24.5: The Advisor & Conductor in Soñadora Light

Re-cap:”

Atienna is in Cancer acting as an advisor to the Virgoan Diplomat Dimka who has gotten his foot in the door of Cancerian affairs. While there, Atienna becomes familiar with the Duke of House Lune Aldéric Échecs and his brother Albertine. She also discovers that chlorowheat has found its way into Cancer as well. Her concern is not this, however, but Louise Bonnefoy whose house she invades in search of clues. While she does find Louise’s personal journal, she also encounters Aquarian spies in the residence. This further sparks tension between Caner and Aquarius. Atienna also cares little for this and sets her attention on finding Louise. 


Secoursonne, Cancer

Lueur de Fée.

That was the name of an infamous waterfall located at the very heart of Cancer. According to the texts, the waterfall geysered out right into a river beneath which flowed a vitae-stream that supplied its reserves to more than two thirds of the country. 

It was also the location named a multitude of times in Louise’s journal which Atienna had continued to peruse through after taking it from Louise’s place of residence. The waterfall was in fact mentioned 156 times precisely, as Werner had readily counted. One passage had read—

Lueur de Fée. If I ever have a child, I’ll certainly name them this! The most wonderous, magical, beautiful place in the world!

Another passage had read—

I wonder if faeries actually live at the Lueur de Fée. They say that Cancer—the Ancestor not the country—used to go to the falls to communicate with spirits wandering beyond death’s door but I think it’s much more romantic to imagine them speaking with faeries.

Louise’s apparent obsession or admiration of this ‘natural’ wonder paired with the constant trickling of water and the Cancerian chatter in the background of her radio broadcasts painted a certain picture to Atienna—Louise was most likely there. 

Atienna herself had much time to research the waterfall since she was on a technical lockdown as the result of an internal investigation by both Cancerian law officials and the International Relations Department of Ophiuchus. She wasn’t the main subject of the investigation, of course—even though she’d been directly involved in the affair. ‘Fortunately’—although the word seemed tactless and cold—everyone Aldéric had invited to his estate was a suspect. The flint that ignited the investigation was the organized group found trespassing in Louise’s estate. Rather, it was the Aquarian spies found invading a Cancerian duchess’s estate—or so the headlines like to put it.

And so Atienna found her subject to a familiar line of inquiry once more by men and women in suits—peacekeepers and not. Even some of the peacekeepers were familiar to her.

“Fancy seeing you again,” said one of the Ophiuchian agents whom Atienna recognized as having previously come down to Aquarius following the Zatenminye Caverns incident. “Work as an advisor still seems to bring its own troubles, doesn’t it?”

Yes. No. I didn’t see anything. I really don’t know. I was in the bathroom at the Duke of House Lune’s estate at the time.

Atienna merely had to answer simply. She didn’t even need Cadence’s influence to help in that regard. Well, perhaps it was just that those helpful aspects of Cadence had already been ingrained deep inside her. Either way, with everything Cadence was dealing with concerning the children and Alpha, Atienna didn’t wish to add to her stresses and troubles. Werner’s either. And yet the troubles seemed to keep piling up…

* * * 

“Are you nervous?” 

During an interview in the middle of the first week of the investigation, Atienna was asked this not-so-unusual question by the attending peacekeeper. What was unusual about it, however, was the flippant tone with which it was proposed.

The interview—rather, the interrogation—was being held in one of the duke’s many private rooms at his estate. His maids and butlers had emptied it out of most of its extravagant furniture leaving only a lacquered wooden table and two chairs on opposing sides. The murals of Cancerian wilderness and swirling reservoirs, however, remained steadfast on the walls, giving the room a liminal and empty feeling.

Atienna regarded the peacekeeper who sat across from her carefully. He was a tall man with a high nose—mostly likely of Aquarian origin. His eyes were sharp, his brow prominent. A serious peacekeeper, indeed, but—

 “It wouldn’t be sensible to be nervous while I’m in the presence of and under the omniscient gaze of someone who has invested in my survivability, don’t you think?”

The peacekeeper—rather Scorpio’s offshoot—spread his hands and smiled. “That you are right, Miss Atienna Imamu.”

Werner synchronized in with her sharply then, shadowing in like the moon. She glanced at him half-curiously, although she was comforted by his presence. 

Scorpio gestured to her. “I hope this hasn’t put too much of a damper on your investigations into Louise. You do remember the deadline.”

“Oh, I’m very aware of the deadline,” Atienna replied, “and I appreciate your attentiveness… though I do have to wonder—is that deadline coincidentally in line with the coming of the ‘syzygy’?”

Scorpio arched his brow and then nodded. “Indeed it is, so we should prepare a celebration. Mark your calendar!” 

How Talib-like, Atienna thought.

Humming, Scorpio moved to pick up the paper set in front of him and scanned it. He sighed a moment afterwards and threw the paper back down. “These questions make me want to claw my eyes out. ‘What are your opinions on Aquarius? What are your opinions on Cancer? What were you doing on the night of February 28th?’ I mean, really?”

“They are quite roundabout and evasive,” Atienna agreed.

“And you’re very familiar with that, aren’t you?”

“Am I?”

Scorpio’s smile thinned for a moment before he pulled out a pen from his pocket. Werner tensed at the sight, but Atienna relaxed as she saw the saint candidate begin to fill out the questions on the sheet. 

“Let me do you a favor and save you the time,” he said. 

“Oh, you’re quite generous.”

“I’m all about giving people what they want,” Scorpio returned after he finished his scribbling and set down his pen. He reached into his pocket once more and set something on the table in-between them. A pair of suppression cuffs. “I know Jericho has probably sent you one of these already but we can’t be too cautious, right? Even with your prowess, Queen of the Night.”

* * *

When Atienna wasn’t being interrogated by Cancerians or Ophiuchians, she was perusing the Lune estate’s plentiful library for information about the waterfall. The bookshelves here were mahogany and matched the large Sagittarian rug fitted right beneath the low-v-light chandelier. There was not a single speck of dust on any surface. Unfortunately this merely highlighted the fact that the books themselves were so evidently rarely-touched. 

Werner approved of her thoroughness in her research but pressed her on their deadline. He was quite gentle with his words despite the fact that she could see that he clearly thought she was stalling and stretching the matter out. Was it because of that protect, protect, protect due to Scorpio or his leniency showing due to their connection? Atienna wondered.

Stalling on the other hand? Perhaps she was. But one couldn’t remain in place forever—especially when one had already made a decision. And so, when the peacekeepers concluded their investigation and returned to Ophiuchus, Atienna had no more excuses left. 

* * *

In-Transit, Cancer

Atienna had been worried how she would manage splitting off from Dimka and Sefu in order to pursue Louise. Fortunately, however, a little bit of discussion with Aldéric resolved that issue. With Cadence’s help, all Atienna had to do was drop a quiet ‘oh, this place is a bit stuffy, don’t you think?’ and a ‘I’ve always wanted to visit that one famous Cancerian waterfall…’ and Aldéric immediately booked a weekend trip to the location. He, of course, cordially invited Dimka as well and brought along several other diplomats and ‘friends’—mostly women—whom were invited to the initial party. Albertine invited himself.

As expected, Aldéric wholly rejected the idea of taking a train—even a luxury one—to their destination. Atienna wondered if he thought it was too far beneath him or if ‘riding with the common man’—as he put it—simply made him feel uncomfortable. Olive had a few choice words to say about it.

And so, instead of taking a v-train, they travelled by v-ehicle. Atienna rode with Aldéric and Albertine alongside Sefu and Dimka. Albertine had his own driver much to Sefu’s evident relief. The arrangements, however, made it so that Sefu, Aldéric, Dimka, and Atienna herself had to share the space in the backseat of the v-ehicle, while Albertine manned the front with the driver. Despite the extravagant design of the car and its leather seating, it was quite a tight fit. Thankfully, Aldéric opted not to smoke or bring out his chlorowheat and instead chatted idly with Dimka about v-ehicles and the like. Atienna was grateful for this as it meant that she had more time to pour through her book on the rather interesting history of the falls. Or at least she tried to.

V-ehicles had rapidly evolved in these past few months, Aldéric was saying, and vr-fueling stations dotted every town, city, and place in-between. He and Dimka marveled at the innovation with Dimka even allauding how rapidly Cancer had picked up the v-ehicle boom. Aldéric returned the praises ten-fold.

Was this truly diplomacy? Atienna wondered as she listened to them chatter on. Or an exchange of reassurances? She didn’t have quite long to ponder the idea because it was during this time that Tau revealed the criteria for saint candidacy to Maria, Jericho, and Cadence and the three ELPIS leaders debated on the possibility of their being a seventh True Conductor to their group.

It sounded quite fairy tale-like in Atienna’s opinion. Or perhaps it was more akin to something like a somber tragedy given that all six of them had no knowledge—or ‘memory’ as the ELPIS leaders said—of this mysterious seventh. A sad story indeed. But it was a distant event and only seemed to hold importance in the way it applied to Olive’s research on improving Lavi’s condition.

The drive to the waterfalls was quite a long one so it left Atienna with much time to think on the topic. Every so often, however, they would have to refuel the v-ehicle at a vr-station or find recluse at a rest stop. 

During one of their rest stops at a vr-station, Atienna opted to remain inside the v-ehicle while Dimka, Albertine, Aldéric, and Sefu went to relieve themselves. The driver opted to remain inside the car as well, but the two of them hadn’t exchanged words as of yet so Atienna didn’t feel pressed for conversation.

“So,” the driver drew suddenly, stretching his arms out across the length of the locomotive. “Anything interesting in your readings, dear Atienna?”

“Scorpio,” Atienna greeted, offering a pleasant smile. Much to her surprise, Werner did not appear at her side. She supposed it wasn’t too surprising though given the time of night. He tended to turn in earlier for rest recently. She wondered if it was the cold. Either way, it was deserved. “It seems as if we keep meeting each other for casual conversation like this.” 

“Although I did say that you were quite like Libra,” Scorpio hummed, “I have to admit you’re a much more entertaining conversationalist. Perhaps even more so than the other five.”

“Oh, I doubt I’m that entertaining,” Atienna returned, knowing full well that the latter part of his sentence was intended to rile her. “Although I appreciate the company, from what I understand, you have your hands quite full.”

“Yes, well…” Scorpio sighed melodramatically and leaned back in his chair. “Who am I to stop the will of the people? They’re dissatisfied with the current state of affairs—be it regarding their country, their neighborhoods, each other, or themselves.His eyes narrowed as he said the last word, and he held up three fingers. “What do people do when they’re dissatisfied? One, they run and hide in one shape or another—sometimes not in the way most people think. Two, they struggle and fight for what they believe is right. And three—” He pointed back to her. “—they become frozen in place and wait for the world to change around them. A useless endeavor. Really.”

“And which one are you, Scorpio?”

Scorpio remained silent for a moment before he smiled. “Oh, you know the answer to that! You know everything.”

“Oh, I don’t know everything. I do wish I did though,” Atienna said. “And… I was more so referring to the… confuddle with Alpha and his plans to raid Ophiuchus than any other generalizations…”

“Hm, oh yes. Leona was quite surprised when my dear partner brought that subject up to her—not so much surprised about Alpha but about the fact that Jericho had brought it to her attention. We’re quite aware that Alpha’s been moseying around Signum stocking up supplies. The Ophiuchus raid was a surprise though, I have to admit. Although… It wouldn’t be the first time he’s trying to break into Ophiuchus.”

Scorpio leaned forward against the wheel.

“I never quite liked Proteus. He always thought he was so suave in his apathy. He touted knowing everything and not caring for everything, but I see him for what he truly is. A hypocrite in search of an answer. I’m sure you’re familiar with the idea, Atienna.”

“Is that how you see me as?” Atienna queried before she pressed curiously—“And what answer is Alpha seeking exactly?”

Scorpio’s eyes narrowed. “Ophiuchus.”

“Ophiuchus—”

“Miss Imamu.” Scorpio smiled cordially as he peered at her through the rear-view mirror. “You’re quite shrewd, managing to uphold your role as an advisor and a True Conductor hunter like this. Somehow still not making a choice.”

“I commend you the same,” Atienna responded quickie, “for upholding the guise of a peacekeeper, a chairman, a saint candidate, and all the people you’ve planted your spores in all at once.”

Scorpio opened his mouth to retort but the passenger door opened and Albertine re-entered the v-ehicle.

The driver shut his mouth and flashed a smile. “Monsieur Albertine, how was your smoke?”

* * *

Lueur de Fée, Cancer

Atienna heard the waterfall before she saw it. The drawn out yet quiet roar, like muffled static on one of Werner’s radios. A low rumble only a few notches below the rumbling of the v-ehicle’s conducting engine. A resonating sound.

The first sign of it that she saw was the fog that rolled on from down the road. The fog itself was not gray but colored instead with various shades of red, green, and blue. Most likely, it was reflecting the light from the nearby vitae stream or had taken up some stray vitae particles itself. 

The driver slowed the v-ehicle to a stop as they neared the top of a cliff that seemed to oversee the waterfall in question. There were several other v-ehicles already parked along the side of the road there, and a handful of people stood pressing against the fence at the edge of the grassy cliff. 

Aldéric took Atienna’s hand, then her waist, and led her to the fence. Sefu seemed quite displeased with the fact but tailed them anyways alongside Albertine and Dimka. As Atienna neared the fence and peered down the cliff, she let out a quiet breath and reached out for the others. Jericho, Cadence, and Olive were the only ones to answer her call, and together they admired the sight.

Despite the darkness of the sky, the waterfall was illuminated all the way up its length in splashes of greens and blues and reds. The waterfall itself was a large and almost monstrous thing, torrenting down into the wide river below it without relent. The river itself served as the source of light. No, that wasn’t quite right. The source of light lay deep inside the river, piercing up through its depths and spreading its luminesce through its waters. 

A vitae stream flowing hot right below the river. How fascinating to see it with one’s own eyes.

From this angle, it looked as if the vitae stream was trapped beneath a thick glass that fractured its glow against the cliff-faces, trees, and everything near it.

“This is what Cancerian beauty is!” Aldéric exclaimed to Atienna’s left as he pulled her close.

Cadence and Olive shared looks—the former with an amused smirk and the latter with an unamused scowl

“I agree. It’s quite beautiful, no?” came a quiet voice to Atienna’s right.

She glanced absentmindedly in the direction and froze as she registered the profile of a familiar man with distinctly Cancerian features. Blonde hair tied into a loose pony-tail and a well-fitted blue suit with a plaid design.

Reneé… 

Olive’s guilt seized Atienna’s chest.

“Chevalier Reneé LeBlanc?” Aldéric gasped. “Is that you?”

Reneé offered a bow in response and began to take each of their hands and place a kiss upon it. Afterwards, he offered Aldéric a respectful nod. “It’s a pleasure to see you both here, Aldéric, Albertine.”

“What are you doing here?” Albertine’s brows rose. 

“Well, I am on vacation,” Reneé responded good-naturedly. “I had to attend a meeting in Sagittarius in place of a couple of our officials, so now I’m just relaxing.”

“Oh, right… that…” Aldéric hummed. “Sorry for shoving that responsibility on you. I had a party to host, you see? Diplomacy and whatnot.” He gestured to Dimka. “This is my good friend Dimka. A diplomat from Virgo.

“A pleasure.” Reneé nodded at Dimka before turning back to Aldéric. “And, I am a chevalier, Aldéric. I don’t mind it. My purpose is to honor and serve the people of my country. Say, how about I serve you a little bit more and take you to dinner?”

* * *

Reneé invited them to dinner at a restaurant at the foot of the falls. A portion of the restaurant extended out into the river which was where Reneé had them seated at. Atienna felt a bit uncomfortable with the affair but she quite enjoyed the peaceful serenity of the view.

Once the dinning activities were well under way, she discovered through conversation that Reneé happened to be staying at the same inn that they were planning to stay in. It also appeared as if Aldéric, Albertine, and Reneé shared some sort of history. It didn’t seem to be any deeper than surface-level, however, so Atienna gauged that they were merely acquaintances through the Cancerian courts. 

Reneé seemed to have gotten better since Olive had encountered him earlier in the month. The man’s eyes were less shadowed under, and his laugh seemed louder and clearer. But appearances were deceiving. Atienna wondered exactly what was happening to Hilton beneath the Serpens Establishment.

* * *

Upon nightfall, Atienna snuck out of the inn they had found seclusion in and slinked towards the waterfall with Louise’s journal in her hand and two pairs of suppression cuffs hidden at her hip. There was a specific passage in the former that denoted a particular location around the waterfall—

They say that if you enter the cave behind the waterfalls at midnight and make a wish, it will come true. Oh, I hope it’s not one of those curses where your wish is granted in some terrible way. That’s why I have to make a smart wish. Remember, Louse. Be smart!

The atmosphere closer to the waterfall was a bit odd. It wasn’t cold despite the winter season and the rush of the waterfall, yet contrarily it wasn’t warm either despite the pulsating glow of the vitae stream. It felt to Atienna like she was stuck in a rift between two worlds. 

She quickly crossed a metal bridge that connected one side of the river to the other and continued across the rushing waters. Despite the elevation above the waters, the bridge was still quite slippery. Atienna managed it, however, and passed over slowly, stopping only to marvel at the psychedelic glow beneath the black waters.

Upon reaching the other side and walking up to the cliff-face there, she noted with mild relief and surprise that there was a small opening between the falls and the side of the cliff.  

As she drew nearer to the lip of the divide, a light, happy, fluttering laugh rang in her ears. It wasn’t an unusual laugh. There was nothing particularly special about it. Really, it was a simple sort of sound. At first, she’d thought she’d misheard the sound since it was so simple and since the waterfall was roaring so loudly, but—there it was again.

Tucking behind the falls along the slippery rock as she followed the sound, Atienna took note of how the light from the adjacent vitae stream still somehow managed to pierce through the downpouring waters and into the cavern. The luminesce painted both the cave’s obsidian walls and the small pool within it in shades of blues, pinks, purples, and greens.

It was quite mesmerizing, and Atienna would have liked to admire it more if it weren’t for her current task at hand. She was certain Jericho would be fond of a sight like this and perhaps would even want to sketch and paint it in one of his journals. Pondering this, Atienna scanned the cavern more carefully—

There. 

A young woman with straw blonde hair and wearing a loose summer’s evening dress stood in the shallow pool facing the waterfall. The spray of the waters had misted her hair in droplets causing it to sparkle with the light from the vitae stream.

Louise Bonnefoy.

Atienna froze in place, somehow still surprised at the sight of the woman despite having expected to find her here. Her hand moved to the suppression cuffs hidden at her waist, but she then paused as a hand ghosted her own.

Olive.

Wait.

Atienna considered this and supposed it would be best to approach this as a pacifist. Best to talk things through before raiding with a fist.

With that in mind, Atienna pulled out from the shadows and cleared her throat. “Louise…? Is that you?”

Louise startled, turned, stared. Then, her cheeks flushed and her lips curled. “Oh my saints!” She threw up her hands. “Is that who I think it is? Is that Atienna Imamu?” Without showing any hesitation or suspicion, she ran up to Atienna and wrapped her in a warm embrace. “I haven’t seen you in forever! I was actually thinking about you just the other day!”

Atienna returned the gesture and pulled back. “Whatever are you doing here?”

“Extreme tourism, of course!” Louise laughed. “I’ve always wanted to visit this place since I was young, but never really had the thought to try it until now. They say if you make a wish here at midnight, it’ll come true! But first you have to swim from one side of the river to the other on a crescent moon night! And guess what kind of night it is tonight?”

Swimming across the river?

“This is what extreme tourism is all about!” Louise proclaimed, swinging her hand widely around. She abruptly clasped them over Atienna’s. “Oh—wait, why are you here, Atienna? Are you also going in for a wish?”

Atienna held Louise’s gaze. “I’m actually here as an advisor with a new diplomat. Dimka. He was invited here to Cancer by the Duke of House Lune after they met each other at a ball…. He invited me here too.”

Louise’s brightness dimmed, and she paled.

“Louise… You’re the duchess, right?” Atienna pressed. “They say you’re sick which is why you haven’t showed your face to the public, but—” 

“Is my title more important than who I am?” Louise interjected with a whisper. She tensed. “You didn’t tell them about me, did you? Mention me?”

How curious. 

“Of course not,” Atienna drew carefully, sitting down and guiding Louise to a seat beside her as well. “I figured it was something more private… It was just that when I was there at the estates, everyone seemed very worried about you, Louise—”

“Oh, Atienna, you’re such a good person.” Louise let out a sigh—seemingly one of relief. She seemed to catch herself and quieted. “And oh, don’t worry about. I’m certain everyone is relieved that I’m no longer there. It gives them an excuse not to have to fiddle with the court politics… It gives them something to talk about.” Louise then placed a hand to her cheek and stared into the distance. “Oh, I know they care for me and miss me, but…” She dropped her hand and stared into the pool. “How much of my happiness do I need to sacrifice for everyone else’s—”

“Louise…?”

Atienna shot up to a stand at the familiar voice resonating from behind as did Louise. Upon turning, Atienna found a trio of men standing at the very entrance of the cavern by the waterfall. Sefu, Reneé, and Aldéric.

Atienna tensed. “What are you doing here?”

Aldéric glanced at her briefly. “Well, I… went to see you in your room and you were gone. I got worried. Your guard did too. So we went searching together and…”

Sefu crossed the distance and came to Atienna’s side immediately. “What are you doing here, Atienna?” His gaze flicked between her and Louise. He whispered, “Is this… one of those things?

“Aldéric…” Louise’s faint whisper ghosted Atienna’s ear.

Aldéric remained frozen in place, staring intently at Louise as if unbelieving.

Atienna looked between them, heart hammering. Perhaps this was the moment she’d been waiting for. To have someone other than herself bring Louise in  instead. Ah, yes. This would work out, wouldn’t it? Now that Aldéric was here, maybe he could convince Louise to return. If she returned then…?  Perhaps this was why Atienna had been so eager to have the duke come along. After all, she’d read clearly in Louise’s journal—

Aldéric is such a nice person. He’s been so kind to me since we were children. Can I really leave him behind? Really… He’s only been kind to me… His proposal… I feel terrible. He’s probably not doing it because he wants to…

“You’re alive,” Aldéric breathed. After a moment, he closed the distance between them and held her by the arms. “You’re…” He pulled her into an embrace. “Alive.”

Louise stiffened in his hold, and Atienna took a step back with Sefu. 

This was quite a curious development.

Aldéric silently whipped off his jacket and threw it over Louise before shivering in the cold. Louise immediately took it off and handed it back to him. Aldéric accepted it in confusion.

“Aldéric,” Louise finally drew, “please don’t tell anyone you saw me here.” 

Why?” he pressed. “Was I not enough for you? Was the pressure of the courts too much? What was it? Why didn’t you say anything? Why did you just…? Do you know how worried—”

Louise squirmed. “They said you’d proposed to the Princess of Leo….”

“Well, yes, of course! You know how it is!” Aldéric shook his head incredulously. “The government asks us to do something and we do it. The courts, the performances—that’s all it is! A performance. I’ve only met Ilunaria once!”  

Louise flushed lightly but would not meet Aldéric’s eyes.

How odd, Atienna thought in wonder. So their relationship went deeper than what was in the papers and Louise’s journal. Of course, that wasn’t too surprising. Words were never able to capture everything, after all. Atienna supposed she would never be able to ascertain the depth of their relationship, but it was certainly a curious thing.

“I just want to have fun, Aldéric…” Louise whispered, pulling away from him. “I wanted to leave—”

“Fun?” Aldéric gestured around the cavern wildly as he slipped from Common into Cancerian. “You mean this? You can see all of this as the Duchess of Etoile too!”

“You know it’s not like that at all…” Louise returned in the same language. “A chess piece…”

Like a bird in a cage.

“We’re living lives of luxury, Louise.” Aldéric shook his head. “Men, women, money, land—we ask for it and we’ll receive it. We’re lucky. We should act responsibly with that luck.”

Oh? That was unexpected.

“Are you saying even if you have all of these things,” he continued, “you can’t do your duty as a duchess and smile and wave to the people? You don’t want it? Do you know the heartache you’ve put people through?”

Louise quieted. “You know it’s not like that…”

Aldéric quieted too before he asked, “Do you care for me, Louise?” 

Louise looked up in confusion. “Of course I do, Aldéric.”

“Do you love me, Louise?”

“Of course I do, Aldéric…” Louise glanced away. “But more than that… I just want to be free from all of it, Aldéric. I am free with…”

Much to Atienna’s surprise, Aldéric didn’t recoil in rage nor hurt. Instead, his hand ghosted Louise’s cheek. “Are you happy like this, Louise? That’s all I need to know.”

Atienna regarded Aldéric in surprise. She had not expected to hear that question from his lips. Appearances really were deceiving. But now that those words had been spoken out loud, Atienna knew that there was now only one outcome.

“Of course I am.”

Aldéric dropped his hand. 

The waters roared in the silence.

Aldéric turned to Atienna then with an extended hand. “Miss Imamu, would you please accompany me back to the inn for some wine? I’ve been in search of you all night.”

How disappointing.

Gaze lingering on Louise who was looking to Aldéric with gratitude, Atienna accepted the gesture and allowed the man to guide her to the mouth of the cave. Sefu and Reneé followed behind them—one man more clearly confused than the other.

“Reneé—no, Hilton…?” Louise stared at Reneé wonderingly. “Is that you…?”

Reneé paused, turned, merely placed a finger to his lips, and continued to follow on behind.

Once they were outside the cavern, Aldéric stopped short and turned to them abruptly. “Please don’t mention this to anyone. Not to Dimka. Not even to Albertine.” His tone was hard despite the fact that he was rubbing circles into her hand.

“You are asking me to lie to the diplomat of my own country?” Sefu challenged. “I don’t even understand what this is.”

“It’s not a lie. It’s the price for that woman’s happiness.”  

In the end, Sefu and Reneé conceded while Atienna merely nodded and offered a polite, shy smile.

Ah, she thought, so it appeared as if she would have to unfortunately become the villain to Louise’s story on her own merit. 

How troubling… 

At the thought of the other five, however, it seemed a bit less so. But that in itself was troubling in an entirely different way. 

* * *

Atienna visited the waterfall again the next evening after everyone had turned in early for the night at the inn. She was somewhat more honest this time with her departure and told Sefu—and Sefu only—that she would be wandering around the falls for the night. She managed to convince him to stay put and to tell the others that she was unwell if they requested her.

Olive synchronized in with her lightly as Atienna traversed the distance from the inn back to the falls. He didn’t speak but she could feel the apprehension, disappointment, and nausea curling in her stomach.

When she finally arrived at the cavern behind the rushing falls, she found Louise sitting and dipping her toes into the pool inside. Louise was not alone, however. Sitting at her right was none other than Reneé LeBlanc. 

Olive squirmed at the sight of him as usual and a wave of guilt crashed through Atienna’s entire being. 

Louise noticed her first and waved wildly. “Oh, Atienna! I was hoping you’d visit before you left!” She gestured to Reneé. “I was just telling Reneé here about our adventures in Aquarius and the Twin Cities a couple months ago!”

Reneé turned and studied Atienna before slowly rising to a stand. His eyes were narrowed. “I thought your name sounded familiar, Madame Imamu.”  

Louise looked at him curiously as she also rose. “Oh, do you know Atienna, Reneé?”

“She was with you in the caverns, was she not? And I heard over dinner that you were in Capricorn too,” Reneé continued. “You showing up at all these places and now here where Louise is…”

Atienna eyed the conducting glove on the man’s hand.

Reneé LeBlanc regarded her with contempt as he pushed Louise behind himself. “You’re part of that True Conductor group that made that deal with the saint candidates, aren’t you? And Louise is…? You’re planning to take her.”

“T-Take me?” Louise stammered. “You mean ‘kidnap’? Atienna will? Oh no, Reneé! You’ve got it all wrong. Atienna and I—”

Atienna met Louise’s gaze and offered her a sympathetic look. Louise quieted immediately. 

“It would be dishonorable to my status as a chevalier to let you do this.” Reneé brought his gloved hand to his chest. “Even if you’re a fair maiden, if your heart is rooted in selfish evil then I have no choice but to stop you here and now with force.”

Saints. Does he think he’s in theater? came Olive’s thought, but… I understand where he’s coming from.… Atienna—

In a flash of light, Reneé conjured both a thin blade and a pistol. Atienna tensed as did Olive which was Atienna noticed something occurring on Maria’s end of things.

Alpha, pounded Maria’s and Jericho’s intertwined thoughts. The One. Him—

Olive’s eyes widened, indicating that he could feel it too, but—

Reneé fired off his pistol before Atienna could reach out to Maria. The bullet grazed her ear and cracked into the cavern wall behind her before ricocheting and flying past Reneé’s own head. Louise let out a yelp of alarm and stumbled back before ducking behind a large boulder.

Is he crazy?! Olive thought in alarm.

Atienna didn’t have time to answer because Reneé continued to fire off several more rounds. She ducked behind a formation of rock and pressed back tight against it as his bullets chipped away at its surface. She reached out to Werner as the smell of gunsmoke filled her senses, but he didn’t answer her call—

“Reneé conjure me a conducting blade!” Louise shouted suddenly.

What? Oh. Hideyoshi, was it, perhaps? Atienna wondered, peering around her cover towards Louise who had peeled out of her own cover. Hideyoshi had to be a Projector then. This was quite useful information. However—

As Reneé looked over to Louise in confusion and appeared to start his conjuration of the requested item, Atienna ducked out of cover and darted to Louise’s side. Reneé fired his pistol at her alarm, but it appeared as if he was much slower than he was when he’d fought in Hapaira and Die Hauptstadt. He stopped firing as soon as Atienna reached Louise’s side. 

Atienna took the opportunity to deliver a swinging kick to the side of Louise’s head. Although Louise managed to bring her arms in time to block the blow, the kick sent her flying back against the cavern wall which she cracked her head against. She fell to the ground a moment afterwards unmoving.

Before Atienna could think to move towards Louise or duck for cover, she felt the cold press of a pistol against the back of her head. For him to be bringing a ranged weapon so close—Atienna thought—he truly wasn’t thinking straight. She let out a quiet breath, studied where Reneé’s shadow fell against the flower, and then swung her leg out. Her foot contacted the man’s hand and sent his weapon flying.

When she whipped around, Reneé had already conjured another gun but Atienna easily swiped this one away with another kick as well. He merely conjured another one. Another kick. Again, again, again, again. Reneé was almost back against the wall now. But then—Reneé started swinging his blade as he started conjuring another pistol, forcing Atienna backwards. 

This wasn’t too good a development, was it?

Olive, Atienna thought faintly as she extended her hand. 

Olive didn’t hesitate—

Deep green sparks leapt at her fingertips and erupted into embers that flurried out into bright flames. They shot out towards Reneé who just managed to bring up his hand in alarm. His conducting glove and conjured blade melted into nothing as did the sleeves of his suit. He let out a yelp, crawled over to the pool, and dunked himself into it. Afterwards, he pulled himself out, curled on the floor, and groaned in pain.

Atienna’s stomach churned at the sight.

Still, Reneé pulled himself up to his knees and crawled towards her. So unlike the man Atienna remembered the others encountering. She took a step back in alarm but he had already wrapped his arms desperately around her leg.

“You can’t take her,” Reneé pleaded. “You can’t put her through this. You don’t know what it’s like being in that place! Under their eyes!”

Hilton, was it?

Atienna… Olive again. W-We can stall somehow. It’s still a couple more months before the deadline, right? We can stall and try to figure something out—

“I’m sorry, Reneé, Hilton…” Atienna murmured. “I have to protect the people in my own world. I can’t do both.” Olive, we have to do this. Think of Werner, Maria, and Cadence—

“Yes, you can!” Reneé urged. “How can you say something so cold-hearted? Do you really not feel anything?” 

Atienna shook her head uncomprehendingly as she looked down at him with sympathy. “You don’t even really know her—” 

“I don’t have to know her!”

What startled Atienna was not Reneé’s exclamation nor the burning desperation in his eyes. No, what startled her was that such desperation resonated out from Olive as well. The same exact tone and thought. That was their reality, it seemed.

Olive was a kind boy despite his sharp tongue. Atienna was quite proud of him for it, although she wondered if she was the opposite of him in that regard. In the end, however, there was a choice to be made.

“She’s a Cancerian duchess,” Atienna informed the three quietly. “She’s someone who’s of high status. They’ll want to keep her in the public eye. She won’t be brought to wherever Hilton is… I’m sorry. Really, I am….”

Reneé gazed up at her with aghast before she slammed her fist against his head. He cracked to the ground unconscious and she quickly slapped suppression cuffs over his wrists. After resting for several seconds, Atienna paced over to Louise’s side and gently pressed her extra pair of suppression cuffs over the woman’s wrists as well.

* * *

Atienna pulled both Reneé and Louise out from the cavern. She turned Reneé into a local clinic and propped him up in the waiting room before removing his suppression cuffs. There couldn’t be anything else he could do since he was under Scorpio’s eye, after all. Afterwards, she proceeded to bring Louise to a small rest shed a little ways away and remained there for a moment to catch her breath.

Olive kept silent the entire time. Atienna found her gaze constantly attracted to Louise’s eerily peaceful face, indicating to her what Olive’s thoughts were on the situation. 

It was only after this that both she and Olive were able to reach out to Maria. They found her sitting on top of a small building that stood high enough to look over the seaports in the distance. In the courtyard below the building rushed men and women in white lab coats. 

A hospital, Atienna realized.  

Jericho was already synchronized here with Maria—or perhaps he hadn’t yet left her side.

Memories of the conversation and clash with Proteus, Dominic, and Nu rushed at Atienna slide-by-slide, feeling-by-feeling. Cadence and Werner synchronized immediately after Atienna was able to grasp the full weight of the situation—the former panting heavily and the latter somewhat dazed and distant.

“I… I’m sorry…” Olive whispered, breaking the silence. 

Atienna let out a breath. “Oh, Maria…” 

“The kids…” Cadence stared blankly at Maria before her gaze drifted to Werner. “Where were ya, Werner? I was callin’ for ya the entire time—”

“I apologize for my absence and neglect. I retired early for the day,” Werner responded with a tight expression.“I shouldn’t have. I should’ve been here. That was my mistake.”

“It’s… alright, Captain.” Cadence held her hands up in the air. “If ya need ta rest, then rest. I doubt the outcome woulda changed much anyway…” 

“It was my battle, yes?” Maria seemed to agree. “But maybe I shouldn’t have cheated, no?”

Cheated? Did she mean with using Jericho’s conducting? What a peculiar thing to focus on. Or perhaps that focus was a distraction. Even so, Atienna wasn’t so sure if Maria would have been able to win the skirmish against Dominic without Jericho’s assistance.

Maria looked up to Atienna, gaze piercing. “You have so little faith in me, my dear Atienna?”

It wasn’t that… but—

“Maria, I warned you about Veles’s departure,” Werner interjected. “I understand that at the time that situation was beyond your control, but it may have been preventable to some extent. This issue has come up repeatedly—”

“Werner…” Atienna murmured. This was a bit harsh, wasn’t it? Especially after everything that had happened.

“We need to address this issue so it doesn’t happen again, Atienna. I apologize if I seem cold but this is a necessity.”  He hesitated then reached out and placed a hand on Maria’s shoulder. He said nothing else.

“No, you’re right, Werner. I have lost my ship, my crew, and…” Maria looked over to Cadence. “My dear Cadence, I’m sorry… about the children… it’s not the circumstances—yes?”

Cadence remained silent for a moment. Atienna could feel it there—the discomfort, the disappointment, the fear, the apprehension, the circumstances. After a pause, however, Cadence flashed an easy smile. “It’s alright, sunshine. We just gotta work with what we’ve got now… Plus ya managed ta beat the hell out of that Nu.”

She should have attempted to incapacitate him so we could bring him into an interrogation, came Werner’s wandering thought as he eyed Maria, but perhaps this isn’t the right moment to bring the issue up to discussion—

“You can tell me, Werner,” Maria interjected. “I made a mistake, no? Many mistakes? If you do not tell me them, then how will I learn?” She stared out past the dark horizon. The sea was barely visible there. “Conta said something earlier about mistakes, I think… Or was it something else about strength? I can’t remember….”

Werner was quiet.

“You hide nothing, yes, Werner?” Maria returned her attention to the man and smiled faintly. “Because you are strong. Because you are with me.”

There was a stretch of silence. 

“Our goal will remain the same,” Werner said after a beat. “We will continue focusing on places where we suspect Alpha will appear.” He added more gently to Maria, “I don’t like to speak in certainties, but I’m sure Lita and the other children will not bleach their vitae.” He nodded at Atienna next, but Atienna was somewhat unnerved by the distance in his eyes when he spoke—although she supposed she was a hypocrite for thinking so: “On our other objective: good work, Atienna, Olive.”

Olive tensed at this and looked away from them both.

* * *

Atienna rang Leona a half hour later to inform her of the successful capture of Louise, but it seemed as if Leona was already well aware of the fact. Scorpio’s eyes no doubt.

“Bring her to the nearest train station. I’ll send someone to retrieve her,” Leona said over the line. “Good work.”

And so Atienna did just that, taking up a residential taxi to bring Louise to the station. She hid Louise’s cuffed hands with an overcoat the entire time and informed people who asked that the woman just had too much to drink and that she was taking her home for the night. 

Once Atienna arrived at the station, she sat Louise down upright on a bench overlooking the tracks and sat down beside her. She used her body to support the woman, causing Louise’s head to fall onto her shoulder. 

Warm.

Are you alright, Atienna?

Atienna looked to her other side and found that Werner had synchronized in almost fully next to her. The concern in the man’s eyes was both reassuring and concerning.

You did what was necessary. 

Oh, I know, Werner. Atienna studied her bare hands which were beginning to crack in the cold. I know that much.

Werner’s gloved hands ghosted over her own, and she could almost feel the illusory warmth. You need to wear gloves, Atienna. The temperatures in Cancer sometimes drop as low as the temperatures in Capricorn at night.

Atienna glanced back at him and offered a wan smile. She could faintly see his bedroom in the distance. It appeared as if he was staying up late to talk to her. Ah, the sentiment. This was her reason behind her actions, she thought to herself.

This is only a temporary measure.

Temporary until the syzygy? Well, Atienna supposed she was fine with that. But now that she was finished with this task, she wondered if she should return home now. Home. She glanced down at Louise at the thought.

“I have to say that I’m quite impressed that you’ve managed to find Louise.”

Atienna looked up at the voice and found Albertine’s v-ehicle driver standing at the edge of the station platform. Scorpio.

“What will happen to her now?” Atienna asked quietly, rising to a stand after gently setting Louise down.

“I didn’t think you cared.” Scorpio turned and arched a brow. “What do you think will happen to her?”

“She’s a Cancerian duchess, so she’s important to the public eye. In that case, you would merely keep an eye on her.” Atienna paused as her mind turned. “But… she’s also a runaway, so she’s no longer in the spotlight. No one knows where she is and her family and the government continue to pretend that she’s sick in order to keep her out of the public eye… so… in that case…. from your perspective, it would be best to keep her in Ophiuchus.”

“And you’re okay with that?”

“Yes.”

Scorpio’s smile grew as he closed the distance between them in one heartbeat. “Oh, Atienna. You really do know everything, don’t you?”

The moon became unveiled from behind the clouds up above. A crescent. 

Atienna tensed beneath his gaze, heart hammering, sweat dripping down her back, as Werner drew closer to her. “I… don’t know everything.” 

And?” 

 “I’m…” Atienna hesitated before she finally spoke the words she’d always known—the words Scorpio had known that she’d always known— “… glad I don’t.”

Scorpio’s smile split white and wide across his face, and he spread his arms even wider. Then—he brought them down around her, wrapping her in a tight and warm embrace.

“There you go,” he whispered as he patted her on the back. “You’ve finally got it.”

Atienna felt her stomach clench but she did not move. Werner had gone quiet, so she was left in Scorpio’s embrace in silence. And the embrace stretched on and on for what seemed like eternity. The seconds ticked by in her mind, and she could feel the rise and fall of his chest, hear his breathing, feel the warmth of his breath tickle her ear—

Finally, it boiled over. A heat rose from the pit of her stomach and climbed up her throat. She wasn’t quite sure whether it was from Scorpio’s ease at embracing her or at her own ease at being embraced by him. Whatever it was, it had reached boiling point.

Atienna tore herself from Scorpio’s grasp and shoved him all the way back. He stumbled back at this and flashed her a  look of confusion paired with a smile of understanding. Atienna held his gaze for a moment before turning on her heels and briskly walking away. Her ears rang, her heart hammered, the cold winter air swirled in her lungs. 

She stumbled forward and forward until she suddenly found herself at the very edge of a cliff that oversaw the waterfall. From this angle, the lights from the natural wonder twinkled beautifully. It truly was a shame of what had to happen to make the vitae stream glow so vibrantly.

Atienna collapsed onto all fours into the thin snow that had formed along the grass there and fisted it in her hands.

Clink, clink, clink.

A flash of white lit up the very top of the waterfall briefly. Chains snaking through the sky.

Iota? And if Iota was here then…

Atienna crawled to the edge of the cliff and squinted. Just barely, she could make out two other shapes dancing across the top of the falls with Iota in the darkness.

But the distance was too far to reach.

Atienna blinked and the white lights were gone—almost as if she’d borne them from imagination after witnessing them in the others’ memories. Dazed, she gazed back down the waterfall towards the river and vitae-stream that flowed below it. From this particular angle, she realized, the entire river seemed to be glowing, throbbing like a human vein. Vaguely, Atienna was reminded of the roots of Virgo’s Great Tree. She then recalled a particular passage from Louise’s journal.

They say the best view of the Lueur de Fée is from a hidden cliff just a little bit beyond the main train station outside the area. They say if you look at the river from that point, you will never know a greater happiness. Oh, I want to see it so badly!

 How beautiful, Atienna agreed.


Great Tree, Virgo

“What do you see, Lita?”

Lita tried not to tremble as Alpha placed a hand on her shoulder. “What is that…?”

“Another reason to excise yourself from the cycle.”


WAIT A DIDDLY DARN MINUTE, DEAR READER.

Sorry awoieureiw had to make sure I got your attention. They may or may not be a change to the update schedule and it all depends on the votes on THIS POLL right here! the poll also has some quick and fun extra questions too aside from scheduling ones. I’ll share the results with y’all in a week or two!

Thanks for reading!

24.4-2: The Pirate & The One in Blanca Light

Encuentrolza, Leo

The One.

Jericho synchronized in immediately, forcing Maria to surge to her feet. Maria had wanted to do so anyway so she was fine with following through with the action. The eye-patch wearing man merely watched her, still smiling pleasantly. 

He really did look nothing like the Proteus who had taken her in, she thought. His hair was not damaged by seawater nor was it gray. There were no wrinkles crinkling the corners of his eye either. He was leaner too. But his eye—the way it twinkled. His lips—the way that curled pleasantly upwards. It was the same.

The one they had been seeking.

Maria met the one at the bars and gripped the metal. “You are Proteus…yes?”

The one looked her up and down before chuckling. “So it would seem that Epsilon did deliver my message to you.”

It was the one.

Maria’s grip on the bars tightened. Upon looking to her left, she found Jericho’s image flickering like a flame. His expression was unaffected but the cold burning sensation expanding out in her chest told her that he was anything but. He was in his office still—sitting in his cubicle. The sketches that he’d drawn and that she’d hand-selected were posted up along his wall, but his vision was blurred and unfocused so she couldn’t really see them.

“Oh, is that you, Alpha?” Epsilon called from the cell across the hall. He neared the bars with a frown. “You just left me right back in Leo with those strange men again… I didn’t know where to go…” He pulled back, glancing past Alpha and towards Maria herself. “But I met Leo again so I guess it’s alright. I really wish you’d warn me next time before you go off again. I really didn’t know what to do…”

Andres shot up to a stand and darted to the bars of his cell. He glowered before scribbling ferociously in his notebook and pressing it up against the bars. You’re Alpha? Where are the children, it read in barely legible handwriting. The ones from the orphanage. What did you do to them?

Proteus glanced over his shoulder and squinted at the writing. Then he looked Andres up and down. “Oh? That uniform and way of writing—an Espada?” His gaze flicked back to Maria then back to Andres. “I don’t believe in fate, but if that existed, I’d say that it was fate that you two met. Two people who were led along the same and then different paths meeting up again.” He nodded at Andres. “The night sky and”—he gestured to Maria— “what had the potential to be a star. Your paths could have easily been swapped maybe. If time flowed differently, you might be standing in opposite places—no different from the other—.”

“You definitely are Proteus!” Maria exclaimed, not quite understanding the feeling bubbling against Jericho’s shaking coldness in her chest. It wasn’t the excitement she imagined she’d feel when she finally found the person she’d been seeking. Where was the sense of joy and adventure? “Your way of speaking is exactly the same!”

Simon startled in his cell and then pulled Albatross and Lita close to him. Maria followed his gaze and finally fully registered the adolescent who stood at Proteus’s side. His skin was sun-kissed, his hair dark and curled, his expression bored, his chin lifted. 

A child. He shouldn’t be with him. He shouldn’t be with the one. He will trick them. Lie to them. Make them—

Okay, so then Maria would simply take this boy from Proteus. 

She continued, “I’ve been searching for you! All across Signum! First for myself, but now for people who are mine.” She stared at him and his passive, pleasant smile. “You took something from them. Something very important. I can’t forgive people who take things from people who are mine—”

“Not even if it’s me? Do I not belong to you, Maria?” Proteus continued to smile—just like he’d done whenever she was younger. 

Yes. The memories were faint but they were there. Whether it was after she’d climbed up to the bowsprit of their ship to enjoy the breeze, after she’d single-handedly defeated a group of rowdy thieves, or after she’d sported deep red gashes on her arms and face from falls, fights, and everything in-between—he always smiled at her the same. Just as he’d smile in the background whenever she’d successfully broken apart a conductor or a Conductor; just as he’d smile whenever she passed him by with the other children who were all ready to fulfill a greater purpose. A constant, radiant smile that she’d reflected back to him.

“No, not even if it’s you,” Maria replied. “You took everything.”

“What?” Proteus stared. His brows rose a moment later, then he chuckled. “Oh, I see. That makes sense. It wouldn’t make much sense for you to obsess over something like that. You can’t have changed much. But… You’re associated with that suitcase peacekeeper, aren’t you? The True Conductor. You’re connected to him. Jericho?”

Maria felt Jericho stiffen.

“Oh, I remember Jericho. I didn’t speak with him much back then but he was quite close to another child named Ayda, wasn’t he?”

Ayda.

A faint memory of a girl with a mole on her shoulder flickered at the back of Maria’s mind. With it came the feeling of sand in-between her toes.

Something other than Jericho’s ice cold rage suddenly shrugged its way through her shoulders and into her chest. Apprehension. 

Oh! Cadence?

But Cadence wasn’t synchronized strongly enough for Maria to see her and her surroundings too well.

Saints, came Cadence’s thought. Is that who I think it is? Finally… Talk about a bad way ta get a bingo… We’re standing on the wrong side of these bars.

Maria’s eyes were suddenly drawn back to Proteus and she found herself staring into his one eye.

Proteus’ eye—it reminded Maria of that one time she’d travelled to those frigid mountain ranges far beyond Signum. No city lights had existed there—only endless rolling clouds; and so as Maria had stared up into the sky on that frigid night, she’d seen a deep blackness that had seemed almost unreal. If it hadn’t been for Conta’s warmth at her side, she would’ve thought that empty nothingness would’ve lasted forever—which would’ve been very boring. Yes—Proteus’s gaze was quite a familiar thing.

Maria. This guy ain’t right. He’s givin’ me the same bad vibe I get from Cvetka. We need ta capture him and get where the kids are from him. No listenin’ ta monologues this time. Hey, Werner—

There was silence.

Nevermind. Cadence pressed on, Ya got those suppression cuffs Jericho lent ya, right? No, wait—

“I remembered to take them with me, yes,” Maria drew, “but I gave them to the officers so I could come here, yes?”

Saints, Sunshine. 

“Could you bring me a chair?” Proteus asked the police officer suddenly.

The police officer checked his wristwatch.

Andres rattled the bars. Once he gained the attention of the officer, he quickly scribbled out into his notebook and flashed it. That man has kidnapped Leonian children under the care of the Leonian Monadic Temples. He needs to be arrested immediately. 

The officer stared at him before his attention was pulled away by Proteus who pulled out a collection of bills and coins and handed it to the officer. The man nodded in turn and began to walk to the door.

Andres rattled the bars of his cell again and scribbled out another note. Are you not Leonian? Monadic? Leo would be ashamed for you to be working with something like this. The pillars. You’re going against them.

I get the guy, but that’s a bit dramatic, ain’t it? Not the best time ta be throwin’ around the religious jargon, Cadence thought, tense and grimacing. Doesn’t work with people who worship money.

“What? ‘Worshipping our Ancestors and being like them’Please,” the officer scoffed  “If they were so great then why did following their principles lead us here? When things go bad, it starts from the beginning and they were the beginning. So… eh.”

“That’s an awful thing to say…” Simon murmured.

The police officer left and returned later with a wooden chair which he set down for Proteus who faced it towards Maria’s cell.

What the…? Another talk-happy guy. Not surprised. Gotta use that ta our advantage. Need ta find a way ta get outta here. Ta get those suppression cuffs—

To stop Alpha. To punish him. To bring him to justice. To stop the children from—

“You really just bend over backwards for anyone who hands you money?” Maria found herself asking the police officer.

Frowning, the policeman approached the bars of her cell. “Yes, in fact, I do.” 

With a sleight of hand, Maria pulled the keys hanging at the man’s belt and slipped it into her own pocket. She then beamed at him and said, “Well, it’s okay if you’re weak, yes?”

The officer arched a brow at her before shrugging. He nodded at Proteus. “I’m going to be going on lunch break now. Be back in half an hour.” He exited the room, his footsteps tap, tap, tapping away into the distance.

“So…” Proteus slowly sank into his chair and crossed his legs. “Little Maria, it’s been some time. We should all catch up. Congratulations for finding me—rather, stumbling on me.” He studied Maria for a beat. “Did you let yourself be arrested?”

“For the experience, yes?” Maria confirmed before pressing, “Where are the children? The ones you’ve taken from Leo and Gemini?”

“Is that all you have to ask me? Well, our main ship is out near Taurus near the ports of Ziebin,” Proteus replied casually. “I’m not sure on the exact location but it’s somewhere around that area.” He hummed in thought. “The children are there sometimes. Sometimes they’re not. The question shouldn’t be ‘where are they’ but ‘are they willing to do what you want them to do when you find them?’”

Maria could feel Cadence tense beside her, so she opened her mouth to say something pleasant. After a moment of consideration, however, she stopped short. Think, Werner would say.

You should go tell Francis, Cadence, yes? Maria thought. I—She glanced to her left towards Jericho—we—will handle things here. You already helped, yes?

Maria could feel Cadence’s hesitation before their synchronization lessened. She could also feel the weight of the keys Cadence had stolen at her hip. She glanced over at the cells the others were in. 

It was better that they stayed inside them, yes? Yes. Better. She would handle the one herself. But first, she wanted to talk—

“Do you remember the bells, Maria?” 

Maria returned her attention to Proteus.

“I’m sure you remember it too, Espada.” Proteus glanced over his shoulder towards Andres. “The sound of the bells ringing on top of every single Monadic building. Whether it’s a temple, an orphanage, or a school, if the building is Monadic, it has to have bells. Because bells are a way of calling. A summons. Back in the day, those rings would help us find our way to Prognoikos Aurora Reservoirs for the ceremonies—the baptisms.” Slowly, he looked over his other shoulder towards the cell Simon, Lita, and Albatross were in. “You, Monadic priest—you remember it too, don’t you?” 

Maria’s heart skipped a beat. 

Don’t look at them, Proteus,” she said with a smile, drawing his attention away. “I’ve always wanted to see you again, but things have changed, no? I’ve learned a lot about you since back then. You are not who I thought you were, no?”

‘Proteus.’ Of all names that I told you, you remembered that one. I wonder why…”

“It’s the strangest sounding, no?” Maria stared at him. “And it’s Ophiuchian.”

“Yes, it is, but I figured that my other name stood out for you more since you’ve taken it for yourself.” Proteus chuckled. “The name of the person I was before I became the current me was Angelo Rosa-Fernandez. When I saw that wanted poster of yours a couple months back in Pisces and saw that you were using my surname, I felt a bit touched. If I’m recalling this correctly, the head priest at your orphanage had the surname of Primero-Freeza; and you, in turn, were Maria Gloria-Primera.”

Maria cocked her head. “What’s all this about names? I didn’t really like my old name and wanted to switch it up, yes? It’s quite ironic that we share it, no?”

Proteus chuckled again. “Well, that’s not unusual for you not to remember. You and Conta both. Oh. How is Beta doing? You’re working together with her now, right? So do you call her Conta?  Ah, well, it’s merely a name. Nevertheless—have you figured out my poem any? Or perhaps Vega has? You’re working with them now, I know. Because of your connection to that Geminian swindler.”

He knows. Somehow. He knows—

“Yes. I know everything. You were probably wondering how I knew, right?” Proteus propped his elbow up on his knee and leaned his chin into his open palm. “That’s what you do when you’re on long journeys. Learn and learn until you learn everything there is to learn. There’s not a single thing that I don’t know. Of course, I’m not as omnipotent as Scorpio.” He paused, smile warming. “Have you learned anything on your journey, little Maria?”

Enough talking. Maria. We need to capture him. Bring him in. PleaseThere was a phrase that Jericho wasn’t thinking to her, but it was one that she knew was brewing in his head somewhere: Punish him.

Maria glanced at Jericho’s image at her side. Other than the cold heat burning inside him, there was something else there. A feeling she couldn’t quite place.

Soon, Jericho, yes? Werner always talks about patience, no? It will be okay.

Jericho’s gaze did not leave Proteus. 

“Little Maria?”

“Oh, I’ve learned many things!” Maria replied earnestly. “But that’s not what we should discuss, yes—”

“Have you learned why you’re seeking me?”

Maria blinked, somewhat surprised by the turn of question. “I’ve always known why I’ve been seeking you.” She hung her arms through the bars of the cell. “You took me and Conta away on that day. It was the only time I was not in control. On that ship too.”

“Are you saying that you didn’t enjoy your time with me? Seeking someone who made you feel powerless is unusual to say the least. But unusual is good.” A pause. “Well?”

“Oh! It was very fun back then. I enjoyed exploring those places back too! But I was not the captain, no? You were.”  But even so… Maria thought, why did Jericho not get to enjoy the same too?

Proteus continued smiling.  “I see that you still haven’t realized it yet.”

“Realized it?”

“Everything that you have right now is not really yours. Everything was taken from someone else or given to you by someone else. The orphanage, me, the people and places you’ve seen. That’s the reason why you’re seeking me. You want me to give you something again.”

Maria laughed as she digested his words. El and Andres gave her odd looks again but she ignored them and said, “Of course these things were not originally mine. These places that I visit  I’ve deemed too beautiful to claim just for myself, so that’s why they aren’t mine. As for other things… That’s why I take them and make them mine, yes—”

“But they aren’t really yours still, little Maria,” Proteus returned. “Because they weren’t originally yours. You have nothing like that. And that’s a perfectly wonderful thing. Not truly owning anything, I mean. No worries of real loss or heartache.”

“You can’t lose something if you don’t own anything,” Jericho muttered under his breath. It took a moment for Maria to realize she’d said that out loud too.

“Oh? That sounds like something that Scorpio would say.” Proteus chuckled again. “I’m guessing he told you that. Well… ‘Not truly owning anything’—the way Scorpio puts it makes it out to be a bad thing. That was always theirproblem. So fixated on the need to be entirely one thing. An absolute.” He reached out into his pocket and pulled out what appeared to be a small, brass spyglass. “But really, it’s a much more colorful world than that.” He placed it to his eye. “This is called a kaleidoscope. They originated in Libra in the 1800s. When you look into it like this, you can see a colorful light display.” He turned its body, and a soft click, click, click could be heard. “But if you move it like this, you get a completely different array.”

Proteus turned and handed the spyglass out to the adolescent standing behind him. The adolescent took it from Proteus, put it to his own eye, grinned as he turned it. 

“Oh, little Maria… Even after all this time everything that they’ve taught you at the orphanage is still ingrained inside you.” He glanced back over at Andres. “Just like it’s ingrained in you, Espada—”

“Your words are like Scorpio’s, no?” Maria cocked her head. “Scorpio always said these kinds of things because he wanted people to do things, yes? No, to hurt them into doing things.”

Jericho stirred. Yes. He lied

Maria nodded at this. Then she thought—well, if it wasn’t any of the others that were on the receiving end of his words, she supposed it was fine. She could handle them, after all. 

“Oh, my intention isn’t to hurt anyone.” Proteus straightened as if in surprise. “I don’t want anything from any of you. Not really. I don’t want anything from the children either. Well… I don’t actually want anything at all.”

Maria suddenly thought of Atienna. Jericho did too.

“Everyone wants something…” Morandi interjected suddenly. “Doesn’t matter if you’re a ghost, a saint, or something else entirely. Don’t try to be holier than thou. You wouldn’t be a member of that organization if you didn’t want something.”

Proteus turned and regarded Morandi for a moment. “That’s an interesting perspective… And you are?”

“Captain Amico Morandi. And you’re the infamous one who took Maria and Conta in,” Morandi drew, meeting Proteus’s gaze. “Maria made you sound like a mysterious being. But looking at you know I can see that you’re only human. From what I hear, you’re not too kind to children… You know what we sailors do to people who aren’t kind to children.”

“Don’t look at my Morandi either, Proteus,” Maria said with a laugh. “I will rip your eye out, even if it’s you.”

“Well, that’s rather violent.” Proteus chuckled. “But I guess anti-violence isn’t a pillar of Monadism, so I shouldn’t be surprised.”

Monadism?

“Monadism…” Proteus hummed, returning his attention to her. “If you worship something too much, then you and the thing you worship will both become useless in the end.” He closed his eye. “Worship is one of the strongest forms of attachment, isn’t it? Attachment itself is a deterrent to freedom. It takes a lot of strength to free yourself from things like that. Most people are a bit too weak to.” 

He talks too much. Shut up.

“That’s always been the problem with the saint candidates. They’ve been here so long that all they can do is grow attached. That’s what happens when you don’t heed the turn of the cycle.” Proteus laughed. “I guess saying it like that makes me sort of a hypocrite since I’ve been bypassing the turn of the cycle of myself. Breaking free from it—not ending it nor heeding to it—now, that’s a pleasant thought.”

“Oh, yes, I heard about that: you ‘bypassing’ the cycle.” Maria leaned forward. “You took the vitae in the resistors ELPIS had all for yourself! You made Epsilon put them in you, yes? Because… you are one of the Great Five Devourers?” 

Proteus stared. “Oh. That silly little title? Did Epsilon tell you about that? Well, Epsilon didn’t do all that transferring work himself. I put some effort into it myself. I just needed a helping hand in moving such a large amount of vitae. But… the ‘Great Devourers’?” He laughed again. “Right. Back when we were still developing the theories of vitae, our areas of research made us inclined to being bestowed names like that by our students. Can you guess what each person’s specific titles were? Say—how about Theta?”

“Theta…” Maria cocked her head in thought. “Devourer of Knowledge?”

“Oh, I see why you’d think that. But no. Devourer of Space was Vega’s title,” Proteus amended. “Devourer of Vacuum swas Delta’s title. Devourer of Self was the one Gemini and I shared, although it became a bit more divided near the end. Devourer of All was Pisces’s.”

Maria wondered if she should add something similar to her own title. Golden Beast, Devourer of—?

Pisces….” Proteus hummed. “They’re the only one among the saint candidates who really understands the meaning of being in the cycle. Pisces and Ophiuchus….” Something in his eye flickered. “Well, no matter.”

There was a lapse of silence. Jericho tickled her thoughts.

“The children. Why did you take them?” Maria pressed. “Why do you want to convert them? Why children? When are you planning to raid Ophiuchus?”

“Oh? You know about the plan!” Proteus replied pleasantly. “I expected that. But that question—is that a question from Jericho? That doesn’t seem like something you’d ask. No, you’d never think to ask that in the first place. You’d just lift your head high and act without deliberation. That’s what was given and taught to you. Victory at the palm of your hand. That’s how you were raised.”

Maria couldn’t comprehend what he meant.

“But why not?” Proteus continued. “I mean—why not take them? Children are pure and simple. They seldom have attachment to anything besides their families and their names. Out of all the people in this world, they’re the most content. For certain children—orphans—that lack of attachment goes even further. Those ones have no names, no history, no family, no true place to call home—”

Maria felt Jericho tense beside her.

Home.

A terrible, heavy sadness stirred in her chest.

“The only attachment they really have left is the lingering one to the cycle. And that can be easily changed.”

Unforgivable. 

Fury boiled over in Maria’s chest; and she lunged out towards Proteus, but he was just barely out of her grasp. She pulled back a moment later and blinked at Jericho.

Unforgivable. 

Proteus arched a brow at her. “I wouldn’t go so far as saying that I’m helping them by bleaching their vitae, of course. I’m just offering you my perspective on that. You can reach a conclusion on your own. But I must say, that choice is all their own.”

Choice? No. There was no choice. No. I—

Yes, he deceived you, no?

Jericho relaxed slightly. The cycle. His thoughts bounced around wildly. Maria. He is different. From both ELPIS and the saint candidates. His thinking. I remember. He said it once. Freedom—but from conductors.

A memory flickered faintly in the back of Maria’s head. 

“The ones you took belonged to Francis,” Maria pressed. “And Francis belongs to Cadence. Cadence belongs to me. So, you took from me. I can’t forgive that—even if you’re the one I’ve been seeking.”

“Right.” Proteus sighed. “Vega is taking up their bad habit of picking up strays again. Collecting them, teaching them, tying them down with the usual rhetoric…” He smiled and seemed to stare directly into her. “That’s what happened to Jericho, right? Are you two getting along now? Oh, I know you are. Have you talked about it any with Vega? About how they took you in after helping to murder your family?” 

Maria’s grip on the bars tightened again. 

“Or about how you definitively excised Omicron from the cycle?”

Maria felt Jericho’s heart drop to his stomach.

“In a sense, Jericho, you gave Altair peace and you freed the two of them from each other. But I have to wonder—when you’re looking at Theta now, are you seeing the present or the past?” Proteus hummed. “Really—I am just curious. I just want to understand it is all. I’m not judging.”

Maria was squeezing the bars so hard that she wondered if she’d be able to shatter them with her bare hands. Oh, she definitely could. And if she did so, then she could use the broken bars to fight Proteus. Capture him. Oh, but would Proteus be a formidable opponent? Was he a Conductor?

Pay attention, Werner would say. Observe. 

Maria looked Proteus over more carefully. He was wearing gloves. Conducting gloves. A Conjuror? A Transmutationist. No, wait. There looked to be a conducting blade at his belt. A Projector? Wait, did she know what conducting type he was? Did they discuss it in the meeting? Werner was there, so they must have discussed it.

Yes. We talked about it, Maria. But you were not paying attention, Jericho replied. Conta and Francis said it. He is a Specialist. Intuition. ‘Devourer’ is because of his conducting ability.

Maria studied Jericho for a moment. Her Jericho. Jeri. Someone who was hers. Someone who she wanted to be happy. But before Jericho was hers, he was unhappy. That was something… she couldn’t change?

“Why did you treat Jericho and me so differently?” Maria drew slowly as she turned her attention back to Proteus. “You showed me adventure… Freedom. But you made him do things. Hurt him. Made him bleach his vitae. Were you not strong enough to treat us both the same?”

Jericho finally looked away from Proteus towards her.

“Oh, it has nothing to do with strength, little Maria. It was simply because you’re you and he’s him,” Proteus replied. “Although—I do admit that my interest in you was a bit influenced by the fact that you were a potential saint candidate. Bleaching such a beautifully colored vitae would be a shame.”

Maria cocked her head.

“Jericho, on the other hand… your original vitae color, do you remember what it is?”

Jericho stilled beside her.

“It wasn’t any specific color that caught my attention,” Proteus continued. “So I can’t say I recall it if you don’t. But… I do remember your conducting being like Libra’s. However, you were Scorpioan. There was very little chance of you inheriting Libra’s vitae particles since all the candidates usually respect territorial domain. But even if you were a potential saint candidate for Libra, I don’t think it would’ve changed the outcome. You were you. Just like Maria was Maria.”

No. Not enough of a reason. Why. Why? Why?

“Honestly speaking, Jericho, with your conducting ability, you’re perfectly suited to being with ELPIS. Especially since you’re lacking Libra’s eyes. What other better way to bring people hope than through completely wiping away everything that they deem wrong and cruel in the world? ‘True justice is blind.’” He chuckled. “…or something.”

Maria’s knuckles were turning white.

“I don’t like to call things ‘shames,’” he continued, “but it really is a shame what happened on that day you decided to leave us. So many children gone in an instant. Well, I guess for them it might’ve been a relief. Being free from the cycle with absolute certainty.” 

The word buzzed in Maria’s head because they buzzed in Jericho’s. 

“Out of curiosity more than anything else—I have to ask—why did you do it, Jericho? Because you thought what you were doing was wrong? Or was there no reason at all? Or… are you still trying to find a reason?” The corners of Proteus’s eye crinkled. “Oh, that’s definitely it. You’re still searching for a reason even after all this time—”

“You lied to my Jericho,” Maria interjected. “You tricked him. Only those who aren’t strong enough to tell the truth tell lies because they aren’t strong enough to handle what comes after they tell the truth.”

Proteus arched a brow. “A lie? You mean about Theta? I didn’t lie to you, Jericho. I told you the truth. Every small thing you did back then helped to push back the syzygy day by day. That’s what Theta—the real Theta not the smeared one that you know—would have wanted.”

Maria could feel Jericho squirm. 

“And do you want the syzygy?” she asked.

“I already said I don’t want anything, didn’t I?” Proteus chucked before sighing. “Anyways, after I left you two, you both went different routes. But… in the end, you ended up at the same destination. Attached to each other and senselessly seeking and searching for things that don’t even really matter.”

“I don’t mind being at the same destination as Jeri,” Maria responded. “And Jeri is not the best ELPIS member. He is the best peacekeeper. The best one that I know.”

Jericho stared at her, his heat dimming just slightly. After a beat, he offered her a thumbs up. Thank you. You are the best ‘adventurer’ I know.

“Is that so?” Proteus murmured.

Maria nodded. “And we are the ones who determine whether what we are searching for matters are not, yes? I dictate my reality.” She pointed to the kaleidoscope in the adolescent’s hand. “I am the kaleidoscope.”

Smiling, Proteus gestured to the adolescent. “Maria, this is Dominic Gloria-Elegido. Gloria. That’s the name of the family that established Monadism in Leo. It’s also the name of Leo’s largest charitable organization. All of the children who grow up in their ‘houses of care’ are raised the same way, taught the same things, and eventually develop something akin to the same personality—well, two sets of personalities in the end.”

Maria was somewhat confused at the turn in conversation.

“You either become ‘the star’ or the ‘night sky that supports the star.’ There’s no other path for someone like you unless someone from the outside changes. The only reason Conta didn’t become an Espada and you didn’t become Leo is because I intervened on that day because I felt quite bad for you. And so, instead that fate of candidacy fell on the person we call Leona today.”

Thoughts of Leona filled Maria’s mind. Then thoughts of saint candidates. Then of Talib—Scorpio. No, Maria was certain that she would’ve stayed as herself even if Proteus didn’t intervene.

“What are you talking about, Alpha?” Epsilon interjected suddenly. “That is Leo.”

Proteus threw his head back and laughed, loud, clear. It sounded hollow. “You might shine brightly, little one, but everyone else that comes out of that orphanage shines equally the same.” He wiped a tear from his eye and met her gaze.

Faint memories of bells, sitting before grand faceless statues, listening in to lessons about the Ancestors, history, and so on warmed the back of Maria’s mind.

“There is not a single unique thing about you, little Maria.” Proteus uncrossed his legs, leaned forward, hands clasped. “But that in itself isn’t a bad thing.” 

The adolescent, Dominic, finally lowered the kaleidoscope in his hands. He studied Maria. “So you’re Maria, are you? They still talk about you in the orphanage. They used to at least. Now they say I’m better than you. That I’m the best potential saint candidate for Leo that they’ve ever seen. Not that it means much to me.”

Maria cocked her head and slowly looked at him. “Well, you can be the best potential Saint Candidate of Leo. I don’t really care about that either—Dominic, yes?” She looked him up and down. “But I assure that you are not better than me because only I—”

“—can be better than me,” Dominic finished. 

Maria blinked at him. 

“I’m not following Alpha around by the way,” he continued. “I’m only going along for what he’s showing me. The path I set is my own.”

Epsilon cleared his throat. “What’s this about saint candidates and Leo…?”

Then Maria heard it. The sound she’d been listening in for. The faint tap, tap, tap of approaching footsteps from behind the door to the far left. The door the officer had exited from. It was time!

The door in question creaked open, and the police officer from before stepped into the room. At the same instant, Maria whipped out the keys from her pocket and cycled through them as she tried the cell’s lock. When she heard a faint click, a burst of excitement throttled her chest, overtaking the cold heat simmering there.  

Proteus turned and stared at her. “Oh—”

Grinning, she threw herself on top of Proteus, causing him to fall back in his chair. Straddling him, she pinned him to the ground, pulled off his conducting gloves, and ripped off the conductors clipped to his belt. While she tossed the gloves over to Andres’s cell and the other conductors to the side, she took one of the conducting blades for herself. She activated it with a flick of her wrist and watched as gold illuminated Proteus’s still pleasantly smiling face.

The One. The One. The One.

Jericho was still with her now despite him having faded from her vision. His thoughts pounded like a heartbeat. 

As Maria held the blade to Proteus’s neck, she noticed the police officer was now charging at her and waving a baton. In turn, she simply threw out her foot and kicked Proteus’s fallen chair up in the air. She plucked from there and cracked it against the officer’s head as he ran at her. The wood shattered. The officer collapsed on the ground.

The One. The One. The One.

Him. Him. Him.

The cold rage in Maria’s chest expanded outwards as the phrase rang in her ears.  The vitae blade expelling out from her conductor wavered before losing its rigidity and falling limp. Like a whip. It spilled out onto the ground, the tip of it ghosting one of the stray conductors that she’d tossed aside. At its touch, gold spider-webbing veins threaded through its body and shattered it into nothing. The handle of the conductor began to spark and burn in her hands.

Incompatible. But—

“No, no, Jeri,” Maria said, flicking her wrist and forcing the gold whip to straighten back into a blade. “We have to keep Proteus alive, yes? So we can ask him more questions. About the children. About Ophiuchus.” Her eyes narrowed slightly. “About why.”

Proteus laughed lightly. “But I already told you why.”

A flash of light suddenly flitted at the corner of Maria’s eyes. Maria whipped around and brought up her blade just in time to block the down-coming swing of another blade. Blinding sparks erupted but she stared past them to find another conducting blade pressing down against her own. It didn’t take her long to realize that the color emitting from it was no different from the color of her own vitae.

“Proteus is showing me things,” Dominic drew, eyes glinting. “I can’t have you take him away before he shows me everything I want to see!”

The weight of Dominic’s blade pressed down harder and harder—

“You are pretty strong for a young person, no?” 

—harder, harder, harder.

Maria’s arms began to buckle under the weight. She quickly threw her leg out beneath Dominic’s but much to her surprise, he leapt over her swing, landed on his feet, and pressed down harder

Maria.

With a grimace, Maria slid her blade along Dominic’s and just barely managed to throw him off balance. Just for a moment. In the next moment, he was charging forward again. With a half-laugh, she retreated off of Proteus’s body and danced backwards as Dominic slashed and slashed and slashed. She blocked left, right, left, up, down—

He was fast. Faster than Leona. And his movements. They were familiar. Like Leona’s movements. Like her own. A rare sweat broke across Maria’s back as she was pushed back against the bars of Andres’s cell. The Espada had been pressing his notebook against the bars the entire time; and now that Maria was close enough, she could read what was written on it:

These conducting gloves aren’t for Conjurors.

Don’t hurt him. He’s under the care of the Monadic Temples. He’s a child. I need to take him back.

Maria glanced at Andres’s hands and found them ungloved.

Maria. Danger.

Refocusing at Jericho’s prompt, Maria ducked as Dominic’s blade hurtled towards her head. She felt the heat of the vitae just above her and even smelt burnt hair. Ducking away, she ran out beneath him, whipped around, and brought up her blade in time to block another blow. Their blades locked again.

Dominic was very fast indeed. 

Oh, this was quite fun.

Staring over his shoulder, she spied the bars of the cell. He had cut clean through them, and several steel beams were now clattering onto the ground. 

Maria couldn’t help but chuckle slightly at the sight as excitement snapped through her body.

Wait, no—Alpha. The One. Where was he.

Maria glanced to her side and found Proteus on the opposite side of the room. He had donned on another pair of conducting gloves he’d seemingly pulled from thin air and was now pressing it against the bars of another cell. The bars themselves were coated in what appeared to be his blood. That cell—it was the one Simon, Albatross, and Lita were in. 

No!

Maria threw out her leg to sweep beneath Dominic’s feet, but at the same time he also threw his leg beneath hers. They collapsed to the ground simultaneously, but still maintained their blades against each other. Maria’s mind raced as her arms began to shake against Dominic’s weight.

Jeri—

He is not ELPIS. Maria. I can’t. Not my conducting. But. The One. I—

Just his conductor, Jeri!

A pause.

Yes. Okay. I trust you, Maria.

The form of Maria’s vitae blade shivered and became limp like a whip. As it did so, cracks formed up Dominic’s blade at the point of contact with her whip. An expression of surprised barely registered on his face before Maria pulled the whip back and headbutted Dominic straight on.

The young man stumbled backwards and Maria used the opportunity to send him flying backwards with a kick to the gut. He hit the opposite cell with a loud clanging thud and groaned loudly.

“Y-You cheated!” Dominic snapped as he struggled to a stand. “See, I am better than you! I didn’t cheat—”

Ignoring his exclamation, Maria charged at Proteus. As she did so, the man reached towards the bars of the cell with his free hand. The blood on the cell began to glow and melt them away in a way that reminded Maria of Olive’s heat. Simon pulled Albatross and Lita to the very back of the cell as Proteus stepped inside. Just as Maria reached him, he extended his other gloved hand out towards her. It was coated in blood. Blood that began to glow white. Blood that abruptly burst out into swirling hot flames, forcing Maria backwards. 

Maria!

An Elementalist too? Maria thought as she found herself pressed back against the bars of the cell once more.  The heat seared the hairs on her face, but didn’t reach her completely. The smell of smoke did though, and it churned her stomach.

No, Jericho corrected. Specialist.

And then the memory came to her—

“Alpha’s conducting ability—as would you would call it in this time—is vaguely reminiscent of the Saint Candidate of Gemini,” Conta had explained back in the exitless room. “He’s able to temporarily adopt the conducting types of other people by ‘sampling’ it. He can’t do it for long nor is he able to fully, so there’s an advantage there. The length of the time he can use their conducting depends on how much he’s taken.” 

“Amazing…” Maria whispered as the white flames died into embers around her.

Proteus. The one she’d been looking for. He was absolutely amazing. 

But not in this situation. 

Alpha. The one he’d been looking for. He was wrong. He needed to be brought to justice. Punished. Answers.

Yes. Maria could not let him touch any more of the things that were hers. Conta had returned to her, proving that she could regain things that she’d lost. So, she could do anything.

Maria lifted her conducting blade and flicked her wrist. It immediately drooped back down into a whip. The hilt began to spark, but she ignored it.

Proteus lowered his gloved hand. Still smiling.

Incapacitate. Jericho’s thoughts bounced around erratically. Then suppression cuffs. 

Alright, Jeri—

Clink. Clink. Clink. Clink.

Maria perked up at the familiar sound as a cold draft came in from somewhere. It was coming from the doorway to her left. Just as she turned towards it, it swung open and two bodies entered—no. Correction: two bodies flew into the room. Maria leapt to the side out of their path and watched as they crashed into the opposite door in a tangle of limbs. A man and a woman in Monadic robes—the man on top of the woman.

Maria didn’t recognize the man. But the woman. It was that ELPIS leader. The one with the white mist. Rho. 

Intuition. If that’s Rho. The other is—

“Nu? Rho? Oh?” Alpha called out to them, pulling slightly away from the cell. “You’re both supposed to be in Capricorn.”

Nu. Maria remembered that ELPIS leader biting off their tongue. So they’d come back again? As Maria turned over the thought, the heat in her chest erupted once more. 

They were all here. Right in front of her. Again. The reasons. Stop them. No again. Not to the children. Prevent it from happening again.

Rho struggled up to a stand before helping Nu to a stand as well. “It’s a bit hard to stay focused on Capricorn when we’re trying to get away from…” She lifted her finger and pointed it across the room towards the open door. “…him.”

Clink, clink, clink, clink.

Thin shadows snaked across the room as everything became illuminated by a familiar white light. In the threshold of the door stood Iota, his chains floating through the air.

Maria clenched her fists.

Iota scanned the room with a frown, gaze temporarily lingering on Maria before focusing solely on—

Alpha!” he hissed. He threw out his gloved hand, sending a torrent of chains at the man.

Alpha in turn raised his own hands and flurried out white hot flames that melted some of the chains into a molten mess that splattered bubbling onto the ground. 

“T-That’s… Zeta’s conducting…” Iota lowered his hand as he stared. “What have you done…?” Glowering, he flung out his hand again and sent out another spearing tornado of chains hurtling towards Alpha.

This time, Rho flicked her hand out and sent a cloud of white mist outwards. As soon as it contacted Iota’s chains, the metal links clattered uselessly to the ground. No, not uselessly.

Maria grabbed a limp chain from where it had fallen in front of her and began to whip it wildly in the air. The wind it created forced the white mist backwards towards Rho and away from Morandi’s, El’s, and Andres’s cells.

“L-Lita!”

Maria turned her attention back to the cell Simon, Lita, and Albatross had once occupied. Nu was in there now, having most likely jumped inside to avoid Rho’s mist. But—Proteus. He was in there too facing the wall. Simon was groaning on the ground in the corner of the cell, while Albatross lay unmoving in the other corner. Lita—she was in Proteus’s arms and screaming, kicking, biting.

No.

It took a moment for Maria to realize that the cell wall in front of Proteus was stained back and that there was a familiar needle-shaped proto-conductor in his hands. Turning back to smile at her, the man tapped the needle against the stain and stepped through the burning light that erupted there. Nu followed behind him. 

Without hesitation and still gripping the chain and her conductor, Maria ran into the cell and threw herself into the gate. Cold air whipped against her face as she tumbled through it. A moment later, she caught sight of a wooden deck stretching out in the dusk light below her. She rolled out onto it to break her fall before promptly hopping back up onto her feet. 

After scanning the area and taking note of the mast and bowsprit and the barrels rolling down the sloping wooden floorboards, she reached a startling realization.

Maria. This is your ship.

Maria scanned the deck quickly. There were smoke pillars rising up from holes that dotted the damaged deck. The deck was tilted slightly too, and half the railings were missing. The entire thing rumbled. Groaned.

The ship—it was sinking.

But where was everyone? Oh! They must have already gotten off the ship—

Look up.

Maria paused and looked up at Jericho’s suggestion. The flags hanging up there were torn ragged and stained black. Intuition. This was the gate she’d fallen out of. But she wasn’t too concerned with this fact because standing on the bird’s nest in front of the billowing, stained flags was Proteus. Smiling still. In his hold was Lita. Beside him stood Nu.

“Oh?” Proteus glanced around the deck. His voice echoed dizzyingly against the torn flags. “I guess Rho and Nu ended up doing some work here after all. I did hear that you picked up some children from Theta recently, so I suspect they must have taken them while you were sitting in that cell and while they were running from Iota…”

Maria’s head buzzed. With difficulty, she tore her eyes away from Lita and Proteus as she scanned the ship once more. She then stared over the collapsed railings towards the pier of the tow in the distance. Somehow, it seemed as if the ship had drifted away from there. There—the pier. The children and the rest of her crew had to be there, yes? Veles would have taken them—no. Veles was no longer here to watch over the children. Yes. Werner had warned her about that. So if Veles wasn’t here, then—

He took them. He’s going to trick them. Again. No. No—

Maria could feel it now. She could understand it entirely. Jericho’s anger. His rage, burning and hot and bursting out of every vein in her body. She’d come close to inheriting this feeling herself once before when she’d thought Beta had taken her Conta in the Twin Cities. 

And now someone had stolen from her again. Not just someone. The one she’d been seeking.

“Give them back,” Maria said calmly, extending her hand out to Proteus. “Give my children back and give Lita back. Give my crew back.”

Proteus remained smiling as he dragged his bloody hand across Lita’s face. Lita stiffened visibly but she remained silent, dry-eyed, chin raised. 

Her Lita.  Maria was proud of the sight. Of the bravery. Of the strength.

“Oh, little Maria, you really need to learn to let go of things like this,” Proteus drew, pulling Lita closer and resting his hand on top of her head. “So do you, Jericho. Let go of your passions. There are so many more things to do than chase the past.” 

Jericho shook furiously. Don’t act when confused. Don’t act when confused. Don’t act—

A bright burst of pale tangerine light emitted from above Maria’s head followed shortly after by a falling, screamingshadow. Maria couldn’t quite make out who it was, but—

Intuition. 

Flicking off her conductor, Maria lunged forward and caught the hollering figure in her arms easily. Morandi, she realized, as she took in his graying hairs and wrinkles. And he was still screaming. 

“My dear Morandi, what is all this shouting for?”

Morandi’s screaming quieted as he registered her. “Captain!” He pressed something into her hands. The suppression cuffs. 

“Thank you, my dear!” Maria exclaimed as she set him down and accepted them. “Now I can properly do this, yes?” She returned her attention back up to the trio standing on the bird’s nest. 

Morandi did too, and he paled as he clutched his chest. “Saints… Lita.”

Nu doesn’t matter. Return him to nothing. He’s working with Alpha. Alpha. Alpha is all that’s needed. Once we get Alpha, then we’ll get Lita. The others—

Maria flicked her conductor on again, and it spilled out a golden whip. The handle burned and sparked again.

Yes, but if I hit Lita then… Maria flicked the whip back to a blade. She gripped her chain in her other hand. Then—all she had to do was hand-to-hand combat. Yes! She would win! As long as Dominic wasn’t here—

Maria stopped the thought before it was completed. 

“One more time.”

At the calm statement, Maria looked up to find the gate glowing and Proteus holding up one finger. 

“I’ll meet with you one more time before Ophiuchus. Exactly one month from now. Where the bell tolls most familiarly. You should know where that is now.”

What?

“Bye now, little Maria.”

With that, he swooped a shrieking Lita up into his arms and turned towards the gate with Nu. 

No. No. No. No!

Maria ran to the pole—nearly tripping over he feet as the entire ship lurched forward—but the three of them had already disappeared into the dimming light. She started to scale the pole but then realized a quarter-way up it that she wouldn’t be able to reach the bird’s nest in time. 

No. Maria refused this reality. 

With a grunt, she threw her chain up with all her might up towards the gate. The chain rose higher, higher, higher and pierced through the light. It strained, then she felt resistance. Heart hammering, she leapt back down onto deck, dragging the chain towards herself with all her might. As she did so, the chain touted and out from the gate fell a silhouette with their ankle wrapped in the metal links. The silhouette fell right at her feet. Upon registering who it was, however, Maria felt her heart sink. She looked back up. The gate was no longer active. 

Wrong. Punish. Justice. The One.

Nu glared up at Maria, tightening his grip on the activated conducting blade in his hands. Before he could swing it at her, she stepped on his hand harder, harder, harder until she heard a crack! He didn’t flinch. She didn’t expect him to. When he tried to roll over, she stomped a foot on his throat. He wheezed. She straddled him and pinned him with her knees. 

“Have you heard the tale of the Golden Beast?” she whispered, hissed through gritted teeth as she leaned in close to his ear. “Do you want me to show it to you?”

Instead of answering, Nu glowered and opened his mouth—

Suicide. Again. No—

Without hesitation, Maria shoved her hand into Nu’s mouth before he could snap it shut. The man’s eyes widened at this before he clamped down and bit hard. But Maria didn’t care much for the pain. She simply struck Nu on the side of the head without restraint, jarring the man and forcing him to release her hand.

She reached out to Cadence, searching to see if she and Francis were successful. Distantly, she could see a disguised Cadence sweeping that riverside Taurusian town, peeling through alleyways, running down its piers but—nothing. 

But the gates—Maria thought—Francis would know where the gate Proteus opened went to…?

No. Too many opening. 

“Where did you take them, Nu? Are they in Taurus?” Maria whispered, grabbing hold of Nu’s tongue. She pulled on the appendage, but then paused. “Oh… right. You’re like Jericho. You can’t feel pain.” Staring into his eyes, she tugged him forward up to her face by the tongue. “Then how should I make you talk…?”

A hand gripped her shoulder and turned her around. Morandi. 

“Captain,” he panted. “The ship is sinking! We need to jump ship and swim to shore!”

Maria remained silent, glowered at him. 

Morandi startled backwards. “C-Captai—” He clutched his chest abruptly and slowly slid to his knees as his face twisted in agony. He locked eyes with Maria for the briefest moment, before he fell forward motionless. 

Maria stared at him bewildered. “Morandi?”

No answer.

Maria’s gaze flicked between Nu and her Morandi before she pulled off the former and ran to the latter’s side. The older man’s eyes were open and staring unfocused into the distance

Jeri, what is wrong with him—

But the peacekeeper’s thoughts were clouded with only Alpha, Alpha, Alpha.

In desperation, Maria reached out for Atienna instead but then Jericho snapped back to attention—

I’m sorry. I don’t know, Maria. El. El can help. Maria, we need El. 

Grimacing, Maria grabbed Morandi and threw him over her shoulders. Upon looking back, she found that—as expected—Nu had bitten off his tongue. Blood gushed out from his mouth and he thrashed around for half a second before stilling completely.

Not enough punishment.

The ship groaned beneath her feet, its life shaking away with each tremor.

It was time to go. 

Taking in a deep breath, Maria held tightly onto Morandi, ran to the edge of her ship that faced the distant pier, and leapt. 

The cold ocean waters greeted her like an old friend but its coolness did nothing to quell the heat boiling over in her chest. Still, she swam and swam and swam without rest—her mind boiling over with thoughts of Lita, her children, her crew, Proteus, what would Proteus do to them all. The same thing he did to Jeri? 

It was happening all over again

The pier finally loomed ahead, and she pushed forward until her hand touched the wood of a dock. She did not allow herself to rest, however, and threw Morandi up onto the wooden deck there before pulling herself up. A crowd has gathered around them, their attention sweeping from Maria and Morandi herself to her sinking ship in the distance.

Maria didn’t care for their attention. She turned Morandi over. 

He did not move. 

She slapped him lightly on the cheek.

He did not move.

She shook him.

He did not move.

She moved her ear towards his chest but stopped short. 

Jericho. 

Yes. I am here. 

I don’t know Morandi at all. I don’t know his family. I don’t know what he likes and hates. I just know that he is by my side. That he is mine. But even if I don’t know him, Jeri, if I put my ear down and hear nothing, I—

“Captain!”

Maria perked up at the familiar, warm call. She glanced around and saw two figures pounding on the deck towards her and pushing past the crowd. “Simon… Albatross…”

“Lita!” Albatross shouted as he reached her side. There was a bloody gash running across his chest. “Where’s Lita?” He shut his mouth when he registered Morandi’s unmoving body. 

Simon sank to the ground beside her. “Morandi!” His hands hovered. 

More pounding footsteps. Andres, Epsilon, and El broke through the crowd next. Andres had conducting gloves on again, and there was a pair of suppression cuffs in his left hand and his notebook in the other. He flashed what was written there to her. 

They escaped through another gate. Dominic, the chain man, and the mist woman. They got away. 

“Leo!” Epsilon exclaimed, joining her side. “Are you okay? Of course you are, but—” He looked down at Morandi. “Is he okay…?”

Maria’s gaze flicked to El  who was panting and doubled over beside Andres. “You’re a Transmutationist!” She reached over, grabbed El’s hand, and pulled her down close. “You will fix him, and you will fix him now!”

El stiffened in her hold. “I-I don’t have my conductor—”

Maria tightened her grip, her gaze darkening. 

Startling and shaking, El sank beside Morandi and looked him over. “I… don’t see any injuries. What happened?”

“He collapsed. I don’t know why,” Maria answered. She pointed to her chest. “He just grabbed here and collapsed.”

El startled and placed her ear to Morandi’s chest. She pulled back a second later. “He’s alive. He’s okay. He had… a heart attack, I think.” She looked him up and down and placed a hand to his face. “I was concerned about him earlier, but…” She shook her head. “There’s nothing I can do here. He’s stable but we need to bring him to a hospital as soon as possible.”

“Heart attack?” Maria pressed. 

El nodded slowly. “Yes… he’s quite old… and being in an environment like this is quite stressful… I noticed he had hypertension earlier when I offered him a health check, but… Captain, it was only a matter of time.”

Maria stared at El, her past conversation with Conta about strength shadowing over her mind. 

El asked tentatively, “Are you okay?”

“Take him to a hospital. Now.” 

Without saying anything else, Maria slowly rose to a stand and walked to the edge of the pier. In the dusk setting light, she could barely see the outline of her sinking ship as it was completely swallowed up by the sea. 

She’d always considered that thing a mere vessel for her journeys. Nothing special. She’d lost many ships in her adventures before and had never thought anything of it. But to those children—to the ones Francis and Cadence had entrusted her to look after—that place had been home. Home. 

A broken promise. But only the weak broke promises.

Another pounding of footsteps drew her attention away. Upon turning her head, Maria spied a mildly disheveled Conta peeling through the crowd. The woman glanced down at Morandi as she reached the man’s side and then stared out towards the horizon. No expression. 

No, Maria thought as she followed her gaze out to the sea. Conta wasn’t here. Not really. 

Jericho’s image flickered back then at her side. His head was buzzing too—pure anger and hatred consuming his being—but still he stood beside her. It is okay. You will save them. Like you always say. You can do anything. And Alpha is the beginning. We will give him the end.  If Alpha is eliminated then peace will—He hesitated. No, it will not bring peace. But it will be better—

Jericho, do you hear the bells?

The ring of them was not physical. The chimes echoed out constantly from her childhood memories. Low, resonant, rumbling. Recently, ever since her time in Capricorn as Werner, they’d become even louder. Maria wondered if Dominic, Conta, and Andres heard them too. 

Yes, Jericho answered after a beat, I hear the bells.


???

Straddled by arms and hands in complete darkness, Lita screamed and kicked and threw her hands out blindly. Her fists connected with what she figured was someone’s face, then someone’s leg, then someone’s hand. Someone—something?—bit her in response, and so she did exactly what Maria had taught her. She bit them back.

A yelp resounded and suddenly the arms and hands holding her fell away leaving her in free fall. She landed with a thud on the floor on her rear a second later. Swallowing tears of pain from the impact, she staggered up to her feet and wildly swung out her hands.

Something soft ghosted her face. A hand. Cold.

“It’s okay, darling,” came a whisper to the side of her head. Warm, breathy. “You’re alright.”

The voice was gentle, soft, kind. Lita couldn’t help but relax slightly at its sound.

“My name is Alma,” the voice continued. “You’re safe here.”

Lita trembled. “W-Where’s Maria?”

“Why do you care so much about Maria?” came another voice—low, boyish. “She’s not even that interesting.”

Lita recognized that voice. Dominic…? Her cheeks flushed as she registered the insult. “Y-You’re not interesting! Don’t talk about Maria like that!”

“I see you’re quite devoted…” came another voice. 

Familiar again. Hollow-sounding. Empty. It reminded Lita of the voice of the assassin whose vitae Mr. Campana had her read long ago. It too was hollow and empty, but there was still an edge to it. But not this voice. This voice had no underlying desire ring and emotion to it. The only thing she could describe it as was ‘hollow’ and ‘pleasant.’ This was Proteus. 

“Devotion only brings suffering to the devotee and the one who is devoted, didn’t you know?” Proteus continued. “Well, no matter. It sounds to me like you have a conducting ability half-similar to Libra’s, am I right? You can see the flow of vitae.”

“How do you know—”

“Well, I know everything, like I’ve said.”

A hand—not Alma’s—grabbed Lita’s and forcefully shoved another hand—calloused but warm—into hers. Another object was placed into Lita’s other hand. The item was cold, lined with ridges, yet wrapped with something smooth.  She knew what it was immediately even though its weight was different.

“How about you read Dominic’s vitae and tell me what you see?” Proteus prompted. “The conductor glasses there aren’t quite as refined as yours, but it should do.”

Lita stiffened.

This was just like before. Back before Maria. Back when she was under the Campanas. Used as a product. Told to read this, do that because that had been her only purpose.  No. Lita refused.

With defiance, she lifted her chin and shook her head. She hoped Maria would be proud.

“Don’t you want to see why he beat Maria?” Proteus pressed.

Lita stiffened. “Maria… Maria doesn’t lose to anyone.”

Dominic laughed, loud and clear. The sound rumbled so vibrantly that Lita was immediately reminded of Maria.

“Well—Lita, is it? Maria lost to me.”

“The choice is yours,” Proteus said a moment after. “If you don’t want to, then don’t do it. It’s as simple as that. I’ll just have some of the others show you around instead. You could leave, of course, but you might have a hard time getting around. Why not stay and see what it’s like for a little while?”

Maria didn’t lose to anyone. Lita didn’t believe them. But—she had heard the fight between Dominic and Maria, and she had felt the sparks of their vitae warm her face. That skirmish…

 After a long stretch of hesitation, Lita put on the conducting glasses and tightened her grip on Dominic’s hand. As soon as she did so, she was immediately blinded by a painfully bright golden glow that filled up her entire vision. It sparkled, it pulsated, it shimmered—it was beautiful.

“You…” Lita stared in utter disbelief. “You’re brighter than Maria.”

24.4-1: The Pirate & Terrorist in Dorada Light

Re-cap:

Conta rejoins Maria onboard her ship alongside Andres. Although their reasons differ, together they share a goal of finding Alpha. In the background, Veles continues to seek vengeance against Conta and also shares commonality in being found by Alpha unbeknownst to Maria due to her carefree nature. Additionally, Cadence holds concerns about chlorowheat and Werner, but this is overshadowed by Fortuna’s proposal to Epsilon in order to unite the Romano and Campana families.


In-Transit, Onboard Gloria’s Grail, Leonian Waters

“So you’ve finally brought my target before me,” Veles boomed as soon as Maria had brought Conta and Andres onto the deck of her ship through Francis’s gates. 

“Yes, our target has been acquired!” Maria exclaimed, throwing her hands up in the air and then bringing them down to squeeze Conta’s shoulders. “Conta is home!”

Maria—with Andres and Conta at her side—stood across from Veles beneath the gray clouded sky as the ocean waves slapped against the hull of the ship. Sea birds cawed in the distance but Maria couldn’t quite see them. She wondered if Werner would be able to. 

Despite the chill in the air, some of the children had come up on deck and now peeked curiously at Andres who held up a hand in greeting. The other older crew members were up as well and staring at Conta. Both Morandi and Simon held back the younger ones while Albatross held back Lita—once again too serious for the situation.  Their whispers tangled the wind as the waters around them began to pulsate wisteria.

“Now, righteous punishment shall be dealt!” Veles boomed, throwing his fur coat over his shoulders and pointing his gloved hand at Conta. “For taking the lives of the guildmates who served dutifully against the higher power known as myself, I, Veles” —he closed his fist and the waves rumbled around them— “will give you what you deserve.”

With that, the ocean waters rose around them, peeling upwards like flower petals. 

Sunshine, this is why ya gotta think a little bit more before ya go runnin’ off. Cadence, who was still synchronized tightly since Maria had just left her physical side, shivered in her shoes.

Maria had thought. 

“You’re the bounty hunter,” Conta realized, eyes narrowing. She reached for the knife at her belt but Maria stopped her with a hand around the wrist.

“Veles is a member of my crew!” Maria corrected. “And also a True Conductor!”

Wha?! Sunshine—

There is no point in hiding things for a person like me, yes? Maria thought back to her. I have nothing to hide except what you have given me to hide. Hiding is a way for the weak to cope, no?

Well—

“You really do all gather together,” Conta muttered, eyes narrowing.

Maria glanced at her briefly before turning to Veles and gesturing at the waves. “What is this about punishment, Veles?” She pushed Conta behind her despite her resistance. “Veles, we have finally found Conta! We should celebrate!”

“Celebrate?!” Veles boomed. “Why should I celebrate with the one who murdered my guild mates?!”

“Captain…” Simon pressed nervously. 

Maria flashed Simon a smile as she tried to reason an answer for Veles. “That was Beta that did those things, no?” She shook Conta’s shoulders again. “This is Conta, not Beta!”

“My patience thins even for someone who holds almost as much grandeur as myself, Maria!” Veles bellowed. With that, he threw out his hand and sent one of the petals of water at Conta.

Before Conta could draw the blade she’d pulled from her belt across the palm of her hand, Maria kicked her feet out from beneath her and swept her up bridal-style. With ease, Maria leapt back just as a blade of water pelted the deck and splintered it where she stood.

Some of the children and older crew members shouted in alarm. The older crew members then began to pick up the younger adolescents like rag dolls and dragged them to the far corners of the deck.

“The ship!” Giorgio cried in horror as he dragged back Albatross who dragged back Lita. “Veles, the ship!”

“How dare you speak to the Beast of the Deep when I’m dealing righteous punishment?!”

Again, another petal of water torrented downwards—this time aimed at Maria herself.

Maria leapt onto the rails and ran along them as she dodged the whips. One glowing whip snapped the railing in front of her and chopped off a piece of the wooden deck along with it. Maria plucked that piece of wood from the air and threw it down at a passing wave of pulsating ocean water. The next moment saw to her leaping onto the piece of wood and surfing on it through Veles’s conducted waves.

She maintained her balance as the waves twisted tightly through the air and even laughed for a moment as she enjoyed the icy splash against her face. When she looked down at Conta, however, she found Conta not looking worried. Conta didn’t look very excited either. Conta didn’t look like Conta. 

Sunshine, I know you’re enjoyin’ the joyride—Cadence’s thought cut through the moment—but ya need ta calm Waterworks down over there or—

“The ship! The ship!” Morandi snapped. “It’s falling apart!”

Maria hopped off the makeshift surfboard as the wave she was riding on passed over Veles. She pounced on his shoulders and then leapt back onto the railings.

A flash of warm amber light blinked out of the corner of her eyes at that moment. Upon turning, Maria found Andres standing at her side and holding an oddly familiar-looking staff-conductor. Silently, he whipped it in an arc and sent out a flurry of amber-speckled frigid wind. The waves around them crystallized solid as did the water mopping the deck at its icy touch. Morandi and Giorgio, who had just finished ushering the children below deck, came up in unison, slipped, and slid across the frosted-over wood.

Veles’s eyes narrowed at Andres. “That conducting…”

Andres conjured a note. 

Veles leaned in, squinting.

Yes. I am familiar with Claire. Claire is requesting that you two communicate without fighting. I agree. We are out on open waters. People will drown if you both keep this up. You both have members on this ship, correct?

Hey, sunshine, mind if ya let me do the talkin’?

Maria pondered it for a moment before conceding. She then beamed and said, “Veles, you know about ELPIS Leaders, yes? How they are technically immortal?” She released Conta as the woman struggled out of her hold. “The Beta that you seek is not here but in the thing they call a resistor. If you attack Conta here, it will do nothing.”

“If I die, I’ll return to my resistor. It’s as simple as that,” Conta said calmly as she alighted herself on the deck of the ship. “However, I won’t die without a fight. With everything happening with Alpha, I cannot afford to die here. It would take too much time.”

Maria didn’t like Conta’s words at all.

“And where is this resistor of yours?” Veles pressed.

“Not on me,” Conta replied.

“Think about it, Veles,” Maria continued. “What you really want is Beta, not Conta—yes?”

Veles lowered his hand as the frozen waters around them dimmed. He hummed, remained silent for a beat, before he swept up his fur coat.  “It’s clear that I first have to destroy this ‘resistor’ this harlot speaks of!” 

‘Harlot’

Maria thought she heard Cadence laugh.

“Only then will I return to take her life myself.” With that, Veles walked—slid—past Maria towards the entrance leading below the ship.

Maria gripped his arm, stopping him short. “What is this about taking lives, Veles? I cannot allow you to take the life of a member of my crew, yes? Especially not Conta. We worked together to find her, so why would we destroy what we found, Beast of the Deep?” 

Veles looked stricken—almost hurt. It was an unnatural expression for him. Maria couldn’t understand it.

“Do you not understand what she’s done to my guild mates, Golden Beast?” 

“She—”

“She killed them,” he said, jerking his hand out of hers. “How would you feel if I said the same about someone who killed your crew members?”

Maria tried to ponder it but—

“You should be grateful I am greeting you this temporary mercy, Maria,” Veles said thickly before sweeping below the deck.

In the blink of an eye, he gathered his remaining bounty hunters who looked around in confusion. After dipping his hand in some water, he  proceeded to conduct a rising wave out from the ocean for them to ride out on. Some of the bounty hunters hesitated while others readily followed him onto the glowing waters.

“Veles, we spent a lot of time travelling together!” Maria called out to him. “It was fun, yes? Why must we end it?”

He didn’t answer her, and instead rode off into the distance.

* * *

Half an hour later, Cadence desynchronized and the ice was just beginning to melt from the deck of the ship. Some of the children were moping it up already, while Maria herself was sitting on a barrel at the mast and waiting for the cool winds to dry her off. Werner had come earlier, chastising her about keeping warm but Maria told him—as always—that he worried too much. 

Sitting with her on some adjacent barrels were a closed-eyed Andres who seemed to be meditating, Morandi who appeared restless, Giorgio who appeared even more restless, Simon who kept looking between them all, and Conta who was looking over a map. Lita had joined Maria earlier and was now sitting on her lap, while Albatross was sitting at her feet.

A crew member abruptly approached them from nowhere carrying with them a stack of towels. After mumbling something to themselves, they started handing out the towels to them. 

Maria accepted the towel from the crew member but then paused as she studied them. It was a young woman. Maria could tell that much by the woman’s lashes and her shape. The rest of the woman’s face was concealed, however, by a mesh red mask embroidered with gold. Her hair which spilled out in dark curls was barely concealed by a veil of the same design. Paired with that she wore a simple blouse and a pair of slacks, making her stand outlike a sore thumb.

Maria stared curiously at the young woman. She was certain that she’d never seen her onboard before. The woman was certainly much too old to be one of the children and too young to be one of her other crew members.

Maria blinked and cocked her head. “Are you a friend of Ley?” She reached for the veil. 

“Ley?” the young woman tensed, skirting away from Maria’s hand. “I have no association with the law if that’s what you’re asking. I’m just—” Accented Common. Leonian?

“No, not law. Gabrielle Law!” Maria gestured to the woman’s veil. “She liked hiding her face too, yes? I don’t think I’ve seen you before, you see? So I was just wondering if you knew Ley.”

Giorgio looked the woman up and down. “I don’t recognize you either. Who are you?”

The woman took a step back. 

“She came on board earlier from Lunanegra. Her name is El,” Morandi replied. “Offered her medical skills. She’s a Transmutationist. Unlicensed.”

Giorgio squinted. “Unlicensed?”

“I-I’m planning to get my license eventually,” the woman stammered. “I’ve finally got the time and freedom to do it, so… I was just hoping to journey with you so I can learn a bit and in exchange of offering… my services. I…” She glanced at Morandi. “I heard it was okay, so…”

Andres cracked open an eye and stared at her. 

“Can we see your face?” Giorgio pressed. He glanced over at Morandi. “Did you check her for those tattoos the captain keeps mentioning, Captain Morandi?”

Morandi sighed. “You’ve been getting a little bit forward recently, haven’t you, Giorgio? Yes, I checked for the tattoo. I’m not senile yet. She doesn’t have any.”

“And has Lita checked her over?”

“Yes, Giorgio. Watch it.”

Giorgio raised her hands. “Sorry, Captain Morandi. I just… want to be cautious.” He studied El. “I would still feel more comfortable seeing your face—” 

Andres conjured a note and stuck it into Giorgi’s face. If she doesn’t want to show her face, then we should respect that.

“I agree! You can do everything you set your mind to, my dear El! You should do what you want, yes?” Maria sang. “I am sure you will be able to get your license and do what you please, yes? I’ve never had any medical professions on my ship before, no? I do know one. Nico. He’s quite good, but he is more so Werner’s and Cadence’s than mine. But that also makes him mine.”

El stared at her. “Uhm… thank you?”

“Believing that you can do everything is folly,” Conta interjected suddenly. “You can’t live freely like that without it being at the cost of others.”

El looked between them. “Uhm…”

Maria chuckled, leaned in close to Conta. “And why not? I am planning to live freely, yes? With both of my crews? I will not die and neither will they. That includes you, Conta!”

“Your words are sugar-coated in kindness, but that’s a selfish and single minded way of living. A rigid perspective: assuming everyone you mentioned sees it the way you do.” Conta looked over them then the children sweeping the deck. “‘Your perspective is not reality. It’s just a shade of it. That’s something you learn as you grow older or something you unlearn as you grow older.’ That’s something Theta always used to say. Libra too.” Conta’s eyes narrowed at Maria, and she lowered the map. “You still haven’t changed even after I’ve been gone, but I suppose that might just be the orphanage’s fault.”

Maria cocked her head. “But I can still turn my perspective into reality, yes? This world is mine—” She paused, eyes widening slightly. “Wait, you remember before our time in the Twin Cities, my dear Conta?!”

Conta continued, “Age, illness, sickness, pain, despair, heartache, tragedy, the forces of nature. These are things beyond anyone’s control. These are things that you can’t overcome no matter how hard you try. Hope—while inspirational—is still logical. It doesn’t apply in these areas.”

“What do you mean?” Maria chuckled. “These things can be conquered too, yes? All you must do is reach forward and—”

“You’re no longer just you,” Conta interjected. “Just by existing as a True Conductor, you’ve also become many other people. While your will is strong, I doubt that the people you’re connected to are as strong. Your will overpowers them, and they become whittled away and absorbed into your way of seeing things—your perspective. But they aren’t you. They can’t survive thinking like that. You feel them, can’t you? When they suffer? When they’re in pain? How can you conquer these things for them?”

Faint pain ebbed its way into Maria’s chest as faint images—worn and not quite clear—flitted through her mind. 

Olive curled up in his bed in the royal palace and night bled into day into night and into day again. Him, standing before that pulsating and glowing viscous monstrosity with tears streaming down his cheeks as he burned it away into nothing. Then came images of the Sognare and Alma being pulled away into the dark. Then of Cadence—in near hysterics—as she begged for Francis—her childhood friend—to stop saying and doing painful things. Then, Werner standing in that white room in front of that white woman. Werner’s brief twisted nightmares of Otto, the trenches, the moonlight, the eyes; and then of him readily accepting the chlorowheat that Cadence was so afraid of. Atienna next, standing before the Great Tree of Virgo with her mother at the back of her mind. Shaking in the streets of the Twin Cities as Yulia and Kovich were killed right before her eyes. And then there was Jericho. The sand, the decision, his friends crumbling away into dust and looking at him in confusion because they ‘were friends.’ And then rain—rain pouring down on him in the capital of Capricorn as the realization of what he’d done finally dawned on him. Finally, came Veles’s look of hurt and betrayal—

Maria shook away the memory slowly and drew, “Yes, my spirit crew have been through many painful things, but we still all look forward to the future and the next adventure, yes? Sometimes things hurt, but then they get better.” She  beamed. “I help them and they help each other too. We do not lose each other. I do not lose them.”

“You still don’t get it. And what if that’s not enough?” Conta shook her head. “No, it’s not enough. Solutions like that are mere fairy tales. If I reached out to Gamma like that, nothing would change. His mind is set on a perspective different from my own. So is Theta’s. I can’t do anything to undo Omicron’s and Omega’s deaths. Theta will spend the rest of his life agonizing and mourning. That’s reality, not perspective.” She paused then continued, “I remember you saying that you protect the things owned by the things you own. Things: people. So if that’s the case, then why did they all suffer and die?”

“What… do you mean? That is different, no? They were not mine then, but now they are….” Maria cocked her head, feeling something uncomfortable twist in her chest. Only Conta could ever make her feel this way. “Well—”

“Accepting that you can’t do everything is the first step to true strength,” Conta replied. “You’ve missed that point, so how can you be strong like you say all the time—” 

“That’s enough.”

Maria looked over to Morandi who was frowning deeply.

“From what I understand, you’re still Conta, aren’t you?” he asked. “So Maria is still your captain. Respect should be given where it’s due. You’re better than that, Conta.”

Conta met his gaze evenly before rising from her seat. “I’m going to look over the map in quiet.” With that, she headed below deck.

“Are you okay, Captain?” Morandi pressed once she’d disappeared from their sights.

“Why wouldn’t I be?” Maria cocked her head at him, leapt up to a stand with Lita still in tow, and paced around the deck. Albatross followed behind her. “You don’t need to worry so much, my dear Morandi. Conta is just a bit angry.”

“Are you sure you’re alright?”

Maria chuckled and looked over her shoulder to find not Morandi but Jericho standing behind her. Synchronized just ever so slightly.

I have an intuition… Jericho peered at her. Like Nico said. An umbrella. Avoid things you don’t like. That is best. Sometimes.

“But being around Conta is fun, yes? I would never want her to be by my side.” Maria laughed again. “Don’t worry, my dear Jericho. I am strong.”

* * *

(           )

The toll of the bells clanging through the long, rectangular exitless room were not quite as loud and powerful as the ones from the orphanage. They were but small tiny brass things resting on the white-draped small tables pressed alongside the candlelit left and right walls. Maria suspected that the bells were no larger than her own hand. 

Pews lined the left and right sides of the wall, all leading up to a single white arch that reminded Maria of Monadic temple pillars. It was carved with a wave-like patterned design with a top that blossomed out into twin wing shapes. Directly beneath it idled a nervous-looking Simon and beside him stood a stiff Andres. The ceiling rose quite high above the arch and two men, giving the area an expansive feel. This expansiveness was helped even further along by the fact that only a handful of the aforementioned pews were occupied. 

On the left side of the pews sat Cavallo, Bendetto, Agape Rosario, and a handful of other people Cadence labelled as Romano executives. At the very front of the pew sat a familiar, wizened old man with a face full of wrinkles. Ricardo Romano—present, because he’d managed to win over the peacekeeping agents watching over him. For the time being.

“The old man wouldn’t even think about missin’ this event.” Cadence had chortled. “Best pops in the universe, am I right?” 

On the right-side pew were just two women and one man. Remnants of the Campanas, Cadence had said.

The Campanas. The ones who had harmed Maria’s dear newly added crew members. The ones who had harmed Lita. 

Well, more like the footmen of those guys, Cadence had reasoned. Most of the executives are locked up with old man Campana. And Ambrose is…

Mercy then, was it?

Lita had checked them all over thoroughly before they’d been granted access to this place. While the Romanos were used to such a procedure, the Campanas were evidently not. Lita had been nervous about seeing them again but had put on a brave face. Maria was quite proud of her, so she had happily held a blade to the Campanas’ throats as Lita had read their vitae; and when recognition flickered in their gazes as they’d looked over Lita, Maria was sure to draw blood.

Now Maria watched them all from an elevated platform that stretched the length of the hall and extended high above the heads of the ones below. There were no stairs leading to this platform—only a tiny black painted door on the platform’s floor. 

On Maria’s left stood Jericho and Cadence. On Cadence’s other side clustered together Francis, Carl, and Allen—all puffing on v-cigs. On Maria’s right was Lita who kept glancing up at Conta and Tau who were both to her right. Werner, Atienna, and Olive—although not physically present—were all buzzing somewhere at the back of Maria’s mind, peering in with curiosity.

“I have never seen a marriage before,” Jericho noted. “I read about them. In books.” He stared down at the aisle and pointed. “They are described as ‘happy,’ ‘warm,’ and ‘the best day of a person’s life.’ This…” He glanced at Cadence then at Maria. “…atmosphere does not match that. Or am I reading it wrong?”

“No, you’re definitely readin’ it right, detective.” Cadence chortled half-heartedly. “It’s a different kinda marriage here.” Her smile dimmed slightly, and her eyes became half-moon slits. “This is a blood marriage.”

Maria peered at her. “But… there is no blood?”

Carl grunted and took a drag of his v-cig. “We’re lucky there’s not with the people stuffed up in this joint. Like a powder keg waitin’ to blow. Still don’t know how you managed to get the Campanas onboard with this lot.” He gestured at Tau and Conta.

“I told ya that all ya need ta do was leave it ta me.” Cadence chortled, running her fingers along her hat. “It’s not so hard ta do some convincin’ when the boss is willin’ ta do it.”

“Absolutely filthy. Of course they were easy to convince. You lot are cut from the same, damned, putrid cloth. Lawless—the lot of you!” Tau scoffed, immediately earning him a rigid glare from Jericho. He returned it. “And you… suitcase peacekeeper, you’re the most lawless of them all. Switching allegiances all willy-damned-nilly—”

“Shut up,” Jericho stated, his voice hard and cold.

Tau glowered. “Excuse me. Who do you think you damned are interrupting me—”

“Tau,” Francis interjected. “Enough.”

Tau, red-faced not from embarrassment but evidently from all of his fun shouting, shut his mouth.

Come on, detective.

Jericho’s gaze narrowed further but then he caught eyes with Francis and proceeded to dip his head.

Francis placed a hand on a dark spot on the railings in front of him and nodded at Cadence. The dark spot there began to glow as did the black painted door on the wall below them opposite of the arch. Out from that door stepped a pair. First was Fortuna Romano, all dressed up in a sparkly white dress with lace sleeves and a flower-woven train that flowed behind her. Beside her stood Epsilon in a neat tuxedo and with his hair gelled all the way back. 

Cracking her knuckles, Cadence paced over to the small piano set at the very end of the platform. She sat down, flourished her hands dramatically with an easy smile. Then she began to tap away at the keyboard, playing a song Maria was certain she’d never heard her play before. It was smooth and slow, reminding Maria more of Atienna and Werner than it did of Cadence.

Pleasant, Werner thought.

Atienna agreed.

“Theta ever have anythin’ dramatic like this back then?” Carl nodded at Francis. “Y’know between Theta and Omicron?”

Damn it, Carl—

An unpleasant twang hit the air. An incorrect note played.

Maria could feel Werner frown slightly.

Francis glanced over at Cadence briefly before eyeing Carl. “No… We didn’t have anything like this. I believed then and believe now that simple, quiet, intimate gestures can sometimes carry more connotation than loud ceremonious expressions like this.”

Carl grunted. “Yeah, well, you always preferred to make quiet threats. Thought it made you look more suave and cool or something.”

Francis frowned but then glanced at Cadence again. Then, he chuckled musically and looked back down at the pews. “Because it does.”

Maria felt a pressure that had been strangely occupying her chest for the past few weeks lessen. 

“Anyways, the feeling and mutual understanding were enough for us.” 

“Unspoken promise,” Jericho suggested suddenly.

Carl arched a brow at him but Francis nodded.

“Bringing people like them here is defiling this place,” Tau muttered under his breath and jabbed his finger into the bannister. “This place is sacred. There’s rules you have to meet to use this place. And what is this? A damned corrupt criminal blood union—”

“Ah, shut up, Giustizia,” Carl grumbled. “You’re lucky we’re lettin’ you live after what you did.” He clapped Francis on the shoulder, startling him. “Omicron said that things were different back then, right? What she mean by that?” 

Francis frowned, rubbing his shoulder. “Oh, yes… that. While we were both researchers of vitae, research was rigidly divided into theory and practical applications back then. I was more into theory, while she was more into applications. Our different realms of study made it unlikely for us to interact unless it was for… particular ceremonies—”

“Theta!” Tau snapped. “Why are you telling them everything?! They don’t deserve to know—”

“And why not, Tau?” Francis returned. “The past is there not just to uphold the concept of time. It’s there to be learnt from and reflected on. Otherwise, what other importance does it hold?” 

Tau shut his mouth, shared a look with Conta, and then pushed his glasses up his nose.

“So Theta was stuck up,” Allen suggested.

“I guess I kinda was,” Francis agreed after a beat.

Tau scoffed again. “Having standards isn’t being stuck up. It’s what any upstanding person has. You ever heard of—”

“Tau. Please be quiet,” Conta interjected with a sigh. She nodded at Francis. “As soon as this is over with, Maria will take Epsilon on board her ship with me, correct? Then Tau will work with you from here.”

Francis glanced over at her and nodded. “That would be the best course of action.”

“You are quite forward, my dear Conta, no?” Maria peered at the woman curiously.

Conta didn’t respond.

Fortuna and Epsilon finally reached the arch where Simon stood, and Cadence stopped playing. She scrambled back over to them before squeezing herself back into place between Jericho and Francis. Simon meanwhile flashed a smile at Epsilon and Fortuna—although Epsilon was the only one to return it. Simon then proceeded to recite something long and elegant about unity and marriage. Maria quite liked his voice but found his words very boring. Something about love—Maria knew all about that—and unity and sacrifice.

As Simon went on, Maria recalled the night she’d first met him. He’d been a tearful, sobbing mess mumbling incoherently in a small bar in a backwater Leonian village. It had been only a few months since Proteus had disappeared from Maria’s and Conta’s sights and they hadn’t yet gotten a ship of their own. As Maria had been going around the bar cheerfully asking if anyone would be willing to lend her their ship and their hand, she witnessed Simon being thrown out onto the streets by the bartender. Out of curiosity, she went out to greet him with Conta. He was incoherent—half-mumbling about ‘cut voices’ and ‘cruelty’ and how he ‘didn’t know’ and how he ‘should be punished.’ It was quite an odd thing, and Conta had tried her best to comfort him. To no avail. When Maria smiled brightly at him regardless and extended her hand out to him in invitation, however, he had gripped her hand tightly and called her a saint and his saving grace. Simon would later claim that their first meeting was quite different from that, but Maria was certain that he was just embarrassed over the entire ordeal. He needn’t be—

“Do you, Ambrose Campana, take Fortuna Romano as your lawfully wedded wife?”

Maria perked up and out of the memory at Simon’s voice.

“I do,” Epsilon said from below.

“Do you, Fortuna Romano, take Ambrose Campana as your lawfully wedded husband?”

“I do.”

“This is damned weird though… ain’t it?” Carl grumbled. 

Francis puffed his v-cig with narrowed eyes.

“You may now kiss the bride.”

“Saints,” Carl muttered. “I’m gonna puke. She can do way better than that guy.”

“Kiss?” Epsilon pulled back slightly. “Isn’t that a little… risqué? You’re much younger than me, aren’t you?”

Whispering from the Campana side of the hall resounded.

Fortuna flushed slightly and said through gritted teeth. “Just. Kiss. Me.” When Epsilon still hesitated, she grabbed him loosely by his collar and pulled him close as she closed her eyes.

Maria leaned forward with interest as she felt her cheeks flush from either Werner or Atienna—she couldn’t tell. Grosswas Olive’s comment.

The kiss lasted for twenty-seven seconds exactly.

Too long.

“A bit weird ta be countin’, Captain,” Cadence said lightly.

* * *

As the small bells gradually lost their chimes and the entire ceremony concluded, the Romanos and Campanas started chattering idly amongst themselves. Maria found it all quite boring again. Fortuna and Epsilon were arm-in-arm the entire time and smiling brightly despite the dullness. Eventually, some of the Campanas and Romanos left, leaving just Fortuna, Epsilon, Simon, Andres, Ricardo, and the caporegimes down there. 

Despite the protest of the others, Maria leapt down from the platform and joined them. Agape Rosario startled backwards at her arrival but Maria ignored her and approached Ricardo who was still seated at the pew. She leaned in close to him and beamed—

“You are the one who took in my Cadence, yes? Ricardo Romano! I have always wanted to meet you myself!”

Ricardo immediately reflected her smile. “I’m flattered that a young lady like you knows who I am. You’re a friend of Cadence’s then?”

“Cadence is mine. Yes.” Maria chuckled, tapped on her temple. “I have seen many things from her.”

“Ah, yes, I’ve heard about what you are. A True Conductor. You must be ‘connected’—as they say—to Cadence then.”

Maria continued to smile. “Yes. I am a True Conductor. And you are the one who took in Cadence.” She leaned in closer. “You think you saved her, no? When she was younger? But did you do that out of mercy? Because you wanted to? Or because you wanted something from her?” She was almost nose-to-nose with him now. “Did you give her happiness?”

Ricardo held her gaze.

Maria was jerked back by the arm before she could say anything more. 

“Hey now! Okay, okay, sunshine…”

Upon turning, Maria found Cadence standing behind her along with Jericho and the Foxmans. Tau, Conta, and the rest were still hanging up on the platform.

“You’re looking well, Cadence,” Ricardo noted. “It’s a shame that you’re no longer working directly for us. The Foxmans are lucky to have you.”

“Well, you know how times change,” Cadence replied, spreading her hands with a smile. “Would never forget everythin’ ya’ve done for me, of course.”

Ricardo’s brows rose but then his gaze went over Cadence’s shoulder. “Carl, Allen.” He greeted the two brothers with a nod as they approached. He paused as his gaze fell on Francis who was a step behind them. “Francis.”

“Mr. Ricardo,” Francis returned. “It’s good to see you well. I…” His eyes narrowed slightly. “…truly apologize for everything that happened in the city months ago. I know that words aren’t enough, but please believe me when I say that I wasn’t of sound mind. That’s no excuse in itself, but—”

Ricardo held up a hand. “I’m still breathing, and the city still stands. The city is quick to forget. Plus, you’re helping us to finally unite the two halves of our city. Perhaps this place will finally know peace.”

“Peace? Peace cannot happen if your illegal activities are still continuing to grow throughout this city,” Francis immediately said, eyes narrowing. He cleared his throat after Cadence and Allen nudged him. “I apologize for that. I may not be in a position to speak of it—”

“Of course you are!” Tau snapped suddenly from the platform above them. “Finally you’re talking some sense, Theta—”

Conta slapped a hand over his mouth and dragged him back before anymore could be said.

Ricardo glanced up at Tau and then regarded Francis. “It’s fine. No harm done…”

“I apologize for him too.” Francis paused. “I was told that you wanted to speak with me, Mr. Ricardo. What is it?”

Ricardo glanced at Fortuna who was now standing beneath the arch with Epsilon, Andres, and Simon. Then he eyed the tattoo on the right side of Francis’s face.

Maria felt Cadence tense inwardly and saw through her eyes as Carl and Allen did so outwardly. There was a tick of silence.

“Do you know who I am, Theta?” Ricardo asked.

Francis’s brows twitched slightly and he looked the man up and down. Then he smiled politely. “You’re Ricardo Romano, of course. Unless you’ve hired another Transmutationist that’s in Cadence’s line of work.”

“Unfortunately, I haven’t.” Ricardo chuckled loudly, warmly, good-naturedly. “I am who you say I am.”

Maria joined him in his laughter and soon Epsilon joined her too. 

“Hey,” Cadence quipped quickly with a chortle. Time ta smooth out the situation. “There’s only one Transmutationist that’s as good as I am. Don’t go replacin’ me now, boss.”

Eventually the others joined the laughter in more subdued tones.

It’s almost akin to chasing after a ghost, don’t you think? Atienna’s thought floated downwards. But I suppose it’s like Cadence says. ‘The act of chasing after something is more important than the act of finding something.’

I didn’t put it as eloquently as that, Cadence returned. Ever thought of writin’ speeches, Atienna?

Maria didn’t think it was anything like chasing after a ghost though. As her laughter died away, her gaze strayed up to Conta before a movement from Allen caught her gaze. 

With an unchanging frown, the man stomped out the cigarette beneath his heel.

* * *

After the wedding ceremony, Francis brought them all back into the exitless room where the Romanos held their meetings. Ricardo had returned back to the Twin Cities, leaving just the main caporegimes, Tau, Jericho, Cadence, the Foxmans, Fortuna, Epsilon, and Maria and her crew. Maria was quite sorry to see some of Ricardo go, but she was quite glad that Werner, Atienna, and Olive had all synchronized in fully in his place.

Maria joined the group at the executive meeting table as Tau began his quite endearing ranting about law, order, and everything in-between.  Andres and Simon who followed behind her gave the man odd looks. Maria personally wanted to take Tau onboard her crew too—but then again, Jericho wasn’t too fond of him. She was sure they could get along though. Or maybe that was just her perspective…? No, she was sure they would.

“So, we’ve joined the Campanas with us now,” Fortuna said as she took her seat at the table. She motioned for Epsilon to sit beside her, but he wandered over to Maria’s side instead. Clearing her throat, Fortuna continued, “We’ll use the Campana assets to expand our search for the… children and Alpha.”

“My suggestion is to turn our attention towards locations we suspect Alpha to appear,” Werner said. “We know he’s in search of children to convert them to ELPIS in order to bolster his forces. I’m assuming that he’s taking advantage of the fact that their youth would cause many to refrain from retaliating against their advances.”

Would people hesitate? Maria wondered about that. If a child came up to her and threatened one of her spirit crew or her ocean crew, she would surely retaliate without question—

Jericho clenched his fist, eyes narrowing. 

Faint memories of sand, burning heat, and slinking through cold and empty buildings flitted through Maria’s mind. They reminded her faintly of her own memories of running around with children in the orphanage—sword play, wrestling, all those pleasant things. She wished Jericho had experienced something similar to her. Perhaps she could show him sometime later.

Werner eyed Jericho before reaching over and placing a hand on his shoulder. “Seeking out locations that have children—Specialist or gifted children—in their care is our next best manner of approach. That way we can prevent them from being captured in the first place. Prevention is key. This would require extensive contributions by the Romanos and… our temporary allies.”

Cadence repeated what Werner said out loud.

“Since this involves an attack on Ophiuchus,” Atienna added slowly, “it might be best if we told Leona and the peacekeepers about this…. Regardless of what their future intentions are, we should think about the present consequences, don’t you think? Peacekeepers still have a role to play in maintaining the peace of Signum, after all, and if Alpha succeeds in his invasion…”

Cadence didn’t repeat this part out loud, but—

Jericho nodded and offered a thumbs up. “Okay. I will tell Leona of Alpha’s plans.”

“What?!” Tau snapped. “Working with the damned scum of the Twin Cities is one damned thing too far, and the only reason we’re doing that is because it’s for the better good! But the damned fake Ophiuchians? The peacekeepers? Leona?!”

“From what I get—which is not much—” Cadence tried “—didn’t you also work with the saint candidates way back when?” She pointed to her temple. “Epsi—”

“—showed us many interesting things in his vitae and memories!” Maria continued, leaning against Epsilon’s shoulder. “You used to do this baptism of the saint candidates yourself, no? You ELPIS leaders? Right, Epsi?” 

Epsilon arched an eyebrow. “Well, yes… I was there during one of yours, Leo, remember?”

Tau jabbed a finger at Maria. “Wait a damned minute here. Why—”

“Tau, it’s taken care of,” Conta interrupted. “Let’s focus.”

Tau opened his mouth wider, but then shut it and lowered his finger.

Francis placed a hand to his chin. “Going back to the topic at hand… That idea about heading to places where we think they might hit next is sound, especially since they’ve gotten a hand on my proto-conductors. I’ll, of course, try to locate them that way… but if we can save the children before…” He cleared his throat before nodding at Cadence. “Werner, was it? I thank you for the suggestion.”

Damn, he’s mad, Cadence thought.

Maria thought he looked calm but she supposed Cadence knew him better than she did. 

“We need to also consider the fact that we don’t know when Alpha is going to execute his operation,” Werner added. “The timeline could be as compressed as a week or as dilated as an entire year.

Cadence relayed this to Francis who nodded, stared at the ground, covered his mouth, murmured,  “Yes, the timeline is worrisome… Even if we follow the preemptive plan, it would prove meaningless if we don’t know when Alpha is planning to…” His eyes narrowed. “The children…”

Cadence walked over to him and gave him a pat on the shoulder. “Hey, we have Kent. We’ll get the others.”

“Yeah, Francis,” Carl added. “Ever heard of a bit of optimism?” 

Silence lapsed.

“Oh! Thank you for inviting me to your wedding, Fortuna!” Maria sang, breaking the quiet as she waltzed over to Fortuna’s side. “I’ve never attended a wedding before, so this was quite nice, yes? Boring but nice.” 

“I don’t recall inviting you…” Fortuna muttered. She tapped her fingers against the table and shook her head. “Well, we’ll be able to put more men on our search like I said. But we’ll have to go through extensive steps to ward off this Scorpio or whoever too. I just need you to tell me where we need to look.” She sighed. “So the poem turned out to be useless.” 

“Things shouldn’t be cast aside so easily,” Francis drew suddenly. He mumbled something into his hand again, then said, “Rather than being a location, the poem perhaps could be the hint of a timeline.” 

“A timeline?” Tau pressed.

Conta stiffened. “It could be. No, you’re probably right… Alpha always held to his timetables.” 

That didn’t sound much like Proteus, Maria thought. He always used to talk about how time and schedules were constraining.

“Right. We’ll have to approach it from a different angle. We should go over it again…” Francis nodded before staring oddly at Jericho, Cadence, and Maria. He perked up. “Oh, Tau, Beta—I have a favor that I’ve been intending to ask of you both. Well, it’s more of a favor for a friend than a favor to me.”

Tau arched a brow, following Francis’s line of sight. “I suppose we can since it’s a request from you specifically, Theta.”

“Maria, would you mind showing them Olive’s conducting?” Francis asked, gesturing to Maria after eyeing Cadence.

Maria’s heart skipped a beat as a curious excitement and hopefulness filled her chest. She glanced to her side and found Olive staring wide-eyed, cheeks flushing.

Cadence cleared her throat and then jerked her head towards Epsilon. “Eh, how about we clear the room first?” Still gotta keep the ruse about you bein’ Leo, Maria.

Francis exchanged a look with Tau and Conta before nodding. He approached Epsilon, whispered to him, before leading the man to a gate on the wall. Epsilon passed into it and exited the room after enthusiastically returning the wave Maria offered him.

After Francis rejoined their group, Maria proceeded to extend her hand, felt her head buzz pleasantly as Olive’s ghostly hand passed over her own, and then chuckled as her fingertips sparked with warmth. A golden flame leapt from her fingers a second after.

Tau startled backwards while Conta leaned forward with arched brows. 

“What the hell…?” Tau straightened himself. He adjusted his glasses as the light stretched shadows across his face. “The color of that vitae…”

“That’s not the point, Tau.” Conta let out a breath and shook her head. Her gaze trailed from 

Maria’s hand to her face. For the first time in a long time, their eyes met. “That conducting. It belongs to Aries.” She looked towards Francis. “But that should be impossible for a True Conductor.” She indicated Cadence and Jericho. “And you can do this too?”

Cadence nodded as did Jericho after looking to Werner for approval. 

Tau put his hand to his mouth and then jabbed a finger at Cadence. Jericho smacked it away before Maria herself could. The man pulled back. “But you’re not Aries. You can’t be. You’d die if you were. You’re leaky channels. If anything, you should be melting into a viscous jelly-like substance right before my damned eyes—damnit!”

“Ya guys are really specific about the jelly-like substance thing,” Cadence noted, skirting back towards Maria.

“Do you know that you’re breaking the damned laws of vitae theory just by standing here and wiggling your damned fingers!” Tau snapped, swinging his finger now at Maria. “What? Breaking the damned literal law isn’t enough for you? You need to break this one too? Huh?”

“One of you must have the potential to be the Saint Candidate of Aries,” Conta drew, glancing at Maria. “I know it’s most likely not you.”

At the word saint candidate, Simon and Andres tensed and exchanged looks.

“Why are you jumping to that?!” Tau snapped before gesturing wildly at them. “Shouldn’t we be talking about the fact that they’re alive somehow?!”

“The two points are connected.” Conta waved him off. “As I was saying— if Aries’s vitae did enter one of them and it’s now spread across them, then one of the people in this True Conductor circle must be a potential Saint Candidate of Aries.”

“That person isn’t physically present at the moment,” Francis replied calmly. “But I know who they are. They’re a blood relative of the one who was the candidate for Aries… but…”

Olive tensed at this and looked back to Werner and Atienna. The latter gave him a reassuring smile while the former placed a hand on his shoulder.

“That makes sense…” Tau muttered before he shook his head and snapped. “No, wait a damn minute. No, it doesn’t!” 

“I can’t recall the details of the baptism, unfortunately,” Francis continued. “Too much of my vitae has been lost over the years. Therefore, I’m unable to have the full picture. I was hoping one of you”—he gestured between Conta and Tau— “could help me out with that.”

Tau sighed—sympathetically—and pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “It’s the vitae particle’s wavelength—don’t you remember, Theta?”

“Particle wavelength,” Jericho pressed on Olive’s behalf. “What does that mean. In the context of Saint Candidates.”

Tau lifted a challenging chin at him before sighing. “You’ve met Scorpio, haven’t you?” 

Jericho looked away briefly. “Yes…”

“Have you seen the attractive properties of high-energy-level vitae particles?”

“If you’re asking if we’ve seen Scorpio’s head blown off and reattach itself then no,” Cadence replied. “But that kinda gossip goes around fast.”

Andres and Simon exchanged looks again at this. Andres then reached for his Monadic pendant.

Tau harrumphed. “When displaced high-energy level vitae is recoalescing and returning to the highest concentration of particles of the same wavelength and energy, some particles get left behind.” He locked eyes with Theta. “We’re talking about max ten particles or so at a time. The distance from these particles to the main source is too large for them to traverse at that density so they linger at the trauma site.” 

Francis perked up at this, his gaze becoming distant. “I see… So then….”

“As the passage of time continues and the cycle of vitae turns,” Tau continued, “these high-energy-level particles become incorporated into surrounding vitae. Too small to have any impact individually. But sometimes they become associated with what you uneducated hooligans consider ‘soft vitae.’” He cleared his throat. “Not referring to you, of course, Theta. But anyways, as I was saying… what was I saying?”

“Soft vitae,” Jericho provided. 

Tau squinted at him. “Right. So people can ingest this vitae. Doesn’t have any peculiar effect when ingested. That’s a whole other subject matter. Basically, if you throw this person into the reservoirs in Ophiuchus, nothing will happen. Well, they’ll get severe burns at areas of contact with flesh, but like I said. A different subject.” He narrowed his eyes at Maria’s palm which was still sparking with flame. “However, when it comes to time for reproduction, that’s an entirely different story.”

Gross, came Olive’s thought.

“When this high-energy-level passes from parent to child—if it does—it becomes viable. There’s a chain effect that’s identifiable in the color of the vitae. If this child is baptized in the vitae of those reservoirs and if it’s the correct reservoir with vitae containing particles of the same wavelength, since the person is in close enough proximity to the highest concentration of that high-energy-level vitae, then the high-energy-level vitae particle inside of that person will begin to become pulled towards that higher concentration. After some pull and tug, the external vitae gets pulled into the person’s body instead and bonds with those few high-energy level vitae particles inside the person. I’m sure you understand the rest. It’s quite a painful process.”

Olive swallowed. Jericho stared. 

“That’s what makes a person a potential saint candidate,” Tau concluded.

There was silence again.

“Wait, so Maria here has Leo vitae particles floatin’ around inside of her?” Cadence thumbed her. 

“And Talib,” Jericho pressed. “The reason. He had a particle of Scorpio inside of him. If he didn’t, then he wouldn’t have become Scorpio.”

“What are you? Slow?” Tau scoffed. “Look at the color of their vitae! Did you not hear me earlier—”

Jericho interjected, “Cadence is not slow. I am not slow either.” 

Cadence waved her hand in the air and patted Jericho on the arm. “Don’t worry about that bit, detective. I mean I’m only just learnin’ how ta read. And you’re the sharpest tool in the box of intuition. No need ta prove anything.”

Tau frowned.

Cadence cleared her throat. “Anyways, so if Maria leapt into the reservoir for the Saint Candidate of Leo or something, she’d become Leo? I mean, if Leona wasn’t currently Leo?”

“No, she would die,” Conta replied. “That’s why it’s so peculiar that you’re able to conduct like that”—she gestured to Maria’s still inflamed hand—“and be standing before us now.”

Maria extinguished the flames as the three ELPIS leaders began to whisper amongst themselves. She couldn’t quite wrap her hand around what they were saying, but Olive was pressing Jericho to listen in and her mind swam with the strange theories and concepts.

After fifteen minutes of conversing, all three ELPIS leaders stiffened and locked eyes with each other in abrupt unison. After another stretch of silence, Francis muttered—

“There was another one…” 

More silence.

“Well, that’s pretty ominous, Francis,” Cadence noted. “Ya mind explainin’ that a little more?”

Francis turned to her slowly. “There’s only one plausible way for you to possibly survive a baptism. It would be a very rare occurrence and certain events would have to line up perfectly in succession, however…”

Yet another lengthy pause. Maria didn’t quite like them.

“Keepin’ us in suspense here, Francis.”

“If there was one more individual in your group and they were somehow excised from your group,” Francis finally said, “then theoretically it’s possible that you would be able to take on Aries’s vitae if the body of Aries’s hosts was temporarily damaged. Rather, Aries’s vitae would act as a glue of sorts, holding your crumbling channels together. The actual host of Aries herself would—”

“—would take the place of the seventh person’s vitae,” Jericho again spoke on Olive’s behalf. 

“Francis, kid, that’s a great idea and all,” drew Cadence who was scratching her neck. “But the thing is that I’m pretty sure we’d know if there was a seventh in our group here. Besides, we didn’t get all connected until after…” She glanced in Olive’s direction. “…after what happened in Aries.”

“Perception is different from reality,” Francis replied. “Assuming this seventh passed and at the same time Aries took their place, it may be possible that you all became connected earlier than you originally believed you were.”

Atienna frowned visibly at this as did Werner. They exchanged looks and seemed to be conversing on a more private level. Maria didn’t barge into their conversation. Respect, as Werner always said.

Francis continued, “If the seventh person was excised—as in, if they had died—then they would have dragged all of you to what we call the threshold of life and death too. It’s possible that your vitae and memory may have been damaged from the trauma of the event to the extent where you all forgot about it.”

“That sounds a bit… theoretical and nebulous,” Atienna murmured, “don’t you think?”

“But Francis said it,” Jericho reasoned out loud. “Francis is smart.”

Francis blinked at him. “Thank you, Jericho. I appreciate your faith in me.”

Jericho offered a thumbs up. 

“Maybe that’d explain why we ‘connected’ easily in the first place,” Olive murmured. “Remember what Claire said about their being a disconnect with the synchronization with his group at first?” He shifted on his feet and mumbled, “I mean… the concept isn’t too unbelievable. Theoretically, it is possible. And… if we knew each other before then…” His cheeks burned slightly. “I dunno.”

“My suggestion, Cadence, Jericho, Maria, and the others that are listening in,” Francis drew, “is that you ask those close to you if they’ve noticed any peculiarities in your past behavior.”

Werner stiffened out of the corner of Maria’s eye.

Francis mumbled into his hand again. “Although I suppose if you’re unaware of it now, then that might be a fruitless endeavor—” 

“Well?” Cadence cleared her throat, spread her arms, gestured to herself. “Any ‘peculiarities’?” She turned to Carl, Allen, then Fortuna. “Anythin’?”

Francis blinked, stared, smiled. “You’ve always been the same Cadence to me.”

“That one time you got a haircut,” Allen said from his chair. “That was weird. You loved your hair.”

Cadence stared and then ruffled her hair. “Well, it’s just hair. Short hair is more popular nowadays, ain’t it?” She looked around. “Is the hair the only thing?”

“I’m barely followin’ the conversation,” Carl interjected, “but ain’t you bein’ too casual about findin’ out that you might’ve been in cuckooland way earlier than a year ago? I mean, ain’t that like amnesia? Lost time or whatever?”

Cadence shrugged. “I mean, it’s a great theory and all but it doesn’t really change anything, does it? Not ta sound crass, but… we gotta focus on the kids and the whole Lavi situation. Plus, it doesn’t really seem to have affected anything if it is a thing that happened. Just the idea gives me the heebie-jeebies—”

“How can you say that?” Olive objected immediately. “If there was a seventh then that means that there was someone else like us. With us. Just like how we’re connected now. And now… they’re not here, and we don’t even know who they are or what they…” He looked around. “…what they were to us…” A pause. “Isn’t that… sad…? No one even knowing that you were here? That you existed? I mean—who were they?”

Werner studied him inquisitively, while Atienna offered him a sympathetic look. 

Cadence held up her hands. Sorry, kid. I didn’t mean it like that. You’re right. I’m just tryin’ ta be objective, ya know? It is pretty depressin’ ta think about if that’s actually the case, but it’s still just a theory. 

Olive met her gaze briefly then rubbed the back of his neck. Yeah. I understand. I’m sorry too.

“Regarding the situation with Lavi…” Francis drew. “I’m afraid that with what I know now… if we try to separate Lavi from Olive’s form, then that may result in all of your death’s.”

Maria this time did not allow the silence to linger. Instead, she chimed quickly, “We can still try, no? Impossible can be broken by the strong, yes?”

Francis considered this. “Of course. We’ll still be in search of a solution.”

Olive met Maria’s eyes and gave her a grateful look.

Everyone then began to speak about potential locations they could travel to in order to catch Alpha. After two more hours of this discussion—Maria wasn’t quite paying attention—they compiled a list of orphanages, schools, and other ‘children-associated’ places. Cadence, Jericho, Francis, Tau, the Romanos, and Foxmans were to handle a portion of the list, while Maria was given another portion. 

Maria finally felt some excitement tickle her chest as she scanned the locations on the list handed to her. There were a couple of places here that she’d never even heard of. She was even handed another set of Jericho’s suppression cuffs.

After the locations were all designated out to their respective search parties, the meeting reached its conclusion and the others began to filter out. First went the caporegimes, then went Tau and the Foxmans. Atienna and Olive ‘left’ after that, leaving just Maria herself, Jericho, Cadence, and Werner. 

“Jericho, you should return soon,” Werner addressed him. “Ophiuchus needs to be notified of this as soon as possible.”

Jericho nodded.

Hey, hey, Captain, Cadence thought as Werner began to fade away, mind hangin’ around with me a little while?”

Werner resynchronized strongly. “Why? What do you need, Cadence?”

Cadence hummed. Er…. Company?

Werner sighed and rested a hand on her head. We can talk at some other time, Cadence. Just give me notice. 

He disappeared from Maria’s sights a moment after. She hummed at this and peered curiously at Cadence. 

“I can keep you company, my dear Cadence!”

“I can keep you company too,” Jericho added. “Not physically, but ‘emotionally.’ I am not doing much at work. I would like to give you company. To… yes.”

Cadence chortled before frowning slightly. “I appreciate it, sunshine, detective, but that ain’t it.”

“Then what is ‘it’?” Jericho pressed.

Cadence paused. Let’s keep this on the down-low okay?

We cannot keep things on the ‘down-low’, Jericho reasoned in confusion. The connection, Cadence.

Yeah, but we can still keep it discrete. Like the kid’s cake. Just don’t think about it too hard.

I have not mastered ‘not thinking too hard’ yet.

Cadence snickered slightly. It’s fine, detective. A good thing probably. Anyway, basically… Have either of ya talked talked to Werner lately? Outside of the synchronization meetin’s?

Jericho nodded. I spoke with Werner about the cake yesterday. Two days before that we talked about my photography with Benì.

I haven’t spoken one-on-one with my dear Werner recently, no. Maria brightened. Oh! But I should, yes?

Why? Jericho pressed. About Werner. Not the one-on-one. 

Cadence mulled, then sighed. I’m just worried about the whole chlorowheat thing that happened a couple days ago. Ya know with these kind of things—it can be unpredictable. 

Werner is careful, Jericho reasoned. 

Yeah, but, like did ya see how he just took it like it was nothin’?

Maria cocked her head. Well, it is always exciting to try new things, yes?

Not somethin’ like thatCadence stiffened and stared at Maria with almost wild eyes. Ya gotta promise me you’re not gonna try somethin’ like that.

Maria studied her for a moment before nodding firmly. If it worries you do, then I won’t. It is just that simple, yes? She hummed. But my dear Cadence—It was only one time for Werner, no? To be covert, yes?

Was… it just one time though? Cadence pressed.

Maria couldn’t quite understand what Cadence was implying. 

Don’t ya think he’s been a little bit too relaxed lately?

What do you mean? Maria tilted her head. He is still doing that letter thing with Volker and Martin, yes? He is always working, yes? He is too serious as always too.

Cadence was silent.

I did have some ‘intuition’ earlier, Jericho thought suddenly. That he was hiding something. Last month. But he explained it. It is Scorpio’s mark. The thoughts. He says he is handling it. Slowly, he looked down at Cadence. Do you not trust Werner, Cadence…?

What? Of course I trust him. Ya know I do. Cadence let out a loud sigh and ruffled her hair. Maybe I am just bein’ paranoid… 

 * * *

Onboard Gloria’s Grail, Leonian Waters

And with that exciting debacle reaching its end, Epsilon finally came into Maria’s care. Maria was quite excited for him to finally come onboard. What she was not too excited about was the fact that Cadence and Werner had asked her to continue to pretend to be Leona. She did not like being anyone but herself just as she didn’t like the other five being anyone but themselves. But she supposed if it made them happy, then she could do it for a little while. 

When she brought Epsilon onto the deck of her ship with Conta, Andres, and Simon in tow, Morandi and Giorgio let out loud gasps.

“That’s Ambrose Campana!” Morandi shouted, stumbling backwards.

Epsilon stared at him and waved. Giorgio meanwhile started to grab the nearby children, nearly tripping over them and falling flat on his face as he did so.

“This is not Ambrose Campana!” Maria proclaimed. “This is Epsilon! A friend of Francis who is now a friend of mine, you see?”

“A friend of Mr. Francis’s,” Morandi drew slowly before looking Epsilon up and down. His eyes widened. “You mean he belongs with…”

“He is an ELPIS leader, yes! But he is a good one like Conta and Francis. He is married to Fortuna now, you see?”

Morandi clenched his chest, winced, and let out a heavy sigh. He hobbled over to the railings of the ship, leaned against then, then slid to the floor. “You need to tell me these details, Captain.” He paused, then gave Epsilon a sympathetic look.

Maria paced over to his side and chuckled. “Well, I am telling you the details now, no?”

“I didn’t think you were the type to be fond of children, Leo,” Epsilon noted as he joined her and studied the children running around. “Is it me or are the children looking at me oddly—”

“I am fond of many things, my dear Epsilon,” Maria sang as she watched Conta, Simon, and Andres join her side at the railings too. Now was a good time to dig for information. “So, my dear Epsilon, tell me what have you been up to since you were initiated!”

“Glad you asked!” Epsilon beamed. “I was initiated by Alpha, right? The older one that you saw.”

Proteus. 

“I was a bit surprised. He was a lot different from what I remembered. The country of Ophiuchus is too…” Epsilon dipped his head and rested it against the railings. “Ophiuchus is also gone—no. They’re scattered most likely. At least that’s what”

Maria tilted her head. “She is not in the reservoirs? Not fully?”  

“Wouldn’t you know, Leo?”  Epsilon stared before sighing and resting his head on the railings again. “I was pretty depressed about everything that’s happened since we put ourselves into our resistors, so Alpha showed me all sorts of wonderful places. To cheer me up, surely. He’s such a great man.”

Conta shook her head.

Wow…” Epsilon let out a sudden breath as he spied out past the horizon where the sun was just beginning to rise out from the sea. It was a slow bleed of colors—the red and orange ring around the orange sun bleeding out into the purple sky and the blue ocean. “This world really has become amazing, hasn’t it? I saw the Dioscuri Bridge, the lights over the Zatenminye Caverns, the new temples of Leo, the great arches of Capricorn, and the Great Tree of Virgo! The people are so generous too! So interesting!”

Maria threw her hands up in the air and laughed. “Yes! Yes! This world is wonderful!”

Epsilon basked in the light from the horizon for a moment more before continuing, “Alpha said he was going to return to his resistor for a little while after he showed me around. He asked me to hold onto some vitae for him. It wasn’t his, of course. It was the vitae of some old man. He had vitae with memories that were several centuries old though inside of him. I must’ve put them there—another version of me, I mean.”

Maria enjoyed the ocean breeze as she listened and wondered how Veles was doing. 

“In the end, Alpha came back to me as a younger man. Apparently, Gamma initiated him sooner than he expected.” Epsilon perked up. “Oh? He brought me to Lamendos too at one point.”

“Lamendos?” Conta tensed. “Why? Did he have you do something to the resistors there?”

Epsilon stared at her before glancing at Maria. Maria, in turn, offered him an encouraging nod.

“Well, he asked me to transfer the vitae from all the resistors that were in Lamendos into him,” Epsilon answered simply. “And so I did that.”

Conta visibly paled. “He what?”

“It was quite hard—I couldn’t get everything in,” he continued. “So there was some vitae remaining in some of the resistors… He… damaged those ones for some reason. I don’t understand why. But, well, we did call him one of the Five Great Devourers along with Gemini, Delta, Theta, and Pi, didn’t we—back in the day? A childish nickname, right? But it does sound cool.”

“Five Great Devourers?” Maria pressed, interest piqued. 

Abruptly, Conta reached over and grabbed him by the scruff. “Why…? Do you realize what you’ve done?”

Epsilon stared at her in confusion. “Beta, right? What’s wrong? You know we can just make new resistors, right? We can just transfer the vitae back into them after. Alpha said he was just borrowing it!”

Conta’s grip tightened.

“L-Leo?” Epsilon looked to Maria worriedly.

Maria reached out and easily pried Conta’s hand from Epsilon’s scruff. “Let us all get along now, yes?”

“Have Cadence or Jericho tell Theta this immediately, Maria,” was all Conta said. “He should know what that means.”

* * *

Encuentrolza, Leo

Maria cheerily steered their ship along the Leonian coast and through the Vencedorza River channel that ran through the middle of the country. They passed by Lunanegra again and Comientzo too. Maria slowed the ship ever so slightly so the children could take in the calm sights of the river banks and the forests that lay beyond them. They even passed by a vitae stream at one point too and admired its warmth and the way the river reflected its light. 

Eventually they reached the small town of Encuentrolza which housed one of the locations on Maria’s given list. The Santa-Gloria Boarding School for Gifted Leonian Children. As soon as they docked the boat at the pier of the seaside town, Epsilon ran off the ship while excitedly chattering about seeing new sights.

Hand-in-hand with Lita, Maria followed him off the ship with equal excitement. Behind her came Conta, Morandi, Simon, Albatross, Andres, and El. 

The town was quite busy for its small size. It reminded Maria a bit of Comientzo with the many Monadic temples popping up in-between smaller, rustic, stone buildings with curved roofs. Half of them were flower shops that sold pleasant little bundles of poppies, forget-me-nots and roses. Their petals were scattered elegantly all along the ground, but it was a pity they were half-trampled by the heavy traffic. A couple horse-drawn carts rolled down the cobblestone streets in-between the sputtering v-ehicles, giving the entire town a somewhat congested feeling. But Maria quite enjoyed it.

Eventually they reached the town’s central square. A large, towering statue of a faceless being stood with widespread arms tall and proud at the center of it. The statue itself was surrounded by a bustling bazaar. Fruits, jugs of water, books, conductors, flower shops, and everything in-between were being bought and sold left and right from the clustered stalls and shops. Bodies were pressed close against each other, making it almost impossible for Maria to see half a meter ahead of her. She was almost tempted to jump on someone else’s shoulders just so she could observe the chaos from a more pleasant and aerial perspective.

It was then that Conta announced that she would look into the boarding school— “alone,” she said. And without any further explanation, she departed deeper into town. 

Maria found herself oddly worrying that Conta wouldn’t return from her ventures there. She considered following after her since it was in line with their objective anyways but instead became distracted by Epsilon who suddenly darted to the large statue.

“How could they leave it like this…?” He murmured. And with that, he whipped off his suit jacket and  grabbed a bucket of water from a nearby stall. He plunged his jacket into the bucket and began to scrub the foot of the statue with it almost manically. “They should take care of it! How could they leave it?!”

The statue was covered with moss and flower petals and dirt, Maria finally noticed. Unsightly. But was it really? Maria thought it was quite pretty.

Several pedestrians shouted in alarm and skirted away as Epsilon’s movements became more erratic. Maria laughed at the sight and made to join Epsilon before a distant sound caught her attention. A low, melodic, brass chime that reverberated through the air. Loud enough to shake the square. It was almost nostalgic—almost exact.

You should keep a better eye on him, Maria. He’s distressing the public.

Maria blinked and turned her head. She spotted Morandi, El, Lita, Albatross, and Simon staring past her towards Epsilon with gaping mouths. Andres meanwhile was giving him a nod of approval. A shadow fell over her face then. Werner. 

“Do you hear the bells, Werner…?” Maria asked.

Werner’s eyes narrowed briefly but then he nodded. Yes. I can hear the sound of the bells. But you should—

“Get down! Stay put!”

Maria snapped forward at the Leonian shouts and found that a collection of police officers were now surrounding around the statue and a crowd had formed there. She tried her best to push her way through that crowd but they were so boisterous that Maria had no choice but to leap over their shoulders to get to the statue. After she did so, however, she found that only a single officer remained there pushing back the crowd. And—there was no Epsilon in sight.

“Hello!” Maria waved wildly in the officer’s face. “I like your uniform, yes? Would you happen to have seen someone in a tuxedo around here? A bit strange, but most likely smiling? He was just here, yes?”

The policeman stared at her blankly before thumbing behind him. “You mean the guy we just arrested?”

Arrested?

It’s alright, Werner, Maria reassured him. “Can you unarrest him? He is mine, you see?”

The policeman stared. “What? No, we can’t just ‘unarrest’ him. He stole from a shopkeeper and desecrated our Monadic statue.”

Before Maria could grab the officer and explain to him exactly how he technically could just simply unarrest Epsilon, Werner stopped her short. Andres and the others then made it to her side through the crowd. At the sight of Andres, the police officer stiffened and took a step backwards.

“E-Espada!”

The crowd stopped their pushing and shoving immediately, formed a wide circle around them, and began to whisper amongst themselves. Maria found the excitement a bit odd but enjoyable. The Espada—the night sky that supported the stars, yes?

Andres conjured a sign in Leonian and showed it to the officer. Please release the man you just took into custody.

The officer swallowed. “I’m really sorry, sir, but I really can’t. Even with your authority.”

Andres frowned.

“Haven’t you heard the news?”

The news?

“The prince of Leo recently put out a mandate that said policing authorities aren’t required to defer to Monadic authorities anymore,” the officer explained. “It’s part of the separation of Monadism and state that he’s been pushing for recently. They’re being very strict about it. I can’t. Sorry.” He muttered under his breath,“I’m sure this is all just because of the chairman elections…”

Andres’s frown deepened and he looked over his shoulder towards Simon.

Maria pondered whether or not she should force the officer to return Epsilon to her. But that would cause trouble for Conta, wouldn’t it? Yes. They were here to help Cadence and find the children above all. Yes. But then what was the path should she take? Well… she’d never been officially jailed before, had she? It would be quite a fun experience, no?

Mariacame Werner’s warning tone.

He was always so serious. Maria couldn’t understand why Cadence was so concerned.

Cadence is concerned? About what? 

Maria offered her wrists to the officer and beamed. “How about I allow you to arrest me so I can meet my dear Epsilon again instead? I actually have never experienced jail before!”

Maria—

The police officer arched a brow at her. “Have you committed a crime?”

Maria pondered this. “Well, maybe? I have a bounty on my head. I stole once from a very rich Cancerian person. I stole some ships. I’ve raided some ships. I have killed some people, yes. Oh, have you heard of the Golden Beast?”

* * *

Sitting in the cell within the Leonian jail reminded Maria only slightly of the time she’d been imprisoned on her own ship by Leona and her old crew. She’d been cuffed back then just as she was now—although her crew was with her now instead of against her unlike back then. Only Raul, Emmanuel, Simon, and Conta were the ones who’d stayed with her since that time. Raul and Emmanuel had fretted over Conta when Maria had reunited them a week or so ago. Raul had even cooked all of Conta’s favorite meals, but it seemed as if Conta’s tastes had changed some. Perhaps Beta’s influence? And perhaps it was Beta’s influence too that Conta held no interest when Emmanuel went on to show her all the new conductors he’d been working on since their time in Die Hauptstadt? She’d always been so interested in listening to Emmanuel talk before all of this. ‘Not the same.’

Was this how Francis’s brothers felt…? 

Werner had desynchronized slightly after giving a long lecture about her recklessness, so he wasn’t present to answer her questions.He was always so worried. Earlier he’d even told her he was concerned about Veles’s departure since it meant that there were less eyes on the children. But Maria was certain she could watch them all on her own.

Pondering this, Maria observed the area around her and felt a growing sense of nostalgia. Her cell was quite small and furnished with only a hanging bed. There were five other cells in this small space—all the same size as hers. Three on one side of the room and three on the other. El, Andres, and Morandi occupied these cells individually, while Lita, Simon, and Albatross all shared one. While they all had their belongings taken from them—conductors, suppression cuffs, weapons and all—Andres was allowed to keep the pencil and notebook he’d conjured for himself. 

The layout of the cell vaguely reminded Maria of the dungeon beneath the Ariesian royal place. Olive had visited there once, hadn’t he? To try to save Trystan and prove his innocence. Yes. Right when this had all begun.

Trystan…

But there was a difference between this jail and that dungeon. There were two doors built onto opposite sides of the room. The door on the left was the one Maria had entered through. As for the door on the right? She wondered where it led to. She pondered exploring it once she retrieved Epsilon and broke out of this place with everyone.

Just as the last thought left her mind, the more familiar door swung open and a pair entered the room. One of the police officers and a handcuffed Epsilon l who looked slightly frazzled. As soon as Epsilon laid eyes on Maria, however, he brightened.

“Leo!” His bright expression twisted with indignation. “How dare they lock you up here? Don’t they know who you are?!”

Morandi sighed. “Boy, calm down. We’re here because of you.”

“Because of me…?” Epsilon’s confused expression remained on his face even after the officer locked him in the remaining cell. 

Maria waved at the officer as he walked towards the mysterious other door. The officer arched a brow at her at this but returned the wave before exiting the room and locking the mystery door. Maria then returned her attention to Epsilon.

“I was only trying to clean your statue,” Epsilon tried to explain as he neared the bars of his cell. “They left it so dirty! I couldn’t stand it!” 

Andres tapped his notebook against the bars of his cell and then scribbled into it. I agree. It was filthy. You were right to want to clean it. 

“You say it is dirty, but all of that moss, dirt, and grime are a sign of that statue’s experiences, no?” Maria inquired. “Signs of its adventures? Wiping it away is a bit sad and boring, no? It looks more interesting the way it is, yes?” She received odd looks from Andres and El, but she didn’t pay them any mind. Instead she kept her gaze focused solely on Epsilon.

Epsilon stared at her for a long while before his eyes sparkled. “Oh my gosh, Leo! You’re absolutely right! I didn’t even think of it like that—”

The mystery door creaked open again, and a trio walked into the room. It was the same officer again accompanied by a young man and pre-adolescent. Maria was still focused on Epsilon so she didn’t quite pay attention to the trio—at least that was until they stopped right in front of her cell. 

Maria’s eyes were immediately drawn to the young man first because something about him felt a bit different. 

Ba-dump.

The first thing she noticed was that, unlike herself and her crew members, the young man was not handcuffed.

Ba-dump.

The second thing she noticed was that the young man was dressed in a naval officer’s uniform.

Ba-dump. 

The third thing she noticed was that the young man’s lips were curled up into a pleasant smile.

Ba-dump. Ba-bump. Ba-bump.

The final thing she noticed was the eye-patch stretched over the young man’s left eye.

“Oh? Why isn’t it little Maria?”

The adventurer. 

Alpha.

Proteus.

The One.

24.3: The Soldier & Conductor in Brumosa Light

Re-cap:

Werner–disguised as his alias Dieter Traumson–is infiltrating the Aquarian Capricornian Movement alongside Gilbert, Nico, Dunya Kramer, and Nikita Knovak. Their purpose is to investigate two potential True Conductors in the movement as well as dismantle it if it proves to be dangerous. Along the way, Werner learns that he must prove himself to the movement in order to become a true member. He also discovers chlorowheat being distributed amongst the ACC.


In-transit, Taurusian Waters, Alpha’s (Stolen) Vessel

“Alpha, Nu and I’ve been running around all of Signum trying to avoid Iota and now you’re asking us to pick up more children?”

Alpha smiled pleasantly and shrugged. “It’s up to you, Rho. The choice has always been yours.”

Rho hummed to herself as she listened to the ship creak around her. “Where is it this time?”

“There’s a showcase for talented young potential Conductors being held at the end of the month,” Alpha replied. “Near the southern border of Capricorn.”


Polovinastadt, Aquarian-Capricornian Border

“What did you say your name was?”

“Dieter Traumson,” Werner answered with a good-natured smile. “But you can just call me Dieter.”

“That’s certainly a unique name. You can call me Milkovich. Pleasure.”

The man sitting across the bar from Werner was middle-age with a high nose and a prominent brow. The burn scars that ran up from the nape of his neck to his face marked him as a Reservoir War veteran as did the badges of honor he wore proudly on his chest.

Despite the man’s impressive repertoire, he was not a suspected True Conductor. Therefore, even though Werner held respect for the man, he had no pressing interest in him. Even so, appearances of interest needed to be maintained—because sitting in-between them on a bar stool was Constanza Groth. The suspected True Conductor: a person of interest. 

This was the first time Werner had seen her here at this particular meeting location. It served as an important marker of possible progress.

“I like you.” Milkovich nodded at Werner. “Could’ve used more boys like you back then. Would’ve made the days go by easier.” He mulled and took a sip of his beer. “Or maybe not. That’s not a very pleasant thing to say, is it? Wishing you were back there…”

Werner still personally believed that there were better tasks to complete on the field than engaging in idle chatter. However, given that idle chatter could serve as a morale booster and ease nerves, Werner supposed it was an acceptable pastime.

 Werner chuckled. “Well, I’m quite a shot myself. I might just be a glorified mailman, but back in my academy days I was a legend.” He mimicked a gun with his hands. Excessive, Cadence.

It’s part of the flair, Captain.

Milkovich returned the chuckle with a barking laugh. 

Werner continued to smile but noted that Constanza was staring at him. After a moment, he turned to her and asked casually, “Is there something on my face, Constanza? Oh, thanks for inviting me to this meeting too. I appreciate feeling included. It’s like getting”

Constanza spread her arms slightly. “You earned it.” She nodded across the bar. Nico—in his disguise as Nikolai Valse—was leaning against the wall there and scowling alongside two older men.  “You’re friends with that Aquarian over there, aren’t you? You two are nothing alike. I’m surprised you get along. Where did you say you met again?”

“We’re a bit different.” Werner agreed with a chuckle“I’m the type who likes to settle down with a woman, and he’s the type to go running off after any girl who catches his eye. Different lifestyles so to speak. And that’s fine.”

Nico glanced over at him, eyebrows knitting slightly. 

“Is that a bit of animosity I hear?” Constanza asked.

Cadence, Werner thought, eyes narrowing this is not the time to bring up personal issues. I’ve said this before and I do not want to say it again. You should resolve—

His thought ended abruptly as a smile cracked across his face. “It’s all teasing. No hard feelings. It’s how we communicate.”

“You.” Milkovich nodded at Groth. “You said your name was Groth? Constanza Groth? Any relation to the chairwoman running for Head Chairman?”

Constanza arched her brow again as a laugh rumbled her chest. “Do you know how many times I’ve been asked that question? She’s a distant cousin. That’s all.” 

“Must be interesting publicity,” Milkovich noted.

“Speaking of publicity,” Constanza drew, “How do you both feel about the publicity that the ACC’s been getting recently? It feels like we’re swimming

“Publicity is for people who have time for,” Milkovich grumbled immediately. “You have better things to do than dance in the public eye.”

“Publicity is important to any movement,” Werner replied with a shrug. “Like I said earlier, the public is what supports a movement. The media’ll always paint you as either an unworldly saint or evil incarnate. Appearances are important, so whenever newsie is nearby, it’s good to work with them in any way you can.”

Constanza studied them both for some time before she reached into her pocket and pulled out an envelope. She slipped it to both of them with a jerk of her head. “I like both your perspectives. Different meeting place is written down. No extra gift this time either though. Look forward to seeing you both there.” With that, she departed.

Werner watched her go.

It had been like this for well over two weeks now. Werner had been going from ‘exclusive’ meeting location to ‘exclusive’ meeting location alongside Nico, Gilbert, and Kramer who had received similar cryptic messages from Constanza Groth. Knovak had not managed to obtain the primary invitation so he was still situated in the Aquarian-Capricornian tavern they’d first gone to.  

The first series of ‘exclusive’ meetings that Werner had attended were hosted in the lobby of a local inn just across the street from the one he was stationed at. The meetings there had a lower number of attendants than the meeting at the tavern, but Werner had deduced that too was just another false front. 

These meetings often culminated in planning a protest in front of the diplomatic building at the center of town. Werner had attended all of these protests dutifully, of course, alongside Kramer and Gilbert. Occasionally, he would spot Otto—the peacekeeper, not his Otto—among the reporters that skirted the scene. The protests were notably less chaotic and violent than the ones 

* * *

The next meeting was held in the backyard of an old couple’s luxurious vacation home. While Gilbert perused the wintery garden displays and chatted amiably with other attendants, Werner surveyed the small shooting range that had been built wide and long in the expansive backyard. It had been three weeks since he’d last been able to practice firearms, so they looked very tempting at the moment. The old couple had been generous enough to leave their range open to the ACC members, so there were two men and two women already taking up shooting—including Kramer. The ranges themselves were quite narrow and long, although they were also slightly snowed in. Still, Werner’s fingers itched for practice and perfection. 

Cadence was preoccupied with the developments on her end this past week, and Werner had  insisted that she remain focused on her own situation. Thus, she was not synchronized with him strongly at this time. After weighing his options, Werner decided to keep to himself and head to the shooting station. He was not quite as adept as maintaining Dieter’s cheerful persona as Cadence was—something that he needed to account for—so it was best not to draw eyes for now.

As Werner readied himself at a shooting station beside Kramer who offered him a curt nod, he reached out to Jericho through the soft haze that clouded their connection. Jericho’s image appeared at his side and nodded once upon understanding the purpose of the call.

Pay close attention to the way my arms are positioned, Jericho, Werner thought as he loaded his weapon. You should become proficient at firearms on your own merit given what we’ve discovered about the effects of chlorowheat.Although this lesson was the main purpose of the synchronization, Werner also had concerns regarding Jericho himself. The encounter with Taurus and then subsequently Rho and Nu had occurred only three days ago. He had heard about the fallout from Cadence. As he’d suspected, the fallout had been disastrous. 

Werner lined up his shot and pulled the trigger. The bullet hit the bullseye on the target board on the mark.

“You never miss,” Jericho noted. “I didn’t miss with my suitcase earlier. I missed with my conductor.” He frowned. “More than once—”

“Rumors on the field are one thing but seeing it with your own eyes is something else,” Kramer muttered beside Werner. “I see how you gained your moniker.” 

I heard about that from Cadence. Werner answered Jericho first. Given that you were in an emotionally compromising state of mind, that isn’t surprising. Remaining calm and level-headed during distressing situations is the best way to ensure that you hit your target. He readjusted his stance. However, this is not a kill-on-sight situation—

Yes, I understand.

We need either Rho or Nu alive if we encounter them, Jericho. 

Yes. But. They’re working with the one—

A hot rush went up to Werner’s head, and before he realized it, he was pulling the trigger before he’d properly lined up the shot—

I apologize.

The bullet ricocheted off a nearby steel safety barricade right back to the bullseye on Werner’s target board.

Jericho clapped. 

“I never pull the trigger unless I’m certain,” Werner replied to Kramer as he reloaded the pistol. Although that was a particularly fortunate shot. Not that there was such a thing as fortune. Then again, he appreciated Jericho’s applause even if it was unwarranted and undeserved. 

Will we still plan for Olive’s birthday? Jericho inquired after watching him fire several more rounds, each of them snapping through the very first bullet hole. The cake.

Of course, Werner returned seriously. We’ve already invested this much time in preparing for the event. We must follow through.  Hopefully we can maintain the surprise. Cadence will be able to teach you how to keep things more close to yourself so Olive doesn’t discover it too soon.

Of course. Jericho perked up slightly at this before offering him a thumbs up.

That gesture of his had always been particularly infectious, and so Werner had to concentrate not to physically reciprocate it. Instead, he focused on lining his shot up once more and firing. 

Bang!

Bullseye again.

Perfect. 

A whistle pierced Werner’s eardrums followed by—“That’s an impressive shot.” 

Werner lowered the pistol and turned to find a familiar young man squeezing his way between himself and Kramer. The man had wild, barely tamed sweeping blonde hair and twinkling blue eyes. His jaw was sharp, his nose prominent; and he somehow looked old and young at the same time. He was dressed in a loose navy overcoat, and his cheeks were only faintly pink from the cold.

“Care to introduce me to your friend, Natalya?” the man nodded at Kramer as he addressed her by her alias. 

“Oh”—Kramer gestured to Werner— “This is Dieter Traumson. Dieter, this is Matthias Alfhild. I met Dieter here during one of the other ACC meetings. We were both new to the ACC and happened to be staying at the same inn. Matthias here is—”

—a potential True Conductor, Werner recalled as Kramer explained how she’d first met Matthias. Werner already knew all the details. She’d met him after accessing the ‘second-level’ of the ACC meetings. He’d approached her and animatedly chattered about how ‘Aquarius and Capricorn were stupid apart but even more stupid together.’

“I heard from Constanza that you’re very passionate about what the ACC stands for,” Matthias barked as he looked Werner up and down. He wiggled his fingers. “She says you’re very mysterious. And very funny.”

He knows who you are. Your ‘cover identity.’ Jericho stared at Matthias threw their connection. Intuition. 

I agree.

Jericho tensed slightly. Don’t trust him, Werner.

Don’t worry, Jericho. I won’t.

Relief came through their connection at this. Admittedly, it was a pleasant feeling. Then came Jericho’s thoughtsHe knows Constanza. 

It was unsurprising that he knew of Constanza since she appeared to be the ACC member tasked with doling out invites to private meetings. However, the fact that two suspected True Conductors knew of each other was a development of note. There was no such thing as coincidence.

He is a suspected True Conductor. She is a suspected True Conductor. Intuition. They are connected. 

There is a possibility.

Will you bring them to the saint candidates, Werner…?

Werner remained silent. Jericho remained silent too but he didn’t lessen their synchronization.

Matthias cleared his throat loudly. “Well, you are passionate, aren’t you? Oh, are you one of those strong, silent, mysterious types?”

“Of course, I’m passionate,” Werner answered more stiffly than he’d intended. The word ‘passion’ always left a sour taste on his tongue nowadays. “It’s natural to be passionate about the future of your country. Aquarius and Capricorn are already in bad waters publicity wise individually. I believe an author named Kovich once wrote that countries are stronger when they are united in their isolation rather than united in unity.”

“Huh?” Matthias stared. “No idea what you’re saying.”

Werner inwardly berated himself. Literature reference had not been the route to take with the personality Matthias had. An incorrectly selected appearance.

I liked what you said, Werner, Jericho interjected. 

Werner appreciated and was reassured by the thought, although it didn’t help his situation.

“Anyway! I also heard that you were a Transmutationist,” Matthias drew a moment later, leaning against the wooden divider and arm rest in front of them. “And not just any Transmutationist. And intraneous user! Talk about rare.” He paused, thrumming his fingers against the splintered wood. “How would you like to do something else other than waving around signs all day?”

* * *

“So Dieter Traumson,’ huh?” Gilbert smirked. “Shouldn’t the name be ‘Fun Werner’ instead, Werner?”

Gilbert seemed to be in a positive mood. 

Fifteen minutes earlier, they had held a briefing meeting with Kramer and Knovak. Accordingly, Werner had provided everyone present with the information that he’d been invited to another off-shoot meeting. Supposedly this one was one where they would finally take a course of action other than protesting. Gilbert reported he’d received a similar invitation, but the same did not apply for Nico nor Kramer. Needless to say, Knovak received no invitation either and was still operating at ‘level one’ meetings.

After finishing up their briefing, the Aquarians had headed to their room while Werner, Nico, and Gilbert had retired to theirs. Now they were preparing for the night.

“Don’t be childish, Gilbert.” Werner resisted a sigh as he sank down onto his bed. “It’s merely a persona.”

“A fun-sona,” Gilbert noted from where he sat at his own bed rest across from Werner. “Hell, wish I could be this Ansel Meyer. He lost his arm in an accident but he doesn’t have a problem in the world.”

Werner looked up at Gilbert with a frown.

A shirtless Nico entered the room with a damp towel thrown over his wet head.

It felt a bit unusual sharing a room with them. It felt somewhat more personal than sharing space in the trenches where everyone was packed close together. While a stiff, tense distance occupied that place, here existed an intimate casualness that unnerved Werner. He supposed it was not as intimate as the space he shared with the other five, however. But again, this peace felt false.  

“The shower’s open,” Nico noted as he sank down on his own bed beside Werner’s. He glanced back at his bed and arched a brow. “Wait… room service didn’t come this morning, did they? Did you make my bed, Werner?” 

“Yes,” Werner replied. “It was a mess. You should try to make your bed in the mornings. It saves room service time.”

Nico dipped his head and chuckled sheepishly. “Sorry…”

“It’s fine,” Werner replied. “I don’t mind doing it.” It was a therapeutic way to spend extra allotted time.

“I’m pretty beat.” Gilbert sighed, falling back onto his bed. “I’ll shower in the morning. Shower’s all yours, Werner.”

Werner moved to open his luggage at the foot of his bed. As he searched through his items there, his mind went to Olive’s bird back in the capital. It was quite unfortunate that he had to leave her there. However, bringing her along just because of sentimental value was foolish. After all, he wouldn’t be able to properly protect her here—

Werner paused as he was halfway through pulling out his sleepwear. Then, he carefully shifted through all of his folded clothing inside. After fifteen seconds of this, he removed all items from his luggage and set them nearly on his bed. 

Something was missing. The small sewn pocket tucked away in the corner of his suitcase was empty. Had it slipped out? No, impossible. He was careful. 

Werner tensed. 

Had the others gone through his things? No. They’d always respected his privacy and space. The Aquarians then? No. It was best not to jump to conclusions. 

“What’s wrong?” Nico asked, peering over at him.

Werner remained silent and slowly resituated his luggage. “Some of my belongings are missing.” 

“Your pocket watch?” Nico asked with concern as he rounded the bed to stand behind him. “I thought you always kept that with you.”

“I do,” Werner replied. “I still have it in my pocket. It’s another personal item I brought with me.

“Shit.” Gilbert frowned. “Maybe room service was messing around after all. I can give ‘em a holler if you want—”

“No.” Werner shut his suitcase after ensuring that everything was in order. He pulled his thoughts close to him. “It was nothing important.” 

* * *

That night, Werner was revisited by Otto for the first time in a very long while. It had been approximately two months since Otto had visited him in his sleep. It had been two months since Werner had ever dreamed, and so the dream—the nightmare—came with rugged force.

Otto’s bisected body came crawling in through the hotel window, moaning and groaning with tearful eyes. But Werner could not move to help him. No. He was bound tightly to his bed by an invisible force.

Otto crept closer. “Lieutenant…” he whispered. “I’m dying, Lieutenant.” Closer. “Help me.” Closer, until he was at the foot of his bed. “Please, Lieutenant. I don’t want to die.” Crawling up his bed. “Am I dying, Lieutenant.” Stradling his body and gripping him tightly. “Please.” Right above him—face bloodied and bruised.

Otto’s eyes widened and his eyeballs spilled out from his sockets revealing the face of a ticking watch. Tick-toc. Tick-toc. Scars then sprouted across Otto’s face from his eye-sockets and then across his entire body. The scars widened and widened until they formed an almond shape, and out from that almond shape grew eyes. All wide and blue and staring directly at Werner.

Soon the eyes spread all across the room, growing like mushrooms on every surface available. Those eyes–Werner knew them well. The one on the lamp belonged to Magda Rath. The one at the foot of his bed belonged to Herr Rath. The one in the corner of the ceiling belonged to the first Anton he’d killed. The names he’d forgotten and the feelings he’d discarded rattled him with full force as all of their eyes bore into him. In the distance in-between the tick-tocks of the clock, he could hear the thunder of the battlefield.

* * *

“You look like shit, Capricornian,” Knovak noted as Werner emerged from his room and entered the dining lobby the next morning. 

Kramer was seated beside Knovak at the central dining table and offered Werner a nod as he entered.

You look like shit, Aquarian,” Gilbert returned as he entered the lobby behind Werner.

“No one looks pretty in the mornin’,” was Nico’s response as he filtered into the room. He paused, then added, “Well, some people do.”

Although the latter two comments were reassuring, Werner felt his palms itch at the former statement. So, he briskly walked into the bathroom and readied himself for the day. The mirror hanging above the sink reflected back his slightly pale face and the blue tattoo crawling up his cheek. 

After showering, rinsing his face, and coming back his hair, a quick snap of his fingers and Cadence’s conducting resolved the issue as he donned Dieter’s appearance.

* * *

Mornin’ Captain, Cadence greeted Werner with a two-fingered salute as he began to make his way to the new meeting area alongside Gilbert. Rough night last night?

I apologize. Did I wake you?

Cadence shook her head then shivered as she watched fog escape from his mouth. Saints, it’s cold here. She spied the winter landscape and squinted against the white. 

Werner nodded subtly. I do recall enjoying that activity with Gilbert and Greta when I was younger.

Bet ya were a cute kid, Cadence replied.

Werner allowed himself to chuckle briefly.

They arrived at the meeting building shortly after. It was hosted in a small coffee shop at the far edge of town with a dining area only slightly larger than a kitchen dining area. 

This meeting attendants was notably a much smaller group than the times before. There were only around twenty individuals here—among them Milkovich, Constanza, and Matthias who all gathered around a circular wooden table at the center of the room.

Werner kept to the walls alongside Gilbert. As he surveyed the room, he took note of the familiar and unfamiliar faces.

A young woman suddenly entered the area from the backdoor on the opposite side of the room. She carried with her a tray of coffee and sugars which she precariously balanced by pressing against her waist. There were red crosses on the lapels of her blouse that were barely visible due to the mousy brown curls of her hair.

Werner’s heart skipped a beat. He felt his chest tighten as he inspected the woman’s face further. There was no doubt about it. It was Greta. Greta in the flesh. What was she doing here? 

What the? came Cadence’s commentary. What in saint’s name is she doin’ here? 

Werner remained calm to the best of his abilities as he tried to adjust to her presence. After noting how she went around greeting everyone warmly and offering them a cup of coffee, Werner came to a succinct conclusion: Greta was a member of the ACC. Given the atmosphere of this meeting and her way of holding herself, she was a prominent member. 

Didn’t really take her for the political type, Cadence drew. 

Werner’s ears rang.

Protect. Protect. Protect.

Gilbert appeared to have finally noticed Greta too because he tensed sharply beside Werner. 

“What the hell is she doing here?” the man hissed under his breath, taking a step forward—

Protect. Protect. Protect.

Werner reached and grabbed his wrist. “Stay calm.” 

If Gilbert acted out rashly now, the entire operation would fall apart. They would lose track of these potential True Conductors. And if Werner lost track of them and was unable to bring them in by the deadline, then the other five would be—

“Wern—Dieter, it’s Greta!” Gilbert pressed.

Woah, Gil needs ta turn it down a notch. It’s a kink in the road but—

Protect. Protect. Protect. Protect. Protect. Protect.

Captain? Are ya doin’ okay over there?

Gilbert was right. It was Greta. And Gilbert and Greta were both important to him. He needed to—

Protect. Protect. Protect. Protect. Protect. Protect. Protect. Protect. Protect.

Silently, Werner pulled Gilbert outside of the warm darkness of the building and into the cold morning light. The snow was blinding white and only intensified the headache that was beginning to pound out from the back of Werner’s skull. Pushing the pain aside, he slowly guided Gilbert along the wall of the building and met his gaze.

Gilbert’s eyes were wide and wild as he fisted Werner’s button-up. “It’s—”

“I know it’s Greta,” Werner responded quietly as he felt the room spin. He tightened his grip on Gilbert’s good arm. Unwittingly, he drew blood.

Gilbert flinched and jerked his arm. “What the hell, Wer—that fucking hurts!”

Werner paled and released him. “I’m sorry.” He shook his head. “But we still need to maintain our cover—even with these developments.”

“‘Even with these’—” Gilbert recoiled before he gestured towards the door. “She’s hanging in there with crazypeople probably! What if the same thing that happened in the capital happens here?”

“I understand how you’re feeling. I feel the same—believe me,” Werner pressed. “But look—the closer we are to her, the better we’re able to look out for her. If things go south, then we can pull her out. But right now things are looking pretty north.”

Gilbert glowered at Werner before falling back against the wall. He ran his “That damned Geminian’s word magic makes me want to sock you sometimes, Werner.” He dropped his hand and hug his head. “She never said anything about this over the phone. I don’t get it.”

“We haven’t spoken with her in some time,” Werner agreed. “Many things have changed with you and me, Gilbert, so it’s not unexpected that things have changed for her as well.” He eyed Gilbert’s arm where his nail marks were prominent. “Does it hurt?

Gilbert shrugged, rolled down his sleeve, and rubbed his stub. “It’s fine. Just don’t want to lose another arm. Don’t worry.”

Captain…?

Werner turned to find Cadence’s image still flickering at his side. Thank you, Cadence.

Cadence offered a two-fingered salute but her concern rattled through their connection. 

Two minutes later, Werner re-entered the building with Gilbert after they further composed themselves. They were immediately greeted by Greta who offered them two cups of coffee. Werner accepted his with a smile and a two-fingered salute, while Gilbert stared. Greta stared back at him before flushing slightly.

“Is there something—”

“Dieter!” Matthias exclaimed suddenly from the central table. “Come here!”

Werner joined the man at the table alongside Gilbert. He subtly eyed the distance between Constanza and Matthias before turning his attention to what was laid out at the table. A large paper was pressed flat there and displayed what appeared to be the layout of some sort of building.

“The layout for the new diplomatic building that just finished construction earlier this week,” Matthias explained. He nodded up at Greta who was still offering coffee across the room. “Courtesy of Greta over there. She works as a medical officer for people who work in the building and managed to sketch this all up right from memory.” 

Gilbert whipped to stare at Greta then at Werner. Werner met his gaze evenly. 

Protect, protect, protect. 

Matthias barked out a loud laugh which earned him a slight glare from Constanza. “I can barely remember what I ate for breakfast, so that’s super impressive!” He cleared his throat before tapping the paper.  “A diplomat from Aquarius and a politician from Capricorn are coming here this weekend to allegedly do some more peace talks. I—for one—have doubts.”  

“The plan is to infiltrate the diplomatic building during one of these meetings and steal the notes from the meeting,” Constanza continued. “We’ll publicize whatever we find. Good or bad.”

Werner took note of the fluidity from Matthias’s sentence to Constanza’s.

“Whatever they’re talking about there, the people of our country deserve to know.” Constanza pressed her palms flat against the blueprints. “The building has very high security, but…” She glanced up at Werner. “…with a conducting-type like yours, we might be able to slip through the first layer.”

Werner looked across the table at Gilbert then side-glanced at Greta who’d joined them at the opposite side of the table.

Protect, protect, protect, protect—

But protect who? Gilbert? Greta? The other five? It was contradictory. It was impossible to do it all.

“Are you all in?” Matthias asked, extending a hand. “We’re going to try to do it as peacefully as possible. We aren’t the Augen.”

A pause of silence.

“We all lost people during the Week of Blindness,” Constanza added. 

Murmurs of agreement resounded.

“I had an uncle in the capital during the Week of Blindness,” one of the gathered men interjected suddenly. “A damned ELPIS whack job—a Specialist—just… wiped him off the face of Capricorn. Didn’t even have a damned body left to bury.”

Guilt curled in Werner’s stomach.

“Well?” Constanza pressed as Matthias extended his hand further.

“I didn’t join this movement just to sit around,” Werner replied, finally taking up the gesture. “Count me in.”

No, he could do it. He would do it. He needed to do it.

* * *

Upon briefing Kramer and Knovak on the developments of the ACC meeting—minus the encounter with Greta—Werner gathered together with those two, Gilbert, and Nico in the inn lobby to quietly plan their next steps.

“This is an opportune moment to turn the ACC over to our countries,” Kramer reasoned. “

“But we’ll lose the True Conductors,” Gilbert interjected hastily, tense as he glanced over at Werner. “Bad idea.”

Nico glanced between them both in confusion.

This infiltration thing might just be another run of the mill ‘test’—so to speak,” Werner drew calmly, head pounding. His head had been pounding all day. “I don’t believe reporting it at this time is the best course of action. We may just be scraping the surface of the ACC. Concluding without enough evidence that Constanza and Matthias are the True Conductors we’re looking for would be an error with high consequences.” He paused, ruminating. “There’s also the fact that we haven’t found the source of the ACC’s chlorowheat yet or if there’s a larger source. There’s no point in recklessness.”

“The chlorowheat…” Knovak muttered. “You say it stops conducting.”

Werner nodded.

“Otto—” Nico swallowed then eyed Gilbert and Werner. “I mean—the peacekeeper wanted us to keep an eye out on any chlorowheat developments too, right? Since there’s been a problem with it recently?” 

Playing along. Good.

Werner nodded again.

“So what are you suggesting?” Kramer pressed. “That you’re going to follow through with this plan?”

Werner nodded. “It’s a necessary measure. We’ll report everything to our peacekeeping contact, of course. I’ll take full responsibility for whatever happens.”

With that they concluded their meeting and headed back to their rooms. As soon as the lights were off and Werner closed his eyes in bed, however, Otto visited him again. His ghostly visage crept around Werner’s bed, hovered over his face, clawed at his face, clung to his body. Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock–

Werner woke up in cold sweat. He checked his pocket watch. Only 0230 hours on the mark. The others were beginning to stir from rest due to the weight of his dreams—Werner could feel that. And that was unacceptable. It would hinder their daily performance. So, he opted to rise and start his day five hours early. 

He headed to the lobby dining area and was surprised to find it already occupied by another person. Nikita Knovak was sitting at the middle table there whittling away a piece of wood with a small conducting blade. He glanced up at Werner dismissively but then paused and stared.

“You… don’t look good, Capricornian…”

Werner didn’t respond and instead poured himself a cup of coffee from the island serving table at the center of the room. After momentary hesitation, he seated himself across the table from Knovak. 

Knovak stared at him and then at his neck where Werner presumed Scorpio’s mark was crawling again. “So.” The man deactivated his conducting blade and set it down on the table alongside the wood piece he was whittling away at. It was a bird of all things. “You killed a lot of my comrades, no? And then you—or your other person—saved my life. Then we were captured. Worked together. Then thrown into this hand-holding thing because of that.”

“I would like to apologize but doing that wouldn’t achieve anything. When we picked up our conductors under military order, we understood what we were agreeing to do. You’ve killed some of my men yourself. And now, like you said, we’re working together. There’s no room for interpretation here.”

Knovak grunted and remained silent for some time. Finally, he asked, “You know Mladen?” 

“An ELPIS Leader named Pi was initiated into him,” Werner explained. That information wasn’t dangerous sharing.

“Fuck.” Knovak tapped the wood piece against the table. “And he’s still alive? This Pi?” 

Werner swept the empty room with his eyes. “In a sense.”

“What about Mladen’s family?” Knovak continued. “He joined peacekeeper for them. Don’t they deserve to know what happened to him?”

Memories of his encounter with Otto’s parents flooded Werner’s mind. Their venomous words paired with their agonized sobs thundered loudly despite them being an echo of a memory. Tensing, he set down his coffee cup. “It’s unfortunate, but Mladen’s circumstances is surrounded heavily by ELPIS. If they ever did find out what really happened to him, they may end up detained. In this case, ignorance is best.”

“Better to know he dead then have—”

“—false hope,” Werner concluded.

“This place is fucking messed up,” Knovak muttered. “We serve. We protect. We are used.” He shook his head, sighed, collected his items, and rose from his chair. “I’m sleeping. You should too.”

Werner watched him go and continued to remain sitting there sipping his coffee. Around 0739 hours, Maria stirred from sleep and immediately synchronized in with him. Her surroundings were glowing with a warm, golden haze, and he could faintly see the sun peeking out on the sea’s horizon from her end of things. It appeared as if she was watching the sun rise.

“Werner!” Maria greeted him, arms thrown up high. She inspected him for a beat and fell into a crouch in front of him, still smiling. 

Good morning, he greeted her.

“Did you not sleep?” she pried. “I do love seeing things, yes? But I also like sleeping from time-to-time. I don’t dream, but it is still worth it, no? Olive enjoys sleeping, yes? So does Cadence?” She reached out abruptly and cupped her hands around his face. He stiffened at the intimate gesture. “You should only do things you enjoy, no, Werner?” 

In moderation, he replied.

Maria’s bright smile dimmed slightly. It was a rather unnerving sight. She drew quietly after a hum, “I do appreciate you, my dear Werner. You are one of my precious treasures, yes? You are filled with this ‘protect,’ but I will protect you too, no? We will share in this ‘protect’!”

Ridiculous and nonsensical as always. However—

Werner allowed himself to briefly close his eyes and rest into her hands. When he opened his eyes and checked his watch, it was 0945 hours.

* * *

At the end of the week, the ACC infiltration operation commenced. With Cadence’s assistance, Werner disguised himself as the secretary—a tall and lanky Aquarian young man who had a liking for striped ties—of the event planner. The actual secretary was temporarily taken out of commission by a unit that Gilbert was a part of. They—as Cadence put it—did it Twin Cities-style by inebriating the secretary to the point of black-out drunkenness late into the night before the operation. 

The diplomatic building was tucked away behind a wrought iron gate that kept intruders and protesters out of its contained premises. The building itself was marble white and almost completely blended in with the surrounding snow. Seeing as it was a new structure, its pristineness was unsurprising.

The operation was a simple enter, retrieve, hand off, and exit. The extra middle steps were put in place due to the tight security around the building. Security was stricter than normal due to the presence of protestors, so it was required that every individual who entered the building showed a form of ID and logged their entry time as well as their expected exit time. If a person did not sign out at their logged time or if they did not update their expected exit time, the building would be thoroughly swept by security and a full investigation would be launched. While Werner admired the fastidiousness of these measures, at the moment they served as a barrier to him.

The second layer of security was that all papers were confiscated from office workers before they left the premises of the building. These papers would be handed to another secretary tasked with ensuring that the files were stored safely away in the main documentation archives. This particular secretary was named Franz Seiden, and it was who Matthias was currently disguised as through the use of Werner’s proto-conducting rings.

After Werner passed through security as planned with a disguised Matthias, they headed through the main hall. The building’s halls were floored with marble and lined with white pillars that were gothic in design. In-between the pillars were exposed panels of metal piping and insulation cables indicating the building was still not quite at its final construction stage. Faintly in the background, Werner could hear the faint ringing of telephones reminiscent of his office back in the capital.

As Werner headed up the main carpeted stairs with Matthias where they were to diverge into the east and west wings of the building, Matthias collided with an older man descending the steps beside them.

“Excuse me, sir,” Matthias muttered, dipping his head slightly. “Sorry that I—” His voice faltered and his eyes widened.

Werner glanced over at him and followed his gaze before he too froze stiffly and stared.

Acting Kaiser General Watzmann stood before them proud and tall—dressed in his crisp military overcoat yet wearing a business suit inside of it. Beside him stood another older man with a curling mustache who looked vaguely familiar.

“That’s the premier,” Matthias whispered beside him. 

Aquarian Premier Onisim Tarasov. The acting head of Aquarius. 

This was no simple diplomatic meeting. 

General Watzmann returned Matthias’s stare. “Is there something the matter, Franz? I haven’t seen you around recently. Late nights at the office?”

Watzmann was familiar with the man who Matthias was disguised as, indicating that the general had been here for quite some time unbeknownst to the public eye.

This was getting sticky. Cadence, hovering ever so slightly.

Agreed.

“Franz?” the general pressed.

A cool brush of wind tickled the back of Werner’s neck. The familiarity of the airflow gave him pause, and his senses sharpened.

Clink. Clink. Clink. Clink.

Werner tensed at the familiar sound and turned his attention to a stack of wooden crates that were being transported through the lower hall. It looked as if it was full of old wooden construction material—some of which was deep black in color. It was a deep black that abruptly burst out into blinding pale tangerine light. A gate.

The wooden crates exploded open as three figures flew out from the gate. The wreckage of wood and dust caught their shapes in the wind, and Werner was just barely able to make them out in the dust cloud.

Iota was standing there against Rho and a young man dressed in a Monadic priest’s garb. In the man’s hand was a glowing vitae blade. Nu—newly initiated once more, most likely.

At the sight of Rho and Nu, Werner’s chest seized and simmered with fury. 

It was them. The ones following the one. They don’t deserve to be aliv—

Jericho neared him, pulling on their connection. With difficulty, Werner held him at bay. He was conductor-less and without back-up. He was in no position to engage. Doing so would simply endanger Matthias and the others.

Werner. Sorry—

Shouts of alarm resounded as the dust cleared and Iota’s manipulated glowing white chains rose up high before crashing down onto Rho and Nu. They swept through the hall without care and discrimination, knocking several suited men and women off their feet and sending them flying into opposite walls.

“General, Premier, this way!”

Werner turned to find General Watzmann and the Aquarian premiere being led up the stairwell by half a dozen suited men. He tore his attention away from the world leaders to find Matthias looking between the ELPIS leaders and the former group.

“What in the world—” 

Werner grabbed a hold of Matthias’s shoulder.  “We need to abandon the operation,” he ordered tersely. “And recommence it at a different date—”

“But—” 

Clink, clink—crack!

Werner launched himself at Matthias and shoved the man aside as a body flew up at them from below—flung by Iota’s whipping chains. The body slammed against the wall behind them before hitting the ground with a thud. Werner stared at the unmoving figure.

Protect, protect, protect.

He quickly made his way to the figure’s side and checked the woman’s pulse. Still alive. He then moved to pull the woman’s pistol from her belt and surveyed the battle at the foot of the stairs. At some point, a female security guard clad in only a suit and wielding what appeared to be a conjured gun had opened fire on Iota, drawing his attention away from Nu. Iota moved towards the security guard now after quickly swiping away the gun in her hands with his chains.

Werner tensed at this sight as he tightened his grip on the pistol. He knew there was no point in engaging in needless combat here. It would draw unneeded attention—

Protect, protect, protect. 

The pulsating desire was intense and maddening. An itch that needed to be scratched.

Werner. Atienna appeared kneeling before Werner then, her gaze boring into him. She reached out and held his face in her hands. You need to get out of here. They’re not a priority. Getting involved will simply—

Yes, that was logical. Werner knew that. If this had been a year ago—no, several months ago—he would’ve made the rational choice to escape with only a moment’s hesitation. But now—

PROTECT. PROTECT. PROTECT.

Werner stared over Atienna’s shoulder as her eyes widened. Behind her, Iota continued to approach the security guard who was now backed up against the wall with his chains rising in the air like a viper ready to strike.

Before Werner could comprehend his actions, he was aiming his pistol at Iota, lining up his shot, and firing. Atienna disappeared as he did so, enabling him to clearly focus on the trajectory of his bullet. It whistled forward towards Iota’s head, but the man immediately flicked his wrist and brought his chains down just in time to deflect it. However, Werner had been expecting this. The bullet ricocheted off of his mediums and hit the exposed piping to his left.

The piping exploded, releasing a burst of hot steam that flooded the floor. Through the smog, Werner was able to see the security guard escaping. The smog would also serve to temporarily deter Rho’s conducting, he reasoned.

Only a second after Werner finished his thought, white chains shot out at him from the steam—as expected. He easily dodged to the side as did Matthias. The chains, however, then swept towards Matthias knocking him right off his feet before retracting back into the dust cloud below. Matthias subsequently cracked his head against a step and remained motionless.

Tensing, Werner darted over to his side and turned him over. He was bleeding from the temple and groaning. Werner shook the man gently. Nothing but a groan.

Protect, protect, protect.

Werner looped Matthias’s arm over his shoulder and struggled up to a stand. He prepared to move forward before he spotted the woman from earlier still lying motionless a step away.

Protect. Protect. Protect.

With effort, he pulled her over his shoulder too and began the struggle up the right side of the stairs as the echo of clashing chains and the whipping vitae blade echoed below him. Eventually, he reached the upper right wing.

The left side of the hall was dotted with clear windows that let in the white light of morning. The right side of the hall, on the other hand, was open and wall-less allowing Werner to see the battle rumbling below. 

In and out from the dusty steam came Iota and Nu. Chains flying left, right, thirty degrees up, eighty degrees up. Every five seconds, Nu’s conducting blade would swing out and dismember one of the protruding links. That much Werner could see clearly. The question was what he couldn’t see.

As he continued down the hall in search of an exit, his strength eventually gave way and he temporarily set the woman and Matthias down to catch his breath. Immediately after, he registered a cloud of glowing white steam and smog crawling on towards him from down the hall. Before he could fully rise to a stand, the steam brushed against his gloved hand. Immediately, he felt a sharp pain. A second after, his hand began to flicker with indigo light and the light itself began to melt away—this pattern continued all the way up his arm down to the rest of his body. In the blink of an eye, Cadence’s transmutation was undone.

Werner lunged for the woman and pulled her away from the mist just as it skirted her hair. He pulled her and Matthias as far as he could away from the mist before he snapped his fingers and reactivated the transmutation. 

A figure was blocking his way—staring at him with wide eyes. A woman. Mousy brown hair. Red crosses on the lapels of her blouse. Greta.

Werner tensed. Had she seen? Either way, that was secondary to the pressing issue—

“Werner?!” Greta gasped in shock. “Why are you—”

Werner rushed over to her side, clamped her hand over his mouth, and pressed a finger to his lips. Greta’s eyes widened and something akin to hurt crossed her face. Then, she nodded.

Protect. Protect. Protect.

Werner grabbed hold of the groaning Matthias again and looped the man’s arm over his shoulder once more before starting to reach for the unconscious woman. Greta held out a hand and took the woman’s other arm instead. She locked eyes with Werner. 

“Follow me,” she said. “I know another way out.”

After exchanging a nod, they moved forward through the dust cloud as the building rumbled around them. Every so often, a glowing white chain would shoot over their heads and pierce through the ceiling above their heads. Rubble would rain down, but they continued to press forward. 

Eventually they reached the end of the hall where a doorway clearly led to a descending spiraling stairwell. As they neared it however a loud clink-clinking, resonated through the air. Werner just barely managed to jerk Greta back before a figure crashed into the wall right in front of the exit.

It took ten seconds for the cloud of rubble and dust to clear around the figure, but Werner clearly identified the glowing blade in their left hand and the pulsating chains wrapped around their right. Nu.

Greta shivered beside him. “ELPIS…”

ELPIS. Nu. Connected to Alpha. The one. But—

With a flick of his wrist, Nu severed the manipulated chains from his wrist and turned to face them. His eyes narrowed at the conducting glove on Greta’s left hand.

—Werner. You should escape. Safer.

Werner tensed at this and then found his gaze drawn to the windows at his left. His heart quickened with excitement a second after, and the moment after that saw him to flinging himself, Greta, Matthias, and the unnamed woman out the window.

As soon as the glass shattered at Werner’s elbow, he was greeted with cold, whipping air and a blinding skyline. A second later, they were all tumbling down, down, down—

In an eruption of white, they landed in a thick pile of snow just below. Despite the cushion, the impact still jarred Werner. But the cold numbed the pain. 

A risk, he thought as he wiped the snow from his face. But thank you.

Werner clambered out of the pile before helping Greta down as well. She stared at him with a bewildered expression but quickly moved to help him drag the woman and Matthias out from the snow. After hoisting the two up on their shoulders, they staggered their way through the open snow alongside a cluster of other panicking men and women. 

Eventually they made their way past the gates and to the backside of a nearby bar. They rested Matthias and the woman against the wall of the house before sinking beside each other on the snow. 

They sat for a long while in silence.

“Are you alright?” Werner finally asked, the buzz at the back of his head now a constant.

Greta met his gaze and glanced away. She nodded. “And you? Do you need any healing?”

“I’m fine, Greta,” he replied. “Thank you.” 

“Is…” Greta tried. “Is he with you…?”

Gilbert.

Werner nodded.

Greta looked over him again, her lips parting, but before she could say anything more, Matthias startled violently with a yelp. Werner tensed while Greta jumped. The man quickly surveyed the area in confusion before staring wide-eyed at Werner.

“….You saved my life, Dieter.” Matthias let out a sigh before falling flat on his back. He swore in Aquarian before closing his eyes. After a beat, he pushed himself up to a sit and stared into the distance. 

Werner followed the man’s gaze and found the diplomacy building smoking out from its rooftop. An ironic and perhaps symbolic metaphor. Whether to feel somber or amused—

 “What’s happening to the world?” Matthias grumbled. “Don’t people know about love and peace anymore?”

The latter few words rang through Werner’s mind and stirred something cloudy and distance. 

Werner held Greta’s tense gaze for several moments before he turned and regarded Matthias. “I doubt even the people who lived in peace in the past even know what it is… don’t you think?”

Greta studied him, brows knitting in confusion. Werner’s palms itched at the sight.

Matthias let out another long, pitiful sigh. “I owe you my life, Werner! I’ll remember this—I swear it!”

Werner regarded him.

Protect. Protect. Protect.

You only met him just recently, a voice whispered at the back of his head. There’s no need to protect him. You can’t. You need to turn him in—

Protect. Protect. Protect.

* * *

As expected, the ELPIS Investigations Department arrived only two days later. 

“A little late, isn’t it?” Gilbert had grumbled. “I heard those ELPIS whackos disappeared right after they came.” He’d paused, then added, “No offense to Glasses on both accounts. He’s good.”

Despite their tardiness, the ELPIS Department ran a thorough investigation of the area and locked down all public meeting areas and prohibited large gatherings. This made it impossible for ACC meetings of any level—or so Werner deduced—to be held. It also made it impossible to find where Greta had gone off to after they’d lost each other in the chaos of the crowd following ELPIS’s appearance. 

Gilbert was noticeably agitated by this. Werner admittedly was worried himself. And so, they used their newly allotted free-time to weave through the town to search for her whereabouts. The most they were able to find was that Greta had been transferred to this town one month prior while the diplomatic building was being constructed. She hadn’t told either of them this which was surprising. In the end, their search was fruitless.

Their peacekeeping contact requested them to lay low for the time being to allow the ELPIS Department to complete their investigation. Idle time once more.

Much to Werner’s surprise, however, only three days after ELPIS’s appearance in the diplomatic building, Matthias swung by the inn. Werner and the others all had to quickly don proto-conducting rings to greet him—Nico and Knovak opted to hide—and listened to his excited chatter about scouring the town to find them. He then proceeded to invite Dieter—and only Dieter—to his house for dinner.

“I have something that’ll blow your mind,” Matthias insisted.

Nico, Gilbert, and Kramer objected understandably on this front, but Werner reasoned there was opportunity here. Opportunity: gain deeper access to the ACC, investigate Matthias, more discreetly define the suspected True Conductors, develop further understanding on the influence of chlorowheat on the ACC, and—

“Greta might be there,” Werner had whispered to Gilbert later.

With reluctance, Gilbert nodded.

* * *

Matthias’s place of residence was small and reserved for someone of Matthias’s personality—or so Werner thought. There were barely any decorations up along the wooden walls, and the kitchen area at the entrance only looked like it had enough plates, utensils, and rooms for one person. As Matthias chattered animatedly about how ‘cool’ Werner had seemed back in the diplomatic building, he began to lead Werner to his basement hidden behind a red door.

As they descended, a familiar scent reached Werner’s senses, causing him to stop short at the foot of the steps. And all too familiar smoke was curling along the bottom of the floor there.

“Excuse me,” Werner said quickly. “Could you direct me to the bathroom?”

Matthias obliged and led him into a small bathroom on the first floor. Inside, Werner faced Dieter’s reflection in the tiny mirror.

Captain… Cadence’s anxiety seeped through their connection, straining on Werner’s already taut nerves. She appeared before him so strongly that he could see every detail of her surroundings—Francis’s exitless room, Mateo and Kent at her feet, Francis sitting in front of her reading them all a book.

Werner reached into his pocket and pried out the extra proto-conducting ring he’d stored there for emergencies. He quickly filled it with his vitae before removing the conducting rings already on his finger. The appearance of Dieter disappeared for a moment before it reappeared as he slid on the proto-conducting rings. 

Captain, Cadence pressed, ghostly hand gripping his wrist tightly. Are ya gonna—

It’s only temporary, Werner reassured her. At the rate things are developing, we’ll all be exposed to chlorowheat at some point. I need to find these True Conductors quickly and get to the bottom of the chlorowheat. There might be a connection to Alpha here.

Cadence’s shoulders tightened, but her expression remained impassive. Werner, I believe in ya—I really do, but—

He reached out a hand and placed it on top of her head. I’ll see you soon.

With that, he exited the bathroom and descended into the basement. The misty fog surrounded him in an instant and a sleepy haze came afterwards. The others were still buzzing at the back of his mind, however—peering in with concern, anxiousness. Werner accepted their concerns but pushed them aside as he surveyed the room. The walls were covered in deep red satin. Blue mesh drapes hung around the central chandelier that sprinkled out green light. In the haze of the chlorowheat, almost all these colors were lost. 

Lounging on the red sofa there was Constanza and Milkovich. Matthias was sitting opposite of Constanza. There were several other familiar faces present, but none of them were Greta. In the hands of everyone present were long black pipes that streamed out steady smoke.

Eyes glazed, Matthias beckoned him with a lazy finger.

Tense, Werner seated himself in-between Matthias and Constanza. The latter held out a pipe for him. With great effort—as Cadence’s fear, Olive’s reluctance, and Atienna’s apprehension filled him—Werner accepted it.

“Attaboy,” Milkovich mumbled from beside him.

“Where did you get this from?” Werner tried with a laugh as he inspected the pipe. “It doesn’t look like morrowheat at all.”

“That’s because it’s not. And I got it from a good business partner. Think of it as a big thank you,” Matthias replied, taking a puff. “Funny thing is that this thing has weird effects on conducting. Useful in that regard. Also good for recruitment because it’s so… good.”

Constanza nodded at him. “Try.”

Again, the other five whispered at the back of his mind compelling him to stop and reconsider. But he knew what he was doing. This was necessary. And he was in control of the situation. It was only once.

Werner pressed his lips to the mouth of the pipe and took a long drag. He held it in for exactly fifteen seconds before releasing it. He watched as the smoke curled up into the air and mixed in with the thick haze. Letting out a quiet sigh, he fell back onto the sofa and closed his eyes.

Only then did the other five completely fade from his mind. Along with them went the pounding protect, protect, protect. It was almost as if they were never present in the first place.

“You know how to hold your chlorowheat…” Matthias noted. “Anyways, Milkovich here was just about to tell us a story from the war…”

Werner was only half listening as all the tension in his shoulders eased away in a pleasantly familiar fashion. A sense of calm resonated out from his chest as he took another drag, and it slowly enveloped him in a blanket of euphoria.

No more Otto. No more ELPIS. No more Scorpio. No protect, protect, protect. The weight of the pocket watch hanging at his chest was gone too. Nothing existed here except absolute, wonderful, controlled silence. 

24.2: The Swindler & Candidate in Blanca Light

Re-cap:

Cadence continues her search for the children that were swept away by Alpha, Rho, and Nu. During her search accompanied by Francis, Fortuna, and Maximallian, she encounters another ELPIS Leader named Epsilon who was initiated into Ambrose Campana. Epsilon has the ability to extract the memories stored in vitae and pass it onto others. Their search so far has been fruitless with only an odd poem serving as a clue.

In the background, Francis still remains unaware that the Romano family ships that Alpha stole were full of chlorowheat that his brothers were shipping for the Romanos. Chlorowheat itself continues its circulation.

(      )

“Where’s Ambrose?”

Cadence had difficulty tearing her eyes away from the book in her hands. The novel was some fairy tale about some silk-weaver princess being romanced by a common cowherd traveling through her countryside. The reading level was a bit harder than what Cadence was normally used to but it wasn’t so bad. Why in the world Francis had recommended it—she had no clue. He called it more of a tragedy than a romance and ‘a good teacher in all matters of love,’ but Cadence couldn’t quite see his perspective yet. That aside, she’d been knee-deep in a scene where things were getting steamy between the two main characters, so—needless to say—having an image of Ambrose pop up in the middle of the imagined scene was not the greatest.

“Huh…?”

Cadence looked up to find a crossed-arm Fortuna Romano standing in front of her. Mateo was attached to her hip. While Mateo was grinning from ear-to-ear for the first time since the others had been taken, Fortuna’s browns were knitted. 

“How can you act so relaxed with all of this?” Fortuna’s voice cut razor thin. “I’ve never understood that about you.”

“Ya think I’m relaxin’?” Cadence chortled. “I’m just destressin’ from our meetin’ earlier.”

And what a stressful meeting that was. Following Olive’s lovely escapade in Zhūshā Chéng paired with First Chairman of the Medical Department Hårek revealing that Ophiuchus was very aware of chlorowheat popping up in indiscriminate places, Cadence decided it was time to spill the metaphorical beans. After touching point with Atienna and Werner, she’d relayed the peacekeepers’ knowledge of chlorowheat and chlorowheat’s spread into Sagittarius, Capricorn, and Aquarius.

The grim silence that fell swiftly over the private meeting attended by the Romano capos, Carl, and Allen was tense to say the least. Of course, she’d received looks of disapproval for keeping the information to herself, but she figured she could live with their disappointment. Then, after some more tension, Cavallo proposed that the Romanos pull out of the search effort. Too much risk, he said before whipping out an article that read—

AQUARIANS DISCOVERED TRESPASSING IN CANCERIAN DUCHESS RESIDENCE

CANCERIAN GOVERNMENT DEMANDS INVESTIGATION AND RESPONSE FROM AQUARIAN GOVERNMENT. ACCUSATION OF SPIES. OPHIUCHUS’S INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS DIVISION CALLED IN.

Profit appearing elsewhere, he added. People were going to be all over modified-conductors soon, he insisted. It was time to return to the original business.

Needless to say, Carl nearly flipped the table over on him. Fortuna didn’t seem to fancy the idea much either, since she’d spent the entire time frowning at Cavallo. Cadence waited for the right moment to step in and highlight how dangerous Scorpio was and added some slightly dramatic hand-waving paired with some sincere expressions of fear. When Cavallo alone still didn’t budge, Cadence brought up the old possibility of convincing Francis to have Epsilon marry Fortuna thereby finally uniting the Romano and Campana Family. This lure, Cavallo swallowed whole. It was what he wanted in the beginning, after all. Best to play with known cards.

In present time, Cadence tapped her book on her head as she pulled out of the memory. She arched a brow at Fortuna who was still standing in front of her, then asked, “I mean, things are in good books on your end, ain’t they? If ya don’t get the chlorowheat, ya can still wipe your hands clean and marry Epsi and dance in the metaphorical Campana inheritance.”

Epsi, oh, Epsi—though Fortuna kept referring to him as ‘Epsilon’. Even if Fortuna didn’t blatantly show it, it was clear that she had some sort of attachment to the Campana. Cadence frankly didn’t see Ambrose’s charm but she supposed that was fair since Fortuna’d never seen Alma’s charm either. 

“So how exactly are you going to convince Ambrose to accept this proposal?” Fortuna asked, glancing down at Mateo. “I don’t have any doubts on your ability which is why I argued for you against the others, but my patience is another story.” She sighed. “Where are Pi and Maximallian? I don’t have time to be watching over this child.”

 “Resting probably. On break?” Cadence shrugged. “And Epsi—he’s probably with Francis or somethin’.” 

Fortuna’s eyes narrowed.

“It’s Francis, Fortuna. Besides, it’s good Francis is stretchin’ out and hangin’ with people other than just Pi and the kids.”

“Other people? Like that peacekeeper of yours?” Fortuna arched a brow. “The odd one?” Her eyes narrowed. “The one who you said had bleached vitae—”

“Hey. The detective’s good.” Cadence felt a downwards tug on her lips. “That really what’s eatin’ ya up?”

“Yes, well, I get nervous whenever Francis’s around other ELPIS members,” Fortuna replied thickly. “Former or not. I’m not sure if you’ve forgotten already, but I spent almost an entire month in this place.”

Cadence tapped her book on her knee in thought. “What? Ya… wanna talk about it?”

Fortuna arched a brow. “What?” 

“Ya know. About what happened back then. Or in general.”

Fortuna’s brows knitted. “What. Are you sharing your mind with a psychologist now?”

“The exact opposite actually,” Cadence noted nonchalantly. “If anything, we could use one, but there’s an 80-20 chance that Doctor Scorpio’s just gonna show up with a bouquet of flowers … not a great date.” She cleared her throat at Fortuna’s arched brow and pressed, “I mean, when’s the last time we sat down and talked, Fortuna?”

“When we were kids and had time to talk about things that didn’t matter.”

Cadence gestured to the open seat on the sofa beside her. Begrudgingly, Fortuna sat down next to her while balancing Mateo precariously on her lap. Mateo immediately shimmied his way over to Cadence’s lap instead. The favorite was clear. Fortuna startlingly looked a bit bothered by the fact.

“If ya can’t find Pi and Max, ya could always ring in ‘Tilda to have her watch over him,” Cadence suggested before trying, “She reminds me of you when you were younger. ‘Tilda, I mean.”

“Except she’s built her empire with her own two hands,” Fortuna replied, studying Mateo. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not ashamed that this power was handed to me. There’s no point in being ashamed.”

What mattered was how you used it, right? At least, that was what Olive told Claire in Zhūshā Cheng.

 “I’ll certainly make it my own and use it.” Fortuna leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms. “Money and power. Without them, you have nothing. You’re just an ant beneath someone else’s domineering boot. That’s the rule in the city.” She peered at Cadence. “But it’s like you, Allen, Carl, and Francis have forgotten about it. You and Francis especially. And who knows what Nico is doing. It’s irritating.” She looked away. “Ambrose was the only one who really understood it, but now.”

Ah, so that was what it was.

“‘Ey, I’m still all about money. Carl and Al pay a decent cens and I don’t gotta pay any rent. Livin’ rent free in this place. It’s just that what I want ta do with all that money—no power here unfortunately—is a bit different from before.”

Fortuna’s gaze trailed down to Mateo. “The more things that you have, the more you have to lose.”

“Good thing I don’t have anything.” Cadence chortled.

Fortuna frowned slightly at this before she scrutinized Mateo. “I’m assuming your investment is here, then? Investing in children—whether they’re your blood children or not—is a high gamble.”

“And you?”

“I’m the result of the rare gamble turning out well, although this situation is vexing. Everything could slip through my fingers just like that.” Her eyes narrowed before she looked away from Mateo. “I have to admit that I do feel a bit nostalgic sometimes—but it’s a pointless feeling.” She paused. “I always thought it was me, Carl, and Allen that changed the most over the years, but it was really you, Nico, and Francis.” After a beat, she said, “Since I’m humoring you right now, I’ll just add that I think what you’re doing with the children is stupid… but I guess it’s also admirable.

Cadence chortled. “Your compliments warm my heart.”

“All of our childish stupidity back then wasn’t so bad either,” Fortuna added as if an afterthought. “Though with how things are now, it feels like we’re coming full circle.” 

“Yeah…” 

* * *

Francis wasn’t answering Cadence’s requests when she used his proto-conductor to hop gates, so she ended up traversing through some backwater port in Pisces, a snowy tundra in Aquarius, and a vineyard in the countryside of Gemini before finally making it to where she wanted to go.

Upon finally entering the room she was now deeming as ‘Francis’s study’ for the lack of a better word, she found Epsilon and Francis together as expected leaning together against a glass table. Carl had convinced Francis to put it in the room months ago. What Cadence did not expect was finding Epsilon pressing his glowing glove conductor against Francis’s temple.

“Francis…?” Cadence whispered faintly. 

Francis’s closed eyes fluttered open slowly, and he turned to look at her with glassy eyes as if he was waking from a dream.

Cadence recognized that look. She’d seen it from time-to-time in the very back of the gambling dens of the city, back in those places where morrowheat was casually passed around from person to person like a bottle of wine. She’d seen it for the first time when she was just about nine years old. Right after her mother and father were gifted their first free trial run of morrowheat by a charming dealer. 

“Cadence,” Francis greeted her calmly, stirring her from the memory.

Cadence forced a chuckle as she approached the two men. “What are ya doin’ here with Epsi? Fortuna’s lookin’ everywhere for the guy.” 

Epsilon pointed to his face as a smile spit across it. “Me? The pretty, unhappy one? She’s quite young—that one. I guess”

Saints. Seeing Ambrose all giddy, happy, and Maria-like was a bit odd. Cadence was never one to judge, but it was definitely weirder than the weirdest thing she’d experienced. Which was saying something. Probably would make a lot more people comfortable if his features were just transmuted to look different or something. Nico could probably do it. He’d have a hoot and a holler maybe if he saw Ambrose like this. Nico—no. Bah. 

Cadence didn’t want to think about Nico right now. 

Francis stared through her for a beat before responding, “Epsilon was merely showing me something.” 

“Showin’ ya something?” Cadence tried in a casual tone. No need to make things dramatic. “Well, can I see too?”

“It’s nothing you need to concern yourself with,” Francis informed her flatly.

Okay. Looked like he was in one of his gloomier moods again.

“Well, can I talk ta ya in private?”

Francis seemed to consider it before nodding at Epsilon. The latter departed the room through a gate with a wave and muttered under his breath about meeting Leo again. Poor bastard. 

“Ya remember way back when we were kids, Francis?” Cadence asked as she took Epsilon’s seat.

“Relatively speaking, it wasn’t too long ago that we were children,” Francis reasoned. “Though, I suppose in a sense it feels like it’s been eighty some years.” 

“Eh, time is relative.” Cadence shrugged. “Anyways, remember back when we were around nine or somethin’—right around when I cut my hair short—you, me, Nic, and Fortuna spent the night under the bridge? I think Carl and Allen got into a fight and accidentally locked us outta the warehouse.”

“…Oh yeah.” Francis chuckled. Musically. “It was cold as hell, but we thought it’d be a good idea to sleep beneath the v-lights. Some unreproducible logic there. We all got sick after that. Al was pissed.”  

“Yeah, don’t remember that sick bit since I was fevered outta my mind. But before that. Under the bridge. We were talkin’ about growin’ up and romance. That was when ya were a bachelor for life or somethin’.” 

Francis’s expression became cloudy. 

“We all made this weird promise compromise thing, do ya remember?” Cadence continued quickly. “If we weren’t tied down by the time we were in our late twenties, we’d marry off ta each other. Me off with Nico since we were in sync. You and Fortuna ta increase profit. A business arrangement.”

His gaze sharpened. “What are you trying to get at, Cadence?”

“Epsilon. Fortuna. Married. The Campanas and Romanos joined.”

Francis opened his mouth.

Cadence held up a finger. “More guys on the ground helpin’ us to rake through for the kids. I mean, we’re already shackled down to searchin’ at night ta try ta avoid Scorpio but we’re barely makin’ any progress especially since ya haven’t gotten any luck with that poem.”

Now Francis looked even more morose than before, but Cadence waited. After a beat, the man placed a hand on his chin. “Expanding the search for the children… It’s dangerous to send so many out with Scorpio’s eyes everywhere… All it takes is one of our own to become infected…”

“I put ‘em in transmutations with proto-conductors just like I’ve been doin’ with us. Have them go through a checkpoint with Lita when they get back. Some extra steps but worth the investment, no?”

Francis ruminated. “I feel uncertain about this lie to Epsilon still… Taking advantage of him even further is…” He closed his eyes briefly. “But I do see the logic behind it. I will speak with him regarding the matter. I’m sure Maria can be even more convincing than I.” His face fell. Again. “Sorry. I shouldn’t be doing this with Epsilon when we still haven’t even gotten a clue where the kids are…”

“And what’s ‘this’ anyways?” Cadence pressed. “What was Epsi showin’ ya?”

“He was showing me better times,” Francis admitted after a pause. “He was with the both of us frequently back then—both Omicron and I—so he was showing me those warmer instances. It eases the emptiness left behind in Omicron’s absence.” 

Cadence felt her stomach twist into knots as memories from back when she’d still been living in that small apartment flat with her mother and mother flooded her mind. “Hey, hey, Francis, I don’t say this enough—well, at all—but you, Carl, and Allen are like—”

“You view us as family. Yes, you told me on top of the Dioscuri on that night. Maria reminded me of the fact once again rather recently.”

Cadence arched a brow, internally relieved at the shift in conversation. “Yeah, and ya said ‘poor thing.’ What was that about?” 

“It was in reference to how people seek shelter and family outside of their blood family. The first social bond formed is one that is not carefully protected and kept.” Francis mumbled something into his hand. “Is it not customary for you to seek shelter with your blood family first and foremost?”

“Depends really on how much you’ve won the family lottery…” Cadence replied. “Well, anyways, all in all, I mean what I said about the family bit. Doesn’t matter if ya don’t feel the same. I’m here—”

“Of course I feel the same, Cadence,” Francis interjected. “Make no mistake.”

Bah. His words—feigned or not—made her feel giddy inside. Maybe they weren’t feigned though. Francis was awfully honest now, after all. Huh. Turned out Maria was right about things being said out loud. Made things better.

Francis’s brows suddenly furrowed and he held his head.

“What is it?”

“Many of my gates have been opened in tandem lately without the travelers asking to be sent to specific locations. There are so many being opened at once that I can’t tell who’s using them and where they’re being used.”

Cadence blanched. “Ya didn’t give your proto-conductors ta any weirdos, did ya?”

“No, of course not.” He lowered his hand. “Gamma must be planning something while trying to hide his movements from me…”

Discomfort squirmed in Cadence’s chest at the statement. It wasn’t right. Working with Gamma—

“Don’t worry about it,” Francis said. “I’ll handle it.”

Cadence had said that many times herself before, and she never really had a handle on ‘it’. Especially when it came to Alma. Thinking about this, she sat in silence for a little while longer with him before she muttered half-heartedly, “Say, Francis, what do ya think Alma is doin’ with a guy like that?”

“You mean Enzo or Alpha?”

Ouch. Talk about a slap to the face. 

“Literally speaking, I’m assuming both men are using her and perhaps she is using them in turn,” Francis reasoned. “I believe Alpha has been bypassing the issue with our fleeting memories being stored as vitae in the resistors by using Epsilon’s conducting to continuously transfer new vitae and memories into himself every time he is initiated. To do this, he would need an individual whose vitae is not bleached to be witness to his acts. I believe that is what Alma—and perhaps even Enzo if he is with her—is serving as.”

Cadence’s heart fluttered. “But what does she get out of it?”

“Only Alma would know,” Francis replied gently. “As for thought and moral reasoning…” He hummed in thought. “Due to their history and desires, people are drawn like moths to a flame. In the end, they are either warmed by the pursuits of their desires or are consumed by them. Oftentimes, the end result isn’t even needed—merely the call of that warmth and light. The question is—what is the balance between how much of that attraction is their own responsibility and how much of it is due to their circumstances and nature.”

* * *

Southern Region, Gemini

As per usual, Jericho came on by an hour past midnight. He greeted all the executives from Fortuna and Bendetto to Carl and Allen as he normally would—stiff wave and all. He tried to go for a couple of handshakes, but was declined by everyone except for Carl and Bendetto. Cadence urged him not to worry about formalities, but he insisted.

Their search for the night was through southern Gemini near its watery border with Leo, while a smaller group of Romano men was sent to southern Leo for a test run. Meanwhile, Maria took up the rivers running through the middle of Leo with Andres and Conta. Now that was an expedition. Maria’s whole spiel with Conta and Veles had definitely been a headache. 

That aside, Fortuna and Maximallian tagged along with Cadence herself, Jericho, and Francis in transmuted disguises as per usual. Cadence honestly didn’t see the point of it. As they wandered together through the small, rustic towns that dotted the cool countryside of Gemini, Jericho nearly spoke her thoughts out loud. Thankfully, she managed to stop him before any damage could be done.

Southern Gemini was a network of rolling vineyards dotted with small towns resembling the west side of the Twin Cities. Cadence had never been out this far from the central hub of Gemini before, so she’d been surprised about the idyllic atmosphere of the towns they stopped by. She began to wonder how different life would be if she, Nico, the Foxmans, and Fortuna had grown up in this area instead. What if the other kids had? But there wasn’t any point imagining ‘what if’s. She had to focus on reality. 

Soon four hours went by with the locals at every other town shrugging their shoulders at her probing questions. Kids? What kids? No, nothing ever happens in these parts. What’s this about a group of kids? A man with an eyepatch? Why is your friend staring at me like that—in reference to Jericho—and so on.

Once dawn began to peak up on the horizon, Fortuna decided it was time to head back. And head back they did with hanging heads. Cadence tried her best to alleviate the gloom with reassurances and cracking a joke here and there. Morale and whatnot. Aka, the thing Werner had once said was ‘unnecessary’ and ‘didn’t need to be accounted for.’ Funny how things had changed.

Eventually, they neared one of Francis’s nearby gates that was buried in the heart of a vineyard owned by an old timer who enjoyed strolling through his property in the starlight. Cadence had to transmute a disguise of invisibility over their original disguises to slip past the old man, but it wasn’t too hard of a job.

Once they reached a thick growth of vine under which the earth was stained black, Francis knelt to the ground and reached out with his glove conductor. Then Cadence felt something stirring on Maria’s end. Conta. It seemed like she was departing Maria’s side again without warning. She tended to do that a lot. Ironically. 

“Hey.” Cadence jerked her head at Francis. “Conta’s about ta ask ya ta open a gate I think.”

Francis nodded, pressed his hand against the dark earth, and watched as it burned a pale tangerine.  “She wished to return to Lamendos temporarily…”

“Lamendos?”

Francis opened his mouth to respond as the light from the gate dimmed, but frowned a second after. He placed his hand over the area again and it burned bright once more. Conta appeared immediately there, half emerged from the gate. Maximilian who’d been idly inspecting the grape vines, nearly leapt a meter at her arrival.

Conta scanned their faces—their disguises—with confusion before focusing on Francis. “Theta?”

Francis nodded. “A transmuted disguise.”

“Theta,” Conta repeated, voice thin as she grabbed his wrist, “Lamendos is gone.”

Without elaborating further, she pulled him through the gate. Cadence exchanged a look with Jericho a second after.

Wait—

But the peacekeeper was already leaping through the gate. Cadence ruffled her hair in exasperation, glanced at Fortuna who was shaking her head no, before she stepped into the gate after them.

* * *

Bikakönyv Mountain Ranges, Taurus

Cadence wasn’t really sure who or what Lamendos was, but when she stepped out from the gate, she nearly fell flat forward down onto a rolling slope of jagged rock and rubble. If Jericho hadn’t grabbed her by the back of her shirt then she would’ve tumbled her way down right smack into a coma. Who knew? She might’ve chanced suddenly becoming connected with five more people.

Jericho blinked at her as he righted her onto the thin slab haphazardly jutting out from between two smaller rocks that he was somehow balancing unperturbed on. “Is that a joke?”

Cadence yelped as she lost her footing again and clung to him. “Yes, it was—saints! Don’t move!”

“Okay.” He rested an arm around her shoulder and held her. 

Cadence let out a breathy sigh and allowed her eyes to adjust to the dim starlight twinkling down from the sky. She was standing at the very top of what looked like a crater. Rugged pieces of sharp rock erupted from the ground—all white in the starlight like broken piano keys. It looked like some giant had brought their fist down on the entire place. Bah. She’d been reading too many fiction books lately.

Earthquake?

No. Intuition. Conductors. Jericho’s grip on her shoulder tightened. No. Him. Them. 

Just below her, Cadence spied Francis and Conta standing together on another protruding piece of rock. While Conta was looking down at the destruction with indifference, Francis had a forlorn look bringing down his brow.  

A gust of wind tickled Cadence’s neck, and she turned to find Fortuna and Maximallian emerging from the gate a slab above her. The two fortunately caught themselves before they plummeted to their deaths and pressed back against the stone wall behind them.

“Cadence,” Fortuna drew, frowning down at her, “what is this—”

“W-Where in saint’s name did you all come from?”

Cadence whipped her head to her left to find a quartet standing just a meter away from her on a protrusion of rock that extended unnaturally from the side wall of the crater. An elder man with a balding head; a very familiar-looking woman; a very, very familiar-looking young girl; and a small figure that Cadence couldn’t quite make out tucked behind the girl and woman.

“A-Are you alright?” the elder pressed in accented Common. Taurusian, most likely. “Do you need help getting down?” He extended his hand. “My name is Miksa Arnold. I’m a Hegyi Utazók, a mountain traveler. I can help you out of this after I get these three up.”

Cadence tried a grateful smile at him to match the situation but felt her gaze drawn back to the two who stood behind him. Undeniably Wtorek Csilla and Wtorek Elizabeta, side-by-side. By how close the two stood together and the faint puffiness around their eyes, Cadence gauged they’d gone through some emotional dramatic family-related spiel. Which she could use to their advantage—

“Elizabeta,” Jericho stated in surprise before lifting his hand up in a wave. 

Cadence winced, reached out, pulled his hand down. Elizabeta, however, was already eyeing him strangely. Jericho met her gaze evenly, and only looked away when Cadence forced him to through their connection.

But Cadence. She is missing. She is an ally—

I know, I know, detective. But something’s up here. We gotta keep a low profile.

Csilla’s—Taurus’s—eyes narrowed as her gaze trailed up to the dimming light in front of Fortuna and Maximallian. “Vega.” Her gaze swept over them all. “I heard from Scorpio that your resistor was destroyed, so you can’t have been reinitiated. A transmuted disguise then?” She lifted both of her hands, and in the night darkness, russet light began to spill over her clenched fists like gloves. “Or maybe…”

Fortuna let out an audible breath at the sight of the dark russet light while Arnold took a step back away from Taurus and muttered, “What in saint’s name…” 

“Taurus.” Conta whipped out the knife at her belt and cut it across her palm. The blood that dripped from her hand straightened into spears of light in the air as she flicked her conductor-gloved hand. 

Saints, Cadence thought. Was fighting all these people knew how to do? 

As if to answer the question, Cadence felt Jericho’s grip on his suitcase tighten.

Arnold shouted and startled back even further as he ogled Conta’s vitae. “ELPIS—”

“Beta, no.” Francis held up his hand. “Not now.”

Conta froze at his command but her spears remained hanging in the air. “Theta?” She scanned his face. “What are you thinking….?”

“Theta?” parroted the small figure that had been tucked away behind Elizabeta and Taurus. “Where…?” After some struggling, the figure popped out from behind the two Wtoreks revealing themselves to be none other than—

Kent…? Cadence tried her best to suppress her relief and joy from cracking across her face. But it was difficult because—he was safe, safe, safeBut where were the others?

Francis’s relief was not as well contained and was cut clear across his face as he pressed a palm to his chest. Kent, however, squinted at all of them in confusion, clearly not seeing through their guises. 

“Do you know this man?” Elizabeta asked, placing a hand on Kent’s shoulder.

Kent hesitated and shook his head as he tucked away behind her again.

Cadence immediately knew what was going to happen next. Before she could give a warning shout, however, Francis had already pulled her proto-conducting ring from his finger and revealed his true appearance in a burst of copper light.

Arnold and Elizabeta stiffened, while Kent’s face lit up like the lights of the Dioscuri. Then the boy began to tear up and sniffle.

“I’m sorry, Theta. I—”

“It’s okay, Kent,” Francis said gently. “The important thing is that you’re safe.” He nodded at Miksa Arnold. “Mr. Arnold, you said you were a Hegyi Utazók, correct? So you’re an earth Elementalist.” Francis indicated the open space between them. “Would you mind conducting a path for Kent so he can come to us—”

“Wait a moment.” Elizabeta’s grip remained firmly planted on Kent’s shoulder as she stopped Arnold with a halting hand. “I am not handing this child over to you.”

Francis studied her. “You would be, Miss Wtorek, correct? I recognize you from—”

“Don’t talk to my mother familiarly like that,” Taurus interjected. 

Francis’s gaze shifted to her. “Would you prefer it if I were rude instead?” He studied her for a moment before his eyes softened and he said kindly, “I see you’re a child this time, Taurus. I saw you in that photo. The one Gamma kept with him.”

Taurus’s gaze narrowed. 

“Were you the one who sank Lamendos?” Francis pressed calmly. “I thought this place was as sacred to you as it was to us.”

“She came looking for her father,” Elizabeta interjected as she reached out and pulled Taurus close to her. She eyed Jericho again. “And I came looking for her. Sinking this place was the last thing on our minds.” 

What? Cadence blinked. It was pretty obvious that Elizabeta had come here for her daughter. But Taurus had come for Gamma? Why? To knock Gamma in? No, not that. It was clear by the way Taurus was reacting to Gamma’s name. Did she want to possibly meet Izsak? And instead had a heart-to-heart with her mother? Damn, that was sad, but that was also a card worth using.

Bah. Too much thinking.

All Cadence wanted right now was for Kent to be over on their side of these rocks.

“I see… Both of our paths have diverged from the course that the others around us are following,” Francis drew. “If I recall correctly, Taurus, you were one of the few who weren’t immediately settled for the syzygy in the beginning. I might be stepping out of bounds by asking this, but would you perhaps—”

“Scorpio was right,” Taurus interjected, brows raised. “Your initiation left you…” She trailed off, then shook her head. “If you’re looking for some sort of deal or agreement, I’m not interested. I’m not interested in what you’re doing here either unless you’re causing a disturbance in Signum that disrupts the syzygy. And you’re not. Alpha and my father are, and my focus is on him. That’s all.”

“You do realize how backwards what you’re saying is?” Conta lowered her gloved hand slightly and her vitae began to dim. She studied Taurus before saying thickly, “Gamma was initiated correctly. I heard from Omicron. She found him while she was fleeing from the Twin Cities to New Ram City. It was most likely Pisces who killed the man he was initiated into… That leaves you in a peculiar position.”

Izsak. 

“Even if something is burnt to the ground,” he’d said back then to Olive, “it still can be rebuilt as long as there’s at least one person willing to rebuild it.”

With difficulty, Cadence shook the memory off and tried to focus on the bigger question: Who the hell was Pisces? Another saint candidate? Ah, damn.

Taurus stiffened and her lips quivered. “But did you see him yourself?”

“Only Omicron saw,” Francis informed her quietly. 

Taurus glanced back up at him and a look of pity—of all things—folded across her face.

“For the photograph…” Elizabeta said after a beat. “You were the one who gave it to Gabrielle, right? Thank you for that.”

Francis nodded at her before inquiring, “If you’re implying that it wasn’t you who caused this, then who was it?”

“Shouldn’t that be obvious? It’s clear that you’ve been having trouble with him,” Taurus responded evenly. “It was Alpha. He came in here looking for your proto-conductors, Vega. There were children with him. And a pianist. Papa—” Her cheeks flushed briefly. “— handed some of yours over in exchange for Lambda. He mentioned something about coming to Ophiuchus.”

Cadence’s heart roared in her chest. There were children with him? Their kids? And Alma. They were alive and still with Alpha. So that meant—

Ophiuchus, Jericho cut in. They’re coming to Ophiuchus.

Francis tensed and looked towards Kent again.

“Even though I’m grateful for the photograph, I’m still not handing this child over to you,” Elizabeta said, voice thin. “I don’t know what this child has been through and what your connection with him is, but that tattoo on your face isn’t doing you any favors. Nor is your former reputation, Francis Foxman.”

“I assure you we only wish for Kent’s safety,” Francis responded, frowning.

Cadence weighed whether or not to jump into the conversation. Pros: squeeze some information out of Elizabeta— 

—‘squeeze information’? But Elizabeta was good. Nice. A ‘friend.’ Manipulating her would be wrong—

Cadence lowered Jericho’s air quotation marks and continued her thought process. Another pro: convince them to get Kent over here faster and make sure he was safe. Con: draw attention.

“You’re not going to force this boy to bleach his vitae like Alpha did with the other children,” Elizabeta pressed suddenly, “are you?”

Francis’s pleasant demeanor disappeared from his face “…What?”

Cadence’s hairs stood on end as she felt Jericho’s heart seize in his chest. The peacekeeper’s grip on her shoulder tightened, tightenedtightened

Taurus tensed, locking eyes with Cadence before her gaze swept up to Francis. “Wait, momma, don’t—”

“All of the children that were with Alpha,” Elizabeta continued. “Their vitae was bleached. I’m aware that you’re separate from my husband and this ‘Alpha,’ but you understand where I’m coming from after what I saw down there.”

Francis’s hand dropped to his side.

The dots connected inside Cadence’s head. Alpha. The children in Leo and Gemini. Ophiuchus. A small army of—

An eruption of fiery range snapped out from Cadence’s chest to the tips of her fingers. She clenched her fists as she was met with an onslaught of visions—memories—

First, standing before a man with a blurred face as he extended his hand and asked, “Don’t you want to bring hope and freedom to everyone? It’s what Theta would’ve wanted.”

Then, standing at the center of a village in flames as her friends bisected father, mother, daughter, son with their conductors without discrimination. There was no remorse because all of the ones who died were to return to the cycle. 

Then, standing in a warehouse with a generator conductor humming warmly in front of herHer whip conductor was still tight in her hands—the justice and punishment rightfully given. But it was all right even if they were friends because they’d returned to the cycle. That was what Theta had taught them; that was what he had assured them.

Him. Him. Him! The one—

“I-I didn’t bleach my vitae,” Kent stammered, his voice dragging Cadence out from the memory. “We didn’t, Theta! We listened! I promise!”

Kent’s cries became lost to the howling winds that suddenly erupted from the gate at Fortuna’s feet. It sent Fortuna and Maximallian flying back against the rock wall behind them. Cadence clung to Jericho tightly as the winds nearly tore her from his side. She held on tightly not only for her own sake, but for Jericho’s as well as she could feel him itching to whip out his conductor.

Detective, calm down. Detective!

She tried her best to think of her own past, of her own childhood, of the days she spent wandering the streets with Francis, Nico, and Fortuna; of her time playing a hopping duet with Nico in the Sognare to the cheers of the patrons; of watching the lights on the Dioscuri flicker on. Little by little, these memories pushed against Jericho’s own that were rattling around in her head. Jericho was seeing them too, Cadence knew, because his grip on his suitcase lessened and his rage simmered. Just barely.

“You too, Francis! Calm down,” Cadence shouted above the rumbling as she whipped her head towards the man. “This just means we gotta find the kids fast.” When the winds howled louder, she snapped, “We can still save them!”

And just like that the rumbling stopped. Francis looked over his shoulder towards her. Cadence could see his balled fists shaking.

Please hand Kent over,” Francis said, voice like steel, as he turned back to the Wtoreks. “Now. Please.”

Elizabeta glanced at Kent who was looking desperately at Francis before she nodded at Arnold. The man stiffly moved to conduct the rocky wall to their left and formed an earth path that connected the slab of rock that they were on to the one Cadence was on. After glancing up at Francis and receiving a nod, Kent hesitantly began to scoot his way across the bridge. Cadence managed to free herself from Jericho’s iron grip, gave the man a squeeze on the shoulder, and met Kent halfway on the rock bridge. 

“It’s me, kiddo,” Cadence said quietly when she saw the boy hesitating.

Kent squinted before his eyes widened and his face lit up. “Ca—”

Cadence quickly pressed her hand to his mouth before he could say her name, swept him up awkwardly in her arms, and made her way back over to Jericho.

“Our paths separate here,” Taurus said gravely as Elizabeta signaled Arnold to conduct them up the crater. Her gaze glassed over with that same pity from before again. “I have to say that—at least if what I’ve heard from Scorpio is true—I admire what you’re doing with the children, Vega. But the syzygy will come no matter what before the end of this year. I think you should just hold them close while you can.”

And with that, the trio rose on a mound of rock and disappeared from Cadence’s sight.

It didn’t seem as if Francis had been listening to Taurus’s words. Cadence knew Jericho hadn’t. The fury blazing in Francis’s eyes and the fury roaring in Jericho’s chest in the darkness—Cadence knew she’d never forget the sight and the feeling.

* * *

(      )

Cadence’s head was spiraling when they made it back into Francis’s room, and she felt like she was about to keel over. But she had to collect herself. No bouncing off the walls and having a breakdown. Not with Francis bouncing off the walls. Not with Jericho standing right beside her and staring into her desperately asking for a sense of direction. His hatred was boiling over in his chest into hers—into all of theirs, probably. If it weren’t for the fact that both Werner and Atienna synchronized in the moment they entered Francis’s room, Cadence knew she would’ve lost her head entirely. 

Jericho, calm down, Werner urged him calmly. Remember what I told you: do not act when you’re confused.

We already suspected that Alpha might be the one involved with taking the children, was Atienna’s assurance. We’ll get to them. Nothing has changed. 

But even with that, Jericho’s thoughts were over-powering—

Alpha was the one. And he was doing it again. False hope. Convincing the children. The kids. WrongHe needed to be brought to justice. False hope. Alpha was tricking the children now just as he had done back then. 

Cadence didn’t have the time to console him because Francis began to storm from exitless room to exitless room through his gates. She chased after him as she dragged Jericho and Kent who were both in dazes behind her. In one room, they passed by Pi who was carrying a dozing Mateo in his arms. Cadence quickly dropped Kent off with him before continuing on after Francis.

Eventually, all of this storming led them into the executive meeting groom. Cavallo, Bendetto, Agape, Carl, and Allen, who were all seated there as usual puffing v-cigs, leapt to their feet at their entrance.

Carl looked them over before putting out his v-cig. “Damn, you guys are late. Was startin’ to get pissed and worried—”

The black painted doors on the walls around the room began to pulsate as Francis headed to a gate on the opposite wall.

“Allen!” Cadence gave a warning shout as she fought past Jericho’s blazing thoughts.  

Allen stepped in front of Francis and held him back. “Calm down.”

A panting Conta came around behind Cadence and slowly approached Francis and Allen. It seemed as if she’d managed to keep up with Francis’s “What’s wrong with you, Theta? This isn’t like you. Calm down—”

“Calm down?” Francis stopped struggling. “Look at what he’s doing.”

“What the hell happened?” 

“Allen—Al— they—” Francis paused, turned slightly, and stared towards Cadence—no, towards Jericho who stood behind her. “Alpha is the one. He’s the one who took the children. He pushed them to bleach their vitae back then. And he’s… doing it now.”

“What?!” Carl snapped. “You mean our kids—”

“No, not yet. Kent said they hadn’t yet.” Francis’s eyes narrowed and he shook his head. “How could he? How darehe? He’s using them like pocket change.”

Allen paused for a beat; and Francis took the clear opportunity to push past him and enter his glowing gate.

Without skipping a beat, Cadence released Jericho’s hand and darted after him through it. Unsurprisingly, Jericho and Conta followed a step behind her. Surprisingly, Fortuna and Maximallian were just behind them. Cadence turned to face the two fully with incredulity just in time to see the gate behind them dim into nothing as Carl and Allen were about to step on through it.

Cadence faced forward. She was standing now on top of a roof with curve tiles overseeing a familiar smoky city glowing with blue lights. Zhūshā Chéng, of all places. Francis stood at the very edge of the roof there, brows furrowed, lips pressed down into a frown. She’d seen him on the edge like this a couple items before. A handful of times during childhood, once when Carl had been injured in a shootout two years or so ago, and the latest time when he’d stood above the sinking Twin Cities.

Cadence grabbed hold of Jericho’s arm just as the man brushed past her to make for Francis. Jericho spun around and stared at her blankly. A really unfitting expression given the loud pulsating thunder roaring through his veins into hers.

“Detective, ya need ta go back to Ophiuchus,” she urged. “It’s almost morning. Scorpio’ll and Leona’ll find out that ya left. Ya need ta go back. I’ll handle this bit—”

“No. Alpha,” Jericho insisted, shaking his head. His gaze flicked left then right, and Cadence could feel Werner and Atienna there urging him to listen. “He’s the one.”

In all truthfulness, she wanted him to come. She was afraid. Terrified beyond belief. For the children, for Alma, for Francis, for Jericho, and for herself most of all. But she still had to put on a charmingly brave face. Had to if everyone was flipping out. A self-deception in a different sense.

“You can come back at night,” Cadence reasoned, raising her hands calmly before placing them on the taller man’s shoulders. “Francis is stubborn as hell when he’s mad, but I’ll convince him ta keep lettin’ ya join us. I promise. We’re in the same bad stitch as before like Atienna said. All that’s changed is that we know more, right? We’ll still find the kids and get our hands on Alpha, right?”

Jericho paused, and Cadence could feel the gears in his head churning. With each churn, the heat in his chest dimmed slightly. “Right…” 

Trust me.”

“I know.” Jericho lifted a hand and placed it on top of her head. More to reassure himself than her, she knew. “I trust you.”

* * *

In-Transit, Signum

Country to country, rolling trodden prairies to coastal beach, from the hot markets of New Ram City to the cold roads of Capricorn—they continued on like that traveling without returning to the exitless room for days. Francis was relentless, bypassing amiability with locals and instead blazing into bars and casinos demanding answers to misunderstood questions. Fortuna was silent, occasionally dipping into local bars and sliding in common-coin while pressing for information. Conta trailed quietly without speaking. Maximallian—in all honesty—was just there. Loyalty to his boss—well, Cadence supposed she could admire that. Was still a hell of a time convincing them all to continue with the transmuted disguises though, and Conta had refused to don one.

Cadence, Werner said one time as he’d forcefully synchronized with her when she was following Francis into a gate leading into a rainy Libran town. Werner’s cold presence had caused her to nearly skid to a halt in the middle of trailing after Francis, and he blockaded her path with his image. This pursuit is reckless. You are traveling in broad daylight. There is no doubt that Scorpio is more effective with his eyes during this time of day. Searching with no plans and process is bound to end in failure.

I know. I know, Cadence thought, but it’s Francis, Werner. He’s family. 

Werner’s stiffness didn’t change. 

These kids are my lifeline, Cadence pressed. I promised ta keep them happy and safe, and I already did my stellar job with that. For their sake—for Jericho’s—even if it seems like it’s not cuttin’ out ta be workin’ out. Every little effort is somethin’. Like the prince says. Besides, I can’t leave Francis like he is now. All I’m tryin’ ta do is calm him down. Honest. I’m tryin ta get him ta come home. I can’t leave him.

The guilt would eat her up if she did.

Werner had remained coldly silent for quite some time before he conceded by placing his hand on top of her head. I’m going to be deep into my operation in the coming weeks, but if you call me, I will synchronize fully to the best of my abilities. 

Atienna had come along not too long after that, obviously concerned about Werner’s leniency. She’d pressed, Cadence, we have to think about the bigger picture. Francis is the type to run and return, isn’t he? Perhaps…

In that moment, as Cadence stared at Atienna incredulously, she came closer to understanding what Olive had felt in that moment when Atienna had shaken Leona’s hand. 

* * *

Sailepa, Pisces 

As they entered into the mid-part of the second week of Francis’s frantic searching, Cadence found herself stepping into Pisces for the first time. She immediately recognized the country for what it was since Maria had been to it many times before. The musty damp smell of the nearby water bodies paired with thick, heavy, saturated air—Piscese alright. It was night time so Jericho was with them, but his thoughts were a cloudy black haze of find him, find him, find him.

The Piscese town they’d entered wasn’t located on Pisces’s beach fronts like Hapaira was but right smack on top of a large river that cut through the town diagonally. The river had little run-offs that the little houses dotting the town appeared to be entirely built around. Instead of roads and sidewalks, there were little wooden planks connecting the different strips of houses to each other across the water ways. Naturally, given the time of the day, these wooden walkways were empty.

Cadence had managed to catch a couple of hours of sleep since starting on this escapade. Fortuna and Maximallian, on the other hand, often went out like a light; and she had to quickly snap them awake before Francis changed locations again. Jericho would just pace back and forth not only during the few minutes of rest they had at night when Francis dozed off but also when he was in his office at the Serpens Establishment. 

Damn it, Cadence thought as she paced along the wooden walkways. All the men in her life kept worrying her sick. Well, all the men and one woman. And the damned kids.

Cadence was drawn out of her thoughts as she registered that Francis had stopped short on the wooden path that extended out to a dock ahead of her. In the quiet, the small rowing boats roped to the dock tapped noisily against the wood. Cadence glanced over her shoulder to find Jericho a step behind her and Fortuna, Conta, and Maximallian just behind him. Eh, could be a worse search party.

“We’ll head for Libra next,” Francis said, taking a drag of his v-cig that he’d smoked down to just a stub. He glanced across the river dividing the other side of the street from them and eyed the small houses there. “I’m sure—”

Clink, clink, clink, clink.

Cadence’s blood ran cold at the sound. Jericho immediately pulled her back by the scruff of her suit and held her close as he lifted his suitcase. Before she could make out the direction of the sound, a streak of white illuminated the night sky above them. Chains. And wrapped in a tangle of them was a woman with long dark hair dressed in Monadic priest robes. In the woman’s hands was a vitae-blade that burned white.

The woman was only in the air for a second before her body was slammed down into the wooden planks across from them. Splinters flew in the air with the impact, and the chains began to arch up again and lift the woman back up into the sky. 

“Damnit, Iota! Look at the property damage!” came a shout from the edge of a low roof two houses down from where Cadence stood. “Do you even know if these people have insurance?!”

Cadence looked to the sound and nearly did a double-take. Former Comissario Vicente Giustizia stood at the tip of the roof boasting a damn curled mustache of all things and a Leonian police officer’s uniform. Flanking his left and right and dressed similarly were a man and a woman whom Cadence recognized as being former Twin Cities police officers.

“Tau,” Conta realized.

“Giustizia…” Fortuna whispered.

Tau glanced down at them from his perch before he squinted down at Conta. “Beta? Is that you? How did you get here?” He glanced at the rest of them, looking over their disguises. “New… recruits?”

A figure emerged from the narrow alleyway below the building Tau was posing on. It was a man with a bow tie and a glove conductor. It didn’t take long for Cadence to realize he was the one manipulating the chains tying the other woman down.

Iota?!

Cadence felt Jericho reach for his suitcase and felt the familiar simmering rage boil in her stomach.

ELPIS.

“You both can be terribly stubborn,” a woman’s voice drifted down from across the waterway on the rooftop above the woman bound in chains. “I always hated working with you back in the day. You, Iota, kept flirting with Scorpio. And Tau would never shut up about Libra’s law and order. You both always got on my nerves! Even more so now!”

Glancing up in the direction, Cadence found a very, very familiar woman with curly black hair dressed as a Monadic priest. Cadence immediately recognized her as one of the ones who’d nearly taken Mateo away. Her left arm was in a cast.

Said woman extended her gloved hand, sending a thin and familiar glowing white mist out over the river that divided them. The mist stopped short of their side of the river but consumed Iota’s chains in their entirety. When a swift wind blew away the mist, the chains were still present but fell uselessly into the water as they lost their glow.

“The one you would consider a Projector is most likely Nu,” Francis informed them calmly. “The woman on the roof is Rho. She’s the one you should be wary of.” He added a moment after, “They’re our ticket to Alpha.” 

Without skipping a beat, he drew a knife from his belt and cut it clear across his palm. He flung his blood across the divide towards Nu before reaching out with his gloved hand. The hand passed through the thin pale tangerine mist of light in front of him, and when he pulled his hand back out from the light, he was holding Nu by the throat. The rest of Nu’s body from her shoulders to her feet were poking out from a gate of mist that hung in the air on her side of the street.

“Theta…?!” Tau and Iota snapped in surprise.

Conta held up a hand as she drew close to them. “We’re working together.”

Tau did a double-take. “What?! Under what sort of law do you think working together with someone whose readily decided to work together with criminals is acceptable?” He mulled. “It is Theta, but we can’t act on damned bias! What sort of precedent would we set?!”

“Vega…” Nu managed weakly as she struggled in Francis’s grasp through the portal.  She reached out and managed to squeeze her hand through his gate and grip his wrists.  

“How dare you.” Francis’s grip tightened. 

“Wait, Francis,” Cadence pressed as she darted to him, “we need her ta get ta Alpha. No point in squeezin’ out her life-force. Think.”

Francis hesitated, but that didn’t relax Cadence’s nerves any. A second after, Jericho undid his suitcase and allowed his conductor to roll into his hand. Like Francis, he didn’t hesitate and flung a line of white—not at Rho nor Nu but—at Iota who was still staring incredulously at Francis.

“The suitcase peacekeeper!” Tau shouted. “Move!”

Iota barely managed to jump to the side as Jericho’s spear of vitae drove through the wall of the building she’d just been standing in front of. The white cracks spread through it in an instant, and Tau and his two lackeys yelped before they fell into the collapsing rubble.

“Damn it!” came Tau’s shout from the collapsed building. “You said we were working together!”

“We are,” Conta pressed, staring daggers into Jericho’s skin.

Jericho ignored her and lifted his conductor again.

Detective, wait! Cadence turned on her heels, lunged at the peacekeeper, and pulled his hand down. Not them

ELPIS. Not Conta. Not Francis, Jericho reasoned. Wrong. They also need to be—

I know but right now an enemy of my enemy is not that much of an enemy. Alpha groupies first, then them, aight? Trust me. Besides, there could be people in these buildings!

People. Jericho’s eyes widened.

Cadence was then relentlessly assaulted by images of herself raking through the streets of Capricorn and tearing through men, women, child with an unbiased whip of vitae—indiscriminately shattering them into nothing. All to return them to the cycle. To fix what was broken

With effort, Cadence shook the nightmare from her vision and shook Jericho hard. Slowly, the man returned from the nightmare too. He gave her a curt nod before turning his attention up to Rho. Cadence followed suit and nearly blanched as she saw the unnerving white mist pooling out from Rho’s conductor towards Francis. Fortuna was already dashing past Cadence, however, and knocked both Francis and Nu into the river as the mist overtook them. Rho hummed audibly at this. 

Jericho tightened his grip on both his conductor and his suitcase as he glared up at her. Cadence grabbed hold of his arm and nodded before transmuting invisibility over both of them. Better for him to focus on nabbing Rho, she thought, than to try to balance two types of conducting.

Cadence reached for Werner, Atienna, and Maria as they crossed a plank over to Rho’s side of the street. Unfortunately, they were all distant and far-off—Werner more so than the others—which unfortunately signaled that they were dead asleep.

“You’re the peacekeeper who conducts like Libra, right?” Rho called from her perch as her gaze passed over them. “You look different than what Alpha described, but I guess that has to do with that Transmutationist with you, doesn’t it? Quite a cool and cruel conducting.” She curled her gloved-hand into the shape of a gun and pointed it blindly around the area.

Jericho slung out his conductor as they neared the area just below her, and Cadence tried her best to spread her vitae up his conductor to hide it from sight. 

At the same time, Rho threw out her hand and sent out a blind wave of white mist. Jericho pulled Cadence back, and together they watched as his vitae was melted away into nothing by the other woman’s vitae.

“Vitae is also something living,” Rho said, “didn’t you know—”

Crack!

Jericho had thrown his suitcase at Rho as soon as his vitae had melted, and the edge of it smashed against Rho’s face mid-sentence. She stumbled backwards before blinking in a daze and holding her cheek. She opened her mouth and blood dribbled out. 

“Oh.” Rho spat out blood as she stumbled back slightly. “So that’s why they call you the suitcase peacekeeper.” She casually glanced over her shoulder and called out, “It’s getting a bit exciting, Ivanka, so how about we do a quick trial run?”

Cadence squinted behind the woman before her eyes widened. A small figure came to stand right at Rho’s side. It was a girl with short black hair in a flowery dress that revealed a mole on her shoulder. She was no older than ten, and yet still her left hand—which was extended and enclosed around a clump of dried grass—was gloved in a conductor.

Cadence felt Jericho seize beside her.

Ayda?

A girl from his past. A friend. Someone whom he’d shattered.

No, Cadence reassured him. But it’s just a kid—

Rho casually drew out what a gas mask with a long nose clipped behind her at her waist and fastened it over her face. The young girl did the same before she clenched her conductor-glove tightly. White light burst from her gloved hand out from the clump of leaves and exploded into a dense, thick fog that spilled out like a waterfall.

Cadence. Danger.

Without warning, Jericho picked Cadence up by the scruff and threw her into the river. She startled as she hit the waters and the coldness soaked into her clothing. She didn’t panic, however, and instead then recalled flashes of swimming for meters upon meters in cold ocean waters and basking in the sun rays. Channeling these many memories of Maria’s, Cadence desperately swam for the wooden sidewalk nearest to her and pulled herself up onto it. Once she got her bearings, she realized she was back on the opposite side of the waterway street and that the opposite side of the street where Jericho had been standing was completely shrouded by the hazy smoke.

“Detective!” She cried in a panic as she scrambled to the edge walkway and stared past the water’s edge towards the encroaching fog. “Detective!”

She could still feel him. It was okay. He was okay. But that misty fog—

And then suddenly, just like that Jericho became faint and distant—like how he felt whenever she was awake when he was asleep, which was rare nowadays. Realization dawned on her shortly after. It was chlorowheat. And if it was chlorowheat, that meant that Alpha and his lackeys knew what it did. And if they knew what it did and were planning to come to Ophiuchus, then…? 

A chill ran down Cadence’s spine at the thought.

The lightless mist descended on her just as Francis and Fortuna emerged from the waters diagonally across from her. Much to Cadence’s dismay, her transmutations over them began to melt away revealing their dripping pale faces. The vitae-mist’s doing most likely, Cadence figured. Her work was too good to be done away with just a little bit of water. ‘Vitae was also something living,’ right? Damn it—

Cadence backed up against the wall of the building behind her and brought her hand to her mouth. She reached out again blindly for Werner, Atienna, Maria—

Hm?

—before she too was consumed by the cloud of mist. Despite all of her efforts, the musty scent of the fog filled her nostrils and she was left with a pounding, spinning head.

Still, she tried her best to remain quiet and scanned the smog around her. It was quiet—so quiet that she could hear her heart beating. But other than that, there was utter silence.

Detective…?

Nothing. Not even anything from anyone else. Not Maria, Olive, Werner, Atienna. Just a void. But there was no point in panicking. She’d gone through this before. What was important here was that she was still alive meaning Jericho was still alive. He was most likely blinded by this fog like she was. Like they all were. The best thing to do was get down and stay quiet. Yeah. Just like Olive did back in Bodhi Temple like two weeks ago.

Cadence sank to a crouch and laid low against the plank deck. The chlorowheat haze was thinner down here, but she could still barely make anything out—

“Cadence?” 

Cadence stiffened as she heard Jericho’s voice echoing through the fog.

“Jericho, is that you?” That was Francis now. “Cadence?”

What were they thinking shouting like that? Damn it—couldn’t they have a little bit of sense?

“Boss?” Maximilian now.

“Theta!” Now it was Conta too? Seriously?

“Tau, where are you?” —Iota?

Cadence tensed as a pair of boots stormed just past her. Paired with those boots was a swishing flash of a white vitae blade. Nu. Probably had a gas mask on too. And it looked like she was heading in the direction of one of the voice’s. Damn.

“Fortuna?” someone called tentatively.

Damn it, shut up! Didn’t they realize that their conductors were useless now? 

Cadence knew she had to warn them. But if she warned them then all of those ELPIS whackos would hear her and be on her in an instant. But the others… Cost-benefit analysis for just herself dictated better survivability if she just shut up and stayed silent. But a cost-benefit in consideration of everyone else…?

“Detective! Francis! Fortuna!” Cadence shouted as she hopped to her feet and ran down the plank hoping that the wind would carry her voice in all directions. “Ya need to be quiet! They’ll find ya if ya make noise! The chlorowheat makes it impossible to conduct, but Rho and Nu got gas masks and can! Just stay quiet and get outta the area!”

Immediately, the shouting died down.

As Cadence passed by a stray glass bottle, she plucked it from the ground and threw it at the building behind her. It shattered into crystalline shards as she tucked herself into the alleyway of two buildings. She sank into a crouch and tucked her knees beneath her as her heart hammered. Hopefully that bottle was enough of a distraction.

She started counting backwards in her head. As she reached the number thirteen, a pair of shiny black shoes entered her periphery at the edge of the alley.

Jericho?

Cadence looked up and was immediately tickled by cascading dark curls. The face that those curls framed was concealed by an old gas mask with a long nose.

Aw, hell. It was Rho. Just her damned luck.

“That’s quite some good advice you gave there, Transmutationist.” Rho’s sparkling dark eyes crinkled from behind the glass eyeholes of her gas mask. Her voice was muffled. “Who are you? A friend of Theta’s? Wearing a proto-conductor ring, I see. I wonder what you really look like.” She hummed. “Well, you’re not on the list, but we might as well bid you a pleasant return to the cycle, shouldn’t we?”

A line of white light grew behind Rho’s head, illuminating Nu’s masked face in the fog behind her. Rho took a step back. Nu stepped forward and swished the blade before bringing it high above Cadence’s head

“Wait, a minute!” Cadence stammered. “I got somethin’ that you could use. You’re plannin’ on usin’ that chlorowheat as a one-over on the peacekeepers, right? I doubt ya have enough of it. I can offer ya more.”

Nu paused and glanced over her shoulder towards Rho. Seemed like the doll was a follower, Cadence thought as she scanned Nu’s waist for something she could use. She noted Francis’s proto-conductor protruding from Nu’s pocket. Maybe—

Rho clicked her tongue. “A bound contract with you? That’s not freeing or fun, is it? Off with her head, Nu!”

Nu faced Cadence again and flourished her vitae-blade—

Bang!

Nu jolted forward and brought her hand to the left side of her waist that was now dripping red. Cadence glanced to her left and found a bullet embedded into the wall a little ways behind her. Facing forward again, she spied Fortuna standing behind Rho with the pistol in her hands. With another bang! she clipped Rho’s mask right at the left eyehole. Rho stumbled back with a half-yelp, half-laugh 

Using the distraction to her advantage, Cadence plucked the proto-conductor from Nu’s waist before ducking around her and Rho and running for her life. Only six steps down the plank, she collided into Fortuna who was also running in the same direction. The woman’s gun was still clenched tightly in her left hand. 

No time for a thank you.

Without hesitation, Cadence took hold of Fortuna’s hand and ran with her down the wooden planks. They barely made it five steps before Cadence felt the hot blaze of vitae at their backs. With a yelp, Cadence pushed them both onto the ground out of the way of Nu’s sweeping vitae blade. She scrambled forward as she craned her neck and found Nu and Rho slowly approaching them from behind. Rho had removed her broken gas mask, so her pleasant smile and the small bleeding scars left from the shattered mask were clear as day.

Mind racing, Cadence smashed the proto-conductor in her hands on to the ground. She picked up a shard and brandished it half-threateningly.

“Why would you do something like that?” Rho sighed. “What a waste.”

“Just didn’t want ya to get outta here freely after ya put us under.”

“It’s not like that’s our only proto-conductor,” Rho drew, reaching for her robes and pulling out another one. “We have quite a selection.”

Good to know.

“D-Detective!” Cadence shouted as she inched back with Fortuna.

Fortuna lifted her pistol and emptied all of her rounds into Nu’s chest. The woman jerked backwards with each bullet and blood began to dribble from her lips, but she continued her approach unperturbed. Just as Nu was on top of them, a body flew out from the adjacent alleyway and tackled the woman to the ground.

Jericho, Cadence thought with relief. A second later she came to realize that it wasn’t Jericho who was pinning Nu to the ground but Conta.

Conta? Cadence thought incredulously. Rescuing them? Why in the world would she do something like that?

Before Cadence could complete the thought, Nu delivered a swift kick to Conta’s abdomen that sent her crashing into the building. Nu picked herself off the ground, flourished her vitae blade, and glanced between Conta and Cadence. Looking for who to off first, Cadence supposed.

The conductor-less were really no match for Conductors, huh?

As soon as the thought left Cadence’s mind, the splattering of black liquid on the wooden boards in front of her began to pulsate with pale tangerine light. A draft of wind emerging from the gate brushed back some of the thick mist surrounding the area.

Nu stared at the glowing gate in confusion as relief spread through Cadence’s chest. A good gamble. 

A second later out from the tangerine light burst a figure who delivered a flying kick to Nu’s chest. The kick sent the woman hurtling back into Rho who haphazardly caught her as familiar warm laughter rang through the fog.

“I jumped through many gates before I could make it here—it was actually quite exciting!” the figure exclaimed as their laughter subsided. “But I heard your call, my dear Cadence.” The figure turned towards Cadence, waving away the mist to reveal herself to be none other than Maria in the flesh. With a grin, she extended her hand out to Cadence.

“Talk about a dramatic entrance, sunshine,” Cadence noted with a sigh of relief. She took Maria’s hand and scrambled to her feet before offering a hand to Fortuna.

Maria meanwhile hopped over to Conta’s side and extended a hand out to her too. “I was worried about you, Conta! Thank you for looking after my dear Cadence and Jericho for me. That is what you were doing just now, yes?”

Conta regarded her silently before staring past her shoulder with widening eyes. “Watch out—”

Maria immediately swiveled around and threw out her leg, clipping Nu in the stomach before the other woman could swing at her with her vitae-blade. Nu stumbled back but remained standing. In turn, Maria simply swept her foot along the ground, picking up the tiny shards of Francis’s smashed proto-conductor as she did so and promptly flinging them into Nu’s face.

Nu doubled over at the cloud of glass, coughing and wiping her eyes with a grimace. Maria continued to charge forward, wrapping her hand around Nu’s which wielded the vitae blade. They then danced around the wooden walkway—Nu grimacing, Maria smiling, both trying to wrangle the vitae-blade around from the other. Finally with a swing of her leg, Maria swept Nu off her feet and caught Nu’s extinguished conductor as it flew through the air. Nu landed flat on her back, prompting Maria to plant her foot on the woman’s chest.  

After forcefully yanking Nu’s mask off from her face, Maria twirled the deactivated conducting blade in her hand before pointing it at Rho. “I recognize you! You were the one who took the ones precious to my dear Cadence, no?”

“Definitely,” Cadence muttered.

Rho mere gasped in response then cooed, “You must be the one Alpha talks about all the time! He’s right. You don’t shine as brightly as the other one. That’s too bad. Well, it was quite fun meeting you.” With that, she spun Francis’s proto-conductor between her fingers, bent down, and tapped the tip of it in front of the gate that was in front of her. As soon as it cracked open, she leapt on through. Maria immediately started for her but Nu wrapped her arms around Maria’s leg stopping her short.

A clambering of footsteps echoed along the walkway a second after, and Iota emerged from fog. Cadence tensed at the sight of her, but Iota merely glanced at them briefly and followed after Rho through the gate. Conta scrambled to her feet and lunged for the gate too, but it closed by the time she reached it. She clenched her fist and slammed it into the wood with a grimace. Maria frowned slightly at this and turned her attention to Nu.

“That was not very nice of you, yes? Now Conta is upset…”

Nu released Maria from her grip and grimaced. Then, blood began to pour out from the corners of her mouth. It took a moment for realization to slap Cadence in the face.

“She’s bitin’ her tongue off!” Cadence snapped. “Stop her, Maria!”

But it was too late. Nu gurgled on her blood for half a second more before her head lolled to the side. Maria removed her foot from the woman’s chest as white wisps of light escaped from the woman’s body. Maria was fully frowning now which was a worryingly rare sight.

“My dear, why would you do something like that—”

Another stampede of footsteps resounded around the area paired with a familiar, snapping voice: “—damn it, Iota, wait!  I told you already! This is property damage, damn it—” Tau emerged from the fog a moment later with his two lackeys trailing behind him. He stopped short as soon as he registered them all and then took a threatening step forward. “You people—”

Crack!

Tau disappeared from Cadence’s sights as the wooden planks beneath the man’s feet gave way, and he plunged into the waters below. 

“Chief!” his lackeys shouted in alarm before they floundered to pull him up.

“Damnit!” the man sputtered as he was dragged back up onto the wooden planks. “These walkways are obviously not up to code!” He coughed and hacked. “The people who built this place need to be brought before the damned courts! Absolutely—”

Before he could finish, Tau was grabbed by the back of his uniform by a tall figure emerging from the fog behind him. Jericho. The peacekeeper’s eyes were ablaze as he held Tau by the scruff, his fingers chancing for Tau’s throat.

“Wait,” Francis’s voice sauntered out from the fog paired as he appeared beside Jericho with a panting Maximallian. He placed a hand on Jericho’s arm. “Please wait, Jericho.”

Jericho paused, then dropped the man. Tau fell onto his back, wheezing and still attempting to choke out some more fighting words.

“Tau, let’s take it easy,” Francis continued.

Tau looked like he was about to retort but ended up in a coughing spasm.

Jericho stared past him and stared at Cadence. Relief broke clear across his face as their eyes met, and Cadence felt the same feeling warming her chest. The man’s gaze then flicked to Maria and his dark expression brightened slightly. “Maria…”

“Jeri!” Maria threw up her hand in a wave before bounding on over to him. “You look so serious, my dear!” She peered into his face and gasped. “Oh! I cannot hear you, no?” She turned back to look at Cadence. “And I cannot hear you either, Cadence? I can’t hear anyone!”

“Yeah… it’s the chlorowheat…” Cadence said as she made her way over to them with Fortuna trailing behind her.

Standing as far away as she could from Tau, Cadence hesitantly assessed Jericho and Francis who were both dripping wet. The dip in the waters paired with Maria’s sudden presence appeared to have calmed them both down some.

“Rho got away,” Cadence informed them quietly, tentatively as she glanced between the two men.  She nodded at Nu’s corpse and grimaced before looking away. “And Nu kicked the bucket… Sorry. We lost ‘em.”

Jericho’s brows furrowed as did Francis’s. When Jericho clenched his fist, Cadence hesitantly reached out and held it. He looked at her blankly, but she could see the fire in his eyes dim somewhat.

“So.” Tau cleared his throat, tense as he straightened his uniform and eyed Jericho. “We’ve reached an impasse. You, criminals that I should be dragging to the damned courts of this backwards country. Me, strapped here without one of your proto-conductors, Theta—”

“You don’t have a proto-conductor?” Cadence arched a brow. “What? Ya lost yours?”

Tau scowled. “What right do you have to question me?” He looked her up and down. “I recognize that way of speaking. You’re that same yapping ginger raccoon, aren’t you? I see you’re still—”

“Tau,” Francis interjected. “Alpha is converting children.”

Tau shut his mouth, before turning to Francis slowly. He looked the man up and down and remained silent. For once.

“He’s planning to raid Ophiuchus with them,” Francis continued. “I’m certain.”

Tau’s eyes widened as he paled. “Ophiuchus… Again…?”

Again…? 

“Tau, I’m aware of what your stance is regarding myself, but Alpha has taken my children,” Francis continued, before extending his hand. “We’re both seeking him. I say that’s enough reason for us to work together. I’m already working together with Beta on this, and we agreed to keep our… business arrangement from Gamma’s knowledge.”

“Beta?!” Tau snapped, whipping his head towards her as the woman approached them. “How could you?! You’re more upright than this! Where have you even been?!”

Conta sighed. “Tau—”

“You really expect me to take up arms with you?” Tau snapped back at Francis. “If you were initiated correctly, then I would consider it! But you’ve been in cahoots with the damned down under Romanos and Foxmans! I’m not stupid like the rest of you think I am! I know you’ve been hiding them in your rooms!” He wagged his finger at all of them. “Don’t think I don’t know that there are some of them here as we speak! I can smell your damn volatile crimes from here!”

Jericho’s eyes narrowed, so Cadence reached over and patted him on the chest with her free hand. 

“Ya said it yourself, didn’t ya, Tau? Ya hate criminals to your core,” Cadence tried. “You’re all about law and order, right? Ain’t there nothin’ viler of a crime than usin’ and abusin’ children?”

Tau’s eyes narrowed.

 “Well, if ya take a look in the history books, there are plenty of times when law men walk hand-in-hand with criminals, right? Think about it.” 

It was much easier for Cadence to entertain the idea of working with Tau now that Jericho’s thoughts weren’t clouding her mind.

“I like this idea!” Maria chimed. “You are Conta’s friend as well, no, Tau? That means you are automatically part of my crew! Of course, if you make any of my spirit crew sad, then there will be a problem, but I don’t think that will happen!”

“Spirit crew…?” Tau arched a brow at Maria and looked her up and down before snapping his attention to Cadence. “Hearing that babble from someone like you makes me sick, Morello!” He reached for her but was stopped short by a hand around the wrist by Jericho. After ripping his hand away with some difficulty, he scowled and nodded at Francis. “The ginger raccoon makes a sensible argument though. That damned snake tongue of hers.”

Francis nodded. 

Tau stared at Francis’s extended hand for a long while—“Fine, since there’s precedent for it and it’s more sensible to be working with you directly with your gates. But hear this. At the end of the day, everyone will be served the damned justice they deserve”—and then accepted the gesture.

* * *

(   )

Finally, at the end of that terrible second week, Cadence returned home. Francis’s recovery from the chlorowheat was faster than theirs so he was able to traverse all of them to their respective locations. For Maria and Conta, this was back to the ship. And for Jericho…

“Hey, detective, go home for now, okay?” Cadence had pressed as Francis opened a gate for him back to Ophiuchus. The sun was eclipsing the horizon, and it highlighted the dark circles beneath the man’s eyes

Jericho blinked at her blearily as he tore his gaze away from Tau whom he’d been staring at for the better half of an hour. “Home.” He stared over her shoulder towards Francis who was opening another gate.

Cadence couldn’t actually hear his thoughts at this point in time,  but she knew him enough to know he was still searching for that place. A place to call home, but—bah. 

She reached up and held the man’s face in both of her hands. He appeared a bit startled about this, but that was good. Needed to catch him off guard to get him to listen. “Detective. Go to bed. You remember what Werner and Nico said?”

“Five hours of sleep,” Jericho repeated with a nod. 

“Right.” Cadence returned the nod. “Ya did good today, detective. We’re makin’ progress. And we’ll make more progress tomorrow, okay?”

“Okay.”

And so Jericho departed too just before the sun rose.

That left just Cadence herself, Francis, Fortuna, Maximilian, and… Tau and his lackeys. Without seeming to give it much thought, Francis let them all back into the exitless room where the Romano executives and Allen and Carl were gathered around their usual meeting table.

Cadence couldn’t help but feel relief at the sight of them. At least that was until—

“So this is where you’ve been hiding! I knew it!” Tau snapped as he stormed into the room behind her. “You’ve been sheltering these criminals like it’s nothing! I’ve read the damned news—they’re all supposed to be under lockdown! That’s a criminally punishable offense!” 

While the other capos tensed and backed away at the man’s arrival, Carl leapt to his feet and jabbed a finger in his direction. “What the hell is the damn commissario doing here?” He shook his head. “No, wait a damn minute—where the hell have you guys been? Damned near worried me sick!”

Allen’s gaze followed Francis as the latter paced through the room. “Francis?”

“I need to clear my head,” Francis replied before walking through another gate.

Allen rose from his seat, but Cadence waved her hand in the air at him as she followed Francis out of the room. 

* * *

Cadence found Francis in his exitless study leaning against the central glass table with a bowed head. A familiar saxophone record was trilling in the background as smoke curled from the v-cig in his hands. She stood behind him quietly, waiting for him to speak. 

“I’m losing my mind, Cadence,” Francis finally whispered—and he sounded so like himself that Cadence’s concern intensified. “I don’t know what to do.” He fisted his hair. “They’re gone. I don’t even know if they’re alive, and—and if they are alive, then… their vitae, Cadence. Their vitae. Just like Jericho. It’s starting all over again.”

It was a repeated scene. Just like that time in the early fall when she’d escaped Theta’s room and came face-to-face with Francis who had no clue about what was going on with ELPIS and his disappeared brothers and Fortuna.

However, there was no voice tickling the back of Cadence’s head this time. No unseen force urging her to hug him. But there didn’t need to be. When Francis turned to face her, she walked up to him and slung her arms around his neck. He didn’t stiffen like he did back then and instead returned the gesture. Eventually, he slid to the ground and Cadence sank down with him.

Damn. First Claire’s breakdown with Olive and now this? This was shaping up to be a terrible month.

“Francis, we still have time,” Cadence said as gently as she could, although she knew that at this point she was just trying to convince herself of this too. “You heard Kent when we were comin’ back earlier. Alpha gives them a choice. We taught the kids well and they’re smart. They won’t bleach their vitae. Not after what you taught ‘em.”

“A choice makes the matter all the more worse,” Francis returned. “A choice is a burden.” He stared off into the distance. “This place. This time. It’s all wrong. Its touch corrupts absolutely. Or perhaps these are just things that existed within us from the very beginning—seeds that just needed the right soil to grow in. Alpha… I can’t understand it. How can he do this to the children? The children…”

“Sometimes we can’t understand other people. Sometimes there’s no point in wastin’ energy tryin’—especially when they’re the type ta hurt us and the people we care about.”

“…The children. I want them to have a better life than we did, Cadence.”

Cadence nodded. “Me too.”

“Cadence, they’re my saving grace after everything that I’ve done. If we don’t save them then… They’re the future—do you see what I mean?” 

“Yeah. I get ya…” Cadence grimaced. “But, look. The kids aren’t just your responsibility, Francis. They’re ours too. Allen’s, Carl’s. Mine.” She ruminated before she continued, “The kids who’ve already gotten their vitae bleached—that bleached vitae doesn’t mean that their future is hopeless and that we’ve lost or anything. One bad thing happening ta ya doesn’t mark ya as a bad cookie for the rest of your life or in general. I mean, think about the detective. He was dragged through the mud and back by ELPIS when he was younger and look at him now. Don’t know any man alive with more vigor and gusto than that. He’s okay. Got a few screws loose, but not any more than Maria. He’s good. The kids are good.”

Francis’s gaze softened slightly before he looked down at his hands. He tossed his v-cig to the side. “… A world without their happiness is just like a world without Om—it isn’t worth living in.” 

Cadence startled and whipped to look at him. “Francis, you and the detective and—hell—every other person have been worryin’ the hell outta me. Why are ya sayin’ stuff like that? Ya can’t just ruminate all quiet like, carry that cloud over your head, and suddenly explode out like that. That ain’t healthy. Talk ta me, Francis. Doesn’t just have ta be about the kids or anythin’ happenin’ now. My head’s empty ‘cause of the chlorowheat right now, so I’m all ears.”

“The chlorowheat…” Francis frowned. After a beat, he murmured, “Do you recall what I said about grief and those who are left behind back when we were in Leo?” 

She nodded.

“To be honest, I feel as if I’m a mere imitation and I’m merely conforming to appease Allen and Carl. They are clinging to a visage of the past just as you are—just as I had when I was Vega. I feel as if I owe them a performance as a form of comfort but… I’m not a fool, Cadence. I have many years on all of you. I can see the discomfort as clear as day. We learn to live with discomforts, but things are quite different when they wear a familiar face.”

“Francis, trust me. You’re no cheap imitation. Ya wouldn’t be a Foxman if ya didn’t tear through the whole of Signum like ya just did now.” She paused, thinking, piecing together everything he’d been saying these past few months. “This… goes back to Omicron, doesn’t it?”

At the name, Francis’s sullen expression cracked immediately and he fisted his shirt above his chest. “Cadence… This grief is all that I have left of her. The words I wasn’t able to say, the moments we were unable to continue sharing, the unexpressed adoration that remains inside me. These feelings aren’t mine, but they…”

Cadence’s chest twisted, but instead of shrugging it off she nodded and rubbed his back. Alma touched her mind briefly.

“Omicron lied to me near the end because she believed I needed to be protected. She was always ridiculous like that. A truly ridiculous person.” His gaze softened again. “But in the end, she was still my precious magpie.”

Cadence understood the feeling.

“I know I need to let go because this grief clouds my judgement, and I can’t focus on the children like this. It’s the past against the future… But this is all I have left of her, Cadence. All I have left. I know this wasn’t how I felt about death and passing when I was only Theta. Back then, I was ready to accept what came. Nothingness or returning to the cycle—it was fine. But now, this feeling of losing something…”

You can’t lose anything—a voice whispered at the back of Cadence’s head—when you don’t have anything.

Cadence shook the thought off and asked, “Is that why you were knockin’ it with Epsi earlier?”

A tear slid down Francis’s cheek, startling Cadence. At the sight of it, she felt her own eyes begin to burn.

“I just wanted to see a glimpse of her, Cadence,” Francis whispered. “In that single moment when I saw her in Epsilon’s vitae, I felt at peace. But if I let go of her, it feels like I’m abandoning her memory. How can I abandon the Altair from that memory?” He shook his head. “It’s ridiculous and melodramatic, I know. I can’t believe I’m hearing myself say this, but I know… All I’m doing right now is clinging to her selfishly. After all, she is no longer here. What I do and feel no longer reaches her.”

Cadence rubbed the corner of her eyes. “Hey… lettin’ go doesn’t mean you’re forgettin’ about her. Doesn’t mean it ain’t important ta ya anymore either.” Testing the waters, she rested her head against his shoulder. When he didn’t move, she continued, “Lettin go just means that… your priorities shift. You’re lookin’ ahead instead of back.” She shrugged. “At least for some people. People deal with it differently. Kinda like how certain cons work on certain people.”

Francis frowned slightly.

Cadence then thought of Maria and Jericho and reached out her hand. “Sometimes ya take everythin’ ya’ve lost, hold it tight ta ya, and ya use it ta drive ya forward. Use it as a focus.” She clenched her fist. “Assumin’ ya even have anything to lose.”

“I suppose you’re right…” Francis stared at her extended hand then at his own hand. After a beat, he asked, “And what do you mean by ‘having anything to lose’?”

“Ya now, sometimes ya don’t have anything ta lose.”

“Are you referring to ownership of relationships?” Francis pressed his fingers to his eyes. “I don’t believe that’s the correct approach. Mutually existing in each other’s company, occasionally leaving each other’s side and returning over and over again before the final departure, and so on. There is no need to think of ownership there.” He lowered his hand and studied her for a moment. “…Thank you, Cadence.”

Cadence stared back at him as his words soaked into her mind. “No… er… thank ya to you actually. For that.” She hesitated, then said, “Francis… I don’t want ta overstep my bounds or anythin’ but… would ya mind… not seein’ Epsilon for a while?”

Francis arched a brow at this. “What for…?”

“Just. You and him. The memory vitae exchange thing.” She gestured to her head and tried to shrug nonchalantly. “Ya said it was somethin’  like a drug, right? That can’t be good.”

“That was a metaphor… And it’s only every once in a while, Cadence—”

“That’s what they always say,” Cadence interjected. “And it’s always the ones who’re the most well set and put together that say it. ‘Just a little more’ and all that. Think they can ration it out in controlled amounts, but it’s never enough.”

Francis regarded her. “You… never talked much about your past, Cadence…”

“You guys never did either,” Cadence said. “Better to leave everything behind and start fresh in the city, ya know?”

“Although we never did leave anything behind.”

“Yeah…”

Francis sighed and nodded. “Okay, I understand your feelings, Cadence. But I do wonder what you propose that we do with Epsilon. He is not an object. He needs the occasional conversation.”

“We could send him ta stay with Maria for a while. After we settle the whole marriage thing with Fortuna, I mean,” Cadence suggested. “Might be able to get more out of him that way. Plus, he likes her—er, Maria, not Fortuna.”

Francis placed a hand to his chin, then nodded. “I’ve seen Maria’s prowess… Yes, seeing as she was a potential saint candidate of Leo, he would be quite safe in her care… Alright. Deal.”

Felt nice, Cadence thought. Being at least a little bit open like this. Being open, huh?”

Cadence studied him for a while as the scent of chlorowheat slowly flooded her mind. “Hey, Francis…”

He turned to her again, eyes still red. “Yes?”

“… nevermind.” 


In-Transit, Taurus, Alpha’s (Stolen) Vessel

Alma Miraggio’s fingers glided across the keys as she hummed to the tune she played. Up and down, left and right, drawing out the needed notes, flowing out like a river. As she finished the song with a C-chord, she was met with soft applause. She didn’t quite think she deserved it for this play. The piano was obviously out of tune. That was the issue with conjured instruments. The dimensions were never quite right.

Regardless, Alma rose to a stand, turned, and bowed.

Her audience was only three people. The man with the eyepatch called Alpha, her dear Enzo, and the strange adolescent named Dominic Elegido-Rosa—an orphan apparently. Poor thing. Just like her Cadence—except this boy had a peculiarly bright smile.

“Amazing, Alma.” Enzo smiled with pointed lips. “Absolutely amazing.”

“The song was nice, but it was a bit boring, no?” Dominic sighed, slouched in his chair, head drooping.

“It’s called elegance, Dominic.” Enzo guffawed, scuffing the boy on the shoulder. “You should be honored to be in Alma’s presence. Right now everyone’s in a buzz about her. People crave what they can’t have.” 

“If they can’t have it, then why don’t they get it?” Dominic questioned. “It’s simple, isn’t it?”

Alpha chuckled. “Because oftentimes, people lack the courage and strength to strive for what they want.”

Enzo walked up, paced over to Alma’s side, sat down on her piano stool, motioned her to sit too. She obliged.

“People crave your music now, Alma,” Enzo said, rubbing her bare shoulders. “When you make your inevitable return as a damsel who escaped the clutches of ELPIS, you’ll have your own picture and starring novel. People will beg to interview you, and everyone will know your music, my little songbird.”

Alma felt her cheeks flush at the idea. What a silly dream of his. And of hers.

“And all you and I need to do is offer up some of our vitae when time comes,” Enzo finished, the last of his words making her stomach do uncomfortable flip-flops. He sighed. “It’s a shame that I can’t come onboard with all of those Specialist children.”

Alpha smiled amicably. “Oh, they’d surely kill you after everything you’ve done to them. After all, Vega has apparently taught them self-respect these past few months.” He clasped his hands together, side-glancing at Dominic. “Besides, you’ll be able to bask freely in all of the wealth we’ve gathered here on our journey at the end of all of this.”

“I have to thank you for that,” Enzo noted, scanning the room.

Alma followed his gaze, taking in the ornately painted photos hanging from the walls, the golden trinkets hanging from hooks on the nearby poles, and the diamonds that littered the floorboards.

“No need to thank me.” Alpha chuckled. “We wouldn’t be able to have our hands on such a fine ship and product if it weren’t for your information. And your expertise in finances is especially helpful in helping us prepare for everything.”

“I’m rather surprised that you don’t want any of this.” Enzo gestured around. “This is probably worth as much as one of the Ariesian royals.”

“Being bound to material items is a useless practice. We have no need for treasures,” Alpha replied. “It’s easy to let go of. What isn’t easy to let go of is bonds of family and similar relationships.” He peered at Enzo. “It’s quite curious to me that you were able to cut ties with the Campanas so easily. To even overstep your leader…”

Enzo shrugged. “It’s a family in name only.”

Alpha chuckled again. “I admire that.”

24.1: The Prince & Priest in Roja Light

Re-cap:

Olive has agreed to help Claire in the succession race for the throne. The goal: to bring the next Saint Candidate of Sagittarius before the emperor before he passes away. Olive and Claire have found a potential saint candidate in Arjun who seems to share a past with Claire.  Thus, their search begins.

In the background, the Chairman Elections are swinging into action and the mysterious drug chlorowheat–which has the effect of temporarily dispelling the connection between True Conductors–continues its circulation.

In-Transit, Xing Clan Territory, Sagittarius 

“Can I ask you a question, Ollie?”

“You already did—”

“When are you going to stop staring at me?”

Olive scowled and looked out the train window. “I just can’t believe you did it again.”

Claire raised his hands innocently across from Olive. “I really didn’t know you didn’t know. Like before. Honestly…” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Has anyone ever told you that you’re really good at looking like you know what you’re doing?”

That was definitely an insult. A subtle one, like one of Atienna’s. 

Olive turned to Claire sharply. “Has anyone told you that you look like—” —you never know what you’re doing, was what he wanted to finish with. He thought better of it. “Never mind.”

“He’s connected to some people that know the people that you’re connected to.” Derik Stein shrugged from beside Olive. “So what? Big fucking deal.”

“It’s just that we’re working working together now,” Olive mumbled. “We need to”—he gestured between them— “be on the same page.”

“Like know what each other knows to a T?” Claire asked innocently. “But if I tell you everything, then” —his eyes narrowed— “won’t that give more work to the others in your group—at least, from what I understand? I’d rather keep my friends just as free as am I, you know?”

Olive narrowed his eyes at the accusation. But he had a point. But at the same time, did Claire think that lowly of him? He used to not care if people thought he was the worst of the worse but appearances and pride and all that. 

Claire held up his hands. “It’s not like I can talk though since I’m living very peacefully right now and turning a blind eye. I’m not pointing any fingers here. Still…”

Olive glared a bit longer, then sighed. “I wasn’t asking you to tell me your life story. I’m just asking for us to be on the same page about important things. And we’re obviously not going to go out of our way to do things that they”—the saint candidates—“don’t make us to do. You can trust me on that part at least…”

“Trust you?” Claire’s face was unsmiling for a brief moment. Then he brightened. “Of course, I know that I can trust you, Ollie! We’ve worked together how many times now?” He continued on with a hum, “I mean, it’s just me, Sigrid, and” —he glanced around the booth— “you know. That’s it.” 

Andres. 

“‘That one…’” Olive mimicked Jericho’s air quotation marks. “He has an interesting…. job. I’m just surprised. that he’s still sticking with it after what we’ve learned about them.”

Was that another reason why Claire had been so adamant about not believing that saint candidates were bad news when Olive had told him during their initial travels to the Bodhi Temple before the State Conductor’s Exam? Not only was his aunt a, but he was also connected to a True Conductor who was presumably devoted to them.

Claire blinked. “Well, beliefs shouldn’t be cast aside just because there’s one bad person tarnishing those beliefs.” He sighed. “But yeah…. I guess it’s quite complicated.” He waved a hand in the air. “Never mind that. Would you mind spilling the beans on your group since you have all my beans?”

Weird analogy. 

Olive waited, but heard no objections from the others. Still, he figured he needed to be cautious. 

“There’s six of us like I said before,” Olive drew slowly. “You’ve already met Werner and Jericho, and I guess you met Maria and Cadence indirectly too.” He mulled. “I’ll tell you if any of yours meet any of mine.”

“That’s fair,” Claire chimed. “Glad you’re not an eye-for-an-eye type.”

Olive thought for a moment then added, “Oh, we found something weird recently. It’s something called chlorowheat. A cross between morrowheat and sorrowheat—“

“Good shit—that morrowheat,” Derik said.

Claire arched a brow. “You’ve had it before?”

“Who hasn’t?”

Olive shook his head and continued, “For some reason, it weakened one person’s connection with the rest of the group…. We’re not sure if it affects all True Conductors the same way but… Generally speaking,  assuming that it does, you don’t even notice when the person who is being affected by it is gone. What the person being affected experiences isn’t transferred properly after either, so… it’s like an override but not…”

“I see…” Claire placed a hand to his chin. “Thanks. for telling me, Olive. That does sound pretty concerning.” He chuckled. “The world is moving rather fast, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, I guess…” Olive mumbled. Something then itched in the corner of his mind. “Wait… Have you ever heard of someone called Shion Myosotis? I figured I’d ask since the name sounded half-Sagittarian.”

“The person that chattery bastard went on that rant about?” Derik frowned. “Pretty sure that guy just threw that name in randomly just so he could have more things to say. Bastard loved the sound of his own voice. Wanted to blow my brains out when he was ranting to himself.”

“…She’s a real person,” Olive said, side-glancing at him. “We looked her up. Someone we know knew her. She was a peacekeeper.”

Claire’s brows rose. “Well, it’s certainly an interesting name… First name definitely sounds like she belongs to the Hoshi Clan. The surname…?”

“Ophiuchian.” 

Claire nodded with a half-frown. “Can’t say it rings any bells.” He brightened. “Oh, but you know what? Back before the Reservoir War, there were a couple of scandalous inter-marriages between certain clans and people from outside countries. I heard some stories about Ophiuchians—the original ones—coming into the clan system too. It could be that.” He placed a hand to his chin. “If you’re curious about it, I’d like to say that you can check the Hoshi Clan records through some underhanded methods, but their records were destroyed during the war.” He snapped his fingers. “You know what? Maybe Kaworu would know—”

“You mean the prince rival guy who was chasing us with the fan conductor?” Olive squinted at Claire. “Reminder—you want me alive. Besides, I doubt he’ll be gracing us with his presence any time soon…”

“Oh, there’s no doubt that the wealthier clans are hiring people to track us right as we speak,” Claire responded casually. “We can only do so much to avoid them, so we’ll probably be seeing them again soon.”

Olive stared. “So what was the point of putting our lives on the line digging into Bodhi Temple when we could’ve just followed someone else?” Then again, he’d gotten some useful information from Tenzin there himself. He still hadn’t gotten far into understanding the man’s texts. 

“For the honor, Ollie,” Claire pressed matter-of-factually. “It looks better to the people.”

Olive sighed. “Anyways. So we’re heading to Zhūshā Chéng, right? You didn’t really explain why we’re headed there. Refer back to two conversations ago for why I shouldn’t have to ask you to tell me why.”

“Oh, my bad.” Claire shrugged. “Well, have you ever been to the Twin Cities in Gemini?”

“Sort of…” Olive muttered. 

“Best night I’ve ever had,” Stein noted unhelpfully before kicking back in his seat. “The booze, the women, the casinos, the nightlife. Can find anything there.”

Olive paused and side-glanced at him. “Weren’t you…” Tight curling guilt twisted his stomach.

Derik arched a brow. “Yeah, I got fucked up, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good time.” 

“It must be nice to be so care free,” Olive muttered. Or simpleminded.

Derik sneered. “If you cry over every damned inconvenience all the time, you’re a damned pussy.”

“The world can use more sensitive people, you know?” Claire noted helpfully.

Derik snorted. “Cry a minute in the shower, slap yourself, and move the fuck on. That’s all there is to it.”

“I see how you two get along so well,” Claire chimed. 

Olive bristled but didn’t bother taking the bait. 

Claire continued, “Well, anyways, Zhūshā Chéng is kind of like the Twin Cities but without multiple crime organizations spinning things in the background.” He held up his index finger. “There’s only one. The Red Flower Family. They’ve been here since the 10th emperor’s reign. They run all sorts of businesses beneath the city—gambling, illegal trading, modified conductor markets, the black-market—”

Olive grimaced.

“—and selling information. They don’t hold allegiance to any specific clan, so the city’s neutral grounds even though we’re in Xing Clan territory now. We’re headed to a very good information broker named Loawnu who knows everything about everyone and everyone about everything—”

“—what? That doesn’t make any sense—”

“They even call her Wise Woman sometimes. You can go to ask her a question once a week—and once a week only—and she’ll give you whatever you ask for in exchange for a payment.”

Olive thought of Astante, the information broker in the Twin Cities who was connected to Cvetka, and blanched. “Do you really think it’s wise to be messing around with information brokers? They always ask for information in exchange. I don’t know if you noticed this but…”—he gestured between them— “I’ll let you puzzle together what I’m trying to say.”

“Oh? The True Conductor stuff? This broker—yeah, she knows what I am and who the people I’m connected to are. I actually visited her way back when all of this started. She helped point me in the right direction.” Claire tapped his temple and shrugged casually. “I’m still here, and they’re still where they are, so she has a tiny, little sliver of trustworthiness to her.”

Olive ogled him. “I can’t tell whether your desperation is a driving force or a damning force.”

“Aw, no need to whip out the lexicon, Ollie. We can keep it casual.” Claire nodded to the empty space by Olive’s right.  By the way, is Lavi going to visit today? Eunji seems to really like her. I think it’s good for her to have someone around her age to hang around with no strings attached.”

“I feel the same…” Olive mumbled, rubbing a strand of hair between his fingers.  “Eunji… is nice.” The atmosphere started feeling weird, so he added off-handedly to make things less weird—“Unlike her brother.”

“Hey!” Claire pouter before arching a brow. “Is it really necessary to keep a whole mystery surrounding her circumstances to my sister and vassals though? I respect your decision as a friend, of course, but… it seems like a lot of extra leg-work. My sister’s not stupid either, you know. She’ll find out eventually.”

“Is it really necessary to keep Soha, Eunji, and Felix in the dark about all this True Conductor stuff?” Olive returned back bitingly. “They’d be more helpful if they knew.”

Claire’s smile faded, indicating to Olive that he’d hit a nerve. 

“I just want Lavi to feel normal,” Olive mumbled after a beat.

Claire smiled again. “Well, I understand the feeling.”

* * *

Zhūshā Chéng, Xing Clan Territory, Sagittarius

Zhūshā Chéng was nothing like Die Hauptstadt nor the Twin Cities nor New Ram City, but it was also everything like them at the same time. 

The streets were illuminated by a warm light blue haze seeping out from tall buildings packed tight together. The buildings themselves had sweeping tiled roofs that curved up to points. Despite the buildings here standing taller than the ones in the Twin Cities, Olive could still see the expanse of the sky due to the wideness of the streets and sidewalks. V-trams cut across the wide roads and were painted in shades of blue and yellow by the odd v-lights that were encapsulated in paper lantern shells strung up on lamp posts and insulation cables. 

Everything was coated in a pleasantly colored light blue fog that spelled almost perfume-line. Incense, Claire later explained. 

Although there were many v-ehicles dotting the roads, there were several carriages being carted around by sweating men and women. Every so often, a boy or a girl or a man or a woman carrying a basket of flowers would approach them and try to sell them flowers. They were even approached once by a strange man in a desert cloak with a mask drawn up to his face. A beggar? Maybe. 

Olive supposed their group was more approachable now since they were in civilian wear—although Derik scared most off with a sneer and Felix with the fact that he still kept his half-mask over his face.

Once they arrived at the hotel that Claire had booked, Claire nonchalantly announced that he didn’t have any clue where to find Loawnu nor the ‘underground’ of the city. Olive had to resist snapping at him. He knew Claire wasn’t actually this carefree but the fact that he acted like it was annoying. It was like he did it on purpose.

“No one really knows where the entrances to the underground of the city are since it changes around all the time,” Claire informed him casually. “You have to find a flower girl or boy who gives out a red chrysanthemum, and they’ll tell where one of the entry points is.”

Until they found that flower child, they decided to spend their nights hopping from hotel to inn to motel to hotel. The idea was to keep anybody tailing them off their scent. Cadence called it playing hot potato. Werner called it the correct course of action. Derik called it annoying even though he flirted with every single attendant in every single hotel. 

After two days of babysitting Eunji and pouring over his half-baked conductors and research notes, Olive decided to head out with Claire and Felix for the search too. Eunji managed to convince Claire to let her tag along, and Lavi happened to appear around the same time so Olive made her visible with Cadence’s conducting and brought her along. Soon they were weaving through the streets to the setting sun and being annoyingly chatted up by street merchants. At least Eunji and Lavi seemed to be enjoying themselves. 

Olive himself was quite used to these hagglers from his own experiences in New Ram City and from Cadence’s personal experiences in Gemini. Ignore them until they left was Olive’s strategy. Claire himself was quite good at feigning interest in their products and sending them off with a promise to purchase, unlike Derik whose scowls paired with his Capricornian appearance made them haggle him even more. Must be court practice on Claire’s part, Olive figured, and bad socialization on Derik’s. 

The one downside to traveling as a group was that Felix and Derik kept shooting snide remarks at each other as they followed behind Olive, Lavi, Claire, and Eunji.

“You’re attracting unwanted attention with your leering,” Felix said at one point. 

“Says the one wearing a fucking face-mask still,” Derik returned. 

For some reason, the two men just couldn’t get over themselves. Olive didn’t understand why Felix was down on the ground with them instead of Soha who was watching them from above on the rooftops. Didn’t it make more sense to separate people who didn’t get along? Maybe Claire was entertaining himself. Olive didn’t understand why they thought traveling from rooftop to rooftop was normal either. Then again, that actually did seem to be the norm given some of the building designs. Certain high-rises had wide, ungated doorways that opened up to the city on several of their floors. ‘A sheer drop,’  one would think, but every couple of minutes, a person would appear illuminated at the threshold, whip out a conductor, and take flight in a burst of colored air. 

Air Elementalists dotted the skyline above the trafficky roads too. Every so often, one would float down and offer Olive or Claire a ride for some money. Politely declined, of course.

Eventually, Olive split off from Claire, Eunji, and their vassals to weave through the streets with Derik. 

“Two princes lookin’ for a flower pal,” came a sudden voice to Olive’s left. Cadence. Her faint image took form at his side, and she peered up at the sky with a hand over her eyes before side glancing at him with a lopsided smile. “Sounds like the beginnin’ of a either a really good joke or a really bad one.”

With her arrival came the buzz of all the others, all coming in at different levels of synchronizations, their surroundings sharp or blurred.

“Am I correct in my assumption that what you’re searching for is akin to a red-light district?” Werner. His tone of voice was definitely not a pleased one. And when he appeared, his lips were pressed thin. 

“Heard of this place a couple times down under,” Cadence replied with a nod. “We worked with that Red Family once I think for some conductor shippin’ stuff.” She glanced briefly at Jericho who had popped in beside her. “Anyways, apparently, the… entertainers down under are the most beautiful in the land.”

“That is illegal,” Jericho stated. “That kind of activity.”

“Eh.” Cadence shrugged. “It depends on the country.”

Jericho mulled. “Yes… you’re right.”

“It’s legal with regulation in Capricorn,” Werner provided.

“Oh, are you familiar with these kinds of places then, Werner?” Atienna now, although she was distant and merely peering in.

“We have similar… activities near the border, although—as I’ve implied—it’s highly regulated,” Werner replied. “The military allows units to visit individuals specializing in pleasure as a form of stress relief.”

“And ya never visited any of ‘em yourself?” Cadence arched a brow before she chortled. “Wait, no. I’m not surprised by that at all.”

“I had no interest in places like that,” Werner responded curtly. “Engaging in other activities can be just as relieving. There are other ways to relax.”

“Aw.” Cadence pouted with a smile. “No whiskin’ any sweet dame or lad off into the sunset?”

“I don’t believe one should start a relationship on a whim,” Werner said after some thought. “Matters like relationships should be handled with caution since they tend to be volatile. They can become… distractions.”

“‘Friendships can become distractions’…?” Jericho’s brows furrowed. “No. That’s wrong. I disagree.”

“He means of the romancin’ flavor, detective,” Cadence explained. 

Werner nodded in confirmation. 

Jericho cocked his head. “Love?”

Cadence opened her mouth, closed it, shrugged. 

“Love? Cadence and I talked a lot about that before!” Maria popped up in front of Olive, nearly sending him into cardiac arrest. “So, I know about love, my dears!” She pointed at Olive. “I love you!” Then at Cadence. “And you!” Then at Werner, Atienna, and then Jericho. “And you, you, and you!” She gestured up to the sky next. “And I love the sky! And the ocean and the earth!” She whipped back to Werner. “You see, my dear Werner, there is no distraction with love.”

Cadence chortled. “Well, that’s an interestin’ interpretation of the conversation. Really touchin’, too sunshine, but love—at least in my opinion—is a word that needs ta be dealt with… with some more finesse, so to speak. Ya know, like how I said.”

“Hey, brat.” —Derik’s voice cut through the conversation in Olive’s head.

Olive blinked and found a short curl with round cheeks holding a flower out to him.

“Would you like a flower, mister?”

Oh, Olive! Atienna. It’s–

It was a red chrysanthemum. 

* * *

After some footwork with Cadence’s help, Olive managed to annoy a thin business card from the flower girl and returned to the hotel with his head held up somewhat pathetically high. Much to his dismay, Claire also had a thin business card in hand when he returned as well. Both read in red-inked in the language of the Xing Clan—

Fu Mei’s Wok: Authentic West Xing Clan Cuisine

By this time, Lavi had faded from Olive’s vision and the other five had retreated backwards—save for Werner who lingered as always—which meant they were lucky enough not to bear witness to a very long and awkward argument between Claire and Eunji. At the argument’s melodramatic end, the latter finally agreed to stay behind with Soha.  

When Olive, Claire, Derik, and Felix arrived at the back entrance of the restaurant that was designated by the card, a smoking waiter had them strip and put all of their conductors in a burlap sack. The fact that there was heavy smoke filtering out from the restaurant didn’t help alleviate any of Werner’s concerns that buzzed at the back of Olive’s head.

Derik and Felix themselves objected for different reasons.

“No way in hell am I going to put my conductors in there.” Derik sneered. “I didn’t get my license for no reason.”

“How dare you ask that of the—” Felix began before glancing at Claire’s smiling face. “—of the upstanding citizens

But after some coercion on Claire’s part— “It’s just a little bit of skin, Felix”—and Olive’s own part—“I’m going down without you”—both men complied. After they were down to their respective undergarments and Olive was left shivering in the cold, they were led into the restaurant, through the disgusting smoke, and into a small room containing only a thin, metal black door that looked like it led into a walk-in fridge. Standing in front of the fridge was a woman wearing a pair of conductor gloves. Flanking her left and right were two men holding rifles.

The woman. Transmutationist, Conjuror, Elementalist, Specialist. Be cautious.

Olive squinted at the woman’s gloves. The insulation tubes embedded in them looked thin. Definitely a Transmutationist.

The Transmutationist beckoned them forward and ran her gloved hands along every square inch of their bodies—Felix objected this time while Derik did not. After finishing with Derik, she gave the waiter a nod. The waiter then brought out a large familiar contraption from another room before holding it before them.

“I hope you know what this means, sirs,” the waiter said.

A vitae-spectrophotometer, Olive realized. Memories of Marta working away in her workshop to perfect the device followed by her eyes glimmering with pride when he’d performed a successful trial run using it to prove Trystan’s innocence flooded Olive’s mind. Those two had been linked to each other through this device, and they had been linked to him through it too. But—

Don’t cry, Olive urged himself as he felt his eyes burn. It’s an amazing invention. I can’t ruin that by feeling like this—

A cool, cold calm passed over him paired with the faint impression of a warm hand on top of his head.

Letting out a breath, Olive allowed the waiter to take a sample of his vitae and test it. The others did the same. The waiter left with the device afterwards and returned shortly empty-handed.

“Looks like you’re all cleared,” he noted gruffly before waving his hand at the women and guarding men. 

The men moved to open the doors as the woman exited the room. The waiter gestured inside before stepping in himself.

Were they checking for Scorpio and ELPIS members? Olive thought as he followed the waiter and stepped over the threshold into a cold empty fridge with another metal door built into its opposite wall. 

After they were handed new pairs of clothing—cloth robes with a confusing tangle of layers—they were led through the door and into a small, square room that barely fit all of them. The waiter pulled the doors shut and hit one of the buttons lighting up a panel on the left-side wall. The room shook, then began to move.

An elevator, Olive realized. And they were going down.

As they descended, the smog clouding the air only increased. Incense. It was perfume scented and pleasant-smelling just like how it was above, but it still nauseated Olive so much that he nearly doubled over and puked on the spot. Derik arched a brow at him, side-stepped away, before grumbling and handing him a handkerchief he pulled from his pocket. Olive sent him a grateful look before pressing the cloth to his mouth.

The elevator dinged and the waiter pushed open the doors letting in curling, colored smoke that hung low to Olive’s feet. 

Olive stepped out with the others and was met with a still smoky air. Much to his surprise, however, he was not met with a dark gambling den nor a low-roofed hallway as he was expecting. Instead, he was greeted by a wide walkway with wooden tiles lined with multi-tiered buildings with curved, tiled roofs. Red paper v-lanterns hung in front of these buildings and lit up the pedestrian-dotted long stairs that ran up to a flat top beyond which Olive couldn’t quite see. There was little to no space between the individual buildings—just narrow alleyways a person could barely squeeze through. 

It was dark above the glow of the lanterns. Darker than Olive had been expecting even though they’d left at dusk not too long ago. Squinting up in search of starlight and finding not a twinkling star, Olive figured that it must have been an overcast night. Only after squinting further did he come to a startling conclusion. There was no sky. Only a metal ceiling whose shiny surface just barely reflected back the red vitae glow from the paper lanterns.

A humming sound drew his attention away, and he turned to find the waiter shutting the door of the elevator from inside. Up he went. Without even saying a word. Great customer service. 

“I didn’t realize you were being literal when you said this place was underground…” Olive muttered, facing forward again. 

It was actually… kind of amazing.

“It was used as a large shelter during the Clan War back in the 1600s,” Claire provided. “Carved out by the rare Sagittarian earth Elementalist. Turned into an entertainment district after that. Fortified during the Reservoir War and turned back into a shelter. Now… it’s a red district again.” 

“Thanks for the history and tour,” Olive muttered before arching a brow. “Don’t you know a lot about shady things for a prince?” 

“Look who’s talking.” Claire chuckled lightly. He led them up the wood steps and through the street. 

Now that he was closer to the buildings, Olive was able to see that they were lined with wide-open, glassless wooden windows. Men and women dressed in bright silk robes designed with flowers and other swirling patterns filled the rooms behind the windows. Many of them played large string instruments, while others spoke animatedly with less-well-dressed men and women sharing the room with them.

The music they played was quite beautiful, melodic, slow and peaceful—so peaceful that Olive almost forgot the discomfort that the smoke and incense gave him.

Other rooms, however, were not as pleasant. They contained shelves full of black boxes marked in letters that Olive couldn’t quite understand and were manned by grim-faced men and women. Every so often, one of the pedestrians would approach these rooms, slip the ‘merchant’ a thick envelope, and receive a black box in return.

Olive glanced back at the men and women playing the instruments and wondered if they were here against their will. Suddenly, it all didn’t seem so amazing anymore. His stomach curled as his mind searched for a solution.

Seeming to ignore these clearly shady developments, Derik whistled at a couple of the women in the nicer rooms. Unlike half of the women Derik usually did this to, the ones in the rooms neared the windows and began to blow him kisses and beckon him in. Olive had to tug the man away by the arm.

“No dignity,” Felix muttered under his breath.

As they ascended the steps, the number of passersby decreased, and soon they were the only ones making the ascent. When they reached the top of the stairs, they were greeted by a one-story building with paper doors drawn open. The path leading to the building was illuminated by lamp posts with dangling red paper lanterns. However, their luminescence was overshadowed by the bright blue light emanating from the chandelier hanging centrally in the building.

A young woman sat directly beneath that light holding a long-necked string instrument.

Olive was rather surprised that he hadn’t yet heard any off-handed comments from Cadence or Werner’s strong presence advising him to remain careful. Absent-mindedly and half-upset at the fact, he reached out to them both. But his call went unanswered. His heart stopped as he fully realized the emptiness swirling at the back of his mind. 

The others. He couldn’t hear them or feel them. Again. Like before. An override? No, he was still himself. Scorpio—

His heartbeat returned, hammering.

No, he hadn’t been cut or infected. He was sure. Was he? What if—

Olive’s eyes widened as he stared at the colored smoke swirling at his feet.

Chlorowheat…? Here? How hadn’t he noticed? In the air? Mixed with the incense, so he hadn’t been able to tell? He should’ve realized it still! Stupid. Wait. But why? Did they know he was a True Conductor? Wanted to… catch him…? Wait. No, that was paranoid and jumping to conclusions, stupid. 

Calm down, Olive urged himself in Werner’s voice just as he’d done back in Capricorn. Panic doesn’t do anything. Taking in a deep breath, he glanced at Claire and found him smiling pleasantly.

Was Claire not cut off from Sigrid and Andres? Or was he acting? Did chlorowheat not affect all True Conductors after all? 

Claire moved towards the building tailed by Felix. Olive glanced at Derik who arched a brow at him.

“You sick again?”

Olive shook his head and followed after Claire with Derik behind him. As they stepped into the building past the paper doors, it became clear that they were not the first arrivals. Trang of the Sao Clan and Kaworu of the Hoshi Clan sat in front of the string-playing woman on opposite corners of the spacious room. It was just them. No guards. Weird. 

Keep alert, Olive told himself in Werner’s voice.

“Hello, brother!” Kaworu waved pleasantly upon noticing them. “Good to see you again!” He dipped his head at Olive. “And a pleasure to meet your acquaintance again, Prince Olivier Chance.”

Gotta be cordial, Olive told himself in Cadence’s voice and so he offered a curt nod.

Trang remained cold and silent, sending daggers in Derik’s direction. Derik merely sneered at her, while Claire offered her a pleasant smile before sitting down. Claire then bowed deeply before the central, string-playing woman.

“It’s good to see you in good health, Loawnu.”

The woman was alright-looking, Olive supposed as he tried to distract himself from the unease he felt. Her hair was long, black, and done up with fancy-looking black pins bedazzled with jade. Her silk robes consumed half the floor. And her hands which plucked the stringed instrument were gloved with a conductor that had large glass insulation tubes with copper-rounded ends.

A Conjuror or a Specialist, Olive figured.

“I ask that your guards allow us to speak in private,” Loawnu said, setting down her instrument and smiling with red lips. Something about her slow, fluid, graceful movements was unnerving. 

Felix and Derik bristled.

“I’m not a damned vassal,” Derik spat.

“I will not leave Prince Yuseong unattended,” Felix stated with a lifted chin. 

“Lord Shiroihoshi and Lady Saođanglên have sent their guards to the lower level,” Loawnu responded calmly. “I understand your apprehension but this is how I must do business and keep confidentiality.”

Claire waved his hand in the air and turned to Felix. “Don’t worry so much, Felix. It’ll only be just a bit.”

Felix’s eyes narrowed but he dipped deeply and exited the building. 

Olive looked back at Derik and motioned with his head for the man to do the same. Derik held his ground for a full minute before sneering and heading down the steps.

“Thank you.” Loawnu pulled out a long pipe once the two men had left and began to puff it. “I understand you’re all here due to the emperor’s most recent decree.” She glanced at Olive. “I thought the rumors about the Ariesian prince being involved were just that—rumors. But I see that’s not the case.” She dipped her head at him. “It’s an honor to be in your presence just as much as it is an honor to be in the presence of a possible future ruler of Sagittarius.”

Olive resisted a grimace at the formality and side-glanced at Claire. Then he froze. Claire’s eyes were wide, his gaze constantly flicking side-to-side. Searching, scanning—for what? Wait, was the chlorowheat taking affect—

Abruptly Claire shot up to a stand. “I’m sorry, but do you have a restroom I could use?” 

Loawnu lifted a slender arm and pointed down the hall that opened up to the right. “Just down there, Lord Yuseong. It’s marked with a sign.”

Claire bowed and headed down the direction as Trang and Kaworu stared after him. After only a second of hesitation, Olive followed on after him down the hall. He peeled into what he assumed was the bathroom through a pair of sliding doors and found Claire bent over the basin there and staring into the mirror hanging up on the wall. He didn’t turn when Olive entered.

“Olive, I can’t hear or feel them.” Claire was pale and clammy in the reflection. “This isn’t an overlap. I’m me.”

“It’s… I think it’s the chlorowheat,” Olive drew slowly. “I think they mixed it in with the incense they’re putting out here. Remember what I told you in the train cart about what it can do?”

Claire stared at him through the reflection.

Olive stiffened. “Do you… want me to get Felix?”

Claire shook his head. “No, he wouldn’t understand… He’d…”

“Claire,” Olive drew slowly, somewhat alarmed. “Look… It’s temporary. You’ll be able to hear them again once we get out of here after a couple of hours, but… we should get the information first… right?” 

Claire continued to stare at him.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to get Felix?”

“Felix…” Claire stared down into the basin. “…was a refugee from Aquarius that came here during the famine in that country around ten years ago…. He came to Sagittarius when he was really young,” he explained. “When I was visiting one of the refugee camps when I was younger, an assassin tried to drive a horse cart over me and make it look like an accident. Even though I didn’t know Felix, he pushed me out of the way and was injured in my place. I took him in after that. He’s been by my side since. But even though he’s by my said, my clan doesn’t recognize him as a member because of his lineage… I’m very grateful to him…. like I’m grateful to Soha. She’s been there as long as I can remember. Sometimes I think she’s been more of a mother to me than…” He shook his head. “They both believe that I can become emperor and abolish the clan system. I can’t have them seeing me like this.”  

Uh…” Olive shut the door behind him as thoughts of Werner filled his mind. “Okay…

He was completely flabbergasted. He’d never seen Claire like this before, and he felt like he was encroaching on something personal just by witnessing whatever this was. Was it the chlorowheat? But it wasn’t affecting him in the way it was affecting Claire. Was it because Claire wasn’t connected to Sigrid and Andres anymore or was it a direct effect of the chlorowheat? Whatever it was, this thing was dangerous. That and Claire was making him annoyingly worried.

“I’m not driven and strong like Sigrid. I’m not dedicated like Andres.” Claire’s grip on the basin tightened. “All I can ever think about is trying to find an escape route and being free from all of this—” He gestured around the dim bathroom and then slammed his hands on the basin in frustration. “Why do I have to do this? Why can’t someone else step up and do it instead? It just isn’t fair. It’s not like I’m the only one who decided to do this back then. We all made that promise, but everyone else just… gave up. Or maybe they grew up.”

Olive blinked, startled, and watched as Claire threw himself against the wall behind him before sinking to the floor.

“But if I don’t do it then who will?” Claire grumbled. “My sister might have to do it instead, and I can’t let her go through this… But will becoming emperor and abolishing the clan system do anything in the long run? What if it doesn’t last? If I stop and look back in the future, I’m afraid I’ll be disappointed by everything behind me. That it’s all for nothing.”

The words were like a slap to the face.

“Look I’m no good with these kinds of things…” Olive grumbled as he awkwardly sank down beside Claire. “But even if Sigrid and Andres help you along the way, it’s still you who’s doing these things one-by-one and taking these steps.”

Claire’s head dipped.

“And just because you might be disappointed by the end result doesn’t mean that you should stop. One disappointment doesn’t mean everything else will be a disappointment. That’s just how the numbers add up. It’s impossible to be completely one thing, so it’s impossible for everything to be disappointing. Anyways, not like you can’t learn from those disappointments.” Olive had no idea what he was saying. Cadence was way better at these things than him.  He bit his lip as he searched his mind. “If you…. really want to stop, then I think you should stop. But I don’t think you want that. I mean, we were given these lives of privilege… so not doing anything to—er—help others”—Saints, this was embarrassing, Olive thought—“with it feels like we’re… not using it right.”

Claire’s head remained bowed.

Olive reached over and shook Claire hard on the shoulder. “Claire, it’ll be okay.” He cast a glance to the side. “You’re okay. And being okay is better than okay. Ugh. Please don’t make me say any more.”

Claire finally lifted his head and blinked blearily at him before running a hand down his face. After a second, he sighed. “Well, that was embarrassing…”

“That wasn’t embarrassing…” Olive grumbled, releasing Claire’s shoulders and pulling away. “You scared me…”

“I’ve been…” Claire mulled. “Stressed… so to speak. Sorry you had to see that.” 

“I mean… it’s basically what happened to me when we were in Capricorn. I’ve just experienced it already. That’s it.” Although it was much, much worse back with Scorpio, but Olive didn’t bother mentioning it.

“Huh….” Claire regarded him. “Well… thanks for bearing with me…” He nodded at the door. “Would you mind heading back first? I kind of do have to use the restroom.”

Of course. 

* * *

When Olive re-entered the main room, Kaworu was fanning himself absentmindedly while Trang was quietly sipping tea. The tea set itself was set in front of Loawnu who was pouring two small cups from a brass pot.

“Welcome back, Prince Chance,” Kaworu greeted Olive with a smile as Olive seated himself. “I’m still quite surprised that Aries has decided to put their foot into this affair, but I admire your passion for international relations.”

What was Kaworu trying to do? Olive thought. Butter him up?

“You’re being friendly even though you were chasing me through the sky just two weeks ago.” Olive frowned and then took one from Jericho’s book. “‘Is it customary’ to let bygones be bygones just like that?”

“I apologize for that,” Kaworu returned without skipping a beat. “I wasn’t in the right state of mind. You have all the right reasons for being angry. However, I want to keep relations between us pleasant since we’re potential future leaders of powerhouse nations.”

“Okay, Three-steps-behind.”

Kaworu hid an obvious scowl with his fan.

Trang sipped her tea quietly before setting down her cup. “It’s always you people getting involved in things you don’t understand and bringing your problems into our country while seeking to profit from us. External intervention is why my clan slipped in power in the 1700s.”

Kaworu scoffed from behind his fan. “That’s quite an excuse. Is that also why you haven’t had a member on the throne since then?” 

Olive resisted rolling his eyes.

Loawnu cleared her throat, cutting the conversation in two. “I hope I’m not stepping out of bounds by saying this, My Lord and My Lady, but I hope that you take a look at what’s going on beyond the borders of this country too.” She set two teacups in front of Olive. “Recently, a handful of Aquarian thieves were found in the residence of a Cancerian duke. Whoever ascends the throne will have to deal with the tumultuous relations between those two countries.” 

Kaworu hid his mouth behind his fan again, although his eyes narrowed. “Aquarius and Capricorn. Such troublesome nations.” 

A soft padding of footsteps signaled Claire’s return, and he entered the room before reseating himself beside Olive. Loawnu offered him a pleasant smile and resumed puffing on her pipe.

“As you know in this line of business,” she said, “a payment of information is necessary in order to obtain information or we’d be out of business. Unfortunately, it’s quite easy for people to lie. Fortunately…” She tucked her pipe away and extended her conductor-gloved hand. “I can easily read the whole truth from you with my conducting. I’m a Specialist.”

Kaworu and Trang stiffened while Claire remained relaxed with distant, tired eyes. Olive himself leaned forward in surprise—wait a minute…

“I promise it won’t hurt,” she added. 

“Wait…” Olive drew slowly as the gears in his head turned. “Your conducting… You can… read the memories from a person’s vitae?” Like Epsilon?

The corners of Loawnu’s eyes crinkled. “It brings into question why there’s such debate surrounding the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis, doesn’t it? But yes, I can extract information that is stored in a person’s vitae through touch.”

“Can you…” Olive tried. “Pass on the information to other people too?”

“Oh? Passing on the information that I’ve received? Now that sounds like quite a fairytale, doesn’t it?” Loawnu shook her head before continuing, “Obsessions. Desires. Intense lingering attachments. These are the things that I usually obtain through my conducting.” She extended her hand. “So who’s first?”

Kaworu and Trang exchanged looks from their respective corners. Claire moved forward, although his face was still pale and his lips tight. Olive felt something squirm uncomfortably in his stomach at the sight so he moved forward ahead of Claire and took Loawnu’s hand. The woman blinked at him in surprise, and he felt three pairs of eyes on him.

“Just because the atmosphere’s getting too dramatic for me…” Olive grumbled. “Let’s just get this over with…”

Loawnu smiled at this for some reason before shifting forward towards him. In that instant, her long silk robes peeled slightly away from her pale, bare legs.

Olive felt sick again as he eyed them, and his heart plummeted into his stomach. 

Her legs. They were chained. Before he could fully digest the sight, a warm ocean blue glow drew away his attention. His hand that was in Loawnu’s hold was enveloped in the color and it warmed the entire room in the same hue. Loawnu’s eyes themselves were glassy and distant.

“Ah… that’s peculiar…” Her brows met. “This isn’t you.”

Olive felt a chill run down his spine.

“The syzygy, the lingering desire to complete it. The Saint Candidate of Ophiuchus and the True Conductors. True peace. A complete return to nothingness. Happiness.”

Loawnu released Olive from her hold before smiling again. “Thank you for your payment.”

“Wait…” Olive’s head spun. “What did you see?”

Loawnu merely pulled back into her former position. “Perhaps next time, Prince Olivier Chance. You want to find the Saint Candidate of Sagittarius above all, don’t you?”

* * *

“Thank you for your payment,” Loawnu said as she pulled away from Kaworu who was the last person to offer her their hand. “Since you have now all paid an equally precious token, I’ll tell you what you’ve come here to seek. A couple days ago a Monadic priest visited me to request some information I won’t disclose due to confidentiality. In return, however, I read some of his memories. In those memories, I spied the individual you seek engaging in friendly relations with him. This priest’s name is Lyrs Faitah, and he’s still in this city—though, who knows for how long. While I don’t have the location of the one you seek, I’m certain Lyrs Faitah does”

What…? Olive had to resist scowling. So they had to search for person two in order to search for person one? This was getting annoying. 

“A priest?” Kaworu stopped fanning himself. “That’s a bit odd—a priest coming here.” He snapped his fan shut. “And what happens to be the name of the person the priest has friendly relations with…? Or perhaps you could provide the list of the potential saint candidates instead?”

“That’s quite a large sum of information you’re requesting, Lord Shiroihoshi,” Loawnu replied, bowing her head. “I’m sincerely sorry, but you are aware that you can only request one piece of information per week. It’s quite taxing otherwise with all the other visitors I receive.”

Eyes narrowing, Kaworu snapped his fan shut and rose to his feet. He shook his fan once and then something thin, metal, and slender fell out from it onto his waiting palm. The glass insulation tube that ran through its center designated it clearly as a conductor. Pointing its tip squarely at Loawnu, Kaworu lifted his head.

“Kaworu!” Trang snapped.

“You were the one who said that if you weren’t willing to go this far,” Kaworu pressed, “then you don’t deserve the throne, correct?”

Loawnu remained impassive. “Oh, dear. How did you manage to get that past our checkpoints?”

In response, Kaworu lifted the small conductor and brought it down. Olive braced himself for impact, but nothing happened. Kaworu stared at his conductor in confusion.

“You won’t be able to use your conductor or any form of conducting here,” Loawnu explained calmly. “The air in this underground district is filled with smoke from a plant that has peculiar effects on Conductors. There’s not enough of it in the air to cause psychological or somatic effects, but it’s quite enough to render Conductors unable to utilize their vitae temporarily.”

At this, Olive immediately glanced down at his bare palm and concentrated. The insulator, the conductor core, the connecting tubes. His veins and blood vessels, his heart, his body. His hands hummed with warmth and the very faintest of sparks danced at his fingertips, but it puttered away into nothing. His head became light at the sight, and he was unsure if he was afraid, worried, or relieved.

Kaworu took a step back and frowned at Loawnu’s hands. “But you—”

“I’m quite used to the scents here,” Loawnu explained pleasantly. “It seems as if my body has adapted to it. I need a much larger dose for it to affect me the way it affects you.”

That couldn’t be good for her health long term, Olive thought with a grimace as he clenched his fist. Lavi…

Loawnu proceeded to gesture to the open paper doors behind them. “Thank you for using my service. Please come again. You can leave from the way you came.”

* * *

In nervous quiet, Olive rode up the elevator with Claire, Felix, and Derik. They had rejoined the latter two men outside the building, and both had reacted as expected—concerned and very angry—after learning the effects of the chlorowheat.

“This is dangerous, My Lord,” Felix muttered as the elevator slowed to a stop. “We need to return to Soha as soon as possible. I won’t be able to protect you properly without my conducting.”

Claire, still pale, nodded silently. This earned a frown of concern from Felix. 

The elevator dinged, and they loaded back into the empty walk-in fridge where they were handed back their clothes, conductors, and miscellaneous items. 

“Fuck,” Derik swore after trying to activate a blade-conductor that had been formerly confiscated from him. “It really doesn’t work.” He nodded at Olive as they cautiously exited the restaurant building and re-entered the street. “How long does it last? This feels weird as hell.”

Olive shrugged. “A couple hours…? Maybe?” He squinted up at the skyline.

It was night-time now, the crescent of the moon barely seeping through the smog in the sky. 

“I suggest we use an air Conductor to get home,” Felix said.

Claire nodded silently. 

After frowning with concern again, Felix hailed four passing air Conductors with a whistle and wave.  While Claire boarded a conductor in the shape of a large oar conducted by an elder man, Olive found himself balancing on a staff conductor that seemed ten times thinner than Claire’s. Its Conductor was a young man who looked half Olive’s own age. Reassuring.

They took to the skies a second afterwards one after the other. Olive took the time to admire the twinkling lights and tiny little lanterns flitting below them as they flew forwards, while also trying to reach for the others. 

A sudden gust of cold wind swirled through the area causing Olive to shiver. And then suddenly, his stomach was doing flip-flops. It took another second for him to realize that he was in free fall. Just one second after, he was crashing into the roof tiles of a building and sliding down its sloping edge. He managed to catch himself with the sole of his shoes just before he flew off the edge and plummeted five stories below. The air Elementalist that had been flying him wasn’t so lucky and slid past him and off the roof.

With effort, Olive grabbed at the Conductor’s arm and pulled him up onto the roof. The young man gave him a grateful look but Olive met it with a scowl. He then glanced over his shoulder and found  Derik groaning just a foot away from him and Claire and Felix pulling themselves up further back. He faced forward again and blanched.

There were over twenty porcelain-masked air Elementalists floating in the skyline across from them. Each Elementalist shared their conductor with another masked individual. The uniforms and their frowning monstrous masks looked familiar to Olive. He’d seen them several times before.

“Assassins from the Xing Clan!” Claire shouted behind Olive in alarm.  

Olive barely had the time to react before several of the masked assassins lifted their gloved hands, conjured what looked like knives, and threw the weapons at them. Paired with this assault came a whirling rain of painfully bright vitae blades. 

Claire was in front of both Olive and Derik in an instant.

“My Lord!” Felix cried in alarm.

Claire spun out his staff-conductor quickly to its full length and whipped it in a dizzying arc. Several loud metallic clinks resonated through the air as the knives and vitae blades embedded themselves into the roofing around them. At the end of the storm, Claire was left only mildly panting—although he was still pale and clammy.

“Damn,” Derik noted. “You didn’t tell me you knew combat.” 

“Why thank you. But, well…” Claire lowered his staff-conductor as the Projectors pulled out conducting rifles and the Conjurors produced pistols. “I can’t block bullets and vitae-rays…” He cupped his hands and called out to the assassins. “I have the Ariesian prince here with me! Do not—”

All of them aimed their weapons simultaneously.

“Run!” Claire shouted despite the fact that he was already darting across the rooftop with Felix just behind him. 

Derik grabbed at Olive’s wrist as the air Elementalists they’d been riding with yelped and scrambled away in the opposite direction. Without warning, as vitae rays and bullets pounded around them, Derik dragged Olive forward along the rooftop after Claire while muttering under his breath— “I shouldn’t be running. Bastards.” Olive himself could barely catch up with the man’s pace and his feet left the ground several times. 

Soon, they reached the very edge of the roof—which Claire and Felix leapt off of without a second thought. Derik hesitated for just a  moment before leaping too and pulling Olive with him. 

They stumbled onto another tiled roof just three feet below and continued to run along it as the vitae-ray fire blazed down around them. As they neared the edge of this roof, one of the tiles beneath Olive’s foot shattered beneath his weight, sending him slipping down to his knees. Derik was jerked backwards by his fall, and he whipped around with a glare—

“Are you fucking serious—”

He didn’t have time to finish his sentence as two of the Projectors leapt down from the air Elementalists they were riding with and darted at them. Derik threw himself at one of them just as the assassin was on top of Olive. The other accompanying assassin tackled Derik to the ground in retaliation and pulled out a flickering wisteria vitae blade as he held Derik down.

Olive stared frozen, ears ringing.

“Run, you fucking dumbass!” Derik snapped at him.

No.

Olive scanned the area for something, anything as he tried to get sparks to ignite at his fingertips. Trystan’s agonized face burned its way into his thoughts. No, no no heat, but—there. He grabbed at a piece of the tiled roofing that had chipped off, ran at the assassin on top of Tryst—Derik—and proceeded to swing the tile at the assassin’s head. It shattered upon impact and the assassin staggered backwards. 

Derik used the opportunity to deliver the assassin a quick blow to the chest that sent them stumbling back into the first assassin. Olive meanwhile picked up several more cracked tiles and chucked them at the assassins and at several of the ones in the air. Most missed, some hit.

“Saints—you’re a dumbass!” Derik snapped, scrambling to a stand.

“Don’t you think I know that?!” Olive scowled back.

“Olive!” Claire jogged back towards them and swept his staff-conductor along the roof, flinging up the tiles in the air with a cloud of dust. “Hurry! Let’s go!”

Derik grabbed Olive by the arm again and dragged him after Claire and Felix. Rooftop to rooftop they leapt, dodging the seemingly endless pursuit. Over clotheslines, through clusters of v-lanterns strung up between buildings. Along the way, Felix managed to pick up several conjured blades that had missed them and hurtled them at their pursuers. A handful of them met their targets and sent them plummeting to the city below. This seemed to turn Felix into a target as the vitae ray fire and weaponry became concentrated on him. While Felix was startling fast, eventually a flying blade managed to hit his leg. At the impact, the man grimaced, stumbled slightly, but staggered forward. 

“Felix!” Claire cried in alarm as he caught the man. Despite Felix’s protests, Claire looped the man’s arm over his shoulder and continued to drag him along in their escape.

Eventually they reached the edge of a building with a much larger gap between it than the next. It looked at least several yards across with a sheer drop into the city below.

“Look!” Felix pointed to a pair of wooden beams that connected the buildings to each other.

Olive figured it was left-over from construction with the way all of these roof tiles kept falling apart.

Felix extended his hand out to Claire. “My Lord, you must hurry quickly—”

“You first!” Claire ordered. “You’re injured!”

Felix opened his mouth.

“This is an order, Felix!”

With reluctance, Felix obeyed and quickly made his way across the wooden beams. Derik hoisted Olive up next. Olive gulped, spreading his arms wide as he balanced his way across the makeshift bridge. Below him, the v-ehicles and v-trams looked like ants. But there were people down there, and Olive didn’t feel like traumatizing them with his death any time soon. 

As soon as he made it across, he turned to find Derik just behind him. As soon as the man made it over, however, the bridge was splintered by a whirling vitae blade. In a blink, the bridge exploded into tiny pieces that rained down into the traffic below.

“Claire!” Felix cried out in alarm.

Without hesitation, Claire swung out his staff conductor, ran backwards several feet, and then charged forwards. Using his staff as an axle, he flung himself forward across the distance. But it wasn’t far enough. Just a little more and it would’ve been perfect—

But Olive flung himself forward instead and grabbed a hold of Claire’s wrist just as he fell past them on the building. Felix was at his side in an instant and together they pulled Claire onto the roof with them. Felix sent Olive a grateful look as he guided Claire back onto his feet. It would’ve been nicer if they weren’t running for their lives.

Upon spinning around to see where they were to run to next, Olive found his dazed relief melting into a scowl.

Large metal fencing rose up on the three sides of the building around them. Obviously impenetrable without a conductor. 

“Whose bright idea was this?” Claire asked, panting and glancing at Derik.

“I was just jumping where this dumbass—” Derik jabbed a finger at Felix “—was fucking jumping.”

Felix dipped his head. “I deeply apologize, My Lord.”

The air Elementalists began to ring around them in the air.

Claire let out a shaky sigh and pulled up his staff conductor again.

It was then that Olive spied something odd on the ground just a foot away. A black spot. It couldn’t be. Francis’s gate. Wait. He didn’t have a proto-conductor. But still—maybe—it was worth a shot even if it was embarrassing.

Olive fell to the ground beside the spot and earned odd looks from those behind him. He whispered down into the spot regardless, “Francis, please—”

Much to Olive’s surprise, the black spot ignited in pale tangerine light as a burst of cold air blew him backwards towards Derik who caught him. Olive couldn’t believe his luck. “Guys, jump—” His words died in his mouth and his relief quickly dimmed as an unfamiliar figure emerged from the light while facing him in a stumbling burst. 

A woman. Her hair was long, glossy, and dark which reflected the white light from the vitae blade in her hand. Upon seeing that color of vitae, Olive didn’t feel any simmering hatred. No, Jericho wasn’t here for him to be feeling something like that. So the only thing Olive felt was fear.

“ELPIS…!” one of the assassins floating above them hissed.

The air became razor thin as all gazes became focused on the woman. 

It took a moment for Olive to realize that the woman’s gaze wasn’t focused on him or the others but on the gate itself. But why?—

Clink, clink, clink, clink.

Olive’s blood ran cold at the familiar sound that began to emit from the gate. He’d faced it two times before—once himself in Capricorn and another time through Cadence and Jericho in Gemini. 

Pale, white, glowing chains burst out from the gate like flower petals without warning. The ELPIS woman lifted her vitae blade as a man emerged from the gate. His hair was full of wild ginger curls, his hand gloved and extended out towards the woman, his bow tie billowing slightly in the wind.

Iota…? 

“You’re Gamma’s dog, Iota…” The ELPIS woman lifted her blade.

Iota.

“That bitch?” Derik whispered, raising his fists. “What the fuck is going on? I thought I—”

Iota merely flicked her wrist and sent the chains hurtling at the woman. The woman in turn dodged left, right, and then leapt at one of the air Elementalists hovering just above her. The air Elementalist began to sway beneath the added weight before he was torn from the air by Iota’s chains. The ELPIS woman leapt onto another air Elementalist then another and another as Iota shot through them all.

“You’re pointing fingers when you’ve always been a follower, Nu,” Iota called out.

The white chains raked through the sky wildly as Iota lifted her hand. They swept through the area in a wide circle, knocking several of the air Elementalists out from the sky. Olive ducked low beneath the sweeping chains with the others and watched as they tore away the fencing around them.

Nu threw herself at the opposite building and managed to land safely on her feet. She proceeded to whip out a familiar, needle-shaped proto-conductor and spluttered its contents on the ground. Without skipping a beat, she pointed its tip to the ground and slid into the light that emanated from it.

Shouting in frustration, Iota flicked his wrist and formed a chain bridge between their building and the one below. Once he reached the other side, he just barely managed to fling himself into the gate Nu had created before it closed.

And just like that, the ELPIS leaders were gone.

“Was… that a fever dream?” Claire whispered. 

The remaining assassins hanging in the air began to float on towards them. Their goal and target clear despite the intrusion.

“It feels like it’s about to become a fever nightmare…” Olive muttered.

After stumbling backwards with the others, he peered over the roof’s edge that was now clear of the fencing due to Iota’s intervention. A canopy was just six feet below. And another canopy just below. And another one. Okay. Time to channel Maria. 

“Claire!” Olive shouted before he leapt at Derik and sent both of them off the roof just as another burst of vitae rays rained down on them. 

Derik swore all the way down—even as they crashed onto the canopy and into another canopy and into another one and finally collided with the ground on their backs. Both Felix and Claire landed beside them on all fours—like feathers. Annoying feathers. Seeming to notice Felix’s gracefulness, Derik quickly pulled himself onto his feet and jerked Olive up to a stand by the back of his shirt.

Shouts of alarm filled the air as all the people that occupied the alleyway they had landed in fled in opposite directions. Their shouts increased as the canopies above their heads were torn to pieces by raging winds. Down from the now clearly skyline descended the assassins. One of the Projectors descending with an air Elementalist leapt off from their partner’s conductor with a vitae blade drawn—

Bang!

The Projector fell to the ground like a rock and red pooled beneath him. 

Olive’s ears rang with the sound of the bullet, and he turned to find a figure in a ragged desert cloak wearing a half-mask standing behind him. The cloaked figure lifted his pistol and shot another air Elementalist who was hurtling down towards them right out of the sky. The Elementalist dropped like a stone to the ground with a sickening crack. The figure then grabbed Olive by the wrist—

“Follow me.”

“Wha—” Olive barely had the time to respond before he was dragged away by them. He kicked, shouted, and bit at the figure’s wrist but to no avail.

Down smoky streets they went, turning tight corners, squeezing between narrow alleys, past buzzing markets—

“Get the fuck off of him! Fuck you, asshole! Pedophile!”

Olive whipped around to see Derik, Claire, and Felix hot in pursuit. He faced forward again just in time to find himself pulled through the paper doors of a narrow back alley building. The figure pushed Olive to the side and closed the paper doors as soon as Derik, Claire, and Felix stumbled inside.

Olive nearly leapt five feet when another masked figure—shorter than the first—emerged from nowhere and shoved a stack of clothing into his hands. The other taller figure moved to provide the same for the other three.

As Olive tried to calm his heavy panting and collect his thoughts, he scanned the area. It was a room. A small with only a single circular table set off to the side wall, a fireplace, and two beds set parallel to each other sitting opposite of everything else.  

The taller figure pointed to their clothing.

Change.

Did he know about Scorpio’s mediums? Who was this? One of the other clan members? One of the people from the underground? 

Mind racing, Olive quickly changed into the new set of clothing while Claire followed suit. Felix frowned at this but did the same with great difficulty due to his injury. Olive sent him a sympathetic look and then Derik a glare until the latter reluctantly changed clothing as well. The tallest cloaked figure then gathered all of their clothes and tossed them into the fireplace before pointing to Felix’s leg.

“He’s not infected,” Claire answered quickly. “I assure you—he isn’t.”

“Wait, My Lord,” Felix drew hesitantly. “Perhaps, I should—”

Derik meanwhile rolled up his sleeves and glowered at the masked figures. “No, no one is going anywhere. You—”

“Stand down, Stein,” ordered a familiar voice. Masculine, strict, deep, strong.

Derik stiffened, eyes widening at the tallest cloaked figure. 

The figure removed his mask as he set down his pistol onto the table. Olive resisted gawking at the face hidden beneath it. Captain Volker Weingartner in the flesh. The other figure pulled down his mask revealing himself to be none other than Martin Von Spiel.

“You’re the Ariesian prince.” Captain Weingartner nodded at Olive without skipping a beat. He extended his hand to him. “It’s a pleasure to meet you… in person as yourself, Olive. You’re much more charming in person than in the papers and than in someone else’s body.” When Olive didn’t move to take his hand, he arched a brow. “Do you remember me…?”

“I… yes…” Olive stared, accepting the handshake. The man’s hand was firm. “Just… surprised.”

Weingartner nodded and turned to Claire before offering the same gesture. “It’s a pleasure to become reacquainted with you as well, Prince Yuseong.”

Claire returned the handshake with a tired but practiced smile. “It’s a small world. You’re very far from Capricorn, Captain.” 

Weingartner nodded and turned then to Derik, looked him up and down, before saluting. Derik returned the salute with his usual lack of enthusiasm but his back was straighter than usual. Weingartner then offered the man a handshake too which Derik accepted.

“I have to say… I’m both surprised and not surprised to see you here, Stein,” Weingartner drew slowly. “How are you feeling…?”

“Like usual, sir,” Derik replied. “Better here than in Aries. Missing Capricorn but there’s enough action around the prince.”

Martin moved forward, sat Felix down at one of the beds, and began to bandage the man’s leg. Olive wondered if he was thinking of Fritz.

“Aries?” Weingartner arched his brow before looking down at Olive. His expression became sympathetic for a moment before he smiled. “Good man.” He then addressed them all with a firm nod, “Don’t worry about your pursuers. They won’t follow us here. Not to this part of the city. And if they do—well—we have several escape plans in place.”

Olive exchanged a look with Claire before drawing slowly, “I thought you were near Bodhi Temple somewhere… Why are you here? How did you know we were…?”

“Oh, I suppose Viktoria’s letter hasn’t reached Werner yet.” Weingartner rubbed his chin before sitting down on a stray stool. “We found out about this city last month. It’s nature  makes it difficult for Scorpio’s eyes to make home here. They also have resources here we can use to our advantage too. We’ve been working with—well…  It might be better if I communicate directly with Werner about this situation. As for how I found you…” Weingartner thought for a moment. “Did you really not see me when you arrived here?” 

Olive arched a brow and shook his head.

“Well—” Weingartner’s lips pressed thin. “Anyways, may I speak to Werner, Olive?”

Olive tensed. “I’m… not able to talk to any of the others at the moment.”

Martin stiffened as did Weingartner.

“I’m not infected or anything.” Olive raised his hands. “It’s just the chlorowheat. We went to the underground… And…”  He explained the situation from the very beginning to both Capricornians. 

“I see…” Weingartner’s gaze was soft. “So the radio wasn’t overdramatizing your allegiance to Prince Yuseong. But you’re saying that your overall aim is to…? That’s very kind of you, Olive.”

Olive looked away. “Not really… Just don’t want… things to get weird or harder for Werner.”

There was a beat of silence.

“You’re looking for a Monadic priest?” Martin exchanged a look with Weingartner. “Would they happen to be a Scorpioan priest?”

“Lyrs Faitah?” Claire tried.

Martin finished bandaging Felix’s leg before going over to the bed sitting parallel to Felix’s. It was occupied. With little hesitation, he pulled the sheets off revealing a slumbering young man with short dark locks and tanned skin. He was dressed in instantly recognizable Monadic robes.

“He stumbled in here drunk this morning,” Martin explained, shaking his head. “A far cry from any Monadic priest that I’ve ever seen—that’s for sure.” He reached into the man’s pocket and pulled out a slip of plastic. A conducting license. He held it out to them.

Olive moved forward, took it, scanned it.

Lyrs Faitah / 1921 / M
License Special Class: Diplomat
Conducting-Type: Specialist
Color: Rosewood
Most used c.a.: glove conductors
Issue Year 1938 / Expire Year 1942

“It says they’re a diplomat…” Olive frowned.

“It also expires this year,” Claire said pointedly as he read over Olive’s shoulder. “It could be outdated. The status, I mean.”

“Fuck it.” Derik spat. “I’m sick of this city already. Let’s just take him and get the hell out of here.”

Now?” Olive turned to Derik and scowled as he gestured to the unconscious man. “You mean abduct him?” 

“Well…” Claire drew.

Olive squinted at him before turning back to Weingartner. “If you have a message for Werner… I can still give it to him once our connection is back.” He shifted in place. “He’s at the Aquarian-Capricornian border right now, so….”

“He’s…” Martin frowned. “At the border…?”

“The government and Scorpio…” Olive frowned. “…are making him investigate the ACC there.”

Weingartner and Martin exchanged looks again, both of their lips thinning into lines. Olive tensed at this.

“I understand your situation,” Weingartner said, “but given that information, I think it might be best for us to refrain from information exchange temporarily. Just for the time being.”

Olive understood the implications and felt his cheeks burn. “I… okay… still, thank you for helping us and everything.” He gestured around the room. “I hope this all works out…”

“I should be thanking you,” Weingartner returned. “My daughter’s safe because of Cadence. And we were able to covertly make our way here through her help too.”

Olive opened his mouth, then shut it as he pulled on a strand of his hair.

Weingartner placed a hand on his shoulder. “We’re just getting started, Olive. Trust me. We’ll be ready for whatever comes.”

* * *

In-Transit, Xing Clan Territory, Sagittarius 

Three hours later Olive, Claire, Felix, Soha, Eunji, Derik, and Lyrs were on a train in a private compartment heading away from Zhūshā Chéng. 

Olive’s connection with the other five still hadn’t returned and his conducting hadn’t yet either. The same applied for Claire. Felix’s conducting had returned two hours ago, and Derik looked to be getting his conducting back. He’d complained that it felt like was in conducting-training and the military academy all over again.

At the moment, the three of them sat together in the compartment with a frowning Soha and a pensive Eunji. Both had been troubled after learning of chlorowheat’s effects, although Eunji seemed more curious than concerned. Her curiosity at the moment was mostly held by the unconscious Lyrs Faitah who was draped across an entire booth seat in front of them all.

“My Lord, I believe we should just induce his awakening,” Felix said, now back in his dark robes. “I fear we may have the wrong man. It would be best to wake him even if it is a violent awakening.”

“Fuckin’ agree with this Aquarian for once,” Derik grumbled. “Getting bored as hell just waiting for him to wake up now.

Sound logic.

Eunji approached the man casually, pulled off his socks, and pinched both of his toes.

Olive stared. “What are you—”

Lyrs immediately shot up with a loud yelp that nearly sent Olive into cardiac arrest. Again.

“Works like a charm every single time,” Eunji noted.

Claire squinted at her. “Wait a minute. Do you do that to me—”

“Where am I…?” Lyrs blinked blearily, gaining all of their attention, as he scanned the room. He arched a brow as he looked them up and down. “I didn’t ask for this kind of service.” He pointed to Eunji. “Definitely not this kind of service.”

Soha pulled Eunji away from him and slapped his pointing finger down. 

“You are in the presence of Sagittarian royalty,” Felix said thickly before glancing at Olive, “and Ariesian royalty. I advise you to hold yourself with some dignity.”

Lyrs did a double-take. “W-what…?”  He scooted back against the train window and then whipped around to peer through it. “Am I… Am I on a train? What in saint’s name is going on here?”

Claire subsequently moved on to explain the succession war, Arjun, and the details given to them by the information broker.

“You… kidnapped me… to try to get me to help you find Arjun?” Lyrs looked them over. “You’re all royalty? Can I see your licenses to be sure? Do I bow?” He paused. “Can I take a picture?”

Olive felt apprehensive. He thought of Cadence and tried to channel her way of thinking. Right. This man here was being way too casual about this. He either had a motive up his sleeve or he had a few screws loose. It would be awful if it was both, meaning that it was probably both. 

“Do you know Arjun?” Claire tried, also sounding apprehensive as he showed Lyrs his license as proof. 

“Of course, I know Arjun,” Lyrs replied, crossing his legs and scanning the ID. “I know where he is now too.” 

“We’ll pay you handsomely if you give us his location,” Claire said, his smile practiced despite his tired eyes. “But I think it might be best if you stay under our care for the time being. I understand that this might be hard since you probably have other commitments. But please understand. A lot of dangerous people will be after you for your connection with Arjun—”

“I can do you one better,” Lyrs interjected, relaxing back into his seat. “I can lead you right to him. Only you. No one else.  And no commitments here aside from my daily prayers”

Now, there were alarm bells ringing in Olive’s head.

“I mean… I’ll do it for a price, of course.” 

Of course. 

“I’d like for you all to endorse someone who’s running for Head Chair of Ophiuchus,” Lyrs continued. “It would help them earn quite a lot of votes if they were endorsed by future powers of Signum.”

Olive did a double-take, trying to wrap his head around the turn of events in this already befuddled day.

“His name is Seamus Dolby,” Lyrs finished, “and he’s first chair of the International Relations Department. I’m sure you’ve heard how great he is on radio.”

Olive scowled. “I’m not—”

“Deal,” Claire chirped. “From here on, Seamus Dolby is the greatest chairman to have ever graced Signum.”

“My Lord,” Felix pressed quietly. “Something about this concerns me…”

Claire turned back to him with a half-smile. “All for a better future for Sagittarius, right?”

* * *

Two hours later and still nothing. The quietness made Olive uneasy so he stayed in the main compartment area a little while longer than usual. Soha had already taken Eunji away for rest. Claire, on the other hand, had stayed up for a little while longer with Felix but eventually turned in too. He didn’t look too great, so Olive had hoped that he was able to reconnect with Sigrid and Andres by the morning for his sake. That left Olive alone with Derik.

Derik’s conducting had finally come back fully, and he was now sitting in a booth and idly inspecting one of his ignited blade-conductors with something akin to pride. After some hesitation, Olive shut the text he’d been reading and wandered his way over to the Capricornian. Derik didn’t acknowledge his presence.”

“Derik, can I ask you something…?” 

“Yeah?” Derik deactivated his blade. “You fuckin’ already are, but shoot.”

Olive ignored the former comment and asked slowly, “Could you… teach me how to… fight?” Saints, it was embarrassing to say that out loud. 

Derik blinked. “Yeah, kid.” He smirked. “Finally. It’s about time you learned how to use a gun without the captain’s help. Finally grew a backbone, huh?”

“No. I just want to learn self-defense.” Olive balled his fists as the past night blazed through his mind. “Being able to do things without a conductor…”

“Oh, with a gun—”

“No!” Olive scowled, lifting his hands up. “With my hands or a knife… or something else not a gun.”

Derik scoffed. “Fist versus gun—what wins? Gun! And what do you think happens when a knife goes into someone’s body anyways? They die 75% of the time. Painfully. Way better to use a gun in that case. Mercy kill.”

Olive frowned. 

Derik rolled his eyes. “Fine. Yeah, sure. Fuck it. Tomorrow morning. Six-hundred hours. You better be up.”

* * *

Then, all at once, everyone returned.

Olive could see them in his mind’s eye carrying on with their nightly activities as he was toiling away with his conductors in his private room at two in the morning. Jericho was returning back to Ophiuchus from Francis’s room, while Cadence had already clocked out. Maria was idly chattering to Conta—or attempting to—while Atienna was just beginning to slip into slumber. The Virgoan stirred slightly when Olive reached out to her—

Oh? You’re up again, Olive? Did I wake you?

—but soon fell asleep.

They hadn’t noticed he’d been gone, he realized. And he didn’t want to ruin their nights by dropping the bomb on them. Tomorrow morning, he reasoned as relief spread in his chest. 

After a moment of thought, he extended his fingers and concentrated. Faint sparks jumped at his fingertips before popping into crimson embers. He extinguished them by closing his fist and let out a sigh—of disappointment or relief, he wasn’t sure.

Abruptly, Werner appeared before him, synchronizing with full intensity. Olive nearly startled out of his desk at the sight of the man standing tall and cold beside him.

“Did you take chlorowheat?” Werner pressed immediately, extending a hand.

What? How did Werner know—

PROTECT. PROTECT. PROTECT.

It was like a heartbeat. Unnerving. Louder and roaring more violently than Olive had ever heard before. It was almost terrifying.

“I… apologize, Olive.” Werner pulled back slightly. “My intention wasn’t to be overbearing. I merely have concerns. Your stamina is low, indicating that it wasn’t sleep that kept you away for these past hours. Your presence was also quite faint. Again, I apologize if my presumptions are faulty.”

“No, no, it’s okay…” Olive stammered before looking away with a grumble. “I didn’t take any chlorowheat intentionally…” He proceeded to summarize the events of the night.

“I see…” Werner nodded in understanding before kneeling down beside Olive so that he was eye-level with him. “While I do expect a more thorough debriefing on your experience, seeing as you’re fatigued at the moment, I suggest you sleep now for the time being—that is, instead of staying up to work on your conductors.”

Olive glanced at his desk. “Wasn’t really getting anywhere with this anyways…” 

“Were you hurt?”

Olive lifted his arms to show that he was unscarred and un-bruised.

Werner remained silent, waiting.

“No, I wasn’t hurt,” Olive said out loud, before he admitted, “but…  when we went to that underground city… the woman there… the people there… I think… they’re being taken advantage of. And I didn’t do anything. And Claire just… had a breakdown or something. I don’t know if I handled it right. Trystan and Marta” Guilt curled in his stomach. “I just—”

“Olive, remember what I told you.”

“Itemize, list, group, approach, go over the tasks at hand,” Olive recited. “Yes, I know.” One step at a time, as Trystan said.

Werner reached out and placed a hand on top of his head. The faint whispers of ‘protect’ were nonexistent. “You’ve made progress, Olive. You did well given the circumstances. You deserve rest.” With that, he rose to a stand and his synchronization began to lessen.

Olive hesitated, something he couldn’t quite place a finger on itching the back of his mind. A question that refused to take shape. “Hey, Werner, before you go…”

“I’m not ‘going’ anywhere, Olive,” Werner replied curtly. “I’ll always be here. That being said, what did do need?”

The words were reassuring. Just what he needed to hear. In fact, they were so reassuring that—

“I forgot what I was going to say. Never mind… Good night, Werner.”

“Good night, Olive.”

With that, Werner faded completely. Olive switched off his workstation light in turn before throwing himself onto the small bed beside him. He shut his eyes but did not drift off to sleep. Instead he thought of two recent developments that had been keeping him awake at night. The first was the phone call he had made back to Torrine to check up on the Trystan Project. Much to his discomfort, his phone call had been rerouted to the Royal Palace where his disgruntled uncle had picked up the call.

“What do you think you’re doing, Olivier?” His uncle had asked quietly, rigidly. “Are you siding with the Seong Clan during their succession war? You cannot do things like that in the public eye! Does this have to do with your request about the tariffs in Capricorn? What if the Seong Clan loses the succession?” 

“Uncle,” Olive had stammered in response, scrambling for a coherent answer, “I’m sorry for doing this without telling you, but I had to do it. If things get any worse, then the peace of Signum—”

“You’re too young to be thinking about the peace of Signum,” his uncle had replied. “You’re the Prince of Aries. You should first be thinking of peace for Aries.”

Olive had swallowed as the words had stirred something in his mind. “Uncle. Do you know what the syzygy is?”

The silence that had followed was unbearable. 

“Olive, you’re too young to be—”

Olive had proceeded to hang up the phone. 

Not too long after this, Olive had tried to speak with Francis again regarding Lavi’s condition and the possible solutions for it. He’d suggested using Epsilon’s ability to somehow transfer all of Lavi’s soul, memories, everythingout from him and into her own body. Francis had been skeptical at the idea due to the volatility of Lavi’s vitae among other reasons he’d laid out plainly.

“You’re quite bright, Olive,” Francis had said kindly. “And you’re also very kind-hearted. I hope for you to hold steadfastly to these attributes. However, with everything you reach and hope for, there will always be consequences and remunerations to ponder. With this idea of transferring vitae, for instance, you must also consider the other important factor: what body would you transfer Lavi into? One that is already in existence or one that is not?”

Olive couldn’t even be mad at Francis when the man had said that because he’d put it so gently. It must’ve been more Francis than Theta, Olive thought. Or maybe vice-versa. That and Francis was right.

Damnit—

“Why do you and Atienna think such depressing thoughts before you sleep, my dear Olive?”

Drawn from his reminiscing thoughts, Olive cracked open an eye and found Maria casually lounging by his side. 

“Why do you always pop in when I’m about to sleep?” Olive mumbled.

“Because I want to see you!” Maria beamed. “Besides, you will find everything that you are searching for, my dear Olive.” She tapped his nose. “Just as I’ve found everything that I am searching for.” She reached her hand out to the ceiling—to the twinkling night sky in her surroundings. “This world is endless, my Olivier, and every possibility exists in it. All you must do is find that possibility”—she clenched her fist “—and seize it with your own hands or carve it with your own hands.”

Olive arched a brow.

“Signum is just one place, yes?” She beamed. “There are many other places to search if you can’t find the answers here.”

Olive stared at her, wondering how a person like this could even exist. “Yeah… Thanks, Maria.”


In-Transit, Taurus, Alpha’s Vessel

“Praxis Daedalus Oran.”

P.D. Oran stiffened upon hearing his full name and turned to find Alpha hovering over him with a smile. At the moment, Oran sat at a desk tucked away in Alpha’s captain’s quarters. He was working away at a small, cubical conductor that Alpha had tasked him with completing since sweeping him out from the captivity of the ELPIS leader Gamma. Some nights Oran wondered if it would be better to be back under Gamma or maybe even Damon Forstchritt herself. 

“Are you ashamed of your name, Praxis Daedalus? Shouldn’t you have a bit more pride in your name? If not, it’s only a name. I told you this when you were younger, didn’t I?”

The ship’s creaks as it rocked back and forth on the waters brought a sense of ominousness to Alpha’s calm smile. 

“You did teach me many things,” Oran agreed, “which is why I can’t help but wonder why you would need me to help you with this. You surely know more than me.”

Yes, Alpha—a previous version of him—had taught Oran everything he’d ever known. Vitae, conductors, theories, energy levels. It was freeing—that sort of knowledge. And Oran had happily spread that knowledge across Signum in hopes of freeing people the same. Signum itself had rejected that knowledge and ostracized him for it before extending out a hand to him and locking his legs in chains. Knowledge—as it turned out—was also a prison.

Alpha didn’t answer his question as the door to the cabin suddenly creaked open and a young adolescent suddenly entered the room. It was one of the Leonian children they’d swept up from the orphanage recently. Dominic Elegido-Rosa, if Oran recalled correctly. A boy who Oran believed didn’t know his place.

Dominic strolled right in and walked up to Alpha with his chin pointed high. “I’m bored, Proteus. Show me something fun.”

“Just wait outside,” Alpha replied gently, placing a hand on top of the boy’s head. “I’ll show you something fun soon.”

Dominic nodded, apparently quite pleased, before exiting the room without even a farewell.

“You must be thinking that boy doesn’t know his place,” Alpha noted as soon as Dominic was gone.

Oran remained silent at this.

“But your presumptions about people needing to know their place just proves that you still have lingering attachments to those concepts even after all I’ve taught you. You’ll never be free that way.” Alpha’s eye narrowed slightly but he remained smiling. “That boy you think doesn’t know his place is the brightest star to ever shine above Leo. He may even shine brighter than my dear Maria.” He pressed his hands together. “I wonder if Ophiuchus would be proud of what we’re about to bring down on Ophiuchus.”

23.[]: Travellers—A Summit, Cruzando

Re-cap:

The children under the care of Cadence Morello and the Foxmans—including an orphan named Kent—have run away and have been taken in by Alpha, an ELPIS leader with connections to Maria’s and possibly Jericho’s past. In the background, Elizabeta has been set on Taurus’s tail by Scorpio while Taurus herself tracks down Gamma who is wearing Wtorek Izsak, her father.


In-Transit, Taurus 

The metallic rattle of the chugging train reminded Wtorek Elizabeta of the past. She never quite liked traveling by train or v-ehicle. It always gave her kinetosis—nausea, motion sickness, dizziness, vomiting, and everything in-between.  Ironically, playing train had been Csilla’s favorite pretend activity when she’d been younger. That small warmth aside, her kinetosis had been particularly awful during the war when she’d have to traverse great distances across Signum on air Elementalists’ conductors to trauma sites. 

She still remembered it even now—the feeling of both being in a daze and being sharp and alert at the same time. The sweat, the grime, the haze of ash that seemed to cloud every skyline. Sitting behind cliff-faces in huddled circles in the dim heat produced by an Ariesian fire Elementalist as air Elementalists swept above them. It was there that Izsak had reached for and held her hand for the first time. A lifeline and a sign of stability in an unstable time. 

When the war had ended and she’d joined Gabrielle and Moerani with Izsak in Ophiuchus, her kinetosis had been a concern for her when trying to determine which department she should apply for. Izsak had already settled on the General Investigations to be with Gabrielle, while Moerani had suddenly been swept up into the Licensing Department.

“Leave the field work to me, honey,” Izsak had cooed while squeezing her shoulder tight. “You should just stay in the Serpens Establishment. We can’t have your beautiful, dainty hands becoming all gnarled up by doing field work, right? They’re your best feature!” 

Elizabeta had punched him lightly in the arm to show him how ‘dainty’ she could be, and he had merely laughed in response. That had been their routine back then. Tease, tease back, laugh. One never really appreciated routines until they were no longer present. 

“It might be good to spread us out more,” Gabrielle had reasoned after. “Get into the social spheres of other departments and work our way up.”

And that had been that. The decision made.

Elizabeta wondered now why she had listened to Gabrielle so readily back then. Had it been because they had bonded through the trauma of the war—side-by-side as they crept through the ruins of Ophiuchus and the deserts of Scorpio? Maybe, so. Gabrielle had always taken the lead back then. Making decisions and directing orders whenever they’d lost communication with their leading commander. She had seemed so reliable to their young eyes. Moerani and Izsak had certainly admired her—and Elizabeta admittedly too. They were all barely touching the cusp of adulthood at that tumultuous time, so seeing Gabrielle who was around their age holding such confidence and gusto had painted her more as a leader than their commanders at the time. But an eighteen-year-old—no matter the demeanor, time, nor occupation—was still a child too. All that gusto had been mere naivety.

Absent-mindedly as Elizabeta recalled the past, she twisted the wedding band around her ring finger and stared out past the train window. Gray plains pressed flat against the ground stretched out far into the distance where they met with the even grayer sky. 

“Do you remember Ophiuchus, Elizabeta?” Scorpio had prodded that day when she’d visited his office with a scalpel in hand. “Not this Ophiuchus but the one that came before?” 

“You said you’d help me follow my passions,” she’d responded flatly. “My passion isn’t trivia games.”

“It’s called context, Elizabeta,” Scorpio had informed her, mimicking Talib’s manner of speech like a bastard“Csilla is quite clever. I saw her literally half-beat, half-soothe Mr. Wtorek’s home-base location out of one of his new ELPIS recruits.”

“Csilla’s trying to find Izsak…” Elizabeta’s heart had fluttered at this.

“Don’t you mean she’s pursuing Gamma? Scorpio had prodded innocently. Regardless, here’s the context, Elizabeta. Around five or so centuries ago, there was a place that dear old Mnemos—ELPIS leader if you were wondering—built to serve as a…. place of knowledge and restitute? It was called Lamendos.” He had sighed dismissively. “Honestly, I’d completely forgotten about it. I’d assumed the others had dismantled the place after our fall out a couple centuries ago or that it’d been burned down during the war, but I suppose at least one of them was attached to the place. Mr. Wtorek has been using it as a temporary holding place while he jumps around with Vega’s gates.”

“I’ve never heard of a place called Lamendos.” Elizabeta had frowned, tense, distrustful. “If you people knew about that place, then why did you let ELPIS continue like this?” She added thickly, “Not your department?”

“If you know about Gamma and Taurus, then why are you so adamant on going after them?” Scorpio had returned evenly. “Attachment? Lingering passions? Curiosity?” His smile had thinned into a line and then a frown as his eyes narrowed. “But I do find it all very negligent and apathetic, slovenly, lazy.” He placed a hand over his heart and fisted his shirt as his eyes seemed to become afire. “The syzygy pulses inside of all of us,  begging to be completed and yet—” He looked up at her sharply, and for a moment Elizabeta swore she saw Talib there with begging eyes, but then his gaze pierced her through like an arrow.

In that instant, a sensation of dread had seized Elizabeta at the pit of her stomach and squeezed tight. Cold sweat broke across her nape as the intense sensation of being watched from above, below, beside, within surged through her. Invisible eyes crawling beneath her skin as the invasive thought pounded in her mind: mediums, everywhere, spores, how did she know she wasn’t infected yet, what if, what if—

But then Scorpio had suddenly relaxed back into his chair smiling again. “It won’t be too long before this travels up to the ELPIS Department and lands on dear Leona’s desk.”

Elizabeta’s heart skipped a beat.

“I can see that you have concerns about the ELPIS Department catching up to those Wtorek runaways before you—although I assure you that your problems are much pointier than that.” Scorpio hummed.  “Say—why don’t you get a head-start?”

Lamendos—Elizabeta recalled Scorpio informing her after the fact—was a place that was built within a Bikakönyv mountainside located near a small town in Taurus called Anyaizeretet. The town she was currently heading to—renowned for its flowering prairies in warm seasons and a popular tourist attraction in the spring.

Elizabeta had vacationed together here once with Izsak and Elizabeta. Izsak had wanted to go to the beaches of Pisces, but Elizabeta had insisted on this place. In the end, after an intense game of Ariesian rock-paper-scissors with Csilla as the final judge, Elizabeta had emerged victorious.

Now in the heart of winter, it was cold and desolate, but it was not as devoid of people as one would think. As the train drew near the town station viewable from a kilometer away, Elizabeta could spy v-ehicles trickling along into and out of town on the adjacent road. Conductor engineers working on the ley lines being built here, most likely. It seemed as if ley lines were being constructed everywhere recently. She’d even heard that the Ariesian prince had started a ley line construction project in some unknown town in his country.

Elizabeta had supported ley lines at first. Being able to harvest vitae from streams paired with being able to divert vitae from reservoirs to areas of vitae drought sounded like the culmination of all of their efforts as Ophiuchus. Unit, globalism, mutually-assured benefits.

Now, with the thought of human beings churning through the insulators and ley-lines, Elizabeta felt only disgust. The fact that they’d been using this for centuries made her want to puke. Every time she flipped on the v-lights in her office, she’d stare up at them until they burned her eyes. She’d always imagined Izsak coming in dramatically and exclaiming jokingly, “Honey, what are you doing?! Only one of us can have bad vision! It’s part of our opposites attract charm!”

Talib would swoop in a moment after and speak of the diabolicalness of v-lights and how they were the Organization’s weapon, while everyone else looked in with amusement. Who knew that he’d been right all along. 

Talib had been a good young man just as Izsak was a good man. It was always the good ones that were twisted around like so, leaving only the rotten apples to spread rot and disease. 

“You’ve been using vitae for centuries,” was close to what Scorpio had told them all during his last visit, “so why change now? What makes you think you can change? Do you think letting the public know about vitae will sway their thoughts over something that they’ve killed for and are sustained by? I think not.”  

Signum’s future was a hopeless thing. The saint candidates were probably rolling around in their chairs laughing.

* * *

Anyaizeretet, Taurus 

Once the train docked in the station, Elizabeta quickly offboarded and made her way to the town square to find the building where the local Hegyi Utazók took up residence. Hegyi Utazók, the mountain travelers, Earth Elementalists. These Conductors were what Taurus were renowned for. They had built a reputation for themselves during the Reservoir War for digging tunnels beneath the ground in order to evade air Elementalist raids and explosive mines. They even helped to carve some of the most indestructible bomb shelters of the modern era. True fortresses. Now, they were mountain guides renowned for keeping curious tourists safe when they visited Taurus’s scenic yet dangerous mountain ranges. 

Elizabeta spotted the building where the Hegyi Utazók worked in town rather easily. The building was one-story tall with a rounded clay body and a flat red roof. A large sign marked with three russet triangles encapsulated in a circle protruding bull horns lay right beside its entry doors. The Bikakönyv mountains loomed just it and served as further designation. 

Upon entering the building, she was greeted with a single narrow room with a large, oval-shaped island table taking up its center space. Clustered around that table were men and women dressed in dusted button-ups and slacks and wrapped up in leather straps and buckles. They turned to look at Elizabeta, eyes sharp as their former conversational whispering died down.

Elizabeta was not wearing her Ophiuchian sash nor her usual crisp standard suit and lab coat. Instead she was in a pair of tweed slacks and a herringbone-patterned overcoat. Civilian wear as to not turn the eyes. Her Ophiuchian badge was, of course, still on her person—ready to be drawn out and used as a means of coercion if necessary. Again. Only if necessary. 

“Sorry, ma’am,” said one of the women at the table in Common. “We’re not helping people up the mountain ranges this week. Trouble with the ley-lines up near the summit or something.”

Another woman grumbled, “Local government already cut down the number of tours we can give this past month because of that damned ley-line project. Wanted us to focus on transporting those Conductor engineers up and down instead and help them dig through the mountains on a poor pension. Researchers are cheap on tips too. Barely tip a fillér per transport. And now this?” 

“I doubt she wants to listen to us complain,” the woman who’d spoken first interjected. She nodded at Elizabeta. “There’s plenty of other places to see around here, ma’am.”

“No, I’m actually curious,” Elizabeta replied in Taurusian. “What’s happened now?”

Everyone seemed to perk up at the sound of their native tongue and exchanged looks.

“Apparently they found some strange old buried relic-y catacomb place up in the mountains,” the first woman explained in Taurusian. “Can’t tell if it’s from the war-era or if it’s pre-Reservoir War. The local government didn’t want us to ‘accidentally dislodged something and bury the area in a rock slide.’” She scoffed. “Talk about insulting.”

“I saw it myself—the underground relic-y area.” One of the men nodded. “I was up there helping them with digging the tunnels for the ley lines when we uncovered it. It’s not just a relic thing. There’s a vitae pool down there…” He pinched his fingers together then rubbed the back of his neck. “Some poor girl was holed up there too for saint’s knows what reason.”

A strange girl? Csilla…?

The man made a swirling motion at his temple. “Didn’t speak a lick of sense. Who knows how long she was up there all by herself.”

“What was the color of her vitae? What did she look like?”

The mountaineers exchanged looks.

“Dunno. Didn’t see her too clearly. They didn’t test her vitae either. She’s still down there, I think. Wouldn’t budge, I heard.”

Elizabeta tried her best to remain level-headed as her heart roared. “Are any of you able to take me up there? I will pay anything.”

Everyone looked away.

“Sorry, ma’am,” the first woman offered a shrug. “A law is a law, and we really can’t afford to lose our conducting license over something like this. Like I said, there’s plenty of other things to see here.”

For a moment, Elizabeta considered pulling out her Ophiuchian badge and forcing them to take her up in response. After some thought, she set aside the idea and turned on her heels.

When Elizabeta pulled out of the building, she did not march out in defeat but with determination. She would go up that mountain and reach the summit within a day even if it killed her—

“H-Heard you need an Earth Elementalist to wing you up the mountain,” came a sudden voice from behind her.

Elizabeta turned to find a panting older man with graying hair emerge out from the building she’d just exited. He stopped short in front of her before he doubled over panting.

“Arnold. Miksa Arnold.” The man straightened himself and shook her hand. “Pleasure to meet you, ma’am.” 

“How much?” Elizabeta asked flatly. She knew these types well enough.

Arnold whistled, before rubbing his conductor-gloved hands together. “Well, since we’re doing this under the table….”

* * *

Arnold took Elizabeta to the foot of the mountain and to a jagged cliffside where a dozen large and flat slab stones rested on the ground. He hopped up the one closest and extended his hand out to her. She readily accepted and took a moment to steady herself on the rock. In the meantime, he handed her a pair of goggles which she quickly fastened over her eyes. He proceeded to put on a pair himself, before bending down and pressing his gloved hands against the rock below them. Light brown luminescence poured out from his fingertips and coated the rocky platform before spilling ever so slightly onto the mountainside. The platform trembled before creaking and groaning up along the cliff-face. 

“You steady over there?” Arnold asked. “Just get low if you feel imbalanced.”

“I’m good,” Elizabeta replied. “I’ve ridden like this before. I came here once on vacation with my family.”

“That’s nice.” Arnold smiled. “Not bringing them along this time?”

“They’re gone. No… I’m looking for them.”

“Oh… alright then.”

With that, they began to slowly then rapidly shoot up the mountain. Dust flew into the air as rock graveled against rock. Raining down from this cloud was a constant shower of tapping pebbles. Every so often, they would reach a flat protrusion on the mountain side and off-board onto another rocky platform and ascend on it. They continued like that in silence for quite some time.

“I really don’t like Ophiuchus coming up in our home and stirring the pot, yeah?” Arnold said suddenly on their fourth rock platform as he rubbed his nose. “We decided to work with Ophiuchus on this ley-line project, and now the ELPIS Department is just swooping in wherever they please…” He wiped some of the dust off of his goggles. “Glad they haven’t stopped by here yet, but it feels like it’s only a matter of time. Don’t like their first chair much either. That Leona Gloria-Angelo.”

Elizabeta was getting somewhat tired of hearing people talking about the ley-line construction projects day-in-day-out. Every other patient she’d been receiving talked about it. Frankly, Elizabeta herself didn’t care anymore just as she didn’t care for who won the elections anymore. Her passion had started to dim after Izsak—Gamma—returned from New Ram City, her care had started to dim after learning of ELPIS’s origins and the vitae levels, while her apathy took hold once Csilla had run away—

“That Talib Al-Jarrah.” Arnold sniffed. “Now he talks some sense.”

“He’s not Talib.”

“Huh?”

—but despite all of this, Elizabeta could not stand to let that Scorpio bastard win. Maybe that was just her Taurusian stubbornness coming through.

“Why not vote for Gabrielle Law?” Elizabeta suggested.

“Gabrielle Law?”

“Not only did she serve in the war, but she’s also Ariesian and was an Ariesian Knight.” Elizabeta explained. “You fought in the war, didn’t you?”

Arnold looked back at her in surprise. “Ariesian-Taurusian 276th Company.”

Izsak’s, Moerani’s, and Gabrielle’s company…

“113th for me,” Elizabeta replied, before adding, “Aries was one of our best allies. If anyone would understand our struggles, it would either be Sera Aliz who’s from Taurus herself or Gabrielle. But Aliz is a desk worker. She hasn’t been down on the ground like us like Gabrielle has.”

“Huh….” Arnold lolled his head from side-to-side. “Alright. I’ll look into her then.”

They continued up the mountain from earthen cluster to earthen cluster in silence. When a plateau loomed into view, the rocky platform began to slow its up-crawling pace. 

“Alright,” Arnold said as he guided the platform up to touch the lip of the plateau. “We’re here.”

The plateau they arrived at wasn’t quite the summit of the mountain—no, Elizabeta could still see the mountain extending up behind the plateau. Still—the plateau itself might have been breathtaking in its absolute flatness if it weren’t for the fact that v-ehicles, disconnected insulation tubes, and other mechanical devices clustered its surface near its center. A circle of wooden blockades surrounded the area, but there was not a person in sight. Not even a guard to ward of people.

“Looks like it’s your lucky day,” Arnold noted. “The crotchety guard isn’t here, so you can take your time to sightsee.”

As the rumbling from the moving rock platform quieted and stilled completely, Elizabeta was able to pick up the background beats of the mountain. Distant bird cries, the whistling wind—but not the ambient silence that she was always fond of in the mountain ranges of Taurus. No, something else was buzzing faintly in the air.

Elizabeta tuned her ears and then froze.

Was that… music?

“Stay here,” Elizabeta ordered, digging into her wallet in her pocket and handing the man 50 fillér.

“It’s dangerous,” Arnold began. “Something’s not right—”

Elizabeta whipped out her Ophiuchian badge and shoved in his face. The man immediately paled before his eyes narrowed. She didn’t stay to discuss the issue with him, however. Cautiously, she approached the central work site, taking note of the unmanned v-ehicles and conductors along the way. A cracked safety helmet lay discarded on the ground caught her attention, and she paced over to it before picking it up. Blood was smeared near the rim of the cap. But that was not the greatest peculiarity. The greatest peculiarity was the fact that clothing was scattered all over the ground: vests, blouses, suits, ties, shoes, socks.  

Elizabeta’s eyes were then drawn to an opening in the plateau that all the v-ehicles seemed to be gathered around. It was a jagged circle that looked roughly 10 meters wide in diameter and was ringed with embedded climbing hooks with strong metal cables slung on them. The cables dropped down into the hole—most likely used by the Taurusians who were working on the ley-lines to descend down.

The music was emanating from inside, Elizabeta realized. Crouching low, she drifted over to the hole and peered over its edge. Much to her surprise, she was able to see its depth fully. The cavern hidden below stretched on for meters. At its floor glowed a pulsating pool of vitae out from which white pillars grew. On the edges of the vitae pool’s bank rested a grand piano manned by a pale and thin woman with thick black curls. Her fingers glided across the keyboard like water. Surrounding her were bodies. Countless bodies. 

A dozen children ran around the corpses squealing—with horror or laughter, Elizabeta didn’t know. Around them curled a haze of white smoke; and as that smoke drifted across the corpses, they melted slowly into nothing, leaving only clothes behind Like Jericho’s conducting but grotesque—not that Jericho’s conducting wasn’t terrifying in itself.

And yet still, the woman on the piano continued to play and the children continued to run around avoiding the mist. A moment later, Elizabeta came to realize that these strange people were not the only ones dismissive of the carnage around them.

On top of the pillars emerging from the vitae pools rested three young women. Two were dressed in jet black Monadic priest garbs, while another was dressed in a strapless gown. 

It was absolute madness—

A small, barely-humanoid figure suddenly emerged from the shroud of white mist. Their skin was bubbling, sizzling, and peeling, but they continued forward like a tank. Once they reached an area clear of the corrosive material, Elizabeta was able to see their melting features fully. Muscle, bone, fat—all of it began to glow a dark russet color. 

And then slowly, stomach-churningly, the figure’s features began to slowly reform themselves. Skin crawling up muscle and bone, eye dragging up bone into socket, fat filling up the spaces in-between, hair slinking into follicle. 

Elizabeta felt her heart sink and rise all at once as she came to recognize the face that finished taking shape.

Csilla.

SPLIT

Former Twin Cities street rat Kent Gambino still remembered when Theta had first appeared before him. Kent wasn’t a Specialist like many of the others that Theta had brought in. No, he was one of the ones Theta had brought in before the Twin Cities Bombings. Kent liked to think he was an original and one of Theta’s favorites because of this. At first. 

On that night, he and several of his friends had been scrounging around in the Pungale alleyway dumpsters outside of the Punto del Palazzo restaurant in Romano Family territory in hopes of getting some scraps for dinner. It would’ve been the first time his group had gotten a meal in two days.

Just as they’d peeled out a handful of pasta noodles soaked in wine and other unknown liquids from the bins, Kent had found himself yanked into a chokehold by the back of his shirt. He barely had the time to scream before he was pulled up right and cracked on the nose.

Pain, dizziness, pounding.

When the stars faded from his vision, Kent was greeted by a sneering older man with a thick neck and a balding head. He whimpered then saw his friends being kicked to the side of the wall by two men dressed as chefs through a haze of tears. 

“You filthy street rats!” the balding man snarled, wringing Kent by his throat. “You think you can come in and take our food for free, huh? What if our damned customers see you? You’ll upset their stomachs and tank our ratings!”

Kent knew it was no use apologizing or begging because it had never worked before. So, he merely squeezed his eyes shut and waited. But the beat down never came. 

Opening his eyes tentatively and curiously, Kent spied him

Theta, appearing in the mouth of the alleyway just as it had become illuminated by the v-headlights of passing v-ehicle. The man’s hand had been pressed tight against his abdomen, his face pallid and pale. Still, he’d cut an imposing figure in the lit darkness.

“M-Mr. Foxman!” The balding man threw Kent to the ground and galloped over to Theta—arms widespread, smiling with teeth. “What are you doin’ out here? Did you all cash out already? Was the food to your liking, sir?” 

Theta didn’t answer and instead stared past the man’s shoulder at Kent who froze in his gaze and momentarily forgot the pain throbbing at his throat and face. 

Mr. Foxman. The name had rung like a bell of terror through Kent’s mind. Oh saints, he’d thought then, now I’m really gonna die.

 “I don’t mean to overstate it over and over again,” the balding man continued, “but I really appreciate you and your brothers sponsorin’ our restaurant. Really.”

Theta brushed past him and came to a stand before Kent. He spoke in some language Kent didn’t understand before he stated in Common: “This surplus of food that the privileged here seem to waste without care will rot and decay away, attracting disease and pestilence. I see no issue in offering this excess to individuals who need it. I don’t see why it’s not something that’s already done to begin with.”

“Uh—”

“Do you understand that these are children?”

“Er, Mr. Foxman. Sorry you had to see ‘em.” The balding man came to Theta’s side and gestured to Kent himself and then to Kent’s friends who had also been tossed to the side. “They’re just street rats. Probably’ll die within a week—”

Abruptly, Theta threw out his hand directly at the balding man, his fingers barely ghosting the man’s throat. The balding man tensed, wide eyed, but didn’t move. Theta stared at him for a long while before retracting his hand, staring at it, then dropping it. “Leave.”

“Er—”

“I said leave.”

The balding man shared a look with the two chefs, cleared his throat, mumbled an odd thank you and farewell, and then departed.

Theta didn’t watch them leave and instead sank down in front of Kent with a reaching hand. “Are you alright?” 

Kent’s friends came to Kent’s side immediately and began to whimper senselessly. We didn’t mean to cross your turf, Mr. Foxman; we don’t have anything, Mr. Foxman; please, Mr. Foxman.

“You needn’t be afraid,” Theta said calmly, his hand finishing it’s course and resting on Kent’s cheek. A warm hand. “I’m not a member of the Foxman family.”

“B-But…” whispered one of Kent’s friends. “They called you… Mr. Foxman.”

“What other people call you is not your identity. Your identity is what you choose to call yourself and what you allow others to call you.”

They’d stared without understanding.

Finally, Kent asked tentatively, “So what do we call you?”

“You can call me…” Theta had hesitated, pondering. “Theta.”

After that, Theta had brought them to a small dinner and had fed them five whole courses. All the while, he watched them with a pleasant smile before asking them— Are you happy? Slow down. Do you have a place to stay? Would you like to come with me? Would you like me to protect you? And finally, What’s your name?

Kent, Lia, Matthieu, they told him.

Bellies full and a haze of sleep upon them, they’d then decided to accept Theta’s invite into his amazingly awesome secret room. There were other strange adults there in that room—a man who always shouted, a woman who was always mad, another woman who always laughed and flipped her hair, and another woman who was attached to Theta’s hip. Well, it was more like Theta was attached to her hip. They were very touchy feely and open about their mushiness which always brought heat to Kent’s cheeks, but they were the nicest ones out of the bunch to Kent and his friends so Kent never complained.

Then came the bad night in the Twin Cities when Theta had asked them all to leave. It still haunted Kent’s nightmares sometimes. The dark city. The fires. The screams. The police officers. The street gangs. The explosions. When that night ended, Miss Omicron was dead, Theta had disappeared with the wind, and Kent—his friends included—had found himself pulled under the wing of the other Foxman brothers and Miss Morello.

Miss Morello, Carl, and Allen explained them that Theta would return and that Kent himself, his friends, and the other children the Foxmans had gathered together on that night would be given food and a place to stay—a home. It sounded like a dream come true. 

* * *

One day not too long after, Kent had been wandering the streets with Mr. Stefano—one of Theta’s personal assistants and a trusted Foxman worker—who had just returned home from a trip to Capricorn. As Kent rounded the corner on the way to a candy shop to buy himself and the others some sweets, he had dripped and fallen flat on his face. Stefano had been at his side in an instant.

“D-Does it hurt?”

Kent whimpered and nodded as he sat himself up.

“Do you want to be comforted?”

Kent’s cheeks had burned at the sudden question, and he’d looked up at Stefano in confusion only to find the man gazing at him with a smile.

“N-No—”

“Why are you lying? Stefano stared, eyes wide as saucers. “Accept who you are. Accept what you are. Shouldn’t it be easier to remain true to yourself since you’re so young?”

“S-Stefano…?”

“You want to be held. You want to be comforted. You want to be loved. You want to be the most important person to someone. You’re afraid of being discarded again like you were discarded by your parents.”

Kent’s blood ran cold. “How do you know—”

“Because I know your parents, dear,” Mr. Stefano explained. “And you were not the most important thing to them. You’re very much like a swindler that I’ve gotten to know well recently…” 

A moment later, Mr. Stefano had returned to his usual self and fretfully carried Kent all the way to the candy store. Even after downing many sweets there, those words remained burned into Kent’s mind.

* * *

Theta returned not too after that, but Mr. Stefano disappeared around the same time. Then Theta came to stay permanently and moved them all into his cool secret base. Kent had thought it was the greatest thing at first. It was like Theta’s secret base was their secret base, and he played all sorts of games—hide-and-seek, war, peacekeeping agents—with everyone there. Moving from room to room was a joy ride. 

But then the locked time kept going on and on, and Kent kept dreaming of the sky and the streets again. His scores from Theta’s classes were never good enough to get him a day trip ticket out of the room. 

It just wasn’t fair at all. 

After some begging and pleading, Theta considered allowing him to go out, but Mr. Carl and Mr. Allen put their foot down. It was cruel, cold-hearted, mean. Didn’t they see how important going outside was to him? Didn’t they care about him? This just proved that Kent himself and the others were—

They were not special to any of them. They were not the most important person to anyone. Not Miss Cadence, not Theta or Francis, not Mr. Carl nor Mr. Allen, not even Pi or Mr. Maximallian. Just like how Kent himself had not been special to his parents. Why else would they leave him in that cold, dark, windowless room all alone without saying anything? Kent realized soon after that he and all the others kids were just things to look after. And because they were just ‘things’, it was easy for the adults to tuck them away and throw them away. Easy to forget about them. Easy to put down stupid rules just because the adults found them annoying or thought they weren’t good enough. 

And that was why Kent had decided to rally the others to run away with him. It wasn’t fair, he’d urged. Not fair at all! 

Most of Kent’s friends agreed with him and they convinced the others or made them agree too. Truthfully and secretly, however, Kent was afraid that if any one person remained behind then Theta and the others wouldn’t notice or care that the others including himself had left.

Planning their escape wasn’t too hard. They were Twin Cities street rats, after all. However, coming across Rho and Nu when he was going store to store window-shopping with the others was weird. Miss Morello had taught him the importance of stranger danger earlier that month, so he had been cautious when they’d been approached by the priestly duo. At first Nu offered candy which Kent and some of the other kids declined politely. Then the two kept following them. 

“Are you Theta’s kids?” Rho asked after with a warm smile. 

Kent stopped and turned. “You know Theta?”

“Of course, we know Theta!” Rho beamed. “We’re Theta’s old friends! Omicron’s too! I heard from down the drain that you were all cooped up in that room of theirs—is that true? You’re all on lockdown?”

“We’re not on lockdown!” one of the others half-grumbled, half-shouted.

“Well, that’s good,” Rho continued pleasantly. “I know Theta can be overly strict sometimes…” She looked them over. “Wait a moment. Did you guys run away from Theta?”

Kent tensed. “W-What’s it to you? Are you going to force us back, huh?”

“Of course not, sweetie!” Rho laughed and gently pushed Nu. “Like I said, Theta can be overly strict sometimes. He’ll find you in a matter of hours if you keep wandering around like this.” She hummed, glancing at Nu beside her. “What do you think, Nu?”

“Come with us,” Nu answered curtly. “We’ll hide you. We’ll go somewhere fun. Only if you want to.”

One thing led to the next and suddenly they were all brought onboard a ship docked in the Pollux Bay. It was one of the Foxman’s ships—Kent was sure, and he was reassured by this fact. If they were using Theta’s ship, then they really had to be Theta’s friends. 

Much to Kent’s surprise, there were already other children on board the ship. They looked Aquarian and Capricornian and spoke in thickly accented Common as they welcomed Kent and the others onboard.

“You’ll love it here,” send one of the Aquarians. “He can make all of your dreams come true if you dedicate yourself.”

On the first night on that ship as they were shoveling down sweet bread in the mess hall alongside some of the older children, an adult suddenly came down to join them. While the resident Aquarians and Capricornians didn’t pay the woman any mind, Kent and his friends gasped in awe.

“Alma! It’s Alma Miraggio!” 

Alma Miraggio. The Ophiuchian Way star. In the flesh!

“I thought she went missing…” Lia whispered from beside Kent.

Alma smiled pleasantly at them and waved, while one of the Aquarians children hobbled over to her side and conjured her a large piano. Kent only saw it for an instant, but the Aquarian’s vitae—it was bleached white. Like Pi’s. 

Not paying the Aquarian any mind, Alma seated herself and immediately began to play a hopping, popping jive. It sounded almost like the way Mis Morello played—no, it sounded even better than Miss Morello’s songs. Kent was astounded.

Halfway through her third song, however, Alma suddenly stopped playing. Kent was upset at this and turned to complain only to stop short when he spied a tall and looming figure standing beside Alma at the piano.

It was a young man—no, maybe it was a teenager. He looked only a couple years older than them—barely an adult. His hair was a tousled brown, and he was dressed in an odd uniform that had a black collar paired with black wrist cuffs. Kent thought he’d seen the uniform once in one of Theta’s Piscese military books.

“Welcome on board,” the young man said pleasantly. “I hope you’re enjoying yourselves.” He paused. “My name is Alpha, but I’ve been known as Proteus, Angelo, Dmitri, Hozen, and so on in the past. You can call me whatever you want.” He gestured loosely. “You can stay with me as long as you want and leave whenever you want.” Then he spread his arms and chuckled. “I can’t imagine you’d want to leave from what I’ve heard from Nu and Rho. Theta was keeping you cooped up, wasn’t he?” 

“Theta was protecting us…” Lia mumbled beside Kent.

Kent resisted rolling his eyes. Lia was always flip-floppy. He had to spend two hours convincing her to come with him. Always such a killjoy and a worrywart. Even back when they’d been on the streets before Theta.

“Protection doesn’t mean happiness, does it?” Alpha mused. “That was always Vega’s problem. She’s been never been good with touching people’s hearts and allowing people to touch hers. She doesn’t know how to bring other people happiness and freedom. Few people do. I suppose that’s a strength in itself. Freedom—that is, if it weren’t for Altair, but I digress.”

Lia squirmed from beside Kent, then asked, “Theta’s going to be looking for us, won’t he…?”

“Don’t worry. I won’t let Theta cut our playtime short.” Alpha smiled widely before taking a seat on the table next to Kent. “Theta will most likely head to Leo since we’ve left a breadcrumb trail for them there. We, on the other hand, are taking a scenic route to Taurus. Isn’t that exciting?” 

“Taurus?” Lia exchanged a nervous look with those around her. “That’s really far from home…”

“The world is in the palm of your hand, don’t you know?” Alpha rounded the table, approached Lia, and placed a hand on her head. “If you don’t adventure and explore now when the opportunity is presenting itself to you, then I assure you that you never will. Isn’t that a boring life?” 

* * *

It had been fun. Alpha took them through Aries to a small town where the Ariesian prince was rumored to be temporarily staying. They missed the prince by a day or so but it still was cool and they got to see ley-lines being built first hand—although Rho and Nu looked on with disgust for whatever reason. They traveled to New Ram City next disguised as a travelling circus and even got to see the king and queen in procession.

Half-way into the week, around five new kids joined their ship which was docked in one of the rare rivers that cut through Aries. The new ones were brought in by smaller boat by a tall man that Kent didn’t recognize. All of the kids were curly-haired, tanned, with distinctly sharp Leonian features. Kent didn’t like them one bit. All the Leonians seemed to look down on them. One of them even made a ridiculously annoying announcement as he pointed across at all of them: 

“My name is Dominic Gloria-Elegido! I am a star, don’t you see? So you will all show me a wonderful time.”

Kent snorted at this along with several of his friends. 

“Dominic and his friends here are special guests,” Alpha explained to them. “Trust me when I say that they will burn brighter in their lives than any of you.”

It was like a knife to the chest. Not special to anyone, Mr. Stefano’s words echoed at the back of Kent’s mind.

* * *

A day or so later Nu returned to the ship with a gashing wound on his chest. He collapsed in front of Kent who was playing a board game with Lia in the mess hall before reaching out to touch Kent’s face and then proceeding to die on the spot.

Lia screamed. Kent held her. The other children ran to them and peered in tearful horror at Nu’s corpse.

It was then that they all witnessed white tendrils leaking out from Nu’s body and rising into the air. The tendrils wisped together to form a circular shape above his corpse before hurtling towards the entrance of the mess hall. Standing there at the threshold was an undisturbed Alpha who held a knife with a glass handle in his hands. The whisping white light entered the blade and swirled inside of the glass container.

“Pretty, isn’t it?” Alpha asked, holding up the glass. “You know, anyone can make their vitae into something like this.” When no one responded, he explained, “Nu isn’t dead because he was never alive to begin with, so you needn’t worry. You’ll be meeting him again soon.”

Rho entered the room shortly after and melted away Nu’s body with her mist-like vitae without a second thought.

* * *

A day later a woman with long-black hair and a pale complexion introduced herself as Nu to them while they were all gathered in the mess hall for dinner. Kent didn’t understand it, but she spoke in the same odd, dull monotone as Nu had.

“This is what happens when you bleach your vitae,” Alpha explained to them as he’d rested a hand on Nu’s shoulder. “A life without pain and an extended life… An extended life to carry on a greater purpose and a greater adventure. If you’d like, I can make your vitae just the same.”

A quiet crept into all corners of the room.

He gestured to the Aquarian and Capricornian children who didn’t seem all too surprised by Nu’s appearance. “They’ve done it already themselves.”

“N-no… we shouldn’t…” Lia whispered from beside Kent.

Lia was one of Theta’s favorites—Kent was sure of it. Seeing her so scared while he himself didn’t feel anything close to the feeling brought him a sensation of victory. 

Lia shrunk backwards. “Theta says we shouldn’t… he says that we won’t return to the cycle. T-that we’ll become nothingness. I… don’t want to become nothingness. I want to rejoin the cycle with everyone…”

Some of the others also began to mumble fretfully. Kent began to feel nervous himself at the statement. He didn’t want Theta to be disappointed in him.

‘Being unable to return the cycle’ is an interesting way to put it,” Alpha mused unperturbed. “‘Becoming unbound to the cycle’ is another interpretation. Is there not a more freeing thing than that?”

Silence stretched on.

“You see, if you leave your vitae unbleached, you increase the chances of yourself being forever stuck in the cycle or—worse—being stuck here unchanging forever. Theta explained the vitae cycle to you, hasn’t he?” Alpha reached out and grabbed hold of one of Kent’s friend’s hands. “There’s no freedom in that, is there?” A moment later, he pulled away smiling. “My door will always be open to you.”

That night, Kent spied two of his friends sneaking out of their sleeping quarters and into Alpha’s room. A nervousness began to build in Kent’s stomach at the gravity of their situation.

* * *

Near the end of the week, they were already deep into Taurus. Alpha toured them through the Okör mountains and the formerly rolling plains of Zadok. At the end of Saturday, they arrived in a town called Anyaizeretet, and Alpha began to divide them into groups. Those with bleached vitae—the Aquarians and Capricornians—and those with un-bleached vitae. 

“Miss Miraggio, Nu, Rho, and I are going on a day trip with a few of you,” Alpha explained pleasantly. “Only the ones with bleached vitae can come, alright? The rest of you just stay here on the ship. It’s safer that way. I promise.”

Kent felt jealousy bubbling in his chest at this. It wasn’t fair. He wanted to become the most special person to at least one person, and he couldn’t do that just by sitting around but he didn’t want to bleach his vitae either. So, Kent snuck into their traveling group. He went up with them to the near summit of the Bikakönyv mountains and encountered a group of Taurusians working away at a ley-line construction site. Conductor engineers, probably. The engineers gathered there immediately noted their approach, and one of the larger men halted them with a pleasant smile.

“Sorry,” he said in accented Common. “No coming here now. New mandate. No trespassing. Sorry—”

Nu walked up to this man, activated the vitae blade at her hip, and bisected him in one swift movement. The man’s co-workers barely had the time to react before Nu slid her vitae-blade through each them like a knife to butter. 

“You’re contributing to the syzygy,” Nu informed him flatly. “So you must die.”

“ELPIS!” one of them managed to cry as they scrambled away. “ELPIS!”

Kent felt his heart stop beating as his ears began to ring. Bile climbed up his stomach, but he kept it down by swallowing again and again. None of the Aquarians or Capricornians reacted. What was wrong with them? The violence reminded him of that cold night in the Twin Cities.

Rho extended her gloved-hand and waved it lazily in the air. White mist poured out from her conductor and swept across the surface of the plateau. And Kent could hear it—hear all of those men and women screech in pain and horror, hear the sound of their flesh bubbling away and dribbling onto the ground, hear the silence that followed.

Rho and Nu bypassed the smoldering corpses as they disintegrated into nothing and approached the hole that opened up at the center of the plateau. Down they descended into the pit riding on the hanging chains with the other children following close behind. Alpha, meanwhile, parted ways with them to head somewhere else. Kent desperately wanted to go with him and leave, but when he turned to Alpha, Alpha stared him down with a smile. 

No, he didn’t want to disappoint Alpha. But—no.

Now, all Kent wanted to do was return home to Theta, Miss Morello, the Foxmans, Pi—but he knew they wouldn’t take him back after he’d thrown a fit and ran away. He wasn’t special enough for them to take back in. And so, Kent followed after the larger group, his bare palms becoming torn and rubbed raw by the chains they used to shimmy on down. There were still people down there—Taurusian engineers, all of whom shrieked and ran from Rho and Nu who continued to swipe at them with their conductors. The Taurusian’s blood ran into the pool of vitae that glowed at the corner of the cavern.

Aside from the stragglers who took to hiding around the corners of the cave, there was only one who was spared from the massacre. It was a woman with dark hair and an airy look on her face and who sat with her knees tucked to her chest at the very bank of the vitae pool. Rho and Nu both approached her simultaneously and assessed her. 

“Oh, is it just you here right now, Lambda?” Rho asked.

The woman nodded.

“Do you know where Gamma is? When he’ll be back?”

The woman shook her head.

“Do you know where Theta’s proto-conductors are?”

Again the woman shook her head.

One of the Aquarian kids conjured another grand piano beside the pool of vitae, and Alma rested her hands on the keyboards before she sent them flying across its black and white teeth. Another happy, popping tune that shrouded over the shrieks of pain and death as the children slaughtered the rest of the survivors.

“I guess it’s a waiting game then.”


Bikakönyv Mountain Ranges, Taurus

The continent of Signum had changed much over the centuries. This was always Taurus’s first thought when traversing from place to place. Now as she made her way up the mountain range of Bikakönyv, she thought the same but not in a morose way. It was quite pleasantly nostalgic. Her vacation with her family here was still a warm memory. 

Much to her surprise, once she neared the entrance of Lamendos, she found its entry hole surrounded by v-ehicles, unconnected insulation tubes stacked up on top of each other, and many conductor generators. Scattered amongst all the equipment were stray pieces of clothing.

“Huh…? Ley-line construction…?”

Ah—she should have looked into what was happening here—the news—before coming. Why hadn’t she? It was her own stubbornness. She blamed that much on her mother and father, but that was stubbornness in itself.

These thoughts soon left her as the sound of a piano reached her ears. It was coming up from the entrance of Lamendos. As she came near to it, she was met with the stench of iron. Eyes narrowing, she reached the edge of the hole and peered down. Immediately, she locked eyes with a whimpering older man who was climbing up one of the many chains hooked to the edge of the entrance. He was only half a meter away, but his face was drenched in sweat and he was panting heavily. His lower left leg was wrapped tightly around the chain while his right leg looked as if it had been put through a meat grinder.

“H-Help me…” the man wailed in Taurusian as he reached out a trembling hand for her. “Please, help…”

Taurus regarded him for a moment impassively. So pitifulShe doubted he’d survive his wounds. A fortress would do nothing for him.

“Please… my daughter…” His eyes were wide and mad. “My wife… I have to get back to them.”

Csilla reached out her hand immediately and wrapped hers around his. An expression of pure relief crossed his face before it crumbled into one of agony. Before she could register what was happening, a white mist began to curl up his leg to his abdomen to his face and then to his reaching arm from below. In a painfully slow fashion, his body melted and then disintegrated into nothing leaving only his clothes which tumbled to the ground below in a heap. The mist itself continued upwards, brushing against Csilla’s still extended hand.

Taurus winced at the flare of pain that resulted, pulled her hand back, and stumbled away from the edge. She cradled her hand as she felt it boil but wrung it out with a grimace. Her drooping, melting flesh burned a dark russet before coming back together to form her functioning hand.

Rho—no, Bolina. This was their conducting. So, Bolina was here now too? Rho was working with Gamma? Who else was papa—Gamma—working with now? It had to end. They were disrupting the syzygy.

Without hesitation, Taurus charged forward, leapt down into the hole, and fell, fell, fell—

—crack! Whether that was the sound of the earth beneath her or her bones cracking, Taurus didn’t know. Perhaps, it was both. It didn’t matter.

The air was now clouded with a thick smog of dirt and debris from her landing, and it seemed to temporarily combat the white mist swirling around the cavern. Through the haze, Taurus could see children running around above corpses. A pale woman was playing the piano by the vitae pool in the corner of the cavern. 

“Taurus…?” A voice floated down from above. “Is that… Taurus?”

Taurus looked up to find three figures resting on the pillars emerging from the vitae. Three women. One with long black hair and a deactivated vitae blade at their side and two others wearing gloved conductors. One of the ones wearing a glove-conductor had a glazed-look in their eye.

“Where is Gamma? Where is Pothos?” Taurus demanded.

“Pothos!” One of the gloved-wearing women—the one who looked alert—clapped. “I presumably haven’t heard those names spoken in a long time! Although it just feels like a couple of months ago to me. Funny how that works.” She leaned forward and squinted down at Taurus. “My goodness. The resemblance is uncanny… You look just like how Gamma looks now. Are you really blood-related…? How ironic…” 

Rho, gauging by the demeanor, Taurus identified. 

She didn’t bother answering her. Those kinds of words used to bring her some form of embarrassment in the past, but they were hollow words now. 

That aside, if Rho was here, then… 

Taurus glanced at the other two women standing beside her. The one with the vitae blade was most likely Nu—Soteria—since Nu was a Projector and was always by Rho’s side. The last one then…?

“We’re not working with Gamma,” Rho replied casually. “Delta’s working with Gamma though. I bet things get steamy here because of that.”

Delta…?

“I was actually looking for them both—well, I was looking for Theta’s proto-conductors that they stashed here somewhere.” Rho shrugged. “They’ll be back soon though even if they know we’re here.” She pointed to the unidentified, airy woman beside her. “They have to come back for their best healer.” 

Lambda, Taurus realized. Why did she look so off like that?

Rho reached over and plucked a chain that was hanging from Lambda’s neck. A resistor was dangling from it. “Gamma and the bunch still use that old method of keeping the resistor close to the body, so you can have someone just transfer it to the closest available host-corpse-thing right after you kick the bucket. It only really works if you have a partner with you at all times though. So old-fashioned.”

Csilla’s heart fell at the former revelation, but she still had something to do here. She surveyed the corpses around her and reached her final decision. This could not be allowed. “So you’re working with Theta—”—though it was hard to imagine Theta would be for something like this. Then again, he’d been incorrectly initiated into that crime lord.

“Nope!” Rho popped before flinging out her gloved hand.

Taurus didn’t move as a torrent of white mist descended upon her. The white clouds ghosted her skin, burned through her flesh, and boiled her eyeballs in their sockets. Muscle fiber melting into muscle fiber, crumbling bone.

It felt all too familiar. She had felt like this when she’d been pushed into the reservoirs in Ophiuchus. The only difference was that in the end after this, she was still to remain as herself.

Waving the misty cloud aside, Taurus stepped forward out into the open.

“Ah, you’re as stubborn as always.” Rho sighed before clapping her hands—the sound cutting sharply above the piano tune.

Several of the children who had been running around swiveled to Taurus at the sound. The older ones—the ones who looked around her own age, approached her swiftly and pulled out various conductor apparatuses. How pitifulConverts. Indoctrinated. Brainwashed.

The girl closest to Taurus lifted a gloved-hand at Taurus. Taurus met the girl’s gaze head on before an ear-piercing pain shot through her own temple. The vibration felt like it was boiling her brain alive. The ground beneath her feet trembled with the unseen force as it shook through every fiber in her body. The piano music stopped abruptly as the shaking continued.

With difficulty, Taurus surveyed her surroundings as she slid to her knees. The children—minus one boy who was keeled over—all stared at her unaffected. Rho, Nu, and Lambda remained unaffected too as they watched her from their perch. The pianist was doubled over on the floor, explaining the lack of music.

Specialists. Specialist children. Children with vitae bleached white. Less vitae available for the syzygy. Where were they getting these children? What were they planning?

Taurus struggled through the agony and barely managed to stagger back up to a stand. And then suddenly—just like that—the shaking pains dissipated. Upon looking up, Taurus found that the Specialist girl had been pushed aside and was now being pinned down by another figure. A woman. Brown hair tamed by a bun. Sharp hazel eyes. A strong back—

Mama? Csilla realized with fleeting relief and joy before her eyes narrowed. What was she doing here? 

Csilla shook her head and leapt at one of the boys who had started to turn towards her mother with an ignited blade of white vitae. As she neared the boy, she swiveled around, hardened the vitae at her feet, and hooked him in the abdomen with the point of her shoe. In the split second that her foot burrowed its way into his gut, Csilla saw blood dribble from the boy’s mouth. A moment afterwards, the boy went flying across the cavern and cracked against the far wall. He then slumped to the ground motionless.

“Csilla, stop! They’re children, Csilla! They don’t know what they’re doing!”

At her mother’s cry, Csilla felt her cheeks burn with shame. That was right, wasn’t it? She had to be a fortress for all of these pitiful people—at least until the syzygy rang its final toll. And—she couldn’t let her mother see her like this. No, no, no.

As one of the other children charged at her mother again with a glove sparking with white flame, Csilla ran forward and this time swept her feet beneath the child’s. The child fell backwards but grabbed hold of Csilla’s leg. The continual white flames ate away at Csilla’s skin causing her to reflexively jerk her foot away, harden the vitae over it, and bring it down. Before she could bring her foot down fully, however, a sharp searing pain tore through her knee. Upon looking down, she found that her lower leg had been severed and now flopped uselessly on the ground beside her.

“Csilla!” her mother cried again.

Taurus turned and found Nu standing on top of the pillar with a grimace and with her hand still extended from when she’d presumably thrown the blade.

“You harm children not only through your corrupted baptisms and conductors,” Nu muttered, eyes narrowing, “but now you’re also doing it with your own hands?”

“You’re a fool, Nu. Always a follower,” Taurus returned. “Look at what you’ve done to these children and what you’ve asked them to do—”

“We saved them.” 

“Csilla…” Her mother whispered. “Your leg—”

But Taurus’s lower leg was already beginning to glow dark russet. It slinked forward along the ground before coming to her and reattaching itself to her body. 

Csilla glanced at her mother whose eyes were wide with horror at the sight. She felt her cheeks flush with shame, and then glanced backwards to find that Nu had descended the pillar and was now approaching her, vitae blade in hand.

Foolishness—

Nu charged forward with a roar. Taurus easily dodged the first ten swipes of the woman’s blade, although the twelfth swipe scored through her arm, nearly severing it at the elbow. It reattached a second afterwards, and in the moment of distraction that the process brought, Taurus took the opportune moment to deliver a vitae-coated kick to Nu’s chest that sent her flying back into one of the pillars.

“Nu…” Rho sighed as the pillar beside her sank into the pool from the impact. “Don’t be stupid…”

 Nu slid onto one of the toppled pillars but picked herself up a moment after. Shaking herself, she crossed the pillar over the vitae pool and limped back onto solid ground. Blade still in hand.

Taurus approached the ELPIS leader slowly, but stopped short when one of the children lunged at her. Before she had to deal with the child herself, however, Elizabeta tackled them aside and pinned them down. Csilla stared at her mother in surprise and was startled to find something other than disgust in the woman’s eyes. Csilla shook herself and continued to Nu’s side. 

Nu had no sunken down to a kneel before the vitae pool and sent Taurus a venomously glare.

“Nu, don’t be stupid.” Taurus frowned, grabbing the woman’s arm once she’d reached her side.

“You’re the ones who are stupid,” Nu informed her flatly. “Look at you, walking around with your head held high and calling yourself the Saint of the Fortress when you’re pushing the syzygy forward. How can you serve as a fortress when you’re breaking down the foundation—”

Taurus crushed the woman’s arm in her vitae-coated hands without a second thought. The woman didn’t flinch as expected. Instead, the woman whipped out her conducting blade and severed her own arm with it before sending Taurus back with a kick. Taurus was left righting herself and holding the lower half of the woman’s arm, while the woman limped away back to the pillars.

The smell of burnt flesh lingered.

“Nu!” Rho tisked from above them. “You’re going to die again if you keep doing that! You’ve died too many times already!”

“Lambda,” Nu called out to the other woman beside Rho. “Please.”

Lambda swayed from side-to-side hesitantly before slowly descending the pillar. Taurus narrowed her eyes at this and stormed towards them but stopped short as she glanced at her mother who was now being surrounded by the children. 

Foolish woman! What did she even plan to do by coming here? 

No, it was mean and wrong to call her mother foolish. 

“All you’re doing is prolonging the inevitable,” Taurus drew mechanically. Her gaze flicked from her mother to the ELPIS leaders, to Lambda who had finally made it down to ground-level and who was now regenerating Nu’s arm with her glowing white conducting glove. “You both—”

A violent wind suddenly tore through the entire cavern. A pale tangerine glow emitted from the top of the pillar, and a figure suddenly emerged from behind Rho there. A tall figure with familiar broad shoulders wearing glasses with a horn-rimmed frame. 

Papa…!

“Izsak!” her mother called from behind.

Csilla’s heart soared in her chest but then crumpled as her eyes locked onto the familiar white snake tattoo crawling half-way up the man’s face. Her mother must have seen it too, because Csilla heard her gasp audibly in anguish.

“Oh, there you are, Gamma!” Rho beamed, throwing up a hand in greeting. “We were looking—”

Before she could finish, Gamma kicked her hard in the gut and sent her flying to the ground and crashing down into the children that were surrounding Csilla’s mother. 

Rho popped up a second later with her arm bent at an odd angle, but she continued to offer Gamma a salute. “We were just swinging hoping to get our hands on some more of Theta’s proto-conductors.”

“What did you do to all of the resistors? Where is Alpha?” Gamma asked thickly.

Csilla’s heart hammered at the sound of his voice. It had been almost an entire year since she’d heard it whispering to her good night wishes.

“You’re not going to ask us what we’re planning?” Rho sighed. “This is why we went with Alpha instead of you or Theta. You guys are always too…”

Nu swiveled out her vitae blade and pressed it to Lambda’s neck. When Gamma remained unreactive, she slid the blade to the chain on Lambda’s neck and melted away the resistor hanging there in one fell swoop. Then, Nu brought her blade back to Lambda’s throat.

“Are you stupid…?” Gamma asked, eyes narrowing. “Lambda is our best healer. There is no other like her.”

A pit of jealousy burned at Csilla’s stomach at those words because those were the words her father once said about her.

“Your—our—best healer for the proto-conductors.” Rho extended her hand as Nu dragged Lambda over to her side.

Csilla couldn’t pay them any mind because her gaze was focused solely on Gamma. She knew her mother was just behind her, but her father…? No, no, no. Pitiful.

Rho snapped her fingers and pointed to one of the boys she’d knocked down during her fall. “Pip, it’s your time to shine!”

The boy’s eyes brightened immediately, and he scrambled up to his feet before holding out his gloved-hands. The central insulation tubes there began to glow a burning white that soon consumed the boy’s entire hands.

“Are you ready to get blasted to hell and back?” Rho called out cheerfully. “Because that’s what’s going to happen to all of us—Lambda included—if we don’t get those proto-conductors. Well, you’ll escape of course since you have them already, but…”

Gamma stared her down, before his attention shifted to Csilla’s mother. His eyes widened a fraction before his gaze drifted to Csilla. Csilla held the man’s gaze for what felt like an eternity—searching for something, anything—before he broke it off and dug into his coat pocket. He pulled out several objects and threw them across the divide at Rho. The proto-conductors.

Fool.

“Your mistakes will catch up to you,” was all he said.

Rho leapt up and caught the proto-conductors with her good hand. “Thanks, Gamma! I knew we could rely on you!” She nodded at Nu who then shoved Lambda forward onto the ground. Without skipping a beat, Rho splashed some of the black liquid onto the ground from the proto-conductor, while Nu went over to the pool and retrieved the pianist who was still unconscious by the vitae bank.

“Come,” Nu called out to the surrounding children as the gate opened by Rho’s feet. The children gathered around her and proceeded to follow her into the glowing gate.

“Oh, I totally forgot to say this, but here’s a theatrical, ominous message right before we part ways.” Rho waved as she sank down into the faintly pulsating portal with them. “Ophiuchus will fall in a couple of months and the true Ophiuchus will rise from its ashes—or something.” She waved. “Now, bye-bye! See you when Ophiuchus falls!”

With that, the glow from the child’s—Pip’s—conductor expanded outwards in an all-consuming light.


“Papa!” 

Elizabeta had heard it. She hadn’t imagined it. Csilla had cried out that word as soon as Izsak had appeared on top of that pillar. She was still Csilla, and Elizabeta felt indescribable relief at the confirmation. But Izsak—she’d held his gaze for the briefest of seconds when he’d first arrived in Lamendos, but she couldn’t feel anything, couldn’t find anything familiar in his gaze. But he had kept the photograph with him, so she had to be wrong. She had to be.

When the ELPIS child Pip started to activate what Elizabeta assumed was an explosive conductor, she tried to shake him to turn it off, but it was no use. He held to it steadfastly and curled his body around it; soon he was consumed by the glow. Realizing what was to come, Elizabeta whipped around and tried to search for anyone she could save, but the ELPIS leaders and the children who’d come with them had already disappeared through the gate—all except one who was passed out on the ground to her left. The ELPIS woman called Lambda was also passed out on the ground but…

Gritting her teeth and turning away from Lambda, Elizabeta picked the boy up and as she darted to Csilla who remained frozen in place a step or so ahead of her. She shook her gently, heart hammering— “Csilla, we have to go!” She looked up to the pillars where her husband had been standing just a moment earlier, but found it empty. When she turned back to Csilla, she found that Csilla was staring over her shoulder. Elizabeta followed her gaze and registered Izsak holding Lambda in his arms.

Izsak gazed at them with an unreadable expression. Elizabeta opened her mouth, prepared to say something, but the man flipped out a proto-conductor and tapped it against the black-stained ground. 

“Comientzo, Leo” he said into the gate.

With that, he sank into the light and disappeared, leaving them all by themselves. In the place where he once stood, the light from the explosive conductor burst out brightly.

Swallowing a cry, Elizabeta took the boy off her back and threw herself around him and Csilla as she squeezed her eyes shut. The heat of the explosion seared into her back, and she knew nothing more.

* * *

When Elizabeta stirred into consciousness again, she found that she was surrounded by slabs of stone and rubble.  Faint light was pouring down from a narrow hole above her, but other than that, all that surrounded her was rock, rock, rock. It didn’t take her long to realize that she had been buried under the rubble of the explosion. But how in the world did she survive that?

After assessing herself for injuries and finding none, Elizabeta slowly pushed herself up only to find that there was something small and wet on top of her. A body. Barely human in shape with an unidentifiable face, but up close Elizabeta immediately knew who it was.

“N-No, C-Csilla…” Elizabeta cradled her daughter’s body with shaking hands. “Csilla—”  

Csilla had thrown herself over them to protect them? How…? Why—

“Csilla!” Elizabeta cried.

No, hysterics. Calm down. Hysterics didn’t help anyone.

Subsiding her trembles, Elizabeta pulled out her glove-conductors from her pocket and put them on as her mind raced. She could put Csilla back together somehow. Yes. Just like back on the field during the war. Just like in the Medical Department. Everything reattached. Vitae particle to vitae particle. Under duress—

Elizabeta shook her head, and her thoughts fell back into place. Then she realized that the muscles in her daughter’s disfigured face were beginning to glow a dark russet color. Just like it had done earlier. Just like Gabrielle and Alice had said that Scorpio’s vitae had done when his head had been blown off.

In other words, Csilla was healing. The sight of it still made Elizabeta nauseous. The idea that her darling daughter was in any sort of state of injury—even if it could heal—wrenched at her chest. And even if it could heal, Csilla could still feel it, couldn’t she?

Oh, she was a failure of a mother.

A whimpering sound drew Elizabeta’s attention away. She turned to find a small body—a boy—tucked beside her. A profusely bleeding gash ran diagonally across his face. At the rate of the bleeding, he’d die within the next fifteen minutes if the wound wasn’t sealed. Gingerly, she put Csilla’s body to the side and turned to the boy. She placed a hand to his face. “Are you okay?”

“It hurts…” the boy whimpered.

Okay. He was still cognizant. 

“What’s your name?”

“I-I’m K-Kent…” the boy sniffled. “I’m Kent…” He sobbed. “I’m sorry… I’m sorry… I want to see Theta.”

Theta? The one Gabrielle and Alice had worked with. The one they kept mentioning. The one who had taken the photograph off from Gamma. Gamma—who wasn’t working with this Rho or Lambda. Rho and Lambda, were both not working with Theta, but with Alpha…? In-fighting.

Shaking the confusing thought aside, Elizabeta hovered her hands over the gash on the boy’s face then paused. Was his vitae bleached? Like Jericho’s? Were his injuries extraneously difficult to heal? Could she manage it? Of course she could.

She activated her conductor causing it to bleed out a caramel light that caused the boy’s cheek to glow the same. Much to her relief, the boy’s vitae didn’t appear to be resisting and so she quickly sealed his wound. The boy’s whimpering quieted after the fact, and he was left sniffling. Elizabeta brushed back his hair before turning around to her daughter again whose face and body was now recognizably human.

“Oh, Csilla…” Elizabeta stroked her daughter’s face as it slowly came together. “Csilla…”

Even now, she didn’t see a monster, a deity beyond her comprehension, a monument to be worshiped and feared, nor a harbinger. All she saw was Wtorek Csilla. Csilla. Her and Izsak’s little star. It was all she had left.

Csilla’s eyes fluttered open and she took in a deep breath.

“Csilla!” Elizabeta let out a breath in turn.

Csilla looked over at her and stared, before her gaze darkened almost frighteningly then collapsed into itself. “Why did you come? Why did you come? Why did you have to come?!” She pulled away from Elizabeta, eyes wide. “You’re a fool for coming.”

Elizabeta lifted her hands. “Csilla. Don’t be rude.” She shook her head. “You’re my daughter. You ran away without saying anything. Why would you do that? I was worried sick—”

Csilla stared. “Don’t you get it? I’m the Saint of the Fortress. I’m a saint candidate. I am Taurus. Like Leona, like Talib, like Flannery, like—”

“You’re a failed saint candidate from what I understand,” Elizabeta interjected.

Csilla’s stony expression melted into shame and her cheeks burned red. The sight of it was a relief despite the relief itself being a form of cruelty.

Elizabeta pressed her hand to her face and sighed. “Sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. But… You…” Despite practicing what she had been planning to say over and over again these past months, her mind couldn’t connect the words together.

“Mama—”

Elizabeta’s heart hammered at the word.

“—don’t you get it…? I’m more Taurus than I am Csilla. Just like how Talib is more Scorpio than Talib.”

“Look. It doesn’t matter to me if you’re more Taurus than Csilla.” Elizabeta frowned. “As long as there is a drop of Csilla in you, then you are my daughter. And you can’t go running away without saying anything. If there’s something wrong, you have to tell me so I can help you… I…  I-I can’t…” She felt her composure fracturing. “Your father… I can’t… If you go too…” She buried her face with her hand before she could stop herself as months of anguish, waiting, and tension rolled off of her shoulders. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry that we put you through the ceremony. We should’ve known. We should’ve learned more.” A sob tore from her throat. “Oh… Izsak… Csilla…” And she began to weep uncontrollably. 

After what seemed like hours, a hand pried Elizabeta’s hand away from her face.

“It’s not your fault…” Csilla murmured, holding her hand still. Her expression was sympathetic, but distant. “You didn’t know… They never do…” Her gaze lowered. “We were meant to fortress you and serve as means of guidance while you all build your own path, but we’re all pitiful. We can’t accept our defeat.”

Elizabeta stared up at her in confusion as  Csilla slowly rose to an unsteady stand.

“I’m not your responsibility any longer, Wtorek Elizabeta.” Csilla looked upwards to the small opening in the rubble. “I hope you find in peace in this. You should return to Ophiuchus before…”

Elizabeta felt her heart seize in her chest and her stomach twist into knots. To be comforted by one’s own child was an embarrassment to a parent. And to have a child leave before they even reached adulthood…?

Csilla had not even shed a single tear here, Elizabeta realized next. Apathy? Strength? Like a fortress? Perhaps. No, no, no—this was an act. Elizabeta knew. She knew because she’d had to deal with this type of behavior many times before. Whenever Csilla had been upset, she’d always hide it behind a facade of aloofness, distance, and nonchalance—she was so stubborn that she’d once kept up the act for two weeks after Izsak had eaten the last slice of her favorite cheesecake. 

“Wait—” Elizabeta dug into her coat and pulled out the photograph of all three of them together. She held it out to Csilla who turned to her slightly. When her daughter didn’t move to take it, Elizabeta quickly forced it into her hands.

Csilla stared at the photo in confusion.

“Gamma had this in his pocket. A man named Theta took this from him only a couple months ago during the Week of Blindness in Capricorn,” Elizabeta explained. “Izsak—your papa—could be like Francis Foxman, like Theta—”

Kent stirred.

“He could still be in there.”

Csilla dropped her hands to her side, but she didn’t drop the photograph. “Why are you so stubborn…? Why do you keep hoping…?” 

“Only people who give up easily call it stubbornness,” Elizabeta said, just as she’d told Csilla many times before. “It’s called ‘not giving up.’ And I know that you’re not the type to give up easily, Csilla.” She paused and then drew, “You’re still looking for Izsak—papa—aren’t you? I am too. After we find him, we can finally take that vacation and go to Pisces—Hapaira—like he’s always wanted. You can have your favorite cheesecake while your father and I drink our favorite wine. Maybe we’ll even go to see a water show while we’re there. You’ve both always wanted to see one, right? I don’t think he’ll like how popular you’ll be with the boys there, but I’ll have a word with him—”

An unmistakable sniffle cut Elizabeta off short. When she looked up, she found Csilla staring at her through glassy eyes.

Elizabeta held out her arms. “Csilla… You’re a good girl. I don’t blame you for anything. You’re trying your best, but you don’t have to be a fortress for me or for anyone. You don’t have to even be a fortress for yourself. Honey… I love you, okay?”

Csilla whimpered, took several steps backwards then forwards, before throwing and collapsed into Elizabeta’s arms. “Mama! I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I tried to change something, but I couldn’t. I failed. I keep failing. We keep failing. I just want everything to go back to the way it was before. I miss papa. I miss Talib. I miss everyone. I miss my friends in school. I hate this! I-I’m sorry…”

Elizabeta held Csilla tightly as she let out a quiet sigh. “Syzygy, Ophiuchus, Saint Candidates, True Conductors, and ELPIS—it doesn’t matter. We’ll find him together.”

Elizabeta glanced up at the hole above them and found the night sky that was splattered with tiny twinkling stars. One blazed brighter than the others. A star of hope.

23.6: Peacekeeper—A Debate, Reflejando

Re-cap:

Jericho was made vice-chair for Leona for the Head Chairman Elections. While he is kept to deskwork by Leona, he frequently sneaks out from Scorpio’s watchful gaze to help Cadence and Francis’s search for their missing children who have been stole away by Alpha. During one of these adventures, they encountered Epsilon who was able to transfer and move vitae and memories. After Maria was brought into the fold and gained information from Epsilon, she encountered Andres and Conta/Beta whom she subsequently brought to Francis’s exitless room upon request. 

With this converging of different sides of ELPIS, Jericho…


Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus 

Jericho was having what he believed was a ‘peculiar’ week. Olive had described it as an ‘annoyingly painful’ week, while Cadence said it was a ‘dicey’ week but that ‘the rewards of it outweighed the cost.’ Werner labeled it as a ‘high-risk, but productive’ week and Atienna an ‘interesting’ week. Maria had perceived it as an ‘exciting’ week. Correction: ‘the most exciting week ever.’ However, Maria described every week in that way, so Jericho was uncertain.

It started off on Monday after the preliminary elections when Leona pulled Jericho from his cubicle and into her office. Her office was different from Gabrielle’s and Scorpio’s. While Gabrielle’s was somewhat cluttered, often filled with bottles of alcohol, and constantly occupied and Scorpio’s was dark and empty with mahogany furniture, Leona’s was bright and modern-looking. Amendment: it looked ‘normal.’ Behind her black lacquered desk was an open window that let in the graying winter sunlight. On the left and right side of the desk along the white wall unfolded a series of bookcases stuffed with well-cared for texts. A map of Signum hung from her left wall, while her right was occupied by filing cabinets.

Once Jericho greeted Leona at her desk, she moved him to sit at her mahogany meeting table at the center of her office. There, she lounged across from him, posed with chin resting on her hand and her legs crossed.

Jericho stared at her, uncertain.

“Did you bring your sketchbook with you like I asked?” 

Jericho lifted his hand, showing her his journal.

“Good.” She straightened her back. “Draw me.” 

Jericho stared harder.

“You draw, don’t you?” Leona asked. “Scorpio told me you do.”

At the name, Jericho felt his stomach churn uncomfortably. Regardless, he replied truthfully: “I only draw things I like.” Just because Maria was interested in Leona, that did not mean that he was.

Leona’s expression didn’t change. “And what about things you hate?”

“I don’t draw them.”

“Do you still hate ELPIS? Or has your hate moved to us now?” Leona uncrossed her legs. “You’ve worked so hard to come to this department. Your relentlessness and refusal to put your head down is something to be praised.” Her eyes narrowed. “However, you’ve set your feelings about ELPIS aside from what I understand from Scorpio. You’ve given up on your goal of eliminating ELPIS.”

Jericho stared, clenching his fists. “I am not giving up.  I will never give up.”

Leona hummed, looked him slowly up and down, then said, “I’d like for you to design a poster for my campaign for me. I’d like for you to capture my likeness.” 

Jericho cocked his head. Was he the odd one here again or was it her?

“There are better people to draw,” he answered curtly after a beat. Wrong choice of words, whispered a voice. So he amended: “I apologize. I mean there are people who are ‘better’ at doing these types of things than me.”

“I don’t care for those types of excuses,” Leona replied. “Regret, discomfort, low self-esteem, slovenliness. These are all things to overcome.” She poised herself again. “Draw me, Jericho.” 

It was best to go along with it now. Less trouble. No need to pick a fight where it wasn’t needed.

Jericho stiffly flipped open his journal and pulled out his pencil. After studying the silhouette of Leona’s body and her lines and curves, he began to sketch her jaw line.

“You are normal with me,” Jericho said more to himself than to her, “after everything you’ve all done.”

“After everything we’ve done, you say?” Leona’s eyes narrowed slightly, causing her eyelashes to catch the light falling in from the window. “How impertinent of you. Shifting the blame to ease yourself of guilt, pain, and responsibility. You’ll never learn that way.”

“Please don’t move.” Jericho said before suddenly recalling Francis’s words of responsibility, then Scorpio’s. 

“In fact, you’ll never be able to forge a path of your own if you keep deferring to others like that.”

Then Jericho thought of the searing heat, the sands, the tents, and that day he had made the decision that ELPIS was wrong. Their cries echoed in his ears.

“I’m not referring to your past with ELPIS, Jericho,” Leona added suddenly. “Don’t worry. I’m not like Scorpio. I find little amusement in dragging out personal matters from the past unless they’re pertinent. In fact, I find Scorpio’s way of doing things distasteful and near-sighted. The whole matters much more to me than the individual.”

Jericho paused and looked up at her.

“Although you could have absolutely resisted at the time being even with your age,” Leona continued, still poised perfectly like a statue—like the statues in the Monadic temples. “Your youth and ignorance at the time still should be held into account. As much as I dislike the argument of ‘not being fully aware of your own actions,’ the recent incident in Capricorn has given me time for some self-reflection. That too is a sign of strength.” 

“I am not a member of the Psychological Evaluations Department,” Jericho interjected. “I am not suitable for listening to this. I am bad at giving advice.”

Leona seemed to smile almost, but Jericho figured he was mistaken because she answered him flatly a moment later: “It’s not a personal discussion nor am I seeking advice. Don’t be arrogant and mistake our distance.”

Jericho stared and finished shading her hair.

“That being said, how have the others in the department been treating you?”

Jericho paused. “Like I am not there.” He thought of one of Cadence’s and Olive’s most recent comments on the subject. Subsequently, he added without much consideration: “Correction. I think they ‘gossip’ about me. Because of my vitae. They do not approve of its color. They have questions, but they do not ask it. They dislike me asking them to. I understand, I think.”

Leona’s eyes narrowed slightly. “How cowardly of them. Just this once, I’ll have a word with them. They do represent me, after all.”

“I don’t mind.”

“Well, you should,” Leona replied. “Have you no pride?” Before Jericho could answer, she continued, “It surprises me still that Theta would stand by and allow a child to have their vitae processed in that way.”

“It was not Theta,” Jericho said. He stopped himself from mentioning Alpha. “Theta was killed. Someone else did it. They said if we wanted to keep Theta’s memory, we should join them. It was what was ‘right.’” He paused, fully digesting Leona’s words.

There it was again. That familiarity between ELPIS and the Saint Candidates. He could not focus on the thought long, however, because his stomach began to boil as he thought of Cadence’s children. What were those ELPIS Leaders planning to do with Cadence’s children…? What if—

“—so I’ve heard,” Leona nodded. “I’m referring to Theta’s actions now. Although Vega was never the type to act on vengeance, she would most certainly feel responsible for what happened. Theta is with someone you’re connected to, aren’t they? I do wonder what they’re up to now.”

She was fishing for answers, Jericho realized. He answered stiffly, “No, I don’t know—”

“Did it hurt?”

Jericho cocked his head at the change in question. “Hurt?”

“When they bleached your vitae,” Leona drew slowly. “When you were brought in here, you reported not remembering the exact process of it, but I’m sure you still remember the feeling.”

Yes. The feeling of being strapped down on a metal table and the feeling of hot liquid searing through his veins. The pain fading completely and him being left with only the vague, hazy sensation of euphoria and greater purpose. 

Abruptly replacing this feeling came a feeling of absolute exhilaration. With it came the faint, blurred sensation of standing above another person in absolute victory.

Him, standing above a child no older than ten. A child who was cradling their bleeding arm and whimpering in fear. A child who was staring up at him in horror.

He looked down at the child and felt guilt clench his chest. 

“Don’t worry about him, dear,” came a voice from behind him as a hand rested on his shoulder. “It’s just that they weren’t able to become a star. Instead they’ll become the night sky that supports the sky.” 

Jericho blinked.

What. No, that wasn’t his memory. It was almost the same: seeing someone look at him in fear when he was younger. But it was different. 

“—Francis Foxman is nowhere near close to who Theta was as a person.” Leona’s voice cut through the muddled memories. “Just as Theta was nowhere near the person Vega was.” She sighed, seemingly with disappointment. “They whittle themselves away like so. It’s pitiable. They’re fools. I hope you’re not foolish in your own attachments, Jericho.”

Jericho said nothing.

Leona went on to speak of the weather, the state of Monadic temples in Leo, and even pressed Jericho for how he’d picked up drawing. It felt ‘casual,’ like one of the conversations he’d have with Gabrielle, Ferris, or—Talib. It felt so casual that Jericho was tempted to press Leona with questions of his own: What was the syzygy. What was causing the syzygy. But. Intuition: Leona would not like him if he did that. However—

Why do you want the syzygy to happen?”

Leona, who was still smiling for some reason after Jericho had told her of one of his first cases involving the Foxmans, stopped smiling instantly. She stared at him long and harm before pointing to his notebook. “Let me see.”

Jericho turned it over to her hesitantly. She accepted it before studying his sketch.

“Your art is truly beautiful, Jericho…” Leona said after a moment of quiet. “I’m surprised at how much you’ve honed your talents in such a short moment of time….”

“Thank you?”

Leona handed the notebook back to him. “However, this process takes too long. I want you to find another medium to capture my image for the flyers and posters.”

Jericho tensed. “Another medium?”

Leona nodded. “Something quicker but that can capture permanence.” She thrummed her fingers before rising from her seat. “I suggest speaking with Nadinaline, the First Chairwoman of the Assignment Department.”

“But she is your competitor.”

“She is, but she also knows a thing or two about permanence. I highly suggest you seek her out.”

With that, Leona excused him from her office. He complied curtly.

Jericho did not understand Leona, but he believed for once that this was not his own fault. Even Cadence who very lightly synchronized with him at the time didn’t understand her. And Cadence understood everyone

“Gives me a textbook superiority complex vibe,” Cadence noted afterwards. “But she can also probably kick my ass so not sure how we can twist that bit.”

* * *

That afternoon Jericho bumped into Beni, the potential saint candidate for Cancer, while turning a corner in the halls. ‘Literally.’ Beni stumbled back upon colliding with Jericho’s chest, and Jericho had to catch him by the arm in order to stop him from falling flat on his back.

After he righted Beni, Jericho offered a wave. “Hello.”

“H-Hi…” Beni stared up at him before recognition flickered in his gaze. “Oh! You’re the peacekeeper! Jericho! I’m relieved…” He sighed, doubling over. “I was with Nadinaline earlier and had to use the restroom, but when I came out—she was gone… I…” His face fell. “I’ve been searching for her for…. Saints—I don’t know how long.”

“You are… still you.” Jericho stared.

Beni looked around “Uhm… Yes, I’m… Beni….”

“You are not a saint candidate?” Jericho inquired.

“Oh no. The ceremony isn’t until later this month.” Beni chuckled. “There’s a whole process involved… I hate waiting around though.” He waved his hand through the air. “Wait, could you please show me where the Assignment Department is? So I can get to Nadinaline? She’s… er… in charge of me, I guess?”

Jericho stared at him and then nodded before leading him through the halls towards the designated department.

“How long have you worked here, Mr. Jericho?” Beni asked tentatively beside him as they paced along. 

“Just ‘Jericho’ is good.” He gave a thumbs-up. “I’ve ‘worked’ here for almost a year now. More. I don’t remember. I am bad at keeping track of time.” —Which was something Werner kept saying he needed to rectify.  

“I see…” Beni eyed his air quotation marks.

Jericho suddenly found himself saying, “I am working as vice chair for the First Chairwoman of the ELPIS Investigations Department for the elections right now, so it’s different.”

What? That’s so impressive!” Beni beamed. “I bet you can get into a lot of nitty gritty nefarious top-secret things now that you’re a vice chair for a chairperson, huh?”

Jericho paused, ears ringing as he swiveled to face Beni. 

Beni jumped at this and chuckled. “What…? Uhm… It was just a joke. I hope I didn’t offend you—”

Jericho felt his chest unclench. “Oh. A joke.” He turned and began to walk forward again. “It’s funny.” 

“Well, my family tells me that I’d never be a comedian, so that encouragement means a lot!” Beni added helpfully. After a long pause in which Jericho wondered if he should have said something, Beni asked, “So how is the election going?”

“The first chairwoman asked me to sketch her for an election poster. But she said that it takes too long. She wants me to find a quicker but permanent medium. She said to ask Nadinaline, but I am trying to figure it out. I have close people I can ask, but they are busy. I don’t want to bother them.”

“Oh, that’s very nice of you…” Beni suddenly brightened. “Wait—do they mean a photograph?”

“Photograph?” Jericho cocked his head. “I have never used a photograph before. Correction: a camera.” 

Beni beamed and rubbed his chest. “Well, my father is actually a photographer. He used to work with that Hilton Tyler before Tyler retired, you know? Taught me a few tricks.”

Hilton Tyler. The captured True Conductor.

“You know… uhm…” Beni cleared his throat. “I’m stuck around here doing pretty much nothing until my ceremony, so maybe I can teach you how to use one? To kill time? In exchange for you guiding me around?”

Jericho stared.

“Or not? I mean, I sort of asked you out of the blue. We don’t really know each other—“

Jericho’s heart hammered. “No. I would like that. Yes. Thank you—”

Bashhhshhhhshhhhshhhhh. Bahshhhhshhhhshhh.

At the familiar sound paired with a familiar scent, Jericho turned his head and found First Chairwoman Nadinaline Delacroix coming down the hall followed by the same two veiled peacekeepers he’d seen with her the previous day.

“I was looking everywhere for you, Beni!” Nadinaline called out with a sigh as she waved a loose hand in the air. “Where did you run off to?”

“Nadinaline!” Beni exclaimed and rushed over to her side. “I was looking everywhere for you!” 

“I only stepped away for a second—oh?” Nadinaline seemed to finally register Jericho’s presence. “You’re Jericho, aren’t you?”

“He was helping me out,” Beni replied. “He was actually meaning to ask you for some help too, so this sort of works out.”

Nadinaline didn’t say anything, but Jericho imagined she was lifting a brow from behind her veil.

Jericho opened his mouth then closed it. He nodded.

“His chairperson,” Beni continued. “Leona? She asked him to ask you to find something to capture permanence—”

“Oh, of course Leona would ask you to ask me that.” Nadinaline sighed, shaking her head. “How like her. Oh, but it’s rude for me to say something like that, isn’t it? No, maybe it’s merely conscientious? Well… I’m not the type to care for those kinds of things.” She shook her head again, causing her veil to sway back and forth. She glanced sharply at Jericho. “Wait? What were you asking again…?”

“About permanence,” Beni provided. “Capturing it? For a poster, I think. I suggested using a camera…” 

“Hm…” Nadinaline tilted her head slightly, smile thinning as she glanced at the veiled peacekeepers on her right and left. “There are many ways to capture permanence, but a using a photograph is debatable, isn’t it? A photograph can be so easily lost and worn away… You can’t hold it nor embrace it. All that it brings is a sensation of longing.” She placed a hand on Beni’s shoulder and turned him in the opposite direction. “Well, I wish you luck on your endeavors, Mr. Jericho. Thank you for seeing to Beni for me. See you around soon.”

With that, she began to guide Beni away. Just as Beni was rounding the corner with Nadinaline and the other peacekeepers, however, he turned and waved at Jericho. Jericho startled, smiled slightly, and waved back.

Beni. Beni. Beni?

He could not save Talib, but perhaps he could save Beni? Yes. Something else. A goal.

* * *

A day or so later, Cadence herself finally touched point with Francis again. Francis, who had determined that Alpha had taken the children from Cadence and the Foxmans. Alpha whom Francis had said earlier could possibly be the one who had indoctrinated Jericho himself and all the other children back then.

So, Jericho had made the decision to accompany them to Comientzo—even though he did not want to make Werner upset. Cost-benefit analysis. Although Jericho’s mind buzzed with anticipation at finding the one, he was ‘excited’ to see Cadence and Francis physically again. Finding Epsilon, on the other hand, confounded Jericho. But Cadence and Francis insisted that Epsilon was needed, so Jericho quelled his discomfort around the ELPIS Leader.

On Wednesday, Maria arrived at Francis’s room where Jericho awaited with the others for her to receive information from Epsilon. There were lies being told on multiple accounts and levels here: Maria pretending to be Leona, Cadence hiding the chlorowheat from Francis, and so on. Jericho did not like these lies, but Cadence kept assuring him that they were ‘necessary.’ And Jericho trusted Cadence.

After Maria had received the memories from Epsilon, she had ecstatically informed everyone that Alpha was in fact her Proteus, the man who had taken her in. But—Jericho wondered—was Alpha the one who had taken him in? Francis did not state things clearly when pressed for answers. Maria had her answer, but Jericho himself did not. Discomfort.

On Thursday, the memories of Maria’s encounter with Conta and Andres bled into Jericho’s mind. He could not visit until night time, however, so he had to bide his day in the office until then. He could barely focus on his desk work and designing the flyer for Leona’s campaign as his thoughts were filled with only two words:

ELPIS. Alpha. ELPIS. Alpha. ELPIS.

Theta—Francis was approved. Epsilon was approved because Cadence and Francis needed him to find the children. Beta was Conta, and Conta was important to Maria so Conta was approved too. Gamma was not. Gamma was no longer Izsak. Gamma was not approved. Therefore, he had to be brought to justice. Okay. No confusion. 

In fact, according to the paperwork on Jericho’s desk right now, Gamma was still in Taurus raking through the ley-lines and generator conductors located there. The conductors and ley-lines were all in recovery and maintenance at the moment, and a large proportion of the ELPIS Department had been sent up there to handle the situation. 

Those reservoirs—Jericho knew now—contained people who had been excised from the cycle through the use of conductors. They were stuck there. Trapped in a mass of high-energy-level vitae. Just as Trystan had been before Olive had enacted justice and set him free.

ELPIS was right but it was also wrong. Yes.

ELPIS. Alpha. ELPIS. Alpha. ELPIS.

Finally, the time came. Night. Jericho took a train heading out to Aquarius before off-boarding half way before. During the ride, his mind vibrated with the events that had unfolded in Francis’s exitless room throughout the day:

Maria, dragging Conta and Andres to her ship where Francis’s gate was located. Morandi, Emmanuel, and Raul, staring at Conta in flabbergasted confusion. Conta, not acknowledging their presence. Simon, worriedly asking if Veles was still asleep and then trying to explain everything right before Maria pulled Conta and Andres through the gate and into Francis’s room.

Waiting there for them there and sitting around the central round table had been the Foxmans, the Romanos, Cadence, and Francis.

“Who is this?” Fortuna had frowned, arms crossed, as soon as the three had entered. 

“The hell is a Monadic priest doin’ here?” Carl had asked before squinting at Conta. “Wait, I recognize that lady. Isn’t that your quartermaster or somethin’, Maria?”

“Beta,” Francis had greeted Conta pleasantly with a polite nod before offering a handshake. “I heard that you wanted to speak with me.”

And then came introductory exchanges that Cadence said were made clearly by ‘people who didn’t socialize much,’ although she later amended that the whole thing ‘could’ve ended up much more explosively.’ 

Coming back to himself, Jericho destroyed all of his belongings at the station as Werner had advised him to earlier before weaving through the white courtyard and the small garden hiding behind the station building. Hurriedly, he then entered Francis’s gate to the exitless room with his suitcase in tow. 

* * *

(   )

Upon arriving in the room, the Romano executives, the Foxmans, Francis, Cadence, Conta, and Maria, who were all gathered around the table, turned to look at him. While Cadence offered a two-finger salute, Maria a wild wave, and Carl a grunt, Conta stiffened immediately.

Conta stiffened immediately. “A peacekeeper again—” Her eyes flitted to the suitcase in Jericho’s hand. “Not just any peacekeeper, but the suitcase peacekeeper.”  She turned to Francis. “You know what he’s done to Omega and some of the others.” Her eyes flicked to Cadence, Maria, and Jericho. “I’m assuming he’s part of this group’s True Conductors. His conducting is too much like Libra’s. He’s dangerous—”

“I’m aware,” Francis said. “But we did have a deal, Beta.” He gestured loosely at nothing. “I am still providing you and Gamma with my gates in exchange for a half-way truce.” He paused and inquired, “Speaking of Gamma, am I correct in assuming he doesn’t know of your intention here?”

“No, Gamma isn’t aware of this,” Conta admitted. “I lost your proto-conductors in a fight with a convert using some of Rho’s vitae. Gamma is solely focused on the generator conductors, while Tau and I were on Alpha’s trail…. Our operations have become fractured.”

Jericho’s hand twitched at these words, and he felt something simmer in stomach. It was confusing. He liked Francis, but Francis was opening the gates for Gamma and the other ELPIS Leaders who were wreaking havoc in Taurus. 

Easy, detective, Cadence thought, I know, I know. But we gotta hold out.

“Jericho, you don’t have to stand so far,” Francis said suddenly, motioning Jericho forward.

The burning in Jericho’s chest subsided ever so slightly at the gesture. He nodded and came to a stand between Maria and Cadence. He then returned Conta’s stare and wondered where that tattoo was located on her body.

Conta frowned. “Have you considered the possibility that that peacekeeper may be the one who destroyed Omicron’s resistor? Tau told me everything that happened in Gemini.” She paused. “Omicron was skilled, Theta. Do you think her resistor would’ve been destroyed so easily?” 

Omicron? Francis’s “special” person, Jericho realized. Impaled by steel beams saving Francis’s “important” people. Resistor destroyed by Jericho himself.  Something twisted in Jericho’s abdomen at the thought, and he placed his hand over the area.

—hey now, came Cadence’s thought. Let’s not bring any more unnecessary drama ta the table, detective. ‘One thing at a time.’ Something in her tone softened. It’s okay, detective. Besides, things were different then—

“—Jeri is a good peacekeeper, Conta!” Maria interjected, throwing an arm around Conta’s shoulder. “I am actually very excited for you to meet him now that you know what True Conductors, yes? It is like a joining of crews!”

At the exclamation, Olive, Atienna, and Werner slowly phased into Jericho’s vision. Olive was on another train compartment with Stein and Claire. Atienna was in her room in Secoursonne contemplating the dress she’d just received from the duke. Werner was in his room in his inn near the border, still going over the files on the potential True Conductors. None of them said anything as they synchronized in: they merely watched. Observing. 

Conta studied Maria and pulled away but said nothing. Instead, she held Francis’s gaze.

“We—I—brought him in, Beta,” Francis said after a beat. “I need to take responsibility for it all…” He closed his eyes briefly. “Destroyed resistors… Speaking of which, my resistor is no longer functioning. It’s also been destroyed.”

Conta visibly paled. “What…?” She stared past him at Jericho. “Was it the suitcase peacekeeper?”

“It was a mutual decision,” Francis admitted.

Conta recoiled and then grabbed Francis’s arm. “Are—Are you insane?” She looked him up and down. “Why in the world would you do something so foolish like that…?”

Carl lurched forward for Conta’s wrist but was stopped short by a hand around the wrist himself from Maria who merely grinned at him.   

“I intend for this to be my last time,” Francis answered steadily. He nodded at Cadence then at Jericho. “It’s only fair and it serves as motivation. Besides, a world without Omicron is—”

Conta’s expression softened before falling flat. She released him. “That’s unfortunate. We’ve already lost this many.”

“Lost this many?” Francis repeated.

Conta regarded him. “I know that almost all of you—especially you Theta—view this state of living in resistors as a living death, but I’ve never viewed it as such. I don’t expect you to understand—”

“No… I understand…” Francis frowned, holding up a hand. “Tell me, Beta.”

Conta glanced up at Francis in surprise before drawing slowly, “A majority of the resistors containing the others are empty. The only ones left are you, me, Tau, Pi, Gamma, Rho, Nu, Iota—”

Olive tensed. 

“—Delta, and…”

Jericho’s heart skipped a beat as Francis’s expression also fell flat. Cadence reached over and touched Jericho’s arm.

Steady, detective…

What?” Francis pressed.

“At first, we thought that one of our recruits had double-crossed us or emptied them without knowing,” Conta explained calmly. “Then Alpha went missing and reappeared later with Rho and Nu. We suspected foul play…” Her eyes narrowed. “From what I understand, Epsilon has been initiated at this time, so… perhaps instead of the resistors being emptied, the vitae in them may have been merely transferred or drained…”

Jericho’s heart skipped a beat at this. Transferred? Drained? What did that mean? Did it mean those leaders were eliminated? Gone? Just like he had been hoping for. He was closer now. Right? Yes. But he hadn’t done it himself. No. He had returned those people in Capricorn to the cycle, but had not returned the ELPIS Leaders to nothingness. Incongruent. 

Jericho. 

Jericho glanced at Werner’s apparition and found the man holding his gaze.

Right.

 Focus.

Conta pressed, “You don’t have any information on Alpha’s actions in the past decade or so, do you?”

Andres extended his hand and conjured a notebook and pencil in a flash of amber. He scribbled something out onto the notebook and flashed it to everyone. The one who took the children from the orphanage? ‘Alpha’?

Jericho offered the man a thumbs up in response. 

Andres glanced at him, nodded, scribbled out, Thank you.

“No,” Francis answered Conta. “Omicron destroyed most of the records from the most recent decades. But…” He glanced at Maria then back at Conta with a contemplative expression. “We’re starting to get clues…”

Conta followed his gaze to Maria. “I’m sorry again, Theta. Omicron was good.”

“I know,” Francis said quietly. He placed a hand to his chin and mumbled into his hand. “First the children…” A pained look passed his face. “And now the resistors… what is Alpha up to?” He glanced back at Conta. “You were closer to Alpha than I was. Do you have any ideas?” 

“He’s become strange to me now…” Conta shook her head. “But I believe… depending on the amount of times Epsilon has been initiated these past centuries… Alpha may have found a loophole outside of the deterioration condition of bleached vitae using Epsilon.”

Francis’s eyes widened slightly. “I see…” He shifted in place and studied her. “Do you think you would be able to garner more information speaking to Epsilon yourself?”

“Epsilon is difficult to deal with,” Conta admitted. “I would rather not speak to him directly at the moment…” She crossed her arms. “But, do you know when he was initiated? Epsilon, I mean. We initiated Alpha only a week after what happened in Capricorn. He left for some time and then…”

Francis shook his head once. “We haven’t gotten that far with him yet. He was very unwilling to talk with us. However…” He gestured to Maria. “I’m not sure how much you’re aware of this, Beta, but Miss Maria here was a potential saint candidate for Leo. Her likeness is to the original Leo, isn’t it?”

Conta regarded Maria silently.

Maria beamed. “Francis talks like the Monadic priests back at the orphanage sometimes, no, my dear Conta? We should visit some time, yes? Since you are here now!”

Conta turned back to Francis.

“You know how Epsilon was with Leo,” Francis continued. “We were able to get certain things from him by having Maria here pretend to be Leona.”

Andres startled. Pretending to be a saint candidate? The saint candidate of Leo?

Maria pointed to her face and nodded with a beam. “I don’t think we are alike, but apparently we are? I mean, there is only one me in the entire world, yes?”

Andres’s face went red, and he scribbled out quickly: Blasphemy! It’s blasphemy! You have no respect…! It’s wrong! To call yourself a saint candidate when—

Olive opened his mouth to retort but then became distracted as Claire drifted into his view in the train. Jericho became distracted by the Sagittarian prince too.

Claire offered Olive an odd pat on the shoulder before nodding at Andres. “Take it easy, Andres.”

Jericho blinked.

Werner stiffened while Atienna’s hand went to her mouth. Cadence didn’t show any visible signs of distress but Jericho could feel her buzz with confusion. Maria merely tilted her head in wonder.

Olive stared at Claire then at Andres. “What?”

Claire stared back. “What…?”

Cadence looked between the two and then between Andres and Claire. “Wait a minute. Are ya tellin’ me that—”

Claire stared at Cadence, then back at Olive. “Wait. Didn’t you know…? Andres and I are connected. He’s part of my circle? Wait, isn’t that why you agreed to have Andres come along here? Because you knew?”

What?!” Olive shook his head. “No!” He pointed at Maria. “Maria’s Maria and there’s a lot of things going on outside of this right now, so that’s why we agreed—” He opened his mouth, closed it. “Are you serious…?”

“You’re also a True Conductor, Andres?!” Maria gasped, before she reached over and took Andres’s hand in her own. “That’s amazing! No wonder I liked you! Oh, well, I liked you before that, but I like you even more now!”

Andres flushed before pulling his hand away. A second after, he and Claire abruptly turned to face an empty spot on the table. Claire’s face fell a moment after and Andres nodded. 

Andres subsequently held up a newly written note: She was right. You were wrong, Claire.

Jericho cocked his head at the development. Was this how it looked like to others whenever he and the others communicated—

“You don’t have to put it harshly like that…” Claire sighed.

Olive shook his head and gawked at Claire. “I can’t believe you—”

“Let’s take it easy, kid,” Cadence noted. “It’s a bit of an odd ball throw, but it ain’t a bad one—”

“Who the hell are you all damn talkin’ to?!” Carl snapped, slamming his hands on the table. He jabbed a finger at Andres. “And why the hell does he keep writin’ everythin’ down?”

Jericho looked up at Carl and found Allen, Fortuna, Agape, and Bendetto ogling them with ranging expressions of confusion. Right. They could not see Claire or Olive or Werner or Atienna. 

“Calm down, Carl,” Francis eased, placing a hand on the man’s arm. “They’re most likely communicating with other True Conductors in their circle…” He glanced at Andres then at Cadence. “There are two groups of True Conductors here now. Am I correct in assuming this, Cadence?”

“Er—yeah. I’m pretty confused myself…” Cadence ruffled her hair. “Anyways, let’s keep it rollin’, ‘ey?”

I’m pretty surprised that you’re involved with these types of people, Ollie,” Claire noted, gesturing to the Foxmans and the Romanos. “I always had the impression that you hated hanging with this type of crowd.”

Cadence shrugged at this, unperturbed. 

“You’re one to talk…” Olive muttered, frowning at Claire. “I can’t believe you did it again—”

“We need to remain on task,” Werner interjected. He nodded at Olive. “You should discuss this development with Claire separately.” 

Olive met his gaze and returned the nod. He then looked to Cadence, to Maria, and finally to Jericho himself.

“Alpha,” Jericho provided helpfully. “We are searching for Alpha.”

“He’s the one who took us in, no, Conta? Proteus!” Maria took it with stride. “He left a message for me through Epsi!”

For once, it appeared as if Maria piqued Conta’s interest because she turned to Maria and pressed, “A message?”

Maria repeated the poem she had shared with them earlier. 

Conta’s curiosity fell flat. “Another riddle. How like him…. That doesn’t help.”

“No?” Maria cocked her head. “But it reminds you of the stories we used to tell, yes? We haven’t made a story in a while, so we should do one soon!” 

Conta turned away from Maria again and locked eyes with Francis. “I think it’s better if we work together on this, Theta. Handling this alone may prove to be too difficult for us individually”

“And Gamma?” Francis inquired.

“Gamma won’t know. I don’t believe he’d accept you as you are now.” Conta let out a breath. “Besides, at the moment, he is solely focused on eliminating as many as the generator conductors and ley lines in Taurus as he while disrupting the reservoirs. I don’t find his approach wrong, but I believe this is a higher priority.”

Olive frowned at this, and Jericho found himself frowning too.

“I think it’s better if we work together on this as well,” Francis replied calmly, offering a hand. “It’s better for all of us to work together on this front.”

Conta, who had been reaching for his extended hand, paused at the last statement and then stared past him at Maria, Jericho himself, and the others. “They’re True Conductors, Theta. And that group over there formerly sold conductors in masses. They are moving the syzygy forward with their own hands. Do you not see how backwards working with them is?” 

“If we kill these True Conductors, the saint candidates will just bide their time and wait for more True Conductors to populate. As for the crime organizations…” Francis glanced at his brothers and then at the Romanos. “In times like this, we can’t view things in black and white. We won’t win that way. It’ll be difficult to make a choice with these options, but the outcome will be much better, I believe.”

Jericho perked up at these words.

 “I won’t work with you if you seek to harm any of them, Beta,” Francis continued. “That’s the agreement we came to reach back in Capricorn. Anyways, you didn’t come here thinking that it would turn out any other way, did you?” His eyes narrowed. “I’ve always disliked how you’ve never been straightforward.” 

“Are you serious…?” Conta looked him up and down, then at Jericho with narrowing eyes. `“You’ve become awfully childish…” She remained silent for a stretch of time before she finally said, “But if Alpha continues to corrupt our ways, then there will be none of us left to prevent the syzygy in the future. All our efforts up until this point would have been for nothing…” She slowly turned and extended her hand out to Maria. “I understand I’ve tried to take your life at a previous point in time, but your existence is dangerous. Still, for the time being since our goals align, it would be best for us to work congruently.”

Jericho could feel Olive rolling his eyes. All of that talking when they could’ve just done this to begin with.

Maria stared at Conta’s extended hand before reaching past that and pulling Conta into a tight embrace. Conta stiffened in the hold before peeling herself away. Almost as if the embrace didn’t occur, she began to offer her hand to the others in the room, including Jericho himself. 

After a dizzying round of handshakes that left Jericho very much confused, Maria dragged Conta and Andres excitably back through the gate again. Maria’s departure left the usual quietness in her wake as Werner, Olive, and Atienna lessened their synchronizations and faded from Jericho’s vision. In that quietness, the Romanos and the Foxmans settled back into the table in silence.

“I don’t even get what the hell just happened,” Carl muttered, breaking the silence and shaking his head. “What the hell just happened?”

Fortuna merely pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed. “So, Maria, that ELPIS leader, and that Monadic priest will be searching Leo for Alpha, while Francis and the ELPIS try to decode whatever message Ambrose—Epsilon—left?” 

“I pray that this partnership won’t derail our goal,” was all Cavallo said. He had been quiet and unreactive the entire time, so Jericho had almost forgotten his presence.

Jericho stared at the Geminians then at Cadence for a beat before turning to Francis. “Are you worried?” 

“Well… The world naturally turns in the direction of what is just,” Francis murmured in response absentmindedly. “That’s why we’re here now.”

Carl arched a brow at Allen, while Agape and Cavallo held each other’s gazes.

Jericho studied them as the words rang inside his head. Those words. They were familiar to Jericho. The other Theta had said them to him before when he’d younger. Jericho’s thoughts became foggy as the past bled in from the corners of his mind.

Cadence ta detective—

Jericho blinked, shook the memory off, offered Cadence a thumbs-up. Thank you.

No problem, detective. Cadence waved a hand. Let’s just stay grounded, right?

“—of course, justice is whittled away slowly,” Francis continued, his words now foreign and unfamiliar unlike before: not Theta, “and gradually with time, until it loses its original form and purpose.” He mumbled into his hand, but Jericho was able to barely make out his words: “But again, as I’ve said, the world naturally turns in the direction of justice. So, while I have concerns for these proximal matters, I have less of it for the distal, larger picture.”

“I will be justice,” Jericho replied reflexively. He paused when he felt Carl’s, Allen’s, and Fortuna’s stares. Usually, he was fine with this type of staring but it felt different because they were close to Cadence and close to him in turn. Feeling his cheeks burn unfamiliarly, he added quickly: “I have a question. For Maria.” It was also a question he had himself. “She wants to ask this, I think; but she also believes that she doesn’t need to ask. But: was Beta initiated correctly?”

“I was actually surprised when Maria didn’t ask me flat out to begin with…” Francis reached into his pocket and pulled out a packet of v-cigs. He passed the packet around, allowing everyone to select one for themselves—Cadence and Jericho declined, of course—before pulling one out for himself. He ignited it and took a drag. “In Beta’s case, I doubt that whether or not she was correctly initiated matters to her. The accomplishment of our goals as ELPIS is what’s paramount… That was how I was before too, but it is especially so for people like them… Yes, that’s how it is.”

“People like them?” Jericho cocked his head.

“Yes… Alpha, Beta Gamma, Delta, Epsilon…” Francis explained before frowning slightly. “Although they are younger than me, they are the ones who can be considered the founders of ELPIS. It’s always the younger generation that takes up the helm. It’s troubling, really…” He took a drag. “Ironically, they’re the ones who remember the most. So this is good. We can get more information about the syzygy with this… and the children… helping the children…”

Cadence rubbed the back of her neck and glanced at the Foxmans and Romanos.

“Omicron, Omega, Iota, the others, and I…”  Francis continued after a beat. “It took us some time before we made the decision to join, if I recall correctly. I actually followed on after Omicron into ELPIS. Then again, Omicron followed me into my duties under Ophiuchus… So the beginning for us is…” He shook his head and took another drag. “Anyways, from what Maria’s told me, Alpha treated her very kindly when she was younger. I hope our children are…” He trailed off.  

Jericho nodded, shifted in place. “I am happy that Alpha did not do anything to Maria when she was younger if he isthe one.” He felt his stomach churn with discomfort again.

Francis studied him. Cadence did too.

“I don’t understand. I have some of Maria’s memories. From childhood. With Alpha. He was kind. From what I remember. She was happy. But with us. When you took us in. After you died. That was not happiness. I thought it was, but it was not. If Alpha and the one who took us under ELPIS are the same person—”

Detective…

Francis placed a hand on Jericho’s arm.

“I am not jealous of Maria. No.” Jericho searched his thoughts. “I am glad Maria found Conta. Maria is helping out too. With Epsilon. Epsilon and Maria. Leo. It’s an advantage.” He frowned. “Epsilon and Leo are close. They were… friends? Before?”  

Francis nodded. “Epsilon has always been close to Leo… although the Leona we know is a far cry from the Leo I remember.” Francis remained silent for a while before he added, “I believe what Epsilon admired about Leo in particular was their self-love.”

“Self-love?” Jericho thought on it, then thought on Leona and Maria. “Pride?”

Francis smiled faintly and shook his head. “Self-love is a pure love towards one’s own existence. In fact, perhaps it can be considered one of the purest forms of love.” He remained quiet again, then said, “You are taught to be loved by others before you are taught to love yourself. That was a problem even back then.”

Jericho glanced at Cadence who arched a brow at him.

“The freedom that comes with true self-love… That’s something the Leona of this time lacks and Maria has.” 

* * *

Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus 

Now, it was Friday. Just the previous night, Atienna had shared with them the possible effects of chlorowheat after her date with the duke. Jericho hadn’t even noticed she had been gone. There was only a faint fuzziness to her reminiscent of how the others felt to him when they were asleep. 

It gave Jericho discomfort: the idea that his connection with the others could be cut off so easily without his notice. He didn’t like it. He didn’t want to experience something akin to his time in Capricorn again. No.

This concern and thoughts of Alpha followed Jericho throughout the day. Which was ‘bad’ because this day was the first official day of the chairman debates and the second round of vote casting. The voters: the other chairs of the departments and high-ranking peacekeeping office-workers. The next round would include votes cast by the general population of peacekeepers. The round after that would open up the voting to outside Conductors.

The chairmen debates were held in a large auditorium on the highest floor of the Serpens Establishment. Attendance was limited to chairs of the different departments and the high-ranking office workers, although the debate itself would be broadcasted live via radio across Signum.

Throughout the entire day, Jericho found himself being directed to different departments and to the different libraries within those departments by Leona. Gather information, notate different important topics, collect citizen concerns from the Assignment Department—these were the assignments given to Jericho. The latter task was a difficult feat, however, since the Assignment Department was guarded against the intrusion of non-department agents. Rivalry

Jericho would have failed at doing all of these tasks if it were not for Atienna’s assistance and knowledge. He still felt uncertain around her, but the thought of her disappearing again without his knowledge like that night with the duke alarmed him. He did his best to put away his discomfort and tried to treat her as he had before. Jericho personally believed things progressed smoothly enough with her so far. In fact, when  he informed Atienna he would prefer to be using his suitcase for field work not desk work, Atienna had even laughed.

Near the afternoon, Jericho—with a stack of files selected by Atienna and organized by Werner in hand—made his way to the waiting chamber that all debate participants spent time in before heading up to center auditorium stage. Jericho was not a participant himself, of course. From what he understood, his task was to merely present Leona with materials upon her request during the debate or read a line out loud from an article when needed. He could handle this much. Right. 

The waiting chamber itself looked more like a hallway than a chamber to him. It had black tiling and white walls embedded with pillar-like designs that reminded Jericho of Monadic temples in Leo. The ceiling hung low unlike the other ceilings in the Serpens Establishment, so it gave Jericho a claustrophobic feeling as he entered it. It was a feeling he wasn’t too unfamiliar with, so he scanned the faces in the room without difficulty.

Many of the chairs and their vice chairs clouded the area, chattering noisily to each other with grim expressions. Among those faces, Jericho found several familiar ones: Ferris with Nadinaline, the latter of whom was unaccompanied by her usual two peacekeepers for once; Gabrielle with her vice chair; Alice alone; and Moraeni with his vice chair. Ferris and Gabrielle offered Jericho a wave, while Alice nodded at him.

Jericho returned the gestures stiffly but felt oddly relieved at the interaction. But there was no Leona in sight. This was an issue. He then noticed that the only person standing without their chair or vice chair other than himself and Alice was Hårek Ohmdahl, First Chair of the Medical Department. The man stood off by the wall to himself, one hand on his hip and the other over his mouth. He stared holes into the carpet.

“Oh, Hårek, are you alright?”

Jericho locked eyes with Alice, Gabrielle, Ferris, then Moraeni, before turning towards the voice. Entering the room through the large entry black doors at the end of the hall came Scorpio himself.

Scorpio placed a hand over heart. “I heard that Elizabeta has gone away somewhere and you’ve had to handle all the election materials yourself. Are you sure you can do the debates on your own Hårek? I’ve heard you haven’t even selected a new vice chair to take her place yet.”

Yes. That was right. Elizabeta had disappeared without saying a word. Intuition: she had left a note with Gabrielle, but Gabrielle had been unable to share it with the rest of them due to Scorpio’s eyes being everywhere. Maybe the information would come down to Jericho shortly.  He hoped so. Although Jericho didn’t know her as well as he knew Alice, Gabrielle, and Ferris, he still liked her and wanted her safe.

Scorpio came to a stand beside Alice and placed a hand on his chin“Hopefully you’ll be able to handle the chlorowheat issue with just your other chairs…” 

“The chlorowheat issue?” Gabrielle arched a brow.

Hårek tensed as did Nadinaline.

Hårek adjusted his glasses and grimaced. “Yeah, there’s been a chlorowheat problem in Aquarius and Capricorn recently. It’s a new drug that’s been hitting the black markets. Their governments have concerns about how it’ll affect the health of the population since it’s so new, so they’ve brought it to my department’s attention…”

Katharina Groth, First Chair of Conducting Law and Conductor Regulations, narrowed her eyes at this. “Why weren’t we informed of this? Are you trying to blindside us for the debates?”

“That was going to be in our joint report we were going to publish Sunday,” Nadinaline drew. Her gaze seeped through her veil. “I doubt these topics will even come up today since no one knows…” Her gaze drifted to Scorpio. “How did you know, Talib?”

“Reports, right…” Scorpio sighed. “It’s quite alarming how slow communication is between departments, isn’t it?”

Saddine, First Chair of the Communications Department, blanched at this.

“Hopefully the report on the missing Leonian princess will be out by then too.” Scorpio ruffled his hair. “Actually, I think I just received the report on my desk just before coming here.”

Immediately, all eyes went to the First Chair of International Relations who was eyeing Scorpio with a thin frown. Seamus Dolby. Received a handful of votes from the preliminaries. Cadence and Olive had simultaneously labeled him: jerk.

What?” First Chair of the Conservation Department William Saovàng turned sharply to Seamus. “Seamus? What is this?”

Seamus cleared his throat, then smiled sympathetically with spread arms. “Right, right. The princess of Leo went missing about a week ago, and Leo itself came to our department with concerns mid-week. The effects of this on the union between Leo and Cancer is certainly concerning, but Leo requested for us to keep this topic secret, so I haven’t presented any materials to the moderator. Don’t worry, everyone.” He lifted one hand and placed the other over his heart. “I’m fair. Signum comes before petty politics, right?”

While the first chairs remained calm and unreacting, the vice chairs began to exchange nervous glances.

“Of course.” Scorpio returned the gesture with a curling smile. “Sorry that I doubted you for even a second—”

The black entry doors swung open again, garnering the attention of the room. Leona, looking oddly sketchable to Jericho now with her hair done up in an elaborate braided bun, stepped inside and scanned the room. She locked eyes with Scorpio, and they stood across from each other in a stalemate as the seconds ticked on.

Jericho cocked his head. 

Scorpio smiled with concern. “Late, Leona? Are you alright? Being late isn’t quite like you.” 

Leona brushed past the man and came to a stop beside Jericho. She nodded at him before nodding towards the white doors opposite that Jericho deduced led to the auditorium. “We should move along, everyone, and save the debates for the stage. Let’s not waste time playing games.”

With that, she headed towards and out through the white doors at the end of the chamber. Jericho quickly followed behind her and behind him came the other chairs. 

Jericho was immediately blinded by the v-lights beaming down from the scaffolding onto the black marble stage as soon as he stepped over the threshold of the door. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust; and once they did, he quickly took in the scene:

Twelve podiums hooked with large microphones were set up on the center stage in a straight line. Each was marked with the Ophiuchian peacekeeper seal. On the floor below the stage rested a desk with a small microphone where a single, balding man sat peering up at them. Behind that man sat rows of chairs occupied by white armband-wearing peacekeepers with faces shrouded in shadow. The other, lower chairs of the department and several office workers. 

Leona tapped Jericho’s arm, stirring him from his staring. “This way.”

Jericho followed Leona to a podium at the center stage as the other five synchronized with him lightly, all peering in with various forms of curiosity. They were a comfort. Once Jericho situated himself behind Leona and the other chairs and vice chairs were situated behind their respective podiums, the balding man sitting below them began to speak and introduced himself as the moderator. 

Jericho didn’t quite listen to the moderator’s words and instead exchanged looks with Gabrielle, Ferris, and Alice. Vaguely, he heard the moderator state the rules of the debates: everyone would have five minutes to speak on the topic, there was a round for defense and rebuttal, and respect should be kept.

“—the first topic we have today is Conductor Licensing,” the moderator announced suddenly, drawing Jericho’s attention away. “The state conductor exams and conductor licensing became put in place shortly after the Reservoir War’s end. Complaints have been raised about the exams being too difficult and inconsiderate of individuals who may not have access to the resources that would help them in passing the exam. What are your thoughts? We’ll start with the First Chairman of the Licensing Department Moraeni Pōʻai.” 

“I believe that the system we have in place works for the time being,” Moraeni replied, squeezing the edges of his podium. He was visibly sweating. “We’ve worked hard in crafting our conductor exams, constantly evaluating the way we hold them and frequently adjusting the questions to make them fairer and appropriate for changing times. Of course, we’re willing to consider any and all feedback from the constituents of Signum at this time.”

The moderator nodded, then gestured to Saddine. “First Chair of the Communications Department, Saddine Agwuegbo, what do you have to say?”

“Pass,” Saddine said nervously.

“Pass?” The moderator pressed. 

“Pass.”

Five minutes ticked on in silence before it was Gabrielle’s turn.

“Improvements can always be made with these types of things. We can’t ever achieve perfection, but we can do our best to make it better for everyone,” Gabrielle reasoned. “Our state conductor exams work fine, but they’re made with only one type of Conductor—one type of person—in mind. They don’t consider any sort of disabilities—mental, learning, or physical. Many of our most skilled and brightest veterans from the Reservoir War weren’t ever able to get their licenses because of injuries they gained during the war. And don’t get me started on the youth. We’re missing out on a lot of talent by not making these exams more inclusive.”

“As Gabrielle said,” Leona drew when it was her time to speak, “improvements can always be made. Not improving—whether that comes with things like this or personal situations—is lazy. We’ve been given these positions by you, and you expect us to constantly improve this continent. I am very aware of the issues with our examinations. Unfortunately, it sounds as if Gabrielle is asking for laxer examinations which I disagree with wholly. Strict examinations allow us to weed out individuals who may pose a threat to Signum if they were ever able to get their hands on dangerous conductors. We must be respectful and understanding—yes—but we also need to be strict and firm. We can’t lower our standards just to appease a minority.” 

Gabrielle frowned at this. 

Then, the moderator announced that it was Scorpio’s turn. Jericho was not very good at reading atmospheres, but the other five were so he was able to feel the tension in the air rise as Scorpio cleared his throat. Jericho stiffened as Werner did.

“I have to say that I don’t agree with any of these sentiments at all,” came Scorpio’s reply. “I’m sure we’ve all heard the phrase ‘there’s no need to fix something that isn’t broken’? If we keep trying to change and amend and change and amend things, we’ll just end up with a monstrous amalgamation on our hands—” he glanced at Jericho and stared through him “—that won’t be of any use to anyone. Let’s not complicate things, right?”

The other first chairs offered their stances on the topic as they went down the line. Many of them, Atienna noted, were merely trying to walk the middle line. The only extremes had been Leona, Scorpio, and Gabrielle. Quite curious. 

“The second topic we have is taxation,” the moderator announced after William gave his standpoint on the examinations. “Recently there has been a proposal from peacekeepers to impose higher taxation on the countries they’re servicing. There has been rebuttal by several governments on this including Gemini and Leo on this proposal. We will start off with the First Chair of the Commerce Department, Luca D’Angelo. What are your thoughts?”

“Long story short: I agree on the taxation topic,” Luca said, before chuckling. He spread his arms. “Look. The taxes go to our departments so our departments can improve. Our improvement improves the whole of Signum and improve how we can help them. Look at the way the territories and tribes in Aquarius’s mountain region operate. They tax fairly and generously and look at the result. They’re able to personally fund all sorts of infrastructure projects within their small territories. We should all be taking notes.”

“I believe taxation should be proportional to the amount of weaponized conductors owned by each country,” Gabrielle reasoned next. “That way, we can move towards a more peaceful Signum by rewarding those who opt for generator conductors and general conductors instead of weaponized conductors.”

“We obviously need to achieve a balance with these types of things,” Hårek stated. “Taxation should be proportional at least to the size of the country or how much they rely on Ophiuchus. It’s just common sense. Of course, the amount should be minimal. We’re meant to help Signum, not rob them, after all.” 

“It’s quite easy for us to say ‘tax them, tax them, tax them,’” Scorpio drew, thrumming his nails on his podium. He waved his hand in the air, causing Alice to step forward and hand him a stack of papers. He set those papers in front of him and tapped the top sheet. “That taxation isn’t taxing the government. It’s taxing the people of those countries. Tax evasion also has to be considered, doesn’t it? And your point about the territories in Aquarius—well, look how small and homogeneous those territories are. Of course they can get away with those sorts of things. Signum as a whole is a salad bowl. How can we be fair to everyone like that? Besides, our role as peacekeepers is to give, not take.”

Scorpio annoyingly managed to get a lot of words out in a short amount of time. He was good at this which didn’t say much for his character.

“I object to everything Scorpio has said,” Leona said once it was her turn. “Our relationship with Signum as peacekeepers has always been a partnership. Partnerships require respect and a mutual give-and-take. Without the funds of the countries here, Ophiuchus would not exist; but without Ophiuchus, the countries may have fallen into disarray within a couple of years following the war.”

Down the line it went again.

“The third topic we have before intermission is international relations,” the moderator drew next. “As you may know, the recent Sagittarian succession race and the union between Cancer and Leo have been hot topics in the news. Many are concerned about the fall out of these developments and their potential impacts on Signum. How far do you believe Ophiuchus should become involved in these affairs? We’ll start with the First Chair of the International Relations Department Seamus Dolby.” 

“International relations has always been a sore topic for Signum and Ophiuchus,” Seamus drew with a pleasant smile. “We, as peacekeepers, have the responsibility of maintaining the peace of this continent while respecting the autonomy of the countries here. We can’t allow ourselves to hold political opinions about successions or unions between the countries. What we can do is act as a guiding hand and prevent things from derailing exponentially. I have full confidence that countries can maintain peace within themselves. All we have to do is help maintain the peace between the countries.”

“I agree with Seamus’s sentiments,” Nadinaline said next, “but I don’t believe that we should be completely apolitical. Our opinions of different countries help us to relate more to and understand the individuals that we’re helping. I, in fact, believe that each country should be able to have one member from their country as a first chair in Ophiuchus so that their voices can be heard.”

“Those are interesting perspectives, Scorpio noted. “But is it really possible to tip-toe around that line forever? That’s not really addressing any issues, is it? I mean, look at what’s happened in Capricorn and Aquarius. We’re peacekeepers, not politicians. Either we are action-takers guiding with an iron fist or mere observers watching the dominos slowly fall one after the other. We can’t be both. We have to choose. That’s a simple fact. I must say, I have a distaste for how middle-man-sounding my fellow chairs’ answers have been so far.”

Jericho studied Scorpio, unsure of what the saint candidate was trying to do.

He’s going against everything everyone else has said, Atienna provided. Perhaps, he’s acting as the ‘black sheep.’ It does so happen that many people become drawn to black sheep during times of tumult…

‘Black sheep.’ Jericho recalled Talib calling them a ‘partnership of black sheep’ during one of their cases together. 

“—either way, we can be certain that by the end of this year, Signum will be forever changed in a sense with everything going on.” Scorpio laughed. “Or maybe we’ll just end up right where we began. The question is, which one do the people of Signum think is best? I think we should move towards what the people will above all.”


Second Round Election Results 

Psychological Evaluations Department: Talib Al-Jarrah – 31 votes.

ELPIS Investigations Department: Leona Gloria-Angelo – 31 votes. 

International Relations Department: Seamus Dolby – 30 votes. 

General Investigations: Gabrielle Law – 28 votes.

Conductor Regulation: Katharina Groth – 20 votes.

Reservoir Conservation Department: William Saovàng – 18 votes.

Commerce Regulation Department: Luca D’Angelo – 16 votes

Communications Department: Saddine Agwuegbo – 10 votes.

Conductor & Vitae Research Department: Moraeni Pōʻai – 10 votes

Assignment Department: Nadinaline Delacroix – 6 votes

Medical Department: Hårek Ohmdahl – 6 votes

Conductor & Vitae Research / Literary Department: Sera Aliz – 5 votes.


Posted in the Reception Hall of the Serpens Establishment, February 18th, 1942

23.5: Advisor—A Date, Robando

Re-cap:

Atienna is in Cancer acting as an advisor to Virgoan Diplomat Dimka who has gotten his foot in the door of Cancerian affairs. At a party, Atienna is invited by the Duke of House Lune Aldéric Échecs to somethin akin to a date. Aldéric’s brother Albertine meanwhile lurks in the background. Atienna agrees to the date upon discovering that the Échecs still live in the same estate as Louise Bonnefoy, a True Conductor and a duchess whom Atienna is searching for, formerly resided.

Now on this hunt, Atienna…

Secoursonne, Cancer

Troublesome things befell troublesome people. Pleasant things graced pleasant people. Therefore, if one wanted to live a happy life, then one should aim to be a happy person. Similarly, if one desired a simple life, it was best to be a simple person.

Atienna had read that line of thought in a book somewhere several years ago. Perhaps it had been in one of her old adventure books where an old and wizened wizard bestowed that pinnacle of wisdom to a naive hero off on some journey of self-discovery.  

Atienna had always questioned the ideology, even when she’d been younger. Constantly questioning things perhaps brought about unhappiness, but curiosity was an insatiable thirst. Quenching it made unhappiness worthwhile. 

In the end, she’d come to a tentative conclusion. Troublesome things fell on a person no matter what kind of person they were. Right or wrong, good or evil, righteous—liked her mother—or malevolent—like Scorpio. Of course, those labels were also subjective. What was not subjective was that trouble was indiscriminate. 

Even so, if it were possible to reverse that way of thinking and extrapolate type of life to type of person, Atienna wondered what she and the others would be labeled as. 

Atienna pondered these things as she prepared herself for her evening outing in her room. She had been in this town for almost an entire week now. Dimka had been quite busy in his engagements with the Cancerian elite. Atienna’s time browsing these dinners and meetings and casual engagements with him just made her more and more aware of how separate Capricorn and Aquarius were becoming to the rest of Signum. It was troubling and Atienna couldn’t help but think of the words Ferris had left Jericho with months ago—

And now, in the midst of this tumult, here she was about to take up the Duke of House Lune’s invitation to her for a casual outing. That was the event that she was busily preparing herself for at the moment. During this week, Dimka had more readily taken to adopting the Cancerian culture so much so that he’d started to wear extravagant Cancerian suits that. These suits had been a gift from the duke, of course, just as the dress that Atienna had put on only a second ago had been. It was natural that one adopted the manner of dress of the country and culture they were in. That was respect. Then again, Atienna wondered if it was necessary and right for one’s own culture to be put aside for something like this.

Adapt, adapt, adapt. And—appearances. Was that it?

Atienna sighed and inspected her dress in the long mirror set across from her bed. 

Atienna personally felt uncomfortable in this type of wear. Her arms were bare—and open to the cold. The bodice of the dress was of silk with a sheer lace climbing up to her neck. The same sheer cloth dropped down from her thighs to her feet—and was easily to trip over. The entire thing was white—which stained so easily, the imperfections so readily spotted.

The music trilling out from the radio sitting on her dresser suddenly became interrupted by a cracking voice—

“Thank you for tuning into the official radio broadcast by Virgo’s Maneo Tribe. Today Strange activity from the Great Tree of Virg—”

Atienna frowned and approached the radio before another, familiar voice broke through.

“—and we’re back with another grand weekly update of the chairman elections!” Hideyoshi.

Atienna tuned her ears.

“This week we have the first round of the elections! Isn’t that exciting?” Louise.

In the background, the faint sound of rushing water could be heard. 

Still in Cancer? Atienna wondered. Perhaps. There were a handful of waterways in this country, after all. However, it would be presumptuous to make any certain conclusions here…

“Let’s have a quick recap of what everyone’s said so far!” Hideyoshi continued.

The radio crackled.

“First Chairman of the Reservoir Conservation Department, William Saovàng,” came a voice distorted by static. “My stance is only this. Vote for someone who you know will actually implement the change that they promise. Words can only go so far. That’s all.”

More radio static.

“Well, that’s certainly good advice!” Hideyoshi broke in.

“What a wonderful way of words!” Louise hummed. In the background, there was the cawing of birds. “I wonder why he didn’t use that as his motto?”

“So he could save all of his wonderful words up for now!” Hideyoshi boomed. “Now onto the next one—”

“Please don’t vote for me,” Saddine’s voice cracked out. “I’m serious. Please don’t vote for me. First Chairman of the Communications Department, Saddine Agwuegbo. Do not vote. Please.” 

More crackling.

Hideyoshi cleared his throat. “That must be some intense reverse psychology. By saint’s name! It’s—”

“—ingenious!” Louise chimed. “Absolutely ingenious! Now, I really want to vote for him—”

“You should take caution tonight,” a voice resounded from behind Atienna.

Atienna turned to find Werner sitting on the edge of her bed. It was always odd to see him out of uniform but she supposed it suited him at the same time. In the distance, she could see that in reality he was at the desk in his room at the inn looking through the files of potential True Conductors.

“Although the dukes may appear harmless, appearances are deceiving,” Werner continued. “You should remain attentive to not only your own actions but their actions as well. The duke appears to be—”

“—he’s a playboy,” noted another voice. Cadence, filtering into place beside Werner with crossed arms and an arched brow. She was laying on a sofa in Francis’s exitless room on her end of things. “Trust me. I know these types. Like to frequent places like the Casa more than they’d like ta admit.” She snorted. “Some of ‘em admit visitin’ with pride. Now those are the fun types.” 

Werner’s eyes narrowed. “His behavior is inappropriate.”

“He’s a sleaze…” muttered another voice. 

Atienna’s heart fluttered, and she turned to find Olive sitting on the floor beside the bed. Only a few centimeters away from him resided Jericho. Respectively, they seemed to be residing within a train compartment and working away inside a cubicle. The only one left was— 

“The duke? He reminds me of some of my old crew, no? Like Tulio?” Maria’s voice filtered into Atienna’s mind as the woman apparated from thin air and walked leisurely across Atienna’s room.

Cadence cocked her head at Maria’s arrival. “That the guy ya scared off the ship?”

Maria smiled fondly at the memory. “That was when I first met Leona!” She peered around at all of them. “That was when I first met all of you, no?” Her face brightened and she whipped around. “Yes—”

“Since we’re all gathered here,” Werner interjected, “we should begin another synchronization meeting. With the recent developments with Epsilon, Conta, and Andres, we should be ”

Olive grimaced. 

“Listen, Captain, I appreciate your forward thinkin’. Ya know I do,” Cadence drew. “But do we really need ta turn this meetin’ into a serious synchronization one? I mean, first off, this one ain’t planned so we don’t have the meetin’ materials and the kid doesn’t have his book ready for meeting minutes and all that.”

Atienna felt Werner’s internal sigh then his reluctance.

Werner nodded. “That’s acceptable given the suddenness of this synchronization. We’ll use this time for group recuperation.” 

Cadence clapped her hands together and gestured to Atienna. “I say we use this group recuperation time ta rate Atienna’s outfit. Now if I saw someone outside walkin’ in a fit like that, I’d get on my knees and propose!” She snapped her fingers and nudged Werner’s arm. “What do ya think, Captain? Keepin’ up enough with appearances for ya?”

“You look appropriate for the occasion,” Werner commended. “Cancerian wear is something to be admired, although Virgoan fashion is also something to be appreciated.” After a pause, he added, “You look nice, Atienna.”

Jericho offered a thumbs up. “Good colors and matching outfit. Alice would like it.”

“You look absolutely wonderful, my dear Atienna!” Maria sang. “I remember stealing a dress like this the last time I was in Cancer, yes? It was back when we were taking this wardrobe or closet from some mansion…? I mentioned it before, no?” She beamed. “It was very fun! Conta tried on all types of dresses. She is very fond of beautiful things.” She pointed at Atienna. “She would be very fond of you!”

Olive toyed with a strand of his hair before muttering, “I like the dress… Too bad the occasion doesn’t match it…” 

“Thank you.” Atienna relaxed slightly and noted that her dress felt somewhat more comfortable than before.

Jericho smiled slightly at her before turning sharply to stare at Olive. “Olivier—Olive. You should say that out loud or think it ‘louder’ for everyone to hear. Intuition. It’s important. It’s better that way. Teamwork. Synchronization.”

Atienna looked between them and could just faintly hear Olive’s thoughts and feelings stirring beneath the surface. She wondered why he felt so distant despite how close he was now. A handshake brought people as far apart as it brought them together or so it seemed.

Olive stiffened, flushed, then mumbled, “With Epsilon’s conducting… I mean, separating vitae and memories… There’s something here. I can feel it. Maybe if we combine that with something else—I don’t know—that we find somewhere—maybe in Sagittarius—then maybe we could…” He grimaced suddenly.

And then Atienna felt a sharp and painful prick at the center of her chest that dipped into a deep pit that made her stomach churn. She looked up quickly to find Cadence grimacing, Jericho holding his abdomen, Werner’s brows furrowing, and Maria’s smile

“I-I’m sorry…” Olive tensed and looked around with worry. “But I… can’t stop thinking about it…” He stared at a point on the floor. “What if….back in the capital… what if all we needed was to wait for someone with Epsilon’s conducting ability. Trystan, Marta… what if…”

“Not good ta play with ‘what if’s in this case, Your Highness,” Cadence drew with a sigh as she rubbed her chest with discomfort. “Thinkin’ of ‘what if’s’ll just send ya right with all the guys who visit the bar like it’s a barber shop.” She looked down at him and rubbed the back of her neck. “Besides, Francis laid it down like it is… if anyone knows anything about weird vitae things, it’d be him, kid.”

“Cadence is correct,” Werner added calmly. He reached over and slowly placed a hand on top of Olive’s head. “We need to focus first on the task at hand and what is manageable. Epsilon is an asset and a possible path for recovering Lavi, but we should be cautious on how we proceed since our activities are beginning to converge again and draw attention.”

Slowly, the anguished feeling dimmed in Atienna’s chest and she could feel herself able to breathe again. She stared across the distance at Olive and hesitantly reached out for him through their connection. He didn’t tense away as he normally did which was a relief but he didn’t reach back either.

“Trystan.” Jericho stared at Olive for a long moment, and Atienna could hear faint whispers of the cycle buzzing inside of his. “He—”

Cadence cleared her throat and nodded at Jericho. “Aside from the excitin’ things we got goin on here, detective, what else is new for ya? There’s definitely somethin’.”

“Leona has given me a project.” Jericho stared at Olive before looking to Werner. “And she asked me to pass out campaign pamphlets and prepare a short speech. I am not good with speeches. I don’t like public speaking. I would rather not.”

“I can help ya with that, detective,” Cadence noted, “but I feel like I shouldn’t be helpin’ at the same time, ya know?” She looked around. “We want Gabe ta win right, so how about some good old-fashioned sabotage?”

Jericho gazed blankly at her.

“Sabotage?” Maria brightened and paced over to them before leaning in. “May I join? We are working so closely together now, no?” She pulled back, cocking her head. “This isn’t one of your sabotage tricks, is it, Cadence? This is one of the open sabotages, yes?”

Cadence arched a brow then chortled. “Never knew there was more than one type of sabotage—”

“Atienna,” Werner interjected, pulling his hand away from Olive’s hand and pulling out his pocket watch. “You’ll be late.”

Atienna nodded and pulled back from the synchronization to the best of her abilities. The other five slowly dimmed from her vision as she did so, although their faint whispers ghosted the recesses of her mind.

As she passed by the threshold of the door, her eyes became drawn to a worn envelop sitting on top of her dresser.

She’d received that letter in the mail from Bachiru, Safiyah, and her father just the previous day. In it, they’d discussed their activities of the previous week—ranging from a troubling council meeting to international relation troubles and finally to a peculiarity occurring with the Great Tree. They weren’t quite fond of telephone calls as the operators often incorrectly connected lines, so this had remained their preferred form of communication. The Communications Department of Ophiuchus was particularly efficient in that regard. She had yet to muster the strength—perhaps, the motivation—write back to them still. 

Blood family or this family—‘of the soul’ a poet would probably lyricize—was such a choice really necessary?

This distance—Atienna knew—was one she was making on her own.

* * *

Much to her surprise, Atienna was greeted by two men in suits upon exiting her hotel. They introduced themselves as the hired guards of the House Lune, and they reminded Atienna more of the ‘guards’ the Foxmans or the Romanos would bring with them rather than the guards that had surrounded Olive in the past. After one of the guards took Atienna’s hand and kissed it, they led her to a large and extravagant, shiny black v-ehicle parked at the foot of the building. Once she was situated inside on the red leather seat, the v-ehicle started and sputtered up along the road, past the fountain and v-train station, and out of the town while sputtering and dribbling out noise from the radio on the dashboard.

Atienna wished they weren’t so… extravagant. She hadn’t told Sefu and Dimka of this excursion, after all. Keeping this ‘covert’ as Werner would say was one of her goals.

Sneaking out at the dead of night like this—it reminded Atienna of her time in the Night Circle, from her covertly slipping out of an esteemed estate to entering into a less than standard and typical world. She wondered who was champion there now since she was gone. The anonymity made it difficult to discern.

The v-ehicle ride lasted for quite some time and so Atienna began to digest the scenery. They threaded through pebble stone roads lined with flat plains that gradually became dotted with black matchstick trees that had long since lost their leaves.

After half an hour or so, they pulled in through a large gate at the end of a dirt path hidden by matchstick wood that had long lost their leaves. This particular route was on a diverging road that sprouted from the main street out from Secoursonne. It was quite an eerie journey accented by a thick shroud of mist creeping across the ground.

Once the v-ehicle pulled past the gate, it ran a little further before a large and ornate stone water fountain three times the height of Atienna at the center of an immense square. Glowing liquid geysered out from the fountain and cast faint light on the four yards that surrounded. At the far ends of those expansive yards that were dotted with trimmed hedges and other gardening displays rested large mansions that reminded Atienna of Olive’s mansion back in Aries. They looked about four stories tall and each had an extended marble balcony that led to a pair of large and open glass doors. The mansions were topped with a triangular roof that hung heavy over their pristine white and gray bricking.  Behind all of them stretched a hedge maze that seemed to connect one backyard to the other, although Atienna couldn’t tell for sure due to the iron gates that guarded the yards of each mansion.

The question was now which mansion belonged to the House of Etoile—Louise Bonnefoy’s residence. 

Atienna carefully studied each of those buildings as the guards led her to the gates of the closest one. She watched as they reached for their belts and unlocked the large iron lock fastened there and followed them through the long stretch of yard, up the marble steps guarded by a pair of stone crab claw statues—which was rather tacky—and into the building. From there, Atienna was left idly alone for a minute or so and allowed to momentarily bask beneath a twelve-tiered chandelier emanating v-light so intense that she could feel its heat. Eventually, a butler came to her and led her up a series of twisting carpeted flights, down several cream-painted halls, and led her to a tall mahogany door behind which a large room opened up. 

In that large room cloaked by an odd smog  and lit only by a large fireplace crackling alongside the wall sat a singular large red sofa that took up half of the space. There, Atienna found Aldéric laying leisurely and gazing up at a large portrait of a faceless androgynous figure swathed in silk and surrounded by a dozen men and women tugging at their arms and sleeves. In the corner of the room flickered an incense burner that seemed to be the source of the smog.

Not much to Atienna’s surprise but much to her chagrin, she found that lounging with the duke on that sofa were two women—one each in the duke’s arms. The woman on his left was wafting herself with a feathered plume, while the woman on his right was sipping on a glass of wine. They were dressed in an outfit similar to hers, although their dresses were black instead of white. Hm.

“Welcome, welcome!” Aldéric spread his arms wide as he untangled himself from the women’s arms. He beckoned Atienna. “Come, come!”

Atienna approached the sofa and allowed the duke to take her hand and kiss it. When he gestured to the open space on the sofa beside him, she seated herself and eyed the liquor bottles set up on the gold tabletop set in front of her. At the opposite end of the room was a windowed door that led out into the balcony. Moonlight was barely spilling on through the haze of cloud and mist. 

“Atienna here is from Virgo.” Aldéric relaxed back into his seat and threw his arms behind the back of the sofa. “An advisor.”

“La Vierge!” The woman on his right gasped, snapped her fan shut, and spoke in Common. “How fun! You’ve only just started to come out of isolation, isn’t that right? Do you speak any Common? Do they still teach Common there?”

“Don’t say that, Esmée,” the woman on his left chided. “Don’t you know how to be polite? Of course they teach Common there. They teach Common everywhere.”

How unpleasant for them to judge so easily—although, Atienna supposed that she was just the same.

Appearances.

Atienna flashed a smile. “Yes, it’s quite a thing coming out from being away from everyone for so long. It’s not as if we cut off our communications completely since we remained in contact with Ophiuchus, don’t you think?”

“Oh, that’s right.” Esmée fanned herself and turned to Aldéric with a pout. “I wonder how Ophiuchus will manage your marriage, dear. Since it’s practically uniting Cancer with Leo.”

Aldéric sighed as he eyed Esmée lavisciously. He curled his finger around a blonde strand of her hair. “All I know is that Ilunaria has been bestowed by our gracious national newspaper with the title of ‘Where the Sun Never Sets.’ Apparently, she’s quite the enthused traveller. She writes to me all the time.” 

Oh? Hadn’t the duke supposedly been head over heels for the princess of Leo? What was this distance then? It appeared as if the invisible hands had been moving the two supposed lovebirds together all along. Now was that invisible hand the governments of their respective countries themselves or…?

“So lucky,” the unnamed woman on Aldéric’s left cooed, trailing her fingers along his chest. “To receive letters from her all the time. That Ilunaria must be infatuated with you.”

Aldéric turned to Atienna suddenly, sharply. “Would you like to see the letters, Atienna?”

How unpleasant such a relationship was, but then again that was the nature of some relationships  and she also needed to get closer to him.

Atienna smiled pleasantly, shyly and nodded. When she batted her eyes—quite an embarrassing action—the duke grinned and indicated for the woman at his left to move aside. The woman’s eyes narrowed but she obliged, carelessly—or perhaps carefully—stepping on Atienna’s foot as she stepped over her and seated herself at the other end of the couch.  Atienna paid no mind and took the woman’s spot beside Aldéric. 

Aldéric, in turn, threw his arm behind Atienna and rested his hand on her shoulder before digging into his pants pocket with the other. He pulled out two folded letters stamped with a broken seal of paraffin wax. “I always keep the letters dear Ilunaria writes to me.”

Atienna smiled pleasantly, accepted the letters from him, and began to scan them. The first spoke of Ilunaria’s travels to the seaside towns of Leo and her ventures to orphanages. She waxed lyrical about the ocean waves and the sound bells. The second letter detailed Ilunaria’s longing for the duke and wishing him to visit her in Leo.

Half way through this second letter, Atienna found herself pausing.

What…?

The tone of voice between the two letters was completely different. One adventurous and strong, the other wistful and mellow. It was almost as if they’d been written by two different people. 

For a moment, Atienna considered the possibility of two different ghost writers typing up these letters. It wouldn’t be a peculiar for such a thing to occur given the invisible hands acting here. But then again—and Atienna affirmed this as she scanned the bottoms of both letters—the signatures on the letters were different from each other. Her mind immediately went to the Espada and police activity in the Leonian towns Maria, Cadence, Jericho, and Francis had visited lately.

As curious as this was, however, it had to be set aside. What she came here for was not this.

And so Atienna leaned in closer to Aldéric as she slipped the letters back into his suit jacket and reached out to Cadence. But her call went unanswered after three attempts. Synchronization attempts were rarely faulty nowadays, but perhaps Cadence was busy? As soon as this thought left Atienna’s mind, she came to a startling realization—

She couldn’t hear or feel the others. Not even in the distance. It was absolutely silent. Exactly like how it had been like back in Capricorn. At the thought, Atienna felt her blood run cold and felt her mind drag itself into that strip of flattened earth in unoccupied territory. Otto, wheezing as he held his abdomen, eyes wide and desperate as he begged for his life. Yulia, spluttering on her own blood and Kovich and Fritz seizing beside her as they desperately reached for each other. No–

Before she realized what she was doing, Atienna was on her feet. 

Aldéric looked up at her sharply. 

“It’s just a bit muggy in here. Please excuse me,” Atienna managed before she fled for the balcony glass doors. Taking a moment to eye the incense burning in the corner of the room, she burst out into the cold night air, fought against the billowing satin curtains, before dashing out to the balcony’s railings. She coughed as she leaned against them and took in a deep breath as she tried to reach out to the others. Again, there was nothing and her head spun at the emptiness.

This almost reminded her of the time she’d been poisoned by Usian all those months ago. However, this feeling was one she had encountered more than twice already so it had lost its thrilling edge and novelty. This emptiness now was no longer curious and much unwanted. 

With difficulty, Atienna calmed her breathing and centered herself as Werner would. 

Unsurprisingly, Aldéric hadn’t followed her out. She supposed he would forget her face within a week, but that was just how some people were. Awfully careless. Like Alma, perhaps. Or perhaps even like Atienna herself.

“Oh, is my brother’s egomaniacal speech too much for you already?” came a sudden voice from behind her. 

Atienna didn’t need to turn to see who it was. Logically speaking, it could only be one person who could speak so casually. This paired with the fact that there were two women inside made it easy for Atienna to deduce the man’s identity.

“Oh, I’m very familiar with egomaniacal speeches, Monsieur Albertine,” Atienna drew with a faint smile as she peered at Albertine Échecs leaning against the wall behind her with a glass of wine. “I assure you that your brother misses the mark.”

Albertine chuckled. “Is that meant to be a form of reassurance, Miss Imamu?”

Atienna managed a smiled as she felt her sweat chill the back of her neck. “I didn’t realize morrowheat could be so potent…” A lie.

Albertine frowned and took a sip of his wine. “It’s not morrowheat.”

Instantaneously, the dots connected within Atienna’s mind. Chlorowheat? All the way up here? She searched her memory. Chlorowheat—the most she knew about it was that it was a cross between sorrowheat and morrowheat, it was being sold by the Romanos and shipped by the Foxmans, it had been stolen form the Romanos, and it had been spotted near the Aquarian-Capricornian border. It’s effects were unknown to her as was the reason for it being here in Cancer. Perhaps… it was the cause of her not being able to hear the others? It was quite ludicrous, but nothing was impossible as Maria said. 

At this thought, Atienna’s nerves settled down. This meant that this disconnect from the others was probably only a temporary ailment that was to pass once the morrowheat cleared her system. Perhaps.

“Have you ever thought that the way Signum functions is peculiar?” Albertine stared into his wine glass. “We have a variety of different governments all squeezed into this continent here. It’s surprising how we haven’t tried to kill each other even more so yet. Militarism, monarchies, a half-formed feudal system playing democracy, a couple of true democracies and federacies here and there. It’s a clash of ideologies.”

Atienna studied Albertine carefully. From the little conversation she’d had with him so far, she could easily tell that he had some disdain for his brother and his own position. Quite an understandable thing but Atienna was more interested in something else, and so she responded lightly, “I’m sorry to say that I’m merely an advisor… I’m always warned to stay away from political topics.”

“And I’m merely the duke’s brother.” Albertine glanced at her. “We’re taught all these things that we never make use of.

It appeared as if Albertine’s issues were slightly more multi-layered than a mere sibling rivalry and inferiority.

“Learning about things and discussing things like politics without having to implement that knowledge is a bit of a relief, don’t you think?” Atienna tried, meeting Albertine’s eyes and then averting them towards the other mansions in the clearing beyond them. She watched from the corner of her eye as Albertine’s gaze followed hers to the same direction. “I wonder if that’s how all the political commentators feel regarding the marriage between the duke and Ilunaria.  It’s so easy to discuss how the duke’s romantic interests have switched while watching on from afar, isn’t it?”

Albertine regarded her for a moment before he joined her at the balcony. “I suppose you’re right, although ” He gestured across the yard towards the mansion directly opposite of them. “If one path doesn’t work, then you find another one. When Louise Bonnefoy ran—fell ill, my brother went to that mansion there every single day asking for her. We’ve known each other since childhood, did you know? She writes to him still just like Ilunaria does.” Albertine took another big gulp of wine. “He showed you Ilunaria’s letters he keeps in his pocket, didn’t he? Well, he keeps his letters from her right over his chest.” He gulped again before pushing away from the railings and heading back inside. “It’s always the careless ones that move forward and the careful ones that are left behind.”

* * *

Atienna waited outside for fifteen more minutes afterwards before peeling back inside.  The room was even more cloudy than before. It was almost as if she were sifting through a thick fog. She held her breath as she passed through the room and spied Aldéric passed out in a tangle of limbs with the two other women on the sofa. Upon stepping outside, she was met by the same butler who’d led her into the room.

“Would you like to go home now, Miss Imamu?” he asked.

She considered it. Worry boiled at the pit of her stomach despite her earlier deduction on the effects of chlorowheat. If she could just make a call to one of the other five just to be sure. Another choice to make. 

No, she had to do what she came here to do. 

And so, she politely requested to use the restroom and was escorted through the tall halls to a bathroom guarded by a gem-encrusted door. This was quite a gamble—maneuvering in an unfamiliar place under the invitation and eye of an esteemed individual. Werner would certainly disapprove of acting on such an uncertain basis despite his demeanor lessening these past months, but Atienna’s hands itched with anticipation.

Offering the butler still waiting idly behind her a smile, Atienna pushed through the door and took in a breath. Inside was a gold-frame mirror and a porcelain bathtub marked with a gold handle and faucet and—

—a window pressed against the far stone wall. 

A relief.

Atienna let out her breath and locked the door behind her. A second later saw her pulling up the trailing hem of her dress and typing it up near her waist. It was too long to hike up completely so it stilled brushed just above her knees. Still, it was better than before.

With that, she slipped off her shoes and easily pulled herself up and out of the window. She perched there on the ledge peering down at the two story drop below her before noticing the extended ledge of the window just below her. 

Upon landing on the wet ground, she shivered and surveyed her area. Tall green hedges squared off the yard around her with the only opening being the entrance of the maze that she’d seen connected the back of the mansions earlier. In other words, it appeared as if she was in the backyard of the mansion and the only way out was through this maze. 

How unfortunate yet ironic at the same time.

Atienna approached the entrance with a sigh and stepped into the maze quietly. Placing her left hand along the leftmost wall, she began to walk. She paced for quite some time and passed by several openings that led to different mansions that were not the one that she was looking for. Every so often, she would have to backtrack or press back against a dead-end of the maze when a guard would pass her on by.

Eventually after fifteen minutes or so, she caught sight of the backyard of the mansion Albertine had indicated earlier. Two pairs of suited men passed her by as she poised hidden by the maze entrance. They walked around the expansive yard in an eight-shaped pattern Atienna memorized after their second run through. On their first run through, she had noted the visible locks on the back door of the mansion. Since she couldn’t feel Cadence at the moment, there was no way for her to easily sneak past the guards or pick-pocket them.

Dealing with the lock itself without the keys…

It would be so much easier if she had Cadence’s lock-picking readily available to her or Olive’s conducting to crack or do away with the lock altogether. While Atienna had spent some time learning lock-picking from Cadence, she was nowhere near adept at it yet and she doubted she could crack it without the guards seeing her.

Atienna’s gaze trailed up from the locked door to the garden trellis set just beside it that shot up to a third story window.

The window, it was. 

As the duo of guards passed her by again, Atienna darted forward and ducked behind a shrub cut into the shape of a heart. As they rounded around her, she ran forward again and hid behind a stone fountain. Once they passed by the entrance of the maze, Atienna shot up the trellis with quiet ease and pulled herself up through the window there just as the guards turned to face her.

Upon slipping inside into the dark hall, Atienna immediately dropped low to the Sagittarian long carpet that ran down the floor. As she moved forward, she ducked beneath the moon rays beaming in through the windows and tucked away behind an old Cancerian knight’s armor set out on display as a maid briskly dashed around the corner past her. 

With care and steadiness, she passed by what appeared to be a closed study room that was still occupied despite the late hour. Faintly, she could make out conversation—

“Reneé is still searching for her, isn’t he…?”

“From what I understand, dear, I think he’s set aside the search—”

“—no! Oh no…” A weary sigh that wasn’t quite a sob. “Why can’t she just come home? Louise—”

Atienna briefly thought of her own family and wondered if they felt the same. The heaviness in her chest was painful to bear on her own, but she did her best to brush it aside and continue forwards. After listening into about five rooms and dipping into three and finding nothing, she finally came across a door at the end of the hall with a door knob that looked immaculately wiped clean. 

After pressing her ear to the door and ensuring no one was inside, Atienna pressed through and slipped in. The room itself was quite lovely with light pink silk drapes hanging down not only in front of the windows but also down from the top of the queen-sized bed pressed up against the wall and also over the front of the large closet doors that took up the entire left wall. Opposite stood a desk with a large mirror propped up behind it. 

It felt almost more like a young girl’s room than a young woman’s room.

Atienna headed to the desk and began to rifle through it. Scrapbooks and old romance texts from the 1600s. Nothing to gain from these things besides the confirmation that this was in fact Louise’s room gauging by her name scribbled on every item. Still, it was all quite quaint and cute. Perhaps if she looked a little further into the items Louise owned, she might deduce something about the woman—quite a convoluted idea in retrospect.

It was then that Atienna decided to search the bottom of the desk. Much to her surprise, she found something rectangular, thick, and smooth wedged into the rightmost far corner. With effort, she pulled it and found a thick light pink journal pressed in with a heart on its cover.

Atienna allowed a smile to touch her lips as her fingers began to itch.

This was what she was looking for. Insight to Louise that would possibly point her to the right direction. Gingerly, reverently, Atienna opened the journal and read a middle entry.

I’m going out on another outing with Aldéric and Albertine again.  July 30th.

Atienna frowned. The writing was so subdued compared to the Louise she was more familiar with. Pondering this, she turned the page.

Mother said I have to prepare for the ball next week. August 16th.

Ah, how sad. Atienna lowered her gaze and thought, So this is why… She flipped the page again and paused.

Something amazing happened today! When I was going to sleep tonight, someone broke in through my window! Can you believe that? Some adventurer! They took everything in my closet, but oh my! They asked me if I wanted to come with them on an adventure! I wanted to, but I had to decline because I don’t want to leave my parents behind… Oh, she made it sound so fun! I want to see everything like she does! I—

Atienna reread the passage again. It couldn’t be, could it…? Unsure of whether to chuckle or frown, she turned to the very last page.

I want to have a house by the sea,

I want to be able to feel the ocean breeze,

I want to go where the ocean and rivers meet,

I want to be free.

Atienna stared at the stanza as her heart faltered slightly. How sad—

A movement out of the corner of her eye gave her pause. A shadowy figure was eclipsing one of the windows.  Atienna froze at the sight of it before darting into the closet and closing it partially behind her. She settled in between what appeared to be a rack of scarves as the sound of the window creaking open reached her ears.

Shortly after came the stomp, stomp, stomp of footsteps and hushed, low whispering. Through the crack in the closet, Atienna was able to spy four to five shadowy figures rummaging through the room and turning out the desks and the mattresses.

Robbers?

Atienna tensed, palms itching, as she spied one of the figures turn towards the closet she was hiding in. Oh dear, she thought as the figure drew nearer and nearer. The closest was the least undiscoverable place to hide, wasn’t it?

With anticipation, she wrapped the scarf around her lower face and found herself vaguely reminded of Gabrielle. She tensed as the closet door began to be pulled open, and she stared at the white crack of light growing in front of her widened and widened. A pair of eyes appeared in that whiteness and wallet her gaze. 

“—what the? Someone’s in here—” Common.

Atienna kicked the door open fully and sent the man standing there flying backwards as she burst outside. In the darkness, she quickly counted five figures including the man she’d just thrown. Two of them were standing close to her on her left and right and were both staring at her seemingly flabbergasted from behind their half-masks. 

Atienna grabbed a hold of one of the closet curtains and quickly looped it around the chest of the figure—the man—nearest to her. She pulled her and felt the man struggle in the stranglehold. As the next figure rushed at her, Atienna swung around the figure wrapped in her cocoon and delivered a flying kick to the other. They flew back against the window and cracked their head against the windowsill before falling unconscious.

The two other figures still standing exchanged looks of confusion before reaching for their belts—conductors most likely. Atienna didn’t allow them the opportunity. Pulling the drape she was still strangling the man along with her, Atienna charged at one of the figures and swept her feet beneath them.  They fell backwards and knocked themselves unconscious against the bed railings. Once the man in Atienna’s curtain-stranglehold fell limp, she released him, grabbed another hanging drape and threw it in the other figure’s face just as they drew out a vitae-blade. Atienna quickly ducked beneath the figure’s blind swing and kicked out their feet beneath them too. The fall didn’t knock them unconscious, however, so Atienna quickly straddled them and cracked them continuously against the jaw until they stopped moving.

Whipping her head around, she found the man she’d initially sent flying back with a kick scrambling up into a groaning stand. For this last person, Atienna merely delivered a firm blow to the head with the side of her heel. With a sharp crack, the man too fell to the ground unconscious.

In the remaining quiet, Atienna was left panting as she tuned her ears to any other stirrings in the household. However, it was quiet. And in the quiet, her heart roared. Oh…. This excitement. She missed it.

A creak resounded behind her, however, breaking the moment in two. She whipped around to find one of the men picking himself off the ground. His mask had slipped from his face, revealing rather youthful yet sharp features beneath. He didn’t look Cancerian at all. 

She ran to him, picked up by the scruff, and prepared to deal the finish blow. Then, she saw the dark blue scorpion tattoo crawling up his face. The man’s eyes crinkled at her hesitation.  

“Scorpio,” Atienna said calmly, releasing him. “It’s a bit strange for you to bring such a foreign person into a country like this, don’t you think? I’m quite warmed and appreciative of your care, but I’m starting to feel somewhat embarrassed…”

“I didn’t bring this man in here, Miss Atienna Imamu.” Scorpio chuckled in Common, gesturing to himself as he picked himself off the ground. He came here of his own volition. I merely came along from the ride.”

“A robbery?”

“That does appear to be what it looks like on the surface, doesn’t it?”

The moonlight seeping in from the window seemed to intensify. 

“I’ve always wondered why you send us to hunt True Conductors when you’re able to come in like this so easily,” Atienna drew as she cradled her throbbing hands. “Is there a reason you can’t find them all yourselves or are you… perhaps just giving us a way to bide our time?” 

“Are you questioning your value and purpose?” Scorpio rested his hand on his cheek. “Isn’t living idly like this everything you’ve ever dreamed up.” He reached out to her, palms up, eyes wide. “A life of excitement and thrill without consequences, change, movement, decisions. Black and white and gray ill-defined. What more could you ask for before the syzygy turns?”

Atienna tensed in her quiet mind and averted her eyes. “So, this man is Aquarian.” 

Scorpio’s eyes narrowed slightly but he smiled again. “So he is. I didn’t think you’d hear the accent. What’s an Aquarian doing here?”

“Oh, haven’t you already learned, Atienna?” Scorpio shook his head. You’re the brightest of the lot, aren’t you? Don’t you know everything?”

“You know that I only wish I did,” she responded. 

“So you say. Well, if a country as stringent as Capricorn has—had—an entity known as the Watch, what makes you think other countries don’t have the same?” Scorpio shrugged. “You can claim that privacy is a right but then choose to spy on the lives of others through reading those newspapers of yours and tuning into those radio broadcasts. Privacy is impossible for social beings, and yet people demand it. It’s against nature itself.”

“It’s quite easy to view oneself as justified when one is committing the deed deemed wrong, don’t you think?” Atienna replied.  When she saw a light abruptly burn in Scorpio’s eyes, she felt the urge to extinguish it. “Oh, Scorpio, I’m very aware of my own hypocrisy…” 

But the fire in his eyes only burned brighter. You acknowledge your faults and find pride in your own acknowledgement but you don’t seek to change it. You even find a sense of pride in being aware of not changing. You are an unmoving stone.”

“Isn’t that what you like to see, Scorpio?”

“It’s not what I like to see, dear Atienna,” Scorpio replied. It’s what I expect to see. It’s what I always see. I’ve been inside you. I know you can see it too. It’s just that you’d rather choose to avert your eyes away from it.”

“Are we still speaking of myself or people at large, Scorpio?” Atienna returned pleasantly.

Scorpio lifted up a finger and pointed to Atienna’s chest right above her heart—right where Werner usually kept his pocket watch. “The passion of the people moves the gears of time.” He pulled back slightly and shook his index finger—tick, tock, tick, tock. “But a watch’s hands only go in circular and cyclic motions, don’t they?”

“Watches and people are quite different, don’t you think…?”

Scorpio merely smiled again. “I saw some interesting things through some offshoots of mine earlier this week. A certain swindler with an old teacher-turned-student-turned-teacher of mine running around in the Twin Cities. I also swear I saw one Maria Gloria-Fernandez facing Beta of all people in some seaside town in Leo.”

Atienna knew he was baiting her. He hadn’t mentioned Jericho, Cadence, or Francis yet, possibly meaning he hadn’t yet discovered them working together. Mimicking pleasantness, Atienna then said, “Really? I’m a bit surprised, Scorpio…. I would’ve expected you to confront Maria if you saw her there. While we are working together, from what I understand, I wonder… Do you dislike Maria or find her hard to bear? She can be a handful sometimes, but… you area saint candidate, aren’t you?”

Scorpio’s smile thinned slightly. Instead, he pointed to the floor. “Bonnefoy’s parents are beginning to wake up. You best leave, partner.” 

Atienna was quite glad Jericho was not with her now because the jab had been clearly directed at him. And so, she did her best not to react and instead gestured to the men groaning on the floor. “Will you get them out too? It’ll cause some trouble if Aquarians are found in a Cancerian household like this, don’t you think?”

“It has nothing to do with the people and things you care about, so isn’t it best to leave it be?” Scorpio threaded his hands through his hair and gestured to the window. “You don’t even care about your own country so caring about another’s is a bit disgusting, isn’t it?”

* * *

Atienna made it back to the Lune mansion in fifteen minutes time and took only five minutes to fix her appearance. The returning path always seemed shorter than the starting path, after all. 

Aldéric greeted her sleepily as the butler led her out to her v-ehicle once she announced her departure, while Albertine watched her from a high window as she loaded into the waiting v-ehicle. As the v-ehicle itself began to pull away from the large estates that seemed to contain so little, Atienna cradled the journal that she’d slipped beneath her dress and waited, waited, waited.

Finally, a warm voice bled through her mind—

Atienna, how was your date?

A relief.

23.4: Pirate—A Truel, Estellar

Re-cap:

Maria has been on Conta’s tail ever since Beta was initiated into Conta during the events of the Twin Cities many months ago. She finally meets Conta in Comientzo, Leo in front of an orphanage that seems to have been attacked by another ELPIS leader. Before she can make contact, Conta flees the scene.

Around the same time, Maria encounters a silent Espada named Andres who was present during the aftermath of the attack on the Leonian orphanage. In the background, Cadence has encountered an ELPIS leader named Epsilon who has been initiated into Ambrose Campana. Epsilon has the ability to extract and transfer the memories stored in vitae and appears to have a deep connection with the Saint Candidate of Leona whom he mistakes Maria to be…


Onboard Gloria’s Grail, Leonian Waters

Maria greeted the morning rays seeping through the porthole of her ship with a grin and a stretch. Lita groaned from beside her as the hammock they’d been sleeping on swung with the motion. Maria in turn bent over and squeezed the girl’s cheeks before popping out of bed. The floor was cold, the sunlight spilling in from the porthole warm. The air was peppered with the smell of meat and eggs which meant that Chef Raul was already busy at work in the kitchen. In other words—it was already a beautiful morning!

“Good morning, Maria…” Lita mumbled sleepily. 

“—Yep! Mornin’, sunshine!”

“Good morning, my dear Cadence!” Maria sang, turning and finding a familiar, small silhouette shadowed against the pole that her hammock was strung up on. “It’s unusual to see you up this early, no?”

“Well, the early bird catches the worm.” Cadence cracked a half-grin as she inspected the treasures hanging there. “Besides, this ain’t the first time—remember, doll? I’m up early makin’ those calls for our other gracious captain. Give me more credit.”

“Is it one of them again?” Lita piped, popping up and looking around the room curiously. She flushed and straightened her hair. “I’m not ‘presentable.’”

Soundin’ like the captain there. 

Maria walked over to the hammock and rested a hand on top of Lita’s head. “Do not worry, my dear! As my Cadence says ‘appearances are deceiving,’ yes? She is not one to care for appearances. No matter how you look, my lovely Cadence will accept you regardless!”

Not a completely foolproof way of reassuring someone.

“—plus, Cadence is just here to ask for something again, yes?”

“Hey, I don’t always come here askin’ for things.” Cadence cracked a smile and placed a hand on her chest. “I contribute some, don’t I? I’m like your personal built-in translator.” She cleared her throat. “Actually… I am here ta ask a favor.”

Maria beamed. “What fun things do you have for me today? I am always excited when you come around! What is it? Another game of cards? A trick? Oh—will you teach me some new languages?”

“Well….” Cadence tapped her temple. “Give it a sec.”

Maria nodded and concentrated. Soon enough, bright memories of traversing Comientzo side-by-side with Francis, Jericho, Fortuna, and Maximallian colored her vision. 

“So?” Cadence pressed. “Thoughts?”

“Jeri was with you? With you?” Maria gasped. “Why did you not invite me? I would have liked to come too—well, I was just there and I should be focusing on Conta, but it would have been fun!”

Then came the memories of wandering into the Monadic temples, of encountering Epsilon in the fields just outside of Comientzo, of taking the cup from Epsilon, and then of seeing him—the old man with the eye-patch and a young man with the eye-patch—through Epsilon’s conducting—

“You saw the man with the eyepatch!” Maria realized, leaning in close to Cadence. “Really?”

“There we go.” Cadence snapped her fingers. “So, any thoughts on the whole spiel? Been gettin’ weirder and weirder lately. Everyone’s ELPIS at this point.”

“The person who took me in was a pirate—an adventurer!” Maria exclaimed. “He had many names, yes, but he never called himself ‘Alpha’? Proteus, yes, Michelangelo, maybe, and I think Antonio at one point too! But! He wasn’t with ELPIS!” 

“But hear me out,” Cadence pressed, spreading her hands. “What if he was.”

Maria pondered this. “Would I still seek him? Yes, of course! I have been seeking him all this time and will continue to seek him!” She patted Cadence on the head. “You are wonderful, my dear Cadence! Absolutely wonderful for showing me this!”

Cadence finally cracked into her usual lopsided smile. She had been smiling before too but it had been a dishonest one. Maria could tell. She was getting better at telling. Just like she’d intended to. 

Maria pulled back. “Oh, but Jericho doesn’t like ELPIS very much outside of Francis, no? And if that man is Alpha, then why did he… do that to my dear Jericho? And your children?”

“Well, we don’t know if Alpha’s Jericho’s guy exactly. No reason or rhyme for any of what he’s doin’.”

Lita perked up and then dipped her head. “Jericho…? The one with white vitae… The Capricornian…”

“Oh—no, no.” Maria chuckled. “Jericho is from Scorpio! He is one of those peacekeepers. Werner is the Capricornian.”

Lita’s brows furrowed in confusion.

“Jericho doesn’t like ELPIS,” Maria tried to clarify. “Werner doesn’t like ELPIS either, but Jericho really doesn’t like ELPIS. Except for Francis?”

“Now that’s a whole nother bag of cats I don’t feel like gettin’ into at the moment.” Cadence ruffled her hair and swiped off her hat. “Anyways, for some reason or another, pretty sure the Epsilon guy thinks you’re… Leo.”

“Me? Leo?” Maria paused. “Like the saint candidate Leo? Like Leona?” She laughed at the idea.

“I mean he was practically kissin’ your hand after ya nearly decapitated him,” Cadence said. “Back in Comientzo.”

“Oh, I guess his attitude was interesting back then,” Maria recalled and laughed. “I wonder why. Is it because I was a potential saint candidate back then? That’s not so important to who I am, no?”

Cadence shrugged. “Francis ain’t explainin’ the ‘why’ very well even after I told him what happened ta ya—keeps goin’ off on his usual tangents. But basically, Epsi won’t spill unless he sees Leo—er, Leona, I guess—and we can’t make that realistically happen—”

“Why not? I’m sure we can if I tried.”

Cadence continued to smile. “I don’t doubt that one bit, sunshine, but we gotta find the kids quick. The whole maneuvering Leona’ll take up too much time. So, I was hopin’ ya’d help out with that.”

Help with that? Maria cocked her head. How else was she supposed to help other than finding Leona and bringing her to Epsilon?

“Glad ya asked.” Cadence clasped her hands together. “My idea is that we have ya pretend ta be Leo—”

“But I’m not Leo.”

“Hence the pretendin’.”

“Pretending to be someone who I’m not?” Maria thought on it, reached out, placed a hand on Cadence’s head again. She pushed her head back slightly so she could stare into her eyes. “I don’t like pretending to be someone who I’m not, my dear Cadence.”

“I get that. I do.” Cadence nodded. “But think about it. It could be fun. Ya’ve never gone covertly on somethin’ before, right?”

“What about when I pretended to be Werner back in Capricorn?”

Cadence arched a brow. “Were you really pretending ta be Werner though?”

Maria pondered the question and chuckled. “I guess you are right, my dear Cadence.” She hummed. “I guess it could be fun. And it would help you with your search for the children…. Yes, for you—okay, Cadence!”  She paused a beat after and mulled, “So your Ambrose has become Epsilon…?”

Lita stiffened as she was stepping off of the hammock. “A-Ambrose? What about searching for children…?”

Maria glanced at the girl. “Have you met Ambrose before, my dear?”

“We heard about him…” Lita mumbled. “The people who were moving us around talked about him sometimes… He’s Mr. Campana’s son, right…? What happened to him?”

A ghostly hand slapped itself over Maria’s mouth before she could answer.

“Maybe ya shouldn’t, sunshine,” Cadence said as she pulled her hand away. “Lita’s still a kid. No need ta bring back old trauma.”

“I don’t think it is very good to lie, Cadence,” Maria replied, confused.

“It ain’t lyin’ exactly. Well, it’s better ta say it’s like a white lie. Keepin’ a secret to protect a person, ya know?”

“Are you protecting the person you are keeping the secret from or are you protecting yourself so you do not have to deal with it?” Maria wondered, before she felt a sharp pang in her chest. Upon looking down, she found Cadence still smiling.

“Didn’t expect ya ta pull an Atienna on me,” Cadence noted.

“I wasn’t trying to hurt you, my dear Cadence,” Maria replied, “and I wasn’t trying to ‘pull an Atienna’ either, yes? It is an honest question. It makes no sense to me—dishonesty.”

“I get ya, sunshine. I do,” Cadence replied. It’s just complicated. Ya gotta be careful in how you approach and handle people. Some people are more delicate than others—and that’s fine. That’s life.

“But what does this delicateness have to do with lying though?” 

Look, we’re yours, right? Just because ya can protect us physically—and I know ya can, sunshine— doesn’t mean ya can always protect what’s in here—Cadence tapped her chest and then tapped her temple—and in here. She shrugged. Even the other captain—whose whole thing is ‘protect’ now—can’t manage it completely. Same applies ta people outside of us. Hence, we gotta be delicate. 

Maria froze, her mind flashing to that night in the warehouse. She poked Cadence’s forehead then her chest. “But this is what makes Cadence Cadence, no?”

Cadence smiled again and shrugged. “The gist of it is that knowin’ about certain things can cause certain people ta not feel nice basically. And when people don’t feel nice… it’s not a good thing. People can do stupid things when they don’t feel nice. I’m talkin’ from experience, ‘course.”

Maria regarded Cadence for a while before she sank in front of Lita. “I will be going to visit my Cadence for a little while, my dear Lita. Ambrose Campana is no longer Ambrose Campana, yes? Like how Francis became Theta, Ambrose has become Epsilon—but Ambrose is more Epsilon than Francis is Theta, I think. Your friends with the Romanos have been kidnapped.”

Lita paled. 

“But you will stay here while I go, yes? You don’t need to worry. The Campanas will not be a problem when I’m here, and we will find the others, yes?” 

Cadence ruffled her hair, then shrugged.

Lita’s brows furrowed, and she remained silent for a while before she nodded. “Okay, Maria…” 

* * *

It took Maria quite some time to find exactly where she’d put the proto-conductor she received from Francis near the end of the events of Die Hauptstadt. Usually, Werner would appear whenever she was in search of something she’d misplaced, would lecture her on not misplacing things, and then would proceed to help her find her lost item, but today he didn’t. Perhaps he was too busy? 

After devouring a hearty breakfast, the children—with Albatross taking the lead—helped her scour the lower levels of the ship. Maria had labelled it as a great treasure hunt; and although some rolled their eyes at her call, all the children dove into the search wholeheartedly. This was why she loved them—their enthusiasm was absolutely wonderful. The adults on her crew were not as enthusiastic in their searching. Morandi complained about his back hurting, while Emmanuel complained about losing time on his conductor engineering work. Veles deemed himself above ‘seeking earthly treasures,’ and so on. But Maria enjoyed them all still.

Eventually, Miriam—a fourteen-year-old Specialist with the ability to somehow sense the movement of vitae particles through touch and who had selected her name ‘Miriam’ from a book Simon had read to her a month ago—found the proto-conductor stored away inside a large trunk full of expensive stolen wine from Cancer. For her efforts, Maria decided to name her captain for a day much to the chagrin of the other children and her other crew members.

Veles wasn’t too happy when Maria told him that she was off for the day and to hold up on the search for Conta until she returned. They had docked the ship several kilometers off-shore from the seaport city-town of Lunanegra and had intended to scrape through the town that afternoon. His interest was piqued, however, when she mentioned that a man with an eye-patch was involved.

“Oh?” Veles chuckled. “How ironic that there are three men with eyepatches that have touched upon our paths.” After some time, he laughed and exclaimed—“I will allow it and take full command on this ship for the time being! You may go!” 

“And I will allow that!” Maria chimed. 

sapien

(     )

When Maria finally popped through the gate she opened on deck, she emerged out into a familiar-looking room hosting a table and a cabinet of wine. At the table sat several familiar people—one of whom was opting to lean against the back of a chair instead of sitting. 

“Cadence!” Maria exclaimed, throwing her hands up in the air. She quickly plowed over to where Cadence was leaning and drew Cadence under her arm. “It is nice to see you in person, no? Again, I mean! It was wonderful to see you before—”

“—saints, sunshine!” Cadence chortled. “It was just a couple months ago. Not like we don’t talk ta each other almost every day.”

Maria continued to beam and turned her attention to the others seated around the table. Only one of them wasn’t gawking at her. Maria had been practicing, so even without Cadence’s help, she could put a name to each of the faces there. Cavallo, Agape Rosario, Bendetto, Maximallian, Allen, Carl, and—

“Francis! It’s good to see you too!”

Francis, who had been sitting impassively at his seat and reading a book while puffing his v-cigarette, looked up at her and offered a smile. “Hello, Maria. It’s good to see you as yourself. I see Cadence was able to convince you…”

Carl ogled her while Allen silently puffed on a v-cigarette.

“I can’t fuckin’ believe it…” Carl muttered, glancing at Cadence and nodding at Maria. “This nub job’s really connected to you.”

“Don’t be rude, Carl.” Francis frowned.

“It’s Carl and Allen too!” Maria rounded her way over to them. She placed a hand on the back of Allen’s chair and rested a hand on Carl’s shoulder. After peering into their faces, she felt a distant stare prick her skin and turned to face—“Hello Agape!” 

Agape frowned. “I see you know me from Cadence. That’s quite a security breach.” She crossed her arms, then glanced at Allen and Carl. “You know each other on a personal level?” 

“She used to run shipments for us from time to time,” Francis explained, smiling and flicking ash from the bud of his v-cig. “She was a reliable transporter.”

“You had someone like this handling our conductor shipments?” Fortuna pressed with a frown.

Francis’s amicable smile slid from his face as a silence fell over the room—

“You all are very good at creating a strange atmosphere, no?” Maria interjected. “I am better at reading atmospheres now, and it’s not a very ‘normal’ and ‘fun’ one right now, no? You asked me here to pretend to be Leo, yes?”

“I still don’t agree with this deception,” Francis murmured, looking away from Fortuna. “Epsilon is a dear friend of mine… He may no longer be as I remember him, but…” He placed a hand over his mouth and mumbled, “Even if a person has changed in a way that makes them almost unrecognizable, should they not be treated the same as they were before? Or perhaps with at least respect? Even if very little of them remains or none of them at all…”

Allen and Carl shared a look.

Cadence came to Francis’s side and squeezed his shoulder. “We need ta find the kids, Francis. And ta find the kids, we need ta find this maybe-Alpha guy. Epsi is the only lead we have right now.” 

“…You’re right.” Francis shook his head. “Don’t know why I’m hesitating. Sorry.” 

Cadence was always very good at convincing people, Maria realized. She did it in a much different way than Maria did. There was no excitement nor cheer in her words nor did she drag people by the arm to where she wanted them to go. And yet…

Francis turned to Maria. “Thank you for your help, Maria. I’m grateful. Truly.”

“There is no need to thank me, my dear Francis. I am doing this because I want to, yes?” Maria laughed. “Oh, but I do have a question. Cadence says you did not explain it very well… but why did Epsilon think I was Leo?

Francis glanced at Cadence in surprise before a hurt expression crossed his face. “I apologize if I didn’t explain clearly… but if that’s the case, I would’ve liked for you to have told me…”

Sunshine—

Cadence blanched and held up her hands. “Nah, Francis, it’s good really—”

“Then I’ll explain again,” Francis said curtly. “One of the requirements of becoming a saint candidate is that your vitae must be of a similar wavelength—color, in a sense—to the previous saint candidates. It’s quite a complicated thing… Think of it as a small seed being blown away from the whole fruiting plant and finding its way to you. But it’s peculiar—your circle of True Conductors. Jericho. You. The irony doesn’t escape me—”

See. Tangent. Cadence reached over and patted Francis on the back. It’s charmin’ when it ain’t about somethin’ serious. She made a face. Saints—wait, no. Bah, we need ta make another word for ‘saints’—

“—are you listening…?” Francis frowned, peering at them. “Is it that I’m not explaining it well or is that you’re not listening well?”

“From the gist of what I can understand,” Fortuna interjected, “which is not much since conducting doesn’t interest me, it has to do with the wavelength and color properties of your vitae and possibly also your conducting-type. Not quite relevant in my opinion, but that information could be useful somewhere down the line.”

“Your summary is correct, Fortuna.” Francis nodded. “You’re bright as always.”

Fortuna held Francis’s gaze. 

Such an odd atmosphere they enjoyed creating, Maria thought again.

Maria hummed. “So Leona and I have similar colored vitae…? That’s quite interesting, no? She is very interesting—” 

“Ambrose—” Fortuna interjected again. “Epsilon seems off. Francis, are you certain he was initiated… properly?”

Maria stared at her and thought—Fortuna and Ambrose did share a history, didn’t they? Yes, she recalled the engagement they had to ‘secure their power in the city’ on Cadence’s end of things many long months ago. Maria didn’t quite understand being bound down by something like that just to gain power when one could just seize that power all on their own. But she wondered if she would feel like Fortuna did if she’d lost Conta in that way. What if Conta was fully Beta and not Conta? No, Maria couldn’t imagine it. Impossible. 

“Oh, I’m fairly certain he was initiated properly,” Francis replied. “And I am sorry for your loss.”

“Well… Serves that Campana bastard right.” Carl grumbled before shaking his head. “That Epsilon guy’s still weird though.”

Francis took a drag of his v-cig. “Epsilon has always been strange. But yes, he’s burnt through quite a lot of his vitae. Every time he conducts, he burns out his vitae. He’s not as conservative with it as I was… Supposedly, according to the records, the last time he was initiated was back in the 1700s. The time era shift certainly isn’t helping.”

“Were you as looney as him in the beginning?” Carl snorted.

“I had Omicron to guide me back then,” Francis answered, “so it wasn’t so bad.”  

Damnit, Carl…

Carl grimaced. “Didn’t mean to bring that up… Anyway, pretty damn useful ability if it didn’t damn fry your brain afterwards. Could be useful for gettin’ info under the table.” 

Francis frowned. “It was originally meant to be both a form of therapy and a way to ensure that history was properly recorded. To put it as you do…”

Carl arched a brow. “There was therapy back then?”

“For those who have had a painful or traumatic experience in the past.” Francis nodded. “Of course, there did arise an issue of people abusing the ability…”

“Abusin’ the ability?” 

“Yes… some preferred to relive the best moments of their life over and over again at the cost of living in the present. It was a troubling situation…”

“So his conducting was kinda used like a drug, boss?” Maximallian tried.

Maria glanced up and saw everyone exchanging a tense look. They really enjoyed building up a strange atmosphere, didn’t they?

“I suppose so,” Francis murmured after a beat. He smiled at Max, then drew, “That’s an interesting analogy, Maximilian. Thank you for sharing.”

The man stiffened, glanced at Carl, cleared his throat, shifted on his feet. “Er, no problem… boss.”

“What about you, Francis?” Maria wondered, walking back to Cadence’s side and propping her arm up against her head. “You researched too, yes? Ollie said you told him that back in Capricorn.”

“My interest was more in…” Francis mulled. “…the quantum state of vitae particles, the association vitae particles have with each other and whether or not each individual vitae particle’s base components were that much different from another’s. I was also quite interested in the origin of the vitae particle, but I doubt even with centuries more of research I’d ever be able to understand it.”

“—we should get to the task at hand,” interjected a voice.

Maria glanced to her right and noticed Cavallo puffing his v-cigarette calmly. The white smoke trailing up from the blunt of his v-cig matched the whiteness of his skin and hair. Maria had almost forgotten he’d been there. Like a ghost!

“I’ll go retrieve him.” Francis rose from the table. “I believe he’s spending time with Pi and Mateo.” He approached the black-painted wall and slipped through it after igniting it with pale tangerine light. 

Hey, by the way, between you and me has he seemed off lately?

“Off?” Maria glanced down at Cadence, ignoring the looks she received. “Francis?”

Carl and Allen turned sharply.

No. The other captain. Cadence waved the two off.  I don’t know about you, but—

“Cadence, about what we discussed earlier,” Cavallo drew. 

When Maria looked up, she found the man staring not at Cadence but at her.

“Ambrose’s condition has given us a unique opportunity to capitalize on.” Cavallo leaned back in his chair with folded arms. “He remains the acting head of the Campana Family due to his father’s imprisonment. His missing status could agitate the Campanas and the hold they have over the west half of the city or his. Or a new engagement to Fortuna could help stabilize this city and put it under the fold of the Romanos.” He rolled his v-cig between his fingers. “Maria, is it? Seeing as you’re associated with Cadence and I assume care for her, it would be in your best interest to convince Epsilon to listen to you as Leo and have him accept Fortuna’s proposal.”

The gears in Maria’s head turned, then she laughed. “Why must you lie again with this? Why not just ask him simply?”

Agape and Bendetto shared a glance from across the table.

“As you may be aware from Cadence, the Campanas and the Romanos share a tumultuous history,” Cavallo explained calmly. “Given that the two former family members who had tight access to some… confidential information of our family… are still at large, we remain at a disadvantage.”

Carl grimaced. 

“Oh, you don’t have to worry about those two,” Maria noted. “Donato and his son Feliciano, yes? The golden beast killed them.”

There was a beat of silence. Everyone stared. 

ball of tension formed in Maria’s stomach but she quickly shoved it away.

Bendetto shot up from his seat. “The what…? That old urban legend?” He opened his mouth, then closed it. “Why are you saying that?”

Wait—

Maria blinked and cocked her head. “Because I am the golden beast?”

Cavallo and Agape turned sharply to her, while Allen and Carl glanced at each other. Maximallian shifted in his seat, eyeing the empty chair where Francis once sat.

“Oh, Cadence didn’t tell you?” Maria laughed. “The golden beast is a story I made up with my friend Conta—who I’m searching for! It’s about me!” She patted Cadence on the head. “Cadence has been helping me spread my legend! Very exciting, no?” 

Fortuna asked quietly, “When?”

“Back when Francis was doing his thing, yes?” Maria explained. “I was quite… hm? Upset at the time? Yes, upset. I found Donato and Feliciano running away with some Geminian cens, yes? The resistors that they were hiding and used on Francis—well, I’m pretty sure they used it on my dear Conta too.”

Maria found her eyes drawn to Allen and Carl, both of whom were giving her an odd glance. Empathy. 

“I forgive people very easily, yes? But I cannot forgive someone that has taken or hurt something from me. Donato, Feliciano, Voz, and maybe even Leona…”

Cadence glanced up at her. Despite wearing a confused look, Maria could tell that Cadence was grimacing internally. Preferred it if ya kept all that on the down low, came Cadence’s thought, but are ya alright, sunshine?

Maria smiled down at her. “Of course, my dear Cadence! Because I will retrieve Conta, no matter what!” She studied her more closely. You still keep so many secrets! They are not so necessary, yes?

Well—

“Well, that’s a good one in my book!” Carl snapped, breaking the silence and slamming his fist onto the table. “Fuckin’ bastards! After what they did to Francis. Would’ve rather buried the bastard myself, but…”

“You’re sure the two of them are dead?” Allen asked quietly.  

Maria nodded. “With my own two hands.”

A gust of cold wind swirled through the room, cutting off the conversation short. In from the gate along the wall stepped Francis, Epsilon, and Pi. Pi was just as Maria remembered from Cadence’s memories. Quite tall, pale, and Aquarian-looking with sharp features. Epsilon looked very frazzled—blonde hair sticking up this way and that—but also very much like Ambrose Campana. 

“Leo…?” Epsilon started forward and stopped short only half a meter away from Maria. “Is that you Leo?”

“I am who I am!” Maria beamed, detaching herself from Cadence and spreading her arms. “You have something to show me, yes?”

Pi cocked his head from behind Epsilon and pointed to Maria and then to Epsilon before frowning at Francis beside him. “Leo? No. Not—”

Francis rested a hand on the man’s shoulders and placed a finger to his lips.

“I’m so blessed that you’re still here, Leo!” Epsilon exclaimed, taking hold of Maria’s hand and then falling to his knees. “I wasn’t able to check the records but with the way everyone was behaving I feared you had turned your back on us. Oh, I shouldn’t have doubted you for a second!” 

Well, that’s more than I expected, Cadence noted with an arched brow. But I guess it’s touchin’? Saint candidates and ELPIS leaders, huh?

Maria stared at Epsilon for a moment before she fell to her knees too. “You shouldn’t doubt anything for a second, no?”

“Oh, Leo, you’re right! You’re right!” Epsilon rattled on. “This world has become—fantastic! The technology has advanced so far and the architecture—oh, the architecture!” He shook his head. “Oh, but the syzygy is still coming, isn’t it? Have you been able to delay it any—no, stop it completely? If you’re here then we must have made some progress!” 

Maria laughed, glancing over her shoulder to Cadence who merely shrugged non-judgmentally, nonchalantly. She glanced then at Fortuna and found the woman frowning with crossed arms. “You’re quite funny, Epsilon,” Maria noted as she looked back to Epsilon. Before he could respond, she reached for her belt, pulled out her sword from its scabbard, and pressed the blade against his palm. “You have something to show me, yes? May I?”

“O-Of course, Leo!”

Maria drew the blade across the man’s palm without hesitation. He didn’t flinch, and so she pulled his hand up to her lips and gave it a lick.

Saints, sunshine, do ya really gotta do it like that—

Epsilon lifted his gloved hand to the side of Maria’s temple and squeezed. Immediately, Maria’s vision became flooded with black pinpricks.

When Maria’s vision came back to her, she found herself walking through an open corridor lined with white pillars that allowed sunlight to slip between them. Low off-white banisters fitted the spaces in-between those pillars and were overgrown with twisting vines. In the distance leaning against one of those banisters stood a man and a woman.

The woman had long red hair that was barely kept back by a white-bowed headpiece. Her skin was pale and nearly glowed in the sunlight. The man on the other hand had darker skin and long dark curls. They were both staring at something on the railings of the banister. A bee and a hornet—engaged in stinging combat.

The man reached down and touched the hornet with his index finger. Blue light spilled out from his fingertip onto its shiny body, and immediately the insect’s body seized which allowed the bee to scamper off. When the man extended his finger out again to the hornet, the insect crawled up to it and rested peacefully on his nail.

Voz?! Maria thought excitably.

“Pretty, isn’t it, Hatsya?” the man inquired, lifting his finger to show the woman beside him. 

“It’s quite fascinating, Scorpio,” Hatsya agreed. “To be able to stop violence so easily—”

Maria wished dearly to run right up to the two and ask the man if he was Voz, but her feet would not obey her and so she continued down the hall until she reached the end where the roof ended and a series of steps descended down into a brick path. Upon continuing forward down the first step, Maria was immediately blinded by morning brightness.

When her eyes adjusted to the light, however, she found herself not standing beneath a brightly shining sun but instead beneath a full moon. The sky was dark above her and an intense heat wrapped her from head to toe. As her eyes scanned the area on their own, she came to register that she was standing on a gray elevated path surrounded by glowing pools of light that stretched flat out into the distance. White pillars rose up along the gray path up to a circular elevated platform where a familiar woman with long dark hair stood before a large divot containing glowing liquid. The liquid seemed to be spilling in from the surrounding pools via the thirteen gouged lines that radiated out from the divot to the outer edges of the circular platform. Behind that pool stood a woman with long, dark hair. 

So pretty.

It took another moment for Maria to realize that she was not standing alone. There was a man at her right and a woman at her left and even more people dotting the spaces in-between the pillars further down the path. 

Before she could study them any further, her gaze became forcefully drawn to the end of the path where a figure was walking up slowly. As the figure drew nearer and nearer, Maria could identify them as a man with golden hair and sun-kissed skin. He moved with rigid purpose, a broad back, a steady pace.

When he passed her by, he flashed the briefest smile and continued up to the woman where he stopped opposite of the small pool. Upon reaching the spot, the golden man turned to look back at Maria. 

Maria tried to lift her hand to wave but instead found herself offering a nod then watching as the man dipped into a deep bow.

“Do you understand what is going to happen, Alejandro Apolinar?” asked the dark-haired woman. 

“I do, Vega,” the man said, head still bowed.

“Do you understand the weight of the knowledge that is going to be bestowed upon you?” 

“I do.”

“Have you trained in mind, body, and spirit to be able to wield and conduct yourself as a proper bearer of knowledge?”

“I have.”

“Will you respect the will of the candidates that have come before you and light up a new path with your own will?”

“I will.”

“The pillar of Leo is victory. Do you understand what this pillar represents?” 

“Achieve victory not only in the external world but also the internal world. Do not be defeated by past failures.”

Vega extended her hand across the glowing divide. The golden man reached back out to her and barely grabbed a hold of her hand. Then, he stepped forward into the glowing pool and sank down, down, down—

—again, Maria’s vision became filled with pinpricks. When her eyes finally adjusted, she found a man with an eyepatch sitting in front of her. He looked just like the man who had taken her from the orphanage—wait. No, no. The man before her was young, not old. Not the man she was looking for. 

Behind him hovered a nervous-looking Epsilon and a collection of familiar young faces. Cadence’s children. This was the memory that Cadence had seen earlier.

“Hello, there.” The young man with the eyepatch smiled at Maria. 

Maria frowned slightly, peering over the man’s shoulder towards the children.

“Maria, right?”

Maria’s attention snapped back to the man.

“Are you surprised?” the man chuckled. “Maybe not. Do you even remember me?” He smiled pleasantly. “It’s me—Proteus. But at this point, you might know me as Alpha instead. I look different, don’t I? I still remember the sound of the Monadic bells when I picked you and Conta up from that orphanage. Do you?”

A faint memory ghosted the edges of Maria’s mind. The sound of bells ringing in the distance as children squealed and shrieked. 

“It’s a shame what happened to Conta,” Proteus continued. “I was quite surprised to see Beta instead of her when we met recently. She was always attached to you, wasn’t she? And much weaker.” He sighed pleasantly. “And now here I find out that you’ve also become a True Conductor. I knew you could become anything.”

Maria wanted to greet him and ask him so many things but her lips were sealed shut. 

“I’ve already left this message for Theta.” Proteus gestured behind him. “I have what Theta’s been desperately searching for.” He chuckled. “Vega’s always been a bit foolish. She’s much improved without Altair, but her current condition leaves much to be desired. Plus, she’s gotten attached.” His lips thinned. “To be unbound by anything and to achieve true freedom. That’s true victory and true happiness. If I managed to teach you anything, it should be that, right?”

Epsilon fidgeted in the background and glanced in confusion at the children.

Proteus looked back at him. “I’ll leave Epsilon in your care until I need him again.” He rested a hand on his chin and smiled. “I doubt you’ll be able to get many hints from him, so I’ll leave you this old story I used to tell you and Conta both: 

There once was a nameless hungry white beast,

Who found devouring the names of others a great feast,

Every time it ate each of their names,

It would assume their identity whether others, sirs, or dames,

It ate and it ate past the sun that rose from the east and set in the west,

It became the worst, the infamous, the famous, and the best,

But its hunger still remained even as it travelled to the golden fields far and bold,

There it encountered another beast that was the color gold.”

Maria cocked her head and found that she was able to do it.

Proteus chuckled again. “See you soon, my little Maria.”

* * *

“What the hell are we supposed to do with a damn story poem?” Carl grumbled.

“That was a waste of time,” Agape agreed.

“We should head back to Comientzo tomorrow night,” Fortuna concluded, “and see if the dockworkers have noticed anything off. That peacekeeper will be with us, right, Cadence? He’ll be a good intimidation factor.”

Maria listened to their complaints from where she lounged hanging off the edge of the table they were all sitting around. Cadence was leaning against the back of a chair in front of Maria and would occasionally send Maria looks and questions of are ya sure ya didn’t see Alma there?

Epsilon had been carted away by Pi a little bit earlier despite begging to remain by Maria’s side. Maria was rather endeared by him, so she’d been reluctant to see him go. But it reassured Cadence so she accepted it as it was. Still, she hoped to bring him on board her ship soon. As long as it didn’t upset Jericho too much.

“It’s not all for loss,” Francis said suddenly. He’d been quietly in his seat for a long time, so Maria had assumed he’d fallen asleep sitting up and smoking—which was a hilariously ridiculous scenario. “There’s a hidden message in that poem. I’m certain now that the person in Epsilon’s memories is Alpha. I don’t understand what he’s doing…”

“This is ridiculous.” Fortuna sighed but said nothing else.

“Are you going to be able to dissect that riddle, Francis?” Fortuna asked.  

Francis nodded.

Fortuna rose from her seat then, followed by Cavallo, Bendetto, and Agape. “Well, I hope to see some results soon, Francis,” was what she said before glancing at Maria and adding, “Please consider what we discussed earlier.” With that, the Romanos exited the room with Maria waving at them in farewell.

After some time, Carl, Allen, and Maximallian went away too after sharing a word or two with Francis and Cadence. That left just Francis, Cadence, and Maria herself. They sat in silence for a while as Francis started to smoke again and read the book he’d brought with him. Maria meanwhile tried her best to read the atmosphere and watched the smoke trail up from the man’s v-cig.

“Francis, ya know I don’t want ta push ya, but…” Cadence started suddenly, staring at Maria for a bit before nodding. “Maria didn’t give all the details to the others earlier. She saw more than the whole bit with Proteus. She shared it with me, but… there was a whole… baptism situation I think with Leo. She said you were there.”

Francis perked up from the book.

“I feel like it’s kinda obvious at this point, but you and the saint candidates have history, don’t ya?” Cadence continued. “Did ya… perform any baptisms for them?”

Francis closed his book, suddenly looking morose. “… I suppose I did, although I don’t recall the exact details. It’s nothing like how it’s done today—I’m certain. I’d rather not speak of it. I’d like to say that those details are unimportant but that would be going against myself and everything that we’ve started to dedicate ourselves towards.” He hummed. “Yes, becoming a saint candidate was an honor. Back then, the knowledge passed down was revered. More than anything else, they were record keepers and providers of knowledge. That was what we hoped to do with the resistors too. Knowledge. Somewhere down the line of time, knowledge became sentient. Knowledge and memories. The soul itself…”

Maria tilted her head as she tried to understand. 

“Some of us were quite close, cycling through the roles of teacher and student.” Francis set his book down on the table. “Maria, you do remind me of Leo back then—although the memory itself is quite fuzzy. That radiant pride is quite something. If I didn’t know any better, I’d perhaps think you were Leo.”

It’s a compliment, Cadence reasoned. Really. Probably.

“Well, I can’t be Leo because I am me!” 

“Yes, you’re quite a shining star, Maria,” Francis seemed to agree quietly. “You might remind me of Leo but you also remind me of Omicron at times. For some people, you might shine so brightly that it hurts their eyes. They might ask you to dim your light or try to dim your light themselves.” He took a drag of his v-cigarette. 

“No one’s gonna dim sunshine’s light.” Cadence chortled. “That’s for sure. No doubt about it. Pretty sure even Scorpio can’t.” She stretched her arms out then and yawned. “Well, I’m probably gonna turn in for the night.” She tipped her hat. “See ya later, Francis.” She winked at Maria. “See ya in my dreams, sunshine. Thanks for that.” And with that, she too departed.

“You should sleep too, yes, Francis?” Maria hummed, watching as the light from the gate Cadence had just exited dim. She could still feel Cadence there faintly, sleepily. “Cadence is thinking it, although she is not saying it for some reason.” She perked up as she recalled something. “Oh, and some of the children were asking about you, Francis!”

“The children on the ship?” Francis perked up again. “And the children are doing well?” 

Maria nodded. “Yes! They’ve all chosen names for themselves already! They’re very bright, yes? Great adventures too!”

Francis’s gaze softened. “I’m very glad… for them to have an opportunity at a freer future than Cadence, Fortuna, my brothers, and I had… A sign of change perhaps.”

Maria stretched out across the table and laid flat on her back. She turned her head to Francis who stared at her blankly. “Sleep, yes? I tell my Werner and Jericho all the time because Nico gave it as good advice.”

“Nico?”

“At least five hours of sleep a day!”

Francis chuckled. “It’s quite peculiar how you True Conductors function. I’ve only known you through business dealings, but you treat me so familiarly, Miss Maria… It’s quite touching to imagine that you care for me in the same way that Cadence does.” He chuckled musically. “Assuming that she cares for me.”

“What belongs to Cadence belongs to me. And Cadence thinks you’re family, so—you understand, yes?”

“‘Family.’ Again. I see… Poor thing.” Francis’s eyes dimmed for a moment and he stared at his v-cigarette. “I’ve heard about your circumstances a bit from Cadence…. You’re still in search of Beta, correct?”

“Conta?” Maria smiled. “Yes, of course!”

Francis smiled pleasantly then. “I’m not completely certain about this, but Beta’s—Conta’s—path might align with out search for the children and Alpha. I can only open my gates where I’ve been previously, and I’ve gotta admit that I don’t have as many as I’d like in Leo. Since you’re traveling through Leo at the moment, would you mind if I occasionally came on board to put my gates down wherever you’ve stopped at?”

Maria brightened. “You are already part of my crew, my dear Francis! You may come onboard anytime!”

* * *

Onboard Gloria’s Grail, Leonian Waters

Alpha or Beta? Proteus and Conta?

Maria stepped back onto the deck of her ship as she pondered on the two paths that lay ahead of her. It was quite dark on the ship now and quiet too. A thick black blanket clouded the skyline, so she couldn’t even tell if the moon was shining. She hadn’t realized she’d been gone for so long. She never did, did she?

Maria approached the bow of the ship, walked up onto the bowsprit, plopped onto its tip, and scanned the scenery. Instead of seeing the sea’s endless expansiveness, she spied the faint outlines of buildings with lit-up windows in the distance and the wood of an empty dock just below her. 

It seemed as if someone had steered the ship to shore.  

“How was your trip, Captain?”

Maria turned to find Simon approaching her from the dark. He was still dressed in his morning robes, and his eyes appeared sharp and alert in the dark.

“It was amazing!” Maria sang. “I met a lot of interesting people! Well, I re-met them because Cadence already met them, yes?”

“Well, I’m glad you had a good time, Captain,” Simon whispered. “Everyone’s asleep now. Veles was the one who guided the ship here. He said something about the currents leading him to this port and how there shouldn’t be any doubt in his instinct.” He chuckled. “He’s as interesting as you, Captain… He truly believes that Conta may have been carried this way.”

Maria beamed, turning to him. “That’s amazing! This is why Veles is cool, yes? 

“I suppose so, Captain,” Simon drew hesitantly, “although I still do have concerns about Veles’s intentions towards Conta—”

“Nonsense, Simon! You worry too much, no? We already discussed everything, yes?” She laughed a bit, then turned to face the townscape again. In the distance, she swore she could hear bells. “Say… Are you still a part of Monadism, Simon?”

“Are you, Captain?” 

She could hear the tap, tap of his footsteps drawing nearer and nearer until he was right behind her—not beside her.

“I asked you first, my dear.”

Simon laughed before he quieted. “… I think with things like this… the belief system is what’s most important. Not the people teaching those beliefs. Not the spreading of those beliefs. And yet…”

Maria glanced over her shoulder at him.  “I can’t understand it if you say it like that, Simon…. Was that a yes or a no?”

“I’m not sure yet, Captain,” Simon replied faintly before smiling. “Not everyone can know everything for certain and be so sure of themselves like you.” 

“Of course, they can!” Maria beamed, before peering at him. “So why did you leave and join me?”

“Other than the fact that you swept me off my feet, Captain?” Simon smiled. “It’s odd for you to ask things like this. I’m surprised.”

“Why shouldn’t I ask?” Maria tilted her head. “You are one of the oldest members of my crew, no?” She thought on it. “Well, Morandi would be the oldest but you would be the oldest, yes? Aside from Conta?”

Simon’s smile became faint.

Maria hummed. “Say, Simon, can you not sleep?” She hopped to her feet and balanced her way back to the bow of the ship. Extending a hand to him, she offered, “Shall we begin our hunt a little earlier than the others?”

* * *

 Lunanegra, Leo

The seaside town of Lunanegra looked almost no different from Comientzo. In Maria’s opinion at least. There were numerous pearly white Monadic temples dotting every street corner and several parlors with open patio seatings squeezed in-between them. Maria did notice that it was much quieter here than in Comientzo, but she figured that was just because it was late at night and everyone was fast asleep. There were a couple of dark-robed Espada roaming the streets and a handful of Leonian police officers too. The latter’s uniforms were much more regal-looking than the police officer uniforms Maria recalled from Werner’s and Cadence’s ends of things. These uniforms were jet black with twisting braids of gold linen lining all of their edges. Some even wore little shiny little brooches shaped into a lion’s head wearing a crown.

Despite the sameness of it all, Simon insisted that this town was different.

“This is actually the Leonian princess’s favorite seaside town,” he said as they walked along the cobblestone path lined by stone buildings pressed side-to-side. “She visits here once a year and occasionally visits the orphanages in the surrounding towns—like Comientzo, for instance.”

“The Leonian princess?” Maria pondered, thinking of Atienna whom she hadn’t spoken to often as of late. “The one who is going to be married to that Cancerian duke?”

“Ilunaria Solnaciente.” Simon nodded. “This town was renamed after her. It’s interesting how the countries are in a buzz about it even though they seem more like figureheads…” He trailed off, then studied Maria. “I’m surprised that you’d pay attention to politics, Captain.”

“Well, Atienna enjoys them a bit and Jericho is starting to get involved in it, so I thought I should try to enjoy them too,” Maria replied. “They’re quite boring though—all this talking without acting, no?”

“I see…”

They continued through the town and were stopped once or twice by Espadas and Leonian police officers. The Leonians seemed to be very curious about Simon’s robe and kept pulling him roughly to the side to speak with him. Maria didn’t like their roughness so she pried them away from him, chatted them away, and stole a golden brooch or two for Lita and Cadence. 

Eventually, they came across a Monadic temple with steps that seemed even whiter than all the temple steps they’d passed by earlier. The tops and bottoms of the pillars of the temple flared out in such a way that they reminded Maria of a lion’s mane.  

Maria pointed up to the building and broke out into a grin. “This looks like one of the temples the priests would take Conta and me to when we were younger!”  

Without skipping a beat, she ran up its steps and tried its doors. Locked. Hm. Turning in a full circle, Maria delivered the door a big and swift kick causing it to immediately give way. Simon sucked in a breath and scanned the street.

“Oh, Captain…” He sighed but said nothing else.

Maria took his hand in hers and pulled him inside. Just like the other temples she’d stepped in before, the only source of light inside came in from the stained-glass windows. Pews lined the left and right sides of the temple and pointed forward towards the large white faceless statue standing tall at the back with widespread arms.

“Hello?” Maria called out as she walked in with Simon in tow. 

Simon winced then sighed when only an echo answered her. “It’s quite late, Captain. Any priests residing here must have finished their prayers and mantras hours ago. It’s just us.”

“You’re so knowledgeable, Simon!” Maria chimed as she released his hand and walked right up to the back.

She came to a stop before the great faceless statue that was just beginning to be painted with flecks of color pouring in from the stained-glass windows. Sunrise, it seemed. The statute itself looked so sturdy and tall, and yet Maria had the urge to run up and push it over. She recalled one time when the priests had brought all the children of the orphanage to the temple; and Maria had opted to scale up the statue with Conta riding on her back despite the priests’ protests. The other children back then had cheered her on. She wondered where they’d gone.

“My dear Simon,” Maria drew, glancing back at the man who was now seating himself in the pew closest to her, “do you speak with the people you spent time with before joining my crew?”

“You have a lot of questions for me today, Captain.” Simon chuckled, then nodded. “I do write to some old friends of mine who are still active in Monadism. There’s one who serves in the Monadic temples in Scorpio. Lyr—”

The doors to the temple suddenly flew open and a panting figure staggered inside. Beneath the panting sound, there was a steady drip, dripping. Red was pooling onto the temple’s wooden floor from the figure’s wounded hand. 

Simon immediately shot up to a stand and turned. “Conta…?”

Maria beamed as she fully registered Conta’s mousy brown hair and her full cheeks. “Conta! I knew you would be here! Were you also feeling a bit nostalgic?”

Conta glanced at Simon briefly before staring into Maria. “You again. True Conductor.” 

Conta lifted her hand—gloved—and the blood staining her arm began to glow. She flicked her wrist immediately, and the red liquid burst into life with a white glow that rose from her arm and hurtled towards Maria and Simon like bullets. Maria threw herself forward and tackled Simon to the ground away from the spears before popping up to a stand to find that another person had entered the temple and now held Conta’s attention. A familiar man draped in jet blackwear dappled with bits of gold stood in the threshold of the door. Maria wracked her brain before her memory finally clicked. It was the Espada from Comientzo. 

Maria grinned, popped up, and waved wildly as she pushed Simon behind one of the pews. “Andres! What are you doing here?” 

Mouth slightly ajar, Andres arched a brow at her before looking back towards Conta. He lifted his left conductor-gloved hand revealing a pistol in his grip. He aimed it and fired at Conta but she managed to throw herself forward out of the way of the bullets which instead shot through the stained-glass window that had been behind her. Some of the shards rained down onto Simon’s hair but Maria quickly brushed them out. 

Maria then detached herself from Simon’s side and walked over to where Conta had fallen only to come face-to-face with another white burst of spears. She immediatley rolled beneath the pew to her right out of the way of the white spears but didn’t remain there long since the spears began to pierce their way up the table towards her. She popped out from the pew just as it burst into splinters only to come face-to-face with the nose of a gun. Andres’s gun. He didn’t pull the trigger, however, and so she kicked up some of the wooden splinters into his face. He coughed and covered his mouth, allowing Maria the opportunity to deliver him a swift kick to the gut. Much to her surprise, he lifted his arm to block the blow and skidded back only slightly.

“Oh!” Maria beamed. “You’re quite good, no? I like you, Andres—”

“Captain, watch out!”

Maria whipped around to see four white tendrils shooting towards her. Without much thought, she kicked her feet underneath Andres’s and swept him onto the ground out of the way of the tendrils. Simultaneously, she reached for her belt and pulled out—not her usual blade but—her blade-conductor which she activated with a flick of her wrist. The golden light that burst from its hilt as she waved it through the air extinguished the white spears in an instant.

Conta’s eyes widened then narrowed in the dim light as she lowered her hand. “So you really are—”

A gunshot cut her off, and Conta barely managed to duck below another bullet that flew past her and embedded itself right into the chest of the white statue. Maria turned to find Andres back up on his feet and staring up at the cracks that were beginning to spread across the statue’s chest. His eyes were wide, his face paling.

“How about we stop fighting, yes?” Maria suggested.

Shaking his head, Andres lifted his pistol but then stopped short to glance over his shoulder at something Maria couldn’t see. He lowered the pistol a second after and extended his gloved hand instead. In a flash of amber light, he conjured a series of long blades gilded with gold that glinted cold in the growing sunlight torn by the stained windows.

“Those are quite beautiful,” Maria noted.

Andres blinked at her before avoiding her eyes. Instead of saying anything, however, he lifted his pistol again and aimed it—not at Maria herself or even at Conta, but—at Simon.

Maria immediately sent out her foot and kicked the pistol right out of Andres’s hands. In a flash, he conjured another one and fired it off without hesitation. Maria flicked her vitae blade up and extinguished the bullet in an instant. Without skipping a beat, she threw a kick back to Andres who blocked it again. She used the momentary distraction to traverse her way over the pews to Simon’s side. She grabbed Simon by the collar as she straddled herself on top of two pews. Before she could toss Simon out the window and to safety, however, she felt Andres’s shadow upon her. Instinctively, she pushed Simon back to the ground and reached for her normal blade—because she liked Andres and didn’t want to hurt him too much—but stopped short as Andres pushed her to the floor. Much to her surprise, Andres continued over and past her.

As Maria tried to rise up after him, she found herself pulled back down by an unseen force. “Oh…!” She stared at the seven or so blades that now pinned her to the ground through the sleeves of her shirt and her pants legs. She pulled one out from her sleeve as Simon plucked another out from her pants. When she managed to wiggle herself up a bit, she found that Andres was pursuing Conta to the back of the temple.

That wouldn’t do.

Taking aim, she threw the blade in her hand as hard as she could. It whined as it tore through the air and hit its target spot-on: the sleeve of Andres’s shirt. The force of it threw him back against the wall and pinned him there just as he was about to take aim at Conta. Maria then plucked the blade from Simon’s hand and threw it at Andres again. This time it nailed his other sleeve to the wall. 

Conta, who was pressed back up against the statue, studied Maria before extending her hand out to Andres. The tendrils of white rose from her blood; but before they could reach their target, Maria plucked another knife from her sleeve, aimed it at Conta, and threw it without hesitation. After two more aims and throws, Conta was thrown and pinned against the bottom of the statue across from Andres.

There was a long stretch of silence as they all there pinned against their respective surfaces.

“We shall talk now, yes?” Maria called out to them as she reached out to Cadence and pulled with all her might. 

Cadence appeared before her a second afterin a haze of sleepy confusion. Faintly, Maria could make out that she’d been sleeping on a couch in one of Francis’s exitless rooms only moments earlier. 

“What in saint’s name—” Cadence rubbed her eyes and blinked blearily around Maria’s surroundings. “Wait—no. I get it.” She shook her head. “How do ya get up ta so much when we’re asleep…?”

“Will you help me?” Maria tried. “I… think you are better at getting people to get along? I am practicing on getting better myself—yes. But for now, since I finally found Conta… could you try?”

Cadence blinked at her in surprise before flashing a thin smile. “Didn’t need ta ask…” She ruffled her hair. “This might take a little extra thinkin’ though and my brain is still half asleep…” She gestured around the temple. “Ya know with these types of things it’s best to keep our cards hidden. Maybe even better ta dip and leave it as is.”

“I will not do this ‘dipping,’” Maria replied. “Conta is here!”

Cadence sighed. “Figured as much.” She cleared her throat. “Well—”  

“—Look, we all want something from each other, right?” Maria said, her words feeling strange and foreign on her tongue. Was this what an override felt like? “And obviously gauging by how ferociously all of you are going at each other, it’s probably a tight situation, right? ‘Time is of the essence’ type? We don’t have time to be throwing fists if it’s that big of a situation, right? Things are always best sorted out through talking. A lot less painful most of the time too. Maybe the other party is a lot more willing to talk than you think. So since we’re all disarmed right now, how about we clear the air a little bit?”

Simon arched a brow at Maria, while Conta studied her with an unreadable expression. Andres stared at her for a moment before glancing over his shoulder again. After a beat, he nodded and began to wiggle his gloved hand. Instead of conjuring any sort of weapon, however, he conjured a sheet of paper with some text in Common written on it. With difficulty, he angled it towards Conta. Maria could barely see it, but it seemed to read—

Where are the children? I have been sent by the High Monadic Temple of Leo to find the children that you took from the orphanage.

“The Monadic temple?” Simon frowned, squinting at the written words. “Shouldn’t the ELPIS Department be handling this since it involves ELPIS instead of the temple?”

Andres conjured another note and flashed it to Simon and Maria. It read, Leo as a country is handling this separately from the ELPIS Department’s investigation since it’s also a matter that falls within national lines. We are consulting the ELPIS Department during this process. 

Uh-oh. That ain’t good.

“I didn’t take the children from the orphanage,” Conta responded suddenly, calmly. “I’m not the one you’re searching for.”

Andres tossed his sign to the side and conjured another one that read, I saw you at the cliff with the orphanage.

“I was chasing after someone and ended up there,” Conta explained. “The children are of no interest to me.”

“Wait a minute,” Cadence interjected. “I’m not the detective by any means, but maybe—”

“Wait! Alpha did it!” Maria exclaimed.

Conta tensed. “How do you know that name?”

“Wait,” Cadence said, “we gotta be more careful here now—”

Maria rattled on, “He took the little ones of someone important to me, yes? And he works with someone who has conducting similar to the mist conducting we saw at the orphanage! He is actually Proteus, apparently?” She craned her neck up at Conta. “He was the one who took us in too—remember, Conta? The one we’re looking for!” She turned to Andres. “Alpha took the children, not Conta!”

Conta remained silent.

Maria continued brightly, “Francis is working to find them with my dear friend—”

“Francis…?”

“Oh, you call him ‘Theta’ I think, Conta—”

Conta paused, stared. “Theta’s working with you…?” 

“Well, he is working with my dear friend,” Maria drew, glancing at Cadence beside her. “And so, he is working with me… yes! He brought me Epsilon, and Epsilon showed me a message from him—” 

Epsilon’s been initiated?” Conta looked up sharply then closed her eyes. “I see. It’s all coming together now.”

“Is it really…?” Cadence arched a brow. She shook her head and snapped her fingers. “Okay, I think we can salvage this. Jericho might not be too happy with it—Werner probably won’t be happy either—but I got an idea that’ll probably get everyone here what they want—”

“We should work together, no?” Maria pressed. “You are in search of Alpha, Conta? And I am in search of you and Proteus. Andres is in search of the children Alpha took! Does it not make sense to become a crew since we are on the same journey?”

“You’re a True Conductor. I’ve tried to kill you many times before.” Conta inclined her head at Andres. “He’s tried to kill me. You want us to work together.”

“Yes, of course!” Maria beamed. “Why should we let things that happened in the past cloud our present? The present will soon become the past so we should enjoy it as it is fully, no?”

Conta remained silent, unsmiling for a long time. 

Maria waited patiently. 

Finally, Conta said, “I would like to speak with Theta personally. I promise I won’t bring him harm. If what you’re saying is true, then this is important.”

In a flash of amber, Andres conjured another note. I’d like to meet this person too. I’d like more details. Then he conjured another. I assure you that I’m trustworthy. I won’t speak of this partnership with the ELPIS Department. Finding the children is what is important to me. And another. If you don’t allow me to see him, I will have to bring in the authorities. And another one. If you kill me, then the authorities will seek me and find out about this. And one more. Please let me come.

Maria laughed, pulling the rest of the blades pinning her to the ground with fluid ease. She tossed them up in the air and caught them before resting a hand on Simon’s head. “Of course! This is our new-old crew, yes?”

As she peered at Conta’s unchanging expression, however, Maria’s smile felt a bit heavier than usual.


drawn by chaosqube