1.3: Waltz Target

Re-cap:

Capricornian First Lieutant Werner Waltz was in the middle of a conflict between his home country of Capricorn and the neighboring country of Aquarius.

After successfully implenting his planned ambush on a troupe of Aquarian soldiers, he was shot while trying to control one of his disorderly men.


Capricornian–Aquarian Border, Capricorn

The first vitae bolt that took a life had come from a conducting äußerer Blitz 43 rifle. The release of a Projector’s conducted vitae was deafening even in the midst of the battlefield, but the bolt that came from his barrel had been soundless. The man’s name tag had read Anton. He was young and thin, and he did not even scream. The next one was Ivan. The one after that Lucas. Names faded. So did feeling. Remorse never shown. Orders never doubted. Here, things like morals held little value and little meaning. Here, appearances nothing yet everything—

The question was, where was ‘here’?

Perhaps, ‘here’ was death.

But ‘here’ could not possibly be death because ‘here’ he could think. Therefore, ‘here’ could be nowhere else but alive. A simple process of elimination.

As if to answer his question, a fuzzy silhouette passed by a dull yellow backdrop right before his eyes. A yellow light. He reached for it and pulled at it until he surfaced in a small room with peeling walls. A singular v-bulb swung above his head. A ragged curtain was drawn to his left. A young woman stood in front of the curtain and tended to a metal cart piled high with metal tools. Medical conductors. A white bonnet was tied around the woman’s mousy brown hair, and red crosses were just barely visible on the lapels of her blouse.

“Greta,” Werner identified. He clenched his fists and felt the rub of his gloves against his skin. They hadn’t taken them off. Good.

The nurse turned, and her eyes lit up with relief. “Werner, you’re awake!” She slipped her head outside of the curtains and seemed to call for someone. Shortly after, she pulled back in and walked over to his bedside. “How are you feeling? You were grazed by a Projector Conductor’s vitae bolt. I did my best, but…”

Werner brought himself upright. “I’m fine, Greta. Thank you.”

A throb at his shoulder gave him pause, but he pulled through it without so much as a grimace. His shoulder was exposed to the cold air. A splotch of skin there was shiny and a paler shade than the rest of his skin.

“You need to rest, Werner!” Greta urged as she hovered over him, hands not quite touching. “I healed your injury the best I could, but I could’ve missed something.”

Greta was a skilled Specialist Conductor. Her knowledge of the human body and deep understanding of how vitae particles affected it paired with her affinity for vitae had shot her skyward at the military academy. She passed her State Conducting Exam with flying colors but failed terribly at the military interviews which was why she found herself at her current post: a medical nurse serving on the eastern border. Wasted talent. It just went to show how important appearances were. Even if one had skill, if one did not have demeanor or appearance paired with it, it was fruitless.

“Like I stated before. I am fine, Greta. Your work is always exceptional,” Werner replied. “I need to give a report to the captain. When will I be able to leave?”

She took an uncertain step back. “Leave . . ? But…”

“That’s the first thing you say to someone you haven’t seen in over a year, Werner?” Gilbert Wolff, the man whom Greta had called, stood across from him now with crossed arms. The curtain still billowed behind him from his entrance.

Gilbert was a man of average stature. He stood a head shorter than Werner and had spiked brown hair that was barely tamed beneath his military cap. His jaw was square, his eyes gray, his brows thick. His smile, canine as always. His dull, dark periwinkle military uniform was caked with dirt and mud. At his waist was his conducting rifle, which looked in need of cleaning.

“Gilbert,” Werner said. He was surprised at his presence but he pressed, “What happened?”

“With the battle?” Gilbert scoffed. “Well, it was a success. The Aquarians were annihilated. The one that…” He eyed Werner’s shoulder. “… did that to you, escaped and headed down to where we were. Shot dead on sight.” He clicked his tongue and kicked the dirt floor. It was slick with rain and mud was sent flying everywhere. “Lucky bastard.”

“I see. Good.” Werner nodded. He watched Greta walk over to her metal cart and crouch to reach for something on one of the lower shelves. When she stood, she was holding his uniform. Neatly folded.

“Yeah.” Gilbert scoffed. “Now we’re what? Closer to that tiny little vitae reservoir? If you can even call it that.”

“Gilbert,” Werner said warningly. He accepted his uniform from Greta and nodded. “Thank you, Greta.”

She pulled back with a shy smile and tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “I can’t believe all three of us are standing in the same room again. It feels like it’s been forever. With you both at the southern border against Argo for the past year… and now here near Aquarius with me…”

Gilbert chuckled. “Yeah, the old crew is back together. Say, how’s our resident medical professional doing then?”

Greta looked downcast, but she covered the expression with a brush of her hair. “Well, I’m nothing special.”

“You are serving your country to the best of your capabilities, Greta,” Werner replied. “You should be proud.” He came to a stand. “Would you fetch the head medical officer for me? I would like to see if I could be discharged.”

“But…” Greta looked a bit startled. When she met his eyes, she glanced away. “Oh, of course. I can’t keep officers away from the field, after all.” She cleared her throat. “I’ll leave you to change then.” And with that, she swept outside.

Gilbert was left staring at him with a frown. “Way to ruin a reunion.”

“This is not the time for reunions, Second Lieutenant Wolff.”

In response, Gilbert rolled his eyes and headed for the curtain with a half-hearted wave.

Only when Gilbert disappeared from his sights did Werner allow himself to cradle his throbbing head. He stumbled forward, grabbing the medical cart for support. His reflection on its gray surface was foreign to him. His face looked several shades too pale, his features too sharp. His platinum blonde hair looked unnatural. And his eyes looked as if they should have been brown or green or black instead of the blue they were.

“You finished yet, Werner?” Gilbert’s voice came from behind the drawn curtain.

Werner took in a deep breath and straightened himself. He put on his uniform and took care to smooth out all the creases before dusting off his medals. He finished it off by combing back his hair, putting on his military cap, and straightening his gloves.

* * *

Bodies lined the halls. Men and women on gurneys pressed up against one another. Men and women in casts and slings curled up against walls. Some groaned. Some cried.

Gilbert winced as he passed a soldier missing an arm and a leg. The medical Conductors could not get to them fast enough, it seemed. Werner did not look at any of them. There was nothing he could do for them now. Nothing at all.

The head medical officer who was busy running up and down the halls cleared him. Greta’s work was exceptional.

“Can’t keep you away from the battlefield, can I, Waltz?” The doctor smiled good-naturedly before signing off the forms.

“I don’t understand what you’re implying. Serving is duty,” Werner responded. “Nothing more. Nothing less. You should know this. It should be the same for you.”

The doctor stiffened under his gaze. “Right…”

“His personal motto,” Gilbert provided.

“Oh, by the way, Lieutenant Waltz,” the doctor said just before signing the last paper. “You received a call while you were being treated from an… Officer Kortz? They said to tell you that there has been a complication with the Watch and asked you to see the major.”

A pause.

Werner frowned. He clenched his fist but then dispelled the motion with a flick of his wrist. “I see. Thank you for telling me.”

When the doctor left, Gilbert turned to Werner. “What’s that about?”

Werner didn’t look at him. “It’s classified, Second Lieutenant.”

Gilbert sighed. “Some way to treat a friend.”

* * *

Their camp was tucked away in the deep recesses of the woods just behind the hospital. Nearer to the location, the slender trees of the forest gradually thickened. They formed a crescent shape around a large slab of rock that jutted up from the muddy ground. Tents dotted the clearing in-between the rock and trees. Out from these tents rushed men and women: all in uniform, all with conductors hanging at their hips or slung across their backs. Other uniformed men and women hung out on the recesses of the camp. Chattering, laughing, listening, staring listlessly into the distance.

As Werner and Gilbert drew close, however, the cheering and laughing sobered. The atmosphere chilled; the air thinned. The cold air of Capricornian winters seemed to be riding on Werner’s shoulders, and it froze those who he passed by in place. Those who could move offered straight-backed salutes.

Werner was aware of the effect he had on his men. It was this unyielding frigid presence that allowed him to command without question. He had taken care to craft this appearance of his.

“Glad to see you’ve recovered, First Lieutenant,” one of the men said. The man broke off from the group of soldiers he was hanging with and offered a stiff salute.

It was Private Fischer. A new recruit who had passed his State Conductor Test with an average score. What he lacked in skill, however, he made up for in dedication and passion. There was no soldier more loyal to Capricorn than he.

Werner said nothing, merely nodding at him.

“With all due respect, Lieutenant,” Fischer continued, “I think that Private Otto Vogt should be immediately discharged from service. Military punishment. It’s because he failed to obey orders that—”

“Private Fischer,” Werner interjected, “you should be more concerned with your own performance. Are you implying that I’m not aware of my own subordinates?”

“Er, sir, no, of course.” Fischer cleared his throat. “I meant no disrespect.”

Werner said nothing. He and Gilbert continued on their path to the tent.

“Can’t believe you like that jerk,” Gilbert scoffed after Fischer was out of hearing distance. The bill of his cap was dipped low, but his frown was apparent.

“Like is not the appropriate word here,” Werner informed him. “Fischer has shown himself to be an exemplary soldier. There were discussions of awarding him an Iron Horn.”

“Well, good for him. Give him a damn medal,” Gilbert scoffed. He paused and then thought over his words. “Don’t say anything.”

Werner didn’t, and so they headed for the large tent closest to the large slab of rock. Heads perked and stiffened as they passed. Whispers followed their footsteps.

As they walked on, sweat built on the back of Werner’s neck. He had been doing a lot of legwork. It was a sizable distance through frosted-over sludge from the hospital to this camp. He’d ventured through worse, however, and found his internal complaints unfitting.

He made to remove his military cap but stopped short as realization crept upon him. The heat he felt did not seem to come from his own body. Rather, it felt as if the heat was beating down on him from the sun.

A quick glance up told Werner that wasn’t possible. The sun was hidden away by a thicket of clouds. Another quick side-glance at a shivering Gilbert told him that he was alone in feeling such sensations.

He attempted to calm himself, to not allow confusion to show on his face.

Appearances, Werner.

The pounding in his temple abruptly returned full-force and nausea punched him right in the stomach. It took all his energy to keep his back straight and trudge forward. Foot after foot.

Keep up appearances. Appearances were everything. With the thought came a familiar memory: a stinging whip at his palm. Discipline. But what was wrong with him, he wondered. A fever? Was there a chance that the medical officer had missed something in his medical evaluation? No. It was Greta who had healed him, after all, and Greta was exceptional. But there was still a chance that something might have slipped from her attention. And nothing—Werner knew—could be left to chance.

It took him a beat to realize that Gilbert was staring at him.

Werner stared back. “What is it?”

And just like that the nausea and headache were gone. The heat that had been wrapping around him like a blanket blinked out of existence leaving only the biting cold. As if it were never there in the first place.

The sensation left Werner feeling hollow. Empty.

“What do you mean ‘ what is it’ ?” Gilbert recoiled. “You just said ‘Who the hell is Werner?’ just now.”

Werner blinked out of his stupor and frowned at him. “This isn’t the time for jokes, Wolff.”

“I’m not joking,” Gilbert snapped before he gave Werner a once-over. “You sure you shouldn’t have rested in the hospital a little bit more? Y’know most of the men would make excuses to stay there. Not to leave.”

Werner noticed the worry carved into Gilbert’s raised brow, noticed the opportunity for a change in conversation. “Battles aren’t won by resting in hospitals, Second Lieutenant.” He paused as they reached the tent. “I’d like to hear about these men who are opting for unneeded stays at the hospital.”

Gilbert’s brows furrowed with annoyance, but before he could say anything a dark head appeared out from the flaps of the tent.

“Oh, there you are, Werner,” Captain Weingartner said in surprise.

Weingartner’s hair was peppered with frost. His cheeks were hollow and his eyes sunken, but his irises were warm and brown.

Werner stood at attention. Gilbert followed suit, albeit with less enthusiasm.

“I’m here to give my report, sir,” Werner said. “I was also informed to report to the major.”

“Oh yes, good to see you both. The major came so suddenly I didn’t think you’d be out of the hospital fast enough to meet him,” the captain muttered before he motioned into the tent with his head. “Well, come along now.” He paused and glanced at Gilbert and then added: “Just the first lieutenant.”

Subtly straightening his uniform, Werner followed Weingartner inside.

* * *

The tent had a familiar layout. Along its walls were small, narrow tables stacked with radios and documents. A larger, longer table occupied its center. The table was covered with a large map with points of interest marked with words, circles, and X’s. A man stood by this table staring down at the map.

Major Ersatz. Ersatz was a heavyset man with a receding, graying hairline, and deep black eyes. The Capricornian cold had reddened his cheeks and forehead but had yet to freeze off his seemingly constant smile. His medals gleamed at the front of his uniform.

“Sir.” The captain cleared his throat as he came to a stop in front of the table. He paused, gesturing to Werner who stood just behind him. “Here is First Lieutenant Waltz.”

“Good to see you, First Lieutenant,” Ersatz said as he offered Werner his hand. “Your performance on this past skirmish is to be praised, and I’m glad you’ve made a recovery from your injury.”

“Thank you, sir,” Werner responded, accepting this gesture. He wanted to say that his accomplishments were due to the division that served under him. However, a soft, motherly memory whispered in the back of his mind: appearances, Werner, appearances .

Ersatz merely smiled in response before he glanced over Werner’s shoulder at the captain. “If you would let me have a word in private with your lieutenant.”

The captain glanced at Werner before nodding and departing.

“I hear that they’ve been calling you Kaltes Auge—’Cold Eye’—out here… in part due to your accuracy with your conductor and your complete lack of hesitation. They even say you’ve never missed a mark,” Ersatz mused once the captain had left. He stroked his beard. “That’s something to be proud of, Werner.”

“Yes, sir.”

A pause.

“I received word that there’s been trouble with the Watch, sir,” Werner said.

Another pause.

“Yes, so I’ve heard as well.” Ersatz sighed. “There seems to be outside intervention. No one knows who ordered it. It’s quite unfortunate… however, the damage has been done as expected.”

“Sir?”

“But you needn’t worry yourself over that at the moment.” Ersatz leaned forward onto the table. He tapped at a town that was marked on the map. A town that bordered their country and Aquarius. “As we anticipated, the Ophiuchians have caught word of our conflict with the Aquarians. They’ve sent down peacekeepers to handle the dispute. Knowing them, they’ll surely side with the Aquarians.”

Ersatz slammed his fist against the table. It was an abrupt action, but Werner did not allow himself to flinch.

“As if they have any right to! That vitae reservoir is rightly ours,” Ersatz spat. His cheeks were beet red now. “The Aquarians have an endless supply of reservoirs right within their borders. At the end of the Reservoir War, the treaty clearly drew lines placing that reservoir within our boundaries. It’s been that way for years. And yet, here they come in dipping into it like they own it. It’s only right we defend ourselves! Not to mention those damn Sagittarians—saying things like we’re the ones dragging them into this. They’re the ones getting in the way! Using a trade route that is currently a battlefield!” Ersatz let out a sigh and straightened himself. “Anyways, the Ophiuchian Agents have sent a request for a representative from both sides of the battlefield to meet them in Gradstal near the reservoir.”

“A representative?” Werner repeated. “Will a general be coming down from the capital?”

“No, they’ve requested that we send someone who has been personally involved with this ‘dispute’ to attend.” Ersatz thrummed his fingers. “In other words, they don’t want to make this international incident an official one. Like always, they want to sweep it under the rug. Only those who know the details firsthand were requested. ‘Trickle up works,’ they say.”

To keep an appearance of peace.

“I would like for you to be the representative, Waltz.”

This gave Werner pause.

“Is there a problem, Lieutenant Waltz?”

“With all due respect,” Werner drew. “I believe Captain Weingartner would be the better choice for this. Not only is he of higher rank, but he’s also dealt with Ophiuchian Agents before.”

“Werner, you think too lowly of yourself. Rank doesn’t mean everything.” Ersatz gave a hearty laugh. “For instance, just because I’m a major doesn’t mean that I know the hardships of battle like you do. While I know of strategy and plans, that doesn’t mean that I know the toll it takes on a soldier to constantly be taking lives. The hesitation one must go through—”

“There is no hesitation, sir,” Werner replied. “As you’ve said yourself, that’s why I’ve been named Cold Eye.”

“Good,” Ersatz popped. “Then there should be no hesitation for you to take this task.”

“If you assign it to me, I will follow orders,” Werner replied.

“Good.” Ersatz sighed as if in relief. He folded his hands behind his back and peered down into the map. “I also want you to eliminate any Aquarian pockets you find along the way.”

Werner did not pause at this, but Ersatz provided clarification regardless:

“They are on our side of the border without permission, and they are acting with aggression. We must defend our people.” Ersatz paused only to run his finger in a circle around a particular spot on the map. The reservoir. “The meeting is in five days, so it’d be best if you selected a group and departed as soon as possible.”

“Yes, sir.”

* * *

By noon Werner had selected his group. He had weighed all the candidates in his unit with care, noting all strengths and weaknesses and conducting types. His division contained all six types of Conductors: twelve Projectors, eight Conjurers, eight Transmutationists, two Manipulators, two Elementalists, and one Specialist. After parsing through all of the possible combinations, he had come up with what he viewed as a well-functioning team.

They stood before him now, straight-backed at attention at the mouth of their encampment. Passing soldiers eyed them. Werner also eyed the line-up he’d chosen. He walked past them, surveying each one and analyzing their strengths.

The first he had chosen was, of course, Gilbert. Gilbert was a fine marksman, after all. An exceptional Projector Conductor.

The next was Wilhelm Fischer. The eager private. A Projector. Unlike many other Projectors, he had chosen to train using melee conductors instead of the long-range conducting rifles Projectors often chose. He preferred a longsword. Like the old days. Gilbert thought Fischer an odd choice because he wanted to stand out, which Gilbert thought was foolish on the battlefield.

Alwin Brandt was Werner’s third choice. Brandt had been transferred into their unit two weeks prior just before the initial incident that kick-started this border conflict but had adapted to 212th-division life rather quickly. He was a combat nurse with a light-hearted demeanor that made even the jaded Derik Stein warm to him quickly. Although Alwin was a Transmutationist with conducting abilities not suited for combat, he was a quick thinker and quicker with a plain pistol.

The jaded Derek Stein was Werner’s fourth choice. He threw around the sentence, “It’s no use getting to know a newbie—not unless they last two weeks,” like it was his catchphrase and was one of the few soldiers in the division able to look Werner in the eye.

His fifth choice was Emilia Bergmann. A rare Elementalist Conductor. Niche element: earth. Unfortunately, she was not adept at extraneous vitae manipulation and required physical contact with the element to manipulate the vitae particles within it. Still, her rare skill was useful.

Werner’s sixth choice, Klaus Kleine, was a Conjurer Conductor who preferred burying his head in a book to scoping out the battlefield. His ability to fully immerse himself in his stories aided his ability to conjure items to an exact degree. His range of conjuring was limited only by his inability to think and act under pressure. Which was another reason why Alwin was on board.

His last and final choice was Otto Vogt. The boy who played soldier. The one who had disobeyed orders on that watery overpass. The one who had run from the trigger. He too was a Projector Conductor.

In front of Vogt, Werner came to a stop. In turn, Vogt tensed. Their eyes met. Vogt looked away. Swallowed. Remaining silent, Werner observed him. The silence stretched on.

“I-I’m very sorry for what happened, sir,” Vogt stammered. “I-I’m really glad that you’re all right… I… It was all my fault that you were—”

“I’m aware,” Werner interjected, “who is at fault.”

Vogt stiffened. “I…”

“You would’ve been punished if I didn’t select you for this mission. But don’t mistake this as a favor. There is no point in throwing away something that can still be used,” Werner stated the finality clearly, loudly. “If you don’t display the appropriate behaviors on this mission, you will be dishonorably discharged.”

Heads turned in their direction. Vogt shrank deeper inside of himself.

“D-discharged…?”

“That is the lightest punishment for cowardice,” Werner continued. “This is your last chance.” He paused to allow the reality of his words to sink in. “I understand that the military stipend helps to provide for your family.” He paused again. “If you don’t want to disappoint them, then don’t disappoint me.”

Vogt’s lips trembled and parted, but no words came out.

Turning away from him, Werner addressed the rest of his men: “Gather your things. We depart in three hours.”

How cruel , came a sudden thought as he watched all but Gilbert make their way back to their tents. Fear is a teacher but not a good one.

It’s for his own good , Werner argued back. Vogt’s skills would be wasted if he didn’t change. And if he didn’t change, he would also be a danger to himself and his comrades. There was no room for error or weakness here.

Then why not say that, to begin with?

I… , Werner began to respond before a cold and creeping realization dawned on him. Why in the world was he arguing with himself? No. The voice resounding in his head was not his own…Was it?

A sharp, pulsating pang struck his temple and began to spread to his forehead. Despite using all of his strength, he couldn’t resist pinching the bridge of his nose. The world blurred. Colors bled into sound into smell into touch.

A train horn bellowed in the distance. A piano chord was struck. Oil and soot. The smell of worn, leather books. Ringing, musical laughter. A crack of heat.

Straighten, Werner told himself through the confusion, appearances are everything . And so, with great effort, Werner did as he ordered himself to.

The world snapped back into place. The gray clouds passing overhead. The slap of leather boots against the wet earth. The men and women sitting silently in front of their tents. And Gilbert, who still stood at his side. Gilbert who regarded him with a frown but said nothing.

At dusk, they set off.


Projector: a Conductor who falls into one of the five general conducting-type categories. Projectors utilize vitae strictly intraneously. They expel the vitae out from themselves in a forceful surge of energy that can be highly destructive. Projectors tend to occupy combat-oriented occupations.  

Conducting 101 by L.B. Ran

1.2: Morello Introduction

Re-cap:

Swindler Cadence Morello was tasked to investigate an individual who was stealing modified conductors sold by the Romano Family–an organization she is an associate of. She tracked the individual down to the TwinStars Pub and disguised herself as a patron. Just as she revealed the man and her own true colors, she was caught in a mysterious explosion. 


Twin Cities, Gemini

“I’m tellin’ ya! I’m tellin’ ya!” Cadence snapped, slapping her hand against her chest with each clipped syllable. “Ya need to check me over again! What if ya missed somethin’?!”

She was dressed in a loosely buttoned, long-sleeved blouse that came down to her knees. While wearing it, she knew she looked like a child. The man who sat across from her on a metal stool wore a crisp white lab coat and a pair of white gloves. He looked like a highly-esteemed doctor. Papers, shiny tools, and bandages cluttered the tables lining the walls of the room around them. While sitting within this room together, Cadence figured the two of them looked like they were a regular doctor and patient.

But appearances were deceiving.

“Cadence, your psychological state is much more concerning than your physical state.” The doctor appeared amused as he said this, smiling and stroking his stubbled chin.

What a quack , Cadence thought. The doc’s bad interpersonal skills were probably what landed him here in the first place, doing jobs underground rather than up above with the good folk. The doc was a Specialist Conductor, after all. If Cadence had been blessed with that manifestation of conducting-type instead of being born a Transmutationist Conductor, she would’ve kissed this city goodbye a long time ago. Imagine that. Being able to conduct vitae in a way that didn’t fall into any of the normal five categories. Not a Transmutationist, a Projector, a Conjurer, an Elementalist, nor a Manipulator. But a Specialist .

“Between me and you, doc.” Cadence raised a brow. “I reckon my psychological state is a lot better than the state of your other patients. If you can call ‘em that.”

“Oh dear, Cadence.” The doctor sighed as he placed a tender hand to his heart. “Are you implying that I don’t see my patients as patients?”

“I ain’t implyin’. I’m clearly statin’,” Cadence returned with a crooked grin before she laughed and raised her hands. “I’m jokin’. I’m jokin’. I’d be dead six times over if it weren’t for you.”

The doctor smiled. “Well, it looks like you’re feeling better now.”

Cadence rolled her neck and shrugged. “Well, I’m alive and kickin’, so—”

“—you’re much luckier than other patrons in that bar. It seems as if the Family retrieved you just in time. Unlike the others.”

Cadence paused and then rubbed the back of her neck and tapped her foot. “I see. Sounds like I got a lot of work cut out for me then.” She let out a dramatic sigh and hung her head. “Can’t a gal catch a break?”

“If it makes you feel any better, Nico called.”

Cadence perked up. “Ya mean he’s on his way back?”

The doctor shook his head. “He did ask you to call him back though. You can use the phone outside.”

“Is that your way of tellin’ me to get out of your office, doc?” Cadence raised a brow. “I did nearly die, y’know. Y’sure I shouldn’t hang around here a little bit longer just in case? I know you’re the best in the business, but still. What if I pass out?”

“If you pass out, then come back,” the doctor replied. “You know that I’m only interested in injured people.”

* * *

The phone booth outside of the room was, to put it eloquently, a piece of crap. Its wooden casing was so chipped that parts of it jutted out like jagged teeth. The nails that kept the wood in place were also popping up like weeds. The phone itself was covered in a thick layer of dust. Made sense. People didn’t make appointments with the doc. They dropped in whenever they had a foot in the grave.

Cadence picked up the receiver and placed it to her ear. She twirled the cord around her index finger and said into the mouthpiece, “Operator, connect me to the line that was called last from this one.”

As the line rang, she thrummed her fingers along the surface of the booth and grimaced when a splinter pricked the tip of her pointer.

“…. Cadence?” A voice cracked out from the speaker.

Cadence felt a smile crack across her face. “How goes it on the front lines, soldier?”

“That’s not funny,” came the quiet response. “People are dyin’ out here, Cadence.”

“People die everywhere, Nico,” Cadence said matter-of-factly. When a silence fell over the conversation, she grimaced. “It’s that bad, huh?”

“Yeah… We managed to deliver the shipment to the Aquarians three days ago, but just the other day they got caught up with the Capricornians—”

“Whoa, whoa,” Cadence shouted, straightening herself. “You’re okay, aren’t ya? Ya didn’t get caught up—”

“No, no, I’m fine.”

“That’s a relief.”

Cadence considered telling him about her recent near-death experience but thought better of it. The entire ordeal seemed like something that was better kept on the down low.

“It’s good to hear your voice, Cadence,” Nico said.

“Yeah, right back at ya. Don’t get all sappy on me again. And no need to worry about that other stuff.” Cadence waved him off. “It’s not your battle, Nico. Just hurry up and get out of there, okay?”

The line crackled with static.

Cadence pulled away from the phone and shook it a bit before pressing it back up to her ear. “Hello? Nico?”

“Werner, what’s wrong?”

Cadence did a double take. “Who the hell is Werner?”

“What?” came Nico’s voice. “Werner? Who’s that?”

Cadence pulled back from the receiver and stared at it. She shook her head and pressed the phone back to her ear. “Nothin’. Never mind. Think we accidentally crossed someone else’s line.”

“Really? I didn’t hear anything.”

“It was only for a sec.” Cadence waved him off again. “Anyway, come home quick, aight? Don’t get caught up in complicated things, Nico.”

* * *

When Cadence stepped back out onto the streets of the city she knew like the back of her hand, she took in a deep breath and tasted salt from the nearby ocean port and soot from the nearby conductor manufacturing plant. She spat soon afterward.

Here, in this backwater alleyway where the buildings stretched upwards to unbelievable heights, she could barely see the sky above her head. It was just a crack of white up there. Too far to reach.

She was back in her usual wear now. A simple and loose suit topped with her favorite hat. Dark maroon in color because it got the blood going and it complemented her freckles and copper hair.

She turned and prepared to walk down the alleyway when she noticed a group standing at the mouth of it. They were looking at her. A trio of them. A trio of men wearing suits. From left to right the suits went from dark green to dark red to dark blue. From left to right the men went from thin to bulky.

“You could at least look a little bit happier to see us,” the one who wore the maroon suit and who stood at the center said in an almost musical voice. He then reached into his suit pocket and pulled out a slender, cylindrical object no larger than his index finger. He gave it a quick flick of the wrist, and the tip of it lit a glowing orange. Taking a drag from the unlit end, he studied her.

“Well, excuse me for not jumpin’ for joy when I saw you, Francis. Not to be rude, but usually, when you guys show up, someone’s about to die.” Cadence shrugged and offered a lopsided smile as she closed the distance between them. “It was almost me this time.” She leaned forward and pressed the tip of her ringed index finger against the bud of the v-cigarette. A familiar copper light bled out from her ring and pooled onto the cig. The light-coated cigarette then took on a different shape—a curve there, a sprout here, a blossom there. By the time the light faded, the cigarette had taken on the form of a white lily.

“And I’m glad it wasn’t.” Francis smiled in amusement. “We were hoping to accompany you to Cavallo’s place.”

Cadence pulled her finger away from the tip of the cig. The copper light blinked again before cracking and receding from both her hand and the cigarette. The cig took back its original shape—the illusion broken.

“Huh?” She frowned. “What for?”

“The Romano Family’s personal associate was nearly killed,” the blue suit provided. “How would the Foxmans look if we ignored this transgression against our closest ally?”

This was a lie. Cadence knew. Or maybe a half-truth.

“The explosion happened on our turf, Cadence,” Francis explained after giving the blue-suit a look. “You know Cadence is a human lie detector, Allen.”

That was right. The TwinStars Pub was one of the Foxmans’ joints. They had many of these bars sprinkled throughout both the left and the right of the Twin Cities, but this one in particular was one of their most famous. But while all patrons knew who held ownership of these bars, but very few knew that the bars were in fact just a simple cover for the Foxmans’ real business.

Allen didn’t so much as shrug. “I thought she might be off of her game.”

“Well, it is a matter of turf,” Francis muttered after a pause. “But it also is a matter of connections.” And here, Francis’s expression darkened. “The fact that someone thinks they can harm a childhood friend of the Foxmans’ without retaliation just goes to show how soft we’ve become. Something we need to fix.”

Cadence whistled before inclining her head. “Shall we?”

And so, they walked as a quartet out the alleyway and onto the open streets. The roads here were narrow, allowing only one v-ehicle to roll along at a time. The sidewalks were wide enough to hold a pool table lengthwise but were still filled to the brim. The congested streets were something Cadence was in fact fond of. It was easy to blend in.

“So,” Cadence drawled as they walked along the path, “anything interesting happened since I nearly kicked the bucket?”

“Someone tried to assassinate the prince of Aries,” the green suit supplied nonchalantly.

Cadence stopped in her tracks and whipped her head around. “You serious, Carl?”

“With a bow conductor of all things,” Francis clarified. “Word is that the arrow was shot by an Elementalist Conductor.” He took another drag. “Fire.” And another drag. “Anyway, the whole kingdom’s been in the fritz about it. To think that an Ariesian may have made the attempt… Can trust themselves as much as they trust their neighbors.”

“I’ll never understand monarchies.” Carl shook his head. “All this ruckus just ‘cause some kid got shot.”

“It’s important this ruckus gets resolved quickly,” Allen grumbled. “Aries and Gemini are strong trading partners. They provide us with most of the material for Ricardo’s modified conductors. We’re losing money by the second.”

“Still,” Carl huffed.

“What, Carl?” Cadence raised a brow. “Don’t like the idea of bendin’ over backward for someone and swearin’ fealty?”

“And you would?” Carl returned.

“Course.” Cadence laughed. “No point in hidin’ it.” She raised her ringed-fingers up and rubbed them together. “Just give me a nice sum, and I’ll swear my loyalty to you, my liege.” She gave a deep and mocking bow.

“Pretty sure any king or queen you serve under’d be bankrupt one week after you joined their ranks,” Allen said.

“And I’d be filthy rich.” Cadence chortled.

* * *

They reached their destination five minutes later. It was a small building wedged between a flower shop and a bookstore. The sign on top of the building read ‘Sagittarian Tea Shop’. And if one peered into the large open windows of the building, they would see just that.

Jars of tea leaves and other herbs and roots lined the back wall of the shop. In front of this collection was a counter manned by a balding man who looked of Sagittarian descent. At the counter was a balancing scale and a cash register. Perfectly normal and upstanding.

Every time Cadence came to this place, she’d have to force herself to suppress her laughter.

Appearances were—

—everything, after all.

Wait, what?

“Everything?” Cadence frowned. “They’re deceivin’ is what they are.”

“Cadence?”

Cadence blinked and found the Foxman brothers staring at her from the door. She glanced left and then right as a chill crawled up her spine. What was this feeling? Like she was being watched. But there were too many people walking back and forth to tell from where. No, that wasn’t it. It felt as if she was being watched from everywhere. Left, right, up, down. Outside, within .

Instead of addressing the subject, however, she pulled up a bright smile and dusted off her shoulders. “Gotta prepare myself ta face the devil, y’know?”

* * *

When she entered the tea store with the Foxmans, an intense wave of earthy scents greeted her. Root, herb, leaf, branch. Dirt. It was poignant, to say the least. Foreign scents that didn’t belong this deep into the city.

Cadence walked up to the counter and tapped the scales. “I’d like twenty-five grams of morrowheat, please.”

The Sagittarian stared at the four of them for a beat before heading to the back of the store. Without hesitation, they followed him past the curtain hanging next to the herbal displays and into the backroom that lay beyond. They were led up a long staircase and down a hall that opened into a larger room.

The room had wooden floorboards covered by a royal-red carpet. At the center of the rug sat a square table manned by six chairs. A burly, thick man with a balding head and a thick beard lounged at one of them. He had on a black dress shirt and a pair of pin-striped slacks. At his wrist gleamed several bracelets studded with gems. He wore a gaunt expression that made it look as if he’d just come from a funeral.

At the opposite end of the room was an oak desk piled with neatly stacked papers. A man stood behind this desk with his hands folded just as neatly behind him. He wore a white button-up shirt and a white pair of dress pants. His hair was a snowy white as well, and his skin was as pale as the rest of his clothing. It was difficult to see, with the lightness of his skin, the wrinkles that graced his features. The white knight to her black knight.

“I see you’re well, Cadence,” the man in white said as he turned his blue eyes on them. The monocle above his left eye glinted in the dull overhead lights.

“Define ‘well’.” Cadence raised a brow. “Honestly, I should be restin’ up somewhere nice instead of havin’ ta book it here.”

“I see you brought the Foxmans with you,” Cavallo continued, ignoring Cadence’s comment. He offered out his hand and gave each brother a firm shake. “As always, it’s a pleasure doing business with you. Without your control over the ports, we would never be able to ship out our conductors. It is a shame that one of your establishments was destroyed in this incident.” He gestured to the chairs. “Please, sit.”

The Foxmans obliged.

“Thanks for having us, Cavallo,” Francis said as he flicked his wrist and put out his v-cig, which he then tucked away in his pocket. “How’s Ricardo doing?”

“Our boss is doing just fine,” Cavallo returned. “Although, he sends his condolences for your establishment.”

“Which is why we’re here,” Allen provided.

“Look,” the burly, balding man who sat across from the brothers sighed. “Your joint got busted. It sucks. I understand. But you’re gonna be wastin’ your breath lookin’ into it. It was probably just some drunk punk who got a little bit too handsy with a conductor of the explosive variety.”

“I think it’s more than that, Verga,” Cadence ruminated. She lifted her hat to scratch the back of her head before leaning back against the wall behind her. She crossed her arms. “Yeah, it’d be too much of a coincidence if it was just that.”

“A coincidence?” Cavallo turned to her.

“I’m thinkin’ someone’s got an aim here.” Cadence nodded. “I mean, look, everyone knows that that joint belonged to the Foxmans. No one in their right mind’d hit the place up even if they were wasted.” She ran her fingers along the brim of her hat. “And then there’s the fact that we were just about to nab the guy who’s been weedin’ out some of the Romano Family business.”

“What’re you implying, Cadence?” Francis threw a look back at her.

Cadence shrugged. “Looks like someone wanted to silence him.”

“That’s just an assumption,” Verga grumbled.

“It’s intuition ,” Cadence returned. “There’s a difference.”

“And that’s what your intuition is telling you? That there’s more to this?” A smile wrinkled Cavallo’s wrinkles. “How about you take point on this then, Cadence? Look into this matter for us. Find out who set off the explosion. A favor from the Romanos to the Foxmans. Pay will be included, of course, Cadence.”

Cadence pulled her scowl up into a grin. “‘Course, my liege.”

* * *

Going door to door asking questions about who saw who when and where and why was exhausting after having pulled through a near-death experience. It didn’t help so much that only one out of her three companions was any good at speaking to people. Then again, Allen was the one who handled the monetary issues and Carl was the one who dealt with their goons and underlings. Not many social skills were needed for those sorts of things.

After they made their final rounds around the block housing the burnt remains of the tavern, the Foxmans were approached by one of their underlings. There was something mentioned about one of their ships leaving the port off schedule. It sounded serious enough to make Francis lose the melodic quality in his voice. And so, they parted ways.

Cadence watched them go with a wave before she headed in the opposite direction. Slipping her hands into her pockets, she weaved through the streets and walkways with a hum. Soon the cement sidewalks bled into cobblestone paths and the high-rise buildings shrank down to two-tiered apartments with stucco walls.

The skyline stretched high above her head. The sun hung low on the horizon but was hidden by a long bridge that stretched far into the distance.

The Dioscuri Bridge. The bridge that connected the left and the right side of the Twin Cities. It rose up in a great arch above the Castor River that cut the city in two and emptied out into the Pollux Bay. At night, sometimes the city officials would activate the generator conductor wired into the bridge and cast illusions of light across it.

Cadence made out a stream of smoke passing above the bridge. The v-train. If she strained her ears, she bet that she could make out its clicks and clacks and its bellowing horn as it pulled into the station. She’d always imagined herself sitting on that train. Watching the Twin Cities flit past below her window. Of course, she’d be on the train leaving the city, not the one that was arriving to it. A pleasant daydream—

Bam!

A small, frail body collided with her own and sent her stumbling backward. When she righted herself, an adolescent no older than thirteen stared back at her with wide, round, black eyes. A boy. Unruly brown hair framed his face and barely concealed a scar that ran from his left temple to his right cheek.

“Sorry, sir, sorry.” The boy bowed his head. He bent down to pick up her hat that had fallen to the ground and handed it out to her.

She accepted it but held it there. “No problem, kid.”

“Really,” he said, retracting his hand. He turned to leave. “I’m really sor—”

She grabbed his retreating hand and jerked him toward her. Out from his pants pocket fell a familiar object. Her wallet. The boy’s eyes widened as he blinked up at her with a startled expression. An expression which became horrified as she took on his appearance in a burst of copper light with a snap of her ringed fingers.

Holding him in place, she bent down to pick up her wallet. She then pried open his hands and emptied its contents out onto his palm. Ten cens. Enough to buy three drinks at any bar.

“I’m really sorry,” she said, mimicking his voice, “but I’m not stupid enough to carry a lot of money with me on these streets.”

The boy stared at her wide-eyed, wordless.

She sighed and released him as she snapped her fingers and shattered the transmutation. She then waved him off absentmindedly. “Get a move on, kid. And try to pickpocket someone who doesn’t look broke next time.”

The kid opened his mouth to retort but paused. He then pulled the coins close to his chest and took off down the street without another word.

Sighing, Cadence continued her path down the cobblestone walkway until she reached her most frequented place in the city. A small building only one story tall. A wooden sign was placed in its singular square window. Sognare, bar and tunes.

Shrugging her shoulders, Cadence entered.

The bar was dimly lit and empty. The bartender didn’t even look up from his busywork of cleaning glassware when she entered. With a whistle, she slipped past the round tables that dotted the floor and made her way to the very back where a stage had been raised on a platform. She hopped up onto the platform and approached the large, grand piano that stood tall there.

It was a beautiful thing. Black and white keys made of ivory. A polished shine. Dusted religiously.

Her fingers itched for the keys. They longed for them. Even if the person she’d played for was no longer present.

Cadence gently placed her fingertips on their desired destination and pressed down. A shrill chord rang out.

“That’s a lovely piano.”

Cadence started, turned, and found someone standing at the very edge of the stage beneath the spotlight.

It was a young woman wrapped in a bright green dress that looked like it was made of silk. The top of her dress was a mesh of colorful beadwork that wrapped all the way around her neck. Her dark skin seemed to bring out the vibrancy of the colors, and her dark eyes reflected the dim lights coming from the bar in an eerie way. Her cheekbones were high, and her lashes long. In other words—

“Doll,” Cadence cracked a grin as she drew off her hat, “ you’re lovely.”

A thin smile broke across the woman’s features, and she hid it with her hand.

“What’s someone like you doin’ in a place like this?” Cadence continued.

“Sir…” the bartender called out in the distance.

“And what is ‘this place,’ exactly?” the woman returned. Her brows were arched, and her eyes glimmered with mischief. She glanced around as she drew her arms around her waist.

“Well.” Cadence scratched the back of her head. “Ya tellin’ me ya entered this place without even knowin—”

“Sir, who are you talking to?” Finally, the bartender raised his voice loud enough to cut into their conversation.

What a spoiler.

Cadence frowned at the bartender before gesturing back to the woman. “What do you mean? I’m—”

The space she was gesturing to was empty. A spotlight on an empty stage.

There it was again. That itching feeling. Like she was being watched.

“I’m… losing my mind,” Cadence concluded.


Transmutationist: a Conductor who falls in one of the five general conducting-type categories. Transmutationists tend to be versatile. Most are able to utilize vitae extraneously, but there are some Transmutationists who are able to utilize vitae intraneously. Transmutationists are able to directly manipulate the vitae particles within objects. Thus they are able to change the form of objects by breaking apart and rejoining the vitae particles within those objects. They tend to mostly find occupations in the medical field. Transmutation of currency is outlawed*.

Conducting 101 by L.B. Ran with an addendum* by the Literary Department of Ophiuchus 

1.1: Chance Connection

Re-cap:

Ariesian Prince Olivier Chance, while attempting to escape what he deemed as a useless and boring lecture, has been shot by an Elementalist’s fire-laced arrow.
The last thought on his mind was death, and the last person he saw was a mysterious young girl who watched him fall.


New Ram City, Aries

― death?

Olive woke up gagging on nothing, gripping his left hand as if it were on the trigger of a gun, and blinking away nonexistent tears from his eyes. He shot up only to double over and empty his stomach over the side of the bed. Or at least he tried to. Nothing came out.

Had he been poisoned…?

No—

The fire!

No.

What?

He winced and grabbed his shoulder. He winced even harder at the dull pain that followed the touch. Right. The arrow. He’d been shot by an arrow with vitae flames. He glanced down and found the area wrapped in bandages. It looked as if they’d gotten him to a medical Conductor.

He blinked blearily around the room.

Scarlet drapes hung from the window that opened to his left. The light falling in from the sun graced the large, oaken closet on the opposite side of the room but did not manage to reach the desk at the left corner. The item that received the full brunt of the sun was the birdcage that stood tall at the room’s center, right in front of his bed. Inside it fluttered a blackbird which turned its neck to him and tweeted.

He glared at it in turn. “What do you think you’re looking at?”

A chiming laugh rang out to his right, startling him. There she was, propped up on her elbows near his head. Her dark hair formed a halo across his blanket.

He sighed. “That’s some way to greet your brother who nearly got impaled by an arrow, Lavi.”

“You didn’t nearly get impaled by an arrow,” Lavi returned. “You were impaled by one.”

“That makes your reaction much, much worse.”

They stared at each other for a long minute before an expression of relief broke across her face. The expression was followed by an eruption of tears, cascading down her flushed cheeks like a waterfall.

“I’m glad you’re okay!” she cried as she threw her arms around him. “Don’t you get shot again, do you hear me? You idiot!”

Olive stiffened in her hold before he returned the hug and patted her head. “It’s not like I chose to get shot, Lavi. Jeez, were you always such a crybaby?”

Lavi pulled back with a glare. Before she could snap at him, the oak doors next to his closet swung open. At the threshold stood a man and woman wrapped in royal red garments interlaced with twisting gold thread.

“Uncle! Auntie!” Lavi piped as she pulled away from him.

“Olive!” the woman cried. In an instant, she closed the distance between them. She threw her arms around Olive’s neck before pulling back to examine his face. She turned his face over with her calloused fingers before hesitantly reaching for his bandaged shoulder. “The medical Conductor said you’d make a fast recovery, but… how are you feeling?”

“I’m fine.”

He studied his aunt as she studied him. Her straw-colored hair was tied up into a graceful bun. The years had creased wrinkles at the corner of her drooping green eyes—unnervingly greener than his own—and just beneath those eyes were deep and dark circles. The sight of them made his stomach churn.

His uncle approached him next and looked him over with scrutiny. His narrow, gray eyes were also accented by dark circles, while his dark hair was peppered with gray and silver. His long face was gaunt and hollowed out by stress and time.

“We’ll double the security around the mansion and quadruple security around your quarters,” he finally said. “The Investigation Bureau is mobilized as we speak. I just requested Ophiuchus’s assistance as well. Until we find out the culprit, I want you to stay within the estate. I told your professors at the university that you’ll be taking a leave of absence until you recover.”

Olive opened his mouth to protest but realized nothing would come of it and instead offered a nod. His uncle studied him for a long moment before resting his hand on his wife’s shoulder.

“Terra, can I speak to Olive alone for a moment?” his uncle pressed in a quiet voice.

Terra’s brow furrowed, and her eyes narrowed. Olive recalled stories regaling her as ‘The Blaze of the North.’ There were legends about her time on the battlefield during the war. She had been younger then. Lively—at least until the Tragedy—scorching everything with a flick of her conductor. Briefly, Olive wondered if she’d do the same to him. But then she released him from her hold, placing one last hand at his cheek before pulling back and heading out the door.

That left the three of them. Great. Olive side-glanced at his sister, who shrugged at him while biting her lower lip.

“The guards told me it looked like you saw the arrow coming.” His uncle sat down at his bedside. “The arrow—it’s the only lead we have.”

It took all of Olive’s willpower not to bury his head into his blankets.

“Olivier, I would’ve rather had you burn that arrow to a crisp and be unharmed and with nothing to investigate than to have you hurt.”

His uncle didn’t understand at all.

Olive stared into the birdcage in front of him. The blackbird hopped around and fluttered its wings, the sheen of its feathers catching the sunlight in a way that made it look ablaze. Like a phoenix , came the thought. If only.

“And your behavior at the university is…”

Out of the corner of his eye, Olive could see his uncle reach for him. Olive turned to face him fully and watched as the man retracted his hand. If Olive would’ve cared enough, he would’ve laughed. Instead, he held his uncle’s gaze and watched as the man gave a nod and departed from the room—

“Rest well.”

And that left the two of them.

“They’re worried about you, Ollie,” Lavi said from beside him as she pulled closer. “You have to talk to them.”

“I don’t have to. It’s not like talking will do anything.” Olive grunted, swung his legs over his bed, and stared at the dirt floor that was dusted with gravel and slick with rain.

Wait—dirt floor? Rain?

He blinked.

The normal wooden floorboards of his room stared back at him.

He shook his head.

Raising a brow at his sister, he swept past the cage and made his way to the door. He cracked it open and peered around the hall. He only just managed to throw a glance to the right when the door was yanked open and he found himself face-to-face with a bulging set of bare arms and a pair of piercing blue eyes.

“Where do you think you’re going, Prince?”

It was Alexander Charming, dressed in the red uniform of a royal guard—minus, the sleeves. How he managed to pass royal guard inspection, Olive didn’t know. Probably because of how meticulously he polished his golden buttons or how pristinely shined he kept the medals that gleamed at his chest.

That aside, Charming was someone who lived up to his name. Spiked blonde-hair, dimpled cheeks, broad shoulders, etcetera. A cylindrical, black conductor hung with grandiosity at his waist for all to see. A melee-class mode, probably. Charming always did enjoy facing things head-on. Usually, hot-blooded people like him irritated Olive. But Olive thought Alexander was a decent human being. More decent than a lot of the people around the mansion. Still, he loathed Alexander’s name. No, he felt pity for Alexander’s name. ‘Charming’? Really? It was a lot to live up to—that name.

“Look, if they really wanted to kill me, they would’ve used a better weapon than a bow conductor.” Olive sighed.

“If they didn’t want to kill you, they wouldn’t have tried to shoot you in the first place,” Alexander returned. There was guilt lining the corners of his false smile.

Olive didn’t quite understand it. It wasn’t Alexander’s fault. Sure, he’d been the one stationed to guard Olive at the time, but Olive had given him the slip. Really , Olive thought, people who cared too much just had to be masochists . There was no other explanation for them to put all their eggs into one basket, even with the knowledge that the basket might be smashed to a yolky pulp in one go.

Olive frowned at the odd line of thought. Where had that come from?

Shaking it off, Olive opened his mouth to retort but stopped short when he noticed there was an unannounced man standing just behind Alexander. The man had on a thick coat which obscured much of his tanned skin. Even so, Olive could tell that the man was rather lean. His hair was dark and jagged, his eyes a bright hazel. At his waist hung what appeared to be two pairs of curved conductors. What kind they were and what conducting type the man wielded—Olive did not know. The man looked young though. Maybe a year or two older than Olive himself.

“Oh, right,” Alexander said, inclining his head. “This is Trystan Carter. He was just indoctrinated into the royal army from the academy.”

Trystan stepped forward. Stiff, proper. He gave a deep bow. Stiff and proper. Olive hated these types, too. Behind the professionalism, there was deep-rooted two-facedness and desperation. Desperation to rise in the ranks, desperation to please.

Olive glanced at Alexander.

“He passed his State Conductor Exam with flying colors,” Alexander explained. “Top ten from the pool of those completing it this month. He interviewed well too, despite his strong opinions on the Ariesian government… so now he’ll be serving as royal guar—”

“Oh.” Olive hummed. “Couldn’t make it into the top five, huh?”

Trystan bristled. His head snapped up, his lips forming the beginning of what would probably be a profane shout. But then his eyes widened, and he cleared his throat before giving a curt nod. “Yes, unfortunately not, sir.”

Olive was disappointed at the response. Alexander looked exasperated.

“Don’t mind him, Trystan,” Alexander said. “Prince Chance enjoys testing newcomers. His bark is worse than his bite.” A laugh. “Actually, I don’t think he can even bite!”

Olive resisted rolling his eyes and stared down the opposite end of the hall.

“Anyways,” Alexander continued. “You should be resting, Your Highness—”

Olive didn’t listen to the rest because something else caught his attention. Distantly, he heard an odd sound he couldn’t quite place. A click-clacking that rang in his ears. Paired with it was a low rumbling that was finished off with a low, bellowing groan.

What?

Olive frowned. Trained his ears.

Was that…. a train horn?

“I’m worried about you, Jericho—”

Huh?

Olive started and turned. Both Alexander and Trystan stared back at him. The two royal guards exchanged looks.

“Is everything all right, sir?” Trystan asked. “You’re being quiet.”

Olive felt himself frown. “What do you mean? That sound—”

Alexander stared at him. “What sound?”

Olive prepared to retort but thought better of it. It didn’t really matter, did it?

“Never mind. I’ll be in bed then,” he said, slipping back into his room.

He closed the door behind him before either man could respond and headed to his closet. He threw it open and changed out of his sleepwear into casual clothing. A loose shirt, a loose pair of shorts. Over this, he threw on a cloak and pulled the hood of it over his head.

“What are you doing, Ollie?” Lavi asked.

“Leaving.”

“But—”

He sighed. “I’ll come back before they notice I’m even gone.” Like always.

Before she could say another word, he was climbing out the window.

* * *

The heart of New Ram City was noisy as usual. The streets were filled with v-ehicles rolling alongside walkways dotted with ambling pedestrians. Pedestrians who would pause to peruse the clustered, open-stall stores that appeared every few blocks.

The sun beat down on everyone and everything mercilessly. The smallest of movements would induce sweat. A glance upward would cause temporary blindness. Such was the weather of Aries.

All the stalls had roofs or cloth canvases pulled over them and all the people had hoods pulled over their heads or sun-umbrellas twirling in their hands. In Aries, those items were common wear. To be seen without one or the other would be labeling oneself as a foreigner.

A couple blocks ahead, a v-ehicle swerved onto the walkway and nearly took out a fruit stall. The stall owner catapulted red, ripe fruit at the v-ehicle as it sped away.

Olive didn’t quite understand why so many people bought into the v-ehicle fad. They required extensive use of vitae to power their engines. Whether the driver provided the vitae or a plugged-in, clunky generator conductor did, it still left much to be desired. There was word of a new prototype hitting the markets, however, which functioned with a built-in generator conductor one could refuel at vr-stations.

Olive was skeptical. He had the chance to glance over the prototype blueprints when they’d been handed over to the feudal lord who was the chair of Conductor Development in Aries. It was a pipe dream, for sure. To condense a conductor down to such a small size yet keep its ability to power an engine was practically impossible. Even v-trains had generator conductors that were behemoth in size and had to be refueled every couple hundred miles. Besides, only licensed Conductors could operate them. The market for such things was tiny.

Useless thoughts, Olive realized. Brushing them aside, he continued down the walkway under the blazing heat. It was past noon so the humidity that blanketed the air was especially suffocating. If he pressed his palm against the brick wall to his left, he would burn his hand.

He shivered.

Olive stopped short in confusion—

Was he… cold?

—and shivered more as nausea overtook him.

Appearances are everything. Deceiving. Nothing left to chance. Wondering. The world is mine to explore. Never let go. 

Olive broke off from the stream of pedestrian traffic and leaned against the wall of a nearby deli stall. Several passersby gave him odd looks, but he didn’t care for them. What he did care for was taming the headache that now screamed from temple to temple.

Squeezing his eyes shut, he turned and pressed his forehead against the sun-bleached wall behind him. The effect was immediate. The heat seeped into his skin and radiated down his neck and through his spine. When he opened his eyes, the pain was gone along with the nausea that came with it. Like it was never there to begin with.

Well, that was unpleasant.

But it was what it was. There was no use wondering about it. If it happened again, it happened again. If it didn’t, then it didn’t.

Olive peeled away from the wall and continued onward. His destination was a small square store that rested in a cul-de-sac a little deeper into the city.

When he entered the store, he was greeted by familiar sounds and sights. A grinding of metal against metal, and an eruption of sparks. Gears, nuts, and bolts littered the floor, and scraps of metal filled the corners of the room. A smog hung low in the room, obscuring nearly everything in sight. The barely visible counter of the reception desk was a faulty barrier to the smoke that streamed out from the back of the shop.

Olive walked up to the counter and pulled out a stool to sit. It was five minutes before a wiry young woman with frizzy brown hair emerged from the cloud of smoke. She had on a pair of overalls that were stained with grease and a pair of goggles that she lifted from her face when she drew nearer.

“What in saint’s name are you doing here?” she asked. “News is you got shot.”

Olive pulled down his shirt and gestured to his bandaged shoulder. It stung with the effort, but he ignored it.

“And you decided to come here instead of kicking back at your mansion?” She threw her head back with a laugh. “I’ll never understand you.”

And that was what Olive liked about her. She didn’t understand him, and she said it clearly. She didn’t hide words or pull back. She was straightforward to the T . Nothing hidden, nothing falsely promised.

“Unfortunately, I’ve got a lot of orders today. Bless our ancestors—finally! What with the rumor of modified conductors being passed around in the black markets, who’d want to have a conductor made old-fashioned style? Plus, I need to make some finishing touches to my project.” She picked up a wrench on the counter and swung it back and forth. “Anyways, the point is that I’ve got nothing for you to tinker with today.”

Olive raised his brows and gave her three slow claps.

“You could be a little more enthusiastic for me.” She rolled her eyes before pulling her goggles back on. With that, she headed back into the haze of smoke, lifting her hand up in farewell. “You can catch a wink here, though, if that mansion if yours is too high class for you.”

Olive stared after her and considered the offer. Before he could accept or reject, however, the door behind him creaked open. In came two figures.

The first was a young man with jet-black hair and cat-like eyes. A light blue cloak was thrown over his head and hid the rest of his features. It looked expensive. Like it was made out of silk. Must be wealthy, Olive surmised. Odd to see a person like that here.

The young man glanced at him before bowing his head and taking a chair that had been propped up alongside the wall.

And the second figure—

“Ollie!”

His sister. She quickly closed the distance between them with crossed arms.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

She looked insulted at the question. “Why wouldn’t I be?” She studied him. “What about you?” She side-glanced at the young man. “Should you really be here? What if someone tries to—”

“Right, right. I was going to take a nap,” he interjected with a raised brow. “And if someone tries something, let them.” He paused before nodding over toward the couch that lined the wall opposite of the young man. In a gentle voice, he said, “You look tired. You should rest. We’ll head home after, okay?”

“Fine…” She pouted, arms crossed.

He watched as she begrudgingly sauntered over to the couch before he glanced at the young man across from her. The young man was frowning at him with an arched brow.

“Are you talking to me?” His voice came out in lightly accented Common.

Olive stared at him long and hard. The man returned the expression without falter.

“No,” Olive returned. Before the young man had a chance to reply, Olive rested his head back down on the counter and crossed his arms across his stomach. As he listened to the drone of metal against metal in the background, he drifted off.

He wondered, as sleep claimed him, if he should be more alarmed by his circumstances. His headache. His hallucinations. His apparent break from reality. All after nearly being shot dead by a Conductor. A Conductor-slash-assassin. 

He figured any normal person would head to a Specialist medical Conductor right away. But he didn’t find any of it strange or alarming. Why? Because he’d been cracked in the head for these past six years already. Because his sister who had died at the start of those six years was sitting behind him.


Elementalist: a Conductor who falls into one of the five general conducting-type categories. Elementalists who are able to wield vitae intraneously utilize the vitae within themselves to generate the elements at their disposal. Those who are able to wield vitae extraneously are able to manipulate the hard vitae particles found in specific elements of the natural outside world. The recorded elements that Elementalists are able to generate or manipulate are the following: fire, water, air, earth.

Conducting 101 by L.B. Ran

0.5, 0.6: Chieftain’s Daughter, Peacekeeper


Vitae: a source of luminescent energy harvested by the countries of Signum. It is composed of vitae particles. It is channeled through devices called conductors and can be used to power countries and to power weapons. It is split into categories: soft vitae which is living vitae and hard vitae which is non-living vitae. 

Vitae Basics by P.C. Sies

Virgoan Chieftain’s Daughter, Atienna Imamu

They were arguing again.

Atienna watched them as they slammed their fists against the tablecloth and pointed their utensils at each other’s throats. Despite their raised voices, they did not draw the eyes of those seated around them. It was difficult to hear anyone in this large dining hall, after all. The clay walls that rose around them ended in an arch above their heads—an arch that threw back their voices tenfold. A whisper became a shout. A pleasant comment, a booming exclamation.

Needless to say, with ten families lining the long white table to her left and another ten families to her right, the entire room was filled with an almost headache-inducing cacophony. Paired alongside the idle words of conversation were the clicks and clacks of spoons against porcelain bowls and knives against clay plates.

Atienna glanced back down at the book she’d hidden under the cloth. It rested on her lap, open, beckoning her to delve into its pages once more. One more page, it said. If not that, one more paragraph. Or one more sentence.

It was difficult to read in this dimly lit hall. The only light present came from the streams of vitae that ran parallel along the floors beside the wall. At the bank of those glowing vitae grew vibrant star-shaped flowers and twisting vines. These rivers ran out from the building to a large vitae pool outside and continued out from this pool into a river reaching all the way to their neighboring country of Gemini.

Legend had it that their Ancestor Virgo had purposefully built the dining hall around these vitae streams. For what reason? Atienna wondered quite often. Perhaps it was to not disturb the natural order of things. Or perhaps it was for something else.

“What do we look like now that we’ve chosen to do nothing?!”

Atienna slowly lifted her gaze to her brother sitting across from her. Despite the brightly woven and beautifully patterned yellow and green formal robes he wore, he looked anything but elegant and courtly. His eyes were wide and irate, his dark skin glistening with sweat.

“The Sagittarians were our allies during the Reservoir War! How can you agree with the Council’s decision to deny their request for aid?”

“You just said it! We were allies during the war! The war is over!” the young woman beside him snapped, shaking her head so hard that her high, cone-shaped headdress nearly fell straight from her head. “You want to support another war effort?!”

“It’s not a war effort!” An aggravated sigh. “They’re trying to avoid being pulled into those skirmishes between Capricorn and Aquarius. They only seek peace and to protect their people.”

“So, you would have us risk our own people for theirs?”

A pause. “You have no heart, Safiyah!”

“You have no head, Bachiru.”

And then Safiyah and Bachiru laid their eyes on her.

Oh, bother.

Atienna shut her book and awaited the full brunt of their words, the storm of breathless shouts, the demands. And come they did.

“Atienna, talk some sense into your brother!” Safiyah pressed, swinging her fork in Bachiru’s direction. “He’s been hanging around Usian for far too long. That man has clouded your brother’s empty head with foolishness!”

“Atienna,” Bachiru retorted, fending her fork off with a fork of his own, “talk some sense into your friend! She knows nothing of empathy or sympathy! She has sold her heart to some devil!”

Atienna glanced between them and waited a beat. She could hear their heavy panting amidst the lull in heated conversation.

“Bachiru,” she addressed her brother first, “if you feel so strongly about this, why don’t you take it to the Council instead of wearing yourself out here? Our father is a chieftain on the Council, isn’t he? Is it not better to speak to him about these things?”

Bachiru opened his mouth to retort, and Safiyah did as well. Their faces were creased with confusion. She could read their thoughts like the pages from her book—’whose side was she on?’

“Safiyah,” she addressed her friend next. “The Council has already made their decision, and it’s a decision that coincides with your beliefs. And you and I both know that Bachiru is too stubborn to ever change his opinion.” She smiled gently, almost sheepishly. “Forgive me, but I’m having a hard time understanding exactly why this argument is happening to begin with. You’ve disagreed about this subject with members from other tribes, but I’ve never seen you reach this level of anger.” After a pause, her smile turned impish. “Unless there’s another reason for this…”

Their brows furrowed with confusion and then rose with realization. They tried a glance in each other’s direction but paused halfway, settling back into their chairs before busily shoving their mouths with the spiced rice, jerky, and mashed yam.

Offering an even more impish smile, Atienna gently opened her book on her lap again and thanked the server as he came over to refill her glass with wine. She lifted the glass up to her lips and took a sip as she turned the page. The next chapter. Finally.

She blinked.

That was odd.

The words were a bit hard to read. Fuzzy. Out of focus.

“Atienna…?”

Now, everything seemed out of focus. The noise around her. The movements of her brother and friend across the table. Her own movements.

The wine glass slipped from her fingertips and shattered onto the floor in a great explosion of red, translucent petals. She followed it to the ground a moment after. As she lay cold on her back, she blinked up at the archways in confusion and studied the intricate designs carved there centuries ago. The archways, in turn, echoed back the shouts of alarm from those seated around her.

Dark faces ringed around her like a halo. The lights cast by the streams of vitae twisted shadows across those faces in a way that made them look foreign, strange.

Beside her, the wine bled into the pages of her book.

Was this—


Ophiuchian Peacekeeper, Jericho

“If I were in charge, I would have you relieved of your position.”

Jericho blinked at the woman who sat across from him. He’d heard many stories about her. How her square-rimmed glasses did nothing to hide her ice-blue eyes ‘that could rip out your soul.’ How the tapping of her perfectly manicured nails ‘could drive even the strongest-willed Conductor insane.’ How her Librish accented voice ‘could shake down the very walls of Taurus’s renowned fortress of a capital city.’

Alice Kingsley. The Ice Gate of Ophiuchus.

And now that he’d had the opportunity to sit before her over twenty-five times now, he could confirm the stories as true.

“I think you’re too dangerous. Too unstable,” she continued evenly. Her Librish lilt resounded around the white walls of the office and made the room seem larger than it already was. “But I doubt you even care about what I think.”

“I care,” he responded automatically. He pushed up his square glasses. “I care a lot. About what you think.”

“Spare me the façade. We’ve been through this already, Jericho.” Alice waved her hand as she rifled through the papers in front of her. “I see you for who you are.” She paused, lowered her papers, peered over them. Her eyes bore into him, digging, searching.

It almost felt as if she could hear his thoughts.

“But I doubt you care about that either.” She returned her attention to her papers, flipped through several more of them before she stacked them neatly on the table in front of her. “You’ve passed the psych evaluation the department has provided, and there’s nothing I can do about what’s been written.”

“So—”

“So, you’ll be dispatched on your first unsupervised field case to the Capricornian-Aquarian border. There’s been an ongoing dispute around Gradstal—a town that connects the two countries. A large group of Sagittarian merchants who were using the trade route connecting the three countries together were caught up in the conflict and are being detained within Capricornian borders. The Sagittarian royalty submitted their request for intervention a week ago, but with all the paperwork and politics, we haven’t been able to get to them until now. As expected, they’re calling attention from other nations. I don’t have to tell you how tense this issue is. Your train leaves in two hours.”

Jericho blinked. “I thought…”

“You would be dispatched to handle the ELPIS issue?” Alice gave one dry, chuckle. “You know that only ELPIS Department handles those cases.”

There was a long stretch of silence.

“Jericho, you can leave now.” Her voice came out gently for once. It startled him out of his stiffness.

“Okay.” Jericho nodded. He rose to a stand, walked through the glass door behind him, exiting into the hall.

The hall itself was littered with Ophiuchian agents streaming back and forth between the rooms dotting the walls. All in black-and-white suits with a white sash around their arms, like him.

There had been a large number of cases opened these past few months. So many that closing one case meant immediately opening another. Last month he’d handled four cases himself. And here was another one. Not the one that he wanted. Mostly desk work.

Posted on the wall of the main lobby was a large map of the Signum continent. The continent was almost perfectly circular featuring Aries to the north, Virgo to the east, Capricorn to the south, and Scorpio to the west. At the very center of the ring of twelve countries was the city-state of Ophiuchus. A spot alongside the border that Capricorn shared with Aquarius was circled in red. Only a couple clicks to the north was the trade route running from Sagittarius, through Capricorn and Aquarius, to Pisces. Part of this route was also circled. Vitae reservoirs were marked on the map with a blue star, while locations of ELPIS attacks were marked with an X .

ELPIS.

He bit the inside of his lip before he turned down the hall, made several more turns, and pressed out the entrance of the building. Sunlight met his eyes—as did the light from the vitae reservoir that glowed several miles away. Even from this distance with an entire strip of buildings between them, he could feel the warmth of it on his skin. Warmer than the sun. It painted the long, marble staircase just below him in a blinding white.

His stomach churned, and he placed a hand over his belly. He turned his eyes away from the light, and his stomach settled. When he closed his eyes, he felt right again. He paused and thought. Would it be unreasonable to walk down the stairs with his eyes shut like this? He had done it a handful of times before. He’d always made it down with success.

A breath of air tickled the back of his neck, drawing him away from his thoughts. The breath came with a whisper: “Traitor.”

Something pressed against his back. No, something pushed against his back.

His eyes snapped open in time to see a flash of white marble beneath him.

The momentum was too great. He couldn’t right himself. His head cracked down on the step first. Then came the rest of his body. Down he rolled—each crack of limb against marble signaling another tumble forward.

It seemed as if he’d been rolling for an hour before he finally hit the bottom. He immediately tried to stand, but his limbs wouldn’t allow it. His arms were broken, it seemed. He threw a furtive glance up at the top of the staircase just in time to see a shadow recede back into the building. Then, he was alone.

He would not succumb to this, he knew. He clenched his fists tightly in the red that pooled around him. Not until he’d done it. Not until then. He would not let go.

Then again, what was this?

Was this—


Ophiuchus: A peace-keeping organization formed after the end of the Reservoir War. Consisting of several specialized departments, they help maintain international balance and peace between the countries of Signum. They handle conductor licensing, international affairs, conducting law and regulations, and ELPIS investigations. A country’s internal issues are not something this group handles as Ophiuchus respects the sovereignty of each individual country.

Ophiuchus Informational Packet, mass distributed circa 1925

0.3, 0.4: Soldier, Pirate

Conductor: an individual who uses a conductor—oftentimes, a weaponized conductor. They have obtained State Conducting Licenses via the State Conductor’s Exam. They fall into one of the following categories according to their conducting-type: Elementalist, Conjuror, Manipulator, Transmutationist, Projector. Those who utilize vitae in a fashion that does not fall into any of these categories are called Specialists. Additionally, they tend to be more adept at utilizing vitae either intraneously (vitae within themselves) or extraneously (vitae that is of the outside world). Those who conduct vitae intraneously tend to exhaust themselves more easily than those who use it extraneously.

– Conducting 101 by L.B. Ran

Capricornian Soldier, Werner Waltz

Werner saw them from where he lay flat against the gravel overpass that stretched above an area enclosed by walls of rock. The men trudged on below him as rain pelted down into their cloaks embroidered with Aquarian violet. Below their stomping feet, the ground had become sludge.

There were precisely thirty-two of them altogether. Their numbers were halved in the earlier skirmish. It was evident that the battle had worn them out considerably. Despite their stiff fatigue, they still inched slowly toward the enclosure. Too tired to even cast a glance up at the shrubbery that shrouded the overpass. Too exhausted to even suspect.

There had been less than a one-percent chance that the Aquarians would not have rested at this location. A chance that Werner had been considering when devising this plan. It was foolish not to consider these chances. Even the smallest percentages counted. No matter how small the chances, an error was an error. This was why he sent another group of men down the path earlier. They were waiting in the bushes that dotted the pathway farther down.

The Aquarians began to set up camp in the enclosure. Makeshift tents were gradually propped up beside the walls, and a handful of the Aquarians stole away into the cover the tents provided.

One of the Aquarians below Werner settled down beside a slab of rock and pulled down the hood of his cloak.

Werner peered at the man through the scope of his conducting rifle.

The Aquarian’s cheeks were round, his fingers thin and shaking. His dark blonde hair clung to his face as rain trickled down his chin. He was more of a boy than a man, Werner realized, but that didn’t matter because wrapped loosely around the boy’s arm was a sash emblazoned with a red cross, and gracing the shoulder pads of his uniform were a pair of golden insignias in the shape of two waves stacked on top of one another. A medical officer.

Beside him, Werner felt one of his men tense.

“Do not hesitate,” he stated under his breath. “Choose and hit your mark.”

The pitter-patter of the rain muffled his words. But there were no words that truly needed to be exchanged. His men already knew their purpose. Their duty. To hesitate now would be a foolish misstep and would label one as a coward. Appearances were everything.

Lining up the mouth of his conducting rifle with the young medical officer’s head, Werner looked at the boy one last time through his scope and pulled the trigger.

A brilliant thin ray of indigo light cracked through the rainy, gray haze and pierced the center of the boy’s head straight on. The force of the vitae bolt sent the boy flying backward to the ground. The mud ate up the red that pooled out from the gaping hole in his skull.

The Aquarians who were setting up tents nearby let out shouts of alarm. Some scrambled for cover, others ran to their fallen comrade’s side, while a majority grabbed the conductors they had cast aside earlier.

But it was too late.

Down came a ray shower of lights. Navy blue. Sky blue. Blue violet. A blinding storm of color bulleted the clearing and tore up rock and body without bias. In the calculated chaos, the sound of rain was swallowed up by cries and explosions.

Using his scope, Werner followed an Aquarian scrambling toward a stray conductor buried beneath debris. This one was even younger than the first with bright blue eyes that almost glowed in the dark.

Aim. Shoot. Kill.

Another one was ducking for cover behind a large stone slab.

Aim. Shoot. Kill.

Thirty-two men halved to sixteen. Sixteen became eight. Then four. Then two. Zero.

Werner held up a fist.

The bombardment of light stopped. Smoke and steam rose up from the clearing as an unnatural silence fell upon them. The tapping of the rain and the heavy panting of the men lined up beside him were the only sounds that reached Werner’s ears.

Peering into his scope once more, he surveyed the ground below. The smoke was too heavy to see through. They would have to wait. They couldn’t risk an Aquarian escaping. If they did, all their planning would have been for nothing. Perfection at this point was key. Error, unacceptable.

The crunch of gravel beside him drew his attention away from the smoke. When Werner turned his eyes from his scope to his left, he found that one of his men was standing, shaking, and hugging his conducting rifle tightly to his chest. He was exposed.

“Get down.”

The soldier shook his head and took a step backward.

“I said get down,” Werner ordered louder.

Once again, the soldier shook his head. Soldier? No, Werner realized, this was no soldier. No soldier would disobey orders like this. This was just a man. No, a boy.

“You didn’t use your conductor.” Werner realized, regarding the boy’s conductor with contempt. It did not give off steam from the cold like Werner’s own did.

“I―” Another step backward.

Werner frowned and reached for the boy’s arm. “I said get―”

Werner should’ve known what would happen next, but it still alarmed him when he saw a hurtling bolt of violet light burst out from the haze of smoke. There had only been less than a one percent chance that one of the Aquarians could’ve survived. But a chance was still a chance. An error was still an error. And errors were fatal.

The ray of light tore through Werner’s shoulder and sent him flying backward.

“Lieutenant!”

The boy was at his side now, as were the rest of the men. Werner could see the boy’s tears intermingling with the rain.

“Sir―”

“Mark the clearing,” he stated calmly, gripping his shoulder. It was numb―from the cold or the pain, he didn’t know. It didn’t matter.

“But―”

“I said mark the clearing, private!”

He didn’t have the energy to say much else and fell back. The cold rain seeped through the fabric of his uniform, deep into his skin, and reached his core, where it slowly stole away his movement and sight.

Briefly, he wondered how he appeared to his men as he lay bleeding out like this. And, what was this, exactly?

Was this—


Unknown Pirate, Maria Gloria-Fernandez

“Pirates!” the man cried as he dragged himself across the forecaster deck, gripping his bleeding side. The sun beat down on his brow, and he gagged on the heaviness of the salty air. His words, however, were lost to the slap of ocean waves against the hull and the thump, thump, thump of rubber shoes against the hollow, wooden floorboards.

“Pirates?” Maria laughed as she walked alongside him. “My darling, we are adventurers, not pirates!”

The man paused in his scramble and looked up at her. His sweat stains were seeeping into his elegant white uniform. His dark gray hair had fallen loose from its ponytail and strands now clung to his pallid face. “You’re not adventurers or pirates,” he spat. “You’re monsters!” He spoke Common with a thick accent she couldn’t quite place.

Maria pulled back and glanced at the mousy-haired woman who stood behind her. The woman merely shrugged and offered the man a sympathetic look. Nothing to be said, it seemed. Maria threw her head back with another loud laugh that rang across the ship. The sound bounced off the ship’s torn sails, twirled around the mast, before sinking down to the main deck.

She skipped past the man and towards the railings just behind him and peered over them down to the main deck. There, right before her, was a battle for the ages. Blade clashing against blade. Gun against gun. Fist against face. Someone was even throwing barrels around.

There didn’t seem to be a Conductor on this ship, however, which was quite a downer.

Still…

Maria hopped up onto the railing, spread her arms wide, and took in a deep breath.

There was ash in her hair, the dried crumblings of black and red substances caked onto her face, and icy droplets dripping down her arms. The sky—once an unblemished and endless stretch of blue—was scarred by a pillar of black blossoming from a mountain of flames and ashes. This burning pyre, as well as clusters of wood and cloth, littered the stretch of sea that unfolded into the horizon.

Maria took in the entire scene with a wide smile. From here, the view was wondrous. Every detail, every flickering ember, every lapping wave was laid out right before her eyes!

“Such a shame. It really was a pretty ship.”

With that, she reached for her sheathed blade hanging at her side and drew it out into the light.

“Wait, Captain―” the woman behind her began.

But it was too late. Down Maria dropped onto the shoulders of the unsuspecting man below her. He barely had time to register her before she kicked him in the face with the back of her boot and launched herself at another. She knocked this next man in the face with the hilt of her blade before reaching for his shoulders and lifting herself up in the air while using his body as an axle. She swung her legs forward and used the force of her fall to bring the man up over her shoulders. For a moment, he was in the air. In the next, his body was crashing into another.

Several onlookers stared at her in horror while others only offered expressions of exasperation. Some, admiration. But she didn’t dwell. Instead, she relentlessly tore through the ones she deemed her enemies with a smile of exhilaration gracing her face.

She paused in her almost manic stampede only to wipe the blood from her blade and the sweat from her brow. It was then that a movement from the corner of her eye caught her attention. It was a boy. Amidst the chaos of clashing blades and colliding fists, a boy stood there huddling a cylindrical object close to his chest. His eyes—they glowed with an inhuman red-orange light.

A Conductor?

How amazing―

Maria barely had the time to finish the thought before the boy rushed at her. The object in his hand gave out an unearthly red-orange glow that expanded outward and consumed his body―and then hers.

She heard it more than felt it―a resounding boom that drowned out the chaos of battle and the calm of lapping waves. It rang so loudly in her ears that, for a moment, she almost thought it was the only sound that ever existed. When the sound faded, she was in the air and falling swiftly with the ocean opening up below her.

“Captain!”

She didn’t hear the rest because she soon broke through the barrier of water. The cold gripped her tightly and dragged a trail of blood from her, which rose up to the surface like smoke alongside air bubbles.

A minor injury, surely, Maria thought as she sank deeper and deeper into the frigid dark. All she needed to do was kick her legs a bit, and she’d break through the surface to rejoin her crew. Surely, this would be an exciting tale. And onto the next adventure they would go.

An intrusive thought invaded her mind as black dots pricked her vision:

Was this—


conductor: a device that channels vitae and allows manipulation of vitae particles.  It falls into several categories: weaponized, generator, and general. Licenses are required for individuals operating weaponized and generator conductors. Their creation is highly regulated by Ophiuchus.

Conducting 101 by L.B. Ran

0.1, 0.2: Prince, Swindler

Ariesian Prince, Olivier Chance

What is the color of a person’s soul?”

Olivier Chance eyed Professor Morgan with annoyance.

Morgan was a young professor flexing his theories and methods at the Royal University of New Ram City. Rumor had it he was only two years out from obtaining his conducting license. Rumor had it that he’d even earned the highest score on the State Conducting Exam out of his entire cohort. Perfect for teaching others how to score similarly on their Conducting Exams. But Olive didn’t care about those rumors. He didn’t even care about the fact that Morgan was so young. What Olive cared about was the fact that Morgan himself cared about these rumors and he let it affect his teaching style. Morgan was so desperate to please and to be liked that he’d even ask a simple question like this.

“The answer can be found by examining a person’s vitae—or so says the much disputed Anima-Vitae Hypothesis,” Morgan said with a charming smile that almost seemed to say, please tell me you’re enjoying this lecture. “And while we’ve known how to harness vitae for energy and channel vitae in different forms for several centuries now, we’ve yet to fully understand it. Which is peculiar to think about since it’s the basis of the founding the thirteen countries of Signum. I mean, we power our world via the vitae reservoirs found throughout it—so, are we ignorantly dipping our hands foolishly in matters we don’t understand?”  

“We wouldn’t make any progress if we didn’t,” said someone from behind Olive.

“Right.” Morgan hummed. “Still, such peculiarity increases when you realize we’ve fought a war over these things!”

Too much, Olive thought.

“And who discovered these vitae reservoirs?” Morgan paused for dramatic effect. “Our Ancestors, the nomads and first settlers of Signum, after whom our countries were named.”

Well, Olive supposed, as boring as it was to hear a rehash of basics, it was much better than having to slog through new topics.

“Quick question. What was one major result of this aforementioned Reservoir War?”

A hand shot up, and before Morgan even had the chance to acknowledge it, the hand’s owner answered matter-of-factly, “Well, Capricorn became a military-based government and Virgo started its isolation.”

“Okay, but—”

“And the peacekeeping city-state of Ophiuchus was founded, professor.”

“Precisely. And what purpose–”

“To mediate positive, peaceful relations between the twelve countries. And… to handle the terrorist group ELPIS.”

“Great, Hannah. Perfect!” The professor clasped his hands. “Now, would you mind giving the others a chance to answer my next question?” He gestured to all of them. “Back to the matter at hand. Vitae. How can we visualize a person’s vitae?”

A dozen hopeful hands flew high, Olive dodging one that grazed his face. The glare he sent the girl sitting beside him went unnoticed. The offense wasn’t worth the effort of confrontation, so Olive settled on glaring out the window across the classroom. From his desk he could faintly make out the glowing cityscape beyond the rising red-brick walls of the school.

“Well, Chance, what do you think?”

Professor Morgan’s shadow passed over him.

“How do you think we can visualize a person’s vitae? …I’ll give you a hint. It’s through the same type of device we use to power our country.”

Olive turned. The professor stood in front of him now with kind eyes and a smile even more desperate to please than before.

The answer to the question was obvious. A child could’ve answered it without a second thought. But that was why Morgan was asking it. An easy question, an easy answer. A feeling of fulfillment as teacher and student. All Olive had to say was, “You can see a person’s vitae color by having them use a conductor,” and then he’d fulfill whatever childhood dream his professor was holding onto.

Instead, Olive shrugged and turned his attention to the window again.

“Oh, come on, Chance.” Morgan chuckled. “Give it a try. Surely, the royal tutors have taught you all about the fundamentals of vitae. What do you think? I’ll give you another hint: the people who are trained to channel their vitae through these objects, often as weapons, are called similarly—Conductors with a capital C.”

Olive thought. Not about the question, but about the fact that it was around noon, which meant that his guards would be switching rotation. That meant the annoyingly dutiful Alexander would be going to lunch and the blasé Jacob would be taking his place outside the classroom.

Olive rose to a stand and paid no attention when Morgan stepped back in surprise. He approached the open window and swung his legs over the ledge.

“Wha—wait—”

And he leapt.

A blur of green and brown leaves rushed up to greet him as rustling and snapping branches echoed in his ears. After a couple beats, he landed on all fours in a bed of red flowers. He fisted the petals in his hands and shook off his disorientation.

Glancing upward, he found the colorful faces of Morgan and several of his classmates staring back down at him two stories up. No time nor care to read their expressions.

Olive dusted himself off and made his way out of the floral display and onto the stone path just beyond. The floral display he had fallen into was one of the many that lined the walkway, and the window from which he had escaped was one of many that dotted the Vitae Studies Hall. Sun sprinkled through the leaves of the trees overhead and through the archways that connected one study hall to another on his left. The golden droplets of light dappled the flags swaying on the walls. In the brightness, they glowed red.

Olive gave the flags a pointed glare before he dashed down the path. He could hear shouts of alarm and stampeding footsteps filter out from the classroom window behind him. Eventually, as he continued onwards, the sounds faded away and were replaced by the serene chirping of birds.

He slowed to a stop as the open pathway led to a roofed hall. The sunlight that spilled into the corridor of the hall from its open windows painted its black doors a blinding white. Just as he was about to duck into this hall, one of the black doors opened. In response, Olive flung himself into the nearest floral display and scrambled up the tree three. Wrapping his arms around the highest branch, he held his breath.

Below him came a pair of guards draped in red.

“Ollie, you can’t keep doing this,” whispered a voice above him. “Professor Morgan is gonna have a stress-induced heart attack one day. He really cares about you, y’know.”

There she was again. Her wisps of dark hair curled around her round face as she spied at him sternly from a branch above. The sunlight streaming in through the trees caught her hair in such a way that made it look ablaze.

“You’re too naïve,” he said. He wanted to sigh, but even that was too much effort.

“You’re too negative,” she returned with a pout. “Pessimistic.”

“Pessimistic implies that I care,” he muttered. “Which I don’t.”

He stared past her and over the roof of the hall to the city that lay beyond.

The sun beat down on the city traffic there like a whip. They looked like dots from here—the people. Tiny dots weaving around each other and sputtering v-ehicles in single-file. Almost like ants. But if anyone was an ant, Olive reasoned, it was himself.

“Ollie…”

He looked back up at her and returned with a roll of his eyes: “It’s just a figure of speech.” He turned back to the city view just in time to see a glinting speck on the horizon. A glinting speck hurtling right toward him. Closer, closer, closer.

An arrow. It was an arrow. An arrow shrouded in vermillion-red, flame-like vitae. An Ariesian must have been the archer. Closer, closer.

He couldn’t dodge it in time—but what he could do was try to activate his vitae and pull them up to his defenses. That arrow would be incinerated in an instant. But—no. That would be too dangerous.

He blinked.

The arrow pierced his shoulder and knocked him right out of the tree.

He heard a shout from a guard below.

But he felt no pain.

The air was no longer thin and dry but heavy and cold. The sun dimmed. The guards were still shouting. The flower bed on the ground was coming closer and closer to him. Rather, he was coming closer to it. It met him warmly, as did she as she knelt beside him to touch his shoulder.

Her dark hair fell like a canopy over his face as true darkness crept in at the corners of his vision. He couldn’t help but think the reason she was here was to watch this unfold. This?

Was this—

Geminian Swindler, Cadence Morello

The air was thick with smoke and the smell of booze. The dim v-lights barely had the power to pierce through the veil of grayness that was the cloud of ash hanging over the room. The haziness was the perfect blanket for Cadence to hide in.

She sat at one of the many round tables that dotted the bar. On the table before her was an array of playing cards with small tokens interspersed in-between. The man sitting across the table from her was looking at her like he could read her like a book.

Damn. He was too predictable.

The v-watch he wore was a knock-off, indicating he was a show-off who was easily swindled. His tight monochrome suit that strangled his wrists and neck indicated he was either in denial of his current circumstances or didn’t did not have the funds for a new suit. In other words, he was desperate for money and respect.

The man sneered at her as he tugged his collar with one hand and waved his set of cards in the other. “Looks like this game is just about to wrap up, Antonio.”

That was not her name, of course. That was who she looked like at the moment. Yes, Antonio Figeroli was the guise she currently wore. Antonio Figeroli was a middle-aged man with a hanging gut and a sadly receding hairline. He had a swaggering demeanor and often threw his money at whatever caught his eye, be it women, clothes, or alcohol. He frequented this tavern so often that the bartender always prepared his drink before he arrived in order not to face the man’s impatient wrath.

It hadn’t been difficult to pick up Figeroli’s mannerisms. All Cadence had to do was swing by the tavern a couple of times and chat him up while he was drunk. He’d been even easier to read than this buffoon. At the moment, the real Antonio Figeroli was passed out in an alleyway somewhere in the city—courtesy of the Romano Family.

The fact that this man truly believed her to be Antonio Figeroli just highlighted how stupid he was. For saint’s sake, he was in the left Twin City: home of thieves and birthplace of everything underground. If someone in this city approached you out of the blue, it meant they either wanted your money,  your life, or your body.

“Damn, Tulio,” she swore in the deep and rumbling voice of Antonio with a spit for good measure. She slammed her fists onto the table with cards still in hand just as Antonio would and bowed her head. Her rings clacked against the wooden surface as she tapped her fingers in mock impatience. “This can’t be right. You’re cheating.”

“Not cheating.” Tulio grinned. “I’m just that good.”

She narrowed her eyes at him and looked him over carefully. “Say, I’ve seen you here before once or twice. Always drunk as hell. Made me feel better about myself. So, what’s with the sudden confidence?”

Tulio considered her for a moment and then smirked.

Hook. Line. Sinker.

The man leaned across the table and glanced around the tavern with narrowed eyes. She leaned forward to meet him and tuned her ears.

“Just between you and me,” he whispered, “I got myself a new gig distributing some state-of-the-art conductors to some very generous buyers. You wouldn’t believe how desperate people are nowadays for one of ‘em since Ophiuchian regulation makes ‘em impossible to get.”

“Don’t ya mean how desperate people are to make money sellin’ ‘em?” she returned.

A pause, and then: “Your voice—”

Rising to a slow stand, she wiggled her ringed fingers and felt them prickle where the metal of the ring touched her skin. Copper light blossomed from the area and crawled up her arm before reaching her face. When the light faded, the man sitting across from her let out a shout and fell backward in his chair.

“Y-You’re not…! You’re a Conductor!” the man stammered, pointing a shaking finger in her direction. “You’re a kid!”

She paused. Raising a brow, she lifted her hat and scratched her red hair. “Not what I expected to hear, but what can I say?”

“Who—”

Holding out her cards for him to see, she let them slip from her fingers and onto the table. As they left her hand, they glimmered copper, just as her body had. The two of spades became an ace of hearts. The five of clubs became a queen of hearts. The jack of diamonds became a jack of hearts. And the king and ten of spades became a king and ten of hearts. An illusion broken. A royal flush.

“The name’s Cadence Morello.” She paused for dramatic effect. “Personal associate of the Romano Family, at your service.”

At the family name, Tulio paled, then greened, then paled again. In an instant, he was on his knees, crawling to her ankles. “I… I… I…, please. I meant no disrespect! I’ve got a family I need to provide for! You understand, don’t you? My children! Please, I’ll give you all the conductors I have and—”

She took a step back from him with raised hands. “Ey, ey, I get it. These are hard times. People get desperate. But ya can only go so far and get sympathy, ya know? I mean, did ya really think ya could go encroachin’ on the Romano Family’s turf and get away without a single scrape? Even I’m not that lucky.” She fell to a crouch and met his gaze with a reassuring smile. “Look. If ya tell us who’s been providin’ ya with those conductors, then I might be able to get in a good word for ya. Maybe only two fingers cut off instead of all ten.”

The man’s eyes widened. He wobbled in place.

“Whoa, don’t go passin’ out now,” she said with a sigh. “I don’t want ta have ta drag your body ta the boss, ya hear?”

The man didn’t move. And then it clicked for her. He wasn’t staring at her in fear. He was staring at something behind her.

She turned her head just in time to see a flash of bright light followed by a gust of heat. The gust knocked her clean off her feet, throwing her backwards into the bar. As she hit the floor, glass rained down around her with clicks and clacks—a sound that matched the beat of the crackling and popping that echoed in the background.

With much effort, she cracked open her eyes.

The air was clouded in smoke. A shroud of it. But this time the shroud did not aid her. No, it was suffocating her with its gray hands.

She couldn’t breathe.

Not only that.

She couldn’t move.

Flames danced on the outskirts of her vision, their flickering embers reflecting in the shards of glass scattered around her.

No. It couldn’t be. Not like this. Not when she was so close.

She gagged, hacked, coughed.

Was this—


Vitae: a source of luminescent energy harvested by the countries of Signum. It is composed of vitae particles. It is channeled through devices called conductors and can be used to power countries and to power weapons. It is split into categories: soft vitae which is living vitae and hard vitae which is non-living vitae.

Vitae Basics by P.C. Sies