25.(): War & Terroristas

( )

When Alpha opened his eyes, he knew exactly where he was. He knew everything, after all: the beginning, the middle, the end—although, he admitted that the middle was always fuzzier than the former two parts.

This here was Vega’s private rooms that had served many roles in the past: a laboratory, a meeting office, an experimental place of residence, an archive storage facility, and—now, by the looks of it—a home.

The room’s floor was littered with familiar candles, while the walls were lined with shelves. A record player sat upon a small maroon table in the corner of the room. A series of crudely drawn doodles were strung on string near the ceiling. Across from him on a wooden chair sat Leona whose hands were bound behind her with rope. It seemed like she’d awoken before him. How attentive of her. 

Alpha chuckled. “Well, it’s nice seeing you again, Leo. I haven’t seen you since the war.”

Leona’s gaze narrowed. “So you’ve been extending yourself using Epsilon’s ability. How pitiable. Are you a fool?”

Alpha shrugged. “If I am then you must be too for being captured and bound like this with me.” He scanned the room. “The pace that conductors are developing is astounding, isn’t it? At this rate the syzygy that you covet will most definitely happen—maybe sometime around August or July of this coming year? Oh, definitely. I hope what I’ve been doing around the continent hasn’t threatened your timeline any.” 

“You’ve made a nuisance of yourself, not a threat,” Leona replied, somehow still sounding refined and elegant despite the fact that she was bound. “What exactly are you trying to achieve by running around Signum plucking children from their homes?”

Alpha shrugged. “It started off as a whim, honestly. It’s not as if I had any premeditation to it. It just sort of… happened.”

“Did it?” Leona challenged, unconvinced. “Or did those children remind you of yourself? Was taking them to spite Theta? Was taking them to spite me?”

Alpha held her gaze. “It’s interesting that it’s the two of us that are in this position, isn’t it? You, someone who didn’t properly go through the baptismal ceremony and someone who didn’t take on enough vitae to truly be considered ‘Leo.’ Me, who took on vitae and the memories associated with them despite technically being unable to. We’re both pseudo-Knowledge Bearers.”

The black-painted door on the wall to his left burst alive a pale tangerine light.

It was a rather ugly color. 

Into the room stepped two figures—as Alpha had been expecting. Epsilon and Jericho. Now that Alpha could see Jericho up close, he could see that Jericho certainly had grown to an impressive height. Growth spurts were quite something. While Epsilon looked as if he’d been crying recently, Jericho’s gaze was hard and cold.

“Epsilon…” Leona muttered under her breath as her gaze drifted between the two men. “Jericho. Do you both realize what you’re doing?”

“It’s ‘discretion’, Leona,” Jericho said after a pause. He turned his eyes on Alpha and the cold fire in them intensified. “We will talk about more ‘discretion’ after I speak with him.”

“A-Alpha,” Epsilon stammered, “you—how could you do that to Leo? You… went against everything that you promised me. I’m not going to hold any more vitae for you.”

“You should’ve already realized it, Epsilon,” Alpha said lightly in response. “You haven’t deteriorated that much, have you? Maria hasn’t healed as a saint candidate should. She isn’t Leo.” He jerked his chin towards Leona. “She isn’t Leo either, but she’s certainly closer to Leo than Maria is–from one point of view.”

Epsilon’s gaze drifted momentarily to Leona but he looked away before meeting her eyes. “No, that’s not Leo. I know it isn’t.”

Leona’s face was unreadable.

Jericho approached Alpha, Epsilon trailing behind. Both came to a stop before him.

“You really are tall,” Alpha said with a chuckle once Jericho was right in front of him. “I—”

“You won’t get what you want from him, Jericho,” Leona interjected. “I promise you that. If you look into his eyes, you should be able to tell nothing is there. You can’t get something from someone who has nothing.” After a pause, she continued, her voice becoming steel, “If you continue to act against the ELPIS Department, even I won’t be able to show you this discretion we agreed on—”

“I have to know,” Jericho insisted. “No. I want to understand, but not the reason. Alice says there is no point in finding the reason. I want to know everything else.” He nodded at Epsilon. “Thank you. Ahead of time.”

Epsilon moved forward, placing one conducting glove on Alpha’s temple and the other on Jericho’s.

“Oh, you sad poor thing.” Alpha sighed. “You’re being contradictory, aren’t you? I already answered your questions and you’re still not happy.”

Epsilon’s conductors began to hum with white light and an uncomfortable nostalgia began to burn at Alpha’s temples. 

He continued nonetheless: “You and Maria both are still searching for the answer to the beginning, but I’m sorry to say that—”


✧ I ✧
July 30, 1441
θαυμασμός

Ophiuchus District, Newly United Signum

The first time Proteus lays eyes on the Knowledge Bearer of Ophiuchus he thinks he is dreaming. He is standing at the lip of a cheering crowd as a procession glides down the dirt street. There are thirteen central robed figures in this procession—each separated by about 13 meters from the other. These are the Knowledge Bearers. They are each surrounded by a flock of men and women who drip with elegance and scholarliness. These are the Knowledge Bearer’s Mathités, their disciples, their learners—but also occasionally they serve as their teachers. These individuals are hand-selected by the Knowledge Bearers themselves and were once alumni at the Aesculapium. They are honored and revered and dripping with a different flavor of wisdom compared to the Knowledge Bearers.

As Proteus nears the front of the crowd, he catches a glimpse of a dark-skinned man with an equally dark head of shiny curls at the center of the procession. Proteus has seen paintings of this man being sold at high prices in the marketplace. This is Narci, the Knowledge Bearer of Scorpio.

The man seems to notice Proteus’s attention and offers him a smile and wave. Flushing, Proteus returns it.

Soon the procession reaches the town square—the forum—where the old and aged Orator Promptus Ageptus addresses the crowd while standing on a raised stone platform surrounded by white pillars. The thirteen Knowledge Bearers and the Mathitís make their way up onto the platform as cheers ripple through the crowd.

Moved by all the yipping and hollering, Proteus cheers too. He shouts so loud and claps his hands so hard that he nearly passes out from the fervor of it all. Thankfully, his father has followed him to this point and catches him before he falls back. His father then hoists him onto his shoulders, and so Proteus is able to see the stage clearly.

The crowd silences and Promptus steps forward.

“After nearly over half a century since settling on this continent,” Promptus booms, “we are finally gathering here today to officiate our great United Nation of Signum.” He gestures left and right towards the Knowledge Bearers. “It’s only because of the wisdom given to us by our Knowledge Bearers that we were able to make such fast-paced progress following our exodus to this land. We were once nomads but now we are citizens.”

The Knowledge Bearers step forward and flourish their hands. From their fingertips spark dazzling bursts of light—red, blue, green, and every color in-between.

That is vitae.

This is conducting

Proteus has heard gossip about it in school, has heard his parents wonder about it at home, has heard it mentioned here and there in the marketplace. Using one’s body to conduct one’s very soul along with the memories that paint them? They have truly embraced the future, shedding the scars of the past behind them—or so Proteus’s parents animatedly discuss during dinner time.

The psychedelic lights continue to speckle the air as everyone looks on in awe. Shimmering water meets pulsating fire. Glimmering air is shattered by rays of golden light. Only one Knowledge Bearer doesn’t add to this colorful light display. Instead, she stands in the middle of their row with her hands clasped over her abdomen. Once the light display ends, she steps forward beside Promptus.

This Knowledge Bearer is different from all the others. While the other twelve are colored in red, blue, green, and every color in-between, this Knowledge Bearer is white. Pure white. Her skin, her hair, her toga. The only trace of color is in her eyes: they are black like the smooth stones Proteus skips with his friends on the nearby lake. 

Black. The absence of light.

 White. The absence of color.

Beautiful.

No. She is not beautiful. Beautiful is too simple and small a term to label the aura that exudes from every pore of her body.

The Knowledge Bearer looks to him in surprise, and Proteus suddenly feels embarrassed for being on his father’s shoulders. Due to the extra height, he is directly in her line of sight. His worries fade away as soon as she offers him a smile.

“We will remember the mistakes of the ones who came before us,” she says, gaze sweeping across the crowd. Her voice is like milk and nectar—smooth and sweet. It’s unlike anything Proteus has ever heard before. “We are descendants but we are also ancestors. We are inheritors but we are also cultivators. That’s how the cycle of the world turns. Everything that is taken is returned. That is the new gate that has been opened up for us due to vitae. Like soft fibers woven together of a parent’s homemade quilt, we are connected by our pasts, feelings, aspirations, futures. This is the era of eternal peace!”

Proteus suddenly feels his heart falter as disappointment settles it. He doesn’t believe her words. He doesn’t believe in eras of eternal peace. All eras end one way or another. And for what reason does he think this? It is because the man whose shoulders he’s sitting on isn’t truly his father. His blood father’s corpse is buried beneath rubble hundreds of kilometers outside of United Signum’s borders.

Yes, Proteus is an orphan from the war torn areas outside of this united country. His real name is not even ‘Proteus.’ It was one given to him three years ago in order to help him integrate better into this country. Yes, three years ago he was taken in as a refugee and given a soft-citizenship in this Ophiuchus District of Signum and then given a new man and woman to call father and mother. He loves them dearly, but he knows they are not like him. They have existed in peace for all of their lives and ‘war’ is almost a foreign term to them—just like it is to every other resident here in this newly founded country. 

Just as Proteus is about to request his father to let him down, Ophiuchus suddenly flings her arms out wide. White globules of light spill out from her fingertips and float out towards them. They are pale and translucent, drifting through the air weightless like dandelion puffs. Out of curiosity, Proteus reaches out for one as it drifts towards him. It pops like a bubble as soon as his fingertip touches it, but—

—suddenly Proteus can feel it. Feel her. Feel her joy, her gentleness, her warmth, her wholehearted belief in an era of eternal peace. Images flit by in his mind’s eye. Conversations with old, young, tired, energetic. Pointing and jabbing fingers becoming replaced by firm shaking hands.

Memories.

Eternal peace is a reality.

Proteus believes it.

‘Proteus’ truly begins here.

Half an hour later, the Knowledge Bearers take audience with the crowd. Proteus tries to direct his father to the front, but they are pushed back by the raving attenders and Proteus’s father eventually leaves to return to work.

By the time Proteus reaches the center of the forum, the thirteen Knowledge Bearers are no longer in sight. Only a few of the Mathitís remain chattering with each other. They are all so tall, sagely, and intimidating that just thinking of approaching them causes butterflies to swarm Proteus’s stomach. The butterflies subside when Proteus spots a female Mathitís sitting alone away from the others on a stone bench pressed up against the stage. Sitting before all the whiteness, she stands out like a sore thumb. Her hair is jet black and long as are her toga. Unlike the other Mathitís, her arms and neck are unexposed to the beating sun. Instead, her toga sport a black lace turtleneck and sleeves that conceal her skin. The gold bands on her wrists and the laurel on her head designate wealth. There is a book in her hands. The pages blinding white in the sun but that doesn’t seem to deter her at all.

Proteus tentatively approaches her. She does not acknowledge his presence even when he stops short a foot away from her. Clearing his throat doesn’t get her attention either.

“E-Excuse me—” he tries.

Finally, the woman turns. “What is it, young man?”

Her eyes are cerulean blue. 

She’s pretty.

It takes a moment for Proteus to find his words. “I—do you know where the Knowledge Bearers went?”

The woman pulls away, disappointment and something akin to disdain etching itself onto her face. She returns to her book and flips a page. “Is it not customary to humbly ask the name of the person you’re requesting information from first?”

Proteus feels his cheeks burn. “Uhm, sorry. What’s your name, miss?”

The woman hums. “You can call me…” She pauses for a moment as if considering. “…Vega.” 

Vega. Proteus knows that name. He’s heard whispers about her in the marketplace. Her family is one of the wealthiest in Signum and often does philanthropy work near the borders’ edges.

“What is it? You should speak now if you have a question. If not, I’m certain you’ll have regrets.” After a pause, she adds, “Shame should never come from asking a question as long as a desire to learn is the reason behind it.”

Her words confuse Proteus, and he can’t tell whether or not she’s annoyed by him. Mustering up some courage, he manages, “H-How can I… learn under one of the Knowledge Bearers like you? How do I become a Mathitís?”

Vega looks down at him again, and Proteus can’t help but squirm under her cold gaze. “Learn under a Knowledge Bearer?”

“Uhm…” Proteus mumbles. “I’d like to… study under Ophiuchus…. specifically.”

“Why?”

Proteus opens his mouth then closes it. He doesn’t have a reason. 

“Do you not know?” Vega shuts her book and rises to her feet. “You are making a decision to dedicate yourself to something that will consume the better half of your life and you’re unable to grasp the reason.”

She’s cold.

“D-Does there need to be a reason?” he half-angrily grumbles to himself.

“There is always a reason,” Vega responds. “Every reaction is caused by a catalyst. Whether or not we need to know that reason as human beings is the question that should be asked.” 

Before Proteus can respond, Vega tucks the book under her arm and descends from the platform. 

Proteus, cheeks still burning yet filled with renewed determination, chases after her. Just as he hits the ground level, however, he is pulled back by the back of the scruff. Upon craning his neck, he spies the smile of a tall blonde woman with short hair that falls above her ears. She cuts a gallant figure with her broad back and firm arms that are further accented by her tight white and gold toga.

“Don’t mind it too much, young man,” she says. “That’s how most of the Mathitís are.”

It’s Altair. She’s the daughter of one of the very first settlers of Signum. In fact, her father is one of the founders of the District of Ophiuchus that Proteus currently resides in. She’s a current alumna at the Aesculapium and often brings books from the Aesculapium’s grand library to the elementary schools in the heart of the city. She is fun and bright and dazzling and charming. 

“They’re all so focused on academics and so serious that they neglect something the common people call ‘socialization.’”

Her words reassure Proteus.

“You’re not one?” He asks curiously. “A Mathitís?”

Altair chuckles. “It’s just not the sort of activity that I think I’d enjoy doing. I’ve never thought once about joining them, to be frank. It just doesn’t fit my character. Learning isn’t something I cast aside. But with the Knowledge Bearers—I feel as if I would be the type to worship them instead of learn from them.”

Altair’s words go over Proteus’s head. He’s only nine, after all. 

Altair places a hand on Proteus’s head and gives it a rub. “Well, if you really want to become a Mathitís, just study hard, young man. Oh, and don’t give up if you face any setbacks. Hard work beats everything.”

✧ II ✧
July 1452
μαθητής

Ophiuchus District, United Signum

Proteus spends the next eleven years studying hard. Mathematics, literature, history, poetry, science, and everything in-between. Vitae theory is all still so nebulous to him. The information changes and contradicts itself every day as new discoveries are made, but Proteus strives regardless. When he reaches the age of 16, he is permitted to enter the Aesculapium.

The Aesculapium is a prestigious academy dedicated to the sole study and research of vitae. It serves as the location where Knowledge Bearer baptismal ceremonies are conducted and is where the first vitae reservoirs in Signum were discovered. History is still fresh about how the thirteen original founders bathed in those pools and received knowledge in exchange for the pain they endured. It’s funny how mythological history sounds.

At the Aesculapium, Proteus quickly befriends a young man named Pothos who has dedicated himself to the study of vitae application and a young woman named Eurydice who has dedicated herself to the study of vitae theory much like Proteus himself. They form a fast friendship due to their similar interest in the Knowledge Bearer of Ophiuchus and since they are the first in their family lineage to attend the Aesculapium. Bonding through their mutual stress over Vega’s theory classes just strengthens their bond.

Personally, Proteus has biases towards individuals who choose to study vitae application instead of vitae theory. They seem so much more brutish and less-deep thinking than his peers that study theory. Pothos is an exception. Pothos is emphatic, energetic, contemplative, and engaging in discussion. He is good company and humorous. Pothos quickly becomes his best friend.

At the age of 19, Proteus finally stands before the Knowledge Bearer of Ophiuchus in the great white selection chamber of the Aesculapium along with Pothos, Eurydice, and a row of his fellow alumni. Despite the chamber being open to the sun beating down above, Proteus can’t help but feel that the white pillars that hold up the open roof feel like bars of a cage. It’s a poor allegory for something he’s been striving forever for, but his nerves are getting to him.

On the raised platform ahead stands Ophiuchus, basking in golden sunlight and looking just as she had all those years ago. In the brightness, she glows white. On her left stands Vega who is dressed in her usual dark garb. To Ophiuchus’s left stands Altair, draped in white and gold. 

Yes, despite proclaiming disinterest in it, Altair has indeed become a Mathitís in the time between that past conversation and now. Perhaps that is due to Vega’s influence. Why else would the two throw those gentle glances at each other behind Ophiuchus’s back?

Ophiuchus begins calling up each alumnus down the row one-by-one. She converses with them in what appears to be tense and serious debate on her platform, but they speak so quietly that Proteus can’t even chance to hear them. After speaking with her, each alumnus descends with an unreadable expression before exiting the chamber. Soon it’s Pothos’s turn and Proteus offers him a thumbs as does Eurydice before Pothos ascends. When Pothos descends fifteen minutes later, he wiggles his eyebrows. 

Success!

Soon, it is Proteus’s turn. He ascends deliberately, carefully, feeling Vega’s, Altair’s, and Ophiuchus’s stares intensify with every step he takes. 

Ophiuchus is majestic, he thinks.

Vega places a thoughtful hand to her mouth and glances over at Altair who cocks her head in response. 

“Oh, I remember you,” Ophiuchus says as she studies him carefully. “You were at the founding festival.”

“You recognize me?” Proteus feels a sense of jubilation bubble up from his chest and express itself as a smile on his lips.

“Of course.” Ophiuchus chuckles. “I remember everyone. You were that young boy who rode on his foster father’s shoulders, aren’t you?”

Proteus stiffens. “You know—” 

“When you connected with me, I also connected with you. Your memories, my memories, your feelings, my feelings—that’s how my conducting presents itself. I do apologize if you found that intrusive.”

“No, it’s… fascinating,” Proteus murmurs in response. A desire to replicate such a form of conducting worms its way into his mind.

Ophiuchus smiles at this. “A curious mind. That’s good. Now, I only connected with you briefly back then, so I don’t really know you. Answer me this kindly then, Proteus: who are you?”

It takes a moment for Proteus to calm his giddiness at such compliments and at such admittance of closeness. When he recovers himself, his cheeks pinken as he realizes he’s been standing in silence for well over half a minute. Nerves jittering, he turns the question ten times over in his head before he answers—

“I’m no one—because I am what everyone perceives me to be. You, who have just met me, have no opinion of me yet despite connecting with me for that short instance. Therefore, Ophiuchus, in your eyes I am nothing. I am no one.”

Ophiuchus hums. “That is certainly a unique answer.”

“As you see fit,” Proteus answers. “I’m a sponge, ready to take in whatever is around me.”

Ophiuchus looks back at Vega. 

“A sponge?” Vega presses. “Are you suggesting that the knowledge we offer you is dirty and it needs to be cleaned away? A sponge can only absorb what it is given and can only regurgitate what it’s absorbed. It contributes nothing.”

Proteus feels winded. 

Altair winces and gives Vega a look. Vega holds her gaze before she amends—“Or are you highlighting your capacity and willingness to learn?”

“T-The latter. Yes.”

“I suggest to you this first lesson then: think of less loop-hole ridden and cliched allegories and be prepared to defend your ideas from now on.”

And it is so. In the end, Proteus passes Ophiuchus’s and Vega’s judgement and joins Pothos as an official Mathitís to Ophiuchus. So does Eurydice. They celebrate as a trio together at midnight and drink well into the next day. 

Their first private lessons with Ophiuchus and other Knowledge Bearers are held in the lavishly furnished Mathitís Hall of the Aesculapium that only the Mathitís can access. Such lessons are unlike any other lesson Proteus has attended before. The Knowledge Bearers speak about vitae from firsthand experience and they answer all questions thoroughly. They challenge ways of thinking and foster curiosity. It is not just a lecture but an experience.

Proteus prefers Ophiuchus’s lessons above all the others. Pothos does too. In fact, Pothos’s devotion to Ophiuchus almost rivals Proteus’s own. Almost. Almost is still enough to stir some unhappiness in Proteus’s chest but he combats it by finding a mutual sense of camaraderie with Pothos in their mutual admiration of Ophiuchus. Proteus also finds camaraderie in the other Mathitís of Ophiuchus—particularly in Bolina and Soteria. They too immigrated into the country at a young age. They too feel the dissonance that Proteus himself occasionally feels.

At Ophiuchus’s side and among the Mathitís, Proteus feels as if he had finally found home where he belongs.

February 1458

Conversations with Virgo are cerebral, with Scorpio enlightening, with Cancer emotional, with Gemini humorous. Their faces have changed many times over these years that Proteus has served as a Mathitís. 

In the beginning, he feels uncomfortable about it:

One moment, he is helping a student through a course on vitae theory and the next that very same student is a Knowledge Bearer helping him through a formula relating vitae wavelength to velocity and energy. After performing some baptismal ceremonies himself at the heart of the Ophiuchus district, however, Proteus becomes somewhat accustomed to it—although it unnerves him still despite the vigor and enthusiasm all potential Knowledge Bearers display before going through the ceremony.

The selection process remains quite mysterious to Proteus and involves one-on-one consultation of the potential Knowledge Bearer with other Knowledge Bearers and sometimes even the Knowledge Bearer they are to take the role from. Whenever Proteus has asked Vega about it, she merely tells him the information will be disseminated to him with time. Patience, she always says.

The only Knowledge Bearer who does not change face over the years is Ophiuchus’s. Proteus frequents her often as one of her Mathitís. He attends all of her private lectures and even the public ones for the general alumni at the Aesculapium. She speaks profoundly and doesn’t look down on anyone as she teaches. She smiles at everyone fairly and answers all questions no matter how simple. She is a bright light that draws all eyes. Proteus thinks that she shines even brighter than Leo despite all of Leo’s gallantry and charisma. 

Proteus has one-on-one sessions with Ophiuchus every week. They discuss the origins of vitae particles, the natural cycle and energy levels vitae particles go through, the Ceremony of the Return in which individuals who are near death visit vitae reservoirs to offer themselves to resupply it, as well as politics and philosophy which surprisingly go hand-in-hand. Sometimes when Proteus is close enough to her to see the ebony of her eyes, he can’t help but think he sees loneliness there.

One day while they are discussing the concept of enlightenment, freedom, and inner peace, Proteus suggests the idea that a longer life leads to more attachments combating the wisdom a longer life tends to bestow. It’s a half-formulated concept that he’s been considering for a little over a month, but he still feels comfortable enough divulging to Ophiuchus his scattered thoughts.

Ophiuchus considers his point before she responds with a question of her own: “Are you saying that I’m the least peaceful out of all the other Knowledge Bearers since I’ve been ‘here’ the longest?”

Proteus backpedals immediately but Ophiuchus merely chuckles good-naturedly in response. 

“That’s an interesting perspective,” she says, still smiling. “You shouldn’t be ashamed to have a perspective as long as you’re able to explain and support it with facts. In fact, I think you in particular can offer a particularly unique perspective, Proteus. I would like to hear more from you on that.”

“A unique perspective?”

“Yes, from your childhood years outside of United Signum.” Ophiuchus adds gently, “If you feel comfortable, of course.”

Proteus doesn’t like to talk much about his past before being brought into Signum—not even to Pothos, not even to Eurydice. But Ophiuchus feels just slightly different. 

“Aren’t you and the other Knowledge Bearers the same?” he tries after a while. “You have… also lived outside of this peaceful land.”

Ophiuchus’s smile thins. “That does make one wonder, doesn’t it? That is: how we’re able to bring in a peaceful era despite not truly understanding what peace is and having never lived in peace before. I’ve had lengthy discussions with Vega about this.”

There is a pang in Proteus’s chest at the latter revelation. Ophiuchus seems to somehow read his thoughts because she reaches across the table to hold his hand.

“Each one of you is special to me, Proteus,” Ophiuchus says, placing a finger to her lips. A secret. “Our ultimate goal is peace, freedom, and tranquility. While we teach that the pursuit of knowledge is a way to live by, we still uphold lack of attachment as the key to internal peace and true enlightenment since everything returns to the cycle. Passions can drive a person mad, after all. Even so, I’m still human in the end.”

Proteus understands what she’s implying. Although the admittance warms his chest, with it comes a general feeling of uneasiness. Above the uneasiness, however, is a sense of pride—pride that Ophiuchus trusted him with this information.

“I… thank you, Ophiuchus, for telling me this,” Proteus says. After some time, he returns to the previous conversation: “Attachments… One could argue that having a name is a form of attachment. Therefore, is it that potential Knowledge Bearers abandon their name to limit that number of attachments? And for the current names you bear… do you believe that is a form of attachment? Since you’ve held onto it for so long?”

“Well, conversing with a large group without having a name is quite difficult, so the usefulness of names overrides what you consider an ‘attachment,’” Ophiuchus muses after some thought. “Actually… the names that you call us and the names you’ve named the thirteen districts are not our actual true names. We selected those names for ourselves after we became the first Knowledge Bearers.” She presses a finger to her lips again. Another secret. “My true name is actually Pandora.”

“P-Pandora…” Proteus turns, heart pounding. “But… Where did you get the names Ophiuchus, Scorpio, Leo, Libra form?”

“Names are always derived from the past, aren’t they?” Ophiuchus doesn’t elaborate further and merely says, “This is our secret, alright?”

Secret. Trust. Proteus is honored.

Over the years, their relationship grows stronger and stronger. Proteus remains wholly dedicated to Ophiuchus, while some of the other Mathitís gradually find their dedication split between each other, their research, and other outside responsibilities. Proteus’s relationship with Ophiuchus is incomparable to any other—he knows. He understands her, and she understands him. 

November 1465

Aesculapium, Ophiuchus District, United Signum

“Is it not cruel?” Proteus wonders.

Vega looks up at him from across the Itero Recino board game table. They have just retired from presenting a dual lecture for the younger students at the Aesculapium. The materials for the past few lectures were quite trivial, so Proteus began weaving little riddles into lectures. Vega caught on quickly and began weaving them into hers. For the past twenty lectures, they’ve been sending each other riddles interwoven within their lessons. 

Vega has warmed a little since Proteus first laid eyes on her during that founding festival two decades ago. Proteus has found it easier to talk to her in recent years and often confides in her things he does not wish to confide in Pothos, Eurydice, or even Ophiuchus–though he feels guilty for the latter bit. She always listens much like Ophiuchus does, and perhaps this is a skill she has developed due to her recent interests. Vega has developed an apparent fondness for children, going so far as to teach in rural regions near the borders of the country. Proteus wonders if this is due to Altair’s influence. He’s not quite sure how he feels about their relationship.

Vega’s brilliant, after all. Over these handful of years, she has proved the theory of the linked spatial factor shared between vitae particles. Her research has now shifted to the application of such theories. 

Vega is also one of the handful of Mathitís who worked on developing the mechanical conductor able to mimic the way the Knowledge Bearers conduct their vitae through tapping into the vitae within the bloodstream. It has not become mainstream yet, but it shows promise. Alternative forms of conducting have been suggested in recent years but Vega doesn’t look upon them fondly because she is old-fashioned. There is an ‘intimacy’—or so she says—with conducting that needs to be respected since it is utilizing memories and soul.

In recent years, however, she has become less and less focused on her research and more focused on teaching those children on the outskirts and—more focused on Altair. 

“When Knowledge Bearers are chosen, they generally serve for only a handful of years or even a handful of months,” Proteus says, moving the black piece marked with ‘α’ over the white piece marked ‘θ’. He palms the latter piece with a frown. “After that, they return themselves to the vitae reservoirs… The only exception to that has been Ophiuchus. Would you not say that that’s cruel? For such young individuals to inherit such a taxing and short-lived task?”

“When one becomes a Knowledge Bearer, one quite literally becomes a lexicon of information,” Vega replies. “One that is given consciousness. That’s quite a dangerous state of being.” She looks across the library terrace towards the open window where Proteus can see Altair enjoying the sunlight. “A change in perspective is also a necessity. That’s what the District Elects believe. The only exception is Ophiuchus.”

For now, Proteus thinks with worry.

“That is due to the fact that her role is somewhat different from the others.…. but I do believe I understand your perspective.” She puts a hand to her mouth as her other drifts across the board. “It’s quite a burden to place on the coming generation. One could argue that at least they’re taking on that burden for their current and future generations, but still…”

Proteus studies her.

“An alternative means should be found, yes. What we’re operating on is tradition—however young it may be.” She eats two of his pieces. Then three. “I’ve taught many who have grown to become Knowledge Bearers, and I have been taught by them in turn. The cyclic process is also tradition… Whether to become attached to tradition or not…” 

“Attached? I’ve discussed that topic with Ophiuchus recently.” Proteus watches Vega’s face to see if there are any hints of jealousy there. He quickly divulges some of the contents of his most recent conversation with her.

Vega only shows mild interest. “I see. That must have been an interesting conversation. The path to enlightenment is not far from the path of passion. They are connected through the bridges of attachment and obsession. Only freedom can sever that connection. Or so Sagittarius once said.”

Vega finishes maneuvering her pieces on the board. Unsurprisingly, only white pieces remain. Proteus has lost. 

✧ III ✧
August 1490
ευλάβεια

Something in the universe changes. It’s as if a switch has been flipped: an instantaneous reaction. The world blackens. 

Proteus doesn’t notice it himself at first. He is too busy basking in the light that is Ophiuchus’s presence and enjoying his position, studies, colleagues, and research at the Aesculapium to detect any sort of wrongness. The darkness reaches his eyes one day when he is perusing the Aesculapium’s white marble library with Mnemosyne. 

Mnemosyne is a bit of an oddball. She is a Mathitís for the Knowledge Bearer of Ophiuchus, but seems more like she is one for Leo. Frankly speaking, she acts more like a fevered fan than a learner or a teacher. She adores Leo and almost seems to worship the ground he walks on. The love and adoration is fortunately—or perhaps unfortunately—returned in kind. It’s not difficult to discern that Leo dotes on her even more than his own Mathitís. The history there is unknown to Proteus but he isn’t curious enough to pry. Regardless of this, he respects Mnemosyne for the progress she has made in quantifying the relationship between the vitae particle and memory. She has even managed to consolidate the theory into a form of conducting.

Proteus is discussing the potential ramifications Mnemosyne’s discovery will have on Knowledge Bearers when Altair and Vega storm into the library. They do not head to the glass bookshelves that line the pristine walls nor do they move to the central marble table where weekly debates are held. No, instead they head straight to Leo and Scorpio who are conversing out on the balcony in the evening light. Both Leo and Scorpio turn to the approaching two in surprise and offer greeting smiles. This warm gesture is not returned by either Altair and Vega.

Explain yourselves,” Altair demands through gritted teeth as she shoves a stack of papers into Leo’s chest. “What is this?”

“What are you doing to the children in the Virgo region?” Vega presses. Her countenance is calm, but the brooding storm in her eyes bleeds out into the rest of the library. Out of respect, some of the alumni who are perusing the shelves quickly exit the chamber.

Mnemosyne, on the other hand, stiffens and then blazes over to Leo’s side. Leo holds up a hand, stopping her short at the threshold of the balcony. Proteus, curious and somewhat afraid, joins her. By the time he nears, the papers that were shoved into Scorpio’s hands are scattered in disarray on the floor.

“No, no, no.” Scorpio shakes his head as his hand sweeps wide. “Virgo would never do something like this. Your presumptions are—”

Leo moves forward and picks the papers from the ground. He scans them, gaze darkening “What is this…?”

Altair visibly bristles. “Don’t act ignoran—” 

Vega places a hand on Altair’s shoulder. “Would you mind elaborating, Leo?”

Leo looks at her sharply, a frown pressing down his lips. “Why would you think I would be involved in something like this? You think that lowly of me, no?”

“The high opinions we hold of the Knowledge Bearers have been proven incorrect rather recently,” Vega replies evenly, “so forgive us if we are presumptuous.” She slowly points to the paper in Leo’s hands. “Both Virgo and Pisces are clearly implicated in this. It would be irresponsible of us not to consider the others.”

Leo’s frown deepens. “You have confronted others about this, yes?”

“Ophiuchus,” Altair replies. “We went to her before we came to you. She was aghast—”

No,” Scorpio repeats defiantly. He sweeps out of the balcony into the library and heads to the exit. “I don’t believe it–”

“Where are you going?” Leo calls after him.

“I’ll confront Virgo myself about this,” Scorpio replies without stopping. “There has to be some sort of mistake—a misunderstanding.”

“Don’t be reckless, yes? Be strong. Be smart,” Leo says, warns Scorpio, before turning and finally beckoning Mnemosyne near.

“What’s going on…?” she asks tentatively.

After consulting with Leo and Vega privately, Altair tells Proteus and Mnemosyne everything and it horrifies Proteus. Vitae is being harvested—not from the reservoirs but from humans. From children. The immigrant orphans that live at the border’s edge. And why? Because certain districts have begun to experience a drought of reservoirs. The people demand more. Then—there is this talk about this so-called ‘syzygy.’

The lack of patience, empathy, and care is astounding. The lack of proper education and humane solution is revolting. They are a civilized nation but they still resort to something like this? Proteus is certain that if reservoir conservation policy and appropriate distribution measures are put into place, this issue could be easily resolved. It will just take time.  It’s almost unbelievable that anyone would think of a solution like this instead. 

At the same time, however, Proteus is not surprised. 

The world blackens further. 

The Knowledge Bearers hold council in the Mathitís hall a week or two later. By this time, word has spread to all the Mathitís; and they gather together to watch the outcome of the discussion. Pothos and Eurydice who flank Proteus’s left and right from where he stands behind Ophiuchus’s stolen chair are both disgusted. 

It is evident that the Knowledge Bearers are divided into three factions: those who are against, those who are for, and those who hold neutral ground. How one can be apathetic and hold neutral ground in this situation astounds Proteus.

“The people demand more reservoirs, Scorpio says, breaking the silence first. “It’s not as if they won’t eventually become part of the reservoirs eventually. Why not meet the demands of our people while simultaneously moving forward with the syzygy?”

Something has changed in that single week since Scorpio has allegedly confronted Virgo. It unnerves Proteus. He doesn’t recognize Scorpio anymore. He wants to ask what happened but he knows knowing will do nothing.

“The syzygy,” Capricorn repeats with disdain. “Is that what you’re calling this reprehensible plan of yours?”

“It’s not so much a plan,” Scorpio responds, “as a sequential series of events. A chain reaction started by a catalyst long ago. It’s inevitable—” 

“You’re a fool, Scorpio.” Leo’s eyes narrow. “Do you hear yourself?”

“The people have made this decision,” Pisces replies, folding his hands together and smiling pleasantly. “Our purpose is to aid our people and that’s what we’re doing.”

Your people,” Taurus replies evenly. “Not ours.”

“It’s not even the people… Cancer mumbles. “It’s the District Leaders…”

Scorpio smiles sympathetically and extends a hand. “You don’t understand now, but you will. This is fact.”

Gemini lifts her head, eyes widening as if in realization. “You idiot. You tried to use your vitae on Virgo, didn’t you…? That’s why—” 

“So the plan is to decimate a quarter of the people to supply the people, no? And then what afterwards?” Leo interjects, amber eyes burning bright. “Why would you even suggest that route to them? Have you no pride? And this—this syzygyDisgusting!” 

Leo rises to a stand and swings out his hand. A ribbon of gold spills out from his palm and spindles into six blades that hover in the air. Without hesitation, he flings his hand out and the blades hurtle across the table towards Scorpio who continues smiling pleasantly. Before the blades reach him, a burst of crimson flame erupts over the table and the blades of vitae are disintegrated in an instant.

Aries.

Proteus immediately thinks of his childhood as memories of mortar shells, gunfire, and the rumble of detonators flood his mind. The gasps that fill the room barely reach his ears as his mind reels. He is only brought back to reality by Ophiuchus’s voice— 

“Stop this at once!”

Ophiuchus captures the attention of the room almost immediately. As the smoke in the room clears, guided by Sagittarius’s tense and waving hand, Ophiuchus rises to a stand. Her gaze sweeps the room and she looks at all of them sympathetically, warmly.

“We cannot fight like this. Arguments should be settled not with fists but with words—no, with understanding, compromise, and patience. What sort of examples are we setting by using our fists instead of our heads?” she asks, before folding her hands together. She gazes across the table towards Pisces and Scorpio. “I have a proposal that may satisfy all parties.”

“Oh?” Pisces reflects her smile back. “And what is that?”

“I suggest that… you have a little bit more faith in our people,” Ophiuchus says. “You’re pushing for vitae harvesting and this syzygy and claim it is for them. As Knowledge Bearers, our purpose is indeed to offer a guiding hand to our people, but perhaps we have grown too involved and attached.” She gestures to opposite ends of the table. “We should not be actively deciding the fates of our people. I think this development makes that clear regardless of where you stand. I suggest we take a more hands-off approach from now on. I repeat: we should have faith in our people. If their path leads them to this ‘syzygy’ as you call it then so be it, but if not, then why should we push for it?

“That’s ridiculous, Ophiuchus. You know it.” Scorpio stares at her with sympathy. “It’s just delaying what is already meant to be.” 

Ophiuchus responds only by reflecting his sympathetic look.

“The only person who benefits from this sort of agreement is you, Ophiuchus,” Libra interjects calmly. She has remained so quiet the entire time that Proteus has almost forgotten her presence. “You are asking without giving in return.”

Leo bristles. “And this is you taking a neutral stance, yes?”

“I am being neutral. I’m stating as I see fit and fair,” Libra responds calmly. “The opposing party will not be satisfied with this. This ‘syzygy’ that they believe is the key to peace—”

“Key to peace,” Capricorn scoffs.

“—is pushed back by your deal proposal so they must pay with time,” Libra continues. “The challenging party receives only benefits and loses nothing.” She extends a hand out to Ophiuchus’s and Leo’s direction. “I suggest you offer an equivalent wager.”

Ophiuchus takes a long and sweeping of the hall before she lets out a breath and gestures to chest. “I wager myself.”

Proteus doesn’t understand what she’s implying.

“I have not gone through a baptismal ceremony since taking my role here,” she says. “And I will not go through any from now on. Our bodies are held together by the vitae particles inside of us, but we still face the ravages of time. Since they must wait during this deal, I will do the same to extremity.” 

Libra frowns. “Ophiuchus… I care for you and respect you, but do you think your stagnation is enough?”

Ophiuchus’s gaze does not falter. “It’s up to the opposing party to accept this proposal, isn’t it?”

Scorpio exchanges a look with Pisces, before Scorpio smirks and Pisces offers a calm nod.

Proteus world cracks in two.

Proteus gets on his knees, crawls along the floor, and grovels at Ophiuchus’s legs. All of Ophiuchus’s other 23 Mathités that ring her look down at him in surprise, pity, disappointment. Pothos is among them and moves forward to try to bring Proteus back up to his feet, but Proteus pushes him aside. 

“Please, Ophiuchus!” he pleads. “You have to see how foolish this deal is! The ones who benefit from it are the ones who want the syzygy to happen! You know what people are like, Ophiuchus. You know! It’s all for naught!”

“Proteus,” Vega warns. “Respect Ophiuchus’s choice.”

“You’ve lived long enough to know that I’m right, Ophiuchus!” Proteus continues, before whipping towards Vega. “Vega, you’ve seen how it is near the outskirts, haven’t you? You’ve seen what those children have gone through before they’ve come into our borders. It’s no use!”

Vega seems to consider his words. Proteus reaches for her, but Altair pulls her away while casting a sympathetic look in Proteus’s direction.

Altair

“Proteus, please have some faith in your fellow humans,” Ophiuchus says gently as she falls into a crouch in front of him so they are eye-level. “Please have a little bit of hope.”

Hope.

Proteus grabs onto her hand. “I was no one before I met you, Ophiuchus

Ophiuchus’s face folds and she pulls away. “I see I have taught you incorrectly, Proteus. I’m sorry for that–” 

“Why can’t you see? Why can’t you see?!” Proteus cries, scrambling to his feet and stumbling towards her. Before he can reach for her hand again, the other Mathitís pull him back. “How can you all just sit by and let this be? She’s our teacher! She’s given us everything we know!”

“Proteus! Stop it!” 

“That’s enough, Proteus…”

Proteus stares at them all in disbelief.

Why can’t they see it…?

It is then that Proteus shakily raises his hand to his left eye, digs his fingers into his eye-socket, and—squelch! Someone screams. Proteus ignores them and fixates his remaining good eye on Ophiuchus as she turns to him in confusion. Her hand flies to her mouth as he shrugs himself forward out of the ones who hold him. He offers her his eye.

“If you can’t see it with your own eye, then look through mine! Connect with me! You have to see!” Proteus pleads. He stumbles towards her again, but his legs buckle beneath him as blood loss settles in. 

Ophiuchus’s voice echoes in his ears—“Please get him to a medical…”

As his vision dims, the last thing he sees is her retreating back.

The next year Proteus and Ophiuchus’s Mathitís as well as other Mathitís press the limits of their research capabilities away from the eyes of the other Knowledge Bearers. In the end, they postulate a number of steps they can take to mitigate this ‘syzygy.’ These measures are arguably unethical, but it is their best option. It’s not as if the pro-syzygy Knowledge Bearers are doing any better, after all.

Their first countermeasure is bleaching vitae. It brings vitae to such a lower energy level that they hypothesize it is unable to return to the cycle. The older Mathitís find this method reprehensible since it disrupts the natural cyclic nature of vitae. It’s no better than what Pisces and Virgo did, they say. It’s simply doing it in the opposite direction.

Second, there is the practice of actively siphoning away vitae from the vitae reservoirs. It is the younger Mathitís that object to this idea. It’s retroactive, they say. It’ll just make the common people and the District Leaders more desperate for vitae.

Their reluctance irritates Proteus. He wishes they would just let go of their hesitation. If they would just let go of it, then they would be able to achieve anything. But Ophiuchus has always taught patience and understanding, so Proteus keeps his feelings to himself. Throughout the entire ordeal, no one mentions his missing eye, but he occasionally gets curious looks, disdainful looks, admiring looks.

This inconvenience aside, even in light of their discoveries, the world continues to spin against them.

Sagittarius who has remained neutral is rumored to have switched their stance to pro-syzygy. Gemini as well. Proteus doesn’t know what has caused the change in tide but he suspects it will soon reach the other Knowledge Bearers. 

September 1, 1491

Proteus does not attend the day the pact is meant to be sealed. He hears about it despite not wanting to. Eurydice describes it in great detail between weeping tears:

In a dark chamber where light did not touch, Libra met with Ophiuchus. Under Leo’s and Pisces’s gazes, Libra reiterated the points of their deal—the free will clause on both parties, non-interference, and the observer resolution. After that, Libra drove her vitae straight through Ophiuchus’s chest, effectively paralyzing her and her vitae. Ophiuchus—still conscious—was subsequently laid down to rest on a stone table that would serve as her bed for an unknowable amount of time to come.

An hour or so after Proteus learns of this, a public announcement carries through the Ophiuchus District by paper and word-of-mouth: The United Signum is united no more. Each district has laid claim to its own independence and has become a fully functional state. 

Eternal united peace?

Folly.

It’s gut-wrenching.

“You should have been there,” Pothos says bitterly when he finds Proteus later that evening. “Ophiuchus would’ve wanted you to be there.”

Proteus tries to ignore him.

“She’s going to spend who knows how long trapped in that chamber,” Pothos continues. “Think of how lonely she’ll be when we’re gone.” 

Ophiuchus’s loneliness—Proteus feels guilty for not considering it, but he still is angry that she clings so tightly to her belief despite knowing better. Is he disappointed? No. Just sad. The thought of her potential century-long loneliness is enough to swallow bitter feelings. He has to do something, he knows. He needs to do something for her before he is gone. But if offering his eye to her is not enough, then what…? 

1500

The world continues to turn. In what direction? Proteus does not know. The leaders of each of the decade-old states have decided to relabel the Knowledge Bearers as Saint Candidates. There is irony behind the meanings of the differing titles that does not escape Proteus.

An idea sparks inside Proteus’s mind a couple decades after Ophiuchus is sealed: a way to stay by Ophiuchus’s side, a way to mitigate her loneliness, a way to help her. He thinks of it after spying Mnemosyne wandering by Leo’s side in the Aesculapium’s halls during one of Leo’s covert visits.

Proteus locates Vega in the library at the dead of night not soon after. He spills to her his ideas, his dreams, his plans, his hopes.

“We need to resist,” Proteus insists. “We don’t know if the Knowledge Bearers will uphold their end of the bargain, so we must–” 

“Resist?” Vega frowns. “By making us resistant to the turn of the cycle? By resisting Ophiuchus’s wishes and sacrifice?”

A gloominess has shrouded the woman’s face in the past year and an invisible deep sadness seems to weep out from every pore in her body. 

“We have to,” Proteus insists. “We have to actively try to stop the syzygy from happening. We cannot blindly put our faith and hope in the future generations! Shouldn’t we take that burden from the children coming on after us?”

His pleas do not reach her.

“I will follow along with Ophiuchus’s request,” Vega says. “Proteus… I suggest you do the same. Out of respect. Out of a sense of responsibility.”

Proteus is devastated by Vega’s answer. He needs her brilliance to move this plan of his forward. He needs her reputation to draw more people towards his ideals, but now—

Suddenly, Proteus thinks of Altair. He knows that Altair is the one who followed Vega to become a Mathitís, but he also knows following is not a one-way route. And so he begins to whisper into Altair’s ear. He appeals to the woman’s knightly nature, to her desire to serve, to her sense of justice, to her sense of righteousness. He drops the seeds of his ideas here and there and waits for them to take root.

It only takes two weeks. The bitterness in Altair’s heart takes hold, and she finally realizes that standing idle is insufficient. She agrees to his proposition. When Vega learns of this, there is expected conflict. Proteus overhears snippets of the duo’s late night argument in the libraries from where he hides out of sight behind a bookcase.

“Darling,” Altair says, “I won’t be able to live with myself if I die and return to the cycle without having done anything to try and stop this madness. I cannot allow Ophiuchus’s sacrifice to be in vain—”

“You won’t be able to return to the cycle at all,” Vega returns, “if you go through with what Proteus has laid out. It’s wrong, Altair. You know it. Ophiuchus would not approve of it.”

Altair moves to hold Vega’s face in her left palm. “Darling, I want to make sure there is a Signum for your vitae to return to every time your cycle is turned. I want to make sure the cycle is still present for those who come after us.” She traces Vega’s cheekbone and wrinkles with her thumb. “I will not go immediately and will remain here as long as possible, darling, so you won’t miss me much. I promise.”

When Vega doesn’t respond, Altair pulls away. She is prevented from fully retreating, however, by Vega’s hand which wraps around her wrist.

“You’re a ridiculous person.” Vega sighs, pulling Altair back gently towards her. “Why would you think I would not follow you if you chose this path?” She carefully cups Altair’s hand in her own. “You will always be my precious magpie. Wherever you fly, I will follow—just for the chance that you will alight in my palm so I may hold you as long as possible.”

“Darling…”

A kiss seals their fate.

Proteus feels relief. 

With both Vega and Altair on board, it does not take long for the other Mathitís to follow. The younger follow in the footsteps left by the elder no matter the time and place.

1509

Nearly a decade later, the development of the resistor reaches completion. Those Mathitís who still remain gather at Proteus’s beckoning in the Mathitís Hall of the aged Aesculapium. Despite the passage of time, the marbled walls remain pristine and the pillars that uphold the stone roof still stand pure white. It is a sign of reassurance or perhaps an attachment. Either way, it is an anchor. 

This will be their final forum discussion before they bleach their vitae, and Proteus addresses their final concerns, worries, hesitations to the best of his ability.

“We’ll be the enduring hope in the resistance against the syzygy,” Proteus says in his closing lines. “We will be Ophiuchus’s”—Pandora’s, he thinks— “ELPIS.”

Everyone solemnly nods as silence falls. 

“It’s still damned unnatural,” Themis, a Mathitís of Libra, spits and breaks the silence first. She has been brought in through her association with Pothos, Vega, and Altair. “I understand that and I bitterly admit that Libra made an incorrect judgment, but…” She gestures to her chest. “Removing ourselves from the cycle? Is it ethical? Have we filled out all the proper paperwork? Brought it to the review board? No! Because we’re doing it under the damned table and breaking a contract!”

“If you don’t like it…” Bolina sighs. “… then why are you here, Themis?” She glances over to another middle-aged woman beside her. “And you Hatsya? You’re a Mathitís for Scorpio, aren’t you? You used to be so flirtatious with him, and you see how he is now. How can we trust you?”

Hatsya clicks her tongue in annoyance. “I still know what’s right and what’s wrong outside of my personal relationships. Check yourself before you go judging others.”

“Just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean I won’t go through with it,” Themis agrees. “As Hatsya said, I know what’s right and just.”

The whispers of disagreement begin to blossom around them.

Vega silences it all with one sweeping look. “We will need to keep records. This is how we shall combat the stagnation bleached vitae brings. We will need to be our own bearers of knowledge. If not, we will not learn what works and what doesn’t. We won’t grow from our mistakes,” she says. “I suggest we store such records in the laboratory Altair carved out for me 20 or 30 years ago. We can use those rooms as an operating base as well.”

“We should lay some ground rules in place now and let any objections and discussion on the path ahead be displayed out now,” Altair adds. “Having these discussions after the fact is kind of pointless.”

Vega nods. “I will start notating now. This will be our first record.”

“We won’t be ourselves anymore after this, right, Vega?” someone murmurs. “Not really.”

Vega nods quietly.

Morose silence again falls over them all.

Proteus can see reluctance mounting but it never reaches full fruition. He then suggests after some more silence–“Then we should abandon the names we currently have. It’ll be a sign of our choice and our removal from the cycle.” He placed a hand to his chest. “We end here.”

“We die here,” Vega agrees. “That being said, if you would like to approach this matter poetically like so, what names would you suggest we take on, Proteus?”

Proteus thinks for a moment as he regards Vega and then recalls the numerous rounds of Itero Recino they’ve played over the years. He swiftly counts the heads in the hall before he offers his suggestion.

“Ah, how childish,” Vega says in response, tone fond. 

“Since you started it, you should be Alpha, Proteus,” Eurydice offers in a clear attempt to warm the mood. “I’ll be Beta.” 

Pothos steps forward, gesturing to himself. “I’ll be Gamma—”

“Wait a damn minute!” Themis bristles. “How come you get to choose your names first? Where’s the fairness in that!” She pauses to hack a cough. “I say we draw—”

Foreign footfalls cut Themis off short. Proteus and the others turn towards the threshold entrance where a woman with golden curls and amber eyes stands. It is Leo, now wearing a different face. 

“Please do continue, yes?” she says. “Oh. I apologize if my entrance has… distracted you.”

“Leo!” Mnemosyne greets the Knowledge Bearer with pure enthusiasm. “You made it!”

Mnemosyne is given tense looks of disapproval. 

“What are you doing here, Leo?” someone asks, tense, distrustful.

“I’ll assist you in your efforts, yes? Mnemosyne has told me everything,” Leo replies calmly, walking forward and standing at the center of their gathering. “I cannot stand the idea of going back on everything that we’ve built, no? It is pure nonsense.”

Some glance at Vega, others at Proteus himself.

“You’ve known me all of your lives, and I’ve known you all of mine.” Leo’s gaze sweeps over them all. “You’ve seen where I stand on this situation, yes? Just as you cannot let this be, neither can I.”

Proteus regards Leo. Leo was one of the few Knowledge Bearers to stand by Ophiuchus’s side in the previous decade. Leo is trustworthy. Vega seems to agree because she offers a nod of approval.

“To assist you best, I will pretend to side with Scorpio, Pisces, and the others for now. I dislike doing dishonorable things like going against deals, but in this case I must, no? Discreetly.” Leo looks them over again. “And how will you handle your own discreteness? The others will realize what you are doing soon.” A sympathetic look passes over her gaze. “You are sure of your choice?”

“We’re as certain as you are,” Altair says.

“We’ll apply the observer clause in this case,” Vega answers the first question evenly, “when this comes to the attention of the other Knowledge Bearers… To stay by Ophiuchus’s side and ensure the other party upholds their end up the deal—this will be our explanation. Will that be sufficient in your eyes…?”

Leo inclines her head. “I know the path ahead seems impossible, but I will tell you this. Impossible is something to be conquered by the strong. I admire your bravery.”

They finally enter Ophiuchus’s chamber a week before it is to be done. Ophiuchus has aged slightly in the past decade and has become noticeably thinner. Pothos kneels at her side and holds her hand, while Vega holds her gaze gloomily. 

Proteus tells Ophiuchus what is to be done. Ophiuchus, who can no longer truly speak, merely holds his gaze. He cannot decipher her expression. Perhaps if he had both of his eyes he would be able to.

As the time nears, fear stirs Proteus’s heart, but it is not fear for himself or for the others. It is fear that Ophiuchus will still be alone. They will forget with each initiation, but she won’t. He does not want to forget any moments he experiences with Ophiuchus from this point on either. He wants to record everything that their written records fail to capture. This will be key in their resistance effort, he convinces himself. And so he takes Mnemosyne aside and makes a request. 

“With the help of your conducting, I’ll become a pseudo-Knowledge Bearer,” he reasons, trying to reassure both himself and her. “I know the others will object to this, so this should stay just between us—”

“A pseudo-Knowledge Bearer?” the woman mutters fretfully, biting her nails. “That’s… not right. You know it’s not.” 

Unable to suppress his frustration, he takes a hold of her sides and shakes her hard. “Leo is sacrificing his entire life to help us. Do you want him to be alone in all of that? We’ll forget, but he won’t! Ophiuchus won’t!”

Mnemosyne crumples under his words. Her affection for and attachment to Leo is strong. So, a day later, the two of them select a trusted alumnus at the Aesculapium named Julius to be the donor of vitae and memory for the coming years. Julius thus becomes the first true non-resistored ELPIS member. Proteus knows there will be many more to come until this cold war they have with the pro-syzygy Knowledge Bearers ends. 

Proteus goes through the vitae bleaching ceremony first. Vega and Mnemosyne are the ones who apply the procedure. As he lays down on the stone slab table in Vega’s exitless room, he stares up at the ceiling and thinks over his entire life: from the time he was hiding from bullets and bombs outside of Signum to him being taken into his foster parents’ care to him basking in Ophiuchus’s light for the first time to attending and giving lectures with his fellow Mathitís at the Aesculapium.

Ophiuchus has always been his beginning. He hopes that she will be his end as well. Despite all of his reservations about the choice Ophiuchus has made, now that he really thinks about it, he still believes in her version of eternal peace.

Peace. Hope. Love.

Attachment.

Yes, those are ‘right’ things and they are in the right.

The searing hot pain that scorches through his vein marks the turning point.

Proteus ends here.

Alpha begins here.


Twin Cities, Gemini

Francis Foxman carefully wove his way through the damp streets he’d known since childhood. His gates had covered almost every meter of the city near the end of last fall, but many had been scrubbed away by the ELPIS Department in the weeks following that. He managed to set up a handful of supplementary gates around the east and west corridors in the past few months, but it was exceedingly difficult to do so without drawing the attention of Scorpio’s spores. This especially held true regarding areas surrounding Romano and Foxman footholds. At the moment, however, encroaching on this territory was a necessary risk. 

“I bet they don’t even pay their damned taxes.”

Francis glanced to his right at Tau who paced beside him. Tau had always been stringent about law, justice, legal agreements, order—perhaps too much so. But this was exactly why Francis had brought the man with him. Without Tau’s assistance, Francis doubted he would be able to achieve the goal he currently had in mind. Perhaps, in the past he may have been able to, but not as his current self.

As he rounded a street corner of one of the wealthier districts on the outskirts of the city, he observed the large mansions that were spaced far and wide from each other behind the gates at his left. Such signs of wealth when compared to the poverty at the heart of the city highlighted the disparities that came with the modern age. It was troubling.

After wandering around somewhat lost for the better part of half an hour, Francis and Tau were approached by two suited men holding an umbrella. Francis reached for Allen’s pistol at his belt in response but felt rather foolish for such a violent action when he came to recognize the two men. They were Romano men. Verano and Lidio—if Francis recalled correctly.

The two stared at the right side of his face for a while before they exchanged looks and Verano said, “The boss has been expecting you for the past couple of hours. He sent us out to look for you when you didn’t show…”

So Ricardo was already aware of his discovery. 

Tau frowned. “Expecting us? The gall!”

“I see,” Francis said. “I would appreciate it if you took me to Mr. Ricardo’s residence then. I can’t seem to remember where he lives.”

After exchanging another look with Verano, Lidio nodded and held out the umbrella over Francis’s and Tau’s head. Francis finally realized it was raining.

* * *

Francis and Tau were brought into a large, maroon manor at the very edge of the city. The gold gated bars that caged it in swung open for them as they approached. Upon entering the lavish house, Francis’s suit-jacket was taken from him and he was handed a towel to dry himself with. Tau received the same treatment.

Afterwards, Verano and Lidio led them up a tall, red-carpet staircase and to the familiar oak doors of Ricardo’s office. Upon entering the office, Francis took note of the familiar warm maroon walls, the wooden furniture lining them, and the fire crackling in the far right corner. At the robust mahogany desk resting before the rain-splashed window at the very back of the room sat Ricardo Romano. 

“We found him,” Verano said, thumbing Francis as he stepped before Ricardo. “He got lost apparently. Also brought company—”

Tau surged forward towards Ricardo’s desk. “You conniving old, lawless, pseudo-socialite of a man! Do you understand what you’ve done? The laws you’ve broken? Well, I know you have. You’re already being punished for breaking conducting law and now you’ve just moved on to this nonsense? The criminal justice system of this country is absolutely—”

Verano and Lidio exchanged looks before moving forward towards Tau.

Francis raised a hand to stop them. “Tau, calm down,” he said.

Tau shut his mouth and whipped around to study Francis. With reluctance, he obliged and retreated to Francis’s side. He crossed his arms, pushed his skewed glasses up the bridge of his nose, and shook his head. “Bastards—the lot of you.”

Seeming more amused than disturbed, Ricardo waved his hand, in turn. Both Verano and Lidio exited the room. 

“Francis,” Ricardo finally greeted him. He gestured to the fireplace. “How about you and our guest dry off some before we start our discussion—”

Tau scoffed. “Are you bribing us now?”

“Well, no—”

“Mr. Ricardo,” Francis returned, rejecting the offer by walking forward. “I’d rather not accept any sort of hospitality from you at the moment—”

“You got lost, Francis? Did you have to bring Tau?”

Francis turned sharply at the familiar voice and registered his oldest brother sitting in a suede chair at the back wall. “Al…” Realization settled in. “I see. So you were the one who informed Ricardo that I’d come.”

“Barging into a place of a business associate unannounced isn’t exactly polite,” Allen replied. “You had me worried, Francis. I don’t want you to do something you’ll regret.”

“‘Polite.’” Francis muttered. “Is it customary for someone who sells something like that to worry about something like politeness and decency?”

“Despicable,” Tau added.

“The chlorowheat,” Ricardo acknowledged. He opened his arms. “You’ve come here to discuss it, right, Francis? So—let’s discuss it. Your brothers, Fortuna, and I have been in a partnership to distribute chlorowheat to Argo since the end of last year. We cultivate; you ship. We exchange money. Are the terms not to your liking—”

“Do you have any additional chlorowheat stored elsewhere?” Francis interjected.

“…That’s something that our side handles without needing to consult with your side,” Ricardo responded calmly.

Tau leapt forward again. “And is that written down in the business contract between the two of you? Huh? Is it?! Scum-of-the-damned-world illegal-trading and drug-dealing aside, you have the damned impudence to go back on even the laws of the underground world? Breaking the laws above just wasn’t enough for you? Huh? Hu—” He paused to hack and cough. It seemed as if he’d once again choked on his spit.

Francis’s lips pressed thin and he used the opportunity to say, “You haven’t learned. You still sell product that damages the lives of children and those outside of you. Your apathy is….” His gaze narrowed. “Cadence suffered for it this time.”

Allen’s frown deepened.

“So I’ve heard.” Ricardo nodded seriously. “But I’ve also heard that her condition is improving.” He sighed. “We live in a capitalistic society, Francis. It’s what we have to do to live and survive. People are not always giving and kind. You can’t always rely on a stranger’s generosity. The only people you can rely on are yourself and family. We need to make do with what we have. You have children to care for, don’t you? Many children. Money—”

Again. The same card was being played.

Tau clicked his tongue in disgust.

Ricardo glanced at him momentarily before returning his attention to Francis. “Are you disappointed in me?”

An odd question.

“Disappointment would be an understatement,” Francis snapped more than he’d intended to.

“Well… That’s quite saddening to hear,” Ricardo drew, leaning back into his leather chair, “Theta. The last thing I’d want to do is to disappoint you.”

Francis paused at the change of tone in Ricardo’s voice. He slowly looked back at Allen and found his brother tense and grim.

So that was how it was.

It was not difficult to connect the dots. The over-familiarity with which Ricardo had spoken to him during Fortuna’s wedding; the tension between his brothers, Fortuna, Cadence, and Ricardo; the lies that were already in place. Disappointment began to blossom in Francis’s chest—but it was directed this time at himself.

“I see… So this is what Fortuna was trying to tell me earlier.” Francis let out a quiet breath before turning to his brother. “And I’m assuming you, Carl, and Cadence knew about it and elected to keep quiet. Jericho as well?”

“Not sure about the peacekeeper,” Allen replied. “But the others—yeah.”

“Do you not respect and trust me?” Francis frowned. “You know me, Al.”

“I know you,” Allen agreed before gesturing to his head. “But this whole Theta-ELPIS thing—”

It was yet another knife wound to the chest. Francis frowned, looking away. Tensing, Allen shut his mouth.

“Al, you’re clinging to the past,” Francis finally said. “Things won’t return to the way they used to be—especially not with the syzygy on its way. You need to look at the bigger picture.”

Tau looked between them, appearing somewhat befuddled.

“A man named Theta took me in in the 1880s,” Ricardo finally said aloud what Francis had realized. “Raised me like his son. I always thought something wasn’t quite right with him, but he taught me how to read and to lead.” He folded his hands. “I’ve lived by what you taught me, Theta. It’s because of what you taught me that I’m able to sit here comfortably and give the people under me comfortable lives. I was able to give Fortuna a comfortable life. I was able to give Cadence and you and your brothers opportunities too. I wouldn’t do these things or even have the ability to do these things if it were not for what you did for me and taught me back then.”

Was that meant to be a compliment? It felt more like an insult.

Tau’s eyes widened and he snapped to Francis in disbelief. “Theta…”

Thunder rumbled in the distance.

“Then I’ve taught you incorrectly,” Francis murmured. “And you’ve taught me, my brothers, Fortuna, Cadence, Nico incorrectly in turn.” He placed a hand over his mouth as he digested the information. “So it turns out that the responsibility for this chlorowheat pandemic is the result of time and my own hand.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Ricardo drew. “The people who raise us affect who we become, yes, but we’re all still responsible for our own actions. That’s what you taught me. By extension, if you apply this to people who purchase and use our products…”

“That’s too simple of an interpretation,” Francis said, now somewhat frustrated. “There are other factors involved—other facets that are compounded. Risk, relevance, blame…”

The rain pattered against the window.

Tau remained silent for once. 

Thunder continued to rumble.

Francis thought of Cadence, Omicron, Jericho.

“I have a new proposal,” Francis finally said once his thoughts were somewhat in order.

Allen visibly startled. Even Ricardo looked surprised.

“A proposal? A business proposal?” 

“As you’ve said, Mr. Ricardo, times change and so must the way we handle things. I cannot approach this with the moral scale we used to apply.” Francis turned to Tau. “Is that not correct, Tau?”

Tau grimaced.

“I am wholly against the deplorable products you sell,” Francis said, “and I want it all destroyed immediately.”

“That’s a lot to ask for, Francis,” replied Ricardo.

Francis nodded in acknowledgment. “In return, I will offer you something else equivocal.”

Ricardo arched a brow. “Putting aside your philosophies on moral scales, might I ask what spurred on this decision?”

“This world will cease soon,” Francis explained plainly. 

There was a beat of silence.

“Yes…This mysterious syzygy.” Ricardo rubbed his chin as he searched Francis’s face.

Francis nodded before offering his hand. “I doubt in this world’s political climate, we will be able to gather the necessary resources to combat it. Despite the peacekeepers’ iron hold, you are still able to exist peacefully. You still have your resources. I would like to utilize them.”


Okör, Taurus

“And what exactly are you thinking about?”

Gamma looked away from the black smoke pillars rising from what was once the central conductor generator facility of this small town of Okör. From where he stood on this mountain flat kilometers above the smoldering town, he could still make out the bodies that littered the front of the facility and the small town houses surrounding them. Most of those bodies—those corpses—were dressed in suits and had white bands fastened to one of their arms.

Ophiuchus might be saddened by the sight–Gamma thought–but she was no longer here. Besides, they were right. They had to maintain and hold to the hope that she had clung tightly to.

“Well?”

Gamma turned to find Delta approaching him from behind.

Delta sighed as she neared him. “They’re becoming quicker and quicker with restoring generator conductors and ley lines, aren’t they? I was just here not too long ago…”

“You’re late,” was all he said in response.

Delta shrugged her shoulders before spinning on her heels and gesturing to the path behind her. Four figures were ascending the mountain towards them. “Is it alright to be late when I’ve made a meaningful… ‘discovery’?”

Gamma registered the first approaching figure as Iota. The other three appeared to be Capricornian gauging by their military-wear. Gamma thought he recognized one of them—the one wearing the glasses, but he wasn’t quite sure. 

While Iota immediately came to Gamma’s side, the other three lingered back—clearly apprehensive. 

“Where have you been, Iota?” Gamma asked, frowning.

“Looking for you!” Iota replied in exasperation. He paused for a moment to fix his bowtie and style his hair. “Lamendos is gone! Did you see? It’s been absolutely, bloody obliterated! I’ve been jumping around just trying to find you! I managed to capture—”

“Yes, it was destroyed by Alpha’s group,” Gamma explained.

Iota recoiled. “How could they—” 

“Who are they?” Gamma questioned, gesturing to the trio behind him. “Recruits? Converts?”

Iota glanced back at them. “It’s… complicated. Oh, but I did manage to capture—” he thumbed behind him. “—well, I’ll show you.”

Gamma glanced at the sole woman of the trio. She had been eyeing him this entire time. He wondered if she recognized his face.

“Oh?” Delta pulled away from Gamma and peered down the edge of the cliff. “Survivors? Why don’t you take a look, Gamma?”

Gamma glanced down towards the village below to find two lone figures entering its premises. He recognized the duo immediately. It was them again. Wtorek Elizabeta and Taurus.


✧ IV ✧
1500s
πενθών

The first century passes by in a blur. Monadism is founded as a religion to continue the baptismal ceremonies that the Mathitís used to oversee. Monadics are zealots and the newly-minted leaders sitting in positions of power weaponize that religious fervor. Conducting meanwhile evolves and changes rapidly and conductors enter wide circulation. Strict conducting-type categories are developed, restraining freedom and individualism. 

The first batch of ELPIS leaders are initiated by Leo. When Alpha awakens, he looks upon the changes of the century with disdain. So do the others. Conducting has been defiled, and the cycle is showing cracks. Aside from the disdain, there is evident discomfort. 

As a reminder of his dedication to Ophiuchus, Alpha decides to remove his left eye. It does not hurt like last time, and he briefly worries if the lack of pain means that the gesture has lost its meaning. The worry passes with time.

After seeing how uneasy the first initiates are having ‘awoken’ so relatively close to their ‘deaths’, Alpha elects to initiate Theta and Omicron to serve as guiding hands. But Theta is initiated incorrectly into a Monadic priest. She—he—becomes unrecognizable, a zealot, a passionate worshipper. Still, Omicron loves him with all her—his—heart. In the end, Theta is burned at the stake for religious heresy. Omicron mourns so deeply that he becomes listless, depressed. Leo offers Omicron comfort and reassurance while the others begin to recoil at how rapidly the world has changed.

Their first century as ELPIS is thus wrought with mistakes, miscommunication, and hesitation—especially following Theta’s death. They notate these developments all down in their records and hope for improvement in the next iteration. 

Acting as a familiar teacher, Leo organizes for them a way to siphon reservoirs in a methodical, holistic, and safe manner. Despite representing the pillar of victory and now having taken on the title of Saint of Victory, Leo gives them direction. Reassurance.

Theta’s second initiation goes smoother. Soon the unease from the circumstances surrounding Theta’s first death are forgotten by everyone besides the records and Leo. The scars are wiped away.

Alpha supposes this is one of the bonuses of bleached vitae, although he does not benefit from it. Not really. He remembers Theta’s burning fully into his third initiation after Mnemosyne provides him with memories and vitae from Julius. But it is not all torture. From Julius’s vitae, Alpha also remembers his late night philosophical conversations with Theta and Gamma; and most importantly of all, he remembers his early morning visitations to Ophiuchus’s side nearly every day as well as every moment in between them.

1600s

The second century passes by a bit easier. Leo is, however, absent during this century. Meanwhile, the religious monarchy that has formed in Leo’s domain crumbles. 

Theta begins a habit of taking in stray children. It seems to act as a form of reassurance and comfort to them. Alpha wonders if it’s just Theta subconsciously trying to attach themselves to the world–if it’s just their subconscious attempt to combat the way bleached vitae has detached all of them from it. He wonders if he should give it a try himself.

Alpha does not remember much of this century as Epsilon is by Leo’s side for a large portion of it. The history books don’t seem to remember it either.

1700s

By the time the third century comes around, Alpha no longer recognizes his friends, his alumni, his fellow Mathitís, his colleagues. It’s not as if he doesn’t remember who they are. He knows and remembers everything. It’s that they don’t remember who they are—not fully. Gamma has lost—forgotten—Pothos’s boyish enthusiasm and charm. Meanwhile, Beta—Eurydice—claims that Alpha himself has become strange when in reality is she who has become strange. Theta’s—Vega’s— gloom thickens. Tau’s—Themis’s—tirades of justice have become a one note character-trait because he remembers little else. The worst is Lambda. Lambda has been initiated the most out of all of them due to her unique knowledge of the healing capabilities and plasticity of vitae, but she has suffered for her willingness and kindness. Her wisdom has become worn away and an airiness has started to occupy her gaze.

The realization drowns Alpha in guilt even as they continue to deter the growth of the vitae reservoirs. 

Something has gone wrong. This cold war has gone on longer than it was supposed to. The hope has been that this would have all ended within a century, but now it’s spilling over into multiple centuries.

In panic, Alpha brings this to the attention of Ophiuchus even though he knows she cannot answer him. He pours out his feelings, his pseudo-Knowledge Bearer truth, his heart, his everything out to her. Ophiuchus holds his gaze with her frozen countenance. Her lips move but no words come out. Still, Alpha can understand what she is saying—

“Have hope.”

Why can’t she see?

✧ V ✧
August 1911
ιδεοληψία

A sweeping and wide war scars the entire continent. The monarchs, presidents, premiers, and oligarchs sit peacefully on their thrones as the common people spill their blood across the land. It’s a familiar sight. The other ELPIS Leaders don’t seem to think so despite it being recorded in their records. They still cling to hope that all of this will soon end, that Ophiuchus will win this bet, that their hope will prevail.

Alpha anguishes in silence and tries to find subtle comfort in Leo since Leo has witnessed these things too and still remains with them. But Leo does not show the fallacies that feel like they’re poking their way out from Alpha’s insides. And so Alpha continues to empty out from those holes that those fallacies leave behind.

February 1926

The war takes Omicron’s life; and like clockwork, Theta becomes listless and morose–as he has every single time. His leadership becomes shaken, and he tends more to the orphan children he’s rescued from the war’s devastation than to his responsibilities as the designated leader. Theta, however, is still a constant. He has not been initiated as much as the others have, so much of Vega’s original self remains in him.

Alpha has concerns about the war’s effect on Leo’s alliance with them and so he brings it to Theta’s attention. Theta, however, remains steadfast in his belief in Leo.

“Why do you have so much faith in him?” Alpha wonders in confusion after their short debate. He also wonders why Theta has so much faith in Ophiuchus’s decision and why he himself still has so much faith in it too–but he doesn’t voice this out loud.

“Leo has proved himself from the very beginning and throughout these years,” Theta replies. “You should not doubt those who are close by your side lest your aim is to drive them further away from yourself.” He mumbles into his hand. “Ah, now that you’ve brought this topic to my attention, I realize it now: I’ve been too distant from Leo lately… I should attend to that. He has helped us so far…”

Alpha isn’t satisfied by Theta’s answer and makes it known with a sigh of frustration. He is prepared to disclose his personal feelings regarding the war and siphoning the reservoirs that have been building in his chest for decades now, but Theta beats him to the point—

“I see you have some personal concerns and emotional worries beyond this,” Theta notes, tactlessly getting to the heart of the matter much like Vega would. “Perhaps it would be best if you discussed your personal thoughts with one of the others.”

Alpha doesn’t comprehend Theta’s words immediately because they are so nonsensical to him. “Why would I go to one of the others about this? Why not you? ”

Theta regards him for a while before something akin to sympathy folds across his face. “I see… Despite the few times I’ve been initiated, it seems as if I have lost a measurable amount of vitae. If I have been insensitive, I apologize. I will review the records, but if it’s an urgent matter, I would appreciate it if you informed me what the nature of our relationship was.”

Only then does Alpha realize how much Theta has deteriorated and forgotten. Through all that deterioration, however, Theta’s affection for Omicron somehow remains. But why just Omicron?

The ELPIS Leaders are forgetting themselves–Alpha thinks–but they are also forgetting each other. They are forgetting him. And it’s all his fault.

Incredulously, bitterly, Alpha stares at and through Vega—no, Theta. No, not even Theta. This is not even a full person. Before Alpha knows what he’s doing, he’s on top of Theta and squeezing his fingers around the man’s throat.

Theta struggles beneath him for a moment as confusion floods his eyes. Eventually, however, his arms fall limp. But he is not unconscious. The fight has merely left him. Apathy? The dead look just infuriates Alpha even more. And so, Alpha squeezes down harder and harder until he hears a snap.

March 1928

In Theta’s absence, Alpha is the leader elect of ELPIS again. The governing bodies of Ophiuchus begin to feel the pressure from the war and come to him out of all people for advice. Alpha finds it ironic how close he is coming to being a true pseudo-Knowledge Bearer with this development. However,  Alpha doesn’t know what to do. Leo has cut relations with them. The golden hero that is supposed to represent the ultimate victory has admitted a quiet defeat of self. 

Alpha is left disappointed once again.

Despite the memories upon memories that Mnemosyne has filled him with, there is a hollowness eating him inside out.

On a whim or out of desperation—he’s not sure which—he suggests to the governing Ophiuchian bodies an all-out war. If not, he says, they will be consumed by the other countries desperate for vitae. Fear and attachment move the country forward.

May 1929

Ophiuchus crumbles—both the country and the Knowledge Bearer. Before Leo storms the country Alpha has called home for centuries, before Leo drives Libra’s vitae further into Ophiuchus’s chest and shatters her, Alpha visits Ophiuchus one last time. He enters her chamber; and once inside, he looks over her body and holds her gaze once more. He has done this over a billion times since he has become Alpha; and—he now realizes—each time he looks at her, he feels less and less. She is just flesh and bones now, having been worn away by the passage of time. Just as he himself has. For a moment, he reaches down and wraps his fingers around her throat— but he releases her after some more thought.

Part of him wishes to go back to that day of the Founding Festival when Ophiuchus touched his heart just so he could feel that jubilation again. But the only thing left in his chest now is a void and disappointment. He and the other ELPIS Leaders have sacrificed so much, while Ophiuchus has just laid here uselessly. That and she has evidently lost her end of the bargain. 

It’s pitiable, really.

Alpha leaves before Leo storms the Aesculapium. He returns to the chamber half an hour later and runs his fingers along the dust scattered on top of the now empty stone table where Ophiuchus once laid. He’s not sure what he feels, but he thinks it might possibly be ‘nothing.’ Afterwards, he exits the chambers and descends down towards the reservoirs below. There, he finds Leo committing the ultimate betrayal.

Leo and I are the same, Alpha thinks as he watches Leo empty himself out into his reservoir. They have been disappointed by others so many times, but the person who has brought them the most disappointment is themselves. 

Living with that disappointment is unbearable. Therefore, it is best to detach oneself from such disappointment. 

Finally, Alpha is free.

✧ VI ✧
October 1929
απάθεια

Victors write—rather, re-write—history. Ophiuchian culture is bled dry–the best parts plucked out and hammered down into something that is fashionable for the new peacekeeping settlers. The Aesculapium becomes the Serpens Establishment, the ceremonial baptismal reservoirs are slandered by being given a name—the Prognoikos Aurora Reservoirs. 

In the years following the war, Alpha listlessly follows along loosely with ELPIS’s cause. Vitae reservoir elimination, generator conductor destruction, ley line dismantling. He does not operate with care or caution as they have done with previous years nor does he heed civilian casualties. It’s not difficult convincing the others who are initiated after the war’s end to do the same. They have lost their home, after all, and their belief in the cycle remains strong as ever. Since Alpha’s current body and self have lived and survived through the war, the other ELPIS Leaders defer leadership in the new age to him. Even Theta who is re-initiated into a Cancerian war widow agrees with his leading position. 

It’s laughable. Alpha does not suffer from repercussions from murdering the previous Theta. Him killing Theta’s previous iteration has no meaning. Him extending himself out this long has no meaning now that Ophiuchus is dead too. Dead? Death has no meaning. Nothing does. Everything repeats, disappears, or remains stagnant. There is no other path. 

With that realization, the world suddenly becomes easier to live in.

A select handful of ELPIS Leaders who are not initiated frequently, however, do notice discrepancies in Alpha’s behavior. Omega is one of the few who confront him about it. 

Flipping her hair with a lazy hand, she addresses him casually after they decimate a large conductor generator fueling a small Cancerian town: “I know what you’ve been doing, Alpha, with Mnemosyne.”

Alpha is not alarmed by her accusation.

“You’re different now.”

“You’re different too,” Alpha responds lightly. “But in the opposite direction, right?” He chuckles. “This conversation won’t matter much, will it? You’ll die soon and forget all about it.”

Omega merely flips her hair again. “Why?”

“Why indeed,” Alpha wonders. “Initially it was because I wanted to remain by Ophiuchus’s side and help as much as I could—ah, do you even remember what Ophiuchus looks like?”

“No, I don’t. But back to what you were saying.” She curls a lock of hair around her finger. “That was your reason then. How about now?”

Alpha thinks on it. “I don’t have a reason now. No reason at all.”

January 1931

Theta has died again at the hand of the so-called Ophiuchian peacekeeping agents. This time she has left behind a cluster of children who weep at her ‘death.’ Alpha returns just in time to greet the children she has left behind.

One child—face smudged with soot, sand, blood—looks up at Alpha for direction. Although the child does not speak, his eyes ask ‘Why?’ and ‘What now?’

Ah, yes, Alpha thinks, this child worshiped Theta just as Alpha himself worshiped Ophiuchus. This child will become nothing too, Alpha knows. So, therefore, he might as well make use of that nothingness—even though it’s all quite pointless.

“Do you want to keep Theta’s memory alive?” Alpha asks the boy and the other children in the end. “Do you want to live for what Theta stood for?”

As expected, they answer yes and Alpha swallows them into ELPIS. As for why he has chosen to do such a thing to them despite no longer caring for ELPIS’s goals…? Spite towards Theta? Spite towards Ophiuchus? Alpha isn’t quite sure. Maybe there isn’t a reason. He’s certain it doesn’t matter. Not really. 

1932

Alpha spends the next year wandering without purpose. He has no destination in mind. Rho and Nu stumble upon him at one point and join him on his journey. Eventually, they steal a ship for themselves, collect a motley crew, and start calling themselves adventurers. Really, there’s no reason at all for this.

When they pass by a seaside town on Leo and Alpha spies a Monadic temple glistening on its seaside cliff, he decides to raid it on a whim. There, Alpha encounters Maria.

Maria is golden. Something about her charisma just draws Alpha’s eyes and stirs his heart. He cannot help but sweep her and her friend Conta onto his ship.

It is clear to him that both she and Conta have been indoctrinated by Leonian Monadic Temples. Maria claims to know and embody freedom, but such freedom is false. Alpha tries to teach her about what it truly is—that lack of attachment—but she remains attached to her beliefs in her certainty.

It’s dazzling. Beautiful. No. She is not beautiful. Beautiful is too simple and small a term to label the aura that exudes from every pore of her body.

July 1935 – September 1941

Attachment–

It’s happening again, Alpha realizes, as he draws closer to Maria and Conta. He cannot stand another Ophiuchus, another Leo, another disappointment in himself and another. So, he leaves Maria and continues to spend his time wandering from place to place without purpose. 

On occasion, Alpha returns to his resistor, is re-initiated, and fulfills his duties as an ELPIS Leader. He is there for the Tragedy of Aries and has a short spiel in Libra and Cancer. Whenever Epsilon returns the memories that have been stored and recorded over the years, however, Alpha always departs again. His time serving in ELPIS is all meaningless —but it is fun to enjoy those small bits of care and concern every once in a while. 

October 1941

Theta’s rumble through the Twin Cities of Gemini stirs memories in Alpha’s mind. Theta’s rage and familiar disappointment revitalizes something inside his heart. His head is full of memories from the past and his chest is full of only emptiness. The beginning, the middle, the end—he can see it all.

It is time to change faces, he thinks. It is time to change paces.

He is no one, and no one understands him. Therefore he can take in everything and everyone. Including Ophiuchus. Maybe then, she can see.


( )

Proteus’s head and vision cleared. He registered Epsilon pulling away from him and Jericho taking a step back. 

“Well, that was unpleasant.”

Jericho’s expression was unreadable.

“I told you there was no reason…” Proteus drew with a frown. “You probably weren’t able to tell since those memories were from a perspective of another, but I didn’t spend that much thought on it at all. I’m sure if you look a little further, you’ll see that I actively recorded—so to speak—how I felt about different events. If you want to look some more—”

“You tricked everyone,” Jericho interjected. He was shaking, but there was no sympathy or pity in his eyes. “You are the one who gave them false hope. You spread it. You… are the beginning.”

“Oh, Jericho.” Proteus offered a look of sympathy. “Labeling things as the beginning and end is just another restraint—”

Suddenly, Proteus was on the ground and Jericho was on top of him. His fingers wrapped around Proteus’s neck just as Alpha’s hands had wrapped around Ophiuchus’s neck and Theta’s neck. His fingers squeezed tighter, tighter, tighter.

“Jericho!” Leona’s voice reverberated through the room. “We need him alive to extract information. Epsilon, stop him!”

Proteus’s vision began to dim. Again, his memories and those of others began to flash through his mind. Swirling around without meaning.

Abruptly, the constricting fingers loosened themselves from his neck and the pressure on his chest disappeared. Proteus wheezed and gasped as air flooded his lungs. It took a moment for his thoughts to become coherent again. When he peeked forward, he found three figures standing at his feet instead of two. It seemed as if another person had entered the scene.

Ah, it was little Maria—as expected. She stood close at Jericho’s side with an unreadable expression. The first thing Proteus noticed about her was the bags under her eyes. The second thing he noticed was that her left sleeve was empty and tied into a knot. Her good arm was linked with Jericho’s own. Proteus knew such closeness was natural given their nature as True Conductors, but he also knew their twin lights just dimmed the other’s light. They were bound to each other—chained, imprisoned by that connection—and yet they earnestly believed they were free. Just as he himself had previously been. 

Alpha supposed it didn’t matter.

Not really.


[Alpha Mood Theme]

Leona and Alpha, art by jowiszca

25.6: Advisor & Otro 

Re-cap:

Atienna is in Lueur de Fée, Cancer alongside the Duke of House Etoile Aldéric Échecs and his brother Albertine Échecs. She is accompanying Dimka on a diplomatic mission and has Sefu at her side, but her true purpose is to find Louise Bonnefoy, the True Conductor. And that she does but not before witnessing Aldéric’s true affection for Louise. Even so, Atienna chooses to coldly turn Louise over to Scorpio after dueling with Reneé. Slowly, the fallout from her decision to work with the saint candidates reaches her.


Lueur de Fée, Cancer

The phantom tendrils of Scorpio’s embrace clung to Atienna’s body like wet cloth. No matter how hard she scrubbed herself in the bath in the following days, his cold warmth still lingered. It felt almost as if he occupied the minuscule spaces between her skin and bones—deep-rooted and impossible to remove without injuring herself. 

Two nights after Louise had been turned into Scorpio, Aldéric visited Atienna’s room. He gave a knock at the door before sweeping in with an air of gusto that seemed completely opposite to the desperate moroseness that exuded from his pores when he’d stumbled upon Louise in the caverns. Atienna wondered if his feelings surrounding Louise were able to be likened to Cadence’s feelings towards Alma. A longing for someone who just wanted to escape.

“The sights of Cancer are really something else, aren’t they?” Aldéric said as he walked up to her window. He leaned against the glass and peered out at the town’s night scenery. The moon eclipsed the buildings with silver light. “I’m sure Virgo has its own flavor of beauty.” He smiled as he took in a breath and turned to her slightly. “If it matches your own beauty, I dare say it might be greater than Cancer’s.”

He was here to touch base about Louise most likely or to divert his attention away from his concerns with small flirtations—a coping mechanism—but Atienna was in no mood to entertain him or anyone

Atienna had spent these past few nights—when everyone but Werner was asleep—walking around the town and revisiting that light-bound cavern and pounding its stone wall over and over again with her fist. She was aware she was doing just as she had done in the Zatenminye Caverns when she had first met Louise. A cycle. Perhaps, she was hoping to find Reneé somewhere on her short walks, but she never actually did. How cruelly humorous the irony of it all—her relationship with caverns, fists, and Louise. 

Every night, Werner had synchronized with her on her fiftieth kick or fist swing and calmly advised her to rest and care for her hands. He also advised her to be cautious of waking the others. Sometimes he even stayed with her and aided her in hand bandaging. 

The fist-throwing excursions officially ended when Sefu had found her one night in the cavern after he’d noticed she’d been missing from her room and had followed her. Surprisingly yet unsurprisingly, he had offered her not protection but company. From then on, he’d frequently bring with him assortments of food as additional company and even admitted several times to having stolen it all from Aldéric’s pantry.

“You should have seen the amount of food they have in that place,” Sefu had said when Atienna had subtly teased him about it. “I swear you can feed the entire Tribal Council twenty times over! Too much for just two brothers.” 

Brothers. Siblings. Bachiru, Kamaria, Kichea. Family. Blood family.

Again, Atienna had felt the longing to return home. She knew as soon as she faced her feet in the direction of Virgo, however, she’d feel the overwhelming urge to escape lest she become rooted to the ground once again. Besides, going along with that course of action would be avoiding responsibility for her actions.

“I must admit that this place is mesmerizing,” Sefu had admitted during his second time accompanying her. “It’s beauty is almost akin to that of the Great Tree.”

The Great Tree, she had thought. Home. 

She hadn’t written back to her siblings and father since she’d arrived in this Cancerian town. It was quite a ridiculous feeling, but she felt as if she’d stain them with her misdeeds somehow—with her letter serving as a vector for some disease. How troublesome.

“That… Louise…” Sefu had said on his third day with her. “I know it is unwise to speak of the politics of another country when you do not live in it, but I have to admit that… seeing Aldéric ‘let go’ of Louise reassured me of his character and the character of Cancerians. Perhaps Cancerians are not all just for show in the end.”

Let go? Atienna had wondered about that statement. “Yes, but I do wonder… if that was freedom for her or for him…”

Either way, she had chained both Louise and Aldéric back once again. Notably, Louise was the only one cognizant of her prison.

Back in the present and pulling herself away from her thoughts of the recent past, Atienna offered Aldéric a small smile. “Your words are too generous, Aldéric. I do wonder though—they say the most beautiful things are ephemeral. There’s quite a debate about it in art. Ephemerality versus eternity. The beauty in permanence—carved by time and history—versus transience—which disappears in a moment’s notice. I believe a widely popular Cancerian artist in the 17th century believed that transience held more meaning than permanence, since things—or people—that are rare tend to be held with more value.”

Aldéric chuckled. “My, my, yes, that was the great artist Abel Échecs. He was actually my great uncle. You certainly do know your history—” He paused, eyes widening as if the true meaning behind her words had sunken in. The smile left his face, and he set the wine glass he’d brought with him on the windowsill. “What exactly are you implying…?”

Atienna placed a hand to her mouth. “Oh, I… wasn’t implying anything. I was just rambling about something I’ve been reading recently.” She lowered her hand and met his eyes. “I’m sorry, Aldéric, if you interpreted it as something else…”

Aldéric’s jaw tightened before he seemed to relax slightly. He spread his arms as he approached her. “I’m sorry, Atienna. I can’t help but feel slightly on edge after what happened with…” He quieted and smiled. It seemed genuine for once. “I do appreciate your discretion.” 

“I think I understand your feelings, Aldéric. I have a friend,” Atienna continued gently, “who was—and still is—in love with someone who grew up in an environment that made them feel caged in. All they wanted to do was be free. My friend was willing to do anything for that person—break any rule, law, or status quo. Beyond that, however, she didn’t stray far from the path. No, she followed it regardless of the plights of everyone else.” Atienna chuckled. “The path itself was a technically lawless one, but… I wonder… what were her actions more of: selfless or self-serving?”

Slowly, Aldéric’s smile fell from his face and his eyes darkened again. Confusion, however, overtook his expression a moment after. He’d only known the ‘proper’ side of herself, after all. He viewed her only as kind and shy. 

Aldéric neared her, running his hand down her arm. “I think I might be misinterpreting what you’re saying again, Atienna. Perhaps you read too much or I not enough.”

“It’s most likely that I’ve been thinking too much rather than reading too much,” Atienna murmured. “I wonder… if it’s courageous for people to run from the situation they’re in and cowardly to stay in place… or vice versa? It’s always the opposite interpretation in books, but reality is more nuanced, don’t you think?”

Aldéric’s expression darkened again. 

The reality of it was that she had nowhere to put her frustrations so that was why she was saying these things. She was tauting his strings just as Scorpio had tauted theirs. The gruesomeness of it was that she hadn’t picked up this trait from Scorpio—no. She had used this technique on Werner back in the Zatenminye Caverns and on Cadence back in the Twin Cities—although it didn’t work as effectively on the latter. Back then she’d been pressing, pressing, pressing them both and hoping to uncover—what? Atienna didn’t know then and now. Curiosity had been the cause of her prying back then, but now…?

Did she want someone to blame? For instance, if Aldéric had forced Louise to stay and return home then Louise would once again become an ‘important political figure.’ The saint candidates would elect to watch her from a distance instead of sweeping her into the depths of the Serpens Establishment. A shift of perspective. 

Atienna knew the folly of that thought, of course. It was a naturally conceited way of thinking meant to sooth the ego.

“The figureheads versus the political heads of a country,” she continued. “I wonder if such a relationship is prominent throughout all countries in Signum that still have monarchs in place. People either blame the figureheads or the political heads, but both should be held with accountability, don’t you think?” She sighed. “I wonder… you’ve been writing letters to Ilunaria this entire time just as you and Louise wrote to each other in the past. It makes one think what the common variable between them is and perhaps if they’ll share the same path—”

Aldéric lunged forward, hand swinging, but she caught him by the wrist before his hand contacted her cheek. They locked eyes. 

Aldéric searched her face before he flushed a second after and pulled away. “I—m-my apologies, Atienna.” He straightened his suit and reached for her arm again—most likely to try for another caress—before pausing and dropping his hand. He searched her face almost fretfully. “I do have your discretion, don’t I? About her?”

Despite his increasingly reddened cheeks, he pushed on. Conquering his shame as if he were Maria.

Shame. 

Atienna was familiar with the feeling herself. Or was she? Was that nausea she felt after she’d turned in Louise disgust? Was it guilt? Or did she only feel nauseous because she didn’t feel any of those emotions she knew she should have felt? Or was it because she’d tried playing Scorpio’s game and lost?

A creak at the door prevented Aldéric from going any further. Hugging his conducting spear to his chest, Sefu stood at the threshold behind her.

“Excuse me, Monsieur Échecs,” Sefu said, “but I would like to mention that in Virgoan culture, respecting one’s privacy is of utmost importance. Paired with our general politeness, when we feel uncomfortable and intruded upon, we don’t usually say it flat outright. However, one generally understands the feeling.”

Aldéric pulled away from her and relaxed visibly. “Oh, I see.”

* * *

The following morning, Aldéric decided to take them all out for a walk along the river and for a swim. Atienna wasn’t quite feeling the latter activity, so she’d purposefully forgotten the swimwear Aldéric had gifted her back at the inn. Dimka, on the other hand, seemed very excited about the entire experience. He was from a tribe that preoccupied Virgo’s eastern sea bank, so his fondness for waters was akin to Giorgio’s Atienna supposed.

Giorgio… 

Aldéric took the entire flock—Dimka, his guards, Sefu, Atienna herself, and other high socialites—along and proceeded to orate his own historical narrative of the background of the waterfalls. He mentioned his great grandparents and his wealth and estate while somehow simultaneously throwing flirtatious remarks here and there. When they passed by the caverns, he gave it a passing glance before moving on ahead.

Near the end of the trip, they reached a small sandy bank at the very edge of town. While Aldéric slowly—almost seductively—sloughed off his suit to reveal his swimwear to several of the female socialites, Albertine whipped off his shirt and immediately dove into the waters. Dimka moved to chatter with Aldéric meanwhile. 

The previous night had seen Atienna reviewing with Dimka the proper etiquette on beach behavior in Cancer. When Atienna subtly touched on the topic of the growing political tensions around Signum during their information session, Dimka had stated that his focus was on improving relations not worsening them. Dimka’s enthusiasm and positivity was once again unparalleled—or perhaps he was averting his eyes unwittingly. Atienna wondered if the same could be said about Maria.

As everyone else moved to enjoy the waters or bathed in the light emitting from the river, Atienna sat on the bank’s edge, tucked her knees beneath her chin, and put her toes in the water. It was warm. Sefu sat beside her with two warm, buttery croissants in hand. He offered her one, but she declined and watched as he inhaled them both without trouble.

Dissonantly, she gazed across the river at Albertine who swam back and forth along its length. The deep light from below cast him in green light, yellow light, blue light—each shade causing him to appear as if he were a different person. He dove down a couple times before emerging and floating on his back only to go back down again several minutes after. Atienna’s vision strayed from him towards Aldéric. He was still chatting amicably with Dimka and a handful of other socialites. Oddly enough, he didn’t seem to be flirting any despite his earlier behavior. He had to keep up appearances, most likely. Seeing him so cheerful made Atienna feel as if his encounter with Louise had not even occurred at all.

Life moved on even when one was gone—contrary to Francis’s point on mourners. Jericho’s recent conversation with Nadinaline gave Atienna much to think about in that regard, however.

She glanced back at the river and perked her head up with a frown. The waterline was empty. How long had it been since Albertine had last resurfaced—

Abruptly, a waving hand popped out of the water, startling Atienna. It was Albertine. Before she could even process the development, Atienna launched herself into the water and began swimming towards him. Sefu shouted her name while Aldéric cried for his brother. Ignoring them both, Atienna pushed forward through the cold. As she neared Albertine, however, he slipped from her sights and sank into the depths. Taking in a deep breath, she submerged her head and scanned the water only to be nearly blinded by the intense light that met her eyes. Despite the vitae stream pulsating like an artery hundreds of meters below, its luminescence touched every inch of the river. 

The fish, the seaweed, the algae, the delicate features of the rock bed and smooth stones. Every detail was clear—but where was Albertine?

There. 

He was sinking downwards, twitching slightly, fidgeting, being illuminated by the shifting light several meters below.

Atienna broke up into open hair and took another deep breath before diving back below. She reached Albertine in a few seconds, but by that time, he was already unconscious. However, this wasn’t a negative development from Atienna’s perspective. He would be dead weight now and easier to transport. After wrapping her arms around his waist, Atienna sought the surface light. But it was disorienting—a streak of light coming from below and a streak of light coming from above. It was difficult to tell which direction was up and which was down. After deliberating a second more, she went with her gut and began to kick both of them up in the direction she believed was up, up, up. She broke back up to the surface of the water a moment later with Albertine in tow and began to paddle back to the bank. Sefu met her halfway, and together they managed to bring Albertine back to shore. They laid him flat on his back before they were crowded by the others.

Aldéric was in hysterics, clawing at Albertine’s body and pulling it closer to him as if he could resuscitate Albertine by touch alone. With difficulty, Sefu managed to shove him away.

“A Transmutationist!” Dimka called out. “Is there a Transmutationist around?”

People whispered, but no one moved forward.

As Atienna observed the chaos with dissonance, a faint sensation of deja vu wafted over her. One of the others had experienced something similar. Werner and Maria. 

Tulio—an old crew member of Maria’s ship who had left after Leona had incited a mutiny—had once fallen overboard the ship. While Maria had been able to dive into the ocean and pull him up back onto the ship, he had already taken in a lot of water. Before Maria could even think of what to do next, Conta had leapt on top of him and had begun performing compressions. At the end of it all, Tulio was successfully resuscitated and had smothered Conta with an embrace.

“You’re amazing, Conta!” Maria had cheered along with everyone else afterwards. “I didn’t know you could do that!”

“I learned from a book,” Conta had mumbled with embarrassment afterwards. “It’s nothing really.”

“Really? Why?”

“I want to be useful to you, Captain,” Conta had answered, flushing. “So I’ve been trying my best to learn things to help you in areas that you’re not as strong in—n-not that you’re weak! I-I just want be useful.”

Werner, on the other hand, had learned the entire procedure initially from Maria’s memories. He, however, wanted practical experience in the procedure so he’d pulled Nico aside in during their shared lunch break several months back in the capital and had politely requested to be taught the ‘procedure’ hands-on. Nico happily obliged although it was apparent he found humor and amusement in the seriousness with which Werner handled the situation as well as with the fact that they were in an office setting.

“Usually we have a dummy that we practice on for these types of resuscitation procedures, Captain,” Nico had remarked. “It’s kinda awkward if we don’t have a model.”

“There’s nothing awkward about learning,” Werner had replied evenly. “Just show me where I need to put my hands.”

Moved by these memories, Atienna crawled forward and positioned her hands over Albertine’s chest and began to pump to the beat Nico had taught Werner and Conta had taught Maria. Then, she moved to blow air into his airway. Over and over again. She repeated this several times and watched with a foggy head and ringing ears as his face became more and more blue. Still, she kept at it. Finally, his body jolted and he hacked and coughed as water sputtered out from his mouth. Heart hammering, Atienna rolled him onto his side and watched as even more water dribbled out from his lips. 

Aldéric scrambled forward and held Albertine’s hand. Albertine groaned, and several of the socialites drew nearer. Some even started clapping.

“Stay away from him!” Aldéric snapped at them, eyes wild, diplomatic and amicable nature gone. “Stop clapping!”

Filial affection. 

Atienna started to pull away but Albertine grabbed her arm before she could make an escape.

“I was knocking on death’s door there.” Albertine let out a sigh of relief before falling back onto the sand. He took in a deep, long breath and held her gaze. “You saved my life. Thank you.”

Atienna felt the urge to submerge herself back into the river because she could feel him again. Scorpio—crawling beneath her skin. Regardless, she offered him a tight smile and a nod.

Not so long afterwards, Olive encountered Hideyoshi Kuroihoshi. The vehement in that man’s eyes was directed at herself, Atienna knew. And yet Olive had offered a helping hand once again.

Werner’s shivering pain struck at midnight only a few hours after that.

* * *

The consequences of that choice had been direr than Atienna had expected—although using the term ‘expected’ seemed callous. The path she’d opened up for herself and the others when she had shaken Leona’s hand was one she knew strayed between right and wrong—as every choice did. To choose the other five over the other True Conductors wandering around Signum—rather it was to value those close to her above those distant or, as Cvetka preferred to iterate, to become a villain.

Only Werner and Cadence had a non-negative reception to her decision, and it had taken quite some time for the others to stop holding her at a distance—well, not quite a distance but a ‘tentativeness.’ To be slightly more exact, it had taken around two months for Olive and Jericho to come around to speak casually with her again. From an outsider’s perspective, Atienna knew that didn’t seem quite a long time. However, since their connection ran so deep, it felt like a very, very, very long time period of cold shoulders. Atienna wondered about it often—the aspects that made this connection a blessing and the aspects that made it otherwise. Support, reliance, dependence—the line in-between it all.

It wasn’t right what they were doing to the other True Conductors, but it wasn’t wrong either. No, it was both ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ Wrong for the people outside of them, but right for their circle and for their close friends and family members.

Werner worked proactively alongside her the entire way. They had come to a silent agreement together following the events in Capricorn—coming to terms on what was truly important. It was quite a point of unity between them and it involved many late night private conversations. Atienna liked to think that such conversations drew them closer and closer together. Werner, of course, outside of this was always preparing for something. Perhaps he was readying himself for the syzygy itself. In the beginning, he spoke of key allies and preparation and timelines—although as time went on, he spoke of it less and less. Nothing was concrete anyways.

She found cruel and minor comfort in the fact that when she received the black order to finally go on the hunt, Werner received that mandate too. It was a terrible feeling to adopt—she knew—but it found home in her heart. He thought and felt similarly to her: necessary distance, unaffected condemnation, and pragmatic execution. Yes, a kindred spirit.

Her presumptions, however, had proven incorrect. 

Werner was not like her at all. He was not as unmoved as she was nor was he able to maintain a pragmatic distance. The logic was there, but the necessary cold-hardheartedness was not. From the very beginning, he had been deeply afflicted by the repercussions of the hunt. Atienna knew she should have deduced as such not only given the fact that he was the center of Scorpio’s machinations during the Week of Blindness but also due to his deeper nature. Perhaps, she’d once again averted her eyes from that too—just hoping that the oddities that she noticed would ease away with time. 

But—

The chlorowheat. Oh, the chlorowheat.

Atienna had never dealt with anything like this before. It had been a rare subject in the books she read—both fiction and non-fiction. It was something resolved with hand-holding, hugs, and sometimes even some roughhousing in the more questionable books. To see it happen in reality—to see someone whom she loved and held dear suffer—on the other hand…? It had been Werner of all people too. 

Cadence had come to Atienna after Werner was drawn away by Francis and Nico. She’d come asking for direction and comfort, but Atienna frankly had no idea what to do. So, she’d consulted her books and had chosen to approach with an intervention. In the end—after some rather horrifying words had spilled out from Werner’s mouth—Werner had accepted their help. It was not like in her novels at all—not tied with a pretty and neat bow in the end. The reality lingered over them all. The shame she knew Werner felt was most likely crippling as was his guilt and remorse. 

Atienna had allowed herself to cry afterwards as her thoughts swirled with what ifs. What if Werner never recuperated? What if this addiction bled into the other four? What if this reached Virgo? What if Bachiru got his hands on something like this? Kamaria? Kichea? What then? From what she’d seen from Jericho’s end of things, the Medical Department didn’t have any grasp at all over this chlorowheat situation. Jurisdiction, respect of sovereignty—there were ‘too many’ variables involved. Atienna wondered if that was truly the case. No, she supposed it did matter. 

“I’m sorry,” Werner said to her afterwards when she’d synchronized with him during a promised visit. “There’s no excuse. I’m sorry.”

Atienna wasn’t like Olive, Cadence, Maria, or Jericho. She didn’t know what to do or say. She didn’t know fully how to comfort someone like him. So, all she did was remain by his side.

With Werner out of commission, the responsibility of the group fell solely on her shoulders. Or so she thought. In the end, both Maria and Olive had stepped forward and put down their feet. They had made a decision—one to resist. Atienna herself was uncertain of it—even more so now than before. One could always easily add something to a mixture or a garden, but removing it afterwards proved far harder an effort. Atienna’s family was still under Scorpio’s surveillance as were the families of everyone else. Atienna had already made her choice, but everyone else seemed to have chosen the opposite. 

One needed either a powerful voice, charisma, or the majority to move people in the direction one wanted them to move. Unfortunately, Atienna had neither of those things. So the others moved on without her—Maria, especially.

Alpha—rather, Dominic— knew exactly how to push Maria’s buttons. They were raised to be the same, after all. The set up was premeditated. The reflection put up, the spotlight shone. Under that heat, Maria pushed Atienna and the other four all away—to prove herself to herself, Atienna knew. Maria processed things differently than the average person, but she was still human in the end. When made to question herself and her existence, she rebuked it without a second thought and with brimming absolutism. When rebuking wasn’t enough to throw off assailants to her ego, she fought tooth and nail.

When Atienna finally was able to feel Maria again on that day she faced Alpha, all Atienna could feel was Maria’s pain, her distraught, her confusion, her trembling will remaining iron hot. Atienna nearly fainted when she saw the state of Maria’s arm through Jericho’s eyes. What had followed was a complete blur.

Atienna slipped between synchronizations with Jericho, Cadence, and Maria—doing whatever she could to stay as long as she could by Maria’s side. Nico’s father and Nico himself were called in to assess Maria’s condition. The two men worked alongside each other silently, stiffly, until they reached the conclusion Atienna had been dreading. In the end, the damage from Rho’s vitae was too great. Maria’s left arm had to be removed from the elbow down. 

There wasn’t enough time to calculate the appropriate amount of anesthetic to use, so Maria had been fully conscious during the entire procedure. She hadn’t even cried or shouted. She’d remained silent as the incisions were made and had only looked away after Doctor Fabrizzio politely requested her to. The portion of the anesthetic that did work made it difficult to feel the extent of Maria’s pain and to hear her thoughts. Despite everything Atienna had come to learn over this past year, she couldn’t bring herself to look during the procedure nor hold Maria’s gaze. She had averted her eyes, but so had Cadence and Olive. Jericho was the only who stood in place—gaze unaverted and gripping Maria’s good hand tightly all the way.

Afterwards, Atienna had caught only a glimpse of Werner’s reaction to the fallout when he regained consciousness an hour or so later. Just as he had done with Gilbert, Werner had held the empty sleeve of Maria’s shirt and had said nothing. From this too, Atienna looked away.

Atienna again allowed herself to cry again afterwards as ‘what if’s assailed her once more. What if Maria wasn’t able to recover completely—not only physically but emotionally and mentally? What if Rho decided to stop by Virgo? What if Rho swept up Kamaria and Kichea? What if—

But they were useless thoughts and tears and accomplished nothing. While she knew it was good to sit down and cry and think once in a while, she couldn’t help but feel a sense of indignation at her body for squeezing tears and thoughts and nothing else out. She also felt furious—furious at Werner for thinking he could control himself with chlorowheat, furious at Maria for even wanting to try to face Alpha alone, furious at Cadence for trying to maintain such a ridiculous lie, furious at Alpha for knowing which of Maria’s buttons to press, furious at Jericho for bringing Leona with him without consulting her and the others first, furious at Olive for making that penultimate decision to resist on his own.

Now a lesson had been learned. It was a terrible lesson to learn, but it was still a lesson—‘You are not invincible’ and ‘You are not always in control’ and ‘Things will not always turn out the way you want them to.’

This was reality, not a fairy tale or a novel. One was not impervious and invincible to failure and accident. Mistakes had consequences. Consequences taught lessons. If one didn’t learn and acknowledge their own faults, failures, vulnerabilities, and these consequences, then one could never learn and could never change. A balance needed to be maintained between self-belief, self-criticism, and self-realization.

How could Maria be so foolish—putting herself in danger like that just because of her belief in herself? Although such a belief—Atienna supposed—was not an ‘incorrect’ way of thinking, just look at what had happened as a result of her choice.

Along with this reasoning, a faint thought echoed at the back of Atienna’s mind: it served her right. Atienna despised herself for thinking in such a way. No, she was furious at herself for it. She was also furious at herself for trying to play Scorpio’s game and win against him in a game of passive-aggression, for trying to act as if they were on the same playing field—as if it was all a game. She was furious at her hesitation in not taking the reins after Werner was no longer able to hold them. 

And yet despite all of her fury, she had been the one who embraced Scorpio despite everything he’d done and she had been the one who pushed them into this deal with the saint candidates. She was also the only one who didn’t want to rescind their hand in this deal. 

The reality of it was that the others were naturally ‘good’ people at the core. If they were not ‘good’ people at the core, then they were becoming ‘good’ people. Atienna, however, was neither of these things. Then again, taking a look at the situation from a different angle, would spell out a very different story.

Atienna disgusted herself for thinking this way—or maybe it was one of the others who felt some manner of disgust towards her.

* * *

Aldéric wanted to move back to Secoursonne. He cited home-sickness, but Atienna knew he wanted to get as far away from the falls as possible. Atienna, chest still constantly aching from Werner’s withdrawal symptoms and left arm pulsating from Maria’s phantom pain, didn’t feel like doing anything besides lying tangled in her sheets all day. She didn’t even have the energy to turn the page of the Cancerian fable she’d taken to reading since she arrived in Lueur de Fée. The pain itself would come in waves. Most likely that was the result of Werner reeling it in whenever he could. 

Albertine seemed to share her sentiments, although unlike herself he was quite vocal about his reasons. 

“Aldéric, my head is pounding,” he complained at breakfast. “I don’t want to go anywhere.”

Aldéric had opened a sort of mini-breakfast banquet in the dining hall of their inn. Platters piled high with an assortment of breads, baked goods, eggs, meats, and cheeses lined the long table at center of the hall, while circular tables ringed around it. Atienna sat at one of these tables with an amicably chattering Dimka and Aldéric, a food-inhaling Sefu, a disgruntled-looking Albertine, and several other socialites.

Aldéric merely waved him off. “Nothing a little bit of painkillers and a breath of fresh air can’t fix, dear Albertine.”

Albertine scoffed in response and muttered off to the side—“It’s always easy to wave off problems and push for those sort of remedies when you have money lining your pockets, isn’t it?”

Aldéric stiffened at the comment and glanced around the table as several of the socialites began to whisper amongst each other. He quickly moved around the table and bent over to whisper something into Albertine’s ear.

Albertine cleared his throat and straightened himself afterwards. “My apologies, everyone. I was merely making a jest. We all know wealth comes with problems of its own.”

And that’s how he tries to recover from what he just said?

Olive. Just a stray thought, fortunately. If he were fully synchronized, then… it would be troublesome.

Atienna felt the hairs on her arm begin to rise to a stand. She cautiously glanced at the corner of the room where Albertine’s v-ehicle driver was happily helping himself to a plateful of cinnamon-dusted toast. It didn’t seem like he’d noticed the discretion. Nervously, Atienna watched as Albertine excused himself from the table and exited the hall to rest.

After a moment’s hesitation, Atienna rose from her table to follow him, but an arm around the waist directed her back to the food line. Soon, she was standing in front of ten trays piled high with colorful orbs of fruit. At first, she thought it was Aldéric, but then—

“And how’s the headache? That has to be one of the more pleasant withdrawal symptoms, right?”

Albertine’s driver. Scorpio. His words grated her ears. His smile as he scooped up a heap of blueberries from the display bowl onto his plate grated on her nerves.

Atienna reached forward and picked up one of the set out plates and a fork so as to not appear out of the ordinary. “You knew.” But how much did he know?

“And you didn’t,” Scorpio noted. He offered her some berries with the spoon. “Or should I say you didn’t want to know. Curiosity disappears as soon as you encounter reality. Reality is disappointing, so it’s more enjoyable to explore possibilities instead.” 

Atienna declined his offer. “It’s interesting you bring up exploring possibilities given your recent conversation with Gabrielle and Jericho. A possibility that one of Gabrielle’s associates might not be entirely with her. From what I’ve garnered from passing, you’re quite… against Gabrielle’s… pursuits… I wonder… It’s just strange even if you’re trying to sow seeds of doubt, don’t you think? Helping her when—”

Scorpio continued smiling“We’re talking about our dear Werner, not Gabrielle, right? Werner—he pursued his passions and had quite a time with it. He certainly did enjoy himself. I can see though now that he’s happily returned to his post. You’re all handling the withdrawal symptoms better than I expected. I suppose it makes sense. Appearances and all that.” He chuckled. “I am curious about the drama that unfolded afterwards. I did spy Cadence running her little way through Polovinastadt without even a winter coat on that night. Of course, you all disappeared and reappeared before I could manage another sit-down with Cadence, but… she has quite a history with those types of substances, doesn’t she? Werner, meanwhile—well, I’m sure you can see it—is the perfect type of person to be susceptible to something like that.” He placed a hand to his chest. “Irony aside, it was inevitable from the very beginning.”

Atienna clenched her fork and plate tightly.

“I do admire the deepness of the connection True Conductors share as I’ve said many times before.” He turned to her, smirking. “Collectivism at its finest—at least, that’s what it should be. When wills and morals and priorities are off-balance, I bet it does cause quite a conundrum. Your group is certainly—”

With a roar, Atienna spun on her heels and smashed the plate against the man’s face. As shrieks erupted and fruit went flying, she jabbed her fork into his below. And as Sefu and Dimka shouted at her in alarm, she picked up the pieces of her shattered plate from the ground and began to gouge them into Scorpio’s flesh. Red stained her hands, his shirt, the carpet, but she didn’t care anymore.

This was her decision—

—or so Atienna imagined. Back in reality, she set the fork down on her plate and her plate in the dirty plate bin, offered Scorpio—who was still looking her over with interest—a polite smile, and walked away. 

* * *

In-Transit, Cancer

They set off back to Secoursonne the next day. Again, Atienna rode in a v-ehicle with Aldéric, Albertine, Dimka, and Sefu. Atienna offered to sit in the front with Albertine’s driver much to Dimka’s delight and Sefu’s disdain, so Albertine could ‘rest in the back’—or at least, that was how Atienna had sold it as. For the time being, she wanted to keep Albertine as far away from Scorpio as possible. She intended to do so until she gauged whether or not her deductions were right.

Two hours into the v-ehicle ride and they pulled into a rest stop and the men stumbled out to relieve themselves. As soon as the men left, Albertine’s driver turned to Atienna with a pleasant smile. Before Scorpio could say a word, however, Atienna excused herself too. She made her way around the central log cabin of the rest stop to the restroom block in the patchy woods just behind it. She had spied Dimka and Sefu in the window of the former and immediately realized she had to move quickly. As she neared that long, flat building that served as the restroom house, she caught sight of Albertine and Aldéric entering the men’s room together. Swiftly, she went around the building and scanned the back wall.

There.

A small square window opened up on the far end of the wall and seemed to lead to the men’s room. Only feeling slightly ashamed, Atienna clambered onto the pile of wood stacked just below it and then peered through the window.

Inside, she found Albertine doubled over in front of one of the restroom sinks. Aldéric stood just behind him.

“Aldéric, something isn’t right,” Albertine groaned as he buried his head in his hands. He waved his hand in the air, gesturing to the flickering v-bulb above the sink. “I keep… My head’s not right. I think I have brain damage from the accident.”

Aldéric snorted. “Usually people celebrate when they’ve survived a near death experience not pout about it.”

Atienna was both surprised and unsurprised at the lack of grace and informality in their behavior. Appearances were deceiving, after all.

“I’m serious, Aldéric! I think… I really do think I have brain damage. Hypoxia or whatever they call it.”

“Albertine, you’re being ridiculous.” Aldéric rubbed his brother’s arms. “Straighten up a bit, would you? All we need to do is look well enough and have this silly little wedding with ‘Ilunaria.’ Then you act as a supportive brother, give your congratulations, and then we’re on our way again out of the public eye. Cancer and Leo united, hand-in-hand. The politicians can have a field day, while we go on vacation.”

Albertine scoffed. “And what happens when the Leonian politicians decide to use Ilunaria’s absence to stir the pot of Signum? Are we supposed to be stirred along with them?”

Aldéric’s gaze narrowed. “We don’t know she’s missing for sure.”

Albertine snorted. “I’m pretty sure there’s little other explanation for her lack of show face. Soon, they’ll be saying that she’s too ill to come out into public. Just like Louise—”

Aldéric grabbed hold of him and shook him hard once, twice, thrice. “Albertine, what’s gotten into you?” 

Albertine stared at him for a moment before holding his temple and grimacing. “Sorry, Aldéric. You know I didn’t mean anything like that. I know how much Louise meant to you.”

Aldéric pulled away and sighed. “Just… Sleep it off, Albert. We’ll be fine. Just freshen yourself up, and then we came go home.” And with that, he swept out of the bathroom.

Albertine returned his attention to the mirror then and stared into his reflection as his grip on the basin tightened. “Who are you? Why are you doing this to me? Why are you so rude?” He continued staring for what seemed like half an hour before he dipped his head. “I’m talking to myself. I’m going insane.”

Atienna felt her heart drop into her stomach as she watched him turn and head to the bathroom’s exit. Her suspicions were now completely confirmed. He was a new one. A new True Conductor. Newly-minted. Freshly connected. Ripe for the saint candidates’ picking. 

They had already captured Leona—although Jericho didn’t seem to define it as such. Soon, Scorpio would grow suspicious of her absence and start looking into the matter. Thus, they needed a distraction to keep Scorpio away while they got their bearings together. So, what better distraction was there than presenting him with a new True Conductor? It was not a good choice, but it was not a bad choice either. In fact, the cons were far and few in-between. This held true especially for Albertine’s case since he was someone in the public eye. The saint candidates would leave him well enough alone while they searched for the ones he was connected with. He would be alright for a short while. That and he would be given their protection. For the time being, wasn’t this choice the preferable one?

Yes, she could leave right now and inform Scorpio of her findings without interacting with Albertine directly. She’d be able to hold herself at a distance from the Cancerian-but it was wrong.

Contrarily, Albertine’s true freedom would be taken from him. Contrarily, he would most likely be pressured to find other True Conductors too. Contrarily, he would become more of a puppet than he already was. Contrarily, he would be put under tight stress and pressure by the candidates before even fully forming meaningful connections with those in his psychic circle. Contrarily, he would suffer for her sake. Contrarily, the other five would also suffer in turn. Werner’s heart was too fragile, Jericho too unstable, Olive too goodhearted, Cadence too strained by consequences, and Maria too bright to handle another Louise.

But what of their family? Their friends? The playing pieces Scorpio was laying out against them?

Atienna buried her face in her hands.

Again and again she was faced with these decisions. Again and again she made choices that were both wrong and right. The other five made their choices so easily with such intense belief in the choices that they made. Although her choices changed just as theirs did, unlike them, the person she was inside remained the same. Even so—

Atienna hoisted herself up onto the threshold of the window and then down into the bathroom. She landed on the sink deftly before slipping onto the floor. The rubber soles of her shoes squeaked against the wet tiled floor, but she did not flinch as much as Albertine did.

Albertine whipped around, eyes widening as his mouth drew ajar. Atienna was on him immediately, slapping a hand over his mouth and pressing a finger to her lips. His brows furrowed, but he nodded, and so she released her hand.

“Saints!” He gasped. “Miss Imamu—what…?” He looked around. “This is the men’s restroom!” After studying her for a moment, his gaze strayed up to the ajar window and he paled. “How much did you hear?”

“Enough, Monsieur Albertine.” Atienna took a step back. “I know that you’re experiencing headaches, nausea, and maybe even some deja vu. You always feel like you’re remembering things that you’ve never experienced before. Perhaps you’re even starting to hear voices and see people who aren’t there.”

Albertine paled. “How do you—”

Atienna extended her hand and smiled gently. “I’m just like you, Albertine. And I must say that this world is becoming more and more dangerous for True Conductors every day. So, it would be best to accept some form of assistance from a party in the know, don’t you think?” 


a/n: thanks for reading!! this chapter was definitely on the hsorter nnd ((At least for me)) so there’ll be an exxtra chapter coming out this tuesday/wedesday. i’ll put the officially-ish date up on the index around monday probably. but! form them on we are returning to the rotating schedule of Undecdied Weekday & Saturday / Saturday…. if that makes sense;;; have a great weekend o/

25.5: Peacekeeper & Alianza

Re-cap:

Jericho is traveling to Leo with Leona in order to support her campaign. He has lost another friend to saint candidacy, and the loss is on his mind as Leona and Gabrielle begin exchanging war stories.

Some days later, Maria has finally confronted Alpha in Alfablanca. She struggles to save her crew who are hanging by a chain from falling to their deaths while facing the potential Saint Candidate of Leo Dominic. Jericho arrives on the scene with Leona as Maria’s struggles reach their peak.

The events that span the former and latter events are…


In-Transit, Leo

Jericho realized that Leona’s ‘war’ story did not ‘match up’ with what he had gleaned from Oros. At the same time Leona and Gabrielle started exchanging their wartime experiences, Maria had received Oros’s memories from Epsilon. From Jericho’s understanding, Epsilon’s reasoning for offering those memories was this: to ‘cheer’ Maria up. Jericho was aware he himself wasn’t the ‘best’ when it came to social norms, but he was certain that memories of war were not ‘comforting’ or ‘cheerful’ gifts to receive. 

The memories did not come to Jericho immediately, but instead were passed down second-hand gradually piece-by-piece as Maria shifted through them afterwards. By the time Jericho digested the information completely, both Leona and Gabrielle had ended their conversation. The two now sat in silence. Leona’s eyes were closed, while Gabrielle stared her down from beside him. 

While Oros’s vision displayed a long and drawn out war, Leona’s tale highlighted only her accomplishments on the battlefield and the failures of others. There was no mention of Leonhart working with ELPIS nor was there any mention of her slaughtering the ELPIS leaders in Pandora. Addition: Leona spoke as if Leonhart was herself the entire time. Sense of self was something Claire had applied only to True Conductors, but intuition: it applied to saint candidates also. And ELPIS leaders. Jericho was not good at reading faces but Gabrielle seemed to be unnerved by Leona’s way of speaking. Jericho himself didn’t like it either. It thinned the line between Scorpio and Talib and Cancer and Benì.

Benì. 

Jericho also had a difficult time grappling with the glimpses of ELPIS that he’d seen: ELPIS before they became ‘ELPIS.’ The mundanity in their lives before the war. Again the question arose: why? Francis Jericho could accept. People whom Cadence, Francis, Atienna, and Werner deemed as necessary allies he could accept. Tau was on the borderline. Jericho did not like him. He preached justice but his actions said otherwise. What they had done and made others do—the incongruency of it compared to what they had been before. What was the switch? Did it matter? The reason. Maybe he didn’t truly want to know.

Jericho wanted to speak with Gabrielle about it. Amendment: he wanted to speak to Gabrielle about everything. He had not spoken with her in some time. He had not spoken with anyone from Gabrielle’s inner circle for some time. The exception was Ferris, but their positions as vice chairs had made their meetings ‘far and few in-between.’ Scorpio’s eyes made it even more difficult.

Cadence’s only comment on the Leonhart situation was, Glad I was too young ta see the brunt of the war. Took my parents to their wits’ end, I think. Bah—but nobody wants ta hear about that. When she had relayed the information to Francis, all he said was, “Yes, that some portions in our records regarding Leo’s assistance of us did survive damage, but again it’s no longer pertinent. That time has passed. The hands of time turns over alliances just as it changes people.”

Werner and Atienna both advised Jericho to keep silent about the revelation. Jericho still recalled that night Atienna was embraced by Scorpio. He had not known what to say to her then. She had consistently avoided the topic whenever it was brought up. That was not peculiar of her, however. On the other hand, Werner seemed strange lately. Jericho’s intuition told him something was wrong, but Werner had asked Jericho to trust him and so he did. 

* * * 

Oroslita, Leo

The train arrived at the main station Leonian capital of Oroslita several hours later. As soon as Jericho stepped off with Leona and Gabrielle, he was immediately greeted by a station platform flooded with men and women holding notepads and flashing cameras. The camera flashes seemed endless. 

In attempt to shield his eyes from the assaulting light, he raised his hand over his eyes. He lowered it only when a reporter stuck a camera right in his face and took a snapshot. The bright light left stars in Jericho’s vision, and when he could finally see again, he was staring into the face of a man with a heavy mustache. A paper badge was pinned to the man’s chest. It read PRESS.

A reporter.

The reporter lowered his camera and spoke quickly—“There’re rumors that you’re a former associate of the terrorist group ELPIS. Is that true? If so, did that affect your entry into the ELPIS Department? What’s your surname? Don’t you think that your alleged past is a detriment to Leona’s campaign and what the ELPIS Department stands for?” 

Jericho lowered his hand and stared at the reporter. His ears rang. How did he know—

No need ta get worked up, detective. Cadence synchronized in very lightly, so he could barely make out her surroundings. It makes sense. You’re in the public eye now. Reporters are somethin’ else. They dig up literally everythin’ ya got buried. I remember one time they got dirt on the old man and Allen all in one go. Had ta be paid off and all that. That or tossed, if ya know what I mean. That’s only if ya’ve got the money though. Anyway, long story short. Just play dumb and casual. Maybe intimidate ‘em a little.

Thinking deeply about Cadence’s proposal, Jericho continued to stare at the reporter. For some reason, the man tensed and backed away slightly. Gabrielle fell in place beside him and pushed the reporter’s camera away.

“Close up is extra,” Gabrielle noted with a half-smile.

Jericho stared at the reporter for a little while longer before finally answering, “No comment.”

Leona came to stand beside Jericho’s other side and looked down at the reporter. “What question have you just troubled my vice chair with? Something regarding the future of Signum? Or irrelevant questions about the past?”

The reporter tensed before repeating the questions he’d just asked Jericho.

“Are you questioning my judgment in choosing my vice chair?” Leona asked, lifting her chin. Her molten gaze swept across the mass of cameras and her voice carried over their commotion. “If his past is as you say it is, then that just proves how effective the ELPIS Department is. It’s heartless and dishonorable to turn your back on people who want to change.”

Huh…

Another reporter stepped forward, notepad in hand. She gestured to Gabrielle then to Leona. “You two just came off the same train, didn’t you? Did you ride in the same cart? Is there a reason that you two and several other first chairs are here? Is it just coincidence or is this a planned meeting?”

Leona’s eyes narrowed.

A wave of whispers abruptly spread across the crowd starting from the very back. Slowly, the crowd parted as a quintet of silhouettes made their way towards them. The familiar sharp and poignant smell of formaldehyde made wafted into Jericho’s senses followed by an even more familiar sound:

Bahshhhhhshhhhhh.

Bahshhhhshhhshhh.

The crowd-parting figures finally made their way through the crowd and stopped short across from Jericho, Leona, and Gabrielle. Jericho instantly recognized the two who stood front most. Hårek, First Chair of the Medical Department, and Nadinaline, First Chair of the Assignment Department. Flanking Nadinaline’s left and right were the veiled peacekeepers he’d seen constantly at her side. Correction: they were corpses. Corpse bride. Corpses: like on the battlefield from Oros’s memories.

Clenching his fists, Jericho stared at Nadinaline long and hard. 

She had been the one to bring Benì in to be baptized. She was the reason—no. She was only part of the reason, he realized. The saint candidates also were another part of the reason. ELPIS too. And Monadism. Monadism: the Monadic priests had also done things to Maria—

Jericho’s thought cut off as he registered another smaller figure stepping out from behind Nadinaline. The bright purple shade of their hair made them instantly identifiable.

Ferris.

“Gabrielle! Jericho!” came her sigh of relief. “I—” She glanced to her left at Nadinaline and shut her mouth.

Jericho felt the tension in his stomach lessen slightly. He then registered Moraeni of all people coming to a stand beside Ferris.

“Moraeni,” Gabrielle greeted the man. “Ferris, you too, huh? Now how did you get both here before me when our train left first?”

Moraeni shrugged half-heartedly in response.

A beat of silence passed. Then came the explosion of camera shutters and voices shouting over each other—

“What are five first chairs doing here?”

“Are you all here for the campaign?”

“What do you have to say about the chlorowheat issue?”

“Aries and Sagittarius have—”

“Near the Aquarian-Capricornian border—”

Gabrielle cupped her hands around her mouth and spoke over them: “Do you think we can put politics to the side for a moment and all grab lunch? I’m starving!”

* * *

Jericho felt awkward. At the moment, he was sitting at the far end of a long table inside a fine dining restaurant at the heart of the city. The interior decor of the restaurant reminded him vaguely of the Rosario Round of the Twin Cities: pillars holding up the ceiling, red carpeted flooring, and crystal chandeliers dangling from above. Sitting on his side of the table were Ferris and Gabrielle. Directly across from him sat Leona and beside her sat Moraeni, Nadinaline, and Hårek in that order. Nadinaline’s mediums were ‘parked’ on the bench just outside of the restaurant. From where Jericho sat, he could see them through the restaurant’s glass windows. Occasionally they would sway side-to-side.

The restaurant itself was half-full of men and women in suits and dresses. Occasionally, the men and women would cast glances in the direction of Jericho’s table and whisper amongst themselves. Most eyes —Moerani’s, Gabrielle’s and Ferris’s too—were glued to Leona.

A waiter approached their table, carefully balancing a tray full of food on his shoulder. He set down the tray on a stand and began nervously passing platters of food around the table. Twin soups for Nadinaline and Ferris, while Gabrielle had an artisan burger and Hårek had what appeared to be saucy meatballs. Moraeni had some type of rice dish. Much to Jericho’s surprise, the waiter moved to place a noodle dish in front of him. He hadn’t ordered anything.

Jericho grabbed the waiter’s wrist as the man turned to leave. “There is a mistake.”

The waiter startled.

“No, there isn’t,” Leona interjected. 

Upon looking across the table, Jericho found that Leona had a similar dish placed in front of her. Leona held his gaze for a moment before picking her fork up and beginning her meal. Jericho stared at her and then at his plate for a moment before releasing the waiter. 

“I’m sorry.”

The waiter dipped his head and scuttled away.

Nadinaline hummed as she lifted her veil just high enough so she could sip her soup with a spoon. “It’s not quite as good as what we have back home, no?”

Spoon half in mouth, Ferris glanced over at Leona tensely but said nothing.

“Seamus is stiff competition,” Nadinaline continued after a while, “especially with endorsement from the Ariesian prince and Sagittarius’s Seong Clan prince.”

Gabrielle, Leona, Moraeni, and Ferris all looked at Jericho simultaneously. Jericho stabbed his fork into a thick of pasta and shoved it all into his mouth.

“If Seamus’s journey and peace talks at the Aquarian-Capricornian border pay off—which I do hope it does—he’ll be an instant pick for many.” Nadinaline set her spoon down. “How troublesome these rolling elections are. It’s always the ones who do the most at the very end that reap the praise and rewards. The tortoise doesn’t win in this case, but the hawk that swoops in at the very end.”

Hårek arched a brow. “Is that a reference to the tortoise and the hair? I reckon you should at least offer some context before you make vague references like that. It’s poor communication.”

“Speaking of communications,” Nadinaline continued. “Saddine’s somehow become quite popular lately and Katharina’s moved down some since they found out her relative’s a member of the AAC.”

“I thought we agreed we weren’t going to speak about politics,” Gabrielle said, arching a brow and setting her burger down. 

“Please, Gabrielle.” Hårek dabbed his lips with a napkin. “What else would we have to talk about. The weather? It’s terrible.” He drummed his fingers on the table. “The biggest hot topics right now—rather, the topics of greatest importance in the mind of the people—are ELPIS’s erratic behavior in the past few months and the missing children, the chlorowheat epidemic, and the cold war brewing between the northern and southern countries.”

Jericho’s head pounded.

Chlorowheat…

He put his hand to his head, unsure of where the thought had come from. Cadence, most likely.

“It puts the Medical Department, the ELPIS Department, and International Relations in a unique spotlight,” Nadinaline rationalized. She glanced at Hårek. “You do have a lot on your plate, don’t you, Hårek?” 

“The election is just taking away from the crisis we have here.” Hårek frowned, jabbing his finger down on the table. “There are anti-chlorowheat campaigns in Capricorn and Aquarius, but I have reason to believe that Capricorn’s medical board has been—”

“It would be best not to discuss sensitive matters in public,” Leona interjected, holding Hårek’s gaze. “This isn’t tableside gossip, but another country’s affairs. I suggest that you have a bit more pride.”

“A lecture in appropriateness from someone younger than me. It’s the people’s issue, so should it really be discussed behind closed doors as opposed to an open forum?” Hårek challenged. “Not that I’m suggesting we adopt the Ophiuchian way. However, since we’re in your country, I’ll respect your opinion.”

Leona frowned.

Nadinaline placed a hand on Hårek’s back. “I’m sure it’s just the stress, yes, Hårek? You have double the items to manage since Miss Wtorek is gone.” She glanced across the table at Gabrielle. “Do you have any clues on that, Gabrielle? You were quite close with Miss Wtorek, were you not?”

Gabrielle held Nadinaline’s gaze. “You have no idea how much I wish she’d tell me where she went off to before she left.” 

Nadinaline remained silent before she added, “Is it something that has to do with Izsak—”

“You speak lightly of heavy topics. It makes it difficult for me to imagine how callously you’d speak of light matters.” Leona rose from the table. “Jericho, let’s go.”

Jericho stared at his now empty plate. “I’m not done eating yet.”

Leona’s gaze narrowed but she reached into her pocket and pulled out a slip of paper for him. “Fine. This is where we’ll be staying at. I expect to start our rounds at 7 am in the morning.”

Jericho accepted the paper and pocketed it with a nod. After offering Leona a wave, he watched her depart, then watched as Nadinaline and Hårek left too after they finished eating. Ferris stayed behind, but Nadinaline didn’t seem to mind it. Now only he, Gabrielle, Moraeni, and Ferris remained.

They sat in silence for a stretch as they finished up their meals. After a while, Moraeni said, “You’re doing good in the polls, Gabe.”

Gabrielle looked up at him and rubbed the back of her neck. “Neck-in-neck with Seamus of all people. If he cleans up things with the AAC by the end of this month, he’ll be five necks ahead of me. It’s like the perfect setup.”

There was another lapse of silence. Ferris held Jericho’s gaze and bit her lips.

“I still believe in you, Gabrielle.” Jericho offered her a thumbs up. 

Gabrielle snapped up to look at him. Her expression was stricken, and her shoulders sagged slightly as she leaned back in her chair. “Do you know what happened to the two last people who said that to me?” 

Intuition: Talib and Izsak.

“Sometimes I wonder if there’s even a p…” Gabrielle shut her mouth and yawned instead. “Anyways, it seems like our prince is getting involved in politics after all. Any idea why he’s giving the sudden endorsement?”

Jericho thought on how best to put it: “Messy politics. Blackmail… A bribe?”

Gabrielle sighed and rubbed her neck again. “What sort of mess has our prince gotten himself into this time?”

“He wants Aries to lower the tariffs on Capricorn,” Jericho replied plainly. “Aries’s joint tariffs with Sagittarius.”

“Capricorn…” Gabrielle drew slowly before her gaze softened a bit. “I see—”

“Oh, Gabe, Gabe, Gabe.”

Jericho looked up to find the waiter from earlier approaching their table with three bottles of wine in hand. The man set them on the table before popping a bottle open with a cork.

“I’m sorry, but we didn’t order these…” Ferris began before her eyes widened as her gaze flitted up to the man’s face.

Jericho followed her gaze and saw a familiar tattoo in the shape of a scorpion crawling from the nape of the man’s neck down his collarbone. 

“Scorpio,” Gabrielle greeted the man with a curt nod. “Appreciate the visit, but aren’t you too busy with your campaign to be stopping by here? I saw your billboards in Scorpio—the country. They were nice. It was nice of your parents to put them up for you.”

Scorpio remained silent for a moment before a thin smile split across his lips. “Aren’t you going to finish what you were saying earlier? A leader should finish everything they start, shouldn’t they? Or else the sheep will wander around lost forever.” 

Gabrielle arched a brow. 

“I’ll remind you. You were saying that you’re not sure if there’s any point in participating in or even winning the election,” Scorpio continued. “You’re right on the mark. There is no point in winning this election. There never was. At least not for you. If you win the election, what do you hope to change? Every policy you push will take decades to implement and only weeks to overturn and amend. And you don’t have decades, Gabrielle.” His smile fell slightly. “The syzygy is just around the corner.”

The syzygy. Conta and Tau had not been very revealing of anything on that topic. Lack of trust.

“Has Cadence learned anything from the ELPIS leaders that I assume she’s working with now? Perhaps little tidbits here and there? Even if you gain the knowledge, the most you’ll be able to do is push back the time frame of the inevitable.” He snapped his fingers and turned back to Gabrielle. “By the way, I took a peek at the preliminary voting tickets after it was all over and done with just for fun—”

“Are you willing to say that on record?” Gabrielle interjected.

“Both Nadinaline and Hårek voted for you during the preliminary round of the elections, Gabe,” Scorpio continued. “Seeing how they chose Elizabeta and Ferris as their vice chairs, they might have a soft spot for you.”

Yes. Jericho remembered Atienna mentioning that peculiarity.

“William Saovàng voted for you too. That’s Ariesian loyalty for you.” Scorpio gave a singular clap. “That does bring certain loyalties into question though…”

“What are you implying…?” Moraeni pressed, frowning.

“Someone in your inner circle didn’t vote for you, Gabrielle,” Scorpio finished, pulling back with a smile. “You’re bright. I know that paranoia’s been swimming around in the back of your head like a fish. It’s only natural for a wayward leader to have wayward sheep.”

“Stop heckling her, Talib,” Ferris murmured, fists clenched on the table. 

“I’m helping her, Ferris, not heckling,” he replied calmly before placing a hand on his chest. “You always think help is heckling when you’re young. Then you grow old at the end of the road and realize the slap on the wrist was actually an extended hand.” 

Jericho frowned too.

“Speaking of sheep and shepherds…” Scorpio turned to Jericho and leaned across the table to face him. “I’ve warned you already, partner. I’m not one to stop people from following their passions and feelings. People pursue their passions and what makes them content and happy. That’s why Benì decided to step into the role of Cancer. Oh—I’m sure he’d still enjoy taking photos with you from time to time, by the way, so don’t feel shy. He still is Benì, after all.”

The flashes from the camera shutters of the reporters Jericho had seen only two hours before echoed in his mind.

“The point is that I still care for you, partner, just as I care for everyone you’re connected to.” He leaned in even closer. “The vase is about to break. Like I said, the hairline fractures were already there to begin with.” Abruptly, Scorpio pulled back and stared out the window. When he turned back to Jericho, there was a confused look on his face. He pointed to the bottles of wine on the table. “Did you… pay for that already?”

Silently, Gabrielle drew out her wallet and handed the man a thick was of Ariesian bills. The waiter grimaced slightly in turn before flashing a smile.

“Keep the change,” Gabrielle added.

The waiter walked away with a hop in his step.

“Gabrielle,” Moraeni said suddenly, placing a hand on Gabrielle’s arm from across the table. “I owe you my life. Please don’t doubt yourself. Ever.”

Gabrielle blinked, appearing dazed. She then chuckled. “When you come in out of the blue saying reassuring stuff like that, it really hurts the ego, you know?”

Moraeni released her. “I was a potential saint candidate for Pisces in the past,” he drew slowly, meeting Ferris’s eyes then Jericho’s. “I haven’t told anyone this before, but I was chosen near the end of the war.”

Gabrielle frowned at him. “Why are you telling this story now—”

Ferris tensed, her face becoming pale. She scooted back slightly and her arm brushed Jericho’s elbow. “But…”

“I had nothing left after the war ended. I figured that dedicating myself to Monadism wasn’t such a bad thing.” He glanced at Gabrielle and his expression became briefly pained. “Izsak and Gabrielle swept me away into Ophiuchus instead. Gabrielle said we could do better things that way. Gabrielle, you said that even though we might not be the ones to see the better thing, it would still be worth it. I still believe that. Your ideas are good. You do good.” He looked back at Jericho then Ferris. “If it weren’t for them, I’d be just like…”

Ferris looked back in the direction of the waiter as a lapse of silence passed.

“Just trust me when I say to trust her,” Moerani finished.

“We are almost there.” Jericho nodded at Gabrielle, offering a thumbs up. “Don’t give up.”

* * *

The following morning, Leona tasked Jericho with handing out flyers, checking out billboards, and making promotional statements to passing pedestrians. He carried all the promotional materials with him in a large satchel and his suitcase. He felt odd: like a mailman from the Communications Department instead of a desk worker in ELPIS investigations. After comparing the two positions in his head, Jericho suddenly felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. They were not so much different. 

“Vote for Leona,” he said to one passerby as he held out a flyer stiffly into their face. “Maybe.”

Cadence and Olive occasionally kept him company as he made his rounds, but they had to leave eventually to handle things on their ends. Jericho wished he could be with Cadence and Maria in their search for the one instead of being here.

“Vote for Leona…” he said to another, handing out a pin this time. “Or vote for someone else.”

As dawn transformed into dusk, Jericho found himself passing by a water fountain at the very center of the city. It was a stone structure with a spout in the shape of a lion’s head and a holding bowl accented with carved feathers. The square surrounding it was empty much to his surprise. He approached the fountain and stared down at his reflection in the basin. He did not find any of the other five there. 

“You shouldn’t be out late. You’ll be swept away by the golden beast.” 

Bashhhhshhhhshhhhh

Bshhhhshhhshhshhhh.

Jericho turned sharply and found a trio of figures approaching him out from the narrow sidewalk to his left. Their faces were cloaked in black veils. Nadinaline and her mediums.

The woman chuckled. “That’s a little urban legend that’s made its home here, by the way. For this ‘context’ that Hårek was harping to me about earlier.” 

There was an addition that Jericho had not fully considered about her earlier: he remembered seeing her during the war. She had directed an army of corpses at the borders to overtake enemy forces. Each person her mediums killed was resurrected as a puppet—unable to return their bones to the earth. An interruption of the cycle…?

Nadinaline came to a stop in front of him. They stood there in silence.

After an unknown amount of time passed, Jericho pointed to her closest medium. “Why?” 

“Hm? Why I’m here? Well, I have an appointment that I need to get to. Or were you wondering why Ferris isn’t with me, dear? I gave her tonight off.”

Jericho shook his head. “I think… that this is something people would consider ‘not normal.’ They are corpses.”

Nadinaline motioned for one of the mediums with her hand, and it approached her stiffly. “Yes, they are. It’s completely legal. They’re no longer alive.”

“Who are they?” He paused, then amended: “Were they?”

“This is Marc,” Nadinaline explained casually, placing her hand on the medium’s shoulder. She gestured to the distant-standing medium. “That is Ilya. They were two peacekeepers who worked with me in my department half a decade ago. We became quite close before their untimely deaths. Dear Marc here even introduced me to his wonderful parents. They’re quite old—his parents. His mother is a bit off.”

“They were your friends,” Jericho concluded. He frowned.

Nadinaline’s head perked up at this and she seemed to appraise him through her veil. After a moment, she brought her hand up behind the veil over her mouth and laughed. It was a long and clear note. “Oh—oh dear. You’re more innocent than I thought.” After a moment, her laughter subsided and she folded her hands in front of her. “Do you not want to keep your friends by your side?”

Abruptly, Jericho recalled Francis’s words in Leo several months back: “People mourn for the dead but the dead are the ones who are at peace and have left everything behind as they return to the cycle. We should have sympathy instead for the ones who cling still to those who have passed and found peace. Desperately clinging to what remains of them and wishing them to return. We are selfish in our imaginations and our desires.”

“Oh?” Nadinaline blinked. “I just called you innocent and then you turn into a poet before my very eyes.” She chuckled. “The thing with mourning is that it passes with time. Not while one is living, of course. Mourning only stops when the mourner is dead. It’s not a permanent feeling, and there’s beauty in permanence—permanence as in nothing is lost or gained.” She hummed in thought. “Ah, well, mourning itself is a cycle. Once the mourner dies, another mourner to mourn them is created. And so on and so forth. That isn’t permanence either.”

Jericho stared. “What does this have to do with your mediums being corpses?”

In response, Nadinaline walked over to the fountain and sat down on its thick rim. She motioned to the area beside her.

He stared at her blankly, fists clenched. After some more thought and staring at Marc for a while, he moved to sit down beside her. 

Silence.

Half an hour later, a small figure hobbled into the square: an old woman with a hunched back and walking with a cane. As she came nearer and nearer, Jericho could make out that her eyes were a milky white color and that her face was lined with wrinkles in the darkness. Once she stopped only half a meter away from him, she looked around as if lost. 

“M-Marc?”

Nadinaline lifted her hand. Marc moved forward from where he stood beside her and stopped in front of the older woman. The woman in turn squinted up at him before reaching up past his veil to touch his face.

A beat of silence passed.

“Ah, there you are, Marc.” The old woman sighed and rubbed his face as he dipped his head low so she could better reach him. She squinted in Jericho’s direction. “Nadinaline, is that you?”

“Yes, it is, dear,” Nadinaline replied.

“How has my Marc been?” The old woman asked as she was guided over to sit at the fountain by the Marc-medium.

Nadinaline lifted her ringed fingers, seeming to direct Marc to sit beside the older woman. The medium then moved to hold the old woman’s hand.

“Oh, he’s been very good,” Nadinaline replied. “Very hardworking. Never leaves my side.”

“Just like his father!” the old woman laughed. “He always wanted to do good things—Marc. He has a good heart, you know? He always tried his best when he was younger.” She looked up at Marc. “It’s a shame that your voice is still damaged from your assignment two years ago. You had such a lovely singing voice…”

Something in Jericho’s heart stirred. He could not put his finger on it. Disgust, pity, empathy, warmth: all of it stewed over in his stomach. He wondered what Olive would think. Cadence always said Olive had the best moral compass. So: Good? Bad?

After the old woman spoke some more about her back aches, her garden, her cooking, and her husband to Marc, she started to yawn and rub her eyes. “Oh, I’m getting old. Getting too tired, too quick. Oh, but I can’t stay a little while longer. I haven’t seen you in forever, Marc…”

“Oh! Marc signed to me that he wants to walk you home,” Nadinaline added gently. “I think that’s a splendid idea.”

“Oh, I suppose that’s alright… You can’t leave me alone when you see me, can you?” The old woman mumbled with flushing cheeks and a pearly smile as Marc took her hand and guided her towards the alleyway she’d come from. “I’ll just borrow him for a moment then.”

“She’s senile,” Nadinaline explained afterwards, her gaze distant, her ringed fingers moving up and down as if they were playing a piano.

“But it’s a lie.” 

“A lie of comfort,” Nadinaline seemed to agree. “Sometimes lies of comfort are required to allow people to continue forward. Is it so bad if it harms no one so long as the lie is kept constant? Only the privileged can apply morals and condemn things like lies so easily. Only the privileged can flip labels so easily too without consequence. At one point I was a war hero, you see? At another point a war criminal. And now I’m the first chair of a—how should I say—well, I shouldn’t say.” She tapped her free fingers to her lips. “You shouldn’t say things that aren’t respectful, should you?”

A lie of comfort.

Jericho thought of Francis and Cadence and the chlorowheat.

“A useful lie is one that has permanence,” she continued, glancing at Ilya. “One that never decays…”

Jericho frowned. Truth and lies. He had tried to tell Benì the truth but—“Benì. He became a saint candidate.”

“Yes, he did.” Nadinaline nodded. “Just before I left for Leo, in fact. I have to thank you for looking after him while I was busy with election materials—” 

“Do you know what happens to people who become saint candidates?”

There was a beat of silence.

“If you’re talking about the elusive and mysterious ‘baptism’ of saint candidates in the context of the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis, then I must say I have an inkling.” Nadinaline’s eyes became half-lidded beneath her veil. “It’s not explicitly stated in the red folder that we receive when we become first chairs. No, it’s not listed with the information regarding energy levels, the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis, nor the manner in which ELPIS operates—though I doubt the details there are completely accurate. Intuition can, however, get one very far.” She let out a breath. “I was very fond of Talib. He was the best conversationalist. Always knew when to talk and when to listen, you see…?”

Jericho felt his chest seize again but refrained from reaching out to Olive. “Then why?”

“You want my reason?” Nadinaline smiled thinly. “I’m sorry, dear, but I don’t have one to give you. It was his choice in the end, wasn’t it?”

Jericho unclenched his fist. “He didn’t know any better.” Like Jericho himself had not known any better all those times before. An excuse? A reason. After turning over the two words over and over again in his head, he finally asked: “Did you have a reason for why you and Hårek voted for Gabrielle?” 

Nadinaline turned to him sharply. “Who told you that?”

“Talib,” Jericho answered. “Scorpio.”

Nadinaline looked forward again. “I see…” She lolled her head slightly to the side. “Not to stereotype people, but Gabrielle has that Ariesian spark.”

Jericho cocked his head. “Ariesian spark.”

“Oh, dear, I’m sure you have at least one Ariesian friend who has the Ariesian spark. They just have something in them that lets them ignite action in others. Inspirational. All you have to do is witness that spark and you’ll catch flame yourself.” She hummed. “Or maybe it’s all just chance.”

Jericho thought of Olive during their very first synchronization meeting. His calling. Conjecture: a spark?

“This world doesn’t quite make sense, but we still choose to live and survive in it through little pains and big pains. When there’s a person who offers a moment of clarity, I can’t help but be drawn to them. That and Gabrielle’s woes and goals coincide with mine and she’s a far better public speaker that I’ll ever be, you see? She’s managed to prevent her title of ‘war hero’ from being tarnished.”

Jericho waited until Marc returned to Nadinaline’s side before he left. 

* * *

Several days later, Leona brought Jericho with her to visit a string of Monadic temples in the city. Whenever they would enter one of the temples, Leona would be greeted by deep and reverent bows from the Monadic priests, temple attendees, and Espadas alike. Some—mostly the Espada—would even get on their hands and knees and touch their foreheads to Leona’s feet. Almost always after Leona gave her campaign speech to them and Jericho handed out fliers, the priests would gift them with large baskets full of wines, foods, and other items.

A bit much, ain’t it? Cadence noted when she swung by in a light synchronization. They call ELPIS cult-y but this is pretty extra. Well, that’s what happens when ya pedestal things too much. Ya see, detective, it ain’t too hard ta be drawn into bad things. No character fault of your own.

Excuse. Reason.

Atienna on the other hand seemed less curious about the devotions of those in the temple and instead. I wonder… Given how Monadic Leo as a country is, you would think that most Conductors would plan to vote for Leona just because of her status as their saint candidate. Leonian Conductors make up only 5% of the votes, so while it’s good to invest time here, it would be better spent cultivating votes elsewhere—don’t you think?

Although Jericho didn’t understand politics, he relayed this question to Leona after they completed their greetings with the Monadic priests. 

“It’s good to gather new sheep and collect more ants,” Leona explained quietly once the priests and Espadas had left to retrieve gift baskets for them, “but you shouldn’t neglect the ones that are already beneath your boot or in your care. You should have pride in everything that’s in your domain…” Her eyes narrowed as her gaze trailed towards the returning priests. 

The words rang in Jericho’s head as his thoughts drifted again to Oros’s memories. He eyed the plastic-wrapped gift baskets in the priests’ hands. As he attempted to make out the contents of the baskets, he suddenly felt a shiver explode out from his back and spill into his hands. His legs gave in beneath him, and he tumbled to the floor. Leona caught him just in time and he was assisted to one of the pews by the Monadic priests.

Leona knelt beside him. Eyes narrowed, she whispered, “What is it? Who?”

Jericho remained silent. Eventually, Leona left to speak with the priests. Jericho was still not familiar with the feeling.The pain. The shivering. The nausea. His heartbeat didn’t feel right either. One of the others. It had to be.

After some time passed, Leona returned to his side and guided him out the temple. They wove through the city and returned to their hotel room where Leona sat him down with a glass of water. Jericho was uncertain about her gestures but the sickly ghost pain was more on his mind than she was.

It was not too long after that the answer arrived: Werner.

The fallout that followed this was overwhelming: chlorowheat, Francis, the lies, Werner, denial, shouting, Cadence and Olive, and then finally Maria. Jericho’s intuition had been right—there had been something wrong— but he found no pride in it because he had not acted on it.

Seeing Werner was like that reminded Jericho of Benì’s recent fall and of Scorpio and Talib. Someone was once again slipping away. Jericho therefore held on tightly with all his might. He slotted times to synchronize in with and visit Werner and even convinced him to speak with Alice. 

It was like that unspoken phrase Olive said.

Hope for recovery.

A spark.

* * *

The next several days were a blur. Jericho spent most of the time in bed: his limbs and head aching unfamiliarly yet familiarly. This feverish, sweating, too hot yet too cold feeling reminded him of the time when he’d been deathly sick when he was much younger. It was a faded and worn away memory. He couldn’t remember who had taken care of his younger self at that time: his mother or Theta. He did his best to take on the pain as he had offered to do so for Werner and the others.

It took approximately a day afterwards for Jericho to feel well enough to get out of bed. Correction: it took him one day to feel well enough to open his eyes. When he did, he found himself in the bed of his hotel room with Leona at his side. There was a book in her hands.

“You’re awake.” Leona’s eyes narrowed. “What happened?”

Jericho stared at the ceiling. He tried a lie, “I had a heat stroke.”

He thought to himself again: he should have trusted his intuition, but instead he had trusted Werner. Werner had lied, just as Jericho himself had lied to Francis. Intuition and truth was not enough. Lies.

“Don’t insult me,” Leona said thickly, “You’re a True Conductor. It isn’t difficult to connect the dots. I’m sure Scorpio’s connected them already.”

Jericho blinked at her, thinking. “You don’t know. He hasn’t told you. Or he doesn’t know either.”

Leona regarded him for a moment before she said gently, “You can trust me. I do care for your well-being.”

Trust. Werner’s word. Theta and the other ELPIS leaders had trusted Leona too.

“But you lied,” Jericho scrambled internally to reason. They were not a part of this deal anymore, so he had no reason to disclose the information to her. Even if the deal was still active, he wouldn’t have disclosed it either. “On Maria’s ship—you lied. You said you were the Golden Beast. You’re not.”

“What? That’s ridiculous. Besides, you do realize the golden beast is a Leonian old fable, right?” Leona sighed and crossed her legs. “I do admit she’s made it her own and revived it from unuse, but it wasn’t originally hers to begin with.” 

Alpha’s voice rang in Jericho’s ears: Everything that you have right now is not really yours. Everything was taken from someone else or given to you by someone else. 

“Alpha…” Jericho clenched the sheets as the name slipped out from his mouth. Another wave of nausea wracked his stomach but he fought against it and rose to a sit. This uncomfortableness was unfamiliar to him. A new experience. An unpleasant one.

“Alpha?”

“You’re not concerned about him,” Jericho said, staring at her. “He took children. He spread chlorowheat. He will attack Ophiuchus. But you’re not concerned.” The back of his head buzzed. “You want to refuel the reservoirs with his attack.” He frowned. “But he has bleached vitae. The vitae won’t elevate as much. Why?”

“Would you be concerned by the buzz of a fly?” Leona asked calmly. After a pause, she frowned and her eyes glinted. “Do you not realize how insulting your words are? How long do you think I’ve dealt with Alpha as an adversary—” 

“Fifteen years,” Jericho said. “That is not a long time. From your perspective.”

Instead of replying, Leona’s eyes narrowed and asked, “It was the Capricornian, wasn’t it? The one causing your pain right now?”

He perked up but then looked away. “No.”

Leona chuckled lightly and strangely before sighing. “Scorpio has put him as a person to keep an especially keen eye on since he and one other are the most likely to find themselves in danger. In Herr Waltz’s case, it’s a danger from within.” She paused as if letting the words settle in. “We’re aware of a particular issue he has, although I’m not sure if you’re aware of it. Since Scorpio is Herr Waltz’s direct contact, he is the one who handles him—though I’m sure you’re aware of how Scorpio handles people.” Another pause. “And by particular issue, I mean a chlorowheat issue.”

They knew. And they did nothing. Jericho tried not to listen and felt his cheeks burn. Werner would feel ashamed if he somehow overheard.

“I’ve heard, however, that Herr Waltz is continuing his operation at the border as normal.”

Jericho reached out for Cadence. She answered his call, despite being in the middle of an AAC meeting. As soon as she got her bearings on his situation, she swore. 

Best ta play this easy.

“He had an incident,” Jericho admitted. “But he is okay now. He is better—”

“You must be disappointed.”

Jericho frowned, and he felt Cadence frown too.

After a while, Leona continued, “What were you saying about fifteen years ago?”

Jericho tensed. He had led that information slip on accident—

Wait! Saints. I dunno how I didn’t think of it before. This is the perfect blackmail! Leo was goin’ against the frickin’ saint candidates this entire time before turnin’ face. How do ya think they’d react if they found out Leo here was battin’ for the other side?

Jericho lifted his head and locked eyes with Leona. “You’re from here.”

Leona smiled as if amused. “I am the Saint Candidate of Leo, Jericho.”

“You were Leonhart.”

Leona merely chuckled. “Yes—”

“Did you pick me as vice chair also because I reminded you of Epsilon? Because I am ‘innocent.’”

Leona stopped short.

“You helped ELPIS during the war and before it. And then you betrayed them—”

Leona was on him in an instant, leaping on top of him and pinning him by the throat to his bed. After staring at her in confusion, he pushed back against her with difficulty until she pulled away. She stood there at the foot of his bed breathing heavily. Even still, somehow, she held an air of elegance.

After a pause, she eased back down into her chair and her breathing calmed. “Did you finally discover this through Theta’s records? I assumed Omicron destroyed them all—”

“No. Through Epsilon.”

Leona stiffened again. “So he’s with one of you. Epsilon would never show you—”

“He showed Maria.”

Leona showed no change in expression.

“Why?”

“What makes you think you deserve to know my reasons? It’s simple: disappointment.”

Jericho considered it. “Disappointment in other people does not make me want to abandon them. It makes me want to help them.” A voice whispered in the back of his head: “Disappointment in oneself, however, might cause one—”

“You should watch your tongue, Jericho,” Leona interjected in a steely tone. “You’re valuable as a True Conductor, but there will always be more to replace you.” Upon looking him over, she added in a gentler tone: “I’m assuming those words weren’t from you, so I advise you to hold their tongues.”

Jericho continued, “If the other saint candidates discovered that, what do you think they’d do? They don’t know. You’re lying to them.”

Cadence squirmed in the distance as Leona’s eyes narrowed. 

“The strong don’t have a need to lie,” Jericho said. “That’s what Maria says. Intuition: that’s what they teach in the orphanage. Like Maria. You were both in Gloria houses.”

“As I said—watch your tongue,” Leona replied thickly. “I am nothing like that woman. I took on this role, while she decided to be swept away.” She added after a beat: “Do you find any fault with me killing the people who would eventually become ELPIS leaders? You have a personal vendetta against them, don’t you? That’s why you joined my department.”

“At that point…” Jericho felt the gears in his head turning. “They… hadn’t committed any crimes. At that point, they didn’t need to be brought to justice. You could have stopped them if you stayed with them.” He ruminated. “You said ‘disappointment,’ but why? Why was that a reason?”

Instead of addressing the question again, Leona returned, “Where is he? Where is Epsilon? He’s with Theta, isn’t he—”

“He is with Maria,” Jericho answered.

Leona’s jaw tightened. 

Silence.

“So… it appears as if we’re at a sort of impasse.” She crossed her arms. “Usually, such rude and demeaning threats and accusations would be met with equivalent retribution, but I’ll be lenient this time. For now, I’ll allow whatever you’re machinating in the background to continue as is as long as you continue to bring in True Conductors. It’s not as if what you do will matter in the end anyways.”

That’s one way ta say ‘let’s both look the other way.’ Saints, Cadence finally thought, breaking her silence. This is why politics is always a pain. Never know what ground ya stand on.

“They all looked up to you, Leo,” Jericho said after a beat.

Leona regarded him. “Did they hold me on a pedestal or did I hold them on a pedestal? Who disappointed who?”

Silence again.

“The bells.” Jericho fell back on his bed and stared up at the ceiling. “Do you hear them?”

“They’re always ringing.” Leona rose from her chair. “Your health is worth more than my campaign here. You’ll rest until your counterpart recovers completely. I expect you to use my discretion wisely and I expect your discretion in turn.” 

Would ya look at that, came Cadence’s thought. Leona’s more human than we thought. Well, we should probably still keep the whole Alpha issue we’re dealin’ with on the down low. ‘Cause—ya know—most people can’t look the other way forever.

* * *

Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

A day after, Jericho attended a synchronization meeting in which Maria disclosed the location where she believed Alpha—the one—requested to meet her at. Her orphanage. Her beginning. But not her end—she had clarified. She said Alpha was not his end either. Yes. Jericho was glad that she said this, but at the same time something about the intensity in her eyes ‘unnerved’ him. It was a different brightness than the one he usually associated with Maria.

That night when he was feeling somewhat well enough, Jericho slipped back into Ophiuchus while Leona was asleep. He walked the entire way from the gate located on the outskirts of a train station halfway between central Ophiuchus and the border of Leo to the living complexes at the edges of the Serpens Establishment. Once he reached the apartment that was his destination, he rapped on its door again and again and again. After the sixth rap, the door cracked open and Alice’s head poked out.

Jericho?” she pressed, adjusting her glasses. “What are you doing here? I thought you were headed to Leo.”

Jericho blinked down at her. “Vitae, please. Olive is asking a favor.”

Alice stiffened, glanced back and forth down the terrace before jerking him inside. 

“Do you know how dangerous it is for you to be moving around through—” She stopped short after studying his face. “What happened?”

Instead of answering, Jericho wrapped his arms around her.

Alice stiffened again before returning the gesture. She brought him to her kitchen table and sat him down with a cup of warm water. “Do you want me to listen or do you want my advice?”

“I don’t know.”

Alice nodded. After fifteen minutes passed, he began to tell her everything that happened in the short time he’d been away. He also elaborated on all the things he had kept discreet regarding Alpha. She listened to the entire story from beginning to end without speaking. 

Afterwards, she ruminated for a long while before asking, “Werner—that’s the man that Scorpio’s vitae entered back during the Week of Blindness, correct?”

Jericho nodded. 

Frowning, she set down her tea. “Whoever prescribed him that medication doesn’t deserve to be called a doctor. I also have concerns about this so-called prescribed morrowheat and chlorowheat that’s being circulated through Capricorn. I’ll bring it to the attention of the Medical Department myself so that you’re not implicated.” She held his gaze. “I believe Werner in this case may be one of many victims in a corrupt system that favors productivity over health.” 

“I had intuition, Alice. I knew—I had a feeling something was wrong—but I trusted him.” He bowed his head as he recalled the rumble that had torn through “Like Francis trusted me.” And he still hadn’t faced Francis since then.

Not a lie of permanence. 

“I’ll make special time in my schedule for Werner.” Alice reached across the table and held his hand. “Although it’s not my area of expertise, I’ll try my best after consultation with some of my colleagues familiar in this field. Given the tightness of our schedules, I would like for these appointments to be on time.”

“Werner is good with schedules and deadlines,” Jericho reassured her. “He never misses anything. Except when…” He trailed off.

Alice nodded, moving to take another sip of her tea “And this Alpha… Other than searching for him due to his crimes, I suspect you have a secondary motivation.”

“He is the one, Alice. He… lied. He manipulated us. Tricked us. And he’s the—” 

“He’s the reason—perhaps,” Alice replied, “but you’re also seeking a reason from him, aren’t you? The difference in the way you and the others and Maria were treated. His apathy now versus his push for you to fulfill ELPIS’s goals back then.”

Jericho remained silent.

“People don’t need a reason from people who’ve hurt them,” Alice continued. “The reason will never be enough—especially in your case, Jericho. ‘Reason’ is not the same as ‘closure.’ You’ll constantly be searching for it, and the answer may never satisfy you.”

Again, Jericho remained silent.

Afterwards, Alice spilled her vitae into the device Jericho had constructed with Olive’s instruction over the past few days. Up close, the white tubes crisscrossing the sphere in an ordered fashion were visible and soon 

“It is like a proto-conductor,” Jericho explained. “But improved with Marta John’s modification to the proto-conductors.”

“Marta John…” Alice drew slowly. “That’s the Ariesian conductor engineer who developed the vitaespetrophotometer.”

Jericho felt something tighten in his chest. He nodded. “Olive says it works like a donut.” He made the shape with both of his hands. “People who are at the center of the donut are not affected, so if you activate it you will not be affected. Only people in the ‘dough’ of the donut will be affected. Immobilized. ‘Theoretically’.”

Alice sighed, placing a hand on her hip. “To be frank with you, what your proposing this device does sounds like a miracle. My vitae wasn’t strong enough to completely stop… Scorpio”—she paused— “in Capricorn back in winter. Is this powerful enough to stop a saint candidate or someone who has an unusual amount of vitae inside of them?” 

“I don’t understand the ‘science’ behind it but the effect is ‘amplified,’” Jericho explained to her promptly, “but it is a ‘trial run’.”

* * *

Oroslita, Leo

Upon slipping back into his hotel room, Jericho discovered Leona awake and waiting for him in their shared living room. She was sitting on the sofa with a book in her lap and glanced up at him as he slipped through the door. 

Jericho avoided her gaze. “I had late night cravings, so I went… to satiate them.”

Leona let out a long and quiet sigh. “Jericho, let’s not play these meaningless games.”

“Games?”

“Your life as a True Conductor is inexplicably valuable to me.” Leona slowly rose from her chair. “Does this matter have to do with Alpha? You do realize that I’m still the first chair of the ELPIS Investigations Department. Your complaints regarding what you perceive as the mishandling of the Alpha case have reached my ears.”

Jericho looked to the side.

“Alpha was the one to take Maria when she was younger, was he not? That’s not difficult to deduce from history. He has also taken several of the children from our orphanages. He has Rho at his side as well as children he’s converted.” Leona approached him. “I assume from the remnants of ELPIS skirmishes our department has been keeping track of across Signum, Maria has crossed him at least once. They’ve both been rather elusive, but I’m assuming they’re bound to meet again soon.” She crossed her arms. “Do you believe in Maria’s strength to face Alpha?”

“Yes.”

Leona held his gaze. “Alone?”

Thinking otherwise felt like a betrayal of Maria, but Jericho still found himself saying, “We have other reasons to face Alpha-reasons that would be ‘bad’ for us if…” He struggled to explain himself as Cadence and Olive rattled at the back of his head. He eventually settled on, “Discretion. Like you said.”

“I don’t need assistance in handling someone like Alpha if you’re concerned about the other saint candidates or your fellow departmental agents discovering your hobbies, Jericho,” Leona replied. “All I care for at the moment is the safety of our assets for the syzygy.”

* * *

Alfablanca, Leo

Jericho—suitcase in tow—and Leona were on the train bound to Alfablanca that night. As morning rose, they reached the lip of the city right when Maria was laying down the gates in her old orphanage. They moved through the town and up the cliff at the town’s edge as Maria headed into the temple to confront Alpha.

When Jericho and Leona were halfway up the cliff, Jericho heard Dominic challenge Maria to a duel. As he tried to offer his assistance, he was immediately shoved backwards through his connection with her. The force of it caused him to stagger slightly. “She is pushing me away.”

Leona held him steady as they continued forward. “Your connection with each other must be exceptionally strong for her to be able to hold you at bay—that’s good for the syzygy. Of course, that may just be her sense of self coming into play.”

It was terrible: the anxiety that built and built as Jericho neared the temple at the very top of the cliff. The fear. These feelings were unfamiliar to Maria—Jericho knew.

When the temple loomed into view, Jericho recognized the group of suited men standing at its entrance. The Foxman’s men. Just in front of them sat El, Epsilon, and Andres. A searing pain began to bubble up his left arm as Jericho finally brushed past them and entered the temple alongside Maria. He was immediately met with the sight of a blinding white fog caging the inside of the temple. Up above hung familiar brass, copper, silver bells. Just below them—

There she was. On the ground. Maria. Her arm was entangled in a chain that extended out of the open doorway on the opposite side of the temple where the one and Rho stood calmly side-by-side.

No. That was not the most important thing. Maria—she was in pain, but despite this she held onto the chain tightly. Maria. In pain—throbbing up the left arm. Losing. Maria and losing: two ideas that did not coexist together in his mind. His Maria—just like he was her Jericho. Like Ayda, Talib, Benì, Werner.

No

“Maria!”

Jericho did not realize it was himself who had shouted Maria’s name until his voice was ringing in his ears. He stepped forward, intending to blow through the wall of mist. A ghost of a hand stopped him short. Upon turning, Jericho registered Olive. His eyes were wide and wild. 

“You’ll get hurt too, Jericho.” He turned to snap at “Claire, come on—!”

Claire. Andres.

Jericho whipped his attention to the side and registered Andres kneeling on the floor and muttering a prayer to himself. El and Epsilon sat beside him, shaking the man roughly. Leona’s eyes were glued onto the very latter.

“Epsilon…” Leona’s eyes widened. She hesitated for a moment before extending her hand out to him. “You need to leave immediately.”

Epsilon recoiled away from her in clear confusion. “Wha? Who are you? I can’t. Leo…” His gaze trailed to Maria. “We have to help Leo—”

I’m Leo,” Leona pressed, grabbing a hold of his arm. She pulled a conducting blade from her waist and activated with a flick of her hand. The gold light warmed her face. “They’ve been deceiving you. You need to leave. I’ll handle this—”

“What? No, no, no. You’re… You’re not Leo. How could you even call yourself that?” Epsilon murmured, shaking his head and meeting Leona’s eyes after glancing at her conductor. “Your conducting is the same, but I can look in your eyes and I can tell. There’s no warmth.” 

A perturbed look crossed Leona’s face.

No, this was not important.

Jericho returned his attention forward.

There: Rho, standing idly beside Alpha.

Jericho clicked open his suitcase and ignored the papers and fliers that spilled out from it. He grabbed his conductor from within as the colorful sheets were picked up by the wind and thrown around the temple. The bells began to ring. With all of his might, he aimed his suitcase and threw it at Rho. The suitcase hurtled across the distance before—crack!—it collided with Rho’s chest. The sheer force of it sent the woman flying backwards out the temple and onto the field behind the temple. She rolled to a stop near the edge of the cliff.

The white wall of mist dimmed slightly and began to lose its shape, but did not go away completely.

Regardless, Jericho whipped off his suit jacket, wrapped it over his head, and charged through the mist. As soon as he broke through the veil, he darted to Maria’s side. The floor beneath her body was soaked in her blood but she still gripped the chain wrapped around her arm tightly. He tried to hold her, but she pulled away and locked eyes with him. Her eyes—they burned with a fiery intensity.

Jericho understood. He reached for the chain, but before he could grip it, a flash of gold suddenly seared across his vision. He barely activated his conductor fast enough to throw out a whip to block the incoming blow. The golden blade shatter as soon as it contacted his vitae, and its wielder stumbled backwards.

Dominic. 

“See, you can’t even beat me on your own!” the adolescent snapped, lifting his chin. He looked Jericho up and down. “Who are you?” He eyed Jericho’s armband— “A peacekeeper?”—and then Jericho’s vitae with a frown— “But your vitae… it’s almost white…”

Jericho rose to his feet and tightened his grip on his conductor as he held Dominic’s gaze.

Dominic: A child. An arrogant one, but also someone who was also tricked. Someone who deserved pity?

Jericho eyed the conductor in the boy’s hand. Yes. He would destroy that instead. He lifted his conductor to follow through with the action, but was abruptly tackled to the side by another person and subsequently pinned down by the arms.

Andres.

Andres said nothing, locking eyes with Jericho as he continued to push him down. Words did not need to be said. The context came from the flashes Jericho received from Maria. Jericho realized it then. He was looking into a mirror of the past: at himself when he’d been wholeheartedly dedicated to ELPIS’s belief system. The cycle, the turn of it, the corruption and sin that conductors brought. The desperation to dedicate and to please. To prove dedication. 

Grimacing and apologizing internally, Jericho kicked the man back with all of his might. Andres flew backwards, crashing into Dominic behind him and sending them both flying to the ground. The two struggled to a stand as Leona finally moved forward away from Epsilon. She threw seven activated vitae blade at the shroud of mist—one after the other. The first two disintegrated as they passed through the first wall of mist, but created a path for the five other blades. The third and fourth blade were dissolved by the last wall of mist, but once again created a path for the other blades to follow. The remaining blades skewered Alpha’s left arm, causing him stagger back. 

“Beta,” Leona said out loud, peering through the fog at the field beyond it where Conta, Albatross, and Simon were holding steadfastly to the chain. She reached for another conducting blade.

T-This is getting too out of hand. Jericho, try—

Mind racing, Jericho reached into his pocket and pulled out the sphere he’d brought with him and slapped his finger down at the small nodule at its head without a second thought. A high-pitched whine emanated from the sphere before it began to pulsate with light. All eyes turned towards Jericho—towards the sphere—before a large ring of light expanded out from the sphere’ body and hurtled outwards, increasing in intensity as it grew. 

When the ring of light faded just at the very outskirts of the temple, a collection of thuds echoed around Jericho as the bells above rang loud and the campaign leaflets cascaded downwards. 

As Jericho’s eyes fully adjusted, he registered that Leona, Andres, Dominic, and Epsilon were on the floor motionless. Alpha too. Their eyes were open and flicking side-to-side, indicating alertness. The ones standing on the outskirts of the temple—Conta, Simon, Albatross, and even Rho—remained unaffected and appeared confused.

Rho surveyed her surroundings before she shrugged, turned on her heels, and leapt off the cliff without warning. Conta made to dart after her, but stopped short and continued to hold onto the chain extending off the cliff alongside Simon and Albatross.

“Jeri…” Maria whispered, drawing Jericho’s attention downwards. She was still gripping the chain. “Help me.”

Jericho felt his heart drop. He wrapped both of his hands around the chain and began to pull, pull, pull with all of his might alongside Maria, Conta, Simon, and Albatross. Slowly, painfully, they collectively brought the chain further and further up into the temple. With one final tug, they pulled the mass of bodies tied together back up onto the cliff. Those entangled in the chains clambered on top of each other; and two sides seemed to be struggling against each other. Among the chaos, Jericho saw Emmanuel jump on top of a child and pin them to the ground. Eventually, Emmanuel’s side overpowered and subdued the other side.

Maria finally fell backwards as she registered this. Jericho moved forward quick enough to catch her head before it hit the floor. He stared at her, vision swimming as he stared at her arm. He didn’t know what to do. 

Calm down— 

Let’s think—

El’s a Transmutationist— 

Craning his neck back, he called out for El.

El, shrouded by one of the suit jackets belonging to one the Foxman’s men, immediately darted through the mist and skidded to a halt beside Maria and Jericho. She cast a concerned glance back at Andres before moving to assess Maria. Only after a second after doing this, El looked up at him sharply.

“We need to get her to a hospital. Or to the ELPIS leader’s room—

Jericho immediately whipped out his conductor and severed the lower part of the chain from Maria’s arm. He swept her up with difficulty into his arms and began to stumble towards the entrance of the temple with El at his side. Before he could make it past the threshold, Conta was beside him.

“Let me take her. I said let me take her!” she snapped, prying Maria from his arms. “You need to be gentler. You’re being too rough.”

Jericho stared at her in surprise but—after some resistance—released Maria into her arms. He walked alongside the two, gripping Maria’s good hand tightly the entire time. Once they entered the adjacent orphanage, El ran up to and opened the gate on the chalkboard inside and began to help Conta carry Maria through it.

Jericho started to follow them through, but—

“Proteus, Jeri,” Maria managed. Proteus. My children. My crew—

Jericho stopped short, still gripping Maria’s hand tightly. Holding her gaze for just a second longer, he released her and turned on his heels. 

Upon re-entering the temple, he passed by Andres, Leona, Epsilon, and even Alpha—

The kids. The kids—

He exited out the opposite side of the temple, brushed past the crowd at the edge of the cliff, and peered down the steep drop. Below, the ocean waves surged wildly against the rocks. In the distance, he could spy a familiar wooden ship sailing south. Too far to reach.

Damn it.

Gripping his fist, Jericho returned to the temple and came to a halt before Alpha. The man was flat on his back and staring up at the bells that swayed up above them. Upon registering Jericho, he managed a smile despite the damage to his arm. 

“Ah, so we meet face-to-face, Jericho,” he said. “You’ve grown super tall, haven’t you? Oh? And you wear glasses now? Well, I knew that already.” He laughed. “That’s quite an interesting conductor you’ve got there. Absolutely fascinating. To be able to hold down Leona and me—well, we’re nothing compared to saint candidates—but it does make you think.”

Jericho sank to his knees before the man and stared down at him. 

“What do you want from me now, Jericho?” Alpha pondered out loud. “I already gave you an answer. Are you still unsatisfied? I thought you of all people would understand the importance of freedom and letting go. You let Ayda and all your friends go, didn’t you?”

Jericho’s eyes widened and he cracked the man hard across the face. Blood flew out from his mouth.

Alpha merely laughed through his blood-stained teeth. “Jericho, you need to let go.”

Jericho cracked him again.

It was his fault. Alpha. The one. Ayda and everyone. And everything.

“You chose to follow what we asked and that’s all—”

And again. And again.

“You decided it wasn’t right for you in the end and left.”

And again. Again. Again.

“Nothing more and nothing less—” 

Jericho, that’s enough!

Jericho stopped short and turned to find Olive’s image at his side. Olive placed a hand on his shoulder, causing Jericho to recall how Olive had stayed with him after what had happened to Benì. Slowly, he dropped his fist. That was when he noticed that the Foxman’s men were ringed around him. They wore varying expressions: surprise, fear, reluctance. Maximillian, who stood among them, grimaced.

“Shit…” he grumbled. “Remind me not to get on your damned bad side. Anyways, what the fuck do we do now? Obviously, this wasn’t part of the plan.”

“We need to help the others into the gate,” Jericho said stonily, glancing out the back of the temple towards the cliff where Simon and Albatross were helping free the ones entangled in the chains. “If Scorpio has any medium’s here, they have been disintegrated by Rho’s conducting. Intuition: he may come to investigate. Solution: we move quickly.”

Maximilian jerked his head towards the crowd standing at the cliff. Maria’s crew seemed to still be struggling against a few of the children Alpha had converted. “What about them?”

“Solution.” Jericho cracked his fist one more time against Alpha’s head, knocking him out cold. He proceeded to slap the suppression cuffs from his belt over the man’s wrist. He put two more on for good measure. 

“Some solution,” Maximilian grumbled. He jerked his head to the side. “What do we do about her?” 

Jericho followed the man’s gaze to Leona who laid between Andres and Dominic. 

Cadence, Atienna, and Olive fogged the back of his mind. They were only partially synchronized in with him. Maria had most of their attention. To leave or to take was the decision to be made. Atienna was silent in the discussion.

Silently, Jericho approached Leona and locked eyes with her. He knelt to the ground and pulled another pair of suppression cuffs from his belt. “Discretion,” he said before slapping them over her wrists. When she fell limp, he stood up, pointed to her, and addressed the suited men: “Could you carry her back too? Temporarily. And the boy and Andres. And Alpha.” He added afterwards: “Please.”

Maximilian and the other men displayed clear apprehension but eventually nodded and moved forward with the transportation.

After ten minutes of struggling, Jericho and the Foxman’s men managed to usher and to carry almost everyone back through the gates in the orphanage. The only people who remained on the edge of the cliff were Simon, Albatross, and Lita. The former two appeared to be trying to coax the latter down.

Head heavy from exhaustion and swirling with thoughts of Maria and Alpha, Jericho approached them in slight confusion.

“—leave me alone, Albatross!” Lita pulled away from both Simon and Albatross with intense ferocity. “You don’t understand. Maria won’t—I—”

Jericho stopped short. He did: he understood what had happened almost immediately. He didn’t know why it had happened, but he understood it. 

Jericho stared at Lita for a stretch of time before he quickly approached her and placed a hand on her shoulder. She swung a blind fist at him, but he caught it with his hand. He then moved to lift the conductor hanging from her neck over eyes. 

As she looked him over through the glasses, her milky eyes widened. “You’re… the one from before. From Capricorn.” She paled. “I—”

“I am okay. Maria still accepts me as I am.” Jericho wrapped his fingers around her small hand. “You don’t need to give her a reason. She will understand, and she will want to see you. Especially since she is hurt. She fought for you.”

Lita paled even further. “Maria’s hurt…?” 

“Yes, but she is strong.” Jericho nodded, convincing himself of this fact with all his might. “So, it’s okay. For you, there is no reason needed. So please come home.”

25.4: Pirate & Origen

Re-cap:

Maria has met with Proteus—someone who has also touched Jericho’s past—one month ago; and after a brief fight and taking her crew from her, he has invited her to meet him once again at the place of her origin in one month. Morandi has also fallen ill since then as has Werner causing Maria to question her own philosophy. 

Now with just Epsilon, Albatross, Simon, El, Conta (Beta), and Andres at her physical, Maria sets off to find her place of origin.


The copper, gold, and silver bells clamored above Maria’s head. Low, high, dull, sharp—each sound blending into the next. Spying up at those brass wonders, Maria stood with her back straight and her head held high as the man in black robes walked down the line she stood in. When he brushed past her, she started bouncing on the balls of her feet. 

Today was different. She could feel it. She knew the boys and girls flanking her left and right could feel it too. She only wished Conta would be able to join her here in this temple today to experience it too. Sadly, Conta was part of the orphanage’s lower tier ranking of children, so she had to stay back with the other lower-tiered children inside the orphanage adjacent to the temple.

“What are you so excited, Maria?”

Maria looked forward to find the robe-wearing man—Priest Primera-Freeza—now standing in front of her with his hands clasped behind his back. He was bent over her, allowing her to see the crow’s-feet at the corner of his eyes and the strands of gray hair popping out from his blonde comb-over.

“What’s there not to be excited about?” Maria returned. “This day brings something new to me, no?”

“And what if this day doesn’t bring something new?”

“Then I’ll make something new!”

A grin broke across Primera-Freeza’s face as he placed a hand on her head. “Good, Maria, that’s very good. This world is meant for you to enjoy and guide, isn’t it…?” He mumbled under his breath as he pulled away—“It’s only sensible since you helped build it up to this point… Or at least you’ll have the gracious chance of becoming the one who did.”

Without elaborating, Primera-Freeza directed Maria and the other girls and boys in the line to the pews pressed alongside the far left side wall. Maria took her seat in the front row and far left corner as directed, not paying any mind to the others who squeezed in beside her. Instead, her gaze went to the stained glass windows on the wall. They were almost identical to the windows on the rightmost wall and depicted scenes of a pair of twins from birth to adulthood. One window portrayed the two holding hands as babies. Another showed one taking up a crown and the other a sword. The last showed only one of the twins remaining and standing alone with open arms—but Maria couldn’t tell which twin it was.

Eventually, Maria got bored of studying the windows and turned her attention ahead to the back of the temple. A familiar marble-white statue stood there with wide-spread arms. Just behind it were a set of windowed-doors that led to the flat grassy tip of the cliff. Beyond that, Maria could barely see the thin blue line of the sea.

“Children,” Primera-Freeza said suddenly as he stood in front of the statue and gestured to the front doors. “Please warmly welcome the children from the Gloria House just two cities over and their caretaker.”

Maria craned her neck as the back doors of the temple creaked open. In walked a row of unfamiliar boys and girls headed by a woman dressed in black robes similar to Primera-Freeza’s. As the boys and girls behind the woman filtered into the pews on the right side wall, the woman took a stand in front of the statue beside Primera-Freeza and smiled brightly.

“Thank you for having me here today, lovelies,” she said. “My name is Alana Angelo-Dorado. I’m bringing my children here to play some fun games with you, okay? Some fun, competitive, friendly games. So—shall we begin?”

Then began the fun activities Maria had been waiting for all day. Everyone from the Primera house including Maria herself was pitted against others from the Angelo house. They gathered together in front of the statue and played various quiz games with topics ranging from the history of Signum to Monadism to war tactics. Maria loved these games and tried to answer first every single time. Usually when these types of games were played in her orphanage, Maria would be fifty or so quiz points ahead of the others in the house. Now, however, Maria found herself neck-to-neck with a girl from the Angelo house.

“Who was the queen during the year 1630—”

“Stelleona III of Lorenzia,” Maria answered quickly.

“—and how many siblings did Stelleona have?”

The other girl raised her hand and answered immediately, “She had only one sibling, and that was her brother Leonce of Lorenzia.” 

“Yellow,” Maria answered the next question correctly right after.

“Zephyr of Sagittarius,” answered the girl to the following question just as quickly.

“Yielding with dignity.”

“Great Leonhart Gloria-Ariete.”

“Y-intercept.”

“Checks and balances.”

“Pyrrhic victory.”

“Reversal.”

“Anima-Vitae Hypothesis.”

“Eternal return.”

“Poincaré recurrence theorem.”

“P.D. Oran.”

This mysterious girl who was holding her own stood as tall as Maria herself and had a head of loose brown curls tamed by a bun. Her features were sharp and her brow delicate. Somehow, she reminded Maria of those royals the Primera-Freeza would lecture about during history lessons. 

Once the game ended in a tie and they were given a fifteen-minute break, Maria excitedly slipped over to the Angelo side of the temple to ask for the girl’s name but the girl was nowhere in sight. 

“Wow…” some from the Angelo house whispered as Maria made her way back to her own side after a fruitless search. “She tied with Araceli. She’s amazing.”

Araceli, Maria thought with a grin. Her name was Araceli.

As evening approached and the games started to wind down, ten Espada entered the temple and flanked the left and right sides of the walls in front of the stained windows. While all the other boys and girls were pulled back into the pews, Maria was pulled in front of the statue by Primera-Freeza.

“This is Maria Gloria-Primera, the best out of our entire care house,” he said, pushing Maria forward. “I believe she may be the best potential saint candidate we’ve ever had the glorious chance to lay eyes upon.”

Angelo-Dorando smiled genially, pushing forward Araceli. “This is Araceli Gloria-Angelo, the best of our entire care house as you could see. I have a feeling you might reconsider your words once you see her in action.”

Following this, both Maria and Araceli were handed wooden sticks and turned to face each other. Maria beamed at this and offered the other girl a wave. Araceli merely inclined her head. As Angelo-Dorando moved backwards, Primera-Freeza moved forwards and lined up their wooden swords so their tips were touching each other. These steps were very familiar to Maria, and so she tightened her grip on the hilt of the toy sword. Araceli seemed to be familiar with these steps as well since she tightened grip on her own sword too.

Primera-Freeza tapped both of their blades before quickly walking back to the front of the pews alongside Angelo-Dorando. He clapped his hands, signaling them to begin.

Maria took two steps back and realized Araceli had taken two steps back too. Marveling at this wonder, Maria tossed the wooden sword up in the air and caught it just as Araceli lunged forward. She successfully blocked the other girl’s swinging blade before dragging her sword up swiftly with all her might. Much to Maria’s surprise, the maneuver didn’t force the blade out of Araceli’s hand. Instead, Araceli locked their blades then slid her sword down until their hilts locked. She then pushed forward, forcing Maria back, back, back—until Maria swept her feet beneath Araceli’s, and sent the girl tumbling to the floor. Araceli, however, broke her fall with a roll and hopped back up onto her feet with her sword steady and ready.

Whispers of surprise from the left and right sides of the temple reached Maria’s ears as children from both sides began to rise from their seats and stare.

“She’s holding against Maria,” the boys and girls on Maria’s side whispered.

“She’s holding out against Araceli,” the boys and girls on Araceli’s side muttered.

Maria stared at Araceli in awe before breaking out into a grin and hopping on the balls of her feet. “You’re amazing! You’re really amazing!” No other person in her orphanage had ever held their ground like this against her in years

Swinging the toy sword in her hand once more, Maria darted forward. She arrived at Araceli’s side in an instant—swinging her blade up in an arc and nicking Araceli’s chin. At the same time, Araceli shoved the hilt of her blade forward, cracking Maria on the nose. Head spinning and blinking the stars out from her vision, Maria stumbled backwards and shook her head. Once her vision cleared, she registered Araceli rushing at her again. With a laugh, she pulled up to block the upcoming blow. 

Clack! Clack! Smack! Clack! Smack!

Their wooden blades slapped against each other again and again. Sometimes one of their blades would slip through the other’s defenses and smack against an exposed limb causing a sweltering bruise to form. Other times one of their swords would soar above the other’s head and clipped their ear.

Clack! Clack! Smack! Smack!

They danced towards the pews and over them as the children there dispersed. Soon they were back to back against the stained glass windows as the Espadas skirted around them. Through the fervor clouding her mind, Maria could see the awe, admiration, and reverence in each Espadas’ eyes—just as she could see the fervor in Araceli’s eyes. 

Yes, Araceli was enjoying this just as she was. Excitement. Something different—finally.

Crack—

Maria pulled back in surprise as did Araceli as the tips of both of their swords broke off from their hilts and went flying in opposite directions. Panting heavily, Maria tossed her hilt to the side as did Araceli. Maria then flashed a smile and wiped the sweat from her brow. Araceli shook her head in response and lunged forward—with her fist this time. Maria reflected the gesture and managed to crack the girl on the jaw just as her own jaw was cracked by Araceli’s fist. While her punch sent Araceli flying backwards, Araceli’s sent Maria flying backwards. Maria was caught in the arms of the Espada behind her, but she pulled away from them and hopped back onto her feet. Across from her, she saw Araceli do the same.

Laughing wildly at the exhilaration and filled with an intense desire to not lose, Maria charged forward towards Araceli again only to be held back by an Espada. Maria whipped to them, eyes sharp, teeth bared beneath her lips. Before she could make any moves, however, Primera-Freeza approached her and placed a hand on her head. 

“How about we calm down, Maria?” he asked calmly with a smile, sinking down to his knees and cupping her face in his hands. “You want to make me happy, don’t you?”

As Maria stared into the man’s eyes, her hammering heart slowly began to still. After some time passed, she stopped resisting the Espadas holding her still and instead turned to them and flashed a smile and wave. When she turned to glance at Araceli, she found Angelo-Dorando placing a hand on top of Araceli’s head. Araceli seemed calm now too.

“Araceli,” Angelo-Dorando asked, gesturing to Maria, “do you think you can ever beat her?”

“Of course, I can,” Araceli replied, lifting her chin as she held Maria’s gaze evenly from the distance. “I can do anything.”

Primera-Freeza proceeded to whisper gently as he gestured to Araceli. “Maria, do you think you can ever beat her?”

“Beat her?” Maria tilted her head. “Well, yes, I can, but I would rather make her mine, yes? She’s amazing!”

Primera-Freeza grinned while a frown pressed down on Angelo-Dorando’s lips.

In the lapse of conversation, the whispers and clamors of all the others seated in the pews became cacophonic.

“You shouldn’t envy the great but be happy that you’re able to be in their presence,” Primera-Freeza spoke over them. “Be happy that the rest of you were able to witness two shining stars competing in the same night sky that all of you shall become.”

* * *

When lunch arrived, Maria swept up a handful of croquetas from the dining table the Espada had rolled out at the center of the temple and then headed to the orphanage just across the dirt path outside. She approached one of the low windows of the building and climbed up on the crate stacked just below it. After she knocked on the window, a familiar girl with mousy brown hair popped up on the opposite side and swung the window open.

“Maria—!”

Maria shoved all but one of the croquetas into her face. “Here you go, Conta! For you!” 

“O-Oh, wow…!” Conta murmured, accepting them with reverence “These look amazing! Thank you, Maria! Thank you! Can I share it with some of the others?”

Maria nodded and waved brightly in turn before turning away. As she hopped down from the crate and prepared to make her way back into the temple, she spied a familiar girl sitting beneath the tree at the very edge of the cliff. 

“Hi Araceli!” Maria greeted the girl with a wave as she approached. “Did you eat already? What are you doing out here? It’s more fun inside, no?”

Araceli looked her up and down and narrowed her eyes as Maria sat down beside her. “And what were you doing out here?”

“I was just bringing food to my Conta,” Maria replied.

“You talk with students that aren’t at our tier?” Araceli frowned. “There are tiers in your place too, right?”

“Yes, there are tiers at our care house too.” Maria nodded after some thought. “Why?”

“They teach you us not to associate with lower tiers, don’t they?” Araceli pressed. “We have to keep them at an honorable distance. They’re below us, and we need to set an example or something. They’re to be our night sky to allow us to shine. If we get too close, our brightness will be tarnished.”

Those words did sound familiar.

Maria shrugged. “I like them, so I spend time with them, yes? I don’t think about it too much.” After rocking back and forth for a moment, she laughed and leaned forward. “Say, since we both tied and since they say we’re both potential stars, who do you think out of the two of us will be the real star?”

Araceli scoffed. “Star? Night sky? I don’t care about stupid things like saint candidacy or the Espadas. Don’t you see the adults are just making us into what they want?”

“What are you saying?” Maria laughed. “I’m only what I want to be.” 

“That’s what they tell you to think,” Araceli mumbled, pulling away. “It’s creepy. I thought you were different, but you’re just like the others.” 

“You do not like your priest?” Maria inquired.

“Of course, I like her. I love her.” Araceli frowned “But…Why make us say stupid things like ‘yes’ and ‘no’ after everything? Why? What for? It’s weird and creepy. And calling us ‘not up to being a star’ when we don’t do things the way they want us to?” She threw her hands up in the air as her cheeks reddened. “I just don’t want to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ after everything! I want to speak like myself!” 

“It’s a bit fun speaking like this, no?”

“No.”

“Are you just a sore loser, Araceli?” Maria laughed. She curled a lock of hair around her finger as she listened to the bells rumble out from the temple. “If you don’t want to become a star or the night sky or even both, what do you want to become?”

“I want to be an adventurer,” Araceli responded, lifting her chin.

“An adventurer?”

Araceli nodded. “Like in the Tale of Leopold and the Sea.”

Maria leaned in close to her. “I’ve never heard of that story before… Do they read that book to you at your place? That’s different…”

“No… it’s not a book that the priests read to us….”

Maria leaned in even closer. “Then how…?” She gasped. “You snuck it in! That’s amazing! Tell me how! I want to know—”

Araceli smacked her hand over Maria’s mouth in alarm, before letting out a sigh. “Okay…” she drew slowly, lifting her chin and looking a bit haughty. “But don’t tell anyone or I’ll kill you—” 

“You will have a hard time killing me if you can’t even beat me, no?”

You can’t even beat me,” Araceli retorted. “Anyways, a man with an eye patch gave the book to me. He came to me when I was out in the yard outside of our care house. He told me about the adventures he went on…. He told me about the world outside of all of this.” She gestured around them before clasping her hands together. “It was… amazing. The book’s about a girl named Leona who Leopold—a sailor—takes out to the sea on adventures. She follows him and fights golden beasts, white sea serpents, and even twin fish that are so big they almost swallowed the world whole!” 

“Woah…” Maria had never ever heard of anything like that before. The concept seemed completely foreign but captivating.

Araceli studied Maria’s face before rubbing her nose and leaning back against the trunk. “I want to be Leona.” Her eyes sparkled. “To be taken on an adventure across the world! Just talking about it is making me excited—so much more exciting than our boring fight—”

Maria tilted her head. “Is it not better to go on your own adventure? Instead of being pulled along by someone else’s?”

Araceli squinted. “Why? What’s wrong with wanting to be Leona?”

“Because you could be Leopold!” Maria exclaimed. “Everyone and anyone wants to be Leopold!”

“Not everyone thinks like you, you know…” Araceli mumbled.

Maria tilted her head at this and shrugged. “Well, instead of being a saint candidate, I could be Leopold instead. Or I can be both!”

“Well, you do that then,” Araceli huffed. “I’m going to be Leona.”

“And how are you going to do that?”

“The man with the eye patch. He promised to take me with him.”


Comientzo, Leo

“It’s dangerous to keep returning to this place.”

Maria lifted her head from the bed. It took her a moment to realize that she wasn’t at Francis’s place in Werner’s room but instead in a private room at the main hospital in Comientzo. It was not Werner who laid in front of her but Morandi. The older man was quite pale and there was an IV drip connected to his mid arm. Yesterday he’d been complaining loudly and entertainingly about back pain from the ‘awful, terrible mattress,’ but now he was like this again—pale, sweating, and occasionally calling for someone named ‘Maritza.’

“Scorpio will find us quickly,” Conta continued from behind Maria, “if we remain in one place too long.” She gestured to Albatross and Simon who sat along the wall behind them. El and Andres who sat to their left exchanged looks. Epsilon who sandwich between the two pairs pointed to his face in slight confusion. “They shouldn’t even be here. Have you no sense of caution?”

“They want to be here, so they are here, yes?” Maria replied. She glanced back at Simon and Albatross. “They are not afraid and neither am I.”

“Lack of fear is not bravery,” Conta replied evenly. “It’s egoism.” She sighed, crossing her arms. “Either way, after everything that’s happened in the past few days, bravery is not what we need at the moment.”

Maria didn’t like this situation at all. Werner was hers, and Morandi was hers too. And Conta and Lita and Emmanuel and Giorgio and—

Andres abruptly came to her side, shoving a notepad he conjured in her face.

When will we leave? We cannot afford to miss the deadline that ELPIS Leader set. We have not found any of the children from the orphanages. 

El approached him and placed a hand on the man’s shoulder. He looked over at her, held her gaze, then lowered his notebook. He crossed something out, scribbled something else on it, before flipping it over for Maria to see.

I’m relieved to retrieve other children but the others also need to be found. We can’t miss it.

Maria looked between them. “Oh? Did you two become closer recently?”

El cleared her throat.

Andres merely scribbled down another note. My heart lies with the pillars. We should return soon.

Andres—as Atienna said—was very devout and dedicated. In the early mornings and the late nights, he chanted the Monadic pillars that Maria had almost entirely forgotten until recently. Simon often joined him, kneeling on the floor at his side and muttering the pillars. El would join the two men too and almost sing them under her breath. When they had prayed together once inside Francis’s exitless room, the ELPIS leaders had watched them silently—almost judgmentally—from a distance. Once Maria thought she saw Conta mouth the words to the prayers too.

Maria wondered about the practice. Even when she was younger, she didn’t understand why they made her pray and recite the pillars. Nothing exciting happened during the prayer nor did anything happen after because of it. It was just the same thing over and over again in a cycle.

Curiosities and lack of understanding aside, Andres himself reminded Maria just a bit of her Jericho. Due to the fact Jericho was soon taken away on an election campaign by Leona, the two men only met a handful of times again after Maria had lost her ship and her crew to Proteus. The few times Andres and Jericho did meet, they got along wonderfully well—which Cadence had taken partial credit for since she’d been the one to push the two together.

In-between each of their expeditions during their rest times in Francis’s rooms, Jericho would come to Andres and would sketch pictures of the missing children for him from written description. Andres had tried to conjure some photos himself but they had all come out distorted. Occasionally, during periods in-between searches, they would play this odd game of charades where the other man would try to guess what the other was drawing or conjuring.

Maria enjoyed watching Jericho enjoy himself. He was hers, after all, and deserved just as much. But—Jericho was still very sad about Benì. Maria remembered his sadness well because it had never really left. It clutched her chest tight at the oddest of times and reminded her vaguely of the heavy chain that would weigh down Olive’s chest.

Maria tried to make Jericho understand: there was no need to feel sad or bad because she would return things to the way they were. With Conta too—even if Conta was no longer really Conta.

If Maria herself couldn’t do these things, then it wouldn’t make sense for the world to exist. The world was in the palm of her hand, after all. Whenever she thought like this, however, Atienna would always think gently in response— ‘It’s not always a ‘quick and simple easy fix though, Maria. Quick and easy fixes are almost never permanent.’ Maria always found Atienna’s way of thinking strange. Even after Atienna had decided to work together with the saint candidates, Atienna still looked away from it all even as she was doing as they asked. Maria hadn’t complained much about the deal since she imagined it could be an interesting and unique experience and because she could simply undo everything that had been done later on. Yes, it was no problem at all. At least that was until she saw how deeply the hunt affected someone who was hers.

Maria remembered that day a week ago well. She had been a bit alarmed by the cold, dull, shivering pain that had sprouted out from nowhere in the middle of her visit to Morandi. What had alarmed her the most was everything that had unraveled afterwards. Maria couldn’t quite wrap her head around why Werner would hide taking chlorowheat or do chlorowheat to begin with. It was the definition of un-Werner-like as were the lies that spilled from his mouth afterwards. At that moment when he’d been cornered, he hadn’t seemed like her Werner at all. Maria supposed she wasn’t too unfamiliar with someone changing into another person before her eyes. The same had happened to Conta. So, rather than feeling surprised at the sight, Maria had only felt a heaviness in her chest and a sense of determination. Of course— if Werner hadn’t belonged to her and if he had been someone other than Werner, Maria would not have forgiven his words to Cadence or Olive. But since he was hers, she’d comforted him instead. She wanted him and Cadence to both be happy, after all. The pain those two had felt in that moment and still felt even now was unlike anything Maria had ever felt before. A long and deep sort of pain that existed long before she had deemed those two as hers. No matter what Maria had done the week following, she couldn’t seem to make that pain disappear. 

Not a quick and easy fix. Perhaps even impossible.

But it being an impossible fix wasn’t possible, Maria had thought then and even now—because she could do anything. Impossible was something to be broken by the strong. So… why could she not yet been able to conquer this pain that they felt?

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

The more Maria thought about it the more she came to think about the pasts of the other five. Then her thoughts then went back to the children Proteus had taken and to her crew members. What had they gone through before meeting with her? What had they gone through while they’d traveled with her? What had she not been able to conquer for them?

Whatever it was, the fact remained that now her children and crew were gone. Her crew had left her again. No, they had been taken from her. Their freedom taken by—Proteus. He was the one. He took everything. But he was not her final destination. But while that was true, perhaps he was her starting point? It wasn’t good to think one had neither.

Albatross abruptly rose from his seat and sank down beside Maria. He rested his head on the bed and stared at Morandi for a while. After a pause, he tried, “Maria, you’re going to let me come with you, right? Lita and the others…” He clenched his fist before grimacing. “I’m a Specialist. I can do some—”

Maria turned to him sharply.

Albatross stiffened, searching her face. “M-Maria?”

Maria loosened her lips into a smile before reaching out and placing a hand on his head. “It would be better for you to stay here or in Francis’s room, no, my dear Albatross? Morandi needs company, yes?”

Albatross looked back at Morandi before his eyes narrowed. “Foxmans… I know they’re not the Campanas, and I know that Mr. Campana—Ambrose—isn’t actually himself anymore, and I know they’re helping us, but all of them are cut from the same cloth. They came from the same city.” He looked back at her with a grimace. “The only difference is that they have different products.”

Product. 

Chlorowheat.

Albatross bristled before he took in a deep breath and clenched his fist. “That Proteus. That Alpha—that’s a stupid name, by the way.He’s just like the Campanas. I know it. We’re just things to them, but they make us all think that they’re doing us a favor by taking us in. They—he—needs to be—”

Brought to justice.

“Albatross, do you know what you are?” Maria moved her hand to the adolescent’s chin, silencing him. “You are a treasure—”

Albatross’s brows furrowed—not the reaction she’d been expecting. “I-I’m not a thing, Maria. I’m not a treasure either. I’m Albatross.” He pulled away from her. “You promised us an adventure. You promised us fun. You promised us freedom. You said we could choose it… like you let us choose our names.”

“I didn’t ‘let’ you, yes?” Maria interjected. “You chose for yourself.”

“Okay, so I want to choose this—to come with you.” 

Maria studied him for a moment. She remembered that when she’d first brought him on board he wouldn’t even look her in the eyes and always kept his head bowed around others. The one time he’d lifted his head was when she’d taken them all to the coasts of Pisces where the flocks of seabirds had migrated near the middle of winter. His eyes had sparkled then upon watching them take flight and had sparkled even further when Lita had entered his periphery. 

An emotion Maria now knew as worry blossomed in her chest. At the same time, however, another feeling blossomed alongside it. He was free, was he not? And she was strong enough to protect his freedom.

“Okay, my dear! You can come—”

“You are his captain. You’re older and wiser,” Conta interjected. “They’re younger. You’re bringing him into a dangerous situation.” Her eyes narrowed. “Do you not have any sense of responsibility?”

Maria turned to her slowly. “You are still so kind, no, Conta? Even though you have things you want to do as Beta, you are staying here with me and Morandi.” 

Conta’s eyes narrowed. “Morandi has a series of pre-existing conditions that are causing further complications in his health,” she said after a beat. She nodded at El who stiffened under her gaze. “I feel sympathy towards him. He reminds me of my father. My father worked himself to death shaping Ophiuchus, while he works himself to death under you.” 

‘Father?’

El stiffened under Conta’s gaze before clearing her throat. “I don’t mean to question you or anything, Captain, but”—she gestured to Morandi—“I’m surprised that all this wasn’t caught earlier. I’m sure you’re on the move all the time, but it’s important for everyone on the ship to get a physical at least once a year.” She fidgeted. “This… could’ve been prevented…”

Maria turned away from El and lowered her head back on the bed. Prevented. Could Conta becoming Beta have been prevented? Could Jericho losing Benì have been prevented? Werner taking chlorowheat?

“We did have a ship doctor once,” Maria said after a beat with a smile. “The Golden Beast swept him away after he summoned its curse, yes?”

“The golden beast…?” El paled. “That tall tale…” She laughed nervously. “That isn’t real…”

“He left along with Tulio and some of the others,” Conta explained. “Because they didn’t feel comfortable with her as their leader. Whether that was her strength or their weakness or vice versa is something up to debate.” 

***

( )

Three days prior as Maria had physically made her way to Werner on that day, she abruptly recalled the name of the town where her old orphanage resided. She wasn’t quite too sure why she recalled it at that moment. Maybe the feelings she felt standing between Werner and Cadence had reminded her that day Proteus swept her out of the orphanage. That feeling of not having control—that powerlessness. Maybe because of that, the location rang clear: the Gloria House located in the town of Alfablanca and headed by Monadic Priest Primera-Freeza. 

The name that chimed like a bell inside of her head eventually resonated out to the others. Together they had synchronized in together and gathered in one of Francis’s rooms a day later. They had stood around a central wooden table there before the map they’d been using to track Proteus’s movements. Albatross, Simon, Andres, Epsilon, and El had stood on Maria’s side of the table, while Cadence had stood physically on the other end with Fortuna and Carl flanking her left and right. Olive, Atienna, and Jericho had synchronized in using both Cadence and Maria herself as an anchor.

With Jericho’s, Atienna’s, and El’s help, Maria had been able to locate the town on the map. Much to Maria’s wonder, El knew the geography of Leo as well as Cadence knew the layout of the Twin Cities. 

Maria’s ‘home’town itself was located on the seaside only two towns over from Comientzo. If Maria put down her index finger in the space in-between the two towns on the map, she would be able to connect them together with her nail. That was how close the two were.

Cadence had scratched the back of her head and arched a brow as she looked the marked spot over. “Now, how did we miss that?”

Carl and Fortuna exchanged silent looks. 

“You didn’t look hard enough,” Conta said. “That’s why you missed it.”

Olive arched a brow at Conta. “You were there too half the time….” 

Maria had wondered if Conta could even recall what the orphanage looked like. She hadn’t offered any ideas as to where their orphanage could be after Proteus had dropped Primera-Freeza’s name, but Maria had seen a flicker of recognition in her eyes after she’d learned the name of the town. 

“Well, ya know what they say. It’s always in the last place ya look.”

“Obviously,” Olive muttered.

“I don’t believe there’ve been any Monadic orphanages active here in this northern region off of Comientzo for at least a decade,” Simon had finally murmured after having remained quiet the entire time. 

El nodded. “Most temples and orphanages here left after there was an economic fallout during…. well… Anyways, are you sure this is the place, Captain?”

“Yes, this is it,” Maria had replied, hand drifting towards the map. “I can feel it.” As soon as she had pointed to the location on the map herself, Werner had emerged from the gate behind her. Simon and El startled at his arrival, while Carl and Fortuna exchanged looks. 

Werner’s hair—although combed back in what appeared to be haste—was slightly frayed. His face was pale and there were dark circles under his eyes, but he looked like her Werner. He had stood there for a moment beneath all of their gazes, before he finally said, “Please allow me to assist at least this much.”

Cadence frowned slightly. “Werner, ya should be restin’…” 

Maria looked between them before flashing a smiling and beckoning him forward. “I missed seeing seeing you, yes?”

Offering her a stiff and tired smile, Werner had approached the table and observed the map. “Under normal circumstances, given that we have an idea of the date and time Alpha may appear, I would suggest for us to work concurrently with Leona on this while simultaneously planning a rescue and protect operation for the children that might be with him.”

Jericho looked up at him with a frown.

Conta’s gaze visibly darkened. “What? Working with the saint candidates?”

“We can’t do that,” Olive drew. “Not anymore.”

Werner held his gaze for a moment then nodded. “Circumstances have changed. This would be our first active move collectively without supervision. Although it’s not a direct move against them yet, we should still be cautious…” He swallowed and closed his eyes for a moment as he leaned forward against the table.

A wave of shivers rolled across Maria’s back as her temple began to squeeze and her stomach squeezed into knots. Jericho remained upright as well, although his brows did furrow. Olive, on the other hand, sank to a crouch and grimaced, while Atienna slowly lowered . Cadence let out a loud groan and fell on her rear before falling flat out on her back.

“What the fuckin’ hell, Cadence?” Carl snapped, grabbing her by the arm and pulling her up to a stand. “What’s a matter with you?

Werner paled, and the woozy feeling retreated. Werner was reeling it back in. “I apologize—”

Olive waved his hand and pulled himself up to a stand. “It’s fine, Werner, really. ”

Cadence brushed herself off and nodded. “Nothin’ ta worry about.”

Carl studied Cadence, frowned, and sent Fortuna a look.

“What?” Fortuna returned tightly.

“What were you saying, Werner?” Atienna pressed, rising from her seat in her surroundings and approaching the table again.

Werner remained silent for a moment before he finally tapped the dark mark on the map. “The closest gate is at the very edge of the city… Given the randomness of Francis’s gates without communication with Francis himself, Alpha and his procession—”

‘Procession’, Captain?” Cadence arched a brow. 

“—Alpha and his group,” Werner amended, “will be using a different means of transportation.”

Olive scanned the map before his eyes widened. “The sea…”

Werner nodded again, moving his finger to the waterline on the map just one finger away from Alfablanca. “He’ll be arriving here. Most likely, he will be pulling in directly below the orphanage location.”

“The waters near places like this are rough, yes?” Maria pondered out loud. “It’s quite fun to ride on but…” She glanced at Simon then Albatross. “If you are not strong and experienced, you can lose your ship to the waves.”

“Alpha. He doesn’t care. He’ll come there anyways.” 

“I believe that if we take Alpha’s personality into account and his… relationship with you, Maria,” Atienna drew slowly, “we may be able to assume he’ll be coming in on your ship. I believe—although I don’t think he’s as forward and vehement as Scorpio—”

Werner stiffened briefly.

“—he’ll also be bringing Lita and the rest of your crew with him.”

Maria’s eyes narrowed, but she grinned a moment after. “Then I can retrieve both my ship and my crew then and there, yes? It is… how do you say it?”

“Two children,” Jericho replied, “one boulder.”

“Wha—it’s ‘two birds, one stone,’” Olive corrected, doing a double-take. “Jericho, where… did you even hear that version from? It sounds like the headline for a morbid breaking news article…”

Jericho had seemed to think on it.

“Alpha will also most likely have Rho with him, so that warrants caution,” Werner had continued. “Although Nu was absent in your previous encounters with Rho, we shouldn’t rule him out completely. Rho is our biggest concern, since her conducting is versatile.” He nodded at Maria. “Maria, my suggestion is that you place down Francis’s gates closer to your orphanage in case you require back up.”

Maria threw her head back and laughed. “Don’t worry, my dear Werner. I will need no such thing. You just relax, yes? Like Nico and Alice said.”

“We’re lucky that Francis’s is still working with us…” Olive added, holding Cadence’s gaze then Werner’s. “After everything that happened…”

Werner and Cadence exchanged looks briefly before Cadence ruffled the back of her head and sighed. “Yeah, we’re lucky to have Francis.”

Carl looked up sharply at Cadence before rubbing his chin and refocusing on the map.

“Where is Theta?” Epsilon had wondered out loud from where he’d started to walk back and forth behind Maria. “I haven’t seen him or Tau around in a few days…”

“He’s busy. Besides—don’t act too friendly with him, you hear?” Carl had replied thickly with a glare before slapping his hand down on the map. “Anyways—so what? We need to mobilize or somethin’ now? Then we ring up some Romanos, some of our own, and some Campana guys at this place. Bag this guy for good finally.”

Olive and Atienna exchanged looks. 

“The Campanas being thereSeriously…?” Olive’s frown had deepened. “I get that working with them was what we ‘had to do’, but having them be a part of the rescue thing…” He shook his head. “Some of these people have probably…” He opened his mouth, closed it, lifted his head, and glanced at Fortuna and Carl. “They’ve probably hurt the kids themselves. That’s not…”

“That may not be the best route…” Atienna drew slowly. “Given the Campana’s history with some of the children, it’s likely that distrust will form. Misunderstandings….” 

What the children had experienced before Maria had brought them on board, in other words.

Cadence had relayed this idea to Fortuna and Carl.

Carl glared at Epsilon before shrugging. “No big deal. We cut the Campanas out. That ELPIS bastard”—he paused, glancing at Conta—“er, the bad one only has one of the other ELPIS bastards with him, right? The rest are kids. They can’t put up that much of a fight.”

“When you are moved by passion or belief,” Jericho said, “your limits are removed. Sometimes it’s good. Sometimes it’s bad. When it’s a false hope—a false promise—it’s bad.”

Cadence relayed this again. Andres nodded. Carl waved a dismissive hand. 

“Okay, well, we still have more manpower,” he grumbled. “Taller manpower. Like I said.”

Fortuna’s lips pulled tight. “There might be an issue with that… My father’s pulled back the number of men that he’s putting on this. He called back Cavallo too—which is why we haven’t been graced by his presence lately.”

“What?” Carl snapped. “Why? Why aren’t you there?”

“It might be because of Francis,” Fortuna replied thickly. “Isn’t that why you haven’t seen Allen around recently?”

Carl grimaced. “Well. Whatever. We’ll just use our guys then. Even though we barely have any now—”

“Your guys?” Maria cocked her head. “I said I don’t need back up, yes—”

The wave of nausea returned in an intense wave causing Cadence to double over on the table and for Olive to run to a bucket located somewhere in his surroundings. Werner again seemed to try to pull the pain back into himself with difficulty.

“Werner,” Olive drew slowly, “I think… maybe you should rest now. You really helped out a lot, but I think it’s more important for you to rest right now…”

“I’m sorry…” Werner’s lips pressed thin. He glanced to the side and held Atienna’s gaze. When she nodded, he looked back at Maria. “There’s a possibility that my symptoms may negatively impact you during your confrontation with Alpha. I dislike the idea of doing this, but I think it would be best if I was medicated to weaken our connection temporarily.”

Cadence whipped to him wildly and held her hands up placatingly. “Woah, woah, hey, Captain!” She went to his side immediately and placed a hand on his back. “Let’s not get drastic. You’re supposed ta be gettin’ off of somethin’ not gettin’ back on somethin’ else.”

“It will just be temporary,” Werner assured her. “And it will administered under Nico’s supervision.”

Atienna nodded after a beat as did Jericho after he looked between her and Werner. Maria gave her nod next followed by Olive who did it more hesitantly. Eventually, Cadence rubbed the back of her neck and conceded.

“Okay, okay,” she said, guiding him back to the gate. “Then I guess we’ll do that. But for now, let’s get ya back there.”

Cadence ushered Werner back through the gate and returned a couple minutes later alone. She looked a bit weary when she returned and tired too.

There it was again, Maria thought. That pain. A pain that was now becoming Maria’s own pain. How to fix it… How to conquer it…?

“So…” Cadence walked back up to the table casually. “Back-up.”

“Again with this back-up. The invitation from Proteus was to me, no?” Maria tilted her head in thought. “You can come for the fun and adventure like my crew, but I will face Proteus alone.” 

Jericho frowned. “No. I’ll come too. Somehow, I’ll get away from Leona and be there. I am nearby. I also need to meet Alpha. After we rescue the children, we need to question it. Maria, it’s the one.”

Maria held Jericho’s gaze.

“Come on, sunshine, ya know the routine,” Cadence interjected, rounding the table and approaching Maria with spread arms. “Are ya sure you’re okay facin’ Eyepatch? Ya sure it ain’t gonna be like one of Atienna’s books? Ya know when the main character faces their old pal and then they get all emotional and can’t fight right and there’s drama or whatever?” 

“You’ve gotten very good at reading to be reading those kinds of things, no?” Maria laughed. 

Cadence offered a smile and a slight bow. “We’re just worried, sunshine. Ya want to keep us happy since we’re yours, right? Like the usual spiel?”

“Maria, I understand how you feel, okay…?” Olive added. “With how you grew up and everything…” He looked down at his hands. “I think putting down the gate beforehand is a good idea. It’s not like it takes up a lot of time. That and… also maybe…” 

She watched him walk to his desk, reach into his drawer, and pull out a metallic sphere for them all to see. Maria recalled seeing Olive fiddling with it several times before along with another type of conductor he called a ‘prosthetic’. 

“It’s something that I’ve been working on for a while now,” he explained. “I came up with the idea after learning about Alice’s conducting.”

“Why the hell are you all staring at empty space for?” Carl grumbled. “Fill me in some.”

Olive glanced at him un-impressed before explaining, “After I saw some of Alice’s conducting through Jericho’s thoughts a while back, I had an idea. I wanted to create something that could hold people’s vitae in place like Alice’s vitae—” 

“Alice’s vitae?” Jericho leaned forward with interest.

“I would need her vitae first, obviously,” Olive grumbled. “So I was thinking maybe I could help you build it on your end of things, Jericho. Then you could maybe sneak back into Ophiuchus and get some of Alice’s vitae…” He scowled. “It made sense in my head.”

Jericho nodded. “Yes, I can try doing that. This is in preparation for the one… yes?”

Olive nodded then looked back at Maria. “Well… I know it might seem boring to you, but… come on, Maria.”

Maria thought on it for a moment before she nodded. “Okay, my dears, if it makes you feel comfortable, then we’ll put the gate down around the place I am to meet Proteus, yes?” She smiled for them. “Your happiness is a treasure to me.”

***

Alfablanca, Leo

The day came two mornings after. 

Maria arrived at the outskirts Alfablanca through Francis’s gate alongside Conta, Andres, Albatross, El, Epsilon, and Simon in the bright and early morning. From there, she made her way with them through the sleepy town. The red stone buildings that rose up along the small strip of asphalt road were unfamiliar to her as were the handful of white temples squeezed between them. The men and women dotting the sidewalks in loose, open shirts and billowing skirts were only a touch familiar. Familiarity came as they walked deeper into town and as the slant of the road became steeper and steeper. Soon the buildings fell away behind them and long blades of grass took their place. 

Up and up, Maria led her crew as the asphalt melted into a dirt path which marked the beginning of the cliff. Now, nostalgia began to fully blossom in her mind. She reached out and plucked several strands of grass from the ground before proceeding to tie each strand in a large circlet. She then twined another blade of grass around the base she did. She did this to the other blades of grass until she was carrying a handful of mini-crowns in her hands.

You are a ruler, no, my dear Olive? Maria thought as she felt him peering in. Everyone—aside from Werner who was unconscious—was peering in. This would suit you, yes? 

Olive, who was stiff and nervous in the distance, seemed to snort. I’m not a ‘ruler.’

But you are a prince, yes? Soon to be a king?

I’m… not there yet.

But you would like to be, yes? You have changed your mind little-by-little?

Things aren’t going to fix themselves. It’s annoying but… Olive’s presence become stronger, although she still couldn’t see his surroundings clearly. Whatever. Nevermind. Just be careful, Maria… Please.

Maria at first considered laughing off his worry but instead recalled his worry when they had been confronting Werner on that day. After some thought, she grinned at no one in particular and nodded. I’m always careful, my dear. 

Conta continued scanning the path with a dull expression. Maria tried searching her face but couldn’t find what she was looking for there. Regardless, she placed the small grass circlet on her head. Conta turned to her sharply at this but merely shook her head and looked away.

Maria then looked back at the rest of her remaining crew. Again, her mind went to their hidden pasts—their histories she didn’t know and didn’t bother to question. She wondered what sort of pain was still existing there that she hadn’t been yet able to identify and prevent. 

“El, why are you here?”

El startled, glancing at Andres who paced beside her before pointing at her face. “You’re asking me?”

“This must be very strange to you, no?” Maria nodded, searching what little there was to see of the woman’s face. “Strange but exciting, yes?”

“It is… a bit overwhelming,” El admitted. “I… don’t even fully understand what’s going on, to be completely honest with you.” She lifted her chin. “But even though I haven’t been here that long, I chose to be a part of your crew and Morandi accepted me without questioning a single thing, so…” She nodded. “I’m sticking to it.”

“I like your spirit, my dear El,” Maria chimed before humming. “And what is it that made you choose my ship out of all the ships you could have boarded? What do you plan to do after you do this training and learn on board my ship? Why did you leave your place?”

El adjusted her veil. “Well, that’s…complicated.”

Maria stared at her for a moment before laughing. “Oh? You don’t have a reason, yes? A bit like my Jericho. You are searching for one. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, yes?”

“The free room and food was a perk for joining outside of the” El admitted after a beat. “I’m not too used to being on my own… so—”

“Is there anything I can do for you, my dear El?”

While El and Andres looked only mildly surprised, everyone else turned to her sharply.

“I can’t think of anything really…” El murmured.

Maria merely smiled in response before placing a circlet onto El’s head. She then pointed at Andres. “Andres? Why are you here with me?”

Andres studied her for a moment before conjuring a familiar notepad and scribbling down a quick note. I’m here to retrieve the children. That’s all. You’re also connected with someone who has friendly relationships with someone who is connected to me. I want to keep this up for him.

“Ah, Claire, yes—”

Andres tensed and looked around.

“Is there anything I can do for you, Andres?”

He placed a finger to his lips. He is important to me. It will be bad for us if our connection was discovered. I want to keep him safe.

Maria mimicked the gesture and placed a circlet on his head before swiveling around to face Albatross. “Albatross?”

Albatross glanced up at her. “You know why I’m here, Maria. Because I want to be. And I’m here here for Lita and the others. You’ve already done a lot for me, Maria. For all of us. I don’t know what else I’d ask for…” He looked away. “I’m not sure if you’re even thinking about this, but… I don’t blame any of this on you. You can’t be everywhere at once and you can’t always do everything—I understand that…” He scowled. “It’s all because Veles stormed off and there was no one there to look after them…” He stared up ahead. “Lita’s strong. So are Emmanuel and Raul. Raul’s probably snuck poison in their food or something. Yeah, they’re alright. ”

Yes, they were strong. Maria knew this. But she couldn’t help but feel slightly surprised and curious at the fact that Albatross hadn’t pointed a finger in her direction like her old crew members had done when they’d sided with Leona—Oros.

“She couldn’t be everywhere at once and she couldn’t do everything,” he said. 

“Accepting that you can’t do everything is the first step to true strength,” Conta had said.

Veles, Maria thought. Yes, he’d left her too, looking at with one last expression of hurt before he’d departed. Again, there it was. She hadn’t been able to understand his feelings or hold onto him—but she would be able to retrieve him back. Didn’t that count in some way? 

Maria placed a circlet on Albatross’s head. She could see Conta’s gaze narrow from the corner of her eye. Pondering it, she craned her neck to find Epsilon walking just a step behind her. She flashed him a smile. “And you, Epsilon?”

Epsilon beamed as if he’d been waiting for the question. “I’m with you because I wouldn’t think of being anywhere else, Leo. I wouldn’t think of ever asking you for anything either. I’m happy just to be able to be in your presence.” He gestured to the swaying grass. “This countryside is as beautiful as all the others. Your country is really something, Leo I wish we had more time to see it all… I wish the others—Alpha, Gamma, the candidates—could see how beautiful it is too.”

Maria smiled at this and knighted him with circlet before moving onto—“Simon?”

“Again, Captain?” Simon chuckled. “We discussed this not too long ago, didn’t we? You swept me off my feet quite literally.”

“And why do you stay?”

“I just haven’t found a reason yet to leave—”

Conta finally interjected, “Simon and Albatross shouldn’t even be here. Epsilon’s presence is also questionable. They’re not combatants.”

Maria peered at Conta and felt somewhat somber. “The part of you that still remains Conta makes you caring… yes? Or were you always a worried person as Beta?”

Conta studied Maria with a frown but didn’t answer.

The conversation lapsed.

As Maria continued to wind up the cliff in the silence, the sound of whispering ocean waves crashing against the rocks reached her ears. Abruptly, she recalled that when she was younger, she was certain that sound belonged to ocean spirits lurking just beneath the surface of all that blue. Even now, she still believed that those ocean spirits were responsible for at least part of that sound. She’d sworn to Conta that she’d capture one of those spirits for her one day—

“I can’t believe it’s still here.”

Maria looked back at Conta and found her staring up ahead. Maria followed her gaze and registered that they’d finally reached the top of the cliff. 

Two buildings stood across from each other there. One was a low, long building with curved-tile roofing that looked patchy in parts. The windows lining its body were circular but broken in. The orphanage. 

The other building stood tall and proud with round pillar teeth holding up its triangular head. The temple. Although it stood sturdy and tall, a sound reverberated out from its body. Low, brass, hollow, musical.

There it was. That sound that rang out in her dreams. That sound that had only become louder and louder since she’d overridden Werner in the capital of Capricorn. A calling.

The bells.

Maria stepped towards the temple instinctively—

Maria, please.

—before pulling back and heading into the orphanage. She pushed open its creaking wooden doors and peered inside. It was dark, dusty, desolate, but familiar. A chalkboard ran along the wall in the back with an audience of fallen wooden chairs in its wake. Down the hall on the left, Maria could spy toppled bunker-beds and cabinets that spilled out moth-eaten clothing.

Something stirred in Maria’s chest as ghostly faint laughter echoed in her ears. A distant memory. One that she’d never be able to fully recall. The people here had shown her love, had they not? They’d taught her things. Given her things. She didn’t really think of the concept often but perhaps she’d considered this her home.

A ghostly hand pressed against arm.

Jericho—she couldn’t see him fully yet but he was there.

Conta brushed past her before she could acknowledge him. After sweeping the dark place with her gaze, Conta paced over to the chalkboard and pulled out Francis’s proto-conductor. She threw a splash of black liquid in an arc on its surface and took a step back as she watched the liquid drip down onto the floor. Andres stepped into place beside Maria and flashed her his notebook.

Mine was the same

Albatross stepped inside too, led by Simon. While Albatross looked around with a confused expression, Simon took in the decrepitness with a tender hand on his chest. The latter let out a quiet sigh and turned to hold Maria’s gaze. He looked almost apologetic.

“Why do you look so sad for, my dear Simon?” she whispered, reaching out and holding his cheek in her hand. “Our journey is not over yet, yes?”

“You grew up here, Maria?” Albatross whispered over Simon’s silence. He opened his mouth, then closed it. “You were like us…?”

Instead of answering, Maria led them back out of the building and headed out onto the dirt path. 

Wait a minute. Cadence. Sunshine, at least wait for me to get Carl on this so he can get his guys—

I don’t need back up, Maria reassured her. I laid the gates like you said, yes? It’s fine now, no?

Continuing forward and signaling her crew to keep their distance with a flick of her hand and a smile, she ascended the small steps leading to the open doors of the temple.

As she neared the entrance, Maria came to recognize the large half-oval-shaped windows that ran along the parallel walls of its interior. The stained glass that used to fill them lay on shattered shards on the ground—faintly catching the gray light seeping down through the clouds. The paint from the bright murals that connected each window to the next appeared to have been chipped away by the passages of time. The wooden pews were completely missing, leaving the entire place with a spacious and empty feeling. Above them hung the bells, swinging to the side ever so slightly and clanging out familiar, faint chimes.

Upon stepping into the temple, Maria registered that a long and thick chain was nailed to the center of the floor and spilled out the back opening of the temple. She couldn’t make out where the chain ended as it disappeared after rounding the outer wall. The towering faceless statue that used to gate the field before the cliff was no longer present, she noticed. In its place stood and facing the tip of the cliff beyond stood a familiar man dressed in a naval officer’s uniform. Absentmindedly, he tapped the chain with his foot.

“Not much has changed, has it?” Proteus asked, turning to face Maria. “Since the last time we met here.”

Jericho synchronized strongly, bringing with him a simmering heat that bubbled in the pit of her stomach. 

Maria remembered it at that moment. This was how Proteus had come in the very first time—blazing in through the open window and storming in with a handful of others during the morning service. He’d toppled the statue with a wave of his hand as his crew turned over all the pews. Primera-Freeza had tried to stop him but he’d been slain with a flick of a blade. Maria meanwhile had run to Conta’s side and had held her close as the temple was thrown in disarray. As the raid had neared its end, Maria had stood before Proteus in defiance. He’d smiled when he’d faced her. She remembered something being tucked under his arm at the time. A head. Whether it was the head of the Monadic statue or Primera-Freeza’s head—Maria hadn’t known then and still couldn’t recall even now.

He can’t be forgiven.

Pushing down Jericho’s pulsating rage and the odd feeling bubbling at the pit of her stomach, Maria extended her hand. “You will return the ones that are mine now, yes? The ones you have taken?”

Proteus stared at her hand for a moment before turning back to the open plains extending out behind the temple. “Five hundred years from now after ELPIS, True Conductors, and the saint candidates are long gone, I’m sure that historians and anthropologists will think this place was used for human sacrifices after it decays away with time. They wouldn’t be too far off—” He laughed abruptly. “Wait, actually, it isn’t as gruesome as that. Isn’t that silly how things can lose their direction so easily? I guess there’s some analogy here that can be made, but I’ll let you do the thinking.” 

Maria hummed. “I like this place, yes? This is where Conta and I grew up. It’s mine. Now that I’ve found it again, I will keep it safe and not let it decay. It won’t lose it’s true meaning while I’m here.”

“Conta…?” Proteus’s gaze drifted to Conta who came to stand beside Maria. He hummed before smiling. “It’s good to see you again, Beta.”

“Alpha…” Conta drew darkly, taking a step forward and lifting her gloved hand. A scabbed-over scar running down opposite her forearm cracked open and spilled out white liquid spear that hurtled right towards him.

Before it reached its target, a white mist spilled into the room from the outside fields and surrounded Proteus in a protective barrier. As soon as the spear contacted the mist, it disintegrated into nothing. 

A woman stepped into the room from the outside and kicked the chain to the side. While her right arm was lifted and the glove on her right hand pulsating, the left sleeve of her Monadic robes was empty. Maria remembered tearing this woman’s arm off after she’d shoved a rebar through her arm just below the shoulder. 

He is not with her again, Jericho thought. Nu is not with her.

“You’re always so impatient, Beta,” Rho tutted, flicking out her wrist. 

The mist that had intercepted Conta’s vitae threaded around the temple. Maria followed its trajectory closely. 

There

Quickly, Maria shoved back Conta just as the mist almost swallowed her in. Conta stumbled back in surprise as Simon and Andres caught her. They collectively startled in surprise as a barrier of mist that went up to their chins formed between them and Maria herself. Maria wasn’t too alarmed by this development and turned to see the extent of the mist’s coverage. The mist had formed a hollow rectangle in the temple and barricaded her path to the windows and the back of the temple. Proteus and Rho were both on the opposite side of the wall of mist across from her. Maria soon realized she was the only one locked in.

“Leo!” Epsilon cried in alarm.

“That’s not what Ophiuchus taught us, is it?” Rho finished, lowering her hand. “Impatience is an enemy.”

“Rho.” Conta shook her head. “You child.” 

“You’re the child in my eyes.” Rho lowered her hand and gazed at Maria. She pointed to her empty sleeve. “You’re a real monster, did you know that, Maria Gloria-Fernandez? There’s no way someone like you could ever be the saint candidate of Leo. You lack Leo’s elegance and Leo’s humbleness when standing before death, you know?”

“H-How dare you say that to Leo!” Epsilon stammered over the mist. “Cornering her like this in an unfair fight—”

“What? Why are you always such a fanboy, Epsilon?” Rho rolled her eyes. “And what makes it unfair? We’re not taking her on. She’s going to go one-on-one, didn’t you know? It’s dramatic and a bit cliché, but that’s how it is.” She shrugged and studied Maria. “You’re really a pitiable thing.”

Maria stepped forward with a smile. “I don’t understand why you are looking at me with pity.” She placed a hand on her belt where her two trusty blades rested as well as the pistol Cadence had given her the last time she’d been in Francis’s room. “If you become any more daring, something may happen to your other arm, yes? You may not feel pain but you do feel annoyed, yes?” She tapped her fingers, glancing back at Albatross who was stiff as a stone. “Besides, I am not standing before death. I never will—”

“Everyone stands before death at one point or another; everyone dies,” Proteus interjected. “Whether that be a physical death, a spiritual death, a death in the history books, or a death in the memory of others.” He chuckled. “That’s how heroes truly die. They become forgotten by the people after them or twisted into villains in the history books. That’s why you can’t really trust what’s written down in history. Better yet—don’t record anything down at all.”

“I have seen Theta take good and gentle care of his records and book, yes?” Maria cocked her head. “I admire it! I find it boring, but I understand why he does it. Sometimes the tales can be exciting, no?” She took another step forward. “They are here, aren’t they? My—”

“You probably said something like ‘Alpha is not my final destination’ recently, right? Before you came here?” Proteus hummed. “Maybe you even told Jericho that.” He glanced over her shoulder. “He is here right now, isn’t he?” He waved. “Hello again, Jericho. My answer for you will still be the same if you’re still asking.”

Maria clenched her fist but still managed to ask with slight surprise, “Oh, that’s quite amazing. How did you know?”

“Like I said, I know everything,” Proteus replied. “And I know you’re right about me not being your final destination. I’m not even an interlude. Do you know what your real final destination is?” He pointed out a finger towards the thin line squeezed between the sea and sky. “War. It’s just on the horizon.”

“No. I have no final destination,” Maria replied lightly.

“Even if you insist it doesn’t make it so.” Proteus stared at her and laughed again. “I don’t mean to be overly dramatic and fatalistic like Scorpio but that’s what it’s shaping up to be: war. It’ll happen like this—and I assure you that this’ll be exactly how it’ll play out: the Leonian government will report that the princess that’s due to marry some duke of Cancer has been assassinated by the Aquarian Yastreby which has recently started peeking in to the country. The accusation will work perfectly well since the Yastreby were found in the estate of a missing Cancerian duchess not too long ago. Of course, the Leonian princess is missing right now too—although the officials are hiding it—so it’s really just a political play to fuel the war machine. It’s not such a bad thing—running away. It’s sad that other people have to ruin the freedom of it.”

El stiffened.

“After that, Leo will declare war on Aquarius because of its interference. Cancer will join on Leo’s side claiming Aquarius was also politically interfering in their country. The former to-be-wedded duke will fall in line and play to be a mournful husband.” Proteus laughed. “‘Play’—well, he is quite the player. Anyways—in the end, Capricorn will come to Aquarius’s aid, while Sagittarius and Aries will probably side with Cancer and Leo. As for the other countries… Seeing how Virgo’s been for the past decade, they’ll probably declare neutrality and maybe even offer a safe haven for refugees.” He hummed. “Maybe Virgo may take that idea too literally too.”

Atienna’s synchronization increased and Maria could feel the tension in her shoulders.

“What makes you think that?” Maria asked on Atienna’s behalf.

“I don’t think. I know.” Proteus moved the chain on the ground with his foot again. “Speaking of ‘thinking’—why do you think I asked you to meet me here?”

Maria considered it. “You had no reason. It was on a whim, no? Or not? It must be very difficult to act on a whim when you have ‘lived for so long,’ no? There are many motivations that build up over the years, yes? There has to be somethingMaybe you don’t even know it, yes? But I know the reason I’m here.” 

“Right, right.” Proteus placed a thoughtful hand on his chin. “You call your crew and the people close to you ‘yours.’ They’re your things—”

“They are not my ‘things,’” Maria interjected, glancing over her shoulder at Albatross again. “They are just my people.”

“You say that like it’s a good thing,” Proteus noted. “You remember what I said last time we met, don’t you? But even now you’re trying to take ownership over them—attach yourselves to them and have them attach to you. You’ll only get hurt and disappointed in the end, and you’ll end up very unhappy and dissatisfied. It’s the human condition.” He chuckled. “That’s what happened to the saint candidates, actually.” He snapped his fingers. “Oh, that’s my reason, I think. I really did ask you to come see me here on a whim, but I also wanted to see if you’ve changed your perspective out of curiosity. Maybe to see if you’ve changed it more to match mine? I can tell by looking at your face—you’ve gone through a lot of things since we last met, haven’t you, dear little Maria?”

Maria felt her smile falter slightly, and she tightened her grip on her blade’s hilt.

“Well, I sort of sound like a villain if I say it like that, but that’s how it is.”

“Your perspective is not my reality,” Maria answered calmly, “so there’s your answer.”

“Yes, that’s what they taught you in the orphanage here,” Proteus hummed. “Your reality is their reality. I’m sure you’re coming to realize this.” He gestured to Simon. “Isn’t that right, Simon?”

Simon stiffened. “How did you know my name—”

“I know everything,” Proteus replied before gesturing to Andres. “I know that despite your devotion, Simon, you couldn’t stomach what was happening to the children in the Gloria Houses. Rather—you couldn’t stomach what was happening to the little ones who couldn’t become stars. Having your tongue removed or your vocal cords cut in a vow of devotional silence and having your envy turned to love and devotion through indoctrination…” He winced before smiling. “Yes… that’s quite… something. You don’t need to feel guilty though, Simon. You should just enjoy your freedom from that now.”

Albatross made a face and whipped to Simon with an expression of apprehension.

“Oh, by the way! Do you know when Leo began its unique process of selecting saint candidates?” Proteus continued. “It wasn’t always like this.”

Maria walked forward until she was directly above where the chain was nailed to the ground. 

“It happened after the 1500s…” Simon murmured.

Proteus snapped his fingers. “Bingo! Do you know what happened in the late 16th century and early 17th? Of course you do. You have to know before you start working with orphanages as a Monadic priest.” He paced back and forth. “That was when Monadism was at its peak. It was a tumultuous time, indeed. It also marked the beginning of the Monadic War which ended with the capitulation of the enthroned Queen Stelleona who apparently was quite cruel. They say her brother was crowned right afterwards but lived a short reign.”

What’s with this history lesson? Olive. 

Just let the guy ramble. Cadence. He’s like a loose-version of Scorpio. Buyin’ us time on his own. Back up’s comin’, sunshine.

Maria didn’t need back-up.

“Saint candidates are bearers of knowledge—I’m pretty sure this has been said tens-of-thousands of times to you already. They’re intended to support the leaders of Signum.” Proteus chuckled again. “I’m not pessimistic like some of the others. I think there have been some truly great leaders in the past few centuries. I’m sure several of the saint candidates even came to admire some of the past leaders. Admiration is an attachment through. Eventual disappointment tends to be the end result, so the best thing to do is not to expect anything. If not, you’ll just see that the person you admire and worship is just as human and capable of faults and mistakes as you are. That’s quite disappointing. We worship people because they’re better than us, don’t we? Anyways, if you keep up that worship, you’ll probably become a bit bitter towards them and maybe even apathetic to their woes. But that’s not a bad thing. That’s another way of being free.”

Maria could feel Cadence squirm slightly. 

“You know… Even if you offer your vision to these magnificent people in dire times”—Alpha pointed to his eyepatch— “some will still be blind.” He laughed. “They say justice is blind, but what happens when you’re only blind in one eye?”

He’s talking too much. Trying to justify himself. Lying. Jericho’s thought cut through. We should ask Andres to conjure a shovel for us. No, Andres can conjure a gun. Rho’s conducting. It does not affect inorganic material. He can shoot just his leg. Or maybe his tongue. We can bring him in. Save the children. Find the ship.

Maria turned to Jericho’s image. Despite his calm expression, eyes were on fire. There it was again—that pain that was too transparent and ephemeral for her to conquer.

Okay, my dear, Jericho. I’ll do just that.

Jericho’s stiffness loosened slightly and he turned to her.

As if reading their minds, Andres conjured a pistol in a flash of amber and aimed it at Proteus.

“Dominic,” Proteus called out as he locked eyes with the man. “Would you like to come out?”

Maria turned her attention forward again. In stepped the familiar Dominic Gloria-Elegido. He fell into step beside Proteus and looked Maria up and down.

“Oh?” Dominic arched a brow. “It’s you. The one who was the best one before I became the best one. You really came like he said you would.”

Andres dropped his raised pistol immediately and scrambled to pull out his notepad. He scribbled quickly on it and flashed it to Dominic. Please come with me. I’ve been sent by the highest Monadic order to save you. You’re not safe here. He extended a hand.

Dominic squinted over Maria’s shoulder past the mist at him. Then he laughed. “You again? The Espada? You’re persistent, aren’t you? I don’t feel like coming with you right now, but you’re free to come with me.”

Andres scribbled down into the notepad again and held it out. You and the others are staying with a dangerous man.

“I’m the next saint candidate of Leo, so you should listen to me, shouldn’t you?” Dominic walked forward, the white mist parting for him as he did so. It closed back behind him, locking him in the square with Maria. “That’s your purpose, isn’t it? Dedicating yourself to Monadism and the star and potential stars? Shouldn’t you be listening to me over what the head priests tell you? I’m the star, aren’t I? You’re going against me by working with this woman, aren’t you?”

Andres tensed and looked to an empty space at his side. He shook his head once, and Maria could see his brows knit.

“I say sit down and pray until I am finished,” Dominic boomed, lifting his head. “Now.”

Sweat formed at Andres’s brows before he slowly—much to Maria’s surprise—sank to his knees and began to chant under his breath.

“W-What are you doing, Andres…?” El whispered, expression pale.

“He’s not Leo,” Epsilon insisted, tugging on his robes. “Maria’s Leo!” When Andres didn’t budge, he hesitantly began to reach for the pistol sitting on the man’s lap.

Maria stopped him with a halting hand. “Do not worry, Epsilon. There won’t be any shooting necessary.”

Dominic abruptly bent down and picked up the chain off the floor. He gave it a tug in the direction opposite of where it was nailed to the ground, but there was resistance on that end. He gave it another tug and another before a cluster of figures—a total of twenty or more people—spilled out onto the grassy plains outside from behind the wall. Each person in the cluster was chained together at the wrists and the ankles to the person beside them in a tangled mess. Most of the figures there appeared to be adolescent or younger. Others were older. A handful of familiar faces were present. Among them, Maria spotted Raul and Emmanuel side-by-side with Miriam and Lita wedged between them. Raul, Emmanuel, and Miriam immediately brightened, while Lita’s head remained bow.

“Lita!” Albatross cried.

Lita lifted her head, her milky eyes searching before she paled and dipped her head again.

Maria’s heart hammered at the sight.

What was wrong with her Lita? What did they do to her Lita? What pain had she not been strong enough to—

“Captain!” Emmanuel called back, struggling in his chains. He jerked his chin at Alpha. “This guy is nuts, Captain. He—”

One of the children linked beside him lifted a white-bladed conductor to his throat. Emmanuel immediately grimaced and shut his mouth.

Indoctrinated children, came Atienna’s thought. But why are they also chained—

Jericho’s rage skyrocketed and burned Maria’s vision red. They’re being tricked. They will regret. Maria—

“This is your burden to freedom,” Proteus said, gesturing to them, “my little Maria.” He laughed again. “Oh, that was a bit dramatic, wasn’t it? You have to admit though that this is a metaphor brought to life.”

“A re-duel,” Dominic spoke over him. “Just you and me. No cheating. Not like last time. I don’t really understand how you were able to use that other conducting-type before, but that’s a crutch, isn’t it? I want to do this with just our abilities. No outside help.”

Olive scoffed. It looks like the Common dictionary’s going to have a new synonym added for the word ‘brat.’ 

No, Maria thought. She could do it.

Every muscle and fiber in her body—every single vitae particle and the space in-between them—was under her absolute control. But then again…what of the things outside of herself? The thought came so suddenly she almost thought it belonged to one of the other’s at first. She countered it with —What of them? She would simply pound them into submission, conquer them, or make them her own. She could do this because she was strong. This world was hers, and she had absolute control of it. Yes. 

Maria, what are you thinking…?

Sunshine, this ain’t what we agreed. I hate ta say this, but that kid is—

Maria, don’t—

But Maria pushed them all back with all of her might. They fought against her mental, but she was stronger. Perhaps it was her ‘sense of self’ that was stronger like Claire had said before. Her conviction, maybe. Jericho was the hardest resistance and clung to the recesses of her mind. Her head pounded as he fought against her, but eventually she was able to hold him back too. She held them all back and at bay—this was strength. It was just her strength alone.

“Done.” Maria flashed Dominic a smile as she wiped the sweat from her brow. “So we will do this the old-fashioned way, yes? I win against you—a minion of the side villain like in those stories—and then I fight the side villain Proteus, yes—”

Dominic threw something at her. She caught the object easily and turned it over in her hands. It was a conducting sword. She activated it just as Dominic activated the one in his hand. Both sprouted a blade of gold. Dominic proceeded to extend his blade outwards. Maria recognized the gesture and extended her blade too until their tips touched and sparked gold. Once the two were perfectly in line with each other, Maria tightened her grip. Out of habit and as a lure, Maria bounced on the balls of her feet and threw the conducting blade up in the air. As expected, Dominic lunged forward—but he did not swing the blade at her. Instead, he swung it downwards and severed the chain from the floor just as the children at the front of the link chain. Maria stared at it confusion for a moment—

“The cliff,” Conta said through gritted teeth from behind.

Maria looked up in alarm to find that the children heading the linked group started moving forward towards the edge of the cliff to a beat. One-two, move forward. One-two, move forward. Emmanuel, Raul, and some of the older crew members struggled against them in a chaotic, off-beat fashion. Their resistance was hampered by Proteus’s children who either put conductors to their throats or. Emmanuel socked an adolescent in the face before the adolescent retaliated by slicing his shoulder.

Maria startled in alarm before running forward—only for Dominic to swing his conductor at her head. Maria reflexively brought hers up, and the two blades sparked against each other. Dominic pressed down harder and harder, forcing Maria backwards. She threw a glance over her shoulder and locked eyes with Conta. Conta grimaced in turn before darting out of the temple and seeming to round the building. Simon and Albatross followed her out.

“It wouldn’t be as challenging if it was just me fighting you,” Dominic said, pressing down harder and harder. “I should try to keep this chain away from you while I defeat you, no? It’ll be more fun that way.” 

“Fun at the expense of others?” Maria laughed tightly. “That is a sign of weakness, no?”

Dominic’s eyes narrowed and he lifted his blade to swing at her side. Maria fell forward with momentum of his absence but managed to catch his wrist before he drove his conductor into her side. She took the opportunity to swipe at his leg, but he caught her wrist too and pushed back. They remained there, struggling and locked against each other’s pushes.

“This was little Dominic’s idea,” Proteus informed her from the distance. “I have to say that I personally find it a bit too dramatic, but I do appreciate the concept of it.”

Maria couldn’t focus on Proteus fully as her attention was drawn away to her crew, her children being pulled closer and closer to the edge of the cliff. Conta, Simon, and finally stepped onto the flat grassy cliff. While Simon and Albatross immediately ran to the chained group, Conta turned towards Rho and Proteus. Rho offered a wave in turn, causing Conta to quicken her approach to them.

Before Simon, Albatross, or Conta could reach their destination, however, Proteus’s children finally took the last step. One second, she saw them struggling at the cliff’s tip. And the next, they were gone. Simon and Albatross immediately leapt at the chain and tried to pull it back, but were thrown forward by the weight. Conta whipped around, seemed to hesitate for a moment, before she threw herself forward and caught the chain. She too was dragged forward along the ground.

The chain rattled loudly along the tiles at Maria’s feet as it began to snake away out towards the cliff.

“No!” Sending Dominic back with a hard kick to the chest with all her might, Maria whipped out one the two swords hanging at her belt, aimed it, and threw it at the receding chain. It caught in a link and wedged it-between a tile on the floor. Maria ran at it with her conductor and then melted the link and the blade together into the ground with the heat from her vitae. The chain strained against it and cracks began to appear on the pinned blade. As Maria prepared to pull her second blade from her waist, Dominic came down at her with his conductor. She managed to block it by throwing her blade above her head, but his strike sent her off-balance. In the second she used to rebalance herself, he severed the chain again. It immediately shot away at a rapid speed.

Letting out a roar of frustration, Maria whipped her hand out just as Dominic swung his sword at her abdomen. This time, he was thrown off balance. Maria used the opportunity to swing her blade up. The heat of its tip just barely scored across his chest and nicked his cheek. He stumbled backwards in alarm. When she looked back at the chain, she saw it slipping past the vitae mist—

No!

Maria lunged forward with her left arm extended into the mist and just barely managed to catch the chain in her fingers.

“Leo!” came Epsilon’s cry.

The pain that surged up Maria’s arm was unlike anything she’d ever felt before. It was excruciating—this pain: gnawing at every cell in her arm and scalding down like hot iron. It felt as if her arm was being set ablaze, but still she didn’t release her hold. Not even when she heard her muscle fibers blister and pop. Instead she anchored herself in place. Her arm screamed in protest but she fought against it and began to move backwards with all her might. Step by step. Slowly, she peeled back, back, back—and was finally able to see the damage the mist had done to her hand and arm. It was a red, patchy, swollen mess that looked half-melted into the chain itself. It didn’t even look like a human arm or hand anymore. But this wasn’t very important to Maria.

It was then that she met Proteus’s gaze through the mist. 

“How about I tell you the rest of the poem,” Proteus said, “that I promised you? I’m sure Theta was working hard toiling away trying to figure out the little message I left there, but it’s only half complete.”

Maria grimaced as her legs began to give away. With difficulty, ignoring the pain straining her body, she reached for the second blade on her belt and managed to pull it out of its sheath.

Clasping his hands together behind his back, Proteus recited:

“Upon facing the golden beast,
The white beast battled with it traveling to the far exact east.
Twenty-nine times their battle rose in swell,
Until the golden beast finally gave into its wounds and fell.
They say the white beast’s celebration reached below the ground south,
And that it lavishly licked up the golden beast’s name in its mouth.
In its cheerful daze, 
It danced upon the brightest pools of the land for days.
But then on day it reached a startling realization,
One that gave it a lifetime’s hesitation
Having taken on so many names, it realized within itself a great imperfection:
It no longer recognized its reflection.”

Maria’s feet began to slip beneath her as she began to be pulled by the weight of all the others closer and closer to the line of mist. No, she refused. Baring her teeth, she stomped her feet down and pulled with all of her might. This was strength. This—she could conquer. Even though she couldn’t conquer their pain, at least she could—

Grimacing, back, back, back, she went until she reached the first blade she’d driven into the ground. With a cry, she swiveled around and just barely managed to drive her second blade through one of the links before the chain completely slipped out from her grasp.

With one last cry, she tore her melted blade from the ground and re-drove it through another link in the chain. This too, she melted it into place with her conductor. As the chain strained, she wound the chain around her left leg and her upper left shoulder and around what remained of her arm. Past the mist towards the cliff, she could see Simon, Albatross, and Conta upright and holding the chain with all their might.

She could still win this. No, they could. They? Ah, she’d made a mistake again, hadn’t she? Not her alone, but ‘they.’ The law of the universe was crumbling around her. Still. She had to hold on regardless

Defiantly, she lifted her conducting blade with her good hand as she looked back at Dominic. The boy was re-approaching her now with a gaze that glistened with excitement. His blade was held loosely in his hand. Maria recognized that pause and expression. He had achieved victory in his mind already.

“I really am better than you,” he said, pointing the blade at her. “But since I am strong, I can still offer you mercy. Only the strong can offer that, right?”

Maria’s eyes rang as her vision began to swim. The chain was beginning to dig into her flesh. 

Bang!

Dominic’s conducting blade flew out from his grip. He doubled over and winced as he held his hand before sending a glare towards the entrance. Maria followed his gaze and found a handful of men wearing suits crowded there. The Foxman’s men. While all of them were holding guns of various make, only one of them had their weapon pointed at Dominic. It was Maximallian.

Andres stiffened and rose to his feet as he faced Maximallian. He moved seemingly to disarm the man. But before he could reach for Maximillian’s hand, he, Maximilian, and the other suited men were brushed to the side by two newcoming figures. Maximilian looked prepared to protest but froze stiffly with eyes as wide as saucers as he studied the newcomers. A man and a woman.

Although her vision was beginning to dim and she could barely make out their outlines, Maria could tell that the figures were familiar. A man and a woman. The woman had a head of curls that was being tamed into a bun. Maria was certain she had seen this woman in a dream before—yes.

Araceli…? 

Maria blinked as she registered and recognized the woman’s golden hair.

No, it was Leona…? Maria wanted to think Leona’s appearance was exciting, but she couldn’t bring herself to. What was she doing here?

“Maria!” the man shouted above the mist.

Jericho.

And suddenly Maria could feel him fully: his alarm, his horror, his anguish—completely drowning out the rage simmering in his chest. She could see herself in his eyes—her mangled hand, her shirt soaked with blood, her blazing eyes. Although he could not feel pain, she knew he could feel hers.

Leona scanned the inner temples beside him and narrowed her eyes at Proteus then Maria herself. Then, she cast a glance towards Andres. Her eyes widened a second after as she registered—“Epsilon?”


a/n: writing this chapter for various reasons was hell. i am dead inside

25.3: Swindler & Mentiras 

Re-cap:

Cadence is now fully joined by Maria, Jericho, Tau, and Conta in her search for the children kidnapped by Alpha. Alpha has also stolen the Romano Family’s chlorowheat which the Foxman brothers had been shipping out for them unbeknownst to Francis. As her lies shroud those Cadence holds close and as the True Conductor hunt begins to take its toll, the consequence begin to fall out like dominoes.


( )

Werner’s idea was working—as always. Werner continued to work together with Olive and Atienna on something Olive called ‘predictive modeling’ and Werner ‘strategic modeling’—charting out all the possible locations Alpha could appear using Jericho’s ‘data’ from Ophiuchus to cross-reference everything. They also threw in orphanages with the word ‘Primera’ in their name to the list to boot. After all that, they ordered all the locations from most-to-least likely through some fancy thing Werner called geospatial analysis, and they’d even pinned up cute little thumb tacks over a map Jericho had drawn. Sometimes the trio’s modeling worked so well that their search ran directly parallel to the ELPIS Department’s investigations.

Cadence even physically ran into peacekeeping agents from the ELPIS Department a couple times during their guided search. It was a bit awkward since she knew some of them personally—well, not personally but personally. Jericho’s desk-mate Reba was among them as was his quarter-time lunch companion.

Good news was that Cadence wasn’t very fond of them. Well, she hated their guts—which was saying a lot because it took a lot for her to really hate someone. The reason for her hatred was simple: they’d been ass-hats to Jericho. Snide comments about his ELPIS past here and there and even a jab at his lack of social awareness once or twice. 

Thankfully, whenever Cadence and the others did encounter peacekeepers, they went unnoticed due to her conducting. They were questioned once or twice by a peacekeeper or two, but Cadence easily gave the agents the slip despite Jericho and Maria being part of the equation. Admittedly, Cadence did steal a couple wallets as retribution for the good detective.

Maria joining them full on in their search really did help a whole lot. With both sunshine and the detective on board, their group ended up physically clashing a couple times with an oddly lone Rho. During one encounter, Maria somehow managed to rip the woman’s entire left arm off. Several encounters in and they even managed to free some of the children Rho brought along with her. The kids screamed, bit, and kicked as Jericho and Maria tucked them under their arms and carried them back to Francis’s exitless rooms. They only quieted once Jericho had shown them his own vitae—though they whispered something about his vitae not being ‘free’ enough. That was all those kids talked about—freedom. It was a miracle that Maria and Jericho managed to tame the lot. Cadence suspected that was because those two were children at heart too. 

Jericho getting pulled out to Leo with Leona mid-March did put a damper on things and so did Morandi’s deteriorating health which kept Maria and even Conta bound to Comientzo more than half the time. 

February had been a particularly bad month and March wasn’t looking much better. Olive’s birthday had put the ‘party’ in ‘birthday party’ at the tip of the month, but everything that came after was a downhill spiral. Cadence herself hadn’t had the greatest time but she couldn’t really complain in light of what the others were going through—so she’d offered a couple pats on the backs here and there. Atienna’s strategy, on the other hand, was to comfort without exactly addressing the issue. As for Werner—Werner was absent half the time. He was always there when they really needed him—reliable in that sense like always—but otherwise he was radio silent. Synchronization meetings got pushed back; and whenever the meetings did happen, Werner was always far away and distant.

Olive attributed it to overwork, the AAC investigation, and the hunt, but Cadence wasn’t too convinced. The anxiety gnawing at her stomach just wouldn’t go away, and it had only gotten worse as March dragged on.

But it was Werner, was the internal thought that she had to fight whenever she thought about it. He was reliable and was always trying his best for them. It felt wrong to question him after everything he’d sacrificed. It was like being ungrateful.

But Cadence knew personally all about putting people on pedestals. She’d put her mother on a pedestal, she’d put Alma on a pedestal, and so on. The problem with pedestals was that the only direction to move when one was on it was off and down. 

This particular week near March’s end had been especially fruitless—Tau ranted about it heavily after every single one of their ventures. They kept missing Rho by hours. Ran into the ELPIS Department thrice. At one point Cadence had to pull Tau away from the peacekeepers when the man started regaling civil liberties demanding a search warrant after they were all strip-searched by the lot. Tau had been an intimidating enemy back in the Twin Cities, but as an ally…? He was kind of stupid. A fish out of temporal water—just like all the other ELPIS Leaders. It was a wonder why the Twin Cities police officers that Tau had taken under his wing admired him so much.

While thinking of all these things and more, Cadence found herself now returning from another fruitless search with Francis, Tau, and Maximallian. Francis and Tau immediately pulled away into a separate exitless room together, while Maximallian grumbled about grabbing some food and departed too. 

This left Cadence to herself in the exitless room she’d since designated as her own. It was minimalistic and classy, being furnished with a grand piano and a very lush couch. A couple of the drawings Kent had made with the other ELPIS kids were tapped up on the wall above the couch; and as Cadence relaxed onto the sofa, she spent a moment appraising them. After considering the piano for a couple minutes, she opted to reach out and see how the other five were doing instead. 

She could see Olive in the distance chatting Claire up, Maria curled over Morandi’s bed, Atienna turning in for the night, and Jericho wandering through some off-town in Leo with Leona. Everyone was up later than usual—save for Werner. Since she couldn’t see him, she assumed he was already knocked out. Which was weird. Earlier that morning, she and Atienna had to help Olive with his debacle with Hideyoshi and Scorpio all by themselves—which was fine, of course. It was just unusual that Werner hadn’t at least touched point yet. 

Despite her curiosity, she figured that she shouldn’t disturb him if he was sleeping. Not polite and all that. She waved the consideration off a second later as a familiar unease began to boil in her stomach. 

Eh—who the hell cared if he thought she was annoying? Charming and annoying were separated by just half a degree. And so, Cadence started reaching for him and toying with the thin invisible string that connected them together.

She was half-asleep on the couch when she finally broke through to him. As soon as she felt the ghost of his presence, however, her vision was immediately sent spinning. She rolled off of the couch in confusion and clamored on the ground on all fours. An overwhelming wave of anguish wracked through her entire body, and paired with it was an intense hunger and desperation. 

Something wasn’t right.

Heart hammering, Cadence scrambled up to her feet and leapt to the black-painted door just behind her couch. She whipped out Francis’s proto-conductor and shakily jammed its tip against the wall. It immediately burst with light.

“Francis, Polovinastadt near the Aquarian-Capricornian. Please, Francis, hurry—”

She wasn’t sure if Francis heard her but she stepped through the gate a second after anyway—

Polovinastadt, Aquarian-Capricornian Border

She was immediately met with a whipping gust of snow that almost sent her flying back into the gate. Rising around her were wooden buildings that would have otherwise been undetectable to her in the darkness and flurry if it were not for the fact that all their windows glowed a warm orange.

The despair, desperation, and hunger were stronger now. 

As soon as Cadence took ten steps forward, her heart began to beat erratically in her chest. Off rhythm. Not good. The irregular thrumming spread out to her limbs, and before she knew it was she was trembling so violently that she couldn’t even stand.

She felt like she was dying. Again. 

A familiar smell filled her senses. Chlorowheat.

It was Werner.

Memories from that dark night in the Twin Cities hammered their way into her brain—Werner had bore all her beatings without a second thought, but here now she couldn’t even take a couple of stupid dumb steps for him? 

Cadence urged herself forward, forcing herself up to a stand as she dragged herself through the snow. Fighting back tears from the cold, she stumbled forward twenty more steps towards the direction of Werner’s inn before falling forward again. She didn’t hit the snow again this time, however, and was instead caught by a pair of warm but sturdy hands.

“A-Are you okay?” A familiar voice.

Cadence squinted in the darkness to find a woman’s face that was knitted with concern. “Greta?”

Greta stared back wide-eyed. “How do you know my name…?”

Cadence grabbed onto her arm. “It’s Werner. Something’s wrong—”

Greta startled in confusion. “H-How do you know Werner?”

“Please help me get to him,” Cadence pleaded. “Please.”

Greta stiffened before nodding tightly.

With her help, Cadence made it to the inn in less than a minute. They burst through the doors together and stumbled into the lobby area. The bright v-lights above burned Cadence’s eyes and started a migraine at her temple, but she managed to still make out the fancy staircase at the back of the lobby through the pain. She glanced to her left and saw a familiar line of phone booths built into the wall there. One had a receiver that that was dangling off of its main body by a chord.

“C-Cadence?!”

Greta?!”

Cadence looked forward to find Gilbert and Nico coming down the stairwell.

Greta gasped, her hand darting to her mouth. “G-Gilbert, your arm—”

“Werner, Werner, Werner,” Cadence tried to explain as she fought against the shivering. With difficulty, she detached herself from Greta, brushed past the two men, and scrambled up the stairs and tore down the hall at the top.

After several twists and turns, she collided with someone coming down in the opposite direction. She stumbled backwards and looked up to find a grimacing Knovak. Pounding footsteps echoed behind her; and upon turning Cadence registered Greta, Gilbert, and Nico at her back.

“What the hell are you doing here, Morello?” Gilbert demanded. “Aren’t you supposed to—”

“Who the hell is this?” Knovak snapped, before looking over at Greta and jerking his head at her. “Who the hell is that?”

Ignoring them, Cadence brushed past the Aquarian and scrambled down the hall. Identical doors lined the walls, but Cadence found herself drawn to the one at the farthest end on the left. She ran up to it and tried the doorknob. Locked. Mind buzzing, she began pounding her first against it and kicking it.

Knovak ran up to her and pulled her away with Gilbert’s help.

“What the hell is going on here?” Gilbert demanded. 

“P-Please just open the door!” Cadence pleaded as she tried to get her shaking under control and fought against them both. “It’s Werner.”

Knovak’s eyes widened slightly and he turned to the door and tried the knob. When that didn’t work, Gilbert moved forward and began to throw his body weight against it. Knovak pulled him back after four tries before proceeding to deliver hard, solid kicks to the door’s center. On his third kick, a crack resounded and the lock gave way.

As soon as it swung ajar, smoke spilled out from the bathroom and into the hall and clouded Cadence’s vision. Greta and Knovak both immediately covered their noses and mouths, but Cadence was too horrified by the revelation to follow suit—the smell of the smoke and the haze of it was familiar. Gilbert stepped forward into the bathroom and waved his hand r to clear the smoke. It was only that Cadence could finally see him—see Werner on the floor against the wall, motionless, pale, just like her mother had been when she’d passed away entangled in her bed sheets.

Cadence didn’t know when she stopped screaming—probably sometime after she’d run to Werner’s side. He looked even worse up close; and when she reached out to touch his face, her fingertips somehow felt even colder than they were before. Nico gently pushed her to the side once her screaming had stopped which was when she was able to see the shattered vial and the needle scattered side-by-side together on the floor.

Her vision swam.

Gilbert, Greta, and Nico started shouting. Kramer and Knovak too. Cadence could barely think straight above the noise and pain. In a panic, she pulled Francis’s proto-conductor out from her pants pocket and spilled the black liquid all over the floor. The liquid slipped in-between the tiled cracks of the floor and carried away some of the glass shards with it.

“Cadence—”

Cadence tapped the tip of the proto-conductor against the liquid and winced as the bright igniting light intensified the migraine pounding at her temples. She grabbed hold of Werner and Nico before pulling them both into the gate with her—

( )

A moment later, she fell forward with them onto cold, hard, beige ground. Shivers continued to wrack her body making it increasingly difficult to keep herself upright. Still, she was able to crawl onto all fours and desperately scan for Francis in the room she’d landed—

There.

Francis stood in front of the opposite wall with his conductor-gloved hand pressed up against the stain there. He looked surprised as did Pi who stood beside him. Kent, who hid behind the latter’s leg, looked terrified. Cadence’s short-lived relief faded once she registered that those three were not the room’s only occupants. Sitting at the circular table in the far corner were Fortuna, Cavallo, Agape, Bendetto, Carl, and Allen. All six of them ogled her with either astonishment, alarm, disbelief, or worry.

“What is this…?”

Cadence turned to find Kramer, Knovak, Gilbert, and Greta stepping into the exitless room from the open gate behind her. Greta appeared much more alarmed and flabbergasted than all the others, but she shook herself and ran to Werner’s side immediately.

Kramer pulled out the pistol strapped to her leg but didn’t move to point it at anyone. Instead she kept it stiffly at her waist. Knovak, on the other hand, had to be held back by her.

“What is the meaning of this?” Cavallo demanded as he rose from the table. 

Allen, Carl, and Fortuna finally seemed to register Nico, and they rose collectively from the table. “Nico?”

Fortuna eyed the man for a moment before she studied Gilbert, Kramer, and Knovak. She proceeded to whisper tightly in Geminian, “Cadence, are these Aquarians? Capricornians? Did you check to see if they were infected?” 

“Geminians,” Knovak muttered under his breath as he scanned the room. He stopped short as his gaze fell on Pi. “Mladen…?” 

Pi pulled Kent slightly closer to him in response before looking to Francis beside him.

ELPIS.” Kramer took a step back, gaze flicking to the tattoo on Francis’s face. She raised her pistol but still kept its nose pointed to the ground.

“Francis,” Cadence pleaded with difficulty as shakes wracked her body. She clutched her chest as her heart began to beat even more erratically. “Please help.”

Francis crossed the room immediately, bypassed Kramer, and sank to the floor beside her. He held her arms and assessed her. “What’s wrong?”

“Not me,” she managed, jerking her head back towards Werner just behind her.

Francis’s gaze drifted to him, and he tensed before moving over to the other man’s side. Greta stiffened upon registering the tattoo on Francis’s face while Nico gave him a grateful, desperate look.

“What happened?”

“I-I think he took chlorowheat. Too much of it…” Cadence began to whimper slightly despite herself. “I-I think he took too much of it.”

Allen and Carl stiffened before exchanging looks with Fortuna.

“Chlorowheat?” Francis reached out towards Werner’s pale face with his gloved hand.

Greta immediately reached out a hand to stop him and trembled as she did so. Her eyes were locked onto the tattoo on his face. 

Nico looked between them. “It’s okay. Francis is good.”

“I’m here to help, Miss,” Francis informed Greta calmly before turning his head and calling out, “Pi, conjure me N-Allylnoroxymorphone.”

Pi tapped his temple and made a panicked ‘X’ with his fingers before shaking his head. 

Francis frowned before facing Werner again. “We’re going to have to do this the hard way then.” He nodded at Nico. “I need your help—”

“A-Anything,” Nico insisted. “I was thinking that we should—”

Francis held up a hand, proceeded to reach into his belt, pulled out his knife. He cut along his palm and spilled blood out onto the floor before placing his gloved hand against the spot. As the gate their flickered with light, Cadence started forward as did Gilbert.

Francis held her and Gilbert back with a raised hand. “We’ll handle this. Please be patient.”

With that, he sank with Nico, Werner, and Greta into his gate, leaving only silence behind. Once they were no longer in sight and the light from the gate faded, Cadence finally collapsed on the ground and curled into herself as the hot tremors intensified their ride through her body. Cold sweat broke out on her back and she wheezed as she took in a ragged breath.

“Shit…” Gilbert was at her side now. “Are you alright?”

“Move aside, damn it.” Carl—now at her side too.

“What’s going on?” Fortuna.

Their shadows encircled Cadence’s dimming vision but she couldn’t hear the rest because a cold darkness claimed her swiftly.

* * *

When Cadence opened her eyes again, she found that she was lying on a couple of chairs with what appeared to be a coat—Gilbert’s—draped over her. Her mind was foggy and it took a moment for her to collect her baring and recall everything that had led up to this point. Nausea took her just a second after, as a frigid terror expanded out from her chest.

It had to be a nightmare, she reasoned. It couldn’t be real.

But when she drew herself up to a sit, reality created her. The Romano caporegimes sitting at their dining table, Carl and Allen were on chairs that were drawn out a little bit closer to her, and Fortuna was standing in the corner with crossed arms. Pi was standing at the back wall, looking nervously towards Kramer and Knovak who were staring at him from the opposite side of the room. Gilbert paced back and forth just in front of the duo.

Oh, saints

Werner.

Just like her parents.

Cadence buried her face in her hands as she tried to stop her thoughts from bouncing up and down, side to side, everywhere. The other four were reeling too—she could feel them. They buzzed back and forth at the back of her mind, but Cadence couldn’t focus on what they were saying.

“Saints, Cadence.” Carl was at her side now and shaking her on the shoulder. “Your guy’ll be fine. He’s in good hands. You’re still alive so—”

“No! He won’t be fine!” Cadence slapped Carl’s hand away as she leapt up and away from the chairs. “Dammit, Carl—he won’t be fine! He won’t be fine!” She lowered her hands a second afterwards as she felt everyone’s gazes. With difficulty, she cleared her throat. “Sorry, Carl. I’m just agitated ‘cause of the situation is all. Body’s achin’ too.” 

“Yeah, your mind buddy got you all kinds of fucked up, huh?” Carl arched a brow. “That was the Capricornian who was here a couple months back, right?” He jerked his chin in Gilbert’s direction. “Him too?”

Cadence followed his gaze to Gilbert. The man was still pacing back and forth mumbling to himself. Tentatively, she approached him and reached out. “Hey—”

Slapping her hand away, Gilbert whipped around and jabbed a finger at her chest. He pulled out something from his pants pocket and shoved into her fast—the chlorowheat. “You! This—this is your shit, isn’t it? This is the shit you used to bargain with the Argoans back then.” He pulled back, eyes narrowing. “What? Getting him fucked up last autumn wasn’t enough for you? You had to bring this shit here too to poison the rest of us?!”

Agape stiffened from across the room, while Cavallo’s frown deepened.

“I-I didn’t know, Gil,” Cadence stammered. “I just found out just now like you. Honest—”

“Don’t fuckin’ call me ‘Gil.’” Gilbert’s glare cut Cadence deep. It was like receiving a glare from Francis or Nico.

“I-It’s the chlorowheat. It messes with conducting and our synchronizing. It’s like an override or like when we go to sleep but stronger,” Cadence tried to explain. Indignation squirmed in her stomach uncomfortably and she gestured loosely to him in response. “What about you? You were with him the entire time, weren’t ya? You… You were literally right there! Why didn’t you notice something’?!” She pulled back a moment after as she realized all of her words were more aimed towards herself than anybody else. ”

Gilbert bristled. “He was off doing his deep-level AAC shit all the time, okay?! You don’t think I tried to keep an eye on him…?” Gilbert jabbed another finger at her chest—

—but Carl stepped forward, smacked his hand away, glanced at Pi who was looking between them in confusion. “Hey, watch who you’re pointing your finger at. And keep your damned mouth shut.”

Gilbert shoved Carl back immediately. “Oh, shut up! You were just pointing fingers at Werner just an few hours ago.” He turned and gestured towards everyone at the dining table. “Well, the whole fucking cabal is here, right? The Geminian oligarchs giving our military underground weapons in the autumn so we can fight a meaningless battle and then doling out chlorowheat in the spring so you can fuck up my friend—”

A draft filled the room.

Fortuna’s lips thinned. “Calm down. We aren’t the ones who’ve been actively supplying your friend with the chlorowheat.” She crossed her arms. “Nor are we the ones encouraging him to take it. That choice was his own. You can stop pointing fingers now.”

Chuckling haughtily, Gilbert rolled up his sleeves. “Oh, you fucking bitch—”

“It would be best to discuss this matter elsewhere,” Cavallo interjected, hands folded. “I understand your personal vendetta—”

“Elsewhere? Elsewhere why?” Gilbert snapped before his eyes widened as he glanced over at Pi. “The ELPIS guys don’t know, do they? They don’t. Of course not. They have sticks up their asses.” He glowered. “Well, there’s a fucking stick up mine too then.” He nodded at Pi. “Hey, why don’t you tell Fran—”

“Who the hell do you think you are?” Carl snarled, grabbing Gilbert by the scruff. “Don’t you remember how we helped you in the damned winter? Show some damned respect.”

“Hey, hey, Carl!” Trembling still, Cadence shakily put one hand on Carl’s shoulder and the other on Gilbert’s. “Tossin’ each other around won’t do any good, right? We’ve got enough enemies already. No need to make more on either party.”

After a moment, Carl released Gilbert who in turn brushed himself and sent the man a glare. 

You didn’t help us.” Gilbert snorted at Carl. “That guy—Francis, your brother—is the one that did. You and your other damned brother just sat around watching us and eating fucking popcorn.”

“No fighting…” Pi murmured nervously suddenly from his corner. He made a familiar ‘X’ with his arms when the entire room looked at him.

“What the hell is wrong with you…?” Knovak asked in Aquarian, looking Pi up and down. “You’re not Mladen, right? 

Pi studied him then Kramer tentatively for a moment. “Pi.”

“We do need to be civil about this,” Fortuna pressed. “We’re offering our assistance to your friend—”

Gilbert bristled again. Cadence felt herself do the same—which was hypocritical, she knew. 

“Fortuna, that ‘friend’ is connected ta me,” Cadence said, trying to keep her voice even and light. “That’s kinda why I was dyin’ on the floor over there earlier.”

Fortuna’s expression changed immediately and there was a flicker. “Why would you let him take it then? How long has he been taking it?”

“Ya think I let him?” Cadence recoiled before she faltered. “I-I don’t know how long—” 

Gilbert glowered. “You people really like pointing fucking fingers don’t you.” 

“That Capricornian an adult, isn’t he?” Allen asked thickly. “He can make his own decisions.”

“Like I said,” Fortuna replied tightly, “we weren’t the ones who—”

“Enough.”

The room fell dead silent at the request. Ears now roaring and head pounding, Cadence turned towards the owner of the voice. Francis stood at the opposite wall in front of the glowing tangerine gate that was now beginning to dim back to black. 

“Francis,” Allen acknowledged him with an unreadable expression. 

Carl tensed. “How much did you hear…?”

Damn it, Carl.

Francis’s eyes narrowed at the question. Instead of answering, he scanned the entire room and held each individual person’s gazes for a stretch of time. When his eyes landed on Cadence, he said calmly, “We’ll deal with this first and discuss that later.” He paused before adding, “Werner should recover and awaken soon.”

Cadence felt some of the tension in her shoulders leave, but the knot in her stomach remained. She felt like puking.

Francis nodded at Kramer and Knovak. “You’re Miss Kramer and Mr. Knovak, correct? From what I understand, you’re under surveillance by Scorpio at the moment. As much as I would like to offer you refuge here—all things considered—I believe it would be best for you to return to the border for the time being.”

Kramer regarded the tattoo on Francis’s face for a long time before she nodded. “Yes, that would most likely be best.” She nodded at Gilbert. “First Lieutenant Wolff, I’ll do my best to cover for you and Captain Waltz for the time being.”

Gilbert lifted his head in surprise before nodding.

“This place”—Knovak gestured around the room just before he stepped with Kramer into the gate Francis opened up— “Would make good military base.”

* * *

It had been over fifteen minutes since Kramer and Knovak had left. No one had spoken a word since then. Cavallo and Agape—still seated and calm—were the only ones who seemed to be at ease with the situation. Beside them, Bendetto kept thrumming his fingers against the table and sneaking peeks at Francis who stood at the center of the room. Fortuna, Carl, and Allen had taken a seat on the chairs they’d pulled out, while Pi nervously shifted from foot-to-foot in the corner.

Cadence had tried her best to keep a calm appearance at first, but her thoughts continued to bounce around erratically. Thus, she’d given up on the facade and instead now sat on her chair in the corner with her head buried in her hands.

After ten more minutes passed, Francis approached Gilbert with an extended hand. “Herr Wolff, may I see the chlorowheat you have there?”

After glancing briefly at Cadence, Gilbert handed it to the man.

Francis inspected the chlorowheat for what felt like hours before he asked quietly to no one in particular, “How long have you been shipping this out?”

“Well, Francis,” Carl tried, “we ain’t sellin’ it—”

“How long?”

Carl glanced at Allen who didn’t answer. Then he looked to Cadence. Cadence avoided his gaze.

“Production started officially late December into early January,” Cavallo answered calmly. “Shipments began around the same time to Argo. We stopped production around then due to technical difficulties but continued to ship out the product up until the end of January. At the time, the ships we rented out that held the product were stolen by ELPIS. We’ve lost control of product circulation since then.” 

‘Ships rented out.’” Fists now clenched, Francis looked across the room towards Carl and Allen. The room began to shake as the gates began to pulsate faintly. “So the reason the Romanos were assisting in this search for Alpha was not to aid the children but to try and retrieve their chlorowheat. I was naive to think otherwise.”

“We needed the money, Francis,” Carl explained. “The kids’re expensive. We’re not makin’ enough money from the casinos and bars and we’re not shippin’ conductors anymore either. We pushed the people you told us to push, but it just ain’t enough. We need to make a living. The Romanos do too. It’s for the kids.”

Dust rained down from the ceiling as the shaking intensified.

“Listen to yourself. Who do you think is impacted the most by these substances?” Francis asked quietly, fist clenching tighter. “Who do you think the blood of your consumers and clients bleeds down to? Still even after everything you take advantage of the vulnerable—”

“Enough of your poetry, Francis,” Fortuna interjected. “If this happened last summer, you wouldn’t even question it. You’re being a hypocrite.”

“What’s your point?” Francis met her gaze. “You’re speaking as if people’s don’t grow and change. Is it hypocritical to acknowledge your mistakes and choose a path opposite of your former one? If you think that’s the case then I advise you to look up the definition again.” He scanned the room again, and his eyes finally fell on Cadence.

Cadence tensed.

“Cadence, you too?” The hurt in his eyes was clear as day. “I trusted you, Cadence.”

“Francis, I—” Cadence opened and shut her mouth. “I just—you still seemed liked you were still havin’ a hard time. I didn’t want ta stress ya out any more than ya already were.”

“Do you believe that’s what Herr Waltz was thinking by keeping his usage of chlorowheat a secret from the rest of you?”

Cadence felt like she’d been slapped—no, stabbed. Cracks began to appear along the ceiling, causing everyone in the room to visibly tense.

“You of all people, Cadence, know a lie is never told completely selflessly. Did you make Jericho and Maria lie for you as well? Were your words of comfort on that day just the same?”

A sharp pang of shame gripped Cadence’s chest tight. Her own remorse came a second later.

“Francis, ya know they weren’t,” Cadence assured him. “I meant every word I said. I wanted ta tell ya back then—honest—but—”

“Francis, your head still isn’t on right,” Allen finally said, arms crossed. “You can’t blame us for not telling you. Look at what you’re doing now.”

“My head isn’t right?” Francis released his clenched fist, and the gates began to dim. “Who are you to put judgment on what I should or shouldn’t be like? Do you think it’s ‘normal in the head’ to have such a blasé attitude towards the ramifications of your actions?” His gaze swept over all of them again as the room stopped shaking. He clenched his fists again a second after. “You gave Alpha an advantage with your product—”

“Let’s not get worked up now,” Bendetto interjected, eyeing Francis warily.

“That’s a hypocritical viewpoint on two fronts, Francis, isn’t it?” Agape challenged. “You condemn the use of conductors while simultaneously condemning something that would curb the usage of them. You want to care for your children and yet you’re not willing to do what it takes to care for them. The reason you’re able to live and speak comfortably is because you’ve done the same thing your brothers are doing now.”

“Don’t lecture my damned brother, Agape,” Carl snapped. “He’s technically older than you.”

Agape frowned. “You can point the fingers all you want, Francis, but—”

“You’re the one who is pointing the fingers. If it’s not ‘in your world’ then it doesn’t matter?” Francis looked down on her from the distance. “You’re a selfish fool if you think like that. In the end, as the cycle turns, everything returns at some point to where it was. If it easier for you think in these terms then let me put it this way: karma is a bitch—or so you’ve seen with Alpha has been able to do with your chlorowheat.” After a pause, he gestured to Cadence. “Does the threat have to be imminent for you to act?” He lowered his hand. “I am, of course, in no way blaming Herr Waltz for this predicament. While the consequences may not touch you immediately, they will immediately befall the people around you. One day, it will hit too close.” 

Cadence stiffened, feeling her stomach do flip flops as she felt Carl, Allen, and Fortuna’s gazes dart to her.

“You fear losing things, so you lie to keep them close. You fail to notice that closeness has also become an illusion,” Francis continued, handing the chlorowheat back to Gilbert and crossing the room. “You have made a mistake and have failed to acknowledge it. Now you’re using me and the children to try and rectify it.” He brushed past Allen and Carl. “Acknowledging one’s ability to fail, to make mistakes, to be weak leads to prosperity, while ignoring it leads to desiccation.”

“It just got outta control,” Carl said after a long pause of silence. “You know we only want what’s best for the kids. How the hell else were we supposed to do it?”

“‘You know what the difference between a gangster and a mobster is?’—that’s something Cadence asked used all when were kids. A riddle-lesson or something.” Francis came to a stop in front of the black-painted door at the wall. “The answer was ‘one of them thinks ahead and plans for a future, while the other one just reaps the rewards of the present. One is caught and jailed after a short spree, while the other lives rich, old, free.’” He placed his hand against the gate causing it to glow. “I’m sure you’re well aware of where you all fall.”

“Francis.” Allen rose to a stand. “Where are you going?”

“I’m not running away if that’s what you’re asking,” Francis replied. “I learn from my mistakes and I intend to make up for them. Pointing fingers and trying to find victim and perpetrator is no use at this time. My intention now is to discuss this issue with Mr. Ricardo directly with Tau.”

Fortuna whipped around. “What…?”

“As for Herr Waltz…” Francis turned to Cadence briefly. “Cadence, he will be going through severe withdrawal symptoms soon and will be in need of your support. I suspect he will try to hide—just as you have.”

* * *

Werner woke up a day later. Greta hesitantly returned to the exitless room that Cadence and Gilbert had been camping out in to bring them the news. She cautioned to them that he was still disoriented before she started demanding a more thorough explanation for everything that had happened since the Aquarian-Capricornian border. It sounded like she got sparse details from Nico. True Conductors? Saint Candidates? Conducting without a conductor?! ELPIS? Energy levels?

Gilbert answered most of her questions, although he sounded pretty confused about everything himself. When he brought up the Week of Blindness, Greta quietly reached and touched his stub. Gilbert grimaced in response and reached out to pull her into an embrace when she started to cry. Cadence watched them, wanting to say something but knowing that she couldn’t because they didn’t know her like she knew them.

Half an hour later, they collectively traversed through Cadence’s gate to the exitless room Werner resided in. Gilbert entered first, Cadence following just behind him but hiding behind him to be out of eyesight. Greta followed suit, standing tense behind Gilbert. Peering over the man’s side, Cadence was able to make out Werner sitting up on the small bed pressed against the beige wall. Nico sat beside him, silent. 

Cadence started to feel nauseous and uneasy.

After staring at Gilbert for what felt like a whole minute, Werner finally seemed to register him and acknowledged him with a head nod. “Gilbert? Good. I was just briefing Nico on what I just discovered. Matthias Alfhild is a confirmed True Conductor. I witnessed him utilize two conducting types during the previous meeting.” He began re-buttoning his shirt. “Most likely he’s connected to Constanza Groth. The situation with the secretary has also deteriorated. Beyond that, I believe there may be a collusion developing between Aquarius and Capricorn—”

Hesitantly, Cadence stepped out from behind Gilbert.

“Cadence? What are you doing here?” Werner stared at her uncomprehendingly. He scanned the room. “Where is this?” When Greta stepped out from behind Gilbert too, he stiffened further. 

“Werner, do you remember what happened before waking up here…?” Greta drew quietly. “Do you remember meeting me?”

Werner stared past her towards Cadence, and Cadence could feel him trying to search through her memories for an explanation. Said explanation seemed to come to him as Cadence could feel shame curling in his stomach. Instead of answering or acknowledging his realization, however, he slowly rose from the bed as he finished buttoning his shirt.

“How long have I been unconscious?”

Cold sweat broke out the back of Cadence’s neck as she felt her heart sink.

“Around a day and a half,” Nico answered quietly, rising with him and holding out cautious hands. “I think maybe you should sit down a bit, Werner—”

“Did we already report into our Ophiuchian contact?”

“I’m not sure,” Nico replied hesitantly. “Kramer and Knovak are handling that I think—”

“Then I’ll discuss it with Kramer shortly. We need to return immediately,” Werner said as he approached Gilbert and came to a stop in front of him. He glanced at Cadence before nodding at Greta. “Greta, our operation of investigating the AAC is of high priority and is highly classified, so I ask for your discretion. I understand where you’re coming from in your membership of the group, however, and I understand the AAC’s concerns. I will do my best to relay this information to groups that can handle it, but—out of concern—I would like you to dissociate yourself from it if possible.”

“Out of concern…?” Greta stared at Werner before looking him up and down as if seeing him for the first time. She shook her head. “Wait, Werner. I… I don’t fully understand what’s really going on here even after they explained it, but this… True Conductor business… being able to conduct without conductors and use other conducting types… it sounds big— dangerous.” She looked at his bandaged arm. “But before that, Werner—”

“We can discuss that later. We should return before—” 

Werner pressed forward pushing past Gilbert, but the other man held out his hand and stopped Werner from reaching the gate. At the same time, Cadence felt the other four strongly synchronize and saw them appear around her collectively. Olive kept his eyes glued to his feet and Atienna stared just over Werner’s shoulder, while the other two held Werner’s gaze. Werner tensed. 

They had all had a lengthy discussion on how to approach this half an hour earlier, but even with all that planning, Cadence had a gut feeling everything was going to go south quickly. 

Gilbert abruptly swore, curled his fingers around Werner’s scruff, and pulled him back. “Werner, come on. You know we can’t just leave it like that.”

Protect, protect, protect.

Cadence could hear it now loud and clear. The pulsating desire, passion, urge. Werner’s gaze passed over her and then the other four before he took a step back and met Gilbert’s eyes.

“I apologize for my… earlier behavior. That was an inexcusable lapse in judgment,” Werner said. He turned to Cadence and then dipped his head at the other four. “I endangered your lives and that was absolutely unacceptable.” He paused, then explained, “Matthias revealed a new chlorowheat product to me, and I wanted to evaluate its effects before presenting the information to our Ophiuchian contact—”

Gilbert did a double-take. “Werner, are you hearing yourself? What—some guy gives you some weird ass drug shit that you’ve never seen before and you go— ‘Oh, I’m going to stick this right in my arm to see what happens?’ And you ‘apologize’? For fucking nearly dying?” He gestured to Cadence. “And for nearly dragging them with you? Do you know what fucking happened yesterday? You almost…”

Werner stiffened as his gaze shifted back to Cadence. 

Protect, protect, protect.

“Gilbert,” Nico warned, reaching out to touch Werner’s shoulder. “Let’s try not pointing fingers, okay?” 

Cadence could feel the self-disappointment and guilt curl in Werner’s stomach as the man flinched away from Nico’s touch—

“Yes, I agree. It was a lapse in judgment. Again: I apologize. I won’t allow it to happen again. I promise.” He paused, looking at Cadence then at Olive. “I’m sorry.” 

The silence that stretched on afterwards was unbearable. Cadence searched her mind desperately for something to see but for once she couldn’t come up with any words. She looked to Atienna but the woman remained silent.

“Okay fine. Let’s say that you had a lapse in judgment.” Gilbert dug into his pocket and procured the packet of chlorowheat. “I still have questions about this.”

Saints

The way Werner’s eyes lit up for a brief second made Cadence feel like she’d once again been stabbed in the gut. Werner reached for it but Gilbert—eyes wide because he must have seen it too—pulled it just out of reach.

“Werner…this is the shit we were supposed to turn into Otto, isn’t it?”

Otto. Otto. Otto.

Cadence winced at the sharp pain in her chest that followed the mantra. Werner looked at her in concealed alarm.

Protect. Protect. Protect.

After a moment of hesitation, Werner took another step back and met Gilbert’s gaze calmly. “I found that after you lost it originally. I kept it on my person so we would have it available to turn into our contact.” 

Oh, saints. Werner was lying—just like how her parents had lied about being too tired to play with her when she’d been younger. The reality was that they were too busy shrouded in a cloud of morrowheat to pay her any attention. If Werner was lying like they were, then this was bad. No, this was the worst case scenario. And this was all her fault. She could’ve prevented this.

Werner’s attention turned to her again.

“I can hear you, Werner,” Cadence explained. “I…” She glanced at Gilbert. “He’s… lying.”

Cadence felt a prick of irritation followed by deep disappointment. Werner’s disappointment was not directed at her, however, but at himself—for being caught in the lie. The realization sent Cadence’s mind reeling.

“I thought my jokes were finally landing and that you were finally learning how to fucking loosen up.” Gilbert faltered for a moment. “But you… you were just taking this shit, weren’t you?” 

Protect, protect, protect.

Werner’s expression folded into concern as he looked Gilbert over. “Gilbert, I assure you there’s nothing to be alarmed by. As I said, what happened won’t happen again. I apologize for lying, but I was doing what I believed was best. I took that chlorowheat to replace the chlorowheat that a doctor had prescribed to me. I lost the original prescription during our travel from the capital to Polovinastadt. I planned to retrieve additional chlorowheat to turn into our contact.”

“Wait, wait—what?” Gilbert did a double-take, shaking the chlorowheat again. “What fucking doctor prescribed this shit to you?”

“Doctor Euphorieson,” Cadence realized along with the other four, before glancing up at Werner sharply. “I thought all he gave ya was that ointment and that tea?”

“He did, but it wasn’t effective,” Werner replied evenly. “He prescribed sleeping pills that contained trace chlorowheat but its effect also waned. I had my subsequent consultations with the doctor which is when he prescribed me the chlorowheat. I consulted with him at night time when you were all asleep and wanted to keep the situation private which is why you were unaware of this.”

He’d abused the unspoken privacy rule.

“I merely didn’t want to disturb you.” Werner paused for a moment, glancing briefly at Olive with a look akin to hurt, before nodding at Cadence. “The pills containing chlorowheat are a common prescription to individuals who were infected by Scorpio during the Week of Blindness.”

“Why the hell am I just hearing about this now?” Gilbert pressed. 

“Pharmaceuticals most likely isn’t your department.”

“That’s not what I mean—”

“It was and still is a personal health matter,” Werner replied evenly. “We’re both adults, Gilbert. My health is none of your concern.”

“None of my concern?” Gilbert recoiled. “Werner, don’t go back to this shit again. You’re my friend. Of course I should be fucking concerned.”

Protect, protect, protect.

Protect, protect, protect.

Protect, protect, protect.

“Werner… I noticed that you’ve been pushing back the synchronization meetings,” Atienna finally drew slowly. “Sometimes we don’t have them for weeks when we used to have them at least twice a week. I understand that you have a lot on your mind, but I don’t believe this is the best…”

“I…” Jericho’s apparition glanced towards Maria’s image. “I ‘miss’ our one-on-one talks. In the office. Paperwork. We don’t talk a lot anymore.”

Protect. Protect. Protect. Protect. Protect. Protect.

Protect. Protect. Protect. Protect. Protect. Protect.

Protect. Protect. Protect. Protect. Protect. Protect—

“I can’t offer you any other explanation than what I’ve already given you.” There was agitation in Werner’s voice now, and he was starting to sound less like himself and more like how Cadence’s mother had sounded on one of her bad days. “I was still able to access the deeper levels of the AAC and obtain information on their movements. I was able to confirm that Matthias is a True Conductor.” He turned to Cadence then and addressed the other four. “And I still come when you call for me. I had a lapse in judgment, and I intend to correct it. I’m sorry. I assure you that despite the recent development I have this under control.”

Olive looked to Atienna nervously, uncomfortably; and Cadence could feel his anxiety began to spill out in waves. It only amplified Cadence’s own.

Atienna rubbed her arms. “We’re not doubting you, Werner—”

“Werner.” Gilbert grimaced before he slipped into Capricornian. “It doesn’t fucking matter to me if you can get into the AAC or whether you can. What matters to me is what this shit is doing to you. I don’t want to be thinking that I’m going to find you dying on the fucking floor every time I use the bathroom. What the hell were you thinking—”

“Gil,” Nico warned again. “Like I said… let’s not get accusatory here.” He turned to Werner. “Werner, why… did you start taking the chlorowheat? Why was it prescribed?”

There was a pause.

“Scorpio’s manipulation leaves behind impulses as you all know,” Werner replied evenly, glancing from Greta to Gilbert then from Cadence to Olive. “It’s become increasingly difficult to manage the impulse which is my own fault. I’ve also been dealing with parasomnia, and I didn’t want for any of you to be exposed to it since it would deter your daily activities ”

“Werner, you don’t have to take it for us,” Olive murmured, wide-eyed with alarm. “A-And it’s not your fault either—”

Gilbert stated more than asked, “It’s that fucking bad.”

“I’m unable to think straight without it,” Werner admitted evenly in the silence that followed. “It’s more an asset than a—” 

Cadence’s heart skipped a beat. “Can you think straight with it?”

Werner looked up at her sharply but she didn’t find the sympathy or empathy that she’d been expecting in his gaze. Instead, his eyes were as cold as they were when they’d first met during the Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict.

Cadence’s voice caught in her throat at the sight but she still tried, “I know it feels like ya have control of it, Werner, but—” She stopped short as she felt his words before he said them—

“Just because your parents were unable to control and restrain themselves, Morello, doesn’t mean that I can’t.”

His words rattled inside Cadence’s head and winded her completely. If she’d heard those words from anyone else, she could have easily brushed it off without a second thought. Hearing it from Werner’s mouth felt worse than being gutted.

He doesn’t mean that, someone reassured her. He’s not—

It didn’t make Cadence feel any better. The look of confusion on Gilbert’s face melded into an expression of realization and sympathy—of all things—a second after. Olive meanwhile paled, appearing absolutely stricken.

“Werner!” Atienna snapped, eyes wide. Her brows furrowed and her expression became unreadable. “How could you say that…?”

Werner’s gaze remained hard. “Atienna, you make excuses for her all the time. She needs to take responsibility for her actions—”

“Responsibility…? Excuses?” Olive looked between them in confusion. “Werner, what are you talking about—”

“And, Chance—”

Olive stiffened at the formal address and hurt bled into their connection.

“—you are making reckless decisions and forming unstable alliances without discussing it with the rest of us,” Werner continued. “Your interaction with Hideyoshi earlier was reckless. You consistently act without thinking about the consequences. You’re as negligent as she is—”

“Werner!” Nico interjected, finally reaching out to grasp Werner’s shoulder. He jerked the man backwards before he turned to Cadence and said gently without meeting her eyes, “I think you should go for now, Cadence. And uhm—” He scanned the room. “The other one—the kid prince—should probably go too. I’m not sure how this synchronization thing works, but I think it’d probably be good if you two pulled back for a while…”

Olive bristled and scowled, looking Nico up and down challengingly. Cadence could literally taste an insult on his tongue.

“Kid,” Cadence interjected, “he’s right.”

Olive whipped to her in confusion. What? Why—

Because Werner knew they looked up to him.

Olive’s eyes widened at this thought, and he looked back to Werner but avoided the man’s gaze. Staring down at his shoes again, he nodded before he began to fade from Cadence’s vision.

Cadence then turned on her heels and dazedly exited the room using Francis’s proto-conductors. She mumbled to be transported to the Dioscuri Bridge before stepping through the gate but she wasn’t too sure if Francis had heard her or if he’d oblige to her request if he did. Much to her surprise, however, when she stepped out form the gate, she found herself stepping out onto the slippery wet stones just below the bridge. The ocean waves whispered around her as the bridge lights hummed above her.

Through the darkness, she made her way along the rocks until she reached one of the many steel bars that held up the entire structure. She then leaned against it, sank to the ground, and tucked her legs tightly to her chest. Grimacing, she buried her head into her knees. She let out the breath and coughed as a whimper caught in her throat. The tears spilled burning out from her eyes before she could catch him; and even after taking in gulps of air, she couldn’t dampen the sobs. Before she knew it, she was outright bawling. 

Oh, saints. Werner was going to end up like her parents, wasn’t he? This was her fault, wasn’t it? She’d brought the chlorowheat up in Argo and thought she’d been brilliant for using it as leverage at the time, but now everything had spiraled out of her control like it always did. Why hadn’t she tried to stop Allen and Carl before? Why hadn’t she said something to Francis? Oh saints—Francis. Damn it. Situation and circumstances didn’t even fit into the damn equation. 

She knew what it could do and still she’d just accepted it. Why? Because it didn’t affect those close to her? At least, she thought it didn’t. Francis was right—

Cadence swiped at her eyes and sobbed again.

Oh, no. What if Werner didn’t get better? What if this would be with him for the rest of his life? Even if he got better, the damage was still done.

Saints—no, stupid, dumb saints. 

Scorpio—it was all his fault.

No. 

Why hadn’t she done anything?

Cadence…

Cadence looked up through a haze of tears and found Atienna’s image sinking beside her.

It’ll be alright. I promise.

Here Atienna came—comforting without addressing the problem. Like always. 

Still, Cadence allowed Atienna to comfort her and reached back out towards Werner just enough so she can peer into his surroundings.

Werner was facing Greta, Nico, and Gilbert still with Jericho and Atienna standing beside him. Much to Cadence’s surprise, Maria was nowhere in sight. She reached out to Maria in confusion which was when the gate behind Gilbert began to pulsate. Out from there emerged Maria who swept into the room without missing a step. Greta leapt back in surprise, while Maria merely flashed her a grin. 

“Oh fuck… It’s you,” Gilbert muttered under his breath, taking a step back too.

Instead of warmly greeting the trio, however, Maria walked forward towards Werner, extending her hand out towards him and touching his chest. Brief looks of confusion flashed across everyone’s faces as Maria continued walking forward, forward, forward. She pushed Werner back, back, back, until he hit the bed and fell back onto it. Maria sank to her knees before him as he straightened into a sit and reached out to cup his face in her hands. Werner stared in confusion.

“You are Werner—my Werner, not that woman’s Werner, not this thing’s Werner, yes?” Maria pressed. “You are smart. You are dependable. You are always on time. You like cake because it takes a lot of time, care, and precision. You can be boring sometimes and worry and think too much, but you are kind. You protect—”

Werner finally faltered and pulled away. “No, I can’t, Maria. It’s impossible. Not everyone.”

Leave it to Maria to break down an impenetrable wall.

Or maybe, came Jericho’s thought, there were already cracks in the wall to begin with.

Maria cocked her head in confusion before her eyes widened.

Werner abruptly held his head as a wave of nausea spilled on over through their connection. “This True Conductor hunt. I can rationalize what we need to do and why we need to do it: to ensure the safety of the group and to protect it for as long as possible, but… Louise, Hideyoshi, Matthias, Constanza—they deserve the same. I can’t…” He didn’t elaborate but he didn’t need to.

Atienna pressed both her hands to her mouth and averted her eyes, while Gilbert, Nico, and Greta drew nearer. Greta appeared thoroughly confused and alarmed so she stood slightly back, while Nico sank beside Werner on the bed. 

“Come on,” Gilbert urged, “talk to me, Werner. ”

There was a long stretch of silence. 

Everyone waited.

“Gilbert,” Werner finally said, a pained look crossing his face, “there was an ELPIS attack on the outpost Bergmann, Kleine, and Brandt were stationed at.” 

Jericho stiffened.

“Their names were on the death toll list. Like Otto.”

Nico and Gilbert simultaneously paled. Gilbert grimaced, buried his head in his good hand, and swore under his breath. A second later, he kicked the bed frame and swore.

“Gil!” Nico clicked his tongue before turning back to Werner. “Hey, the news gets things wrong all the time,” he drew slowly. “I’m sure they’re fine. They’re smart. They’re survivors.” 

Werner held Nico’s gaze before grimacing. “I don’t know what to do.” 

The unspoken thought bled out—it hurts.

Cadence suppressed a whimper.

“If I don’t take it then my judgment will be negatively affected. I know it will. I won’t be able to take the correct course of action and make rational choices. I’ll endanger everyone. And the parasomnia—”

“Werner, you know with these kinds of things…” Nico began. “I’ve had to treat a lot of patients that had morrowheat… addictions back when I was working in the Twin Cities.” His expression tightened. “These things—they seem like they’re helping, but they’re really not. I know you know that deep down. They’re just temporary solutions. And…” He paused. “And… they make… you do things that you regret.” 

Werner stiffened as his hand drifted to his face. “I don’t know why I said those things. I didn’t mean them. I need to apologize… That was unacceptable.”

“Hey, let’s focus on the big picture first,” Gilbert said, placing a hand on the man’s shoulder. He moved to sit beside him. “Nic’s right.”

Werner held Gilbert’s gaze for a moment before his eyes trailed down to the man’s missing hand. Greta followed his gaze before her lips thinned and she averted her gaze.

“Werner, this shit isn’t your fault,” Gilbert reassured him, glancing briefly at Greta and jerking his head at Maria. “It sucks but this crazy Leonian probably saved me a lot of heartache by lobbing it off. Not that this shit isn’t a headache in itself, but—don’t worry about it.”

Werner stared at Gilbert’s stump for just a moment longer before his hand moved to his temple again. “It’s just so loud. I need—”

Cadence’s heart sank into even deeper depths than before.

“You do not need it, Werner,” Maria said quietly, reaching out to hold his face in her hands again. “You want it. I also have a hard time separating what I want and what I need, yes? But you are smart, no? You know the difference. And you are strong too, yes? For telling us this, no?”

Atienna spoke gently through Maria, “Will you please let us help you?”

The shame that Cadence felt curling at the pit of Werner’s stomach was intense as was the itching at his palms. Still, slowly and silently, he offered a nod.

Nico, Greta, and Atienna visibly relaxed at this while Gilbert hung his head and let out a breath. Gilbert then nodded to Nico and asked, “What next? I’m not good with this shit, and to be honest, Capricorn usually just shoves things like this to the side.”

“Well, when Francis, Greta, and I were…” Nico looked away. “Francis showed us how to remove most of the chlorowheat from your system. You’re probably starting to feel it already but once the chlorowheat is completely cleared from your system, it’s… not going to be a good time. It could last for a week or more. I’m not sure—”

“The others will share my experiences,” Werner muttered. “Is there a way to prevent this?” 

Nico winced and shook his head. “Not that I know of. I’m sorry.”

Cadence could feel Werner’s thoughts began to stray to that.

“It’s okay, Werner. I can take some of the pain,” Jericho offered, his image falling to a crouch beside Maria. “Yes, I can also help. I am here.”

Werner closed his eyes briefly. “I’m sorry.”

“Perhaps…” Atienna drew slowly after a beat. “With situations like this, there’s commonly something else that needs to be done, isn’t there? What Scorpio did and… your parasomnia…” She held her arms. “We should try handling that issue as well, don’t you think…? Perhaps it would make it easier for you….”

“I can ask Alice,” Jericho added, nodding almost enthusiastically. “You can talk to her through me. She is my friend, but she isn’t your friend, so it should be okay. Not ‘unprofessional.’” He offered a thumbs up. “Okay…? Werner…?”

Cadence pulled herself away from the connection, buried her head in her arms again, and closed her eyes. Her head felt numb, her eyelids heavy from the tears. Shivering slightly one last time, she allowed herself to be carried off to sleep.

* * *

Upon stirring an unknown amount of time later, the first thing Cadence noticed was that someone was sitting right next to her. She immediately yelped and flung herself backwards only to come face-to-face with Nico who was swallowing a shriek of his own.

Saints, Cadence!” Nico put a hand to his chest. “You gave me a heart-attack.”

“Look at the pot callin’ the kettle black…” Cadence sighed, hanging her head and relaxing back into her spot. “How did ya even find me anyways?”

“I figured you’d be here…” He gestured up to the bridge above them. “This was our spot when we were kids. Can’t forget it.”

A v-train was pulling into the station and shaking the entire structure. The dull rumble almost matched the soft whispers from the crashing ocean waves.

“Gotta admit that I didn’t think that we’d end up meetin’ up again like this,” Nico murmured, picking up a stone from the ground and rolling it around in his hand. “You know when I asked you to leave earlier, I didn’t mean it like—”

“Yeah, I know.” 

Nico tossed the rock towards the waters a couple meters away. It skipped twice. “I… can’t believe I didn’t notice.”

“Werner’s smart,” Cadence mumbled. “He might not be a sleuth, but he’s strategic, which is pretty much the same thing.” She picked up a stone herself and stared at it. “Will he…”

“You know I don’t know, Cadence,” Nico replied quietly. “It’s up to Werner.” After a beat, he added, “But Werner’s strong, you know? And—not to sound cheesy—but he’s not alone.”

Cadence considered this for a moment before rubbing her eyes and throwing her stone out too. It skipped twice. “Say, do you remember what happened back on the train in Capricorn?”

Despite the tiredness in his eyes, Nico scoffed. “How can I forget it? Took me twenty rounds of washin’ to get those wine stains out of my shirt.”

“I’m sorry about that.” She added after a beat—“Well, kinda. I’m sorry about throwin’ the alcohol at ya at least.”

Nico frowned. “Well, at least it wasn’t Geminian wine. That would’ve been a real travesty. I don’t think I could forgive you for that.”

Cadence chortled briefly. “I meant what I said still—you runnin’ away and all that—”

Nico frowned deeper.

“—but I admit that I was sayin’ it for selfish reasons. I was just frustrated—plus that Scorpio kept yappin’ in my ears.”

“Scorpio…” Nico’s eyes narrowed before he shook his head. “I still stand by what I said. I’m not runnin’ away. I know I’m helpin’ people more by bein’ out of Gemini. But you’re right—I should’ve checked more into things back here. This is home. I was probably afraid. I probably didn’t want to know—”

Atienna stirred in the distance.

“I’m sorry.”

Cadence sighed. “After gettin’ to spend some real quality with the good doc, I don’t blame ya from tryin’ ta get away. After what happened with Francis earlier too…”She thumbed the city behind her. “All of it is just… no good. It’s not like when we were kids.” She sighed, shaking her head. “The doc though… glad we didn’t call him in. Probably would’ve treated W-Werner…” She took a moment to collect herself. “Like a science experiment.”

“Yeah… but I’m startin’ to realize how useful some of things I learned workin’ under my father though,” Nico admitted. “I was about to call him before Francis whipped out all his know-how.”

Cadence’s stomach twisted at the mention of Francis as she recalled the look of hurt he’d given her. She proceeded to recall all the looks of hurt Nico had given to her all those times she’d lied to him. And yet here he was still comforting her even though he was probably hurting too.

Cadence dipped her head. “I—look—I’m sorry for pullin’ ya this way and that throughout the years—for pullin’ the wool over your eyes. Ya mean a lot to me, and I honestly wanted ya ta stick by me forever. Give me someone ta lean on no questions asked. But I know I’m not the only who needs ya.”

Nico turned to her in surprise at this before nodding once. After a beat, he said, “Gilbert and Greta are headin’ back to Polovinastadt for the time bein’. That—er—Maria left too.” He leaned back against the bridge. “I’m sure you know already if you listened to our talk earlier, but Werner needs to stay isolated from… anything that might potentially… make it easier for him to get access to the chlorowheat or anything like that. That means he can’t continue his AAC investigation, so Gilbert and I were thinking that maybe you could step in for him for the time being? Disguised as him?” He frowned. “I… don’t want you to be exposed to any of that stuff either though and I know you’re lookin’ out for those kids too. Still, I thought it’d be best to let you decide…”

Cadence tensed, recalling her father requesting her to disguise herself as her mother following her mother’s death all those years ago. His smile and her own desire to please—all of it operating in perfect harmony. Things were different this time though, Cadence knew. She wasn’t trying to win anyone’s affection or please anyone.

Thinking of Werner, she offered a thumbs up. “Can do. No two sweats about it. I’m pretty good at multi-taskin’. Probably can talk my way out of goin’ into those smokin’ dens in a jiffy.” She lowered her hand and studied his face. “How… How long do you think…?

Nico let out a breath. “The good news is that he’s only been on it for a handful of months, so it could be much worse. There’s no one answer with these kinds of things though. Anything could happen. Relapses are a thing, but you’re here, I’m here, the others are here…” He rubbed his neck.

“I can’t believe Werner of all people…” Cadence began. She felt her eyes burn again, so she buried her head in her knees. Nico scooted slightly closer to her in response, and they sat together in silence for a very long time. 

After a while, Nico said something about touching in with Gilbert temporarily before exiting through the gate. Not soon after, Olive appeared by her side. He squatted down beside her, squirmed for a moment, drew, “Cadence…”

Cadence nodded.

* * *

Cadence let out a breath as she stepped from Francis’s gate at the Dioscuri into the exitless room housing Werner. Olive’s image stood rigidly beside her, nervously fiddling with a strand of his hair. She looked away from him and ahead to find Werner lying on the bed against the wall with his back to her. There was a glass of water on the floor at the foot of the bed and a bucket just beside it.

Cadence took a step forward—

“I apologize.”

Cadence stopped short.

“I’m sorry,” Werner continued, “Chance, Morello—”

“Aw, come on, Captain. Let’s not go back ta the military jargon, aight?” Cadence chortled, rubbing away the ache in her chest. “It’s… okay.”

Werner remained silent for some time before he said, “Cadence, Olive, my behavior was unacceptable. I let my emotions take control, and I said things that hurt you. I’m sorry you had to see that.”

Cadence exchanged a look with Olive and continued forward. “It’s alright, Captain. You’re goin’ through some stuff—”

Stop.

Cadence halted immediately. 

Please don’t look at me.

Cadence faltered. “W-Werner, ya know I don’t care how ya look. You’ll always be a looker in my book—and ya know that’s sayin’ a lot since ya know how my tastes in things goes. Appearances ain’t everything ta me anyways. Ya know that.”

“I don’t care either…” Olive mumbled. “I’ve seen Derik in the mornings. Nothing can compare.”

After a long while, Werner stopped pushing them away through their connection and allowed them through. Cadence hesitantly drew nearer and nearer to him until she reached his bedside. After an evident pause of hesitation, he turned to look at her.

Werner was pale and pallid, his hair disheveled, his eyes accented below with half-moon bags. But he looked like the Werner she knew because his eyes were not cold but concerned. Cadence felt her eyes begin to burn again.

Are you alright?

“A-Are you alright?” Cadence stammered.

Stupid question, Olive thought.

I know, Cadence thought back.

“I’m sorry. I thought I had it under control,” Werner said, suppressing a grimace and covering his eyes with his hand. “I deeply apologize—”

Biting her lower lip, Cadence hesitated for just a moment before she flung herself forward and wrapped her arms around his neck. Werner stiffened in her embrace; but as the quiet protect, protect, protect pounded into Cadence’s thoughts from his thoughts, he slowly returned the gesture. But that just hurt all that much more.

“I… I love ya, Werner,” Cadence murmured, “I know we can get a bit annoyin’ sometimes. But please don’t leave. Not like that. I don’t mind any of your Werner-ness—no matter what shape or form it takes—so please don’t leave.”

After a pause, Werner promised, “I won’t.”

Cadence pulled herself out of his grasp and laid her head down at the edge of his bed as he resettled himself. Cheeks flushing slightly, Olive followed suit, sinking to his knees and folding his hands beneath him. In the distance, Cadence could see him resting in his hotel in Scorpio. 

Cadence placed her hand above Werner’s chest on his blanket before turning her hand palms-up. Werner seemed to understand her unasked question and hesitantly placed his hand in hers. She felt the roughness and scars etched into his bare palm—and she knew he felt it too because he began to pull away—but she curled her hand around his before he could escape. 

“I’m sorry, Werner,” she murmured, eyes burning again. “I shoulda stopped it. There was no win in chlorowheat, but I let it happen even though I knew. I thought I had it under control. And now—” 

“It’s not your fault, Cadence,” Werner said.

“It’s not your fault either,” Olive added, holding Cadence’s gaze

Werner remained silent and instead pressed his palms into his eyes as a wave of dizziness rushed out from him and into Cadence. Cadence nearly puked then and there, but swallowed the bile rising up her throat. 

“We-We can rotate being here,” Olive stammered, looking green as he lifted his head. He wiped his mouth. “I mean not here here, but…. I read that it was good to do that in a book… Uhm… You know.”

Werner lifted his hand and frowned. “No, you have more important things to manage than keeping your synchronization with me—”

“Werner, come on.” Cadence sighed. “You’re gonna lose your mind cooped up in here all the time. Ya need some entertainment.”

After a moment, Werner gave in. Like clockwork.

Following this, Werner proceeded to toss and turn in bed for six hours—groaning and sweating profusely. He puked into a bucket at his bedside thrice and shivered violently the entire time. Cadence did too—but seeing Werner in pain hurt her more than their shared pain did. He kept checking his pocket-watch the entire time. It seemed to be acting as a lifeline.

Eventually, Nico had to come in and give him some sort of liquid drop from a glass pipette. Cadence was apprehensive about it, but Nico reassured her that it was something Francis had prescribed—which just made Cadence feel all the guiltier. She was surrounded by too many good people.

After three more hours, Werner fell asleep. The pain, shivering, and nausea left with him. 

As soon as he was out cold, Maria, Jericho, and Atienna synchronized in fully. Atienna was looking a worse for the wear while the detective looked tired and sunshine almost somber. Maria’s image approached the bed and sank in-between Cadence and Olive. She then leaned in close and studied Werner’s face.

“We… can’t…” Olive murmured, rising to a stand. “We can’t keep doing this. Just giving them what they want… putting other people down just so we can have a bit of freedom. It isn’t even freedom.” He gestured to Werner. “I know that Scorpio has his spores all over our family, friends, but… we can figure it out somehow.”

“Are ya suggestin’ all out rebellion, kid?” Cadence arched a brow. “‘Cause that’s ballsy.”

“So just to protect your own group, you sacrifice other groups and claim it’s for the greater good,” Hideyoshi had said. “You’ve turned something beautiful into something ugly.”

Paired with the man’s words came flashes of Renée’s desperation in that cave with Louise as well as Francis’s ultimatum—

“You’re the one who is pointing the fingers. If it’s not ‘in your world’ then it doesn’t matter? You’re a selfish fool if you think like that.” 

“Yeah, well…” Olive scowled. “Maybe I haven’t learned anything, but if that ‘anything’ is damned apathy and just letting things be, then I’m glad not to have learned it.” 

Jericho turned to Olive sharply. You swore. He nodded a moment after upon looking down at Werner. “Yes, I agree.”

Atienna remained silent.

Cadence studied her for a moment then nodded at Olive. “I’m all for no longer being under the saint’s thumbs but the thing is we still got the kids and Alpha ta worry about.” She glanced at Werner. “The captain’d say somethin’ about recklessly fightin’ a war on two fronts or somethin’.”

A beat of silence followed.

“Alpha is not my final destination,” Maria drew, rising to a stand and turning to face them.

A flicker of simmering heat burned at the pit of Cadence’s stomach.

Maria abruptly pointed to Jericho’s chest. “He is not your final destination either, my dear Jericho. He is a detour, no?” She clenched her fists as her eyes blazed. “It is almost time, yes? I will take care of this detour myself alone and clear the path for us.”

25.2: Soldier & Olvido

​​Re-cap:

Werner has been set on an operation to infiltrate the anti-Aquarian-Capricornian movement and to investigate two possible True Conductors associated with it: Matthias Alfhild and Constanza Groth. Accompanying him are Nico, Gilbert, Dunya Kramer, and Nikita Knovak. Soon, he discovers that his childhood friend Greta is also part of the movement.

After successfully breaking into a deeper level of the AAC with Gilbert, he is put on an operation that involves infiltrating an Aquarian-Capricornian diplomatic building. Inside he discovers the Capricornian Acting Kaiser and the Aquarian Premier working together shortly before the building is caught up in the duel between ELPIS leader Iota and Rho and Nu. After saving Matthias from the ensuing chaos, Werner is invited into Matthias’s inner circle where he is pulled into a chlorowheat smoking ring.

 However, Werner’s familiarity with chlorowheat is—


It began as a suggestion from a physician.

Following the incident with Scorpio during the Week of Blindness, Werner found himself plagued with insomnia. While this development could have been interpreted as negative, he decided to approach it with a methodical perspective used it to his full advantage: the first few restless nights at his new office position in the capital were spent pouring over transfer documents, getting brackets in order, and signing packets detailing renovations to the damaged capital buildings.

The similarity between pushing papers and delegating orders was narrow, but it was familiar enough for him to adapt, adapt, adapt to the new surroundings—as he should. He completed a 3-week backlog of conductor shipment cataloged within the first three days of his arrival and subsequently started filling out the weekly conductor inventorying reports—which had been put on backlog during the Augen’s protests—to Ophiuchus 

The transition was not completely smooth however and his wakefulness became readily known to the other five. Although they skirted around the cause of his sleeplessness—something he found both comfort and shame in—they offered numerous remedies:

Olive: “You could try sleeping during the daytime instead?”

Cadence: “Go out for a late night walk, Captain. Or if you’re feelin’ like squeezin’ out of your shell, grab a drink at a bar. I know the ones in the capital aren’t as sparkly as the ones in the Twin Cities, but ‘ey!” 

Maria: “Change where you sleep, my dear Werner! Sometimes sleeping outside on the roof is good, no? Or maybe sleep in the water fountain outside your office? There are many things to try!” 

Atienna: “Perhaps you could try reading an encyclopedia? Most people consider it to be dry material, so it could be the perfect remedy, don’t you think?”

Jericho: “Suggestion: stare at the ceiling and ‘not think’ until you fall asleep. That is what Alice had me practice when I was younger. It works: 25 percent of the time.”

The quietly amusing and simultaneously shameful situation changed when Werner’s fatigue began to spill over into his paperwork and errors populated. Although he managed to catch these—once with Jericho’s assistance—before he sent the papers off for finalization, errors were still errors. Accordingly, he began to more actively pursue managing his insomnia. He didn’t perform his daily experimentations of different methods of falling asleep, however, until the others were asleep. It was not a difficult feat. Most were asleep by 0125 hours, which was when he retired to his sofa and closed his eyes.

Admittedly, as Nico had highlighted numerous times, closing one’s eyes and ceasing to think—or trying to—was not equitable to rest. It was, however, more yielding of results than simply staying up and going over paperwork he’d already gone over.

As soon as Werner shut his eyes, as always, that pulse would hammer out from his chest in the absence of any distractions. Sometimes the pulse was a comfort, but most times it was not. Trying to push it away only brought intense migraines and an overwhelming sensation of being watched. Therefore, he had no choice to allow the pulse through as well as the accompanying thoughts:

Protect, protect, protect.

Was Olive satisfied with the progress regarding his conductors and research? Did Cadence practice enough of her reading and setting a good example for the children? Was Maria engaging in trouble again? Did Atienna have time to relax and to enjoy reading properly in-between her dealings with Cvetka and Leona? Was Jericho sleeping enough and socializing well in the ELPIS Department?

How about Gilbert? Nico? Brandt, Bergmann, Kleine? Viktoria? Ludwig? Fenrir? Ulrich? Mother? What of his fellow office associates?

Protect, protect, protect.

When Werner did finally manage to drift off to sleep during these times, he was always visited by Otto. Fifteen times Otto appeared with orange lilies blooming out from a festering wound on his stomach. Twelve times he came with eyes sprouting up his limbs and consuming his face as the sound of tick-tocking spilled out from his mouth along with blood. Ten times he came accompanied by other familiar faces whose name tags Werner had collected during his time at the Border Force. The worst of all of these appearances was when Otto appeared alone just as his normal self, just like he’d looked during that evening on Ziegenberg Ridge: afraid, hesitant, hopeful, searching for reassurance, searching for protection

“Lieutenant, why?” this Otto would ask before his skin would peel away to reveal Scorpio’s pleasant smile. “You’re no longer empty, but is what’s filling you any better?”

Upon startling from these dreams, Werner would check his pocket watch only to find that at most twelve minutes had passed. The first series of nightmares admittedly startled him, since he rarely dreamed. While nightmares and dreams from the others came to him on occasion and he dealt with them appropriately, his own seemed almost unmanageable. 

Werner did not disclose these instances to the others directly—although the developments eventually did reach them eventually.

“Maybe,” Olive had mumbled following two more of Werner’s restless nights, “you could try going to the doctor? I remember Alice prescribing some stuff for me when I was younger to help me sleep… yeah. It could help. Maybe.”

Cadence had blanched at the thought. “Well, I dunno about poppin’ pills. Ya know that stuff’s cracked half of the time. It ain’t like Francis’s epinephrine. Not a one-shot cure-all type-a deal. Ya become reliant on that stuff. Seen with my own two eyes—in the business, I mean.”

“Find a person like Alice,” Jericho had suggested. “Someone who can help. Like her.”

Werner had agreed with Cadence’s sentiment since he found relying on medicinal regiments unpleasant given their possible side-effects. He much preferred enduring health ailments on his own unless doing otherwise proved absolutely necessary. His displeasure with v-cigarettes shared similar relation. 

In the end, Werner selected the choice in-between Olive’s and Jericho’s suggestion: visiting a physician. Doctor Moritz Euphorieson. The man was a highly decorated medical Conductor holding the rank of a lieutenant colonel. His frame was wire and his hair thinning and as white as his lab coat. Capture in a wooden frame on the man’s desk was a photo of a younger version of himself standing behind a collection of young adults in similar lab coats. Among them, Werner spied the familiar Dämon Forstchritt.

Werner tensed, looking over Euphorieson with suspicion before trying with feigned surprise, “Amazing—is that Dämon Forstchritt there with you? You knew her?”

Euphorieson merely sighed and shook his head: “Ah, yes, she was my student. Ambitious and passionate with very unorthodox ideas—definitely—but her heart was in the right place. Progress is always shunned in the beginning. She was taken away to Ophiuchus to do bigger and better things. The young ones always leave home behind.”

A sufficient answer.

“Anyways, what brings you here, Captain Waltz?”

With difficulty and reserved shame, Werner explained his condition. This honesty was necessary. Embarrassment and hesitation could be folded aside for later. He disclosed the following afflictions: insomnia, headaches, parasomnia. In addition, he was required to disclose that he was one of the many infected during the Week of Blindness. Such disclosure was the new routine for medical consultations in Capricorn now.

After running through a physical—during which Werner had to remove his gloves—the doctor offered him a package of tea that contained trace melatonin and other natural sleep-inducing agents paired with a Sagittarian hot oil ointment. He subsequently suggested for Werner to come back for something stronger if the tea and ointment didn’t prove effective. 

The tea did as the doctor promised. After drinking a full cup, sleep dragged Werner with painful difficulty to its murky and dark depths. The ointment was also effective: numbing the throb pounding out at his temples. But the dreams remained. Otto remained. Protect, protect, protect remained.

Then his dreams began to bleed into the others. Olive woke up several nights shouting and kicking and summoned a disgruntled Derik into his bedroom . Cadence’s reactions were milder but the bags under her eyes told a different story. This was one of the ugly aspects of their connection, and Werner felt ashamed for putting such a burden on them. The responsibility was his own.

“It’s fine, Werner,” Olive would mumble. “It’s not that bad.”

Cadence would agree: “It really ain’t a thing. Not like ya haven’t seen a thing or two from us.”

“Your dreams are not ‘terrible,’” Jericho would add, offering his usual thumbs-up.

Werner knew, however, that those were merely words of comfort from those who needed to be comforted. So, shortly after, he revisited Doctor Euphorieson—late at night as to not alert and unnecessarily worry the others. They needed to focus fully on their tasks at hand, and his ailment was merely a distraction to that. Besides—protect, protect, protect.

The doctor welcomed him warmly and handed him the upgraded medication—a small bottle of pills—with very little discussion. Upon receiving the pill bottle, Werner inspected its contents through its transparent case and took note of the black, oval-shaped capsules inside. He was very well aware of the assortment of medication that would be prescribed to his division members: pain pills for minor injuries, anesthetic for severe injuries, stimulants during raids, v-cigarettes for alertness. These particular pills, however, were unfamiliar to him.

“It’s a mixture of oxycodone, morrowheat, and some other trace compounds,” the doctor explained casually. “It’s a product that’s quite popular in Argo—”

“Morrowheat?” Werner frowned, lowering the bottle, eyes narrowing. “Argo?”

“Medically prescribed,” the doctor answered. “It contains only 3% morrowheat. Less than the minimal 15% allowed by Ophiuchus’s Medical Department.” He amended: “Given our slightly improved relations with them, a traveling merchant was able to bring it over—”

“Has this been approved by—”

“It’s been approved on the lowest level by our own health chambers—yes—though it’s only been approved for capital use so far. Bureaucracy. It hasn’t been presented to Ophiuchus’s Medical Department—yet—but that deadline’s not until five years down the line.” The doctor thrummed his fingers. “Captain Waltz, please remember that I am both your doctor and your superior. I want what’s best for you, but I also would appreciate your trust and respect. This is the medication we usually prescribe to those who were afflicted during the Week of Blindness. Yours is not a unique case.”

Werner’s hand began to itch at the subtle accusation. “I apologize if I offended you, Doctor Euphorieson. This is my first time having to rely on… these types of things. I merely want to be cautious.”

“Ah, I see.” The doctor nodded as if in understanding. “Two pills a day will keep most of the bad things away.”

* * *

After returning to his office that night, Werner sank down on his sofa and stared calculating at the pill bottle. Unscrewing the cap, he stared into its mouth as he considered the manner of approach. In order err on the side of caution, he considered only taking one pill as opposed to the recommended two to gauge its effects. He reconsidered a moment later: taking less than the prescribed amount, however, was also a risk in itself. After twelve additional minutes of consideration, he spilled two capsules into his palm and downed them with a glass of water before relaxing back onto his sofa.

Sleep took him slowly, hazily, gently in a cloud of warmth.

When he opened his eyes again, sunlight was seeping in through the blinds. Absentmindedly, he reached out to catch the warm rays in his gloveless hands. 

It was quiet and pleasant. Everything was right: his chest felt light, and his head shrouded with a cloud of clarity. Slowly, he reached under his pillow to pull out his pocket watch. 0400 hours.

This was effective. 

However, he didn’t wish to become overly reliant on it. Additionally, he preferred to keep it a personal matter. After consulting with the doctor over the phone, he opted to take medication every other day instead of the daily recommendation. It felt wrong to break that regimen, but at the same time he was placing down his own regimen to follow. As for keeping it a personal matter: thankfully, the others were all abiding to their unspoken new rule of privacy respect which kept most of them from prying too deeply. Keeping the medication switch secret proved to be somewhat difficult. The former privacy respect rule paired with him keeping a razor-sharp focus on work, however, held efficient enough.

Werner understood that in standard settings keeping matters secret from the larger party was a dangerous course of action, but this was a small matter. Cost-benefit analysis pointed Werner in the direction to go. There was no point in taking up the daily thoughts of the others with this small matter.

With rest finally coming to him, Werner’s performance at work improved, and he was better able to attend to the needs of the others. Additionally, the prickling feeling of being watched and the itching at his palms became dulled in the early mornings he took the medication. This was especially helpful when he had to present early morning reports to his associates and higher-ranked office associates. 

Following the first week of taking the medication, he opted to start taking the pills daily: cost-benefit analysis. His work efficiency skyrocketed further, and he gained the moniker ‘Cold Eye of all things clerical.’ After his fourth week on the medication, however, he began to notice that the pleasant feeling he would usually awake with after taking the pills ebbing away. The unease that remained in its place felt even more intense and crippling than what he’d felt prior to taking it. The nights of Otto’s visitations increased as did the nights when he’d be plagued with memories of running through the southern trenches during his first years of service. Despite his best efforts, he couldn’t catch these ones from spilling into the other five.

As the medication’s efficiency faded, Werner visited Doctor Euphorieson once more—again: late at night, 0130 hours. The doctor greeted him warmly as always; and following a brief discussion, he handed Werner a brown packet withdrawn the medicine cabinets.

Werner unraveled the packet to inspect its contents and immediately stiffened. “Is this morrowheat?” 

“No, it’s chlorowheat,” the doctor responded calmly. “This was purchased in bulk from the merchant who was traveling through Argo last month—as I mentioned previously.”

Chlorowheat: the new drug that was a cross between morrowheat and sorrowheat. The one Cadence had used as a bargaining chip to escape Argo during the Scorpio incident.

“It has untapped medicinal potential and is more highly effective in pain relief than the medication I gave you.”

“Has this been approved by—”

“It hasn’t reached the first-level approval yet—but we’ve been approved to prescribe it in minimal doses within the capital to approved individuals. The only known side-effect that we know of so far is that it may interfere with one’s ability to conduct, but that shouldn’t be a problem since you’re not going to be in a situation where you need to be using your conductor, right?”

Werner frowned.

“The medication I gave previously does contain 1% chlorowheat. It’s a very potent pain killer when applied properly—as I’ve said. If you’ve felt relief while taking the medication, then I assure you that it was from the chlorowheat. There’s nothing more effective than this.”

Werner’s frown deepened.

“I understand if this unnerves you, Captain Waltz, but I assure you it’s safe. This isn’t the first time I’ve prescribed it.” The doctor took the packet from him and headed back to his cabinet. He pulled out a long pipe from the back there and began to measure out the chlorowheat on a scale at his desk. He proceeded to fill the opening of the pipe with crushed chlorowheat. “If you truly don’t feel comfortable, then you can try one dose under my supervision here. I can’t control what you do, after all, but you’re my patient so I do want the best for you.” He returned to Werner’s side, extended the pipe, before carefully looking him over. “I have to ask: if you’re so reluctant now, then why did you come to me to begin with?”

Werner tensed as the throbbing desire returned. Protecting the sanctity of his country. Protecting the other five. Protecting others outside of them. He was at a crossroads again, and it was agonizing as it always was. He couldn’t do all at once with his current means which meant that he—

His head pounded as that word wormed its way further out of his heart and his pocketwatch ticked with its thrumming rhythm.

As moonlight spilled through the doctor’s office windows, Werner accepted the pipe and was guided down into the long black sofa pressed along the walls. The doctor lit the leaves on the end of the pipe and instructed Werner to take a drag, hold, release. Werner did as ordered. The chlorowheat had a simultaneously sweet and bitter taste.

Smoke clouded the room. 

“I’m surprised at how you take it, Captain Waltz,” the doctor noted. “Do you smoke v-cigarettes by any chance? I didn’t take you for that type.”

Cadence had smoked cigarette after cigarette when she was overriding him during the incident with Scorpio and Werner himself had smoked a v-cigarette exactly once following that, so his ability to take up the chlorowheat without much difficulty was not unusual—

Before the thought could complete itself, a wonderful, sublime, euphoric feeling seeped into every part of his body—arms, fingers, legs, toes, head—out from his lungs. He could feel his breathing slow, slow, slow and his head begin to buzz and float away as his arms became heavy. He sank down into the couch and everythingprotect, protect, protect; the itch on his palms; the fear; the worry; the anxiety; the work; the contradictions; thoughts—sank with him.

When Werner was shaken awake by the doctor, sunlight had replaced the moonlight pouring in through the windows. The pleasant lightness that currently lifted his chest and head felt so much different than the lightness that followed after he’d taken that other medication. If he were to describe the previous medication as taking him to the clouds, then this chlorowheat had allowed him to touch the stratosphere. 

“It would be best to take the chlorowheat using the pipe designed for it since it would better deliver the dosages,” the doctor said, pulling away and then returning with a small brown packet he retrieved from his desk. “But if you’d like to be discreet, I can teach you how to prepare it yourself. You might need to increase the dose every so often due to increasing tolerance, but we’ll discuss that when the time comes to it. Let’s start you off at 4 mg a day.”

* * *

Seven days a week, 2000 hours: finish off remaining paperwork for the day.

Seven days a week, 2030 hours: attend dinner with either Nico, Gilbert, or eat alone.

Seven days a week, 1915 hours: return to the office and go through the paperwork of the following weeks until the others fell asleep.

Six days a week, 0130 hours a week: retrieve the chlorowheat from where he’d hidden it in his desk drawers and drift off after finishing the dosage.

Werner at first took a methodical approach to dosages. He followed along with what the doctor suggested; and when that wasn’t enough, he steadily began to increase the doses by 2 mg exactly. In addition to this—in order to resist the addictive properties of the chlorowheat that he was certain existed—he abstained from using it for one day a week.

This was another reason why Wednesdays were different. Wednesdays followed the Tuesday nights when he’d abstain from taking chlorowheat. This was why cake on Wednesdays were so important. The more-than-acceptable chocolate cake made the day pass by in a more manageable way.

Yes. He was in control. 

Following his connection opening with the other five, he had begun to feel like he was steadily losing control of everything bit by bit, piece by piece. The first synchronization meeting accelerated the feeling while the Twin Cities exacerbated it. The Week of Blindness—in colloquial terms—was ‘the final nail in the coffin.’ The True Conductor hunting task was the hammer on the nail. It was a crack that had grown into a complete fragmentation. Although, admittedly, perhaps—as a voice that whispered in the back of his head always said—the cracks were already there to begin with.

In exchange for the loss of control, however, he had gained things he held close and things he would never relinquish: his pride in Olive and Cadence, the companionship he found in Atienna and Jericho, and the ease he found in Maria. Regardless, the slipping feeling remained. The only method to free himself from those unpleasant feelings was this: the chlorowheat. It was his umbrella in the rain.

Dosages measured, time of intake exact, impact of effect regulated. Everything. Complete. This—he had control of.

10 mg.


Polovinastadt, Aquarian-Capricornian Border

“Cheers to Dieter Traumson!”

Werner tried his best to hold his glass steady as Matthias smashed his own glass into it. Beer sloshed onto the wooden table between them as the other man pounded on the table and whooped. Around them, men and women also lifted their glasses up and cheered. As Werner surveyed them he noted that Greta wasn’t here this time either. 

Despite it having been a week since the ELPIS incident in the diplomatic building on the border’s edge, Dieter still brought Werner and other high-ranking members of the ACC to his house to celebrate every few days. Constanza had even pulled Werner aside numerous times to thank him for his act.

“Dear Dieter, dear Dieter,” Matthias sang, “you really saved my life, dear Dieter!” He reached over to grab a newspaper that was being passed around the room and showed it to Werner. “Not only that but—” 

THE KAISER AND THE PREMIER SEEN TOGETHER AT THE DIPLOMATIC BUILDING. MORE THAN JUST A FRIENDLY MEETING?! 

Below the detailed article was a photo of Premier Onisim Tarasov and Acting Kaiser General Watzmann walking down the inside steps of the diplomatic building side-by-side.

“How did you even manage to get a photo of this?” Werner laughed despite the unease he felt.

This development could exacerbate tensions Capricorn had with other nations, after all.

Still holding his beer, Matthias stumbled over to a table alongside the wall, pulled open the drawers, and slipped on the conducting glove he pulled out from it. He wiggled his fingers and in a flash of blue light he conjured what appeared to be a faded photograph of five silhouettes standing at the foot of the Serpens Establishment. He crinkled it a moment after and stuffed it into his pocket. “I used to be one of the best spies in Aquarius’s Yastreby—that’s what you can consider our version of your Watch, by the way. Spying and gathering evidence is my forte.”

Photography.

Benì flashed through Werner’s mind briefly. That Cancerian man—Werner had been unable to protect him as well—

“But this isn’t enough, is it?” Matthias boomed, running back to the table and slamming his glass down onto its surface. “They’re going to say that I forged this, aren’t they? We need cold hard proof. We need those papers we were aiming for!”

The other ACC members burst out cheering and Werner joined them for appearances.

Matthias threw a foot up on the table much to the exasperation of a Constanza who was lurking in the far corner of the room with a frown. “We’ll discuss all the other details at our lower-level meeting tomorrow, but we’re going to re-execute our plan again next week. Security’ll be tighter, but that just adds a bit more pizazz anyways.”

* * *

As per usual after the ‘meeting’s’ end, Matthias took Werner down to his basement that was already flooded with chlorowheat smoke. Werner didn’t need to concern himself with the other five catching light of these visits since this meeting and all other ones were always hosted at the dead of night when they were all asleep. The chlorowheat filling the room acted as an additional dampener to the connection. 

After reaching the center of the smoking den and seating himself on one of the many couches, Werner received a pipe from Milkovich who was already there. Werner ensured his proto-conducting ring that was keeping his transmuted appearance of Dieter over himself was snug on his finger before he took a drag of the pipe and fell back into jubilation.

The amount of chlorowheat he was taking with Matthias was variable and unmeasured compared to the doses he measured out rigidly himself. At times it was too little allowing Otto to seep through the cracks. At other times it was too much; and he was pulled into a deep abyss where not only did protect, protect, protect not exist but also almost nothing else. After emerging from the fog after these latter instances, he would always be able to faintly recollect the remnants of what he assumed was a dream. They always involved a Sagittarian woman with a rope of black braided hair. He couldn’t remember if she spoke, but he did remember that she would always do the same thing: with an agonized expression, she would sink to her knees, hold his hand, and double over weeping.

A peculiar side-effect.

Still, Werner maintained control. He could remove himself from the situation whenever he needed to. Partaking was merely bolstering his cover and he needed to further earn Matthias’s trust.

Someone abruptly threw a newspaper down on the table in front of Werner. It read—

PEACEKEEPERS NOW STATIONED IN POLVINASTADT FOLLOWING ELPIS ATTACK!

Peacekeeping agents from Ophiuchus’s ELPIS Investigations Department and International Relations Department have arrived in Polovinastadt this past Wednesday following ELPIS sightings at the location. This intervention is further exacerbating the tensions—

Unable to focus on the article’s contents, Werner looked away and took another drag. It really was different: taking it from the pipe. 

“They’re everywhere now,” Constanza half-mumbled. “The peacekeepers from the ELPIS Department…”

“From International Relations, probably.” Milkovich grimaced. “They only come when ELPIS attacks—I mean, really? Can’t they see that our governments are the ones pulling strings? Looking for the problem outside when it’s really coming from inside.”

It felt nice not feeling Jericho’s dull pulsating anger whenever ‘ELPIS’ was mentioned.

“International Relations isn’t so bad,” Matthias drew slowly, after taking a puff beside Werner. “Their first chair has done a lot for Signum in the last couple of years. It’s the only reason the Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict got smoothed over so fast.”

“Yes. He’s much better than the other candidates,” Constanza agreed. “I’m probably voting for him when it’s my time to go.”

“Wasn’t too long ago that you both were saying the opposite,” another woman muttered.

“Well, people change,” Matthias replied, almost pouting.

Eventually as time passed on, people slowly began to filter out of the basement leaving just Werner, Matthias, and Constanza. Werner himself was lying pressed up against the corner of the sofa and half curled around his long smoking pipe. Everything was coated in a pleasant haze that was just as pleasant as the smoke occupying every single corner of the room. If possible, Werner would have liked to remain in this state for an extended period of time.

“You know, Dieter,” Matthias said suddenly, “do you ever just not know what you’re doing? You have an idea of your goal, but it’s just a fuzzy image far away. You need to accomplish that fuzzy thing within a certain time frame or it’s just no good. Bah! Why can’t we take our time? Why do we need to strive for things? Why can’t we just take it easy?”

Werner blinked slowly in confusion as the question slowly came together in his mind. Matthias tended to ask these types of bewildering, open-ended questions during in the den. During most of these instances, one of the other ACC members answered; and whether the answer was sensible or not, Matthias always reacted positively. Kramer had deduced it was a test of some kind, and Werner personally agreed.

Dieter,” Matthias whined. “Come on. Answer me. I want to know what you think.”

With difficulty, Werner turned over the question before he tried vaguely without quite grasping the meaning behind his own words: “I believe striving for goals acts as a guiding tool in proceeding through life. Wandering without an exact destination or goal can become a burden in itself. Freedom without restriction will make it easier for one to deal with or break out of restriction when it presents itself. The same could be said vice-versa.” He’d read that somewhere from one of Atienna’s books—he was certain.

Matthias hummed. “That’s a good answer. I think. What are you? A philosopher? What was my question again?” He laughed. “You know, you’d think that being one of the head people of something like the ACC would let you connect with people better but it’s really the opposite. All these tiers, ranks, levels—it all just increases the height. Makes it harder to see people below you. I wonder if that’s the problem the Kaiser and the Premier have.” He laughed long and hard. “They’re too tall for their own good.”

Werner lowered his pipe and looked across the table at Matthias. The man met his gaze, and Werner was able to take note of the bag’s under his eyes in the dim light.

Protect, protect—

Werner took another deep drag of his pipe and laughed too.

Silence.

20 mg.

* * *

“Hey, Werner, anything else happen at that last ‘underground’ meeting of yours? Besides that second raid plan?” Gilbert asked one day as they were all turning in for the night.

They had just had their daily debriefing with Knovak and Kramer an hour earlier so the question had come as a surprise to Werner. He reasoned Gilbert hadn’t been paying attention fully during the meeting.

Nico, who was already tucked in bed, offered him an apologetic expression. “Sorry that the rest of us haven’t made any more progress on the infiltration end, Werner.”

Gilbert scowled and sighed. “Fucking frustrating that I haven’t been able to move past this dumb-ass level. Thought it was the last one but I guess not.” He nodded at Nico. “At least you and Kramer managed to get to where I’m at in the dumbass secret level bullshit, Nic.”

Nico chuckled. “Wish we could say the same for Knovak…”

“Yeah.” Gilbert rolled his neck. “Don’t hate the guy but he’s not the best in these types of situations.” He jerked his head at Werner. “Really—sorry you have to deal with this bit on your own.”

“There’s no need for an apology,” Werner replied. “I believe the only reason I’m allowed to attend these more private meetings is due to my involvement in aiding Matthias during that ELPIS attack.”

“Just luck, huh?” Nico wondered aloud. 

Gilbert cleared his throat. “Uh—oh. Hey, Werner, one more thing. Promise that you won’t get pissed.”

Werner paused, turned, resisted pinching the bridge of his nose. “What is it, Gilbert?”

“We—well, I—somehow lost all the chlorowheat we were supposed to hand into the Ophiuchians later this week. Haven’t told Kramer yet.”

Werner tensed. “How?”

“I must have misplaced it somewhere or something…” Gilbert rubbed his neck. He sighed. “I swear I left it on my damned table here—”

Werner managed to keep his thoughts from slipping through the connection to the others who were just beginning to turn in for the night. “It’s alright, Gilbert. I can retrieve more evidence during my next several private meetings with Matthias.” 

Gilbert arched a brow. “Thought they don’t let you take chlorowheat out from there.”

“I’ll find a way.”

Gilbert sighed before ruffling his hair. He collapsed into his bed a moment after and waved a loose hand. “Sorry again. Thanks for covering my ass.”

Werner merely offered a nod and relaxed slightly.

Admittedly, he had taken all the chlorowheat they’d received from Constanza for himself. With good reason. On days when he did not receive an invitation from Matthias, he would go out into the woods, roll up the chlorowheat he’d taken, and self-medicate before returning to the inn. Given that he’d somehow misplaced the prescribed chlorowheat that he had brought with him on this operation, this was the best way to stave off the protect, protect, protect that had only intensified after Atienna had successfully captured Louise, Maria had lost her ship and her children, Jericho had lost Benì, Olive had encountered Hideyoshi, and Cadence had her encounter with Taurus. Being only able to react to their pain instead of preventing it pained Werner more than anything. It was an absolute failure.

Werner knew using the chlorowheat product that was meant to serve as evidence was unacceptable. However, it was easily replaceable. Yes, this was sensible. He was still in control: directing what went where. 

“Werner…” Nico called out suddenly as Werner was moving to turn off the lights.

Werner paused and turned to find that Nico had sat back up and was looking him up and down.

“Is it bad? The chlorowheat…?”

Werner glanced over towards Gilbert’s bed. The man was snoring heavily. Turning back to Nico, Werner nodded. 

“Do they use it all in Matthias’s meetings?”

“Yes, but I don’t join them as I’ve said before.” 

“That’s good… You know, Cadence…” Nico fell back onto his bed. “You probably know this already, but her parents…” He trailed off and stared at him for a while. “Be careful, Werner…

Werner offered the man a brief smile and turned off the lights.

42 mg.

* * *

Werner felt a quiet sense of relief when his invitation to Matthias’s residence came a day earlier than expected. Much to his surprise, however, upon entering the building, he found it in a state of disarray: tables overturned, plates and cups shattered on the ground, newspaper articles scattered everywhere.

Upon making his way into the living room, Werner registered several men and women working together to pin someone who was kicking and screaming to the ground. Tensing, he maneuvered around them and was able to register the face of the one being pinned. It was the secretary he had disguised himself as in order to enter the diplomacy building weeks earlier.

“Hey, Dieter!” Matthias grimaced from the top of the pile of men and women. “You came at a good—er, bad?—time.”

“You… captured the secretary,” Werner realized.

Protect, protect, protect.

“Bastard won’t stay down!” one of them snapped.

Werner pressed himself to remain calm. This situation needed to be handled carefully. He still needed to maintain Matthias’s trust; but the secretary—

Protect, protect, protect.

Werner’s eyes narrowed as he scanned the area fully. After some consideration, he ordered, “You don’t need ten men to hold down one. You’ll do more harm to yourself and to him than good. Have one pinning him down and four at his arms and legs.”

The ACC members exchanged looks—

“Now.”

—before moving to follow through with his commands. After fifteen seconds of struggling, they managed to successfully subdue the secretary and bind his legs and hands with conjured rope.

“Do you realize what you’ve done?” Werner pressed as Matthias unsteadily rose to his feet. “You said the plan was to be executed next week. The target was the documents of the secretary, not the secretary himself.”

“Yeah…” Matthias ran his fingers through his hair and sighed. “Some of the others got a little heated and went ahead and just did it. This… is still good though. Sorta. We can work with this.”

Such carelessness. Matthias was endangering not only himself but those around him.

Werner collected himself. “This will present us with more problems than solutions. This may even incite something between the governments given that the secretary was there on behalf of diplomacy. He needs to be returned—”

“It’s fine, Dieter,” Matthias insisted. “He’s already seen our faces. We can’t let him go. So, we should make use of this.”

“Matthias—”

The man turned and arched a brow at him before clapping on the back. “What’s gotten into you, Dieter?” He chuckled. “Do you need another hit?” He moved back towards the secretary. “Anyways, leave the thinking to me and help us carry him downstairs. We’ll get him comfortable and everything. Don’t worry.”

Being argumentative in these circumstances would most likely prove inefficient.

After a second of hesitation, Werner tensely obeyed the request and helped to gently carry the secretary into a separate room adjacent to the smoking den down in the basement. There, they bound him to a wooden chair and gabbed his mouth. Werner remained beside the man while the others who came with him filtered out of the room. The secretary whimpered as Werner drew near to him but relaxed when he pulled off the gag around his mouth.

The man gasped when freed and pressed, “P-Please… I have no idea what’s going on—”

Protect. Protect. Protect.

Werner’s chest twisted and his head pounded. His hand moved towards the bindings on the man’s wrists but he managed to barely stop himself. Now was not the time.

“You’ll be safe,” he assured the man, placing a hand on his shoulder. He offered him a glass of water which the man downed it in two large gulps. “I promise.”

The secretary merely shook his head and gasped. “I-I don’t know anything—” 

Protect, protect, protect—

Werner did not stay for Matthias’s usual round of chlorowheat—highlighting and reassuring himself of the fact that he was indeed in control of his situation—and instead reported the development to Kramer whose expression became grave upon hearing it. Together they brought the matter to the attention of their Ophiuchian contact Otto Erinneridt. The man merely told them that they were already well aware of the situation and requested them to continue monitoring the developments. When Werner reported this situation into his superiors at the capital and Kramer hers, they received similar responded.

The apathetic response more than troubled Werner. He felt stuck and chained: unable to move. Contrarily, the need to move, to act, to save, to protect ate away at his insides. An unshakable impulse. It was what was right and had the best calculable outcome for the majority, after all; but following the impulse would merely endanger the other five. As always, there was only one thing to quell the desire.

48 mg.

* * *

During Werner’s next visit to Matthias, the man’s place was once again in a state of disarray: plates everywhere, furniture upturned, papers scattered on the floor. The only difference between this state of array and the previous one was that there was now blood splattered on the ground. Cautiously, placing one hand on the pistol at his belt, Werner followed the blood trail into the living room and found—once again—the secretary on the floor. Unlike before, however, the secretary was neither kicking nor screaming. Instead, the man trembled with a bruised face, bruised arms, lacerated legs. A toppled chair entangled with rope laid beside him.

Matthias was on top of the man pressing a rag to one of his many wounds along with several other ACC members. 

Werner rushed to the secretary’s side immediately and pressed a rag on the ground to one of the open gashes. “Tell me what happened here.”

“Some idiots interrogated him without waiting for me.” Matthias grimaced as pressed the rag harder against a gash across the secretary’s abdomen. “He wasn’t being cooperative so they…”

Werner remained stolid. “He’s going to die if he doesn’t receive proper medical treatment. His wounds are severe. He needs to be taken to a medical Conductor or something similar—”

“No, no, it’s okay,” Matthias interjected. “Constanza is a medical Conductor—”

“Constanza isn’t here.”

“It’s okay.” Matthias insisted. “I-I can do it.” A second later he was scrambling to his feet and running over to a table alongside the wall. He dug out a conducting glove from the drawer and hastily slid it on.

Protect, protect, protect—

“Matthias—” Werner pressed. “Conjuring bandages will not be sufficient for these wounds. This is an ord—” 

The secretary’s image flickered in front of Werner and abruptly became replaced by Otto: pale, shaking, trembling—just as Atienna remembered him from that day. Werner froze as his vision swam.

Vogt…?

Suddenly, Matthias was at his side again. Otto was gone. Only the secretary remained.

“Oh! Matthias can do something that’ll really give your head a spin,” one of the other ACC members said, pulling Werner away. “Just wait.”

Matthias placed his conductor-gloved hands over one of the man’s wounds, and a soft cornflower blue light spilled from his conductors. The secretary’s wound began to glow the same color before the man’s skin began to slowly stitch itself over. Soon, the gash sealed completely.

Transmutation.

Werner’s eyes narrowed as the healing light warmed his face.

Conjuring. Transmutation. A confirmation.

Two conducting types,” another ACC member crowed in amazement. “Can you believe it?” She crowed. “Did you see the look on Dieter’s face? Absolutely floored!”

The dots finally connected. The null hypothesis of Matthias not being a True Conductor was now rejected. The alternative hypothesis was not completely accepted but the evidence had presented itself. Paired with this was the information that Constanza was a medical Conductor. Most likely she was a Transmutationist. Therefore—

Matthias finally pulled away from the secretary and fell on his back. He panted for a moment before glancing over at Werner. “It’s a genetic thing. Passed down in my family for generations.”

Werner regarded him before he forced his brows to rise. “Woah, that’s amazing… I’ve never heard of anything like it before.” He turned to the secretary who was shaking still despite his sealed wounds. “We should still get him to—”

“No, he’ll be fine,” Matthias insisted, glancing around at all the ACC members who tensed at the suggestion. His eyes narrowed as he straightened himself and looked over the secretary once more. “I don’t like how they got the information but they did get it.”

A pause.

Matthias’s expression tightened. “I have no idea what the hell they think they’re doing. They’ve, Dieter, they’re…” He shook his head. “The Aquarian government’s sent the Yastreby to Leo to spy on the Leonian prince because they think that he’s the one who’s ‘testing Signum’s peace’ since he’s been saying that he wants to pull Leo out of the treaty. They’re pretty heated about it. Say that’s who everyone should be focused on. Not them or us.” He held a finger up in the air. “No only that. Not only that, but they were talking about jointly mobilizing a training exercise at the Capricornian-Sagittarian border to passively threaten Sagittarius to lift the tariff. That’s what the meeting at the diplomacy building was about.”

Werner tensed. This was developing too quickly, was beginning to become more out of hand than it already was, was growing beyond the ACC operation. He needed to report it immediately.

Matthias’s hand moved to his mouth and he mumbled, “They’re just causing problems for us now, but we should still try to use it to our disadvantage… right? Put it to the public.”

Protect, protect, protect.

Werner recognized the tension in Matthias’s shoulders and the way his gaze flickered from the secretary to the others standing around. A sense of losing control.

“Matthias, you need to at least call a physician or a medical Conductor for him,” Werner drew as he knelt down beside the man.

Matthias made a face. “It’s fine—”

“You are not a professional, Matthias. I’m not certain if Constanza is, but she’s not here either. You need to set an example as a leader. Your people who look up to you and will reflect you. What kind of movement do you want to lead?”

Matthias ogled him for a moment before looking over his shoulder and nodding slowly. He rose to a stand a second after and called out to one of the men: “Go grab one of our medical Conductors and bring them here.”

The addressed ACC member nodded stiffly before darting out of the room.

Werner remained tense. “What do you plan to do now?”

“Get another hit and think,” Matthias replied before nodding to the secretary. “Would you mind helping me bring him back down?”

“It may be best to leave him where he is to not exacerbate his injuries,” Werner replied carefully. “We can move him once the medical Conductor arrives.”

Matthias nodded. He ordered two ACC members to keep watch before inviting Werner back downstairs. Werner hesitated as he approached the threshold of the door that led down to the basement. He needed to report this to the Ophiuchian contact immediately—to Otto Erinneridt. 

Otto. Otto. Otto.

Protect. Fail to protect. Protect.

No. It was too loud now. He knew needed to clear his head of these pounding thoughts first. If he didn’t then he could act irrationally and endanger the entire operation. Yes, this was sensible. Cost-benefit analysis. 

With that conclusion solidified, Werner followed Matthias along with some of the others but paused momentarily to glance back at the secretary.

Protect, protect, protect—

No. Right now Matthias’s status as a confirmed True Conductor was the most important matter at hand. That and reporting this new Aquarian-Capricornian to the International Department’s liaison. Or perhaps it would be best for Capricorn not to? No—

Prior to any thinking he needed to clear his head. 

Right.

Upon reaching the den, Werner took his usual spot on the sofa and carefully waited for the others to fall into their usual spots. Matthias took a seat on the sofa opposite of him and reached behind its back for something—peculiar. The man proceeded to procure three boxes. He handed one to Milkovich beside him before popping one of the remaining two open for Werner to see. Inside the box rested a vial of clear liquid and a syringe needle.

“This is even better than chlorowheat,” Matthias explained as he held the box out to Werner. “Some Transmutationist did some science vitae theory thingy-ma-jig to some chlorowheat somewhere in some warehouse and now it’s really something. Here. Try—”

Werner held up his hand to decline. 

Some of the surrounding ACC members booed at him causing an unpleasantly familiar itching sensation to form at his palms. But it was negligible. This was going too far, he knew. 

“Aw, come on, Dieter,” Matthias pouted. “You’re usually so fun. Once can’t hurt, can it?”

Werner again declined. He was in control. The dosages, the in-take, everything: managed.

Matthias waved his hand loosely in response before closing the box and shoving it into Werner’s hands. “Then take it for the road.” He proceeded to pop open the remaining box and extracted the clear liquid from the vial using the syringe inside. A second later, he was plunging the needle into his forearm. His head lolled back and his entire body fell limp.

This would be good evidence, Werner thought to himself as he wrapped his fingers around his own gifted box. This chlorowheat issue was growing beyond Capricorn’s and Aquarius’s—no, Ophiuchus’s—control. It wouldn’t be long before his men serving in the borders and his family would be touched by this wave. It needed to be addressed immediately—no, wait. He needed to think more deeply about this: Cadence would be negatively impacted if this particular news of chlorowheat expanded beyond this den.

Protect.

Mind buzzing, Werner returned his attention to Matthias.

Did the ones who Matthias was connected to believe that the man being in this state was acceptable? That it was safe? Werner felt sympathy for him. It was clear that he was addicted and had no control over his consumption of chlorowheat. 

Protect.

After a moment’s hesitation, Werner decided to pocket the small gifted box and declined the pipe of chlorowheat as it was passed around. He watched as everyone eventually took a drag and slowly sank into their respective places on the couches. His gaze then re-focused on Matthias who was sliding down the sofa and staring ahead at nothing. 

Given that everyone here was heavily medicated, this opportunity to capture Matthias was near perfect—

Protect, protect, protect.

Werner studied Matthias’s dozing face as their prior conversation came to him suddenly. Could he really turn Matthias over to them just as Atienna had turned over Louise? Did he not also have an obligation to protect them too? Wasn’t that what Ludwig would do—protect and save them? What Gilbert would do?

Werner’s chest began to twist uncomfortably.

If he didn’t bring Matthias in, then he would be failing to protect the other five and his blood family. And what about the secretary? Louise? Hideyoshi? Benì. The Aquarian-Capricornian alliance. Everything: unraveling. It was mathematically, agonizingly impossible: there was no way he would be able to protect everyone—

Head pounding, Werner grabbed the pipe when it was passed around a second time. He stared at it as he tried to collect the thoughts churning inside his head:

He had to prepare more before moving forward to contain Matthias. He needed to confirm that Constanza was a True Conductor as well. He also needed to be cautious in reporting into International Relations. Being rash at this moment had the potential to cause the entire operation and the delicate political state of the continent to fall into disarray. This situation was not one that could be left to chance. It had to be controlled.

Werner took deep drag, and he could instantly feel of his worries being dragged away by ghostly hands. Right—it wasn’t as bad as he was making it out to be. Everything was okay. Taking another drag, he allowed darkness and nothingness to consume his thoughts— 

“Werner,” came a whisper that stirred him from the short, temporary solace of the dark. 

With difficulty, Werner cracked open his eyes and allowed himself to enjoy the butterflies that sprang out from his chest and fluttered at his fingertips.

Werner!” The whisper was paired with a rough shake.

Werner scanned his surroundings in confusion. Matthias and several of the others were curled up on different couches around him. Unconscious or dozing. So who then…? With difficulty, he focused his attention on the figure kneeling in front of him. Mouse brown hair and red-crosses sewn onto the lapels of her blouse.

“Greta…?” Werner mumbled in confusion.

She took a hold of his hand and pulled him up to a stand.

Werner blinked in confusion: he was suddenly no longer in Matthias’s den and was instead crunching through the snow leaning against Greta. He blinked again: he was now sitting in a booth inside some restaurant. Greta sat across from him, offering a glass of water. In confusion, he accepted it and downed the glass in five gulps. 

“What are you doing?” Greta whispered, reaching across the table and placing a hesitant hand on his shoulder. “Is… this part of your infiltration operation? Does Gilbert know?”

Werner stared at her hand for a moment before her question settled in. “Yes… Gil is aware. What he isn’t aware of is why you’re a part of the ACC. We’ve been looking for you. We were supposed to serve in the capital together, and now we’re on opposite sides.”

Something in Greta’s expression changed—Werner didn’t like it—and she said something that he couldn’t quite follow.

“Werner?”

“Yes, I’m listening.”

“Werner, I know you have a lot of questions. I… have them too…” Greta paused, pulling her hand away. “What we’re doing with this movement—it’s good. We… We can’t just stand by and let them do whatever they want with our future… I can’t see you and Gilbert hurt out there anymore. I know you’re under orders, but you can’t report us in. It’s what they want, don’t you see…?” Her voice faded in and out again. “… don’t we deserve some peace?”

Greta was fuzzy around the edges now. Her expression changed again, and once again Werner didn’t like it. She reached out and touched his shoulder.

“Werner, how long have you been coming to Matthias and doing this?”

Werner stared. “You know about Matthias and his chlorowheat?”

“I-I heard about it,” Greta admitted, “but this is my first time seeing it. I was called to come check up on the secretary…”

“You being out here isn’t good for you,” Werner said. “We were supposed to be at the capital together.”

“What…?” Greta stared. “Werner, you’re not… making any sense…”

The world became fuzzy again and suddenly Werner was outside in the cold being pulled along by Greta once more. In the distance, his inn was coming into view.

50 mg.

* * *

Werner’s head became slightly clearer following his procession through the snow. Clarity gripped him somewhat fully once he was standing right in front of the inn. He looked around but couldn’t find Greta anywhere. He couldn’t find her footprints in the snow. Had he imagined her presence just like he’d imagined that Sagittarian woman? He couldn’t tell. 

As he entered the hotel lobby and prepared to ascend up the staircase to his room, the desk attendant called out to him:

“You have a call again, sir.”

He drifted over to the phone booth in response and picked the device off the receiver. “Hello?”

“Werner, honey—”

Oh. 

“I already told you that you can’t contact me when I’m on this operation.”

“How can you be so cold?” Mother whispered. “Can’t you see that I’m just concerned? Can’t you be a little bit more empathetic?”

His palms didn’t itch, and her words seemed to float around his head and then exit somewhere. “May I ask why you’re calling?”

“Haven’t you heard the news?” she whispered. “Everyone’s talking about it over here.”

Werner shook his head, trying to dispel the haziness. 

“Oh, I’m so glad you weren’t there, honey,” she continued. “It really was awful. But I’m sure if you were there, you would’ve been able to stop it, right? Yes, definitely. That’s most likely one of the reasons why there was so much collateral.”

“Glad? Huh? Weren’t where? What’re you talking about?”

“Werner, why are you speaking like that…?” Mother clicked her tongue. “It’s so… rude. You sound uneducated, and I know you’re not. I didn’t put all that money—”

“I apologize,” Werner replied automatically, leaning against the booth. “I haven’t been able to keep up with the news entirely.”

“Oh, honey, you can do better than that—you always have time. I’m talking about what happened at the Aquarian-Capricornian border! The attack on Joint-Outpost 12!” Mother sighed finally, sounding half-annoyed, half-upset. “By ELPIS.”

Werner paused, the fog in his mind reeling back with intense speed. That outpost at the border—that was where Kleine, Bergmann, and Brandt were stationed. He recalled Cadence telling him that a month ago.

“They took half the children there,” she continued, “and killed half of the units stationed there. Oh, it was awful. Werner, didn’t you see? I think I saw some of the people from your old unit on the list—” 

Everything became clear instantaneously, painfully. Werner’s ears were left ringing.

Protect, protect, protect.

“What…?”

“Yes, that would be Emilia Bergmann, Klaus Kleine, and Alwin Brandt, right? Oh, honey, it was awful. It’s not your fault, honey. Obviously those three didn’t absorb anything you taught them while they were under you, so—”

Werner felt faint as he recalled Kleine offering him book suggestions, Bergmann offering him some of her rations when they were short, and Brandt offering to fill their stagnant time at the border with stories. He recalled them accepting to trust him in the Twin Cities and him accepting to trust them in the capital.

He had failed. Failed to protect them. His subordinates. His subordinates. They had relied on him, and he’d failed them. Just like he had failed Otto. And Louise. And Benì.

Protect, protect, protect.

Louise. Even though she was outside of his circle, she still deserve some semblance of protection. The people beyond the other five also needed to be accounted for. Instead, however, he had helped Atienna hunt her down. Soon, he was to do the same to Matthias. Doing otherwise, however, would result in him failing to protect Olive, Maria, Atienna, Jericho, Cadence. A failure on two paths.

He had failed to protect Benì. Otto. Talib. Emilia. Klaus. Alwin. The list of names grew and refused to fade. What was the point if he couldn’t successfully, appropriately protect them all?

Werner pressed his forehead against the booth as his head began to pound.

“Werner—”

appearances.

Werner straightened. Phone slipping from his hands, he turned from the booth and headed towards the staircase. He could still hear his mother’s voice echoing out from the swinging phone but protect, protect, protect, protect drowned out her voice. 

Gilbert was descending the flight as Werner stormed up it. “Hell, Werner, you’re back early. Did you hear the news about the first chair of International Relations coming here? What happened to—”

Werner brushed past him and continued winding up the staircase. As he turned down the hall, he nearly collided with Nico.

The man caught him in surprise. “Hey, Werner, I just got a call from Cadence and she was askin’ about hearin’ from you—”

Werner brushed past him too and headed towards their bedroom. “Thank you, Nico. Later.”

Upon entering, Werner dug into his suitcase and calmly pulled out the four small brown packet of chlorowheat that he’d stolen and hidden away inside a sewn pocket there. Wordlessly, he exited and brushed past Knovak who was lounging in the resting hall. He proceeded into the adjacent bathroom and locked the door behind him. 

Approaching the sink, he unwrapped one of the chlorowheat packets tried for a moment to measure out the prescribed amount by eye-ball estimation. Eventually, he discarded the attempt and moved to roll all the leaves up in a sheet a paper. His gloves impeded the action so he tore them off and tossed them to the side. His hand, however, shook so much that he wasn’t able to roll properly. In desperation, he simply licked the paper. He lost half the product on the sink but he swiped it up and dabbed it on his tongue—

Protect, protect, protect.

It wasn’t enough. 

Calming himself, he steadily, successfully rolled up another batch of chlorowheat before igniting it with the lighter in his pants pocket. Hungrily, he took a drag. Something pleasant in his chest stirred—

Werner…?

Werner froze.

No, he’d imagined it. He’d imagined it. It was just like the protect, protect, protect seeping on through: little whispers bringing with them disorder. None of the others were listening in. They couldn’t be. The chlorowheat prevented that. He could continue.

Werner sank to the floor against the basin of the shower and took another deep drag.

What steps could he take? What could he do? What was the answer? The solution? There were no orders to follow. No easier route to take. Everything was unraveling. He needed to maintain control. But—

Protect, protect, protect.

It still wasn’t enough. The thoughts pounded easily past the thin barrier provided by the chlorowheat. 

He took another drag. And then another one. And another one.

Protect, protect, protect.

No. Still not enough. Developed tolerance: like the doctor had said. But if that what was the case, what was he supposed to do? He needed that umbrella—he needed that pleasant emptiness.

Werner held his head in pain for a moment before he paused and reached into his pocket. He pulled out not his pocketwatch but the small box Matthias had provided for him earlier. Wordlessly, he popped the lid open and stared at the vial and syringe inside.

Cost-benefit analysis. He needed this. This was required. He needed to get his thoughts and order and needed to suppress the impulse. If he didn’t take this then he would be a detriment to the operation, to the others, to everyone. This was a calculated and necessary sacrifice.

Werner pulled the syringe from the case and slowly extracted the same amount of liquid from the vial as he’d seen Matthias pulled out earlier. He was not familiar with applying medicine through needles, but Cadence had been taught how to do so by Allen in order to apply Francis’s epinephrine. Guided by those faint memories, Werner pressed the needle into his forearm just as he’d seen Matthias do. He paused then hesitated.

He was still in control. The dosage. The amount. The means of entry. It was all in his hands in both a metaphorical and literal sense.

With that, he slammed the plunger down and felt the heat of the liquid burn . His vision swam a moment after as—finally—familiar warm tendrils of euphoric pleasure began to curl out from the injection site and spread out like a fire to the rest of his body. Once the feeling rushed to his head, he let out a sigh of relief and tossed the syringe and vial onto the floor where they shattered into shards. He reached into his pocket to pull out his pocketwatch as he picked up the bud of chlorowheat that he had discarded earlier.

It was almost completely silent. Everything was distant and far away. Perfect.

Werner listened to the ticking of the watch that seemed to match the beats of his heart. Wait. No. His heart was beating slightly off-sync. Too fast. No, too slow? He couldn’t really think well enough to determine which one it was, but that was perfectly fine. Another development that was perfectly fine: his vision began to go in and out as a shiver wracked through his body

Darkness. Light. Darkness. Light—

The door across from him shook abruptly and a muffled shout vibrated the air. Boom, boom, boom. More shouting. The door splintered at the hinges.

Darkness.

Light.

The door flew open so hard that the knob of it cracked into the sidewall as it swung ajar. A collection of silhouettes crowded there at the threshold. 

Darkness. 

Darkness.

Darkness.

A familiar blood-curdling, agonized cry tore through the air. One of the other five—Werner knew. With difficulty, he forced his eyes open. 

Light.

Standing past the threshold of the door was Cadence. Her watery eyes were wide in horror and her fingers entangled in her hair as she stumbled backwards unsteadily. She lunged forward at him a moment afterwards.

She shouldn’t be here, he thought. She would be found by Scorpio’s spores, tracked by his eyes. 

Darkness.

Light.

Cadence was kneeling in front of him now, shaking him hard and shouting at the top of her lungs. Another figure pushed her aside. Nico.

Darkness.

Darkness.

Darkness.

“What the fuck…?” Knovak.

“—the hell is this?” Gilbert. “Chlorowheat?!”

“I saw him earlier”—Greta—“but I—”

“Werner, can you hear me?” Nico. “Werner—” 

Light.

Briefly, Werner caught sight of Nico’s pale, worried face.

No, Werner didn’t want to return. Not just yet.

Darkness.

Darkness.

Darkness.

He didn’t want to feel the shame, the anxiety, the fear, the worry, the thoughts. He wanted to hold onto this state of mind that greeted him every time he took chlorowheat: everything slowing, everything fading, everything stopping, everything disappearing—

Oblivion.

25.1: Prince & Candidato

Re-cap:
Olive is helping Claire in his search for the potential saint candidate for Sagittarius—Arjun Gandiva Uttarētāra. Claire promises that once Olive helps him bring Arjun to his father and he is crowned emperor, he will end the tariff on Capricorn. This in turn—Olive hopes—will end Aries’s tariff on Capricorn as well since Aries and Sagittarius share strong relations. Clouding Olive’s mind, however, is the knowledge that his aunt and uncle know of the syzygy.

Along the duo’s journey they have picked up a Scorpioan Monadic priest named Lyrs who claims to know where Arjun is but will only provide the duo with information if they endorse Seamus Dolby in his chairman election run.


Inelki Station, Scorpio

Olive once again landed flat on his back. Stars flooded his vision as he calmly tried to count how many brain cells had been knocked out of his head in the past half hour. “Get used to it,” Derik had said after the first time he’d smacked Olive to the ground. “Can’t be a damned pussy. Getting knocked down is a part of life. Getting knocked down’ll teach you how it feels like to pick yourself up.”—Olive had questions on the comprehensiveness of Derik’s ‘wizened words’ of advice but Derik had continued on without stopping— “Gotta do it on your own. Can’t be relying on other people all the time. Look at me. Every time I’m knocked down—which isn’t fucking often—I pick myself the fuck back up.”

No wonder, Olive had thought in response. That was why Derik had so many screws loose—concussion after concussion after concussion. Olive wondered how many brain cells still remained in the man’s head after all that. Whatever was still there was probably being twisted by Scorpio—

Olive grimaced at the recollection before his thoughts were cut off by a hand drifting into his view. He took it and allowed himself to be yanked back up to his feet. As expected, the hand didn’t belong to Derik. Much to his surprise, however, it didn’t belong to Werner either. Instead, Maria was the one who greeted him with a beaming smile.

“My dear Olive, you are supposed to be learning to fight, yes?” she asked, leaning in close to his face. “Not be knocked down by Werner’s crew member, no?”

“You don’t think I’m trying…?” Olive grumbled as he rubbed his sore back and peered around her. 

Derik stood only a few feet behind Maria. 

Half an hour earlier, the man had rolled up his sleeves dramatically before proceeding to speak and lecture vaguely about how to maintain the proper posture, to follow through with punches, etcetera. 

“You know,” Derik had said while swinging his arm around during the warm up, “I had to learn this shit on my own. At the military academy—for Projector’s at least—”

“—they don’t teach intensive hand-to-hand combat,” Olive had recalled from the faint memories of Werner’s own time at the academy. “It’s an elective.”

“Yeah…” Derik had squinted at him. “That bastard Fischer is the only Projector I know who took the full course. Dumbass.”

“Didn’t you used to be good friends with him?” Olive muttered. 

“Yeah, well, times change,” Derik had retorted.

“Would’ve been a useful friendship if you could’ve picked up a thing or two about close combat from him other than just his bad attitude.”

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean? Bad attitude—do you see yourself?”

“Nevermind.”

A black bird circling overhead cawed loudly, cutting the recollection short. The sight of it unnerved Olive, but he shoved his paranoia aside. Overall, he was very doubtful of Derik’s teaching ability now that he had the displeasure of experiencing it firsthand for himself. Derik, however, seemed to be very animated about giving the lessons so Olive was now both giving him the benefit of the doubt and entertaining him. 

 A few feet behind Derik were Claire, Eunji, and Lyrs lounging on a rolled-out silk blanket. Claire and Eunji were both sitting cross-legged beside each other while Lyrs was sprawled out on his back behind them. Felix and Soha, holding large sun umbrellas over the trio’s heads, were standing on opposite sides of them.

At the moment they were all situated in the middle of a dusty field just outside of the rural Inelki train station. The station itself loomed several yards away from them in the distance. Despite its dull beige painted stone walls and maroon-colored terrace, it wasn’t hard to miss even from this far away. And this was definitely not because Olive’s eyes were becoming as good as Werner’s. In fact, Olive was pretty sure his vision was getting worse due to the late nights he’d been spending toiling away at his conductors in the dark. The reason for the station’s clear visibility: there was nothing surrounding it. Nothing but a flat grey surface sprinkled in rocks of various sizes. Empty nothingness.

“Who the fuck puts a station in the middle of fucking nowhere,” was Derik’s initial comment upon arrival which even Felix agreed with. 

Still, despite the eeriness of it all, Olive had felt a sense of nostalgia when he’d first off boarded the train. While the heat from the barely visible sun concealed by the clouds was a welcome familiarity to him, the aridity brought a foreign sentimentality. Jericho had synchronized with him strongly during arrival without saying a word.

Olive had proceeded to entertain the man by treading the tracks along the station, picking up a couple rocks, and throwing them into the  distance—actions that were once again nostalgic yet foreign. When he closed his eyes, he could faintly see colorful tents flapping on sandy dunes far away. The recollection had been oddly peaceful—at least  until Derik, who had followed him all the way along the tracks, had started to loudly complain. Again. 

Since the train bound to Madat—their final destination—wasn’t due for another four hours, Olive had suggested to Derik that they start a training session to kill time. Jericho had remained synchronized with him during the first half hour of Derik’s lesson and attentively listened to Derik’s explanations on what to do when facing a larger opponent—although Olive had doubted that Jericho needed the lesson. The peacekeeper even remained when Olive had begun the ‘application’ portion of Derik’s ‘class’ which consisted of Derik charging at him without warning. This ended up with Derik flat on his stomach after Jericho sent Olive’s legs sweeping out under him. Derik had of course thrown out a mixture of swear words before scoffing at the fact that Olive himself wasn’t holding on his own.

Olive had to agree with him.

“But you are weak, Olive,” Jericho had informed him calmly—earnestly, so Olive couldn’t get mad at him. “Stein will hurt you. Accidentally or on purpose. I will stay and help. To thank you and to apologize. About last week. Your birthday.”

“Well me being ‘weak’ is why I should do it on my own…” Olive mumbled. I can’t rely on you all the time. What if… you have to rely on me or something? What then?

I do rely on you already, Jericho responded, staring.

Olive squirmed. “Anyways, you don’t have to thank me or apologize.” He looked away towards Derik.  I thought we’d already gotten past that point. 

Jericho had stared long and hard at this before apologizing with what seemed like embarrassment and then pulling away.

“Jericho is funny, no?” Maria asked suddenly, drawing Olive once again out from the memory. “He sees things as just black and white, yes? One thing or the other?”

And you don’t? Olive thought.

“I see things in all colors. It is what I see,” Maria sang before pointing to his arm muscle. “Just because you are weak here doesn’t mean you are weak here—” She moved to point to his chest before pointing to his head— “or here!”

If anyone else said that, Olive was sure he’d laugh. Instead, he arched his brow and asked,  “What does that have to do with colors?” 

Maria sank to a sudden crouch and beamed up at him. “You are my Olive, yes? You can do anything.”

“Okay…” Olive looked down at her as a sense of unease began to boil in his stomach. “Maria—”

Before he could finish, a flash of black hair danced out of the corner of his eye. Suddenly, Lavi was standing between them both and catching the faint sun rays seeping down from the clouds on her fingertips.

Maria leapt up to her feet and spread her arms wide in greeting. “It’s Lavi!”

“Maria!” Lavi exclaimed, mirroring her movements. “I haven’t seen you in a while, right…? Ollie tells me that you’ve been going through a lot lately…” Her gaze lowered briefly. “I… hope you’re okay…”

Maria tilted her head slightly before glancing at Olive. “Oh, you have been talking about me with Olive? I think Cadence is rubbing off on him, yes? She does enjoy talking about people.” Her smile dimmed slightly before she stared at Lavi for a long while.

Lavi returned the stare for a moment before trying, “Maria?”

Hesitantly, Olive stepped in-between them and pressed, “Are you okay, Maria…?”

Maria cocked her head. “What do you mean? I am always alright—better than alright, no? Are you talking about my crew? Because I will get them, yes. Are you talking about Morandi? He is mine and because he is mine he cannot die, yes? That’s how it is.”

Maria’s shining confidence had always been a comfort to Olive—-much like Werner’s reliability. But Maria’s encounter with Alpha had started to sow uncomfortable seeds of doubt in Olive’s mind.  For instance—what if Maria was just like Werner…? Olive only vaguely understood the circumstances of both of their upbringings but he grasped the big picture—the idea of being carefully crafted by someone else’s hand whether that was by one person, many people, willingly, unwillingly.

Maria turned her head abruptly to glance over her shoulder. In the distance on her end of things, Olive could see nurses and doctors maneuvering around down a white hospital hall. It was quite a lavish-looking place with a visitor area furnished with leather chairs. Expensive. 

Olive had seen the medical bill for Morandi. Although Olive hadn’t thought much of it, both Werner and Cadence had both been alarmed by it—especially since Maria had no means to pay for it since she’d lost almost everything during the encounter with Alpha. Threatening the hospital staff to do away with the bill had been suggested, but the idea was ultimately shot down. Olive had wanted to transfer some of his funds to Maria to cover the costs but Werner had warned against it since he suspected Scorpio could somehow track said funds to Maria. So, instead Cadence was the one who shilled money out to Maria for the hospital bills. 

Maria’s synchronization abruptly began to decrease. Stiffening, Olive reached out and grabbed a hold of her hand before she pulled away completely. She blinked down at him before beaming and abruptly reaching over to pinch his cheeks.  “Sonrisa, Ollie! You are beginning to become like Werner, no? Worrying too much, yes?” 

Olive shrugged her hand away. That wasn’t much of an insult.

 “I spoke to Jeri earlier, yes? He said you helped him last week!” Maria pinched his cheek again. “You have shown your strength in that way, no?” She stared into his eyes and starting squeezing harder, harder—

Finally, Olive winced, swatted her hand away, and rubbed his cheek. “Sain—geeze, Maria… that hurts…”

Maria blinked at him before rubbing his cheek absentmindedly. With that, she pulled away to the very recesses of his mind.  

Olive was amazed at how Maria’s optimism seemingly overpowered every bad situation that came her way. Or was it more like she was always ready to move onto the next thing…? Unaffected even—no. Maybe that was how she was before they became connected. It was different now. Olive could feel it. 

Once Maria faded completely from his vision, Olive spied Derik ogling him from a few feet away.

“You know how fucking weird it looks when you talk to yourself like that?” Derik finally said. “Ever thought of being subtler?”

Lavi huffed. “Why is he always so rude?” 

Claire and Eunji made their way over. Soha and Felix tailed them, still carrying the sun umbrellas. Lavi waved animatedly at Eunji, but Eunji merely avoided Olive’s gaze. This didn’t seem to dishearten Lavi, however, and she instead hovered pleasantly and patiently at Olive’s side—probably waiting for him to make her visible to everyone again. 

Claire smiled annoyingly as he glanced at Derik. “Say, Derik, I have to say that sure is a really interesting way of teaching.” He flashed Olive a grin. “How about you practice against me so we can see how much Derik’s really taught you?”

“I’m not an idiot. I know you’ve had self-defense training since you were a kid,” Olive muttered, glancing back at Lyrs who was still lying flat on his back on the blanket. “I don’t feel like being thrown around again.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t,” Claire noted before placing a hand on top of Eunji’s head. “Didn’t have self-defense training yourself, I mean. Even Eunji here was trained to fend off assassins when she was younger.”

Eunji smacked Claire’s hand away with a scowl. 

“Yeah, well…” Olive grumbled. “My aunt and uncle were…” He tensed and looked away briefly. “…they were sort of overprotective. That and I barely went outside our estate half the time so it didn’t seem—”

‘Estate,’” Derik muttered. “You know you’re coddled when you start calling your house an estate.”

Olive scowled at him but didn’t bother taking the bait. “I usually had at least ten guards around me at all times, so I guess they didn’t see the point of doing self-defense training. They were… good too—our guards.” Feeling the familiar tight anchor beginning to drag down his chest once more, he crossed his arms and glared over Claire’s shoulder. “They were probably too good. Honestly… I caused a lot of trouble for them…”

Derik quieted.

“Besides, things were normal then.” Olive glanced at Claire. “Before you waltzed in and started talking about the Ramicus.”

“I guess that shows how much you needed defense training back then, right?” Claire smiled good-naturedly, although there was a hint of sympathy there that Olive didn’t enjoy very much. 

“If I did,” Olive retorted, “then your fake assassination attempt-Ramicus-border-help plan wouldn’t have played out and… Aries might not have put that tariff on Capricorn…”

Claire’s smile faltered. “Ollie, I’ve said this already but I probably can’t say it enough—believe me when I say that I was just doing what was best for my clan and country. I didn’t know it would play out like this. And—” He stopped short as he caught onto Eunji studying him pensively.

Olive glanced down at Lavi in turn. 

He supposed Claire had a point about self-defense. Much better than burdening the royal guards and royal funds with his protection. He’d always felt guilty over the fact that his aunt and uncle were spending so much time, care, and love on him even though he wasn’t their son. But had that been love…? Did they only treat him so kindly because they’d somehow known that he was a True Conductor—since apparently, he’d been one before a year ago? If not that, then was it because they knew Lavi was inside of him or because they thought he was Aries? 

Olive felt his chest squeeze tighter.

If his aunt and uncle knew, then did his parents know? They couldn’t have. Because if they did—how… could they have sent Lavi off to that ceremony with smiles on their faces? How could they send her off if they loved her? Did they love her? Did they love him? He only faintly recalled their faces now—he recalled Werner’s and Atienna’s faces much more prominently—but—

As always, the thoughts whirlwind through his mind relentlessly.

When Lavi grew too old or her face was no longer ‘in favor with the people’ were they planning to exchange her with the next potential candidate? Exchange her in the same way Leo had ‘passed on’ his title? By having her empty herself out into the reservoir?

Maria had told them all word for word, piece by piece, memory by memory about the vitae she’d received from Epsilon a week ago. The circumstances surrounding him giving it to her were unclear, but the reality of it—

A hand on Olive’s head stopped his thoughts from derailing further, however. Upon looking up, he spied Werner’s shadow. The man’s eyes were distant, indicating that he was busy at the moment. Olive couldn’t tell exactly what he was just with but Werner flickered out of view before he could ask. 

“I could teach you, you know?” Claire offered suddenly. “I’ve tutored people before, you know? In mathematics, not combat, but I’m sure it’s the same thing.”

“Fuck no,” Derik interjected. “I’m training him. Your Sagittarian shit is too soft. The only thing I’ve seen you do is run away.”

Claire’s smile thinned and he extended a hand as the light in his eyes lost its shine. “The Capricornian rumored gold-star military academy training versus the highly-esteemed Sagittarian defensive arts passed on for centuries. That would be interesting to see.” 

Felix immediately squeezed between them in alarm. “My Lord, I must object. You shouldn’t waste your time on someone like”—he sent Derik a glare— “this.”

Derik bristled and rolled up his already rolled-up sleeves but Olive stepped in front of him and held him at bay with an arm. Derik shoved him forward slightly in response but did nothing else.

Claire laughed lightly, the brightness returning to his eyes.

Sigrid, most likely.

“I was just joking, Felix.” Claire patted the man on the back. “I have to set a good example, right? We’re trying to head in the direction of improving relations with Capricorn, not tearing them apart—but, really, who do you think would win: you or Derik?”

“Myself, of course, My Lord,” Felix answered immediately.

Derik merely guffawed long and hard—only to be interrupted by a loud snore from Lyrs. Upon looking closely, Olive could make out a flask of alcohol tucked tightly beneath the man’s left arm. He proceeded to exchange an apprehensive look with Claire.

A sudden yet familiar low droning horn paired with the ground rumbling beneath Olive’s feet indicated that it was time to pack up.

* * *

In-Transit, Scorpio

Olive had doubts. A lot of doubts. About Lyrs. About finding the potential Sagittarian candidate Arjun—-just to throw him into the reservoirs so he could come out a crazed, super-powered being who had a fondness for wearing sunglasses in the dark. About Werner and the ACC too. About Maria and Alpha. About Cadence and her lies. About Jericho and his well-being. About Atienna and…. Louise, Reneé, and Scorpio.

Louise—the very thought of her sent bile crawling up Olive’s throat. He remembered knocking Reneé to the ground, sliding those suppression cuffs over Louise’s wrists, and being enveloped in Scorpio’s hot embrace. It was as if he’d done it himself—and technically he had done it himself. 

It just wasn’t fair. There had to have been another way. Louise’s life—a human life… And Reneé: what he’d seen through Hilton’s eyes—Hilton who chose imprisonment to save Louise. It was just all tangled up.

To ease his unease over his many doubts, Olive spent much of his time on the train going through the list of things-to-do that Werner had helped him develop several months prior. Trystan Project, Marta, Arjun and Claire, Gilbert’s arm, Lavi’s condition. As much as Olive hated to admit it, the disturbing memories Epsilon had showed Maria held saint-send information on saint candidacies and baptisms. That paired with what he’d gleaned from Tenzin’s notes was piecing together a puzzle in his mind. Thus, Olive had temporarily set aside working on Gilbert’s prosthetic arm to focus fully on the subject of saint candidacies, and he still felt guilty for doing so despite Werner’s reassurance.

At the moment, Olive was pouring over Tenzin’s notes in a private room in the train compartment he had bought out with Claire. Lugging his conductors, tools, and notes to this small wooden desk pressed up against the wall had been an arduous task that he’d had to take on alone since Derik had refused to help him.  

Derik…

Honestly, the ‘private’ part of this room was a euphemism. Derik was currently splayed out on the bed just behind him, after all. Somehow the Capricornian managed to give him even less privacy than Trystan had—

Trystan. 

Olive shook his head and refocused his attention on the notes for a particular date right before in the middle of the war:

1915.10.09

Successful entry into Pandora, Ophiuchus with Pema. Had to sneak past ‘white guard’. Close encounter with man who wielded 13 white swords as mediums.

Identified reservoir Pema was initially forced into.

Proceeded with plan of approach [see page 15 for details]: 

15 centimeter wide incision above forearm. Result: substance assumed to be vitae spilled out (note: pulled out, attractive property) into reservoirs. Fifteen seconds after, flow of vitae reversed. Failure.

15 centimeter wide incision across chest. Result: substance assumed to be vitae spilled out into reservoirs. Twenty seconds after, flow of vitae reversed. Failure.

20 centimeter wide incision below navel. Result: substance assumed to be vitae spilled out into reservoirs. One minute after, flow of vitae reversed. Failure.

And on and on it went with each recorded incision detailing results and failures. Most likely, Tenzin had been trying to empty out Pema into the reservoirs much like Leo emptied himself near the end of the war. How Tenzin managed to get Sagittarius into a situation where he was able to try and excise the high level vitae from her body—Olive had no clue. That aside, the mechanical language of the records disturbed Olive. He knew Tenzin must have felt something as he was cutting his sister over and over again, right? Or did Tenzin think that Pema wasn’t his sister…?

Olive shivered. 

Following that detailed recording was a long list of different formulas that included variables like body mass, blood pressure, heart rate, atmospheric pressure, air quality, vitae density, and so on. Half of the formulas were erratically written. For most of them, Tenzin had failed to hold certain variables constant, so Olive was unable to discern what was actually influencing the results. It was frustrating—having the idea of the answer but not being able to grasp the steps needed to execute it.

What would Marta think about this? She’d worked with third energy level vitae, after all. Against her will. Maybe she would’ve known something.

Marta…

Olive grimaced and ruminated again.

The only other person who seemed to have any conductor know-how locally was Eunji. And she was what? 13? 14? Olive didn’t want to drag her into this, and he doubted Claire would allow it either. Plus, he wanted Eunji’s friendship with Lavi to remain as it was.

“Derik,” Olive found himself asking suddenly, “what… would you do if I died?” He remained stiff and silent as he waited for an answer and relaxed slightly when he didn’t get one.

“Celebrate.”

Olive turned to face the man and frowned. Derik’s arms were now folded behind his head, and he had a bored look on his face. 

“I don’t fucking know.” Derik shrugged after a beat. “I’d probably try to find someone else I could dedicate myself to. That’s what I feel like I need to do: the dedicating shit.”

Olive arched a brow. “Who?”

The man shrugged again. “That Sagittarian prince dick maybe? No, I’d rather shoot myself. His sister? Nah, that’d be a pain in the ass.” He rubbed his chin before he sighed. “It’s fucking annoying but it has to be you. What the fuck kind of person can’t look over a scrawny-ass brat, anyways? It has to be you. I’m proving a damned point.” There was a pause before Derik suddenly began to ram his foot into the wall below him. “That! Fucking! Chatty bastard! It’s all his fucking fault! That damned Marionette bitch—”

“Saints, Derik…” Olive muttered. “Calm down.” He gestured to the dent that had formed in the wall. “I have to pay for that, you know?”

Derik stopped using the wall as his punching bag, turned, and held Olive’s gaze. “If you died, I’d probably kill myself.”

Olive felt his blood run cold.

“Fuck. I hate it but I’m pretty sure I’d do it. Even though I have so much to live for—girls, booze, money.” Derik scowled. “Dedicating myself to you is my reason for living. If I can’t even do something like that then…” He shook his head. “Shit. Sounds like some sissy bullshit.”

Self-ending thoughts like that had been Olive’s closest friend before he’d met the other five. But hearing someone else say out loud was…? It made Olive feel a bit sick.

“Derik… this… this is an order,” Olive drew slowly. “Even if something happens to me, you have to live. You have to… want to live. Promise me.”

Derik arched a brow at him. “I don’t take orders from you.” After a beat, he relaxed back into the bed. “Well, you don’t have to worry about me dying anytime soon ‘cause have you seen me? I’m fucking awesome. Invincible. You need to stop worrying about people kicking the bucket, kid. Focus on yourself so I don’t have to.”

Olive tensed slightly.

“I can read it all over your face,” Derik retorted. “It’s pathetic.” He shook his head. “Otto was the same way. No matter how hard Fischer and I kicked him he always fucking worried whenever we’d get a vitae-ray to the leg or something.” He grimaced briefly. “People die all the time, kid. It’s something you should get used to.”

“Well, if it’s not from natural causes, I don’t think we should get used to it,” Olive mumbled.

“Whatever. Don’t know where this conversation is going anymore.” Derik crossed his arms. “Why did you ask me that anyways?”

Olive remained silent, looking to the side.

“Is it the captain?” Derik arched a brow when Olive didn’t answer and then continued, “The captain is an annoying bastard who always has his shit together. You can’t get anything past him. He’s like a rock. No point in wasting your time worrying about it.” He jabbed a finger at his temple. “You share thoughts, don’t you? Ever think that you’re stressing people out just by being stressed yourself?”

Olive opened his mouth to retort but—

“I’m done with this conversation. Goodnight.”

And with that, Derik turned towards the wall and started snoring a minute after. It always amazed Olive how quickly the man fell asleep. He supposed it made sense since in the trenches Werner and his unit had to get what little the rest they could when they could. They were probably accustomed to falling asleep on order or on the spot.

Great, Olive thought to himself after thinking on it. He’d just somehow made himself feel even sadder than before. 

As he turned back to his desk to refocus on Tenzin’s notes and dissect the formulas there, a knock at the door resounded.

“Occupied—”

The door creaked open regardless. Much to Olive’s surprise it wasn’t Claire who poked his head into the room but Lyrs. Before Olive could say anything, the Monadic priest slipped inside and made his way over to Olive’s desk. Olive looked to Derik for assistance but the man continued to snore away. So much for the heart-to-heart conversation earlier.

“So is this what kids are into nowadays?” Lyrs stroked his chin as he peered at the notes splayed out on Olive’s table.

Olive quickly concealed everything on his desk by flipping everything over and leaning over it. In response, Lyrs arched a brow.

“Can I help you with something?”

“I just wanted to make sure that you’re still going to endorse Seamus Dolby in the elections,” Lyrs replied nonchalantly. “I am going out of my way for you, you know? It’s a fair deal.”

Olive couldn’t quite follow Lyrs’s logic but he held his tongue. At least, he tried to.  “You’re really all for Seamus, aren’t you…? Do you really think he’s everything that he says he is? From my experience, the more they talk the more they’re tryin’ to hide.”

“Let’s just say that I think he’s a lot better than everyone else on the roster,” Lyrs replied. “Talib Al-Jarrah might seem nice, for example, but I know he’s up to something. Trust me. I’m Scorpioan. I can read my people like a sore thumb.”

Maybe that was because Talib wasn’t Talib.

A dull pain throbbed in Olive’s chest but he rubbed it out. “I’ve never heard of a Monadic priest being so passionate about politics,” he muttered.

“Well, the eighth pillar of Monadism—which I’ve chosen as my pinnacle—is ‘to embrace your passions and pursue them to the fullest and help others pursue them as this is the life given to only you,’” Lyrs replied matter-of-factually. 

“Your passion is politics?”

Lyrs cleared his throat again. “You do remember our deal, right? When we get to where Arjun is, you’ll give your endorsement for Seamus before I tell you exactly where he is.”

“Yeah, I know,” Olive mumbled. “You’ve said it so many times now that I literally hear your voice echoing at the back of my head like a subliminal message…”

Lyrs opened his mouth then closed it.

“How… did you even come across Arjun anyways?”

Lyrs pulled back, crossing his arms. “He came to a Monadic temple I served in a while back. He had all types of weird questions about Monadism and the candidacy ceremonies. Said he was looking for a sense of direction. We spoke often then.”

Olive did a double-take at this. “Saint candidacy ceremonies?”

Lyrs nodded. “He was really interested in the ones that happened during the war.” He shrugged. “Don’t know what for, but he was a polite conversationalist so I let him enjoy himself.” 

Olive digested this information. 

Lyrs’s expression flickered suddenly and he lifted his chin. “And of course I—Lyrs—was gracious enough to provide the information he sought.” 

Olive paused, ears ringing, heart hammering as the familiar speech pattern jangled free one of Maria’s memories. He slowly turned to face Lyrs as the proud smile slid off the man’s face.

Lyrs cleared his throat again and looked around sheepishly. “That’s what they teach you in the temples. Modesty, honesty, lending helping hands.”

The dots connected in Olive’s mind but he tried to force them apart. He didn’t want another Louise.

* * *

Madat, Scorpio

They reached Madat by noon. This place—or so Lyrs ascertained—was where he’d last encountered Arjun, where he was certain Arjun was. 

Madat was a large city that was currently basking in the dawn heat piercing through the overhead gray clouds. Some of the buildings here were made of tanned sandstone and appeared weathered down—not from rain but from sand which Olive could spy caked into the corners where sidewalks met buildings. Contrasting jarringly these beige tones were towering skyscrapers that popped up between every ten or so buildings. A handful of billboards sprouted from the tops of the lower sandstone buildings, and half of them sported the faces of several of the first chairmen and chairwomen—even Talib’s. For Jericho’s sake, Olive turned away from those ones.

As Olive made his way through the streets with the others and luggage in tow, Lyrs finally revealed that he didn’t have Arjun’s exact location. All he had were about ten locations where Arjun could be within the city. Not only that but he refused to provide the locations until Olive and Claire made their first endorsements. Olive had exchanged a displeased look with Claire at this revelation, but Claire merely clapped his hands and agreed. 

Olive thought—this entire thing was starting to evolve from ‘not promising’ to just ‘plain stupid.’

The first two hours after their arrival were then spent gathering random pedestrians in one of the open squares in front of one of the city’s busiest streets.

Claire then nonchalantly gave his statement, praising Seamus for all sorts of things that he seemed to be pulling out from thin air. Claire truly was a politician through and through, Olive thought. Himself? Not so much so despite his work with the Trystan Project. The idea of supporting someone who gave him a bad feeling made him uncomfortable—especially since he still wanted Gabrielle to win. So, Cadence offered him a helping hand, stepped into an override, and completed the gross task for him. When Olive came to again, he was standing in front of a cheering crowd. Eunji, Soha, and Felix ogled him from the sidelines, while Claire merely clapped good-naturedly.

In the evening afterwards, Olive checked in with the others into a local hotel before heading out again as dusk began to pull an indigo blanket over the sky. As per usual, Derik complained about the heat. Again, he found some solace in Felix who quietly agreed with his complaints.

The first place they stopped by was a large Monadic temple dedicated to Scorpio. It looked like every other Monadic temple Maria, Jericho, and Cadence had stepped through in the past two months—although it had a ceiling so high that Olive almost lost balance when he tried to look up and study the designs carved there. At the very back of the temple was a faceless white statue with one hand placed over its heart and the other extended outwards. A priest at the very back welcomed them warmly in Common—at least, that was until he laid eyes on Lyrs after which he started to let out a long string of Scorpioan curses and proceeded to throw them all out before they could get a word in.

All Lyrs had to say to this was— “Didn’t look like Arjun was in there.”

Every Monadic temple they visited in the city had similar results leaving Olive to wonder what sort of monstrous thing Lyrs had to have done to be ostracized to this extent. There was no wonder why he’d been hiding out in Zhūshā Cheng.  

* * *

On their fifth day in the city, they investigated the seventh location on Lyrs’s list—a small garden fenced in by white wooden gates at the far corner of the city away from the traffic. Lavi appeared before Olive just before they were to set off so he made her visible—disguised, of course—and took her along with them.

The garden consisted of several sections divided off by tressiles consumed by crawling verdigris vines. A dirt path led to each section of the garden and joined together at the garden’s center where a familiar faceless statue stood at the heart of a small pond littered with lotuses. 

Water Elementalists dressed in overalls and headwraps waved their conductor-gloved hands through the air, sending splashes of water over the tiny bushes, succulents, and flora. Atienna synchronized lightly with Olive then—although she only offered a small smile and nothing else—and thus he found his attention drawn to the various plants sprouting from out from the various lots. 

Orange tulips, white jasmine, vibrant poppies…

As they wove their way through the garden, Olive took note of the conductor generator humming at the very back of the gardens. It was overgrown with vines, flower buds, and everything green. There was something about the sight that felt poetic. Olive just found it gross.

They didn’t find Arjun here either. As they made their way to the exit together, Derik once again loudly complained about the weather while Eunji and Lavi chattered about which flower they thought was prettiest. Olive was just squeezing out through the narrow white gates himself when a familiar voice rang in his ears—

“Your Highness.”

Olive snapped his head towards the call as he stepped out of the garden’s premises just in time to see a figure that had been standing idle beside the garden’s entrance come at him. The figure’s attire glowed familiarly in the dull sunlight—royal crimson red, dull brown leather—

“Trystan?”

Olive blinked and the mirage faded. It was not Trystan who stood before him now, but someone equally familiar. Alexander Charming. Olive looked him up and down in confusion. Alexander, in turn, held his gaze for a moment before glancing down at Lavi who was still holding his hand. Something flickered in the man’s eyes but it was not recognition.

“What…?” 

Derik barreled forward and tried to shove Alexander to the side. “Who the fuck is this?”

Alexander held his ground and frowned down at him. “I’m the head Ariesian royal guard Alexander Charming. Who are you?” He shoved Derik off of him before kneeling before Olive. “Your Highness, I’ve been sent here for you.”

The few pedestrians passing across the street were beginning to stare.

“How…” Olive regarded Alexander in disbelief. “How did you find me?”

Alexander turned to him. “Your Highness, the queen and king have been extremely concerned about your whereabouts. They sent me to bring you back to Aries—”

Realization dawned on Olive slowly.

They’d been tracking him.

* * *

“Your Highness, what are you doing?!”

“Ollie, I don’t know what’s going on but this is a bit much, isn’t it?”

It was dusk now. The city lights had flickered on half an hour ago; but much like the Twin Cities in Gemini, the sidewalks were still dotted with people.

Olive stood in front of the hotel now surrounded by Claire, Eunji, Felix, Soha, Lyrs, Derik, and Alexander. Lavi was with him still and holding his hand, but she hadn’t spoken once since they’d encountered Alexander in front of the gardens. Olive had spent the previous past half hour pulling all of his belongings out onto the hotel’s front steps, garnering the attention of passing pedestrians who started forming a small crowd on the opposite sidewalk.

Olive didn’t pay them any mind and instead gathered all of his belongings in one big pile. After looking over the luggage, the shirts, the trinkets that he’d gathered over his nearly year-long journey, he extended his fingertips over them and threw out an arc of crimson red. The pile ignited in an instant aided by the dryness of the air. A collective of gasps resounded across the street but Olive again paid them no mind and instead tuned his ears to the crackling and popping of the pile in front of him. The smoke that curled up from it made him want to puke and gag but he bore with it—

“Your Highness!” Alexander whispered, sand grabbing him by the wrist. “Your conducting—”

Derik ripped Alexander’s hand away, but Alexander held his ground and pressed, “If people see you—”

“It doesn’t matter if people know or not anymore,” Olive returned, meeting Alexander’s eyes. “It’s different now, Alexander—”

Alexander regarded him with an expression of incredulity but Olive returned his attention to his smoldering belongings—the items his aunt and uncle must have been mediums on. The royal guard tensed and took a step backwards. 

Oh, that was right, Olive realized—Alexander hadn’t seen him control his conducting in person, had he? No, Alexander probably still recalled him as that bratty prince who would always run away during university lessons.

Another hand around the wrist stopped Olive from blazing out another crimson whip of fire. It was not Alexander, however. Not Derik or Claire either. And not Werner. Instead, Cadence stood there wide-eyed and half-frowning, half-smiling. She placed her hands on his shoulders and gave him a rough shake.

“Kid,” she started, “I agree that the situation surroundin’ the whole royal high command is messed up. It sucks. It ain’t right.”

Olive, caught off guard by her sudden appearance, stared at her in confusion.

“And it’s pretty awful for your aunt and uncle ta put a medium on ya to track ya without askin’,” Cadence said, pushing him back gently. “But there’s better things ta do with all these… potential mediums than just lightnin’ ‘em up.”

Olive studied her, not quite understanding. Cadence pinched her fingers together as she patted him on the shoulder again with a wink. Money. Slowly, the anchor that had been pulling down Olive’s chest lessened and lessened in weight. Soon, all that remained was a growing sense of embarrassment.

Oh, damn it, he thought as he glanced around the area. He was stupid. That had been a stupid move.

Ya ain’t stupid, kid, Cadence reassured him. Your idea ain’t bad. The execution’s just a bit off.

Claire proceeded to whip out his conductor and extinguish the flames consuming what remained of Olive’s belongings. Surprisingly, his flames eaten away very little of his belongings. 

More ta sell. Good ta sell. 

Olive turned to Alexander and studied the familiar badge hanging from his belt. “Alexander, I know you’re doing what you think is best and that you’re just doing your job, but…” He lifted his head and met the man’s eyes. “Alexander Charming—this is an order. Don’t follow me anymore. Return home to Aries and tell the king and queen that I’m going to continue supporting Prince Yuseong here. I’m doing it to improve our relationships with other countries. I will ensure that Claire takes the throne, and I will work to improve our relations with Capricorn from there. Go home. You don’t need to check up on me any longer.”

Alexander appeared taken a back for a moment. But after a few seconds, he finally managed, “Your Highness, I know you mean well, but these are complicated times and your aunt and uncle—”

“I understand that it’s complicated. I understand what they told you to do,” Olive returned, looking down at the ground.  “And I’m sorry for putting you in a… uncomfortable positions over and over again. You were… always… good to me.” He lifted his chin to meet Alexander’s eyes. “But… But when I come of age, I’m going to be the one ascending the throne”—Just saying the words sent Olive’s head spinning— “Do you understand? Whatever happens here is on me. Alexander, you can try taking me by force—but whether it’s just you or if you bring other guards with you, you won’t be able to drag me home.”

Alexander remained silent.

Wiping the sweat from his brow, Olive glanced around the area again. The whispering crowd still cluttered together on the opposite side of the street—still skirting away but remaining attentive to the scene. Except for one person. A man. He was not keeping to the sidewalk across the hotel like the other onlookers. Instead, he was walking steadily towards Olive from across the road. The man’s style of dress was odd: despite the heat thinning the air, he had a large fur coat thrown over his shoulders. Jarringly paired with this clothes item was a bow-tie tuxedo that glimmered with sew-in gem studs. Cancerian in origin. The man’s hair was jet black and tied up into a familiar ponytail.

Olive stared as recognition dawned on him. “Hideyoshi…?”

Cadence lightly grabbed his shoulder. Yeah…. That’s him alright. That’s Hide. 

What’s he doing all the way over here in Scorpio?

Touristing… probably, Cadence reasoned with a tight expression. At least he was—ya know—before…

Olive could feel Atienna pull close. 

The Hideyoshi that was coming closer and closer to Olive now, however, didn’t seem anything like the man Cadence had encountered in the Twin Cities and in Argo. The charm that had glimmered in his eyes the first time Cadence had encountered him was nowhere to be found. Instead, it was overshadowed by a dull glint that was so intense that it seemed to have pushed down bags beneath his eyes. He was muttering something under his breath that Olive couldn’t quite hear.

Cadence placed a hand on Olive’s shoulder again and pulled him back. 

Wait. This was bad. Scorpio was probably watching. And if Scorpio realized that Hideyoshi was a True Conductor too from their interaction then—

Mind racing, Olive tried his best to hold Hide’s flickering gaze and pressed his fingers to his lips, but—

“That conducting…” Hideyoshi whispered, gesturing to Olive’s smoldering hands. His eyes widened as he reached for his hip. “You were in the cave. You’re like us. You were with Atienna. You—”

A black bird landed on Olive’s smoking suitcase and let out one loud caw. The sound echoed in the silence that stretched for a second afterwards before a cloud of blackbirds suddenly appeared like a storm above them. The crowd screeched and scattered as the birds descended. Soon, the flock covered every square inch of the sidewalk and street within a fifteen feet radius of the hotel. Only a few pedestrians remained—land locked by all of the birds.

Claire chuckled nervously beside Olive as Soha, Felix, Derik, and Alexander tensed.

“Not this fucking bastard again,” Derik spat under his breath. “Oh, I’ll fucking show him—”

“Derik,” Olive whispered back, tense, “You’re not going to fight against a bunch of birds and win. Just… wait.”

“The True Conductor,” one of the few remaining pedestrians drew, staring at Hideyoshi. “Get the True Conductor.” Their gaze shifted to Olive. “Get the True Conductor. The deal.”

Scorpio.

“He always goes too far,” Lavi murmured beside Olive suddenly. 

Olive turned to her just in time to see her vanish before his eyes. He unwittingly, reflexively dispelled her illusion as she faded drawing the attention of Eunji and Alexander. 

Every single bird in the flock had now turned their beaks towards Hideyoshi. They fluttered their wings in unison before taking flight and swathing around him. In the blink of an eye, Hideyoshi was surrounded by a cloud of black birds that swirled around him like a tornado. They pecked, cawed, flapped—deafening Olive’s ears.

A high-pitched whistle abruptly tore through the air as wind snapped through the street. The surrounding area flooded with a bursting rain of black feathers as the wind pushed away the birds and sent them fluttering away from Hideyoshi. Hideyoshi in turn lowered his arms and stared down the street. Olive followed his gaze. 

A young man stood there at the center of the road. In his hands he wielded a long, sleek, black bow conductor. He was dressed in a collared robe slightly similar in fashion to the ones Olive had seen Mai and Kai wear. His robes were, however, pure white in color and touched all the way down to his ankles. His jet black wavy hair that fell down just above his ears contrasted sharply with the whiteness as did his dark skin.

“Arjun,” Claire breathed.

Olive startled in surprise as he looked back at the young man. Olive supposed if anyone screamed elegance and royalty, it was this person.

“Claire…?” Arjun stared back at Claire in disbelief before lowering his bow. His gaze then flickered to Lyrs beside him. “Lyrs, is that you? You…” 

Lyrs waved. 

Arjun looked back at Claire and held his gaze for a moment before he bowed his head. “Claire, you’re here because of father, aren’t you?” His voice was deep, smooth, milky.

“Soha, Felix, take Eunji away,” Claire drew calmly, flipping his conductor once. Before the two could object, he snapped with a smile. “That’s an order.” He proceeded to extend a hand out to Arjun.  “Arjun, would you mind coming with me?”

Arjun let out a sigh. “This has to do with the succession, doesn’t it? I don’t want any involvement in it.” He gestured across the street towards Hideyoshi. “Hideyoshi, let’s go.”

Olive did a double-take. Arjun and Hideyoshi knew each other?

Before Olive could digest the revelation fully, Claire abruptly whipped his conductor out in an arc sending a whip of blue-speckled air at Arjun. Arjun startled before twirling his own conductor in a circle and breaking apart the burst of air with his own burst of air. 

“I see there is little point in discussion,” Arjun sighed.

With that, he shot up to the sky with his conductor. Claire immediately followed after him, leaving behind a loud shaking boom in his wake. Felix shouted at him in alarm.

Olive, came Atienna’s warning, look out—

Olive looked forward just in time to see Hideyoshi lunging at him with the conducting blade he’d drawn out from his belt. It ignited in a streak of cobalt blue before coming down like a comet. In a flash, Derik darted forward, ripping a conducting blade from his own belt and bringing it up to block the blow. He held Hideyoshi there with one arm as he used the other to inch towards the conducting pistol clipped to his waist. He wasn’t able to pull it out from its holster completely, however, as Hideyoshi quickly swept his legs beneath him. Derik hit the ground with a thud but not before managing to slice through Hideyoshi’s coat and send the man’s blade flying off into the distance.

Hideyoshi stumbled back before ripping off the fur coat entirely.

“That’s… Kuroihoshi Hideyoshi, isn’t it?” Soha whispered tensely behind Olive. “He was known during the war as the Black Reaper. I heard he died while in service to the Hoshi Clan several years ago, but…”

That guy? Hide? ‘Black Reaper’? That ain’t an exactly pleasant moniker…

Olive grimaced. 

Well, that’s why they say appearances are deceivin’—

Olive blinked.

 Suddenly Hideyoshi was in front of him again. In the two or so steps the man had taken to get from his position to Olive, he’d somehow drawn one of Alexander’s conducting blades out from his belt and had activated it. It sparked at its hilt due to the incompatibility, but still Hideyoshi swung out the weapon wildly without restraint. Olive reflexively threw out an arc of flame at the slash of blue that came down on him, but Hideyoshi cut through it and continued forwards.

Olive stumbled backwards, landing on his rear as Hideyoshi’s blade continued downwards. A thin line of cyan light blocked the blade before it finished its course. Soha, holding the hilt of the blade, pushed backwards against Hideyoshi before sending him backwards with a high kick to the chest. She backed away towards Eunji then and locked eyes with Olive.

“It’s… fine,” Olive answered her unasked question. “Just take Eunji and go already. Be careful about the birds. I’ll… look after Claire.”

Soha hesitated for a moment before she picked Eunji up by the scruff, tucked her under her arms, and darted down the road. Felix followed after them, picking Lyrs up by the scruff and towing him away.

“Where is she?!” Hideyoshi demanded, barreling forwards and plucking Derik’s blade from where it lay a foot away from Derik’s groaning form. “Where’s Louise?!”

Derik perked up immediately with a snap. “Hey, you bastard, that’s mine!”

Hideyoshi ignored him and swung the blade again at Olive, but Derik charged forward and tackled the man to the side. Derik struggled for a moment to pin Hideyoshi to the ground before he was kicked backwards and barely missed a decapitation by his own blade. 

Alexander grabbed at Olive’s arm and pulled him close behind him as Hideyoshi threw the conducting blade at him. The blade whizzed high above Olive’s head—missing by a high margin. A familiar loud clang resounded from behind him, however, and Olive immediately shoved both himself and Alexander to the ground as the vitae blade which had rebounded from the wall behind them soared above their heads and back into Hideyoshi’s hands. Alexander proceeded to scramble to his feet.

“Do you understand that the person you’re trying to attack is the Ariesian royal prince?” Alexander demanded.

Hideyoshi stiffened briefly before he continued forward. Alexander caught Hideyoshi by the wrist as the former swung his blade. A second afterwards, however, Alexander was flat on his back. Derik fired at Hideyoshi next and managed to catch a bullet in Hideyoshi’s arm—but the man continued on blocking the rest of the vitae rays with precise slashes of his conductor. The black bird cloud above their heads shifted suddenly, and they darted down to swarm not Hideyoshi but Derik. The man swore in alarm as he lowered his pistol and tried to swat them away.

“Derik!” Olive shrieked as terror tore through him. “Stop! Stop! Stop attacking him! Get away! Run! Scorpio will go after anyone who tries to hurt any True Conductors—me or Hideyoshi! You’ll be infected again!”

Derik tensed before ducked under the birds and sought cover beneath the roofing of an adjacent building. He snapped from cover—“You fucking run then, you dumbass!”

“Your Highness… ” Alexander pulled out his own conducting blade and ignited it in flame.

Olive shoved Alexander away. “You too, Alexander!” He pointed to the sky. “Don’t let any of those things come near you!”

“What?” Alexander stumbled in confusion.

Olive sighed in frustration as Hideyoshi continued to limp towards him. His gaze then darted to the handful of pedestrians still frozen in shock across the street and then to the cloud of blackbirds above. He turned on his heels a second after and dashed down the street. 

“Your Highness!” Alexander shouted after him in confusion, but Olive ignored him.

Olive continued down the sandy road with Hideyoshi at his feet and Scorpio’s flock tailing him from above. At this rate, Scorpio really would get a hold of Hideyoshi and—

Olive refused to have it play out like that—

Kid, I think ya have bigger problems than that, Cadence thought. 

Cadence, Olive thought desperately, squeezing his hand that was ringed with her conductors.

Got it, kid, Cadence thought from beside him as she placed her hand over his. Let’s go dark.

Olive rounded a corner into a narrow alleyway just as popping crimson sparked at his fingertips. He immediately pulled back and pressed against the alley’s left wall as the red transmutation consumed him completely. Invisible to the naked eye in an instant.

Hideyoshi rounded the corner a second after and sped past Olive in down the alleyway. He slowly skidded to a stop and looked around in confusion as he reached a dead end. Turning on his heels, he swept past Olive and peered up and down the street. He backed into the alley once more, coming to a stop right in front of Olive. 

Olive tensed.

Hideyoshi turned suddenly and threw a hand out in Olive’s direction. Olive gasped as Hideyoshi’s fingers wrapped around his throat and began squeezing tighter and tighter. Grimacing, Olive dispelled the illusion.

“I’ve seen this trick more than once before in the war,” Hideyoshi said darkly.

Tears pricked Olive’s eyes as his gaze floated up to the skyline where the black birds fluttered erratically.

He had to get away from Hideyoshi, but he also had to get Hideyoshi away from the birds. 

Guided by Atienna’s hand, Olive sent his palm upwards towards Hideyoshi’s nose like Derik had taught him. There was a loud crack! before Hideyoshi released him, stumbled backwards, and cradled his face. Olive took the opportunity to duck beneath the man and ran back out onto the street. He scanned the buildings desperately before—

There!

He darted into the bookstore just across the road. The shop’s interior was small and narrow with walls made of shelves that ran up all the way to the ceiling. Surprisingly, there were a dozen people crowded inside. A store clerk manned the very back desk behind which there was a glass door revealing another alleyway.

Perfect.

“Get out!” Olive snapped at the shoppers and the clerk. When they all stared blankly at him, he surrounded his hand in flames and swung it through the air. “Get out now!”

The group immediately shrieked in alarm before crowding together and squeezing through the shop’s narrow front exit—save for the clerk who bolted out the back door. As the crowd thinned and exited the building, Olive was able to make out a lone figure standing still like a statue at the exit’s threshold. Hideyoshi. Soon, it was just him that remained.

As Hideyoshi stepped forward, Olive threw his hand out towards the bookshelves lining the door behind the man. They immediately caught fire and burst into crimson flames that consumed the entire shelf. Hideyoshi looked back in confusion, which was when Olive took the opportunity to throw a ring of flames around him. Upon looking forward again, Hideyoshi stiffened in realization before his eyes narrowed. The hatred in his eyes was jarring.

Still, Olive held his ground. With his conducting, he knew that the advantage would always lay on his side of the field. He might as well make use of it.

“Where’s Louise?!” Hideyoshi snapped, swinging his conducting blade in an arc so hard that the wind from it temporarily extinguished Olive’s flames.

“I… don’t know…” Olive stammered, throwing another ring out. “I think she’s beneath the Serpens Establishment… where they take the others.”

“Why…?” Hideyoshi whispered, nearing the edge of the fire as smoke thickened in the air. “Why couldn’t you leave us alone?”

Olive brought his elbow to his face as his stomach churned with the smell of smoke. The fire was spreading now along the shelves bolstered to the walls. Crisp, burnt book pages were falling down through the smoke.

 “It…was part of a deal,” Olive responded, coughing slightly, stomach curling with guilt. “We have to bring in other True Conductors or we’d—”

“So just to protect your own group, you sacrifice other groups and claim it’s for the greater good,” Hideyoshi stated, dull eyes flickering in the firelight. He pulled back. “You’re no better than the princes and princesses dancing around in the clan system. You understand what it’s like, don’t you? Being with someone who is with you at all times. Having someone who truly understands you and lends you a helping hand when you need it. But look at you.” He turned his back to Olive. “You’ve turned something beautiful into something ugly.”

Olive could feel Atienna stir at the words. Cadence placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder but said nothing.

“Why couldn’t you just leave us alone?” Hideyoshi continued in a whisper. “We wouldn’t have done anything. We don’t care about whatever is going on outside of us. It was just us.” It seemed as if Hideyoshi was talking to himself now—reassuring himself even maybe.  “It was fun to be an idiot. If it makes the world easier to live in, then why not do it?”

The words rang in the back of Olive’s head for a reason he didn’t know. Doing things to make the world easier to live in—that was what Atienna and Werner were doing, weren’t they? Doing things to make the world easier to live in for him, Cadence, Maria, Jericho. Doing things like lying to people and rejecting them made things easier. But rejecting people and lying to them never really got anywhere, did it? That was something that Olive had learned when he’d finally left the royal palace—and yet despite that, he’d rejected Lyrs and in a sense lied to Reneé. 

It was frustrating. It had to change.

“Hideyoshi…” Olive tried. “I’ll help you. And Louise. I can… We can try. No, we’ll do it. We’ll get her out.”

Olive could feel Atienna tense.

Hideyoshi turned and studied him. “How many people have you told that to…?”

“One other person,” Olive replied slowly. “And I intend to keep the promise I made to him too.” He clenched his fists and looked to the side where Cadence’s and Atienna’s images stood faintly flickering. “Whatever it is that’s happening in Signum is more than what just one group of us can handle. Going along with what they want—the people pulling the strings… It’s just a temporary ‘solution’ to our problems. There’s… no point in going through with it all of the way until the end. It’s just—there’s no point.” He looked back up at Hideyoshi. “So please, Hideyoshi, just run away from here for now. The birds outside are being controlled by the Manipulator we came across in Die Hauptstadt. If they somehow follow you after you kill me or try to kill me, then it’s over for you. The Manipulator—Scorpio—will find you.” He hacked for a minute as tears stung his eyes. “There’s no way you can save Louise if you’re locked up with her too. And… And I have someone who has enough access to get to her—”

“You’re asking me to forgive you, run away, and wait for your help?”

“I know you won’t forgive me,” Olive muttered. “I can’t understand what you’re going through, and I can’t even manage to imagine it. All I’m saying is… I’m just asking you to take this chance. It’s a better chance than all the other chances out there to get Louise out of where she is now. Please. I promise you.”

Hideyoshi remained silent.

Olive ignited the bookshelf wall to his left before pointing to the door behind him that was slowly seeping out the smoke from inside. He coughed and threw up a bit in his mouth but managed to keep his head held high. “The smoke in here is enough cover for you to avoid being seen by Scorpio’s mediums—I think.”

Olive lowered his hand and stopped feeding the flames encircling Hideyoshi. After a moment, the embers there died down. Hideyoshi came at him then, stopping short only when he was an inch away. He held Olive’s gaze, and Olive had to resist trembling—Cadence’s and Atienna’s presences acted as a reassurance.

“You’re a child,” was all Hideyoshi said.

Olive managed, “If you ever find a weird black stain when you’re going around, go up to it and say that I—Olive Chance—sent you. It might take some time since you don’t have a proto-conductor, but the person on the opposite end will help you. I promise.”

Hideyoshi’s eyes narrowed before he briskly brushed past Olive and walked towards the back exit. He paused at the emblazoned threshold and turned to lock eyes with him before disappearing into the flames.

Olive felt himself relax slightly before Cadence pressed—

Kid. Ya gotta get outta here too.

Olive started towards the back exit but then paused and turned towards the front exit that was now just a ring of fire. Squeezing his eyes shut, he charged onwards and threw himself forwards. Intense heat licked his skin as he passed through the threshold, but he managed to stumble out from the building and onto the sidewalk. Hacking and coughing blindly, he made it across the street before he collapsed onto the ground. The sky was completely black now—the street lamps populating the street just barely illuminating the darkness. 

The ground shook with pounding footsteps beneath his head shortly after, and he looked up to find Derik and Alexander hovering over with annoyance on one end and alarm on the other. Olive blinked blearily at them both before he was jerked up into a stand by Derik.

“What the fuck happened?” Derik pressed.

“Hideyoshi’s gone,” was all Olive provided, glancing weakly up at the sky.

There were still a few birds perched on top of the buildings. One fluttered down towards him and landed only a few feet away. It approached him steadily before peering at him with one eye. Derik whipped out his pistol and fired at it, but it flapped back up into the sky quickly. 

A loud boom abruptly rumbled through the sky followed by a burst of glowing blue overhead. Olive looked up just in time to see that the clouds had parted with the light-speckled wind and now revealed the clear night sky that was being illuminated by the full moon.  High up there and being accented by the lunar light hovered Claire and Arjun—both facing each other, both balancing on top their conductors. Olive noted how both of them wobbled almost off-balance in the air—like they were about to tumble down at any moment. It was an unusual sight since he recalled Claire always being annoyingly graceful when riding his conductor through the clouds.

The air, Olive realized a beat after. It was hot despite the time of day. The air here was less dense than the cool air of Sagittarius, making lift more difficult to achieve. These two were playing a dangerous game. Or—they were stupid. Probably both. 

“So you’re running away again?” Claire called out at Arjun from across the distance. “Wasn’t almost a decade of running away enough for you?”

“You blame me for running away,” Arjun returned calmly, “but you’re still playing father’s game after all of these years. Do you realize what you’re asking of me?”

“If I bring you to our father,” Claire responded, “then I’ll be crowned emperor. I’ll be able to abolish the clan system after that. You do remember that, don’t you? You wanted to do that too—”

“Claire, you talk about being free from the clan system,” Arjun returned, “but you are still bound by its machinations. How can you do away with it if you’re still playing by it?”

In response, Claire whipped his conductor at Arjun and sent a burst of air at him. He temporarily fell as he did so but caught himself back on his conductor a moment afterwards. Arjun barely managed to throw himself out of its range before he shot up even higher into the sky. He floated there for a moment above them all before he pulled his bow conductor from beneath his feet. And then, he fell.

As he descended, he aimed his bow conductor downwards at them and pulled back on the bow’s invisible string. An arrowhead of sharp blue light ignited at the center of the bow where an arrowhead would have rested. As Arjun pulled back on that invisible string tighter and tighter, the light grew and grew before he released that string. The blue arrowhead shot forth in a burst of wind, producing a sonic boom that shook the buildings and shattered the windows. Olive felt like his skeleton was going to be torn out from his body by the vibrations.

Claire was thrown off his conductor by the force of the wind and fell onto the roof of one of the nearby tall buildings. His conductor clattered down with him. Olive’s heart skipped a beat in alarm, worry, and fear, but relief came as Claire picked himself up a second after and shot back up to the sky with his conductor. Arjun had already caught himself from his fall and hovered up in the air at a higher point above Claire.

Ears ringing and maybe even bleeding from the aftermath of the boom, Olive blanched. He knew that he was getting himself into some complicated family feud but this just felt like a soap opera. At the rate things were going, the Sagittarian princes were both going to kill each other—which defeated the whole purpose of trying to find Arjun to begin with. 

Mind racing, Olive started after them with Alexander and Derik at his feet. As he stopped directly below the two princes, Felix broke out from an adjacent alleyway beside him.

“My Lord!” Felix called out in alarm before he darted across the street towards a tall building—most likely intending to scale it to reach Claire.

Before Felix made it past him, however, Olive grabbed a hold of the man’s wrist. Felix squinted back at him in confusion from behind his mask.

“Wait. Trust me.”

Felix tensed, then nodded.

Grimacing, Olive held out a hand up in the air before he shot up flames with all his might. The flames barely skirted two feet below both princes—but Olive knew that the heat of his flames were swathing them. Claire looked down at him with an arched brow, while Arjun stared down at him with widening eyes—

“So I wasn’t seeing things earlier. Without a conductor—you—”

Before Arjun could finish his sentence, his conductor bowed beneath him. He fell to his knees on his conductor and began to sway on it as it jerked up and down. The speckled air pouring out from it spun around through the sky erratically. Claire was in a similar situation, now crouched on his conductor as he continuously wobbled up and down on it.

Olive dispelled his flames once both princes began to descend haphazardly downwards. Eventually both reached ground-level and stumbled down onto opposite sides of the street in front of him. 

Claire’s gaze remained fixated on Arjun, but he still pressed in a light tone, “Ollie, what are you doing—”

“Wait, Claire.” Olive held his hand out to him before turning to Arjun who was regarding him quietly. “Arjun, you’re looking into the saint candidates, aren’t you?”

Arjun remained silent, studying Olive apprehensively. Claire, on the other hand, stiffened. 

“Does me conducting without a conductor mean anything to you?” Olive pressed. When he received no response, he pressed, “We might be trying for the same thing.”

Arjun lowered his conductor slightly, gaze flitting towards Claire. “Are you working with my brother?”

“Yes, I’m working with Claire. Our goals align,” Olive responded tightly. “Claire’s probably way more involved in all of this than you think…” He looked between the two of them. “You’re looking into something specific, right? That’s why you were with Hideyoshi and looking into candidate ceremonies. Lyrs said that you were searching for a direction. I—we—might have some answers for you.”

Arjun looked him over for a beat before asking, “Where is Hideyoshi?”

“I can explain,” Olive drew steadily, holding out a placating hand, “But it’s complicated. I think it’s better for us all to exchange information and talk instead of throwing tornadoes at each other. We’re all royalty, aren’t we?”

“Royalty?” Arjun looked Olive up and down again.

“I’m the Ariesian prince,” Olive replied, gesturing to himself. “Olivier Chance.”

Arjun lowered his conductor completely and rested its edge against the ground. He bowed his head. “I apologize for my drastic actions, Prince Chance. I’m ashamed that you had to witness such behavio—”

Claire abruptly whipped out his conductor and sent a razor burst of air hurtling towards Arjun. The other prince barely had the time to snap to him in alarm before he was thrown back hard against the building wall behind him. He hit the ground unconscious a second after, his bow conducting clattering unattended at his side.

 “Cuff him, Felix,” Claire ordered. “Now.”

Felix moved to complete the order, darting to Arjun’s side, turning him over, and conjuring a pair of cuffs which he slapped over the man’s wrists.

Olive turned to Claire in shock and upset but paused as he saw a thin smile of victory pull its way up Claire’s lips. The prince’s eyes glinted with a dull and unfamiliar hunger and desperation. 

Olive looked away from the unnerving scene and turned to Alexander who was studying him silently. “You don’t have to worry about me anymore, Alexander. I can handle things on my own. And if I can’t, I have other people here with me too.”

* * *

Olive stared up at the ceiling of his hotel room with a frown. He hadn’t heard a response from Werner or Atienna yet about his declaration. Atienna had folded quietly away afterwards and Werner had yet to touch in.  

Arjun was still bound in cuffs three rooms over and was being guarded tightly by Soha and Felix. Two rooms over resided Alexander who stated that he planned to head back to Aries as soon as day broke. Olive could hear Lyrs snoring just a room over. The Monadic priest had cheerily rejoined them after their short battle, acting as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. He’d glanced at Arjun’s unconscious and bound body with a mild look of sympathy and had even placed a hand over his heart before reminding both Claire and Olive himself to sponsor Seamus. Lyrs then proceeded to invite himself on their journey up until they cast their votes to ensure their end of the deal.

If the situation were slightly different, Olive would’ve shot Lyrs down right away. But Lyrs presented a possibility. An opportunity to reach out to Veles through him. It as tricky but—

The memory of Claire’s hollow gaze interrupted Olive’s thought, and he shot up from his bed with a sigh of annoyance. He glared at the scorched luggage stuffed in the corner of his room. He intended to sell it all the following morning following their departure but the sight of it still churned his stomach.  To the pile’s left sat Derik snoring loudly away.

Olive studied the man for a moment before sighing and pulling himself off of his bed. He snuck quietly out from his room and moved through the halls into the dining room of the hotel. Given the lateness of the hour, all the tables of the dining room were empty save for one. Claire sat bowed over this table at the room’s center—elbows propped on its surface, head buried in his hands. 

Grumbling under his breath, Olive approached him from behind before seating himself at an adjacent table.

Claire stirred and glanced at him in surprise. “Ollie? You’re not asleep yet?”

“How can I sleep after that?” Olive grumbled.

Claire shrugged nonchalantly before pointing to the open kitchen across the room. “Did you want to grab something to eat? I haven’t had the chance to try any Scorpioan food before. I’ve seen pictures though. Looks pretty good—”

“So what now?”

Claire blinked at him. “What do you mean? We take Arjun to Ophiuchus for his ceremony, ring in the Monadic priests in Sagittarius, and then bring him back to Sagittarius after that.”

“You put it so lightly…” Olive muttered. “And then what?”

“And then my father crowns me emperor and I abolish the clan system,” Claire replied sing-song. “I do away with that silly little tariff my father put on Capricorn and then… everything falls into place.”

“And after that?” Olive pressed. “What about the syzygy?”

Claire’s eyes lost focus briefly. “What about the syzygy?”

“Well, I told you what Maria saw from Epsilon’s vitae, didn’t I?” Olive replied. “It’s obviously not a very good thing.” He glanced at Claire. “Claire, I don’t think your idea is bad or stupid. I think it’s… good of you… or something. I just think the execution is off.”

Claire quieted and scanned the room for a while before finally speaking, “I guess Aunt Jiji is—or will be… And Arjun will…”

“Yeah…” Olive drew slowly, scanning the room too. “I don’t really understand what your relationship with him is, but even though you were throwing him around—you…” He grimaced, cheeks flushing slightly. “… cared about him, right? I mean, you usually don’t get that angry at people that you care about unless you have issues.”

Claire turned to him.

“I’m just stating the obvious,” Olive muttered.

Claire answered after a beat, “It wasn’t just me who was all gung-ho for doing away with the clan system, you know? There were more like me. Kai and Mai were all for it and so was Trang. We had this whole plan when we were younger. We wouldn’t participate in activities; we held protests in the middle of the courts. A youthful, peaceful rebellion kind of thing.” He smiled almost fondly for a moment. “We were caught and punished for it though. Since we were royals, they were lenient on us and just demanded for us to point out which one of us ‘manipulated’ the others into going along with our ‘movement.’ We were young. Arjun took the fall for it in the end.”

“That’s why he was exiled…?”

“He was supposed to be exiled for only a short while. But by the time his exile ended, the others had given up on the idea of abolishing the system,” Claire muttered, grimacing. “Arjun never came back which just caused father to extend his exile. He—”

“—ran away,” Olive finished. “You think he ran away.”

Claire said nothing for a while, before he suddenly chirped, “I… think you’re pretty tough, Ollie, you know that? You’ve been through a lot but you still keep going and keep at it in the same direction without faltering. I think that’s pretty impressive.”

Olive arched a brow. “Are you planning to kill me or betray me soon or something? What’s with this sappiness?” 

Claire just chuckled. “Hey now. We’re friends aren’t we, Ollie?”

There was a beat of silence.

“I guess…” Olive rubbed a strand of his hair between his fingers. “Yes, we’re friends.” He flushed a second afterwards.

“It’s always nice to have someone who understands,” Claire said before Olive could take back his words. “I know we have the people in our circle, but having someone outside of it who understands is really nice. Overlaps and everything. Like, for example, Andres can be a handful sometimes. Sigrid can make me get carried with things.”

“Yeah,” Olive agreed after a beat, “Maria can be a handful sometimes too.”

“I hope your person’s alright—Maria, I mean,” Claire drew slowly. “That… Alpha…” He glanced over at Olive. “I’m really sorry about what happened there. The saint candidates, ELPIS—it feels like we’re just playing pieces in their game.” He placed a hand to his chin as his eyes glinted.  “The question is how we turn ourselves from pieces into players.”

Olive arched a brow at him before his thoughts strayed to Maria. “Andres was in a Monadic orphanage, right?” 

Claire nodded.  “I’m honestly not much of a religious person—Sagittarius is mostly agnostic—but Andres’s fervor… is really something else. Sometimes I find myself reciting those Monadic pillars before I sleep.”

“Andres—did he grow up in an orphanage?” Olive tensed. “Sorry if that’s personal, but…”

Claire stilled but nodded. “It’s hard for me to talk about…” He grimaced. “Because of how Andres feels about it… I understand what you’re trying to ask though.”

“‘Either you become the shining star—’”

“‘—or the night sky that supports the star,’” Claire finished, rubbing the back of his neck. “Like I said, it’s hard for me to talk about it, but I do want to help you with the… Alpha thing.”

Olive nodded, falling silent in thought.

“You know—I feel like you know too much about me now.” Claire laughed. “You know, usually when two characters have a heart-to-heart moment like this in books, one of them usually dies not so long after.”

“Don’t… say that.” Olive muttered, tensing as he recalled Derik’s words on the train earlier. 

“It was just a joke, Ollie,” Claire reassured him.

“A bad one,” Olive muttered, shivering and rubbing his arms as a chill crept out from his spine and into his limbs. “Words… they’re never enough but they can still do things. If you say things like that even as a joke—self-deprecating things and everything—it just hammers it down.” He rubbed his arms harder. “I don’t know…”

Claire arched a brow. “That sounds like a lot of baggage.”

“Hello: you just told me your dramatic tragic backstory—again.

For context,” Claire replied. “If you don’t give me context, I won’t have any clue what you’re talking about when you say things like that, Ollie.”

“Whatever.”

They sat in silence for a while.

“About Arjun and the ceremony—” Olive began, turning to Claire and shivering again. He stopped short when he registered Claire staring at him wide-eyed.

“Ollie… you’re shaking like crazy.” Claire rose from his seat, closed the distance between them, and peered into his face. “Are… you okay?” 

Olive frowned as he rose from his table but staggered forward as the world around him spun dizzyingly. Claire caught him and said something but Olive couldn’t quite understand him—he sounded like he was underwater. Olive gripped his chest as his vision blurred. His heart didn’t feel like it was his own—hammering off-beat, chaotically, painfully.

“Is it one of the others?” Claire’s voice finally broke through. “It’s not Maria—I can see her. She’s—”

But it was one of the others. 

Olive reached out to each of them as his breath became ragged.

It wasn’t Cadence who was stumbling through what appeared to be a hotel hallway. It wasn’t Maria either who was doubled over Morandi’s hospital bed. Not Atienna who was curled over a bathroom sink. Not Jericho who was being supported by Leona as his knees buckled in front of a group of Monadic priests. But if not them, then who—

Olive’s vision flickered and for a moment he found himself lying on the floor of a familiar bathroom. Shards of glass and several cracked vials were scattered around him along the tiled floor. The door across from him was closed, and the v-lights above the sink were flickering on and off. The mirror just below it reflected back a nauseatingly familiar sight: smoke, curling up pleasantly towards the ceiling. 

He was cold, shaking—but also hot at the same time. Sweat was dribbling down his brow as he struggled to breathe. Gripped in his left hand was a packet of bundled leaves. In his other hand was a familiar black pocket watch that was steadily ticking time away.

Werner—

25.⭑: War & Santos

In-Transit, Taurus

The click-clacking of the train had embedded itself into Elizabeta’s bones. However, the nausea twisting her stomach into knots was not as terrible as it had been when she’d been riding on these trains two weeks prior. The medication she’d taken was doing good work it seemed. Or perhaps it was that her nausea was medicated by the warm and curly head that currently rested on her lap. Her darling little Csilla.

Elizabeta hadn’t yet asked her daughter about the syzygy nor about the past iterations of Taurus. That wasn’t necessary to what their goal was, and those facts didn’t matter to Elizabeta at all. That didn’t stop her curiosity, however. After all, the Saint Candidate of Taurus was active during the war. She wondered if they’d ever encountered each other during that tumultuous period.

“Mama,” Csilla said suddenly. “I saw you during the war. You and Papa both.”

Elizabeta tensed, wondering if her daughter could somehow read her thoughts. Instead of voicing this aloud, she ran a hand through Csilla’s hair. “It’s alright, honey. You don’t have to—”

“No.” Csilla turned her head and met Elizabeta’s eyes. “I want to tell you.”


✦ I ✦

September 1910
Oros

Jardíndeoro, Leo

Leonhart Gloria-Ariete, the Saint Candidate of Leo, presses through the red clay halls of the Oros Royal Palace with his head held high and his gaze calmly sweeping. He takes note of the gold-painted laurels lapping the points where the walls meet the ceiling and then the pearly vases placed in front of the heavy steel doors just ahead. These recent additions to the palace are the best ones incorporated in the past century.

As soon as Leo reaches the steel doors, they creak open for him revealing a vast circular room with a high glass dome ceiling that lets in morning sunlight. The light twists long shadows across the square swirls that have been carved into the limestone walls. At the very center of the room sits two thrones on a raised platform. The thrones are rectangular and their backs tower over the two who sit upon them. The king there has a long jaw and a high nose while the queen beside him had a sharp jaw and a short nose.

Leo approached them steadily and respectfully, but does not avert his gaze when he meets their eyes. Upon reaching the foot of the small stairs leading up to the throne, he sinks to one knee and dips his head. When he looks up, he finds both the king’s and queen’s heads still bowed. Only when he rises back to his feet do the two lift their heads.

This in itself is pride and strength—Leo knows. To be able to bow before another with respect and without feeling hurt in one’s own pride. Yes, he knows very well he can do anything—including this.

“Thank you for coming so quickly to us, Leonhart,” says the king. “I know you were in Comientzo just two days ago speaking with the priests at the temples. For you to drop everything and come—”

“It’s what I’m here for,” Leo responds, placing a hand to his chest. “Think nothing of it. After all, the amount a person can accomplish and do in a span of time is at the hands of the person themselves, no? I will be here upon request.”

The queen’s shoulders relax slightly at this reassurance, but the king remains firmly frowning.

“Leonhart,” he says, “Scorpio has officially declared war against Taurus and Aries. It’s only a matter of time before Scorpio declares war on Gemini too given their trade relations with Aries. We expected as much.”

The queen’s gaze narrows. “To think Aries would send an assassin after the Duke of House Lune just because he supported the Conservation Act… And all of this fallout because of that. Did they not think—”

“We don’t know that for certain yet,” interjects the king. “Besides, this has been brewing since the border conflict between Taurus and Cancer. No, even before that. It’s a domino effect. We’re all being pulled to our stress points because—”

“Why wouldn’t they then try to prove their innocence?” The queens lifts her chin. “It’s reckless. Scorpio may have few reservoirs but they are large. Sagittarius is expected to side with them, and they have a sizable amount of reservoirs too—maybe not enough to support their people, but enough to support a war. If it happens to be a war of attrition, then…”

It may be a daring maneuver but it is also one full of pride.

Leo has heard whispers of this on his way to the palace. Hushed but excited concerns of gearing up for a battle. The Shared Conservation Act—they whisper—how could those selfish, pride-less countries be against that? If they don’t want equal distribution of the reservoirs then they don’t deserve them.

“We’ve supported Scorpio’s council for nearly half a century now,” the king continues, “and my sister is married to the Cancerian Duke’s sister.” The king looks to Leo in askance. “We can’t stand idle. It would be diplomatic suicide and going. We’d lose—”

“I can’t help but think there’s another purpose for all of this,” the queen speaks the words Leo knows the king can’t. “To disagree with policy is one thing. To assassinate is another. The border conflict and the civil unrest before that….” She frowns, breaking the illusion of an indifferent ruler. “The need for reservoir—it’s not as if we can’t feel it too.”

Leo knows this. The shortages have swept to even the most industrious of his cities that are closest to the reservoirs. Rations are spread thin. Some towns in the far reaches of his land are not even able to warm and light their homes. These are his lands, his cities and towns, his people—how much more can they take? Well, perhaps just a little bit more. Their work is almost done, so if they could just wait.

“Aside from our political standing,” draws the king, his words stretched long and thin as he reaches over and places a hand over his wife’s, “Santana has already brought up the topic.”

Leo holds his breath for a moment.

“This…” The king does not meet Leo’s gaze. “… would be a good opportunity to promote the growth of our country’s reservoirs, wouldn’t it, Leo? This happened during the 1̷̨̤̉͋̏̚ͅ60̴̧̃̀͠0̸̲̿̐ş̸̗̞̞̇ ̷̫͓̝̰͆̂̽̏ẅ̵̝͕̯̯́̑h̶̞̤̲͇̋̕͠e̴̢͋͘n̸̛̳̺̭̦ ̴̡̳͌̏M̴̱̭̈́͒̃ǒ̶̳͎̮̺̆̓n̶̳̘̉̎̔̚ȁ̵̫̪d̷̺͗́̌͛ĭ̵̬͙͂̔͘s̷̮̹̦͊m̸̰̠̔́͒͐ ̵̯͝͝ẃ̸͉̤̙ả̶̢̢̟̈̎͝s̸̱͘ ̷͆̾͆̒͜a̸̜͋́͊̿ṯ̷̲̼̭͝ ̸͔̱̌̂͝i̸͖͈̳̜̔͂ţ̶͇̜̹̚s̸̭̈́ ̷̨̳̩̮͛̔̚h̴̲̗̺̳́e̵̞̣͑̉̂i̴̫̊̉ḡ̷͙͍͜h̴̲̣͙͗t̷͙͕͝,̴̗̏ ̴̨̝̊̓́͝c̴̲̔͋̃ȯ̷̼̑̏r̷̠̗̎̄̂͝ȓ̵̡̘̪̖̔e̵̮̅͗̋̏c̷̰̙͇̽̄̈́͜t̶̲̑͌?̶͇̄̈̈́̾”

That is indeed how the pendulum swings. As societies grow and develop, people’s lives become longer and less burdened by the need to struggle for survival. Bettered living standards, scientific and medical development, industry, agriculture—these oil the gears of a nation. In the end, the population outgrows its resources. An incomplete S-curve—or so Capricorn often says. Three centuries ago this outgrown resource was land, two centuries ago it was food, one century ago it was water. And now the resource is reservoirs—due to both natural intervention and unnatural interference.

“What are your thoughts, Leo?”

It’s the question Leo has been waiting for. Thus, the next three hours he spends discussing logistics, alternative options, and consequences. Pride, honor, and the people. At the end of all of that elaborate discussion, both the king and the queen still look to Leo in askance. They want him to say the final word.

Leo remains smiling for them. “My purpose here is to not to be the person who chooses for you, no? To offer you guidance is why I’m here. I believe I have taught you more than enough to make the choice that is best for Leo.”

The birds are singing when Leo exits the royal chambers and steps beneath the stone colonnade outside. Beyond these sounds, there is the faint distant ringing of bells. He walks up to the railings enclosing the colonnade and admires the gardens of the courtyard unfolding before him. The sun spreads its rays quietly over the red carnations, roses, orchids, and dahlias peeking out in-between the succulent bushes and miniature faceless white statues. They all glow.

Despite the season, the air is warm and filled the sound of flapping and chirping. This warmth and life, however, is just a sliver of what once was. The reservoir just beyond the garden have shrunk over the past half century. It can barely supply enough energy for the city. Still, the birds sing.

Among the many small song birds resting in the bushes and succulents, Leo spies a large brown bird with a long, curved, sharp beak. When Leo extends his arm, the bird flaps its great wings, scattering the birds around it. With two movements, the bird swoops down towards Leo, hovers for just a moment, before resting on his extended arm. Its talons almost draw blood, but Leo doesn’t mind it.

This is Oros—Leonhart’s golden eagle whom he rescued ten years ago during a particularly bad storm and raised diligently since then at the orphanage. When Leo returned to the orphanage following his saint candidacy ceremony back then, Oros somehow sensed something had changed. She didn’t come to Leo at his call and instead stared at him from a distance. At one point, she even attacked him as he neared her. It took much coaxing to get Oros to accept the difference.

Thinking of this achievement, Leo continues to admire the grand bird and tune into the warbles of the avians around him. Among those chirps and tweets, however, he can faintly pick up an unfamiliar whistle that is long and low. This particular song does not belong to any native bird of his country, Leo knows. Yes, this bird song belongs to an avian from—

“What are you doing here”—Leo’s gaze narrows just slightly—“Scorpio?”

The shadow of a man lays prostrate on the railings two arches down. He stirs and the foreign bird whistle stops. The man steps out onto the patterned floors of the hall. He is much older and wizened-looking than Leo himself. His dark curls—barely contained by a cap—are peppered with flakes of white and gray, and they frame his dark face that is just beginning to become visibly wrinkled with age. Today he is wearing layered yet elegant silk garments that leave everything but his face and hands hidden to the eyes.

This is Scorpio—rather Afzal Ayad.

He does not come any closer and says from the distance, “I was cordially invited here along with a select few members of my country’s Leading Council.” A finger presses to his lips. “Well, it’s more like I was dragged here by the latter. They constantly want their hand to be held throughout this entire process, it seems. Rather, they’d like to be absolved of the responsibility of the consequences following their decision—”

“Their decision?”

“For war.”

Leo strokes Oros’s head, taking note of how her beautiful feathers glisten in the light. The world truly is magnificent to produce a natural wonder like this.

“My country will side with you, Scorpio,” Leo answers finally. “That’s what my dear king and queen have decided. I’m presuming they’ll hold another meeting within the week with your leading council members. I wouldn’t recommend leaving any time too soon. Instead, you should enjoy my city here to the fullest. It’s been several decades since you’ve visited.”

Scorpio smiles—only slightly.

“Do you not enjoy my country, Scorpio?”

“Oh, your country is quite… charming. I’ve always loved it.”

“Then do you not enjoy meetings?” Leo presses. “They may seem boring but even things that are boring have their value, no?”

Instead of immediately replying, Scorpio turns to face the sun. Briefly, he catches the rays in his hands before spreading his fingers and allowing them through. “I’ll be handing my title over soon.”

This sentence can mean many things. Returning to the reservoir to remain in stasis, retiring from the political realm to seek meditation, or baptizing another potential saint candidate immediately. Given the recent developments, Leo thinks he can derive the meaning.

“They put it gently,” he continues, squinting in the bright, “but it seems as if an old face like mine wouldn’t very well serve as the poster child for Scorpio’s new military agenda. I’ve seen the new candidate. She is quite passionate—”

“Thinking of what you used to compliment your successors as is quite a funny thing, no?”

Scorpio shrugs. “Well, that just goes to show you how perception has changed over the years. Chasing your pleasures and chasing your passions—the only difference between the two is a matter of filter and perception.” He turns suddenly, meeting Leo’s gaze. “Say, Leo, are you alright?”

“What do you mean? I’m not the one who’s handing over their title.”

“Oh, that’s just but a small death.” Scorpio waves off the remark. “I was referring to you maintaining your pride after all of this… That must be quite a restraint.”

Leo’s gaze narrows for a moment. “Are you saying you have none of it left?”

“Pride and passion simultaneous co-exist in perfect harmony and opposition.”

The fluttering stops, so does the singing.

Upon looking out into the courtyard, Leo spies all the small song birds that had have been fluttering around are now poised on the very edges of all the flowers, branches. All of their heads are turned towards one direction—their gazes focused on single point: Leo himself.

Scorpio’s mediums. His spores. His adored beings. The company for a lonely man.

“I’m not all about pride,” Leo corrects, pulling Oros closer. “I’m about victory.”

Scorpio smiles at this and turns on his heels. “Well, it’s a good thing that you’re on our side then, isn’t it?” He waves a tired hand. “Take care of yourself, Leo. You know what they say about shining stars.”

With Oros now resting on his shoulder, Leo wanders the city outside the palace grounds afterwards with purpose. The roads of this city slope up and down—rising and falling with the pristine white Monadic Temples that sprout like weeds on every block and corner. There are colorful tarps and silk sheets hanging from the balconies of the long buildings that squeeze in-between the white monoliths. Along the roads, sturdy horses pull along carriages full of people or products. As he passes his people by, they wave and smile and gaze in awe at Oros’s grandiosity. He smiles at them fairly in turn. They adore him, but he also loves them equally the same.

Soon—Leo knows—these horses and carriages will be far and few in-between on this roads. Instead they will become replaced with Signum’s own version of locomotives—like the ones that he’s seen on the outskirts of their continent. Progress, however, doesn’t come without price. As locomotion grows, roads will sprawl out and flatten the countryside that he loves dearly. If it’s for his people, however, he supposed that is fine.

As Leo passes by a small stall full of red carnations and poppies, a voice calls out to from him—

“ Leo.”

—and so he stops and turns.

An alleyway opens up to his left, and in the darkness,  there stands a woman with the shadow of a hood concealing her face. She radiates gloom.

After purchasing all of the flowers from the startled stall owner, Leo squeezes into the alley as the hooded figure turns and retreats deeper in. Arms now full of bouquets, Leo follows along at a steady pace. Once they reach the dead end, the woman, stops, turns, and pulls down her hood—her scarf—which he proceeds to wrap the excess of around her neck. Her head is dark and curl, and her skin is pale from lack of sun. Still, the is a tattoo of a snake on the right half of her face is clear to the naked eye.

This is Theta.

As Leo stares at her tattoo, the woman reaches for her belt and pulls out a long dagger. Slowly, she drags it across her palm. Blood dribbles down onto the stone floor, seeping vermilion in-between the sun-worn cracks. The woman drops to the ground too, placing a hand gloved in leather and metal against the stained ground. The blood bleeds white and allows a cold updraft of wind.

The gloomy woman extends her hand. Discarding the bouquets, Leonhart reaches out and accepts the gesture. Together, they sink into the light leaving a ring of flora behind them.

( )

As soon as Leo steps up into Theta’s familiar exitless room, he is met with the point of thirteen swords—all emitting a soft white glow. He can’t quite make out anything in the candlelit darkness, so it takes some time for him to notice the shadowy figure hovering behind a tower of books. Oros sees the figure immediately and raises a threatening talon.

Theta reaches out a pale, delicate finger and rests it on the tip of one of the blades. She addresses the shadow, “There is no need to be reckless.”

The blades immediately pull back before clattering onto the ground.

“I’m just trying to stay on the precautionary side, darling,” the shadow answers, pulling out from the dark and revealing himself.

He stands almost as tall as Leo himself and his frame is strong and gallant. The candle light catches his short blonde hair and warms his cedar brown eyes. His gaze is focused solely on Theta—

—and Theta’s solely on him. “Have you so little faith in my own sense of caution, Omicron?”

“Out of all things in this world,” Omicron answers, drawing close to Theta so Leo can see the tattoo that slithers on the left side of his face, “you know I have the most faith in you.”

Theta holds Omicron’s gaze for a moment before she sighs, reaches out, touches his face. “You’re a ridiculous person—”

“Omicron!” comes a huff. “How could you point your weapon at Leo like that?! T-That’s just—so rude! After everything Leo has done for us?!”

A young woman stumbles her away over to them from the darkness—face flushed and huffing. She is wearing traditional Ophiuchian white robes that crisscross diagonally across her form, despite the clothing having gone out of fashion centuries ago. Iota has made many remarks about it but Epsilon has ignored them all—Leo thinks this is because he once mentioned to her that he felt nostalgic about the styles and dresses of the past.

“Welcome back, Leo!” The young woman brightens as she lays eyes on Leo. “Do you want to see the gardens again? The poppies are in bloom now! Did you do anything exciting while you were out?”

This is Epsilon. This is someone who has never questioned Leo even once. He has never had to explain himself nor his intentions to her—unlike what he has had to do with so many of the others. Even the ones who were there during the aftermath of Signum’s erroneous split and-or remember his promise to assist them after that fallout are wary of his presence, but not Epsilon. Never Epsilon.

Leo offers a smile and gestures to Theta. “I’d love to see them and tell you if you would, Theta…”

Theta nods and leads the three of them through another one of her gates. Upon stepping out from the darkness that Theta seems to find comfort it, Leo closes his eyes and enjoys the faint warmth of the dusk sun. He can feel the faintest pull of his reservoir in the distance. Its warmth paired with the warmth of all the others creates a false air of humidity that curls around his cheeks.

When Leo opens his eyes, he sees an open stone courtyard with a marble water fountain at its center. Around the fountain run children in loose clothing and sandals. Pristine white pillars rise around the yard, and in-between them rest marble benches where parents perch and watch their children. This country always seems to be untouched by the turmoil rolling out beyond its borders—especially this place. This is the heart of this country. This is—

Pandora, Ophiuchus

“I had to dismantle fifteen more of Scorpio’s mediums this week. He seems to have grown a fondness for avian mediums recently,” Omicron says as he rubs his wrists with a sigh. He folds his hands behind his back before continuing, “I broke ten of my mediums trying to get them all. We succeeded of course, but I must say that they don’t make swords like they used to.”

“It’s only natural,” Theta responds. “The people of this era found and developed other armaments that they deem more efficient than the ones used previously. As people embrace these changes, they neglect and perhaps even forget innovations of old. The culture itself is forgotten.”

Epsilon hums in thought, glancing at Leo.

The four of them are walking through the gray-stone paths of the city. The buildings that rise around them here are even more blinding white than the temples of Leo’s own country. With some effort, however, Leo is certain he can get his temples just as pristine—although Monadism in itself troubles him.

Theta and Omicron—of course—walk side-by-side. Leo has seen Omicron’s iterations more frequently than he has Theta’s in these past few centuries. It’s only recently that Theta has become initiated with increasing frequency. Just a couple decades ago Theta burned through the initiation of a man who frequented Gemini before meeting an unfortunate end that this Omicron witnessed himself. Leo has never pried about the incident, but he knows there is something there.

Leo himself walks just a step behind the two and Epsilon keeps pace beside him. Dear Epsilon.

“Innovations of old?” Omicron considers after a while. “Darling, are you saying in the near future swords will soon be forgotten and I’m going to be throwing around these metal pipes that the people of this era are so fond of using ?”

Theta chuckles briefly. “That’s a ridiculous thought. Even so, I’m certain that if it’s you, it would still be elegant.”

Omicron flushes slightly before clearing his throat. “Scorpio has been unusually persistent about getting into our borders lately. It doesn’t make much sense to me since he can come here whenever his country requests a ceremony, so it must be he wants to see what we’re doing. I wonder what he wants.” He pauses. “Do you think he knows…?”

“I don’t believe that’s the case.” Theta puts a hand to her chin. “I believe he merely wants to see Ophiuchus.”

Leo tenses at the suggestion.

Epsilon glances at him but says nothing.

As they walk deeper and deeper towards the central area the city, the people become sparser and sparser. Soon, the humidity in the air is almost suffocating—much like the faint pull of his reservoir tugging at his chest. A long white bridge rolls out before them now and leads to a temple that is supported by a flat stone platform. Eleven other bridges connect to this platform from different directions. From an aerial view, Leo is certain that the entire display is reminiscent of a sun and its rays.

Upon walking forward onto the bridge, Leo glances below and spies thirteen familiar pulsating reservoirs. They look so small from this height, but up close they are monstrous in size. His own reservoir beckons to him from below.

As they finally reach the white building, they are greeted by two men. Alpha on the right and Gamma at the left. While Alpha offers a pleasant smile, Gamma merely nods. Eventually, Leo is led into the open and spacious building that is dotted with pillars and familiar people. Leo knows that all of these pillars are marble white and that all the people here have a ghostly white tattoo imprinted somewhere on their bodies.

There is Zu in the corner there with Pi and Iota. Lambda is playing Itero Recino with Omega in the opposite corner. The others are sprinkled around and chatting idly.

Despite the openness of the building and the pleasant atmosphere, there is a thin tension in the air. Occasionally, looks are thrown towards the heavy marble doors that stand at the very back of the room. Beyond those doors lays a person whom Leo hasn’t seen in months, years, decades, centuries.

“I believe Rho and Nu are out in Aries working on the reservoirs,” Theta says, following his sweeping gaze. “They just departed, so it will be some time before you see them again.”

“They should be called back immediately,” Leo says. “My country has officially declared war on Aries and Gemini. They’ll triple their security over their reservoirs now. Rho and Nu may be discovered, and so will our work.”

The pleasant atmosphere thins into nothing.

“What…?” Zu pulls away from Pi and Iota. “And you just let them declare war?”

“It isn’t my place to intervene,” Leo informs him, meeting his eyes.

“Isn’t your place…?” Alpha chuckles briefly. “I thought you were the Saint of Victory though?”

“I have the strength to restrain myself from making decision for my people. I am not their god. I may be here helping and assisting you but the free will clause extends to me too. I will not go back on my word.”

Alpha glances at Leo before looking towards the door at the back. “I guess all of our work through all these years has been for nothing.”

For the past few centuries they have been steadily leeching and displacing vitae from the reservoirs of all twelve countries. Their interference has gone unnoticed due to each country’s own harvesting of the vitae and the lack of care that has been implemented in tracking the levels of the resource until this past half century. Leo has been providing them all with reservoir locations that are easiest to access and to drain, while ELPIS itself is carrying out the act of slowly deducting from them. Their method is been quite an underhanded, inelegant, dishonorable approach, but it has been effective in slowing down the syzygy—at least up until this point.

“I’m not sure if I’m stepping out of bounds by saying this,” Alpha addresses Theta—their deemed leader—with a loose hand, “but maybe this method was the wrong one to begin with. Perhaps this approach is too gentle. These people will continue to move towards the syzygy on their own with their—”

“—filthy—” someone adds.

“—use of conductors and reservoirs. They’re ignorant. I’m just saying that perhaps—”

“They need a more effective manner of convincing than a silent helping hand,” Theta finishes, placing a hand to her chin. “You’re proposing that we move towards more extreme acts. Your suggestion is that our approach these past two centuries has been insufficient. Instead of dancing around the matter, it would be better for you to speak plainly, Alpha.”

Leo can see Omicron tense. Theta has never been the most tactful in speaking.

“A-Are you suggesting,” Pi interjects nervously, “that we take the information about the reservoirs public?”

“You know what happened last time that happened we tried that route,” Omicron snaps, his voice booming and shaking the walls. “Vitae usage has become too culturally integrated in these countries now. They’ve become dependent on it. We would be brushed aside and Ophiuchus ostracized.”

Leo remembers that incident well. It occurred during Theta’s very first initiation. It was a faulty one and done into a young and passionate Monadic priest. At the time, Monadism was burning its way throughout the continent. Heretics were looked down upon and sometimes even struck with violence. At the time, the most sensible approach seemed to be letting the wide public know about the truth of elevated vitae and the saint candidates. Theta took this task upon themselves and spoke with passion in front of numerous Monadic temples. In the end, they burned that version of Theta at the stake for it. The incident is recorded with immense detail in ELPIS’s records, but not in Signum’s official history records.

“I’m not suggesting anything like that,” Alpha notes casually. “I’m suggesting we more actively dismantle the reservoirs. I mean—taking tiny bits of it over the centuries?” He laughs lightly. “There’s slow and steady then there’s just being stagnant. Perhaps we should even go after True Conductors. Whether they’re adult or child or good or evil shouldn’t matter in the larger scope of things, right?”

There is a beat of tension.

This is why Leo has concerns of leaving ELPIS unattended. As much as he respects them and all they have done, they are still human in the end. Unchanging humans. Bitterness that is allowed to fester without a different perspective added on will rot a person from the inside out.

All eyes turn to Theta whose impassive countenance does not falter.

Leo interjects, “This is a ridiculous proposition, Theta. You know this.” He narrows his eyes at Alpha.

“I stand with Leo on this,” Omicron says, glancing between them. “Darling, that’s just too much.”

“Me too,” Epsilon adds. “I agree with Leo.”

“Are you saying that, Leo,” Alpha challenges, “because you know that would halt the syzygy and that’s something you don’t want?”

Leo lifts his chin and meets Alpha’s gaze. After a moment, Alpha looks away.

“Enough,” Theta finally says. “Nothing is accomplished by speaking or acting in anger except taking two steps back. We still have time. This proposed war has not yet reached the point of inevitability. However, if necessary, I do agree that we will need to change our methodology. After all, in the end, everything will return to the cycle.”

Omicron’s lips thin as he nods.

Alpha’s gaze narrows at Omicron but he says nothing else and pulls away with a pleasant smile.

There has always been something strange about Alpha—Proteus. Leo has never been able to put his finger on it. Alpha is not like the others. While the rest have remained unchanged in their fiery, passionate determination, and righteousness, it almost feels as if Alpha has become apathetic. The fire in his eyes seems to dim with passing iterations and time. Leo cannot help but look in Epsilon’s direction at this.

“We should temporarily halt our attempts at slivering away parts of the reservoirs,” Theta says. “That may just accelerate the already tense political tension. I will take the time to consider what are next step should be.”

Whispers of protest echo through the chamber.

Theta looks out at all of them with a sweeping gaze. “This is a command. You have all voted me as your leader, have you not? If you have any objections, I assure you I have all the time in the world to play Itero Recino—although I do believe our time is better used elsewhere.”

Theta isn’t the violent type and yet still her calmness is weaponized to perfection. Everyone folds under her gaze.

Afterwards, Theta leads Leo back into her exitless room alone. Although Leo will not admit it, he still feels both a sense of nervousness and awkwardness while in Theta’s presence. Theta was once a teacher, after all. An exceptional and intimidating one.

“We are grateful for your presence and assistance,” Theta says as she approaches one of the bookshelves and selects a tome. “Our records can only do so much especially since our comprehension and true understanding of them whittles away with time. So having someone who can never truly forget at our side—that is a reassurance.”

Yes, Leo knows this well. Slowly, piece by piece, they are losing themselves. Leo wonders if it’s the same for himself and the other saint candidates. They too are losing themselves just in the opposite direction—gaining instead of losing parts until the image is unrecognizable.

“Still, you must understand that you are still human, Leo. Understanding that you can’t obtain everything is necessary.” Theta turns and hands him the book in her hands. It’s open to a page dated in the early seventeenth century. “There’s an entry here made by Epsilon for t̵̗̊͜h̷̫̘͝e̶͈̊̇ ̸͍͗y̸̘̠̓ȅ̸͖å̶̢̙ṙ̸̬̓ ̸͚̦͗͘1̵̪͔̏6̶̰͍͂3̷͚͈̈́̀1̵̤̱̀ ̸̖̮́̀t̴̛̗̃o̶̩͐͛ ̸͈̣͝1̵̬̌6̴͓͚͌4̶̯̮̓̈́0̴̨̠̚.̷̞̞̉̿ ̴͉͠Į̵͋͝t̷̬̦͑̾ ̶̘͒s̵̘͛̑ả̸͉͝y̵̨͈͌͝s̷̻̹̐ ̶͔̫̅̅È̶͍̝p̷̖̈s̶̟͊͗i̷̹̔l̴̜̗͛͘ŏ̷̡̅n̵̮̎̍ ̴̱̟͝r̴̜̦͗̈ȅ̷͈m̶͍͖̕o̴̹̹͊v̵͈̝̔e̶̡̎d̵̮̖̾ ̵̙̓s̷̡̾͒o̴̦̓͝m̴̛͓̄é̴̝͜ ̴͕̘̂o̶̢͑f̷̠̱̾ ̴̿ͅy̴̦̼̽͝o̴̫̤͐͋ŭ̴̧͕͌ŗ̸̗̂ ̶̟̥̎v̵̪͍̓i̷̩̱͋t̴̢͠ä̶͓̈́ḙ̷̮͂͝ ̶̤̋ä̶͖̩́͝n̵͇̊d̷̩̐ ̶̨̤̈́s̶͚̆ṫ̴̙̽o̴̢̮͊r̸̮̝̉̅ẹ̷̠́͌d̴̞̈́ ̴̘̈̓i̶̻͛͘ṯ̷̋ ̶̤̈́s̷̞̳̿e̸̖̍p̷̠̼͒ȁ̷̹̮r̵̩̘̿͝a̶͕̽̈́t̸̥͛é̴͖̐l̸̼̤̀̕ŷ̸̝ ̷̨͝i̶͔͘ͅn̸͇̈ ̵̧̪̽Ơ̶̖͝r̴̮̞̅ő̷̟̿s̴͈͑l̴̫͑̃i̵͈̊̔ṯ̷̽a̵̲̅ ̶̠͝i̴̫͚͝n̵̤̍͐s̸̪͝t̸̡̹̀e̸̻̭̅̎ä̴̰͍̂d̴̦̽̋ ̸͕̀o̵͈͕͆̃f̴̨͓̉̚ ̵̢̺͌y̸̞̔̀o̶̠̳̿̈́u̶̢͘̚r̶̩̄ ̵͓͋̓ŗ̵͙͗̕e̴͎͌s̷͓͈̾e̸̬͔̿r̸̲͊͜v̸̠̬͝o̸̘͈͐̕ȋ̴̪͝r̷͈̍.̷̞̮̿What did Epsilon store there for you?”

“That’s a private matter,” Leo says, holding Theta’s gaze.

“I understand the hypocrisy of me saying this but we must take responsibility for all of our actions and failures, Leo,” presses Theta calmly. “Memories are painful things but they make us who we are. We cannot achieve complete victory without accepting every part of ourselves. I merely fear that this vitae that you’ve hidden away will create a problem for you in the future.”

Leo nods. “I understand your concerns, but I assure you I will never falter. I’ve done too much to raise this continent to where it stands to have it wiped away with the syzygy.”

“Right… We must continue having hope,” Theta says, pulling away and returning the book to its shelf. “In the end, that is all that is left for us here.”

✦ II ✦

July 1911
Rojo

Tartarus, Ophiuchus

Leo sits with simmering shame at the white, marble, round table that is stacked full with meats, fruits, vegetables, wines. With him are eleven others. Some look like strangers, others like friends, a select few like family, but Leo knows all these people equally the same. And now they stand equally divided in half—pulled by their domain, by their people. Oros seems to sense the divide too because she ruffles her feathers from her perch on his shoulder.

The room they are sitting is open and wall-less—it’s white pointed roof supported by exactly thirteen pillars. Twelve of them holding up the edges of the roof, while the thickest acts as a support beam at the very center. Beyond the pillars there is a garden run through with a walkway lined with faceless statues.

“So Virgo’s people have finally declared war,” Scorpio says from where she sits two chairs over. Her appearance is quite young this time. Her skin is darker and her dark curls are just a bit fuller. Her smile is pink and remains pleasant as she gestures to her half of the table. “Now we have the Six-Point Powers with me, Sagittarius, Virgo, Libra, Cancer, and Leo.” She points across the table. “And the North-South Alliance with Pisces, Taurus, Capricorn, Aquarius, Aries, and Gemini.” The room vibrates as she claps once. “Truly—what an ensemble.”

There’s something different about Scorpio this time, Leo notes. There is something in her gaze that seems to be more antagonistic than usual. Perhaps it’s the youth of this candidate that makes them like so.

“It’s a war on fear, a war on hunger, a war on injustice! A war on war itself!” A man sitting across from Leo exclaims, lifting his cup of wine high and stomping a foot down onto the table. His voice is musical and draws attention.

This is Gemini—Bella Lucia, the Saint of Reflection. His hair is brown and curled, his sun-kissed cheeks flush from either wine or good spirits. Despite the formality of this meeting, the first few buttons of his blouse are undone and he is not wearing a suit jacket.

“Will we win? Will they win?” Gemini swings his arm wildly, sending dollops of red splattering onto the marble table. “Let the one who raised helped foster the strongest nation win! Fair and square!”

“Sit down, Gemini,” the man beside him chides. “Have some self-respect. War isn’t about winning. It’s about mitigating losses.”

This is Capricorn. His green eyes are icy as always, his lips pulled down into a seemingly ever-permanent frown no matter the iteration. He was one of the ones who was most vocal supporters of the Conservation Act—so vocal that there were whispers of doubts in regards to his want for the syzygy. Unlike Gemini, his suit is completed and crisp. Every so often he checks his wristwatch. Always searching for time.

The man sitting to Leo’s right closes his eyes briefly and says, “The bonds that supposedly strengthen a country’s relations have instead torn our continent apart. Not all bonds are made in good will.”

Virgo speaks as eloquently as always, Leo thinks. Virgo is a man this time around—a rarity. His skin is dark, his head shaved, his eyes both warm and cold. Over his suit he wears a purple silk sash denoting some tribe in Virgo.

“You’re awfully excited, aren’t you, Gemini?” The man sitting to Leo’s right tugs uncomfortably on the collar of his suit. He glances at the dark-haired woman sitting beside Gemini and adds, “You as well, Aries…”

Cancer has never been fond of war, despite the numerous revolutions his country has gone through. Each iteration of his seems to be more tentative and morose than the next. Leo thinks it’s because he is completely beneath the thumb of his people rather than being just their knowledge-giver. This time Cancer’s moroseness is readily apparent in his downcast blue eyes and in the shagginess of his light brown curls. His suit is much more decorated than theirs, however, and Leo can smell his perfume permeating through the room.

The woman at the center of Cancer’s attention narrows her eyes and crosses her arms. “What is it, Cancer? Are you pointing the finger because your people have no idea what they’re doing?”

This fiery person is none other than Aries—Amelia Stratford—the Saint of Ashes. Like her previous iterations, this Aries is graced with a prominent tan and a rope of dark hair that is not tamed by any braid or ponytail. The red gown she wears blazes out on the floor, highlighting her presence.

“Let’s not get into pointless arguments,” interjects the man sitting at the very end of Leo’s side of the table. “We’re not here to debate. The debating has been done by our people.”

Libra. Arthur Pond.

Scorpio’s eyes visibly narrow at him.

“I concur!” booms the man who sits opposite of Libra, startling the dozing woman who sits across from him. “Speaking of such ill words in my—that is I, Aquarius’s—presence brings me bad countenance.”

Aquarius—Pietro Milkovich—has always been peculiar to Leo, despite their similar ways of seeking potential saint candidates. Aquarius’s exuberance and pride seem to be a different variety than Leo’s own. For instance, despite the heat, he has a fur cloak thrown over his suit. It’s expensive—clearly—but Leo would never sacrifice comfort for something like this. Pride and elegance should be worn with comfort to exude the most confidence.

The formerly dozing woman across from him, lifts her head and squints around the table. “Could you be any louder?”

Sagittarius—Pema, this time around. Unlike most of them, she is not in a suit or anything formal. All she wears is a simple t-shirt and a pair of loose pants.

“And what about you, Sagittarius?” The man beside Gemini frowns. He has not touched his wine. “From what I’ve heard, your people are searching desperately for you and yet you run away to here. I pity them.”

This is the Saint of the Fortress, Szendrey Atilla. Out of all of them, he holds the most normal appearance. His eyes are brown as is his short cropped hair. His suit is simple and plain. And yet his eyes are hard and flat.

“Taurus.” Sagittarius sighs and drapes herself across the table. “Has it ever occurred to you that no one asked?”

Taurus doesn’t take the bait.

Gemini re-seats himself and watches as Capricorn reaches over to clean the spilled wine his side of the table. He muses, “Our bet against Ophiuchus is turning in our favor, isn’t it?” He turns to Leo and props his elbows up on the table. “Should we find victory in this?”

Leo returns with a smile. “Victory has to be complete before it’s claimed, no?”

“We should discuss fallout rather than victory at this point,” Capricorn grumbles, pulling back into his seat.

Libra nods. “What should we do after the war—yes. There will be chaos. We need to help them keep order. We are originally knowledge-bearers. We can’t forget that much.”

“I think I have a suggestion,” speaks the woman who has remained silent this entire time in a milky voice.

This woman’s dark face is swirled with intricate tattoos that hold stories Leo has not yet been able to read entirely. Her off-white dress—unlike Aries’s—exposes her bare tattooed arms for them all to see. This is Pisces, the Saint of Cycles.

Still wearing a pleasant smile, she continues, “Why not start a peacekeeping organization?”

Leo lingers for a bit longer inside the hall after their meeting ends. He is not the only one. Gemini rounds the table and takes a seat beside him. The man’s eyes glimmer as they take in Oros’s form. Leo does feel some pride in this. Oros is magnificent, after all.

“Such a beautiful bird,” he coos before glancing at Leo. And might I ask what do you think of all this, Leo? You were unusually quiet earlier.”

“And you were very talkative as usual,” Leo responds. I just had nothing to say, yes? I cannot say the same for you.”

“I mostly said all that to lift up everyone’s spirits.” Gemini shrugs. “You know I’d rather have fun than throw myself into battle. And I’m not the type who finds playing war ‘fun’ either, mind you.” He hangs his head off the side of the chair. “You can choose one side and then you can switch to the other. And back and forth, and back and forth.” He raises a single finger. “There’s no such as playing both sides—no matter what anyone says.”

He’s trying to get at something, Leo knows. But Leo is quite stubborn and he won’t let Gemini get what he wants—so, he says, “There’s no such thing as no such thing.” Raising a finger of his own, he taps it against Gemini’s. “As long as you have the strength to do it. Impossible is something to be conquered by the strong.”

Gemini throws back his head and laughs before departing with a cheery goodbye not soon afterwards. In the silence that remains, Leo leans over and buries his head in his hands.

The final hour has struck. All of his efforts and their efforts will be for naught. There will be war. The reservoirs will be restored—no, quadrupled—by the time the inevitable armistice is signed. This is failure. However—there is still some semblance of hope. ELPIS. Leo will mitigate as many loses as possible. No, he will mitigate them all. This is just a temporary setback.

After some time, he finally unfurls himself at Oros’s pecks and makes his way to the outside gardens. Much to his surprise he finds a lone figure waiting there by the lower steps leading up the building. It is Virgo, crouched on the ground and hovering over something. Upon nearing the Virgoan, Leo can make out an un-moving, green-winged small songbird on the ground.

“What is ‘utopia’ for you?”

Virgo’s sudden questions still manage to throw Leo off-guard. There is always more than question hidden in these questions. It’s almost impossible to answer them all.

“If we can’t achieve it here, then where shall we achieve it? It is something worth striving for? Whose utopia should we abide by?”

Whatever utopia we seek, we shall surely achieve—is what Leo wants to say but he holds his tongue.

When Virgo saunters away later, a familiar green-winged small song is warbling in his cradled hands. The original bird still lays dead on the ground.

✦ III ✦

April 1916
Ceniza

Midena, Gemini

Leo remembers when rain was almost worshiped in the past during long droughts caused by the heat expelled by the reservoirs. Now the rain simply ravages everything. The run-off pulls along dirt, debris, gunpowder, bullets, shrapnel, corpses and drags them all straight through their makeshift camp. The stench is putrid. The sight is ugly. The battle is won, but Leo finds no victory or beauty in this. His presence here has mitigated losses on both sides, but not all of them. Just this morning he’s had to bury the body of a young boy he’d given one of his medals to play with just the day prior.

The failure is an insult to himself. He is the Saint of Victory. His people are proud and honorable—not to be buried beneath two meters of earth because they don’t have the time for a proper burial. He is more than disappointed, but he will hold his head high still.

It did not take long to breach Gemini’s borders from Leo. Gemini’s country is rich in arts be it music, literature, architecture—but they do not know the art of war. Their quality of life is exceptional but this has made their population aged and older—something that Capricorn has pointed out as a tactical advantage. There are not enough young to fight. Yet.

As Leo thinks of this, listens to the marches of the men and women around him, and looks up at the gray clouds, he is approached by a man decorated with numerous medals despite his youthful appearance.

“General Gloria-Ariete,” greets the man with a salute, “I’m glad we have you out here on this operation. I’m certain we wouldn’t be nearly as successful without you, sir.” He eyes Oros who remains resting on Leo’s shoulder even in the battlefield. “Honored, truly.”

This is Leo’s right hand man, Pastor Fletes. Leo has only known him for a short five years—half of a long decade in the eyes of Pastor, most likely—but he has already grown a certain fondness for his earnesty. Whenever Leo finds himself missing Epsilon, he goes to find Pastor’s company. Like Epsilon, Pastor never sheds a tear of doubt about him.

There is a report—a rumor—several days after this victory of a small pocket of Ariesian-Geminian resistance operating within close vicinity to their camp. Despite their small size, they have managed to ambush not only ten of their units but also Leonian civilians seeking refuge back across the border. The death toll of Leo’s people rises, and he cannot stand for it. So, he heads off to handle them. Alone. Fletes offers his assistance but Leo declines it. It’s easier to keep matters discrete, keep vitae from slipping rapidly to a higher state, keep his people safe on his own.

Leo finds the pocket holding out on a small farm that he assumes was once a productive vineyard. All the vines are dried and brown now, their curled husks crunching beneath his leather combat boots as he makes his way through them. Among the toppled posts that once held up the heavy vines, a collection of men and women lay almost hidden among the decrepit vines. Most appear to be dozing.

Leo does not choose to ambush them. No, there is no pride and victory in that. Instead he approaches them head on in broad daylight just as the rain clouds part to let in the sun. There are twenty of them altogether—half Ariesian, half Geminian. As soon as he draws within a meter or so of their vicinity, they all startle, scramble to stands, face him—conductors drawn.

“Identify yourself!” one of the Ariesian women—identifiable by her tanned skin—shouts as she tightens his conducting gloves. She is the commander most likely—or so Leo surmises—given by how all the others look to her expectantly.

“I suggest you surrender immediately,” Leo informs them calmly as he lifts his chin.

Crunching and crackling echoes behind Leo. Upon turning his head, he sees a shimmer of orange light and suddenly roughly twenty other Ariesian and Geminians are standing behind him. External Transmutation, is it? How rare.

“Put down your conductor!” the Ariesian commander shouts.

So, it’s a trap. Leo has expected as much. There’s no way they would have been able to take on so many of his units if they didn’t use underhanded tactics like this. A shadow passes over his head. It is Oros, circling them and watching the soon to be battlefield from the sky above.

“He doesn’t have a conductor,” one of the Geminian soldiers whispers as he looks over Leo from behind the commander. “But look at those medals on his chest. He has to be a high-ranking officer.”

“Will you surrender?” Leo asks with an air of finality as he presses his palms together despite their tensing.

The Geminians bristle.

“Of course a Leonian swaggers in here asking us to surrender when they’re the ones tearing through our country,” one of them mutters. “Look at how smug he is—coming here all by himself without a conductor.”

“Where are the civilians who have come this way?” Leo tries.

“We’ll put you in the ground like we did to the others.”

They have no honor. Their lack of it disgusts Leo. His people are better than this.

The Ariesian commander’s eyes narrow. “Put your hands up.”

Thus, they have made their choice. Sparing them would delay the syzygy by a nanosecond. Not sparing them would extend his people’s—his unit’s, his people’s—lives for a more measurable amount of time. The answer is clear as day. He will not put down his pride or this victory.

Instead of lifting his hands in the air, Leo slowly brings them apart. The Ariesians and Geminians don’t immediately open fire and attack at the movement. No—they stare at the ribbon of gold light flows from one of Leo’s hand to the other. As the ribbon of light solidifies and thins into a series of three blades, the Ariesians and Geminians start to step backwards.

“What the hell is that…?” The Geminian stammers. “Is that—without a conductor—”

He is silenced as Leo flicks his wrists and sends one of the pure vitae blades straight through his skull. When retributive flames of cherry red vitae begin to pop at another woman’s fingertips, Leo sends the second blade to sever her hands from her body. The third blade decapitates her.

“Open fire!”

Leo waves his hand in the air causally, generating another ribbon of light that solidifies into four blades and five axes. One blade of vitae impales a soldier through the chest. Three other blades swiftly dismember five others. He directs them this way and that—pierce flesh, server head and arm, block vitae ray, dispel vitae flames, straight through the heart, quick and painless—like the head conductor of an orchestra. When several desperate soldiers attempt to duck around the whistling blades and charge forwards, Leo generates a whip of vitae that burns in his palm. With several quick swishes, he servers hand from arm, head from neck, torso from leg—all while commanding the continuously onslaught of his other vitae blades.

In the end, the only one left standing is the Ariesian commander who has burned through so much of his vitae in an attempt to incinerate Leo that she can barely stand. Producing a blade of pure burning gold vitae in his hands, Leo approaches the commander and holds her gaze.

Good. Despite the defeat, there is still pride in the woman’s eyes.

Monster—” utters the commander right before Leo slices her head clean off.

The head hits the ground, rolling to Leo’s feet. The blood dribbling out from it will be carried off by the coming rain.

At least it is not his people’s blood, Leo thinks, before his stomach curls at the idea. When has his main concern become only his people? He is certain that in the past he proclaimed loudly that every person in Signum was his.

The commander’s fingers twitch suddenly, and the headless corpses lunges for Leo without warning. Scorpio, Leo thinks, playing another game. Before he can bring his blade down on it, the corpse abruptly explodes into a billion pieces. Leo barely manages to fend off the rain of splatter with a large swish of his whip. As the last bits of flesh pitter down in the aftermath, he can make out faint speckles of dark sky blue light floating through the air. Upon looking upwards, he spies a woman floating in the air above him—the source of the vitae. An air Elementalist. A reckless one who seems to enjoy exploding manipulated corpses.

“What’s up?” The woman greets Leo with a two fingered salute as she descends on what appears to be a bow-and-arrow conductor. She chuckles once she lands. “Other than me a couple seconds ago.”

Leo regards her curiously. Her uniform is Sagittarian, but Leo is certain that all their Sagittarian allies are still battling in the south. “You are a bit casual for seeing someone conduct without a conductor, no?”

“Well, your conducting is impressive as always—but don’t get ahead of yourself.” The woman smiles and offers a handshake. “General Ilseong Jin of the Seong Clan—Saint Candidate of Sagittarius, Saint of Arrow and Direction.”

Oh. Another baptism then.

Sagittarius pulls away her hand before Leo can even think to take it. “Yada, yada. Formalities.” She then glances at the smudge of red where commander once had laid and jerks her chin. “Hey, Scorpio, if you’re still listening, how about you stop being creepy? We’re allies, aren’t we? What’s the point of being a bother, my guy?” Shaking her head, she returns her attention to Leo. “I swear Scorpio has lost more marbles than all of us combined in these past few centuries.”

“We all lose things sometimes, no? And we find them in the end,” Leo says after a moment. “It seems as if duty has found you, for example.”

“More like duty was forced into me.” Sagittarius shrugs. When she notices Leo eyeing her bow, she chuckles. “It’s to blend in with the crowd more. I’m not like the rest of you guys, you know? Separating myself from the common folk and all that. I like people.”

“I like my people too, yes? They are mine, after all,” Leo responds. “And what of your people again? I heard that there’s tumult within your own borders”

Sagittarius slams one end of the bow into the ground, stabilizes it, then leans on it with a sigh. “Yeah, my country is going through some ongoing internal turmoil character development right now, but yet they all still want to hit outsiders with sticks and stones.”

You’re the one who chose to implement that clan system that is causing your issues now, no?”

Jin sighs loudly again. “The idea was to make it so that the familial bond and blood shared through each clan would strengthen their sense of community and whatnot—not make them want to lob their sibling’s head off.” Another sigh. “The emperor is so needy this time too. I remember when he used to be a cute kid.”

“Oh, well, you were never too good at politics,” Leo remarks before placing a hand on her back. “Cheer up, Gigi. We teach politics only on occasion. We don’t meddle in them.” He turns to scan the corpses around him. It was a quick and painless battle, so he does find some semblance of victory in this. Still, he can’t help but think of the rain and the run-off. “Cheer up and help me tag and bury the dead.”

Sagittarius holds up a hand. “‘Bury’ them? Did you not get the memo?” When Leo arches a brow, she explains, “The guys on the drawing board were inspired—so to speak—by Scorpio’s use of mediums on the past two battlefields.” She gestures to the corpses. “They’re hiring out skilled Manipulators to do that kind of conducting. There’s a really good one from Cancer that they’re calling the Corpse Bride.”

The idea and realization makes Leo’s stomach churn, and he bristles at the mere thought. What?”

“It was your king and queen that suggested it, LeLe.”

Shame once again curls in Leo’s stomach. How could he not know what his people planned? How could his people even think of something like this?

Leo smiles regardless. “Anyways. You’re in good spirits this time, no? A good baptism, then?”

“Well, I just found someone who gives me a good sense of direction,” Sagittarius draws slowly, staring off into the distance. My advice for you in this whole debacle—yeah, I know you didn’t ask for it—is to find someone who can give you direction too. A compass doesn’t start working automatically on its own, does it? Someone has to put the right pieces together.” Her gaze softens—just slightly. “Say, is the syzygy really all that necessary? It’s not all that bad, is it?”

Leo feels something tug at his chest as he regards Sagittarius.

Maybe—

Sagittarius abruptly whips around and points a mock gun. Speckled dark sky blue light shoots out from her fingertip and tears through the dried vines and fallen posts in the distance. The screech of wind is interrupted by a yelp of pain and then a wet splatter. When the debris settles and the air is calm again, Leo can see the body of a young woman twitching beneath some splintered posts. She must have been hiding.

Sagittarius lowers her mock gun and laughs lightly. “Bang!”

Leo finally sees the Corpse Bride that his king and queen so readily approve of. She’s a small and thin woman hosting an uncountable number of medals. The undead army that she commands stretches to 50. An impressive number of mediums. Nadinaline Delacroix is her name.

Among the woman’s rotting puppets, Leo spies several familiar faces including the boy whom he’d buried earlier in the month. Fallen members of his unit too. Ah, disgusting. There is no victory in this either, and yet Leo has heard endless praise for this manner of conducting. He recalls when war was a much more civilized thing.

Two weeks later, they are pushed back to within their own borders. Leo is not present at the time due to being called down to the front in the south, but he returns as soon as he catches wind.

“Aries,” Sagittarius informs him with a shrug. “Crazy bitch is burning everything in her path.”

Leo sees the Corpse Bride again as he holds the line at the borders, as he shields his people from Aries’s torrenting flames, as he saves both foe and enemy. It is there on the field that he can see the Corpse Bride’s effectiveness in battle. The Ariesians and Geminians hesitate pulling the trigger on familiar faces, and they are pushed back and back. Among the moving corpses, however, is Patron Fletes.

It’s not all for loss though. Even though they have not yet managed to breach and reach the shining Twin Cities of Gemini, they have managed to maintain foothold in Midena.

As Leo combs through the ruins of the city directing civilians to internment camps and soldiers to POW camps, he stumbles across a woman coaxing a child out of a small makeshift shelter made of shrapnel and pieces of roofing.

It is Theta. The sight of her alarms Leo as she’s almost never stepped foot outside of Ophiuchus in this initiation of hers.

“This war has reached the children now,” she explains when Leo approaches. “We’ve all read it in the newspapers. There are child soldiers now, marching on and slaying children. They will be promoted to commanders soon and order the same.”

Leo stops in place.

“It was all for nothing. The reservoirs will be restored and the syzygy will be arriving before this century ends. But the greatest failure is not this but that it is at the hands of the people. Despite our efforts, it is inevitable… The cycle turns but not in the way that we wish it. There really is no hope left—”

Now, Leo tenses.

“—is what I would like to say.” Theta moves to wipe some dirt off of the girl’s cheek. “Omicron made me promise not to give up hope regardless. What a truly ridiculous person—that precious magpie of mine.”

“Omicron?”

“There was an air raid here two weeks ago,” Theta says, voice quiet. “Omicron perished while helping me in guiding these children towards refuge.” A pause. “We’d already come to terms with our circumstances and what we would do when the other passes long ago, and yet…” The ground beneath Theta’s feet is suddenly wet despite their being no rain. “I can only imagine how painful it was for Omicron when I perished several decades ago… I don’t want to initiate them again just to have them bear witness to this.”

“Theta, I’m sorry for your loss, but this is just a minor setback—”

“I’ve passed on the title of leader to Alpha,” Theta says as she rises to a stand and offers the small girl her hand as the latter emerges from the shelter. “Let’s go, Dahlia.”

“Where?” the girl mumbles, taking Theta’s hand.

Theta turns and begins to saunter away. “Home.”


〚September 1924〛

Northeastern Front, Ariesian-Taurusian Borders

Coordinates, 19.1, 18.6, 2.36. Okör Mountain Rage. Vitae reservoir growth confirmed. Depth with increase, 156,000 kilometers squared.

Coordinates 20.5, 21.2, 1.92. Anyaizeretet. Vitae reservoir formation confirmed. Depth, 72,230 kilometers squared.

Coordinates 32, 19.1, 1.02. Meziské. Vitae reservoir formation confirmed. Depth 12,400 kilometers squared.

General Szendrey Atilla—the Saint Candidate of Taurus—goes over the report he is to give to his prime minister in his head as he watches over the Ariesian-Taurusian camp he has been given temporary command over. Among the many companies resting here are the 113th and 276th—the largest and most skilled companies of the two countries combined.

It is night time now, so most of the company has turned in for some semblance of rest. Well, perhaps it isn’t quite rest but instead restlessness. The ground is shaking and trembling with the Sagittarian air raids two towns over. There is not a single light on in the camp because of this. A single spark in the dark may draw an annihilation. Perhaps that is also why the camp is dead silent.

Much to Taurus’s surprise, however, halfway into the night he sees a woman emerging from one of the bases. There is a bottle of wine in one of her hands and a stuffed packing bag in the other. Behind her comes a man wearing horn-rimmed glasses. They do not see Taurus from where he’s found temporary rest against the outhouse building.

The glasses-wearing man grabs at the woman’s arm and pulls her backwards. “Alrighty, Gabe, you had a bit too much to drink. Come on—”

“I’m done. I’m done. I’m done!” She snaps at the him and shoves him away. “I’m done, Izsak.”

The man—Izsak—chuckles. “You don’t mean that. You just had a bad day—”

She swings her bottle wildly, forcing him backwards. “A bad day?! Easy for you to say when all you do is sit on the back lines and conjure weapons all day!”

Izsak startles.

“Do you know what happened in the last battle?” Gabe spits. “They made me work together with an earth Elementalist! He trapped all the civilians with his conducting and I-I had to burn them into nothing. There were kids, Izsak—kids! But high command said that they would just add to the enemy forces in the end if we let them live and at the war would never end if we let them go… And I-I believed them.” She shakes her head, eyes wild. “I can’t take this. I’d rather—”

Suddenly Izsak rushes forward with a raised hand and slaps Gabe hard across the face. The sharp sound echoes through the night but is lost to the distant booms of the air raids. Gabe drops her bag and holds her cheek, wide-eyed.

“Gabe, get a damn hold of yourself!” Izsak grabs her by the scruff and shakes her hard. “You can’t just wax lyrical to me about being villains and minions and bringing peace to Signum just to run away now! You made a promise and now you have to keep it. I believe in you, Gabe. You’re one of the few things I believe in out here. The commanders are terrible? So take the command from them! That’s what we’re doing, isn’t it?”

Gabe stares at him, stunned. Then, she hangs her head. “Saints. I’m sorry, Izsak. I—”

There’s a pause.

“It’s alright… We all have our moments, Gabe.” Izsak pats her on the back and pries the bottle out of her hand. “Now put this thing away so we can save it for when we bring our masterplan of peace into action.” He throws an arm over shoulders and leads her back to the bunker.

How pitiable—them, acting as if they are on center stage of this theater, when in reality they are merely extras. They cannot change this impenetrable fortress that they’ve built themselves.

A couple days later, Taurus sees that duo again causing a commotion. The man—Izsak—is tailing a medical officer with bushy brown hair through the camp. The woman from the previous night—Gabe—watches Izsak and the woman with amusement alongside a Piscese man who looks just as entertained.

“Izsak, how many times do I have to lay it out for you?” the retreating woman exclaims as she winds around the camp. “I am not interested! You’re too short! Gabrielle, put sense into him! He should be resting instead of tailing me around every day!”

“Elizabeta, I promise I will fix whatever issues you have with me!” Izsak calls out to the woman in his pursuit. “It’s worth it for you!”

Elizabeta stops short, swivels around to face him. “You’ll fix your height?”

“I’ll drink ten gallons of milk a day. No—I’ll see a Transmutationist about it!” Izsak takes hold of her hand and gets on one knee and pulls out a small metal band from his pocket. “So please marry me.” He adds with smile. “Fifth time is the charm?”

Instead of answering, Elizabeta reaches over into a crate that is being carried by two soldiers. She pulls out a plastic bag filled with white liquid and hands it to him. It’s a bag of milk. The surrounding men and women laugh.

Taurus pities them for being so desperate to find some semblance of happiness out here.

When Taurus is checking up on the reservoir hidden in the mountain overpass several kilometers away from camp, he comes across a lone man cloaked in a white hood standing before it. Taurus is rather alarmed by the sight because no one should know about this recently formed reservoir.

Upon noticing his approach, the man turns and smiles. “Oh? Is that Taurus?” He gestures to himself. “It’s me—Alpha. Well, Proteus.”

Taurus stares. He has not seen any of them outside of Ophiuchus since the incident nearly 500 years ago. At first, he is almost tempted to greet the man casually and feels the faint need to catch up with him. Then he remembers that seeing anyone—especially one of them—near this site is alarming.

Taurus allows his vitae so slide over his hands and lifts them. “What are you doing here?”

“You didn’t always use to be so quick to jump to fight,” Proteus notes. “Is it the war?” He laughs. “I was just here wondering if I could do something big to this reservoir that’ll catch people’s eyes. To slow down the syzygy, right?”

Taurus lowers his hands in confusion. What…? Slow it down…?”

Proteus moves away from the reservoirs. “The matter is that I don’t think I care anymore. I should pretend for a while though, shouldn’t I? Maybe I’ll care if I pretend enough?”

When Taurus doesn’t answer him, Proteus brushes past him. Taurus lets him go out of pity.

A week later there is commotion in the medical tent of the base. The recent battle along the border of Taurus and Cancer has been exceptionally devastating to their forces. The dead number in the hundreds, the injured in the thousands. Taurus is no healer so he can do nothing but watch them and calculate how much the reservoirs have increased since then.

Going over the numbers in his head, Taurus visits the tents to discern what the fuss is about. There is medical bed after medical bed lined up in endless rows inside the tent. The stench is stomach-churning and the sounds of groaning men and women grating to the ears.

On one of those beds lays the man from earlier—Izsak. He is looking worse for wear, and there is an open wound on his chest. On one side of his bed sits Gabe whose head is wrapped in bandages and whose arm is slung in a cast. On the other side of Izsak’s bed stands the medical officer from earlier—Wtorek Elizabeta.

“Izsak, are you insane?” The woman sighs, running a shaking hand through her head before holding her gloved hands over his chest. Warm light buzzes out from them. “You’re literally bleeding out and you’re doing this again—”

“Elizabeta, I love you more than anything in this world,” Izsak presses, wincing as the wound there begins to slowly inch towards closing itself up. “You’re strong, you’re fierce, you’re kind, you’re funny, you laugh at my jokes—”

“—because no one else laughs at them.” Elizabeta sighs, pulling her hands away once the wound is closed. “Would you just listen to me—”

“I will listen,” Izsak presses. “I’ll be taller, I’ll stop bleeding out—you ask it and I’ll do it. You’re my commanding officer now. Ma’am, I can’t guarantee that you’ll always be happy when you’re with me, but I promise you that I’ll always be there to try and make you laugh and I’ll always be listening—”

“Stop it!” Elizabeta snaps, throwing down her hands. “Izsak, do you know how many people propose out here only for one of them to die a battle afterwards?” Her voice cracks, her frustrated expression breaks into one of anguish. “I’ve lost my family out here on these fronts. You’re asking me to start another one I’m going to lose immediately afterwards…? I won’t be able to take it….”

Wide-eyed, Izsak reaches out towards her face. She flinches for a moment, but allows him to wipe away the tear that is falling down her cheek.

“I promise as long as the ring that is on my finger is yours,” he says, “I will never ever die—as long as you promise me that you’ll never die either as long as my ring is on yours.”

There is a long stretch of silence.

Elizabeta looks at him with incredulity, eyes widening. “So… you’re guilt-tripping me into marriage. If I don’t marry you, there’ll be a chance that you’ll die.”

Izsak blinks. He frowns. “Well, no… When you put it like that—”

“Fine.” Elizabeta sighs, closing her hand around his. “I’m a doctor, after all. I can’t have a patient dying on me because of something like that.”

Izsak stares at her uncomprehendingly before his cheeks become red. “I? What? Really?” He fumbles around the bed. “Wait, no. I need to get my ring. To make it official. To make it perfect. For you, Eliza.” He pauses mid-search, eyes widening. “Damn, I think I dropped it on the field earlier. Wait. I can conjure another one—”

Elizabeta holds up a finger and presses it up to his lips. “You’re not the best at conjuring pretty things, so maybe it’s just best to buy a ring for now.”

Izsak pouts. “But it won’t be the same—”

Elizabeta silences him by leaning in close and pressing her lips against his. The ones who are still conscious in the tent and the surrounding medical officers temporarily break out into whooping cheers. Gabe claps loudly in the background.

Taurus watches the newly engaged pull themselves into each other’s arms as the atmosphere warms. For once, he does not feel pity.


〚June 1926〛

Sông Hồng, Sao Clan Territory, Sagittarius

There are rumors of all sorts of monsters on the battlefield now. A golden demon who tears through foes with a cruel blade and leaves its victims a dismembered mess. A fiery witch who burns even children to cinders. An aerial hawk drops not only conducting grenades on sheltering cities but also people from ten meters high. A woman who drinks the blood of babies.

Capricorn has concerns about the other eleven. They have been in many wars before but not one of this magnitude and not of this length. He is fine-pressed for the syzygy but only because it falls under the natural order of things. Excess indulgence in the affairs surrounding it is rather unsightly to him. There is needless cruelty being added here.

He thinks of these this matter as he walks alongside his tanks that flatten the rice fields of Sagittarius. The first platoon they sent out to this region has managed to hold the line two kilometers in. Now they await reinforcements.

There are three companies under Capricorn’s command. There are individuals here that he knows will do much for Capricorn’s future. First there is the vocal Marionette Engel whose natural charisma draws people close to her. Then there is Dämon Forstchritt whose recent contributions to conductor development have accelerated many of their campaigns throughout the war. Martin von Spiel also holds some promise as a commander, although his rhetoric in recent years has been unfavorable.

When the platoon finally makes it to their designated checkpoint, Capricorn is startled then contempt to find that it has been already overrun by enemy reinforcements that set up a strong almost impenetrable blockade. Then, the air raids begin and he is forced back with his companies. This is why ‘on time’ is never truly on time.

On their path to retreat and recuperation, Capricorn finds survivors holed away in the remnants of a small village that has nearly been devastated by the air raids.

According to the briefings he’s heard, this surviving large unit has been saved by the acts of single commander who was injured during the confrontation. As Capricorn listens to the tale of valor, thrill and horror, he comes to realize that these people must have come into contact with either Sagittarius or Leo. Needless excess cruelty once again.

Capricorn greets the heroic commander where he rests guarded by his men in one of the faltering buildings.

“What’s your name?” Capricorn asks the man after returning the offered salute.

“Ludwig,” the young man croaks. “Ludwig Waltz.”


✦ IV ✦

January 1928
Gris

Much to Leo’s indignation, he has been injured numerous times throughout the war. Nothing that would be deemed fatal, of course. A bullet wound there, a vitae-blade through the knee here, and even a sloppily removed arm once. It is still an embarrassment—to even be injured by someone else. He is the inspiration of his people, after all. He is the reason they continue to muster up the courage and strength to fight. Or so the newspapers say. Recently reading them has left a sour taste in his mouth. He is being put on a deserved pedestal, but something about where the light on this pedestal falls does not seem right.

It seems as if each new generation entering the war is better and better at killing. He has checked in with the aged king and queen, and they don’t seem to mind the development. Instead they have shown only relief at the reservoirs that are now beginning to manifest around their country. It’s disgusting—

No, no, no. These are still his people, he has to remind himself. They are his victory.

Among these developments, as the new year begins, Leo reaches a realization. Even when he gets as close to Theta’s black-painted gates as possible, Theta no longer answers his call.

✦ V ✦

March 1928
Amarilla

Tesorona, Leo

Leo slowly drifts through the small village that his unit has just reclaimed from the Ariesians. He feels as if he is in a dream. The adrenaline pumping through his veins hours earlier has taken with it his earlier vigor and clarity. If it were not for Oros constantly

After some hours of wandering, Leo finds himself abruptly ambushed by a small figure brandishing a glass shard. It is a child. A girl with wild dark curls and vivid green eyes. Leo catches her by the arm and holds her at a distance as she continues swinging the makeshift blade at him—at least that is until he offers her the chocolate bar from his pocket. After she takes it and devours it whole, she grabs him by the arms and leads him through the twisting town.

Eventually, he follows the girl into a small house with caved in tiled roofing. As soon as he steps inside, he is overwhelmed by a stagnant and putrid smell but he forces himself forward regardless. In disbelief, he watches as the girl walks to the small table at the center of the house. At the table rests two rotting corpses bent awkwardly over the table.

It’s disturbing to say the least.

With some difficulty, Leo manages to coax her out of the house. It takes some time before she finally tells him her name.

“Maria,” she says, eyes wide and almost vacant. “Just Maria.”

To the orphanage she will go, he thinks. He is certain that if Theta were still around, she would take this child in with her to some place safe. Theta would teach this girl many things and raise her to be wise and kind. However, Theta is no longer around.

At the thought of his former teacher, Leo recalls his conversation with her years prior. Responsibility, memory, regret, true victory. Thus, he makes a decision.

Oroslita, Leo

“Of course, I’d sneak out for you, Leo! It’s for you, after all! Plus, I haven’t been out of Ophiuchus once since I’ve woken up. Say, shall we go sight see a bit afterwards? Oh, I know there’s a war, Leo, but—”

Leo is rowing together with Epsilon in a boat down a river that runs adjacently to a small vitae stream. He has taken a temporary leave for this journey with her. Bringing Epsilon out beyond the protected borders of Ophiuchus did take some effort, but it was nothing too difficult for Leo. Leo knows despite everything that he can still do anything.

Finally, they reach the point in the river adjacent to the stream that is designated in the journal. Epsilon fastens on her conducting gloves and reaches for a spot in the vitae stream that glows an unnatural gold—

“I wonder what we hid here—”

Leo grabs her before she slips and plunges headfirst into the river. “Be careful, my dear.”

Epsilon’s cheeks flush but she nods and carefully places one gloved hand just above the golden glow across the thin strip of earth that separates vitae from water. She then moves the other to Leo’s temple. First there is nothing. And then—

And then Leo remembers it—that year. 1631. The promise that was broken. The selfishness, the desperation in the eyes of his people, the lack of awareness of their wrong doings. He realizes it then—the truth that he has been hiding from himself out of shame: these are no people of his. There is no possible way he has raised a country and raised people who are this filthy, disgusting, selfish, dishonorable, desperate to the point of absolute grossness. Finally, he embraces it.

From the beginning, his efforts with ELPIS have been pointless and hypocritical. There is no such thing as playing two sides. Only one or the other. Shame and embarrassment curl in his stomach only to be replaced by bitter, burning hatred.

These cruel people who bite and beg from the hand that gives them—they deserve an ending like the syzygy. The syzygy in itself would be a mercy for them. He is not a cruel god, after all.

When Leo comes back to himself, he finds Epsilon’s body torn through with numerous blades of pure gold vitae. It appears as if during his personal anguish, he has accidentally taken it out on his dear Epsilon. But it is better for her not to see what comes next. If Epsilon witnesses it, Leo is sure she too will be disappointed in the end.

He spies Oros watching from him where she is perched on the shoreline—ever so silent.

Lunanegra, Leo

The other eleven are gathered with Leo here now in the remnants of this once proud dining hall that hosted balls throughout the 1800s. Now it is decrepit with peeled carpeting and a caved in ceiling. The infamous Delarona chandelier is in fragments on the ground.

Libra stands at the center of them all holding two pieces of paper that are burnt at the edges. Despite the damage, their message are still legible:

The country of Ophiuchus now officially declares war on the following parties: Aries, Gemini, Leo, Virgo, Pisces, Aquarius, Sagittarius, Scorpio, Libra, Cancer, Taurus.

We will not stand for this injustice and cruelty inflicted on innocent men, women, children, and people using cruel and injustice weapons over a resource that in itself is cruel and unjust.

The next reads,

On this day March 25, 1928, the states of Aries, Gemini, Leo, Virgo, Pisces, Aquarius, Sagittarius, Scorpio, Libra, Cancer, and Taurus have come together to lay down arms and face a greater enemy that shows itself in the one neutral country of Ophiuchus. Together they shall stand as the United Front.

“From the very beginning they haven’t been fully holding to our agreement.” Taurus breaks the silence, shaking his head. “Several years ago I came across Proteus at one of my reservoirs speaking vaguely about stopping the syzygy on his own. I thought nothing of it, but in this context…”

Leo remains silent, an unbearable shame unfurling in his stomach. How foolishly prideful of him to work alongside them. All he has now is disappointment he is too ashamed to share with the others.

Scorpio throws her head back and laughs so hard that tears begin leaking from her eyes. “Ophiuchus and the rest of them have decided to play a bit dirty despite all of their talk. They’re fools, really. Everything that they’ve tried to do has already been undone. They have returned to the beginning as is natural and expected. Another cycle will turn.” She hums. “Well, I would be all for letting them follow their silly little pursuits if it weren’t for the fact that they’ve been forcefully delaying the syzygy. That’s not how this works.”

“We’ll simply take an equitable punishment for their grievance,” Libra says, calm and collected. “It is only what’s fair.”

Pisces, who has changed faces once again, offers a smile. “I have a suggestion.”

✦ VI ✦

May 1929
Negra

Pandora, Ophiuchus

The great white pillars that Leo had admired now lay toppled on their sides. Columns of smoke have replaced them. The water fountain that children once ran around and the benches where their parents watched them from have been wiped clean from the courtyard. In their place are dark red stains, bullet casings, piles of ashes.

The city has been seized. The Ophiuchians—whether soldier, whether civilian, whether man, whether child—are fleeing, but they will soon all be caught. Foolish people. They will be turned into—

Silently, Leo makes his way to the heart of the city. He passes by Ariesian, Taurusian, Geminian, Leonian, Sagittarian, Libran on his journey. They all lift their canteens to cheer at him as he passes by before sharing drinks with former enemies over corpses. This is the praised United Front that the executives of all their countries rave and exalt about. How easily their emotions sway and change towards their enemies and foes. It’s putrid and disgusting.

Eventually, Leo crosses the great white bridge leading to the great white building above all those thirteen reservoirs. Unsurprisingly, there are still some of them here. After all—they can’t move the one who lays behind those great white doors at the back of the room, and they have a sense of loyalty. The others who are missing must have fled with their resistors or perhaps they have been slain during the siege. They are the senseless hope that remains.

As Leo steps before them all, they tense and crowd towards the door. Their conductors are poised in their hands but Leo knows that only a select few pose any sort of threat. So, he dismantles them first during their pause of uncertainty by whipping out his vitae and slicing through them with blades and spears of gold.

The others react immediately, drawing blades across their palms and flinging out their hands—

“Leo, how could you—”

—but Leo silences them all with one last flourish of his hand. Their bodies hit the floor unmoving. He moves forward pass them as white wisps of vitae rise from their corpses like smoke. Then, he stops in front of the great white doors he’s never entered through out of respect. Studying the lettering that’s chiseled into its frame, he pushes them open and finds himself stepping into a nearly empty chamber. Letters and pictures are carved into the marble of the surrounding walls, and the only light permeating through the darkness comes from an opening in the ceiling. Natural sunlight.

Beneath that light on a stone table he finds a body that is barely identifiable as human in form. Its skin is stretch thin over its bony features, and faint white strands of hair spill out from its scalp. A pale skeleton that was once a lively human. Embedded at the center of its chest, Leo finds a familiar glass shard. Radiating out from the shard pulsates faint, shimmering dark pink lines.

The skeleton’s eye lids slowly move open as Leo draws nearer, and it meets Leo’s gaze. Then, it smiles.

With a grimace, Leo reaches out and drives the shard farther and farther into its chest until the skeleton of the past is consumed wholly by the dark pink color.

Leo does not return to his unit after he is finished with his task. Instead he winds down the marble staircase at the very back of that room and reaches the bottom level where the reservoirs reside.

Most of the others have returned here already as they’d sensed the war nearing its end—or perhaps because they were not strong enough to bare the action he has just taken. Now it is time for him to do the same.

He slowly walks along the built stone path that divides each reservoir from the other and stops before the one that he can feel faintly pulling and calling out to him. Its levels are lower than the others since most of the vitae is inside of him. But this will soon be fixed. Taking in a deep breath, he walks forwards and forward sunlit the burning hot vitae laps at his feet. He continues on even as he feels the vitae from the pool trying to worm its way into his body. He will not allow it.

Once the vitae laps at his knees, he produces a golden blade that burns raw in his hand. Letting out his held breath, he plunges it into his chest. The pain is almost unbearable and he can feel warmth from his blood spilling out into his hands and into the reservoir. The flow reverses a moment afterwards, however, and his blood and vitae begin to crawl back into him. In response, he merely plunges the blade into his chest again and again and again—until the amount being released into the reservoir overcomes what is pulled back into him. All of him—spilling out and emptying for another person to take on. A cyclic turn.

Eventually, his human container can no longer bear the endless tearing and he can feel himself crumble beneath the weight. Finally, he can feel that it is enough and falls backwards into the pool.

The last thing he sees is Oros circling above his head like a halo or maybe an omen.


Comientzo, Leo

Maria gasped as she pulled away from Epsilon’s hand. Her mind buzzed with everything that the man had just shown her. The fragments, the promise, the war. She couldn’t fully comprehend it at all. It almost felt as if in those short couple of seconds, she had lived out decades.

“Oros’s memories,” Epsilon informed her with a sympathetic smile. “I think I collected them from her after she came to me in my initiation after that. I’ve been storing it ever since.” His smile softened. “It’s alright, Leo. I forgive you. You had to, right?”

24.[]: The Soldiers & Terrorists in Noche Light


Joint-Outpost 12, Aquarian-Capricornian Border

“Your boyfriend hasn’t called yet still, Emilia?”

Sergeant Emilia Bergmann looked up from her cardboard box of Käsespätzle and registered Corporal Klaus Kleine approaching her from the mess hall across the road. Beside him came Alwin Brandt, both men crunching along the deep snow piled up to their ankles. While the snow beneath their feet was blinding white, the sky itself was gray and flat.

At the moment Emilia was seated just outside the newly-minted Capricornian-Aquarian co-ed bunker which was built just one month prior to support the monthly co-training military drills. While she was perfectly fine with the co-ed aspect of the bunker, the fact that her bed was right next to an Aquarian’s unnerved her still. The feeling wasn’t quite fair to the Aquarians, she knew, but—was it fair to them or to her to be sleeping beside someone who may have shot a vitae ray straight through their comrade or slammed their ally in-between two pieces of rock?

Inside the bunker was understandably divided into an Aquarian half and a Capricornian half. Only a handful of Aquarians and Capricorns had intermingled so far—much less than the amount of crude and stinging remarks exchanged every day. The ones who intermingled were often subtly ostracized by the non-interminglers. The division reminded her a bit of the cliques back in her military academy days. 

Emilia wasn’t too fond of that sort of conflict. She had enough of it at home, having to separate her siblings whenever they argued. Fortunately, all of this drama was taken up by a designated middle person. A Capricornian soldier with Aquarian origins. Charlotte Petrov: a middle-aged woman with graying hair and a thick body frame. Petrov had seen half the Reservoir War play out and had two dozen medals to show for it. She was the chipper sort—always planning ‘get to know each other’ events and arranging training days outside of the official mandated exercises. Despite the lack of participation in all of her events, she remained happily smiling. She’d even laughed almost airily when one of the attending Aquarians had made some rude remarks about her figure. Emilia wished she could absorb some of Petrov’s positivity.  

That aside, Emilia had left the bunker as soon as she’d woken up in the morning and had made herself a little space here outside the building below the extended roof. It hadn’t taken too long to clear the snow from the ground—just a quick swish of her conductor gloves after she’d dug deep enough in one spot to touch the actual dirt ground. The cold wasn’t too terrible either despite the touch of Aquarian chill. She figured she should try to at least make a connection with a few Aquarians. She’d walked alongside a few through Argo, after all.

Courage, right? But where did loyalty fit into that equation? 

“No…” Emilia slowly pulled her fork from her mouth as the two men sank beside her—one on each side. “No, he hasn’t…” 

Emilia did not have an actual boyfriend. She didn’t have time for one. What she had was an Ariesian-Geminian friend who would call once a week so that they could exchange information while being covert under Scorpio’s watchful eyes. One Cadence Morello. Cadence was just as charming on the pone as she’d been when Emilia had encountered her in Argo—tumultuous train incident aside. Somehow Cadence managed to turn their tense covert conversations into something light-hearted and frankly a bit amusing. Though, in all honesty, Emilia couldn’t imagine Captain Waltz getting along with someone like Cadence at all.

The captain…

Scorpio.

Emilia knew that in-between those two, she and the others—Klaus, Alwin, Lieutenant Wolff—were mere bargaining chips. Something used to keep the captain in place. Her own family and the families of the others served as bargaining chips too. Being the blackmail and being blackmailed all at once. It felt awful. Capricorn, Signum: a shadow—one being cast from within. 

“Maybe he’s busy,” Alwin suggested, popping open his own cardboard box and revealing a rouladen. “You’ve seen everything that’s going on recently. The elections, the anti-ACC movement—I could tell you ten stories about the things I’ve heard about the ACC.” He paused, staring at the meat. “The abductions too—you know—of the kids around Signum…”

Emilia felt a tightness squeeze her chest as her thoughts went to her siblings. She’d used her phone time for them just this morning since Cadence hadn’t reached out to her. They’d all whined and complained about their parents and long drives but were otherwise content and happy. One of them had even gotten a boyfriend.

 “Yeah…” she murmured. “It’s awful.”

Klaus popped open his box and stared at the steamed potato and wurst resting inside. “I heard that since they’re finding evidence that it’s the same perpetrator across Leo, Aquarius, and all the other places, Ophiuchus is getting involved in it now.”

Alwin frowned slightly. 

Klaus peeked at him. “There’s also a rumor about the ELPIS Department launching an investigation too. There’s evidence it might be ELPIS.”

Alwin met his gaze for a moment before he shrugged nonchalantly. “Well, I heard the General Investigations first chair is going to Leo to investigate the kidnappings that happened there. The first chair of the ELPIS Department is heading there too.”

“Really…?” Klaus studied him a bit longer. “I heard that they were going there just to give some speeches.”

“Well, you’ve met Gabrielle.” Alwin arched a brow. “Does she seem like the type to put the vote over people like that?”

“Politically speaking it’d make sense for her to, wouldn’t it?” Klaus fiddled with his glasses again before frowning slightly. “But I guess… at the capital, Gabrielle was…”

Emilia really didn’t like politics.

Alwin set down his box after he devoured his roulade. “…There’s also the chlorowheat thing.”

Chlorowheat. There were whispers of it here at the borders. Something in-between morrowheat and sorrowheat, bringing you halfway to death’s door and giving you a high you’ve never experienced before. 

“I’ve seen anti-chlorowheat flyers all over recently,” Klaus noted, adjusting his glasses. “I didn’t even know it existed until I saw one to be honest. They’re saying the anti-ACC movement is bringing it all in. That they’re getting people addicted to it to get them to join their ranks.”

Propaganda, probably, Emilia presumed. 

“Well… I’ve heard other stories.” Alwin looked at them gravely—like how he would when he was telling one of his tall tales in the trenches. Golden beast, white anaconda, Great Devourers—he had them all. Sometimes Emilia wondered if a few of those stories were faint recollections of Zu.  “It doesn’t only give you a high ‘better’ than morrowheat,” he continued, voice deepening. “It also makes it so that… you’re no longer able to conduct.”

Emilia nearly choked on a noodle.

“Wait? So that rumor is true?” Klaus arched a brow, his face now almost as white as the snow. “I read the paper the Medical Department released about it last week… They don’t mention it being like that. Just that it has a lot of cognitive side effects and that it’s more addictive than morrowheat.”

“Of course they don’t mention it.” Alwin scoffed. “I mean—not being able to conduct after taking it? No using conductors? That’d decrease the chances of people’s vitae being elevated to the higher level. They don’t want that. But other people might. ELPIS. People who want peace.” 

“Not any peacekeepers?” Kleine tried, sounding tentative. “I don’t think ELPIS is synonymous with peace, Brandt. Peacekeepers—”

“Well, okay. Most peacekeepers are decent…” Alwin muttered seemingly more to himself than to them. “People who want to use chlorowheat as a weapon—I’m guessing outside of the saint candidates in that place, the general oblivious peacekeeper is just worried about those type of people instead.” 

“Maybe that’s the key to peace…” said Klaus suddenly.

Drugs being the key to peace?” Emilia frowned. “I don’t want my brothers or sisters anywhere near something like that.”

Klaus flushed. “I wasn’t saying it like that. I was just speaking in hypotheticals. I mean, if you think about it in the short term vague hypothetical, it’s both a good and bad thing…”

“They haven’t called it a public health crisis yet. It’s probably too early for that. You look at any epidemic or pandemic throughout history and the response time is always too late because it’s not taken seriously enough or because they think it’ll cause mass hysteria,” Alwin muttered after a beat. “But if it continues to spread like I think it’s been spreading… it’ll be a real problem. The pattern’s in history, the records, the books.”

“No wonder they’re trying to demonize it with all of these flyers….” Klaus replied after a beat. “Can you imagine the captain being here in the middle of this? I think he even hated v-cigarettes.

“Oh yeah.” Alwin leaned back. “If he were here then no one would dare to even think about chlorowheat.”

Emilia chuckled at the idea.

The conversation lapsed into quiet for a while as they scarfed down their food.  The quality of the meals had gone up recently due to displaced former Militärpolizei taking up various roles at this outpost including chef, cook, cleaner, guard, Border Forcer, and everything in between. 

“It’s so weird.” Klaus surveyed the empty, white, pristine snowfield just behind the mess hall and the buildings dotting the area around them. “It feels like everything’s happening yet nothing’s happening at the same time.”

“Well, that’s really just because we’re so far away from everything that’s really happening,” Alwin noted with a half chuckle. “Can you imagine that? Being at the borders is considered being away from the action.”

Klaus looked over at him. “Technically, for you… that’d be sort of an extension of that, wouldn’t it? With ELPIS—”

Alwin clicked his tongue in annoyance. “Klaus if you ask me one more time about Zu—”

“Hey,” Emilia tutted. “Let’s get along now. The three of us are all we have out here.”

The two fell silent for a beat.

“I already told you that I don’t really remember much from back then.” Alwin finally sighed, ruffling his hair. “You literally ask me every other day. The answer’s not going to change. I’m not going to miraculously remember something from Zu’s almost non-existent vitae. That’s not how vitae works.”

“But you remember things well enough to… think that True Conductors should be… eliminated…” Klaus argued.

“It’s feelings,” Alwin corrected. “Not memories. But—yeah…” He grimaced. “That was—well saying it was ‘bad’ of me would be putting it too lightly. It was the stress. Scorpio. All of it combined… Sounds like bad excuses.” He sighed. “I still haven’t apologized to the lieutenant—er, the captain—yet. Then again, it wasn’t really him.”

“You’d have to apologize to a prince,” Alwin drew slowly. “That’s still—well, it’s fascinating, but it’s also… I mean, the captain is intimidating enough as it is.” He peered curiously at Alwin again. “I… can’t help but be a bit curious about why the saint candidates haven’t… done anything with you yet. I mean. You are still sort of technically Zu.”

“They don’t see me as a threat.” Alwin shrugged. “Zu isn’t like the others that were initiated properly or who had enough vitae left to spare to remember and do things. I’m like”—he gestured to Emilia then to Kleine— “you both. Normal, so to speak. I’m more Brandt than I am Zu.”

Klaus chuckled nervously at this before eyeing him again. “I still have a lot of questions about ELPIS, Alwin. I mean, it’s such a big puzzle piece.” He held up his hands when Alwin sent him a half-glare. “Not historical information. Just like general conceptual information… like how you all agreed to bleach your vitae and why you bleached your vitae too since it seems like it has a lot more cons than pros…?”

Instead of frowning at Klaus, Alwin squinted into the distance this time. “I… don’t really remember—like I said. What I do remember is that it was like a death pact. No one said it but we all understood it. Not being able to die in the normal sense. Not like Otto. He returned to the cycle. Not being able to return to the cycle—that’s true death. Nothingness.”

Emilia’s gaze sharpened and she looked up at Alwin with a glare. Tears burned at the back of her eyes.

Otto. Otto. Oh, the funeral. His parents had sobbed their hearts out.

Alwin stiffened. “That’s not what I meant. Otto—his death wasn’t just another turn of the cycle. I…” He stared at his hands for a moment before he continued. “The main idea was to pass on knowledge and to ensure we didn’t contribute to the displacement of the cycle. Yeah, I think that was it. At the same time, we didn’t want to be like the saint candidates. We didn’t want to take away someone’s entire life like that. So, we decided to pass on the knowledge—”

“It’s not really passing on knowledge when there’s no one there to receive it, right?” Klaus reasoned. “At least for you.”

Alwin frowned at him.

Klaus continued,  “And from what I understand, you’re losing vitae and memories with every initiation. I just… don’t see the logic behind it.”

“I think… we thought that the ‘battle’ would last a century at most, so that wasn’t an issue on our minds…” Alwin gestured vaguely to the snow. “Obviously our estimations were wrong. We were too optimistic and too desperate. Well, I don’t know.” He met Klaus’s gaze and sighed. “Klaus, you know your problem is thinking that everyone always acts rationally. The world is chaotic. Sometimes there’s no clear cut explanation for everything for you.”

“I still want to try to understand…” Klaus mumbled. “Were you allfor bleaching your vitae?”

Alwin sighed. “We just followed one after another—especially after the older ones like Theta joined.” He nodded. “Yeah… First it was Alpha, Beta, and Gamma… Eventually it was Omicron. And then Theta followed Omicron. Most of us looked up to them so we followed afterwards. We had our own reasons, of course. They were just the final push.” Abruptly, he grimaced. “Omicron’s gone… So is Omega.” He closed his eyes briefly. “Who knows who else is gone now? The wheel of time catches up to everyone in the end.”

Klaus nodded thoughtfully. “Thanks, Alwin. For answering, I mean.”

Silence lapsed again. 

Emilia watched people move in and out of the mess hall before she suddenly found herself asking, “Have you guys decided who you’re going to vote for in the election yet?” 

The two men turned to her in surprise.

“My vote by date is coming up,” she explained. “I think it makes sense to choose Gabrielle. I haven’t met her personally myself but she was involved in everything with us back in the capital, right? She’s on our side?”

“I was actually considering Seamus Dolby,” said Klaus. “He’s eloquently spoken and he has experience with international relations. And he’s not a saint candidate. I know that’s not much of a criteria but…”

“Seamus Dolby is a prick,” Alwin scoffed, back to his normal self. “I’ve heard stories about him, you know? He’s as sleazy as they come. He was a career politician back in Libra right after the war ended. Wrote a bunch of welfare legislation that benefited himself.”

“Well—” Klaus began.

“Politics only leads to fights when the person discussing it isn’t an actual politician,” Emilia interjected quickly, cutting the argument short. 

“I can’t argue with that…” Klaus mumbled. “Oh, are you excited by the way, Emilia?” 

“Excited?” 

Oh. Right!

The new Aquarian-Capricornian joint training exercises came with a slew of other joint programs including a particular one that involved students from Capricornian military academies and Aquarians schools jointly visiting joint-training outposts at the border of Aquarius and Capricorn. Joint, joint, join. Buzz words these days.

Although Emilia felt generally uneasy about any joint Aquarian-Capricornian, she couldn’t help but biasedly approve of this one. A couple months back and she wouldn’t have ever imagined she’d feel relieved at the thought of her siblings coming over to the border.

“I can’t wait for you guys to meet them,” she answered. “Maybe you can teach them a thing or two.”

Alwin chuckled. “Yeah, by setting an example of what not to do.”

“At least Fischer and Stein aren’t here to scare them off,” Klaus remarked.

Emilia chuckled at this as did Alwin.

Once the laughter died down, Emilia murmured, “You know… I actually miss them. The entire unit…” 

Klaus set down his food box. “Me too, honestly. It doesn’t feel the same without them.” He frowned. “Even if Stein and Fischer were…”

“They were jerks,” Emilia interjected quickly. “But… yeah. I do miss them too.”

“Can’t say I miss Fischer, honestly.” Alwin leaned back against the wall. “But I sure miss Stein. He always had the best reactions to my stories.”

Scorpio had twisted him though, Emilia thought, hadn’t he? So much so that he’d gone off and sworn loyalty to the prince of a foreign nation. It was terrifying what one thought—one obsession—could do to a person. Briefly, Emilia wondered about the captain.

“We’re all just sitting ducks out here,” Alwin said abruptly. “Not too unfamiliar with that.”

* * *

At noon two long v-ehicles came rolling down through the heavy snow. They were painted in an odd shade that was in-between Capricornian periwinkle and Aquarian purple. Emilia and a couple of earth Elementalists including Petrov and some Manipulators had pre-cleared a path through the snow allowing the v-ehicles a smooth ride through. The v-ehicles pulled in front of the main mess hall building where Petrov stood waiting with a bright smile. Although she was dressed in thick black Capricornian winter gear, she also wore a thick brown Aquarian ushanka. Emilia didn’t think the styles went together much. But perhaps Petrov was appeasing both crowds?

The Aquarian v-ehicIe pulled in first, and a handful of Aquarian children and adolescents crunched out onto the snow. Petrov greeted them with a cheery smile and a peppy welcome in Aquarian. She sent them off into the mess hall with two Aquarian soldiers who’d volunteered to oversee the activities of the day—as designated by the smiley-faced metal pins stuck to the lapels of their uniform. 

When the Aquarian v-ehicle was directed away from the mess hall to its designated parking area, the Capricornian v-ehicle rolled out in its place. A second after, another handful of children and adolescents spilled out in a single-file line and stood at attention in front of Petrov.

Emilia, who was watching the entire event unfold from just outside the bunkers, made her way through the snow towards them. Adjusting the smiley-faced pin on her own lapel, she came to a stand two meters behind the backs of the lined-up children and adolescents. 

Once Petrov finished her welcome speech, the woman gestured towards Emilia. When the children swiveled around to face her, Emilia straightened her back and folded her hands behind her. While most of the children and adolescents glanced over her without much interest, three in particular startled before breaking formation and darting right to her.

The first to reach her side was Anna, her light brown ponytail bouncing every step of the way. She had grown several centimeters since Emilia had last seen her and now sported broad shoulders that rivaled their mother’s. Her periwinkle academy uniform was a bit too large, Emilia noticed, but that didn’t stop her from throwing her arms around Emilia’s neck.

“Milia!” Anna chimed. “How have you been? Well, we talked on the phone only this morning, so I know how you’ve been. I still wanna know though! You won’t believe what mom did last week—”

“Okay, okay, Anna. I’m all ears.” Emilia returned the gesture before pulling away and turning to address the male adolescent standing with his hands shoved into his coat pockets behind Anna. 

Armin.

Emilia smiled and signaled for him. Reluctantly, he did, and so she pulled him into a close hug and rubbed his arms.

“Saints, you’re embarrassing me…” he mumbled, despite not resisting her. “‘Milia… can you not?”

Finally, Emilia turned to face the youngest of the trio. Lutz only came up to her stomach, but he’d always been the smallest of her siblings—and also the sweetest. He flashed a toothy smile before she swept him up into her arms and squeezed tight. He, of course, returned the gesture and even pecked a kiss on her cheek. No embarrassment at all—which was why he was secretly her favorite.

It was only three of them here out of her many siblings—the others were either too young or too old to be part of the program—but it was better than nothing. 

The sound of  snow crunching behind her pulled Emilia’s attention away from the embrace. She set Lutz down and looked over her shoulder. Alwin and Klaus were approaching her from the bunkers. Familiar smiley-faced pins glistened on their chests.

“These are my friends that I told you about,” Emilia explained, gesturing to Alwin and then Klaus once they were close. “Alwin Brandt and Klaus Kleine.”

Both men saluted, and her three siblings reflected the movement reflexively. The moment after, Alwin cracked a grin and nodded at Anna—

 “So what year at the academy are you?”

“Thirteen,” Anna replied, lifting her chin slightly.

“Oh wow.” Alwin whistled. “So you graduate this year, huh?”

“Yep. Right before they change the curriculum and make it easier.” Anna huffed before jerking her chin at Armin. “He doesn’t even have to take an artillery course.”

“Sucks to suck.” Armin shrugged.

Alwin smiled, clearly bemused. Emilia was not so much so.     

“Do you have Aquarian friends yet, ‘Milia?” Lutz asked suddenly. “I made two at the rest stop earlier.”

“That’s good, Lutz!” Emilia brightened before exchanging a look with Klaus and Alwin. “And, well… not yet here for me…” She cleared her throat, gestured to Capricornian children who were all ogling her from a meter away, and walked towards the mess hall. “You all had a long ride, right? How about we get some good food. I swear that we have the best Käsespätzle here!”

* * *

The rest of the day went just as Emilia had imagined. She showed the Capricornian and Aquarian children around their station while Alwin told them his usual bedside tall tales. An Aquarian soldier by the name of Alyona who also volunteered for the event chimed in. Together, Alwin and Alyona wove together some fantastical tale about a golden beast facing off against a great devourer in a climactic battle at the capital of a kingdom ruled by snakes. It kept the children of both sides entertained at least. It startled Emilia how easily the children made friends with each other across the national lines. If only adults like herself could do the same.

In-between these story beats, Petrov guided the kids through various joint-training exercises including a war roleplay and a diplomatic conversational roleplay. The two seemed to be incongruent with each other, but Emilia was glad to see her siblings excel at both activities. The sight of their laughter and smiles put her at an ease that felt foreign. She wished she had a camera to take pictures of them and with them.

As evening began to draw to a close and the activities concluded, Petrov let the kids enjoy the open snowfields just outside the mess hall. Emilia spent some time with her siblings, built snow forts and snowmen with them, and proceeded to play hide-and-seek along with them and some of the Aquarian children.

Most of the other ‘counselors’—as Petrov had deemed them—had retired into the mess hall. Alwin and Klaus had done the same, so when Emilia pulled away from her siblings and the children, she found only Petrov posted outside the building watching them. Emilia didn’t quite feel like peeling inside yet so she came to a stand by Petrov’s side and continued to watch her siblings play around.

Petrov smiled and nodded at her. Emilia returned the gesture.

Petrov would sometimes have an odd smell about her—like she did today. It was a musty but sweet scent. Emilia couldn’t quite place it. A perfume, maybe? Emilia did smell it around the outpost sometimes in the washing rooms, so maybe—

“You know, after the war, there were a lot of questions about my citizenship.”

Emilia turned sharply in surprise and found Petrov watching an Aquarian adolescent and Capricornian adolescent pelt snowballs at each other.

“I was born right at the border of Aquarius and Capricorn. Wasn’t much of an issue during the war, but the legal matters afterwards were hell since my family’s records were damaged during a raid. Capricorn and Aquarius were fighting for my citizenship like I was some prized possession. I was called the Mountain Shaker back in the day.”

Emilia opened her mouth, but Petrov continued on before she could respond—

“Capricorn won ‘the battle’ for me in the end. My brother, on the other hand… was left back in Aquarius. The borders became tense after that, so we couldn’t talk, help each other out, anything.” She hummed, eyes distant. “It’s really nice to see things returning to how they sort of were before. It sounds bad when I say it like that. It sounds like I’m wishing for what it was like back during the war…” 

Oh, this was awkward.

“You’ve been through a lot,” Emilia finally managed, “Major Petrov—”

“He was a peacekeeper, you know?” Petrov laughed. “He joined so he could provide for his family. He had to bear out the worst of the famine all on his own.” 

“Oh, that’s wonderful of him—”

“His name was Mladen. Apparently, he was killed in an ELPIS raid in Ophiuchus.”

Emilia paled and prepared to offer condolences, but was stopped by a light-hearted laugh that shook through Petrov’s entire body. The laughter continued long and loud until it eventually subsided into a chuckle. Petrov’s gaze remained trained on the children.

Before Emilia could even think to address the oddity, a warm brush against her hand drew her attention away. Upon looking down, she was surprised to find Lutz gripping her fingers tightly.

“Lutz?” Emilia patted his head as he drew close. “What’s wrong? Don’t you want to keep playing?”

Lutz shook his head. “There’re Monadic priests here,” he explained, pulling on her arm. “They’re trying to give us things. My friends and the others like them, but Anna and Armin think they’re weird. Can you check just to be sure?”

“Monadic priests…?” Petrov straightened herself and blinked out of her daze. “That’s not on the roster…”

Emilia watched as Petrov stalked forward across the snow and past where a majority of the children were playing—onwards and onwards to a small group of children and adolescents clustered together several meters away. Among the outskirts of that crowd, Emilia spied Armin and Anna.

And then Emilia saw them. Two people—a man and a woman—dressed in gold-gilded Monadic robes and standing at the center of the ring. Just behind the duo were a handful of children dressed in neither the standard Capricornian nor Aquarian school uniforms unlike the other children and adolescents.

Alarm bells rang in Emilia’s head. The image just didn’t fit.

“Anna! Armin!” she called out.

It was evident that they couldn’t hear her from the distance, so she ordered Lutz inside and began to cross the field while ushering the ones she passed inside as well. As she drew nearer to the crowd, she could almost make out the conversation Petrov was having with the two priests:

“—joint training exercise.” A laugh. “Unfortunately, we don’t have time to squeeze in a Monadic prayer session on the schedule we have right now. I do appreciate you coming all the way down here—”

“We just wanted to provide the children with—” began the Monadic woman.

“Oh, I understand, but this is a government sanctioned—”

“Anna! Armin!” Emilia called out again, once she was only a few meters away.

The two finally turned at her call and began to make their way over to her. Emilia kept her eyes trained on the priests all the way, and it was because of this that she was able to see the male priest reach for something hidden in the folds of his uniform at his belt. 

There was a flicker of movement—the man’s arm twitched—and suddenly the snow beneath Petrov’s feet became stained red. Petrov staggered back, holding her stomach.

Anna and Armin swiveled around and stared at the scene in confusion. Emilia stared as well, uncomprehending.

There was a barely visible vitae blade in the male priest’s hand, Emilia realized. And the color of it—white. The vitae was white. It was almost impossible to see against the blinding paleness of the snow, but that color

The children—aside from the ones behind the two priests—screeched and scattered immediately, running off in all directions.

The female priest watched them go from beside the man and sighed. “Nu, you just increased our legwork by tenfold.”

Instead of answering, the man—Nu—swung up his blade and brought it down on Petrov again. Petrov, however, managed to swing her leg out and hook Nu in the stomach before the blade made contact. The kick sent him backwards and crashing into the female priest who merely groaned as she caught him.

A momentary distraction.

“Run! Sound the alarms!” Petrov managed as she staggered back cradling her stomach. “Get the children!” 

Emilia tensed before she grabbed Anna and Armin—both frozen in place and staring at Petrov—and started to drag them back to the mess hall.

“Run!” she shouted at the children who dotted the field between herself and the hall. “Protokoll Alpha!”

While the Aquarian children stared blankly at Emilia, the Capricornian adolescents snapped to attention and began to gather up the younger ones and peel them away into the surrounding buildings. 

Of course

Protokoll Alpha was a protocol specifically taught in the military academies of Capricorn—rescue injured and vulnerable, retreat, do not engage—although using it in actual practice in the field was frowned upon.  It wasn’t surprising that the Aquarian children were confused. They probably had never heard of it before—probably had their own version of it under a different name.

Thankfully, some of the Capricornian children were directing the Aquarian children away to hiding spots behind and inside the buildings. The commotion also seemed to have caught the attention of some of the Aquarian and Capricornian soldiers holed up in the building too. Among the ones coming out from the mess hall ahead were Klaus and Alwin who both stood at the threshold of the door

“We have intruders!” Emilia cried out as she ran towards them. “ELPIS—”

A heat suddenly lapped at her neck. She only managed to turn her head just in time to see a tornado of licking white embers before she was suddenly thrown forward by an intense heat wave. She cracked against the wooden walls of the mess hall ahead of her before hitting the deck below with a thud. Despite the ringing in her ears and her spinning head, she forced herself off the ground and scanned her surroundings for her siblings. 

There—laying side-by-side only half a meter away from her with their faces smudged with ash. She crawled over to them, heart hammering, ears ringing, tears stinging her eyes 

“Armin?” She gently shook her brother who offered her a grunt before moving to her sister— “Anna?”—who groggily rose to a sitting position. Relief spread like warm through Emilia’s chest, and she quickly drew them close.        

Footsteps crunched in the snow just beyond the deck.  Stiffening, Emilia pulled her conducting gloves from her pants pocket and fastened them on. She then paused as she scanned the deck and the snow. No. There was no earth around that she could conduct. Then her gun—

She reached for her leg but found the strapped pistol she’d fastened there in the morning missing. Had it fallen off when she’d been thrown to the side? Damn it. She should’ve tied it tighter. The captain always said to secure all equipment no matter the situation. Nothing could be left to chance.

“Get up. Get up. Get up!” Emilia whispered to her siblings and she threw their arms over her shoulder and brought them both up to a stand.

By the time she managed to right them, she found herself staring straight across at two figures—stark black against the white snow that was now beginning to flurry down harshly from the sky:

The ELPIS leader Nu who held an activated vitae blade and a child dressed in an ill-fitting winter’s coat. The child didn’t look much older than ten, and yet still his hands were gloved in conductors and from them he produced a flickering flame. A white flame. The child—his vitae was pure white. He was a fully indoctrinated member of ELPIS. A kid.

Stomach churning, Emilia held her siblings closer. All they had to do was get inside the mess hall—no. They needed to wait for back up from the mess hall to get up and help them—

“What are your conducting types?” Nu asked calmly, gaze flicking from Anna to Armin. He lifted his blade and then—

—suddenly he was gone. The child too. In the blink of an eye, they were no longer standing before Emilia. She felt Anna and Armin tense at this.

It seemed as if Nu and the child had been shoved to the side—by an unseen force. No, not by unseen force. By a physical object that she could now barely make out against the blizzarding snow. Yes, she could hear the sound—

Clink, clink, clink.

A ghost pain throbbed at Emilia’s abdomen as she gazed at the shadows of chains snaking through the thick mist of powdered snow. An opaque shadow flickered in the snow screen a meter away briefly before a figure stepped out into her view.

It was a man not a woman as she’d been expecting. His hair was short, not long, but he had familiar wild orange curls. He did not wear a polka-dotted headband, but a polka-dotted bow-tie. Among all these discrepancies, one thing remained the same: the snake tattoo slithering at the arch of his hand.

Iota.


Iota’s—rather Hatsya Androulakakis’s—initiation had proceeded smoothly. It was odd. The last thing she recalled upon awakening was laying down on a cold stone table as Proteus hovered over her. And yet an immediate moment afterwards, she suddenly found herself—as a man—staring up at an unfamiliar man wearing glasses. The snake tattoo crawling up from his neck to his face made him immediately identifiable.

“Gamma?”

“We have work to do,” was all he said as he handed her a knife.

Iota wasn’t too put off by the cold welcome and odd situation. Gamma had started to become aloof after the event with Scorpio and Virgo back then, so his attitude wasn’t unusual. And—gender was irrelevant anyways. 

Sam Hunt was the name of the man Iota had been initiated into. Sam had just gotten his conducting license at the tender age of 29 and had been riding the train home to Libra when it was derailed in a freak landslide accident. Sam had waited an unknown number of days for rescue before coming close to perishing beneath the hull of the train. That was when Gamma had found him and initiated Iota into his close-to-corpse.

It had taken several days for Iota to recover from the injuries from Sam’s accident. In that time frame, Gamma had initiated a couple of the others—including Delta and Alpha— into the bodies of the people who’d died in a railway accident. Alpha’s initiation had given Iota a sense of relief. He was the one had started it all. Gamma had even offered to have a revote for leadership out of respect, but Alpha had oddly declined.

Lamendos was left in Alpha’s care while Iota and the others went off to continue wiping reservoirs and generator conductors off the face of Signum. When they had returned back, however, they had found their resistors absolutely ravished, empty, cracked, everything. With calm reserve, they’d tested the resistors on half-corpses they’d brought in and—nothing. It was no use. Not enough vitae to bring the half-dead back.

Ever since then Iota had been on the chase with Beta and Tau—chasing their own: Alpha, Rho, and Nu. Traitors or fools—Iota didn’t know which they were. Certainly not both. He didn’t allow that sort of flexibility with his judgements.

Iota had crossed the windy cities of Sagittarius, torn through the seaside towns of Pisces, dipped into Capricorn, and blazed through the waterfalls of Cancer. And now he found himself at the divide between the Aquarian and Capricornian border chasing the duo through the snow while wearing only a bowtie, a blouse, and a pair of slacks. Highly unfashionable.

Iota noticed a pattern to Rho’s and Nu’s travels during the chase, however. They only really stopped whenever they stumbled upon specific locations—orphanages, schools, children’s homes—and they would never leave unless they found what they were looking for. Recruits.

Iota himself had seen several of the converts himself. Children. He couldn’t believe it—although he could see the pragmatism behind it. Peacekeeping puppets of the saint candidates would definitely hesitate when facing off against  chubby-faced foes who only went up to their stomachs in height. Using children though? That was against everything they’d as ELPIS agreed upon when they’d placed Ophiuchus’s mark upon their bodies. To think Alpha of all people would—

That aside, when Iota finally caught up to Rho and Nu and found them surrounded by fleeing Aquarian and Capricornian children dressed in school uniforms, he wasn’t too surprised. Neither was he surprised when he found Nu and a child convert standing in front of a young woman—Capricornian gauging by the outfit—who was curled protectively over two younger adolescents. The trio were cornered back against a rickety wooden longhouse and looked quite pitiable. 

Despite the fact that said woman was clearly a soldier—a major contributing force to the syzygy—Iota felt some amount of sympathy towards her. Looking upon her reminded Iota of himself. That and he felt a lot of indignation towards Nu. So with a sense of righteousness, Iota throttled both Nu and the child to the side away from them with his chains. He tightened his chains around both of them in the far distance before turning to face the two adolescents and the woman.

The woman stared up at him with wide eyes and gripped her abdomen.

Injured?

“Discard your conductor, woman,” Iota told her gravely as he lifted his chin. “You don’t understand the corruption that using one of those monstrosities brings—”

“Iota…?” 

Iota looked up and found an unfamiliar pair of men standing at the entrance to the longhouse. Capricornians again—gauging by their uniforms. One of the men was staring at Iota’s hand where his tattoo was printed.

“It’s me…” the staring man drew slowly. “It’s…. Zu.”

Iota stiffened, glanced briefly at the glasses-wearing man standing beside the staring man, and looked the staring man up and down. “Zu…?”

After what appeared to be a moment’s hesitation, the addressed man traced an S-shape from his left shoulder to his lower-right abdomen. Right where Zu had initially placed his tattoo. A confirmation.

“So there’s still some vitae left of you.” Iota felt a beat of relief. “That’s good… Your resistor wasn’t with the others, so…” He frowned. “Wait—what are you doing here? We need you—”

Suddenly Iota found himself flying through the air. The next moment saw him hurtling face first into what felt like ten meters or deeper into a mound of snow. With difficulty, he peeled himself out only to come face-to-face with a full-on howling blizzard, Nu, and two children who flanked him. The fire Elementalist boy from earlier and a girl with pigtails who stood a head taller than him. Beyond the wails of the wind, Iota could hear peppering vitae-ray fire and the spray of bullets. Awful sounds.

It looked as if Rho and Nu were getting daring, Iota thought. Usually, they would flee through a gate once he’d found them. Realization regarding this discrepancy dawned as Iota’s gaze was drawn to the two children standing at Nu’s side. No—it was just that now they had a reason to stay. The Aquarian and Capricornian school children scattered around here. Easy pickings. 

The pigtailed girl lifted her gloved hands suddenly and the snow around her rose like bird wings. Glowing blindingly. 

A ‘Manipulator’? No. The control size was too vast and large to be a Manipulator’s. Only Scorpio was ever able to do something like that. An ‘Elementalist’? No, no. The precision was too refined. A ‘Specialist’ then. Bleached vitae as well. Wait. This blizzard had started blazing from nowhere, so perhaps that girl—

The snowy wings shot forward towards Iota before he could finish the thought and sent him flying back, back, back until he hit the wood of yet another building behind him. Despite the ringing in Iota’s ears, he felt no pain and quickly picked himself off the ground. 

A second after, the trio emerged from the swirling snow and began to approach him. 

Fools. Long distance was advantageous for him. He would handle the problem child first. The girl wouldn’t be able to return to the cycle with the way her vitae was, but at least he could give her mercy outside of a life of puppetry. 

Iota flung his hand out towards the girl. His chains rose up from beside him at his command and hurtled forward like arrows. The smaller boy shouted in alarm and threw out his own hand, sending out a whip of flames that consumed and then melted Iota’s chains in the blink of an eye. But Iota had been prepared for this and had sent another chain looping around the trio. Drawing his hand close to his body, he sent this spiked chain shooting towards the girl’s back.

Abruptly however, the falling snow behind the girl began to glow white. A moment after, his chain’s clattered uselessly to the ground, steaming up in the areas where his blood once stained them. Not snow, it seemed. Mist. Rho.

“Aren’t you getting tired of chasing us everywhere?” Asking this in her usual chipper tone, Rho emerged out from the haze of white particles whirling in the air beside Nu. “Why don’t you go skirt chase Scorpio instead?”

Iota pulled backwards as he scanned the flurry around him. It was impossible to tell what was mist-snow and what was Rho’s vitae. Dangerous. 

If only Tau were here, Iota thought. Tau would be able to conjure up something useful to work against Rho’s ability. But alas, Iota had lost Tau while traversing through Pisces—and he wasn’t quite sure where he’d lost him. One moment Tau was there, and the next he was gone. Knowing the man, Iota figured Tau had probably accidentally berated the wrong person and gotten into some trouble. Fortunately, Iota had his resistor and it was empty, so he knew Tau was still alive. Unfortunately, Tau had Iota’s resistor.

Beta, on the other hand, had gone solo in the search. Even if Iota met his end here, he was certain Beta would carry on the role for him in the meanwhile. He hadn’t seen her or Gamma since he’d left Lamendos  searching for Alpha, Nu, and Rho. Hadn’t seen Lamendos itself since then either. He would need to touch point soon if he survived. 

Reassured by this, Iota unsheathed the knife holstered to his leg and drew it across his palm. He flung his hand out in an arc and sent some blood droplets flying back onto his chains and others onto some of the wood he’d ‘displaced’ when he’d crashed into the building.  As expected, the blood that fell on the chains sizzled uselessly. But the blood-splattered fragments of wood rose from the ground and hovered in the air at his command. Bullets—ready to ravage their target. 

The pigtailed girl raised her hand again, however, and so Iota braced for impact. In the blink of an eye, he was swept out from the porch and thrown into the air by an arm of snow. Quite a deja vu feeling—-flying through the air like this, he thought. What was not a deja vu feeling was the sensation he felt when he finally hit a hard surface: cracking against what was evidently someone else’s body. 

“Ow!” someone cried. 

“Emilia!” cried another. 

Iota quickly freed himself from the limbs he’d become entangled in and pulled away from the figure he’d crashed into. It was the woman again, he realized. The one who’d been protecting the two adolescents. The Capricornian. She immediately scrambled back and whipped out a gray pistol at him. It seemed as if she’d gotten a gun somewhere, somehow. 

Iota ignored this, rose to a stand, surveyed the area. 

Scattered around them were several other groaning bodies—four of whom Iota vaguely recognized: the two adolescents this gun-wielding woman had been curled over, the man with the glasses, and Zu himself.

“Leave us alone.”

Iota turned towards the voice and found Nu and the girl emerging from the whistling blizzard. Rho and the boy seemed to have made off somewhere. No. They were most likely searching for children to capture.

“Tell me what you did to the resistors,” Iota replied, tone flat. “What is wrong with you, Nu? Following so blindly. How many times have you died now? If you keep dying like you’ve been dying then there’ll be nothing of you left.”

“There won’t be anything left of any of us,” Nu replied. “Of anything.”

“Only if the syzygy happens,” Iota reasoned.

Nu’s eyes narrowed and he opened his mouth to retort before a movement in the snow right at his feet caught his attention. Slowly, Nu reached for the area and stuck his hand deep in. When he pulled his hand up and out, he was holding a small boy by the scruff. He pulled the boy up to eye-level. “What type of Conductor are you?”

The boy whimpered.

“Lutz!” the Capricornian woman wailed before scrambling to her feet and aiming her pistol at Nu. “Let him go!”

“Emilia, no!” Zu snapped, pulling her back. 

The woman—Emilia—shrugged Zu off and lifted her pistol at Nu again. Nu, of course, remained unflinching. Emilia’s gaze hardened, and her fingers moved toward the trigger. The pigtailed girl then lifted her hand, causing Emilia to flinch. Then, came the familiar wave of blinding snow that sent Iota and the others—or so he presumed—flying through the air again.

As soon as he hit the ground, Iota snapped up to a stand, brushed himself off, scanned the expanse of snow,  and started forward.  A familiar clicking sound stopped him short. Upon turning, he found Emilia there with a gun aimed right at his back. Behind her were the two adolescents who clung to each other tightly, Zu, and Glasses.

“What’s going on here?” Emilia hissed, breath fogging up the air. “Where did they take my brother?”

Siblings. Ah. Sentiment.

Iota remained silent.

“Saints…” Glasses stared at Iota’s stomach then at Iota’s hand. “You’re bleeding so much…”

Iota frowned at this and looked down at his body. His blouse was stained red as was his bowtie. Damn it, he thought. These stains would take forever to get out. He’d tailor-made this himself too. With a sigh just beginning to escape from his mouth, Iota’s vision dimmed and he fell forward.

* * *

When Iota opened his eyes again, he was in a dim room with only a single light source: a window that spilled in the white glow of the storm from outside. Shadows drifted in and out of focus around him paired with faint whispers in Common:

“We signaled the radio tower as soon as we heard there were intruders.”

“Half an hour response time…. the ELPIS Department too…”

“Holing out until aid arrives—”

“Alwin!” came a harsh, low whisper that was closer. Masculine. Deep. “Why did you bring her—she’s! Remember what he did to Emilia—”

“Klaus, it’s fine.” A familiar woman’s voice. “We need information from him anyways.”

Iota snapped up immediately up to a sit, taking note that he’d been placed onto a flat mattress on the cold, hard, wooden ground.  He also noted that he was now in a thick black military coat that went down to his knees. Very unfashionable. It almost made him want to puke.

 When his eyes adjusted to the light, he found three familiar faces staring at him in shock. Zu, Emilia, and Glasses. He pressed Zu, “How long was I unconscious?”

“Only… eight minutes,” Zu drew slowly, hands hovering placatingly. “Are you sure you’re well enough to move?  You lost a lot of blood. I transfused some for you since your blood type was listed on your medical card….”

Iota stared at him in confusion. Then he recalled that he had indeed kept not only Sam’s conducting license for its advantageous purposes but also Sam’s papers and medical card. The print on the card had been particularly stylish.

Iota eyed Zu’s hovering hands, before drawing, “Rho and Nu—they’re still here. For now. We need to find them.”

“Rho and Nu?” Glasses frowned. “Are those the names of the ELPIS leaders?”

Iota stared at him before turning back to Zu. “Are these recruits? Yours? Why do they know so much?” He pointed at Emilia. “She pointed a gun at me.” 

“Er… Yeah…” Zu drew slowly, oddly, earning him even odder looks from Glasses and Emilia. “These are my recruits… And that was just a bit of a misunderstanding.” He proceeded to introduce the two: 

The woman’s full name was Emilia Bergmann, the man with the glasses Klaus Kleine. For some reason Zu also felt the need to introduce himself by the name of the person he’d been initiated into. ‘Alwin Brandt.’

There were four other soldiers stationed in the room and they were crowded around a table that hosted what Iota had recently learned was a radio. There was another door adjacent to the radio, and it was cracked open just slightly. Through the crack Iota could barely make out a small room inside which a group of children huddled together and were seemingly being comforted by Emilia’s siblings. Iota eyed them all with suspicion.

“Don’t worry about them,” Zu whispered. “As long as we talk low, it’ll be fine.” He cleared his throat. “I’ve been out of the loop since I haven’t been able to contact you… So… I have to ask… what in the world is going on?”

Iota eyed Emilia and Kleine.

“I trust them. Don’t worry,” Zu said quickly. “They’re for the cause, and they know about almost everything.”

What?” Iota’s eyes narrowed. 

As ELPIS leaders, they weren’t supposed to tell people they recruited the truth about their long war with the saint candidates out of principle. ‘No need to burden the younger with the older’s problems’ was the idea. Theta had been particularly adamant about it. ‘We’ll expand too fast and too far,’ Theta had said when they were all discussing the matter long ago. ‘We are not an organization nor are we a movement of passion. Recruitment should be kept to a minimum.’

“Show me your vitae, Zu,” Iota demanded, glower lessening when he saw the saw the stricken look on Zu’s face. “I’ve been initiated long enough to know that you have to suspect everyone….”

Zu tensed. “Look—”

“Show me.”

Zu opened his mouth, closed it with a hardened gaze. “There’s no need to show you. I wasn’t initiated properly when I was initiated last year. There’s no re-initiating me either. I can’t even say I’m Zu with how little vitae was left in Zu’s resistor.”

“So, you’ve become a liar.” Iota clenched his fist only to realize his conducting gloves were missing. 

“You need to tell us what the hell is going on here,” Emilia demanded, drawing her hand to her hip where a pistol was holstered. “Where is my brother?”

Ah, so that was this woman’s relationship with that boy, Iota thought. The burning in her eyes was familiar.

Still, Iota lifted his chin in defiance. “You can shoot me if you please—”

“Don’t give me some bullshit about returning to your resistor,” Emilia snapped, tightening her grip on the firearm. She released her grip on it a moment after. “You’re going after the ones we just saw, right? I doubt returning to your resistor mid-chase would be productive.”

“How much do you know?” Iota scrutinized the woman. “If you’re suggesting an alliance, let it be known that I am not going to work together with people who smear the cycle with—”

“At least explain what’s going on,” Zu—no, Alwin Brandt—urged. “We were dragged into this mess.”

“And you’ve dragged yourself away from ‘the mess’ before this.” Iota narrowed his eyes at Brandt. “How long have you been keeping up this act of playing soldier? Even if you’re not properly initiated, don’t you feel a sense of responsibility? The syzygy—”

“I don’t even know what that is anymore.” Brandt’s face tightened. “So instead of letting me wallow in not knowing what’s going on, enlighten me. I mean, I saved your life just now.” 

Iota frowned but couldn’t find an argument against this. He wasn’t a person of no honor, after all, and these people were already in the know. So, he quickly gave them the condensed version of his experiences since his initiation. 

There was a stretch of expected silence afterwards.

“They’re the ones taking the children? The ones they were talking about in the papers?” Klaus whispered. “There’s been a rift in ELPIS?” He paused. “I mean—another one? And you’re trying to stop them…?”

“Where are they taking them?” Emilia pressed.

“Nowhere,” Iota responded, studying her. “At least not yet like I said.” He nodded to the window. “That snowstorm out there is being created by a Specialist child working under them. I’m assuming they’re using it as cover so they can get as many children as they can without interruption and interference. Recruitment.”
 

“Children…” Emilia paled and exchanged a look with an equally pale “Lutz…”

“That’s not the main reason why I’ve been tracking them,” Iota said, “but recruiting children and bleaching their vitae goes against everything we stand for as ELPIS.” 

For some reason, Klaus tensed.

“Your brother is most likely still being carried around by Nu and hasn’t left the area yet,” Iota drew slowly as he brought himself up to a stand. His head swam—most likely due to cold and blood loss. “If I do find him, I’ll leave him for you. Conductors are not my priority right now. Chasing them down is—”

“Instead of chasing him…” Emilia shook her head. “Trapping him might be better.”

“Trap him?”

Instead of answering, Emilia turned on her heels and approached the four soldiers gathered around the radio. She stood at attention, and the soldiers did the same. 

“I’m a sergeant and the highest-ranking officer here,” she said. “You’re under my command now.” She nodded at one of the men who was dressed in what Iota recognized as an Aquarian military uniform. “You’re a Manipulator, right? I need your help—”

“I—wait, no. I can’t conduct right now,” the Aquarian stammered before gesturing to the radio. “If you need me to send any messages—any—I can do it, ma’am.” 

“What?” Emilia’s eyes narrowed. “Why?”

“He really can’t,” the Capricornian soldier beside the Aquarian pressed, pale as he reached for his chest pocket. “I… We just can’t—we should wait for our superiors and the ELPIS Department to—”

Emilia tensed and grabbed at the Capricornian’s hand before digging into his pocket. She then pulled out a thin, small packet made of wax paper from there. The Capricornian startled and lunged for the packet but Emilia shoved the man away. Before he could lunge again, Kleine shot up, darted over, and held him back.  Emilia then proceeded to unwrap the packet, revealing a dark, leafy, dry substance contained within.

Kleine stared at it. “Is this what I think it is?”

Chlorowheat— Iota recognized it. He’d seen Rho and Nu use it once to their advantage before. Its properties were fascinating, but it was still an addictive drug in the end. Its apparent mass production just went to show how terrible things had gotten. The corruption

“We’re not fighting at southern borders anymore, and t-this is how you spend your time?” Emilia’s face contorted as she curled her fingers around the scruff of the Capricornian soldier’s shirt. She trembled for a moment before pulling something off the Capricornian’s chest: a smiley-face pin. “You were watching over the children while you were high the entire time?!” She threw the pin at the wall before shoving the man backwards and turning to meet Iota’s gaze.

Disgust and disappointment at the situation and how things had developed thus far—Iota recognized that look in her eye very well. 

“You’ve seen that I’m what you consider a ‘Manipulator,’” Iota said after a pause. “I need Nu and Rho. You need that boy. What do you need me to do?”

* * *

Admittedly, Iota was not well-versed in war tactics. He never needed to be and had never thought of them as useful. Theta had always chided him for this—saying something along the lines of ‘every piece of knowledge whether unknown, repeated, or previously known is useful in some shape or form.’ 

Emilia’s plan didn’t leave Iota entirely convinced of this idea. It involved him manipulating newly conjured chains to sweep away the heavy snow piled at the front of the ‘mess hall.’ Their main target was Nu since Klaus had labeled him as an ‘untrained combatant’ and ‘less dangerous’ than Rho. Frankly, Iota didn’t care which one they captured—though he’d prefer to have them both.

One of their aims was to separate Nu from Rho and then Nu from the Specialist children. This was partially prepared for by Kleine who conjured rigged explosives at a far building at the edge of the outpost. He’d found some children holding up there and had brought them safely back to the building Iota had woken up in as well. Separate and capture. S and C. Apparently this was a tactic that a superior of Emilia’s often used.  

Once Iota had swept the ground clean of most of the snow, Emilia went to work shifting the earth with her conducting. By the time she was finished, the blizzard had coated the ground again. As directed, however, Iota kept a small space of ground clear for Emilia behind an outhouse adjacent to the field they’d been working on.

As soon as everything was in order, Kleine activated the detonation device at the far end of the outpost. The fire resulting from the explosion carried its light even through the thick blizzard. Smoke pillars rose from the flames and clouded all the white with gray. Kleine then moved to dress in a school uniform—-disguising himself as a child. It was convincing enough, Iota supposed. More convincing than it would have been with Brandt, himself, or Emilia who were taller and more broadly built. 

“Help!” Klaus began shouting once he was at the edge of the field. “Is anyone out there? Someone please help!”

Emilia, Alwin, and Iota proceeded to return to the back of the outhouse and crouched hidden behind it.

The snow storm raged on and on as they waited and listened to Klaus’s phony cries become carried away by the wind. The Capricornians’ shared patience was rather surprising to Iota—although Capricorn was always the patience and rigid sort as well. 

The entire time, however, Emilia remained tense beside Iota and would occasionally shoot him furtive looks. Impolite. 

Ah. Working together with soldiers: major contributors to the syzygy and the third level of vitae. Iota wondered if he was becoming like Theta now who’d intermingled with individuals associated with the criminal underworld. No. He wasn’t. This was merely a temporary alliance. Coinciding goals. Of course, having Zu back—even if like this—would be a blessing since their numbers were so low now. Convincing him would most likely be a hardship. 

Iota studied Emilia again before saying, “Your concern for your brother is—” 

“If you mention it being okay for him to die since he’ll return to the cycle then I—”

“No, I wasn’t going to say that.” Iota frowned. “I’m not insensitive to your issues. It’s just that my issues are more pertinent.”

Emilia sent him a glare but didn’t say anything for a while. Alwin merely sighed.

After a while, Emilia whispered, “You don’t remember your previous initiations at all…”

“No, of course not.” Iota arched his brow.  Realization dawned a moment after: “You encountered one of my previous initiations. Is that one of the reasons why you know so much…?”

Emilia’s hand moved to her abdomen again.

Despite the topic’s irrelevance, Iota couldn’t help but feel a bit curious. Before he could address it, however, Klaus’s voice cut through the pause of silence—

“Hello? Is someone there? Mister?”

Iota peered around the outhouse and squinted past the windy flurry. Kleine stood at the center of the field there hunched over. Only a meter or so ahead of him stood three figures: Nu, the boy fire Elementalist, and some other child Iota didn’t recognize. Hopefully the second child was not an earth Elementalist or their plan would go awry. Pushing the thought aside, Iota’s gaze became drawn to the small, whimpering body draped over Nu’s shoulder.

“Lutz…” Emilia breathed.

Nu drew nearer to Klaus as the latter pulled away. The two children behind the man kept close. As the Capricornians had expected.

“It’s alright,” Nu pressed, trying to peer at Klaus’s face which was hidden by his upturned collar. “Come with me. I’ll help you.” 

Klaus continued to skirt away until he reached the very center of the field after which he remained stiff in place. Nu closed the distance between them, and when he was only a step away, Klaus took off in a mad dash—

Now!”

Emilia slammed her gloved hands onto the ground beneath her feet, and the area immediately began to emit a warm blue glow. The glow spread to the area beneath the feet of Nu and the two children as well. The brightness seeped up from the thin layer of snow as the ground trembled. The two children looked to Nu in alarm but it was too late. The earth beneath their feet crumbled away, sending the two tumbling down into the pit. Their cries were cut into groans as a soft thud resonated up from the holes. Then came the eruptions of burning white fire and water from each pit. No earth Elementalists. Good.

Nu ran to the edge of the closest pit in alarm. Iota flicked out his glove conductor in response, sending the ten chains that Klaus had conjured and buried in the snow up and out towards Nu. The man whipped out his blade conductor immediately and slashed through three of the chains. He was not fast enough, however, and Iota managed to wrap a chain tightly around his abdomen and arms, constraining his movement. As Iota tightened the chains, Nu dropped his conductor and kicked his legs furiously until Iota bound them too. Carefully using his extra chains, Iota pried Emilia’s brother from Nu’s shoulder and set him on the ground. Then, he quickly proceeded to wrap the chains around Nu’s open mouth, preventing the man from biting off his tongue like he’d done so many times before.

And then—that was it. Plan completed.

Iota shot up in both alarm and amazement before flicking his wrist and bringing Nu close to him. He studied the man’s face, took in the man’s half-glower, before turning towards Emilia in slight awe. To have spent so long trying to capture this person and now to have them wrapped up so easily?

Paying no attention to Nu, Emilia ran forward towards Lutz who was staggering up from the ground. She wrapped her arms around the boy’s body. Trembling, the boy returned the gesture and enveloped Emilia in a vice-like embrace.

Iota watched them with a frown as a faint memory tickled the back of his mind.


The snowstorm began to pull back as soon as Iota finished wrapping Nu up in chains. Emilia herself, Kleine, Brandt, and Iota were all now gathered behind the outhouse from earlier.

“Rho probably thinks Nu’s died and returned to their resistor, so they’ve probably left,” Iota reasoned as if the entire course of action were logical. “They don’t keep their partner’s or their own resistors on them like we do. Nothing to retrieve.”

“How many…” Emilia tried. “How many did she take?”

Iota remained silent. “As many as she thinks they need.”

How awful.

Emilia’s gaze drifted to Nu—who looked like he was wrapped in a cocoon—as she held Lutz tightly in her arms. Her brother had dozed off only a moment after she’d brought him into an embrace. She’d almost lost him.

“Backup will probably come soon,” Klaus muttered, eyeing Nu and Iota with nervousness. “The ELPIS Department too…”

The ELPIS Department…

They had worked together with a terrorist—this realization finally sank in for Emilia. Alwin was still Alwin, so their countless times together in the trenches didn’t count as working together with a terrorist. Klaus had worked together with an ELPIS leader named Theta during the Week of Blindness, but apparently Theta—the man responsible for nearly sinking the Twin Cities last year—had turn coated from ELPIS, so that didn’t count either.  But Iota—admittedly, Iota was different from how they’d been when Emilia had encountered them on that train to the capital. The manic insanity in their eyes from that night had become with a cool suaveness and maybe even a touch of flamboyance. Still, the snake tattoo on Iota’s hand was unignorable. It didn’t matter their intention—whether cruel or righteous—ELPIS had torn people’s lives apart.

But maybe she had too.

Emilia pulled Lutz closer to herself and brushed some of the snow out of his hair.

“You’re taking Nu with you, Iota?” Alwin asked after a beat as he glanced at Nu’s chain prison.

Iota scrutinized him. “Of course. That’s why we worked together. If you’re suggesting that I hand him over to them, then—”

“—Take me with you too, Iota.”

Iota looked up sharply, while Kleine startled visibly. Emilia stared at him in confusion as her heart skipped a beat. The wind howled.

Slowly, Iota drew, “Through Theta’s gates? Back to Lamendos? Back to Gamma?”

Alwin nodded with a half shrug. “What else would I mean?”

Klaus stiffened. “What…? What are you saying, Brandt—”

“My fiancé is being put in danger because of me while I’m just sitting out here doing nothing and acting as a bargaining piece for the captain,” Klaus snapped with a grimace. “Even before everything in the capital…” Seeming to notice Iota’s arched brow, he explained slowly, “There was an… incident in the capital of Capricorn involving Scorpio… We ended up facing off against him. It’s a long story, but…”

Iota’s cheeks—oddly enough—flushed momentarily. “So you encountered Scorpio…” He cleared his throat and looked Klaus up and down. “As long as he hasn’t planted any of his spores on you, then I don’t have any objections. I can’t say Gamma would be happy to see you initiated improperly. I’m sure if you still had some vitae left, he’d kill you and reinitiate you in a heartbeat, but—”

“Wait, wait, wait—” Klaus stepped forward, hands raised. “What are you saying—”

 “Klaus, I need you to conjure me…” Brandt leaned over and whispered into the man’s ear.

Klaus somehow went even paler. “I can’t conjure something that’s living—”

Alwin pulled back, eyes hardening eerily, “And do you consider that something living, Klaus?” When Klaus frowned, he shook his head and cleared his throat. “I… I’ll show you what I mean.”

Emilia stepped forward. “What’s going on?”

“He wants me to conjure him a body double,” Klaus answered, “of himself.”

She looked between the two men in confusion before the puzzle pieces finally fit together. “You’re going to fake your death and go with…?”

“I can’t just sit around here and do nothing anymore. Not after what happened in the capital and now even here,” Alwin drew slowly. “And obviously if they know that I’ve run away, they’re going to use my fiancé against me or—worse— hurt her. I can’t have that.” He gestured around the area and then towards the pillar of smoke still rising in the distance. “This is the perfect opportunity. The perfect cover.”

“But your fiancé…” Emilia whispered. “If she thinks that you…”

Brandt’s face contorted briefly, and Iota’s frown was clearly visible. 

“I can’t indulge myself at the cost of other people, Emilia,” he finally said. “Not anymore. So… Klaus—”

“Wait…” Klaus interjected abruptly, gaze glued to the snow. He fidgeted with his glasses. “I… think I feel the same.” His gaze flitted between them all. “Just sitting out here with my parents on a noose and being on a noose myself…”

“But you’re going with a—” Emilia’s voice caught in her throat as she locked eyes with Iota.

“I-I know, Emilia,” Klaus stammered. “And it feels gross, but…” He locked eyes with her. “It’s… I think it’s the best option now.” He held her gaze—in askance. 

“I…” Emilia took a step back and tightened her grip on Lutz. “I can’t… I’ll keep quiet but I can’t come too. I can’t leave them.”

Iota’s eyes narrowed at her. “If Scorpio decides to interrogate her about your supposed deaths and implants a spore in her, then all of this ‘planning’ will be for nothing. I suggest you—”

“It’s fine,” Alwin said, lifting a hand. “Really.”

“I’m sorry…” Emilia mumbled.

Alwin merely spread his arms and offered a smile. Emilia went to him immediately, and they held each other for a moment. She turned to Klaus then; and only after flushing slightly did he return her offer for an embrace.

Afterwards, they concocted a story: the three of them had gone to try to retrieve Emilia’s brother from Nu but Klaus and Alwin had perished in combat during the operation. A seamless tale. And so, once the ending to that tale was written, without even an exchange of goodbyes—an action considered bad fortune on the field—Emilia turned away from them and proceeded through the snowy field alone with Lutz.

A selfish choice, she thought as she headed towards the mess hall almost blindly in the whiteness. Courage, heart, loyalty, glory, victory, and honor. These Capricornian ideals were figments—or so she’d learned during the Week of Blindness. There was no glory, no victory, no honor, no heart, so her actions were… understandable.

Emilia grimaced.

Right. There was nothing. Only puppets and pawns and the invisible hand—

The mess hall loomed ahead of her now—bright with lights and with hushed chatter seeping out from its cracks. She could also make out two guards posted at the doorstep—both, dozing despite everything that was happening. Chlorowheat, most likely. The lack of care still irked her despite the fact that the danger was long gone. Didn’t they have any sense of responsibility, heart, honor, or duty? No courage or loyalty…?

Emilia stopped in place as the ghostly whispers of Iota’s clink, clink, clinking chains whispered in her ears and the memory of that night on the train bled into her mind. How could she forget it: the burning and intense determination that boiled in her stomach as she’d reached a resolution—

Right. There was still loyalty and courage, wasn’t there? Yes, there was. Even in this situation.

Heart hammering, ears roaring, Emilia slipped between the guards and gently set Lutz down on the front porch of the mess hall. She roughly shook the nearest guard and immediately tucked around the building. The guard stirred a second after, stared at Lutz for a beat, before leaping up to a stand. 

“What the…?!” He immediately swept Lutz in his arms and darted inside the mess hall. 

After a beat of silence, Emilia could hear hysterical shouting coming from within:

“Saints! He was just laying out there in the cold—”

“T-That’s my brother!” Anna. “My brother! My brother! My sister?”

“Where’s Emilia?” Armin. “She was supposed to be with him—”

Emilia then peeled away from the building and headed back into the lessening snow. Nausea boiled in her stock, and tears stung her cheeks as her mind buzzed.

Her siblings would cry, she knew. Her parents would grieve and blame and hate themselves. Just like Otto’s parents did. The others—the captain, Lieutenant Wolf, maybe even Fischer and Stein—would probably blame themselves too for not being out here. She wasn’t prideful enough to think that she was the centerpiece of their lives, but she knew that she fitted in as some piece of their world. 

It hurt. Having them think that she was gone—that she was no longer there to comfort, talk, or be there for them—hurt. It almost made her wish that they could forget her instead. But—as Cadence said all the time over the phone—the more tears that were shed, the more believable it was.

By the time Emilia made it back to the three men behind the outhouse, Klaus had already conjured two humanoid-shaped piles of a gray meat-like substances. They looked monstrous in the dark and were tucked onto the ground right beside the side of the building. If those things had a smell, Emilia imagined it would be awful.

At her arrival, Iota, Klaus, and Alwin turned simultaneously. While Klaus startled in surprise, Alwin merely gave her a curt nod and Iota a brief glance.

“I’m sorry, Klaus.” Emilia chuckled sheepishly. “Would you mind conjuring one for me too…?”

Klaus’s lips drew into a tight smile before he moved to fulfill her request. Once three humanoid-shaped piles of meat were stacked against the side of the building, Klaus conjured a match stick and some tinder which Iota promptly sparked into flame with a strike of his chains. The embers fell onto the lumps of meat, and they erupted into a blaze a few moments afterwards in the quiet of night and snow. The heat warmed Emilia’s face, and she briefly closed her eyes.

Brandt let out a sigh and then said—

“From here on out Alwin Brandt, Emilia Bergmann, and Klaus Kleine are dead.”


A/N: I was going to post the poll results from two weeks ago in a separate google doc but that would take too much time and i wanted to get this chapter out now. Sorry for its tardiness.

TDLR updates are now switching to saturdays with the next one being next saturday not this saturday because I need to focus on some school, exercise, and work things that i’ve been putting off to write this accursed chapter. please be nice/forgiving to me & thank you for reading ^^

also have a trial cadence trailer here. trial singularity here. and schadenfreude here.

24.6: The Peacekeeper & Candidate in Mañana Light

Re-cap:
The one, the elections, Scorpio, Leona whom Jericho is serving as vice-chairman for. In light of all of these developments, Jericho has befriended the potential saint candidate for Cancer Benì who promises to teach him photography so that he may use the skill for Leona’s campaign. Despite the pain that February brang, March brings with it a better light as Jericho anticipates a particular date in March.


Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

Jericho was ‘excited.’ It was now March: the month of Olive’s birthday. There was going to be a celebration. Amendment: a surprise. Werner had been planning it thoroughly. Cadence had been attempting to ‘keep it under wraps.’ Atienna and Maria were making preparations. And Jericho’s own task: the setting. Another task to complete this month: to save Benì. Yes. He was going to do both of these things successfully. It was going to be a ‘good’ month.

February had been a ‘bad’ month for many reasons. Alice had always recommended him to write down the reasons why he felt certain things were ‘good’ or ‘bad’ so he could ‘conceptualize’ and ‘understand’ his own feelings and thoughts. And so Jericho had done just that:

One: Olive did not have a ‘pleasant’ time in Zhūshā Cheng. Claire—Olive’s ‘friend’—did not have a good time in Zhūshā Cheng either. Two: Cadence and Francis did not have a good time. The one was bleaching the children’s vitae. Wrong. Three: Werner had to take chlorowheat in order to blend in with his operation. Four: Maria lost her ‘boat crew’ and her children. The one took them. Five: Atienna had a not fun encounter with Scorpio. Atienna had to capture Louise. Intuition: Louise is now in the detention center. Reason six. The one escaped. Again. Alpha said there was no reason, but there has to be a reason. There is one. I know there is one.

There was one good thing that came out of February: Benì’s saint candidacy ceremony had been pushed back several weeks to an unestablished date due to developments between Cancer and Aquarius. Correction: there were several good things that had come out of February. For instance, Benì had been teaching him how to ‘properly’ use a camera. 

Jericho would meet up with Benì every Tuesday and Thursday in the Serpens Establishment’s main cafeteria. From there he would go with the man around the establishment’s grounds during his forty-five minute break and try to find ‘a capturable moment’ as Benì had put it. 

“It’s not that we’re trying to find a moment worth capturing,” Benì had said seriously when explaining the idea. “Over a billion moments worth capturing pass by every second, but not all of them can be captured. We still haven’t figured out how to do that yet.” He flushed. “Well, I mean, there’s that film thing but that’s different. What we’re doing is trying to find a moment that we can capture—that only we can capture. It’s like that.”

Benì had a very specific camera he carried with him whenever they went on their task. Rectangular, big, black, bulky. It looked more like a conductor than a camera.

“It’s worth more than a conductor even though it costs less than one,” Benì had insisted on one of the first days they’d gone out. When Jericho had stared blankly in response, Benì had pressed with pink cheeks, “Don’t you feel the same about your… sketchbook? It’s not weird. It’s just special.”

Jericho ruminated on the question. There were many things in his journal that he was fond of. Sketches he’d made during their first few synchronization meetings. The change in his style and his slow addition of colors. The evolution from cartoonish sketches to realism. It was a sign of progress. Yes. Like Werner and Olive said sometimes. Change.

As his adventures with Benì went on, Jericho quickly noticed that several aspects of photography differed from drawing and sketching—other than the modus operandi. For one, the act of photography could not be as drawn out as sketching. Although it could require just as much time as drawing, there was an instantaneous aspect to photography that Jericho was unfamiliar with. The snapshot had to be taken at the exact moment: the finger pushed down on the button at just the right time. No hesitation. The opposite of what Alice and Werner had been coaching him to do. Always think, they said. Don’t act unless certain. 

Different. 

A ‘nice’ different.

Despite the action of taking a photograph being an instantaneous thing, however, the ‘set-up’ and the ‘waiting’ for the ‘right moment’ took a very long time. Almost as long as it took for Jericho to finish one of his sketches. Waiting: a lot of it.

Oftentimes during these periods, Jericho’s thoughts drifted to either the one, the other five, Talib, or Francis. In order not to alarm and disturb Benì or the others, he would open up his journal and readily scribble out the images that flashed into his mind during these times. Sometimes his drawings ended up as lightly sketched profiles of Francis, Atienna, Alice, or Werner. Other times his drawings were hard-lined, half-finished headshots of Theta, Talib, and Ayda—half-finished because he could no longer recall what sort of expressions they used to make. Oftentimes, on the other hand, he would churn out dark, charcoal, rugged features of Scorpio and Alpha.

A distraction to this activity: Benì. He liked to talk a lot and about many things. But Jericho liked people who talked a lot. It negated the pressure for him to wonder whether or not he should say anything in beats of silence. Usually Benì would talk about his family, his parents, or his hometown. He was also very invested in ‘football’ although Jericho was not very familiar with the sport. Werner and Cadence had explained it to him when he’d asked them, but even after that, he still couldn’t understand it.

Why kick the ball? What was the point of getting it in the goal? What was the purpose? Why were there teams? Why was there a trophy? Why was there a competition?

These questions went unanswered. 

A question that did not go unanswered: why Benì wanted to become the Saint Candidate of Cancer.

“Oh, it’s sort of following expectation really,” Benì had answered sheepishly when asked. “My family’s been part of the Monadic Temples for a really long time. It’s been hard since the war, and the Monadic Temples provide financial security to the families of potential saint candidates who complete the ceremony successfully.” He’d cleared his throat. “It’s not all about the money though, but the community and support too, you see?”

After their lunch hour was over, Jericho would usually lead Benì back into the Serpens Establishment and into Nadinaline’s office. Sometimes if Jericho was too distracted by Benì’s photography lessons, Nadinaline would come to them instead. She would always kiss him on his cheeks in greeting and make an off-handed comment about either Leona or Scorpio. She was odd, but Jericho liked her. She never spoke badly about Gabrielle.

* * *

On a particularly cool day on the 3rd of March, Jericho found himself late getting off lunch once again—this time knowingly. He stood beside Benì in front of one of the many faceless statues that dotted the courtyard outside the Serpens Establishment. A particularly ‘pretty’ butterfly had been flying around the head of one of the statues, and they had spent the past twenty minutes waiting for it to land. Benì trembled out of nervous suspense as time ticked on, but Jericho remained steady in anticipation. This waiting was surprisingly exciting—

There!

Jericho pushed his finger down on the button of the camera that Benì had lent him several weeks earlier. As he looked away from its lens, the butterfly fluttered its wings and flew off its perch into the afternoon sun.

Benì stared at him. “Did you—”

Jericho gave a thumbs-up.

Benì brightened and clapped him hard on the back. “There you go! Lesson 5 of taking a picture conquered—”

“Benì Calice? Is that you?” drew a familiar voice from behind. “Nadinaline’s been searching all over for you! She even came to bother me about it.”

Jericho lowered his camera as the light feeling in his chest was dragged down by a heavy chain. He turned slowly and found Talib standing behind him on the walkway. The man was dressed in his usual crisp business suit. It looked dry and cold on him.

Wait. No, this was not Talib, Jericho reminded himself as always. This was Scorpio.

Benì stared at Scorpio for a moment before checking his wristwatch and flushing. “Oh—saints. It’s already 1:14, Jericho! Nadinaline’s probably worried sick!” 

Wordlessly, Jericho helped Benì gather his things and began to head back to the establishment building with the man.

“Wait, Jericho.” Scorpio stopped Jericho with a casual hand to the chest. “Let’s talk.”

Benì paused, looking back at Jericho with concern.

“No.” Jericho held Benì’s gaze. “I’m going.”

Scorpio held tight. “Just a little chat, partner.”

Now, Jericho paused. He met Benì’s eyes and nodded. After a moment’s hesitation, Benì headed back towards the Serpens Establishment alone. Jericho proceeded to turn to Scorpio.

“What do you think you’re doing, Jericho?” Scorpio asked, smile thinning to an unusual frown.

“Taking pictures,” Jericho replied, staring over Scorpio’s head because he was unable to meet the man’s eyes. “For Leona. Practicing.”

“With the potential saint candidate for Cancer?” Scorpio arched a brow before smiling again. “What? Are you trying to stop Benì from becoming Cancer? It is a choice of free will, you know? He wants to become Cancer, partner. Who are you to stop someone from doing something they really want to do? How did you feel when Alice, the others you’re connected with, and I tried to stop you whenever you pursued an ELPIS leader?”

Jericho’s stomach churned uncomfortably. “He does not know what it actually means to become a candidate.”

“I didn’t either. But look at me now. Don’t you see?”

Jericho fell silent. Not out of choice. He didn’t know how to respond to Tali—Scorpio. What did he mean by that? 

“I’m serious, partner.” Scorpio looked away suddenly. “You shouldn’t get your hopes up. Once the potential candidates are brought to this point, it really is inevitable. Everything is. Just enjoy yourself while you can.

“Why are you saying these things?” Jericho finally asked. “Why did you say those things. Back in Capricorn?”

“I just don’t want you to get hurt, partner.” Scorpio said before he chuckled. “But who am I to get in the way of what your heart wants you to do?”

* * *

(           )

Jericho continued to assist Francis, Maria, and Cadence in the search for the one. It was, however, more difficult for the Romanos and Campanas to maneuver around Signum now due to Lita’s capture. There was no one to check whether or not the people they sent out became infected once they came back. 

It was insufficient. Werner’s plan was good, but progress was slow. 

And yet still—in-between the pounding thoughts about finding the children and Alpha, Alpha, Alpha—Jericho’s mind drifted to Benì. He wanted to ask Francis about the man’s saint candidacy ceremony but he felt ‘guilty’ for not focusing on the ‘big picture.’ It felt wrong. Alpha, the one, the pounding questions, the need to stop any more children from being tricked: these were all things that were ‘most important’ but—

But Cadence assured him it was fine to get ‘off-task’ once in a while and that Francis wouldn’t mind the questions. And just like she said, on March 5th when Jericho came to Francis on the premise of sharing his photographs, Francis listened to his concerns about Benì and Cancer.

“Cancer…” Francis murmured in thought. He remained silent for a moment, puffing on his v-cig and flipping through Jericho’s photos. “Yes, Cancer was one of the more genial candidates. The records are damaged but I believe they were initially against the syzygy. As for a means of prevention, on the other hand… the best means of preventing a potential saint candidate from becoming one is from preventing their initial fall into the reservoirs. Once they touch the reservoirs and a small amount of that vitae enters them, the pull will be irresistible. It’s not only a matter of psychology but also of physics.”

Physics. A fall. Gravity. Inevitable. 

Like Talib. On that day when they’d faced Jin. On top of the reservoirs. It was just for a ‘moment’ as Claire had explained, but a moment was all that was needed. A snapshot. A photograph of an instant.

“Benì is set on being a saint candidate,” Jericho said. “He… I want him to stay Benì.”

Francis gave him a sympathetic look. “We can’t directly change which path people choose to take,” he finally said, taking a long drag of his v-cig. “What we can do is change the environment of the path around them.” He smiled wanly. “Give them a better option so to speak. That’s a fine line to walk—between manipulating someone, lying to someone, and convincing someone. Not easy in the least.”

Jericho pondered his words. “I tell him the truth.”

Francis nodded. “Honesty is always the best… Although sometimes it’s more trouble than it’s worth…” After a pause, he lifted one of the photos up. “This is a very nice one.”

It was a picture of two magpies bathing in a water fountain in morning light.

Jericho stared at the man before staring at the photograph. His stomach churned. “You can keep it. A gift.”

* * *

Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

Outside of searching for the one and the children and spending time with Benì, Jericho found himself at Leona’s side often. Olive described her as demanding, while Werner described her as methodical and Atienna described her as unusually driven.

When Jericho had informed Leona earlier about the one and his plot to raid Ophiuchus, Leona had reacted only partially with surprise. 

“We’re quite aware of Alpha’s activities,” she’d said as she’d sat across from him in her office. “I have a specialized task force designated specifically to track down and capture Alpha.”

“They are not doing a good job,” Jericho had interjected almost immediately.

Leona’s expression didn’t change. “I agree with you on their lackluster performance. It seems as if my faith in them is too high. This wouldn’t be the first time that they’ve disappointed me and yet they still look to me approval… like ants—no, like lambs.” She’d stared at him head on then and had asked in an unwavering voice, “And how exactly did you discover this about Alpha?”

“From the others.” Jericho didn’t elaborate any further. 

Leona had regarded him for a very, very, very long time before she explained calmly, “The Ophiuchus raid wasn’t something we were aware of since Scorpio hasn’t been able to plant any of his spores or offshoots anywhere near Alpha. But it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. This won’t be the first time Alpha has tried to raid Ophiuchus.”

There it was again. That piece of information. Alpha had tried to break into Ophiuchus before. But first—

“The children. The chlorowheat—”

“The chlorowheat?” Leona frowned. “People who take things like that are pathetic. They can’t bear the pressure of living, responsibility, and so on so they find the most relieving means of escape. However—the people who take advantage of people like that are even more pathetic. Weaponizing something that putrid is distasteful.” She let out a quiet sigh. “Now that we’re aware of it, we’ll make proper preparations.”

Jericho nodded, then immediately asked, “Why did Alpha raid Ophiuchus?”

Leona’s lips turned upwards. “Why do you think?”

“To try to stop you.” It felt wrong to say that out loud because the action in itself was good because the saint candidates were bad but Alpha himself was bad. Confusing. Misalignment. 

Leona gave a mirthless laugh as she rose from her desk. “No. Alpha was never the righteous type. Although he won’t admit it, all he wants is to reunite with Ophiuchus.”

“The candidate?”

Leona nodded.

“But… Intuition: they are not ‘here’ anymore.”

“In a sense.”

Jericho stared. Then, he asked, “Do you hear the bells, Leona?” 

Leona paused, turning to him slowly, eyes just slightly narrowing. “I hear them the loudest.”

* * *

Jariyah, Scorpio

Sometime later on March 7th, Jericho found himself riding out from the Grand Snake Station alongside Leona. He had been spending the last several weeks traversing by train with her to where the borders of Ophiuchus met the borders of other countries. Once there, Leona would readily give speeches to large crowds of people and then converse with the locals.

Politics.

Gross. 

However, they were also rather interesting. 

Jericho would always be sure to check the election boards which had been moved into the Assignment Department with Ferris whenever he returned to the Serpens Establishment. It was also where licensed Conductors came to cast their votes. He had seen quite a few familiar faces coming in and out of that department lately due to the elections: people casting their votes. Chiamaka of the Maneo Tribe. Mai and Kai of the Xing Clan. Even Veles—although he didn’t have the opportunity to speak with the man.

As the train bound out to the borders rattled on, Jericho wondered what people he would meet—or re-meet—when he returned to Ophiuchus. On this particular day, they were set to visit Scorpio. He had not set foot in this country himself for some time. No. Not since that night in that conductor plant. Not since he’d last seen Ayda.

Once they arrived at the station and stepped off the platform, Jericho was immediately greeted with a wave of heat. The sun was clouded over by a thin layer of clouds but the air was still dry and thin.

He quickly followed behind Leona as she paced through the streets. He carried with him two suitcases. As they passed along the dirt road and kept to the sides of the white limestone buildings, Jericho took note of the camels trudging along slowly. He had seen one of these animals in person himself before—he was certain. He just couldn’t remember when or where.

Once they reached the hall where Leona was to make her speech, he pulled out her speaking notes, followed her up onto the stage near the back, and handed them to her. This particular meeting hall was somewhat nicer than the meeting halls they’d visited in other countries. The walls were limestone and the ceiling high and curved. There were glass panels up there that allowed natural sunlight to filter on through. The stage itself was elevated on a rock-based platform above the auditorium which was dotted with wooden pews nailed to the ground. 

Unlike Epsilon’s and Fortuna’s wedding from earlier in February, this hall and its pews were filled to the brim with men and women dressed in silk garments that nearly ghosted the ground with their length. Despite the large crowd, Jericho did not feel uncomfortable. No, it felt familiar.

He stepped into place behind Leona as she began to speak to the crowd, but his attention drifted in and out.

“We will reach all corners of Signum with our peace,” Leona was saying, “but we will not forget the individual pride each country has…”

Jericho’s gaze drifted towards the glassless windows. Sand dusted the sill there and had spilled into a fine, thin layer on the floor. Sand—

The feeling of it slipping in-between the folds of his suit was both a familiar and foreign feeling. The sun beating down and seeping through the fabric of his clothing felt like a blanket without touch. The sand was uncomfortable but the sun was nice.  

If he closed his eyes now and remained here for a while, Jericho wondered if he could remember what it was like before. Yes. The tents billowing in the winds. The sand beneath his toes. The scorching heat. Her call to come home for dinner—

“What is it?”

Jericho opened his eyes. Leona was standing beside him. The hall and auditorium were empty. 

“I don’t enjoy it when people under my employ look like they’re not even paying attention to me when I’m speaking,” Leona drew, amber eyes glimmering intensely. “What’s your excuse?” After holding his gaze, she pulled back and drew, “Is it the heat? Are you feeling faint from it?”

“I am not about to pass out if that is what you are asking,” Jericho replied. “I was born here. I was trying to remember what it was like. I apologize for not paying attention.”

Leona regarded him for a moment before descending the stage. “The heat here almost rivals Leo’s heat in the summer,” she said, looking out past the pews. The sunlight sauntering down caught the gold of her lashes. “Only, there’s no relief here like there is in Leo. It’s a dry and arid place here. This country is far from perfect.”

Jericho watched her reach ground level before he replied, “I enjoy the heat.”

They exited the meeting hall together which was when Jericho noticed that one of the adjacent buildings hosted a billboard that was being pasted over with a new poster. He stopped short, stared at it. 

Captured on the poster was a facial shot of a smiling Talib. Beside his face was a slew of words printed in bold ink:

A KINDER SIGNUM.

WITH YOU, ME, EVERYONE. 

MEETING EYES.

HAND IN HAND.

Leona stopped as well and studied Jericho. She then followed his gaze up to the billboard before she offered a mirthless laugh. “I heard that Talib Al-Jarrah’s parents are the ones who put those up all around. They didn’t think to ask him—although I doubt he’d mind given the egomaniac he is.”

“I haven’t met them,” Jericho said, looking back down at Leona. “Talib’s parents.”

“They’re kind people,” Leona replied after a pause. “I met them at Scorpio’s official ceremony near the beginning of the year.”

“Scorpio met with Talib’s parents.”

“Talib is Scorpio,” Leona corrected, turning and walking forwards once more. “Though, I bet Scorpio relished in every second of their doting while simultaneously loathing it.”

Jericho cocked his head, but Leona didn’t elaborate.

When Jericho returned to Ophiuchus, he headed to the Assignment Department immediately. Ferris was already standing in front of the rolling results bulletin board. She offered him a smile as he approached before they both went over the quarterly results together:

Twentieth Round Election Results 

ELPIS Investigations Department: Leona Gloria-Angelo – 531 votes.

Psychological Evaluations Department: Talib Al-Jarrah – 530 votes.

International Relations Department: Seamus Dolby – 508 votes.

General Investigations: Gabrielle Law – 502 votes.

Conductor Regulation: Katharina Groth – 420 votes.

Reservoir Conservation Department: William Saovàng – 418 votes.

Commerce Regulation Department: Luca D’Angelo – 316 votes

Communications Department: Saddine Agwuegbo – 210 votes.

Conductor & Vitae Research Department: Moraeni Pōʻai – 210 votes

Assignment Department: Nadinaline Delacroix – 106 votes

Medical Department: Hårek Ohmdahl – 96 votes

Conductor & Vitae Research / Literary Department: Sera Aliz – 85 votes.

* * *

Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

“That’s… a lot, Jericho.”

It was March 8th. 

Jericho was sitting at the foot of the steps of the Serpens Establishment. Benì sat at his left and was staring at him wide-eyed as he cradled his camera.

“No, it’s not a lot. It’s the truth,” Jericho corrected, head cocked. “If you become a Saint Candidate of Cancer, you will no longer be yourself. The Anima-Vitae Hypothesis. Energy levels. It is real. The proof is in Talib Al-Jarrah.”

“The Saint Candidate of Scorpio…?” Benì drew slowly. “The chairman…” He shook his head and chuckled nervously. “I know the saint candidacy ceremonies can be scary, but that’s usually for the potential candidate—so I really appreciate your concern. Makes me feel a little bit less nervous especially since my parents are hoping for the best…. But it’ll be fine, Jericho.”

Jericho shook his head.

Benì nodded. “It’ll be fine. There’s been a lot of candidates in the past for Cancer, and they all come out perfectly fine and… ‘like themselves.’ I’ve read papers about the ceremonies from the temples and everything so I know what to expect.” He winced. “I know Monadism can be controversial in some countries and there’s a lot of misconceptions, but…”

No. No—

“No. He is no longer himself. Talib. He was my—” Jericho stared at Benì for a moment, unable to find the correct word. “He always said ‘question everything.’ The Organization. He was right. And he was kind. We worked together. And now he’s not himself.” He searched Benì’s face. “Your parents. Your family. You will not feel the same way about them like you feel now. You will not care for them. Not photography either. It changes how you feel and think. I know. I… think.”

Benì paled slightly at the last statement. 

Jericho wondered if he should have gotten Cadence’s help in convincing Benì instead. He had wanted to do this instead. Without manipulating Benì. The truth. But maybe—

“I…” Benì stared at his camera. “Maybe I should ask to postpone the ceremony for a little while…” 

Jericho felt his chest lighten. “I will help you run.”

‘Run’?” Benì chuckled. “I don’t think there’s a need for that. I’ll just tell them that I’m not ready yet.”

 Jericho offered him a thumbs up. “I will help you. Whenever the day is.”

Hesitantly, Benì reflected the thumbs up back.

* * *

In the early morning of March 10th, 1942—a date marked and mentioned several times in his journal—Jericho arrived at Alice’s apartment complex on the outskirts of the Serpens Establishment with two bags of groceries. He had asked her if he could come at 4:30 am on the day around two weeks prior. His reasoning: he did not have an oven in his own apartment and he needed one to complete the many tasks Werner had set out for them on this day. The others did not have access to ovens either at their far reaches of Signum, so he was given this very important oven-related task.

Alice had accepted his request without much question. She’d given him the keys to her apartment two days after his request and had told him only ‘to be quiet’ when entering.  

Alice’s apartment was located on the west side of the Serpens Establishment on the third floor of the suite buildings. These apartments—these suites—were on the ‘high-end’ of things in the Serpens Establishment. Although Cadence wasn’t awake as Jericho made his way through the security gates to the complex and up its elevator shaft, he could hear her voice rattling at the back of his head and saying, “Flannery wasn’t the only moneybags on Gabe’s team.”

Upon reaching the seventh floor of the building, Jericho wandered the halls until he found it: Suite 416. The number was gold while the door itself was painted a bright blue which contrasted greatly with the white walls of the entire building. As requested, he did create a ruckus: no jangling keys as he tried the door, no squeaking the door as he entered. 

Inside was quiet.

He had never been in Alice’s apartment before but it was exactly as he expected: much different from his own. There was a lot of furniture. A small table hosting only a vase full of fake plants rested at the corner of the entryway. From there expanded a hallway lined with tables and hung with different picture frames.

Recalling what Alice had told him of the layout of her apartment two weeks prior, Jericho headed through the hall and curiously eyed the picture frames hanging there. Inside one was a diploma from a university in Libra. Another one pictured Alice standing with what Jericho conjectured were her classmates. And the next—

Jericho paused.

Captured in a black-and-white photograph in a small wooden frame at eye-level was a trio of adolescents. At the center stood a curly-haired and freckled boyish-looking young woman sporting overalls. She reminded Jericho of Cadence. On the woman’s left was another woman with short hair and dressed in a spotted Sunday evening gown. Her arms were crossed but she was smiling slightly. On the very left was a young man with a full head of curly black hair and a mole in the corner of his eye. He was dressed in a button-up and smiling from ear to ear.

Jericho stared, then glanced at the photo right beside it. There, he found a group of eight adults: four men and four women. They were all dressed in suits and seated in a familiar-looking office. 

No distractions. Today was the day.

Jericho continued down the hall until he reached the kitchen area. It was fully stocked: a marble kitchen top, cabinets most likely full of baking and cutlery, a stove, and an oven that looked untouched.

Perfect.

As Jericho rummaged through Alice’s cabinets, Werner and Maria synchronized in fully with him. He was surprised by Maria’s early arrival, but not so much by Werner’s. Maria was back in Encuentrolza at the hospital since Morandi hadn’t yet fully recovered. She split her time between here and Francis’s room now as did what remained of her ‘ocean crew.’ She was not as bright as before, Jericho noticed. Meaning: she smiled less.  Because of the one. It was all his fault—

But despite this, Maria greeted Jericho with a grin like usual and threw her hands up in the air and then around him excitedly. Her warmth remained. 

Maria was very good at finding things. She quickly found all the bowls, measuring cups, scales, and devices that he had spent the past fifteen minutes searching for. Jericho was glad. Those items were, after all, required to perform their serious, important task. Once Werner had organized everything that Maria had found, it was time to move onto the next step. 

The next step: bake.

Werner took charge here, pulling out the fruits, the flour, the eggs, the sugar from the grocery bags Jericho had brought with him. Measure, cut, pour, cut, mix, measure. Werner was very, very exact with everything. Measuring cups and the scales and even the temperatures the ingredients needed to be at: everything precise. 

“You are very serious about cakes, Werner,” Jericho noted as he felt the man carefully mix the brown sugar into the room temperature butter. 

“Everything in life should be taken with some degree of seriousness,” Werner said seriously as he moved on to carefully measure and dice the strawberries. “If that wasn’t the case then nothing would be accomplished.”

“I like your seriousness,” Jericho replied, somewhat able to tell that Werner had become self-conscious of the fact. “It is reassuring.”

“You wouldn’t be Werner if you weren’t serious!” Maria exclaimed from where she was perched on the countertop before she leaned in towards him. “Oh, but you could relax more, yes?” Her voice was quiet as she reached out to tap his chest. “You should be more careful about ‘stress,’ no?”

“It’s true, Captain,” Cadence’s voice rang through Jericho’s head then his ears as she phased into focus in front of him and rested her elbow against the countertop. “Relaxin’ a little’s never hurt anyone. Ever heard of a spa day? Doesn’t your government offer those now for people workin’ in the capital?”

Atienna synchronized in just beside her with a pleasant smile before her attention was drawn to the mixture Jericho—Werner—was still carefully mixing.

“May I help, Werner?” she proposed.

Werner nodded in approval and Jericho could feel the synchronization between them strengthen. The two carried on with the mixing and measuring, guiding Jericho’s hands along the way. Occasionally, Maria would make Jericho dip his fingers into the mixture and taste it which earned a frown from Werner. Cadence meanwhile assured the test-tasting was necessary since Olive had ‘a picky palette.’ 

Half an hour later, Werner and Atienna pushed five baking pans into Alice’s oven and set the timer. Afterwards, they all sat in silence for a while around the kitchen. Cadence decided after some time to wander into the exitless room on her end of things that contained the grand piano she’d swindled out of a passing merchant Maria had encountered in Leo two months back. Francis was already in that room lying prostrate on the sofa in the corner with a book over his face. She eyed him for a moment before shrugging, heading to the pianos, and tapping out a pleasant melody on the keys.

Meanwhile, Maria took Jericho back to the photographs hanging along the walls. Werner and Atienna both argued for privacy, but Maria was set on going through them all. She pointed at each photo and played a guessing game with Jericho on where the photo may have been taken. Jericho didn’t understand the game, and he reasoned that this was why he eventually lost. Cadence insisted it was a rigged game to begin with.

Twenty minutes later the cakes were done and pulled out of the oven. Werner then moved them to the refrigerator to cool. 

“It’d be nice if we had an air Elementalist with us, ya know?” Cadence sighed, rocking back on her feet. “We’d cool the cake like that.” She snapped her fingers before smiling and spreading her arms. “I can only entertain ya for so long, right? Gonna get bored of hearin’ the same songs over and over again, right?”

“It has to cool at an appropriate pace, Cadence,” Werner corrected before he added: “Besides, all of your songs are unique and memorable enough to be heard repeatedly and still be considered enjoyable.”

“Aw, shucks, Captain,” Cadence said as she returned to her piano playing. “Now ya just cursed yourself ta listen ta me play for eternity.”

After exactly two hours and fifteen minutes, Werner removed the cakes from the fridge and placed them down on the counter. He carefully set the first layer of cake down on the fancy plastic platter stand Jericho had bought earlier and then began to even slather it carefully with the mixture of strawberry and cream. Layer after layer.

Next step: decorating. 

Now, it was Jericho’s own turn. He was not familiar with cake decorating. Atienna had read books about it and had decorated a cake for her siblings a few times, so that knowledge had seeped down to him, but that was all he had to go on. The others did not have any experience with it. Atienna was the expert here. She had even offered to take up the decorating due to her more precise knowledge, but Jericho insisted on doing it instead. He was not good at ‘giving gifts’ so he wanted to do at least this for Olive. 

And so, he pulled out his sketchbook and turned to the page that hosted the numerous designs he’d drawn for the cake, fiddled with the knives and piping bags much to the concern of Werner and the chagrin of Cadence, and then went to work.

Occasionally Werner would say “very good, Jericho” or “impressive” which made Jericho focus even more so. Atienna’s additional comments of “oh, it’s definitely better than what I would’ve done” made him work all the more intensely.

Jericho thought about the two of them often in his idle time when he wasn’t thinking about the one, Francis, Talib, or the children. Correction: he worried about them. It was intuition more than evidence. They confided and conversed with each other frequently out of ears reach of Jericho and the others. It was unspoken, but those two had been the ‘leaders’ of this ‘spirit crew’ since their first synchronization meeting. They did not confide in each other quietly this time, however, and instead spoke openly about the texture and filling of the cake.

Maria and Cadence, on the other hand, spent the time discussing whether certain things were considered music and what could be considered love. Cadence—despite Jericho finding her to be more relaxed and easygoing than the rest of them—was very stringent when it came to music and love. 

Jericho was worried about the two of them too. Addition: he was also worried about Olive. He was worried about all of them. It was not a feeling he was unfamiliar with. Before their first synchronization meeting in Olive’s room almost a year ago, he did feel this emotion towards Alice on occasion.

To have something he could worry or care about—Alice had often said this was a very good thing. Jericho was starting to understand what she meant by that.

After Jericho finished applying the last carefully placed dollop of frosting on the cake, he stepped back to present it to the others. The cake was rounded at its top and narrowed down to a point at its bottom. A green stem of frosting rested on its round head.

“Definitely looks like a strawberry,” Cadence noted, whistling.

Following this approval, Jericho set the cake in Alice’s small refrigerator to cool. 

At 9 am—later than usual—Olive finally woke up. Amendment: Stein woke Olive up by flying into his room and shaking him out of bed. As soon as Stein exited Olive’s motel room and Olive finally dragged himself up to a sit, Jericho reached out to him and pulled.

All of their synchronizations increased simultaneously, and Olive appeared dazed by all of their presences.  Cadence’s image was before him in a heartbeat.

“Surprise!” she sang, snapping her fingers and transmuting the illusion of the words ‘HAPPY BIRTHDAY’ right over his head.

Olive blinked in what appeared to be stupor.

Cadence then ran back to her piano and began to play out a slightly familiar song. After a series of notes, she began to belt out—

“Happy birthday…”

Maria and Cadence sang loudly, while Atienna hummed the words quietly. Werner remained stiff and silent for the most part but Jericho could occasionally hear him humming as the man pulled their cake out of the fridge and presented it before Olive. Jericho himself tried to sing along but he kept missing every few words.

By the time the song, Olive had stumbled out of bed and gazed at them befuddled. Maria erupted into applause first and threw her arms around him.

“You are one year older now, yes?” she pressed excitedly as Cadence threw illusory confetti around in the background. “You are taller, no? Wiser, maybe? You have definitely grown, yes? Another wonderful year has been added to your life, yes?”

Olive stared at Maria as she pulled away.

“Saints, kid.” Cadence sighed, heading lolling to the side. “Ya could give us more of a reaction, ya know? That’s what surprises are really all about. Reactions and stuff.”

Olive scanned the kitchen. “I… sorta figured… I mean, I heard some of your thoughts sometimes… and…” He glanced at Jericho. “And I could tell some of you guys were excited about something…”

Cadence arched a brow. “Ya know, kid, usually when people are aware of surprises already, they still pretend ta be surprised. Ya know—so other people don’t feel bad—”

Olive’s face lit up almost frighteningly, and a wide and unnerving smile cracked across his face. “Wow! I’m so surprised! Amazing!” His expression fell flat a second after, his cheeks flushing. “There. Quota filled.”

“Earnesty and sarcasm all in one,” Cadence noted before spinning around. “Finally a synchronization party though, ‘ey? We can finally mark that off the bucket list.” She turned back to Olive. “How are ya feelin’, kid? Come on. No need ta be shy. It’s your day.”

“I…” Olive shifted from side-to-side, not meeting anyone’s eyes. He rubbed his arms. “Look. Sorry if I came off as rude. I’m just… surprised but not surprised. I appreciate the effort you put into all of this. Well…  I appreciate all of you, alright? Thank you really… for this…” He squirmed. “And for more than this.” He scowled and sighed. “I hate being sappy but I feel like I need to say it after everything that happened last month… Plus after finding out that we might’ve known each other before… I don’t know. I just… feel… lucky I guess…”

“Aw, kid…” Cadence reached out for his head but Olive slapped her hand away.

The mysterious seventh, Jericho thought vaguely.

Atienna was skeptical about the seventh. Cadence didn’t seem to think it was a ‘concept worth investing in.’ Maria didn’t think about it. Jericho wasn’t quite sure what Werner thought of it, but he knew that Olive was very interested in it.

It did not seem quite ‘logical’ to Jericho. There was very little evidence behind the existence of the seventh. But Francis had settled on the ‘seventh’ theory, and Francis was smart. But Atienna was also smart and didn’t believe the idea wholeheartedly. A misalignment.

Still. If there was a seventh, then—as Francis explained—that meant that they would have had to have been connected before. Before? Before ELPIS? Before Alice? Or before…? Yes, that was pleasant. Imagining having the others with him. Jericho wondered—if the seventh was real—what it was like.

“Seventeen—almost eighteen.” Cadence snapped her fingers over Olive’s head and transmuted the illusion of a glass of wine in her hands. “It may or may not just be downhill here age wise for ya, kid, but that doesn’t mean ya can’t enjoy yourself.” She wiggled her fingers and transmuted the glass of wine to a handful of confetti which she tossed over his head.

Olive scowled and waved her hand away. 

Cadence gave a short laugh. Amused. “Say, since the kid started with the sap—” She transmuted another illusory glass of wine. “How about we all say a toast—”

Maria leapt up from where she’d been sitting on the countertop. “Oh, me first!” 

Sometimes it was necessary to say things out loud.

Even though words were never enough.

“You are all my spirit crew!” Maria sang. “You are the best spirit crew!” She leaned back against the counter as her gaze fell slightly. “You are there when others are not…” She beamed. “And so, I will make your dreams a reality too like mine are, no?”

There was a beat of silence.

Well, I was more thinkin’ along the lines of sayin’ a toast ta the kid…. But—” Cadence nodded then, spreading her arms. “I like this idea better. What say you, kid?”

Olive shrugged.

Cadence chortled then flourished her hand in Atienna’s direction. “I propose our greatest advisor goes first—well, second.”

Atienna’s brows rose before she smiled slowly and drew, “It was a rather… unfortunate set of… events and circumstances that led us here together, but… our actual connection here is the epitome of fortune, don’t you think?” Her smile thinned and she nodded at Cadence. “Do you have anything to add, Cadence?”

Cadence chortled before she shrugged.  “I mean we had our rough patches…” She waved away her transmutation. “But ya know what happens ta patches. They get all fixed up.” She added after a beat: “I don’t wake up at 5am in the mornin’ for anyone. For free, at least.” She gestured to Werner just as slyly as Atienna had. “Captain?”

Werner cleared his throat. “I appreciate all of you for your unique abilities”—Jericho could tell he was choosing his words carefully— “and for your unique personalities. I’m glad we’ve been able to assist each other up until this point and hope we continue to do so in the future.” He met each of their gazes. “If any of you need me, let me know. I will answer your call.” 

Their gazes then turned to Jericho.

A pause of silence stretched on.

“Ya don’t have ta if ya don’t want ta, detective,” Cadence said with a shrug. “This is all just silly stuff anyways—”

“I like all of you,” Jericho stated. “Thank you for keeping me company. I would not be happy if I didn’t know you. I think… I would not have made ‘good’ and ‘smart’ choices.”

Atienna tensed.

“I don’t think I would be a very ‘good’ person either.”

“Oh, Jericho.” Atienna frowned slightly. “Don’t say that…”

Jericho stared at her blankly for a moment before looking towards Werner.

Werner nodded. “Understood, Jericho.”

“Okay—sap over!” Cadence clapped her hands and pointed to the cake. “Time to try the fruit of our labors, kid!”

Jericho set the cake down on the counter, picked up the knife, and cut a slice for Olive who inspected the cake’s layers curiously. 

“It’s literally a strawberry cake in the shape of a strawberry…” Olive murmured, cheeks flushing slightly. “My favorite… How did you kno—” He shut his mouth, flushing even further. “Forget I asked that.”

Werner nodded then cleared his throat and nodded stiffly at the cake. “Go ahead, Olive, if you will.”

Olive glanced up at him for a moment before stabbing his utensil into his slice and forking it into his mouth. Rather—Jericho performed those actions. The layers of the cake were moist and the cream filling both sweet and tangy.

“Well?” Cadence pressed.

“It’s…” Olive stared down at the cake. “Honestly the best strawberry cakes I’ve ever eaten…” He quieted for a moment. “I don’t think I’ve eaten a cake this good in years…”

Werner reached out and placed a hand on Olive’s head. “Happy birthday, Olive.”

“Thanks…” He opened his mouth, shut it, before shoving another two big bites into his mouth.

“The sweetness could be balanced more,” Werner noted after a beat as he retracted his hand and placed it to his chin. He glanced at Jericho briefly. “This is not criticism on your part, Jericho. It’s something I should’ve considered when preparing the ingredients and the recipe. Perhaps it was too much sugar.”

“It tastes fine.” Olive arched a brow. “Really—it does.”

“I agree with ya, kid, but—no offense—you don’t have the healthiest taste buds when it comes to sweets,” Cadence noted. “Not sayin’ anythin’ on your bakin’ though, Captain. That’s a mighty fine cake.” She nodded at Jericho with a smile. “Mind sendin’ some over my way—”

Olive lowered his fork and squinted at Cadence. “What’s that supposed to mean? At least I don’t think wine is the definition of fine-dining.”

Cadence arched a brow, lifting her hands. “But it is, kid. ‘Course, ya don’t really appreciate it until you’re older. I’m just sayin’ that your diet isn’t the healthiest—”

“‘Until you’re older’?” Olive frowned. “You’re not that much older than me. I doubt a year or two makes a difference.”

Cadence arched a brow. “Hey now. Age and maturity are two different things—”

“Would you rather be older or more mature?” Maria interjected suddenly.

Olive and Cadence stared at her—one in confusion, and the other with slight amusement.

“Enough.” Werner frowned lightly. “We should celebrate Olive’s birthday appropriately.”

Atienna side-glanced at the man, still smiling with amusement. “And how shall we go along doing it appropriately, Werner?”

Jericho felt something tickle in his chest at the familiar scene, and he felt the corner of his lips twitch slightly. A motion of the corner of his eye caught his attention before he could digest the feeling and he turned his head. Alice stood in the threshold of the kitchen door. She was draped in a silk robe that skirted the floor. Her hair was slightly tousled, her glasses somewhat crooked.

Jericho stared for a moment in momentary surprise since he hadn’t ever seen Alice look anything but ‘put together.’

“I apologize,” he said a moment after, “if we—if I was loud.”

Alice didn’t say anything and instead moved to the display where Olive’s cake resided. Silently, she cut a slice for herself and forked a small bite into her mouth.

Olive frowned at her. It’s good. Say it’s good.

Alice said nothing as she chewed. Eventually, she set the plate down much to Werner’s deeply hidden dismay and asked, “Did you make this?”

“Werner did,” Jericho replied. “He is very good at making cakes even though this is his first official time. We practiced together from time-to-time.”

“I see…” Alice moved to the kitchen table and sat down. She looked him over slowly. “I admit that it’s quite peculiar to see you like this.” 

Unsure of what she was referring to, Jericho looked around the kitchen. Everything was in order: the counters Werner readily cleaned, the pans that Atienna had put away. He glanced at the others who stared back at him.

Awkward…

Not really, kid.

Thank her and let her know that we’ll clean up the mess.

I don’t believe she’s particularly upset about that…

“I apologize…?”

“No. It’s nice.” Alice held up a hand. “What’s the occasion?”

“Olive’s birthday.”

“Oh. The Ariesian prince.” Alice nodded. “And, how is he?”

Jericho glanced over his shoulder and met Olive’s gaze. Olive was shaking his head and waving his hand awkwardly over his throat.

“He comforted a friend recently.”

Olive sighed.

“I see…” Alice stared into him. “I hope I’m not interrupting your celebration.”

Jericho shook his head. He studied Alice for a moment. He had known her for a very long time. She was the one person he’d known longest. Yes, he was certain. He wondered if she noticed anything different about him. No. He did not want to interrupt Olive’s day.

Go ahead and ask, Olive thought. I don’t mind really.

Jericho considered it for a moment before nodding. He turned to Alice and asked, “Was I different before?”

Alice looked him over. “People rarely…” Her eyes narrowed slightly. “They rarely stay the same after so many years. Given your status as a True Conductor, I believe that may be even more so the case for you. What’s this about?”

Jericho amended, “I meant before and after the Tragedy of Aries.”

Alice studied him. “Is that a question from the prince?”

Jericho shook his head.

Alice seemed to mull over the question. She crossed her legs after a while and said, “Frankly, I admit that I don’t remember the days surrounding the Tragedy too well. Ophiuchus A good friend of mine 

“Shion Myosotis,” Jericho recalled. “Scorpio mentioned her before.”

Alice stiffened, but then relaxed back into her chair as she crossed her arms.  “She was closer to Talib than she was to me. He was devastated when she died. He didn’t believe what General Investigations wrote down as her cause of death was what actually happened.”

Suicide.

“I’m sure you know already but she did work with the ELPIS Department when it was founded,” Alice said after a long moment of silence. “She was actually the one who handed you over to me.”

Jericho paused at this revelation.

Shion Myosotis. Date of death on the day of the tragedy. Conjecture—no, intuition: she was the seventh? 

Jericho could feel the idea filtering out from his mind to the others.

But… Olive commented first as he looked around at them all. Suicide? She… wanted to bring all of us down with her? No, that doesn’t make sense. I mean after getting to know everyone, wouldn’t she want to…. stick around… longer?

There’s no way we can really know for sure… Atienna drew. If the seventh exists and if Shion was the seventh—

A ringing sound resonating from down the hall cut the conversation. A phone.

“I’ll be right back.” Alice rose from her seat and exited the room.

Jericho watched her go before shoveling more of the cake into his mouth.

“Ya know I’m not the type ta be sketpical when it comes to superstitious stuff like this,” Cadence drew slowly. “But it’s a bit hard to wrap my head around it still. I mean. It might not even be real—”

Jericho understood this. But at the same time Benì had not known whether or not what Jericho had told him about the saint candidacy were real. And yet the man had chosen to believe and postpone his ceremony.

“I pride myself in my memory when I haven’t hit the bar, ya know? Pretty sure I’d notice if somethin’ was off…” Cadence waved the thought of and flashed Olive a grin. “Anyways. Back ta the important celebration. Ya think Derik or Claire are gonna do anythin’ special for ya, kid? Sing you a song maybe?” She snorted. “Can ya imagine that? Ol’ Derik singin’ ya happy birthday and bringin’ ya a cake?”

“He did participate in one marching band ceremony back in his military academy days,” Werner recalled slowly. “I do recollect him participating in the singing portion of our exercises once every so often.”

Cadence laughed hard, loud, long.

Werner gazed at her for a moment before addressing Olive, “I could call Derik and remind him. If you’d like, I could ask him to take you out for a celebratory dinner. I’ll send him the funds. It would be a personal gift—”

“Oh please don’t, Werner—not if he sings to me.” Olive grimaced. “I’ve heard him sing in the shower before. His singing is so amazing that he manages to sing a completely different song using the same lyrics.”

Cadence guffawed even harder.

Alice re-entered the kitchen half an hour later. Much to Jericho’s surprise, she was dressed in a dark blue blouse and a skirt that reached her knees. Over this was a gray suit jacket. Dressed for work even though she did not usually report into work on Tuesdays until noon.

“Scorpio invited me to attend an event,” she replied, adjusting her earrings.

“An event?”

Alice turned away from him without speaking but didn’t move past the threshold. “He also extended the invitation to you.”

Jericho’s heart skipped a beat as he rose to a stand. 

Alice remained silent.

“Alice.”

“Jericho, you shouldn’t—”

“Tell me. Please.”

“A saint candidacy ceremony.” 

* * *

Prognoikos Aurora, Reservoirs

It was empty. The train station, the walkways leading to the reservoirs, the platform bridge itself: empty. No tourists; no tour guides. Nothing but the warm light from the reservoirs from below seeping up and through the bridges. 

Only when Jericho reached the central area where all twelve bridges connected together did he finally encounter people. They were crowded on the bridge that oversaw one of the thirteen reservoirs. Intuition: the one for Cancer. 

Jericho looked over the group. Monadic priests and peacekeepers in suits. Thirteen priests. Ten peacekeepers. All the priests were in ceremonial black robes, all surrounding a single man dressed in a white garb that reminded Jericho of the ones he’d seen in Epsilon’s memories. The man’s white garb was decorated with golden trinkets and dangling necklaces hanging with letters Jericho recognized as Ophiuchian. There was white paint on the man’s face as well: the symbol of Cancer—the crab’s claws—carefully plastered on in a way that made his face look no longer human.

Jericho, calm—

Tightening his grip on his suitcase, Jericho crossed the platform to the group in an instant, the rubber soles of his shoes clambering cacophonically against the bridge in the silence. He easily pushed past the priests and the peacekeepers and shoved them to the side as he reached forward to grab a hold of the central man’s wrists.

“Hey!” shouted a priest. “How did you get here—”

“Benì.” Jericho tightened his grip. “You said you would postpone.”

Benì stared at him, cheeks reddening. “J-Jericho, what are you doing here? I left you a message at your office. Didn’t you get it?”

Jericho returned his stare. “I was at a party. I apologize.” He pulled Benì closer. “Let’s escape.”

Benì looked him up and down incredulously. “Escape?”

“Let him go!” snapped a peacekeeper, grabbing Jericho by the shoulder and eyeing his white sash. “What’s your department? You’re interrupting an important ceremony—”

Jericho whipped around, cracked his fist against the peacekeeper’s face, and sent the woman flying back into the railings. When another peacekeeper ran at him, Jericho swung out his suitcase and clipped the man on the jaw. He swept his suitcase in a large arc, preventing the other peacekeepers from getting any closer. 

“You know.” Jericho stared at them all. “You know what’s going to happen.”

“What?” The peacekeeper whom he’d knocked against the railings rose to a stand and stared at him confusion. “What are you talking about? We’re just here to make sure people like you don’t come barging in and disrupting the ceremony. We’re not even allowed in after it starts so get out–“

“No. You’re allowing it.” Jericho’s gaze flickered between them. “You tricked him.” 

A hand on his shoulder drew his attention away. Werner. And Atienna behind him.

Jericho—

No. Werner. Please. 

Jericho, Werner reasoned calmly, sympathetically. At this point it’s too late—

No. Werner. Benì. You can’t just protect us. That is wrong. That is not fair—

Werner’s eyes widened, and their synchronization strained.

Jericho paled. Sorry, Werner. I did not mean—

“I… can’t leave, Jericho. I wrote it all in my letter…” Benì’s voice drew Jericho’s attention away. The man’s gaze flitted to the side. “But my family needs the money, and my parents and community—well—they have high hopes, so… I really can’t—”

“Yes, you can,” Jericho replied, tightening his grip on the man’s wrist and pulling him closer. “There is an exit. So you can leave. As long as there is an exit, you can leave. There is always an exit. A way out. Always. I know—”

“Jericho, stop it!” Benì snapped so loudly that his voice continued to echo. He tugged on his arm and sent Jericho a stinging glare. “You’re crazy! Let go of me!”

Jericho startled and released Benì from his grip. The man skirted backwards as he was surrounded in a barrier by the Monadic priests and the peacekeepers. Jericho started forward but was stopped by a hand around the wrist. He whipped around but—

Alice, standing there and staring at him with a firm from. But her eyes were not cold.

When had she come here? Oh, right. She had followed him here after he’d run out of her apartment. 

She held up a hand to the peacekeepers and whispered gently, “We can’t win this battle, Jericho. It’s his decision.”

No. Not her too. No. There was still a chance—

“Hey, now. Let’s not create a scene on this sacred day.” A familiar voice drifted down the walkway. The one that was the last voice Jericho wanted to hear at this time.

Upon turning his head, Jericho spied Scorpio approaching him from behind. The man smiled genially at them all before pulling out his badge to flash to the peacekeepers.

“You peacekeepers can call it early for today,” he said, repocketing his badge. “I’ll take it from here.”

“But—” one of the other peacekeeper’s began to protest as they eyed Jericho.

“That’s the First Chairman of Psychological Evaluations,” said another. “I think he’s above us.”

“You sure you can handle… suitcase here?” one of the peacekeepers pressed after a beat of hesitation.

Talib chuckled. “If any issues come up, I’ll take full responsibility.”

After some whispering, the peacekeepers agreed and made their way off the platform. Jericho did not watch them go—his eyes instead focused fully on Benì who skirted behind the priests. It was painful in a way he couldn’t describe—the distrust and hurt in Benì’s eyes.

Scorpio placed a hand on Jericho’s shoulder then but Jericho smacked it off. The saint candidate merely smiled in turn.

“No—”

Partner,” Scorpio pressed, grabbing him by the arm. “Our deal only goes so far. Don’t struggle against the current. The only thing you’ll get at the end with all that struggling is exhaustion. Be good now.”

The deal. The one Atienna made to keep them safe. The one that exchanged other’s safety for their own safety. Protecting only them. Why? What was the point.

Jericho.

At the tired tone, however, Jericho released his clenched fists and took a step backwards. He turned back to Benì but found that the priests and Benì were already continuing on down the walkway. He finally noticed that the priests were all holding long metal sticks with a series of bells attached at the end. The bells rang: a familiar and distant sound. They rang in a constant beat—rang  with each step Benì took. Closer and closer to the edge of the platform. One of the railings had been removed there, leaving it open and exposed. Easy to fall into the reservoirs below. 

Benì froze as he reached the very tip of the platform and became ringed around by twelve of the priests. One of the priests whose robes were embroidered with more twisting designs near the sleeves took a step towards Benì.

“Do you, Benì Calice, understand what’s going to happen?” asked the priest.

“No…” Benì frowned in confusion.

“Do you understand the weight of the knowledge that is going to be bestowed upon you?”

“No…”

“Have you trained in mind, body, and spirit to be able to wield and conduct yourself as a proper bearer of knowledge?”

“I… yes?”

“The pillar of Cancer is ‘heart.’ Do you understand what this pillar represents?”

Benì looked past the priest’s shoulder and across the platform, almost meeting Jericho’s eyes. “I know the pillar for Cancer is to keep your heart open to others at all times but…” He faced forward right before the speaking priest gave him a hard push.

Jericho startled at the sight as Benì took one stumbling step backwards before hurtling down into the pool below. From this angle and distance, he could see Benì’s fall completely. Down, down, down—

Splash!

Alice stiffened and paled beside him.

The vitae pool began to bubble before twisting around the area where Benì had fallen. It was like a whirlpool with Benì at the center of it—seeping deeper and deeper into him in a painful swirl of psychedelic light as the reservoir levels sank and sank. Jericho felt like he himself was sinking into it. 

Suddenly, the reservoir’s ripples stilled. It had not been drained completely, Jericho noticed as he searched the pool with a budding sensation of hope. The pool rippled again and a familiar brown head popped out. Benì. He rose from the depths slowly before slowly looking around.

Jericho’s heart hammered with hope.

But then Benì buried his head in his hands. 

Jericho felt a chain begin to drag down his chest at the sight as realization dawned. Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw a slow smile creep up Scorpio’s face. His stomach churned. Alice placed a hand on his arm.

“Well, I have to say that’s a much more graceful ceremony than my own,” Scorpio noted. “Then again, I did have three of them so perhaps I win in that category.”

“Three?” Alice turned to him.

“The first was when Gigi so graciously shoved me into the reservoir back in the beginning of fall last year,” Scorpio replied. “I wasn’t fully myself until the second time I fell a month or so later. The third time was the official ceremony with all of this”—he gestured vaguely towards Monadic priests that were now walking past them — “bureaucracy. I didn’t jump in for another swim, of course, the third time. I merely officially accepted my rites—”

“Why didn’t you say anything?” Alice whispered. “Why didn’t you—”

Scorpio’s smile thinned. Oh, I tried. Like I said, these types of things are inevitable.”

* * *

Jericho could not remember how he got back home to his apartment. It was a blur of voices, sounds, lights—but he was now home and sitting on his bed. Conjecture: the others had brought him here. But from where? Oh. Yes. The ceremony. Benì’s ceremony. Benì had become Cancer. And whose fault was it? The one’s—no, this wasn’t his fault. 

“Jericho…” 

Jericho lifted his head and found Olive’s image standing across from him.

Olive shifted from foot to foot. “So now you pay attention to me… I’ve been synchronized here for over two hours you know.”

Jericho stared. “Did you like your cake, Olive?”

“What…? That’s…” Olive frowned. “Not really what’s important right now…” He rubbed his arms “Are… you okay? The others are worried too. They waited here too, but things got busy on their ends…”

“I—”

“I obviously know you’re not fine.”

Jericho stared past Olive’s shoulder towards the letter taped to the wall behind it. It was the letter he’d received from “It’s your special day. I don’t want to ruin it.”

“Birthdays are special days for kids,” Olive grumbled, drawing closer. “I’m not a kid anymore—”

“You are not considered a legal adult in Aries,” Jericho stated. “You are only 17.”

Olive scowled. “Well, I’m in Scorpio right now and the age of adulthood here is—”

“21.”

Olive scowled, crossed his arms, before he dropped his arms. “Are you okay?”

Jericho offered a thumbs-up.

Olive’s scowl deepened into a frown. “I… Things have been… weird since Capricorn. I know that it’s been weird for all of us, but… have you talked to anyone about it? I know Doctor Kingsley isn’t your doctor anymore, but have you found anyone else to talk to…? Not even a doctor, but like…”

“I talked with Werner.” Jericho thought on it. “Not about what has happened recently, but before. We talked about sand and glass.”

“Werner’s…” Olive grumbled. “…not the best when it comes to this touchy-feely stuff…” He glared out in no particular direction. “I’m not the greatest either but I’m ‘emotional’ or whatever so I think I’d maybe understand more—no, not understand… but…”

Olive glanced at him before reaching over to the drawers beside him where Jericho’s sketchbook rested. He pulled it out of there, stared at it for a beat, before handing it to Jericho who accepted it blankly. Olive said nothing else and remained there for some time.

Jericho stared at his notebook-turned-sketchbook as he tried to sort through his thoughts. He flipped it open before he sketched out a faint jaw-line with and connected with a scribbled head of curly hair. “…He was like Talib.Talib was my partner. Talib was funny. I liked him. He helped me understand what was customary.” Jericho pushed harder to shade in the hair, but the lead of his pencil snapped off. He stared at it for a moment before he dropped the pencil to the ground. “He was my first partner. He was there when you were all there but he wasn’t a part of us. But still, he stayed. I know I am ‘odd,’ but still. He stayed.”

Olive nodded, drawing even closer.

Jericho could still taste the sweetness of Werner’s cake on his tongue. “ All of you… You remind me of how it was. Back in Scorpio before ELPIS came. I think—I am not certain and I may be wrong but—you are all family. I don’t remember well what it was like before ELPIS. It’s a blur, but it was warm. Nice. Home.”

Jericho could see Olive’s eyes widen slightly. His cheeks even flushed. He sank down beside Jericho.

Jericho stared at the unfinished sketches of Talib and Ayda as thoughts of them flooded his mind. Would he reach a point where he could no longer draw Benì’s face too? No. It hurt. He did not like this feeling. 

“But…Talib was my friend. My first friend after ELPIS. My partner. Not like Cadence and everyone. Not like Francis. Not like Alice. It was different.”

The feeling squeezed tighter and tighter until it somehow managed to squeeze something form his eyes. Something hot and wet and burning.

“I couldn’t help Talib even though he helped me,” Jericho whispered as his vision blurred.

 The wetness dripped down onto one of his older sketches of Talib and Ayda side-by-side.

 No, he thought in a panic. Not the pictures of Ayda and Talib.

Blinking rapidly, he tried his best to wipe away the wetness but his actions just caused more witness to dribble down onto the page. He wanted to toss the book to the side, to disintegrate it into nothing with his conductor, but—no. His sketchbook here was precious. Able to capture moments and thoughts. Change. And so, instead of discarding it, he curled himself over it and shut his eyes.

 “I couldn’t save Benì even though he helped me,” he finished in a whisper. “It’s wrong, Olive.”

He had not felt this intense emotion himself for a long time. He had felt it through the others several times before, but to feel it himself? No. Correction: he couldn’t remember when he’d last felt it. He didn’t like it. It was a black, heavy feeling.

Jericho stiffened as he felt a ghostly warmth drape over his back. Olive, wrapping him in an awkward but enveloping hug.

“We’ll figure something out, Jericho,” Olive murmured, his voice cracking slightly. “I-I promise. I’ll separate Lavi from me and Aries from Lavi. And when I do, we’ll separate Scorpio from Talib and Benì from Cancer too. I’ll make it happen. I promise.”

“I trust you, Olive.”

Olive tightened his hold. “I know.”

* * *

A knock at the door an unknown amount of hours later stirred Jericho from sleep. Alice greeted him with a quiet ‘hello’ when he opened the door. She studied him for a moment at the threshold before she reached out with a hand

“Are you alright?”

Jericho shook his head. “Are you alright?”

Alice shook her head too before reaching into the purse at her waist and pulling out what appeared to be a train ticket. “Leona called me because she couldn’t reach you. She wants you to be at the station by 5pm today.” She paused. “Do you want me to tell her that you’re sick?”

Jericho shook his head.

They stared at each other for a long stretch of time before Alice stepped forward and wrapped her arms around his waist. After a pause, Jericho returned the gesture.

* * *

When Jericho arrived at the Grand Snake Station, he was surprised to find it almost empty. He was not surprised to find Leona waiting for him at Platform 7 bound to Leo, however. She greeted him with a small nod but said nothing else. No mention of the ceremony, baptism, or Benì.

When they boarded the train upon its arrival, they headed to their compartment only to find it their table occupied by two bottles of wine and the seat across from theirs occupied by a familiar face.

Gabrielle Law.

Jericho felt his chest lighten slightly at the sight of her.

Gabrielle smiled. “Well, fancy seeing you two here.”

Leona returned the smile with a lifted chin as she took a seat across from her. “Are you giving speeches in Leo too? How daring of you to be giving speeches at the same time as me in my home country. Or perhaps I should say callous.”

“It’s coincidence really,” Gabrielle said as Jericho sat beside her instead of Leona.

Leona’s smile flickered for a moment. Clearing her throat, Gabrielle offered some wine to them as the train started up. Jericho refused as did Leona. Silence stretched on after that. Jericho closed his eyes as time stretched on—not out of tiredness but because his thoughts kept drifting to Benì, Talib, Ayda, and sometimes even Theta which caused his eyes to burn. He almost drifted away to sleep regardless, however. At least that was, until—

“You served in the war, didn’t you, Gabrielle Law?” Leona asked suddenly. 

Jericho opened his eyes to find Leona still smiling pleasantly. 

“Yep,” Gabrielle responded casually with a yawn. “In the joint Ariesian-Taurusian unit. How about you? I mean, you look too young now, but did some version of you serve?”

“Oh, I did serve in a sense.” Leona nodded. “Out of all the wars that I’ve witnessed in my long years, the Reservoir War was the most putrid.”

Gabrielle fell silent for a moment. 

The train rattled on in the quiet.

“Calling it putrid is interesting,” Gabrielle finally drew. “Don’t get me wrong. I agree with you, but aren’t you all the ones who set it up? Like what you did in Capricorn.”

Leona regarded Gabrielle for a moment before a deep, smooth, rumbling laugh escaped from her lips. “The war was the result of your own choices. That is what the free will clause states.” She leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes. “You’re curiosity is unbecoming, Miss Law. Do you really want to know?” She opened her eyes slowly. In the passing setting sun, they really did seem to glow gold. “How about we exchange stories from the war?”


????

“I wonder how long it’s been since Ophiuchus has been baptized.”

Lita tuned her ears. She wasn’t sure where she was. The only thing she was certain of was the fact that she was in Alpha’s presence. The man was odd. He spoke to himself often in a way that was much unlike the way Maria spoke to herself. He was odd in the head—but not in the way that Jericho was. No, his oddness wasn’t endearing at all.

“It won’t be much longer,” Alpha continued. “Soon we’ll gather all the fragments and return it to the way it was. Then, we can enjoy nothingness together.”


Drawn by chaosqube

See the trial trailer 2 for Jericho Kaworu and I made here!