmured. “She gave it to me right before she left to go put mediums and use your proto-conductor at that warehouse like you told her to. She’s… returned to her resistor.” Iota’s face crumpled. “I knew something was off! I knew it, but I…”

Theta took it from her and studied it. “Omega must have encountered a peacekeeper. Most likely, she encountered the peacekeeper with the suitcase.”

“There’s barely anything of Omega left,” Iota pressed, voice cracking. “What are we going to do?”

“Nothing,” Theta responded after a pause. “We will continue our search for the third vitae reservoir, and we will continue collecting the explosive conductors we’ve stolen from their warehouses—”

“What?! How can we do nothing?!” Iota spat. She reached forward and wrapped her fingers around Theta’s hand that held the resistor. She snapped out a couple of words Allen didn’t understand and then she hissed, “I mean, look at what they did to her—”

“This fate is something we have all accepted, Iota,” Theta stated. “We died the moment we bleached our vitae, so there is nothing to be lost and there is nothing to be returned to the cycle. You know this. Omega knew this.”

Iota closed her mouth.

“Our individual lives don’t matter. They never have. It’s our purpose that does.”

“Our purpose…?” Iota gritted her teeth. “Well, we’re taking too damn long with that purpose! If we’d just sank the damn city and reservoirs and generator conductors when we were first all here, then this wouldn’t have happened!”

“Not everyone in this city deserves to die, Iota. We need to ensure the innocent and the children are properly accounted for. The third vitae reservoir is important. And Omicron also needs to handle the Campana—”

“The children?! The innocent?!” Iota recoiled. “What is with you and Omicron?! You both keep acting like the past several centuries haven’t happened! Omicron keeps speaking about honor and valor and righteousness, and you just…” Iota slapped her chest. “I have memories of the war. I’ve seen what the conductors—what people using them—can do firsthand. And those ‘children’ aren’t as innocent as you think! They’re cruel as all the other people in this city. And if not, they become cruel!” Iota shook her head. “Let’s just use the damn conductors and blow up the two damn vitae reservoirs. Screw the other one! Let’s just crack this city in two!”

“Our goal is not senseless destruction, Iota. Do not forget.” Theta’s stolidness hadn’t changed. “There needs to be a lesson.”

Faltering under Theta’s gaze, Iota turned away. She glared holes into Allen, let out a snarl, ripped a book from one of the book stacks, and chucked it against the wall. The book rebounded back, flew through the air, and clipped Theta in the temple. Theta didn’t even flinch, but Iota did.

“I—sorry—”

“You need to collect yourself,” was all Theta said. “Come back when you can think clearly.”

Iota dipped her head, nodded, and left through a portal using Theta’s proto-conductor.

“Uh…” Carl cleared his throat. “Thanks for the save…” He trailed off and swallowed.

Theta was staring down at the resistor in his hand, and his eyes were wet.

What a bluff.

“You’re bleeding,” Allen said after a beat. “You should get that looked at.”


Maximallian had been working for the Foxman brothers for over five years. Previous to taking up this job, he’d worked for a small gang that dealt unrefined morrowheat. The Foxmans weren’t happy with that. And so in half a day, the Foxmans dismantled their entire gang.

While Maximallian was getting a final beatdown by Carl in a dirty warehouse, Francis came along and said—

“Let’s take a gamble, Mr. Maximallian. Come work for us. If you’re good at your job, then we’ll let you live. If you’re not, then we’ll pick up right where we left off. How about it?”

Maximallian certainly didn’t like the sound of dying, so he’d accepted. Spent months proving himself. Worked his way up to become the brothers’ most trusted man. Made a name for himself in his home city. Used to be called Maximallian “The Mouse” Jarrick. Now was Max “The Jackal.”

But on that night over a month ago when he had escorted Francis out of the casino, he’d failed. He was incapacitated by a bullet from the dark and didn’t see the face of the bastard who ended up ramming a knife right up his boss’s stomach.

Max’d thought then that if the bullet wound didn’t kill him, Francis would.

But Francis didn’t kill him. Instead, the boss visited him at the hospital, looked him right in the eye, and said—“We’ll hunt the ones who did this down, Mr. Maximallian. I promise.”

But then Carl and Allen went missing. And with all the pressure of running the family on his own, Francis delegated Max to watch over the casino when he got out of the hospital.

Max did the best that he could for someone who’d never run a casino. But he still preferred bodyguarding. And because of his preferences, when Francis took a couple of the other men with him to the west side of the city without asking Max for help, Max was off-put. Felt a bit useless, put to the side. But he still continued looking after the casino.

Then the men the boss went out to the west side with came back saying that the boss randomly took off and that they couldn’t find him—all while Max was running the damn stupid casino. It was a shit show for sure, but Max was in no way abandoning deck. But he had no idea what to do. Spent all his time thinking about it. Didn’t think about much else.

So when a Sagittarian tourist stumbled into the casino under his care, Max wasn’t interested. When the tourist mentioned the swindler sent him, Max’s interest piqued. And when the tourist told him that he’d seen Luigi and Feliciano together, Max was invested. When he learned that the tourist had actually witnessed the night the boss was stabbed, Max was obsessed.

“I thought it was some sort of street performance,” the tourist said, “but I did see that Luigi fellow running off after running into that… Francis fellow. I saw him a bit later when I was window shopping. He was speaking to that frightening Feliciano fellow.”

It took everything in Max not to use the tourist as a punching bag.

That damn bastard Luigi.

Several weeks prior, Francis had shown a rare dropof mercy after they’d brought Luigi in and beat him down. The boss had let him walk off scott-free with only a dozen bruises. Carl had argued against it, while Allen had watched on silently. Max couldn’t understand it. There had been secondhand accounts and everything, and yet still Mr. Francis had said— “That’s enough violence for today.”

“I saw that Francis fellow playing with some children several weeks ago, so he must’ve made a speedy recovery,” the tourist added. “He’s a Specialist, correct? That is quite an interesting ability…”

Ignoring the tourist’s mad and irrelevant ramblings, Max took a couple of men and went on a hunt.

It didn’t take them long to find Luigi. He was at one of his usual gambling dens and was losing terribly at a round of poker. Max figured he was doing the man a favor by ripping him out of his seat.

As Max and the men he’d brought began beating Luigi within an inch of his life in an alleyway at the back of the gambling den, he started spilling his guts. Luigi begged for forgiveness. Begged them not to tell the boss. Offered them money.

And that just made Max want to beat him in more.

Just as they were about to pound Luigi into an early grave, a woman suddenly appeared in front of them out of nowhere. She was wearing a polka dot dress and was missing half an arm.

“I’ve been about what I need to do to make Theta move,” the woman said, staring at them wide-eyed before a slow grin crawled up her face. “But hearing you say all of that just makes me realize I just have to make Francis move.”

The next moments came in broken flashes.

The woman raised her gloved hand, and there was a click, clack, click, clack sound. And suddenly Max was thrown off of his feet and was sent flying backwards through a dizzying swirl of tangerine light. When he hit the ground, it was dark.

As Max’s eyes adjusted, he found himself not on the dirty alleyway floor but in a room that was only lit by candles. There were no doors, no windows. Only bookcases, book towers, and a group of people bound to chairs. Max glanced to his left and found Luigi floundering around in confusion beside him and the polka dot dress woman behind him.

“What the—Max?!” a familiar voice shouted from the lined-up row.

Maximilian squinted at the bound people. Recognized half of them. Boss Carl. Boss Allen. Caporegime Agape Rosario.

“Boss?!”

“Stay right there, Max, don’t move,” Allen said calmly from where he was tied beside Carl.

Max looked around the room again in confusion. There was a group of about five people crowded alongside the bookcases to his right that he’d missed. The commissario Vincente Giustizia was among the group with two of his officers.

As soon as the commissario locked eyes with him, he stormed forward and snapped at the polka dot dress woman—“Iota, what is this?! What are you thinking?!”

A hand on the shoulder stopped Vincente short, and he stepped aside. Francis stood there behind him with an ELPIS tattoo smack on the right side of his face.

Shit’ was the only thought Max had.

“Iota… what are you doing?” Francis asked. He approached Max and stared down at him and then at Luigi. “Who are these people?”

Luigi let out an incomprehensible whimper as he ogled the tattoo, while Max stared up in confusion.

“This guy,” Iota said, kicking Luigi in the ribs, “apparently is the one who stabbed Francis with your resistor.” She nudged Maximallian with her foot. “At least, according to this guy. Which means guy number one knows where our resistors are.”

Francis stared down at Luigi. “Were you the one who initiated me?”

Luigi scrambled forward, grabbing Francis’s pants leg. “I-I had to. It was Feliciano. His pop. I owed ‘em too much money. I—”

A woman with a tattoo on the left side suddenly bulldozed in and shoved Luigi backwards. She glowered at him before turning to assess Francis. But the boss’s eyes were glued to Luigi.

“Yes, I remember seeing you at that moment I was initiated.” Francis’s speech pattern sounded off. “Right after you shot Maximallian and Stefano in the chest, you shot Luci, Barto, and Marcelle right through the head. Why did you do that?” He stared into Luigi. “Were you aware that Marcelle was only seventeen years old? She was only a child.”

“L-Like I said,” Luigi stammered, scrambling, “i-it was—”

“Always diverting the blame when you are the one taking the action.”

Francis reached over and pulled out a knife holstered to Vincente’s belt. Luigi whimpered but then startled when Francis turned the knife on himself. The boss sliced his own palm and drew blood before handing back the knife.

One of the boss’s hands was gloved in a conductor, Max realized then. It was an odd sight.

Before Max could make heads-or-tails of the conductor, Francis rushed forward and shoved his bleeding palm over Luigi’s mouth. Luigi jerked away, gagged, spit.

“W-What was that?!”

The boss wiped his bloodied palm onto his gloved hand before silently pressing that hand against Luigi’s chest. There was a pale tangerine glow beneath his gloved palm before his hand passed right through Luigi’s chest. When Francis pulled his hand out a second later, Luigi collapsed, gagging and scratching at his throat.

Luigi ripped open his shirt, revealing a circular lump the size of a fist just beneath the skin over his heart. The man foamed, made an inhuman sound Max’d never before in all of his years working in the underground, before he collapsed onto the ground.

When Luigi stilled, Francis reached forward with his glove-conductor again and placed it on the lump. His hand passed through, and his fingers wrapped around the lump beneath Luigi’s skin. When he pulled his gloved hand out in a flash of tangerine light, he was holding a familiar-looking cue ball.

“It looks like you can swallow it,” Francis said before dropping the ball on the ground and watching as it rolled its way over to Max’s foot.

There was a long stretch of silence.

“T-Theta, he had information on where our resistors are!” Vincente snapped. “Why did you—”

“As you’ve heard, he was hired out by Donato of the Romano Family. So will just need to capture Donato,” Francis replied. “He was unneeded.”

The woman with the tattoo on the left side of her face pulled out a handkerchief from her pocket and wiped Francis’s hand with it.

“Oh, that’s right.” Saying this suddenly, the boss fell back into a sit on a stack of books just behind him. He placed a hand over his mouth. “No, I’m an idiot, Omicron.”

“What is it, darling?” the woman—Omicron—asked, pocketing the handkerchief.

“We started off with the wrong Caporegime,” Theta said, his gaze fixating on Agape Rosario. “The one who handles the land and rent collection is Caporegime Bendetto. He shares a close relationship with Ricardo Romano. If anyone would know where the third vitae reservoir is, it would be him.”

“So then…” Iota pressed. “What now?”

There was a long stretch of silence again.

Omicron paled and knelt down beside Francis. “Darling, I still haven’t finished working on the west side yet. I still don’t have all the locations of the Campanas bases and—”

The commissario stared bullets into Omicron. He was sweating bullets too.

“The longer we leave it, the more it will fester,” Francis said, placing a hand on her arm. “As we speak, these organizations are continuing to ship out these conductors and children are continuing to suffer. We’ve become complacent. We can’t bide our time any longer. It’s a cost-benefit analysis. We have more to lose the more we wait.” He moved his hand to her cheek. “You will have to move up your schedule, Omicron.”

Iota bounced on the heels of her feet.

“Since we’re in a city of indulgence,” Theta said, rising to a stand. “we should have a proper memorial for Omega. We should let this city know we’re here and why we’re here and what they’ve done.” He nodded at Iota, and there was a glint in his eye. “You can contact all of those ‘recruits’ that you’ve been gathering in the city, Iota. From the Campanas to the Romanos to the common people who have chosen to follow us. The directions are simple. Use my gates to plant the conductors at the vitae reservoirs and the points we’ve agreed on. Evacuate the children and those you deem innocent.”

A pause.

“And condemn those who profit from any form of conductor use and conductor trade.”

Iota nodded, beaming.

“Let’s have a proper eulogy,” Francis said before inclining his head towards one of the executives. “Etoile, rest assured. Your time will come soon. You will be our first example.”

Etoile melted like butter in his chair.

The next couple of minutes went by in a blur.

Max was strung up in glowing white chains and tied on the ground between Allen and Carl. Francis left with Omicron through some sort of portal, and a handful of other people exited and entered and exited again in a stampede of footsteps. Soon, the only people who remained in the room besides Max himself, two out of three of his bosses, and the executives were the commissario and his two officers.

Commissario Vincente began pacing up and down their line while biting his thumb.

“A-Are you really going to go along with this, chief?” one officer stammered.

Vincente whipped around and snapped, “Of course, I’m going to go along with it. I don’t like it, but I’m going to go along with it! Theta was chosen as leader, and our rules say the one who’s chosen is the one we follow! If I break the damn rule now, then I set precedent to break the rules in the future—oh, don’t look at me like that when three months ago you were breaking the damn rules to try and bag of a couple yankee-dankee, two-bit criminals!”

Max stared.

Vincente dug into his pockets and tossed both of the officers an item each. “Here. Theta gave me extra proto-conductors since I got myself locked in here last time. Take it, use it, get your families out of this city.”

“But, chief—”

“Dammit, shut up and leave before I arrest you for damn misconduct!”

The officers exchanged looks before nodding and heading in and through the wall in a flash of light.

“Sounds like you’ve bitten off more than you can chew,” Caporegime Agape said from two heads down. There was sweat dripping from her forehead, and her voice was shaking. “It’s no time for regrets unless you—”

“No regrets?” The commissario threw his head back and barked. “You really think everything that’s happening here is all us? I know Theta. Theta would never do any of this. Just read the records. Theta has always worked on the sidelines passively. Theta’s not violent, and Theta’s not a murder.” He shook his head and mumbled to himself. “We could’ve done this better. Using both of our new identities. Something permanent—”

“Well,” Carl scoffed. “Open your damn eyes. Your Theta is just as murderous as the rest of us—”

“You’re the one who needs to open your eyes, you greedy, stupid, dirty pig!” Vincente seethed, jabbing a finger at Carl’s chest. “It’s your damn brother!”


Caporegime Bendetto of the Romano Family wasn’t fond of Ophiuchus’s peacekeeping agents. They slithered around like snakes and wielded their badges like batons, intervening in places they deemed necessary and brushing their hands of areas deemed not. On paper, their accomplishments did look impressive. Treaties, peace accords, conducting law, but in reality, it was all laughable.

The fact that the peacekeepers were now protecting people who were breaking the laws they were meant to enforce was hilarious. But Bendetto knew that the peacekeepers weren’t stupid. They probably had more than an inkling of what the Romano Family really did in the city. He’d heard buzz from under the table about certain departments in Ophiuchus beginning investigations regarding their business, but none of those had come to fruition. Ophiuchus had always been the last thing on Bendetto’s mind because of this.

Then Ophiuchus came barging in saying that ELPIS could be in the city and that the Romano Family could be targets. It was too many ‘could be’s in Bendetto’s opinion, and he was rearing to decline their protective services, but—

“You’re mistaken about your position here,” the peacekeeping Agent Leona had said during their meeting. “It’s not that your power in this city keeps us from intervening in your activities. It’s that our power allows you to continue. It’s cost-effective for us. But if you continue to obstruct us, then we’ll remove that obstruction.”

Bendetto wasn’t stupid. He didn’t take a gamble when he knew it was bad, so he begrudgingly accepted Leona’s assistance. Maybe Agape would disagree with his decision, but she’d disappeared off of the face of the earth. Damn Campanas.

And so, Bendetto found himself accompanied by two peacekeeping agents—persuaded to be disguised as civilians—to his favorite casino just a block away from the newly refurbished TwinStars Pub. He had to keep up the casual appearances, after all, and had invited several of the Romano Family’s investors to play some rounds of poker with him.

At the moment, Bendetto sat at a large poker table with a disguised peacekeeper at his left and Bruno Perti—a wealthy investor who’d been with them for years—at his right. The male dealer at the table was wearing a surgical mask and watched their play with disinterest. Occasionally, the dealer eyed Bendetto’s hired guns crowded at the roulette tables behind him.

They were ten minutes into the first round, but Bendetto couldn’t focus on the game.

Recently, their decoy warehouses had been under fire, meaning someone—probably Fortuna or Agape—was trying to send a message. Campanas had been seen leaving the scene of the attacks, which was contradictory to the message being sent out: danger from outside the city.

Abruptly, one of Bendetto’s men approached him from behind and whispered into his ear, “Boss, they’ve found Etoile.”

Etoile was one of their lower-tier executives who had disappeared around the same time that Agape had. Had the Campanas released him? Why?

“He showed up out of the blue at the front steps of the Casa.” A pause. “Boss, there was a conducting grenade inside of him. He took one step, and it detonated. ”

“What?!”

Bendetto threw down his cards and rose from his seat, but a hand on his arm gave him pause. Bruno Perti flashed him a grin. “Come on, Bendetto, the leaders are just about to clean everything up. Why don’t you stay for a bit?”

Before Bendetto could decipher what Bruno meant, the man reached into his suit and pulled out a handgun conductor. Without hesitation, he aimed it at Bendetto and pulled the trigger.

Bendetto was tackled to the ground by both the peacekeeper guarding him and one of his own bodyguards—but not before Bendetto saw the white vitae ray emerge from Bruno’s conductor and strike the high ceiling. The ceiling plaster crumbled down, and the patrons shrieked in alarm.

The second peacekeeper wrestled Bruno to the ground, while the patrons around the table leaped to their feet in alarm.

“Everyone, stay calm!” the peacekeeper beside Bendetto said, helping him to his feet. The peacekeeper reached into his pocket, pulled out his badge, and flashed it. There was a collective of gasps.

Damn Ophiuchians.

While Bendetto was handed off to his own bodyguards, the peacekeeper pocketed his badge and approached the dealer at the table. The dealer responded in turn by reaching for his belt. The peacekeeper swiftly conjured a gun in a flash of verdigris light and fired it without hesitation.

The dealer stumbled backwards, gripping his bleeding chest before he abruptly straightened and hissed, “That’s attempted murder, dammit!” The bloodied bullet wound started glowing white beneath the dealer’s gloved hand. And as the dealer drew his hand away from the wound, a stream of the white glowing blood floated out from it before compacting into an easily recognizable shape. The glow faded as the gun solidified in the dealer’s palm.

The Conjuror peacekeeper’s eyes widened. “You’re a leader.”

Before the dealer could pull the trigger, the peacekeeper fired six additional rounds at him, each one hitting him square in the chest. A click, click, click indicated that the gun was now empty. The peacekeeper flourished his gloved hand to conjure another one but the dealer beat him to it. Without faltering from his wound, the dealer fired off six shots. One bullseyed right into the Conjuror peacekeeper’s head. Another struck the other peacekeeper that was pinning Bruno down in the arm, while the other four found their ways into Bendetto’s bodyguards. Only one dead thought.

Terrible aim.

Bendetto’s guards retaliated by whipping out the conductors they’d brought with them. The Projectors started firing immediately, while the Conjurors fired after they’ve conjured handguns.

The dealer leaped back behind the table as the rain of vitae rays and bullets came down on him, while Bendetto was pushed back by several of his guards.

Some patrons screamed and ran. Others dropped to the ground.

The air was cluttered with fluttering cards, bouncing cue balls, and flying game chips.

And suddenly, in all of this chaos, the ceiling above Bendetto’s head began to glow and a chilling draft of wind filled the room.

White glowing chains slithered out from the pools of light. There were three figures riding down on them, but Bendetto was in no position to pay attention. This was because the chains started raining down into the crowd. They acted like bullets, shooting through the bodies of patrons left and right without dispute. Bendetto himself was shoved to the side as one of his bodyguards was felled by a chain that went straight through his gut.

A shrill laugh resounded from one of the three that were still riding down on the chains: “That’s what you filth get! And you damn peacekeepers! How dare you call yourselves Ophiuchians!”

As soon as that shout hit the air, the peacekeeper who was still pinned on top of Bruno was impaled by a chain.

Screams resounded as the patrons started scrambling to the door leading to the entrance hall. Something was off about that route—Bendetto could tell. It was an intuition—an instinct—he’d developed since serving on the eastern front during the Reservoir War.

It was a trap.

But it was too late to warn them. A group had already fled through the doors. As soon as the group stepped past the threshold that was glowing with pale tangerine light, they disappeared. And they reappeared tumbling out from the glowing light from the ceiling. Their bodies cracked against the floor, the billiard tables, the roulette tables, and the island bar at the center of the room. Those who were dashing towards the door scrambled away from it, only to be picked off by the mask-wearing dealer who was now firing into the crowd from on top of the island bar and by the chains that were still pelting down.

Bendetto was once again shoved to the side by his guard, who was subsequently pierced through the head by a chain. Bendetto ripped the rifle conductor from the man’s corpse and aimed it at the trio still descending downwards.

Bendetto hadn’t fired a conductor in some time, but it was all muscle memory. He aimed to the best of his abilities and fired. A tangerine vitae ray hurtled out from the conductor towards the descending trio, only to be obstructed by a collection of white luminescent steel bars that came from nowhere. There was a fiery explosion upon impact, causing smoke to unfurl in the air.

Bendetto got on his knees below the smoke and, with several of his bodyguards behind him, began to crawl his way towards the staircase at the very back of the casino.

Just as he neared it, however, another collection of white steel beams bulleted the ground in front of him blocking his path. Bendetto froze, glanced back at his men, heart racing.

“Bendetto,” a familiar voice called out from the smokescreen.

Bendetto couldn’t believe his ears. “F-Francis?”

White beams flew out from the smoke and impaled the men behind Bendetto.

Out from the smoke shroud in the direction of where the white beams had come from, stepped Francis Foxman. He was wearing a dark turtleneck sweater with a suit jacket thrown over it like an afterthought. He had been one of the three people riding down on the chains, Bendetto realized as he took in the man’s outfit. And upon further inspecting the man’s face, Bendetto reached a more troubling realization. There was an ELPIS tattoo snaked on the right side of Francis’s face.

Francis smiled thinly down at him.

“Shall we have a talk, Bendetto?”


To Matilda the Twin Cities was her home just as it was home to tens of thousands of others. Like them, she knew that the city was dirty and filled with disgusting people and things, but it was still home. The place that accepted everything and rejected nothing. People here didn’t gawk at her butterfly-shaped birthmark, didn’t ogle her when she’d worn raggedy clothing or stolen food from trash bins. People here didn’t care. And that was a comfort.

Matilda had worked hard to get where she was currently at in the city. To get to the point where she was in the fancy restaurants looking outside instead of outside looking in. She’d made friends who’d made friends who’d made friends until together they’d formed a network of weak that was able to stand up against the strong.

Together, they had a fighting chance in this city where adults played games with each other’s lives. Together, they made more money working with the Foxmans and Romanos than any other delinquent ring in the city. Together, they could survive for longer. Together, they were stronger.

And so Matilda didn’t understand why some of her friends started to break off from the group that they had all painstakingly formed. Those who’d left said things along the lines of “what we’re doing is wrong,” and “we don’t have to work for them like this,” or even “they’re just taking advantage of us and don’t care about us.” And when Matilda had asked them where all of these ideas had come from, they said plainly, “Theta said it. Theta cares. Theta knows. Theta says we can live a better life somewhere else.”

Matilda secretly wanted to meet who this mysterious ‘Theta’ was. She was sure that that person was simply full of false promises, false hopes. She figured that Theta was someone who was manipulating all of her friends—someone who was seeking to take advantage of them.

And Matilda knew all about being taken advantage of. She had been taken advantage of by Verga. And she knew she was being taken advantage of by the Foxmans and the Romanos. But she was fine with it because she was taking advantage of them too. Being taken advantage of, she thought, was only dangerous when you weren’t aware of it. And Matilda was certain that her friends who were leaving their shipping business for this ‘Theta’ were not aware of it.

And so when one of her closest friends Fernando began to speak about ‘Theta’ too, Matilda decided to take him out to a casino party that Bendetto had invited her to. She wanted to show him everything they’d worked for, everything they were working towards. She wanted to prove to him that if they continued working together, they could live in luxury too like all the adults.

The casino was fun at first. They were greeted at the door by Bendetto and greeted warmly by all the servers. The adults and patrons at the casino smiled at them warmly, jokingly offered them drinks, and showed them how to play some of the games.

But then things snapped in two.

As soon as Matilda saw the man beside Bendetto pulled out a conductor, she grabbed Fernando’s hand and ran to the nearest escape she could find: a staircase at the back of the casino. They pounded up the seemingly endless marble steps, until they reached the highest floor, ran down the carpeted hallway, and burst into a mansion of a room at the end. Matilda scrambled around in the dark before she pulled herself under a cloth-covered table at the very corner of the room with Fernando in tow.

As soon as they were beneath the tablecloth, the screams from below started. Gunfire. Vitae ray fire. Thud, thud, boom, boom. The entire building shook and rumbled.

And then there was silence.

Matilda clutched Fernando’s hand and waited.

Suddenly, there was tap, tap, tapping. Someone was ascending the staircase. The door creaked open. There was scrapping, a click-clacking, a series of receding footsteps, and then silence.

Matilda met Fernando’s eyes and peered out from beneath the tablecloth.

The curtains in the room had been drawn open, revealing a window that took up the entire left wall. The entire twinkling, nighttime cityscape was visible from it. The city lights spilled into the dark room, stretched across the tiled floor that was littered with playing cards and poker chips, and reached all the way back to the room’s center where a man was tied with chains to a chair.

Matilda squinted and tried to make out the man. She instantly recognized his crisp suit. It was Bendetto. But—Matilda’s blood ran cold—his head was missing. At the base of his neck where his head should have been, there was an oddly glowing splotch of pale tangerine light. Contrarily, his chest was still moving up and down. He was alive.

Across from him facing the light from the city stood a figure. A man. He was holding open the page of a book. From that book, emerging from a pool of light, was Bendetto’s head.

Matilda nearly passed out from the sight of it.

“This city is actually pretty beautiful when I’m looking at it from up here,” the figure drew. “It’s a shame that it’s built on dirt and filth.”

Matilda recognized the voice. That was—

“Francis…” Bendetto’s head pressed. “What are you trying to do? No—why?”

Matilda gasped despite herself.

Bendetto continued, “Agape, Fortuna, Etoile, your brothers too—that was all you, wasn’t it? Why?”

“How can you ask me that after everything you’ve done? Can’t you see the hypocrisy behind it?” Francis lifted the book so that Bendetto was eye-level with him. “But I have to thank you for the information about the third reservoir. I should’ve known it was there.” He chuckled. “Tell me, Bendetto, what do you think’ll happen if I close my gate with your head still stuck right here?”

Bendetto paled, eyes hardening.

Suddenly, Fernando pulled his hand out of Matilda’s and crawled out from beneath the table before she could stop him.

“Theta, you’re outside!” Fernando exclaimed, running up to Francis’s side and beaming.

“Theta…?” Bendetto repeated in confusion.

“Fernando.” Francis turned to Fernando. The snake tattoo on the right side of the man’s face became cast in the city’s glow. “What are you doing here? I thought I told you and the others to leave the city.”

Fernando faltered, gaze flickering between Bendetto’s head and Francis’s face. “I… I…”

Francis stared past him, towards the table, towards Matilda. “Come out. The one that’s hiding. You can come out now.”

Matilda trembled but obeyed, pulling herself out from beneath the table.

“Come closer.”

Matilda again obeyed but stopped short a meter away, trembling.

“I-It’s okay, Tilda,” Fernando said. “It’s not Francis. It’s Theta. We’re safe.” He made it sound like whatever that meant was supposed to reassure her.

“I thought I told you to leave the city too,” Francis—Theta—said to her. He followed her gaze to Bendetto, and his brows furrowed. He abruptly dropped the book and started cradling his head and his stomach. The book snapped shut, Bendetto’s head disappearing along with the light.

Matilda whipped her attention to Bendetto’s body just in time to see Bendetto’s head pop out from the glowing light on his neck. The man gasped in relief, panting.

“T-Theta,” Fernando stammered, hands hovering.

“I’m alright,” Theta said. He straightened himself and placed his gloved hand on top of Fernando’s head. He then beckoned Matilda. “Come closer. I won’t hurt you. I promise.”

Matilda wanted to run. But she didn’t. Instead, she hesitantly took advantage of the mercy that he was showing her and fell into step beside him.

Theta nodded his head towards the window. “Watch.”

The city lights suddenly started to flicker in unison. On and off, on and off—until they began to go dark one by one, patch by patch. The only thing that was left burning bright was the v-lights sparkling on the Dioscuri Bridge. But they too started flickering, until they completely went out, leaving Matilda in terrifying, complete darkness.

A warm hand rested on her head.

“It’s alright,” Theta said. “Wait for it.”

A sudden burst of light from a city street below bleached the surrounding skyscrapers and buildings white. Several streets away there was another flash of light. And then another, and another, illuminating the city blocks in sporadic blazes of white and almost taking the place of the illumination of the city’s v-lights themselves. It was oddly pretty.

“This is all for you,” Theta said. “For Omega. For all the misfortune this city has caused you. For all the people that have taken advantage of you.”

10.5: Jericho’s Cycling (Vendetta)

Re-cap:

Jericho has arrived in the Twin Cities along with Jericho and Leona under the latter’s request. Jericho and Talib are to assist Leona in her investigations of ELPIS within the city. Leona believes that Omicron who was present during an ELPIS attack on the Black Constellation Detention Center beneath the Serpens Establishment may have run off there. Talib is set to scour the city with manipulated mediums, while Jericho is temporarily put on guard over Romano Family executives. Jericho clashes with Iota while protecting Donato and encounters Cadence and Werner’s men. Jericho manages to save Donato with assistance from Cadence, Werner, and Werner’s men. And now Jericho has learnt of ELPIS’s true origins from Cadence’s end. Jericho has decided to…

“I see you are still grieving,” Theta—rather, that version of Theta—had said, cupping Jericho’s cheek on that moonlit night all those years ago. The silver moonlight had made the tattoo on the right side of her face glow. “But there is no reason to be sad.”

“No reason to be sad…?”

“They have died, yes, but in reality, all that has happened is that they have returned to the cycle of vitae. They have become a part of everything around you. They still exist all around you. That is how the cycle of vitae turns.”

“Vitae…?”

“Yes, so you shouldn’t grieve. You will only make them sad if you grieve. In the end, everything will return to the beginning. Isn’t that reassuring?”

Yes, it had been reassuring. Having lost his entire family, his neighbors, his friends, his town in one night, Jericho had found Theta’s words a comfort. Although she had been among the group orchestrating that massacre, he clung to her like a lifeline. As did the other children who were picked up along the way.

“Conductors are inherently evil,” she had told him. “Their main purpose is to kill people, to bring an end to everything. They are unnatural. Our purpose, on the other hand, is… well, you don’t need to worry about that.”

But when Theta had ‘died’, despite clinging onto every word she had said, Jericho had grieved. Just as he’d grieved when his mother was slaughtered in front of him by the same people who had taken him in.

One of the ELPIS members—perhaps an underling, perhaps not—took note of Jericho’s grief and the grief of the children who had become his friends under Theta’s care.

“Theta wouldn’t want you to grieve,” the ELPIS member had said to them. “Theta would want you to fight. Do you know what we’re fighting for?” A pause. “Would you like to know?”

For hope.

Jericho had embraced the ideology fully then. Just as the other children had.

Bleaching his vitae was excruciatingly painful, but Jericho rarely ever felt pain afterwards. He used to think that all the pain he was to endure in life was concentrated in that moment, leaving everything else going afterwards numb. Equivalent exchange.

Every generator conductor they destroyed together signaled a step closer to a hopeful future without reliance on conductors. Every Conductor killed represented one less murderer. But at the same time, death didn’t matter. All those who died were simply returning to the cycle. Over and over.

Jericho had carried this ideology even after he was taken in by Ophiuchus, by Alice. It was only when he had put a bird with a broken wing out of its suffering and Alice had discovered him holding its corpse that his perspective shifted.

“You killed it to put it out of its suffering, and it doesn’t matter if it’s died because it’ll return to the cycle? Do you really believe that?” Alice had clicked her tongue and shook her head. “I can’t believe the doctors haven’t handled this topic yet.” She looked him right in the eye then and said clearly: “That’s ridiculous. Even if that were true, even if someone’s vitae were to return to the ‘cycle’, it wouldn’t be the same. It wouldn’t be ‘them’ anymore. Not really. The situation, the parts, the components will never be the same. That’s why they say life is precious. Do you understand?”

It was difficult to break out of that thinking. If he did not think of it as a cycle, how could he rectify what he had done for so many years of his life? So instead, he stopped thinking of that aspect altogether. Alice had not been happy with his choice, but it had been the best he could do.

***

Twin Cities, Gemini

Recalling those memories that remained burned into his mind, Jericho stood on an empty street in front of a boarded-up liquor store. The building was large and took up an entire block by itself. He had to leap a wired fence to get to this place. And upon his landing on this side of the fence, he had been greeted by a large sign at its front that read—UNDER INSPECTION AND DECONSTRUCTION. STAY OUT.

Jericho was grateful to Cadence because she was the reason for why he was standing here. He had received this information from her, after all, when she had been in Theta’s room listening in to all of their exchanges. Jericho surmised that she had been too affected by the revelation of ELPIS’s origins at the time to pay any attention to what was really being said. Jericho conjectured Francis’s brothers were also too affected to pay attention. Jericho couldn’t fathom why. Even if everything that was said was true, the fact was that—

ELPIS was still ELPIS.

And because Jericho knew this, he was not distracted and was able to pick up the quick exchange between Omega and Theta regarding the warehouse location that Fortuna had given Theta.

“A conductor-manufacturing plant renovated from a renowned liquor store that went out of business fifteen years prior,” was something along the lines of what Theta had said. “Plant your mediums there and use my proto-conductor there.”

A quick check at the city hall and a dive into the records there paired with half an hour spent studying a map of the city had led Jericho here.

To this warehouse.

To this warehouse that Omega was most certainly within. Jericho could feel her presence in the way his heart pounded, in the way his senses sharpened, in the way his ears rang. This was certainty.

Jericho. 

Jericho turned his head. A silhouette stood behind him.

Werner.

The Capricornian seemed tired.

Jericho wasn’t sure whether the man was exhausted due to his still unconscious state or if it was due to him taking on the brunt of Cadence’s pain. Jericho recalled his own bout of unconscious consciousness. It had not been comfortable for him back then, so Jericho doubted that it was comfortable for Werner.

Werner’s image straightened and approached Jericho with a frown. “Engaging with an ELPIS leader without assistance is rash and high-risk.”

Jericho could already feel the lecture coming on, but he had come prepared: “Leona’s file. Omega is a Manipulator. She specializes in observational mediums. Intuition. She doesn’t have strong combat abilities. If alone, she will be easy to kill.”

Jericho had to do this. He had to. It was time. His fingers ached for it. His heart felt like it was going to explode if he didn’t achieve it.

Much to Jericho’s surprise, Werner nodded and said, “The weakest link. There is a high probability that she is the main information gatherer for ELPIS, therefore targeting her first is a reasonable strategy.”

Jericho blinked at him, confused.

“I know I can’t stop you, Jericho,” Werner responded evenly. “You’ve fallen out of following orders, as you’ve said. And I admit your sense of self—of revenge—is too strong for me to attempt an override without permission if the situation called for it.”

Jericho stared at him, still confused.

“As I’ve said, engaging with an ELPIS leader without assistance is dangerous—which is why I am offering my assistance.” A pause. “That and limiting their inflow of information will allow us to avoid detection as True Conductors for longer.”

“Are you sure?” Jericho cocked his head and pointed at him. “Is it customary to assist in battle when you have been through torture?” He paused, frowned a bit, and lowered his hand. “Suggestion… You and Cadence should rest.”

“Your concern is acknowledged, Jericho,” Werner said. “But I will not waste my time doing nothing while I’m in this… state.”

“… Thank you.”

Werner hesitated and then nodded. “What is your plan, Jericho?”

“I will kill her,” Jericho said simply. “This time. For certain. Intuition. Tonight. And then I will save Alice.”

“We need to get as much information as we can from her first,” Werner returned. “And what will you tell Leona and the other Ophiuchian agents if they discover you?”

“Intuition…?”

In an unusual display of physical frustration, Werner pinched the bridge of his nose. “I’ll think of something then.”

Jericho shifted in place, gripping his suitcase tightly. “I… would like to say a prayer.”

Werner lifted his head. “… a prayer?”

“Yes.” Jericho stared into the darkness. “I don’t remember a lot before ELPIS. I was young. But I do remember the prayer my mother taught me. A Scorpian nomadic prayer. So, I would like to say it. Since I am ready. In control. It feels… ‘right’.”

“… Like I said, Jericho,” Werner said quietly. “I am not here to stop you. I am here to assist.”

Jericho nodded, set his suitcase to the side, and sank to his knees. He then dipped forward, pressing his forehead to the ground, palms faced downwards. He took a deep breath—

“Although our land is barren, our spirit is strong.
Although we are spread far apart in these deserts, we are connected through our spirit. 
Each grain of sand we walk on is from a distant land connecting our ancestors past to us.
When we pass,
our bones will become the earth,
our spirits will become the sun shining on the land.
That is how we will become eternal.”

Jericho rose to a stand, picked up his suitcase, and turned back to Werner. The man silently met his eyes and then nodded.

“We are dealing with a Manipulator who is skilled at creating observational mediums. We will most likely not be able to take the element of surprise during our initial encounter. She will most likely attempt an escape when she encounters you. There is no solution to this. If she does engage, she will use Theta’s proto-conductors to her advantage. I suggest you take advantage of the portals as well.”

Listening closely to Werner’s summary, Jericho closed the distance between himself and the warehouse. On Werner’s suggestion, he slipped in through an open window. He landed deftly on a high stack of crates just below and swiftly maneuvered his way down to the ground floor. In the darkness, he could make out looming machines and factory belts that crisscrossed across the ground.

An updraft of wind made him pause.

“My, my, the knight has finally arrived. I knew you’d come.” An airy laugh filled the air. “You cut an even more gallant figure up close.”

As expected, she’s already placed observational mediums in the building. By her tone, she means to engage. She’s been expecting you.

“I’ve always, always, always wanted to meet you, Jericho. I’ve been watching you from afar for forever.” A sigh. “From the moment the previous Theta took you in until now, I’ve been watching you. You’ve grown so, so, so much since then. But in the end, even after all this growing up, you’re still a—”

There was another updraft of air. This time from the left.

“—traitor.”

Jericho froze.

The voice was the same. The whispers from the walls. The whisper inside of his head. The whisper behind his back right before he was pushed down the stairs of the Serpens Establishment several months ago.

“I was hoping that the trip down the stairs would be the end of you, but it looks like I accidentally kick-started your path to True Conductorhood. Whoopsies.”

She knows. You have to kill her here. 

Jericho slowly undid his suitcase and pulled his conductor out.

“Don’t worry. Only Gamma and I know what you are. If I told any of the others, they would come right for you, and I don’t want that. It’s hard keeping a secret, you know? But I made it work.”

Another airy laugh.

“I want you all to myself. Which probably sounds weird since you’ve never met-met me before. You don’t know me at all. But I know you. I’ve been watching you forever, like I said.”

A loud boom resounded, and Jericho felt something whistle by his ear. Heat.

A bullet. She has a gun. 

Jericho scanned the darkness. Metal piping, swinging chains from the ceiling, cold rectangular machines.

But her vision and aim are poor. Don’t activate your conductor, or she’ll be able to better locate you in this darkness.

Jericho hesitated and stared at his conductor.

Jericho, you may not be able to feel much pain, but your body can still take on irreparable damage. A pause. Given the others’ reactions prior to our first synchronization, despite your analgesia, for whatever reason, the others are still able to feel your pain. Do not activate your conductor.

Jericho nodded, clutched his conductor tightly in hand, ducked low, and began to head in the direction of where the last updraft had originated.

“You’ve been looking for us desperately this entire time, waiting for an opportunity like this,” came Omega’s sing-song voice. “But you know, I’ve been seeking you out too for the same reason.”

A bang resounded in the darkness, and a bullet ricocheted on a protruding pipe just above his head.

She has an obsession with you. She’s not operating rationally. 

“I hate you, Jericho. I really hate you.” Omega’s voice came out slightly higher-pitched than before. And it was coming from above his head. “I watched you, Jericho. The others have forgotten, but I haven’t. I’ve been active the longest out of all of them, you know? Ever since the Reservoir War ended…”

Another gust of wind.

A metal click-click, click-clack, click-clack resounded along the ground, and something rolled up to Jericho’s foot. He could barely make out its shape in the darkness. It was cylindrical, with a hollow glass tube lined with metal at its center.

“What you did to all the other little ones that were with you on that day—the ones who you grew up with—how can I forget? It’s burned into my brain. You lifted your conductor towards them, and you shattered them into nothing.”

The hollow glass tube began to hum and glow with a faint white light.

A conducting grenade. Jericho—

Jericho swiftly kicked the grenade right back in the direction it had come from.

“And when the peacekeepers took you in after you killed them all, they called you a tragic hero! And they hid you away, telling you that you were ‘strong’ for turning away from us, that you did the right thing by killing all the little ones.”

A fiery explosion erupted several meters away from him above his head. The fire illuminated the entire warehouse, stretching crooked shadows across the floor in between a sheet of bright red and combing smoke. In front of that flame and on top of a factory machine, a woman stood with one hand snaking through her white hair and the other loosely holding both a gun and one of Theta’s proto-conductors.

“How do you think the little ones felt when they stared into the eyes of a friend-turned-murderer and felt their bodies crumble away into nothing? All because you thought for just one moment that what you all were doing was wrong,” Omega said, her voice barely carrying above the crackle of the flame. “I watched you spend all of these years without shedding even a single tear for any of them. You think we’re the monsters, but you’re the monster to me, you know? They were children.”

Children who were prepared to execute an entire community in cold blood because they had installed a generator conductor in their village. Children who would not stand down, who would not hesitate, in following through with their duties. Children–friends–whom Jericho had not been able to deter with words.

“Yes, they were children,” Jericho agreed. “We were children.”

Omega’s eyes narrowed. “They became nothingness after you killed them. You know that, right? Because of the bleaching of their vitae, your vitae, our vitae… ‘It’s inevitable’ as Theta says, but… You should have become nothingness instead.”

“I said a Scorpian prayer my mother taught me before I came here,” Jericho stated. “I will also say the prayer Theta taught me. For them. When I kill you. Will that be sufficient?”

Omega stared and laughed.

The sprinkler system went off, and a torrent of water came gushing down, soaking Jericho to the bone. The fire dimmed, and once again the factory became shrouded in darkness. Jericho continued forward, his footsteps sloshing around in the puddles that had formed on the ground. The sound was deafened by the pitter-patter and whining of the sprinklers.

A loud bang resounded again, but Jericho did not hear the ricochet of the bullet.

Jericho, your arm.

Abruptly, Jericho found his hand resting on his upper right arm. The fabric just above his Ophiuchian sash had torn. It was damp. The bullet had grazed him.

Omega knows where you are. Even if she’s filled this factory with mediums, her precision is too exact. She may have placed an observational medium on you without your knowledge.

Jericho paused and reached for his bleeding arm.

Intuition.

He ripped off his Ophiuchian sash and stared at it.

A lure.

He threw it on the ground and started off into the dark. After ducking behind a network of interlaced, low-hanging pipes, he fell into a crouch and stared out into the dark.

Jericho, we don’t know what other locations she’s placed her mediums. This hiding location is not—

Intuition. She has only placed observational mediums at the entrance and where she thinks the modified conductors are being stored. Not here. I don’t think. 

Jericho waited, listening intently to the tap-tap-tap of the water around him, tuning his ears to any discrepancy of sound.

Several bangs resounded in the dark. And several sparks erupted around where Jericho had dropped his sash from bullets ricocheting off the ground. Then, for a long while, there was nothing.

Suddenly, a figure emerged from the network of low hanging pipes opposite of him. Omega.

She slowly stepped forward in the darkness, clutching her gun loosely in one hand as she extended the other blindly outwards. She stopped short just in front of the white band and squinted down at it.

“Oh my, you’ve grown smart though, haven’t you?”

Jericho activated his conductor with a flick; and with precision he assumed was from Werner, he threw out a whip of vitae across several meters right at her. Instead of piercing her through, however, he split his vitae out into a web that formed a bubble around her. He flicked his wrist, tightening the cage of vitae around her and leaving just her head exposed. He stepped out from his place of hiding. The heat from the vitae caused her to drop both the gun and Theta’s proto-conductor in her hand. The water from the sprinklers sizzled as it hit pitter-pattered onto the white cage.

“I really am not suited for this kind of thing, am I?” Omega laughed airily as he approached her. “This is more of Iota’s thing. Ah, Iota will be so mad at me…” Her eyes widened. “You took Iota’s arm… that’s right. I can’t forgive you for that either….”

“Tell me where Theta keeps the prisoners,” Jericho stated. “Tell me how to use Theta’s proto-conductors.”

The corners of Omega’s eyes crinkled as she traced his face. “You really have grown up since then.”

“Shut up.”

“Congratulations on getting closer to your goal of completely eradicating us. Vengeance for yourself? Or for your blood family? I still can’t figure it out… What did you call us when you were speaking to Talib? I was watching then too, you know? Right… You called us ‘false hope’?” Omega hummed. “What will you do now that you know that just killing us isn’t enough? Will you hunt down our resistors too? That’ll be a long road ahead, you know?”

Jericho brought up his suitcase and cracked it against her face. She stumbled to the side, pressing into the cage of vitae.

The smell of burning flesh filled the air, following an unpleasant sizzling sound.

Omega righted herself quickly, pulling away from vitae. The contact was not long enough, leaving her skin intact.

“I said shut up,” Jericho stated.

“You should know. I’m just like you. My sense of pain is super-duper dulled,” Omega replied, blinking away the blood that had dribbled into her eyes from the wound that had formed at her temple. “So, things like this won’t work on me. And killing won’t work either. Not right now anyways.” Her lips turned upwards. “I’m not afraid of dying. It’s the same with you, isn’t it?”

Jericho did not respond. Merely tightened his grip on his suitcase that was dripping with her blood.

“After you eradicate us, what’ll you do, Jericho?” she continued. “Do you think peace happens instantaneously? You should know. We’re not something physical. If you really want to eliminate us, you have to eliminate ideology, you know? And that’s really hard—”

“You keep talking. But all that’s coming out of your mouth is garbage.”

“Could it be that you’re a bit of an airhead, Jericho?” Omega gasped. “I mean, the color of our vitae is the same, isn’t it? So, to really destroy ELPIS, you would have to—”

Jericho cracked the suitcase against her head again and again. She rattled against the small cage but righted herself.

What is the syzygy?” Jericho found himself asking.

“Syzygy…” Omega cocked her head and then chuckled. “Who knows? I think I forgot what it was five lifetimes ago, but who knows, who knows. I don’t think Theta or Omicron remember either. Maybe just bits and parts. We just know that we have to stop it and how to stop it—which is by eliminating conductors and killing True Conductors like you, hm… that’s why we need Gamma—Wtorek Izsak, this time. Gamma’s barely been initiated so Gamma remembers almost everything.”

A ludicrous existence. 

“Hm, I used quite a lot of my vitae this time around actually,” Omega said suddenly. “There might not be enough of my vitae left to be me… I really might become nothingness this time.” She stared off into the darkness. “That doesn’t scare me though. I’m only afraid that if I do make it back, I won’t remember everything. I won’t remember you or what you did at all. Nobody but you will. Ah… such troubles.”

“I will ask you one more time,” Jericho stated, tugging on his conductor and tightening the vitae cage around her. “Tell me where Alice is. Tell me how to use the proto-conductors.”

Omega paused in her airy laughter, straightened herself, and locked eyes with him.

“I hope you suffer,” she answered, her voice losing its light tone. “Just as they suffered, you hypocritical traitor.”

With a grunt, Jericho pulled his conductor backwards, tightening the cage of vitae around her. The lines tightened, tightened, pressing into her skin, constricting her like a snake, until the contact was enough and the crumbling began. The cracks crawled up her arms and legs, connecting at her chest before ascending to her face.

And then she crumbled away into nothing. Not even a dusted trace of her left. The cage of vitae fell loose in the absence of her body.

Jericho retracted his vitae back into his conductor, leaving him in the cold, wet dark. Slowly, he bent down to pick up the proto-conductor and gun off the floor and stored it in his suitcase. After a brief moment’s hesitation, he sank down onto one knee, bowed his head, and placed a hand over his chest. He recited in the original Ophiuchian language—

“There is no end,
There is no beginning,
There is only a cycle.
Whether enemy, whether friend,
Whether family, whether stranger,
Whether on land, whether on sea, whether in sky,
Whether alone, whether in company,
Whether in peace, whether in war,
May all return to where all began.”

Continuously repeating the chant under his breath, Jericho stared at the spot where Omega had drawn her last breath.

“—no beginning,
there is only a cycle.”

He had succeeded. He had killed her. She had said there was not enough of her left ‘to become her’ when she returned to her resistor. But her resistor didn’t seem to be on her person. He would have to find and destroy her resistor, to be sure. But if she was re-initiated in the meantime, it wouldn’t be the same. Still.

Conclusion: destroy all of their resistors.

Until there was nothing left. Absolutely nothing. Like how there was nothing left of her now. Eliminate the false hope. Completely.

“—whether in peace, whether in war,
May all return to where all beg—”

A hand on his shoulder.

Jericho turned his head.

Werner.

You should leave. The Romano Family will send people to investigate the disturbance here. 

***

Still dripping wet, Jericho made his way through the streets of the Twin Cities. He didn’t really have a direction in mind.

Werner was still synchronized with him lightly. Jericho could feel his presence, like he could feel the moonlight hazily seeping through the smog clouding the skyline. Jericho didn’t understand why Werner was still present despite the task being completed. Perhaps it was customary.

What next.

“Jericho!”

Jericho lifted his head and looked left then right. The streets were familiar to him. The windows of the shops and the people walking along the streets skirting around him scratched at his memory. Yes, familiar. Werner had been steadily directing him back to the Abaccio, Jericho realized.

“Jericho!” Came the shout again.

Jericho turned his head.

It was Talib, coming along down the walkway and waving his hand wildly in the air. The Manipulator came to a stop in front of him before bending over and panting. Even after all of the cases they’d had together, it seemed as if Talib’s cardio still had not improved much.

“How did you find me?” Jericho asked after a beat.

“Leona is looking for you,” Talib said slowly, straightening himself. “I tracked you with my medium.” He tapped Jericho’s chest pocket.

Jericho reached into the pocket and pulled out the damp origami paper Talib had slipped in there several days earlier. Jericho had completely forgotten about it.

“You saw,” Jericho concluded.

“I overheard,” Talib corrected. “… You weren’t directed to chase after the ELPIS leader by Leona, were you?”

“No, I was not.”

“How did you know where that one would be?”

Jericho remained silent.

“And you didn’t get any information on Alice’s whereabouts…”

“No.”

“You… killed them.”

“Yes, I did,” Jericho affirmed. “Will you tell Leona this?”

This time Talib remained silent.

“I will meet with Leona,” Jericho said after a beat, turning back towards the direction he’d been walking.

Talib placed a hand on his arm. “Not with that look in your eyes, partner.”

When Jericho turned to Talib in confusion, Talib nodded over to a closed store with darkened windows. In the reflection of the pane, Jericho found his reflection captured. His face was pale, his lips were drawn tight, and his eyes were wide—wide and faintly glowing with a ring of white light.

“You can trust me, partner,” Talib said. “I won’t tell Leona what happened here, but I think we both need to talk with each other for a bit.”

They made their way over to a bench that rested on a desolate walkway and sat down. Talib ran into a nearby bar and returned with a towel. Jericho accepted it from him and began to dry his hair slowly.

“Did you know the framework of most conspiracy theories is based on fundamental attribution error?” Talib asked suddenly. “We as human beings tend to favor dispositional explanations for things rather than situational explanations. Say someone bumps into you and glares. You tend to think that the person doesn’t like you instead of considering that they might be in some sort of pain and bumped into you and glared accidentally. Say you choke on a piece of food while at a restaurant. Say instead of thinking that you choked on accident because you were eating too fast, you end up thinking that the chef is an assassin sent by a shadowy organization to kill you.”

That was one gigantic leap… wasn’t it?

Yes, it was.

Werner. Still present.

“But it’s not always circumstance,” Jericho said, pulling the towel from his head.

“Or is it?” Talib responded automatically, arching an inquisitive brow. He cleared his throat. “But most of the time it is. Or so we tell ourselves to make ourselves feel better.” Talib slid his hands into his pockets and stared across the empty street. “Say someone you respect hands a message off to someone else you respect. Then that latter person tells you to fulfill that message. That message involves you looking into yet another person you fear but respect. But the very first person who is a part of this chain turns their back on everything they stand for, while the person at the end of the chain begins to exemplify everything that the first person stood for. What is it? Situation or disposition? Coincidence or purpose. You can lose your mind in the conspiracy.”

“Gabrielle asked you to investigate Leona,” Jericho concluded, piecing together the details from Maria’s end of things. He paused and thought on Talib’s words. “Gabrielle received a message from… Izsak before he became involved with ELPIS.”

Before a resistor was used on Izsak and he became ‘Gamma’.

Talib would be sad if he found out… correct?

Yes. Cadence was sad about Francis. Theta…

Talib nodded. “Izsak gave a coded message to Gabrielle before he… converted. It was very strongly coded, so the decoded message was terribly brief. Just—‘saint candidate’ and ‘vitae reservoir’. Two concepts that could be connected. Or not. The thing is… Is this a wild goose chase that Izsak has sent on us or…?” Talib whipped out his notebook from his pocket and flashed it at Jericho. There were nonsensical scribbles within. “And then there’s you, Jericho. You were formerly involved with ELPIS too. Situationally, your aim is revenge. Dispositionally, your aim is revenge. You’re a constant. Alice was right about that.” Talib’s shoulders drooped, and he pocketed his journal. “Alice said you were very trustworthy…”

Jericho stared. “Are you… saying you trust me?”

Trust…

Talib nodded again and then bit his thumb. “Saint candidates, ELPIS, vitae reservoirs. Alice, Flannery. Leona, Izsak.”

Syzygy.

Talib shook his head. “I say Leona is exemplary, but at the same time, I have this sinking feeling that she doesn’t really care what’s going to happen to Alice. That doesn’t bode well at all.” He frowned. “Perhaps Leona’s involved in the Organization? No, that’s a separate thing. Or is it?”

“We will find Alice then. Together.” Jericho paused. “But, Talib, be careful. With Leona.”

Talib startled and then chuckled. “I’m not the one who’s tackling ELPIS head first.” He rubbed his knees. “Well, if you know anything, I’d appreciate it if you told me. And if you want to tell me something, I’m all ears.” He pointed to Jericho’s pocket where Jericho had restored the origami sheet. “I put that on you out of concern, but if you don’t feel comfortable then—”

“Talib… can I ask you for something?”

Talib stared at him. “Of course, partner, anything.”

“A paper crane. One that you manipulate as a medium. Can you place it on someone for me? I think they might be involved with ELPIS.”

Talib nodded. “Of course. Anything that’ll help us get closer to finding out where Alice is.” He paused. “Do you know what they look like? Can you give me a name? Maybe a picture?”

“I can draw one,” Jericho said as Colonel Fritz von Spiel’s face drifted into his mind.

… Thank you, Jericho.

10.4: Atienna’s Questioning (Riposto)

Re-cap:

Atienna’s diplomatic journey reaches a standstill when she becomes storm locked in a cavern alongside Virgoan diplomat Chiamaka, their guards Kabal and Sefu, and the Cancerian tourist Louise whom they’d rescued. Already locked in the cave are Piscese diplomat Moana, Pisces advisor Kalama, Piscese guard Afu; Aquarian diplomat Alexei Drei, Aquarian secretary Yulia, Aquarian advisor Cvetka Akulova, and the guards Nikita Knovak and Sigurd. Kalama is mysteriously murdered one day in, and Afu is put on arrest after lashing out at Alexei. As tensions built up inside of the cavern, a portal opens up, dumping Ophiuchian peacekeeper Mladen and Major Ersatz within. The major dies shortly after, leaving an oddly discombobulated, nonsensical Mladen who insists on being called ‘P’ to deal with the dysfunction. On Atienna’s mind: P’s relation to ELPIS; Yulia’s, Sigurd’s, Louise’s, and Cvetka’s knowledge of the word ‘syzygy’, and the probability of them being True Conductors; and Kalama’s murder. One mystery appears to be nearing solved as P finally reveals his association to ELPIS to Atienna… 

Zatmeniye Caverns, Aquarius

“Rather than calling you ‘P’ then, perhaps I should call you ‘Pi’? I’ve been reading a bit about the original Ophiuchian language and that seems to be appropriate…”

The person—

who had killed Mladen 

who had become Mladen 

who had passed on memories to Mladen 

—who had taken over Mladen’s life stared at Atienna with wide eyes.

Slowly, Pi nodded.

Jericho’s rage pulsated beneath the surface, but the peacekeeper’s mind was too focused on the task he was currently pursuing for it to take Atienna over.

Atienna sighed, closed her eyes, felt the cold of the ice wall behind her press through her layers of clothing. She tried to amalgamate the information she had gathered from Pi and from Cadence’s end.

Firstly, ELPIS was not a new terrorist organization. It was an ancient one. Secondly, what was assumedly ELPIS’s original founders passed on what were essentially their souls and memories to people near death’s door via resistors. In a sense, Atienna thought, that was strangely similar to the way to how True Conductors came to be. Curious. Thirdly, every experience an ELPIS leader underwent while in someone else’s guise was lost when the ELPIS leader ‘died’ and entered another person’s guise.

Really… what a ludicrous existence. 

If anything, this just proved the truth of the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis. And that truth was rather…

“Unsure…” Pi muttered from beside her. “What to. Do.”

When Atienna turned to him, she found that he was looking at her in askance. How troubling.

“It depends on how you view your current self,” Atienna drew uncertainly. “Would I be correct in saying that you don’t agree with ELPIS’s current trajectory…?”

Pi froze and nodded. He let out a breath that clouded the air before his eyes widened and he stared off into the distance. “Have I… Past me. Done that. Too?”

If Pi’s vitae had occupied Major Ersatz previous to its current occupation of Mladen, then the answer was clear.

However, Atienna remained silent.

An interesting case. An ELPIS leader who did not agree wholeheartedly with ELPIS ideology.

Atienna wondered if she was lucky to have encountered Pi instead of another ELPIS leader. Pi himself did not seem to be as antagonistic as Iota nor as ideological as Theta. Atienna was uncertain if this was an aspect of Pi’s faulty initiation or of his true nature. Or… Perhaps it was that Pi was lucky to have encountered her. Such hubris.

“Do you consider,” Atienna began, “how you are now as a uniquely different to all those other versions of you? Do you think you should take responsibility for those actions or will you move forward without looking back? Which way do you think is right?”

These were answers Atienna truly wanted to know.

Pi stared at her blankly. Instead of answering, he stated, “You… no fear…”

Atienna offered him a thin smile. “I must admit that I am more curious”—and furious—“than afraid.”

“You. Scary,” Pi said, nodding. “A little.”

Atienna blinked in surprise. “Shouldn’t our reactions be reversed…?”

Pi shrugged before studying her hesitantly. “Now you know. What do. For you?”

“I’m wondering that myself…”

***

When Atienna learned of the Specialist children being taken advantage of by the Campanas, she felt her heart sink. She had always known that activities such as these were commonplace, but baring witness to it through Cadence’s eyes solidified it as reality as compared to fiction on paper.

Then when Atienna witnessed Werner taking on Cadence’s pain in that cold, dimly lit cellar, she was filled with emotions she could not dissect in one sitting. A sense of unity, a sense of sadness, a sense of guilt, a sense of worry, a sense of happiness.

Going along with the rush of all of these hard to digest feelings, she found herself prying open the letter she had been neglecting since she’d departed Virgo. She sat in her pocket in the cavern—Pi remained at her side, quiet and contemplative—as she read the curling Virgoan letters:

My dearest sister, Atienna,

I suspect you have put off reading this letter despite your love of reading. I am unsure if this is in part due to your newfound duties or if it is due to the argument we had prior to your departure. But you are kind and caring, so I doubt it is the latter.

I know I have argued against you serving as an advisor to Chiamaka as has father. I am not sure what father’s case is still, but as for me… It isn’t because I don’t believe you can serve as an advisor. In fact, I believe wholeheartedly that you will become the best advisor Virgo has to offer. Perhaps, if you choose to do so, you will climb up to become the best diplomat Virgo has ever had.

My reservations come from the fact that I fear you may become like me—rather, like how I was when I was working alongside Usian. Carried away by patriotism and ideology. During that time, I lost sight of what was truly important to me and fell into convolution. I don’t wish the same to befall you. That is all my hesitation and reservations amount to. I am sure, however, you are shaking your head as you are reading this. You are thinking, ‘how can my little brother dare to give me advice about a situation I helped him out of’. And I agree. You are much wiser than I. But I had a feeling that it still needed to be said. You know me and my impulsivity.

I apologize for not telling you all of this directly. Safiyah is right about me not being well-versed when it comes to apologies. But let me just say that she is not well-versed when it comes to it either.

So, yes, my dear sister, the purpose of this letter is mostly to serve as a long-winded apology. I hope my feelings come across clearly and are not lost in my usual drivels and ramblings.

Kamaria, Kichea, father, and I eagerly await your return. I suspect by the time you are reading this, they are near driving me to complete insanity.

As promised, Safiyah and I are tending to your garden together so you mustn’t worry about that. Then again, I do recall Safiyah somehow managing to obliterate your peonies when you asked her to look after them for an hour. I will try my best to protect your garden from her until you return.

To close this poorly formed letter, I would like to leave you with a request. I know this is selfish to ask with you so far away from us and moving forward, but I simply request that you do not forget what is important to you.

Sincerely,

Bachiru

Atienna let out a final breath and folded the letter back into the envelope. She sighed in exasperation and pressed the paper to her lips.

As always, Bachiru acted as the final push, the final reminder.

“Pi,” she murmured under her breath, “perhaps all you need to do is realize what is the most important to you out of all of this.”

***

Atienna knew Kalama’s murderer was still in the cave. Pi’s arrival in the cavern was merely a confounder. She had known since the beginning, but she had refrained from speaking and acting. There was just too much uncertainty. She didn’t know all the details, after all. Because she didn’t know everything. And because she didn’t know everything, she hadn’t made the choice.

She had assured herself repeatedly that she would make a choice. It was just that she just didn’t have the necessary components to make that choice yet.

Information, pattern, hypothesis theory. Or theory, hypothesis, observation, confirmation. It was insufficient.

It had been the same case with her approach of Pi. A threshold of information had been reached before she had chosen to address him.

And until that threshold had been reached regarding Kalama’s case, Atienna had decided that she would just have to deal with the itch of curiosity.

But that was just an excuse. A form of self-deception. Prolonging false peace. Delaying the inevitable.

Atienna realized now that the only information that was required to reach the threshold in this circumstance was this: what was important to her.

And so, when everyone reclused to sleep around the campfire that night, Atienna kept her eyes trained on the Aquarian side of the camp. As usual, there were two people on that side who remained awake and sitting. One was the Aquarian guard on duty and the other—

The other Aquarian was sitting with their back to the campfire and using it as a reading light for note-taking. About half an hour after everyone fell asleep, that person rose from their seat and hovered over Alexei’s sleeping form.

Atienna peered at the posted guard on that side. Sigurd. Perhaps if Nikita Knovak was on guard instead, he would have asked exactly what that person was doing. But Nikita was on watch over Afu, and Sigurd merely looked on with disinterest.

Atienna silently rose from her bedding, cast a look at Sefu who was dozing off on guard behind her, before she slinked over to the hovering figure. She placed a gentle hand on the figure’s pale arm.

Yulia turned back to her with wide eyes. The same eyes Atienna had seen in Jericho and Werner. The eyes of a killer.

“It’s about Kovich, isn’t it?” Atienna said quietly.

The light in Yulia’s eyes changed, and suddenly she had the eyes of a mother.

Atienna glanced at Sigurd, who was watching them unmovingly. Atienna pressed gently, “We should speak elsewhere, don’t you think?”

In silence, they walked over to Atienna’s small cavern pocket. There, they reached a standstill, face to face with another. Atienna’s back was to the campfire, so she was able to see the way the orange light stretched thin shadows across Yulia’s unsmiling face.

“So, you are one too. I thought so.”—Yulia was the one to break the silence. “After what happened in Virgo, I suspected another True Conductor was involved. Cvetka did mention that Virgo’s leave from isolation was too sudden… I assume you have one that is close to my dear colonel then. That’s the only way you would know the importance of that name.”

And with that, it was confirmed.

Fritz von Spiel, the Capricornian colonel; Yulia, the Aquarian secretary; and ‘Kovich’, the Specialist child owned by the Campanas, were connected True Conductors.

Atienna had suspected it when she had observed the colonel’s note-taking skill and posture when Werner had accompanied him to the Romano Family meeting. It had been the exact mirror image of Yulia’s posture. Then came their echoed words— “If you don’t come to your senses, you’ll fall apart”. And finally, came Yulia’s adoration of the Aquarian author Kovich—which was the name the colonel had addressed the Specialist boy with at the secret Campana meeting Cadence had witnessed. And the connecting piece was…

“Alexei… is that poor boy’s father, isn’t he?” Atienna whispered. “Alexei is Kovich’s father.”

“Alexei is a bastard,” Yulia spat vehemently. “He puts on that face like he’s a saint, but all he cares about is himself.”

Atienna realized that Yulia must have pushed Afu into lashing out at Alexei then. How unpleasant.

Yulia’s voice began to rise: “We all suffered during Aquarius’s economic crisis! I had nothing to eat but a loaf of bread for weeks! But… never did I ever… I never turned my back on my family. I spent months looking for work so I could feed them, and Alexei—he—”

“He sold Kirill—Kovich—to the Campanas,” Atienna finished steadily.

Yulia’s expression folded. “Can you even understand what it feels like to be sold by your father while he holds your hand acting like nothing is wrong? Without a second thought?” Her mask of indifference cracked in the light of the fire, and she stared into Atienna. “Do you know how many times I’ve tried to tell Kovich it wasn’t his fault…? No matter what I do—no matter what I think or say—he goes to sleep every single night wondering what he did wrong! I tried to even change his name to distance him from that bastard, but how can Kovich forget his father when every morning he wakes up as a slave under the Campanas—the people that his father sold him to?!”

How terrible…

That distant empathy curled up in Atienna’s chest.

“So, you plan on taking revenge on Kovich’s behalf?” Atienna inquired after allowing a moment for Yulia to recollect herself. “By killing Alexei Drei… using Kovich’s own Specialist conducting? I wonder if that’s considered poetic justice…” She lowered her gaze. “And Kalama…”

“That was a mistake on my part,” Yulia elaborated, tone even. “I was going to kill Alexei when we found ourselves trapped in this cave initially. I was determined to. It was the opportunity I had been waiting for while working under him for all of these years. It would be very easy to cover it up as a cave accident with Kovich’s conducting.” Yulia’s eyes glinted. “…. but then the Piscese diplomats came, and I had to wait and wait… And then you came.” She frowned. “I was… too rash that night. I did not realize that Alexei had given Kalama his jacket… I just saw it, saw the opportunity.” Her frown deepened. “I would apologize, but that would do nothing now.”

“‘Now’,” Atienna repeated. “And what happens now…? If you move forward with this, then… perhaps you’ll frame Afu? Or you’ll say that the murderer came from the portals… which is why you are so attentive to Mladen. You know he is ELPIS. He could be your key out of here… and he may hold information regarding Fritz’s dealings with Omicron, which must somehow involve the Campanas.”

—Though Yulia’s pursuit of Pi indicated that she did not know of their true nature.

Yulia stared at her wide-eyed before she shook her head and chuckled mirthlessly—no, nervously. “Cvetka was right when she said you knew everything.”

Atienna did not know everything, but if Yulia thought that she did, then that was good. That meant that Yulia believed that there was nothing that she could hide from Atienna. Knowledge was power. Knowledge could be used as a trap. Against someone who knew everything, one could do nothing.

“And you’re aware of Cvetka’s nature as a True Conductor?”

Yulia paled slightly. “What…?”

So, she didn’t know.

Yulia was out of her depth, it seemed.

“Yulia… I’m not in your situation,” Atienna drew quietly, “so I won’t truly understand your pain. But… There must be a way for us to reach a peaceful resolution. Enough blood has been spilled, don’t you think? If you try and harm Alexei, you’ll start something that’ll be difficult to stop… You must also consider that Fritz is already on his way to free Kovich—”

“A peaceful resolution? Even if Kovich is free, as long as that man takes a breath, he will still be trapped.” Yulia grimaced. “Didn’t you hear me from the beginning? I don’t care what happens to my country—”

“I don’t care either.”

Yulia paused.

Atienna looked to the side. “It feels both a relief and a pain to admit it, but I don’t care what happens to Virgo… Although, I wonder if I’m failing my patriotic duty by saying this.”

After all, it was because of ‘Virgo’ that her mother ended up the way she had. It was because of ‘Virgo’ that Bachiru had fallen in with Usian. The concept that the country in itself was more important than the individual—some viewed this as a positive, altruistic perception, and perhaps it was. But not to Atienna.

She wondered if Werner, her father, or her mother would be disappointed in her line of thought.

“I’ve been participating in all of these political things only because it is considered ‘what is right’,” Atienna continued. Because it was what her mother would have viewed as ‘right’. And… “Because if I do it, then I will be able to better protect the things that I do care about.”

Bachiru, Kichea, Kamaria, her father. Even Sefu and Nia. And, of course, now the other five.

A handle—an eye—on the developments of Virgo would put her in a better position to protect them. Everything else that happened was just an inconsequential itch. Something to bide her curiosity. Perhaps.

This was the true choice Atienna had made when she had confronted Usian in front of the Great Tree all those months ago.

“It makes sense,” Yulia said. There was no judgement in her eyes. “It makes sense that we True Conductors would feel similarly. We’re given positions where we’re able to be outsiders looking in. So then—”

“If you kill an Aquarian diplomat and if you choose to divert the blame, you will start something irreversible between all three of our countries,” Atienna interjected, holding up an apologetic hand. “And that will bleed out to other countries—to the people I do care about within those countries and within my own country. That’s something I can’t look away from.”

Yulia’s gaze darkened.

“So, I am asking you, Yulia… I will keep your secret about Kalama… but please do not move any further than this. Let’s leave this behind us and return to the people we care about. You will end up ruining your own happiness if you—”

Yulia abruptly pushed her back by the shoulder. “I do not need your words of advice nor your words of sympathy, Miss Imamu.”

Atienna rubbed her shoulder. “Kovich has been through enough pain already, don’t you think? And any pain you feel, he will surely feel himself.”

Yulia took a single tense step backwards.

“It’s somewhat embarrassing to admit this, but my… tousle with Afu was my choice—my skill—alone.” She met Yulia’s eyes and saw the woman pale considerably. “Perhaps, saying that ‘I am asking you’ is an improper choice of words.”


Aquarius’s long awaited change from the pre-war moneta bill to the dracul coin has led to extreme inflation of the new currency. The Treasury of Aquarius is currently attempting to rectify the issue and is expected to push forward several legislations to help curb a market stumble. Time will tell.

Novosti Newspaper, 13 January 1932

10.3: Maria’s Battling (Riposo)

Re-cap:

Maria is to pick up a package for the Campanas in Hapaira, Pisces. After some mishaps involving murders and capturing a disagreeable bounty hunter, Maria discovers that the package is in fact a blind girl. The girl insists on being returned to the Twin Cities immediately. In an attempt to return faster, the girl tricks the Chevalier Renee, who is also in Hapaira searching for something, into battling it out with Maria. Before their duel can reach its climax, however, a wave sent by the Elementalist bounty hunter swept the three into the ocean. Maria rescues the girl, bonds with her, and learns that the girl is actually a Specialist who is capable of seeing the flow of vitae with a conductor. The two are eventually rescued by Maria’s crew. Still on Maria’s mind, however, is the mysterious beast of the deep and Conta’s odd behavior.

Aboard Gloria’s Grail, International Waters

Renee was already on her ship when Maria climbed on board with the blind girl in tow. He was in the middle of assisting Giorgio and Simon in lowering the ship’s flags when Maria stumbled across him. After they stared at each other for a full minute, she rushed at him and bound him with the rope that was being used to lower the flag. He didn’t have his conducting gloves on, so it was easy to take him down. She placed Renee alongside the bounty hunter who was already tied at the foremast.

Morandi brought Maria and the girl a bundle of blankets, while Maria heartily explained to her curious crew exactly what had occurred between herself, Renee, and the girl. None of them were surprised, it seemed. Ley and Conta took in the information with unreadable expressions, while Morandi, Simon, and Giorgio just appeared exasperated. 

“We pulled Renee out of the water when we first came out looking for you,” Giorgio explained, perplexed. “We had no idea that happened. He didn’t mention it either. He just started helping around on deck.”

When Maria came around to Renee with the little girl attached to her hip, the Chevalier looked them over and chuckled wryly.

“My, my, Miss,” he said, addressing the girl, “you certainly create quite a lot of strife around yourself, don’t you? Well, I am quite happy to see you safe.” 

The girl lifted her head but then mumbled to the ground, “Maria, can you please let him go? Everything was a misunderstanding…”

“A misunderstanding?” Maria peered down at her.

The girl flushed. “No, I lied to him so…” She dipped her head in Renee’s direction. “I’m really sorry for lying to you. Maria is a good person.” She looked back up at Maria. “And Renee is a good person too, so…”

Maria considered the girl’s words before she addressed Renee, “I like you a lot, Renee. If we can all get along, then I can free you, yes?”

Morandi and Giorgio exchanged a look from beside her. 

“Well, if this girl is not in any harm’s way, then being in your company unbound would be a pleasure,” Renee returned with a good-natured shrug. “I am not one to raise my hand against fair maidens when I’m given a reasonable choice.”

And that was that.

Maria cut his bindings with a quick draw of her blade and offered him a hand.

“Madame Gloria-Fernandez, I thank you for your generosity,” Renee said, inclining his head and accepting her gesture. “And I do apologize for being so rough with you earlier.”

“You weren’t being rough though?” Maria blinked at him.

Renee stared at her for a moment before chuckling. “Ah, yes, it was you who was rather rough with me, but I do love fierce women.”

Maria stared at him before she laughed and slapped him on the back. “You are funny, my dear Renee!”

“I am overjoyed that I can humor a beautifully fierce woman like yourself,” Renee returned. He glanced down at the bound bounty hunter. “Might I ask where you are off too now? I don’t mind a detour, but I do have things I must do.”

Maria scratched the back of her head. “Well, you see, my friend, since we are already out at sea despite trying not to be out at sea, I say we move forward and head to the Twin Cities just as planned, yes?”           

The girl’s grip on Maria’s arm tightened.

Maria blinked down at her in surprise. “You don’t want to return to the Twin Cities anymore, my dear?”

The girl opened her mouth, closed it, and thumbed the conductor glasses around her neck.

Maria put little thought into it and nodded. “Well, we don’t have to go.”

The girl startled. “R-Really?”

“If you don’t want to do something, then you don’t do it,” Maria replied. She paused, frowned, thought of Cadence, Werner, and Jericho. “Hm… but I might go on my own…”

“Captain,” Morandi interjected, “while I’m no fan of the Campanas, and I’m ecstatic that you’re suggesting putting aside the Campana’s request, this is still the Campanas we’re dealing with. We should be—”

“I do not think that the Campanas will be thinking of us much with everything that is going on in the city,” Maria returned.

Morandi frowned. “What do you mean by that, Captain?”

Maria placed her hand on the girl’s head and hummed. “I will tell you some other time, yes?” She had a strange feeling he would be upset if he learned what had happened to the Foxmans. And she had seen enough people upset recently. No more!

“We should probably head to land even if we’re not headed back to Gemini,” Ley who had been watching the exchange from the sidelines interjected. She yawned. “Water Elementalist is still out there, right?”

Maria hummed in agreement, thrumming her fingers along the girl’s head. She peered down at the girl and beamed. “You say you have never seen the Scarabe Temple, yes? How about we start there?”

***

The next day, however, as Maria swung on her hammock in her quarters, she learned of the Campanas ‘product’ from Cadence’s investigations. She didn’t like it at all.  Something about it gave her discomfort. And whenever Maria didn’t like something, she sought to change it. 

But before she could reach a final decision, she was jarred out of her thoughts by a commotion coming from up on deck. Stampeding footsteps above her head, audible shouts of alarm that carried through the levels down to her quarters. In other words—excitement. 

Maria darted through the empty halls and made her way up onto deck. When she broke out onto the surface, she was met with the warmth of the sun that beat down on her in a buttery haze. Despite this warmth, however, there was a misty chill in the air. 

Maria approached the railings at the mast of the ship where nearly all of her crew members had gathered. Giorgio, Chef Raul, Emmanuel, Morandi, Renee, Ley, and even Conta crowded the area, pointing, gasping, muttering amongst themselves with their gazes focused on the horizon. 

The blind girl stood a little ways off from them, shivering in confusion as she stared blankly around. Maria tapped the girl on her shoulder, took hold of her hand, and squeezed both of their bodies in front of the gathered group. 

Maria spotted the attraction immediately. 

It was a wave. A gigantic ocean wave—almost tsunami-like—that stretched endlessly east and west. Its body was filled with flecks of purple light that gave it a luminous, unearthly glow. The torrent barreled towards them, the entire ocean trembling in its wake. Its behemoth force sent the ship rocking back and forth.

“The Elementalist,” Ley said with a grimace. 

Simon began muttering a Monadic prayer under his breath from beside her.  Maria reached over and patted him on the shoulder absentmindedly as the wave continued its course towards them. As it drew nearer and nearer, it began to deafen the surrounding chatter. Closer, closer, closer—

But just as the wave was about to crash into the side of the ship, it came to an abrupt stop. There it remained, towering above them like an arching wall. It concealed the sun, leaving the ship cast in a purple glow. Large dollops of sea water splashed onto the deck of the ship from the wave’s body, drenching half of Maria’s crew members 

It was like a salivating beast, Maria thought to herself. She wasn’t afraid, however. Merely fascinated.

“You have dared to turn the hunter into the prey?” A deep, baritone voice suddenly boomed out from somewhere within the wave. “And then you turn tail and run?  Who do you think you are to run from my—Veles’s—presence?! Who are you to take one of my followers from me—Veles?!”

The bounty hunter who was still bound to the mast of the ship threw his head back and laughed. “You’re in for it now, pirate. The beast of the deep is gonna sink you to the depths of the ocean!”

“It’s him!” the girl shouted from beside Maria. “The leader who I told you about!”

“Is it?” Maria stared at the curiously before she cupped her hands and shouted upwards, “Are you the bounty hunting leader?” 

Her voice barely carried above the roar of the rushing water, but her crew members seemed to catch on and offered her mixed expressions.

“You dare address me with such disrespect!” the voice called out from the towering wave. “I—Veles—am not a bounty hunter leader. I—Veles—am a guild master!” 

Saints. Another delusional seafarer. Great.

Olive was looking in. He seemed a bit upset. Probably about the children.

A part in the waves suddenly formed, and a figure stood on top of a spout of glowing purple water in the newly formed gap there. It was a shirtless man with a tanned, bare chest. His hair was black, wavy, salt-damaged. He looked a bit regal with the golden earrings dangling from his ears and the golden chain hanging from his chest, or so Maria thought. She certainly fancied the fur cloak that was thrown loosely over his shoulders.

He looked like—

some drunk guy pretending to be a king. What is he wearing.

The man lifted his hand in the air. It was gloved. A conductor.

The sea between the ship and the man glowed purple and rose, forming a bridge of water between the man and the front of the ship. The man walked forward onto that bridge, pacing across it with reverence. 

Maria’s crew skirted backwards as he stepped onto the deck, while Maria studied him with interest. The girl cowered behind Maria, still holding her hand.

The man—Veles—flicked his conductor out in the direction of the bound bounty hunter. A razor slash of glowing water shot out from the seawall behind him and sliced the rope binding the bounty hunter in two. The freed man stumbled forward, rounding Maria and her group before coming to a tense stand behind Veles.

Veles pointed at Maria with a gloved finger. “You—”

“Okay, okay, let’s settle down now.” Saying this, Ley stepped in between Veles and Maria with her hands raised. She yawned tiredly and pulled off the magenta veil that she had constantly kept over her face. Simultaneously, she reached into the folds of her shirt and pulled out a familiar-looking badge that she flashed for all to see. “My name is—” 

That’s—

“Oh.” Maria stared. “It’s Gabrielle.” 

Ophiuchian Peacekeeper Gabrielle Law stared back at Maria, mouth hanging slightly ajar. The woman shook her head and flashed her badge again.

“My name is Gabrielle Law,” she stated clearly, meeting each person’s eyes and shining her badge at them. “Second chairwoman of the General Investigations Department of Ophiuchus. Since we are on open, international waters within Signum, you all fall under my jurisdiction. I seek to mediate the conflict here… and to resolve a case that I’ve been assigned that you happen to be caught in the middle of.”

She really has a terrible personality. Swooping in like that last minute just for show…

Veles threw his head back, laughed, and pointed at Gabrielle. “What dominion do you think you have over me—Veles?!” 

“Leader,” the now freed bounty hunter whispered from behind him. “We’re licensed by Ophiuchus. The peacekeeping agents do have legal authority over us. We can’t bounty hunt without their approval…”

“Nonsense!” Veles boomed. “Do you know who I am?”

Saints. Here comes a monologue… 

“I am the sea. I am the beast of the deep. The oceans roll with each step I take. I am not in your presence—you are in my presence! Yes, that’s exactly who I am. I am someone who was selected to potentially become the Saint of the Deep. I am someone who saw a higher purpose than becoming tha—”

“I was a potential saint candidate too!” Maria interjected, while clapping in support of his speech. “I am Maria Gloria-Fernandez and—” 

“I know exactly who you are,” Veles interjected, glowering. “You are the one whose head I am seeking! You are the one who slaughtered my fellow guild mates and captured—”

“If you’re talking about those people in that surfboard shop, I wasn’t the one who killed them,” Maria said. 

“How dare you lie in my presence?” Veles snapped. 

“I can vouch for Miss Gloria-Fernandez,” came a voice from behind. “If you cannot trust her words, I do hope you can trust mine.”

Veles stared past Maria with a frown before recognition flickered in his eyes. And then his expression brightened. “Renee!” 

Maria turned and found Renee standing behind her wearing an amicable smile. The towering wall of water hadn’t seemed to disturb him in the slightest. In fact, he seemed more annoyed by the fact that he was drenched from head to toe than anything else.

“You two know each other?” Maria asked, brows arched.

“It’s been quite some time Renee LeBlanc,” Veles bellowed in confirmation.

“I am graced by your presence, Veles. Your entrances are as eye-catching as always,” Renee answered, dipping into a bow. He side-glanced at Morandi, who was gawking at him, and he added under his breath: “Please try to humor him. It improves his mood.”

Veles threw his head back and laughed. “To think I would encounter another fellow True Conductor at a place as quaint as this.”

Renee tensed. “Veles, perhaps—”

Maria, wait—

“What?!” Maria gasped, eyes sparkling. “You are both True Conductors too?!” She gestured to herself. “I’m one as well, yes?”

Don’t know why I even try.

***

“Ohhh, so you and Renee met each other at a True Conductor meeting a couple of years ago, and you met Claire there too.” Maria nodded. 

Maria was sitting at a round table that she had Giorgio and Morandi set up for her on deck. Chef Raul had thrown a white tablecloth over the top and had nervously placed all their best wines on its surface before stepping back and observing from the sidelines. 

The sun was warm above their heads; the sea was calm; the wine was fragrant. All-in-all, it had turned out to be a perfectly pleasant day. 

Sitting alongside Maria at the table going clockwise was Gabrielle, Veles, Renee, Morandi, and the little girl. Her other crew members and Veles’s man were dotted around the deck, looking in with terribly concealed curiosity.

Maria, Veles, and Renee were the only ones seated who had taken up wine-drinking. Gabrielle was as relaxed as they were, however, and was leaning back in her chair with arms crossed. 

Veles took a sip of wine. “And you, Miss Captain, as you’ve said, have encountered Claire through one of the ones who you were connected with. As they say, True Conductors are drawn to each other.” He raised his glass of wine towards her. “And those who were sought to become potential saint candidates naturally become acquainted.”

“Here, here!” Maria chimed. “To the strong!”

“M-My apologies, Captain, excuse me,” Morandi interjected from her left. He cleared his throat and then muttered, “But pray tell… what in saint’s name is bloody going on here?!” 

Maria looked to Veles, then to Renee, and then to Gabrielle. “We are… having a tea party, yes? A wine party!”

“A wine party,” Morandi repeated, glancing at Veles and then at Gabrielle. “With a bounty hunter who is after your head and who wants revenge because he thinks you killed his fellow bounty hunters…” He glanced at Gabrielle. “And with an Ophiuchian peacekeeper.”

“Let me correct you, commoner,” Veles drew. “I am a guild master, not a bounty hunter.”

—how is it possible for someone with as many screws loose as you to exist—

“It just so happens to be that I dabble in affairs that you call ‘bounty hunting’ because it amuses me.” 

“Great…” Morandi muttered under his breath. “We have another one…”

Veles met Maria’s eyes. “As for my fellow guild mates…”

“Let’s just get some discrepancies out of the way,” Gabrielle interjected, leaning forward. “Veles, we were not the ones who killed your… guild members. If you’d like, once I return to Ophiuchus, I can see if I can get a separate investigation going for you regarding that. I was with Maria when she discovered the bodies. They were long dead before we even arrived at Hapaira.” She folded her hands in front of her. “I am also acting on my authority as a peacekeeping agent to retract your bounty on Maria Gloria-Fernandez since she’s currently involved in my case. We can move further with this if we need to after my case is—”

“Nonsense!” Veles boomed. “I am acting on my own authority to retract my bounty on Maria Gloria-Fernandez.” He extended a hand out to Maria. “If you truly have not murdered my fellow guild mates in cold blood, then that leaves only one relationship for us—camaraderie through our shared True Conductorship and potential saint-candidacy-ship.”

“I didn’t kill them,” Maria affirmed. She paused, glancing to the side. “But I am sorry for your loss. Losing things is… painful, yes?”

Veles studied Maria for a moment and hummed. “Oh, and what of my guild mates that returned to me missing fingers and needing care after their encounter with you?”

“I mean, your crew was aiming to kill my crew too, yes? And you gave them a fright!” Maria chuckled. “I have to protect what is mine.”

“I must also protect what is mine,” Veles responded. “So, reparations clearly have to be made.”

“Oh, most definitely.”

There was a beat of silence.

Morandi swallowed nervously from beside Maria. 

Maria herself could not fathom why he was nervous. Actually—Maria scanned the deck—everyone seemed nervous save for Gabrielle and Veles. She didn’t understand it at all.

“Well, it’s good that we are on the same page then!” Maria beamed, raising her glass of wine.

“Truly,” Veles cheered, lifting his glass to clink against her own. 

In unison, they took a sip.

Morandi let out a quiet breath. “What…? T-That’s… it?”

Maria turned to Gabrielle and leaned forward. “So, Gabrielle! You surprised me! What is a peacekeeper doing on an adventurer’s ship?”

Gabrielle pinched the bridge of her nose before she folded her hands in front of her and elaborated: “My purpose on this ship is to investigate the crime organization known as the Campana Family. Since they’re extremely covert and are partially allowed to exist by Ophiuchus itself due to a blind-eye agreement, their activities have remained mostly unknown by us.” She paused, gaze drifting to the girl sitting beside Maria. “We’ve been waiting for an opportunity like this—for one of their shipments to end up on our radar—to assess their activities to see whether intervention is necessary. The Foxmans were kind enough to extend a helping hand by placing me in your group. I’m now asking for your cooperation.”

“You have it,” Maria popped. “Now that I know you are Gabrielle, I like you even more, Ley!”

“Right… Now that this is out in the open,” Gabrielle continued, “I’d like to speak to Maria, Renee, Veles, and the young girl alone.” She paused, gesturing to the surrounding men and women. “Now. Please.”

Maria waved her hand in the air, as did Veles. Morandi rose from the table and inclined his head towards the doors leading below deck. Begrudgingly, the rest of Maria’s crew along with Veles’s man followed him downwards. Conta who had been observing everything from the crow’s nest of the ship lingered for a while longer before disappearing below along with them.

“I wasn’t aware you were selected to be a saint candidate, Miss Gloria-Fernandez,” Gabrielle said after a lapse of silence. The peacekeeper studied her for a moment before moving on to Veles. “And you were selected too, but for Aquarius. But you both never actually went through the candidacy ceremony… Is that correct?” 

“The Monadic orphanage Conta and I were a part of was raided by pirates right before I was supposed to head for Ophiuchus for the ceremony,” Maria recalled. 

“… by pirates, you say?” Veles set his wineglass down. “You wouldn’t happen to be referring to the guild master, would you?”

“Guild master?” Maria cocked her head.

“Yes, I was also in a Monadic orphanage, albeit in Aquarius,” Veles elaborated. “It was a small, quaint place that was graced by my presence. It was only natural that I would be selected for saint candidacy. However… right before my ceremony, a man claiming to be a guild master recruited me to work under his wing for a short while.”

Something strange tickled Maria’s chest.

“What did he look like?” Maria pressed, leaning forward.

“… He was tall,” Veles replied, rubbing his chin. “Muscular. I believe he had a graying beard. And he also had an eyepatch over—”

“—his left eye,” Maria finished. She locked eyes with him and then chuckled. “What a coincidence!”

Veles nodded. “Truly.”

It’s obviously not a coincidence! Olive again. Still keeping her pleasant company. His mood seemed to be slightly alleviated. 

“So, you were both prevented from starting the saint candidate ceremony by the same person,” Gabrielle concluded. “Is there any information you can offer me about saint candidacy? Maybe… any connection to ELPIS?”

Maria felt her heart skip an odd beat at the mention of ELPIS, but she shrugged it off and shook her head. “You certainly ask a lot of strange questions, my dear Gabrielle.”

“Saint candidacy is beneath me now.” Veles waved the notion off.

Clear disappointment flashed across Gabrielle’s face, and for a moment she remained silent.  After the moment passed, she pressed, “There are several more things I would like to ask you. Firstly, what is this ‘True Conductor’ that you keep mentioning? And secondly…” She locked eyes with Maria. “How did you know my name?”

“It has to do with me being a True Conductor—how I know your name, I mean,” Maria replied without skipping a beat. “Jericho is mine, you see.” 

Gabrielle tensed. “You know Jericho? The Ophiuchian peacekeeper?”

Maria…

“Yes, he is mine, like I said.” Maria scratched her head. “I actually don’t really understand it well myself, but what he knows I know.”

I don’t even know why I try.

Gabrielle stared at Maria long and hard before sighing and clasping her hands together. She glanced at Veles, then at Renee. “Can any of you elaborate any further?”

Renee shrugged his shoulders. “Miss Law, I am afraid that the best I can do is to say it is an exclusive club.” 

“A club.” Gabrielle frowned. “Right.” She stared at him. “I actually do have a personal question for you myself, Renee. What exactly is a Chevalier of Cancer doing all the way in Hapaira? Chevaliers are almost always bound to remain within Cancer, so as a peacekeeper I can’t help but be curious.”

“I am searching for a Cancerian duchess who’s run away from home,” Renee explained, swirling his glass of wine. “I was ordered by the royal throne of Cancer to retrieve her.” 

“And her name?” Gabrielle pressed.

Renee set down his glass of wine. “My apologies, Miss Law, but it is only by coincidence that I have found myself in your beautiful presence. I don’t mean to sound rude, but that truly is none of your business. This is a Cancerian issue.”

Gabrielle arched a brow at him before leaning back and holding her hands up in their placatingly. “That’s fair enough, Renee. My main purpose here is to handle the case with the Campanas. Everything else is just bonus…” 

Gabrielle abruptly reached across the table and tapped the blind girl on the shoulder. The girl had been sitting tensely, quietly beside Maria all the while. Maria had almost forgotten she had been sitting there.

“Hey, kid, I’m one of the good guys,” Gabrielle said. “I’ll take care of you. If you’re alright with it, would you mind coming with me back to Ophiuchus?”

The girl hesitated.

Gabrielle grimaced, but then glanced at Maria. “I have to question the captain too, so she’ll be there with you.”

The girl, still tense, nodded slowly.

Veles rose from his seat. “This conversation no longer holds any pertinence for me, so I—Veles— will take my leave.”

“I don’t need to question you for the case so you’re free to leave,” Gabrielle affirmed, offering a loose wave. “I’ll submit a report about what happened to your guild mates for you. It’d most likely be handed down to Piscese authorities, though.” 

“No need.” Veles waved his hand. 

“Well, I kinda have to,” Gabrielle elaborated. 

“So soon though, Veles?” Renee inquired, brow arched.

“There is no bounty here for me to claim any longer,” Veles explained. “And the murderer I seek is supposedly not on this ship. My time is valuable, my friend. I will not waste it.” 

With that, he departed from the table and headed below deck. He returned a minute later with the other bounty hunter in tow. He paced over to a puddle of seawater half a meter away and dunked his gloved hand right into it. The puddle began to glow with purple light, and with a flick of his wrist, he sent the puddle back into the ocean. When he drew up his hand a second later, the ocean rumbled and a platform of water rose up to the ship. He walked over to the newly formed platform before pausing and nodding back at Maria.

“I will tell you this, fellow potential saint candidate,” Veles said as he stepped onto the water alongside his bounty hunting guild member. “The request I received for your head was most definitely made by someone close to you. It was submitted to one of my fallen brethren and held very detailed information about your persons. Information only someone close to you would know.”

“Is that so?” Maria hummed. She offered him a wave. “Thanks for the concern, my dear!”

With that, Veles flourished his hand in the air once more and road off on an ocean wave into the distance.

Maria stared after him until she could no longer see his silhouette. 

What in saint’s name just happened…

I got to meet an exciting person, my dear Olive, Maria explained with a grin.

You mean a crazy person. A pause. Maria’s gaze was drawn to the little girl. You saw that on Cadence’s end too… right? The kids…  

Olive’s chest twisted into knots that knotted Maria’s own heart.

“…. Say, shall we rescue your friends?” Maria asked quietly as she stared off in what she assumed was the direction of the Twin Cities.

The girl startled beside her. “R-Rescue them…?”

“Yes, rescue them!” Maria chimed, nodding with certainty before she took the girl’s hands in her own. “There are others like you under the Campanas, yes? And if you are scared to return to them now, then how do you think those who are still there feel?”

The girl’s milky eyes widened. “I…” Guilt carved itself into her features.

“If you are too scared, my dear, you needn’t worry,” Maria hummed, releasing the girl’s hands and rising to a stand. “I can rescue them all on my own, yes—”

The girl grabbed a hold of Maria’s hand. “I-I know where they keep them. Where they kept me. Even though I can’t see, I remember the way. I… let me come… please?”

Maria beamed down at her. “I was hoping you would say that, my dear—”

“Maria,” Gabrielle interjected tersely. She was standing now, frowning deeply. “Look, I understand how you feel, but I need to bring this back to Ophiuchus first. This is beyond your paygrade. The best thing you can do to help children who might also be this girl’s situation is to come to Ophiuchus and testify—”

“How will that help?” Maria cocked her head. “I know they are there in the Twin Cities, yes? What will going to Ophiuchus and telling the people there that I know the children are in the city do? The children will be in that place longer if I go. It is… sad, no?”

“These are complicated things, Maria,” Gabrielle explained with a sigh. “You need to look at the bigger picture. These crime organizations need to be dismantled slowly so the social structure of the Twin Cities doesn’t fall apart. A testimony and a key witness need to be present so we can have a verdict to move this case forward with better resources. This is all just preliminary footwork. If we act too fast, the Campanas may be able to do a cover up and even more children can be hurt.” 

Her career could be on the line if she loses control of this case. Like I said. Terrible personality.

“When you put it like that, it does sound complicated….” Maria agreed. She snapped her fingers. “But that’s just because you think it the way. If you think it’s uncomplicated, then it won’t be complicated. I mean, right now all I see is someone I want to save. And I will save them—” 

“Look, I’m not saying that we’re not going to save them—”

“But you are going to wait to save them? That does not make sense to me.” Maria rested a hand on the girl’s head. “You said much, much earlier that you knew someone who was good with kids, yes? What do you think he would do?” (*)

Gabrielle’s eyes widened a fraction, and she seemed to stare past Maria into the distance. Her gaze dropped down to the girl at Maria’s side and something flickered in her gaze.

“You know, I’ve moved up a lot of ranks in my department recently. Starting to think that’s because that guy’s no longer there to hold me back all the time.” Gabrielle sighed and fell back into her chair. She ran her hand down her face and met Maria’s eyes. “I’m going to take point on this, and I’m going to make a call to Ophiuchus before anything goes down.”

Renee poured the peacekeeper a glass of wine.

Maria beamed again. “They say you have a terrible personality, but I can clearly see that you are strong!” She hummed in thought. “They’ve also always said that I should try and make my point instead of just doing things, and I must say doing it this way is refreshing!”

Gabrielle paused. “Who’s ‘they’?” She sighed. “And what’s this about a terrible personality?” 

But Maria was already running up to the wheel of the ship. She gave the thing a spin and exclaimed—

“Twin Cities, away we go!”

10.2: Cadence’s Gambling (Fallacia)

Re-cap:

Disguising herself as Werner, Cadence works with Gilbert and Werner’s men to investigate Colonel Fritz von Spiel and his dealings with the Campanas. After a confrontation with Gilbert, the two discover that the Campanas are selling Specialist children and the colonel is more than willing to buy. Afterwards, Cadence stumbles across Francis and follows him back to Theta’s room. Here, Cadence discovers the truth behind ELPIS, the resistors, and Theta’s plan. Reeling from this discovery, Cadence escapes and…

Twin Cities, Gemini

Cadence stumbled out of the portal, heart and head pounding. She didn’t have a clue where she was—it was too dark to make out anything. If it wasn’t for the fact that she could hear herself panting, she might’ve thought she was dead.

Scrambling blindly forward, she ran smack into a wall. She tripped backwards, fell flat on her back, and blinked upwards. There was a crack of skyline there, and the smog clouding the sky reflected back the blue-orange lights from the city.

Judging by the thickness of the smog and the color of the lights, she figured she was in an alley in the west side of the city. The Louvre District again.

“What in saint’s name do I do…”

Save Alma. Right. They could leave this city together. Cadence’d gotten the means to do it. She’d get Alma to safety.

And then what?

What would happen to the city?

Well, that was Ophiuchus’s responsibility. They’d handle it fine. Since they were in the city already, they’d find the trail. And Jericho would probably say something about “intuition”, swing that suitcase of his, and everything’d be okay. Werner hadn’t even needed to contact Ophiuchus to begin with. Right? Yeah.

No. That was a lie.

Would Ophiuchus even be able to find Theta’s room?

Cadence reached into her pocket and pulled out Theta’s proto-conductor she’d taken off of Comissario Vincente Giustizia—no, Tau.

She could just turn this into Ophiuchus, she thought. Make up a story. Say she’d encountered Jericho’s scuffle against Iota and found it on the streets afterwards. Everything’d be peachy then.

No. That was also a lie.

Cadence doubted Ophiuchus knew how to use the thing. And if she gave it to them, they’d just be hopping from place to place willy-nilly hoping they’d get the jump on ELPIS. Pure luck and chance.

And…

Jericho wanted it. He was the reason why she was gripping it so tightly in her hand. Any tighter and she’d shatter the thing. Jericho wanted it so that he could get to them. And if he got to them…

What would Jericho do to Theta—no, Francis?

Cadence paled as a chill ran up her spine.

ELPIS’s origins were irrelevant to Jericho. His hatred remained unchanged regardless of their circumstances. Cadence knew this—could feel this. And if that was the case then…

What would happen to Francis?

Cadence rolled over on all fours and stared at the ground, scrapping her nails across the damp, dirty concrete.

If Ophiuchus couldn’t fix this in time, what would happen to Allen, Carl, Fortuna? Alice? The executives? Werner’s men? Nico…?

Something hot and putrid crawled up her throat, causing her stomach to flip flop. She hadn’t felt this sick since she’d gone out drinking with the Foxman brothers and Nico before Nico had left for the Aquarian-Capricornian border.

As the memory of that drunken, chatter-filled night surfaced, Cadenced heaved, gagged, and puked.

Take damn responsibility,” Gilbert had said.

In that moment, as Gilbert had berated her, Cadence had felt intense shame. In his eyes, she’d only been a cowardly, selfish, two-faced liar. And Cadence knew that was what she was. That was how she grew up. There was no helping it. But still, when she met Gilbert’s disapproving eyes, she’d wanted to curl up, hide away, drink, change.

It was ridiculous. She barely even knew Gilbert. Which meant that Werner cared a lot about what Gilbert thought. Appearances and whatnot.

No.

It was different with Gilbert. By just a slight shade. Werner had cared because of… ‘Friendship’? That didn’t seem like him at all.

Cadence herself had never thought too deeply about the word. She’d purposefully stopped herself from thinking about people that way. There was no such thing in this city.

That was a lie.

All she was doing was trying to find the easiest way out. Like usual. A victim of circumstance. 

“I know that,” Cadence whispered, wiping her mouth. “But what in saint’s name am I supposed ta do?”

Who could she go to? No one. She’d burned all her bridges. No. They had never been there to begin with. She’d built up false bridges that held no substance. Try and walk across and she’d fall right through the illusion.

Damn.

No time to think about that.

She had to report into Cavallo.

Cadence scrambled to her feet, pocketed Theta’s proto-conductor, and stumbled forward blindly. Eventually, she squeezed herself out of the alleyway and stumbled out onto a near empty street lit dimly by v-street-lamps.

“… Is that you, Cucciolo?”

Cadence straightened and turned.

A familiar woman with jet black hair that curled to her ears stood beneath a flickering light. Her red satin dress glowed in the dark as did her cherry red lips. Her eyes were soft, sad.

“Alma…” Cadence took a moment to take her in before she stumbled towards her. Cadence embraced her, and after a beat, Alma returned the gesture.

“You were… disguised as that Capricornian soldier, weren’t you?” Alma whispered into her hair. “You saved me that night, didn’t you? And you came to Enzo’s dinner tonight too… right? That was you.”

Alma had known. Of course, Alma had known.

“Are you alright?” Alma pressed, examining Cadence’s face. “You seemed really hurt in that explosion, and then you showed up at Enzo’s dinner like it was nothing… You poor thing…”

Werner’s bloodied body flashed into Cadence’s mind, and Cadence felt bile climb up her throat again.

“Alma,” Cadence breathed, grabbing hold of the woman’s hand. “Come with me.”

Alma stared at her, hand loose. “Come… with you?”

“Out of this city,” Cadence stammered, digging into her pockets, brushing past Theta’s proto-conductor, and pulling out the collection of proto-conducting rings she’d stolen from Russo. She held them out for Alma to see. “We can disguise ourselves. Sell these things. Use the money and get ourselves a place. I’ll buy you a piano. I—”

“Oh, Cucciolo.” Alma sighed, placing a hand on Cadence’s cheek. “If we run away, what then?”

“What… then?”

“Where will I play, Cucciolo? No—who will listen when I play? People are just starting to know who I am. If I leave and disappear now, they’ll surely forget me.”

What…?

“Y-You don’t need any of that—”

“Of course, I do, Cucciolo,” Alma said gently. “What’s the point of playing a song when no one is there to listen? A caged bird always sings for someone, right?” Alma pulled her hand out of Cadence’s grasp. “You should leave this half of the city, Cucciolo… Enzo was talking about looking for you earlier. He seemed very angry…”

Cadence remained frozen in place. Confused, flustered.

“I should go… but you should stay safe, Cucciolo,” Alma said as she began to pull away. “It was nice seeing you again. And… thank you for saving me. See you some time.”

Without sparing another look back, Alma continued on her walk down the street in the opposite direction—carrying on as if it was just any other night in her life. Unreachable.

“A-Alma… Alma, meet me at the Sognare!” Cadence shouted, voice cracking, as she curled her fingers around the rings. “Meet me at the Sognare! And I…” She trailed off as Alma disappeared from her sights. “Please…”

Silence.

Cadence turned on her heels, continued forward. Absentmindedly, she shoved the rings in her suit pocket and tried to collect her thoughts.

Shrug it off. Yeah. Just shrug it off. Alma would come back around. She would. She promised. If not, then it was just bad timing. Just the situation—

A sharp crack and pain against the back of her head cut the thought short, and Cadence fell forward into darkness.

***

When Cadence came to, she realized that not only was she bound to a metal chair but she was also cold. Cold as hell. She was in a small room with metal walls, with a metal ceiling lined with hanging icicles in-between slabs of meat on metal hooks. AKA, a cooler. Damn bad luck. At least it had an exit: a heavy-looking door that sat just across from her.

But—to check the last box on the checklist of misfortune—she could no longer feel the familiar press of her conducting rings on her fingers. Whoever had taken her in had known enough to take them off.

Fortunately, she could still feel the press of Theta’s proto-conductor and the ring proto-conductors in her pants pocket. She would have felt more relieved, however, if she could actually move her hands enough to reach them. Her captors had bound her with metal chains wound so tight around her chest, arms, and legs that it hurt to breathe, move, shiver. No sticky-fingering or muscling her way out of this one.

The cooler door abruptly opened, and two figures stepped in. Two familiar men who shouldn’t have been anywhere near each other.

“Well, this is an odd sorta friendship ta see,” Cadence mused lightheartedly. “Did ya guys meet-cute?”

Donato of the Romano Family chuckled as he approached her, while Enzo of the Campanas stood beside him with a tired look. It seemed as if Donato’s encounter with Iota hadn’t shaken the old coot up a bit.

“A Caporegime of the Romanos and an executive of the Campanas meetin’ up with one another while the families themselves are beatin’ the snot outta each other,” Cadence hummed. “Now that’s a good secret.”

“And you’ll keep it a secret?” Donato mused. “Like how you’ll keep the Campana’s product a secret?”

“Product?” Cadence arched a brow.

“Oh, come on, Cadence.” Donato sighed. “I know you were at Enzo’s meeting. We found Cavallo’s dog Russo just as he was leaving the area and pulling off a proto-conductor ring. A ring that was obviously filled with your vitae.”

Dammit, Russo.

“And… where would Russo happen ta be now?”

“Six feet under,” Enzo replied. “Unlike you, he wasn’t as willing to lend an ear and was feelin’ a bit loose lipped.”

Dammit, Russo…

But. Okay. This was good. Bad for Russo. But good for her. They were planning on letting her live… up to a point. She had to get more information in the meanwhile, but she couldn’t overstep her bounds.

“So, given what’s goin’ down in the city that now, I’m guessin’ none of the bosses or any of the other executives know that you two are buddy-buddy. How long ya been pen pals?”

“How long have I been capo?” Donato returned.

Cadence arched a brow. “Geeze, so from the very beginning, huh? Pretty impressive how ya got under the bosses’ noses. Bet ya both were excited when Fortuna and Ambrose said they were gettin’ engaged, huh?”

“You too, Morello.” Enzo nodded. “I mean, that meant that the divide between you and Alma would no longer be there, right?”

Cadence froze.

“Alma talked about you a lot when she first came to me,” Enzo explained. “‘Course, she stopped after she got used to the good life, but I have a good memory.”

“She’s talked about ya a lot too when we met up,” Cadence returned good-naturedly. “Gossip, right?” She paused, pulling back. “I’m not a gossiper myself. Especially when my life is on the line—”

“I’m sure you said the same thing when you were dealing with Verga1,” Donato interjected. “And Verga is stupid so he believed you.” He gestured to himself. “You can see there’s a difference here.”

Cadence smiled with effort. “That’s why you’re a capo and he wasn’t.” She shrugged. “If you’re gonna consider doin’ me in, can I at least get some of the details? Can’t let me die with curiosity, can ya?”

Donato considered this before chucking. “I like you, Cadence, so here it is—”

Obviously, he didn’t like her to not beat her over the head and tie her up, she thought.

“—You know this for fact: the Campana Family is selling Specialist Conductor children. The market for them is crazy. Especially in countries who’re bordering less-than-friendly countries outside of Signum. The wealthy love them too. And I’ve been providing some of them to Enzo in exchange for…” Donato slapped his bad leg. “Well, you see, they’ve got an amazing Specialist who’s been slowly but surely healing my leg. Soon, I’ll be walking like everyone else.”

Betraying the Family just for one healed-up leg? What a rat.

“Congratulations,” Cadence said faintly. She swallowed, cocked her head. “That’s great for ya and everything, but aren’t ya concerned about what’ll happen if any of the executives find out? I mean, they’re all busy dealin’ with killin’ each other, but ya know Francis is a good multitasker—”

“Francis?” Donato threw his head back and barked. “He’s probably completely lost his head by now. He’s not doing anything anytime soon.”

Cadence’s heart skipped a beat.

Donato knew. And if he knew, then…

“What…. did you do?” she whispered.

Enzo walked out of the cooler abruptly.

“You see, the Foxmans and the Campanas have had a bad relationship for some time now,” Donato explained. “The problem is the Foxmans are too loyal. They take the problems of others as their own. Too nosy in that sense. So, honoring their relationship with the Romanos, they covertly started working with Ophiuchus to investigate the Campanas in an effort to take ‘em down. ‘Course if they started investigating the Campanas, then there’s no telling when they’d dig up our business agreement. Enzo and I would both be in bad waters with our bosses.”

Enzo returned carrying an open wooden crate and dropped it at Cadence’s feet. Cadence peered inside, and another wave of nausea overtook her. Resistors. The crate was full of resistors. Some of their glass-tube handles were filled with a swirling white light, while others were hollow and empty.

“Enzo found a whole cargo shipment full of these conductor-looking, knife-things stored in a warehouse in the west side,” Donato explained. “Apparently, Verga was shipping these for a certain group.” He bent down to pick up a resistor that was empty. Its blade was caked with dried blood. “What you’re seeing here is the very knife Francis was stabbed with.”

Cadence balled her fists, bit the inside of her lip, kept her face calm and even.

“It’s quite interesting—the effect of these things when they’re filled with the white vitae stuff.” Donato ran his finger along the blade. “Enzo had his boys test them on a couple of poor saps, and they completely went off the walls. We had to put most of ‘em down. ‘Course one managed to get away, but that’s not relevant.” He tapped the tip. “It surprisingly took a while for Francis to crumble, but the entire thing took the Foxmans’ eyes off of us for a while.” He chuckled. “Well, forever now.”

“Do ya even understand what ya’ve done…?”

“These things have something to do with ELPIS, yeah.” Donato nodded, tossing the resistor back into the crate. “But I’m not too concerned about them. We have what they want, after all. ‘Course dealing with Ophiuchus is another issue. I had to put in a lot of legwork to get away from the guards they put on me. And you know me—I’m old and I’m not as slick as I used to be—”

“This is all your fault!” Cadence seethed, startling both herself and Donato and Enzo. “You… You!”

“What has gotten into you, Cadence?” Donato sighed and rubbed his wrist. “You of all people should understand. In time, whatever this is will pass, and people’ll move on. ELPIS’ll do its thing, and they’ll leave like they always do. The Families’ll resolve their issues.” He paused, smiled genially. “Same goes for all the people you’ve deceived for us, right?”

“People’ll move on…?” Cadence parroted. She laughed. “Ya can’t be serious, Donato. I mean, ya’ve gotta be pullin’ my leg again, right? How in saint’s name are they gonna move on from this? This is ELPIS. They—”

They hadn’t moved on for centuries.

“I’m leaving you in Feliciano’s care while I decide what to do with you, Morello,” Donato said, nodding at Enzo. “Though, a couple of Feliciano’s friends have ended up as stiffs recently, so I can’t say he’s gonna be in too good a mood. He’ll be visiting soon.”

Enzo bent down to pick up the box of resistors and with Donato he exited the room. The cellar door shut quietly behind them, leaving Cadence alone in silence.

Cadence began to tremble despite herself.

Feliciano’s ‘care’?

Saints. They were going to beat the living hell out of her.

Cadence stared at the floor, mind racing. Would she be able to talk her way out of a beating?

Feliciano’s sneering face flashed into her mind.

No, definitely not. Not with Feliciano. He’d had a bone to pick with her since they were kids. Think.

Saints—

A shadow spilled across the floor in front of her. Cadence stiffened and yelped instinctively. But as she registered—as she felt—who was present, she startled.

Werner.

The Capricornian First Lieutenant drew near to her, meeting her eyes with an unreadable expression. Just like how he’d looked at her when she’d encountered Jericho and Iota in the Louvre District. A void stretched out behind Werner. He was still not awake.

“Morello, this will be excruciatingly painful.”

Cadence blinked.

What? What was he doing? Rubbing in it? Yeah, that made sense after what she’d done. She didn’t blame him at all.

Werner frowned. “I am not here to ‘rub it in.’ Morello, you are unable to escape, and the others will most likely feel the pain Feliciano and his men are about to inflict on you. It may compromise us, and that cannot be afforded.”

The guilt came in like a flood at the realization. She had been so caught up in her own situation that she hadn’t even thought about how she’d affect the others.

Werner regarded her silently before extending a hand. “Allow me to override you, Cadence.”

Cadence did a double-take.

What…?

“There is evidence that when one of us is overridden, the others are unable to access the memories of the events nor the sensations the overrider experiences,” Werner explained calmly. “At the moment, this is our best option since the others are preoccupied.”

Cadence gaped.

He would go to such lengths to protect the others? It didn’t make sense. This didn’t seem like something he would do.

“Cadence, it’s not just them. You don’t have enough pain tolerance to handle this. Your reaction to Jericho’s injury during our first synchronization meeting makes this obvious,” Werner said. “As I’ve said, this is the best solution.”

Cadence stared at him incredulously. It really didn’t make sense. After everything she’d done, she wouldn’t blame him if he despised her, hated her, maybe even wanted the worse to happen to her. But…

“Why—” She met Werner’s eyes and felt her voice catch in her throat.

No…

The answer needn’t be said. Cadence could feel it. She wished she couldn’t but she did. It was a simple feeling, but a strong one. Not pity, not disappointment, not resentment—

Despite her selfishness, he cared for her. No, he still cared for her.

It hurt.

“I… I’m sorry, Werner,” Cadence whispered. She felt her eyes burn, felt her heart crumple, felt shame and disgust curl in her stomach.

If only she had her damn conductor. Then she could just snap her fingers and make everything go away. Disappear the shameful tears that were beginning to prick her eyes. Mask the trembles that were cascading down her body into a suave, casual, relaxed pose. And hide it. Hide everything away. Hide her cowardice, hide her selfishness. Shrug off her problems—

Just proving that you’ll never change,” Theta had said.

“I’m so, so sorry…” she whispered. “I don’t know what I’m doing. I just wanted to help Alma.” No, that was a lie. What she wanted was to stop Alma from leaving her side. Pathetic. Another blow. “I didn’t want ya to get hurt, Werner.” A truth. “I wasn’t thinking. I wasn’t thinking at all. I was so stupid. I coulda killed ya…” Saying it out loud was horrifying. “Saints, I coulda killed all of ya…”

—a hand suddenly touched her cheek.

She lifted her head to find Werner staring at her, blue eyes piercing and hard—but not exactly cold. A faint memory, faded at its images, floated into Cadence’s mind: a long, tall, thin woman standing in the middle of a cold, empty room wielding a long, tall, thin stick—an overbearing shadow.

They were the same, Cadence realized, paling. But that made Werner’s proposal so much worse. She couldn’t understand it. They had been in similar situations and circumstances, but they had turned out so different. How was that possible?

“Enough, Cadence,” Werner said tersely. “They’re coming.”

He really meant it, she realized. He really wanted to override her and endure the pain instead. But that didn’t make any sense. Was this really his choice?

Werner frowned. “Although I do believe my current state of mind might be somewhat altered due to my condition, this is my choice, Morello. Make no mistake.” He seemed to read her mind. “If you are truly sorry, then accept whatever guilt comes by me doing this. Accept responsibility, live with it, and don’t let it happen again.”

That was awfully manipulative of him.

The cellar door creaked open behind Werner, and a cluster of men eclipsed him. Feliciano and his lackeys.

“It’s time, Cadence,” Werner said calmly as always. “Are you ready?”

Before she could respond, Cadence felt the darkness pull her away from him almost instantly, felt him relax into the cold chair in her place, felt her consciousness slip away into blackness.

And in that pitch-black dark, she dreamt. No, in the dark, she remembered.

She remembered her mother with her long copper locks and her father with his freckled cheeks. War veterans in search of a better life in the Twin Cities. They’d only received a singular benefit package from Aries after the war’s end and had struggled to even afford a place to stay in the city.

Cadence had spent many nights home alone because her parents were always out working. One night, as she’d roamed through the house in the dark waiting for them to return, she’d discovered her mother’s conducting rings. She’d slipped them on, thinking they were fashionable items, adoring the way they’d make her fingers tingle. She’d try them on every single night while she waited for her parents to return, and it was by mere luck that she managed to activate them one day. She’d transmuted herself into one of the dresses she’d seen in her mother’s favorite fashion magazine and had been giddy with excitement and glee.

Slowly, slowly, she refined her skill until one night—when her parents came home late—she revealed her conducting to them. They had both been ecstatic, proud, cheering as they spun her around the room.

Talented, they exclaimed, amazing. My talented, amazing daughter.

But that happiness was not the norm.

It was a stressful postwar era. Her parents constantly argued over money, food, bills. But Cadence hadn’t been bothered by it because to her that was normal. Besides—or so she had thought—as long as they had each other, it didn’t matter. Not the arguments, not the occasional thrown fists. It wasn’t perfect, but it was enough.

Then one night, her mother returned home with a black a shadow riding on her shoulders. When Cadence had greeted her at the doorway, her mother sank to her knees and wrapped her fingers around her neck.

“If it weren’t for you…” her mother had seethed, squeezing tight. “I wouldn’t have to be with that man. If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have to suffer like this. I wouldn’t be the damned laughing stock at work. I wouldn’t have to deal with people always looking at me with pity. It’s because of you. It’s all because of you, you, you!”

Cadence had sobbed, clawing at her mother’s hands as she gasped for air. Just as her vision began to fade, her mother released her and pulled back with a sob of her own.

When Cadence had finally gained her bearings and her breath, she found her mother crying apologies under her breath—

“I’m terrible. Oh, I’m so terrible. I don’t deserve to be your mother. I’m terrible.”

It had hurt for Cadence to see her mother like that. Hurt more than the throbbing around her throat. And so, Cadence had crawled up to her mother’s side and said, “I-It’s not your fault, mommy. You’re just angry because you’re tired, right? It’s not your fault… And I’m okay, you see?” Snapping her fingers with a grin, Cadence disappeared the bruise marks on her neck in a flash of copper.

The way her mother’s eyes had lit up afterwards was like a dream, and the warmth from her mother’s embrace made Cadence forget all about the pain.

This wasn’t her mother’s fault at all, Cadence had thought. It was merely the situation, the circumstance.

That incident marked the first time her mother had a bad morrowheat trip. And it wasn’t the last.

“It’s stress relief,” her father had told her as he began to take morrowheat up himself. “We get nightmares, you know. About the war.”

This had been before morrowheat became properly refined and legalized. In its unrefined form, it was terribly addictive and often caused hallucinations, mood swings, lethargy.

And as her parents continued to take the drug, they became less and less inclined to leave their apartment for work. Instead, they lounged together with interlocked limbs on the mattress on the floor that they all shared.

It was okay though. Because they were together. It was enough.

But then, Cadence’s mother passed. Just like that. In her sleep. They didn’t have enough money to hire doctors to figure out why. They didn’t have enough money for a funeral. And so, Cadence was left standing in front of her mother’s unmarked grave wondering exactly what had happened. There were no answers. There never were.

Cadence spent the following weeks curled up on their mattress in her mother’s spot. She’d burrowed into her mother’s blankets, breathed in her scents, and imagined that her mother was still there lying beside her. Cadence had even used her conducting rings to bring the illusion to life once. It was momentary comfort.

One day Cadence’s father came home and spoke to her about things she didn’t understand. Her mother had a savings account with a decent amount of money, he’d said. They’d both been saving the funds so that they could eventually send Cadence to school, he’d explained. But because of Gemini’s strict personal protection and privacy laws at the time, only the owner of the account was able to withdraw funds. And so, he wasn’t able to access any of it.

“Y…You can do it, can’t you, Cadence?” her father whispered with bags under his eyes as he held her hand. “You can make yourself look like mommy and take the money out, right?”

The desperation in his voice had been pitiful—so pitiful that several nights later, Cadence found herself wearing her mother’s conducting rings and standing in front of their chipped bathroom mirror. Snapping her fingers, she’d watched with joy, disgust, relief, horror as her deceased mother’s form shimmered over her own.

When Cadence brought home all of her mother’s savings from the bank the following morning, her father had been ecstatic. He’d picked her up and twirled her around, proclaimed how much he loved her, showered her with gifts—

Happiness. It was enough.

And then one day, he didn’t come back home.

Cadence spent those following weeks roaming the house, digging into the pantries for food, curling up on their mattress, waiting and waiting—until there was a knock at the door. It was the landlord who told her curtly, strictly, firmly that she needed to pack up and leave.

“You’re lucky that I’m not making you take on your parents’ debt,” was what he had left her with.

And so, for the first time in her life, with only the clothes on her back and her mother’s conducting rings on her fingers, Cadence stepped outside onto the streets of the Twin Cities alone. She’d learned quickly though. Learned to pickpocket, steal, swindle. Learned to take advantage of other people’s pity. Learned to use her conducting to get herself out of tight situations.

And then Alma found her. Rather, she found Alma. A beautiful, gentle person whom Cadence could always find at the Sognare. A person who smiled at her with apparent affection instead of pity. A perfect person. A constant.

Not so long after that, Cadence had encountered—rather, pickpocketed—Ricardo Romano who then introduced her to Fortuna. Literally days later Cadence befriended the Foxmans and then finally Nico. Together they had roamed the streets, claiming territory childishly as their own, challenging other delinquent rings to pick-pocketing feuds, swindling tourists with gambles and games.

Happiness. A constant.

Perhaps, that was why Cadence adored Alma so much. Meeting Alma marked the beginning of the best time in Cadence’s life… But Alma’s departure also marked the end of it.

Cadence still remembered it as if it was yesterday—the day that Alma left. After whispering apologies about being unable to stay by Cadence’s side, Alma had placed a hand on her cheek and had said with a dreamy smile: “Oh, I’m so excited, Cucciolo. All the girls at the Casa say that Enzo is so wealthy, and he knows so many famous people. Maybe with him, people will finally listen to my song…”

But Cadence had blamed Alma’s words on too much alcohol.

Fortuna took up on her father’s mantle not too long after that, while the Foxmans abandoned their pipe dream of running their own bar in favor of running the city’s docks. She’d congratulated all of them at the time, of course. Always appeared crooked-smile, bought them congratulatory presents using money she’d swindled from tourists, never showed a hint of jealousy, disdain, disappointment, hurt.

But appearances were deceiving.

Still, at least Nico would stay by her side, Cadence thought to herself foolishly. Out of their entire group, the two of them had spent the most time together. Huddled in between alleyways, swallowing cigarettes whole for laughs, pick-pocketing wealthy kids who were in over their heads. Playing piano at the dwindling Sognare, sharing drinks at the bar after a rough day of work, musing about their unattainable dreams.

Right. Nico needed her, she’d thought, always followed her, would never leave her. It was something Cadence treasured. A constant.

But then… Nico had left too. Left for the borders of Capricorn while following his dream of being free of his father’s shadow in that twisted way of his. Left for that dream of his that had suddenly become attainable.

And Cadence was happy for him. Truly. But still she thought—

It was better to have an unattainable dream. Something that always needed to be pursued. No disappointment when it came down to it. No losing the dream and its perks, since it’d never be achieved. A constant. The same thing came to people. Situation over disposition.

***

When Cadence sluggishly came into consciousness, she was greeted with pain and cold. It felt as if cement had been filled in between her muscles and bones. She also no longer had any sensation in her fingertips. And her mouth tasted of iron.

Sure enough, when she got her bearings and surveyed her surroundings, she found that she was lying in a pool of her own blood. The cellar door was locked tightly, and there was not a drop of drinkable water nor any food in sight. The only positive she collected from a second look around was that during the beat down, Feliciano and his goons had decided to untie her and leave her untied.

She tried to crawl up into a sitting position, but a dull pain shot up her limbs in protest. She collapsed and laid in place. Too much pain to even shiver.

If it hurt this much for her now, she thought, how much had it hurt for him?

It’s not your fault, whispered a familiar voice at the back of her head. Werner offered. 

“Shut up,” she muttered.

It wasn’t your mom and dad’s fault either, the whisper continued, relaying the echoes of her dream. They couldn’t help their situation. They couldn’t help reacting the way they did. It was the stress, the poverty, the drugs. It’s all circumstance. 

Cadence shivered, wincing at the shooting pain it brought her.

One-way ticket to hypothermia.

But even so, despite the cold, she could still feel Werner’s warm hand against her cheek.

No, no. She didn’t want to think about that. Not now.

Right? It’s all circumstance. It’s not your—

“Shut up!” Cadence sobbed and pulled into herself. The tears stung the cuts on her cheek but she knew that the stinging pain was incomparable to what Werner had taken on for her. “Damn it! Shut up! Stop lying!”

Silence answered her.

Right. The person she’d been deceiving the most—Cadence realized in the quiet—had been herself all along. The truth was that it wasn’t all just circumstance. Not with herself. And if it was not with herself, it was also not with her mother, not with her father, not even with Alma.

The answer was ridiculously clear:

A child representing past mistakes and an inescapable situation. 

A tool to earn money. 

And a person who was more pitiable than herself, a person who made her feel as if her own life wasn’t that awful.

—this was how her mother, her father, and Alma had viewed her in those moments that Cadence had painted over as ‘circumstance’.

It was as simple as that.

And simplicity hurt.

Cadence sobbed and curled deeper into herself.

How dare she think about herself after everything that had happened? How dare she—

“What in saint’s name are you doing…?”

Cadence blinked the frozen tears out of her eyes and found Olive standing before her. He felt her pain—she could tell—and was barely managing to hold back a wince. Damn.

“Of course, I can feel your pain,” Olive half-growled, half-grumbled. He knelt down beside her, hands hovering, hands shaking, eyes… wet? Tears. They were leaking from his eyes, and he was failing terribly at holding them back.

“S-Saints, your highness…” Cadence cracked a grin with effort. She had a cut on her lower lip that stretched open with the action. “Y-You should be laughin’ at my situation. Not cryin’. Specially after everything I did and everything I said to ya.” She grimaced. “I-I’m sorry about that, kid. You were right about everything… so ya gotta stop cryin—”

“It’s just sad okay, dammit… It’s not fair.” Olive wiped his eyes. “Those kids— they’re almost my age… it’s wrong what the Campanas are doing to them… and what…” His voice cracked. “W-What happened to you… and to Werner.” He shook his head. “It’s just not fair! How can people do that?”

It was easy for people to do that, Cadence thought. It was hard for them not to do that.

“You’re a good kid, Olive.” She sighed. “I mean it.” She laid her head back and groaned. “I’m sorry. For everything. It was all my fault. You’re all way too good for me.”

Him, Werner, Atienna, Jericho, Maria.

A pain more terrible than the throbs running through her limbs seized her chest.

And Nico, Francis, Allen, Carl, Fortuna too.

“You’re stupid,” Olive said, shaking his head. “You’re stupid and you’re so unbelievably selfish.”

Cadence tried to squint at him but even that was too much effort, so she laid back her head and closed her eyes.

“It wasn’t circumstances with Alma, your mom, or your dad,” Olive continued. “But it’s also not circumstance with me, and it’s not circumstance with any of the others. When it comes to us… I…” His cheeks flushed, and he took a deep breath before he grimaced. “If you get what I mean… I’m not here because of circumstance.”

Cadence cracked open an eye.

“You’re good enough for me,” Olive said, meeting Cadence’s gaze. “As long as we’re constantly trying to improve and trying our best to not make the same mistakes, we’re good enough for each other.”

Cadence abruptly recalled she was talking to a prince, and she couldn’t help but laugh. He was regal when he put the effort into it.

“We need to get out of here,” Olive muttered, rubbing his arms absentmindedly.

Right. Even if it hurt like hell, she had to find a way out of here before Feliciano came back. She couldn’t make Werner go through that again. She couldn’t let the others deal with the fading pain either. Responsibility, dammit.

Biting the inside of her cheek, Cadence forced herself up into a sit. The world spun around her, but she pushed herself further to an unstable stand and began to wobble to the door.

Pain, pain, pain.

Cadence, please don’t push yourself…

But she had to.

Cadence managed to make it to the door and pressed her hands against its surface. She could barely see more than a crack because her eyes were so swollen, but she didn’t need full vision to see that the door was frozen shut.

Suggestion. Don’t panic.

That was hard to do.

Kick it down! You can do it!

Really? Why was that even a suggestion?

“Claire said something…” Olive muttered from beside her. “He told me that there’s something special that True Conductors can do when it comes to vitae right before you overrode Werner… Since I’m able to conduct without my conductor—no, since I am a ‘conductor’—it might be different, but…” He placed his hands over her own and closed his eyes.

Cadence arched a brow at him, wincing at the pain that followed the motion.

And then she felt warmth. A buzz at the base of her palm that spread to her fingertips.

She turned slowly and managed to catch a glimpse of her bruised hands right before copper sparks of light erupted into copper flames beneath her palms.2

“What the—”

Olive grabbed her and pulled her backwards as the door was engulfed in flames of vitae. Flames that she had created. Without the appropriate conductor. Without being an Elementalist.

“Saints…!” she exclaimed in unison with Olive.

The heat crackled wildly, eating away at the frost and the door itself, melting everything it touched. Soon the door became molten metal and ash, and the icicles that had been hanging above her head began to drip, drip, drip into puddles of water around her.

Once the fire died and cool night air spilled in from the doorless doorway, Cadence turned to Olive and blinked. “Did you just see that?”

Olive snapped, “Of course I saw that. I’m right here! This is—”

“Kid, my body hurts like hell, and I don’t think I can spare another brain cell ta try and figure out what in saint’s name just happened,” Cadence said as she stepped forward, “so I’m just gonna get outta here now and leave the thinking ta you, Werner, and Atienna.” She paused and looked back at him. “Thanks, Olive. And not just for the mojo melting thing.”

And Werner too. She needed to thank him. But she wanted to say it to his face. It was only fair.

Hesitantly, Cadence stepped through the melted doorway and out into a dark alleyway just beyond. She took a deep breath. Soot, salt. Home.

“Woooooow.” A clap echoed from above. “I was just swinging by and thought I was gonna have to pull a heroic rescue, but look at this!”

Cadence recognized that voice. No, Olive recognized it. But that was impossible.

A series of metal clangs filled the air—each lower in tone than the last—and down from the darkness dropped a slender, tall figure concealed in shadow.

Cadence felt it immediately. The apprehension. The dread. Ominous.

A woman dressed in a monochrome suit stepped into the light pouring out from the cooler.

There were two things that Cadence noticed about the woman. One: there was a white Ophiuchian sash on her arm. Two: she wore sunglasses despite it being nighttime.

Cadence. Olive’s heart was hammering. I don’t understand. How is she here

Peacekeeping saint candidate Ilseong Jin stood before Cadence in the flesh.

I literally just saw her—

“A-Are you a peacekeeper?!” Cadence stammered, rushing to Jin and wincing with every step. “Ya gotta help me. I-I got jumped. A hospital. I need ta get to a—”

“How’s that Ariesian prince doing?” Jin asked, cocking her head. “Just saw him a minute ago but still.”

Cadence froze and felt Olive’s fear seep into her aching bones. “What…? What are ya talkin’ about?”

Cadence stumbled slightly. Jin caught her with one hand. But it was not a comfort. The peacekeeper’s touch sent chills down Cadence’s spine.

“Oh, come on,” Jin grumbled. “First the prince and now you? I mean, I literally saw your conducting!” She squinted. “At least you’re a bit more convincing. Though it really does look like you need to go to a hospital.” She squeezed Cadence’s shoulders sending Cadence a ripple of pain. “But congrats on taking the next step of True Conductorhood. First time I’ve ever seen a vitae crossover without an actual conductor though!” She released Cadence non-chalantly. “Cool.”

Cadence stumbled backwards, barely keeping her footing. “I’m guessin’ ya didn’t come here by train…”

“Nope. Just came to check on a friend though…” Jin took a step back and gave Cadence another once over. She then slipped a familiar, needle-shaped proto-conductor filled with black liquid out from her pocket and tapped it against the wall behind her. The wall immediately became engulfed in a familiar pale, tangerine light.

Cadence paled.

“I like the stupid kiddo, so needless to say, I like you,” Jin said as she stepped into the light with a wave, “so I’ll leave you with a warning. Omicron’s told me that Theta’s priming ready to snap, and when that happens…” She aimed a mock gun. “… the city’ll go with it no matter what plan they have.”


1: Just a reminder, Verga was the villain for Cadence’s story arc in part 1. He was siphoning off conductors from the Romanos and double-crossed Matilda’s gang.

2: See 8.2: Olive’s Naivety (Sapienza) and 8.5: Atienna’s Warmth (Refredatto) — Claire’s demonstration with his conductor and Sigurd’s own conducting. 
Slight spoiler, spoiler:

Claire is an Air Elementalist, while Sigurd is a Water Elementalist. They utilized their ability to use each other’s conducting types in these parts meaning that the two are connecte.

10.1: Olive’s Dimming (Fiammata)

Re-cap:

Olive is at the Bodhi Temple studying for the State Conducting Exam. He is there to partially protect Claire’s sister Eunji from rival clans using his status as Ariesian Prince. In exchange, Claire is to translate Sagittarian texts for him. On a moonlit night, Olive encounters the saint candidate of Sagittarius Ilseong Jin, who is also a peacekeeper and is actually Claire’s aunt. Jin unnerves Olive with her knowledge of True Conductors, his sister, and the mysterious syzygy but does not seem to be hostile. Fortunately, Olive is able to form a bond of trust with Claire despite the circumstances. His trust with Cadence, on the other hand, crumbles as he realizes that she has selfishly overridden Werner. Still far from the dangers of the Twin Cities, Olive…

Bodhi Temple, Sagittarius

Thwack.

“We’re leaving for Ophiuchus at the end of the week, Ollie.”

Thwack.

“… Already?”

Thwack.

“Eunji is bright. Way brighter than me, and I’m pretty bright. She’s already memorized all the materials that they usually put on the exam and then some. She’s just got to memorize a couple more of the conducting motions for the practical and we’re ready to go.”

Thwack.

“And memorizing is the same thing as learning?” 

Thwack.

“Well, you can’t learn anything if you don’t memorize it. Education in Sagittarius is centered around memorization, actually.”

Thwack.

Silence.

Thwack.

“I know what you’re thinking, Ollie. You’re thinking about the others in your circle, aren’t you? I can see it all over your face. And I get it. We’re both lucky to be born in positions where our struggles are more psychosocial and political than physical… I’m sure at least some people in your circle aren’t as lucky as us.”

Thwack.

“But it’s really a waste of energy thinking about it, Ollie.”

Thwack.

“Wow, Claire…” A mocking clap. “Thanks for your unwanted words of wisdom. Did they teach you that in politician school?”

Thwack. 

“Hey, I’m trying to be helpful here. One of yours was seriously injured that night, right? You’re lucky to be alive… I’m serious.” A sigh. “Anyway, I’m assuming from the way you’ve been acting that you haven’t been able to talk to the one who got hurt. That really sucks, but the fact is that you’re all still alive. And you’re not doing whoever it is any favors by moping about it. Trust me. I know first-hand. You should focus on the things you can do instead of the things you can’t—”

Crack!

Olive startled, turning his attention away from Claire and towards the archery range laid out in front of them. A row of targets bulleted with arrows was lined up at the far end of the range. Just below the open terrace Olive occupied, Trystan and Jin stood side-by-side poised with their bow conductors.

Claire leaned forward with interest beside Olive, and Claire’s guards who stood behind him did the same. Several monks had gathered around to watch the spectacle as well, leaving Olive to wonder how much free time they actually had. Then again, the current archery match unfolding truly was something to gawk at—especially on Jin’s end.

If Jin had terrified Olive the other night with her showy ridiculous enigmatic monologue, she had now completely horrified him with her prowess at both conducting and archery. 

Trystan who was most definitely a skilled archer was clearly losing ground.

Alexander used to rattle on about Trystan’s skill back at the palace. Olive hadn’t cared much for Alexander’s praise then, but over the past few months, Olive had come to appreciate Trystan’s prowess. In fact, Olive had felt a bit of pride when Trystan had first stepped out onto the archery range and had hit each of the targets right through the bullseye marks with a single arrow of fire vitae each. But then Jin had swooped in, twirling her bow conductor in hand before splitting and extinguishing Trystan’s fire arrows with invisible arrows of air. 

It seemed unnatural—both Jin’s loose archery style and her bow conductor. Her bow conductor was long, black, sleek, light, stringless. It was so lightweight that Olive could barely make out the glass insulators on its body. Something about the device didn’t seem right, but Olive couldn’t put his finger on it.

Trystan, rather than being embarrassed or flustered at his gradual defeat, seemed to be utterly gobsmacked by Jin’s precision and clapped loudly whenever she would obliterate one of his arrows. 

It was ridiculous. Olive figured Trystan was a masochist. 

“I don’t really mean focusing on my aunt or anything when I say that,” Claire added under his breath. “That’s not something you or I can do right now. Probably. Since we don’t even know what’s happening on that front. But maybe I could ask. Maybe she’d tell me.” He turned to Olive, smiling. “Playing the fool is the way to success.”

Olive glanced at him. “I can see that.”

The monks around the range started clapping and cheering.

 Jin had won, obviously.

 The saint candidate turned on her heels, aimed a mock gun in Olive’s direction, and winked— “Bang!”

***

Olive regretted his decision to confront Cadence as soon as he did it. As usual, Olive found that his words were not as carefully chosen as Atienna’s and his thoughts not as collected as Werner’s. And so, he ended up saying something he didn’t mean:

“Aren’t you supposed to be good at reading people? It’s pretty obvious to me that Werner cares more about you than Alma does—if she even cares about you at all.”

And thus, as expected, Cadence completely snapped. She tore into him, dug out the tiny feelings he kept to himself, and laid them out to light. 

It was embarrassing—the fact that Cadence could see through him so well. It hurt—the fact that Cadence knew what words would hurt him and said them anyways.

But she was right. It was stupid. How could he even think that the other five were anything remotely like family to him? They weren’t even friends. And that truth stung. But it didn’t matter. What mattered was what she’d done.

As his shouting match with Cadence reached its climax, Atienna synchronized with them and intervened. She looked Cadence’s image right in the eye and slapped her hard. Cadence’s synchronization with him faded after that, but not before Olive managed to catch a rather disturbing look of hurt satisfaction flash across Cadence’s face. 

Atienna remained with him several minutes afterwards. They didn’t exchange many words and refrained from speaking about what had just occurred. However, just before Atienna departed, she placed a hand on his cheek and said, “You’re important to me, Olive. And that’s enough for me.”

The relief Olive felt at her reassurance was just as embarrassing as Cadence calling him out for thinking they were family, and he could not reciprocate Atienna’s words.

Lavi came to him a while afterwards and seemed concerned about the lack of synchronization meetings. She wasn’t truly connected to him, Olive knew, so she wasn’t aware of what had happened between Werner and Cadence. As always, Lavi tried to get to the bottom of what had occurred, but he brushed her worries away. 

It wasn’t something she needed to deal with, he told himself. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust her. Not at all. 

Still, despite everything that had occurred, Olive absolutely refused to mope around and to spend the day rolling around in bed. And so, right after his confrontation with Cadence, he rinsed his face in his bathroom sink and headed out with Trystan in search of Claire. There were Sagittarian texts that needed to be translated, after all.

Olive found Claire and his masked guard Felix standing stiffly in front of the library’s doorway. The two were conversing with a duo standing at the threshold there. 

A woman and a man. The woman had short black hair that came up to her ears and had on a pair of circular glasses. Just by looking at her, Olive could tell that she was mean. There was something in her eye that just glinted viciousness. The man, on the other hand, had a mess of spiky dark hair and drooping eyes that made him look half asleep.

The woman locked eyes with Olive and glowered.

“Who’s that foreigner?” she snapped in some dialect of Sagittarian that Cadence knew. “You keep bringing people who aren’t of Sagittarian blood into our traditions. Don’t you have a sense of pride? First you bring a foreigner to be your vassal and now—”

Felix stiffened.

“Sister, I understand your concerns but although Felix may not have the blood of the Seong Clan running through his veins,” Claire responded politely, “his heart is Seongese through and through. He has spent all but five years of his life serving me, and he is one of my people. I would appreciate you treating my people with the same amount of respect you treat me with.”

Which apparently is none, Olive thought.

“Come on, Mai,” the spiky-haired man said from beside the woman. “Give Haneul a break, would you? We’re all here for the same thing.”

“Unlike that one, Kai,” Mai clarified, “you will pass your Conducting Exam with flying colors.”

“You doubt my sister’s prowess still, I see,” Claire said, smiling thinly.

“You’re ridiculous. He’s a disgrace—” Mai stopped short, sending a glare in Olive’s direction. “Why is that foreigner looking at me like that?”

“The foreigner’s name is Olivier Chance,” Olive responded in the dialect they were speaking as he joined their circle. He gave her a well-aimed look of disinterest. “Ariesian prince.” He nodded at Trystan who trailed behind him. “This is Trystan, my royal guard.”

Mai stiffened, looked him over, and then dipped into a deep bow. “I—my apologies, Prince Chance. I didn’t realize it was you. I heard rumors but…” She cleared her throat. “That aside, my name is Liuxing Mai of the Xing Clan. The man beside me is my younger brother: Liuxing Kai.”

Kai dipped into a bow too, looking more amused than anything else.

Olive arched a brow. “‘Liuxing’—oh, I recognize that surname. You were the group that went to Virgo in search of aid during the Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict, right?” He turned to Claire. “Haneul here came to Aries and managed to get my uncle and aunt to approve of his request within days. How did it go for you again?”

Mai’s face deepened red as she rose from her bow. “Our initial requests for aid were declined but subsequently Virgo did offer their assistance—”

“Right.” Olive shrugged. “But that was separate from your personal request, right?”

Mai’s face reddened further.

For once, Felix gave him a look of appreciation. Claire, on the other hand, had a careful expression of calm indifference folded across on his face. But Olive had seen it already—Claire’s brief smirk was undeniable.

“Woah, look at this!” came a familiar sing-song voice from down the hall. “All my favorite nephews and nieces and favorite people gathered all in one spot.”

Olive grimaced and turned to find Jin casually strolling down the open hall towards them. Mai, Kai, and Felix dipped into bows at her approach. Jin merely offered a half-hearted, two-fingered salute at them in turn.

“So, Kai, you really going to take your State Conducting Exam finally at the end of this week?” Jin asked. “Coming here to cram right before?”

“That’s how Mai’s calendar is looking,” Kai replied. “Two Conductors capable of ascending the throne for the Xing Clan is better than one.”

“Mhm. Anyway, that’s when Eunji is taking it too, right?” Jin inspected them all from beneath her sunglasses. “All the clans will be watching closely because of that, huh?” She cracked a grin. “I’ll be watching too, of course.”

Claire and Mai exchanged a look and stiffened together.

“Really?” Claire pressed. “You’re coming to Ophiuchus too?”

“Of course! I wanna see you kiddos complete the State Conducting Exam.” Jin flashed a grin. “Besides, I have a feeling it’s going to be an explosive event.”

***

In between his time spent at the temple’s archives, Olive often went to observe the monks practicing with their conductors in an open courtyard that extended out just behind the library. He had discovered this courtyard during his second night spent at the library after peeking out of the library’s left-wing window. It was a large, square yard laid with a network of crisscrossing tiles that formed the image of a lotus. Barely. He had to squint to really see it.

Usually when the monks concluded their practice and emptied the field, Olive would take their place and try to emulate some of their motions. He often requested for Trystan to remain within the library so he could have the entire square to himself and not risk Trystan being somehow caught in a crossfire. Trystan had reluctantly agreed but always kept a watchful eye on him from the second-floor window of the library facing the courtyard.

And so, right after Olive’s awkward conversation with Claire and his half-siblings, Olive took to the courtyard again while Trystan took to his perch in the library window. The monks were nowhere to be seen this time around, however, and Olive started off on his own.

As usual, his first ten attempts ended with small sparks of vitae that puttered out into weak flame that spiraled out lazily and died quickly. Too weak. It was always either too weak or too strong whenever he tried to conduct. 

The smell of burning flesh and the sobbing Sagittarian assassin abruptly flashed into his mind.

Olive grimaced and shook his head. He could never rein it in the way he wanted to.

He flicked his hand again to dispel the memory. Another poor spark and sputter.

If only he could achieve that sort of freedom Air Elementalists had when conducting, Olive thought to himself, then maybe—

A clap resounded through the open square.

Olive stiffened and surveyed his surroundings. He glanced up at Trystan cautiously. The man was frowning from his post at the window and staring down and out towards an open hallway that ran at Olive’s right. Olive followed Trystan’s gaze and swallowed. Ilseong Jin was watching him from the walkway there. She was leaning against one of the pillars supporting the roof with arms crossed. Her bow conductor was slung over her back.

“Wow,” Jin said, singsong as she stepped out from the hall and carelessly skipped across the small stream that ran just beside it. After shaking off the water from her pants legs, she came to a stop in front of him and grinned. “I clapped because it felt like the right thing to do, but that was kinda sad.”

Olive tensed as he felt the familiar ominousness swirl at the pit of his stomach. “A lot of people must have said that to you, huh?”

“Yeesh, kiddo.” Jin sighed. “You have more salt in you than there is in the Piscese Ocean. Anyway, you looked like you needed help so I thought I’d—”

“Maybe you should get your prescription checked,” Olive said, gesturing to her sunglasses. “You’re seeing things that aren’t there.”

Go away. Go away. 

Even with Trystan watching over his shoulder, Olive felt uneasy.

“Well, I’m seeing it pretty clearly, kiddo. You have issues conducting, don’t you? Without a conductor, I mean. Need a tip—”

“No.”

“Yeesh, kiddo—for real?” Jin chuckled. “At least let me lay my case first: I’ve read them. Pema’s books. The old monk’s sister. The one who conducted without a conductor. I read all of ‘em.”

Olive tensed. 

“You wanna know a tidbit of what she wrote in there?” Jin grinned. “Just say please. I won’t tell anyone that I told you. We don’t want to both get into legal trouble, do we?”

Olive remained silent.  

“Oh, fine, whatever. I’ll tell you anyways.”

Again, Olive remained silent. 

“You say you’re not conducting with a conductor, but you are,” Jin said, tapping his chest. “Your entire body is the conductor. Your blood vessels and veins are the insulators. Your heart—your soul—is the conducting core. You get the picture, right?”

Olive slapped her hand away but digested the information she’d given him. That was very unusually backwards thinking. Conceptually, it seemed ridiculous. 

Jin grinned, tucking her hand in her pocket. “Another tip: you shouldn’t hold back in anything you do. The more you try to control something, the harder it gets to control. Just like the more you try not to think of something, the more you think about it. Regrets hold you back—even in conducting.”

“Are you going to monologue again?”

“I’ll save my monologue for later.” Jin shrugged. “Anyway, what do you plan to do about the State Conducting Exam? The practical part, I mean. Since you can conduct without a conductor—well, that’s gonna draw a lot of unwanted eyes, you know?” She unfastened her conductor and twirled it in her hands. “Why don’t you try making something that looks like a conductor and use that? You look smart enough to do it.”

“For someone who says they’re on neutral ground, you’re giving me a lot of advice.” 

Jin grinned thinly. 

A cluster of monks started walking along the hall behind them and caught Olive’s attention. The group passed by slowly without acknowledging them. A particular ‘monk’ caught Olive’s attention—P.D. Oran. The man kept his head ducked low as he walked by with the group and kept his eyes glued to the ground. For his sake, Olive looked away.

 “Ah, there he is,” Jin said singsong. She smiled back at Olive, waved her hand lazily through the air, and departed after the group of monks. 

Olive waited until she disappeared from his sights before relaxing somewhat. Shivering the uneasiness away, he returned his attention to his task at hand and extended his arm out in pensive thought. Conducting without a conductor without restraint seemed impossible. But thinking of himself as a ‘conductor’ rather than a ‘Conductor’… It was a ludicrous idea, definitely, but…

He scanned the courtyard quickly. No one nearby. No one to be harmed.

His heart hammered in his chest as he closed his eyes and extended his hands outwards further. He pictured the components of a conductor in his mind’s eye. The insulator, the conductor core, the connecting tubes. His veins and blood vessels, his heart, his body. He pictured the vitae particles, the carbon atoms, the oxygen atoms—

The Sagittarian assassin’s burnt body flashed into his mind, but instead of shoving it away, he allowed it to pass.

—He then pictured the hum of the conducting core, the beat of his heart, and the culmination of atoms and particles into an explosive wreath of flame. Just this once. No restraint. 

This is stupid, he thought. And then he flicked his wrist. The familiar spark of heat tickled his fingertips, and a gust of warmth flushed the front of his body.

Olive cracked open an eye. 

A wreath of crimson flame swirled in front of him, twirling into the figure-eight shape he had pictured in his mind.

Nausea built up at the pit of his stomach at the smell of smoke that followed the ignition, but Olive was too flabbergasted to even register it. 

Ridiculous. It couldn’t be that simple, could it?

He closed his eyes, imagined himself as a conductor, and flicked his wrist again. When he opened his eyes, he found the flames dancing in a circle before him—once again just as he’d pictured. He chuckled nervously and did it again and again and again. Each time, the crimson flames obeyed. 

Olive wanted to desperately synchronize with the others to show them all what he’d just learned, but he restrained himself as Cadence’s words rattled through his mind.

Instead, he went through the motions for several hours before the usual fatigue that followed excessive vitae usage consumed him. 

Wiping the sweat from his brow, he fell back onto the ground and chuckled again despite himself as he watched the clouds pass overhead.

State Conducting Exam at the end of the week? 

Focus on the things you can do,” Claire had said.

That didn’t sound too bad.

But then, the knowledge of the Specialist children being sold by the Campanas suddenly bled into Olive’s mind from Cadence’s end. 

10.[]-2: A Brother’s (Pazienza)

(    )

Carl Foxman knew that he was dumb as bricks. His father said it all the time. His mother never said he was wrong.  Carl knew that Allen was probably thinking it all the time. Cadence always said good-naturedly, “Come on, Carl. Everyone’s a little stupid” making Carl think that the fact maybe wasn’t so bad. Fortuna plainly said he was an idiot. Ricardo said he had smarts in other areas. But Francis always told him “You’re smart, Carl. You wouldn’t have made it this far if you weren’t.”

Even so, Carl had an inkling that he probably wouldn’t make heads-or-tails of what Omicron was going to say next.

“What happened to you…” Omicron began, addressing Francis. “You have to have knowledge of what you call the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis.”

“Vitae is a cycle. Vitae has the capabilities of coding memories from the brain. Vitae is equivalent to the soul,” Alice explained beat-by-beat. “I’ll hold my suspension of disbelief. Continue.”

Omicron’s eyes narrowed, and she lifted her head slightly like she was rearing for a fight. Finally, she elaborated, “Our resistors are similar to your proto-conductors. They’re capable of storing vitae. In much, much larger amounts than your proto-conductors.” She glowered. “But they’re not used as weapons. Instead, they store—”

“—an entire person’s vitae… And, in light of the Hypothesis, an entire person’s memories and soul,” Francis finished before he stiffened and frowned. He looked as confused as Carl felt about his knowledge. 

Carl shared a look with Allen but said nothing. 

Omicron nodded at Francis before she continued:

“Yes… there are several conditions that follow its usage. Firstly, the vitae being stored in the resistor must be processed so that it will return only to the resistor and not to the vitae cycle when the person it was used on dies. The process is beyond me as I am now, but it’s how our vitae becomes white. Whitening of vitae tends to cause congenital analgesia.”

“The hell’s that?” Carl grimaced.

“Loss of sensitivity to pain,” Francis answered, not even looking in Carl’s direction.

Omicron looked away from him.

“The second condition is that only the vitae that was initially stored in the resistor is capable of returning to that particular resistor. In other words, no new vitae can be added.”

Carl didn’t get it. Not really. Some of the executives looked baffled too. But Cadence, Francis, and Alice looked pale. Paler than normal. 

“The third condition is that in order for the highest success of vitae being passed onto another person, that person’s vitae must be leaving their body for the vitae cycle itself. This allows the vitae stored in a resistor to enter that person without complications and interference, and when that person ‘comes back’ they will have full access to the memories given to them by the resistor.”

Vitae leaving the body…? When a person ‘came back’…? 

“Of course, residual memories stored in the brain can still cause some interference but the lack of that person’s original vitae makes it difficult to ‘access’ in a sense.” Omicron locked eyes with Francis again. “We call the entire process ‘initiation’.” 

This Carl understood, and he took a threatening step forward as he grabbed the woman by the scruff. “Are you saying that Francis was kil—”

“But that doesn’t always happen. It didn’t happen with you, Francis. You were very far away from death’s doors when you were initiated,” Omicron said softly, not even bothered by Carl’s grip. “What happened to you was a mistake. Whoever’s taken our resistors must’ve used one on you. You were stabbed with a resistor on that night. But don’t worry. I wasn’t initiated properly either, and I’m okay.”

Allen signaled for Carl to release the woman. Carl complied, shoving her back down in the chair. 

“So the dichotomy between Francis’s vitae and Theta’s vitae…” Alice nodded, placing a hand beneath her chin. “If we’re speaking as if the Hypothesis is true… then the dichotomy of memories may have caused a dissociation leading to the formation of two separately operating identities. Seeing as how Theta was not aware of Francis’s allergy, and Francis was not aware of Theta’s existence and actions up to this point, I’m assuming that they aren’t able to communicate with one another.”

Carl didn’t like how nonchalant Alice was being about his brother’s issue. 

“It’s rare that it happens like that,” Omicron elaborated. “It only happens when there’s a serious disconnect between the two. For example, I still retain my identity both as Charite Haussmann and as Omicron…” She glanced to the side. “Although you could say I’m a rare case of improper initiation turning out in a balanced way.”

Alice’s eyes narrowed. “So Iris McKillop….” 

“Iota is too influenced by McKillop’s vitae and memories,” Omicron replied. “Iota isn’t violent, but McKillop’s psychosis pushes Iota as you can see. Another example of that would be Pi who was incorrectly initiated into Franz Ersatz at the Capricornian-Aquarian border. Ersatz was a very… nationalistic and passionate person, and Pi became the same… Tau, Gamma, and Omega are the only ones who have been initiated properly.”

‘Gamma’? Who the hell was that? Carl was too pissed to even think about that right now. He just wanted to nail Omicron in the face.

“It’s an accident every single time the initiation is improper,” Omicron continued. “We’re not like them. It’s not our intention to steal away an entire person’s life. We wait until they’ve naturally met their end before we reach out. That’s why there’s so few of us operating at a time.”

“The hell are you trying to sound like a saint for?!” Carl growled.

Fortuna placed a hand on his shoulder, stopping him from lunging at Omicron again. 

“So long story short,” Fortuna drew, releasing Carl from her hold, “your resistors store your memories—your souls, what have you—and you take over people whenever you use them.” Her eyes narrowed. “You’re disgusting.”

“The modified conductors you sell fuel wars and death. You end lives before they’ve naturally ended,” Omicron returned. “To me, you’re the disgusting ones.” 

“Am I correct in my assessment that since resistors do not accept new vitae, you are not capable of storing ‘additional memories’— for the lack of a better word— in them?” Alice pressed. “You’re stuck in the same state as you were in when you initially stored your vitae in these resistors.” Her eyes narrowed. “And if you’re using conductors—even if you replenish your vitae reserves through consumption of nutrients—since you usually don’t have the original person’s vitae, you’re slowly burning up your own vitae. Since no vitae can be added when you ‘return’ to the resistor then that means that you’re losing vitae and memories every time the resistor is used.”

“Theta was right,” Omicron noted with a chuckle. “You are a bright girl.”

“You’re whittling away, and you’re laughing.” Alice frowned. “All for what? In retaliation for what happened to Ophiuchus at the end of the war? That’s ludicrous.”

The atmosphere in the room changed suddenly, and a coldness pressed down on the heat that was building at the back of Carl’s neck.

Omicron looked at Alice and seemed to be looking down at her despite the fact that she was sitting below her.  

“How long do you think we’ve existed, little girl?” Omicron asked. “You think something comes into existence exactly when people ‘discover’ it? ELPIS has existed long before it started making headlines in your newspapers.”

Alice frowned, and her shoulders tensed. “You’re saying that you—”

“Ophiuchus was a country founded in a time of peace. There were no enforcers needed to define what peace was. That very idea is what’s ludicrous.” Omicron shifted her gaze to Francis. “I know this because as Omicron my father was one of the founding members of Ophiuchus. I’m sure you understand what I’m saying.”

Alice’s eyes narrowed, expression tightening. “You’re delusional.”

“You look scared, peacekeeper,” Omicron noted. “But you’re a child in all of this, so that’s understandable. I actually think you’re quite brave.”

Alice remained silent. Carl kept looking to Allen for what to do next, but Allen remained as stony-faced as ever.

“Rest assured,” Omicron continued, “there are only twenty-six resistors in existence at the moment. There are—were—only twenty-six of us ELPIS leaders. The other lower members of ELPIS—most don’t have any idea of what the truth about us is. And, well, all twenty-six of us have different viewpoints on what to do with those members. But those are opinions and not fact, and I don’t want to bore you with politics.”

“That’s… absolutely ridiculous,” Alice finally said, pinching the bridge of her nose. She paused, lowered her hand. “And what about Izsak. Wtorek Izsak.” Her eyes were sharp. “Is he…”

“That would be Gamma,” Omicron said evenly.

Alice’s eyes widened a fraction. “You mentioned that name earlier. So that means that the initiation was…”

Omicron studied her face before she frowned sympathetically. “So you were familiar with that peacekeeper then. I’m sorry.”

For a brief flash of a second, Cadence paled out of the corner of Carl’s eye. When he looked at her, however, she simply looked perplexed causing him to wonder if he was just seeing things. 

Alice’s expression did not change. “And was it one of you who did it?”

“No,” Omicron answered evenly, “it wasn’t.” 

Alice fell into silence afterwards. Since she was the one asking the leading questions and seemed to be the only one who knew what all this ‘vitae’ stuff was about, the silence stretched on. 

Finally Francis cleared his throat and asked, “Is there any way to reverse this?” He gestured to his abdomen. If he was disturbed by anything he’d heard, he wasn’t showing it.

Omicron’s gaze softened as she laid eyes on Francis, and she slowly shook her head. “I’m sorry… But it’s alright. Eventually the distinction between your two vitae will fade away.” Her voice was gentle. “I’m sure you’ve already noticed it. Having knowledge you haven’t gained in your personal lifetime. Remembering things that have never happened to you. The same thing is happening to Theta. You will bleed into each other, and—”

That was enough.

Letting out a roar of fury, Carl grabbed the woman and threw her down onto the floor chair and all. “You. Bastard!” He cracked a fist against her face. “How! Dare!” Again. “You act so. Damn. Casual!” Thud, thud, thud. “After what you! Did to my! Brother!”

A gentle hand on the shoulder gave Carl pause. He turned. It was Francis, who was expressionless. But his eyes. They were almost angry

“Enough, Carl.” Before Carl could even form a coherent thought, Francis brushed past him and righted Omicron’s chair. “Being violent won’t solve anything.”

The executives began to whisper amongst themselves which pissed Carl off more but Carl conceded and rubbed his knuckles with a grimace. Omicron merely jerked her head to get some of her hair out of her face and spat blood to the side.

Allen wordlessly pulled a packet of v-cigarettes from his pocket and tapped Carl and then Francis on the side of the arm with it before shaking two v-cigs out. Carl plucked one, ignited it with a flick, and took a drag. Francis glanced at the box, hesitating.

“Ya always were a womanizer even though ya keep saying that you’ll be a bachelor for life,” came a bite followed by a chortle. Cadence. She had been chatting at the peacekeeper for whatever reason after Carl had started his beating and had now stepped in front of them. 

Francis chuckled musically, pulled out the v-cig, lit it, took a drag. 

Cadence was smart, Carl thought. She always knew what to say. 

“Cadence,” Allen addressed her suddenly with a nod, “Francis didn’t have a clue about what’s been goin’ on here which is understandable. But by the sound of it, it seems like Cavallo doesn’t have a clue that its ELPIS that’s after us meaning you didn’t tell him.”

Carl glanced between them in confusion. 

Francis paused and stared at Cadence. “Cadence, you were here before?” He lowered his v-cig. “When?”

“I…” Cadence averted her gaze. It was the first time he’d ever seen her looking so ashamed. “When Allen, Carl, and Fortuna disappeared the first time, I got taken with them. But I disguised myself and managed ta slip out.” 

Fortuna snapped to attention. “Cadence, are you serious right now? You were here with us? And you didn’t tell Cavallo what happened here? The Campanas?”

Francis’s brows knit. “You knew they were being held captive by ELPIS, and you didn’t tell me?”

“I… I’m sorry, Francis,” Cadence stammered. “I… I honestly didn’t know what ta make of it when I saw you actin’ like ya had no idea what was goin’ on. I didn’t know who you were. And Tau—the commissario—knew that I was hidin’ right off the bat, and he threatened me to keep quiet and Alma—”

“Dammit, Cadence!” Carl snapped, grabbing her by the scruff. “The hell’s the matter with you?!

“I didn’t know what ta do!” Cadence snapped back. “I didn’t know what was goin’ on. I’m sorry, okay? What was I supposed ta do?”

“So we’ve really fallen right into their plan…” Francis surmised. He shook his head and took a puff of his v-cig. “Don’t get too worked up, Carl, Fortuna.” He nodded at Cadence. “It’s alright, Cadence. On a personal level, I understand where you’re coming from. On a strictly professional level, on the other hand—”

“It’s alright?” Fortuna parroted. “What about this is ‘alright’? Cadence, you had the perfect opportunity to get us out of this mess—”

“No offense, Fortuna, but how is that the perfect opportunity?” Cadence interjected. “I had no idea— and still don’t have an idea—of where this place is, and Tau had his eye on me. What if something happened to Alma?”

Francis sighed, took a drag. 

“Alma?” Fortuna frowned. “Again?”

“Why are ya surprised?” Cadence asked. “I mean you were practically usin’ her ta make me investigate Francis, Allen, and Carl.”

“I knew it!” Carl growled, jabbing a finger in Fortuna’s direction. “You really did send Cadence after us! What—you can’t even trust us?”

Fortuna frowned. “How do you expect me to react? You were against my engagement to Ambrose from the very beginning. How is that not suspicious? And I needed your support!”

“Well, it’s good that you sent Cadence on ‘em seein’ what’s happened to Francis,” an executive interjected.  

“Shut up!” Fortuna and Carl snapped in unison at the executive, both sending him vehement glowers. 

Allen took a drag of his v-cig. 

The entire ordeal reminded Carl of the old days when they were younger:

Allen would throw a bone out. Cadence would play with it. Carl himself’d bite it. Francis would try to de-escalate and Fortuna would get pissed at Francis for de-escalating because she’d think he was being sly. Nico would cry and try to get them to stop fighting. Cadence would somehow reap the rewards.

It had been their routine for years but since they hadn’t come together in a while, Carl had nearly forgotten about it. 

“That is unacceptable, Morello,” Agape stated, arms crossed as she glowered down at Cadence from her glasses. “You are an associate of the Romano Family. You’re poor decisions have—”

Suddenly, Francis gripped his abdomen with one hand and rubbed his temple with the other. Carl had seen his brother go through these motions before. Francis had been going through them ever since the night he was stabbed. During those bouts of pain, he’d down the doctor’s painkillers and saunter off to bed. Some days, he wouldn’t show face for hours after.

Carl released Cadence immediately. “Shit, Francis, you need your meds?”

Cadence placed a hand on his arm. “Carl, I don’t think that’s what’s happenin’.”

“I believe you are about to switch, Francis,” Alice said. She’d finally come out of whatever silent daze she’d entered earlier and turned to Francis all calm-like. She held her hand out placatingly—to the executives, not to Francis. “Don’t panic.”

Francis stiffened immediately, and he chuckled although he was clearly not amused. “Well, Miss Kingsley, it’s difficult not to panic when you say that…” He trailed off, eyes becoming distant.

“Cadence,” Allen said warningly.

Nodding, Cadence snapped her fingers and disappeared in a flash of copper. Carl shot a quick look back at Omicron but the woman’s gaze was focused solely on Francis. 

“Shit, Francis,” Carl stammered, turning to his brother and gripping him on the shoulder. “You need to fight it or something! Don’t just give i—”

Francis slapped his hand away and shoved him back. Carl did a double-take, glancing back at the others. The executives and Agape skirted backwards nervously, while Allen and Fortuna remained firmly planted in place. When Carl snapped his attention back to his younger brother, Francis was no longer rubbing his temple. He wasn’t gripping his stomach either. Carl stared.

Theta stared back at him. Carl didn’t really know how he knew it wasn’t Francis anymore.  He just did. 

The ELPIS leader took a swift scan of the room, inspected the v-cig in his hands, frowned with mild disgust, sighed. “I see.” 

Without addressing any of them, he unignited the v-cig with a flick of his wrist, placed it down on the game board as he walked past it, and reached Omicron’s side. He placed a hand on the woman’s cheek before undoing her bindings.

“Which one did this to you?” Theta asked once she was free. “Are you alright?” 

“It’s not a big deal.”  Omicron rolled her neck as she rubbed her wrists. Her gaze flicked to the area where Cadence had disappeared but didn’t say anything else. 

“Where is her conductor?” Theta pressed, extending his hand out and waiting. 

Carl grimaced, pulled the clunky thing out from his pocket, turned it over in his hand. Instead of tossing it to Theta, however, Carl walked right up to him and dropped it into Theta’s waiting palm. 

“Oh, you’re much braver than before,” Theta noted, handing the conductor to Omicron. 

“Never ‘fraid to begin with,” Carl grunted. “Be stupid to be afraid of my younger brother.”

“I see.” Disinterest. “You’re a bit too loose-lipped, Omicron.”

Omicron slipped her conductor on with a shrug. “Sorry, darling, you know I love to talk.”

Carl’s gut twisted. 

A beat of silence. 

Suddenly one of the executives stepped forward, brushing past Carl. “Wait, if all you’re saying is true. You ELPIS leaders are… You’re basically immortal.” 

Theta sighed. Omicron cleared her throat. 

“No,” Theta corrected, looking back or the executive, “this is the opposite of immortality. This isn’t even living. We are very much dead. The moment we bleached our vitae, we died. Every time we use our conductors, we burn away at the original vitae that was stored in our resistors. That vitae does not return to the cycle. Eventually, we will burn away completely and become nothingness.”

“Vitae cycle?” The executive scoffed. “Who cares about that?” He closed the distance between them and grabbed hold of Theta’s arm. “Hell, if that’s the case then sign me right up. I have the connections. I can make this organization big!”

Carl started forward without thinking, prying the executive from Theta and shoving the bastard to the ground. Omicron, meanwhile, pulled Theta backwards and stepped in front of him with a set frown. For a brief moment, Carl made eye contact with the woman.

Theta brushed past Omicron and stared down at the executive. “You want to join ELPIS?”

The executive swallowed.

“Let me show you what we plan to do here,” Theta drew, “and if you can stomach it then perhaps you show promise.”

Theta sank down to a crouch and placed his gloved hand onto the floor. It was painted entirely black, Carl realized. And in an instant, that blackness beneath them became engulfed in tangerine light and a cold wind rushed at them from below. A weightlessness tickled Carl’s stomach before the light faded and Carl was left in darkness. 

It took just a second for Carl to realize that they were all outside. 

The starless night sky unfolded above him, and for the first time in weeks Carl was able to breathe in fresh air.  Shitty tasting and smelling fresh air, but fresh air nonetheless. The wind was harsh, cold, biting.

Carl stumbled forward in the dark—and nearly stumbled off of a ledge and plummeted down into the open air below. Allen caught him by the arm and pulled him up right. 

They were standing on the tip of one the spires of the Dioscuri bridge. The v-train station was just below them and just below that were the glittering night lights of the city. From the surface of the bridge, the lights and people had looked like ants. From the tip of this spire though, they looked like specks of dust.

“This city is too entrenched in corruption…”

Theta’s voice was carried by the howling winds, and Carl turned to find his brother standing on the very edge of spire. He was facing the city and pointing outwards with a book. The book was open with its spine facing up. 

“Sometimes there are no other options. Some things cannot be salvaged.”

Theta flipped the book over so that its pages now faced the sky. He balanced the book carefully, holding it so that the city that stretched out before them was held on its pages. 

“We will take the modified conductors we’ve taken from you and your warehouses and take them to the vitae reservoirs. We’ll fill the city with them.”

He slowly closed the book as a smile took the corner of his lips. 

“And this city will sink by them.”

He turned to them, to the executive who was still on the ground.

“And while we will save the children who have been taken advantage of due to these conductors, you will be set at the center stage. We will see this to the end even if we have to sink ourselves. Are you willing to make that sacrifice, Mr. Etoile?”

“T-That’s insane,” the executive stammered

“That’s punishment.”

There was another flash of tangerine light from beneath Carl’s feet, followed by another rush of cold air, and then he was back in that windowless room. All of them were— though Carl had no idea if Cadence managed to escape or if she was still with them. 

But as Carl counted heads, he realized there were two extras with them not including Cadence. A man and a woman were sitting at the game table which was now stacked high with the open pastry boxes. The commissario and Omega.

“What the hell is going on here?!” the commissario snapped, leaping to his feet when he saw them. He jabbed a finger in Carl’s direction. “Why are they out of their restraints?!”

Omega flipped her hair, plucked a nut pastry from the box, and began to nibble on it. “It looks like they went on a fun trip together, doesn’t it?

“We ran into some technicalities as people call it nowadays, but everything is fine now,” Omicron explained. She studied Theta’s face. “We should take you to Lambda.” She said glancing in Allen’s direction. “You had an allergy attack. I’m not sure how long the epinephrine will last.”

“You look like you’re in poorer shape than I am,” Theta responded. 

“Then we can both go,” Omicron said lightheartedly. 

“Wait a minute,” Tau snapped, gesturing wildly to Carl and those who stood beside him. “What about them?”

Omicron lifted her conductor and flicked her hand in their direction. The ropes scattered on the floor which were doused with her blood from her beating earlier glowed white and flew towards Carl and the others. In an instant, they were back in their chairs just as bound as before. No, it was tighter now. Back to square one. 

“Before we go, I would like to finish the initiation,” Theta said. “Now that the details are known.”

Omicron and Tau froze.

Carl didn’t like the sound of that either. 

“Theta,” Tau said, “are you sure? I mean, you have Francis’s face and eventually, you’ll have some of his memories. We could still use that. His position. Or at least—”

“Shall I have it put in a place where it can’t be seen then? Like yours?” Theta asked.

Tau grimaced. “That’s not what I…”

“I understand where you’re coming from, Tau. And I understand your reasoning,” Theta said gently, “but I don’t want to have a place where I can return to. A reason to hesitate.” 

Omicron placed a hand on his shoulder, and her expression folded. “Are you really sure…?”

Theta sank down to one knee in front of her in response.

“Where would you like it?” 

Theta smiled. “I thought we already decided where ours would be. You were the one who suggested it.”

Omicron returned the expression. “I was just seeing if you still remembered.”

“You’re a ridiculous person.” Theta sighed before placing a hand over his chest and bowing his head.

The room’s atmosphere changed suddenly, and Carl almost felt as if he was in one of his executive meetings. Formal, reverent, professional. Ceremonial. 

Omicron asked Theta something in a language that Carl couldn’t understand. Theta responded back in that same language as he lifted his head. Omicron held out her ungloved hand to Tau. The commissario walked over to her, pulled out a knife from his belt, and cut into her palm. Unflinchingly, Omicron dipped her gloved finger into the blood that began to pool in her hand. She then began to trace something with her finger onto the right side of his face which was turned away from Carl. 

Instantly, Carl realized what was happening.  He didn’t know jack about vitae and still didn’t know jack about ELPIS, but he still had enough smarts to put two and two together. 

Carl struggled against his bindings, but he already knew it was too late.

Omicron’s gloved hand hovered over the right half of Theta’s face and a pale white glow began to emit from it. When the light faded, Omicron lowered her hand and Theta rose to a stand. The two stared at each, exchanged a couple more words in that language, before both inclining their heads.

Tau wiped his blade clean and slipped it back into his belt. Omega gave a small, cheery clap from where she sat in her chair, and Tau followed suit. 

“It looks good,” Omega hummed. “Congratulations!”

Theta turned towards Omega. And Carl no longer felt angry. He just felt sick.

A white snake tattoo divided by a slew of foreign letters consumed the right side of his brother’s face. 

“Omega,” Theta said, placing a hand on the woman’s shoulder. “I have a new warehouse location I would like you to place your mediums in and use my proto-conductor at.”

Omega did a loose salute. “You know you can always rely on me, Theta.”

Theta seemed to tighten her grip on Omega’s shoulder. “You should be careful when you go outside without traveling with my gates. The peacekeeper with the suitcase is in the city now.”

Omega saluted again.

Theta chuckled, musical. 

After exchanging a couple more words with the other ELPIS leaders, Theta and Omicron left in a flash of pale tangerine side-by-side. Omega shoved the rest of the pastries into her mouth before she too flipped a proto-conductor in hand and disappeared into a portal she opened with it. 

“See you next time, Tau,” Omega sang before she disappeared. “Enjoy the extra guest!”

And that left Tau, the bastard commissario, formerly Vincente Giustizia, sitting at the game board table. He glowered at them. 

“You certainly chose a poor host didn’t you, Tau,” Agape finally said tersely. “Though I have to admit that this is an improvement.”

Tau arched a brow. “So they told you.” He clicked his tongue and shook his head as he loosened his tie. “Vincente Giustizia was stabbed in an alleyway outside of the Casa several months ago. By one of your workers, Agape Rosario. He bled out two blocks away from the hospital which was where Lambda used my resistor on him.”

“Bastard deserved it,” Carl grumbled. Francis didn’t. 

“I agree,” Tau said. “Which is why I didn’t press charges against that Blanca Murio, though I’m sure she had enough of a punishment when she saw me up and walking.” Abruptly he snapped to attention and began to jab a finger at them. “And you bastards aren’t any better!”

 And thus began another lengthy tirade. One that Carl didn’t really tune into. Instead, his mind drifted to Francis. They could fix this somehow, right? Undo it. There had to be a way.

“She’s here, isn’t she?” Tau abruptly asked, after taking five minutes to recollect himself.  “Omega is a Manipulator, and she’s very good at manipulating items that can serve as  observational mediums.” He scanned the room. “I’m talking to you, Morello. ‘Extra guest’.”

There was a beat of silence. 

“I don’t give a damn about how you got in here, Morello, but the only way you’re getting out of here is through me,” Tau snapped, arms on hips. He patted his suit coat pocket. “I have proto-conductor stored with Theta’s vitae here, and I sure as hell know you don’t have one—”

There was a shimmer of copper right beside the commissario, and he leaped backwards as Cadence appeared there. 

“So ya’ve got that Omega doll under your wing for your mutiny spiel?” Cadence popped. 

“Why are you back here, Morello?” Tau snapped, straightening his tie and pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “And it’s not a damn mutiny spiel.” He recollected himself again and turned to her with narrowed eyes. “What I give a damn about is whether you have information about Omicron and the Campanas. If you don’t then you and your Alma—”

“All I know is what their product is,” Cadence said evenly. 

“Their product?”

“I don’t know much about Theta and Omicron or about their relationship,” Cadence explained, “but the product is probably why Omicron’s tryna handle the Campanas herself down under.”

“Just get to the damned point, you short, yapping, ginger raccoon.”

“You’re gettin’ really good with your insults,” Cadence noted before she held up her hands placatingly and elaborated. “Their sellin’ Specialists…” She grimaced, lowering hands which indicated to Carl that it wasn’t going to be pretty. “Specialist children. Probably orphans or kids whose parents sold ‘em—”

Tau slapped a hand over her mouth. He placed a finger to his lips and waited for Cadence to nod before he detached himself. “You’re one hundred percent sure about this?”

Cadence nodded, eyes wide.

Carl grimaced. The Campanas were bastards through and through. He knew he wasn’t a good man. He knew he wasn’t a smart man. But even he knew that selling children was a one-way ticket to hell. 

The commissario looked like he was about to keel over. He pressed one hand to his mouth and one hand to his forehead. “No, no, no. Damn.” He sank into the chair beside the makeshift table and bit his fist. “You’re disgusting…. All of you. I hope when this city sinks into that damn bay, all of you drown in the damn ocean.” He shook his head. “If Theta finds out in this condition then…”

He rose to a stand, shoved Cadence aside, and paced over to them. “If any of you value your damned lives, you better keep your mouths shut. If you think you’re suffering enough punishment now then you’re in for a big damned surprised.” He whipped around to Cadence. “And you—”

Cadence had made it over to the wall and was now spinning an item in her hands. It looked like the proto-conductor they were using to open portals. 

Tau’s hand immediately went to his suit pocket. His eyes widened. “You—”

Cadence twirled the proto-conductor in-between her fingers and tapped it against the wall. Tau made it to the wall just in time for Cadence to slip through the portal she’d made there. The portal closed as soon as she stepped through it leaving Tau to crash against the wall. 


Resistors are items we use in order to continue our goal of preventing the syzygy. Inside of them resides everything that makes us ourselves. Our souls, our memories, our vitae. Using these resistors on a recently deceased individual will allow our vitae and therefore—in a sense—they will become us. The ethics and effectiveness of this is constantly debated, but we hope that we will only have to continue this for a short while longer.

10.08.1601, Entry 105, ELPIS Records

10.[]-1: A Brother’s Greed (Carità)

Re-cap: Allen Foxman has been captured by ELPIS alongside Carl Foxman and Fortuna Romano. They discover that Caporegime of the Romano Family Agape Rosario and several other lower-tier executives have also been captured alongside them. A man who calls himself Theta and wears Francis Foxman’s face is among ELPIS’s leaders. And although Cadence has made her escape from the exitless room, Allen and the others remain in ELPIS’s clutches. The truth of ELPIS is just around the corner.  

(    )

The Foxman Family had its founding roots in a small and insignificant town in Aries. A place not even worth naming. Better to bury it. Because at the time it wasn’t so much of a ‘Family’ as it was a ‘family’.  Frankly, in Allen’s opinion, it wasn’t much of a family either. 

The Reservoir War broke across the country a week after his birth. As his father liked to put it later, Allen’s birth was the “catalyst for misfortune.” Even now Allen wasn’t sure if the man had been referring to the war or the forced marriage that came following his conception. Probably both. 

Allen hated his father to his very core. When he was younger, Allen couldn’t really wrap his head around the feeling. As he grew older, he couldn’t wrap his head around why he’d feel something towards someone who was his father. Realization eclipsed at adolescence:

The man who he called father was a bastard with a hair-trigger temper. Whenever the man would return from the battlefront on leave, the first thing he’d do was demand his mother for the stipend that came with his mandatory service which he’d spend on booze while they were left hungry. Then he’d demand a warm meal and some “special time” alone with her leaving Allen to care for Carl by himself for many long nights. 

Eventually, all of that ‘special time’ led to his mother’s third pregnancy. 

At the time of Carl’s birth, Allen was too young to understand the economic ramifications that came with a new life being added to the mixture. At Francis’s birth, however, Allen understood that his mother wouldn’t be able to work in the factories anymore since she’d have to look after both Carl and Francis. What a moron, Allen had thought as he worked the factories on an empty stomach. Just another mouth to feed. 

But one night Allen peered in Francis’s crib and his brother reached out for him with his small, grubby hands. Absentmindedly, Allen had extended his index finger out in turn. And when Francis wrapped his tiny little hand around that finger, Allen knew he was screwed. 

Allen began to worry as he grew older and neared the conscription age. He wasn’t worried about dying in the war. He worried about the repercussions of his death. What would happen to his mother, what would happen to his brothers. What would they do if he wasn’t there to stand between them and his father?

It reached a boiling point when Allen returned from factory work one day to find his father home on leave and making his presence known. His father was making work of his favorite wooden chair, beating down on Carl who was covering Francis with his own body. His mother was cowering in the corner looking away and sobbing. Without hesitation, Allen had leaped in his father, wrestling the chair away from him only to be knocked to the ground and beaten with another wooden chair. Allen at the time hadn’t been thinking about his own pain. He’d been thinking of his brothers’ pain, thinking about how no one would step in for them when he was gone.

“You were an accident,” his father had grumbled when he had gotten in enough swings, “but your brothers were a damn mistake.”

And that was more than enough. 

On a cool summer night, Allen packed his brothers’ belongings in a small knapsack. He snuck into his parents’ room, collected the large wads of Ariesian bills out from where his father hid them beneath the floorboards, and placed a kiss on his sleeping mother’s cheeks. He ripped a newspaper article detailing how the Twin Cities of Gemini was becoming a booming economic center from the nightstand. Read it over. Picked Francis up, held Carl’s hand, and left that house without looking back. 

It took them five v-trains and a lot of walking to reach the Twin Cities of Gemini. Allen rented a small place by the docks with the money he’d taken from his father and informed his brothers that this was now home. 

A couple days later Allen managed to snag a job as a laborer at the docks. It was cheap labor, but money was money. The boss liked him well enough and soon he shot up in the hierarchy. In between his working hours, he’d teach Francis and Carl to the best of his abilities. School things. His brothers weren’t going to grow up dumb as bricks, that was for sure. 

Of course, despite all of Allen’s lessons, Carl still liked to solve things with his fists. Francis was not as much of a lost cause. But neither used the textbooks to figure out how to bring more money to the table. 

Sometimes Carl would beat the daily allowance out of the rich kids who would swagger through the streets pretending to be street rats. Other times, Francis would come home with pockets full of miscellaneous items like pocket watches, gold jewelry, and earrings. Allen never questioned either of them. Money was money.

One day Francis brought home an expensive-looking deck of cards. He said it was a gift from a friend and taught Allen and Carl a game he’d learned from that from. So, they started playing card games to pass the time. Even started talking about future job prospects. Opening up a shop of their own. Maybe a bar. Allen knew those dreams were childish, but his brothers’ eyes were full of that stupid naivety so he fed into the delusions. A couple of days later, Francis brought home the friend. 

“She’s from Aries,” Francis had said. “Like us.”

The orange-haired little girl with the freckled cheeks introduced herself as Cadence Morello and then happily helped herself to their pot roast dinner for the night.  

Another mouth to feed.

But Cadence contributed more than enough to the household. She’d bring home pockets full of all kinds of currency, apples, peaches, jewelry, and ingredients Allen would request. Allen never questioned her. Money was money. 

Cadence later introduced them to a seventeen-year-old named Brussi. He ran a pickpocketing gang of similarly-aged boys and girls on the east side of the city and had recently taken up a morrowheat smuggling job for a larger gang in the area. He wanted to borrow the warehouse for a couple of days to store the product in exchange for money. 

It was a risk, Allen had thought at the time. He could lose his job and get fired. But then Allen had thought of Francis’s worn-down shoes, had thought of Carl’s raggedy shirt, and had realized a simple fact. Money was money. 

“How about I offer you something better?” Allen had asked, sealing his and his brothers’ fate—maybe, Cadence’s too. “Work for me, and you can use the warehouse any time you’d like. Pay you extra too.”

After some thinking, Brussi had accepted the deal, bringing his gang into Allen’s personal fold. Their ring of delinquents grew and soon they had absorbed the entirety of the Pollux Bay. It wasn’t that soon after that that they were approached by Ricardo Romano and Bendetto.

***

The night Francis was stabbed they had been fighting.  All three of them. Fighting over what to do with the Campanas. Francis had left to cool his head but instead got a knife to the gut. 

Allen knew they had chosen this life, and this was one of the risks that was in the contract. Going into this business without expecting an outcome like that was stupid. Still, on that night, Allen had spent over a quarter of his secondary savings getting Francis treated and another quarter of it hunting down the elusive perpetrators.

Money was money, but family was family. 

Francis had latter politely berated Allen for spending so much money on him after he had recovered.

But Allen figured he hadn’t spent enough. Because… he knew something wasn’t right with Francis after the incident. And it wasn’t PTSD or trauma like the old doc said. It was something else. It had been just a feeling at first—that something was off. It was like one of those ‘spot the difference’ puzzles Nico like to play with Fortuna when they’d been younger. And Allen knew that money wouldn’t be able to resolve this issue. 

***

And then Allen found himself captured by ELPIS and at the mercy of Francis who was playing the character Theta. Francis spouted nonsense about not being Francis, but Allen knew his brother well enough to know that was not the case.

Not long after a disguised Cadence had left with the commisario’s group following their capture, the women called Omega and Iota also left. Omicron eventually left too, leaving ‘Theta’ alone with them. Theta spent the most time out of all the ELPIS leaders within the exitless room. 

But Theta didn’t do much except read when he was there. He was shockingly—almost laughably—lethargic. He would often sit in one place for hours without moving while flipping through books. Other times, he would drape himself half across the makeshift game table, prop a book up on its edge, and continue on reading that way. Once he’d even laid across the floor. 

There were only two times that Theta would show a hint of energy. The first was whenever the brats from Matilda’s gang would come. The second would be whenever Omicron would stop by. 

Omicron would always bring gifts when she visited. Mostly books and food—although Francis had never been a bookworm nor a foodie. They were expensive gifts. Books hand-bound in leather with embossed pages, sometimes studded with gems. Delicacies straight out of a Cancerian five-star restaurant. Patisseries and gold-dusted dishes, all served on silver platters. 

Theta accepted all the gifts graciously and spent Omicron’s visits dining with her at the board game table. They’d whisper to each other quietly, but not quietly enough for Allen not to overhear.

“You’re a ridiculous person,” Theta’d say. 

“I haven’t seen you in such a long time. If I didn’t do this, then I’d be ridiculous,” Omicron would reply.

Omicron was ‘generous’ enough to offer them the food she’d brought along. But she didn’t have the decency to untie them so that they could feed themselves.  

The peacekeeper—Alice or something—would refuse every single meal Omicron brought. “It’s most likely that their way of using conductors is through vitae particles in the blood,” Alice informed them coolly. “It’s unorthodox, but if that is the case then consuming that—well—I’m sure you’re able to picture the consequences of that. You’ve seen it with that Amaril person.”

That was disgusting. But given what had happened to Amaril, Allen figured the other executives and himself had already been screwed over by it much earlier so he helped himself to the meals. It was free. 

Overhearing her, Theta had said, “You really are clever. I did do that to the other executives, but I assure you that this food is perfectly uncontaminated.”

Casual conversation was rare with Theta. Most of the time, he’d only ask about the locations of their other warehouses. During the questionings, he would send the interrogated’s limbs, fingers,  and sometimes even their heads through one of his flashy portals. Allen had no idea where those things went, but whenever one of the interrogated would have their head put through one, they’d start running their mouth immediately upon their return. 

Allen, Carl, Fortuna, and Agape had yet to be subjected to the torture. Allen supposed that just meant that Theta really wasn’t suited for ELPIS. 

***

One day a girl from Matilda’s gang whom Allen vaguely recognized stumbled into the room from the light-doors in a flurried panic. She was very small with a clean face and hair that was carefully combed. She certainly didn’t look like she wandered the streets. ELPIS must’ve been taking very good care of her, Allen figured. 

Theta was the only ELPIS leader present at the time and had set his book down as the girl rushed to him. The girl was cradling something in her hands and held it to him with hopeful eyes.

“C-Can you help him?” she stammered, voice wavering. 

“What happened?” Theta asked, sinking down and inspecting what was in her hand.

“Some of the boys on the street were throwing rocks at him, and he got hit.” The girl peered into his face. “Can you help him?”

Theta silently held out his hands, and the girl placed what was in hers into his. It was light, small, round, feathery. A bird. 

“He’s already gone,” Theta concluded without hesitation. 

The girl’s face crumbled and tears began to form. “No… oh no…”

He’d certainly gotten rusty with his people skills, Allen thought. 

“It’s nothing to be sad about,” Theta said, cupping his hands around the bird fully and concealing it from sight. “All that has happened is that this part for him has ended. His vitae will leave his body and rejoin the cycle of vitae.”

There was a soft tangerine glow in Theta’s cupped palm, and when he opened his hands, the bird was gone. Up from his open palms floated orange orbs of light. Fireflies. 

“That’s the ultimate fate for everything that contains, vitae,” Theta continued, the light from the insects casting warm light onto his face. “Nothing ever ends. Not really. It just becomes a part of something else.” 

“So, maybe,” the girl sniffled, “in one cycle… parts of you and parts of me will be together…?” 

Theta’s smile dropped slightly. “Not everything returns to the cycle, Lia… Some things are spliced out from the cycle and can never return. Once these things leave, their only fate is nothingness.”

“N-Nothingness?”

“Do you want to become nothingness, Lia? To disappear forever when you die?”

Lia shook her head. 

Theta smiled thinly and then placed his hands on the girl’s cheeks. “Good. Then you shouldn’t listen when the others ask if you want to join ELPIS. Whatever color is inside of you is what makes you you, Lia. A very beautiful color. You will make whatever you become a part of very beautiful. You will paint your existence into everything.”

Lia raised a hand and clutched Theta’s. “And you and Omicron?”

Theta pulled away his hand. “The moment you choose to become ELPIS,  you become nothingness. The moment your vitae becomes white is the moment you can never go back. When you die, there will be nothing of you left. Do you want that?”

Lia shook her head vigorously.

Theta reached up to wipe the remnants of tears from her eyes. “Good, girl. Now, go back to the library and read those books I told you to read.” 

The girl nodded again, catching one of the fireflies in hand before she left the room through a glowing doorway. Theta stared at the wall after she disappeared, the fireflies still floating around his head. 

“How are you able to get people to join your ranks?” Alice asked suddenly. “Since you’re so adamant about not having people join your ranks.”

Theta slowly turned, drifted over to the woman, stared down at her. “How are you able to recruit people to join your peacekeeping organization…? How are you able to call yourself a peacekeeper…? Do you think you’re keeping the peace? You ask me all of these questions without questioning yourself.” 

“You must really think lowly of us peacekeeping agents,” Alice returned, “if you think we don’t question our purpose and effectiveness.”

“It’s only natural…” Theta replied after a beat. “Someone who wasn’t born in a time of peace wouldn’t have the knowledge to implement a time of peace. You can use references, but if you’ve never experienced it, it’s still impossible. It was convoluted from the very start.”

Rather than lethargic, Allen realized as he listened to Theta continue on and on, it was more like he was gloomy. 

“… So you truly operate soley based off of the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis,” Alice drew. 

Allen had no clue what that meant. Didn’t look like Carl—unsurprisingly—Fortuna, Agape, or any of the other executives had any idea either. 

“‘Hypothesis’ implies that it has yet to be proved,” Theta replied. “This is no hypothesis. It is law.” 

“Laws are things that have rigorous research behind them proving that they are true without a reasonable doubt,” Alice said coolly. “From my knowledge, that isn’t the case with the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis.”

Theta stared at her. “Is it customary for a peacekeeper to be this stubborn?” 

“I just want to understand,” Alice amended. “Your hate for conductors, your actions, your leaders, your wayward recruitment strategies—what exactly is your goal?”

Theta considered her question with a hand on the chin. “…While our goals may be lost in translation as more people join our ranks, our end goal is to prevent the syzygy.” He seemed to be talking more to himself than to anyone else. “And because of that those disgusting generator conductors and vitae reservoirs need to be destroyed… and those True Conductors….” 

“The syzygy?” Alice pressed. “What is that? A religious event in your belief system?”

Theta chuckled, sounding hollow. “If we were to speak in such terms, I would call it an apocalyptic event.” 

*** 

Allen first witnessed how ELPIS solved their internal arguments and issues when the commissario and Iota started yapping about what to do with their underling in the Campana family. They shouted at each other for about fifteen minutes before settling in front of the game board and playing in silence. At the end of it, the commissario one and Iota agreed with a scowl to his choice. 

Allen personally found it ridiculous to solve problems with a board game. It made no sense. You could be cheated out by your opponent just like that. But ELPIS didn’t seem to fill their ranks with cheaters. Surprisingly, every person who played the game seemed to play fairly and honestly, regardless of how long the game took. Even Theta played by the rules which was a unique sight to see. 

***

“I’ll tell you where our warehouses are. The ones the other executives don’t know,” Fortuna said one day. “On a set of conditions.”

Omega and Theta were the only two present when she said this and turned away from their board game with mutual surprise.

While Agape sent Fortuna a whisper of protest, Allen kept his mouth shut.

“I said you knew what your position was before,” Theta said, turning back to the game and moving a playing piece, “but if you’re saying those things, perhaps my initial assessment was incorrect—”

“A game. The game you’re playing right now,” Fortuna interjected. “For every game you win, I’ll answer exactly one question. It could be a question about one warehouse. It could be a question about one of anything.” She lifted her chin. “But for every game I win, you have to answer one question for me.”

Agape now looked like she was about to keel over. Carl looked baffled.  

Omega chuckled airily, covering her hand with her mouth. “Are you sure about that? Only Omicron has ever won while playing a game against Theta, and she’s only won about two percent of their matches.” 

Fortuna lifted her chin. “Those odds seem fine to me.”

Theta gave a hum of thought. “Okay. It would be more reasonable to gain information this way instead of through torture. More civilized.”

“But I’d like to move the table in front of them,” Fortuna continued, nodding her head up and down the row.

This gave Theta pause. “Why?”

“Cheating,” Fortuna stated. 

“Cheating?” 

“If you’re cheating then my associates will be able to catch you,” Fortuna said evenly. “I’m already at a disadvantage since I’ve never played before, and I don’t want to increase my disadvantages.”

“And if you cheat?”

“Then maybe I’d even the playing field.”

A chuckle, musical. “That’s acceptable.”

Omega undid Fortuna’s bindings while Theta moved over the make-shift table, chairs, and game board. The books making up the make-shift table were mostly history books—there were multiple editions of Countries of Signum—and a handful of journals with faded and archaic dates listed on the spine. 

Theta explained the rules of the game which was called ‘Itero Recino’ Fortuna. Each side had twenty-six different pieces, and each piece could move a certain way. Eaten pieces were removed from the table. But if you captured an opponent piece that was the same type of piece as one that the opponent had previously captured from you, you received the opponent piece and your captured piece back. It seemed simple but convoluted at the same time. 

As expected, Fortuna lost the first round. The first round itself lasted thirty minutes, and at the end of it Fortuna offered up information on one of the Romano Family’s higher-tier warehouses. A warehouse that even Allen had no knowledge of.

But instead of focusing on Fortuna’s losses, Allen focused on Theta’s motions. Every single person had ticks they weren’t aware of. Maybe they’d lick their lips when they did a particular action. Maybe they’d run their hands through their hair when nervous or look up when lying. In the end, a person’s habits were their downfall. And with a bit of observation and underhanded hand-signaling to Fortuna on their end, she could probably win at least one round.

Fortuna lost three more rounds before Theta suddenly excused himself and left the room in a flash of tangerine light. Omega hummed to herself as she retied Fortuna to her chair, while Agape and the other executives kept silent dread. The Romano Family had divulged the location of three high-tier conductor warehouses in a span of four hours, after all. Lots of money down the drain. 

Theta returned some unknown hours later but did not engage in another game. He did the next time though, and Fortuna lost again. Game, read, game, read. He flipped between the two as if the results didn’t matter to him. Gradually, however, the length of the games became longer and longer until they started lasting over an hour.

One day Theta came back looking worse for wear. He stumbled in hair dripping with rainwater and was for once not dressed in his usual turtleneck sweater. Instead, he wore a suit. A familiar-looking suit. After drying himself off, he undid Fortuna’s bindings and they continued their game from the last time.

“What makes you think you’re so much better than us?” Fortuna asked suddenly as she ate one of his pieces. “You do terrible things that would send normal people to mental hospitals, but you justify it by saying it’s ‘necessary’. People like us are the same way. We do things because we view what we do as ‘necessary’. Our intentions may be different but the results are the same.”

Theta stared at her. “You haven’t won a game yet but you’re asking questions.” 

Fortuna tensed. Swallowed. 

“But yes, that is certainly a valid point,” he finally said, returning his attention to the game board. “While you are domestic terrorists, we are international terrorists. That’s set in stone. I’ve read the articles about the things we as ELPIS have done in the past. The real question is whether or not the ends justify the means…” 

He stopped short, stared up at the ceiling.

“The more I think about it, the more uncertain I become. The easiest answer would be to not think about it at all, but that would be irresponsible. Perhaps….” He mumbled something into his hand. “Yes, that’s not so bad. There’s hope in that. And hope is all that is needed. For them. Perhaps not in your viewpoint but in ours—rather, mine. But still that seems too easy… ”

“What the hell is he talking about,” Carl whispered beside him. 

A flash of light and an updraft of air cut Theta’s ramblings off short.

It was Omicron, entering the room with two large white pastry boxes in hand. She hadn’t come around these past several days, and Allen had assumed that she’d died in a ditch somewhere. 

Theta turned back to look at her. After a moment, he asked, “What’s wrong?”

“We ran into that suitcase peacekeeper again,” Omicron said with a grimace. “I had to take Iota to Lambda.”

Alice’s eyes narrowed. 

“That peacekeeper is dangerous,” Omicron muttered, “and Ophiuchus’s increased their agents here. Our gate in front of the Casa is completely blocked off. I also spent the last of your vitae in the proto-conductor….”

“I can refill it for you,” Theta replied offhandedly. 

“Thanks—but I do have good news,” Omicron continued, falling into step beside him. She popped open one of white boxes revealing a collection of assorted pastries. She paused,  blinked at Fortuna as if finally noticing her, and then stared down at the game board. “What’s going on?”

“Fortuna Romano challenged me to a match of Itero Recino in exchange for information,” Theta replied. “I felt a bit nostalgic so I agreed.” 

“Oh… How many times have you won already?” Omicron inspected the board with mild interest.

“If I win this one, it will be ten,” Theta replied. “But she is a quick learner.”

Omicron’s gaze flicked to Allen and the rest of the executive line up before she frowned. She followed Carl’s gaze to Theta’s hand, and her frown deepened. Instead of addressing anything, however, she plucked a flaky pastry topped with glazed nuts from the box and held it out for him. 

Allen tensed.

“Open,” she ordered. “While it’s still fresh.”

Theta sighed. “You’re a ridiculous person.” But he opened his mouth anyways, and she popped it in. He chewed a bit and gave a nod of approval. “It’s good.”

Allen felt the tension leave his body immediately. He shifted his gaze away from their intimacy. 

“Darling, what’s wrong?!”

Allen snapped up and found Omicron kneeling on the ground beside Theta. Theta himself had a dazed look in his eyes, and his face was beginning to be consumed by red splotches. His breathing was hard, shallow. 

It was all too familiar.

“I…” Theta’s face contorted. “I can’t breathe…”

“Saints, Allen….” Carl whispered from beside him. “He’s got a…”

A peanut allergy1.

Theta clutched his chest and began to slide off of the chair towards Omicron. Omicron caught him in alarm and lowered him to the ground, while Fortuna shot up to a stand and took several steps back.

“C-Conductor,” Omicron stammered. “Use your conductor. We have to get you to Lambda.”

Theta didn’t respond. Merely grimaced.

Allen bit the inside of his mouth, tested the bindings Cadence had loosened for him, and without hesitation tore right out of them2. He rubbed his wrists as he rose to a stand, ignoring Agapes’ gape and Fortuna’s stares, and then went immediately over to Theta and Omicron’s side.

Omicron blinked up at him in a confused and panicked daze before realization flashed across her face. She raised a conductor-gloved hand warningly. Allen grabbed her wrist, and she shoved him away in response. He returned the gesture right back at her. 

“Enough. It’s an allergic reaction,” Allen stated, keeping his voice even. “You want him to die or do you want him to live?”

She stared back at him tense, glanced down at Theta whose breathing was getting shallower, and pulled her arms away from him with a nod. Allen reached into his pants pocket in response and pulled out a small case no bigger than his palm. He flipped it open, showed her the vial labeled epinephrine and the syringe within. 

Allen had the doc and Nico teach him how to use this years ago after Francis had gotten his first allergy attack after Francis and Cadence robbed a candy store and inhaled their rewards. After that incident, Allen made Carl, Nico, and Cadence carry a case of medicine with them at all times, but once Francis had identified what his allergy was, he asked them to stop carrying it. Instead, he carried one himself. “It was expensive,” Francis had said at the time while insisting that Allen stop carrying it too. But Allen figured that the hospital bill for Francis would be even larger if he didn’t have one of these on him all the time. And so, he had been constantly keeping one of these on his person for the past couple of years.

Allen stared down at Theta, studied his face, met his glazed eyes, reached a decision. He swiftly filled the syringe and carefully injected it into Theta’s thigh muscle. He sat back afterwards, pocketing everything carefully. 

“Wait,” Omicron pressed, pulling the still shallowly breathing Theta onto her lap. “What now?”

“Well, usually we take him to the hospital or the doctors after so they can make sure everything’s fine.” 

“I can’t,” Omicron said, eyes wide. “I don’t have a proto-conductor with Theta’s vitae. I need Theta’s vitae in it in order for it to work, and Theta’s in no condition to use a conductor. We’re stuck here until one of the others comes back.”

“Then we wait,” Allen replied calmly. “It takes a while for epi to get working. He’s still breathing and awake. Probably just anxious. There’s no point in panicking.”

“How can you be like that when he’s—”

“He’s what?”. 

Omicron’s eyes widened. She looked away from Allen and refocused her attention on Theta. Hesitantly, she raised her hands to Theta’s face and began to whisper things to him in a language Allen had never heard of before.

She really was in love with him. 

Damn.

A couple of minutes passed with them like that. Fortuna had moved back to sit on her chair, while Allen remained seated where he was. Theta’s breathing gradually became even as the minutes ticked on, and some of the redness began to leave his face. He seemed to gain some of his alertness back because he lifted his gloveless hand to press against his eyes. A groan escaped from his mouth, and a grimace pressed his face as he lifted his hand away. 

Relief broke across Omicron’s face immediately, and she placed a hand to his cheek. “Darling, I—” A hand on the wrist stopped her short.

A perplexed expression folded across Theta’s face as he gripped Omicron’s wrist and studied her. And then studied the left half of her face. His eyes widened, and he immediately pulled away from her, still gripping her wrist.

“What kind of joke is this?” he asked, tone even. 

Omicron paled. 

Allen studied Francis for a beat before he tried, “Francis?”

The man whipped to attention immediately, eyes widening in recognition, confusion, relief. “Allen? You’re…. ” He released Omicron and rose to a stand as his gaze swept to those behind him. “Carl… Fortuna… and Miss Rosario. You’re all… alive.” It looked like a weight had come off his shoulders. 

Out of the corner of his eye, Allen could see Carl and Fortuna exchanging looks. 

Still tense and keeping an eye on the frozen Omicron, Allen stood up and jerked his head towards his youngest brother. Francis arched a brow in turn and cautiously walked over to him, scanning the room with terribly masked confusion. The bindings, the board game, the books, the lack of windows and doors—Allen knew that Francis was taking it all in and trying to make heads-or-tails of it.

“What is this?” Francis asked. “Where is this? What’s going on? Are you—”

Allen gripped Francis’s shoulders tightly, stopping him short. “Francis.” 

Francis arched a brow. “Yeah, Allen, what’s—”

“Francis,” Carl snapped, drawing Francis’s attention. “You’re Francis?” 

Francis stared at him. “Who else would I be?” He paused, startled. “Carl, you look like you’ve been hit by a v-ehicle. What the hell happened?”  

Carl’s face lit up instantly. “I knew it! I knew you weren’t some look-alike, and I knew you weren’t really with ELPIS. It’s that damn Omicron. That Manipulator!”

“… Manipulator? ELPIS….?” Francis glanced at Allen.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Agape muttered. “So you’re not Theta?”

“Theta?” 

“We’re being held by the real deal ELPIS,” Allen said plainly. 

Francis tensed, frowned, the relief in his face dissipating in an instant. “What…?”

“I’m sorry, Francis, but I can’t let this go any further,” Omicron interjected, rising to a stand with a somber expression.  She lifted her hand and—

—and realized that her hand was no longer gloved with a conductor. Something Allen had noticed much, much earlier. Before she could understand what had just occurred, Carl burst out from his bindings that Allen had figured had probably been loosened a minute before Omicron’s conductor was whisked away. He lunged at the woman, tackling her to the ground and pinning her in place as she squirmed beneath him. 

“Cadence,” Allen grunted, “no need to keep hiding any longer.” 

There was a familiar snap. And in a burst of copper light, Cadence appeared just in front of them holding Omicron’s glove conductor in hand. “Ya know, if ya go announcin’ my presence like that then it’s real hard ta do my job.” She tossed the conductor to Carl who caught it and shoved in his pockets with a sneer. 

Francis ogled Cadence. “Cadence? Why are you…”

“I followed ya here, Francis,” Cadence explained. “I saw ya wanderin’ the west side by yourself. Ya looked bent outta shape, and I was worried, so I… I dropped everything and followed ya and I…” She gestured loosely around. “…ended up here.”

It was weird. Hearing Cadence say she was worried. Made Allen wonder if there was something wrong in her head too. 

“West side…?” Omicron whispered from beneath Carl. “What were you doing in the west side?!”

Carl snarled, rising to a stand and jerking her up with him. “You don’t get to ask the questions anymore, you hear—”

“I was…” A perplexed expression folded across Francis’s face, and he locked eyes with Omicron from afar. “I arranged a meeting with the Campanas about their feud with the Romanos. I was seeing if I could work something out since I had an inkling there was someone else pulling the strings. I headed out with Maximillian and a couple of the other guys, but…” He shook his head. “The details are fuzzy after that.”

Allen nodded at Cadence signaling for her to take over, gave Francis a pat on the shoulder, before going over to help Carl tie Omicron to a chair. Once Omicron was bound and useless, Cadence left Francis’s side to undo the peacekeeper’s bindings while Carl, Francis, and Fortuna freed the other executives. While the others collected themselves, Allen gave Francis a rundown of everything that had happened since they’d fallen into the exitless room. 

“I… don’t remember doing any of that,” Francis said after a beat. He looked up at Allen, pale. “Allen, I’m sorr—”

Allen placed a hand on Francis’s shoulder. “Don’t get yourself in a knot about it.” 

Francis nodded before turning to address the others. “I deeply apologize for everything I’ve done to you all. Even if I was under the influence of a Manipulator, I—”

“Yeah, well, I think we should tie you up too, Francis,” one of the executives muttered. “If this is manipulation, we don’t know when you’ll crack and start shovin’ us through those damn creepy things again.”

“You talk a lot of talk,” Carl growled at the executive, taking a threatening step forward, “for someone who was sobbin’ out the warehouse locations just a day ago.”

“No, Mr. Etoile has a point,” Francis said. “We don’t know if the Manipulator responsible is actually Omicron. We don’t even know if the perp is actually a Manipulator. Manipulating a human being to this degree is unheard of it. We could be dealing with a Specialist.”

Allen frowned, and he looked over to find Carl frowning too. So was Cadence. 

Francis was knowledgeable when it came to people and law, but when it came to things like vitae and conducting types, he always referred to an advisor or a consultant. Where was all this coming from? Something wasn’t right here. 

“Mister… Francis, was it?” Alice interjected coolly, arms crossed as she stared down at the bound Omicron. “You’re correct in saying that you weren’t at the mercy of a Manipulator. That much is obvious. If you were, you would still retain memory of your actions, and you would not operate with an evidently independent and unique personality.”

Omicron said nothing.

“You’re still looking at Francis with affection despite everything that’s happened,” Alice continued. “Why is that? You ELPIS leaders… what is it that makes you tick?” 

“I don’t care for your words, peacekeeper,” Omicron returned with disinterest before locking eyes with Francis. “But you…” Her gaze softened. “You deserve to know.” 

Francis stiffened then nodded. “Tell me then.”


1: See 8.1: Cadence’s Honor Dishonore — Cadence’s discussion with Francis in front of the candy shop.

2: See 9.1-1: Cadence’s Stumble Spirale — Cadence’s maneuvers around the room.