18.3: Family, 1600 Fortress

Re-cap:

A gathering occurs at the convention in the capital of Capricorn. Gabrielle Law arrives with Talib Al-Jarrah, Alice Kingsley, Roberto Gonzalez, and Francis to arrest two generals on the premises. Maria, in search of her crew, arrives with Captain Weingartner, Friedhelm Heimler, Klaus Kleine, and Nico—the former two in search of their point of contact. Also present are Werner’s family members, a strange photographer named Hilton, and the Cancerian duchess Louise Bonnefy that Reneé is searching for.


Festung » Fortress found at 1600 hours

Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

Viktoria Waltz knew she couldn’t achieve perfection. A recessive disorder that rendered her internal vitae flow underdeveloped stole that possibility from her. Not only was she unable to expel vitae without becoming sickly, but she was also born with a weak constitution. Her mother lamented it often—“I’ve always wanted a girl, you know. A Waltz woman in the military would be a dream, but I guess the world isn’t that kind.”

Viktoria was certain that she’d never heard a word of praise from her mother’s lips—which was the opposite for her brothers. But she never despised them because ‘they were always there to protect her.’ Youth allowed her to foolishly believe in certainties like this. Even so, she should’ve known. The foundation of the Waltz family was of carefully upholding perfection. And so when Ludwig lost the use of his legs and could no longer keep up appearances, he fled, leaving just her and Werner in that house. She couldn’t bring herself to hate him though. She was very aware of the oddity of their family—especially the pecularity within Werner.

Werner’s peculiarity became apparent to her one night when he came home late from the military academy and was berated for hours by their mother. That night, Viktoria knew it wasn’t her brother standing there opposite their mother. Because as soon as her mother left, ‘he’d’ muttered “bitch” under his breath. When Not-Werner looked up and found Viktoria peering at them around the corner, they tensed and then pressed a finger to their lips. After a moment, Viktoria had reflected the gesture.

In the end, Viktoria never questioned it. Rather, she was afraid to address it. Fear hung over her head that if she asked about it, Werner would leave her all alone just like Ludwig had. But in the end, even though she didn’t speak of it, he left too to go serve in the Capricornian Army.

During that time, Viktoria wanted nothing more than to escape that house. She’d drowned herself in the clockmaking lessons her father provided and dreamed of leaving and starting her own business in some far-off city. However, that final leap seemed too great—the eyes that were on her, too piercing. And so all she could look forward to were her days spent working away at her bench, her talks with her customers, her visits to Fenrir at their neighbor’s house, and—of course—Werner’s returns.

The first time Werner came back from the field, however, Viktoria noted his peculiarities had vanished. What was left was an unfamiliar statue carved with stolidity. And just like a statue, with passing time, every time Werner returned it felt like a part of him was missing or worn away. Viktoria often wondered if one day he would come back as just a speck of dust—

But then the peculiarities abruptly returned.

Viktoria knew that the person who came home by train a couple days ago was not her brother. She could tell by the way that their eyes would crinkle when they thought no one was looking, the way they’d throw an arched brow at that Nico Fabrizzio whenever they had taken a sip of wine at dinner. That outburst on the train had confirmed the truth. A pretender.

The person who stood with heroic nervousness in the crimson inferno on top of that train was not Werner either. The moody looks, the half-mumbled responses, that Ariesian young man who always kept to that person’s side. Another imposter.

And even now:

The person who nonchalantly stood beneath the crystalline light spilling in from the dome amongst the crowd of Capricornians, peacekeepers, and foreigners was not her brother either. The sling on one arm, the girl wearing the conductor glasses and hanging from the other arm, the openness of the stance. Another stranger.

Despite her mother’s protests, Ludwig made his way over to the crowd. Viktoria swiftly followed behind him and caught sight of the apprehended generals wedged between two peacekeepers. Only a step away was a man with a snake tattoo on his face. A terrifying sight.

Before Viktoria could react, an un-uniformed Captain Weingartner came on towards them from nowhere accompanied by a highly decorated military officer—most likely a major general. Viktoria recognized the officer from the papers: Martin von Spiel, father of Fritz von Spiel who betrayed Capricorn by working with ELPIS several months ago. Von Spiel had with him a dozen men who quickly cleared out the rest of the building save for their crowd beneath the dome. Meanwhile, a glasses-wearing lance corporal came into explain that the convention was abruptly discontinued earlier than planned. After some direction, the stranger who wore Werner’s face took the conductor-glasses-wearing girl in her arm to the newly gathered soldiers led by Von Spiel. Each soldier introduced themselves as the girl touched their faces and hands. The girl was eventually brought to Viktoria and her family, and they all passed whatever silent test she gave them.

Just as the young girl was about to move on to the peacekeepers, one of them—a man who had introduced himself as Roberto earlier—argued that they were wasting time. A peacekeeper introduced as Gabrielle tried to rebut him, while the peacekeepers ‘Talib Al-Jarrah’ and ‘Alice Kingsley’ tried to diffuse the situation. Eventually, the young girl with the eyeglasses conductor became flustered, and the stranger pulled her back and reassured her with nonsensical phrases.

Father was taken aside by Von Spiel for a serious discussion, and when he returned, he simply said, “It appears as if Werner is working covertly on some operation between the chancellery and Ophiuchus. They’d like to put us under surveillance since we’re so close to the operation and Werner.”

“Oh, Werner’s working with Ophiuchus?” Mother’s face flushed. “Well, that’s wonderful!”

Not too long after this, Viktoria was ushered with her parents and Ludwig up an upwards sloping hall hidden behind a storage closet at the back of the dome. Behind them came the rest of the group.

Ludwig was silent as she guided his wheelchair up. She’d confronted him during their repose with the train earlier because she knew he knew what was going on, but he’d kept silent. At least, she’d thought bitterly then, he wasn’t running away this time.

When they reached the top of the ramp, Viktoria was surprised to find an interior balcony that ringed around the inner edge of the domed windows. Detaching from her family, she approached the railings and peered down. Seeing the emptiness of the convention hall from above was quite a liminal feeling. She was soon joined by the stranger with her brother’s face, Nico, two foreign-looking men, and the young girl. Before the stranger could get a word in, Viktoria said calmly, “I know you’re not my brother…”

While Nico blanched, the stranger hummed. “I am not surprised. You are very smart. Like Werner.”

Viktoria’s heart sank. “And where is… Werner? Does it have to do with whatever this is?”

The stranger draped themselves across the railings. “The world is very big, but it is also small, no? Everything is connected, so I can answer ‘yes’ and be right all the time.”

A peculiar way of speaking…

After a beat, Viktoria tried, “My brother’s pocket watch… Do you still have it?”

“Pocket watch?” The stranger tilted their head before digging into their pockets with their good hand. “It is such a strange thing to be carrying around, no? In the middle of battle?”

“It’s hard to keep track of time out there,” Viktoria murmured. “And if you lose track of time, you can lose track of many other things…” And become dust.

“Oh, I am very familiar with losing track of things”—the stranger’s eyes widened comically as they pulled out two bars of chocolate and conductor rings from their pockets—“Ay, no! I think I’ve lost it! Or Gabrielle lost it? I only have these…” The stranger handed one of the chocolate bars—bitter chocolate and half-eaten—to the small girl at their side.

Cheeks flushed, the girl broke off a piece and nibbled on it before licking her fingers. It was the first time Viktoria had seen someone so young enjoy bitter chocolate so enthusiastically.

Pocketing the bars and rings back into their pocket, the stranger also licked their fingers of melted chocolate and asked, “Would you like me to find it? I am very good at finding the things that I lose.”

Viktoria couldn’t help but chuckle at the peculiarity. “No, it’s old anyways.” She ran her fingers along the small satchel at her waist that contained all of her tools. “I’ve been working on something else for him to replace it for a while now… I hope he comes back by then.”

“You are so talented, my dear, and pretty too. Don’t worry. Werner is reliable. He always comes back.” The stranger hummed pointing behind her. “Your mother there. Do you like her?”

Viktoria tensed.

The stranger’s smile thinned. “Would you like me to—”

A pair of footsteps approached them from the side: the man with the snake tattoo on his face. The sight of him caused Viktoria to stiffen, and she could feel Ludwig’s eyes burning into her back from behind.

“Nico…” The man said without even looking at them. “I need your help.”

Nico tensed, nodded, and followed after him with the stranger, the two men, and the girl trailing behind them. Not even a goodbye.

Von Spiel’s men guided Viktoria away from the balcony then and to a stone bench pressed against the wall. There, she sat beside her mother and the Cancerian foreigner—Louise, if she recalled correctly. Viktoria spied across the balcony towards the Sagittarians conversing with Werner’s captain and the Libran photographer in the far corner, then at the stranger and Nico’s group with the ELPIS member, then at the peacekeepers contained in their own bubble, then at Von Spiel watching everything opposite, and then at the two generals surround by Von Spiel’s men beside him.

“I wonder what freedom means in Capricorn?” Louise asked suddenly, staring at the Libran photographer.

Viktoria wondered.


Nico Fabrizzio couldn’t believe that this series of events started with him making a firm decision to help a group of injured Aquarian soldiers at the Aquarian-Capricornian border. He still wondered even now how different things would’ve been if he hadn’t been there in-between Cadence and Werner—often wondered whether his actions had been an act of altruism or rebellion too.

Whatever it was, in a domino-like fashion, one thing had fallen after the other leading him here—kneeling in front of his childhood friend turned criminal organization leader turned ELPIS leader. Francis laid before him, unperturbed, with his shirt rolled up to his chest revealing the pink scar at his abdomen.

Maria had trailed them to this corner with Lita and two members of her ‘crew’ in tow. Now they hovered directly behind Nico, peering down curiously.

“Libra severed the vitae connecting the part of me that is Theta to the part of me that is Francis,” Francis explained. “If I use my conductor, I will end up in the same state I was in when I was in the Twin Cities. Naturally, my condition will normalize into an equilibrium just like how it did before. But I’m uncertain how long it will take. I need you to reconnect the flow so I’m able to use my conductor freely now.”

What…?

“Francis, I understand what you’re sayin’, but this—vitae storin’ memories thing—application is still beyond me.”

Francis stared. “It’s just like when you’re transmuting and reconnecting tissue or even a limb. A stitch, but deeper.”

“Francis, I’m sorry—but that’s a terrible analogy. I can’t even see what you’re talkin’ about. I—”

“You’re the only one I trust to do it, Nico. Please. A favor.”

Trust. Werner had said that word back in the Twin Cities with such affirmation and strength that it seemed to give a new meaning and weight to it. Nico felt the weight of it even now.

“Okay…” He sighed in defeat. “I’ll try—”

“Mr. Francis,” the man in the sailor’s uniform behind Maria stammered suddenly. “I can’t believe it…”

Francis smiled politely. “Well, Mr. Morandi, it’s a small world.” He glanced at Nico before explaining, “Maria here used to take shipments from us around Signum. Morandi there did this too outside his normal work—though he worked with more of our… friendlier products.”

Oh. Money laundering cover-up.

“I apologize, Mr. Morandi,” Francis continued, “it looks like I gave you a hard job.” He glanced back at Maria. “By the way, Maria, after Nico finishes this and I get my head in order… again—I would like to speak to you regarding the color of your vitae.”

Maria nodded enthusiastically before pointing down at his chest. “Do you think Lita can help you with this? My Lita has amazing eyes and is very good at giving directions, yes?” She pushed Lita forward, guided her hand to touch Francis’s cheek, and pulled up the conductor-glasses hanging on Lita’s neck over the girl’s eyes.

“A Specialist.” Francis studied Lita’s face. “I see.” He reached out and placed a hand on top of her head. “You are very young, so I feel ashamed to ask for your help.”

Maria peered into Lita’s face. “Can you do it, Lita?”

“The white vitae is…” Lita frowned, swallowed, and then lifted her chin. “I can do it, Maria.”

Maria patted the girl before addressing them, “I will trust you with my dear Lita then, yes? Good luck, Nico!” She turned swiftly towards the two men behind her. “Let us leave them to talk alone! It is called ‘reading the atmosphere,’ I think.” And with that, she dragged the two away.

“She’s somethin’ else…” Nico muttered before turning to study Lita.

When Maria had mentioned a Specialist member of her crew who could see the flow of vitae, he hadn’t been expecting it to be such a young girl. Then again, they had all been young too back in the city.

“What do you see, Lita?”

Nico fastened his conducting gloves as Lita mumbled, “It’s really weird. There’s like flows of vitae—er, uhm veins—that are white in patches and orange-ish in others. It’s… broken-looking.” She pointed down to Francis’s scar. “Right there… It looks like it’s coming together again.”

Francis nodded. “Miss Lita. Please show Nico where one of the breaks is.”

Lita did just that, guiding both of Nico’s palms right over Francis’s chest. Much to Nico’s surprise, when he activated both of his conductors, he could feel the difference in the consistency of the vitae there. The vitae beneath his left palm was more fluid, the other beneath his right palm more solid.

“Good,” Francis deadpanned. “When you start your transmutation, focus on the actual vitae particles. The cells and molecules they are associated with can be ignored. You should feel a section that is harder to move than the others. I need you to mend the two where they’ve split.”

Nico hesitated before he tried to move the vitae patch that was under one palm closer to the vitae patch under his other. It didn’t give, so he tugged harder. Francis winced slightly, causing Nico to pause. After a beat, he tried again as sweat broke across his brow. It was like trying to drag a 100-kilogram weight. Still, he kept at it, until he felt the two textures blend together beneath his palms. With a heavy sigh, he deactivated his conductor and sat there panting.

Great. One down. An unknown amount more to go.

“Don’t overexert yourself, Nico,” Francis murmured. “Take it easy.”

Nico nodded, falling back to catch his breath.

Francis promptly pressed, “I’ve been meaning to ask… what was up with you earlier? Why’d you apologize to me?”

Nico paused, wiping his brow before he continued with his transmutation. “It’s nothing… I… had a talk with Cadence right before meeting you. We…”

“I see. You and Cadence had a fight.” Francis winced again. “Was it about what happened back in the city? You always did know how to push each other’s buttons… What’d you fight about?”

Nico stiffened. “You know that I was there too. I should’ve… I don’t know…”

Instead of looking into the chaos unfolding in the city and the family, Nico thought to himself, he’d remained by Werner’s side after the man was injured by the incident with Alma.

“Your presence would not have changed the outcome. No offense, Nico.” Francis hesitated. “Or perhaps it would. Wondering does nothing… But from what I understand, you had other competing priorities at the time with the Capricornians.”

Nico opened his mouth and then grimaced.

“I’m aware that you care for me, Nico Fabrizzio. I have never thought otherwise, so you needn’t worry about that. I care for you as well. And we care for Cadence which is partially why we’re here. Your reason for doing something doesn’t have to be single-fold. And just because you’ve moved forward doesn’t mean you’ve left something behind.”

Nico closed his mouth in surprise and then intertwined another two strands of vitae at Lita’s direction. After a beat, he panted, “But afterwards… I could’ve…”

“You probably could have. The same goes for me, but there is no point in lamenting over it. Lamenting does nothing, but perhaps serves as motivation. Cultivating that lament into responsibility and action is the way. Agonizing about the past is an addiction. In the end, people forget… although forgetting it is a mistake too.” Francis glanced at him and then slowly frowned. “You’re really caught up about this, aren’t you?”

“Cadence threw a glass of whiskey at me, Francis. She was really mad. I mean, it’s not like she’s a saint either, but she had a point… It just caught me off guard. She’s never said anythin’ like that to me before. “

Francis’s expression fell flat. “I see. I am not going to tell you that Cadence’s words were solely the influence of Scorpio. Whatever Scorpio brings to the surface was already there to begin with.”

“I’m not sayin’ that you lie to me—” Nico arched a brow “—but you could be gentler with your words.”

“… Cadence was honest with her words which has a positive connotation of its own—although she could have been more civil about it.” Francis paused, brows furrowing. “A glass of whiskey… really?”

“It was the expensive stuff too.”

Francis stared up at the dome. “The farther you are from someone or something, the more you will realize how much they mean to you. The closer you are, the more you forget.” He closed his eyes. “That’s why human beings can never be satisfied. It’s an endless cycle some wish to escape instead of bearing fully. Although—that’s not such a bad thing. Constantly searching for something brings meaning to life.”

Grunting in acknowledgment, Nico connected two more veins of vitae, feeling slight satisfaction as he felt it melt together beneath his palms. He paused. “Francis… this stuff about vitae storin’ memories… do you think it’d be possible to… transmute this vitae out of you? So you would just… be you?”

Francis stiffened then relaxed. “I’ve thought about that a lot. Theoretically, Nico, you’d kill yourself trying to do it because of the resistance of bleached vitae and the amount of that vitae I have in my body. But… if it could happen, then my feelings for Omicron in that last moment might disappear. Nothing would change, and I wouldn’t learn anything.” He chuckled. “It’s ironic. Just like now. Right as I’m about to be torn apart, I want to stay the way I am more than ever.”

“Hey don’t give me that talk.” Nico clicked his tongue as he connected another two strands of vitae. “No one’s bein’ torn apart, Francis…. Huh. Don’t think I’ve ever heard you talk this much before except at one of the family get-togethers.”

“What are you talking about? I’m sociable. Besides, who else is going to talk for the business if I don’t? Not Carl or Allen.” Francis looked to the side. “Although I guess I’m not there now…” He paused. “I appreciate you not commenting on the way I’m talking, by the way. Sometimes I don’t realize how weird I can sound until later.”

“Why…? Did Carl say something to you? Y’know him. He doesn’t mean bad by it. Probably just worried.” Nico shrugged. “I think it’s charmin’. Sophisticated.”

Francis chuckled. “By the way, what else did you two fight about? I can tell it wasn’t a one-way shouting match.”

Nico hesitated.

“You can talk to me, Nico.”—But when Nico told him the rest of it, Francis arched a brow. “Seriously? What are you—kids? Over something like that …?”

Nico felt his ears burn.

“Well, none of us really ever had any luck in the romance department, so I’m not too surprised.”

Nico studied him. “Are you talkin’ about Omicron?”

“…All I can tell you from experience, Nico,” Francis said after a stretch of silence, “is that there’s a time and place for everything, but if you wait too long what’s important might disappear… then again, perhaps it’s better not to pursue passion.”

Nico nodded. “So you—‘bachelor for life’—are givin’ me love advice which is… to flip a coin and hope for the best.”

“…I don’t remember you being this sassy.”

“Well, half of the people out here are as crass as Verga, Francis.” Nico glanced at Lita and asked gently, “Where else?”

Lita, who looked thoroughly engrossed in her eavesdropping, refocused her attention on Francis’s chest. “I… I actually think that’s it… uhm…”

Francis sat up with Nico’s assistance and pulled out a knife at his belt. Before Nico could stop him, he dragged it across his bare palm and clasped it against his gloved hand. “Hold out your hands,” he ordered Lita.

Lita obeyed. Then, sand —of all things—spilled out of his closed palms into hers. Lita wiggled her fingers as the grains trickled through before something large and spikey fell onto her openpalm. A conch shell.

As Lita pressed the conch to her ear, Francis sighed and pulled down his shirt. “Thank you, Lita. And thank you too, Nico—”

“You said… ‘Omicron’… right?”

Nico turned and found Kleine standing behind him.

“You’re the one that she wanted to… er… protect, right?” Kleine looked between them nervously. He seemed tense as if he were expecting Francis to lunge him at any moment; and he kept staring at the snake tattoo. “Her… Her name was Charite.” He gestured to himself. “I’m… Klaus—”

“Klaus Kleine. The boy who would read with her in the library back in Buchstadt.” Francis nodded. “Yes, she spoke fondly of you. I believe the reason she was more willing to join me when I was going through reading the records was due to your influence.”

Kleine’s face folded. “Where… Where is she? I-I mean I know she’s not here anymore—the lieutenant told me—but… her body…”

“I’ve laid her to rest.”

“Laid her to rest…? Where…?”

“At a distant place from here—”

“What about her family? Her parents? Her friends?” Kleine almost snapped before taking a step back. “They… don’t even know she’s dead.”

Francis stared at him, brows slightly raised. “Yes… I apologize. I didn’t think of that… The body still has meaning after death in this time… Truly, I apologize. If you’d like, I can take you to where she is when the situation isn’t in the ditches like it is now.” He reached into his suit jacket and pulled out a pack of v-cigs before lighting one for himself and then offering another to Kleine who accepted after some hesitation—

“Oh, there is a party here now!” Abruptly, Maria popped up at Nico’s side with her crew members tailing her exasperatedly. “You are feeling better, Francis, yes? I am eager to hear what you have to tell me!”

Francis stared and chuckled before his lips thinned. “I heard from the Sagittarians about your vitae color. Gold. Much similar to Leona’s. I’ve already explained it to the peacekeepers, but since this seems personal to you, I will tell you too.”

Maria sank to a crouch. Nico studied her, noting how her smile brightened Werner’s features.

Francis continued, “The first time I came across Leona in her current form was back in the Twin Cities. The Iota that you knew, however, encountered Leona personally several months before I became initiated. I was quite surprised to read about her current state in our records. You noticed she uses a conductor.”

Maria nodded. “I don’t really remember who said it but… it is used as a disguise sometimes, yes? To fake being able to conduct without a conductor?”

“It is not a disguise—at least not in Leona’s case…. I believe Leona’s baptism was incorrect.” Francis placed a hand to his chin. “I don’t know the circumstances nor the mechanism behind it, but I am certain she does not contain the normal concentration of elevated vitae particles found in other saint candidates. This is most likely why she cannot expel vitae without a conductor and why Scorpio could manipulate her so easily.”

“She is… not a saint candidate?” Maria tilted her head.

“She is a saint candidate, but an imperfect one…” Francis regarded her. “Tell me, Maria, have you ever been taken to the reservoirs in Ophiuchus?”

“I was supposed to. The Monadic orphanage made all of these grand arrangements! But on the day of the ceremony, a pirate—an adventurer—raided the orphanage and took me on an adventure. And, well, here I am, yes?”

“I see… What is the name of the person who took you? Do you remember?”

“His name?” Maria tapped her chin in thought. “He called himself many different things, yes? Exciting in that way. But the name that stuck to me was… Proteus?”

“Proteus…”

Nico studied Francis. “Do you recognize it?”

“It does sound familiar, and it’s an Ophiuchian name.” Francis nodded. “But I can’t seem to recall from where…” He sighed with familiar frustration. “There’s no point in trying to remember it since that info’s probably been lost through me using my vitae over the years.”

Kleine abruptly turned to Maria and asked, “Maria… right?” When given a nod, he continued, “Do you… mind if I ask you something?”

“Of course, my dear Klaus! You already asked me a question though, yes? What is it?”

Kleine hesitated before continuing, “Do you still remember Otto? And Emilia?”

Maria nodded as she scanned the platformed area. “Oh, yes, I was meaning to ask that but I keep forgetting—where are they?”

Kleine exchanged a look with Nico but said nothing.

Maria studied them, opened her mouth, then closed it, considering. She offered another smile. “You don’t have to tell me, but I am very curious.”

The memory of Otto bleeding out beneath his hands was still burned into Nico’s memory. He’d had people die on him on the table many times before. They had all been strangers though—henchmen, crime leaders, and passing wealthy politicians. It hurt all of those times even with their foreignity. But Otto wasn’t a stranger. And now repeating news of Otto’s death over and over again to these overriders was beginning to intensify the pain of loss.

Maria hummed. “Why do you ask, Klaus?”

Kleine replied hesitantly. “I think Otto would be happy if the lieutenant were to remember him… He looked up to him, you know. And you said you’ve been having trouble remembering things from the others, so I thought that maybe the lieutenant… “

“Oh, you don’t have to worry about that.” Maria waved him off. “Werner remembers everything!”

Francis rose to a stand. “I see. So the erosion is well on its way. Maria, you most likely can better retain Werner’s memories since you are in an override over him. Once you’re freed from Scorpio, you may have difficulty recalling your override and other memories associated with the others because of this prolonged state of seperation, but the memories will return.” He frowned, staring off to the side. “Being forgotten is true death… That is why we try our best to leave our mark in the world. In a sense it’s remembrance.”

Kleine glanced at him. “Er… Right.”

“Maria—one more thing,” Francis continued. “If I may, could I try to speak to Scorpio through you?” When Maria offered him a grin and a nod, he prodded, “Scorpio, do you truly believe we know better than them?”

There was a beat of silence as Maria tilted her head as if listening. But then she said, “He… is not saying anything. I don’t think it is you though, my dear Francis. This Scorpio does not seem to like me much—oh, by the way, do you know where Conta is?” She pointed at his conductor. “Through your conducting?”

“You’re referring to Beta?” Francis clenched his gloved hand. “They’re all still here in this city. They’ve been asking me to open gates for them. Since they have Oran and this… ‘Forstchritt,’ I haven’t been heeding them.”

“Well, that’s wonderful!” Maria beamed. “Then I can go and find Conta with—” She paused and turned to her men standing behind her. “Where are Simon and Veles, Morandi?”

Morandi startled. “Well, Simon is taking care of your… body. And Veles is sweeping the city.”

Maria’s smile fell slightly. “Simon is alone…?”

“Captain Gloria-Fernandez,” called a voice from across the platform, “could we borrow you for a moment?”

There stood Captain Weingartner, Major General von Spiel, the Sagittarians, and the Libran photographer. Maria, after accepting Lita’s reaching hand and bidding a cheery wave, headed on towards them with Morandi and the other man following shortly behind.

After watching them go, Nico turned back to Francis. “Francis… I get that Theta helped create the theories of vitae and all—which is super impressive—but how do you know so much about what makes True Conductors tick? I mean… theory can only go so far, right? That’s a lotta detail—”

“It was in our records.”

“What… does that mean?”

Francis looked away as realization dawned on Nico.

The way things were done in the past wasn’t so much different than now, after all.


“This is Martin von Spiel,” Volker introduced the older man standing to his left as Maria neared him. “He’s a major general. The point of contact I was referring to. He’s been serving in the capital for several years now and has always had concerns with the Kaiser’s practices. He was confused about Ophiuchus’s involvement here; and when his concerns were thrown away, he started to become suspicious.”

Maria looked from the Sagittarians and the Libran standing to Volker’s right to this Martin. He seemed a bit older than Volker—to the point where Maria could count the wrinkles on his face but not his gray hairs. He also smelled like smoke. She couldn’t quite recall if Werner had met him before or not, but she really wanted to pluck that shiny heart-shaped medal off his chest.

“He has a couple of questions for you,” Volker continued. “It’s regarding his son. Fritz von—”

“Oh, Fritz!” Maria brightened. “The man who smokes the cigars! Yes, I remember him!”

Martin stared at her before exchanging a look with Volker.

“I told you,” Volker said. “This isn’t Lieutenant Waltz, but a Leonian named Maria.”

Martin regarded her before trying tentatively, “And my son was one of these… True Conductors like you…? Was he really working with ELPIS?”

“Fritz? Yes, he was a True Conductor.” Maria circled Martin and studied him carefully. The resemblance was uncanny. She hummed, “Working with ELPIS…?” Thinking back into these past months was like trying to sail through fog. Still, she recalled lying down next to Fritz’s corpse and Fritz’s argument with Omicron in that alleyway before that. “Ah, yes, Fritz was working with ELPIS.”

Martin’s face fell. “Do you know why?”

Maria studied his expression. “Because he… was like me. He was trying to reach someone important, but in the end, he couldn’t.”

Martin arched a brow. “What…?”

“It’s how she talks,” Volker explained before asking, “Maria, would those ‘important people’ happen to be a woman or a child? True Conductors he was connected to?”

“Yes! I think her name was Yulia Kriska. The boy…” Maria put her hand to her chin. “Kovich—I think?”

Martin frowned. “They were… Aquarians?”

Maria nodded again, placing a hand on Lita’s head. “Kovich was like my dear Lita here. He was a Specialist and very valuable to the people in the Twin Cities… He was a treasure, but they treated him like—I believe Cadence calls it—a ‘product.’ Fritz was trying to work with—”

“—an ELPIS leader named Omicron to save Kovich and the other disadvantaged children,” came Francis’s voice as he approached them with Nico and Klaus. His v-cigarrette was burning in-between his fingers. “During the chaos, another ELPIS leader named Gamma found Kovich and killed him, which led to your son’s death. It’s what we’d call a botched gambit pileup back in the cities.” He placed a hand on his chest. “I apologize on Gamma’s behalf for what happened to Kovich… and in turn your son.”

Martin’s eyes narrowed. “I recognize your voice, Mr. Foxman. We spoke briefly over the phone about our arrangements… the irony doesn’t escape me.” He glanced across the platform towards the group of peacekeepers. “Where is this Gamma now?”

Francis glanced at Maria. “He’s still in this city too.”

“Why?”

“Perhaps to dole out what he thinks is suitable punishment.” Francis pointed down to the ground as his gaze darkened. “I’m sure you’ve noticed what’s going on beneath the surface.”

Martin frowned at him. “And why should we trust a word coming from your mouth? How do I know you’re not covering for this Gamma?”

“Gamma is trying to kill me too,” Francis replied. “Besides, Gamma is conservative in his beliefs and radical in actions. I disagree with his methods—”

Maria threw an arm around his shoulder. “Francis is trustworthy! I guarantee it!”

Martin looked between the two of them before turning back towards Volker. “I appreciate you reaching out, Volker, but this—”

“Martin.” Volker held out a stack of files to him. “You’ve read about what they’ve been doing down there. I’ve told you what the Augen is being used for.”

“When you said you needed help, I wasn’t expecting this.” Martin accepted the papers and slapped them in his hands. “This—this radical revolution—is too much. I still have my wife, Volker.” He jerked his head back towards the Capricornians guarding Werner’s family. “And my subordinates have families.”

Maria glanced back towards Lita then towards Morandi and Emmanuel.

“And I have my daughter,” Volker rebutted. “Just think about the vow we made when we swore to serve this country. Do you want the future generations of Capricornians to grow up with a Kaiser like this? We enlisted to serve not to be tools.”

Martin sighed, handing the papers back to him. “I understand, but I don’t feel comfortable working with the peacekeepers… or ELPIS members. Besides, I’ve met the peacekeepers you have here briefly already. We don’t get along.”

“Hey, no worries. We can just sweep all of that under the rug,” came Gabrielle’s voice as she approached them with Alice, Talib, and Roberto in tow—Maria had found it quite easy to catch onto their names, so she was certain Jericho had known them even though she couldn’t recall it. “Anyway, we’re all gathered here today—to say that Scorpio is our mutual enemy.”

“The last saint candidate of Scorpio was a woman named Nareen,” Talib provided, pulling a journal from his trenchcoat and flipping through it. “There aren’t any records of subsequent Scorpioan saint candidates, so we’re probably dealing with someone who’s become it recently. Libra—er, Flannery—implied that this Scorpio was in this city. Aside from that, all we know about this Scorpio is that he has two out of three towers left and that he and the Kaiser want to create more reservoirs using the Augen… and he doesn’t seemconfrontational.”

“The question now is when will this quota be reached?” Alice provided, arms crossed. “When will Scorpio be satisfied?”

“Maybe this protest happening tomorrow is curtain call,” Talib suggested. “Or the climax.”

“Hold that thought.” Gabrielle nodded towards the Sagittarians. “Prince Yuseong, mind if I ask why you’re still hanging around? Do you have an arrangement?” After receiving a ‘no comment’, she nodded at Volker. “Captain Weingartner, right? It looks like Scorpio made you get into some unwanted combat in that square. No need to worry about that. Leona is taking care of it.”

Volker frowned. “She’s covering it up? To hide Scorpio’s existence…?”

Alice replied, “The motives are unknown. What we know for sure is that she’s using the fact that the Augen members are using proto-conductors filled with bleached vitae as grounds to intervene—like how Scorpio originally had the situation laid out. She’s going after the ELPIS leaders who have Oran and Forstchritt too. But, from my understanding, she doesn’t plan to act against the Kaiser.”

“We didn’t hear from her directly,” Gabrielle explained. “She had another peacekeeper drop off a letter for us before we came here about all the details. Even asked us to step back. Again. We’re in the dark as much as you are.”

Martin frowned. “Why would Leona act against the Augen but not the Kaiser? Does she want the reservoirs or not? Is it just the ELPIS Department and that knows about this vitae conversion—”

“It can’t be the entirety of Ophiuchus.” Gabrielle waved the idea off. “If that was the case, we would’ve found it all out already. It’s probably just narrowed down to the saint candidates, certain members of the ELPIS Department, and…” She grimaced. “Anyway… as for why—”

“To keep up appearances?” Talib suggested. “She might think that she needs to maintain Ophiuchus’s neutral standing and Capricorn’s status as an independent, functional nation… even if it means slowing down. Going head-to-head with the Kaiser is—well….”

“Ah, wait—that movement with the blue paint—that is the Augen?” Maria inquired, not quite following. “I met with the leader at that one rally today.”

There was a pause.

Gabrielle sighed. “So the rumors we’ve been hearing are true. Marionette’s out and rallying the protests happening tomorrow.” She ran a hand down her face. “This is getting out of hand. And I don’t feel comfortable leaving this to Leona, so…”

Volker gestured towards the two generals caged in by Von Spiel’s men. “Is that the reasoning behind their arrest?”

Gabrielle thumbed the generals. “Those two are really patriotic. Hard to get anything out of them. Apparently, they came here because they were confused on why the convention was ending so early, so even they don’t know everything.” She sighed. “Anyway, dismantling the chain of command and getting info on Scorpio was the idea, but…”

Friedhelm turned. “Pardon me, Maria, Marionette is free? What did she say? How is she?”

Maria scratched her head. “Marionette? That is Engel, yes? She said a lot of strange things. Something about being used in a game but continuing anyways, yes? And not being manipulated? She was very serious about that.” She pointed back to the two generals. “Those are generals? She said that Scorpio let her use and infect them. Well, probably not them, yes? But other generals.”

“So she’s following Scorpio’s orders,” Martin concluded. “As expected of a movement that goes against the exact morals, unity, and responsibility that makes Capricorn what it is—”

“Marionette wouldn’t do that,” Friedhelm argued. “She might be overly passionate, but she’s honorable—”

“I mean this with all due respect, Herr Heimler,” Talib interjected, “but movements tend to grow well beyond their founder. Sometimes founders become swept along for the ride. They can’t help themselves.”

Martin turned on Heimler. “I used to respect you, Friedhelm. I remember when you led that entire battalion across western Signum. You can’t use your son as an excu—”

“Do not talk about my son!” Friedhelm spat back. “I used to respect you too before you became a capital bootlicker!”

So they knew each other? Maria wondered. And they had lost people too. Was having that in common not meant to bring people together?

“This is a lot of talk of respect, but I do not see it,” she said absentmindedly.

There was a stretch of silence before Gabrielle craned her neck back towards the generals just a meter away, cupped her hands around her mouth, and whispered—“Did you hear the gist of that, generals? Your Scorpio looks like he’s turning his back on you, doesn’t it?”

“That’s an absurd lie!” one general—Vogel, if Maria recalled correctly—snapped. “Scorpio would never try to manipulate any of us. We’re needed to rebuild Capricorn after—”

Martin’s eyes narrowed. “They’re the shame to Capricorn.”

“Well, all in all, we still don’t know Libra’s movements.” Gabrielle rubbed her eyes. “So we’re on unknown grounds with the Kaiser and Scorpio. Marionette even. Then there’s ELPIS and their hostages.” She nodded at Martin. “You have plenty of loyal men, Martin von Spiel. We could really use their help. We have a multi-pronged problem here and our numbers are small. Volker won’t be able to do it without you.” She held up her hands. “It’s your country.”

Martin glanced at Volker and then back at Gabrielle. “Why’re you so eager to get involved then?”

Gabrielle tapped on her armband. “It’s my job. And I smell a good promotion from it. People love conspiracies.”

“It’s better than doing nothing,” Talib provided.

Martin’s eyes narrowed before he nodded. “Okay. But you mentioned cutting out this spore? How will this work if this Libra isn’t here?”

Gabrielle nodded at Maria. “Jericho is one of you, right?”

“Oh, yes, peacekeeper Jericho!” Maria brightened and made a swinging motion with her hands. “This one!”

“The peacekeeper with the suitcase…?” Francis asked, staring.

Alice shared a look with Talib—both of them tense.

“Oh, that’s right. I forgot! You were the one who took him in, Francis, yes?” Maria recalled vaguely.

Francis didn’t respond, his v-cigarette dripping ash onto the floor.

“You have wonderful intuition, my dear Ley,” Maria noted.

Gabrielle shrugged. “Well, you kind of did straight up tell me Jericho was yours back when I was on your ship. He’s been around the prince more than a couple times too.” She nodded at Martin. “Jericho can do basically the same thing as Libra minus the eyes.” She indicated Lita. “Which the young missy here can more than make up for. We just need to gather a couple of proto-conductors and have—”

“I was thinking that too though. We have similar thoughts!” Maria interjected, smiling. “But only if Lita agrees, yes?”

Gabrielle glanced at her, then at Lita. “Of course…”

Talib glanced at Alice. “You never found this out about Jericho?”

“I respect people’s privacy, Talib,” Alice replied, arms crossed. “If they’re not ready to share, then prying is pointless.”

“Anyway, since you’re probably serving as a medium, Maria”—Gabrielle made a gentle shooing gesture with her hands—“it’d probably be best if we kept you away from all of this planning until Jericho arrives and we can get Scorpio cut out of you.”

Maria considered this. “Like solo…?”

She still had Conta to search for so she didn’t mind it. She didn’t quite understand all of these complicated half-answers anyway. A bit boring and confusing.

It’s what happens when people lose their footing. They grapple desperately. Poor things. I tried to throw them a couple of hints, but it seems like they’re too involved in getting what they want to notice.

“Throw them hints?” Maria tilted her head, but there was silence.


Ludwig Waltz watched as the large group of peacekeepers, soldiers, foreigners, and his not-brother conversed across the platform. His mother and father remained complacent beside him, while Viktoria fidgeted with her tools and gears. His mother, in particular, looked very displeased—arms folded, lips tight, silent.

Of course, she was unhappy. When she didn’t have full control of a situation, she was always like this. But she didn’t dare speak against their father. Saints—Ludwig had forgotten how much he hated them both.

Eventually, he couldn’t stand her presence any longer and shoved past Von Spiel’s soldiers to the edge of the balcony away from them. He invited Viktoria to come along but she declined politely. Some things couldn’t be fixed. People weren’t clocks.

Earlier, Heimler had come to quickly update him on what had gone down since their train arrival—which happened to be a hefty amount of events. It made Ludwig’s head spin and caused a sense of hopelessness to expand in his chest. He couldn’t understand how Heimler could pick himself after discovering this—the Augen, the vitae, the Kaiser. Everything they had worked for—from the border to the Augen—was… a farce. Everything he’d done to try to make up for his mistakes was…?

“You look upset, Ludwig,” came a voice. It was Werner—no, Maria —coming towards him and flanked by two men and a girl. Although she wasn’t smiling, her eyes twinkled. “You should go back and sit with your family.”

‘Your’ family? Ludwig thought. She wasn’t even trying at this point. She wasn’t even wearing Werner’s gloves either. The bareness felt unnatural, and something about the lightness in her shoulders made him feel uncomfortable.

“Well, maybe that’s because the family isn’t all here, Maria. I doubt you could even call it that.”

Maria stared at him for a moment, before she cheerfully addressed the older man to her right, “Say, Morandi, why do Capricornians not relax when it is time to relax?”

“Capricornians are serious and hardworking, Captain, especially the ones in this region,” Moradi explained. “There’s a cultural diligence to it. Maybe a need to prove oneself to their country and family? Anyway, Captain, speaking about a person like this when they’re right in front of you is… impolite.”

A stupid stereotype, Ludwig thought.

“But you are doing the same, no, my dear Morandi?” Maria glanced back at him.

Morandi opened his mouth then closed it.

“Oh, I get it!” Maria faced Ludwig and leaned forward. “Do you think you’re weak? And you are trying to prove otherwise? Break away from that woman?”

Weak?

Anger ignited in Ludwig’s chest, but then he recalled his outburst to Werner all of those years ago and the feeling extinguished itself. He thought of his wife rubbing circles into his hand and released his self-pity.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Ludwig gestured to her head. “Is that what Werner’s thinking? Is that how it works? He thinks I’m weak?” He shook his legs with his hands. “Because of this?”

Maria stared blankly at him. “Ah. The body is not what makes a person weak, my dear Ludwig. That is not where true strength comes from.” She poked his chest while the two men behind her exchanged looks of exasperation. “It comes from here.”

Ludwig resisted snorting. “Seriously…?”

Maria nodded vigorously.

It wasn’t cruelty but naivety, Ludwig then realized. There was an innocence to Maria that only appeared malevolent because she appeared older. Seeing that innocence on his brother’s face was sobering.

Taking in a deep breath, Ludwig said, “Just be careful with my brother’s body.” Then he made his way over the peacekeepers and the ranked officers.

Heimler glanced at his arrival in surprise. “Ludwig?”

“I’m a member of the Augen too. I know everything,” Ludwig said quickly. “Heimler told me everything about what’s happening.”

Heimler paled. “Ludwig—

“Heimler!” Werner’s captain snapped in disbelief.

“I helped organize the initial protests in the eastern village areas of Capricorn when the Augen was only made of fifty people,” Ludwig explained. “They organize the same way every single time. If you let me help and give me a map of the city, I can show you where they’re probably going to go. I could probably guess where Marionette is too. I can be useful.”

“What front did you fight on during the war?” the peacekeeper in charge—Gabrielle—asked, not even glancing down at his legs. “Highest rank?”

“The northern front. The highest rank I achieved was colonel.” Promoted at the end.

“…Any family? Outside the ones here?”

“A wife.”

Gabrielle paused, face tightening. “Any… young kids?”

“No.”

After a beat, she nodded. “Okay, you’re on board. You’ll be working with—”

A familiar rumbling resounded from below them like thunder. Footsteps. Rubber boots, marching on.

“Everyone,” Martin ordered, lifting his hand into a fist and then dragging it down. “Down. Quiet.”

Almost immediately, all the soldiers in Von Spiel’s unit slid to the ground, dragging Ludwig’s family and the two generals with them. The peacekeepers hit the ground too, the ELPIS leader being dragged to the ground by them and Nico. Ludwig looked back at Maria in a panic and felt relief when he found she was prostrate too.

Ludwig pulled himself closer to the edge of the balcony and peered below to the floor. There he saw a crowd moving back and forth—some members in civilian clothing, others older and in worn military uniforms, and three in the clearly identifiable uniforms of generals. Most of them were coated with blue paint.

“Did they come here tracking Maria?” Gabrielle muttered.

The ELPIS leader shook his head, placing a finger to his lips. He whispered, “Spores still can operate independently. I don’t see the towers among them. Do not worry. I can open my gate if necessary.”

“What’s the meaning of this?” General Vogel whispered, staring at the other generals below. “How—” Before he could finish, one of Von Spiel’s men slapped a hand over his mouth.

All they had to do though, Ludwig figured, was to remain quiet. Not too hard.

Abruptly, a dark cloud passed over the glass dome above their heads. Ludwig ignored it until the cloud glowed out of the corner of his eye. When he looked up, he found it wasn’t a cloud overhead but an entire body of water filled with flecks of purple light. Without warning, the tsunami crashed through what remained of the window sending down a torrent of water and glass. It waterfalled down onto the dome floor, sending half of the ones gathered down there to their knees.

Riding on down towards them through the shattered dome window on a glowing wave of water were two men. One dressed in Monadic priest robes, and the other in a thick fur cloak with a conductor-gloved hand. An Elementalist.

Wiping the water from her face, Gabrielle stared at the Elementalist in disbelief. “You have got to be kidding me.”


Threshold

“Either tactics or manpower—which would you choose as more important?”

“A thorough strategy lays the groundwork for victory. A good strategy cannot be replaced, but manpower can be.”

“Very good, Waltz.”

Werner looked around the room slowly, taking minute note of the familiar wooden window frames that let in gray light into the classroom. A map was pasted along the back wall and marked with past battles of Signum. The lecturer standing in front of the chalkboard at the front of the classroom peered around without a smile.

Werner kept himself straight-backed as he tried to dissect his situation: He was going through the motions—the memories—again, he realized. There wasn’t a purpose to it, but there was no exit.

The bell rang as class ended.

Werner quickly gathered his things and exited the school premises. A military v-ehicle blocked his normal route home, so he took a detour through the poppy fields behind the academy. As he walked on and calculated his time of arrival, he came across an odd, aged tree with something small scurrying around its base. Werner was immediately able to identify it even from his distance. It was a puppy. No, Fenrir.

This was the day that he’d first come across her, he realized. When he’d first found her, he’d considered putting her down since she’d been so frail. After that, he considered taking her to the pound. It was following much consideration that he’d decided to adopt her or take her into the Militärpolizei in hopes of training her to be a military dog like the ones he’d read in the books. To add a canine to his future unit to serve Capricorn under the Kaiser would be further accomplishing his duty as a Capricornian soldier—

No. That’s not how it happened.

The surroundings bled into watercolor and re-solidified. Werner found himself standing on that very path again. The same tree, the same dog. There was not a detail different besides a very small, smiling Olive who was standing at his hip and tugging at his sleeve:

“Werner, look! The dog, Werner! The puppy!”

Werner’s mouth moved on its own: “I can see it, Olive.”

“Aw, it’s so cute. Can you let me see it, please?”

“It could be dangerous,” Werner said warningly, the words slipping from his lips without him even thinking of them again. “Rabid.”

“Look at that face!” the prince pouted. “Does that look like a dangerous face to you? Werner, look at its eyes! Please, can you pet it? My parents don’t let animals into the palace. Please?”

After a moment of consideration, Werner relented and paced over to the puppy who immediately peeled out from the tree and darted to him. It ran circles around his legs before he sank down and offered his hand which it began to immediately lick.

It tickled.

A small Cadence skirted his vision apprehensively, while a much younger Jericho, Atienna, and Maria appeared before him and began to peer in at the puppy curiously. Not soon after, Shion appeared—not the present Shion, but the Shion of the past.

“Aw, you have a friend.” The peacekeeper chuckled as she rested a ghostly hand on his head. “Are you going to take her in?”

Werner shoved the childish idea down. “We don’t have the time nor the resources to raise something like this in my house.”

Still—Fenrir was actually quite adorable when she was younger, Werner found himself thinking as his hands moved on their own to rub below her chin. In fact, even now as he lived through this memory he didn’t recall, he had the intense desire to—

The surroundings blinked and returned. It was a different day, although the scenery remained the same. Memories of purposefully heading down this detour just to visit Fenrir flitted vaguely through Werner’s mind like a choppy, colored film reel.

As Werner approached the tree this time just as he had in those memories, however, he found that two boys and a girl were already gathered there. He could see even from the distance that they were wielding sticks and beating them against Fenrir without mercy.

It was not hot rage that gripped Werner’s stomach then at the sight of them, but a cold and intense desire to—

“Get away from her,” Werner demanded calmly, pacing forward and locking eyes with the trio.

The trio immediately retreated. Werner dashed to Fenrir’s side and assessed her injuries as he scooped her into his arms. Her arms and legs were riddled with scrapes and red lashes, but she still licked his face enthusiastically.

Olive appeared beside him with a rush of worry. “I-Is—”

“She’ll live, Olive. Don’t worry,” Werner reassured before pausing in thought. “I don’t think she’ll be safe here since they’ll probably return, but…”

His mother would not accept something like this in the household. She wouldn’t allow it with good reason. Despite this knowledge and the feeling of his mother’s gaze pricking his skin, however, that underlying and intense wish remained.

“I’ll discuss the details with my parents later,” Werner said. “For now, I’ll keep her in my room quietly until she recovers.”

Oh, rebellious now, ain’t ya?—Cadence, still too afraid of the dog to fully synchronize.

Atienna skirted his vision, her lips curling up into a smile. “Well, if you’re going to take it in, it’s appropriate to choose a name for her, don’t you think?”

Werner was rather surprised at how this memory of Atienna had eyes that twinkled with such mischief. It was foreign but familiar.

“Eins,” Werner found himself suggesting. Upon receiving looks of disapproval, he explained, “My marks for creative writing are not as good as the marks for my other classes. If you have any other suggestions, I’d like to hear them.”

“How about Fenrir?” Atienna tried.

“From the Capricornian fairy tales?” Werner asked. “That’s referring to the legend about the hound who will destroy the world and devour the saint candidates during the apocalypse.” He turned back to the puppy and found himself thinking—in the memory and in the present—that it was too harsh of a name for her.

Atienna hummed. “That’s one perspective. You could also think of it as the story of how a mythological beast conquers the unjust rulers of Signum after being put down over and over again. A heroic tale…”

“That’s… acceptable.”

Going through the memory felt very surreal to Werner. These words, thoughts, and actions—despite feeling like they were his own—were too incongruent with the way he was currently. It was disorienting.

Werner looked up from the newly named Fenrir towards the worn-down tree. Shion—the present Shion—stood there watching him. He couldn’t deduce what she was trying to achieve by having him do this. It was a poor use of time.

I’ll show you,” she had said.

Show him what?


@m0biuzz

18.2: Pirate, 0600 Rally

Re-cap:

Maria is headed into Capricorn with Lita the Specialist child, Simon the Monadic Priest, Veles the bounty hunter leader, and Emmanuel the foreign engineer when she is rendered unconscious by Scorpio’s invasion. When she awakens in an override over Werner, she swiftly intervenes in Leona’s combat engagement with Werner’s associates and defeats the saint candidate before running off again.

Meanwhile, Gabrielle Law and her group have discovered and encountered the saint candidate of Libra, Flannery Caertas who stands on neutral ground. Flannery encounters Werner’s associates and removes the spore from Stein and Leona before departing with the latter. 

With their footing lost and feeling out of their depth, those outside of the six must determine what to do next.

Meanwhile Maria…


Kundgebung » Rallying forces 0600 hours

Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

The bells were ringing again far off in the distance. The chimes swelled in harmony alongside the ocean waves crashing against the rocky cliff faces just beneath her. In-between the beats of water and the tolling brass, the seagulls bellowed loudly. It was a wonderful, relaxing melody that caused her to drift further into a comfortable, hazy drowse. The sunlight kissing her skin and her closed eyelids gently intensified the haziness; and the grass bed beneath her cushioned and lulled her deeper into drowsiness.

“Oh, Maria,” came the exasperated sigh, carrying with it a shadow that passed over her closed eyes, “the priests said that we should be back by noon for lunch. We were late for lunch ten times over already. I don’t want to be scolded again. Can we please go now?”

“Don’t worry, Conta,” Maria replied with a hum. “I’ll carry you if you’re worried about not getting there fast enough. My legs are much longer, yes?”

Another sigh. “Oh, Maria, please—”

Maria’s eyes fluttered open. Disappointingly, she wasn’t met with warm golden sunlight nor by Conta’s worried face overshadowing her own. Instead, hanging heavily over her was a slate-gray sky. Instead of flattened grass tickling the back of her neck, she felt instead the cold press of cement roofing.

Well, this sky and weather were nice too, Maria supposed as she squinted upwards. She enjoyed being able to taste the coming rain riding in on the cool winds. And the ground wasn’t so uncomfortable either—it was good for the back.

Maria just barely remembered climbing onto this rooftop some time ago. The sun had been shining brightly up in the sky then, but the clouds made it difficult to tell where it was now.

Ah, that was right. For whatever reason, she was in Capricorn now and in an override over Werner. She couldn’t quite pinpoint when she’d realized she was stuck here. She’d just abruptly woken up to a burst of pale tangerine light in a small, dingy room. Women and men in lab coats had been darting around in there as a cold updraft had torn through the plastic bags, tubes, and gauzes that lined the metal trays in the area. The updrafts had nearly ripped the hanging sign—reading ‘Emergency Room’—above the door right off of its hinges too.

In all the chaos unfolding, Conta had emerged from a glowing pale tangerine light on the ceiling and had grabbed a hold of a familiar man lying on a gurney at the center of the room. Maria recalled the man being badly burnt—with flaking skin on his forearms that was barely wrapped over with gauze. When Conta had dragged the man back into the gate, Maria had given chase through it—only to end up in an empty and unfamiliar alleyway. After hearing some commotion in the distance, she’d followed it and had found Werner’s crew fighting against Leona. After she’d defeated and captured Leona—an exhilarating event—Werner’s crew had explained to her something about being infected by a Manipulator and about her being stuck in an override—a not-so-exhilarating event. She’d left them not too long after that; and now here she was, not being able to hear the others and…

Maria touched her shoulder and then winced as the area flared out with pulsating pain. She pulled herself up to a sit and nearly fell back down as a wave of nausea gurgled in her stomach and rose to her throat. An intense chill expanded out from her chest leaving her with a shiver.

Maria had never felt this terrible before.

While she had the intention to find her own crew in this country after dropping Werner’s crew off at that conservatory, this terrible feeling had been so intense that she’d climbed up here hoping to sleep it off. Thinking back now, however, she began to wonder if she should have stayed with Werner’s crew to begin with.

She was always like that. Running off, pockets full, to do things as she pleased and losing everything along the way.

“Well, I am learning,” Maria said, tugging on a strand of hair and looking around. “Just because I am strong doesn’t mean that I can’t make mistakes. Overcoming mistakes is part of what makes me strong. Ah, good morning by the way, Voz!”

…‘Voz’?

“You are just a ‘voice’ so you are Voz!”

Maria thought she could almost hear a chuckle.

The only reason you think like that is because of how you were raised. You were a potential saint candidate, and the orphanage’s tactics were 

“I think the way I think because I am me,” Maria replied, searching the sky. “I don’t understand why you are trying to say otherwise.”

I see this isn’t worth the effort.

“Why do you keep saying things like that? It does not hurt me, but there are important people to me who might take what you say as important. I cannot forgive it if you hurt them, yes?” Maria wondered, “Does saying these things make you happy?”—she’d seen her fair share of strange people who had fun hurting other people.

If you think helping people makes me happy, then yes.

“Helping?” Maria tilted her head. “You… think you are helping people?”

And I can help you too. Right now because of a mistake I made, Werner will die—you all will die—if you don’t handle this quickly. I admit I got too carried away, but I have helped him—to a point where I think he’ll do fine if I’m no longer there. Since Libra is finally active, I think it would be in your best interest to seek her out. Of course, having a conversation with Jericho before we part then would be preferable. I can help you find her—

“Wow, you talk a lot. But I don’t understand. Who is this Libra? What is this about dying? I will not die, so they will not die. And how are you helping them?”

You’re close enough to our perspective to understand. People can’t change who they really are. Because of that, they can’t change anything. Any sign of change is merely surface level. It’s a waste of time to do it and can cause a person great pain. That’s why I help people come to terms with who they and help them pursue their deepest desire. Reservoirs are a bonus.

“‘Close enough’…? Are you saying that you get to decide who they are?”

No, I just see who they are deep down and guide them that way. You could say that I’m simply a trigger any person can encounter on any day that will set them on the path to their passions and self.

“But is that not just your perspective? Atienna talks about that a lot.” Maria stood up, holding her shoulder. “And my Conta always used to say that if you can’t solve a problem, you need another perspective. Anyways, I know my passion and I know myself, so I don’t need your help.”

It’s not perspective. It’s reality.

“But that is your perspective, yes?”

There was silence.

“Hello?” Maria called out again.

Silence again.

Well, that was disappointing.

Before Maria could ponder on it much longer, commotion from below drew her to the roof’s edge. Curiously, she peered down over the ledge and into the gray streets to find a sea of men and women—dressed in common wear and military garb—moving in waves down the walkway and weaving in-between trams and tracks.

They chanted in unison, throwing up their wooden signs in the air with their right hands and painting over the black flags of the buildings they passed with the other. The paintings left behind were blue and dripping in dollops onto the ground.

Can you believe that only one-tenth of those people have my spore planted in them? All of this is—

Oh, exciting…!

Maria quickly scaled down a water pipe to the ground floor before squeezing her way into the crowd. She was immediately swept along by their marching and was handed a sign and a wet paintbrush. “What is with this excitement?” she asked the woman closest to her over the chanting.

The woman looked her up and down before saying something clipped and curt.

Maria tilted her head. “Sorry, I usually understand Capricornian, but I am having a hard time right now. Could you say that again in Common?”

The woman ogled Maria, eyed her dark pants and long-sleeved blouse, before repeating, “We are protesting. Not just for demilitarization of Capricorn anymore. Innocent Capricornians were killed at the border, and the Kaiser refuses to take accountability. Even some of the generals agree, and they’ve joined us too. Marionette’s been released by a general who is for our cause, and we’re finally starting to move forward.”

Maria blinked. “Well… that’s not very nice of the Kaiser.”

The woman, cheeks flushed, gestured widely with an expression of pure joy. “It isn’t even the day of the official protest yet, and do you see how many people are here? We’re making history!”

“There are a lot of people.” Maria nodded, smiling. “The last time I saw so many people gathered in one place was when I went to that Fleur et Vin Festival in Cancer last year. Ah, since there was wine and food at the festival, do you have some here too?”

The woman stared, eyebrows furrowed. “We… just came from Marionette’s speech down at the Reichenbach Square… There were refreshments there—if that was what you were asking?”

Maria shook her head.

The woman studied her. “…Anyway, you sound like a foreigner, but you look Capricornian. Come, come.” She abruptly guided Maria through the crowd by the hand to a large, bronze statue prostrate at the center of a courtyard. It towered two Jerichos above Maria and had a handful of flowers blooming at its feet. Unfortunately, half of the florals had been trampled down by the boots of the people clustering around the statue as they painted over it.

Poor flowers, Maria thought. Atienna would be sad. Maybe Jericho too.

“The Kaiser spends money putting monuments up to make it seem like he’s done something for this country—stroking his own ego!” The woman dragged Maria to the foot of the statue. “There are many other Capricornians who have laid down their lives in service who deserve their statue here instead of him!”

“Why are you painting there?” Maria asked. When the ones painting the statue and the woman turned to frown at her, Maria brushed past them and scaled the statue swiftly. She perched on its shoulders, straddling its head between her legs before peering down at the crowd. Her shoulder pulsated all the while, but she ignored it. “What should I draw?”

After chattering amongst themselves, they collectively pointed to a wall to their left where the symbol of a cartoonish eye with three lashes stared back at them. Chuckling at their strangeness, Maria drew the symbol right on the statue’s face. At her final brushstroke, the crowd below her erupted into whooping shouts and cheers. It was a bit funny—Maria’d always gotten the impression that Capricornians were a serious and quiet bunch, but that didn’t seem to be the case.

Maria inspected her work.

Something about the symbol was oddly familiar to her, although she couldn’t quite recall what it was exactly—

A sudden, sharp, ear-piercing whistle cut through all the cheering below her. Closing in on them in the distance thundered a tsunami of uniformed men and women with metal gorgets hanging from their necks. The Capricornians below her immediately shouted at each other in a panic—something like ‘run’ probably—before dispersing. As Maria watched them scatter and contemplated doing the same, a flash of mousy brown hair retreating in between the moving bodies caught her attention.

“Conta…?”

Maria leapt down from the statue, landing deftly beside an elder woman who fell back with a yelp. She guided the elder woman back to her feet and then darted after the figure. Weaving between the stampeding paintbrush-wielding crowd and dodging their swinging pickets, she didn’t let Conta out of her sights. A man with a metal gorget grabbed at her arm and swung at her head with a baton, but Maria quickly ducked beneath his swing and swung her own picket up to crack him across the jaw. She tossed the picket onto his body when he fell unconscious to the ground and dropped her paintbrush too along the way.

Without breaking pace, Maria followed Conta down into a wide alleyway dotted by a handful of retreating figures. She rounded the corner at the end and—

—crack!

Maria stumbled backwards before righting herself and reaching out to catch the woman she’d just crashed into by the arm. The woman gaped as she registered Maria before looking back at the uniformed woman and the suited man standing a step behind her. Both the man and the uniformed woman started forward, shouting the woman’s name—

“Frau Engel!”

—but Frau Engel righted herself and waved her hand. “It’s alright. I know him.”

But Maria didn’t know her.

“Both of you, leave us to talk for a moment, would you?”

The duo exchanged a look before walking back in the direction Maria had come from.

Once they were out of earshot, Frau Engel hugged her waist and said, “I’m surprised that Scorpio didn’t catch you yet. From the sound of things, you’re very valuable to him… And you yourself are a valuable person to your country too. Perhaps he’s playing a game again.”

Did this woman know Werner? Who was this Scorpio?—Maria realized that she’d probably know all of these things if she’d stayed with Werner’s crew.

“Why… are you surprised?” Maria asked.

Engel tensed. “I don’t have to justify myself to you.”

“Okay.” Maria looked over Engel’s shoulder and paused when she saw only the dead-end of the alley. No place Conta could slip through or into. Nothing Conta could use to scale the wall. Maria’s heart fell at this but she quickly shook herself.

“Scorpio offered me a deal. Rather, he released me,” Marionette continued suddenly, eyes narrowing. “He implanted a… he calls it a ‘spore’ in some of the generals in the chancellery cabinet. Scorpio… showed them our feelings towards our cause, I’m assuming; and they joined us.”

Maria blinked back at Engel.

“The Kaiser doesn’t realize he’s being played by Scorpio, but I do. The saint candidate wants to create reservoirs using the Augen and the Kaiser’s loyalists—fine. Eventually, he’ll be satisfied and we’ll still be here and so will the Kaiser. Nothing will change if I don’t take this route, and there needs to be a change. I’ll do anything for my country.”

“You sound very sure of yourself,” Maria noted.

“I’m doing what I can with what I’ve been given. You’re young, so you probably don’t understand. I’m sure once you step onto that throne, you’ll—”

“I would not say I am stepping onto any thrones… Oh, but maybe I would like to try it out?”

Engel arched a brow, lips dipping before her brows shot up. She took a step back. “You… changed. Again.”

“Changed…?” Maria tilted her head before a realization hit her. She tapped her temple. “Oh! By Scorpio do you mean the voice in here? This is a strange person, yes? Is he the ‘Manipulator’ then?”

Engel sighed quietly. “I’m assuming you haven’t been able to touch point with Weingartner then—”

“Are you also being manipulated?” Maria interjected.

Engel’s eyes narrowed. “Scorpio’s influence only goes so far. It was what I wanted from the beginning. He just brought it to the surface. That’s all. It’s what I want.”

“Oh, well, that is good to hear.” Maria’s gaze was suddenly drawn to the alley wall where a large blue-eyed symbol identical to the one she’d drawn earlier stared back at her. Then her memory clicked. “Oh, I recognize that!”

Engel followed her gaze. “Yes, it’s… the symbol of the movement. The Verbundene Augen—”

“Really? So you were inspired by Monadism then?”

Engel stared at her again. “What are you talking about?”

“What? Are you not religious, Frau?” Maria inquired. Chuckling, she walked up to the wall and, with her hand that was dripping with the blue paint from earlier, began to draw a circle right beside the Augen symbol. She then dotted the circle’s center and pulled away with hands on hips to inspect her work:

“This is a symbol that the Monadic priests at the orphanage taught us many times,” Maria explained. “The dot represents us in Signum, while the circle around it represents the protection, the completeness, and the perfection of the Signum that the ancestor’s created for us. It stands for the soul of Signum and how the ancestors will always keep watch over us in a… spiritual sense, yes?”

Engel looked pale when Maria turned to her.

“I can’t believe I still remember that! It is probably because my Conta and Simon are so into this Monadism, thing,” Maria continued, reaching over to the wall one more time to paint a smile beneath the two pairs of circles. She looked back to find Engel even paler than before. “What is the matter, Frau?”

When Engel didn’t respond, Maria rocked back on her heels and studied the dead-end of the alley again. She then glanced back over her shoulder. At that moment, a familiar flash of mousy brown hair flitted around the corner.

Conta!

Maria peeled away from Engel and darted after the retreating figure. She brushed past the ambling paint-covered men and women, past the fallen trash bins on the otherwise clean ground, and then stepped back out onto the street. Discarded batons, signs, and paintbrushes lay scattered on the ground there in between pools of spilled blue. Far in the distance, Maria could see the shrinking backs of the gorget-wearing Capricornians running on after the paintbrush-wielding Capricornians. But Conta was nowhere in sight.

Once you lose something, it’s very hard to find it again. When you lose someone, it’s almost impossible.

Maria paused, thinking. “Voz—no, Scorpio—did you make me see things?”

I’m showing you

“Fucking hell—is that you?!”

Maria turned as she felt a hand wrap around her arm. She turned to find a familiar man standing beside her with hard eyes and a scowl pulling down his lips.

“You are Derik, yes?” Maria asked, somewhat dazed. “Derik Stein? One of Werner’s crew?”

* * *

Maria allowed Derik to drag her through the streets, over numerous v-tram tracks, and down a handful of alleyways. Eventually, he led her to a circular metal lid that budded from a protrusion of cement on the ground in an abandoned walkway. When he lifted the lid, a set of stairs descending into darkness was revealed. Maria followed him down and was pleasantly surprised to find a small room waiting for her at the bottom.

The room was quite musty and dimly lit by a series of v-light bulbs strung up along the top of the walls. There was a single table set at the center. Around the table sat a series of couches dotted with an array of familiar-looking men—Werner’s Captain Weingartner; Werner’s glasses crewmember, Klaus Kleine; and Werner’s new crewmember, Friedhelm Heimler. Behind them, a mattress was set against the wall. Gilbert, who was laying on top of it, propped himself up to a sit to gawk at her as she arrived, while Nico and Alwin Brandt who were seated beside him startled at her entrance. Another one of Werner’s crew—Wilhelm Fischer—was sitting in the corner opposite with his hands bound in front of him. Strange.

That aside, Maria was quite proud of herself for remembering their names. It seemed she was getting better at it.

She surveyed the rest of the room, noting the shelves toppled with slender, brown packages and tin cans that lined the cream-colored walls. A sign at the very back of the room read ‘Schutz.’

“You’ve found her…?” Werner’s captain rose from his seat and paced over to her.

Derik shrugged before walking over to the wall and leaning against it with crossed arms.

“So you found a new place, yes?” Maria looked around further. “I think the greenhouse is more beautiful, but this has a nice atmosphere too.”

“It’s an old bomb shelter. From the war,” Werner’s captain replied slowly, inspecting her. “You ran off before we could properly introduce ourselves to each other. I’m glad to see you unharmed…” He gestured to her paint-stained shirt, hands, and face. “I see you’ve been busy.” He then extended his hand. “I’m Volker Weingartner. Captain.”

Maria chuckled, accepting the gesture and shaking his hand enthusiastically. “I’ve always wanted to meet you, Volker. Because you’re like me! We are equivalent, yes? Oh, like that Aquarian captain! Duma Kamer…?”

Volker stared. “You’re… Are you the one who released Kramer then—Dunya Kramer?”

“Dunya—that was her name! She was a lovely person to talk to, yes? I wonder how she is.”

Volker opened his mouth, then closed it, before asking gently, “You said your name was Maria…?”

“I am Captain Maria Gloria-Fernandez.” Maria took a step back and dipped into a deep bow. “I am a seafaring adventurer and captain of a crew.” When she popped back up from the bow, everyone in the room was standing and staring.

Volker nodded slowly “Right… Well, with Leona—thank you for your help, Captain Gloria-Fernandez. It’s greatly appreciated. But I’d like to ask for you remain with us until we clarify some details… and for you to tell us when you have other plans in mind.”

“You don’t need to thank me, my dear Volker.” Maria dipped her head slightly, placing a hand to her chin. “And, yes, right. Werner always tells me that I shouldn’t run off from people I’m with without saying something. I just wanted to see my crew again, you see? I know they are in good hands, but I’m thinking about them, yes? But, I will tell you next time.”

Volker inclined his head. “We appreciate your consideration. And… I understand the sentiment.”

“How… How did you do that?” Alwin asked suddenly, rising and walking over to her. “How’d you hold your own against Leona…?”

“What do you mean ‘how could I hold my own’?” Maria laughed. “Leona is strong but I am also strong—how else could I do it? There is no question about it.”

“But Leona is a saint candidate,” Alwin continued. “She’s—”

“Ah—I was almost a saint candidate too! Ah, a potential one.” Maria curled a strand of hair around her finger. “They said I was the best potential saint candidate for Leo, yes? But before my ceremony, an adventurer came in and took me on a journey. It was a while ago, so it’s hard to recall…”

Werner’s crew stared at her just like her own crew and the other five had when she’d told them. Strange. There had been many other potential saint candidates with her at that Monadic orphanage, so Maria didn’t really understand what was so exceptional about it.

“Ah, where is Leona?” Maria looked around. “Did she… escape?” She scanned the room further. “That Sagittarian air Elementalist and his crew are not here either!”

“Libra freed Leona,” Alwin replied. “From the Manipulator, I mean. The Sagittarians went to deliver information to the peacekeepers.”

Volker gave Alwin a nod.

“‘Libra’?” Maria pressed. “I have heard that country spoken like it’s a person before. And here it is again. Who is this Libra?”

“Another saint candidate,” Alwin answered. “She’s the only one who can help Werner and the people being manipulated right now. And as for saint candidates… they have to do with Monadi—”

“Another saint candidate!” Maria exclaimed before tilting her head. “There are so many now… First Leona then Jin now this Libra… and this ‘Scorpio’ I am guessing too?”

Derik snorted.

“What’s so funny?” Maria pressed.

“Nothing.” Derik gestured to her. “So… What is this? Musical chairs? How long are you going to keep switching for? What’s going on with the brat prince then?”

“Well, I think it’s a good thing that the prince isn’t here,” Gilbert grunted from the mattress. “After what happened with that royal guard—Trystan—I don’t think he’s in the right headspace.”

Derik frowned.

“Who is this Trystan?” Maria wondered curiously. “Is it a new person I haven’t met yet?”

No one answered.

Maria studied their frowning, confused faces and her heart fell. “Oh, did I forget someone important? That’s not good… I’m trying to be better about that…”

“Cadence mentioned that she was havin’ a hard time rememberin’ things that the others did,” Nico drew as he peeled away from Gilbert’s side. “I think the Ariesian prince might’ve experienced somethin’ like that back when he first overrode Werner at the border a couple months ago. I think it’s a side-effect of stayin’ in it too long.”

Volker’s frown deepened. “I see. But why wasn’t I told this when you found out?”

Nico tensed. “Well… Cadence—”

“This doesn’t work if we don’t tell each other everything. Even if it’s something as small as this,” Volker said, pinching the bridge of his nose. “We can’t be caught blind.”

“Sorry, Captain,” Gilbert grunted.

Volker held up a hand before turning to Maria again. “I understand that you want to keep things discreet to protect the people you are close to, but—”

“No, I will tell you. Werner trusts you,” Maria said. “But I don’t know much. Werner, Atienna, and Olive are the ones who do most of the figuring.” She chuckled. “I just enjoyed the company. So who have you met already?” When they answered her, she hummed. “Then all that’s left is Jericho!”

“Jericho?”

“Yes, he is a… peacekeeper as you call it—”

Everyone stared again.

Klaus cleared his throat. “Is he the one we saw in the Twin Cities then? The one fighting that ELPIS leader? The one… with the bleached vitae?”

Again, staring.

“Yes, Jericho has white vitae,” Maria confirmed, although she didn’t understand what the concern about that was. “He is strange for a peacekeeper though. He likes using his suitcase instead of his words.”

“Right…” Volker drew. “So there are six of you?”

“Yes, only six,” Maria replied. “I think it would be fun if we had more, but I’m sure the others would not like it…” Her attention was drawn then to Wilhelm at the corner of the room. She pointed at him. “That is Wilhelm, yes? Why is he in handcuffs? Is he the enemy?”

“He sold us out,” Derik spat. “To the damned Kaiser and Manipulator.”

“So you are the reason why Gil lost his arm…” Maria wandered over to the man.

“I did what I had to for Capricorn.” Wilhelm glowered up at her. “I’m not a traitor. The Kaiser has good intentions, and we need reservoirs. We’ve been doing it this entire time—”

“No, you did it because you were not strong,” Maria rebutted, leaning forward. “I can see it in your eyes, yes? Regret.”

Wilhelm froze.

“Have you ever heard of the tale of the golden beast, Wilhelm?”

Wilhelm did a double-take. “What does an urban legend have to do with any of this?”

“So you have heard of it, yes?”

“Alwin tells the story all the time.”

Maria brightened and turned. “Is that true, Alwin? That makes me happy! You’re spreading the legend that Conta helped craft!”

“‘Crafted legend’…?” Alwin frowned.

Maria turned back to Wilhelm and sank down in front of him. “You see, when someone breaks or takes someone important to the golden beast, it is very different from when it is a some thing.”

“Wha—”

She reached forward and wrapped her hands around his. “Did you know? In the next tale, the golden beast tries to stop its own gluttony—tries to stop devouring everything it sees on the ocean. But the thing is that long periods without a feast only increase the beast’s hunger—”

Wilhelm winced and tried to pull his hand away, but she didn’t allow him. She squeezed harder and harder and stared into his eyes until she saw tears begin to form there. When she almost felt a crack beneath her fingers, she stopped and opened her mouth.

“It is not just satisfied with the single person or ship it encounters.” She jerked his hand forward so his fingertips were just beneath her teeth. “If you steal from it—” she began to clamp down on his fingers as she continued to stare into him “—it will also devour everything and everyone that you are connected to—”

“Maria. That’s enough! Stop it,” Volker demanded. “He’s my subordinate. I’ll decide what to do with him. Stop!”

There was a stretch of silence.

Maria released Wilhelm, who skirted back and cradled his hands, before she popped up to a stand with raised arms. “Of course, Werner’s captain! I understand.” Her shoulder pulsated again with the motion, causing her to wince. A glance at Nico, however, brought a smile to her face. “Ah, Nico, you are a doctor, yes? Can you help me with this?” She gestured to the area.

Nico looked worriedly at her—unlike the others who simply regarded her in stiff silence—before approaching. “Your shoulder…?” He frowned, gaze trailing the area. “Is it a ghost pain? It could have to do with the manipulation and the override. Olive seemed to—” His eyes widened. “Saints! You dislocated your shoulder!”

“Who dislocated Werner’s shoulder?”

You did!” Nico straightened her and looked her up and down. “I’m not surprised with all of that somersaultin’ you were doing earlier…”

Maria felt her stomach curl uncomfortably. “I… I am sorry. Can you… relocate Werner’s shoulder?”

Nico stared at her before chuckling and nodding. “It’s not too big a deal. Just… keep still.” He held her shoulder steady and began to tug and roll her arm around.

It was a bit painful, but Maria remained still for him until—pop!

Maria beamed, feeling instant relief radiating from the formerly pulsating area. “This feels much better!” She lifted her arm and swung it around but Nico reached and stopped her short—

“No, no, no. You still need to keep it still!”

“Still…?”

Nico motioned for Klaus who conjured an arm sling at his request. Maria waited patiently as Nico fitted her into it.

“Once you’ve dislocated your shoulder once, it’s very easy to do it again,” he said, pulling away.

Maria’s face fell. “Oh, I didn’t know… Will Werner’s shoulder be okay?”

Nico stared at her again before sighing and smiling very lightly. “As long as you keep that arm still for a while, it should be fine.”

“Well, that’s good. You are spectacular, my dear Nico! Anyway! This Manipulator—this Scorpio… he is bad, yes? For Capricorn?” She tapped her temple. “But he also told me to go to Libra… who is good? It seems very complicated.”

“Scorpio speaks to you…?” Nico frowned.

Maria nodded. “It’s like how it is with the others, but he’s not as kind.”

Volker remained silent for a moment, gaze flicking between her and Wilhelm. Then he pinched the bridge of his nose and pressed into his eyes. “The saint candidates’ feelings towards True Conductors are separate from how they feel towards Capricorn obviously. If Ophiuchus is looking into Scorpio now… it might be best if we do what Leona says. Stay out of it.”

“But, sir,” Heimler argued. “We don’t even know what Leona wants or if she’ll even be able to manage Scorpio. He caught her once—he can do it again. And we already agreed to meet our point of contact near the convention.”

“I understand that,” Volker said, pressing his fingers further into his eyes. “But our intervention and interference might cause a difficult situation for Leona and the peacekeepers. The ELPIS Department obviously is one of the few that has the ability and resources to handle this situation. We are out of our depth.”

“But do the peacekeepers have the jurisdiction?” Heimler pressed. “And if they do so without it, then they’re setting precedent to intervene just like this again. It’s like a trap, Captain, to think like that. And what happens afterwards? What happens to the Kaiser and the country?” He glanced around the room at the men before grimacing. “They should’ve taught you this at the academy, Volker. A leader doesn’t demoralize.”

Volker grimaced. “I’m aware—”

Maria reached for Volker’s hand and pried it from his face. “That’s not good for the eyes,” she said. “And what’s this about staying out of things? This is your country, no?”

“It’s more complicated than that.”

“Confusion and uncertainty—I am beginning to realize now—is a natural part of being alive.” Maria nodded, hand on chin. “Hmm… I tell my dear Olive this all the time: even when it looks like you can do nothing, you can most definitely do something. Werner likes to quantify even things like this, but I don’t think that’s necessary. It is what it is. No number. None or all. That is what part of being strong means.”

“Makes no sense.” Derik snorted again.

Volker regarded Maria before staring at some point in the distance. “…You make a valid point, Heimler. Alright. We’ll meet with our point of contact and decide how to move on from there. This is our country. Our future.”

“Yes, sir,” came the affirmations unison.

“Still,” Volker continued, “we need to figure out where Werner falls into this and the rest of the manipulated too. Libra obviously is a valuable asset, but not a reliable one.”

Maria tilted her head. “Can you explain to me more how this Libra can help Werner?” When they explained Libra’s abilities, Maria brighted, swung around, pointed to herself. “Oh, this all works perfectly then! Jericho can break vitae particles apart too! He is a Specialist! He doesn’t have that other ability to see vitae—his eyesight is bad. But” she pointed up the ladder “—my dear Lita, who is a member of my crew, can see it. She is a Specialist too. She is probably in this city!”

Gilbert straightened. “She’s here? You’re sure?”

“Yes!” Maria nodded fiercely. “We were searching for someone important to me in this capital, but I promised to show her the conductor convention while we were here. My dear Emmanuel was also interested and came along, so it only makes sense for them to be here. At the convention. She doesn’t like strangers, but I’m sure I can find her! I’ve spent most of my life finding things, and I plan to spend many more doing it.” She tapped her chest. “So since this is ‘musical chairs,’ as you say, when my Jericho comes, he and my Lita can work together… And cut this thing out of Werner! And, of course, help cutting out these other spores.”

“Wait,” Nico interjected, “Francis said it was dangerous for you to use a conductor and expel vitae when you’re like this. Said it’d eventually kill you.”

Maria’s eyes widened. “Is that true…? I need to be careful then, yes? And I was getting excited about using these proto-conductors… Well, I am sure if you tell Jericho when he is here, he will understand. Just using it once will not hurt. “ She blinked. “Wait Francis is here? I haven’t seen him in some time!”

“Yes, he was—” Nico paused, eyes widening slightly. “Wait… do you know Francis through Cadence or have you met him before…?”

“Oh, yes, Francis, Carl, Allen, and I have great fun together. Last time we spoke, I was delivering something for them…” Maria trailed off, before nodding firmly. “Anyway, I am announcing that I will be leaving now then, yes? To find Lita and the rest of them?”

“Captain,” Volker interjected, “I would feel more comfortable if some of us went with you.”

“Is it… safe if you go with me?” Maria pointed to herself. “Werner is this ‘medium,’ yes? I don’t understand conductors and Conductors, but that means that Scorpio can see and find him, yes? So he can see and find you?”

“Every person in Capricorn is a possible medium at this point. Going with you or not probably wouldn’t make a difference.”

“Alright then.” Gilbert began to haphazardly pull himself up to a stand.

Maria walked over and pushed him back down with one hand.

Gilbert startled and scowled. “What the hell—”

Maria studied his face. Atienna always said that ‘emotion hid in the eyes,’ and so Maria leaned in further to stare right into his. Gilbert leaned back, but she could still see it—the frustration there. At least, that was what she thought it was.

Maria sank to a crouch. “I am sorry, my dear Gil. About your arm.”

Gilbert shrugged hesitantly. “You had to do what you had to. Better than running around obsessing over one thing. No offense, Stein.”

Derik grunted.

“Anyway, I can still—”

Maria tipped forward, rocking on her heels. “Does it… hurt?”

Gilbert opened his mouth, frowned, shrugged. “Nah, it’s fine. Don’t worry about it.”

Maria beamed again. “Yes, I knew it. You are strong, Gil. You can overcome anything.”

He arched a brow at her. “Sure yeah, that’s why I’m coming—”

Hm. Was that stubbornness? Or did that mean he did not believe her words? Was she not speaking right? If she recalled correctly, Atienna had also said that words really only held meaning if they were ‘given to someone from someone who meant something to that someone.’ Confusing.

Hm…

“Werner would think you are still strong. He thinks you are strong. Always.”

Gilbert stared and snorted. “Okay, sunshine and rainbows. I don’t think he wakes up in the morning thinking that.”

“Maybe not, but Werner thinks he is very lucky to have a friend like you.” Maria smiled back. “I do not lie, yes? Werner thinks this all the time: he is grateful.”

Gilbert grimaced. “That’s not something you should say out loud.”

“Huh? Why not?”

“It has more meaning if you don’t say it and just do or show it. Didn’t you say that?”

Maria chuckled. “Did I?” Her mind wandered to Conta. “Well, maybe some things are better said out loud…” She placed a hand on his head. “Still, you are Werner’s tesoro. I am not saying that the others are not his tesoros, but you are a special one. Do you understand? He relies on you. But me? I am fine.”

Gilbert stared at her for a very long time before he said, “You go, Nic.”

Nico tensed, uncertain, looking between her and Gilbert. “But what about—”

“Alwin didn’t get the medic combat badge for show. I know you want to go anyway.” Gilbert fell back slowly into the mattress. “I trust you more being by his side than ELPIS man here. The rest of the Waltz family might be there so you should keep an eye out.”

Alwin grimaced.

“‘Course, if that’s all clear with you, Captain.”

“Right.” Volker nodded. “Heimler, Kleine, Nico, and I will head to the convention with Maria then. We should try to be covert even if there’s a possibility of them knowing we’re headed there. There may be some who haven’t been turned into mediums yet in service and there’s also the freed ELPIS Department too—we should take advantage of that. I also haven’t seen any released news about what we did in the courtyard yet, so we should take extra caution.”

Klaus brightened. “We could use those proto-conductor rings that I made that Cadence left behind.” He gestured to Maria’s pants. “I… think I saw the prince take them out from his pockets. So maybe…”

“Proto-conductor rings?” Maria tilted her head and then emptied her pockets. “I have no such thing.”

“The peacekeepers probably have it. Looks like they had him change out his uniform since he burnt it to a crisp.” Gilbert grumbled. “Maybe the prince burnt those things to a crisp too.”

“That doesn’t sound like my Olive,” Maria said, head tilted.

“It’s fine. We’ll just need to take extra care,” Volker stated. “The convention will be crowded, so we’ll use that too.”

Cadence always said that ‘careful’ was not in Maria’s dictionary, but Maria was certain she could put it in there.

* * *

“This… is not very exciting…” Maria sighed, looking around with a falling heart. “I have heard that the diplomatic conductor convention is an exciting place, but this… does not hold excitement… Should there not be more conductors if so many countries are involved?”

A large and mostly vacant room unfolded around her. There were only a handful of tables scattered around in rows, and half of them were empty. It was so empty that she could hear the footfalls of the two pacing elder men dressed in shining medals echoing from across the room. They were the only ones in the area wearing uniforms.

Maria glanced back at Friedhelm, Volker, Nico, and Klaus behind her. Unlike those medal-wearing men, these four were no longer in their uniforms. Instead, they were dressed in long-sleeved button-ups, slacks, suit jackets, suspenders, and caps. Maria herself had to clean all of the paint from her hands and arms before slipping into a new button-up herself since her old one had been stained with paint too.

“Those are two of the generals. Vogel and Katze,” Volker muttered, pulling his cap down low. “Why are they here…?” He nodded at Klaus. “Kleine, take point. See what’s going on.”

“Yes, sir.” Kleine nodded before glancing at Maria and heading to a booth set off to the sidewall in front of a cluster of chairs.

Volker jerked his head to the side. “Heimler, with me. Fabrizzio, stay with Maria. Keep a low profile.”

Volker and Friedhelm then exited the building swiftly.

Maria grabbed a hold of Nico’s arm and pulled him along with her as she began to search the room. But despite there not being many people scattered around, not a single member of her crew was in sight.

I told you. Once you lose someone—

Abruptly, something glinted out of the corner of her eye. Maria startled, grinned, and pointed over to a table at the corner. “Oh, my dear Nico, look at that!”

“Uhm—”

Maria pulled him out of his hesitation and towards the table after her. Once they reached the table’s side, she sank into a crouch and inspected the contraption resting there. It was quite a beautiful thing, consisting of four white tiles painted over with black numbers. The tiles would flip every so often, one moment reading 9:49, the next 9:50. The tiles were encapsulated in a glass cylinder which was connected to a conductor generator beneath the table via copper wires and glass tubing. The flipping tiles paired with the hum through the glass was quite a melodic sound—

“My Lita would love something like this!” Maria declared.

“Werner?”

Maria turned to find two men and two women poised right beside her. The man and woman closest to her were much older than the two farther. The older man’s face was stolid, and his ice-blue eyes glinted familiarly. The older woman’s eyes—blue with flecks of gold and silver—had an oddness to them that pricked at Maria’s skin and caused her heart to throttle in her chest. The younger woman, on the other hand, had wispy blonde hair and wavering eyes that reminded Maria vaguely of Conta. The younger man beside her… was seated in a wheelchair. When Maria stared at the chair, he stared back, lips thinning.

The older woman said something in Capricornian to Maria before looking around with a grimace.

Nico stepped forward with an easy smile, despite the sweat rolling down his back. He spoke quickly to them in Capricornian, while Maria looked between them with curiosity. The four Capricornians looked quite familiar to her, but she couldn’t put her finger to it—

“Cadence!”

Maria turned and was immediately enveloped in long, sinewy arms. It took a moment for her to recognize the woman who hung from her neck. Her wispy blonde hair, caramel brown eyes, and a wonderfully strange manner of dress ticked at Maria’s memory.

“I remember you!” Maria brightened. “You were in the Twin Cities! With the Sagittarian! I… saved you from those Geminians, yes?”

The woman blinked then grinned as she pointed to her face. “Yes! You saved me from the street ruffian Feliciano. It’s me: Louise—”

“—Louise Bonnefoy…?” interjected a voice with a Librish lilt.

Maria glanced over her shoulder to find a man with bushy brows and a camera hanging from his neck gawking at the now named Louise—

“It is you! Cancerian Duchess of the House Étoile!”

Louise’s smile fell immediately, and she took an intrepid step back. “How did you know that? Did someone send you? Was it Reneé…?” She glanced over her shoulder. “Hideyoshi…”

“Reneé from Cancer?” Maria brightened—glad to finally understand something about the unfolding events. “So you do know Reneé the Chevalier!” She turned to the Libran photographer. “And you too maybe, Mister?”

“Mr. Hilton…” The Libra stared at Louise.

“Werner,” the older Capricornian woman interjected in Common, “honey, are these acquaintances of yours? What happened to your arm? What are you wearing?” She turned to Louise. “What sort of relationship do you exactly have with this woman? You’ve been so busy lately and haven’t been keeping in contact. I don’t even know what’s going on with you anymore.”

Nico stepped forward, hands raised. “Frau Waltz…” He continued in Capricornian.

Frau ‘Waltz’? Ah.

Maria studied the four Capricornians curiously. “You are…. Werner’s family?”

Nico winced. The older man and older woman—Werner’s parents, Maria decided—frowned. The younger man and woman—Werner’s siblings, Maria deduced—stared at her with widened eyes. Maria was very well aware of how much appearances and reputation meant to Werner, so she tried to cook up a reasonable thing to say and do—at least until something behind Werner’s family caught her attention.

Walking hand-in-hand there in-between an older man dressed in a sailor’s outfit and a younger man wearing a worn blouse smudged with oil was a young girl with milky blue eyes. The girl was wearing a flowing dress and had a shiny pair of conductor glasses around her neck. But despite these luxurious items, her expression was sullen.

Maria recognized the three instantly—her darling Lita; her noble and wise Morandi; and her curious Emmanuel, the conductor engineer hopeful. She briefly wondered where Simon and Veles were but put the matter aside.

Maria pushed past the Capricornians, past Louise and Hilton, past Nico, and towards her crewmembers. The trio turned at her pounding footsteps; and she greeted them with a warm smile before sweeping Lita out of Morandi and Emmanuel’s hands. Maria then swung the girl up into the air with her good arm and held her there delicately.

Despite this delicateness, Lita flailed her arms blindly. “W-What’s going? W-Who are you?”

“W-What are you doing?!” Morandi snapped. “Let her go!”

Morandi—always so kind.

Maria skirted back as Emmanuel lunged at her.

Emmanuel—always so determined.

“Put on your conductor, my dear Lita. Trust me!” Maria urged.

Lita hesitated before sliding the conductor over her eyes. Her gaze focused on Maria’s face before trailing upwards to the sky. Slowly, gradually, her cheeks became colored rosy, and her brows rose. “T-That color… t-that shape—M-Maria…?!”

Maria grinned. “Ay, my dear—” She was cut off as Lita threw her arms around her neck and squeezed tight.

“Maria, is it really you?” Lita whimpered, squeezing tighter and burying her face into Maria’s good shoulder. “I was so scared… t-they said you wouldn’t wake up… I’m so glad you’re okay… but—” she lifted her head, brows furrowed. “—your body—it feels different? And your voice sounds strange too—it’s so much deeper…”

Emmanuel paused in his lunging to eyeball Maria.

Morandi, face flushed, looked between them. “What is this?”

Lita lifted her head and turned towards the men’s voices. “Mr. Morandi, Emmanuel, why didn’t you both tell me that Maria was awake?”

Morandi and Emmanuel exchanged looks again

“It is a very long story, my dears,” Maria hummed, “but I am your captain, yes?”

Morandi made a face before glancing at Lita. “Are you certain, Lita…?”

Lita nodded fiercely.

Morandi sighed, head dipping. “I’m frankly no longer surprised at anything at this point, Captain. Does whatever this is have to do with Conta and ELPIS? What’s with the Capricornian?”

Before Maria could elaborate, Nico ran up to her and touched her lightly on while glancing back at the four Capricornians. “Lieutenant Waltz,” he said, glancing in confusion at Morandi, Emmanuel, and Lita. “I was just explainin’ to your family about the operation we’re on with some of the foreigners, but I think it’d reassure them if they heard directly from you.”

What? A lie? Maria truthfully disliked lies. She always told the truth, and she never broke promises. Cadence seemed to be more natural at these types of things, so Maria thought she would be much more suitable for this type of thing. But Cadence was not here, so Maria knew she had to try. At least for Werner—

“You peacekeepers have no jurisdiction here!” came an outraged shout from the opposite side of the room. “How dare you!”

Maria turned towards the excitement and found a crowd clustered directly beneath the glass dome at the center of the room. A handful of the crowd members wore monochrome suits and white bands around their arms. Peacekeepers, most definitely. The two generals Volker had pointed out earlier were among them too. One of them was being put into cuffs by a familiar peacekeeper wearing a trench coat and fedora—a man whose name Maria couldn’t place. The other general was being cuffed by a distinctly Leonian-looking male peacekeeper. His name also itched at Maria’s brain, but remained unclear. The Sagittarians from the previous night stood behind them. Off to the side yawned Gabrielle Law herself. And right beside her, another peacekeeper—a very familiar woman with a pair of red glasses resting over her sharp blue eyes—was steadying a very familiar man wearing a turtleneck and suit. Francis Foxman, pale and clammy.

Morandi rubbed his eyes. “Is that…? Mr. Foxman? And Ley…?”

“Francis…?” Nico whispered in alarm. He glanced back at Maria, before darting over to Francis’s side at her nod of approval.

Just as Maria was about to go on after him, a hand on her back stopped her short. When she turned, she found Werner’s mother again frowning deeply with eyebrows knit with concern—“What are you doing, Werner? What’s with that girl? You shouldn’t get involved in things you have no place getting involved in. You know that. Don’t do anything embarrassing—”

Maria did not like this woman—which was a first because she usually enjoyed everyone. And so, reveling in this new feeling, Maria offered, “You should not speak, yes? I tend to forget things, but I do remember never asking for what you think.” Not waiting to see the woman’s reaction, Maria made her way over to the cluster beneath the dome with Lita in tow. When she reached them, the trenchcoated peacekeeper and the Leonian peacekeeper were bringing the grumbling generals to their feet.

Gabrielle Law, who was watching the interactions with a yawn, turned to Maria with raised brows. “Oh, wow. Talk about some luck. Maybe it’s fate for me to keep meeting you—” She glanced at Lita before her eyes widened slightly. “You’re…?”

“That voice… Ley…?” Lita whispered hesitantly.

Gabrielle glanced behind Maria just as Morandi and Emmanuel came up behind her. “Don’t tell me—Maria...?”

Maria chuckled. “Wow! You’re amazing, Ley! I see why you’re such a good peacekeeper now. Good deduction!”

“Well, it’s a small world,” Gabrielle sighed after a beat. “Good thing you’re here though. Hope this Captain Weingartner I keep hearing about is here too.” She extended a bulging closed fist out to her.

Maria nudged Lita slightly. The girl hesitantly extended out her hand. In turn, Gabrielle dropped the items in her closed fist into the girl’s waiting hands: a collection of proto-conductors filled with a copper light—a color Maria found herself vaguely missing—and two bars of chocolate, one half-eaten.

“Let’s all sit down and talk.”

18.⭑-1: Saint Candidate, ∞ Zugzwang

Re-cap:

At the same time that Maria encounters Leona, Flannery Caertas—nicknamed ‘money bags,’ childhood friend of Talib and Alice, and failed saint candidate of Libra—has an encounter of her own.


Zugzwang » An obligation to action for eternity

Flannery Caertas still remembered when absolute darkness was her friend. ‘Total blindness’ was what the doctors had called it. The condition had left a lot to her imagination. At the same time, it had a degree of certainty to it. Because she couldn’t see anything, what she defined in her mind was ‘reality.’ An all-powerful imagination.

For instance, she knew Talib Al-Jarrah was a wiry, curious detective right when she first met him in that bomb shelter. Those were the books he would read out to her all the time, and that had shaped her perception of him. Mystery novels where a daring, hard-boiled detective would sweep into a murder scene, punch the living lights out of hired goons, and solve the crime. Even though Flannery knew Talib was younger than her, she’d pictured him as a tall and lanky figure, just like in those books.

As for Alice—Alice was the villain. The mastermind pulling all the strings and dodging the detective with ease. Cool, calm, collected, smirking when all the dominoes fell as planned. Flannery always pictured her as tall and elegant—maybe even stroking a black cat for good measure.

And Flannery herself? She was the deus ex machina. The character that would sweep in at the last moment in a twist of events and somehow wrap up the entire story in a neat bow.

Together, with Flannery herself at the helm, they’d formed a childish brigade to role-play these adventures in the bunker. Whenever the bombs would pound their shelter, Flannery would proudly rise to a stand and declare that she and Talib would find the source of the sound, find out what nefarious plans Alice had with the sound, and defeat Alice once and for all.

It never made any sense, of course.

But that was Flannery’s reality.

At the cusp of the war’s end, Flannery was notified that she had been marked as a potential saint candidate of Libra. It was strange, she’d thought then. She didn’t think there was anything special about her. All she’d done was take the V-Type test and suddenly everything was set in stone.

On the day of the candidacy ceremony, she was taken to the main Libran Monadic temple and then to Ophiuchus by train. She still remembered the vibration of the glass pane of the train window beneath her palms, still remembered the dissonant click-clacks of the wheels, still remembered the irritating itch of the dress her parents had forced her into.

When they reached Ophiuchus, she was separated from her parents and passed off repeatedly from priest to priest. Each handler placed on her a cold accessory that dangled either from her neck, arms, or ears. The weight had been unpleasant

Eventually, she’d been led out onto a bridge—she could tell it was a bridge back then by the metal, hollow clang, clang beneath her shoes. And from beneath that bridge had come a familiar warm updraft that swirled around her cheeks and brushed her bare legs. 

At the time she’d been hard-pressed to find out why the warmth was so familiar to her that. Just as she reached an epiphany, however, a hand pushed against her back. She’d stumbled forward, whipping back to scowl, before her next stumbling step sent her tumbling through the air. Down, down, down. Terror seized her tighter with every passing second. And then—

Splash!

Her entire body jolted at impact; her arms stung; the accessories strained at her arms, legs, and throat; and her breath was forced from her lungs. She took in a desperate gulp of air only for something hot and molten to spill into her chest instead. As soon as the heat touched her tongue, she knew—remembered—what it was. Vitae.

She cried out in agony as it—as everything—clawed its way in through every pore of her body. Things she didn’t want to know, things she didn’t want to see, things she didn’t want to feel. She remembered killing and then being killed, peace then war, camaraderie bleeding to contempt, pride to failure and disappointment, growing old and dying young. Over and over again for centuries.

Most clearly, she could remember the previous saint candidate of Libra. Arthur Pond. Before his candidacy, he’d been an ironically blind lawman who dabbled in music; and after the ceremony, he’d abandoned those pursuits and came to serve beneath the monarchs of Libra ruling at the time. Then, when he’d deemed it time to move on, he’d come to this very reservoir—the Prognoikos Aurora Reservoirs—and had taken his life here to pass on the title to whoever came next.

She could remember all of this because all of them were her.

When the pain ended and she burst up to the surface and finally breathed air, she could see everything. The burning light of the vitae pool that swirled around her and clung to her skin and clothing. The platform extending out from the tall bridge above the reservoirs. The cluster of Monadic head priests crowding the platform they’d just pushed her off of.

Heaving, she’d dragged herself out from the pool and out onto the shore. When she’d reached land, the head priests were all already waiting there for her. She could see all the flecks of vitae pulsating through their veins with every beat of their heart. She could see it seeping out of their pores and whisping out into the air with every breath they took.

The priests sank to their knees and dipped into a bow as she rose to her feet.

But Flannery had brushed past them and had climbed the spiral metal stairs back up the bridge. She continued along the bridge and walked along the paved white roads leading from the reservoirs to the train station to the small waiting room her parents were residing nervously in.

When she entered the room and looked at them, she could barely recognize them and felt nothing. No sense of relief or comfort, anger of hurt. She’d had too many parents before for these ones to ever stand out.

“She can see!” her parents had cried as she’d approached them on her own.

And Flannery had cried too. Not for herself, of course, but for what ‘her’ parents had unknowingly lost.

“Why is she like this?” her parents had whispered to the medical Conductors several weeks later as Flannery had laid listlessly in bed.

The medical Conductors had been sent in from the highest Monadic temple in Libra. Flannery was well aware she could no longer go to normal medical Conductors. Not without having to handle them accordingly.

“It might be the stress of the candidacy,” the Monadic medical Conductors had said. “We’ll get the head priest to discuss the next steps from here.”

“Are you sayin’ that she failed the ceremony?” her parents had pressed.

“Perhaps,” had been what they’d left them with.

Not too much later, Flannery was visited by Timothy Campbell—the Monadic head priest of Libra, the old man who had announced her saint candidacy, the young man whom she’d taken under her wing when she had been Arthur. His russet hair had lost all of its color over the years, and wrinkles sagged down his formerly chubby cheeks.

“Ya’ve grown old.”

“That’s what tends to happen, Libra,” Timothy’d said, smiling with a fondness that he’d only shown her after the ceremony, as he’d seated himself beside her. “We couldn’t find a suitable candidate until now. You missed the war… but we could still use your guidance.”

Flannery suppressed a grimace.

That was the cycle. When they were young, they would give and give. As they grew older, all they did was ask and take, until they grew even older and returned to give and give and give.

It seemed Timothy, despite the age lines, was still in that middle stage.

Timothy continued tentatively, “…will you not take up your duties this time?”

“The war’s ended, Arthur.” Flannery closed her eyes and turned her head away. “What other judgment and wisdom can I provide that you haven’t given t’yourselves already? Y’know me. I’ve always been a neutral party.”

Right.

There was no good, no evil, no villain, no hero, no deus ex machina. That was reality. Such an ugly color.

Talib and Alice—the sweethearts—came to visit her constantly after the ceremony. But Flannery didn’t want to see them. Because as soon as the two stepped into her room, she was able to see their vitae swirling out from all of their pores like wisps of smoke. No, she saw their life extinguishing.

“How are you feeling?” Alice had asked on that first visit, as bluntly as always. “They’re saying you haven’t eaten. Why?”

Talib walked up to the curtains and drew them open. “Let’s get some light in here, ‘ey? It’s a miracle what happened to your eyes, Flannery. Maybe I should try for saint candidacy too. Maybe I’ll grow taller or stronger—”

“It doesn’t make sense how it happened,” Alice had said in response. “Read the atmosphere, Talib. It may not be something everyone feels like celebrating.”

Light seeped in from the morning outside, illuminating even further the vitae pulsating through their veins and escaping their bodies.

Flannery could see clearly where they ended and where they began. She could deduce what they had done and how much of their life they’d shaved away doing those things. She could see their vitae exiting their bodies and returning to the cycle with each breath they took. She could see exactly where she would need to slide a knife or a bullet coated with her vitae to shatter them to pieces.

But—no, no, no, she didn’t want to see it.

This wasn’t the Talib and Alice that she knew. Not her reality. It couldn’t be.

Panting and heaving, she’d lifted her hands to her face and then gouged her nails into her eyes. It had taken Talib, Alice, and the medical Conductors combined to pull her hands away, but the damage had been done.

However, it didn’t take long for her eyes to recover. It never took long. Pieces of her that ‘broke’ or were ‘insufficient’ could be removed and would return themselves to—not the cycle—but to herself or to the reservoir where she’d come from. Her body had become just a malleable storage unit for the memories and vitae of millions of Librans past. A representation of all of Libra’s conquests and failures.

In other words, she was no longer human, and that was reality.

A couple of years after that, when Flannery’s ‘health had finally improved’, Alice and Talib had come visiting her with white bands around their arms. Peacekeepers, they’d said, one more convincingly than the other. While Flannery had congratulated them cheerily, inside she’d felt a quiet regret because she knew she’d been the catalyst for their choice. Because of this, she’d had a faint desire to stop them.

Although Ophiuchus was the safest place to be before the syzygy, that was only the case if a person kept their eyes averted. And Gabrielle Law, whom Alice and Talib had later introduced Flannery to, was a person who would never dare look away from the sun—even if it meant blinding the eyes. Gabrielle, Flannery had decided, was a dangerous person who created danger for those close to her. And so, acting on a faint protective bias towards Talib and Alice, Flannery had accepted Gabrielle’s invitation to join her group when asked. Even if it was not ‘fair.’

But that was as much as she allowed herself to do. Because Libra’s role was not to intervene unless absolutely necessary.


Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

Flannery crossed her bedroom in her quiet villa with a yawn. As she passed by Alice’s and Gabrielle’s beds, she noted how neatly they were both made. Her own bed was a tousled mess still. Alice usually made it for her, but Alice hadn’t returned to the villa since leaving the convention yesterday with…

Pushing the thought aside, Flannery approached the mirror set beside the desk in the corner of the room. Absent-mindedly, she turned on the large radio set on top of the drawers and inspected herself. She was wearing the silken, thin-strapped blue dress Alice had gifted to her not too long ago, paired with the red bomber jacket she’d borrowed from Talib.

A stern voice crackled out from the radio in Leonian:

“More recent disputes over the dominion of the regional Monadic temples located in-between Gemini and Leo—” 

Flannery reached over to the radio and flicked the knob. Static resounded before a different voice came on—this time speaking in Cancerian:

“—territorial tension over the open trade routes leading into Taurus from Scorpio—”

She turned the knob again, this time leaving her fingers resting on it as a voice crackled out in Capricornian:

“—unrest and protests across the nation concentrated in Capricorn’s major cities in response to the accidental deaths of trespassing members of an anti-government military movement called the Verbundene Augen. People are asking who is to blame. But, citizens, the real question is when will these protests become riots? When will this movement become an insurrection, a coup d’état? For instance, preliminary police investigations have led us to believe that the recent reservoir leak—”

She changed the channel by one degree.

“—protests against the execution of the peaceful Verbundene Augen protestors within Capricornian land. I say no more! We will not lay down our lives for men who line their pockets with our deaths. I ask that all of our fellow Capricornians in two days join us in our countrywide—”

She turned the knob one last time.

A pleasant woman’s sing-song voice filtered out from the speakers.

Mm—Flannery smiled—Geminian. They always had a good sense of music, art, and wine.

A knock at the door drew Flannery’s attention away from the melody. When she turned, she registered a silhouette cloaked in a mustard-colored aura of light standing at the threshold. She recognized the vitae as Roberto’s.

“Hey, Gabe called,” Roberto said. “Said she needed to speak to you. ASAP.”

Flannery’s brows rose. “Where’ve they been?”

“Work.” Roberto shrugged before nodding at her. “Nice dress. Heading somewhere?”

“Well, I’ve got a dinner meetin’ I need t’attend t’wrap up some business… so I probably won’t be able t’do the ASAP thing.”

“Can’t you ask your parents to handle that? That’s what nepotism is for, isn’t it?”

“They left this mornin’,” Flannery replied. “And I don’t think leavin’ a buncha diplomats and businessy types hangin’ at dinner’d do good for our business trajectories. Besides, it’ll be a grand time.”

Roberto asked, brow arched. “Leaving you to clean up after them?”

No, she’d personally asked them to leave. Bias.

Clink, clink, clink! Tap, tap, tap.

Hmm… Silverware scraping against porcelain? Perhaps the rim of two twin wine glasses kissing each other? A lacquered nail thrumming along the edge of the linen-clothed wooden table? Maybe it was from the event waiters and waitresses lighting the wax candles around the room?

Flannery opened her eyes.

Nope.

The sound was coming from a flock of birds pecking at the glass of the dome window above her head. The window let in the natural light of the setting sun which illuminated the circular table laid in front of her. The table was topped by an assortment of dishes from the countries of the various people encircling the table.

Among them was the Virgoan diplomat Dimka cheerfully seated beside his guard—both dressed in the ornate and colorful Virgoan silken robes. One of the executives from Flannery’s company had recently discussed creating a contract with Virgo, so Dimka’s cheeriness was to be expected. Across from Dimka sat two members of the Sagittarian Xing Clan with whom she’d discussed a contract extension with two days prior. A couple of businessmen and businesswoman from Cancer, and a handful of other diplomats too. Nearly a full-house.

There were, of course, several seats empty around the table from diplomats and investors who had either pulled out of Capricorn due to the civil unrest or due to other commitments. Among the missing was the prince of the Seong Clan whom Flannery had the pleasure of meeting and discussing conductor exports with at the convention recently. The True Conductor, Yuseong Haneul. A pleasant, funny young man.

The ones present seemed to be enjoying themselves to a certain extent. Chattering lively about the conductors they’d seen at the convention, about the promising engineers they’d spoken to, and about everything in-between. And, of course, they carefully tiptoed around talk about the ‘reservoir leak,’ the attack on the local hospital, and the Verbundene Augen movement. That would most likely be a discussion for a different diplomatic meeting. It was a bit funny even after all this time how there was still an itinerary for diplomacy and peacekeeping.

Still, the air was pleasant. Flannery had to shill quite a handful of marks to rent this place out in this central part of the city, so she was quite pleased with it. All for keeping up appearances and formality, but that was business—

The oaken doors flew open abruptly, blowing out the candles lining the walls of the room. The clink-clinking and chattering quieted.

At the threshold of the door stood an elder man dressed in a crisp dull periwinkle uniform regaled with countless medals. A general. Behind him stood a wall of uniformed officers. Ten? Twenty? Militärpolizei. Every single one of them was swathed and coiled in a web of dark blue pulsating vitae. The color was so thick around them that Flannery could barely see the color of their actual vitae.

Flannery tensed.

What in the world was he doing?

Dimka rose from his seat and turned to her pleasantly before starting towards the Capricornians. “Ah, Miss Caertas, did you also invite the Capricornian—”

“Wait,” Flannery snapped, causing Dimka to pause. She recollected herself and smiled. “No, I didn’t send out an invitation.” She then addressed the general, “Do y’have business with Balance Sells, General? We received the letter about the restrictions on our vendors in the country, but I thought I had my secretary send an invoice regardin’ that. Are ya part of the commerce chamber then? If it’s about that, can we discuss this later?”

The diplomats and investors began whispering.

“Actually, I have business with your guests here, Miss Caertas,” the general replied. “It’s regarding all of your presences in Capricorn.”

Now, everyone was rising to a stand.

“And what exactly is the issue with our presence?” one of the Sagittarian royals pressed—Beijixing Mai, if Flannery recalled correctly. “If it wasn’t by invitation then how did you find us? I don’t appreciate being spied on in a foreign country.”

Flannery tensed.

The general cleared his throat and remained stiff at the threshold. “Yes, well, I’m sure you’re all aware of the disturbances in our country lately. I sent a letter out to your places of residence, but this is an urgent matter so I decided to deliver it personally to those who I was able to. I was made aware that you were hosting a dinner party here by the owner of this location, actually. Quite lucky.”

What a bold, unbelievable lie.

“While I appreciate your promptness and consideration, General,” Mai drew, frowning, “we’re all very aware of what’s happening in this country. We trust that your government has a handle on this situation so that we can continue to cultivate our relationship. That being said, General, this is private dinner, so—”

“I understand that, but we don’t want to risk the possibility of our allies being drawn into this accidentally,” the general continued, “which is why we’re ending the convention early. Today is the last day of it, and we have requested all participants to clean their stations and belongings from the Konvergieren Dome by tomorrow evening.”

“That’s hardly enough time to gather everything and finish contracts and agreements,” a diplomat complained.

“Which is why I’m here to tell you,” the general replied. “So you can get to it as soon as possible. We’re even making an exception on the curfew just for this.”

Flannery’s eyes narrowed.

What kind of game was he playing?

Flannery waved a hand through the air. “Nothin’ to worry about, everyone. I’ll have my secretary send ya copies of our new contracts and agreements by the mornin’, so there’s no issue with closin’ out early with me. It’s all formality anyways. Everything’s been set in stone.”

After a bit more whispering, the diplomats and investors agreed to the proposition and filtered out of the room after offering formal farewells—bows, handshakes, kisses, and whatever they thought was appropriate. Only when the last diplomat’s footsteps receded down the hall outside did Flannery allow herself to relax.

“Ya’ve gone too far,” she said in the silence that followed. “Scorpio.”

“Is that your judgment?” the general—‘Scorpio’—asked with a thin grin as the officers filtered into the room and formed a wide circle around her. “Are you sure?”

“Ya’ve gone ahead and planted a spore in a general of this country now,” Flannery replied. “And yer startin’ t’get in on other countries. It’s too much too soon.”

“Too much too soon?” Scorpio’s face twisted. “Do you hear yourself? By the way, it wasn’t my choice to infect this general. I left that choice to one of my towers and just went along with what they wanted. You wouldn’t be able to guess which tower did it.” He pulled down the collar of his shirt, revealing not only a dark blue scorpion tattoo but also a tattoo in the familiar shape of an eye.

An infected general who was also made to be part of the Augen movement? What exactly was he planning?

“And you wouldn’t be able to guess what idea that’s swimming around in this head.”

“I’m assumin’ y’made the Kaiser of this country into a tower. That leader of the Verbundene Augen and Leona too, right? Yer endin’ the convention early which’ll force the diplomats t’the trains early. That Augen protest is goin’ on around that time too, isn’t it? “

“Oh?” 

“I pay attention t’the news, and yer not as clever as y’think.” Flannery rose from her table and plucked the butter knife resting by her plate. “What’re y’doin’ here?”

“In Capricorn? Well, I saw an opportunity and decided to cultivate it.”

“No, I mean in here.”

“You already said it,” he replied, chuckling. “Capricorn is just one country. The syzygy requires more reservoirs and many more True Conductors—”

“The syzygy moves forward only—not by our hand—but by the will of the country. Those are the rules. Y’cant go plantin’ yer spores like y’please. This country and those countries aren’t even part of the domain you agreed t’look over.” She tightened her grip on the knife. “Ya don’t have t’do this…”

“Is that how you’re living your life?” Disdain creased Scorpio’s features. “Just sitting around and waiting for the syzygy to happen? I refuse.”

So that was that then. A verdict was needed.

Flannery grabbed for one of the policemen standing idly by her and slammed him into the table behind her. As he stared at her blankly, a dark blue scorpion tattoo crawled out from beneath his uniform and onto his face. Ignoring it, she focused her attention on his vitae which she could now see very faintly. The gunmetal blue light pulsating through his veins was spiderwebbed over by thin tendrils of dark blue vitae. The tendrils spilled out from a singular dark blue sphere embedded into his body at his shoulder. The spore.

Flannery lifted the butter knife in her free hand and poured her vitae around its blade and in-between its atoms. She then drove it into the man’s shoulder. It slipped past his clothes and skin like they weren’t even there.

In the instant the pink of the blade touched the spore embedded there, however, the spore shattered into dust, taking the vine-like tendrils along with it and leaving only his gray vitae behind. At the same time, a network of dark pink lines cracked up along the skin of the man’s face and touched the scorpion tattoo resting on his cheek. As soon as the pink touched its tail, the scorpion tattoo fragmented and then disintegrated into nothing.

The man jolted, blinking rapidly before shaking his head and staring up at her in confusion. “Who—” He glanced down at the knife in his chest. “Saints—”

“Calm down. It’s not in ya the way y’think it is.” She studied him. “What’s yer name?”

“Z-Zwingli. Leonhard Zwingli,” he stammered, eyes wide as his gaze flicked around the room in confusion. “What’s going on—”

“What’s your raison d’être?”

“W-What?”

“The one thought that keeps pushing at the back of your head no matter what.”

The thought that Scorpio scooped up from the bottom of his mind and firmly cultivated until it sprouted into a firm, infallible tree.

“A… teacher. ‘I have to become a teacher,’” Zwingli whispered after a beat before his eyes widened like saucers. “Saints… I… my family… why did I say those things—”

Verdict: an acceptable desire to have and pursue until death.

Flannery released him and pulled the knife out from his shoulder. His eyes snapped to the back of his head, and he slumped to the ground unconscious. Not a sign of a stab wound.

Plucking his pistol from Zwingli’s belt, Flannery turned to face the general.

“Well, that was violent.”

“Are y’takin’ the piss out of me? This isn’t funny. Yer forcin’ my hand now, Scorpio.

Scorpio smiled. “I can’t force anyone to do anything —well, besides when I talk through them like this. But in reality, you know that this truly is all just the passion of the people—”

Flannery fired the gun up to the dome ceiling. The metallic bang was followed swiftly by a loud crack! and then a crystalline chime as glass rained down from above. She grabbed ahold of the tablecloth beside her and allowed her vitae to spill out in-between its threads. She pulled the cloth off the table and swirled it into the air where it caught the falling shards which caused her vitae to pass onto them. Whipping the cloth around, she flung the vitae-lined shards out in all directions.

The shards crashed against the walls and pierced into and through the bodies of the surrounding military police officers, passing through their shoulders, chests, abdomens, limbs, and exiting out of their backsides. With a collective thump, the officers collapsed to the ground unmoving.

The dark blue light emitting from their bodies dimmed to nothing as the remaining shards clattered onto the floor. It was quite beautiful—seeing the true color of their vitae beginning to shine out from beneath Scorpio’s disintegrating web.

Only one figure remained standing and bleeding out that dark blue light. It was the general, still perched at the threshold.

“Oh.” Scorpio’s smile grew instead of faltering. “Well, welcome back then, Libra.”

He wanted this.

Fine.

Flannery ran up onto the table, charged forward, and then leapt at him without skipping a beat. She gouged her butter knife into the dark blue spot she saw pulsating above his stomach. And as he fell backwards, she successfully pierced through the spore which shattered along with its tendrils. When they hit the ground together, the general’s eyes flew open and he looked around in confusion.

“What’s yer name?” she asked, keeping the knife in place.

“Kristoffer Levshin,” he replied before his eyes widened with realization then narrowed. “That damned Scorpio! How dare he…” He shook his head before studying her. “Who are you? With ELPIS or Ophiuchus?” He glanced down at the vitae-lined knife. “A saint candidate…” He tensed. “Why can’t I move?”

“It’s a good thing ya can’t move. If ya could, I might accidentally knick ya and blast your vitae particles apart. But first thing’s first, Krist.” She studied his face. “You should know how Scorpio operates. Now my question t’you is what is the one thought pounding at the back of yer head?

Kristoffer’s eyes narrowed, then widened. “… ‘kill the Kaiser.’”

Of course. The desire for power—even if the intention was pure—could drive someone to that extent.

Verdict: an unacceptable desire to have and act on.

“That’s unfortunate.”

Flannery dragged the vitae-coated blade up along the man’s chest and touched one of the pulsating veins of aquamarine vitae flowing near his heart. It immediately fragmented and then shattered to pieces in a burst of dark pink light. The fragmentation continued outwards, spreading along those veins until it bled up to the surface of his skin. Kristoff’s face folded into solemn acceptance before his entire body shattered into nothingness.

Flannery bowed her head before standing and surveying the room of groaning officers.

Time to judge the rest.

As soon as Flannery stepped outside of the dome building, she looked up to the sky. She could barely see wisps of vitae from the city’s residents smoking up towards the darkening skyline.

She turned her attention forward.

Entangled threads of dark blue vitae networked across the square in a web-like array. They crisscrossed each other and grew far out into the dark—most likely with some even extending across the country.

Flannery was certain if she followed one of these threads, she would find a spore. And she was certain that if she looked hard enough, she would be able to find a collection of threads all bleeding out in the same direction. At the end of those threads, she knew she would find one of Scorpio’s towers.

Flannery’s mind drifted to Alice, Gabrielle, and Talib. She was certain that Scorpio wouldn’t turn his eyes on those two just yet, but she still felt inclined to reach out to them. However, that would be an act of bias, and there were more important things to deal with.

And so she headed back to the villa to recollect herself. On her way there, whenever she encountered one of Scorpio’s spores embedded in a person, she would cut it out of them and promptly dissect what thought Scorpio had brought to the surfaces of their minds. Then she’d make her judgment.

It was a tiring exercise since she wasn’t quite used to exerting herself as ‘Flannery’. And so, as she finally stepped into her villa, she was tempted to just sink into a hot bathtub in the dark and call it a day. When she slinked into the kitchen, however, she found the v-lights already on and the space occupied. Alice and Gabrielle were seated at the table.

“There ya guys are! I was gettin’ worried.” Flannery greeted them cheerily, hiding the knife and pistol behind her back. “What’ve you been up ta? Some serious peacekeepin’ business keepin’ ya out—”

“Flannery,” Alice stated flatly, “we need to talk.”

“… Is this some kinda intervention?” Flannery chuckled.

“Flannery,” Gabrielle drew slowly, “we just have some questions for you.”

“Questions…?”

Then Flannery saw the twisting, pale tangerine light wavering by the opposite threshold leading to the bedrooms. Her heart fell. It felt like betrayal.

“So y’know then,” Flannery murmured.

Alice’s eyes narrowed—which hurt to see—as Gabrielle tensed.

Theta—Vega—stepped forward out of the dark without speaking.

An incorrect initiation—Flannery could tell by the way the veins of white light within him bled into a tangerine hue. But it looked like somehow a balance had been achieved—even if just by a margin.

“Nice t’see ya, Vega.”

Theta paused.

“Yer sufferin’. I can see that clearly,” Flannery continued. “I’ve been lookin’ in t’ya since what happened in Gemini. Right now, yer a wealthy young businessman who owns a coupla spots in the Twin Cities—on the surface. In reality, yer a crime leader for Gemini’s underbelly.” She pointed to the pistol she could see glinting at his waist. “Never thought I’d see y’carry somethin’ like that. It really is a bad match.”

Theta studied her before chuckling—oddly musical—and touching the pistol. “That’s quite some greeting.”

Flannery could feel Alice’s gaze pricking her skin, but she tried her best to ignore it and said, “I never thought ya’d work with peacekeepers, Vega. Is it Altair then—”

“Omicron is gone,” Theta interjected. “That’s not what I’m here for.” He pointed to the knife behind her back. “I can see you’ve decided to act against Scorpio now. Good. Scorpio has infected a True Conductor who is at risk of dying because of the infection. I’m here to ask you to help them.”

Flannery closed her gaping mouth. “Yer askin’ me t’help ya help a True Conductor…? Where did yer pride go?

Theta held out a hand to her. A formal business-like offering of a handshake. Not something she was used to seeing from him. “Pride really means little in the long run,” he said.

Flannery paced up to him and scanned his face. He didn’t flinch back and merely studied her in return. Then, she extended her hand—

—and sent her vitae-laden blade into his abdomen. When she pulled the blade out, he let out a faint gasp and doubled over with a grimace.

Alice snapped to her feet and rushed to his side. “What did you do, Flannery?!”

“I temporarily separated Vega’s vitae from this young man here. I want t’talk ta Vega alone,” Flannery explained. “Best get away from ‘em, Alice. Vega’s never been particularly sociable or friendly.”

Before Alice could respond, Theta shoved her back and gripped his head. Then he stiffened and unfurled himself with a flattening expression.

“You were incorrectly initiated,” Flannery explained in Ophiuchian. “I’ve separated your vitae from the person you were initiated into, so I can speak just to you. It’s me. Libra.”

“I see.” Vega showed no surprise and looked around the room. “So this is the new world.”

Vega had always been mysterious like that. In all of the iterations Flannery had encountered of them in the past—even the very first one—she’d never been able to really deduce what was on their mind… which was why she was surprised that Vega had come here to her so openly requesting help.

“Ophiuchus is gone, and a peacekeeping organization took its place.” Flannery indicated Alice and Gabrielle who stood tense to Vega’s right. “Those two there are with the new organization.”

“I suppose what happened to Ophiuchus was your work then.” Vega glanced at the two, then at their armbands. “Although calling oneself a peacekeeper is the epitome of arrogance, which I am certain is a trait of people whom you are very familiar with, Libra. I see your sense of irony remains unchanged.”

“You came here askin’ for my help t’save a True Conductor,” Flannery provided in Common. “Felt fine with workin’ with those two peacekeepers even though part of their job is t’use conductors and protect reservoirs.”

“I see.” Vega pulled out the knife from their belt after eyeing the pistol there and then dragged the blade across their bare palm. Then they pressed their conductor-gloved hand to the area which lit up with very pale tangerine—almost white—light. “So this time, I have become a fool.”

“What did ya do?” Flannery asked when the light faded.

“Someone requested for my gates to be opened, and so I opened them,” Vega replied in Common, before looking up at her. “Why did you separate my vitae?” A glance to Gabrielle and Alice, then a sigh. “I see. You wish to prove a point. You are still like a child.”

“Well, what if I decided t’kill ya here instead of just separatin’ ya like this?”

“Then I would accept what was to come,” Vega replied evenly. “There is enough left of me to return to my resistor. If not, then that would be the end. Nothingness. The others would fulfill our purpose in my stead.”

Flannery continued, “Scorpio’s taken over this country and is usin’ the people t’create another reservoir by stirrin’ up some tension. A buncha Capricornians here’ll take up arms, use conductors, kill each other. That seems t’be the plan for the most part.”

“And you are deciding on how to act because you are uncertain of how much of this is Capricorn’s people and how much of this is Scorpio. Your lack of action remains the same even now.”

“What’s yer plan then?”

“Those infected Capricornians cannot be allowed to spread Scorpio’s spores. The reservoir cannot be allowed to form. What already has been made must be destroyed. And that is for both of them.” Vega turned to Alice and Gabrielle. “As long as you continue to create and use reservoirs and conductors, we will act accordingly.”

“Ya’ll do it just like that? Consequences be damned?”

“Are you to offer your assistance?” Vega pressed, turning back to Flannery, gaze unyielding. “I understand the consequences. I cannot speak for you, Libra, but the other candidates do not appear to grasp this concept.”

Remaining silent, Flannery resisted grimacing. It was hard to forget Vega had been her teacher in one of her lifetimes. That gloomy, disappointed gaze was burned into the back of her head.

Vega continued, “I see. Then, that’s the resulting choice that must be made. But, you know, in the end, they will return to the cycle. Nothing is lost.”

“And when this happens again?”

“Then we will handle it just the same.”

Flannery pointed her knife at Vega and nodded at Gabrielle and Alice. “This is who yer workin’ with. ELPIS doesn’t view life the same way ya do. Doesn’t have the same values as ya do. They’re dangerous—”

“And what about you?” Gabrielle challenged.

Before Flannery could answer, Vega doubled over again with a grimace, clutching their head, then their abdomen. Flannery could see the flow of white and tangerine intertwining in the space at their stomach where she’d just separated them.

Alice caught Theta before he fell. “Francis, do you know where you are? Are you hurt?

Theta grimaced, clutching his abdomen and studying Alice’s face. “Yes, I’m fine. I know. There’s no pain, Miss Kingsley.” He then looked up at Flannery, frown tightening.

Flannery met his gaze. “My judgment is that your current state is more favorable in the long term. Death is not near a suitable punishment for your numerous transgressions if we consider all of them collectively. Living with your transgressions in this state is suitable sentencing for now.”

“You’re not as unbiased as you try to be, Libra,” Theta returned before tensing and turning to the other two. “Gabrielle, Alice, I’m sorry. I… I believe I opened my gates for Gamma and the others. I believe they’ve taken P.D. Oran and—”

“What?!” Gabrielle snapped to a stand.

Alice’s eyes narrowed. “What about Talib, Roberto, and the prince who were with him?”

“I’m uncertain,” Theta replied, flexing his conductor. “I’ll see if I can—”

“If y’try openin’ yer gates again before yer all sealed up, Vega,” Flannery interjected, “you’ll just split yerself further. I cut deep enough that y’should probably see a Transmutationist before thinkin’ of usin’ a conductor. Ya don’t wanna end up like how you were a couple months ago, do ya?”

Theta tensed, but didn’t glare as he lowered his conductor-gloved hand.

Why?” Gabrielle asked.

“I can’t have ya jumpin’ around as y’please, y’know?” Flannery replied. “It’s not safe and not just for you.”

“Okay… that’s fair. It’s always annoying when civilians get in the way. I get it.” Gabrielle nodded, hands raised. “… Look. We all still trust you, Flannery. My intuition is that we have the same goal. We’ve been working together all this time. Knowing that you’re part of this whole thing doesn’t change that.” She extended her hand as she eyed the knife. “We can still work this out. Alice, Talib—the whole gang.”

There it was. Those milky words promising camaraderie and good endings. The same words that had probably lured Talib and Alice in. And the Wtoreks too. Words like poison. But that thought was bias.

“Right now, I’m not concerned with P.D. Oran or the True Conductors or even Capricornians like you are,” Flannery said, turning around and heading towards the door. “Right now, I’ve got t’see how far Scorpio’s plannin’ on takin’ this and how much of it is just a farce game. I’d ask ya t’leave this country, but I know you won’t—”

A burst of magenta flames throttled between her and the doorway. When she turned, Flannery found that Gabrielle’s conductor-gloved hand was extended and still sparking with magenta embers.

“Well, it’d reflect pretty poorly on us peacekeepers if we didn’t do our job and keep the peace,” Gabrielle said with a lazy smile. “I’m serious. We can figure this out together—”

But Flannery didn’t reflect the smile back. “Let me ask ya all a question. Do any of y’know where Scorpio is right now?”

“I doubt Scorpio is even in this country,” Theta replied. “They’ve always hidden themselves and played from behind the curtain.”

Flannery sighed. “Things change, Theta. I’m sure yer realizin’ that now. People change—especially if they’ve been here long enough… The way yer all answerin’ is just tellin’ me yer all in over your head.” She nodded at Alice and Gabrielle. “At least, ya both are. Yer dealin’ with people—” she gestured to Theta “—and things ya don’t understand.”

Flames curled at Gabrielle’s palm as she demanded calmly, “Then explain it—”

“Gabrielle,” Alice pressed. “Calm down.”

Flannery tightened her grip on her knife and slammed the blade down into the table in front of her. The pink vitae coating the blade spilled out onto the table’s surface and sent cracks along its body. The cracks formed cracks that crumbled away in a burst of dark pink. When the light faded, there was nothing of it left. A warning.

Gabrielle and Alice stared, wide-eyed and tense. Theta remained impassive.

“I’m sorry, Gabrielle, but y’have no true authority here. Never have. This peackeepin’ business is all part of the scripted stage. Flannery narrowed her eyes. “Y’wax lyrical about bringin’ true peace to Signum, but how many people do y’think have said that already?”

Frowning, Gabrielle lowered her conductor. Alice, on the other hand, gave Flannery only a disappointed look.

Flannery chuckled with a grimace and brushed past the threshold that she knew she could never cross normally again. “I’ll take care of the rest. It’s my duty to. I promise.”

It wasn’t hard to find Leona.

All Flannery had to do was find the opposite end of the dark blue threads of vitae protruding from the spores of the infected peacekeepers wandering around the city—most of whom she cut the spore out of and judged as she encountered. Eventually, the threads led her to a conservatory in the east end of the city.

As she wandered through the foliage of succulents, ferny leaves, and exotic flowers within, she allowed herself to enjoy the warm haze and the faint wisps of vitae bleeding out from the plants. Eventually, she followed the dark blue threads of vitae past a thrush of shrubs and into a small clearing.

A group of Capricornian soldiers were clustered there in the small space. One, whose vitae flow was weak, was being attended to by two men. To the right of them stood a Capricornian in a captain’s uniform and three familiar-looking Sagittarians—one of whom whose vitae blazed like the sun. All of them immediately picked up arms.

“Mr. Claire Yuseong?” Ignoring the weapons, Flannery arched a brow.

“Miss Caertas?” Claire stared.

The Capricornians looked to him in confusion.

“She works for a company that my country partners with. We buy conductors from her,” Claire explained. “But…”

A Capricornian with an armband marked with a red cross glanced down at the knife in her hands. “You’re…”

The Capricornian’s vitae had a strange color to it, she realized. While it was mostly mint green in color, there were tiny globules of pure white bubbling up and down in the flow of his vitae.

“Dabih—no Zu?” Flannery realized. “Is that you?”

The man tensed. “I barely remember that name. It’s… Alwin Brandt now. Did Theta send you? The lieutenant—the True Conductor is—”

Flannery held up her hand and continued to follow the thick dark blue threads of vitae to a cluster of bodies laid out across from her. Three of them. Two Capricornians—one was not infected and was tied to a radiator pipe—and one other. Leona.The infected Capricornian was being held by suppression cuffs, and the resulting dark-blue tendrils extending out from the spore sprouting in his arm were very thin and sickly-looking.

Flannery drew out her knife.

“H-Hey, wait…” The glasses-wearing Capricornian standing beside Brandt stepped forward. Before he could say anything else, however, Brandt held him back.

After lining the knife with her vitae once more, Flannery knelt in front of the infected Capricornian and drove the blade through the cuffs and then into the spore in his arm. Once both the spore and the cuffs crumbled to nothing, the Capricornian grunted and opened his eyes before blinking at her in confusion.

“That one thought that’s pressin’ at the back of yer head,” she said in Capricornian. “What is it?”

The Capricornian arched a brow in confusion. “Who the fuck are you?”

“Tell her, Stein,” Brandt urged. “When you attacked, Fischer, what were you thinking?”

After a beat, Stein replied slowly, “‘Protect the prince’…? Wait—what the fuck is going on here?”

“And yer okay with livin’ with that forever?”

Stein paused, tensing before spitting, “Well, I’m not fucking dying anytime soon.”

Spunky.

Flannery pulled the knife out from him.

He collapsed to the ground unconscious, and Brandt rushed to his side.

“He’s no longer connected t’Scorpio,” Flannery explained. “But I doubt he’s gonna be stickin’ around in your service that much longer. Scorpio cultivates an idea in every offshoot he infects, whether or not he’s actively manipulatin’ them. It’s an idea that stays even after the spore is removed.”

“Like what happened with Marionette Engel.” The man in the captain’s uniform approached her, the rifle in his hand pointed to the ground. “You’re the Saint Candidate of Libra then.”

So they knew too. Troublesome. Scorpio lacked nuance and subtlety when he took the stage like this.

“The Saint of the Scales,” Flannery elaborated.

She then turned her attention to Leona where the thick dark blue thread of vitae she’d followed to get here led to. The spore in Leona’s body was much larger than the spores in all the others Flannery had encountered. It consumed Leona’s entire chest—so much so that the suppression cuffs could not dampen the light. Up close now, Flannery could see that many thinner dark blue threads of vitae extended out from the spore in her body and beyond her body—presumably connecting to many more peacekeepers she was acting as the tower for.

Flannery pushed her vitae-coated knife forward through first the chain of the suppression cuffs which shattered into pieces and then through Leona’s chest. When the spore there shattered at her touch, the threads extending out from Leona’s body crumbled away into nothing as well. Now free from the web of blue vitae, Leona’s golden light burst out blindingly like the sun.

Leona’s dull, open eyes cleared; and she locked gazes with Flannery, but said nothing.

“And you?” Flannery asked.

Leona’s eyes narrowed. “Nothing.”

Her tone was flat. Hurt pride, maybe. Disdain, most likely.

Flannery nodded, pulling out the knife from Leona’s chest. Unlike the others before her, Leona did not fall unconscious. And so, Flannery extended a hand.

Leona picked herself up gracefully without accepting the gesture. “I see you’ve finally decided to hold yourself accountable for your role as a saint candidate, Miss Caertas. Much better than Taurus and Virgo.”

The Capricornians tensed.

Bah, Flannery thought. So Leona thought she was just a dosser too.

“It’s been donkey’s years since I saw ya, Leo, and that’s all you have t’say?” Flannery chuckled. “Besides, Taurus is still a kid—”

“You lack your usual elegance and maturity this time,” Leona interjected as she smoothed out her suit and redid her hair, “but I hope you’ve brought another asset instead.”

Flannery studied her impassively. “How much do ya understand about the situation—”

“I was given awareness,” Leona replied. She glanced at the Capricornians, eyes narrowing ever so slightly. “Scorpio has caused a mess in this country…” A smile abruptly touched her lips, and she walked towards and extended a hand out to the captain. “Captain Weingartner, correct?”

Weingartner nodded, not moving to accept the gesture.

“I would like to thank you for your noble actions and your service. Your choices are honorable.” Leona smiled genially, lowering her hand. “I understand you’ve come to access some information that you might have found… unsettling.”

“I would call the fact that we’re being used to create a reservoir more than just unsettling.”

The corners of Leona’s eyes crinkled. “I understand your apprehension, Captain. But until Ophiuchus resolves this current issue, I’d advise you to keep your discretion and remain out of the picture for the time being.” She inclined her head towards the Sagittarians. “And you, Mr. Yuseong, shouldn’t be involving yourself in the affairs of another country. You’re a person of high profile. And now—I’ve come to realize—a person of high importance.”

The prince tensed, and his guards looked at him in confusion.

Leona returned her attention to the Capricornians, continuing, “From my understanding, Captain Weingartner, your actions against the Kaiser and the people of this country have been marked as treasonous. While I understand your circumstances, others do not. Until we get a hold of this situation and can speak on your behalf, you will stay under the radar.”

The injured Capricornian laying on the ground pushed himself up to a sit with some assistance and glowered. “You want us to just sit back and eat popcorn?”

“Wolff,” the captain pressed warningly.

“What is it that you think you can do?” Leona inquired, looking down at him, before glancing at his arm—rather, his missing arm. “You all should be well aware of what your position is.”

“I’m all for taking orders like a dog and turning my brain off,” Wolff grunted, “but it feels weird listening to a Leonian—even if you’re a peacekeeper. No offense but after learning everything, I’m not sure if you have the interests of Capricorn in mind—”

“How dare you.” Leona pointed to the ground, amber eyes blazing. “The foundation that you’re standing on was laid down, grown by, and nurtured for by us. We care far more for it than you ever could. Swallow that arrogance or I—”

Flannery stepped forward and placed a hand on Leona’s shoulder. “We should get t’work.”

Leona glanced at Flannery over her shoulder. “It’s quite ironic hearing that from you.” Then she addressed the Capricornians more calmly—“Despite your appearance, you still have value in your own way.” She glanced at Claire and then his guards. “Please do take care, Prince Yuseong.”

With that, she exited through the path in-between the thrushes.

Flannery turned to follow her but—

“Wait—what about Werner?” One of the men sitting beside the injured Capricornian stammered. His accent came out more Geminian than Capricornian. “He’s a True Conductor. Didn’t you come to help him? He’s still infected—”

Flannery turned slightly. “Theta told me about ‘im, but I’ll repeat it for ya. The True Conductor isn’t my priority right now.”

“But True Conductors,” the Geminian urged. “They’re important to you, aren’t they?”

“Yes, they are. But the life of one man isn’t equal to the fate and fairness a country is subjected to.” She looked forward. “If I come across the True Conductor, I’ll do what I can, but I don’t have the time t’be actively searchin’ for ‘im.”

“But—”

“Capricornians, don’t y’see?” Flannery frowned. “All of this yer doin’ here is just a small part of the bigger picture. All of y’might think this is the end of the world—the end of yer country as y’know it—but… Scorpio’s just havin’ a kick and harvestin’ vitae while he’s at it. This might all just be a game.”

“A game?” The captain now.

Without looking back, Flannery continued past the thrushes and left them with, “Sorry t’say this, but it isn’t like a country in Signum hasn’t gone through a revolutionary crumble before.”

That was reality.


The Saint Candidate of Libra, the Saint of the Scales, should uphold every aspect of our ancestor Libra. Absolute fairness, neutrality, non-bias should be traits they exude. And much like the saint candidates before them, they should pursue the ultimate justice.”

Official Libran Monadic Pages

@adalhyde

18.1: Second Lieutenant, 0900 Debt

Re-cap:

Gilbert is caught in a stand-off with Leona who is after their hostage Dämon Forstchritt. Alongside him taking cover behind a conjured barricade are Captain Weingartner and Friedhelm Heimler, while the Sagittarians engage with Leona. Posted at the bridge above them are Alwin Brandt, Nico Fabrizzio, Derik Stein, Wilhelm Fischer, Klaus Kleine, and Dämon. Unbeknownst to Gilbert, Stein has been infected by the Manipulator and Fischer has sold them out. During a scuffle between Stein and Fischer, their hostage Dämon is taken away by an ELPIS leader.

Just as things take a turn for the worse, a shining figure returns to the scene.

Meanwhile, Werner has learned the truth about Shion–something that changes everything but nothing.


Schuld » A debt still unpaid at 0900 hours

There was nothing Gilbert Wolff hated more than owing a debt. He hated thinking, after all. And when you owed a debt all you could do was think about paying off that debt. His mother always told him too: “Don’t take help without doing anything in return. It’s just not right.” And so, not wanting to be smacked over the head with a righteous hand or a broom handle, he’d followed through with that principle most of his life.

Whenever someone would offer to help carry his grocery bags when he was toppling around the streets with them at the age of six, he declined. Whenever his neighborhood school friends would offer to help him with his assigned after-school classroom-cleaning tasks, he waved them off. The only exception he made was with food. If someone offered him a chocolate bar or a bottle of milk—screw honor—he was going to take it.

Then Gilbert met Werner Waltz: class prefect, Kaiser of the phrase “if you can’t perform this simple task, then I will do it myself,” peddler of dealing out debts.

As a prefect, one of Werner’s responsibilities was to come and inspect the classroom after the class had all finished their after-school chores. Whenever he would see a spot or a stain uncleaned, he would call whoever did the job back in and force them to redo it in front of everyone present. If they continued to ‘underperform,’ he would give them ‘one last warning’ before doing it himself and saying ‘this is how it should be done’ afterwards. A subtle debt dealer. Some admired him for it. But Gilbert knew Werner was no saint.

For example, once when Gilbert encountered one of the smaller students being picked on by the school bully during chore time, he’d stepped in and eloquently… beat the shit out of the bully. Werner had stepped in promptly after and had written everyone up for disturbing chore time.

Saints, what a dick, Gilbert had thought during detention as he’d watched the bullied student write up the required apology with a bruised hand gifted to him by the bully.

Gilbert encountered that very dick again when his mother asked him one day to help her out where she worked as a maid for a wealthy family in the village. The Waltz family.

The Waltz family was perfect. Frau Waltz was pleasant and sweet. Herr Waltz was out on the field but was the pride of the town. Viktoria was cute and kind and good with her hands, while Ludwig’s heroic gusto was the talk of the town.

Gilbert frankly was jealous—at least until that day he ended up owing the biggest debt of his life.

On that day in that house, Werner and Viktoria were busily doing their schoolwork at the dining room table while Gilbert absentmindedly played miniature football with himself using a crumpled wad of paper.

Gilbert didn’t quite know the full story, but apparently, Viktoria had been born with a disease that prevented her from being able to expel vitae. Because of this, she dedicated her time to taking over the family watch-making business. So, when she finished her schoolwork on that day, she brought down her watch-making tools and began to tinker away at the table.

“Don’t make a mess,” was all that Werner said to her. “We eat here.”

Gilbert rolled his eyes and paid Viktoria the attention he thought Werner should’ve given her. She’d been working on a very large clock with a sapphire-colored border and silver hands. It looked more like an artpiece than a timepiece.

“Woah, that’s really good,” Gilbert crowed. “Can I see it?”

“Yes… but it’s… nothing special.”

Gilbert had gingerly picked it up off the table and inspected it in awe. “Nothing special? I’d pay 500 marks for this!” He’d popped up to a stand and held it up to the light. “This’d look badass on any wall.” After peeking at Viktoria and seeing her flush, he’s carried the clock over to the wall and pressed it in the space there in-between a stool and a vase. “See.”

Viktoria rose from her seat and walked up to him, chuckling. Meanwhile, Werner merely watched him, expression unreadable.

Grimacing at this, Gilbert climbed up onto the stool to push the clock higher against the wall.

“Woah—”

Tripping over his own two feet, he had toppled to the ground, taking both the clock and the adjacent vase with him. While he’d managed to cling steadfastly to the clock, the vase shattered into ten billion pieces on the floor.

Viktoria paled, while Werner shot up to a stand. Steps from down the hall resounded slow and leisurely but somehow also threatening. Werner grabbed Viktoria by the arm and dragged her back to her seat just as Frau Waltz entered the room with scanning eyes.

“Oh no… Who did this?” Frau Waltz asked, smile thin, eyes crinkled, as she approached and gestured to the fragmented pieces. “Was this you, Gilbert?”

“I—” His voice caught in his throat as her silver-flecked blue eyes dug into him.

“Do you know how expensive this is?” she’d continued, still smiling, looking down at him. “This is an antique gifted to my husband for his service. It’s irreplaceable. I doubt even your mother’s yearly salary from us could cover it.”

Then realization dawned on Gilbert: he had just cost his mother her job. Her job that kept them afloat while his father was serving up north. What were they going to do now—

“I’m responsible.”

Gilbert had looked to Werner in confusion, but Werner hadn’t returned his gaze and instead kept his eyes focused on his mother. When Gilbert looked back to Frau Waltz, his heart dropped. She stared directly at him instead of her son—like she was looking for his reaction to Werner’s words. It made Gilbert’s stomach churn. But he couldn’t find the words to speak.

“I see. Well, Werner, obviously we need to discuss this because that’s the responsible thing to do, isn’t it?” Frau Waltz had headed back to the door’s threshold and had beckoned Werner with a thin finger before smiling at Gilbert. “Oh, don’t touch the vase, any of you. The one who is responsible should clean up the mess.”

Werner had left in silence and had returned half an hour later. When Viktoria had paced over to him, he’d brushed her aside and went to pick up the fallen pieces of the vase. With a scowl, Gilbert had joined him and began shoveling the pieces into a makeshift pouch he’d made with the lower part of his shirt.

Werner said nothing.

With indignation, Gilbert grabbed the large piece of porcelain that Werner was picking up from the ground and tugged it out of his hands. “What do you think the big dea—”

His voice caught in his throat as he registered the blistering welts crisscrossing Werner’s palms—almost dripping red. Some of those lines—Gilbert could tell—weren’t new. Werner tensed and hid away his hands as shame burned his cheeks.

Gilbert opened his mouth, but again no words came out. There was nothing he could even think to say at the time. No words would’ve been enough—he knew this then and now. And so he’d refocused his attention on the fragmented shards of the vase and continued to help Werner pick them up in silence.

From then on, Gilbert did whatever he could to repay that debt.

He’d spent the academy days watching Werner carefully, hoping to find his ‘weak spot.’ He’d at first tried to hook Werner up with some of the most popular girls in class. But Werner was never interested in any of that. Wasn’t interested in turning any classmates into friends either. The only other friend Werner made was Greta—Gilbert still secretly hoped that the two of them stayed just that—but that friendship was something Werner made on his own. In fact, Werner had been the one who’d introduced Greta to Gilbert. Yet another debt.

Just when it couldn’t get any worse, right after graduation, Werner showed up at Gilbert’s train station with a ticket in hand and news of a transfer from the capital to Gilbert’s division. And then Werner even went in and executed Magda Rath in his place when she’d deserted. It all kept fucking piling up.

Werner climbed the ranks in the south quickly despite being a Projector, while Gilbert himself was always a step behind—not that he cared. Gilbert figured Werner probably climbed so rapidly because he ‘efficiently’ set aside things like camaraderie and general morale. Gilbert himself was the opposite. He’d take a chat about anything over sitting in silence in the middle of the trenches. The entire unit made being out on the border bearable. He relied on them to keep his sanity.

But Werner wouldn’t rely on anyone. He was as unsociable as he was at the academy: speaking only when necessary and when giving orders. “Small talk was fruitless and blurred the line between superior and subordinate” was something along the lines of what he’d say whenever Gilbert asked.

But then the border conflict cut things in two. Werner accepted some nonsense mission as negotiator between Capricorn and Aquarius which was swiftly followed by the unit opening fire against the Aquarians they were supposed to be negotiating with.

A day after they’d captured those trespassing Aquarians in a town that was abandoned due to the conflict, Gilbert had come across Werner wandering around the backwoods. There was a pistol in the man’s hands, and Gilbert could tell even from his distance back then that the weapon had been fired.

An execution, he’d figured. Probably one of the Aquarians spreading around the propaganda flyers. Even though it was against the treaty. Dirty work.

“What’s up, Werner?” Gilbert had asked once he’d caught up to him.

Werner had stared at him blankly.

“If you were going to take a midnight stroll, you should’ve asked me to join you. I could use some getting away from Fischer… Unless you were doing Hauptstadt dirty work again.”

Again, Werner stared.

It was almost maddening.

“Look,” Gilbert had snapped. “I’m not that much of a dumbass. The guys aren’t either. I’m your second-in-command, alright? If something happens to you, I’m the next person in line, so you’ve got to keep me up to date on shit.”

Again, a blank stare.

“Shit, Werner, I know we might not exactly be friends, but we’ve known each other long enough to where you can rely on me, right? Ask me for help. I’m not fucking here for no reason—”

“I don’t really understand what you’re saying,” Werner—rather, not -Werner, Gilbert later came to realize—interjected. “But what’s the point of saying it? Is it not better to just do it? Why must you let me know? Is it that you value letting me know more than actually doing it?”

Gilbert had been startled speechless by the remark and had remained speechless long after not-Werner had wandered away. It had been a gunshot to the knee. Awful. Embarassing.

Finding out later that Werner didn’t recall a single thing about that incident because of the override was a relief to Gilbert, which he knew was pretty sad. What was even sadder was the damned joy he’s felt when Werner had looked him right in the eye and asked him to keep him in line.

It was the first thing Werner had ever asked of him. A promise to a friend. Or more like a way to repay many debts.


Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

This was pretty sad, Gilbert thought to himself, back pressed against the metal shield the captain had conjured. The rumble of the vitae rays pounding against the barricade was turning his headache into a migraine. Above the rumbling, he could barely hear the howling of the wind the Sagittarian prince was sending out from his conductor and the high-pitched whines of Leona’s v-blade clashing against the prince’s guard’s blade.

It was more embarrassing than sad: the fact that they were receiving back up from a bunch of Sagittarian politicians. It was like a debt now. Ah, fuck it.

Gilbert dared to peek around the barricade again and aimed his rifle out into the open courtyard.

Nothing had changed in the past couple of minutes. Three-versus-one. Around and around in a loop. In any other battlefield or situation, the winner would’ve been clear. No bets, no wagers. And yet here Leona, a Projector, was—holding her own against a Conjuror, a Projector, and an Elementalist. A kid Elementalist, but an Elementalist all the same.

Wait. There.

Gilbert let out a slow breath and pulled the trigger to his rifle. A metal clang rang in the air as his bullet hit the hilt of Leona’s blade, sending it flying out of her hand. The porcelain-masked figure used the opportunity to lunge forward and take a swipe at Leona’s abdomen with a vitae blade, which forced Leona to stumble back and trip over her own feet.

Ha. Take that—

Leona performed a backflip as she fell backwards, kicked back the masked figure as she did so, and balanced deftly back on her toes. Without even looking in his direction, she drew out another blade from her belt, ignited it, and threw it at him. Gilbert pulled back into cover as it whizzed past his ear.

She missed—

A clang of metal against rock behind him cut the thought short.

Gilbert turned just in time to see the blade rebound off the tower wall behind him and ricochet back towards him. He didn’t even have the time to yelp as it seared into his arm just below his elbow. A beat after, it deactivated and clattered to the ground.

“You’ve got to be shitting me…” Gilbert whispered, head buzzing, heart hammering, arm pulsing.

What the hell kind of luck was this? What now…? Wait. Maybe it wouldn’t infect him because it was only in for a second. Maybe he wouldn’t become a medium. But the others probably wouldn’t think that. Maybe it’d be better just to keep quiet…?

“Captain!” Gilbert grimaced. “Captain, I… I’ve been hit.”

Heimler and the captain turned to him from where they crouched at the opposite end of the barricade. Gilbert lunged for the proto-conductor in Heimler’s hands and brought it to his arm just above his elbow.

“Wolff! Steady.” The captain’s warning shout gave Gilbert pause.

Dammit. Would cutting it even be enough?

His heart raced.

‘Cutting it’… off…?

Shit.

Sunlight suddenly burst over the bridge behind them, causing Gilbert to wince and hesitate. When his eyes adjusted to the morning glow, he registered a familiar silhouette standing on the edge of the bridge and surveying the carnage below. No uniform. Just a pair of slacks and a button down. Werner. No, the prince.

Wait. No. It couldn’t be the prince. Gilbert could tell. There was too much confidence oozing from the stance of the person perched up there, too much manic energy, and too much damn smiling.

Whoever it was leaped down from the bridge—

—and landed on top of the captain’s conjured shield with a clang! before swinging the proto-conductor blade in their hand out to block an oncoming vitae-ray. A beat after, they hopped down to ground level in front of Gilbert.

The captain looked to Gilbert for an answer, but Gilbert was flabbergasted.

Not-Werner placed a hand on Gilbert’s head and peered into his face. “You’re… My dear Gil, yes?”

The way they spoke Common sounded sing-song and accented strangely. A blend of the usual Capricornian lilt with something more eastern. Leonian maybe? Wait—‘My dear Gil’…?

“Who are you?”

The person paused, thinking. “I am… Werner?”

What…? ‘Convincing.’ Wait—

“You’re the one from the border…?” Gilbert realized, blinking up past the dim sun rays. “Look. We know everything already. No need to act. Saints, it’s not convincing anyways.”

“Oh, I see! Do you recognize me then?” Not-Werner beamed—absolutely terrifying—and pointed to their face. “It’s me: Maria!” Her gaze shifted to the wound on his arm. “Oh, you’re injured! You should be more careful, yes?”

Gilbert tightened his grip on Heimler’s proto-conductor blade. “Uh yeah. Well, Leona cut me. I’ve been infected. Gotta. Deal with it.”

She tilted her head. “Infected?”

Gilbert stared. “Didn’t the peacekeepers tell you? The Manipulator can control living things. If you’ve been cut by someone who’s been cut by the Manipulator, you’re also fucked. Wait, where are they—the peacekeepers? They are here, right?” He paused. “What the hell are you doing here then?”

Maria stared back at him. “Peacekeepers? Are peacekeepers here? Besides the ones shooting, I mean?” She tilted her head, inspecting his injury. “Manipulator… What was that again?”

Huh?

“Well, it sounds like a bad thing, yes? I just came because I heard a lot of noise, and you need help, you see? I am strong, so I will take care of it for you—”

“Wait, wait, wait.” Gilbert shook his head. “What?”

The captain made his way over to Gilbert’s side and grimaced down at the wound. He looked to Maria briefly and asked, “Were you not able to get into contact with the saint candidate?”

Maria tilted her head. “All this talk about Manipulators and saint candidates is so confusing. Maybe if you would explain it to me, I would understand more?”

The captain stared at Maria, shook his head in confusion, and wrapped his hand around the hilt of the blade in Gilbert’s hand. He muttered, “Don’t do anything rash. Maybe if we—”

“It’s me or the arm, Captain.” Gilbert’s heart hammered in his chest as he jerked his hand out of the captain’s and brought the blade closer to his arm. “It might not even work. I might just have to…”

Dammit.

His hand wouldn’t bring the damn conductor down no matter how much he demanded it to.

“You or your arm?” Maria murmured suddenly.

Then there was a flash of yellow-green light, then red, followed by a sweet yet putrid scent. Something flopped to the ground. It took a second for Gilbert to realize that it was his arm. He stared in disbelief and tensed as he watched as glowing dark blue pulsating veins formed at the base of the severed appendage. The blue coagulated to the base of his spasming palm and formed a scorpion tattoo that skittered around there.

Gilbert swallowed.

Maria pressed down further on his head and met his eyes. “You will not die.”

His head spun.

“Werner! Gilbert!” came a cry from above.

It was Nico, peering around the tower above the bridge and staring down at him in horror.

“Nic, get the fuck down!” Gilbert snapped.

A ray hurtled through the air from the opposite bridge towards Nico. Thankfully, someone pulled him down in the nick of time and the ray skimmed the tower wall behind him.

Maria’s expression darkened before she pried the proto-conductor out of Gilbert’s weakening grasp and flung it at the shadowy figure peeking out from the top of the opposite bridge. It hit whoever was perched there head-on and sent them tumbling down to the ground with a splat.

Maria laughed. “Did you see that? Werner’s eyes really are amazing!”

“Fabrizzio, down here now!” the captain shouted, pulling off his jacket and pressing it against Gilbert’s stub of an arm.

Gilbert stared at the stub, but still didn’t feel the pain. Shock, probably.

Suddenly Nico, conducting gloves equipped, was in front of him panting heavily, sweat dripping in dollops from his brow. He reached forward—

“W-Wait.” Gilbert tensed, pulling away. “It might not be safe.”

Nico frowned. “Gil, listen. You lost an arm. Please shut up.”

Fair enough.

Nico’s gloves buzzed with warm light and glided over Gilbert’s stub. With a grimace, Nico said, “The blade’s cauterized it, but—” His eyes widened as he stared past Gilbert’s shoulder. “Wait, what are you—”

Gilbert then realized that Maria was no longer beside him. He peered back around the barricade just in time to see Maria jump into the fray where the Sagittarians were dancing around Leona. Maria slid between the two Sagittarian guards and thrust her proto-conductor forward; and when Leona brought her blade up to block the blow, Maria swung her leg to the woman’s side. When Leona tried to block this with her free hand, Maria pulled her leg back before shooting it out towards Leona’s chest and sending her skidding backwards.

Maria chuckled at this as the Sagittarian looked on in confusion. Instead of pursuing Leona further, however, Maria delivered a kick to Claire’s chest. And not gently either. The prince flew through the air and crashed against their barricade before his guards joined him in alarm.

Maria wagged a finger in his direction as she flipped her proto-conductor in hand. Before Claire could respond, a rain of vitae came down from the bridge opposite, forcing Claire’s guards to drag him back behind the barricade with them.

When Claire righted himself beside Gilbert, he turned and then stared at him, wide-eyed. “You… your arm. I-I’m sorry—”

“Bound to happen someday, kid,” Gilbert muttered, blearily peering around the barricade again.

Infected True Conductor,” Leona stated, picking herself off the ground.

Maria turned back to the peacekeeper and grinned. “Leona—no, Oros, my dear friend! It is good to see you again, yes? I already forgave you for hurting my Conta and my crew, but now you are hurting people who are important to someone important to me.”

“You’re outnumbered,” Leona stated. “Forstchritt is gone, but we’ll still take you in.” She grimaced, eyes narrowed as she looked to the side and muttered, “The Sagittarian prince is allowed to be free under surveillance and shouldn’t be harmed, but this one must be taken in. We need to bring her into Libra.”

‘Forstchritt is gone’? What? Who the hell was Leona talking to?

Maria suddenly giggled—disturbing to hear from Werner—before she tapped her temple. “Ah, is the one you are speaking to the same as the one yelling here, then? It is nice to have another voice inside my head since the others are quiet, but… Telling me I am weak and that my strength is false and that I don’t understand a thing—well, you’re not very wise!”

Leona grimaced again, pinching her nose.

“The only person who knows me and defines me is me,” Maria said, gesturing to herself. “I might not understand everything, but I know I am strong. And right now, that is all I need.”

Why the hell was she monologuing, Gilbert thought incredulously.

Leona’s expression flattened as a dark blue scorpion tattoo crawled up from her neck to her cheek. Without hesitation, she surged forward and swung her blade out at Maria.

Maria took a graceful step back and blocked the blow with just a slight flick of her wrist. She held Leona there with one hand before swiveling around behind Leona and whipping out the proto-conductor towards the woman’s back in the blink of an eye. Leona’s response was just as quick—drawing out another blade conductor from her belt, igniting it, and blocking the blow in an explosion of dark blue and gold.

Maria hopped back, swinging the proto-conductor callously around again. She tilted her head. “I don’t really get it, but you do not move as beautifully anymore, my dear Leona. Are you this ‘infected’ too?”

Leona charged at Maria with both conductors drawn. Maria chuckled before blocking two swings with a single swing of her own and retreating across the long shallow fountain at the center of the courtyard and to the opposite bridge—no, not retreating.

Maria bounded over to the peacekeeper she’d impaled with Heimler’s proto-conductor only minutes before and unsheathed the still activated weapon from the peacekeeper’s stomach. She then swiveled around and kicked the corpse up towards Leona who paid it no mind. The peacekeeper sliced the body in half with her shorter blade while thrusting forward with the other. Maria met the thrust with a thrust of her own; and as the tips of their blades sparked against each other, she whipped her other blade out at Leona’s face. Leona quickly pulled her shorter blade back and blocked the blow, which was when Maria twisted her thrusting blade forward and slipped past Leona’s.

Maria’s blade ghosted Leona’s cheek causing the latter to side-step backwards. Then a line of red sprouted on her cheek, nearly splitting the scorpion tattoo there in half.

Abruptly, the vitae- and gun- fire battering their barricade and the tower above them where the others were stowed away stopped. Instead, it began raining down on Maria. She simply lifted one of her blades and spun it high above her head, deflecting the vitae and metal bulleting down on her. One ray deflected and decapitated one of the metal soldier statues at the center of the fountain; another chipped the corner of the conjured barricade. Still, Maria’s laughter filled the air and the dark spaces where the rising sun didn’t reach.

What the hell, Gilbert thought in hazy alarm, this person is crazy. But—

“She’s drawing fire. We need to cover her,” Gilbert grunted, turning with effort to face Weingartner. “Captain…”

The captain was already conversing—almost arguing—with the Sagittarian prince, although Gilbert couldn’t quite hear them. After another exchange, Claire took Heimler on his staff conductor and they shot up to the sky and towards the opposite bridge. Taking care of Leona’s backup then?

Everything sounded like it was underwater. Not good.

“Fabrizzio, stay here and watch Gilbert,” the captain said to Nico before darting out of cover and up the open staircase of their bridge.

The Sagittarian guards conversed with each other in their native tongue before dashing out of the barricade, slinking their way around the outer edge of the courtyard, and then up the stairs leading to the opposite bridge. To their prince probably.

Damn, Gilbert realized, I’m deadweight now. And that sucked.

In the far distance, he could hear the high-pitched whines of Leona’s and Maria’s conductors beating against each other in rapid succession.

The Ariesian prince brat had said something about the ‘last two’ being—

“Monsters, huh?” Gilbert muttered as his vision swam. He shook his head before darkness could take him fully. Nope. Not now. Not today. When he turned around the barricade and refocused on the fight again, he was met with startling sight.

One of Maria’s wrists was locked in a suppression cuff with Leona holding the other end of the shackles. Gilbert had heard about these cuffs, but this was his first time seeing one.

Maria looked as surprised as Gilbert felt. But she also looked way too damned pleased at the same time. Without skipping a beat, she twisted her cuffed hand like a snake, forcing Leona to release her shorter blade conductor. And as Leona righted herself, Maria sent out her foot, somehow unhooked the strap of Leona’s belt with the tip of her boot, and kicked it to the opposite side of the court.

Leona began slashing madly at Maria with her remaining bladed conductor in turn. Back, back, back, Maria retreated as she fended off each slash.

Leona was edging Maria towards the tower to his left, Gilbert realized. Cornering her. Before he could even give out the warning, Maria was already back-to-back against the tower wall.

Abruptly, however, Maria pushed off against the wall with her hind legs, launched herself at Leona, and grabbed at the woman’s shoulders. Using Leona’s shoulders as an axle, Maria flipped over the woman and landed deftly on her feet behind her.

Somehow, during the flip, Maria had clipped the other end of the cuff to Leona’s wrist.

Gilbert stared. How and why the hell did she do that?

Maria tossed her proto-conductor up and down in her hand playfully, but when she caught it the fourth time, the blade abruptly flickered and dimmed into nothing. She blinked in surprise before shaking it.

The vitae had run out, Gilbert realized, tensing. Was she not a Projector? Did she even know how to use a conductor? Either way, Gilbert knew she needed another one. And fast.

“Aw, is it out already—” Maria was cut off as Leona tugged her forward by the cuff.

Gilbert made for the proto-conductor blade lying at his feet despite Nico’s protest. Panting heavily, he concentrated with all his might and filled the thing with his vitae. When the glass tubes lit up with gray light, he flicked it to ignite it.

“Hey!” Gilbert shouted over his shoulder before hurling the ignited proto-conductor in Maria’s direction.

Maria beamed at him. She ran for it, plucked it from the air, and brought it up behind her back just in time to block the downswing of Leona’s blade aimed for the nape of her neck. Pushing Leona away with a back kick, she spun around and whipped the blade around wildly. Leona brought up her blade to block it, but Maria pressed down harder and harder. Just as it looked like Maria was about to gain ground, however, her proto-conductor flickered off. She stumbled forward as the weight gave way. Fortunately, the proto-conductor flickered back on just in time for her to pull it back up to block another one of Leona’s swings.

She needed another one, Gilbert knew. He hadn’t filled that proto-conductor with enough vitae—

The light from his proto-conductor finally gave way fully as Maria was driven flat back against the tower again. Nico grabbed for the rifle he’d brought down with him and aimed it in the duo’s direction. He fired only to have Leona slice the bullet cleanly in two. Maria took the opportune moment of distraction to duck underneath Leona and drag them back into the open courtyard.

Continuing to dodge Leona’s swings, Maria retreated to the central fountain. Their feet sloshed through the fountain, splashing the water onto the open square and sending droplets into the air.

The central statue of the soldiers was now straddled between the two of them.

Maria gave the connected handcuffs a harsh tug, causing Leona, who was already charging forward with a swing, to be pulled even further forward. Her head cracked against the statue with a loud clang! before she staggered to the ground.

Panting heavily and dripping with water, Maria lifted her empty-proto conductor and studied it in thought. “Wait a moment… I think Werner does it something like this—”

Leona popped up to her feet and began swinging her blade again.

A burst of indigo suddenly puttered out from Maria’s proto-conductor as she dodged an uppercutting sweep of Leona’s blade. It sputtered again as she ducked below a horizontal swipe. This time the vitae came out a copper hue. Crimson sparks came next as she looped around the statue again.

Then, as the water droplets pitter-pattered down back into the fountain and burst into steam at the touch of Leona’s blade, Maria’s blade ignited once more. This time with gold. The very same gold spilling out from Leona’s blade. Even from his position, Gilbert could feel the heat.

Leona’s pristine face—in that exact moment as the gold flushed her cheeks—twisted into something ugly. Her lips curled, her eyebrows furrowed, her eyes widened:

You!”

She surged forward with electric intensity, and the vitae in her conductor flared out wildly as it skirted Maria’s nose.

“Do you see this?” Maria laughed as she leaned back and brought up her blade to meet Leona’s own in a raining spark of gold. “I am seeing why you all like using these so much now—”

Clang!

Golden blue sparks erupted.

A body from the opposite bridge hit the floor as someone from their bridge sniped it out.

“You!”

Clang!

More sparks. Three bodies tumbled down. This time Gilbert could see Heimler, rifle conductor billowing with smoke, slinking out from behind the towers on the opposite bridge.

“You!”

Clang!

Four bodies.

“You!”

Over and over again Leona beat her conductor down on Maria who blocked the blows, skirted back, and tugged Leona along with her—towards the stairs and up the opposite bridge.

They disappeared from Gilbert’s sights as they went all the way up the bridge and dipped behind the tower there. Bursts of gold lit up the back-tower walls, and their twin shadows stretched across them. Gauging by the abrupt bursts of aquamarine light also bleaching the back-tower wheels, Gilbert figured Heimler was trying his best at support.

Abruptly, the light-show dimmed to nothing, and there was absolute silence.

Gilbert tensed, eyes and ears straining.

Then, in a burst of gold, Leona and Maria appeared behind the floral banisters. Both of their proto-conductors were sparking up against each other; and they were inching their way towards the edge of the building. Abruptly, Maria swept her blade free of Leona’s and delivered the woman a signature kick to the gut. Leona flew off the edge of the building—dragging Maria down with her via their bound shackles.

Gilbert’s heart dropped with them.

“Werner!” Nico shouted in alarm.

The two plummeted into the fountain below, which erupted with a geyser of water. As the water droplets pattered down and the mist cleared, Gilbert registered Leona lying motionless in the pool with both of her hands cuffed behind her. Maria stood on top of her with a firm boot placed against her back.

Well, shit.

Panting heavily, Maria wiped a hand across her brow as she chuckled. Seeming to feel his stare, she straightened and turned to him. Then she smiled.

* * *

When Gilbert cracked an eye open, it took him a moment to get his bearings because the world was spinning. He figured he must have passed out as soon as they arrived at this small greenhouse nestled in the eastern corner of the city.

The entire journey from the courtyard to this conservatory had been a blitzing blur. Frankly, Gilbert felt sorry for whatever poor soul would be making rounds in the morning since whoever it was would discover the massacre of peacekeepers, military police officers, and civilians that they’d left scattered behind them in the courtyard.

Dammit. This sucked.

Regret and guilt with these things always came delayed. And as much as Gilbert hated thinking, he couldn’t help thinking now about the fellow Capricornians he’d just killed. While he was never for the whole ‘glory, honor, victory’ spiel, he still took some pride in the ‘defending fellow citizens against danger’ concept.

Shit, he thought. If they weren’t considered treasonous before, they sure as hell were now. That damned saint candidate.

Grimacing, he wiped sweat from his brow.

It was irritatingly humid here, even in the shadow of the ferny canopy they were taking cover under. The damn sun blazing through the clear windows was not helping, nor was the conductor generator humming somewhere in the building. It was so damned hot that Gilbert was tempted to dunk his head into the man-made stream trickling just over the floral hedges to his right.

Kleine had suggested this place. He’d said he’d often heard Otto speak about it: a conservatory that only local biologists from the city’s military academy visited. In other words, this place would be away from the eyes of military police officers and extras. Infected and manipulated people, on the other hand…

Gilbert doubted they could remain here long.

At the moment, Gilbert was lying flat out on the floor. Heimler and Nico were on either side of him—one man, the doctor, and the other, the donor. Gilbert never liked watching transfusions despite stomping in piss, blood, and everything in-between when he was down south, so he stared across at the corner opposite instead.

Lying in a pile there were Leona, Stein, and Fischer. Despite the suppression cuffs slapped over her wrists, Leona was eerily staring blankly at them all and breathing shallowly. Stein—the stupid poor bastard—was keeled over with another pair of suppression cuffs they’d taken off from Leona’s belt slapped over his wrists too. Fischer was in regular cuffs and chained to a water pipe jutting out from the ground. His face was littered with bruises.

Gilbert would’ve laughed at the sight if it weren’t dampened by the fact that they’d somehow lost Forstchritt along the way. He would’ve much rather kept the crazy engineer than the bootlicking fanboy.

Brandt and Kleine were stationed in front of the semi-unconscious group. Standing beneath an overgrowth of vines crawling up along the bench across from the two were the captain, the Sagittarian prince, and the prince’s guards. It looked like they were discussing something serious.

Frowning, Gilbert lifted his head and did a second scan of the area. “Where’s—”

“She ran off,” Nico murmured, brows creasing. “As soon as we got here. Kleine and I tried going after her but…”

Shit. Dammit.

Gilbert struggled up to a sit but fell backwards as he tried using his hand that was no longer there. He grimaced and tried again, but Nico pushed him back down.

“Gil, you need to rest.”

Dammit.

The captain peeled away from the Sagittarians and approached him before kneeling down. “Gilbert, how are you feeling?”

“Can’t say I’ve been worse, Captain,” Gilbert replied. “Forgot to ask—I can still call you captain, right? ‘Major’ doesn’t really fit.”

The captain smiled lightly, tightly. “They’ll be searching for us. I can’t say for sure since living manipulation has rarely been studied, but even with the suppression cuffs on Leona and Derik, the Manipulator probably has some awareness over where they are—similar to any ordinary Manipulator’s mediums. Meaning we shouldn’t bring them with us to meet my associate. I was discussing it with the Sagittarian prince, but it’s probably best to leave them with those three peacekeepers.”

Brandt stared holes into Leona at this.

Kleine walked over to Brandt and murmured, “Saint candidates are similar to ELPIS members, right? So… do you know Leona? Like… know her?”

“Not like she is now.” Brandt frowned. “I know Scorpio was manipulating Leona, but I can’t believe the lieutenant—whoever that was—was even able to take her down… Leo—I remember… No, I know—was—isthe best.”

The captain regarded Brandt for a moment before turning back to Gilbert. “Fortunately, we don’t have to worry about you, Gilbert. Good man. You’re okay. You’ll come up with us.”

Nico frowned, eyes narrowed.

“Thanks, Captain.” Gilbert grimaced again. “But I’m not too sure if that’s a good idea. We need someone to watch over Stein and Leona, right? We don’t know if I’m really off the hook yet.”

“Gilbert,” the captain interjected, not looking at his stub, “the Sagittarians will handle communications and transportation to the peacekeepers for us.”

Gilbert remained silent. What exactly was the trade-off for that?

“Okay, Gilbert? You’re still with me.” Saying nothing else, the captain gave him one last squeeze on his good shoulder before returning to converse with the Sagittarians.

Dammit. The debts kept piling up. And…

Gilbert turned and looked at the empty space where his arm and hand should’ve been. He could still feel it there.

Ah, shit. His mother would be so damned pissed. She’d probably beat him senseless when she found out. Damn—and what would Greta think? Would she even consider taking a man who could only hold one of her hands at the altar? And Werner—shit, Werner would just shake his head and say, ‘you didn’t think before you acted and this is the result’ or maybe he wouldn’t say anything. That would be even worse.

Dammit!

Burying his face in the crook of his good arm, Gilbert grimaced and then choked on a sob.

* * *

Gilbert figured he must have passed out again because when he cracked open his eyes everyone was standing and either had a rifle in hand or a conductor.

A woman stood at the lip of the shrubs leading to their tiny hideaway. Her fiery red curls caught the sunlight filtering in through the windows above them. A dark red bomber jacket was draped over her sparkling dark blue dress. In other words, she looked like she’d just come from a dinner party.

But something about her was off. There was a butter knife in her left hand and a gun in her right. And despite none of those items being conductors, they were lined with a dark pink vitae.


Threshold

Werner knew he needed to get a hold of himself. The thoughts and feelings of hundreds of Capricornians still felt like they were crushing his skull and chest. But he needed to focus on what had just been revealed. The question now was how pertinent was this new information? What did it change?

In the long term, this development changed very little. However, despite this fact, for some reason, there was a heaviness in his chest.

Aside from this, there was the fact that his efforts here were meaningless. He was insufficient, powerless, controlless here. It needed rectifying, but he didn’t have the ability to rectify it.

Werner wanted clarity. He needed it. He wanted someone to tell him what to—

“Oh, I see now.” His mother sighed, her body still cracked by that worrisome pinkish blue light. “You’re truly a pitiable man. You’re almost like that Atienna, aren’t you? But instead of not wanting to choose, you’d rather have someone choose for you in the grand scheme of things? It’s so much easier to conform because appearances are everything. You always choose the path of least resistance.”

Her words pounded into his skull.

“It’s okay,” his mother whispered gently. “Staying true to who you are is what being alive is all about. People can’t really change, so trying to do it is just poorly spent time.”

That was logical. Time was a resource not to be wasted and could be better spent on routes that provided a more salient, quantifiable outcome. As long as one kept the standard, then anything was acceptable.

“Right. Now, I’ll always be here watching,” she whispered as she reached for his chest. “Even though you can’t see me.”

Her hand passed through the area as his shoulder pulsated with a familiar pain. She reached forward with her other hand and then burrowed back from where she had originally emerged from: inside of him.

It was painful, but he didn’t show it. Not even when she was gone.

His actions were irresponsible and unacceptable—Werner had time to realize now. 

Shion and Lavi began whispering to each other in the quiet that his mother left behind, but he had a hard time focusing on their words. Their words were not pertinent. 

Werner was aware he should’ve reported his status and condition from the very beginning. His loyalty was to Capricorn because he was a Capricornian lieutenant. 

Scorpio was working with the chancellery cabinet and the Kaiser. The Kaiser was absolute and becoming a Capricornian soldier meant swearing loyalty to the Kaiser. Therefore, logically, because he was a Capricornian lieutenant, adhering to Scorpio’s guidelines was expected…?

“Werner…” Shion neared the river of light that divided them. “Werner, come here.”

Werner considered the woman. Shion was a peacekeeper. Peacekeepers had international authority. In international situations, it wouldn’t be incorrect to say that they had a ranking equivalent to a major general. So he would have to listen to that authority. Yes, that was logical.

Shion’s frown dipped lower.

Werner tensed.

Was that an incorrect assumption? All assumptions had a degree of fallibility, which was why he didn’t like relying on them. But—

“Werner.”

Werner paused, picked himself up, and made his way over to her before standing at attention. He studied her, searching her face, wondering what she thought of him since she had another perception of him from the past.

Here was the incongruency again. The different perceptions—the different appearances and expectations he’d tailored to. There could only be one chosen, but the question was which one was the most acceptable choice and applicable in the long term.

The path of least resistance. 

No. Incorrect. Wait. Changing oneself was poorly spent time—

Shion’s brows furrowed before she raised her hand.

He braced himself for a slap and readied himself not to flinch. Instead, however, she placed that hand to his cheek.

“It’s not a waste of time,” she said. “I can’t tell you. It won’t mean anything if I do. But I can show you.”

17.?: 「 」, – – – – ??????

Re-cap:

? ? ?

(A memory that changes everything and nothing.)


Shion Myosotis always had a troublesome relationship with her name. (Still did.) Well, correction: she hatedher name. Because while her given name was in the language of the Hoshi Clan, her surname was so Ophiuchian. Everyone stared whenever her name was read off for attendance in school.

“Will she be on our side?” her classmates would ask. “I mean all Conductors have to fight when they’re old enough, right?”

“No way,” they’d whisper to each other. “Ophiuchus is neutral. She won’t do anything ”

It didn’t help that Shion was an air Elementalist and that her marks were always at the bottom of the class despite that. She was told constantly that she was ‘talented, but too simple.’

For instance, when her teacher went over an essay she’d written about her future career goals, her teacher’d said, “This can’t really be what you want to do. Life isn’t this simple. No one will believe this or take you seriously.”

Shion had written that she wanted any career where she could make people happy.

With a shaking head, her teacher had sighed. “Hopeless.”

“Being simple isn’t a bad thing,” her mother had reassured her when home on leave. “In fact, choosing to live life simply is the smartest way to live it.”

“And be proud of your name,” her father would say whenever he was on leave too. “It’s proof of our history. You shouldn’t care what they think! They’re just young. They don’t know any better.”

Still, wanting to avoid all that gossiping and whispering and shame, Shion frequently skipped class—which probably didn’t help her marks—and often made her way to the bamboo forest that grew thick and tall in-between her house and school. There, as the morning fog rolled in from the north, she would fly up using her staff conductor to the hammock she’d tied between two thick bamboo trunks. She’d swing back and forth as a blackbird she’d courted with food would flutter on down to her hand.

“Just you and me, Kuro,” she’d say.

The bird would look at her in turn, chirp almost moodily, and peck for food.

One day, Shion flew up to the hammock to find it already occupied by a young girl around her age. The girl had short black hair, long black lashes, round cheeks, and was dressed in the multi-layered clothing of the Seong clan. Kuro was resting on the girl’s lap and nibbling on breadcrumbs.

“Excuse me,” Shion said in Common as she hovered in front of the girl, “that’s my hammock. Er—”

Without looking at her, the girl replied, “No, it’s mine.”

“No, it’s mine… made it.” She pointed to Kuro. “And that’s my bird Kuro! Leave her alone!”

“No, his name is Geomjeong,” the girl replied.

Shion merely held out her hand. Without skipping a beat, Kuro fluttered out of the girl’s lap and onto her extended finger.

“Geomjeong!” The girl gasped. “You traitor!”

They stared at each other for some time before the girl asked, “Do you want to sit with me?”

“On my hammock?”

“On… our hammock.”

After a moment of thought, Shion settled beside the girl.

“I’m Jin. Ilseong Jin.”

“Shion.”

“Shion…? What’s your family name?”

“Myosotis.”

“Wait… Is that a new clan or something?”

“No, I’m from the Hoshi clan. My father’s one-third Ophiuchian.”

“Oh, I know all about them.”

Shion tensed.

“The Hoshi Clan, I mean. We’re rivals then.” Jin rolled her eyes. “Your princess always sucks up to the emperor, and he always gives her candy when she comes. Like he likes her or something.”

Shion made a face. “Yeah, she’s a suck-up and always shows off….”

“You don’t like her?”

Shion winced, looked around.

“No clan leaders are gonna hear you up here.”

“She’s… She’s mean,” Shion admitted. “She says I’m not really part of the clan because I’m part-Ophiuchian… And she always gossips about my parents when they’re out serving.”

“Well, my clan sucks too.” Jin blew hair out from her face. “My sister’s trying to make the new emperor like her. So they can be together. My parents always ask me why I can’t be more ‘elegant’ and ‘pretty’ like her so the emperor will like me too. She’s only a couple of years older than me by the way.”

“Ew…”

“Ew.” Jin nodded, looking around at the sunlight filtering between the bamboo trees. “This is a nice place. My parents aren’t air Elementalists, so they can’t find me up here. They were yelling my head off at my marks in class earlier. Like, I can’t help that I’m stupid and not-elegant. Not like you need brains or elegance when you’re out there, right?”

“Well… I’m stupid too… if that helps.”

Jin blinked at her before sighing. “They should just give money to people who score the lowest on tests. I’d be set after the war ends then…. if this war ends.”

“Wouldn’t that make people want to score badly?”

“No, the smartest one would find out how to score the lowest. It’s genius.” Jin dipped her head before squinting at Shion. “Hm… I like you. Let’s be friends, okay?”

“…Oh. Sure.”

They would meet like that every couple of days over the next several years. Sometimes they would swing and complain about their clans or their classes. Other times they would teach each other things that their clans specialized in. For instance, Shion had taught Jin to fold origami paper, while Jin had taught her complicated braid-work. (Those simple days were the best.)

Two nights before they were to be sent out onto the battlefield, Jin came to their hiding spot with a hop in her step. The air was cold and thin, and not a star was in sight. Instead, the dark skyline was lit up by paper lanterns lit with flicks of vitae. They painted the night with a rainbow bridge of light.

It was for a remembrance event for all of those who’d laid down their lives for Sagittarius so far in the war. One lantern, one life. Eventually, as dawn broke, all of the lanterns would be collected, and the vitae would be returned to the reservoirs.

“What a stupid tradition,” Jin would say every single year.

Shion personally found it quite pretty.

As they watched the lanterns rise up to the sky, Jin said, “It looks like the Seong Clan is about to shoot up through the hierarchy.”

“And… why’s that?” Shion asked without looking away from the lanterns.

“Because I’ve been chosen to become the Saint Candidate of Sagittarius. The ceremony isn’t until a couple of months though. The current Saint Candidate of Sagittarius needs to give up the title first.”

“Wow… That’s Pema, right? From the Tārā clan?”

“Yeah, but she’s with the Bodhi Temple. As a monk. I think…”

“Oh, wow… that’s amazing,” Shion murmured. “I guess you’re too cool for me now.”

“Yeah. I am pretty cool.” Jin chuckled. “See, I don’t need to flirt with the emperor to make it big. You don’t need marks or smarts to make it!”

“Just remember me when you’re out shaking hands with the emperor and the clan leaders,” Shion hummed.

“Aw, I’d never forget you.” Jin leaned in closer. “By the way… I’ve always wondered—do you have any relatives in Ophiuchus?”

Shion shrugged. “No, my dad’s been practically excised from the country.”

“Hm… It’s kinda crazy to think about how that country’s been neutral for so long.”

“Maybe they’re the ones who’re smart,” Shion wondered.

“Aw, are you nervous, Shion?” Jin leaned forward and blocked her view of the lanterns. “Will you miss me since we’ll be on different fronts?”

Shion’s cheeks burned red in the cold but she shot back, “More nervous for you than for me.”

“Well, I’ll visit sometime. Perks of being a saint candidate… And there’s no need to be nervous. We’re lucky we were born as air Elementalists, y’know?” Jin said, grinning from ear to ear. “When we take to the skies, we’re untouchable.”

But that had been naivety.

There was no such thing as something being untouchable. Especially for an air Elementalist when there were other air Elementalists in the sky.

The Reservoir War was both blurred and etched into Shion’s memory. A paradox. She remembered blitzing through the sky on her conductor and dropping conducting grenades on small villages that dotted the mountains of Taurus and the southern towns of Aries and Gemini. They were just dots in the distance, but the screams afterwards somehow carried with the wind. What she couldn’t remember, however, were the faces of her juniors in the unit and the faces of her comrades who were shot like birds out of the sky. She’d even forgotten Jin’s face until one day Jin dropped down from the clouds.

At the time, Shion’s Sagittarian-Scorpioan joint unit was taking refuge in a small Geminian town at the edge of the border that they’d taken over. Most of her unit were in the bars of the town dancing to saxophone-laden Ariesian-Geminian music. Shion was in a bar herself for a while. It was a tiny one run by a family at the top of a winding hill lined with small cottages. But the noise and brightness were too much for her, so she had peeled out and flew herself to the roof to enjoy the night air.

She’d stayed up there for hours as the music, dancing, and cheering bled up from the roof below her. Only when she couldn’t feel her fingers because of the cold did she pick herself up—only to be jerked back by her braid. Reflexively, she whipped around and threw a kick. But whoever was pulling on her braid caught her foot with their other hand.

“What’s up?”

After squinting into the dark, Shion registered a woman wearing a pair of sunglasses and with her dark hair tied into twin braids. The woman was clad in the navy-blue uniform of a general—golden clasps, medals, and all. It was an odd sight, but—

“Jin…?”

“That’s General Saint of Arrow and Direction for you, Shi-shi,”

“‘Shi-shi’?”

“Short for Shion. Lele short for Leo. Jiji short for Sagittarius—or Jin this time around.”

“Er… You realize that ‘shi’ means death in my clan’s language, right—”

Jin pulled Shion into an abrupt, long, and tight hug which she returned tentatively then tightly.

“What are you doing here, Jin? I thought you were in Taurus?” Shion looked Jin up and down in awe. “Congratulations on the saint candidacy. That’s amazing…”

“Not as amazing as you’d think.” Jin shrugged. “But yeah, not much happening there except constantly raiding Okör. Taurusians are stubborn as hell. Anyway, I told you I’d visit.”

“How’d you even find me…?”

Jin winked before pulling her so close that their chests touched. Then, Jin waltzed her around the top of the roof. It was a bit of an odd dance—nothing like the hopping swinging she was used to seeing in the bars. It was kind of old-fashioned. Still, it was fun. Around they went, not quite dancing to the tune below, challenging each other to take the lead. They increased their spinning until—

—Jin lost her footing and slipped right off the roof.

Shion yelped in alarm before flying down to find Jin laying in a small pool of red. Before she could scream, Jin popped up, put a finger to her lips, and turned in a circle to reveal that she had not a scratch on her.

“How—”

“Chill out, Shi-shi, chill out,” Jin reassured her. “I’m built stronger now.” Then she laid flat out on the ground and stared up at the stars. “This war is going to end soon.”

Hesitantly, Shion joined her. “Really…? They’re saying this war will never end.”

“Nah. Everything ends. Then it repeats because everyone wants to do their own thing. No one wants to change. Not really.” Jin shrugged. “Anyway, the reservoirs are looking good so it’s time to call it quits.”

“What does that mean—”

“After this war ends, there’s going to be an organization put in place to handle the fallout. You should join. Probably’ll be the safest place to be since we’re reaching the final stage.”

“Are you sure you don’t need to see a medical Conductor?” Shion stared. “Maybe you hit your head…”

“Hey—rude.” Jin laughed wildly before turning her head and studying Shion’s face. “But really. If you’re ever in need of a place or direction to go, you can always rely on me.”

✿ ✿ ✿

The never-ending war ended as Jin had predicted.

But Shion felt nothing. Nothing as she watched town after city after town cheer and play trumpets and horns through the streets. She wondered then if she was too stupid to understand their happiness. ‘Giving others happiness’ was what she had written in her career goals, after all; and she had technically done that. But still—nothing.

She returned to her empty house in her village that had been decimated by nightly air raids. Its walls were stripped down to the bare wooden bones and scorch marks were burned into what had once been the floor to her room. Her parents had passed much earlier in the war—one to an enemy air raid and another while in service—so there was no one to upkeep the house. Shion herself had never been in Sagittarius long enough to get a house of her own. That paired with the Hoshi Clan’s person-records being damaged made it so that this rickety house was now the only proof of her existence.

Without stepping back inside, Shion blasted the house away with her conductor.

When the letter from ‘Ilseong Jin, First Chairwoman of the ELPIS Investigations Department’ came requesting Shion to be a part of a new peacekeeping organization meant to help Signum recuperate after the war, she accepted without question. She had been wandering around for a purpose for quite some time—and what better purpose would there be but to continue bringing happiness and peace to people’s lives? She was aware of her simplemindedness but thinking any other way would be too painful.

The first peacekeeper orientation was attended by dull-eyed veterans and was full of post-war tension. Back then, the Serpens Establishment hadn’t yet been named so and was still being cleaned of the bloodstains caked into the floor from the final battle.

There were only three divisions in place then: ELPIS, International Relations, and Conductor Regulations. (The criteria to join Ophiuchus was much lower back then too, and Shion was certain she wouldn’t be able to join if she had the chance to try now.) Since peacekeepers were allowed to choose departments back then, Shion selected the ELPIS Division in order to be closer to Jin—though they rarely ever saw each other.

Subsequent orientations led to more hopeful dreamers joining the ranks. They spoke about changing Signum for the better, about promoting peace and better relations, about revolutionizing all sorts of systems—the conductor system, the healthcare system, the currency system.

Their enthusiasm and brightness awed Shion.

During one of the orientations Shion herself hosted, she had an interesting conversation with a particularly ambitious woman named Gabrielle Law who insisted with a sly smile that she’d become the head chairwoman of Ophiuchus one day. Gabrielle’s companions Wtorek Izsak and Moraeni seemed to wholeheartedly believe in her sentiment. Shion felt quite inferior in the shadow of their passion and dedication. Despite being their seniors, she felt more like their junior.

Shion encountered another peculiar young peacekeeper cut from the same cloth while passing through the newly-installed cafeteria one day. As she walked through the room, she noticed that the floor around one of the tables was littered with deformed origami animals. She approached said table and found a trenchcoatede young man sitting there surrounded by stacks of origami paper. He seemed to be having a hard time; and since her evening was empty, she offered to teach him how to fold them.

“Oh, wonderful. You’re too kind!” He sighed. “I’m a rookie here, you see? I’ve got to stand out, so I wanted to pick something flashy as my medium. I have to send a message to the Organization! I am not a force to be reckoned with! Oh—I’m Talib Al-Jarrah by the way.”

Shion had no idea what he was talking about but she chuckled anyways. “Shion.”

Talib continued to rattle on about all sorts of conspiracies. Something about bubble blowers, another thing about radio waves, and something else about saint candidates which was when a voice cut through their conversation—

“What’s this about saint candidates now?”

A rather beautiful woman with sharp features, dark skin, and jet-black curls was standing beside their table. Something was unnerving and unnatural about the woman’s beauty. It almost felt ominous.

Talib straightened. “I—uh—” He whispered to Shion, “That’s the Saint Candidate of Scorpio. Manipulator. Be cool.”

“My name is Nareen,” the woman said, plucking an origami paper up from the table and folding it into a lotus flower. She signaled for Talib to hold out his hand before placing the lotus in his palm. “And I won’t be the saint candidate much longer. It’s time to hand the title to someone else soon.” Her eyes wrinkled in amusement. “Anyway, I’m new here too and I’ll be joining you in the ELPIS Department, Shion.”

“We’ll be working together then,” Shion said warmly before pausing. “How did you know that I—”

Nareen giggled before excusing herself and departing.

Not soon after, another woman joined them at their table at Talib’s beckon—“Oh, Alice, come meet Shion!”

A young woman with long blonde hair, red square glasses, and cool blue eyes sat down beside Talib. As soon as their gazes met, Shion’s heart skipped a beat. She felt like the woman could hear her thoughts.

“This is Shion,” Talib sang. “She’s with the ELPIS Department—can you believe that? We’re practically in the presence of a celebrity!” He then gestured to Alice. “This is my good acquaintance: Alice Kingsley.”

“It’s a pleasure, Shion,” Alice greeted her cordially. “I’m with the new Psychological Evaluations Department.” After a pause, she studied Shion’s face. “Have you been down to visit us yet? I haven’t seen you around.”

Instead of answering, Shion politely excused herself.

After all, letters from the Psychological Evaluations Department would pile up in front of her apartment all the time. Shion wondered if they would disbar her from the ELPIS Department if she kept ignoring them.

But what would she even tell them? That she would ride herself up high above the Serpens Establishment every weekend? That she would stay up there for hours —for so long that the local blackbirds would flock to and perch on her—daring herself to just take one step off? No, no, she didn’t want to trouble them with that. Besides, she could never take that last step—probably because of Jin, the only person who would know if she was gone.

One day, a month later, however, she tried something other than a leap from the sky. She tied a piece of rough rope to the fan in her apartment, stood up on a chair, and slipped her head through the noose. Taking one last swig of her bottle of booze, she kicked herself off the chair.

A couple of hours later, Shion awoke to find that the rope had snapped under her weight.

That was when the voices started.

✿ ✿ ✿

The first one Shion encountered was a young boy with sun-kissed skin and a smile that went from ear-to-ear. They ‘crossed paths’ when she’d been on assignment tracking down remnants of a particularly violent ELPIS sect in a Scorpioan city. The boy appeared before her as she finished rendering an ELPIS member unconscious via air vacuum in a sun-bleached alleyway.

“You’re hurting him!” the boy cried.

At the time, she thought that he’d been sucked into the vacuum too, so she lunged for him in a panic, only to pass right through him. When she picked herself off the ground after, she turned to find him crouched in front of the unconscious ELPIS member.

“He’s okay…?” he mumbled.

Shion stared. “He’ll live…”

Brightening at this, he labeled her a ‘vitae spectral light phenomenon,’ before rattling off about the strangest things—conductor parts, conductor generators, and the like.

Shion could only stare and wonder, ‘how did this five-year-old know such big words?’ and ‘is this boy even real?’

“Olivier Chance,” the boy eventually introduced himself, chest puffed out gallantly. “Ariesian prince.”

Ariesian prince? She had almost been put on an operation to assassinate him back during the war.

“Ha-ha,” was all Shion said, since she was certain she was losing her mind.

⚘ ⚘

The second one Shion encountered was a young, freckled girl with wild copper hair that went down to her elbows. Shion encountered her when wandering that same Scorpion city not too long after the encounter with the supposed prince.

The cheeky ginger girl dipped her fingers into Shion’s pants before darting down an alleyway. Shion ran after her but eventually realized her wallet was still in her pocket. Still, she continued giving chase. Once she caught the girl and pulled her to the side, the girl immediately burst out into tears.

“I-I’m just so hungry,” the girl sobbed. “I don’t know what else to do.”

And Shion felt the girl’s hunger as if it were her own and sympathy stirred in her chest. She placed a hand on the girl’s head and asked, “What’s your name?”

“Cadence…” the girl mumbled. “Cadence Morello.”

“Okay, Cadence. Well, stealing isn’t good, okay? How about I buy you something instead—”

Hah. Hook, line, sinker. Stupid broad. 

Shion recoiled, then glared. “What did you just call me?”

Cadence stiffened. Damn. Did I say that out loud?

Shion both nodded and shook her head at once.

In response, Cadence darted away. But Shion didn’t bother chasing her again.

⚘ ⚘ ⚘

The third one was an adolescent with platinum blonde hair and ice-blue eyes. At this point, Shion was getting the hang of it. And so, despite their first encounter consisting of him aiming a rifle conductor right at her, she flinched—mind racing to the time when she’d encountered the same in the war from a Capricornian infiltrator—but didn’t retaliate. Instead, she turned her head and noticed the target range behind her.

“This area is restricted to students at the academy,” he informed her coolly after lowering the weapon. Not even a hint of surprise. “If you don’t have permission to be here, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

“I… don’t think I’m actually ‘here’,” Shion responded cautiously. “Do you know what I mean?”

His eyes widened before he scanned the area stiffly. Then, without another word, he unloaded his rifle, cleaned it, and turned on his heels.

“Er, wait—”

Calm down. That isn’t real. Don’t address it

That should be what I’m thinking, she thought.

The adolescent stiffened and turned to stare at her before resuming his brisk retreat.

Somehow, despite no introduction being made, Shion knew his name was Werner Waltz.

⚘ ⚘ ⚘ ⚘

The fourth one Shion at first doubted was even human. She was investigating the docks in Gemini in search of signs of illegally modified conductor manufacturing when she stumbled across the girl hanging upside down from a metal crane. The girl’s eyes were emerald green, and her beaming smile lit up the night:

“Are you a spirit or a fairy?”

Shion screamed, falling backwards.

The girl continued: “Like a Capricornian fairy, yes? Like Werner!”

“…what?”

“Hm…” The girl tilted her head, studying Shion. “No… You seem like a spirit to me.”

Okay, and what would that make you?”

The girl beamed. “Just Maria—an adventurer!”

⚘ ⚘ ⚘ ⚘ ⚘

The fifth one was a curious adolescent whom Shion stumbled upon while looking over files in her cubicle in the ELPIS Department. A glimpse of green danced out of the corner of her eyes; and upon turning, Shion found a young girl curled up on the floor with a book on her lap. If anything, Shion figured she looked like a fairy.

“And who would you be?” the girl started first, before chuckling. “And I assure you, I’m not a fairy.”

“Shion. Myosotis.”

“Shion Myosotis… And that would be Shion for ‘I won’t forget you’ in the Hoshi Clan’s flower language. And ‘Myosotis’ is the Ophiuchian word for the forget-me-not flowers—or scorpion grass—right?”

Shion, no longer too alarmed by these appearances, smiled. “Oh, wow. You know everything, don’t you?

“I’m trying to,” was the girl’s response paired with a faint, cheeky grin. “Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Myosotis. My name is Atienna Imamu. Ah—have you met Jericho yet?”

⚘ ⚘ ⚘ ⚘ ⚘ ⚘

The final one was barely out of pre-adolescence. And instead of stumbling upon him like she did the others, Shion actively searched for him. She ‘found’ him in a small white room with nothing in it besides a mattress and a cushioned desk. His arm was slung in a cast, and he sat at the center of the room staring at nothing.

When she first registered him, she froze and flushed because she physically herself had just stepped out of her bath and only had a towel on. She hadn’t thought that reaching out to him would actually work. And so it took a moment, due to her flustered embarrassment, to realize that he was in one of the containment rooms the ELPIS Department used.

“Peacekeeper.” The boy glowered, launching himself at her as soon as he registered her—and passing right through her. He crashed with a crack against the wall behind her but immediately picked himself up and threw himself at her again, passed through her, and hit the floor.

Pain jolted through Shion’s body at the impact, but the boy himself didn’t feel it—somehow Shion could tell. So without skipping a beat, the boy scrambled to his feet and prepared to throw himself at her again. She tried to reassure him that she wasn’t a bad guy, but he’d simply said—

“There are no good peacekeepers.”

Harsh.

Shion tried to switch gears: “Er. Do you know Atienna?”

Jericho hesitated. “Yes. Atienna. She likes flowers.”

“Well, Atienna and I are friends, okay?”

Jericho stared.

“And because Atienna and I are friends, we should be friends too, okay?”

Surprisingly, Jericho nodded. “Okay. Since it’s customary.”

And upon checking through the ELPIS Department’s arrest records later that week, Shion found a document recording a recent engagement with an ELPIS sect that indoctrinated young children from villages they raided. According to the report, an adolescent with bleached vitae was found alone in an empty conductor generator facility. He didn’t resist arrest and had only recently showed aggression. The peacekeepers on the assignment didn’t quite know what to do with him, so they’d been keeping him here.

How sad…

⚘ ⚘ ⚘ ❀ ⚘ ⚘ ⚘

They finally all converged together on a sunny summer day at Olive’s sudden beckoning. He pulled them into his square backyard garden that was filled to the brim with exotic plants and that was even graced with a fountain. The cicadas were crying that day, and butterflies were bathing in the sunlight on the flowers.

Upon ‘arrival,’ Werner tried to make an immediate exit while muttering that he “hadn’t been getting the appropriate amount of sleep.” Before he could make a full escape, however, Olive bounded over to him and wrapped in a vice-like hug.

“Wait, no!” Olive cried. “Mr. Tall-tree-man, please don’t go!”

Werner stared down at Olive incredulously and incredibly remained still. Maria bounced around the garden in the meantime, while Atienna inspected the floral displays. Cadence hid behind the fountain, while Jericho watched on blankly.

Not good.

“Hey, let’s all calm down now,” Shion said, mustering all the gusto she had and putting on a false show of confidence. An act. Pretend. “Look. Something’s happening to us, so we need to work together to figure out what. Okay?”

It took a while, but with Atienna’s and Werner’s help, Shion got everyone and everything in order. They all introduced themselves formally with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

“Synchronization,” Shion said at the end, “like a clock. We’re all aligned for some reason. So… er… Let’s work this out, okay?” For leverage, she tapped against her Ophiuchian sash. “You can trust me.”

Embarrassingly, Werner was the only one who took her authority seriously. Atienna merely smiled on with an amusement that seemed beyond her years, while Maria laughed merrily without any clue about what a peacekeeper was. Cadence began looking nervously for an exit, while Jericho glowered. Olive just looked confused.

They—rather, Shion herself, Atienna, and Werner—then discussed their situations thoroughly. They condensed everything into ‘overrides,’ ‘synchronization,’ ‘shared memories, feelings, thoughts, pain,’ and ‘near-death catalyst’—and even toyed with the idea of the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis.

Shion knew she wasn’t the brightest, but she could tell that this was a dangerous situation. She was lucky enough that the six of them hadn’t been old enough to serve in the war. Half of them were from countries she’d completely ravaged with her own hands. Wartime animosity and whatever this was wouldn’t mix well.

And so, at the end of the conversation, Shion pressed her fingers to her lips and said, “Real or not, we should keep this between us for now, okay? Things are as tense as it is.”

(To this day, this moment when they all converged was the best moment of her life.)

✿ ✿ ✿

The six were… an interesting bunch. And troublesome. Cadence would constantly try to convince Olive to steal money from his parents, causing Atienna or Werner to jump in to stop Olive from naively going through with it. Maria would talk nonstop about nonsensical things like fairies and demons and spirits with such enthusiasm that oftentimes Jericho believed they were real.

As their connection progressed, their memories began to bleed into hers. Olive’s were full of childish spoiledness, love, and tenderness. But Shion thought that was fine—it was childhood, after all. That’s where spiritual freedom thrived. Atienna was doted on by a loving father and an exceptionally bright mother, while also caring for her younger siblings like she herself was a mother—though Atienna always had an odd distance to her. Maria’s memories brought Shion concern—especially the memories of the orphanage Maria’d been raised at—but a rosy sense of adventure colored them over.

But the other three—saints, the other three. There were memories there that Shion felt ashamed of even witnessing, because she couldn’t do anything about them. What was even more upsetting about it all was that they didn’t seem to see anything wrong with their experiences. To them, it was a natural part of life.

Shion knew Ophiuchus couldn’t solve all of Signum’s problems, but seeing all of their suffering laid out to her was like a slap in the face. She couldn’t just stand by, she’d thought. She knew she couldn’t bring peace to Signum like the new peacekeepers could, but she decided that she could at least try to bring peace to the lives of these children.

So, Shion started with Cadence first, nudging her to interact more with the other street children in the Twin Cities and to accept Ricardo Romano’s offer of help. But Cadence was full of distrust, and her intense fear of abandonment flooded everyone often. Resistance through subtle jabs and redirection was like bread-and-butter to her.

But Shion solved this with a line she turned over in her head ten times before presenting to Cadence: “Look, Cadence, even if those people leave you, we’ll still be here, right? So you might as well try, okay? Think of it like… a cost-benefit analysis.”

Cadence begrudgingly conceded and became intertwined with the Foxmans, the Romanos, and Nico Fabrizzio as a result.

Shion was pleased with this since it meant that Cadence would no longer spend those nights alone. The only caveat was that Cadence’s new network of friends usually roped her into precarious situations. But Werner was swift and responsible—especially when Shion herself was too busy with her work in the ELPIS Department to dip in. As the months of their connection dragged into years, he picked up the habit of overriding Cadence whenever she would find herself unable to talk herself out of the path of local delinquents.

“Thanks, Werner,” Shion would tell him after, “for making sure that they’re not getting into too much trouble while I’m out.” 

“There’s no need to thank me, Shion,” he’d say before turning on Cadence: “You shouldn’t have gotten into that situation to begin with, Cadence. That was careless, and you should tell Nico the same. Maria and I won’t always be here to help the both of you.”

“But you’re here now, right?” Cadence would chime. Later, however, she would always synchronize with him and morosely make her way over to his side. She’d never apologize or thank him verbally, but she’d linger there chattering away late into the night as he completed his extracurricular assignments.

The two certainly had a unique relationship.

One time, Shion had stumbled on Werner’s image wielding a pair of scissors against Cadence who was cornered in the abandoned warehouse that she was temporarily making her home with the Foxmans.

“What’s going on here?” Shion asked flatly upon arrival.

“She needs to cut her hair,” Werner explained. “It’s unacceptable.” Addressing Cadence, he continued, “You keep engaging in fights, and your enemies use your long hair against you. It’s a detriment.”

“But Atienna’s hair—”

“Atienna keeps her hair clean,” Werner returned without remorse. “And she doesn’t put herself into situations like you.”

Cadence pouted. “But—”

It hurts when it’s pulled.

At Werner’s unspoken thought, Cadence froze, squirmed, grumbled, conceded: “Fine…” She proceeded to allow him to guide her on how to cut her hair appropriately. Surprisingly, when it was all finished, Cadence admired herself in the dirty, cracked mirror Allen had installed just the other day. “Hey, this is pretty charmin’. I bet a lot of dolls are into this look nowadays, right?”

Werner sighed. “That shouldn’t be your concern out here.”

Buttered compliments from Atienna and Maria bolstered Cadence’s confidence, and the entire matter was tied with a neat bow.

Werner, on the other hand, was… difficult in a different way than the others.

His family hung over his shoulders like a shroud, like chains. No, like strings. Every action he took—she came to realize—was dictated by his mother’s words which were carved into him much like the scars on his hands. The lessons in school simply tightened the strings and hammered the obedience further. It alarmed Shion how such seemingly minuscule moments shaped an entire person’s life.

One day, she asked Werner, “Is serving in the Capricornian army really what you want to do? After you graduate from the military academy? Even after you’ve finished all the required service years?”

“What else would I want?” Werner responded. “It’s the greatest honor to serve in the Capricornian army. What better way can I give back to my country?”

She could tell he hadn’t even thought about the question before responding. It was automatic to the point where it had seemed pre-written. But at that time, Werner was still apprehensive of them all, so Shion hadn’t pushed it.

Some time after that, she was assigned to investigate a possible ELPIS bubble in Capricorn in a city-town just outside of Werner’s hometown. This was when Shion brought up the possibility of her visiting him to verify that this was real. Werner had accepted, while Olive had voiced his jealousy and Cadence kept hers hidden with a smile.

But the day they were to physically meet had been an unpleasant one for Werner. He’d been asked to stay late at the military academy after he’d miscalculated the time it would take to set up an extracurricular event slated for the next day. He offered Shion an apology, but she reassured him it was fine and used the time to explore his village under a beautiful full moon. When he returned home three hours later, however, he was met with his irate mother.

His mother’s words cut like a knife, stabbing over and over—“Why are you home so late? Unacceptable. Why didn’t you plan ahead? Don’t you realize I have to handle the entire household by myself? Your teachers probably think you don’t know up from down. Look at yourself. Don’t you care about what other people think about you? Don’t you think about how other people feel? What’s wrong with you, Werner? I keep telling you over and over again—”

It was the first time Shion had been ‘present’ when he’d been at the end of his mother’s whip, and fury boiled over in her chest as she listened on. While Werner bore with it and took it all in, Shion couldn’t. In a fit, she reached out and stepped into his place. His mother’s words bounced off of her easily—although suppressing her urge to punch the woman wasn’t so easy. To an adult like herself, Shion thought, this woman was absolutely nothing.

After several hours, the woman grew tired of shouting, tearfully half-apologized, pulled Shion into a hug, and left. Shion took Werner back to his room and waited for the override to time out. When it did and she returned to herself, she picked herself off the ground from where she’d passed out behind the village’s local inn and made her way over to his house. She alighted by his window just as they’d discussed and knocked twice.

When he let her in, he pressed, “What did you do?”

Shion frowned as she scanned his well-kept room. “You didn’t deserve that.”

“You cannot override me like that without permission, Shion. It’s irresponsible for both of us to—”

“It’s not about responsibility!” She grabbed his hands and ripped off his gloves. And as she inspected his bare palms, her heart fell. With burning eyes, she sat him down on his bed and asked, “Are these recent?”

“No,” Werner admitted hesitantly, looking away from her tears. “She hasn’t done it in some time. The scarring is because of my own neglect in taking care of it. There’s no need to be concerned.” He hesitated. “All of this is just discipline—”

“I know all about discipline! I’m a Sagittarian of the Hoshi Clan. Trust me—I know!” Shion snapped before recollecting herself and continuing, “This is just sadism from a narcisstic woman!”

Werner’s eyes narrowed. “With all due respect, you shouldn’t speak about situations you don’t understand. That’s my mother you’re talk about. She’s invested time and money into raising me. The least I could do for her is meet her expectations.”

His statement horrified Shion. A ‘dutiful’ son…? But he was right. Who was she to be butting into a domestic affair she knew nothing about? He wasn’t her family. Not really. But…

“But just let me take over sometimes at least. It’s tough, isn’t it?” she murmured, tightening her hold of his hand. “It’s only fair with you overriding Cadence all the time when I’m not around. Distribution of duty. Plus, that way the others won’t have to hear it too.”

Werner tensed.

“It wouldn’t be right to give it all that duty to one person, okay?”

Werner contemplated her statement to such a degree of seriousness that Shion almost forgot her anger and sadness. (He was always funny despite not trying to be.)

“It would still…” Werner began hesitantly. “…be inappropriate.”

So stubborn.

“You don’t need to keep up appearances with us. We already know most of the ins-and-outs at this point,” Shion said with an air of finality. “I… think it’s good to keep things private sometimes, but not when it comes to this. But still… it’s up to you.”

He didn’t respond.

But as she pulled her hand away, he abruptly tightened his grip. When she looked back at him, his expression startled her. And so, she curled her hand tighter around his as a passing cloud shrouded the moonlight.

“I understand,” she said. “I’ll [   ] you. I’ll always be on your side, okay?”

Later, as he neared the age of service, he came to her with worries about his military placement after his graduation. He’d been assigned to the capital while his childhood friends had been sent out to the borders. He was concerned about their well-being—mostly Gilbert’s, since Gilbert was being sent to the south. Werner wanted to accompany him there to [   ] him and reasoned that it would also help his military career.

“But I’m concerned it would appear that I’m displeased with my current ofer,” he said. “I don’t want it to reflect poorly on me or my family.”

With all of her heart, Shion wished Werner would stay in the capital. It was safer there. Less of a chance to see conflict. But she also wanted him to choose on his own, so she insisted he should do what he wanted.

(And to this day, Shion still regretted her foolish choice.)

Addressing things was even harder with Jericho than with Werner and Cadence combined; because even though Jericho’s feelings and memories bled into her, Shion didn’t quite understand him. Hatred and calm co-existed within him. Apathy and passion too. He was so distant despite always being present. A person with both little and extreme attachments. A walking paradox.

And so, she simply reached out to him on the nights when she couldn’t sleep. They’d stay up together in silence. Sometimes she would fold origami cranes for him using pages of the journal the peacekeepers gave him. Eventually, he picked up the habit of sketching in his notebook alongside her to kill time. However, he would always rip her origami and his drawings up into tiny pieces after they were done. She never dared ask why.

One day, deep into the night, Jericho finally asked, “Theta was bad?”

Although Shion was caught off-guard, she nodded. “The ELPIS leader that took you in? Yes, she probably was…”

Jericho’s face darkened. “They were the bad ones. They tricked us. They made us believe. They should be punished.”

Punished…?

Jericho’s rage swirled so intensely in Shion’s chest that it took a moment for her to reply—”Those are strong words for someone so young.” She rested a hand on his head and made a peace-sign with the other. “Haven’t you heard of love and peace?”

“Okay. Then I want to be a peacekeeper like you,” Jericho replied. “Because you’re good. And love and peace.”

The remark had completely thrown Shion in for a loop, but something akin to happiness blossomed in her chest.

✿ ✿ ✿

As time went on, they began to hold synchronization ‘meetings’—although they really weren’t meetings at all.

During one, they all attended one of Werner’s academy’s marksmanship competitions. Despite his intense anxiety, he’d kept a steady and cool appearance and hit nine out of ten bulls-eyes. One bullet had hit just slightly off-center.

Despite his mother smiling sweetly, her eyes were full of disapproval. But Maria’s wild cheering and chattering drowned out his mother’s gaze. And despite standing at stiff attention as he received his reward medals, Shion could see the corners of his eyes crinkle as the others draped themselves over him and cheered.

During another meeting, they attended a makeshift concert hosted by Cadence and the street children in the Casa d’Bambole. The workers there including Alma watched on with mild amusement as the faux concert continued on. The final act belonged to Cadence who stormed through an impressive solo. As applause erupted when she finished her song and took a deep bow, she looked not to Alma but to Shion and the rest of them for approval. And Shion gave her just that.

At another meeting, they posed together for hours so that Jericho could try to capture their portraits in his journal. And he did so quite well—so much so that he received a compliment from everyone, including even Werner. But as always, after he was finished, he tore it up into tiny little pieces and discarded it in the trash.

When Atienna finally pressed him for why, Jericho said, “It’s better to destroy it now. With my own hands. It can’t get ruined later.”

Atienna smiled and said, “Oh, I’m the same way. Whenever I near the end of the book, I stop reading and just imagine what happens next. Endings usually are very disappointing, don’t you think?”

(Shion knew she should’ve seen the signs then.)

Oftentimes as Shion would watch them all together, her heart would swell. And each time, she would reassure herself that she would [   ] them all. No matter what. She knew she couldn’t go back and change what was already carved into them—those things would always remain. But she figured she would ensure that the rest of these days would be filled only with good memories. Although she could never say that three-lettered phrase aloud, she felt it deeply. 

It was all very simple and stupid, Shion knew. But the fact they looked to her when they had troubles made her feel like she had a place in the world. Right, she decided then, this was how she would carve her place into this universe that almost no longer had any record of her.

(Even if it was just pretend.)

✿ ✿ ✿

But the connection was not a cure-all. Jericho still remained in that isolated room, Cadence wept when Alma was taken away, and Werner still remained beneath his family’s eyes. The deep sadness entrenching Shion’s heart also didn’t disappear. Some nights she still found herself at the bottom of a bottle.

One night, she drunkenly took herself up to the sky and teetered dangerously on her conductor. She didn’t quite remember it, but she recalled frantic shouting from Olive, Cadence, and even Jericho. She eventually was guided by Maria back down to the ground, to her apartment, and to her bed.

When she woke up the next morning, she was greeted not only by a pounding headache but also by a displeased Werner and a frowning Atienna.

“Shion, this can’t go on any longer,” Werner said.

“Wha—”

“This is serious, Shion,” Atienna affirmed. “You need help.”

“I’m fine—”

“Listen to us, please, Shion,” Atienna urged.

Werner nodded, eyes narrowed. “The others look up to you. You can’t engage in such reckless behavior and endanger yourself. Think about the consequences. What would happen if you slipped and fell? How would they feel?”

(At this time, the thought of shared death had not occurred to them.)

It was the first time she’d seen either of them so angry.

“You need to go to the Psychological Evaluations Department,” Werner continued. “Like you said, some things shouldn’t be kept private.”

“Shion, please,” Atienna pressed. “At least one time.”

And after feeling their fear, concern, and worry trembling through their connection, Shion did just that.

Her first session was with that young woman, Alice Kingsley. It felt strange to be speaking about her problems to someone younger than her, but as time went on, she began to rely less and less on the bottle. Eventually, Shion came to trust Alice so much that she signed off on papers transferring Jericho to the care of the Psychological Evaluations Department in hopes that they could help him too.

✿ ✿ ✿

“Shut up! Don’t say that out loud!” Jin shoved a hand over Shion’s mouth and shoved her against the wall. “Shion, are you crazy?!”

They had just gotten off on one of the rare lunches they shared together and were walking through the empty hall leading to the ELPIS Department. Jin had asked Shion why her mood had been so good recently, and Shion had decided finally to disclose everything.

Shion insisted, “I know it sounds crazy, but it’s rea—”

“No, that’s not it, Shion!” Jin’s eyes were wide with horror. “I know it’s real, but you can’t be a True Conductor, okay?!”

“A True Conductor…?”

“I said shhh!” Jin hissed. “Shi-shi, there’s a lot going on in the background that you don’t know about, but that’s not a bad thing. Not knowing, I mean.”

“What…?”

“Just… live simple, aight? Keep your head down. Don’t look into anything. And don’t tell anyone about this,” Jin said, pulling away. “You want all the people you’re connected with to be happy, right? Then listen to me.”

Shion trusted Jin, so she did just that.

But that changed following Lavi’s saint candidacy ceremony. Olive was beside himself with excitement when Lavi’s candidacy was announced, and Shion herself felt a bit of pride that Lavi had been selected too.

When Lavi returned from the ceremony, however, Shion’s heart fell. The girl had failed it, and that failure seemed to hang over her head like a cloud. Lavi became quiet, reserved, avoided even Olive, and spent most of her time in her room. Once, when Olive peeked in to visit her, he’d found her sobbing quietly into her pillow. In turn, Olive became morose and had to be constantly comforted by Atienna.

It was because of Olive’s concerns that Shion went to New Ram City’s royal library to investigate if there was any way to ‘redo’ the Ariesian saint candidacy ceremony. It was by mere coincidence that she stumbled on a page listing the past saint candidates of Aries there and noticed that the previous Ariesian saint candidate had the same initiation date as Jin—which was also the same date as one of the highest-casualty battles during the Reservoir War.

As uneasiness built in her chest, Shion looked to further past saint candidates and historical events. She knew she wasn’t bright but she still was able to cross-reference the dates of all the candidates with major historical events—most of which began with bloodshed and ended with the discovery of a large reservoir.

“It has to be a coincidence…” Shion murmured. But—

“There’s no such thing as coincidence,” was what Talib would say all the time whenever Shion had the time to sit down and eat lunch with him.

No… 

She couldn’t let them live in a world like this.

Calming herself, she made coded notes in the corner of the saint candidate list book, stowed it away, and left back to Ophiuchus. She cashed in a vacation leave and began scouring the various libraries across the continent. One of her trips took her to a psychiatric facility in Capricorn where a person—a True Conductor just like herself—was being ‘treated.’ When she revisited the place later, the facility was being dismantled and she was barred entry.

She couldn’t quite put the pieces altogether on her own, but she still tried to keep her research away from the others. She wanted to shield them (her whole world) as much as she could. This was something she would handle alone. Because… she also (selfishly) wanted to become someone they could rely on fully. (She was a fool.)

But they were bright, and Cadence had an affinity for uncovering lies. So—

“You’re hidin’ somethin’, ain’t ya, Shion?” Cadence asked one day during a synchronization meeting. “Ya’ve been goin’ all over the continent. Ya even stopped in Gemini. What are ya lookin’ for? What are ya doin’? Spill the dirt! Spill the dirt!” She got Olive, Maria, and Jericho—though he looked confused—to chant along with her.

Shion was never a good liar, but—thankfully—she’d been working on something else simultaneously with her investigations. Something she had no problem revealing. Digging into her suitcase in her hotel room closet, she pulled out a stack of papers before holding it out to Cadence’s image.

“Well, I was going to wait until I finalized everything,” Shion said, “but I guess it wouldn’t hurt to reveal it now. Here, read.”

“Aw, why can’t ya just fire it into my brain?” Cadence pouted before turning to Werner and Atienna. “Please? Can one of ya read it?”

“You need to improve your reading skills.” Werner sighed, but he ‘took’ the documents from Shion and scanned them. His eyes widened a fraction, and the corner of his lips pulled upwards.

His discovery bled into the others—

“You’re gonna… take me in?” Cadence realized as she turned to Shion. “You’re not lyin’ ta me, are ya, Shion…?”

“I’m not a liar,” Shion provided, hands spread, before she chuckled. “Well, the paperwork is going to take some more time, since there’s almost no record of you… but yep.”

Cadence’s cheeks flushed a rosy shade of red. “Really, really?” Her voice cracked. “Y-Ya mean it? Ya… want me? Y-You’re not pullin’ my leg, right…?”

“I wouldn’t do that to you.”

Cadence took a step back before her face folded, and she buried her face in one of her hands. Although Shion couldn’t see Cadence’s tears, she could feel them. And she could also feel Cadence’s entire body tremble with pure happiness. When Cadence sank to her knees, Atienna’s and Olive’s images ran to her side and held her.

Still, as Shion sank down with them, she couldn’t say that three-lettered phrase. (Regret.)

“Hurray!” Maria sang, leaping and dancing around. “This is amazing, yes? Shion owns you, and I own Shion, so that means I also own Cadence!”

Shion preferred the term ‘family’ to ‘own’, but she was too embarrassed to say it out loud. (Regret.)

“I am happy for you, Cadence,” Jericho said, sinking beside Cadence too. “Don’t cry. This is good. Smile.”

am happy, ya idiot, came Cadence’s thought as she sniffled.

Eventually, Cadence cried herself to sleep. Her exhaustion passed to Olive and Jericho who turned in for the night too. Maria bounced around excitedly for another half an hour before she curled up to sleep in the end. Werner and Atienna, however, lingered side-by-side.

Glancing at Werner, Atienna asked first, “What’s really going on Shion…?”

Werner nodded. “We’re aware you’ve been investigating something outside of your duties as a peacekeeper.”

Of course. They were way too bright for her.

Maybe if this was right when their connection began, she might’ve been able to convince Werner and Atienna to leave it alone. Now, however, they looked on at her with defiant, hard, unwavering gazes. (She’d been proud.)

“We’re connected, Shion,” Atienna murmured. “It’d be strange if we didn’t know. Although your skill at hiding it does open many career possibilities…”

Shion sighed in defeat. “Okay. I have been investigating something, but I can’t tell you just yet… I’m not even sure what I’m looking at. Ah, but don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.”

Werner and Atienna exchanged looks and frowns.

“Just trust me, okay? I’ll tell all of you when I get it together. Just think of it as an add-on of my peacekeeper job.”

Werner and Atienna exchanged looks again before both offering her a nod.

“Is there anything you need us to do?” Werner asked.

“Anything that we can help with…?”

Shion drew slowly after a beat, “I’m not going to be at the synchronization meetings for a while, so I’d like you both to take over in the meantime. And… can I ask you both a favor?”

“Of course,” Werner and Atienna said in unison.

“Werner, I need you to make sure the others stay out of trouble while I’m gone, okay?” Shion pressed, pushing her fingers to her lips and placing a hand on his cheek. “We need to try to stay hidden as much as possible. More so than what we’re doing now.”

“There’s no need to even ask,” Werner responded curtly. “I’m not a child anymore.”

Suppressing a chuckle, Shion then turned Atienna and moved a hand to her cheek. “And, Atienna, try to make sure they get along with each other, alright? No fighting.”

Atienna offered a kind, but tired and weary smile. “Of course, Shion, but please take care of yourself too.”

“I promise.”

✿ ✿ ✿

On that day that Shion had decided to return to Ophiuchus, the sun had been particularly hot and muggy—both in Ophiuchus and in Aries on Olive’s end. Feeling Olive’s sadness about Lavi tugging at her chest, Shion had dipped in with him briefly and had suggested he go outside the palace and buy a blackbird for her.

Shion’s reason for returning to the Serpens Establishment was to address some of her research with Jin—Jin whom she trusted fully, Jin who was most definitely involved in whatever this was. But when Shion walked into Jin’s department head office, she found Nareen waiting at Jin’s desk instead.

“Where’s Jin?” Shion asked tightly, not taking a seat in the guest chair despite Nareen’s offer.

“Why? You’ve been curious lately,” Nareen hummed with a smile. “Are you going to ask her about the saint candidates and the reservoirs? While I admire your passion, I must say that this is the end of the line.”

Shion backed out of the office and into the cubicle area of the department, only to find that all of the peacekeepers present were standing outside of their cubicles and staring directly at her. Dark blue scorpion-like tattoos crawled across all of their faces, and they blinked and breathed in unison.

She tensed. “What’s going on here…?”

“They can’t hear you now,” Nareen said as she rose from the desk. “It’s your fault, you know? If you hadn’t looked into all of this, I wouldn’t have had to infect them all to confront you. As for me—I’m just doing what was asked of me. Living manipulation is a delicate thing.”

Human manipulation? But how…?

Not stopping to think or panic, Shion whipped out her conductor, sent a burst of air out, and knocked all of the peacekeepers down to the ground. She leapt over their bodies and made for the open hall. Just as she reached the threshold, however, one of the peacekeepers lunged for her conductor and tried to pull it out of her hands. Shion tried to tug back but froze when she registered the other peacekeepers picking themselves off of the floor

Shion released her conductor, and the peacekeeper fell back against the force of his tug. Shion fell forward too but picked herself up and darted for her life down the department’s white halls. She could hear a stampede of footsteps following behind her. She rounded the corner in a panic—which was when Olive’s terror shot through her chest like a bullet.

Screaming, crying, and shouting resonated from his end. Halls filled with smoke, stampeding footsteps, booming vitae-ray fire, and flashes of bright white vitae. 

The Ariesian royal palace was being raided…?

“I didn’t know,” came Olive’s sob as he dragged Lavi down the large red halls of the palace. “I didn’t know. I didn’t—”

He had accidentally let an ELPIS member into the premises, Shion came to realize.

Why hadn’t Werner…?

I’m so stupid, Shion realized as she tore through the halls. Werner’s first official day in the field was today. And Atienna was at an important meeting with her mother, and the others were—dammit! How could she be so stupid?!

A whirlwind suddenly hurtled through the hall down from up ahead, knocking her pursuers right off of their feet. When she looked forward, she found Jin standing there at the corner in front of a window. A staff conductor was in her hands.

Relief swept over Shion at the sight of Jin as she darted to her side.

“Jin, you’re more foolish this time than any time before,” came a familiar sigh from behind. Nareen smiled as she approached them and pointed at Shion. “I’ve been watching her. She knows too much. We can’t let her be. Let me do my job.”

“How about no,” Jin said.

“No…?”

“Well, I like stupid people like myself so—yeah—no.” Jin pressed the staff conductor into Shion’s hands. “Go, Shi-shi. Run and hide.”

“But,” Shion objected, “you don’t have a conductor—”

Jin extended out a hand and out from her palm came a burst of darky sky blue flecked air that blew past Shion and threw Nareen back to the far end of the hall.

Impossible…

Werner, Maria, Shion! Olive cried. Please, someone, help—

With terror seizing her heart, Shion threw herself out of the window, kicked up her conductor as glass rained around her, and shot up to the sky. She pushed forward and upwardly desperately, knowing she had to get to Olive somehow. She had to. She was the only one close enough—

A darkness passed over the horizon, swallowing the sun whole. The temperature dropped which was followed by the sound of cacophonic flapping, fluttering, caw-ing.

Shion looked up, heart falling.

An entire black cloud of birds stretched as far as the eye could see blanketed the skyline. Like a storm.

What in the world…? Was her luck truly this terrible or…? No—it was the Manipulator saint candidate…?

The cawing intensified as the black cloud drew nearer. It sounded like laughter.

Shion shot up higher in the sky to escape, to get to Olive. She knew it was an impossible feat with the breadth that the birds took up. She’d seen air Elementalists raids blanketing the sky back in the war and it was impossible to escape them. Even so, she tried. She had to—

Shion, help! Someone reached out in a panic. Olive is—

Fire danced in Shion’s vision.

Lavi was dangling by a hand around her neck. A crack echoed as Lavi’s body fell limp, and Olive’s wail  burned its way into Shion’s brain.

She let out a breath, vision spinning as she expelled more and more vitae, but then saw a flash of black only centimeters away from her face.

No

The birds battered against her body without care for their own. Black feathers swirled around her as she pulled up her hand to fend off their pecking and clawing. She spat out feathers, winced past the stinging cuts of their claws and beaks, and—

—then realized that her conductor was no longer in her hand.

Time slowed.

Her eyes darted left and right. Nothing but white cloud, blackbird, blue sky.

No, no, no…! She couldn’t die—not now!

But down she tumbled, cold whipping air now stinging the cuts on her face and hands. She searched in a frenzied panic for her conductor as the birds continued to caw and laugh. The wind whipped tears in her eyes and coated her mouth with feathers. She choked on them as she shouted desperately, grabbed blindly. And then—

—the blackbirds pulled away, the skyline becoming a visible clear blue. But Shion still couldn’t find her conductor anywhere.

In the distance, Olive’s terror expanded.

But she couldn’t get to him. Neither could any of the others. She could hear them crying out in fear and panic but she could do nothing.

Jin. Jin would come. Shion was sure Jin would come and save her—and then she herself could go save Olive. But the thought left Shion as soon as it came. It was impossible. Even though Jin was amazing.

Fire erupted around Olive, consuming everyone and everything as a painful, searing heat burned its way in his chesther chest, their chests. 

Shion cursed herself as tears—not from the wind this time—leaked from her eyes. She couldn’t reach him. Ah, she’d failed.

Why couldn’t she have just ignored everything like Jin had said…? That way she could’ve been by his side—by all of their sides. She really was a fool. She should’ve just lived happily with the other six until the end. She really was stupid.

After all, in the beginning, this was really what she wanted—just to take that final step and fall. And now that she was finally falling, all she wanted to do was to fly. To live and reach their sides.

Someone cried out desperately, Shion

But what could she say? All she wanted to do now was hold them all one last time but that was impossible. No apologies would suffice, but something simple might. Something she should’ve said from the very beginning even if it was pretend.

I love y

Crack.

⚘ ⚘ ⚘ ✖ ⚘ ⚘ ⚘

When Shion regained something akin to consciousness, she found herself standing in an endless abyss by a river of glowing light. There was nothing around her besides that light. But she couldn’t focus on the oddity. All she could think about was Olive. Olive and Lavi. But she couldn’t feel himcouldn’t feel any of them. Just a cold emptiness that expanded just like the abyss around her.

She cried and shouted for them, but no one answered. She wandered away desperately into the dark but found herself right back at that river of light. Over and over again. Still, she kept at it, her tears and shouts subsiding. But she didn’t give up.

Just before she was about to throw herself across the river of light in hopes that it would somehow let her leave this place, Lavi appeared across the river from her out of thin air.

“Lavi —”

Stupid,” Lavi said, eyes narrowed. “You’re dead.”

Shion’s heart hammered.

“You can’t cross here anymore.”

It was a fact that Shion had been pushing to the back of her mind, but the reality of it being said out loud was like a weight off her shoulders and a weight on her chest.

Shion sank to the ground before the divide and whispered, “Are they…?”

“They’re alive,” Lavi responded. “Somehow.”

“And… are you?”

Lavi frowned at her, confused, before muttering, “I don’t know… but probably.”

Relief blossomed in Shion’s chest at this. If they were alive, that was enough for her.

“And where—” Shion’s voice caught in her throat as she registered the fury burning in Lavi’s eyes.

Without saying another word, Lavi faded from her sights like a wisp of flame in the wind.

And that left Shion there in the abyss all alone. She sat for a long time in that spot—minutes, hours, days, months, years? Who knew. What she did know was that it gave her a lot of time to think. Like—

If she was dead, how could she still think? Maybe this was punishment: sitting here doing nothing and separated from everyone like this? Shion supposed she deserved it. She’d done many terrible things during the war and brought more sadness than happiness to people. It would’ve been nice if she could see her parents though. She wondered if they were wandering here too.

These thoughts would swirl around in her head a loop, but she would still always come back to thing:

Now that she was gone, she wondered how they were doing. She hoped they were still happy and were living simply—regardless of everything that happened. She hoped they would be there to support each other and not run away when things got tough. Even with all that hoping, she figured they were probably mad her now—she was too. Still, as long as they were alive and with each other that would be enough.

But then, one day, Shion felt a rumble in the darkness. She looked up to see six bright burning streaks of light flash across the abyss above her head. And then she could feel them again—faintly but surely.

Lavi appeared before her on that day with hands over ears. She stared up to the sky as the lights warmed her face. “The syzygy is approaching.”

And as time passed on, very faint memories from the other six sank through the abyss to Shion. It was a familiar, warm, and welcome sensation—at least until Shion began to reach a terrifying conclusion:

The six of them didn’t remember her or each other.

They acted like strangers—treated each other harshly, coldly, distantly. It made no sense, but Werner’s cold-eyed arrival to the abyss during the Capricornian-Aquarian border conflict followed by Jericho’s brief stay too when he’d encountered an ELPIS leader in the Twin Cities confirmed this with certainty:

“Who are you?” they’d both demanded, fixating on her empty stares without recognition.

Shion felt like her heart had been ripped out. And as she agonized over this to herself when they both eventually left her side, Lavi appeared before her in a wisp of crimson. It was the third time Lavi had come before her here, so Shion looked to her hopefully and out of concern.

“It’s getting painful watching you do this again and again.” Lavi grimaced. “I wanted you to suffer because I’m stuck… but this is just too sad.”

“What are you saying…? Stuck? I thought you said you were still alive? Are you okay…?”

“No, I’m not!” Lavi’s face crumpled, and she seethed—no, whimpered. “I-I’m stuck here too because of you, while O-Ollie’s up there! All alone and hurting! And I can’t tell him anything! B-Because I’m stuck down here because of you! Because of Scorpio! Because of ELPIS!”

“I don’t understand…” Shion whispered, hands placating. “Please don’t cry…”

Lavi sniffled and recomposed herself. She fell into a crouch and mumbled something about the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis, memories, and souls, before saying, “This is the first time I’ve ever seen something like this happen. I’m guessing that you didn’t know that when one of you True Conductors dies, all the connected True Conductors you’re connected to also die.”

“What…?”

“When you died six years ago, you almost dragged all of them down here with you. That’s what happens. A rickety structure collapses when one support fails. Your vitae came down here to return to the cycle, and their vitae were dragged along with it.”

Shion felt faint. “I… almost killed them?”

“But at the same time you died, I entered Ollie.” Lavi’s eyes narrowed. “Nothing like this has happened before, so I’m just guessing here… But the vitae in me that makes up Lavender Chance probably took the place of the hole you left behind after you died. The vitae that makes me the Saint Candidate of Aries is stuck here, unable to enter the cycle or return back. Maybe it’s filling in the cracks you’ve left behind… And you—you’re barely hanging on by a thread to them. You’re stuck like me.”

But why didn’t they—

“Since vitae returns to the cycle at death, I guess the bits of their vitae from the beginning of your connection to your death came flushed down here with you. Every vitae particle containing the memories of when you spoke with each other or ‘synchronized’ is no longer up there. It’s either down here with you or it’s returned to the cycle. If there was any residual memory left, I’m sure the trauma of actually dying took care of the rest of it.”

“I’m sorry…” Shion chuckled faintly. “W-What are you saying…?”

“I’m saying that to them their first ‘synchronization’ meeting—like you call it—happened just a couple days ago,” Lavi finished. “When you died and I entered, it acted like a reset and closed the connection. And now… the connection is open again. And I’m a pseudo-True Conductor… I guess. But only through Ollie.”

Shion couldn’t comprehend it.

“I guess they filled in the missing pieces in their memory on their own. The mind is a powerful thing.” Lavi looked away. “Those people you were connected with and spent all of that time with—I guess you can say they longer exist. Or maybe that they never existed in the first place. Like you.”

What…?

“They were by themselves that long…?” Shion fell to her knees as an intense pain swelled in her chest. Her vision swam as tears pricked her eyes as the pain threatened to explode.

She had abandoned them, she realized. Right when they’d needed her most. Saints, just when Cadence was about to leave that life behind. And what about Werner and his mother and his service? What about Jericho in Ophiuchus? Olive who begged for her in her last moments? Maria? Atienna?

Everything was gone…? But—but why hadn’t anyone that was close to them spoken up? Noticed anything different about them?

Then Shion realized: it was because she had selfishly kept them close—because she had wanted to become the one for them to all rely on. She had urged them to keep their connection a secret and to keep their behavior in check. So… there had been no one there for them after she died. No one who really knewthem.

A sob tore its way through Shion’s throat as she curled up into herself.

Stupid! Simple-minded! Stupid!

She pounded the ground and hugged her stomach as she cried out for something that no longer existed. She had been crying about her own loneliness down here this entire time when they’d been alone all the same.

Stupid!

No, no time for pity —she shook herself. What mattered was that now they had each other. And they had her too still.

✿ ✿ ✿

When Werner came down again, Shion whispered to him as he arrived: “You tried your best.”

This time around, he seemed a little bit more familiar to her. His eyes weren’t as cold and unyielding. He’d asked the same questions he’d asked when he first came down here. Where is this? Who are you? What is this? And when Lavi appeared, his suspicion bled out in waves and his questions only increased.

And so, Shion showed him. Using the properties of this threshold, she walked him hand-in-hand—though he resisted at first—through her memories, through the happy times they’d shared, through the sad times they’d shared, through the fights, through the resolutions.

“I see,” was all he said at the end. “If this is true, then that would explain why we were able to communicate so readily despite what Yuseong mentioned. We were connected previously. And as we suspected, the saint candidates are…”

He made no comment on the memories themselves which made her heart sink.

Seeming to hear her through the single thread that still connected them, Werner amended, “I don’t believe that’s pertinent in this situation.”

He really has changed, she thought—which caused him to frown.

Chuckling nervously and waving her hands, Shion murmured, “Don’t worry about it… But I would like to hear what’s going on up there. I only know about it vaguely.”

After minute hesitation and with his usual reservation, Werner informed her of some of the events that occurred since their second connection began.

It seemed like Maria wasn’t too different—although it appeared as if her lack of empathy had only increased. But the others had changed greatly. Olive had folded away into a hateful depression that consumed him for years. Atienna had strayed towards an indecisiveness that unnerved Shion. Cadence’s selfish deceit had swallowed her whole—and brought Werner down here. And Jericho’s thirst for revenge was unquenchable. He’d become a peacekeeper not because of her but out of a desire for blood and ‘justice.’

It was too sad to dwell on so Shion went out to speak about more pleasant things. She asked Werner about Fenrir, Gilbert, and Greta, then Viktoria and Ludwig. He was skeptical at first, causing her to fill up the silence after his curt answers with senseless babble about times past. But Werner listened and his skepticism turned into something akin to pity. Which hurt.

Eventually, as time dragged on and they drowned in her past memories, he said, “If this is true, then I can’t let myself sit here and do nothing. Cadence and Jericho are in a precarious situation.”

(But she didn’t want him to go.)

“Your body hasn’t recovered yet,” Lavi said, bluntly. “So all you can do is sit here and do nothing.”

Her words stung more than she knew.

“I’m aware,” Werner said, before adding gently: “I’ll offer my guidance and assistance. Those two are reckless.” He paused, thinking. “I would like to brief them on what I’ve discovered here, but gauging by your state when you’re up above, that’s impossible.”

Lavi nodded. “When you go up there, most of what you’ve learned or gained down here remains down here. And if you go up without a body, you’re unfocused and not really ‘there’ because part of you is still down here.”

“And that’s what happens to you?”

Lavi nodded. “But… If you really want to go up there, I guess I can tell you how. First, what do you want to focus on doing?”

Werner contemplated this for a moment before he reached a resolution. And then he went up, leaving Shion all alone again at the threshold.

Still, even with heartache growing in her chest, Shion waited patiently at the border between life and death to help whoever else came down.

Like a fool.


Threshold

As the black abyss formed around them and the scenery of her memories faded away, Shion stared past the glowing line and at the man staring back at her.

Werner’s expression was one of simple confusion. Like he was looking at some passerby on the street. She was nothing more to him than a side-character in one of Atienna’s novels. A sad conclusion at the end of a book to be shelved after reading.

“What do you think, Werner? So pitiable.” Scorpio said, hand still resting on his head. “And look at youmaking almost the same mistake as her. She, a simple-minded girl trying to play the hero. You, a man who can only do what other people say pretending to be someone people can look up to and admire. All of you try to resist who you really are, but you just can’t.” It gestured to her. “This is the result of what happens when you try. But it’s no fault of your own. Rather, it’s the fault of having thought.” It hummed. Though I have to say to both of you: word of advice—a little bit of selfishness never hurt—”

“Don’t look at me like that… please, Werner,” Shion whispered, vision blurring as she looked away.

It was because she didn’t want him to look at her like this again that she had hidden the truth this time. Just like the idiot she was.

“What isn’t remembered is unfortunately not important.” Scorpio sighed. “Much like everything ELPIS does…” Its face fell. “I am sorry that this happened, Shion. I didn’t realize you were a True Conductor. I didn’t know you’d be stuck here for this long. I know it’s torment. And if you’d like, I can try to cut you out. No more suffering. Well, at least until you return back from the cycle.”

Shion glared. “Why do you say things like that? What more do you want? Why do you keep doing this? What’s the point? We’re people!”

Scorpio frowned. “You don’t think I know that? I just—”

Crack.

A familiar sound.

Abruptly, a glowing dark blue line formed diagonally across Scorpio’s chest causing the thing to double over seemingly in pain. As the fracture pulsated, Werner tensed and looked up at it almost as if out of concern.

Scorpio’s grimace thinned to a grin and it glanced at Lavi. “Well look at that, Aries. It seems like Libra is finally taking the stage. It’s almost curtain call, Alles Für Alle—all for all.”


Incident Report #310, 30.7.1935 [CASE CLOSED]

Event: A female Sagittarian-Ophiuchian peacekeeper (Conducting-type: Elementalist, air) of the ELPIS Investigations Department reported dead on Serpens Establishment premises. Witness eye accounts state Elementalist fell from high altitude. Subsequent examination by Medical Department list fall from height as COD, instantaneous.

Further investigations reveal Psychological Evaluation Department recorded Elementalist as ‘experiencing depressive and suicidal thoughts,’ although ‘improving.’ However, Elementalist reportedly requested leave prior to death leading to conclusive ruling: suicide.

Peacekeeper has no close family or relatives. Body given to current ELPIS Investigation Department chairwoman.

Category: Internal Affairs, Case File #756IA,  General Investigations Department

>> [Shion Mood Theme] << 

@adalhyde

17.5: Private, 2200 Point of Contact

Re-cap:

The Kaiser has been revealed to be working willingly, knowingly alongside the Manipulator, the Saint Candidate of Scorpio. In a split moment decision, Weingartner turns away from the Kaiser and kidnaps Dämon Forstchritt in an attempt to expose these operations. He finds help and allies in Werner’s subordinates—Gilbert, Nico, Brandt, Heimler, Fischer, Kleine and Brandt. With a coup possibly shining in the background, Weingartner searches the city for a potential ally.

As for his current allies…


Meanwhile, Werner begins to crumble at the threshold of life and death after being subjected to the thoughts and feelings of hundreds of Capricornians.


Anlaufstelle » Point of contact discovered at 2200 hours

Private Derik Stein never understood what the big deal was. Duty, honor, glory, loyalty, whatever. He’d always found it so boring. Lectures at the military academy put him to sleep. All the classes about ‘strategy’ and ‘tactics’ too—who the hell had time to think about how many soldiers to move backwards or forwards when they were being blasted to hell by gunfire? Derik only felt excitement in school during practicals. Gun ranges, hand-to-hand combat, war play—he scored the top of his class for all the time.

But boredom followed him out of class too. Chores, boring. Listening to his parents argue about the chickens, boring. Trips to the local Monadic Temple to admire a dumb, white, faceless statue with a gold-made halo around its head—symbolizing their ancestor Capricorn—boring. Hunting out in the backwoods with his mother—fun.

But fun was sparse. Boredom reigned. Sometimes he’d be so bored that he’d mess with his classmates after school. The studious or quiet ones always gave the most interesting reactions. Steal their books and they’d either cry or silently bear with it. Call them names and they’d dip their heads. The funnest ones fought back.

“You just need to find something to dedicate yourself to,” the headmaster had told him when he’d been called into the office after he’d pushed one of his classmates into the school fountain. “Why not dedicate yourself to serve Capricorn? Fully after your required service? Loyalty is the groundwork for a meaningful life.”

But despite ignoring these words, he was never expelled by the school. His practical scores were too good for that. He had a ‘promising military career’ or something.

After graduation, Derik’s first assignment had been to the 47th Division of the Border Force at the southern border. His unit mates were either patriotic bootlickers, practical money-grubbers looking to cash in a stipend, clueless bastards, or sniveling cowards. No in-between. Almost all of them said the same thing—”I wanna kill Argoans”—before proceeding to vomit and puke as soon as they’d killed one. Derik didn’t understand them. When he said he wanted to kill Argoans, he meant it. Even enjoyed it up to a point.

He’d also enjoyed whenever leave would come around. He would go home, dance with girls in bars and halls, and have all the late-night flings he’d wanted. No strings attached. He made it a game to see which one—him or the woman of the night—would say the departing line: “I’m sorry. I can’t do this. I don’t know what battle’ll be my last.” Usually, it went 50:50.

What he hated were the beats between battle. His superiors flip-flopped between hating him and loving him.

“Too much,” they’d say. “Overkill. You butchered that Argoan’s body. You lack Capricornian honor.”

“Too little,” they’d say at other times. “You don’t follow orders. You lack Capricornian discipline.”

Their version of ‘too far’ and ‘too little’ had made no sense. Accusations were always based off of secondhand accounts. Still, in the end, they didn’t discharge him because—again—his numbers were too good. Instead, they shifted him from division to division, unit to unit.

Eventually, he’d transferred into the 212th Division of the Border Force and was placed into a unit headed by a first lieutenant named Werner Waltz. A straight-laced, no-nonsense numbers man with a stick up his ass.

This particular unit was more fun than his previous ones. New additions kept things interesting. There were two pushovers, Otto Vogt and Klaus Kleine; a cute goody-two-shoes, Emilia Bergmann; a bootlicker who actually did shit, Wilhelm Fischer; a relaxed and nonchalant second-in-command, Gilbert Wolff; a guy who told good stories to kill time, Alwin Brandt; a couple of others Derik didn’t bother remembering; and eventually medic with an impressive sleight of hand, Nico Fabrizzio.

During one of his first raids out into unoccupied territory with the unit, they encountered an Argoan party performing reconnaissance. Feeling impatient and indignant at the fact that the lieutenant had ordered them to wait in the branches above the Argoans, Derik had begun firing down at them before the order was given. Shortly after, he’d launched himself out from the trees and began pouncing on Argoan after Argoan with his combat knife drawn. Stab after stab—until the entire party was wiped out. Derik later found out that two of his unit members were killed in the onslaught but it didn’t bother him in the least bit. Not like he knew them.

The lieutenant’s feelings towards his performance were a different story.

“You broke formation and put the entire operation at risk,” the lieutenant had said, pulling him aside when they returned to the trenches.

“What’s the big deal?” Derik had returned. “We won, didn’t we?”

“Insubordination of one person in the unit can easily spread to others like an infection,” was the lieutenant’s response. “Regardless of your performance, your insubordination is marking you as a risk to the division.”

“What are you talking about? I’m the best there is,” Derik had fired back, meeting the man’s eyes. “You can’t discharge me. The higher-ups won’t let you. Don’t tell me you’re going to hark on me about Vogt and Kleine too because Bergmann complained. They’re pussies.”

“I said nothing about discharge. That would be too easy,” the lieutenant had replied evenly. “Your relationships with the others in the unit don’t concern me unless it affects your performance in the field.”

Following this, the lieutenant had taken him to a complex shooting range where a Manipulator sent up five targets into the air and made them fly around wildly high up in the sky.

A sniping match.

“Prove to me you’re the best like you say you are.”

Sneering, Derik had readied his sniper rifle and had fired wildly, excitedly. He’d ended up expending all of the bullets in his chamber, but he’d successfully hit every single target.

The lieutenant had used only one bullet. He’d waited, watching through his scope as the five targets flew through the air. In the fraction of a second when all five targets aligned, he’d fired.

Derik had never been so humiliated in his entire life.

“There’s no such thing as being ‘the best,’” the lieutenant had said, “because the best is an end line. There is always room for improvement. Your numbers are exceptional, but that isn’t what makes an efficient soldier or person. I can tell that you enjoy being out in the field. If you want to continue being out here, you need to listen to me. If you disobey my next orders, I won’t discharge you but assign you to a penal unit instead. However, if you follow orders and continue to perform well, I can have you transferred to special operations—your profile says this is where you want to be. So stay calm, think, listen. Is that clear?”

“Crystal clear, sir.”

The bastard.

Derik never figured out why the man had gone the extra distance just to hammer that point home. Looney perfectionist. Almost cartoonish. But Derik had supposed if someone was willing to confront him like that, they deserved at least a little bit of respect.

His opinion of the lieutenant had remained the same even after the man started behaving strangely at the Aquarian-Capricornian border, even after the man requested his trust in the Twin Cities, and even after all the dirt was unburied. To him, the lieutenant was still a straight-laced numbers man who was always at the center of excitement. Looney perfectionist—even loonier after the True Conductor revelation. And, all in all, Derik lived for looney excitement.

But Derik had started to feel odd after Cvetka took them into her tent once they’d escaped Argo into Aquarius—was already feeling odd and more irritable after Vogt kicked the bucket. If it weren’t for Marionette Engel digging her nails into his skin so hard that it had caused him to bleed in that tent, he would have launched himself at Cvetka. In fact, he would’ve shoved Engel to the ground too if he hadn’t suddenly feel so damned tired afterwards.

Shortly after the tent nonsense, he’d started to have odd urges. He never questioned it. Never the type to question any of his urges.

When he felt the urge to grab a beer back in the lieutenant’s hometown even if it meant abandoning his post over Heimler and Engel, he did it anyways. Not like the lieutenant was there to whoop his ass and write him up. When he felt the urge to listen to the new hit artist Alma on the radio when they’d boarded the train to the capital, he’d blasted her music through the train cart. And after he’d witnessed the swindler’s argument with Nico, an all-consuming urge swallowed him completely: Dedicate yourself. Protect the prince.

Back then he hadn’t known why he’d needed to—hadn’t even known who the hell the ‘prince’ really was. He had only known two things: that the prince was on the rooftop of the train and that the prince needed protection. No questions asked. And he’d done just that.

Unlike the other past urges, however, this one didn’t fade. It found home at the back of his head. Dedicate himself. Dedicate.

And so, he’d followed through with the urge over and over again. Kept a close eye on the prince as much as possible. Thought about protecting the prince so much that he’d even dreamed of killing that ELPIS leader Iota who was a danger to him. Even threw himself in danger and dragged the grieving prince out of 43rd Street. And after the prince had passed out after nearly killing Oran, Derik had picked up the royal guard badge that had fallen from the prince’s hands and had pocketed it in hopes of using it as an excuse to return to and protect the prince later.

Frankly, Derik didn’t really care what happened to Capricorn. If stuff got bad, he’d just write a letter home telling his parents to abandon ship and then move elsewhere himself. But. What he did care about was what happened to the prince.


Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

Deep in thought, Derik Stein turned over the Ariesian badge in his hands and rubbed his thumb over its edges. A fucking weird hexagonal shape. 

At the moment, he was sitting ontop of a gray stone bridge leaning against one of the six towers lining the bridge. This bridge—instead of having tall railings like the one they’d just crossed an hour or so ago—had a floral, low-hanging banister that barely went up above the shins. One wrong step and kersplat into the water fountain in the courtyard below. The fountain itself was large, rectangular, and flat with a bronze statue depicting decorated soldiers standing back-to-back and aiming rifle-conductors around the court at its center. Across the courtyard stood another bridge identical to their own.

Beside Derik sat Nico who was staring down with a frown at the black liquid-filled, needle-shaped proto-conductor in his hands. A gift from that nut job ELPIS leader. Across from Derik against the tower opposite sat Dämon Forstchritt who was sandwiched between Brandt and Kleine. Derik still didn’t have any idea of who the hell Forstchritt was. Some conductor engineer? He didn’t get the buzz.

They were all supposed to meet a friend of the captain—the ‘major’ now, although treason probably put a damper on that promotion—but Weingartner had run off to make another phone call to that friend with Second Lieutenant Wolff and Heimler in tow. The captain, despite his gung-ho attitude, was obviously nervous. Derik could tell that the man was going on the fly. But that was Derik’s personal style too.

“What is that…?”

Derik glanced over to find Kleine staring at him. The man had been tasked by the captain to conjure five long-range Projector proto -conductors, three short-ranged melee proto-conductors, and several normal rifles and handguns. Klein had been reading up on proto-conductors ever since the swindler had asked him to make her those proto-conductor rings. Kleine’d even been keeping a small manual about very basic proto-conductors in his chest pocket since then. Sad hobbies. Decent ironic luck.

“What does it look like, Glasses?” Derik snapped. “It’s that royal guard’s insignia. Took it from the prince when he dropped it.”

Kleine paled.

Nico arched a brow. “You… kept it?”

“That’s messed up, Stein,” Brandt muttered.

“You’re the one who’s fucked up,” Derik snapped back. “I’m not the one who shut their mouth about knowing about this shit for months.”

“I already said I don’t know much.” Brandt grimaced. “I just remember vague feelings, Theta and the others, and that we thought we were the last hope left. When the captain, the kid, Engel, and I were all working together to figure out about the energy levels— that was my first time finding out about it too. The feelings finally made sense.”

“Aw, boohoo. You want me to give you a hug and a kiss? Bastard.”

Kleine frowned.

“Hey, stop it, Stein…” Nico interjected. “We’re supposed to be working together.”

“Okay, mafia man.” Derik grimaced. “Brandt aside—don’t even know why Heimler was allowed back. He’swhy we’re stuck like this.” He pointed to the palm of his hand. “Bastard couldn’t pull his weight and dragged us into this shit.”

“Hey, without this mafia man, you would’ve been dead exactly three times over,” Nico retorted. “And if Alwin hadn’t transmuted your face that one time fast enough, you wouldn’t be lookin’ as you do now. But Heimler… Well, he used to be an important person in the military, right? And he’s a member of the Augen too. I’m sure the captain is thinkin’ about his connections and all that.”

“Why’d you end up coming with us anyway, Fabrizzio?” Derik asked, stretching his arms. “You’re buds with that ELPIS leader guy, aren’t you? I saw you talking to him before they left. Thought you were going to jump ship and go with him.”

Nico grimaced before chuckling. “Oh, I wanted to, but Francis said it was too dangerous. He actually told me to take a train home.”

“To the Twin Cities?” Kleine asked.

Nico nodded.

“Why didn’t you…?” Kleine pressed. “I mean, I appreciate you, Nico, but this isn’t your country.” He winced. “I mean—I… don’t understand why you stayed.”

“I can’t do anythin’ for anyone if I go home,” Nico drew. “I can’t help Cadence ‘cause everythin’s all tied to Werner… And Francis is still here lookin’ for that Libran saint candidate too…” He smiled. “And you’re all here. You’re still my patients, so there’s that.”

“Don’t lie, Fabrizzio.” Derik rolled his eyes. “No one’s that saintly. Are you saying if we all went full ‘fuck everyone’ and went along with Alles Für Alle, you’d join us?”

Nico shrugged.

“Staying here versus going home,” Brandt interjected. “Is that what you and Cadence were fighting about?”

Nico forced a smile. “Why? Want to add more to drama stories to your collection?”

Footsteps approached them from up the bridge. Down came Fischer, a proto-conductor rifle swung around his back and a grouchy look on his face.

“You guys talk too loud,” he said as he approached them and then sank beside Derik. He eyed the Ariesian royal badge before reaching for it. “That looks expensive. Have you thought about maybe selling it—”

Derik jerked it away from him with a glare. “Why the hell would I do that?”

Fischer stared. “…It was just a joke, Stein.”

“Where did you run off to anyway?” Derik asked, shoving the badge back into his pants pocket. “That was a long piss break.”

Fischer shrugged before jerking his head towards Brandt. “You’re right about him though. You’re a damned traitor, Brandt.”

“We’re all technically traitors though, aren’t we?” Nico tried. “I mean, I’m not an official Capricornian but part of the deal was me actin’ as a liaison between back home and your government.”

“I’m no traitor,” Fischer muttered.

Damn, Derik thought, Fischer was in one of his pissy moods. He was a fun guy to be around otherwise.

“Do you really think we can pull off a coup?” Fischer asked suddenly. “There’s only what? Seven of us? How will that work?”

“The peacekeepers will help us,” Kleine offered. “After they find that Libran saint candidate, we can save the lieutenant. And then they’ll report into Ophiuchus… Then we can…” He frowned, paling. “The peacekeepers don’t even know about the Kaiser yet.”

“I don’t see why we just don’t find this Scorpio guy and just kill him.” Derik frowned. “That ELPIS guy didn’t even mention going directly after Scorpio. Doesn’t sit with me right—”

“Hey, I know Francis,” Nico almost snapped back. “If Francis didn’t mention it, then either he doesn’t think it’s possible, doesn’t think we’re capable of doin’ it, or thinks that it’s too dangerous.”

“Of course it’s possible.” Derik snorted. “Where’s your head, Fabrizzio? Anything can be killed.”

Instead of responding, Nico held up the needle-shaped proto-conductor. “I was thinkin’ maybe we can somehow use this to tell the peacekeepers and Francis that the Kaiser is in on it too. Francis said he could hear through it sometimes.”

“Nah, Nico, you saw that light show when we were below. It’s too bright,” Derik said, waving the idea off. “It’ll draw attention if you use it.”

“Yeah… I know.”

‘Peacekeepers’ll save us’ is wishful thinking anyway,” Fischer scoffed. “The peacekeepers don’t care what happens to us. They just want to hammer us down with more restrictions. They’ll just dismantle everything we’ve worked for as a country and leave us to clean up the mess.” He looked around. “I’m sure when the lieutenant comes back, he’d probably want to go along with what the Kaiser and the generals are saying….”

Nico frowned. “ What…?! What makes you think that…? He’s where he is now because of the Manipulator.”

“Well, he’s a Capricornian through and through,” Fischer argued. “He’d understand that his sacrifice was an honest mistake, and he’d want to make up for keeping this True Conductor thing a secret.”

“‘Sacrifice’? What the fuck?” Derik arched a brow. “Why do you kiss his ass so much?”

“I don’t—”

“You think people like their ass being kissed all the time?” Derik snorted. “The only time ass-kissing is good is when—”

“Don’t go any further than that,” Brandt interjected.

“I’m just saying.” Fischer nodded at Kleine. “Weingartner gave you those papers about the whole Alles Für Alle order, right?”

Kleine placed a hand over his chest pocket. “Yes… Why?”

“I mean, you’ve read it,” Fischer continued. “The Kaiser has good intentions, and he’s doing what he thinks is… resourceful. It’s…. just gotten a little out of hand. He’s doing his best.”

Kleine stared. “Fischer, do you even hear yourself?”

“I’m just saying. The Augen was already here before they started this project. I mean, the Augen aredomestic terrorists, so he’s just using what he can to support the country.”

“Fischer, he’s making it worse,” Brandt pressed. “This could’ve all just ended with a protest and some paperwork, but look. Now there’s a curfew and restrictions. Look at what happened at the hospital and the border. Just because they want more.”

“Because the people need more—”

“If you’re gonna bitch all the time, why are you even here, Fischer?” Derik sighed.

“I’m just trying to see how they’re seeing it. That’s all,” Fischer explained. “I mean… We’re all gonna die. We might as well give back what we can to the country and the people who’re here after us. And it’s not like we haven’t contributed to the plan already—”

“Well, yeah, we’re all gonna die.” Derik snorted. “But I’d rather die on my own terms instead of being turned into light sludge.”

Brandt nodded. “Returning the cycle is a natural part of the universe. Becoming part of a reservoir—the cycle can’t continue to its fullest. And… being in that state—it’s… probably agony or something.”

The hell. Brandt was too much now.

“I wonder…” Kleine murmured, paling as he stared at the ground. “I wonder what’s going on down there. Below 43rd…”

Fischer frowned.

Nico glanced at him. “You didn’t see that thing, Fischer. I’ve seen a fair share of people bleedin’ out and dyin’ from all types of things… but I’ve never seen someone die like that before. That royal guard… Trystan… I think he was just a kid.” He looked away. “Do you know how amazin’ it is that we’re all even still alive? I’m not talkin’ just about the fact that we’ve made it out of a lot of skirmishes. I mean, there’re so many things that can go wrong in our bodies—heart attacks, blood clots, all that—but we’re still here despite that. And havin’ it be put out so quickly… I think it’s easy to forget sometimes. A human life is a valuable thing. Not some energy source.”

“You’ve always been soft,” Fischer muttered.

“Maybe I am,” Nico agreed, “but I’m also from the Twin Cities. Altruism, loyalty, and dedication is a thing there—believe it or not. But even the most altruistic person there’ll know and stop when they’re bleedin’ themselves dry for someone else.” He hesitated. “I know I’m probably speakin’ where I shouldn’t, but that’s where I see it.”

Fischer grimaced. “So you’re for being selfish—”

“You all need to shut the hell up with the philosophy,” Derik grumbled. “You’re putting me to sleep.”

Chuckling, Nico looked to the sky which was just beginning to become colored purple from the sun rising somewhere. He frowned. “Maybe this is all a sign that we’ve been relyin’ on conductors too much. Maybe we need to move to something else.”

“Funny hearing that from you, mafia man.” Derik snorted. “I’m not giving up my conductor and the other countries sure as hell aren’t either.”

“But… isn’t it weird?” Kleine murmured. “How are we just finding out about all of this now? How come this vitae-level thing hasn’t made the news yet? Not just in Capricorn, but everywhere else too.”

“We should just leave this to the guys on top.” Derik yawned, bored again. “The Ariesian prince and the Sagittarian. The peacekeepers. We’re just laymen. Pick a guy we like to follow and mindlessly obey and have fun while we’re at it.”

The conversation lapsed into silence.

Derik peered around the tower and down into the courtyard on a whim. Shadows swept across the ground below causing him to tense before relaxing. Crossing the dark courtyard below them were Weingartner, Heimler, and Gilbert. Seeing them in all of that empty, quiet darkness in such an open space put Derik on edge. In a good way.

Suddenly, a click-clack, click-clack echoed just behind the three men causing them all to stiffen. Out from below the arches of the bridge opposite stepped a woman with a wreath of golden hair that almost looked like a lion’s mane. A monochrome suit clung to her figure, and a white armband was barely visible around her arm. Derik could barely make them out, but there was another peacekeeper on her left and a military police officer on her right.

Weingartner, Heimler, and Gilbert remained stiff in place as they turned towards her. The woman, in turn, reached for her waist and drew out a bladeless conductor.

Gritting his teeth, Derik signaled for Kleine who threw him a rifle proto-conductor. Kleine offered the same to Fischer who accepted it hesitantly.

Burning gold light consumed the square as the peacekeeper’s blade conductor ignited. Derik felt the warmth even from his vantage point and winced at the brightness.

“What are you doing out here?” the peacekeeper asked. “There’s a curfew.” She reached into her pocket and flashed a badge at them. “First Chairwoman of the ELPIS Investigations Department. Leona.”

The ELPIS Department?

Derik tensed.

They were being manipulated then, weren’t they? And the second lieutenant said that the chairwoman of the ELPIS Department was a ‘tower.’ So if this woman was connected to the Manipulator, why the hell was she acting like she didn’t know Weingartner? It was like it was a game. Wait—how the hell had she found them here?

“Is there a curfew?” Weingartner asked, brows furrowed. “I had no idea. We just arrived in the city recently—”

Leona spun the conductor in her hand and pointed it at the captain. “I’ll have to cut you down to get to Forstchritt then.”

Shit.

Derik charged his rifle proto-conductor, poked his head around the tower, aimed, prepared to fire—

—before the blade conductor that was in Leona’s hand hurtled right towards him.

He barely had the time to pull back into cover as it sheared past where his face once was and then embedded into the opposite tower just above Kleine’s head. He caught a glimpse of a blue vein pulsating through the golden vitae of the blade before it deactivated and clattered to the ground.

In a quiet panic, Kleine and Brandt dragged Forstchritt over to the wall beside Derik. At the same time, a high-pitched whine screeched through the air. When Derik peeked his head around the corner again, he found that Leona and Gilbert were locked—conducting blade against proto-conducting blade. Sparks of gold, dark blue, and gray erupted in the dark. Past these blinding sparks, Derik could see that while Gilbert was pushing down on Leona with both hands, Leona was keeping him at bay with just one.

“Proto-conductor,” Leona deadpanned.

Weingartner conjured a rifle and aimed it at her. Before he could fire, Leona reached for another bladeless conductor hanging at her waist, activated it, and threw it at him. Heimler activated his own blade proto-conductor and knocked it out of the air only to have to block another golden blade hurtling towards him and another one and another one. Leona seemed to have an infinite amount of conductors on her belt. One after the other.

This was ridiculous. Her strength didn’t seem human.

After reloading the rifle, Weingartner fired it off at her again but she plucked two blades from her belt—one conducting and one regular combat knife—and threw them at both Heimler and him. Heimler barely managed to block the incoming conducting blade, but the combat knife sheared through Weingartner’s uniform with such force that it pinned him against the tower wall below by the cloth of his shoulder. Still, the captain managed to fire his rifle at the police officer who had conjured a rifle of his own and was taking aim at Heimler. The officer flew backwards off of his feet at the impact and hit the ground dead.

Shit, Derik thought. The captain had just killed a military police officer.

Drawing out a blade conductor at this sight, the other peacekeeper who had come with Leona stormed towards Heimler, who was barely holding his ground against Leona’s onslaught. Weingartner fired off his shotgun at the approaching peacekeeper in response, but the man sliced the bullets out of the air with a spin of his blade. Derik aimed at the man instead and fired. A ray of electric blue lit up the dark before a burst of red splattered across the courtyard. The peacekeeper fell forward motionless.

Shit, Derik thought again. He’d just killed a peacekeeper… This was great. What was not great was that Leona was beginning to beat her blade down over and over again on Gilbert who was beginning to bow beneath the force. Also not great: peeling out from beneath the bridge across them came ten—no twenty, thirty—figures. Fifteen in peacekeeper uniforms, ten in military police uniforms, and five in what looked like civilian wear. Augen members? Half of them aimed rifle conductors up at where Derik was stowed away with the others behind the tower before they began to fire in quick succession.

Derik peeled back and listened as the brick of the tower rumbled with each hit.

Damnit. They had a vantage point from up here but here they were being outnumbered again. Just like back in Argo—

A howl abruptly tore through the open square. It came down with such gravity that everyone in the square was forced to their knees then to their stomachs. The wind—like a hand—swept Gilbert and Heimler to the side away from Leona and then Leona’s back-up to the side towards the opposite bridge. Flecks of blue light pulsated in the air in the aftermath. Derik followed these flecks upwards and found the Sagittarian prince perched on a staff conductor high above the ground.

What the fuck?

A whoosh of cold air tickled the back of his neck followed by a soft tap. Derik immediately whipped around, aiming his conductor, but—

A man wearing a frowning wooden mask stood above him with arms raised.

“I am with the young prince,” the masked man spoke in Common with a deep, rumbling voice. “My name is Felix. We are here to assist you.”

Derik frowned. “Your name sounds Aquarian.”

Felix stiffened before he continued over the howling winds: “The prince has had us watching over you. He wants physical proof of what has been happening in this country.” He turned to Kleine. “You have those papers. Give them to me so I can take them to the prince.”

Kleine pulled back. “What…? I… I can’t give this to you. We need this. It’s evidence against the Kaiser.”

Felix reached for Kleine, only to be stopped with a hand around the wrist by Brandt. Felix tensed at this and studied Brandt before saying, “You must give it to us. That’s why we’re offering you our aid.”

“Your aid?” Fischer glowered. “You just want political leverage. You Sagittarians want to get back for what happened during the border conflict.”

“You don’t look like you’ve even got enough people for backup,” Derik scoffed.

“The rest of the prince’s vassals are watching over the young princess and are preparing to leave this country,” Felix admitted. “We will do the same once we have a hold of the information. Soha and I are… the only ones with the prince, unfortunately.”

So the Sagittarians were going to leave them high-and-dry in the end, Derik figured. Not everyone could be crazy like Nico and the prince and ignore border lines.

“The prince sent one vassal to deliver the news we overheard about your Kaiser to the peacekeepers,” Felix continued. “I’m sure they will help you the rest of the way.”

Ignoring Felix, Derik peered around the tower and down into the courtyard again just in time to see a yellow-blue vitae ray hurtle out from nowhere and strike the staff-conductor Claire was perched on.

The prince plummeted in an instant.

Felix let out a cry of alarm, before launching himself off the floral balcony. He tackled the prince out of the air and gripped him as he stretched out his hand to the ground and conjured something in a burst of lilac light. A series of thick mattresses—of all things—formed beneath them. The duo bounced off one cushion then another as they hit the ground. Eventually, they bounced off of the mattresses and onto the brick yard before rolling to a stop.

“Felix!” Claire snapped. “I told you to stay away!”

“B-But—”

“I see you’re scared of losing your servants after seeing what happened to the royal guard,” Leona drew, “but you still put them into this position because of your greed.” She chuckled. “You may be a prince, but you’re still a child. And you still have the arrogance of a child.”

Claire chuckled, seemingly nervous, as Felix released him. He picked himself off the ground before saying, “That’s a rude thing to say to a prince of Sagittarius, Miss Leona. I know I’m one in fifty, but I’d like to think that everyone deserves respect.”

Felix conjured another staff conductor in a flash of lilac light without even breaking a sweat.

Claire’s sheepish smile thinned into a sly one as he accepted the staff and pointed it at her. He then drew out something from his pocket. A pair of cuffs. Suppression cuffs. “That and you said that you had to leave me be, right?”

Leona stared at him, expression darkening. “I respect your passion for your country, but—”

In the blink of an eye, she’d drawn out a small bladeless conductor, activated it, and threw it—not at Claire but—at Felix who barely managed to conjure up a thick, square block of metal to catch it. The blade burned through the barrier and pierced through the opposite side, but the block had slowed it enough so that Felix could dodge away.

“—your ‘things’ don’t fall under that category.”

A cyan blade hurtled out from below their bridge and towards Leona who quickly blocked it with a vitae-blade drawn out from her waist. The cyan conductor ricocheted back to below the bridge where a figure wearing a porcelain mask caught it and stepped out into the dim light.

Then came the rain of vitae enemy fire. It showered down into the courtyard, only skirting around Leona, the prince, and Felix. The rays then moved up to pound against and batter Derik’s cover tower. The brick structure rumbled with the impacts.

Derik could barely peer around the corner and make out the direction the barrage without meeting a faceful of vitae-rays. It was coming from in-between the floral banisters of the bridge opposite of them. The thirty or so peacekeepers, officers, and civilians had taken up residence there.

With effort, Derik peeked down into the courtyard:

Weingartner ripped himself free from the knife pinning him to the wall and ran at Heimler and Gilbert who were just beginning to pick themselves off the ground. He conjured up a large wall of metal just before vitae rays pounded them. The porcelain-masked figure dove for his cover as well, pausing only momentarily before leaping out and towards Leona, Felix, and Claire.

The clash between the quadrad was dizzying.

Leona would throw a vitae-blade at either Felix or the porcelain-masked person, and Claire would quickly send out a burst of air from his conductor to blow it away. In Claire’s momentary distraction, Leona would rush forward and grab at him only to be pushed back by a slash of a cyan vitae blade or a bang of a conjured gun—all of which she either dodged or blocked with ease. An endless loop. The only thing that changed was that the Sagittarians’ movements were getting sluggish with each maneuver.

Seeming to notice the decline, Gilbert peered around the conjured blockade and fired multiple rounds from Weingartner’s rifle at Leona but she easily rendered the bullets useless with a slash of her blade.

Oh, this was bad.

And Derik loved it.

He waited for a slow in the vitae-ray barrage before whipping around and firing wildly across the open space. One of his rays hit a shadowy figure peering out from the floral display on the bridge opposite. The figure, conducting rifle still in hand, fell off the bridge and cracked against the ground below. Derik grinned but the victory was short-lived. The vitae-ray barrage restarted. It even seemed to intensify.

Damn.

Derik chanced a glance around the corner again and fired one more blast before he peeled back and turned to the others beside him. Nico was holding Forstchritt tightly in place while Brandt and Kleine were both peering over the opposite corner of the tower and aiming rifle proto-conductors down into the courtyard. But Fischer—Fischer who was always one of the first ones to charge headfirst into battle no matter the amount of fire—was pressed back against the wall and staring straight ahead. Stiff, unmoving.

What…?

Then realization dawned on Derik—”You piece of shit, Fischer…. You fucking called them here, didn’t you?”

The pounding of vitae rays against the brick of the tower resounded behind them deafeningly.

Fischer tensed before swallowing. “I… I did what was right for all of us. We have to follow what the Kaiser says. For the people. The country. Do you think that we became the country we are today by not following orders? I’m doing this for all of you!”

Kleine stared. “Fischer…”

Fischer paled then snarled, “This is what it means to be a Capricornian!”

Derik growled, grabbed one of the stray blade proto-conductors off the floor, and filled it with vitae. He rose to a stand and pointed the blade at Fischer before freezing.

Everyone was staring at him. No, staring at the proto-conductor in his hands: the verdigris shade of vitae that emerged from the blade was veined over by pulsating dark blue light.

“That’s just like that peacekeeper’s…” Fischer stammered. “Stein, you’re infected.”

Derik’s head spun.

What? When? He didn’t have a tattoo. How long? He felt fine. Was he—

“Derik…” Nico whispered. “It’s okay. Just calm down. We can figure this out.”

No. That didn’t matter. What mattered was that Fischer was a damned bootlicking coward who’d just sold them out to the people who were hunting and hurting the prince. And Derik had to protect the prince.

With a roar, he launched himself at Fischer. Nico tackled him to the side, but Derik kicked him back against the wall. The black, liquid-filled proto-conductor that was in Nico’s pocket flew out, shattered on the ground beside him, and spewed out black liquid that began to pulsate with pale orange light. A dark head emerged from the glow. But it wasn’t Geminian poet ELPIS leader. Instead, a man with a pair of square glasses, a mustache, and a military police gorget hanging from his neck popped out from the light. The man scanned the area before locking eyes with Forstchritt.

“Wait!” Brandt shouted, lunging for the woman.

The mustached man conjured a pistol out from the bloody gash on his palm and fired blindly in Brandt’s direction causing Brandt to jerk back. The man then grabbed Forstchritt’s leg and dragged her back into the portal with him. Brandt and Kleine lunged for her but it was too late. The glowing light swallowed her whole before dimming back into black.

Not caring for this happening, Derik launched himself back at Fischer with a growl. Fischer scrambled backwards and grabbed a hold of another stray blade proto-conductor. He filled it and activated it just before Derik brought his own proto-conductor down on him.

Sparks of dark blue, yellow-green, and verdigris erupted between them. The dark blue cracks on his conductor spilled onto Fischer’s but didn’t consume the man’s entire blade. But that didn’t matter to Derik. He pushed down and down and reveled as Fischer began to bow beneath him. But—

“What is with all of this fighting?”

—just as Derik was about to deliver one last push through, he caught the upward swing of someone’s leg out of the corner of his eye. A sharp jolt shot through the hilt of his proto-conductor, sending it out of his hand and soaring through the air along with Fischer’s proto-conductor. The silhouette that had kicked up the blade stepped out from the cover of the tower and into the open vitae barrage.

It was the lieutenant—the prince—who proceeded to pluck Fischer’s proto-conductor out of the air.

“Olive?!” Nico shouted.

Derik stared at the sight incredulously before he saw an oncoming vitae ray hurtle at the prince from across the courtyard—“Look out!”

Without any worry, the prince swung the blade conductor out like it was a bat. A thunderous boom rang out as the incoming vitae ray cracked against the blade and ricocheted back where it came from. It struck its owner head-on, causing them to fall forward down into the courtyard dead.

Definitely not the prince.

Laughter filled the air as not-prince-nor-the-lieutenant bounced on their heels and twirled the proto-conductor in their hand. The jubilation was a disturbing sight since Derik had just seen the prince sobbing his eyes out over the royal guard only hours before.

“Did you see that? That was amazing, yes?” The newcomer chuckled before glancing at Derik with an unnervingly blinding smile. “You need help, yes?”

At that moment, the sun rose up in the distance and enshrined the newcomer’s head in a halo of golden light—nearly dwarfing the light emitting from Leona’s golden conductors below.


Threshold

The Kaiser’s office blinked out of existence, as did his mother. In its place, the black abyss opened back up around him.

“Werner?!”

Still on all fours, Werner grimaced up to find Shion staring in horror at him from across the glowing divide. Lavi ghosted his side, kneeling down beside him. She spoke, but her words were garbled and unclear.

He continued to pant as he stared down into the black below him. The endless empty space around him accentuated the pain pounding his skull and chest. The thoughts and feelings had stopped, but he could still feel them squirming around inside.

He couldn’t pull himself together—no, he had to.

Calm down. Think. It wasn’t real.

Just as he calmed his breathing and approached a sense of clarity, a crimson light sauntered down from above and consumed him with fiery intensity. Flashes and memories bombarded his mind, burning into the back of his retinas with scalding intensity.

Extending a helping hand to the medical train. The conversation with Iota. The painstaking calculations that revealed the unseen truth. “Small goal after small goal.” Going beneeath 43rd. Brandt’s revelation followed by learning about saint candidates from Francis. And then Trystan and Marta, merging into a glowing mess beneath 43rd Street. 

The details filled in. The picture became clear.

Olive’s anguish swirled in Werner’s chest and pulled it down like a heavy weight—

No. Calm down. Think.

As soon as Werner grasped and suppressed those feelings, a pulsating pain began at his shoulder before spreading to his chest. When he looked down, he found dark blue glowing cracks spreading along his upper chest.

A voice rumbled out from the area:

Olivier Chance. Born March 30th. Blood type A. Vision 20/20 in both eyes. Height, 164 cm. Weight, 55.2 kg. Left-handed. Personality-type, ESFJ-T. Parents, dead. Sibling, younger sister, awakened and possibly dead.

Occupation, none. Prince of Aries and rightful heir to the throne. Wants to be a conductor engineer.”

The pain intensified until suddenly a pale hand burst out from the cracks on his chest, followed by another hand.

“Described by Ariesian socialites as ‘easily manipulated, apathetic, workable, rude.’ Described by royal palace staff as ‘uncouth, sharp-tongued, unappreciative.’ Described by ‘close’ associates as ‘passionate, headstrong, compassionate, naïve, curious.’

Unusual activity: involvement with Gamma and the Capricornian Watch in assassination attempt, association with True Conductor Yuseong Haneul, and association with the former saint candidate of Sagittarius.

Probability of being a True Conductor, 100%.

Probability of disrupting syzygy, 75%. Reason: impulsivity, connections, intellect, and altruistic nature.”

Together both pale hands clawed and dragged at the air—pulling themselves out further and further—until a pale figure emerged from his chest and stepped out into the abyss. As the figure surveyed the area, the glowing cracks on his chest resealed and faded as if they’d never been there.

“Hm… I’ve always wondered what it’s like to be down here and still conscious,” his mother hummed. She paused once she registered Lavi, who had risen to a stand and taken a step back. “Oh, I was wondering about you, Aries.”

“You’re going too far…” Lavi said, eyes narrowed, embers dancing at her feet. “Leave him be. And if you put another hand on my brother—”

“That wasn’t me that time.” His mother chuckled. “That was all the prince.” She studied Lavi’s face for a moment before sighing. “Aw, did you think that your older brother was just a kind-hearted, innocent saint this entire time? Is that what they call childish ignorance?”

“Don’t belittle me…” Lavi frowned. “You’re killing them.”

“You sound attached, and that’s not a bad thing. But you do know there’ll always be more True Conductors if we wait around long enough. Then again, this group seems like they’ll hold up in channeling the syzygy, so it would be a shame if they died—I mean look at how many of them there are!” His mother peered down at him before resting a heavy hand on his head. “Besides, I’m helping them. Suppressing who you truly are is—”

“Don’t touch him!”

His mother paused before straightening and staring past the divide towards Shion. “Oh… It’s you! I was wondering who kept pulling him away from me. I couldn’t figure out why Werner thought that he could somehow escape from all this…” She leaned down and whispered into his ear, “I guess she was trying to make you focus on a goal so you wouldn’t crumble immediately. Maybe she even got Aries in on the lie.”

Shion paled.

“You realized it after our conversation, haven’t you?” 

Yes, it was perfectly clear.

“Everything you’re doing here is meaningless. You’re going through these memories because I’mmaking you go through them. Going through them is exactly what I want you to do, and you’ve been obeying without hesitation.” She smiled. “It’s impossible for you to remove me on your own. You’re inefficient—possibly even a little pathetic. This wouldn’t have happened if you didn’t go out of line and save that man—Friedhelm Heimler. You’re a leader—a shepherd—aren’t you? There’s no point in keeping a lame dog or sheep.”

“Haven’t you done enough already?!” Shion snapped, voice wavering. “ Stop it!” She turned to Werner, eyes wide and almost tearful. “Werner, don’t listen to that thing! It doesn’t know you.”

He didn’t even know himself. 

Werner had a conversation not too long ago with his subordinates about how they felt towards their service. Usually, he wouldn’t partake in small side-chatter since he didn’t find value in it, but on that day he did. He’d already known their reasonings from his personal deductions, but hearing them speak it out loud was different: Vogt and Bergmann wanted to support their families with the stipend and give back to their country; Fischer wanted to prove that he could accomplish something beyond the ‘average’ label the military had placed on him for his country; Derik wanted excitement; and Kleine, much similarly to Gilbert, just wanted to get through it. And when they had all asked Werner his reasoning in turn and he had given him the same answer he’d given his superiors—“it’s simply the duty of a Capricornian to give back to the country they’re living in”—all of them aside from Fischer had jokingly asked him what he really was serving for. In other words, they didn’t find his answer sufficient as a leader. 

But he didn’t need to know ‘why’. Appearances were what was important. Those small details were not. Because without the opinions of others, he was nothing. He had to uphold it. But the man that his subordinates saw and the person that the other five saw—there was an incongruency there that needed to be rectified. 

No, no, no!

“No, I said stop it!” Shion screeched, startling Werner from his daze. “Leave him alone. Leave them all alone!”

Something akin to panicked anguish ripped through his chest. It was a feeling he was somewhat certain was not his own.

“You’ve probably realized it about her too, haven’t you?”

“She’s a True Conductor…”

“Not just any True Conductor.” His mother sank to his side and pointed across the divide. “I can’t believe I didn’t realize it way back then… Say, Werner, didn’t you find it strange that your group was able to communicate so quickly with one another right when your connection began?”

“Wait, stop,” Shion whispered, now even paler.

“You learned from Olive that Aries being here should be impossible, right? There shouldn’t have been enough room.”

There was a beat of silence.

“Shion Myosotis was a True Conductor connected to all of you.”

17.[]: Captain, 1930 Förderung

Re-cap:

Captain Volker Weingartner has successfully transported Marionette Engel and Werner Waltz to the capital as ordered by the Kaiser. He drops them off at the conductor convention and temporarily leaves to make a phone call. However, when he returns…


Förderung » Promotion given at 1930 hours.

Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

“Where… are they?”

The question was barely audible above the commotion echoing around the dome building of the convention.

Kleine and Fischer exchanged looks. Heimler and Marionette remained silent. The group was sitting collectively, stiffly together on the black leather cushions lining the reception area as civilians, diplomats, and conductor engineers rushed around in the background. The convention staff were righting fallen conductors and restabilizing toppled tables. Some even were making futile attempts to sweep the glass that had fallen in from the dome window.

“I-I’m sorry, sir,” Fischer stammered, standing at attention. “The… there was an earthquake. It was chaotic. Everyone was gone before I knew what happened.”

Captain Volker Weingartner pinched the bridge of his nose. He was starting to have a migraine.

It wasn’t like he couldn’t see the irony in the situation: his top-performing subordinate was currently the centerpiece of all of his problems.

He had just made a trip several blocks down to make a phone call from an old booth that had been installed a year before the end of the Reservoir War. He had been made aware the last time he was here in the capital that it still had not yet been connected with the capital’s main communication grid—which meant that it could not be tapped. Although he had to leave a brief message with the maid of the person he was trying to reach instead of speaking with them directly, he had felt that he had a bit more of a handle on the situation. He’d made his way back to the convention building in confidence—despite the earthquake and chaos—only to find that his naivety had gotten the better of him.

A squeaking resounded from behind him, followed by a question from a familiar voice: “Are you all alright? First earthquake I’ve ever experienced. Always thought they were more of a Taurus and Scorpio thing.”

Weingartner turned and found Ludwig Waltz, Werner’s elder brother, approaching them. He personally held the man in high regard. In fact, he held anyone who dedicated their life to service in high regard, especially those who had served during the Reservoir War. He just hoped Ludwig held himself in the same

“Oh, Ludwig,” Weingartner greeted him cordially, “it’s good to see that you’re alright. I didn’t realize you would be here. Are your mother and sister alright?”

“They’re shaken up, but they’re fine,” Ludwig replied, scanning his face with narrowed eyes. “Is everything alright here? Werner just up and disappeared. Where did he go? Did something happen?”

Weingartner paused. It felt cruel lying to family, but still he said, “There’s no need to worry. Werner is just—”

“Hello!” came a sudden cheerful chirp.

Upon turning, Volker found a man dressed in a crisp, dull periwinkle military police officer uniform standing at attention behind him.

“Police Inspector Leonhard Zwingli, sir!” the man sang. “Reporting in to pick you up to meet the chancellery cabinet and the Kaiser!”

Although he was caught off-guard, Volker nodded. “At ease, Zwingli. Unfortunately, we’ve run into an issue—”

“Oh, there’s no issue,” Zwingli hummed. “No issue at all.”

And then Volker saw it. 

A tattoo of a scorpion crawled up the Zwingli’s face from the nape of his neck. It rested on his cheek for a moment before crawling back down and hiding behind the collar of his uniform.

“Captain…” Kleine, now standing, whispered faintly. “That’s just like…”

Zwingli clasped his hands together. “Like I said, I’m here to take you to the Kaiser and the chancellery cabinet. They’ll be absolutely happy to answer any questions you have when I get you there!”

“What was that…?” Ludwig stared at the man’s cheek.

Oh, hello, Ludwig! Still trying to be covert? Zwingli beamed, causing the addressed man to tense.

“How do you know my name…? What are you talking about—”

“Let’s not pretend that we all don’t know what’s going on,” Zwingli tutted. “Faking ignorance is like being not true to yourself, and not being true to yourself is the worst thing you can do for yourself. Anywho, you’re not important right now.” He turned back to Volker with a grin. “Captain, will you, your men, and your ‘guests’ join me?”

* * *

As they stepped out from the convention, they were met with a street cluttered with glass and metalwork that once decorated the top of buildings. Some of the overhanging wire cables of a v-tram parked in the distance had snapped, and the wires now dangled dangerously in the air—sparking at the tips.

Fischer and Kleine looked around with varying degrees of apprehension, while Heimler and Engel looked on with little alarm.

Personally, the sight reminded Weingartner vaguely of how this city looked during the Reservoir War. The chaos, the tension. Back then there were barricades set up around the city blocks and insulating cables running through every street. Pillars of smoke and obliterated buildings resulting from grenades gifted by zipping air Elementalists were common then too. So this—as terrible as it was—didn’t disturb him one least bit.

As he followed behind Zwingli with his men in step behind him, Weingartner began, “The earthquake—”

Zwingli threw his head back and laughed as they passed by a group of military police officers herding a confused-looking woman with straw-blonde hair off of the street. Yes, the earthquake! The earthquake! Instead of elaborating, he craned his neck and flashed a smile. “You used to be a teacher, right, Volker?”

Weingartner tensed. “Yes, I was… How did you know—”

“Oh, I looked into you. You’re a little bit important…? Yes, you’re a little bit important to someone who’s very, very important to me.” He smiled back at the others. “All of you are.”

Was he referring to… Waltz?

Weingartner tried cautiously, “Are you the Manipulator?”

Zwingli barked a laugh. “No, I’m not the Manipulator. I’m just an offshoot containing a spore, but I’m also the Manipulator talking through the offshoot. It’s sort of weird when I do this when I’m somewhere else because the current goes two ways. It’s harder than you’d think. Of course, Zwingli—me—won’t remember any of this later. It’ll be more or less a dream. So don’t be weird if you see me later, alright?”

Spore? Offshoot? Whatever those things were, one thing was clear. This man was in a manic state.

“But you know, Captain, I’ve always wanted to be a teacher too! Wanted to be one ever since I was younger, but my family said that all the time I’d invest wouldn’t be worth the pay. I knew they were looking out for me so I decided to continue serving even after my required years were up. But you know what…” Zwingli stared at a group of children being guided into one of the wood-laced buildings to the left. I’ve decided recently that I’m going to become a teacher. No matter what. I haven’t spoken to my family in two months now. I’m not going to let anything stop me.

They passed a series of buildings with shattered windows that had once been painted over with the Augen’s eye symbol in blue.

“Do you have any teaching tips for me, Captain? Oh, what kind of classroom do you prefer?” Zwingli pressed. “A classroom that promotes individualism or collectivism? Which works better? It’s always so hard to tell. Individualism can lead to new ideas and rapid progress, but it also can lead to rebellion and selfishness that can also hinder that progress. No one wants a show-off star student. On the other hand, collectivism is more supportive and steadier. It can be a bit fast too but then again it can turn into the majority versus the minority. Oh, I don’t know. Maybe the best choice is just to give up…” He grimaced. “No, no, I can’t give up. I have to become a teacher.”

“I respect individuality,” Weingartner replied slowly, somewhat concerned at the man’s erratic behavior.

Zwingli brightened. “But you had to shift that way of thinking once you became a military officer, right? You can’t have individuality when you have to have everyone listening to exactly what you say—oh, speaking of which! How about discipline? How did you discipline your students? Your subordinates?”

Discipline?

“In my opinion, you have to beat it without break until it breaks,” Zwingli raved. “I think that’s the best way to go when you have someone hard and stubborn. Exhaustion’ll eventually exacerbate the fine hair-line cracks that exist in every single thing. Everything breaks. Everyone breaks. And then after it breaks…”

“I don’t think human beings and objects are equivalent,” Weingartner interjected.

“Right, right. Of course, I believe in letting everyone do what they want to do,” Zwingli continued. But it’s irritating when they swear that they’re going to do something but then backtrack and say ‘nevermind’, or if they don’t dedicate themselves to it fully. What’s the point in that? Don’t say it and don’t think it if you’re not going to do it! Where’s the passion? Why won’t they take the final step? Their lives are so fragile—what’s the point in holding back?”

Zwingli stopped short, still grinning, and gestured up.

The chancellery building loomed before them. It stood tall with pointed spires and walls made of firm gray-brown bricking. Its entrance was guarded by a flight of steps at the top of which Geminianesque gray, thick pillars held up an extended roof. The small black flags bearing the Capricornian symbol that hung from poles and that went up the steps were overshadowed by the large Capricornian banner that hung down from the building’s pointed roof.

Zwingli led them into the building which was filled with subdued chatter and the constant ringing of phones. Eventually, he guided them into an empty marble-tiled hall with walls lined with black-and-white photographs. Past Kaisers, sitting tall and firm.

At the end of the hall, they reached a pair of wooden doors and came to a stop.

“Just the Captain and the Augen leader,” Zwingli chirped.

Weingartner gave the other men a nod and stepped into the room with Marionette behind him. Zwingli followed in behind them and closed the door tightly.

The Kaiser’s main communications office was the epitome of woodwork that was highlighted by the gray light barely shining in through the drawn curtains. The walls were made of glossy cedar. The central, elongated table at the center of the room was made of dull mahogany. And at that table sat a row of wizened, graying military officers—generals—decorated with medals and ribbons that consumed their entire chests. It wasn’t a very practical thing to wear if out in the field; but in this civilian setting, they all looked impressive. At the very end of the table sat a man with dark combed-back hair and cloudy gray eyes upon which one monocle rested. He had a stout but young face and a well-trimmed mustache. This man was more decorated than all of those who sat at the table despite his youth.

Grand Kaiser Kafke Netzche.

His presence carried with it a domineering pressure.

Behind the Kaiser stood a woman who looked vaguely familiar. A white lab coat hung over her thin frame, and her eyes were narrowed as if in amusement. Moon-shaped earrings—seemingly made of paper—dangled from her ears.

Weingartner immediately stood at attention with a salute. His heart hammered in the silence that followed, and he watched anxiously as Zwingli moved to stand behind the Kaiser and beside the woman.

“At ease, Volker,” the Kaiser said, voice deep and rumbling like the earthquake that had shaken through the entire city.

Weingartner straightened and folded his hands behind his back.

“You’ve done well delivering First Lieutenant Werner Waltz and Marionette Engel to the capital,” the Kaiser said, peering at Volker through his monocle. “Given the volatility of Waltz’s situation, it’s understandable that the situation has gone out of your control. Still, the criterion was met. I’ll have the generals sign off that you completed the mission.”

“I’m not sure about Werner Waltz’s position at the moment,” Weingartner reported. “I can conduct a search myself—”

“There’s no need. We’ve lost contact with him temporarily too, but we know generally where he is,” the Kaiser replied.

Apprehension built in Weingartner’s stomach.

“Sir, may I ask a question?” he asked after a beat.

“Go ahead.”

“Am I correct in saying that you’re aware of True Conductors?”

The woman behind the Kaiser chuckled.

“Yes, I’m aware of them,” the Kaiser replied. “And since you’re clearly wondering, I’m not being manipulated, but I am working with this ‘Manipulator’ that you and your subordinates have been theorizing about. I’d like for you to refer to him as Scorpio from now on. Calling him just a Manipulator is rude. He’s the Saint Candidate of Scorpio, and you should treat him with respect.”

The information came so suddenly that Weingartner at first thought he’d misheard. But as he registered the Kaiser’s and the generals’ calm, stony expressions, the weight of reality sank in. Marionette stood stiff beside him, eyes narrowed, fists balled.

That truthfully wasn’t what Weingartner had wanted to hear at all. The case of the Kaiser being manipulated was a much easier pill to swallow and more manageable than this alternative.

The Kaiser folded his hands together. “But I’ll tell you this. At the moment, I’m actually considered a ‘tower’ for Scorpio. The thoughts of about one-fourth of the ones being manipulated flow first through me and then to him. That way, I help relieve some of the burden off Scorpio. I am still fully aware of myself.” He motioned for the woman standing behind him. “Dämon, please share the order documents with Marionette and Volker.”

The woman—Dämon Forstchritt—rounded the table and handed him and Marionette one packet of stapled papers each. She walked back to stand behind the Kaiser as Weingartner scanned the minimal text on the front page.

Executive Order 783: Alles Für Alle 

Due to the imminent need of vitae supply from reservoirs throughout the country, the Alles Für Alle Order has been decreed.

Procurement 1: Internal Vitae Self-Rejuvenation. Vitae-harvesting from the border through conflict with the country of Argo has been deemed insufficient in supplying the appropriate amount of vitae for the current needs. Therefore, further harvesting through utilizing the conflict caused by the Verbundene Augen movement will now be centrally funded. Provisions include exacerbating tension through targeted propaganda to those in the movement and the military police.

Procurement 2: The Elevation and Progression Project. Headed by Dämon Forstchritt; Contributors: P.D. Oran, Marta John. Funding will be diverted to research focusing on vitae-particle elevation from the second level more directly to the fourth level. Living subject volunteers will go under treatment to support direct vitae-conversion advancement.

“Procurement 2 was blessed enough to receive volunteers from aged veterans,” Dämon said with a pleasant smile. “They understood what progress and service means.”

Weingartner rapidly flipped through the rest of the packet. Words, numbers, statistics, figures, projections all arguing the same point: the citizens were livestock.

“It makes sense, doesn’t it, Volker?” one of the seated generals pressed. “We need to provide for our people. Even if it’s with our people. As cruel as it may sound, it’s practical.”

Weingartner’s stomach swam with nausea and his vision blurred.

What the hell was this? He had to be dreaming. If this was all real, then what the hell had he been doing with his entire life?

“Well, Volker? What are your thoughts?”

“Why are we fighting then…?” Weingartner clenched his fists to stop himself from shaking as he threw the packet onto the table. “Just so we can harvest some vitae for the reservoir?”

“What other reason would we fight?” The Kaiser’s words cut through Weingartner’s nausea. “Unless you think there’s a better reason to take another person’s life? For glory? For honor? For intangible ideals? For something easily changed like land? Giving our life for what our founding fathers wanted? Taking another life to protect another life you find more valuable? Tell me, what other reason do you think makes it justifiable?”

“You took my movement”—Marionette threw the papers down onto the floor— “and turned it into your puppetshow?”

“Your movement?” Zwingli snickered. “It’s not your movement. It’s everyone’s movement. You’re still so self-righteous even after all of these years… Where do you think you even got the idea for the movement to begin with?”

Marionette stiffened.

Zwingli continued to chuckle as the scorpion tattoo made its way onto his face again. “During the Second Raid of Okör, you were cut by a Projector, weren’t you? You have a scar on your chest that you wear like a badge of honor.” He placed a hand on his chest. “That was me. I felt bad for you. All you wanted was change, but you were too afraid to do it. So I amplified that thought for you. Of course, my spore in you died when that version of me expired. When I came around this time, I was happy to see you making good on all of that passion and so I decided to gift you even more.”

“What…?” Marionette took a step back. “What are you saying?”

“You’re a tower too, didn’t you know? You think your ability to tune into the people in your movement was a natural ability?” Zwingli smiled. “I must admit you give quite impassioned, motivating, inspiring speeches. But planting myself into the people you inspired really helped move things along.”

“You’re lying…” Marionette whispered, eyes wide as she took a step back.

Zwingli shrugged.

The Reservoir War…

Weingartner felt light-headed. “Then what was the Reservoir War for…?”

The Kaiser replied stonily, “As our country grows, the demand for vitae grows, and our reservoirs can’t keep up. The kaiserin before me wasn’t able to find a way to fix this issue—or maybe he chose to ignore the obvious answer. I’m not making the same mistake.”

“How far does this go?” Upon receiving no answer, Weingartner pressed, “We’re just going along with what this… ‘Scorpio’ says—just like that?”

Zwingli chuckled again.

“No, you misunderstand. I was the one who requested that Scorpio aid us.” The Kaiser, eyes half-lidded, leaned back in his chair. “A saint candidate’s vitae contains the memories of thousands of former inhabitants of Signum. You could say they represent the wants, needs, and blood of the people. They’re literalrepresentations of their respective nations, and they serve the people. Us. Our agenda.”

This man, Weingartner realized, was unfit to command over this country. All of them were.

“And… the syzygy? Where does that fall into all of this?”

Zwingli frowned.

“Whatever the syzygy is, it’s not my concern. My concern is only with Capricorn.” The Kaiser waved a hand. “Regardless, now that we’ve gotten this matter cleared up, I would like to offer you a promotion, Volker.”

“…E-Excuse me?”

“Yes, you’ve done quite well at the border, and your loyalty and compliance despite the unknowns in delivering Werner Waltz and Marionette Engel to us highlight your capability.” The Kaiser’s gaze remained hard, cold. “You’re going to be promoted to major, and you’ll be transferred to work in the capital. This promotion comes with the insurance that your immediate kin—that includes your pregnant daughter—”

Weingartner’s heart hammered.

“—will be excluded from all government projects related to vitae-conversion. And it, of course, comes with the caveat that you keep this information strictly confidential.”

What?

Weingartner shook his head. “No, no. I refuse—”

“Do you understand the position you’re in, Volker?” The Kaiser interjected. “You and your division have killed civilians at the border. That’s what’s on paper. There are two angles I can address this from. The first is that the civilians were rebellious, traitorous members of a domestic terrorist group called the Verbundene Augen and that your actions were in the right—”

Marionette snapped up to look at him. Her clammy face twisted with outrage.

“—the second route is that you and your division were insubordinate monsters who willingly gunned down protesting civilians.” The Kaiser sighed. “If you don’t accept this position and don’t keep this quiet, you will be putting yourself, your family, and your subordinates to the firing squad.”

Firing squad?” Weingartner recoiled. “We didn’t even know—”

“Don’t you think that’s an appropriate response for a vile act like this?” the Kaiser inquired. “The people won’t care about the circumstances, and they won’t be satisfied with a mere dishonorable discharge, Volker.”

“This is extortion,” Weingartner whispered. “Blackmail…”

“This is loyalty, Volker,” the Kaiser argued calmly, leaning forward. “So what is your choice?”

* * *

Major Volker Weingartner stepped out from the chancellery office with cold sweat rolling down his back. The doors closed behind him, leaving Marionette alone with the chancellery cabinet. Heimler, Fischer, and Kleine were leaning against the wall a meter away and straightened as they registered him.

Volker approached them and stared for a moment.

“C-Captain…?”

“What’s going on? Where… Where do I go?” Heimler questioned in confusion as he looked around. “Am I free to go? Who do I report to? Where’s Marionette?”

Giving no acknowledgment, Volker walked past them, past the marble halls lined with aged photographs and paintings, past the busy reception room, past the pillars and large banner that decorated the front of the esteemed building, past the flight of stairs, down the sidewalk. He stopped short two buildings down and turned to find Fischer, Heimler, and Kleine following behind him in confusion.

“Sir, please tell us what’s going on,” Kleine said, doubling over to catch his breath. “W-With all due respect, sir. What did the Kaiser say? Are they going to help the lieutenant?”

“The Kaiser is working with the Manipulator—no, the Manipulator is working for the Kaiser,” Weingartner said faintly, mechanically. “From the very beginning, the conflict that the entire Augen movement is causing was being used by the high chancellery to resupply the reservoirs. They’ve also been working on a way to convert people who are still alive into high-level vitae for the reservoirs.”

Kleine and Heimler paled.

“What happened to your confidentiality agreement?” came a pleasant voice paired with the click-clacking of heels.

Volker looked over Kleine’s shoulder and stiffened.

Kleine turned, eyes widening before taking a step back. “T-That’s Dämon Forstchritt!”

“Indeed, that’s me. Leading Capricornian conductor engineer,” Forstchritt said pleasantly as she stopped in front of them. There was a stack of familiar-looking papers in her hand. “Now, Major Weingartner, what exactly are you doing? I came here to give you the order packet you left behind and here I find you already going against your agreement.”

“‘Major’…?” Fischer looked between them in confusion. “Er, congratulations, sir.” He turned to Forstchritt nervously. “Whatever information the major just gave us—I swear we’ll keep quiet.”

Forstchritt smiled. “Ah, a man of dedication and true patriotism.” She turned her eyes from him to Weingartner. “You on the other hand—”

Without thinking, Weingartner unholstered the pistol at his belt and pointed it at the woman’s chest. He held it low and tight to his body so it wasn’t visible to the pedestrians passing them by from afar.

“Oh?”

“Captain…?” Kleine whispered, eyes wide. “What are you—”

Forstchritt chuckled. “Are you going to kill me then—out in public? What are you planning to do? Don’t you care about your family?”

Weingartner had no idea what the hell he was doing, but he turned to his subordinates and said calmly, “I can’t allow Capricorn to continue like this. I’m not going to force you to come with me. You can leave here and continue on doing what you were doing before this. If you find the need, you can even report me if you’d like so you don’t get in trouble—”

“No.”

Weingartner archer a brow at Kleine. “ No ?”

There’s no question about it, sir,” Kleine straightened. “I-I know this is wrong, but my loyalty has always been to the first lieutenant and second lieutenant and to my unit. They’re not here right now so… I… my loyalty is with you. I… I want to go home, and I don’t want my family to be a part of whatever this is.”

Weingartner placed a hand on the man’s arm. “Good man.”

“Let me help you, Cap—Major,” Heimler interjected. “Everything you’ve said here just proves that we were right from the very beginning. I’m not even sure what they’d do to me if I stayed.”

Weingartner looked to Fischer.

“I’ll follow you,” Fischer responded tightly, glancing at Forstchritt, lips pressed, eyes narrowed. “Where are we headed?”

His attitude was questionable but at the moment Weingartner needed all the help he get could.

“I made a call to a friend earlier,” Weingartner informed them. “He’s lost a lot to this country and to the war already. I think he’ll be willing to help us.”

Forstchritt chuckled. “Are you being serious? You’re hindering Capricorn’s great progress just because of what? Guilt? Indignation?”

“I am not going to let my future grand daughter grow up in a country that looks at its people like they’re livestock,” Weingartner said through gritted teeth as he walked up to her and pressed the pistol against her abdomen. “Now walk.”

* * *

The moon was hanging low in the sky when they peeled out of the alleyway they had stowed away in for hours.

They crept in-between the open alleyways with shadows from spires and bell towers casting shadows along their path. The buildings looked angry and frowning in the dark and the v-trams were stalled cold on their tracks giving the entire city a cold and desolate feel.

The imposed citywide curfew seemed to be holding up exceptionally.

Every so often, a stampede of boots against concrete would resound somewhere in the distance followed by harsh shouting. Militärpolizei. Weingartner couldn’t tell if they were searching for Augen members, for civilians breaking curfew, or for Forstchritt herself.

While Volker and his subordinates would press against the wall and remain silent whenever they would hear the military police approaching, Forstchritt would simply chuckle.

Weingartner had bound and gagged the woman with the rope that Kleine had conjured as soon as they had pulled into their hideaway space, so her laughter wasn’t audible beyond half a meter away. Still, her relaxed, affable demeanor was unnerving. They had checked her body to ensure that she wasn’t marked with the tattoo, but that didn’t reassure Weingartner in the least bit—hence the bindings. Zwingli had said that Marionette was also a tower but she had been unmarked. That was possibly the same case for Forstchritt, but the risk was worth the bargaining chip. Right now, relying on unsteady assumptions was the best they could do.

As they continued on through the empty streets, they eventually climbed onto a low-hanging brick bridge built above one of the main streets. Brick castle-like towers rose up on both sides of the bridge—a pair on either end and one pair at its middle.

When they were about to make their way over the middle part of the bridge, Weingartner stopped short and squinted into the dark. Something was moving there hidden in the shadows cast by the middle towers.

Weingartner lifted his pistol, falling into a crouch as did his subordinates behind him. He called out, “Stop. Who’s there?”

“Captain?” came a whisper from the darkness. The voice was familiar.

“Wolff?” Weingartner didn’t lower his weapon. “Come out.”

“With all due respect, sir, I am not stripping again,” Gilbert whispered back as he peeled out from the dark and into the blue moonlight. His uniform was matted with sweat and caked with soot. His face was barely recognizable behind a thick layer of dust and ash. “I’m sorry, but there’s too much going on and not enough time to act like we’re at a bar.”

Weingartner squinted past him and saw Brandt, Stein, and Nico pulling out from the dark. They were all similarly dirty.

“Where’s… Waltz?”

“The peacekeepers and some turn-tail ELPIS leader took him, sir,” Gilbert replied. “It’s too dangerous to hand him over to the Kaiser. The Kaiser is—”

“—‘tower’ for the Saint Candidate of Scorpio,” Volker concluded.

Gilbert blinked and tried, “Should I debrief, sir?”

* * *

Volker slowly digested the information Gilbert reported to him about his experience below 43rd Street. He could tell Gilbert and the men who had gone with him down there were also digesting the information he himself had just divulged to them as well.

After a beat, Weingartner studied Brandt and asked, “Why are you here—Zu, is it? Why didn’t you go with the ELPIS leader?”

“It’s still Brandt, sir,” Brandt replied. “I’m more Brandt than Zu.” He grimaced. “And I’m here for the same reason everyone else. I… We need to stop this. This is my country too.”

Stein spat at his feet.

Weingartner frowned at Stein before nodding. “Alright. We need all the help we can get. Your knowledge could be useful.”

“I don’t remember much, sir. About my time as Zu, I mean. I’m sorry.”

Weingartner sighed. “That’s fine.” He then turned back to Gilbert and asked testily, “Am I correct in saying that we’re all on the same page then, Gilbert?”

“Seems to be the case, sir,” Gilbert replied. “So what next?”

“We’re heading to an old friend of mine. An ally,” Weingartner murmured. “After we touch point, we need to find someone higher up the ladder who is on our side. And then…”

“Are we talking about a coup?” Gilbert asked plainly.

The night’s atmosphere thinned and cooled as the question rang through the air.

A coup d’état.

Hearing the words spoken out loud brought with it a great weight.

Weingartner took in a deep breath and nodded. “Possibly.”


“So?” The shadowy figure of his mother glanced back at him with a small smile. “You’re seeing them all through my eyes now. What do you think? It’s a righteous reason for you to serve, isn’t it? Maybe it could even become your reason to serve.”

Werner stood behind the Police Inspector Zwingli whom his mother was currently manipulating. Beside him sat the Grand Kaiser Kafke Netzche. The rest of the chancellery cabinet lined the oak table in front of him.

Being in the presence of such authority would have humbled Werner if it were not for the conversation he had just witnessed between his captain-turned-major and the cabinet:

One, weaponized conductors had the capability of converting the vitae within an individual into the vitae of the reservoirs. Two, the chancellery cabinet and the Kaiser were doing this willingly and knowingly. Three, the conflict at the Argoan border was most likely being used to help resupply the country’s reservoirs.

Werner could understand the logic behind this line of thought. If one were to look only at the numbers, the figures and results indicated that this vitae-conversion was a resourceful practice. If there was going to be battle and conflict, it would be best to take advantage of it. Argo had always been an aggressive party, and so using them in such a fashion was reasonable.

“Yes, that’s my Werner,” his mother praised.

Even so, there was a strange and heavy weight in his chest at this revelation. Remorse, guilt, something else?—he wasn’t able to dissect it.

Perhaps it was because it seemed as if the procurements of the Alles Für Alle Order were… unreasonable. It was one matter to use an enemy party and those who dedicated their lives to service to help fuel reservoirs. It was another to be using common civilians. Additionally, the soldiers serving in the Border Force had no knowledge of this which was—

Why would they need to know? It wasn’t a soldier’s position to be questioning orders though, was it? Ethics had no place here.

While that was true, the second procurement of the order, in particular, was especially disturbing. Atienna would not find this acceptable. Neither would Chance. In fact, they would most likely find the general act of vitae-conversion abhorrent.

The reason for Olive’s red-hot anger and anguish was clearer to Werner now. When he had first witnessed Olive’s flames of hatred, he hadn’t been able to fully comprehend the situation. He had no background information to approach it with. In all honesty, seeing the prince filled with such vehement rage and murderous intent disturbed him. It was out-of-character and worrisome.

All Werner had only known at the time was that P.D. Oran was the subject of Olive’s hatred and that Oran himself was valuable. And so he had acted accordingly. He hadn’t had the time to explore further as he was swept here right after.

Here.

Although morality and ethics usually did not have a place here and in the field, this was—

“Why are you relying on what the others think?” His mother frowned. “Is that all you are? Is that really what you think or are you just trying to keep up your appearance as a fair, reliable, reasonable leader to the people you’re connected to? Even though you don’t have to hold up your appearance for them right now? I mean, they’re not even here.”

Werner hesitated. He hadn’t felt the others’ thoughts and feelings in some time, but was that truly the case? Was he overstepping his bounds and position due to their influence? The Kaiser and the cabinet had years of experience on him, after all. Their authority and wisdom was—

No, he needed to get his mind in order. This saint candidate. This thing. It —not ‘she’ because it was not his mother—was trying to play senseless games with him.

The Kaiser believed he was acting in the best interest of the people, Werner knew, but it appeared as if he was choosing a faulty route. The Kaiser and the chancellery cabinet needed to be examined and held accountable and their methods examined—even if they were the highest authority.

Werner had steadily begun to learn this through his experiences with Major Ersatz and Colonel Fritz von Spiel: those in authority—despite their years of experience—were not perfect, unquestionable higher-parties that deserved absolute obedience. Even though it felt uncomfortable, it was right to question when necessary.

“Aw… Is that so?”

I hate that woman

The sudden thought jarred Werner from his realization.

I wish I could just sleep. 
Maybe I should go walk my dog. 
Ugh, there he goes again. 
Why do I have to do this all the time? 
I should just give up already. 
How dare they try to stop us from gathering? 
All these damn annoying Augen members causing damage and making us pay for it. 
The military should just shut down. 
I want to become a teacher.
I want to serve fully.
What the hell is the Kaiser doing. 
It’s been so long since he’s come home.
I love you.
I hate you.
Go away.
Come back. 
Stay—

Werner winced as his head pulsated with incoherent, echoing voices that came at him from every direction.

Sadness. Happiness. Anguish. Anger. Euphoria. Grief. Heartache. Joy. Love. Pleasure. Satisfaction. Bliss. Loss. 

All of the sensations poured into Werner’s chest and expanded out so rapidly and suddenly that it hurt. It was nonsensical because he knew it was not physical pain, but it hurt. The whirl winding emotions acted like a vitae ray tearing its way through his chest and head.

“Oh? This is interesting…” His mother peered into his face. “Can you hear and feel all of that? Even though you’re not one of my towers? Maybe it’s because you’re a True Conductor…? All of you arevery leaky…”

Werner could barely hear her above the clashing thoughts storming his mind.

“Maybe it’s because my towers are so close to me right now,” his mother continued on. “Two-thirds of all of my spores… I wonder how you’d fare if Leona was here too.”

He couldn’t tell which thoughts were his, what feelings were his—everything blurred together in a swirling black vortex.

Listen to her.
Screw her. 
The Kaiser cares for no one. 
The Kaiser cares for 
everyone.

“What? You can’t handle it?” it—his mother, not ‘it’—murmured gently. “That’s disappointing.”

Before Werner could stop himself, he fell forward onto his hands and knees as the thoughts and feelings agonizingly poured out from his chest and head into his stomach and limbs. It felt as if they were coursing through his veins and filling his lungs. But—

This weakness was unacceptable. He needed to right himself and excise this Manipulator. Now that he’d learned this pertinent information, he needed to—

Why should I do anything? 
It’s easier to just go along with what they’re saying. 
Less resistance is easier. 
It’s easier to meet people’s expectations. 
The path is already laid out. 
It’s all down to the numbers.

His mother gasped suddenly. “Ah, Werner, it seems like your associates are causing trouble… Well, I respect that passion.” Out of the corner of his eye through the hazy agony, she smiled. “Let’s just see how they fare against the Saint of Victory.”

17.4: Prince, 1700 No Longer Human

Re-cap:

Olive, Trystan, Gilbert, Stein, Brandt, Claire, and Nico have fallen down into the facility beneath 43rd Street after suppressing an apparent reservoir leak. Already beneath 43rd are peacekeepers Gabrielle, Talib, Alice, and ELPIS leader Francis who have been directed here by Marta. 


Nicht Mehr Menschlich » No longer human. 1700 hours.

When Olive cracked open his eyes, he was met with gentle, pale rose light. A dimly lit ceiling hung low over his face, and something soft was cushioning the back of his head. It took him a moment to realize his head was resting on Trystan’s lap, and that the light was emitting from a flame-tipped arrow held in Trystan’s hands.

“Are you alright, Olivier?” Trystan asked, face eclipsing his own.

Olive popped up to sit with a groan as he cradled his pulsating shoulder and abdomen. He opened his mouth to respond but ended up in a coughing spasm. No matter how hard he hacked, the itch in his throat and chest would not subside.

“Don’t be so dramatic.”

Olive glanced to his left through heaving tears to find a man sitting there cross-legged. It was… Stein? Olive wanted to tell the man “don’t be so creepy” but couldn’t get the words out.

A pair of footsteps approached them, and a shadow passed over him—Gilbert, flask of water in one hand and gun in the other.

“Are you still the kid?” he asked as he offered the flask.

Olive grabbed it, took four large gulps, before heaving as his coughing subsided. He handed the flask back with a thank you before scanning the area. He could barely see anything past the small flame Trystan was producing from his arrow. Several feet away, he could faintly make out Nico, Claire, and Brandt standing in a circle.

After inspecting his hand to confirm that the proto-conductor ring was regrettably no longer there, he asked, “What’s going on?”

Gilbert pointed to the ceiling. “The floor caved in. Looks like we fell into the sewers. Turning out to be a fantastic leave.”

Olive scrambled to his feet, nearly knocking his head against not the ceiling but a low hanging slab of rock propped up by a cement pillar. He dusted his clothes with disgust and wiped at the back of his pants. He tested his chest pocket and felt the pocket watch still there.

“Never gotten a little of dirt on you?” Gilbert snorted.

“It’s supposedly a sewer system,” Trystan said as he helped Olive dust himself off. “But I don’t see any indication of that.”

“Do you have any other name to call it?” Gilbert challenged.

Trystan frowned at him.

“Anyway, we’re lucky no one got hurt,” Gilbert continued. “You’ve been out for a couple of hours.” He thumbed Claire, Brandt, and Nico. “They found a maybe way out about half an hour ago. We’ve been waiting for you.”

Olive grumbled, “Well, thanks for waiting.”

Gilbert snorted. “This is a pretty sorry casket.

Continuing to snicker at his unhilarious joke, Gilbert guided them to where the others were gathered. As Olive approached them, he formed a small ball of vitae flame with his hand for light. The enclosed space caused the smell of smoke to intensify, and Olive had to suppress the urge to gag. As he tried to keep the flame steady, his shoulder began to pulsate painfully and the world around him swam. He staggered slightly, extinguishing the flame and gripping his shoulder.

“It’s alright, Olivier,” Trystan said, looking back at him with concern and holding up his flame-tipped arrow. “I’ll light the way for us.”

“We should probably take it easy after all that vitae we expelled anyways, Ollie,” Claire added helpfully. “And good morning by the way.” He pointed to the wall behind him and added with a sheepish chuckle, “You came just in time. We were trying to figure out who should go through the wall first…”

It wasn’t so much a wall but a series of cement blocks that had fallen on top of one another. A very narrow hole opened up in between the layers of debris near the floor—barely large enough to fit someone of his current stature.

Olive grimaced.

* * *

After crawling through the small space for what seemed like hours, they pulled out of the opposite end and found themselves in a dark hall lined with metal doors. Large gray pipes and insulating cables slinked along the ceiling and walls giving the hall the illusion that it was much smaller than it actually was.

‘Sewers.’ Right.

Gilbert tried the first door to their left to no avail, Stein the second, and Brandt the third. As Olive approached the fourth door along the wall, he stopped short as whispering reached his ears. For a hopeful moment, he thought it was one of the other five finally cracking through the override. The next moment saw to him realizing that the whispering was resounding behind the door.

“Well, that’s creepy,” Claire noted helpfully from beside him.

Trystan immediately pulled Olive back by the shoulder and held out a halting hand. Always so dramatic.

Once the others had gathered around, Trystan began to push the metal door open. It was heavy, old, so it scraped along the ground and creaked at its hinges. The whispering stopped immediately.

Stein, Brandt, and Gilbert exchanged looks before Gilbert gave a two-fingered signal. They then drew out their blade conductors and handguns causing Olive to grimace. With that, Trystan pushed the door open fully and they stepped collectively inside.

The room itself was dimly lit by a small glass tube running from ceiling to ground perpendicular along the wall. A drip-dripping sound that Olive couldn’t pinpoint the source of filled in the otherwise silent room. An iron smell paired with a poignant sour stench permeated the air. The scents seemed to increase the weight of the dark, musty gloom that blanketed everything in sight. Two figures were moving nervously around in that gloom at the far corner of the room. 

Olive tensed as one of them stepped forward hesitantly and called out— “Trystan?”

Olive squinted as Trystan held his arrow out further into the dark revealing the face of the one approaching them.

“Marta…?” Olive whispered incredulously.

Marta ran to Trystan swiftly. “What are you doing here? Did you come because of the peacekeepers? Did they send you?”

Her voice was shaking, her fingers trembling. There were dark circles beneath her eyes, and her usually frizzy hair was dampened down to her scalp. Nothing like the wiry, bright woman Olive had secretly admired.

“You know each other?” Gilbert asked, glancing between them.

Trystan frowned. “Yes, she and the prince are familiar with each other. She’s a conductor engineer from New Ram City… What are you doing here, Marta?”

“This…” Marta swallowed. “…is where I work… There was a vitae leak in the facility so I came back from the convention to fix it. It’s controlled now but…”

“That was you?” Gilbert arched a brow. “And you work for…?”

“Under Dämon Forstchritt for the Capricornian government.”

Gilbert merely said, “Fuck…”

Wait—‘we’…?

Olive squinted past Marta towards the figure squirming behind her. Unlike the first time he had encountered this man, Olive recognized him as soon as his face peeled out from the dark. P.D. Oran in the flesh.

“Holy shit,” Gilbert muttered as he registered Oran. “You’re the guy.”

P.D. Oran stared at them in wide-eyed panic. “Why are you here? You have to leave.”

Gilbert arched a brow. “Well, that’s what we’re trying to do—”

“What is this…?” came a hiss.

Olive glanced over and found Brandt standing by the light source in the room. There was something in the corner there, he realized. A vaguely humanoid shape curled up on itself. Heart pounding, Olive approached the light source with Trystan at his feet and the others not so far behind.

Cowering in the corner there Olive found a young woman chained by suppression-cuff-like shackles to the tube of light—no, the tube of vitae. Her hair was dark and matted, her vaguely recognizable military uniform rotting around the cuffs. Barely visible below the nape of her neck glowed a white snake tattoo. Dark crescent half-moons hung below her eyes, and a cloth was tied steadfastly over her mouth.

Brandt removed her gag, and she blinked weakly at him as she coughed.

“I asked you what this is,” Brandt demanded, snapping to a stand and glowering at Oran and Marta. “What the hell are you doing down here?”

Saints. Brandt, calm down,” Gilbert said, placing a hand on the man’s shoulder as he sank down in front of the woman. He undid the cap on his flask and pressed the bottle to her lips. “What’s your name?”

“K… Kappa,” the woman managed after she took a painful sip.

“You’re with ELPIS, right? What’s a terrorist like you doing chained up here?” Gilbert asked casually. When he received no response, he turned to Marta and Oran. “You heard the man. What’s going on here?”

Marta swallowed, shaking her head. “I’m not sure. We usually don’t have access to this hall. We were only able to get here because the entire structure collapsed.” She wrung her hands. “We were… trying to help her.”

Olive looked to Marta worriedly.

Kappa glowered but then looked away as she muttered something in a language Olive couldn’t understand.

“We should bring her with us out of here,” Brandt said, testing the shackles. “We… could bring her in for questioning.”

“I…” Olive swallowed. “I… agree—”

“No. I won’t make it,” Kappa interjected. “I can’t use my legs. And I’m not answering any questions from anyone who uses those things.” She glared at the conductor in Gilbert’s hand.

Olive’s gaze trailed to the woman’s legs which were hidden by the gloom. He didn’t want to inspect further and looked away with a grimace. As much as held ELPIS in contempt, he didn’t think anyone deserved to be treated so inhumanly. And who was behind his? The Capricornian government?

Kappa turned to Brandt. “Just kill me. There’s nothing of me left. There’s no point.”

Brandt opened his mouth in protest but—

“You heard her, Brandt,” Gilbert said. “Not the killing part but we need to find a way out of here before we start playing hero. We’ll double back.”

Brandt hesitated before nodding.

Kappa dipped her head with a grimace.

“We…” Olive tried. “We’ll come back for you.”

Kappa lifted her head before smiling thinly. “What? Are you Capricornians…? I feel sorry for you. You’re all fools.”

“The hell is that supposed to mean?” Gilbert arched a brow.

“Better to see it for yourself,” Kappa replied.

Stein cracked his knuckles and stepped forward with a growl, but was stopped short by a hand on the shoulder from Brandt.

After waving the two men off and away, Gilbert nodded at Marta and jerked his thumb back to the doorway. “Mind showing us a way out of here?”

Marta tensed before nodding. As she and Oran led them back out to the hall, Olive glanced over his shoulder back towards Kappa hesitantly. He saw Brandt doing the same.

After peeling out into the hall, they were led past a series of archways that dripped with water and a dark room littered with broken glass. As they entered another hall at the end of this dark room, they saw faint, warm light pouring in from the opposite end.

“Finally,” Gilbert muttered.

“That’s not the exit,” Marta whispered to them. “That light is from the… vitae we have stored here… but there should be a door leading up and out from it if it hasn’t collapsed…” 

That wasn’t very reassuring…

“Stored vitae? A reservoir?” Gilbert pressed, ignoring the latter remark.

“No.”

As they continued forward, whispering filtered down towards them. Gilbert again signaled for Brandt, Nico, and Stein to ready their weapons before they crept forward together. At the end of the hall, they found an open doorway with a door barely hanging by its hinges. They filtered inside slowly, cautiously, Gilbert leading the front and Olive and Claire at the rear.

The room was littered with papers, fallen piping, and scattered insulation tubes. The source of light and warmth was emitting from the glass cases built into the walls. Swirling pools of vitae. One of the cases swimming with vitae, Olive noted, looked as if it had been cracked and fused back together with heat.

Three figures wearing suits hovered around a desk at the center of the room. White bands were wrapped around their arms. Two familiar women, and one very vaguely familiar-looking man. Laying on the desk the peacekeepers gathered around was another vaguely familiar-looking unconscious man dressed in a suit jacket.

The peacekeeper who had tensed and had lifted a conductor-glove at their entry stopped short and stared. “Trystan? Haneul?”

“Gabrielle…?” Trystan returned the stare in confusion before glancing down at Olive. “What—”

“Francis?!” Nico cried in horror as he rushed over to the unmoving man’s side. “What happened? What did you do to him?”

Francis. The man lying on the table was Francis. Francis, who was important to Cadence. Olive realized he had almost forgotten that fact, and that fact terrified him.

“We didn’t do anything,” Alice informed him calmly, coolly, arms crossed. “He was knocked unconscious by the debris after a—” Her eyes narrowed and she calmly gestured to the fused-looking glass container “—vitae leak sprung from the containers here.” She studied the container with a frown. “It somehow returned to the container, and we managed to reseal it.”

“Yeah, the entrance is blocked, and he was our ticket out of here so we’re stuck in a situation. But the real question here is what are you all doing down here?” Gabrielle glanced at Nico who was testing Francis’s pulse. “Are you from the Twin Cities?”

Nico nodded, clearly distracted, before moving to inspect Francis’s temple which was nicked by a small gash.

“And why are you with the Capricornian military?”

Nico froze.

“Trystan?” Gabrielle pressed. “Mind telling us what’s going on?”

Olive tensed when Trystan looked at him. After a moment of thought, he gave the guard a nod of approval.

“I believe we encountered vitae from the leak above. It reacted strangely to the vitae coming from our conductors so we attempted to… lure it—for the lack of a better word—to an unpopulated area which happened to be 43rd Street. The ground was weak, and we fell through and found ourselves here.”

“I see…” Gabrielle walked abruptly up to Olive causing him to stiffen. “I can tell that you’re the highest-ranking one here. What rank are you?”

“First lieutenant,” Olive answered, suppressing a grimace.

“I guess that means you probably wouldn’t understand what’s going on here then. Not far enough up the ladder. Well, neither am I apparently,” Gabrielle said, crossing her arms. She nodded at Marta then at Oran. “You got here quick, Marta. You could’ve given us a tour of this place yourself instead of sending us on a wild goose chase. I see you’ve got popular company too. 

P.D. Oran gave Marta a wide-eyed stare as Marta tensed.

“Well, we’re here.” Gabrielle gestured widely. “Mind telling us why you invited us?”

Marta paled even further and looked around at everyone nervously.

“We don’t have any of those tattoos,” Gabrielle interjected. “We’re not being manipulated.”

She knew?

“We don’t have the tattoos either,” Olive added. “The scorpion tattoos.”

Gabrielle’s brows rose as she studied him. “Well… it looks like we’re more on the same page than I thought.” Glancing at Marta again, she pressed, “Well?”

After a beat, Marta shakily swallowed and started the explanation off by affirming the truth in the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis. She elaborated on the existence of multiple energy levels of vitae and how the highest level functioned—attracted to vitae particles of the same energy level and unable to ‘return to the cycle’. She then explained the ability of weaponized conductors to elevate energy levels with a 0.30 probability.

Olive was secretly satisfied at how close his theories were and felt a bit of pride too. All of these feelings, however, were overshadowed by the reality of what this all meant.

“Yes, I got that already. Mr. Foxman here explained that bit to us,” Gabrielle replied with a frown. “Apparently he and his buddies were the ones who developed half the theories we have today, but that’s not what I’m asking you.”

Olive blinked. What? ELPIS developed the theories? Would Francis know about a way to help Lavi then…?

Gabrielle kicked at a stack of papers at her feet sending them fluttering into the air. “What I want to know is what this is all about. My reading comprehension in Capricornian is pretty good, but maybe I’m a bit rusty. So, just help me clarify if what I’ve been reading is true. It’s what you asked me to come here for, isn’t it?”

Marta took a step backwards, before balling her fists. “I didn’t join until the end… but… we’ve been working together with Dämon Forstchritt on a government-funded project to create a conductor capable of overcoming the barrier to the fourth-highest energy level of vitae… We’ve successfully increased the mid-level, soft vitae to volatile, high-level vitae conversion rate to 90% without risking the vitae slipping down an energy level excessively.”

“And how did you do it?” Gabrielle pressed.

Marta bit her lip, fists clenching tighter.

“I asked you how you did it!” Gabrielle seethed.

Olive startled. He’d never heard Gabrielle sound so angry before. With slight alarm and concern, he studied the peacekeeper cautiously—only to have the emotions become redirected to Marta when he registered the latter’s expression.

Tears spilled from Marta’s eyes as she buried her face into the crook of her elbow. “By using people who are still alive!”

What?

“The reason why weaponized conductors can’t convert vitae in the person they’re used on fully to the fourth energy level… is because…” Marta took in a deep breath. “… is because when a weaponized conductor is used, a person usually dies. That returns their vitae to the lowest e-energy level … But… but if the vitae in a person who was still alive was directly… somehow directly…” She fell silent, wringing her hands again.

“Just spit it out already,” Stein growled irritably.

Marta practically shouted, “We increase the vitae particles in a living person directly beyond the fourth energy level of vitae. That way we make sure that it’ll be converted. The particles at this super-level are unstable so they naturally lower until they reach the fourth level of energy—the level of energy for the vitae reservoirs.

“What the fuck…?” Gilbert muttered.

Marta continued, nearly hysterical, “The super-elevated vitae particles react to particles in the soft vitae state and pass energy onto them and elevate them to the same state—over and over again until all the particles lose enough energy to fall back into the fourth-level state. That’s why I ran back here. If the vitae came in contact with any living thing then—then—”

“… then they would’ve been converted?” Olive whispered.

“But we managed to bring the vitae back,” Oran stammered, gesturing to the glass case. “There’s a fail-safe mechanism. It’s okay.”

“Ethics aside,” Alice interjected, “do you understand how dangerous this is?”

Marta grimaced. “Yes. I know. That’s why I—”

“They’re still conscious,” Gabrielle pressed, eyes narrowed. “Aren’t they?”

Oran stepped, shaking his head and raising his hands. “No, no, no, we don’t have any evidence of that. And… they knew that they were going to be used like that. They signed an agreement—”

Talib and Alice exchanged looks with a frown.

“Oh, I’ve had my fair share of speaking with so-called ethical conductor engineers,” Gabrielle muttered, “but you take the cake.”

“They forced us to!” Oran argued. “We had no choice. We—”

Olive’s gaze was slowly drawn to the vitae swirling in the resealed glass container on the wall. The conversation faded as he became hyper-focused on the barely audible sound emanating from the case. It almost sounded like groaning.

A wave of nausea rolled over him as bile climbed up from his stomach and hit the back of his throat. Guided by a sudden urge to save face for Werner, he briskly walked out of the room and into the dark hall outside before he pressed himself against the wall and heaved and heaved and heaved. He continued heaving until his stomach and eyes burned.

It didn’t make sense. Why would someone make something like this? How could a conductor like this even exist? Conductors could do so much more—more than being weapons. He’d childishly dreamed when he was younger of creating some vague conductor capable of improving life for everyone somehow. Why would anyone…?

Footsteps approached him from behind.

Olive pressed his head against the wall and felt the cool seep into his forehead as he recollected himself. He turned. “Trystan, I—”

Olive stopped short. The silhouette standing before him had a much larger and taller frame than Trystan. Tensing, Olive squinted past the dark.

“Brandt…?”

Suddenly the silhouette lunged at him and threw him against the wall before forcing him to the ground. Olive barely had the time to register what was happening before fingers curled around his throat.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” Brandt whispered, eyes wide as he tightened his grip. “I should’ve done this before. But you can’t—you can’t. It’s gone too far. Lieutenant, a True Conductor like you can’t—”

Olive clawed at Brandt’s hands as his vision swam. He couldn’t breathe—he couldn’t breathe—just like back then.

Burn him. Burn him. Burn—

No, no, shut up—

A flash of pale tangerine light suddenly burst out from behind Brandt. A soft click! followed.

“What do you think you’re doing?” came a familiar voice.

Brandt turned his head, revealing the figure standing there. It was Francis, silver-pistol in hand, gaze unreadable.

“Release him,” Francis said as he cocked the gun.

Footsteps resounded from behind Francis as Gilbert, Stein, Alice, and Nico filtered out from the room. Grimacing, Brandt lifted his hands into the air and backed away on his knees.

Trystan darted to Olive’s side immediately, guided him up to a stand, and glowered at Brandt. “Are you alright?”

“Yeah, I-I’m fine…” Olive rubbed his throat.

Nico joined his side and inspected his throat before turning tentatively towards Francis.

“What the hell is this?” Gilbert snapped as he stormed over and dragged Brandt up to a stand. “What the hell is a matter with you, Brandt—”

“Who are you?” Francis interjected calmly. When Brandt didn’t reply, Francis drew his thumb across his cheek, rubbed away whatever was coating his skin there, and partially revealed the snake tattoo hiding beneath it.

Brandt’s eyes widened. “Theta…?”

Gilbert stiffened. “Brandt, You’re one of them…?”

Stein tackled Brandt to the ground before anything else could be said. “How long?!” He swung a fist, then another one—sickening crack after sickening crack. “I asked you how fucking long!”

“F-From the very beginning!” Brandt choked out, flailing as he tried to catch Stein’s swings. “Before we even met!”

“So you were playing with us?!” Stein growled, grabbing him by the scruff. “Why the fuck did you invite me to have dinner with your parents, you sick fuck—they aren’t even your parents! What about your damned fiancée!” He went in a tirade in harsh Capricornian before he spat in Common—“You fucking let Vogt die, you bastard, didn’t you?!”

Brandt glowered back. “They are my parents! That is my fiancée! And—” He shook his head. “There was no hope for Otto. He lost too much blood. I know you’re grieving but he returned to the cycle—”

“Grieving? Cycle?” Stein spit in the man’s face. “I’ll show you a fucking cycle.” He lifted his fist one last time, but before he was able to deliver the blow, a hand around the wrist stopped him short.

Gabrielle stood behind him, gripping his wrist tightly with a frown. “That’s far enough.”

“Enough, dammit,” Gilbert snapped, darting over and pulling Stein off Brandt and away from Gabrielle. “Cool it, you hear me, Stein?” He then stared down at Brandt with a grimace before he glanced back up at Olive. “Are you alright, kid?”

“I said I was fine…” Olive mumbled, trying his best not to look at Brandt’s bloodied face.

“Mr. Brandt, is it?” Francis interjected. “What name did you choose?”

“…Zu.”

Francis’s eyes widened slightly.

“That’s the reaction I should be giving you,” Brandt muttered, eyeing the gun. “You’re…”

“Yes. I’m different.” Francis regarded him for a beat before gesturing loosely to Olive. “Zu, you will make no more attempts on this man’s life. Although I’m not the leader now, I was the elected leader previously. Will you accept?”

Brandt,” Brandt interjected, wiping some of the blood dribbling from his nose. “It’s Alwin Brandt… and…” He hesitated. “Okay. Understood. Good.”

Really?” Gilbert recoiled with incredulity before running his hand down on his face. “Get the fuck up.”

Brandt obeyed.

Francis lowered his gun. “How did you come here, Mr. Brandt? I wasn’t made aware that you were initiated. The others aren’t aware of you either.”

Brandt grimaced. “I wasn’t initiated correctly. I don’t remember much. Just flashes and maybe… some feelings. All I knew when I woke up was that conductors and True Conductors were bad… but I don’t know why. It drove me insane. Whoever initiated me didn’t wait around to see whether or not I was initiated properly. Took my resistor with them. Honestly, by the look of things, I doubt there’s enough of me for another round.”

Nico frowned almost sympathetically while Stein continued to glower.

“I wasn’t sure what to do,” Brandt continued. “I thought I’d figure out what was going on if I waited long enough for you or one of the others to come by. I ended up joining the Capricornian army in the meantime because it was originally what Brandt—I— wanted to do but…” He shook his head. “I thought I’d be able to figure out what was going on after I realized Pi was initiated into Major Ersatz but—”

Gilbert and Stein exchanged a look.

“Something happened. His initiation was faulty too. He…. He was unstable—”

“You fucking knew Ersatz was a fucked bastard and you just acted like you had no clue?” Stein hissed. “I would’ve shot you down instead of the Aquarians!”

“Stein, cool it,” Gilbert repeated.

“Who else is here?” Brandt tried tentatively. “Omicron—”

Francis’s brows furrowed, and he looked away. “Her resistor was destroyed during an incident involving the Twin Cities. She has passed.”

“I’m sorry, Theta. I… I had no idea.”

“Those who are here that I’m aware of are the new Pi—”

Gilbert and Stein exchanged looks again.

“—who is working alongside me. Gamma, Kappa, Tau, and Iota are also here—though I have yet to meet this Kappa. I’m not with the others at the moment. My viewpoint regarding our objective… has shifted—”

“Iota isn’t active anymore,” Brandt interjected.

“Oh, right, you probably’re the one who let her go, aren’t you?” Stein sneered. “Gotta be buddy-buddy with the rest of your lot.”

“No, that’s not it.” Brandt frowned. “You always jump to conclusions without thinking, Stein. That’s why all of your hook-ups are one-nighters.”

“What the hell did you sa—”

Brandt dug into his uniform pocket and pulled out a glowing object. A knife with a clear glass hand filled to the brim with white light. “This is Iota’s. We encountered each other on the way here and she gave this to me for safe-keeping when I revealed who I was.” He glanced at Stein then Gilbert. “She’s returned to her resistor. I’m not sure if this was before or after she ‘escaped.’”

Francis nodded in thought. “Contradictorily, I believe her returning was the best route. Iota’s faulty initiation led to a great instability she was unable to overcome…”

“And Kappa…” Brandt continued, handing the resistor over to Francis. “She’s here. I didn’t have a good look—I don’t think I would know even if I did—but she’s been locked up. I think Scorpio’s been harvesting her vitae. I’m not sure what for, but…”

Scorpio…?

“To fill proto-conductors most likely.” Francis’s eyes narrowed, closing his hands around the resistor. “I’ll retrieve her—”

Gabrielle interjected, “So they’re using this Kappa’s vitae to make it seem like ELPIS is working along with the Verbundene Augen movement.”

“It appears so.”

There was a beat of silence.

“So what happens to me now?” Brandt muttered. “I think this is the last time for me. There’s not enough of my vitae left.” He tapped his upper arm. “Are you going to finish my initiation then or…?”

“It’s not my decision to make, Mr. Brandt,” Francis responded calmly, “whether you join Gamma—which I recommend against given Gamma’s current ideals regarding incorrect initiations—or me or choose to stay here. Of course, your group accepting you is a separate matter.”

“We’re not fucking taking you back,” Stein spat.

Francis blinked at Stein. “You have an unpleasant way of speaking. If you’re afraid, you needn’t worry. There won’t be an incident like this again—”

“Francis…” came a tentative voice to Olive’s left.

Francis turned his head, frowned slightly before recognition flickered in his eyes. “Nico…?”

Nico looked him up and down. “Er… sorry. I know this isn’t the time, but it’s good to see you.”

Francis stared for a beat before nodding. Abruptly, Nico closed the distance between them and wrapped Francis in a tight embrace.

Francis stiffened before he slowly returned the gesture. When he pulled away, he offered an amiable smile. “Wow, you’ve gotten fit. Maybe we should enlist Carl. The doc told him he needed to get his cholesterol and weight in check about six months ago, I think. He hasn’t been keeping to it.”

Nico brightened immediately, hopefully. “After what happened back home… I thought you’d be… I don’t know. You look fine—like yourself. The tattoo…”

Francis drew a thumb across his cheek, smudging away the rest of the pigmented dust there and revealing the white snake underneath.

Nico’s face fell. “Francis… I’m sorry…”

“What? What for?”

Nico remained silent.

“No need to look glum,” Francis replied. “I’m still me.” He then turned to the rest of them and offered a polite smile that seemed out of place in the situation. “If I recall correctly, you’re the gentlemen—the Capricornians—that we were doing business with before…” His gaze stopped short on Olive. “And you—according to Mr. Brandt here—you’re a True Conductor.”

Trystan tensed, holding him back with an arm.

“It’s fine.” Olive swallowed, brushing Trystan’s arm aside. He looked over Francis slowly and muttered, “I… I’m connected to Cadence. If you… remember her. She was ‘here’ before me, and I’m stuck here now. Locked in. If you know anything about it.”

Francis’s eyes widened before he exchanged a look with Nico. He then turned back to Olive and smiled kindly—not quite the polite smile that Olive recalled him giving strangers or business associates. “Yes, I remember Cadence. And you are?”

Olive hesitated, glancing back towards Gabrielle and Alice. Maybe doing this privately would be—

“They’re very aware of the nature of True Conductors,” Francis reassured him. “If there were such a thing as a trustworthy peacekeeper, perhaps I would consider them to be just that. I’ve done business with Miss Law as well.”

After a beat of hesitation and exchanging a look with Trystan, Olive answered, “Olivier. Olivier Chance.”

Alice and Gabrielle startled and exchanged looks with a frown.

“Are you saying that you’re…?” Gabrielle trailed off, staring holes into him as she took a step forward.

Olive scowled in response.

Gabrielle’s eyes widened, and then she pinched the bridge of her nose with a sigh. “I need a drink.”

Olive felt his cheeks pinken.

What was her problem? She was always like this.

Francis nodded. “Ah. The Ariesian prince. The one Gamma encountered in New Ram City. I heard very briefly about you—before Gamma tried to kill me, of course.” He extended his hand. “May I see what I’m sure you’re aware of that is causing this issue?”

Despite seeing Trystan tense out of the corner of his eye, Olive extended his marked palm out for Francis who accepted and inspected it. The man’s frown deepened, and Olive could tell he was looking at the scars.

“So this is the entry point. Interesting… The scorpion mark seems only half-complete. Perhaps, Scorpio is marking what he views as his progress. That is the one who did this, by the way. The Saint Candidate of Scorpio—the Saint of Passion.”

Scorpio?

“So,” Olive tried, “this mark is on people who’re being manipulated or who’re mediums?”

“The mark is superficial. It has nothing to do with the actual manipulation.”

“Then… it’s possible for someone who’s being manipulated to be running out there without this tattoo thing…”

“Yes, it’s possible, but it would most likely not occur.” Francis locked eyes with him. “Scorpio is too egotistical and vain to not leave a mark.” He pulled back slightly, studied Olive, before looking to Brandt. “Children rulers… We eliminated this issue centuries ago, but it seems as if the problem has resurfaced yet again. Troubling… though perhaps it’s better to set that situation aside for now.”

“That’s how a lot of things are turning out,” Brandt replied.

“Shut the fuck up,” Stein snapped.

Olive grimaced.

“Easy, Stein. Anyway, nice monologue—Francis, was it? Nice change in occupation by the way.” Gilbert nodded. “You sound like an expert on all this and like you’ve got beef with the person who did this—which I like—so how do we fix this? He’s stuck like this, and I’d rather have Werner back. No offense, kid.”

“Like I want to be here either…” Olive grumbled before glancing at Trystan.

“Well, Mr. Wolff, one of my reasons for coming here is to find the person who served as the entry point of this Manipulator into Cadence,” Francis said before focusing his attention back on him. “Now, Olive, there are two ways that we can do to resolve this issue without killing you.”

The Theta part of Francis didn’t seem to know how to put things gently, Olive thought as he suppressed a frown.

“The first is to eliminate Scorpio’s towers.”

“Towers?”

“Yes, this Manipulator’s mediums—off-shoots—doperate in a fungal spore-like fashion. That leads to rapid spread which is most likely how so many became infected so fast. Especially in the Augen.”

That confirmed it.

“Whether the founding of the Augen was the result of the Manipulator or if the Manipulator hijacked it is a different story—” Francis’s accent changed briefly “—However, this connection is a two-way street. Scorpio isn’t all-powerful and doesn’t have an endurance that allows them to fully preside over all of the spores simultaneously.”

Nico tentatively moved over to Brandt’s side and began to inspect his bleeding face. Stein shot him a glare but Nico ignored it.

“That’s why Scorpio delegates individuals to share some of that burden with him. A delegation of power so to speak. The towers are the initial spreaders of Scorpio’s spores and act as a direct link from those spores to Scorpio. Eliminate a tower and you can theoretically cut the connection between Scorpio and those spores and offshoots.”

It was… that easy? Wait— eliminate?

“Identifying who the tower is… is a different story. Most likely Leona has unwittingly and unwillingly become a tower and has spread Scorpio through the ELPIS Department. I suspect your Kaiser is one too, although I’m not sure if it was willingly or not…”

“So the Kaiser and Scorpio are together then,” Gilbert muttered. “So we’re fucked.”

Ignoring him, Francis placed a thoughtful hand on his chin again. “But other than that, I can’t say… Olive, you’ve probably been nicked by a tower that all the infected Augen members are connected to. Unfortunately, searching for this tower without someone with the ability to see vitae flow is pointless. Therefore, the second option is to rely on the Libran saint candidate.”

“The Saint Candidate of Libra?” Alice tensed.

Francis nodded. “I was told by Tau that she was active at the moment and in this city. That itself is a rare miracle. Libra is a very powerful Specialist. Similar to that one peacekeeper with the suitcase, Libra too can bring down vitae particles to an energy level that causes the particles to separate and break apart. This ability on its own is merely destructive, but Libra also has a secondary ability.” He pointed to his eyes. “If I recall correctly, Libra contains in her eyes the ability to see the flow of vitae. The rarity of having these two conducting abilities together is why we are extremely lucky that Libra appears to be present here.”

Now, Alice was pale.

Olive understood the concept but was troubled by how Francis was referring to the saint candidates.

“Simply put, Libra can distinguish one person’s vitae from another’s. And so, Libra can see Scorpio’s vitae within an individual and cut it out without harming them. All we have to do is find Libra… and hopefully convince them that saving a True Conductor is worth their time.”

Was this what Iota was referring to in the train cart?

“Is…” Gilbert tightened his grip on his de-activated blade conductor. “Is that why this… Scorpio or the Kaiser or whoever asked us to bring Werner here? So we can get this Libra to cut him out? Because… True Conductors are valuable to them? Fuck—I don’t know what’s going on.” 

Francis frowned. “That is most likely what the original case was. This infection was probably an accident… however… Scorpio is a person who gets carried away too easily as you can see by Leona’s state. She most likely objected to Scorpio’s actions, and Scorpio responded accordingly.”

“What…” Olive swallowed. “What do you mean?”

“I’m not sure whether or not this ‘Werner’ who was infected is conscious right now or not,” Francis replied. “If he is and Scorpio is presiding over him… then Scorpio might be too carried away with that to even consider bringing you to Libra.”

What in saint’s name did that mean?

Abruptly, Francis gestured to Gilbert’s conductor. “An additional word of advice. You’re aware that Scorpio can spread through cuts, I’m assuming. But you also shouldn’t use a close-ranged conductor when confronting an infected individual—especially if they are also using a close-ranged conductor. Close-ranged conductor-to-conductor contact can also transmit the infection since the infected person’s vitae contains Scorpio’s vitae particles.”

Olive’s heart skipped a beat. “What about me? I… I used my vitae flame to try and cauterize someone’s wound earlier… I…”

“Is there any blue or odd coloration to your vitae?”

Olive shook his head.

“Peculiar… It’s most likely that this man’s—Werner—vitae was what was infected and somehow that isn’t immediately transferable to you,” Francis explained, putting a hand to his chin again. “I would like to believe that you’re safe, but I would have to see your vitae to be sure. So when you have a conductor on hand—”

“About that, Francis—” Olive closed his mouth. Wait. Maybe this wasn’t a good time.

“No, go ahead and ask.”

“I should just show you,” Olive mumbled before he extended out his hand and formed a ball of crimson flame in his palm.

Francis’s eyes widened. “That shouldn’t be possible.”

Olive quickly extinguished the flame. “My sister was a potential saint candidate for Aries. A failed one. She… died during the Tragedy, but I’ve been able to see her since then. I’ve been able to conduct without a conductor ever since then too…” He could feel Alice’s and Gabrielle’s gazes boring into him, but he continued. “I thought that maybe her saint candidacy had to do with it.”

“The Saint Candidate of Aries…?” Francis tilted his head. “How are you still alive?”

Olive grimaced, pushed away a snappish remark to the back of his head, and said, “Iota said that the saint candidates messed up or something with me—” Before he could finish, a sharp pain ignited in his shoulder causing him to extinguish the flame and cradle the area in pain.

Trystan steadied him in alarm and remained supporting him until the pain subsided. When Olive straightened himself, he met Francis’s hard gaze.

“Do not conduct again,” the man said.

What…?

“Do not let any person who takes over next conduct. You are putting your life and Cadence’s life at risk every time you do that. Do you understand me? This prolonged polarization is already putting your life at risk, but conducting is exacerbating it. Do you understand?”

Swallowing, Olive nodded. “Okay.”

Francis offered a genial smile before his face fell flat again. “That aside, yes, I would call it a mess up—but Olive… if it were the case that Aries entered you during that incident, then you and Cadence should’ve died as soon as your connection opened. You True Conductors are faulty. If there is one less of you or one more of you, you will crumble apart and die… I don’t quite understand it.”

“I don’t know either…” Olive mumbled faintly. “But… I know you don’t have all the details, but is there a way for me to… remove Lavi from me? So she can live on her own?”

“If we try to separate her from you, you and the people you are connected to may die.”

“But—”

Francis frowned. “It appears that you don’t understand the gravity of saint candidacy. Let me explain. The countries of Signum are named after the ones who founded Signum. You call them your ancestors. The saint candidates are chosen because they have attributes, characteristics, and personalities similar to those ancestors…” He looked to Brandt. “Correct?”

“Yeah,” Brandt—whose face was now more or less healed by Nico—replied. “That’s right.”

“Those individuals are chosen because they are most compatible for receiving the vitae—the memories—of those ancestors which are stored in the Prognoikos Aurora Reservoirs in Ophiuchus. Traditionally, in my time, this was done to pass on knowledge and wisdom from the past to the present.”

Olive felt faint. Signum was… Lavi was—

“I’m sure you’ve realized it, Olive. Saint candidates can be considered the ancestors themselves.”

“My sister—”

“She completed the saint candidacy ceremony and took on the memories of your ancestor Aries which have been stored over the centuries from other saint candidates of Aries.” Francis’s gaze softened. “We aren’t like them as I’ve said. We don’t burden and force the living to take on the task.” He stared at his hand. “Not intentionally, at least.”

“No.” Olive shook his head. “But she was a failed saint candidate. That can’t—”

“To be frank with you, I don’t understand the term ‘failed’ saint candidate or why they use it. As long as the baptism has occurred, they are the ancestor.”

“She’s still… Lavi though… right?” Olive whispered. “And… Signum…?”

Francis studied him for a moment before murmuring, “Whether or not she is your sister is entirely up to you.”

“If that’s the case with saint candidates then where does Monadism fall into this? What about the king and queen?” Trystan pressed. “What about the governing bodies of all of the other countries? Are they aware?”

Olive bristled and before he could stop himself, he was snapping, “What are you trying to say, Trystan? That my parents forced Lavi to be like that? I thought you were all about licking people’s boots.”

Trystan stiffened. “I’m sorry, Olivier. I didn’t mean it like that.”

Shame burned Olive’s cheeks. “…No, it’s fine. I’m sorry.”

“About your governing bodies… I’m not sure.” Francis finally said, gaze lowering. “Omicron destroyed many of our old records. I understand her intentions, but now it is an inconvenience… I’ll try—”

“Help! Someone help!”

The desperate shout resounding out from the room cut Francis off short. Alice and Gabrielle exchanged looks before dashing back down the hall and into the room. Olive darted after them with Trystan at his tail.

Once he re-entered, he found Marta keeling over the table at the center of the room. She was pale, her face clammy and dripping with sweat. Claire was inching back away from her as were Talib and Oran. Alice and Gabrielle were ringed around her and staring at her in utter confusion. She was hacking, coughing, knees trembling.

“Marta!” Olivier shouted, darting over to Marta’s side.

Trystan followed shortly behind him and caught Marta as she staggered forward.

“S-She said that she didn’t come in contact with any of the vitae, but—” came P.D. Oran’s whimper as he scrambled backwards out of the corner of Olive’s eye. He didn’t finish his sentence and scrambled out of the room.

Suddenly, the skin on Marta’s cheeks cracked and split revealing a glowing liquid that seeped out from the gash. The liquid dripped onto Trystan’s hand, and he pulled back with a yelp and cradled it. He proceeded to shove Olive back as Marta bent over and puked. But what splattered onto the floor was not bile nor was it blood. It was the same glowing substance that was weeping from her skin.

“Get away, Olivier!” Trystan shouted. His hand was now bubbling and blistering and splitting to reveal the very same psychedelic light that radiated from Marta’s body. He stared at his hand in horror before doubling over with a grunt of pain.

Olive reached for him in alarm, accidentally grabbing hold of the royal guard badge hanging at his hip, only to be sent flying back with a kick to the chest. Badge still gripped in his hand, Olive hit the ground before scrambling back to his knees. Upon looked up, however, he froze in confusion.

In the place Marta once stood was a gooping, glowing viscous mess. No longer a humanoid shape. The liquid spread across the floor and spilled onto the central desk and melted it an instant. And Trystan, who was now on his knees on the ground—his face was… was melting off. Melting just like how everyone had melted down the bone during the Tragedy. Flesh from his forehead dripping in a glowing sludge into his eyes and lips and chin, until none of his features were almost indistinguishable. Nothing was visible besides one thing. One singular eye which turned in its socket to stare straight at Olive.

What…? What was happening…?

Olive scrambled forward only to be jerked backward by the back of his uniform. It was Gabrielle, eyes wide, face pale.

“Leave him!” she shouted, continuing to tug him back. “We need to get out of here now, Your Highness!”

Olive resisted, scrambling forward desperately, only to be tugged back by the arm by another person. Gilbert.

“Kid, come on—”

No, no, no.

“Are you fuckin stupid?”—the profanities came from Stein who had looped around and was now crouched in front of him with a scowl.

“What the? Stein, I ordered you to leave!” Gilbert snapped. “Get out of here!”

“L-Let me go…” Olive whispered. “They’re still—”

Stein delivered a quick punch to his gut cutting him off short and winding him completely. When he doubled over with the pain, Stein picked up like a rag doll and threw him over his shoulder. Olive kicked and shouted and screamed, but it was no use—Stein carried him away from Trystan and Marta without a drop of hesitation.

“Into the gate!” someone shouted as pale tangerine light and a sudden draft filled the room. “Into the gate!”

No, nono

The last thing Olive saw before he was swallowed up by the pale tangerine light was the glowing puddle of vitae that had once been Marta coalescing together with the puddle of vitae that had once been Trystan.

* * *

And suddenly a dark sky was opened up above Olive’s head. He scanned the open area around him in utter confusion. Lamp posts were dotting gray sidewalks, and a small v-tram rolled along the tracks in the distance. Square buildings rose around him in an otherwise empty, dark street. The moon beat down heavily from above.

Alice and Talib were on their hands and knees heaving and panting a couple of feet away. Gabrielle was standing beside him with one hand tightly gripping Oran who was kneeling beside her. Claire was leaning against one of the nearby lamp posts. Gilbert and Nico were collapsed on the ground in front of him, and Francis and Brandt were catching their breaths just a step away. Stein was still holding him up over his shoulders.

But… but…

Where was Marta? Where was Trystan? Where—

Still down there.

Olive’s throat clenched and he began to sob uncontrollably. His chest hurt, and he couldn’t breathe, but he still smacked and kicked at Stein with all of his might until the man released him.

He tumbled to the knees on the ground as he stared at the gray cement—as he tried to think. But he couldn’t. Nothing coherent formed. Just. Marta. Trystan. Marta—

If it weren’t for Marta—if it weren’t for her shop and her accepting his company no questions asked—then he would’ve ended it years ago. He’d always made excuses that he had to visit her and see her inventions. Just one more day, he’d thought. One more day just to see what new things she’d made. And it was his fault that she was here. He had promoted her vitae spectrophotometer and that had eventually brought her here. And now…

Olive began to tremble.

And Trystan was always there. Trystan had always listened to his stupid rants about conductors and had put up with his sour mood. Trystan had always been that piece of Aries that reminded him of home. And Trystan had been accompanying him more than just for duty—that was what Trystan himself had said. And Trystan had held so much passion, had wanted so much change, actually acted on that desire to change—if anything, he deserved to be a feudal lord, not a royal guard. No, he deserved the title Olive himself currently had. And Olive himself had… brought him down there.

That’s what happens to people who care that much. Haven’t you noticed that the ones who desire the most change are the ones who are crushed under the weight of their ideals?

No! There was no way that Trystan was—

“I… can reverse it,” Olive whispered to himself, wiping his tears from his eyes. “I can definitely reverse it.” He threw himself onto Francis and gripped his sleeves. “It can be reversed. It’s all about the energy levels. We just have to find a way to make their vitae particles drop back to the lower energy level. We can do it. It can happen. I know it—”

Francis held him tightly by the arms. “Olive, listen to me. I will not let you believe in a false—”

“Francis, shut up! Shut up! Please! Don’t you dare say that! You said you’re the ones who came up with the theories! You can help fix this!”

“Even if you were able to successfully drop the energy levels to the mid-level, their vitae particles have intermingled. There would be no way to distinguish any of their individual vitae particles from each other. All that thing is now is what you could consider pure energy and a storage system for memory—”

“Then we just separate them! By the wavelength and color density! All we have to do is try! Over and over again until we can do it!”

Simple goal after simple goal.

“Olive,” Francis murmured, more gently this time. “It’s impossible. The best thing we can do is find a way to return them to the…”

Olive stopped listening.

No…

He sank back to the ground, still gripping Francis’s arms. Francis held him there for an unknown amount of time before five shadows eclipsed him from above. Alice, Gabrielle, Gilbert, Nico, Claire.

“Olive… correct?” Alice pressed—not as coldly as she usually sounded—as she sank to her knees. “You should—”

“Leave me alone!” Olive snapped, ripping away from her—away from them, from everyone. He stumbled forward blindly until he stopped before a singular, unmoving figure.

P.D. Oran stared up at him blearily, tiredly. “I-I’m sorry… I didn’t know…”

Why…?

“You—you—” Olive whispered, reaching forward and gripping Oran loosely by the scruff. He opened his mouth, closed it, unable to find the words. Too many questions. Incomprehension.

Why did Oran help research something like this? Why did Oran just sit there and do nothing to stop it? Why did Oran keep making excuses? Why did Oran not warn them if he realized Marta was…? Why? Why? Why?

Finally, Olive arrived at an appropriate question—“Why are you alive…?”

Oran paled, looking stupidly innocent. “What…?”

Olive couldn’t stand it anymore. He didn’t want to see it. Enough. No more.

Crimson sparks curled at his fingertips as he tightened his grip on Oran’s collar. The embers lapped at Oran’s cheek as the man flailed in confusion and alarm.

“W-What are you—”

The others shouted at him from behind but he threw out a hand and formed a ten-foot ring of fire around himself. All the times he’d spent practicing and refining this skill was coming to play at this moment. The irony didn’t escape him.

Just go away. 

That’s right. From the very beginning, after the Tragedy, it never was ‘I should disappear’ for you. It always was ‘they should disappear.’

“You’re a genius. You can do so much for so many people,” Olive hissed at Oran. “But you do thisWhy?”

“I had no choice—”

“So you did it because you were afraid? You’re a coward!” Olive glowered. “Oh… I’ll give you something to really be afraid of.”

“Ollie!” came Claire’s shout above the fire. “What are you doing?!”

“It’s Scorpio…” Francis said. “He’s—”

“Olive!” Gabrielle snapped. “Stop—”

A burst of blue-flecked wind whistled around his cage of fire but Olive merely sent the flames higher and used the oxygen to fuel the flames. When a lick of crimson ember kissed Oran’s cheek, the man sobbed in pain as he tried to tug himself away.

Olive couldn’t wrap his head around it. This man was crying from a little burn? After everything he’d done? How dare he cry.

Olive increased the output of crimson light as sparks burst out from his hands. The flames went up and up and up and down and down and down as they crawled across Oran’s clothing and consumed it all.

I told you, didn’t I?

The putrid scent of burning flesh curled in Olive’s nostrils and he felt bile climb up his throat, but he continued fueling the fire.

You shouldn’t be afraid of being a coward. You should be afraid of being brave.

The flames began to lick at Olive’s own clothing but he bore with it.

The only thing you were ever really afraid of was what would happen if you went all the way like this. That’s why you held back all the time and did nothing for so long. But congratulations, you’ve conquered your fear.

Right. All of his apathy was…?

Tears burned at his eyes and evaporated with the heat of his flame.

Chance, stop it.

The familiar and cool voice spread through the back of Olive’s mind, momentarily quelling the anguish and rage burning in his chest.

Werner…?

Standing behind Oran straight-backed with a stolid expression was a man with platinum blonde hair and ice-cold but tired eyes.

It was Werner. One of the others. Finally. But…

Think. Oran holds valuable information, Chance. You can’t lose him. Think about Lavi. And control yourself. Don’t let momentary passion deter you from your goal. Werner glanced over his shoulder, staring at something Olive couldn’t see. The Manipulator is trying to prove a point. Don’t let her.

No. He wanted this. He couldn’t stand looking at it anymore. Just like back then. He was not going to let go of this. Not anymore. But wait. Maybe—was he really going to give this up for someone who wasn’t his sister—

And Francis had said it was impossible to begin with. There was no point—

Your cowardice isn’t from being afraid of going all the way, Werner interjected, eyes cool and steady.It’s from not wanting to lose anything. I’m connected to you so I know this. And, in this situation, that is an acceptable fear to have. You don’t want to lose your sister, correct? What Francis said is not absolute.

Realization washed over Olive like a cold wave. The fire still burned furiously in his chest but he fought past the anguish and haze. Shame curled up in his chest followed by guilt and disgust. In horror, he released Oran who fell to the ground wailing in agony. He had just—

“Claire!” Olive shouted desperately above the roaring fire as he ripped off his military jacket and began beating it down on the flame over Oran. “Claire, help!”

Calm down, Chance. 

Olive whipped to the man in panic. “Werner, I—”

But Werner was no longer there nor was the feeling of cold calm. The only thing left was the burning weight that dragged Olive’s heart into his stomach. But he didn’t let the feeling consume him and sank to his knees as a cold torrent of blue-dotted wind extinguished the flames around him and the embers pecking at Oran.

“Saints…” Olive whispered tearfully in horror. “I-I’m sorry…”

Oran whimpered weakly in front of him—clothes smoking, skin discolored, eyes wide.

Really? That’s it? What? Because you value human life? Or because you think he can help with Lavi? She’s the Saint Candidate of Aries—no, she is Aries. She isn’t your—

It didn’t matter. In the end, Lavi was still his sister. Outside of the other five, she was the only family he had left now that Trystan was—

What a shame. At least you know what it feels like now—how it is to try and take another life without acting in self-defense. Quite proactive. 

Brandt and Nico rushed to Oran’s side as the smoke around him cleared. Oran was alive—this much Olive knew. Because he knew the exact temperature needed to immolate a human alive and to kill them. It was a number he never dared rise to—until now.

Well, I’m not sure P.D. Oran is going to want to live after what you’ve done. Still, you’ve realized how tiny and insignifigcant a single human life can be, right? Always making the same mistakes. It’s meaningless and pathetic. Just put them out of their misery.

Nausea swam in Olive’s stomach and pinpricks ran up his arms. His shoulder pulsated with pain, and a coldness began seeping out from his chest. Abruptly, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a familiar ghostly silhouette emerging from the embers that were dying on the ground. 

With her black hair bleeding into crimson flame, Lavi glared at something over his shoulder. Then, she locked eyes with him—her gaze was clear and focused—“No, now you really know what the weight of a human life means to you.”

Olive’s vision swam, and he fell forward into darkness.


17.3: Princes, 1100 Truce

Re-cap:

Peacekeepers Gabrielle, Alice, Talib, and Francis have discovered a strange facility beneath 43rd Street in the capital of Capricorn. Simultaneously, Olive arrives in the capital with Trystan and Werner’s unit and is caught off after encountering what appears to be a reservoir leak in the heart of the city. 

Meanwhile, Sigrid is under Cvetka’s watchful eye after being discovered as a True Conductor. Claire who has been in this city this entire time decides to… 

While his country stirs with unrest, Werner comes face-to-face with the one who appears to be manipulating the strings at the threshold of life and death.


Waffenstillstand » A truce made at 1100 hours.

Yuseong Haneul—though he preferred Claire—still remembered the very first assassination attempt on his life. A servant from the Hoshi Clan had disguised themselves as one of his clan’s servants and had not only slipped themselves into the kitchen staff but also sorrowheat into his morning tea.

When he’d finally broken out of the fever induced by the sorrowheat, his mother had pulled him into her lap and had rocked him back and forth as she thanked him for living, lamented the other clans, and cursed at the emperor. She had ended her tirade with, “But you should see the opportunity in this, Haneul. This means that the other clans are finally taking the Seongs seriously.”

Assassination attempts came bountifully after that. Claire, in turn, became skilled at avoiding all sorts of ‘accidents.’ He easily dodged assassins that slipped past his guards and had even once dodged a ‘malfunctioning’ sky-v-tram that nearly crushed him to death from above. Although no attempts claimed his life, many claimed the lives of his vassals. He despised it and wondered if his vassals despised him for it as well.

The second assassination attempt that truly nearly took his life came from a cousin of his whom he’d viewed as his best friend despite her mixed-blood. They had been playing a game of baduk over tea when she had suddenly freed a pin from her hair and plunged it into his chest. He’d wondered, as he laid bleeding out on the playroom floor, if bloodlines and family meant so little. The clan system that supposedly tied families together seemed to tear it all apart.

Unlike the first on-point assassination attempt, the second one truly dragged him close to death’s door. His mother would later tell him tearfully that he’d even stopped breathing at one point. She would try to persuade him after this incident that the throne wasn’t worth it, and that they should abandon the competition for emperorship—it didn’t matter what the other families said.

It was too late though, he’d thought. The weight of his clan was already on his shoulders. And once a weight was put on, it was impossible to give up.

And that was when the voices started. First came a girl from the deep mountains of Aquarius and then a boy from the inner cities of Leo. Their ambitions and desires clouded his mind throughout childhood, but he still maintained his desire to change things in Sagittarius.

Maneuvering the inner courts to competing with his siblings to win favor with their father to successfully improving relations with Aries and its future ruler—he’d slowly climbed higher and higher. Aunt Jiji’s activities had put a damper on things, but he didn’t allow it to deter him.

In fact, he had thought that things would actually improve after this bump—but things started going downhill as soon as he’d arrived in the capital of Capricorn for the diplomatic conductor convention with his sister and vassals in tow. Their purpose for attending this convention was three-fold: signaling to the rest of Signum that Sagittarius still had a presence, locating innovative inventions and talented Conductors that would be beneficial to Sagittarius, and assuring Capricorn that their relationship despite the border-conflict was stable.

Politics.

As always when Claire arrived at any new location, he’d sent out his vassals to scope the location. For once, he did not send out Soha nor Felix to scan the city and instead had placed the duty upon a newly-minted vassal of his. A young girl from the Jaeseong family named Beom.

When she didn’t return from reconnaissance for three days, he was prepared to send out Felix after her. Before Felix set out for the night, however, Beom returned to their hotel through the open window—eyes wide, hair dripping with sweat. She didn’t bow when she brought herself before him, but he was more concerned about her condition.

“Where were you?” Soha had asked. “You were to report in two days ago.”

“43rd,” Beom had whispered. “43rd Street. I went there.”

“And… did you find anything?” Claire had pressed as he offered her a pleasant smile. “No need to be concerned about Soha’s curfew. I break it sometimes too—”

Before he could finish, Beom had lunged at him with a conjured knife. Both Soha and Felix had been across the room at that time tending to Eunji so they hadn’t been able to divert the attack. Fortunately, Sigrid wasthere and quickly slipped into an overlap. She forced him to lunge backwards and swept his legs beneath Beom’s sending the woman crashing to the ground.

My gratitude, he’d thought as he had pounced on Beom and reached for the knife in her hand.

“Your family doesn’t deserve to represent our clan!” Beom had seethed beneath him. “Why must we toil away for someone incapable of ever achieving the throne? Why did the emperor choose your mother instead of mine?!”

The accusation had startled Claire which allowed Beom to free herself and her knife from him. Instead of lunging at him again, however, she backed against the wall with eyes filled with terror.

“I-I’m sorry, My Lord. The one who is unfit is me,” Beom had whispered breathily before plunging the knife into her stomach and collapsing onto the floor.

One of his nearby vassals had been a Transmutationist so he’d ordered her to reseal the injury immediately. Once Beom was stable, they transported her to the city’s most esteemed hospital which was surprisingly its only hospital.

He was lucky enough to rent out a private suite right before a sudden influx of patients checked in. After the medical Conductors, doctors, and nurses informed him that Beom was stable but that the cause of her continuous unconscious state was unknown, Claire remained by her bedside in thought for several hours. As he’d peeled away from her as night fell, however, he’d managed to catch sight of a strange tattoo pasted just behind her ear—one he had never noticed before. A tattoo of a scorpion.

He’d comforted Eunji later that night despite her insistence that she was fine. Beom was her favorite, after all. And Claire had been certain Beom was completely loyal—he’d hand-selected her himself—so her actions had disturbed him. Because if a leader couldn’t understand the passions of his people, then he was unfit to rule over them.

Not too long after that, Claire received notice from one of his vassals that a Virgoan advisor had taken up bed space in their private room. Only an hour following this, he encountered at the hospital an irate Trystan Carter who was shouting at a nurse about getting into a room—which was when Claire had happily provided his assistance. The Ariesian prince seemed to have gotten himself into trouble. An unknown sickness leaving him in a semi-conscious state. Whatever it was, an ally was an ally, and a favor was a favor.

Only a week or so after this, Sigrid encountered Cvetka. A couple days later when the hospital was attacked, Claire had sent Beom away in a medical train. But he himself did not leave nor did he send his sister away despite the danger. They were representatives of the Seong Clan, after all.

It was a cruel game.


Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

A couple of days after the incident with Cvetka, Claire found himself sitting cross-legged and closed-eyed on top of his floor mattress in his room at the Frieden luxury hotel.

At the moment, his mind was being stretched in three directions by anxiety, apprehension, and anger, so it took him a moment to reach a stable state of mind and understand what he was feeling. Once he got a grasp of that, he reached out in the direction of the feeling of apprehension.

When he opened his eyes, he found himself in a particularly comfy-looking train cart furnished with fur rugs, leather upholstery, and even a small furnace crackling along the sidewall. He could feel the warmth of the flame cracking his dry skin—rather, Sigrid’s dry skin. To the left opened up a window beyond which only white could be seen—white snow peaks, white cliff-faces that fell down into a bottomless abyss, white sky. Oh, well, there was a glint of black and silver from the train tracks they’d just run over further down the mountain.

“I see nothing much has changed,” Claire noted, scanning the area. “I’ve told Andres to stay away and keep his head low, so it’ll just be me for the time being unless you need some of his help. Hope you don’t mind the company.”

Better company than what I have here.

Claire studied Sigrid’s face for a moment before beaming and pointing to the assortment of dried fish, stuffed wraps, and pickled vegetables plated on the table. “Hey, at least the food is good.”

Better fish at home.

Claire had to agree. Sigrid father’s salted fish was inhumanly good. It even brought the Sagittarian royal pickled fish to shame. As much as Claire loved his royal chef, Sigrid’s father’s food certainly had more heart.

The door to the train cart slid open and Cvetka Akulova stepped in. She paused at the threshold with a crown of peacekeepers behind her as snow and cold spilled into the train from outside. She said nothing, did nothing, remaining completely still like ice.

I told you that this woman was off. Right when I saw her at that True Conductor meeting. But youinsisted that we continue to make contact. We’re lucky that I decided to keep away. We would’ve been caught much earlier. She’s impressive.

“Sorry, I was wrong.” Claire held up his hands. “But you know what they say about doors—”

You should close them immediately so the cold and wild animals don’t get in.

Claire rubbed the back of his neck. “Well… That’s an interesting take on the proverb.”

We know my situation but what about yours? Worry bled through their connection. You should leave the capital.

“You know I can’t do that.” Claire’s smile fell slightly. “The Xing and the Hoshi clan are still here even with everything going on. I just saw Mai and Kai the other day… It’ll reflect very poorly on my clan if I withdraw now.” He clasped his hands together and tapped his mouth as he leaned forward tensely. “I’m obviously not winning best brother of the year award this time.”

And the Ariesian True Conductor?

“Hmm… I have to admit, I might have bitten off more than I can chew with him.” Claire chuckled. “First the assassination thing, then my aunt, and now the ELPIS Department apparently.”

Do you think he’s connected to the Capricornian? That ‘Cadence’ looked like they were stuck in an overlap over the Capricornian. Sigrid’s eyes narrowed. And Akulova somehow connected Imamu to them. 

Claire tilted his head in thought. “Well, I’m pretty sure that Olive is connected to that one peacekeeper that keeps showing up wherever he is. But if Olive’s connected to the Capricornian, then that would mean that there would be at least five people in that circle… We’ve only ever seen at most four.”

It sounds straining. Sigrid glanced at him. Two is already too many.

“Speaking of parties of two…” Claire nodded across the table.

Sitting there just across from Sigrid were Aquarian Captain Dunya Kramer and Sergeant Nikita Knovak. While Claire was quite familiar with Knovak from Sigrid’s time in the Zatenminye Caverns with him, he was curious about Kramer as Sigrid had only been serving under her for one month. Kramer had been watching Sigrid closely this entire time but had yet to say a word.

Are you worried—

No, I’m not attached to them. 

Unsurprising. Sigrid didn’t seem very attached to anyone she served with.

The clack of stiletto heels against the matted floor cut their conversation short as Cvetka approached. Her paper-star earrings caught the gray light filtering in from the window casting glowing shadows on her cheeks. She stopped in front of their table with her entourage of peacekeepers just behind her.

“How is everything?” Cvetka inquired, eyes kind, lips upturned as she glanced between the three of them. “Is the food to your liking? Or… would you like the furnace to be warmer? I’m here to make sure you feel comfortable.” Slowly, she turned to Sigrid with a thinning smile. “Especially you, Sigrid.”

Her eyes—Claire realized—almost seemed to hold no light to them. Vaguely, he was reminded of the solar eclipse his aunt Jin once took him to see. A ring of white around complete black.

Cvetka continued, “And of course I’m including your extra company, Sigrid. The prince, right? Of Sagittarius.”

What…?

Claire’s heart hammered, and his ears roared. He felt almost as if Cvetka was looking through Sigrid and right into him.

How did she know…?

It’s one of the other True Conductors. The Ariesian prince. They betrayed—

It’s okay, Claire returned. At the rate this is going, this was pretty much inevitable.

“You’re lucky you’re connected to such a high-profile person,” Cvetka continued sheepishly. “I’m a bit jealous. With him being as important as a prince, my employers are going to have to let him be until the syzygy. Well, for the most part…”

Sigrid bristled. Cvetka hummed in response, eyes sharpening.

“Where are you taking us?” Kramer interjected. “To see the tsar? Have they been informed about whatever this is with the ELPIS Department?”

“You don’t have to worry, Captain Kramer, Nikita,” Cvetka replied without turning to look at them. “You’re unnecessary. I’m not very sure what they’ll do, but you’re both very capable. I doubt they’ll waste your skills.”

She tilted her strangely, as if listening to something in the distance before she smiled thinly at Sigrid:

“You… Sigrid… on the other hand. If you cooperate, then you can continue on living comfortably with the people important to you until the very end.”

She took a step closer, tucking a dark lock of hair behind her ear.

“There’s no reason for you to be apprehensive about cooperating, is there? It won’t be so much different from cooperating with Aquarius. The tsar is the one who ordered the Vklad Plemennykh Rabochikh Act, wasn’t it? The Tribal Workers’ Contribution Act? They said it was to provide employment to the mountain and seaside tribes who served during the war after the war, but it just seems like they’re filling up the empty ranks with the children of those old soldiers… right?”

Cvetka chuckled.

“There’re programs similar to that which almost every country in Signum has adopted, so it must work, right?”

Sigrid remained stone-faced.

“You talk too much,” Knovak noted.

“Oh, it’s not me that’s talking,” Cvetka returned to him. “But I agree… it’s a bit too much.” She cast a look off to the side out the window. “It always is.”

“Crazy,” was Knovak’s response.

Claire noted the conducting gloves on the hands of the peacekeeper standing to Cvetka’s right.

Noted too.

Transmutationist or Conjuror? 

Specialist?

Claire paused. Maybe it wasn’t worth the risk then—

I won’t be caged.

“No utensils.” Sigrid pointed to the plates set in front of them.

Cvetka looked Sigrid up and down as if appraising before she nodded at the peacekeeper on her right. The peacekeeper held out his hand and, in a flash of an odd blue-ish yellow light, conjured up three sets of forks, knives, and spoons. He held them out to Sigrid then to Cvetka but moved to set them on the table himself after receiving no response.

There.

Sigrid lunged for and grabbed the man—rather, his gloves. He pulled away from her in alarm, but she refused to let go. And as suspected, despite her repeatedly kicking him in the face with her spiked boot, he did not pull out his visibly holstered gun and combat knife. As the peacekeepers started forward, Sigrid ripped the conductor off his hands.

“She’s connected to a Conjuror—”

Before Cvetka could finish the sentence, Sigrid delivered a hard kick to the Conjuror’s chest and sent him flying back against the wall as she slipped the gloves on.

Claire could feel Sigrid’s mind race as she hopped up onto the table and sent the plates and food clattering onto the floor. When one of the other peacekeepers lunged forward, Knovak dove down, grabbed a plate off the ground, and smashed it into the peacekeeper’s face. He picked up a knife and a fork next and brandished them threateningly.

“Knovak, Anker, stand down!” Kramer snapped.

Knovak froze, grimaced, dropped the fork and knife.

Anker!” the captain pressed.

But Sigrid paid her no mind. Instead, Claire could feel her mind race to think up an item that would aid her in this situation. A weapon.

Something that won’t need to be reloaded. No, something long-ranged. There’re too many peacekeepers.No. Enclosed space. Not good. A knife. No, you could get hurt or caughtI won’t get caught—

Something simple.

Their thoughts clashed dissonantly together in competition as another peacekeeper dove for her legs. At that moment, they reached a decision. In a flash of lilac light, a slender and thin object formed in Sigrid’s palm. It extended out and sharpened at one end before solidifying completely.

Spear.

Swinging the point out wide, Sigrid knocked two peacekeepers off of their feet and caused Cvetka to skirt back along the wall. Now the peacekeepers pulled out their conductors fully, but still showed very little aggression and desperation.

We’re apparently too precious to risk injuring.

As if confirming this, Cvetka threw a hand back. “Don’t attack. She’s valuabl—”

There’s nowhere to run,” the Conjuror peacekeeper interjected as he rose to his feet. Your cage isn’t physical. And then he lunged at Sigrid.

Claire reached out and sent up Sigrid’s leg to deliver the man a kick to the stomach. Claire then reached further and guided Sigrid to swing the spear up in an arc. With the motion, he swept up an approaching peacekeeper into the air and slammed him against the ceiling. Sigrid didn’t bother waiting for the man to come down. She took back the reins, spun in a circle, and jabbed the butt of the spear into the gut of another peacekeeper reaching for her from behind. After jabbing the spear into the shoulder of yet a nearby Projector who ran at her with a blade conductor, she used him as an axle and flipped onto a table on the opposite side of the compartment. Upon landing, she swiped the spear in a large arc outwards five times, pushing back the cluster of peacekeepers swimming around the floor.

Always so violent. This one, Claire thought. But… There was no point in fighting. They needed to—

Escape—a thought not Sigrid’s nor his own—understood.

Before Claire realized what was happening, Sigrid’s gloves hummed with light and another object formed in her palm—sleek, black, long, familiar. It looked just like his own conductor staff, minus some of its intricacies.

That was fast.

Practicing, came the response.

Claire reached out and spun the newly conjured conductor in Sigrid’s hands. A torrent of wind speckled with lilac flecks of light spun out from the conductor and threw everyone backwards and off their feet—Cvetka, Kramer, and Knovak included.

Something wasn’t right though, Claire realized. Even if these people were trying their best not to harm Sigrid, this was too easy.

Cvetka picked herself up to her feet as the peacekeepers groaned around her.

She knew.

Now standing peacefully and dissonantly in between them and the peacekeepers, Cvetka slowly undid her earrings and dropped them to the floor. She smeared the trinkets into the ground with her boot before looking up to meet Sigrid’s gaze.

What… are you doing? the Conjuror asked from where he laid groaning behind her.

“She’s using us to escape too,” Claire whispered.

“What he said is true. You can’t hide,” Cvetka said calmly, still standing. “It’s like swimming against an ocean current. The more you resist, the more you’ll exhaust yourself and drown. But… a current is different than a whirlpool.”

The Conjuror stared holes into Cvetka’s back before abruptly throwing back his head and barking out a laugh. You really are useless.”

I don’t care.

Right.

Sigrid spun the conductor staff in a circle as Claire reached out and stepped in for her fully. He sent out another wave of wind—this time more intense. It screeched and whined through the entire compartment, sending the peacekeepers on the ground back even further and rattling the windows like an earthquake.

The windows shattered under the pressure, and the shards flew inwards as frigid mountain air spilled into the compartment. The cold stung at Claire’s eyes, but he still kept them open and locked onto his escape route: the window just to his left. He scrambled towards it and poked his head out. Just a meter away out the window extended a sheer drop from a cliff to an almost unseeable bottom.

Pausing, he turned to look back over his shoulder.

The peacekeepers were just beginning to pick themselves off the ground. Cvetka, however, was already standing and facing a window on the opposite side of the train. She must have felt his gaze because she too looked over her shoulder and met his eyes. Then, she smiled and leapt out into the cold.

Following suit, Claire leapt out himself and tumbled through open air. For a brief moment, he enjoyed the mountainside rushing past him and the cold whipping him in the face. When it hurt to breathe, he decided it was enough and threw out his conductor.

A burst of speckled-lilac air threw him back up into the sky. As the forces of the wind pushing back up equalized with the force of gravity, he swung himself up onto his parallel-hanging staff and landed deftly with the soles of his feet.

Then, he shot forward, Sigrid’s vague directions acting as a guide at the back of his head. Mountains flitted past below him—little spikes of black capped by a dust of white. It all seemed to stretch on forever—one mountain no different from the other. Disorienting—

Okay. Here is fine.

Shivering, Claire lowered himself slowly to the ground into a small clearing marked by a single pine tree. Sigrid reclaimed herself, shrugging her fur military-grade coat further up her shoulders and flipping both the staff and spear in hand before stabbing the staff into the ground and running her finger along the body of the spear.

Claire watched her for a moment before scanning the surroundings. The snow was blinding white and sparkling beneath the dull light sprinkling down from the clouds.

Don’t look at the snow. You’ll blind me from the sun reflecting off it.

Claire looked up. “Will you be alright out here all alone? What about your fath—”

Sigrid launched the spear towards the lone pine tree and it landed—not with a thunk but—with a squelch at the base of the trunk. When she paced over and pulled the spear from the snow, a white hare was hanging from its point.

Ah. Of course.

“My father and tribe can handle themselves,” Sigrid said, pulling the animal off her weapon and splattering red onto all the white.

Claire opened his mouth, then closed it. I’m sorry, Sigrid.

She punched him lightly in the chest and shrugged. “Handle yourself.”

* * *

When Claire opened his eyes again, it took him a moment to regain his bearings. Adrenaline was still coursing through his veins, and the frigid mountain wind was still nipping at his nose and ears. A knock at the door finally brought him fully back to reality.

“Come in.”

Felix, mask half-off, entered the room and gave a deep bow. “I was worried, My Lord. You were speaking very loudly.”

“I was just trying to think through some problems out loud.” Claire rose to his feet, stretching left then right. “Go ahead and take Eunji to the convention early. I’m going to look into something. Don’t worry. I’ll keep high—”

“But, Soha requested I keep watch over the both of you together. At all times. And with everything happening in this country lately—”

Turning to Felix, Claire pressed his fingers to his lips before clasping his hands together and dipping his head. “Please, Felix—”

“Please don’t do that, My Lord!” Felix whispered, voice wavering. “It’s not right for you to bow your head to a vassal—”

Claire popped back up. “And it’s right for a vassal to dictate what their lord should and shouldn’t do?”

Felix squirmed for a moment before dipping his head. “As you wish, My Lord.”

Claire grinned, heading towards the window as he gave a salute. “Thanks, Felix.” Then, he went airborne.

* * *

The skies of Capricorn were much colder than the skies of his homeland, yet much warmer than Sigrid’s. The heavier clouds above crawled along slowly, not even allowing a single ray of light to pierce through.

Claire wasn’t sure what he was looking for—a chance to clear his head, maybe. A reason to look into something—probably. It was a delicate balance—the needs of his country, the requests of his clan, the safety of those close to him, and his own personal wishes and desires. And now this whole Cvetka mess. Just to be free for just one moment would be…

A flash of movement from beneath him caught his eye. A sign of life from the otherwise half-empty streets. Just below him dashed a bushy-browed man with a large camera slung around his neck. He seemed to be running from something—

Oh!

Claire lowered himself down onto the street. With a pleasant smile, he dropped down beside the man, saying, “This is a pleasant surprise. I didn’t think you’d be sticking around here that much longer.”

The man recoiled and fell flat on his back. He squinted up at Claire before pressing a hand to his chest and sighing. “What the bloody hell, Claire? You nearly gave me a heart attack!”

“Well, you scared me with that article you wrote in the newspaper, Hilton,” Claire replied calmly, still smiling. He flipped his staff two times causing it to fold back in on itself before he extended a hand. “You write like Capricorn’s becoming a dangerous place to be in. You really know how to write a gripping article.”

“That’s because it is becoming a dangerous place,” Hilton replied, accepting the gesture and dusting himself off once he was standing. “The citizens are the lifeblood of a country but the government here is just allowing them all to bleed out. The Kaiser and his chancellery cabinet haven’t addressed anything. It’s like they’re waiting for things to get worse.”

“Are you trying to get me to comment on it?” Claire asked lightly. He gestured to his plain clothing. “I’m not in my endorsement outfit.”

“It was worth a shot.” Hilton grimaced, running his finger around the grooves of his camera. “Just caught an encounter between peacekeepers, the military police, and members of the Augen actually. Quite the scoop.”

Claire blinked. “One of the peacekeepers wouldn’t happen to be a woman with black hair tied in a ponytail, would she? Looks sort of tired all the time?”

Hilton nodded. “Well, yes. Her, a blonde with glasses, and a man with a mole beneath his eye. Why?”

“It’s… nothing.” Claire waved a hand and offered a smile. “Anyway, how’s your better half’s search going? The Cancerian duchess, right?”

“Still searching,” Hilton replied before his eyes narrowed to slits. “Why? Do you know something?”

Claire shrugged before his smile thinned. “While it’s really good to see you again, the real reason I’m here is to tell you that Sigrid was caught by Cvetka.”

Hilton pulled out a cloth from his pants pocket and began to wipe his camera lens. “Hm. That would be the True Conductor you told me is working with the ELPIS Department? The Ophiuchian department that’s interested in us for whatever reason? Given your nonchalance, I’m assuming Sigrid’s made a daring escape.”

“You know Sigrid. She can find her way out of anything.” Claire’s smile dipped. “You should leave this country while you can. Something is happening here—”

“Why are you afraid? Look at your position. You’re practically untouchable given your status. I highly doubt any supposedly diabolical secret organization would dare touch you at the risk of kickstarting an international incident.”

“I guess I’m kind of in a cautious mood,” Claire replied. “Oh, one more thing.” He reached into his pants pocket, pulled out a slip of paper, and handed it to the man. “Did you happen to see anything like this recently?”

Hilton scanned the paper—the poorly drawn sketch—and nodded. “Scorpion tattoo? Yep. It seems to be quite the popular choice in Capricorn nowadays. I’ve seen it on members of the Augen and a couple of the military officers.” He handed the paper back. “Although… I did speak to my contact in the Twin Cities recently about it and…”

“The information broker?”

“Right, he said that he received information about the people with these tattoos being involved in some sort of government program. It all sounded rather conspiratorial so I didn’t pay it much mind.”

“Ominous.”

“Anyway.” Hilton cleared his throat. “You wouldn’t be so generous as to spare me a lift to the convention, would you? I’m feeling quite fatigued from my recent escapade, and I wanted to take some more pictures there…”

Does he think you’re a transport service?

Claire smiled pleasantly, offering a hand. “Well, I still have to get in the appropriate attire. But. Sure thing. We’re friends, aren’t we?”

* * *

After dropping Hilton off at the back of the domed building hosting the convention, Claire remained behind the building with him and took a moment to stretch and rub his arms.

“Oh, here’s a tip, prince,” Hilton said as he straightened his suit and camera. “There’s a big protest happening a couple of days from now. I think you should keep your head down for now.”

Claire responded with a polite word of gratitude before taking back off to the skies. Much to his surprise, just as he was about to fly back to his hotel to get dressed, he spotted a familiar-looking man being dragged out from the dome building. It was the blonde Capricornian that had helped Sigrid escape Argoan captivity. A first lieutenant named Werner Waltz—if Claire recalled correctly—who was being overlapped by some woman called Cadence Morello? A True Conductor.

Pulling Werner out onto the street by the arm was a pretty, familiar, oddly-dressed woman with straw blonde-hair. Louise Bonnefoy—the strange Cancerian tourist Sigrid had come across in the Zatenminye Caverns.

Before Claire could digest the sight, a blip of light blinked into existence several blocks down. He couldn’t quite tell what the source of the light was since it was being blocked from his sights by a row of brick buildings—brick buildings which abruptly began to shake, sway, tremble.

Earthquake?

Stained-glass windows lining the buildings around him shattered as twisting metal ornaments that decorated rooftops swayed dangerously on their hinges. Below this chaos, the people dotting the ground fell forward onto their hands and knees.

Another blur from below drew Claire’s attention away. Yet another man was peeling out from the building of the conductor convention. But—

Claire blinked multiple times just to make sure he wasn’t seeing things.

Nope. That was definitely the Ariesian royal guard—Trystan Carter—tripping down the steps and darting after Werner.

Why is Trystan…? It clicked. Unless—

No. Not good. No involvement. You might be disco—

Claire brushed the thought aside and pushed forward through the sky after Trystan and Werner. After only a second of pursuit, he was nearly knocked off of his conductor by an intense heatwave that pulsated out from the direction of the light source. He righted himself and continued forward.

After he rounded several blocks, he found Trystan pulling Werner and Louise around the corner. They were soon joined by four additional Capricornians who seemed to have peeled out from nowheretwo in dark gray uniforms dotted with medals, and the other two with red crosses marking the white bands around their arms. Claire recalled them too from Sigrid’s side of things. He would’ve observed them further if it were not for the fact that he could now see the source of the pulsating light in full.

An entire river of glowing, psychedelic vitae was spilling out down the wide street and weaving in-between v-trams and v-ehicles and v-lamps—all which melted at its touch.

A reservoir leak…?

In the distance down the block, a pair of military policemen were holding back a torrent of glowing liquid light with large glass shields—insulators. Claire had seen these types of insulators being used for vitae reservoir leak clean-ups before, but…

The pressure from the vitae flow was too much, and both policemen abandoned their posts and scrambled away in alarm. The vitae consumed the insulators and continued on its path, undeterred.

It was moving at an alarming rate, Claire thought. If the Capricornians didn’t get this contained, then—

Claire stiffened as he noticed the vitae encroaching on the group of Capricornians, Louise, and Trystan who were collectively trying to escape its reach. Not good. If this Werner really was connected to Olive and this man was injured or died, then the relationship he’d painstakingly built up with Aries would crumble.

Claire, no—

Claire swept down and looped his hands beneath Werner’s armpits.

“C-Claire?!” the man and Trystan snapped in unison.

That confirmed it. Looked like someone else more familiar was in the driver’s seat.

Olive barely had enough to say much else before Claire shot them both to the sky. He dropped him off on top of the roof of the tall building to their left, before sweeping back to the ground. This time he plucked Trystan from the ground. Although the royal guard did not resist, the other Capricornians startled backwards, one of them—Derik Stein if Claire recalled correctly—even reaching for a holstered weapon.

Claire stiffened.

Not enough time.

After setting Trystan back down onto the ground, he swung his conductor at said ground and sent out a large burst of air. It ricocheted off the gray sidewalk and shot up a powerful updraft that swept everyone up to the sky well above the buildings. Shouts of alarm and swears followed this, but Claire paid them no mind. He flew to the sky, caught Trystan by the scruff, and quickly dropped him onto the roof beside Olive. Not even a second after, he sent up another burst of air and caught the four other Capricornians and Louise just as they were about to hit the ground. He guided the air to drop them off onto the rooftop before letting out a sigh.

After they were all safely on the roof, Claire alighted himself and leaned against his staff, panting lightly. Once he caught his breath, he studied his rescuees.

Trystan was tending to Olive who was staring at him with an almost panicked expression. The other Capricornians stood close around them and were looking to him cautiously and distrustfully.

“Is everyone alright?” Claire asked pleasantly to which he was met with a—

“Who the hell are you?” from Derik Stein.

“Claire,” Claire responded amicably. “I was just passing by, but I have to say that’s quite a reservoir leak.”

“Thanks for the lift,” grunted another Capricornian whom Claire believed was named Gilbert Wolff. “Do you know what’s going on?”

Claire shook his head. “Like I said, I was just passing by—”

Trystan’s eyes widened from beside Olive. “You’re one too?”

“One of what…?” Gilbert stared back at Claire. “A True Conductor? The Sagittarian?” 

Claire let out a breath he was holding, while Olive tensed and paled.

See. Loose lips.

Claire began, “Well, I was hoping to keep it a little bit more under wraps but—”

Gilbert abruptly slapped Olive upside the head. “Why the hell did you take off like that—”

Trystan shoved himself in between Olive and Gilbert. “Do not touch—”

“I’m sorry, Claire,” Olive said, pushing past them.

The apology was strange, and hearing Olive’s inflection from a man who towered above him was even stranger.

Claire stared before he forced a pleasant smile. “It’s alright. It was only a matter of time of time anyways, Ollie.”

“No, you don’t understand, Claire.” Olive clicked his tongue in frustration and shook his head. “Right now I think… I’m a medium for a Manipulator. I’m not sure how much they know or can see from me. I…”

“What…?”

Olive proceeded to explain the situation regarding his current locked overlap, the Manipulator saint candidate, the Verbundene Augen movement, and what he’d theorized about vitae energy levels. It took a moment for Claire to digest it all.

So that was how Cvetka possibly knew. Through Olive’s knowledge.

He’s dangerous. A liability. Get away from him.

Olive tried hesitantly, “Is she…?”

“She’s fine,” Claire reassured him before returning in his mind, I understand where you’re coming from, Sigrid. But let me handle it from here. All partnerships carry risks. Worthwhile risks. 

Besides, there were more important things here. For one, the entire ‘vitae energy level’ thing sounded a bit ridiculous. Then again Claire knew Olive was bright about these kinds of things. That and—

Claire bit the inside of his mouth but kept a pleasant facade.

—now he definitely needed to get his vassals and his sisters out of this country. But also…

Claire dug into his pants pocket, pulled out the slip of paper, and handed it to Olive. Olive’s eyes widened as he scanned the sketch there, and he peeled back the glove over one of his hands and presented it. Resting on his palm was a half-scorpion tattoo.

A spark of rage flared out in Claire’s chest as he recalled Beom laying in the hospital bed, but he quelled it with a sigh. He proceeded to explain what he’d heard from Hilton regarding possible government involvement with the scorpion tattoo.

“Not like they don’t screw us over enough already sending us out there,” Gilbert grumbled. “Now they want us to what? Fight each other? What the hell is—”

“It’s much more than that, Herr Wolff,” Claire interjected.

Gilbert stared. “How did you know my name—”

“This has the possibility of becoming an international incident.”

Gilbert stared again. “What?”

“Olive here might not be inclined to bring his country into this matter because he’s connected to someone who is a part of this country,” Claire explained, eyes narrowing. “But that’s not the case with me. My vassal was injured by someone associated with this Manipulator. That is a direct threat to the Seong clan.”

“So you are a True Conductor,” was all Gilbert said as he continued to frown in confusion.

“Well, yes. But I’m also a prince of Sagittarius—the Seong clan, specifically,” Claire clarified, suppressing a smile as the Capricornians recoiled. Pressing his fist into his open palm, he dipped into a respectful bow. “Situation aside, it truly is a pleasure to meet you. Your country is pleasant—”

Gilbert, Brandt, and one of the combat medics—Alwin Brandt—tensed.

“—unfortunately, there needs to be accountability with you as witness. Your people are being used as mediums for this Manipulator, and there are hints of government involvement. Not to mention the fact that this reservoir leak is endangering my entourage and myself and other officials from different countries here. Your Kaiser needs to answer for this—”

“Uhm… excuse me…” Louise cleared her throat as she held up a shy hand. “I just wanted to show Cadence the light show…” Placing a hand to her face, she peered into Olive’s. “You are Cadence, right?” After receiving a look of confusion, she pointed to herself. “It’s me! Louise! We met in the Twin Cities, remember? Ah, well, you met my dearest in the Twin Cities.”

What…?

“You know her?” Gilbert asked.

Olive looked her up and down with a frown. “No, I don’t know her… One of the others might’ve seen her or something.”

What? Was he lying? The Virgoan advisor had met Louise in the caverns. Something wasn’t right.

Louise’s face fell. “But you saved me, Cadence. From the mean man in that alleyway. You don’t remember? What a sad day…” She placed her other hand to her cheek before sighing, “Oh, it’s been so terrible. There was an explosion at the hospital the other day. I would’ve died if it weren’t for Mr. Foxman—”

“Wait. Do you mean Francis?” the other combat medic—Nico—pressed as he stiffened. “Francis is here?”

Louise blinked at him slowly before brightening. “Yes! It was Mr. Foxman! Oh, do you know him? Such a gentleman! He saved me, you know?” Her smile dipped. “Then… he dropped me off in some strange dark alleyway… but that’s okay! It was just another opportunity to tourist around!”

Politics momentarily forgotten, Claire sighed, glancing at Olive. “You always seem to get into trouble… don’t you?”

But Olive wasn’t paying attention to the conversation. His gaze was instead fixated on something beyond the lip of the building.

“Something’s not right…” he said, peeling to the edge of the building and peering down. The heatwave from the vitae leak pushed back his hair.

Gilbert, Stein, and Trystan joined him.

Gilbert grumbled, “You’re not going to run away again after saying that, are you—”

“The vitae’s not flowing out to the sides of the street even though it’s downhill.” Olive pointed to the direction the vitae was flowing. “It almost looks like it’s going uphill… it doesn’t make any sense.”

“Don’t sweat it,” Gilbert said after a beat. “The military police here are trained to handle leaks like these. For the most part. Don’t worry your pretty head.”

Well, if that was settled then…

Claire kicked down his staff and sent himself up to a hover a meter above the others. The wind rushing out of his conductor whipped their hair and clothing around wildly, causing Claire to offer an apologetic smile and half-bow.

“Claire…?” Olive blinked past the tears forming in his eyes. “What are you doing…?”

“I just learned quite a lot of things in one sitting,” Claire replied. “I need to get to work.”

“You really just going to ditch us here…?” Gilbert stared, nodding at the glowing light behind him. “With this? Really?”

“It’ll be fine,” Claire reassured them. “Like you said, your military police will contain this and get you down—”

Before he could finish, an intense wave of heat rolled out along his back as a shadow passed over him from behind. The shadow eclipsed the faces of those below him—faces which became twisted with varying degrees of confusion, shock, and alarm. Claire slowly turned his head and was nearly blinded by the light glowing behind him. The viscous vitae that had once been rolling along the ground had now somehow extended an appendage that towered above him. The appendage swayed before hurtling on towards him.

Just before the vitae made impact, Olive leapt and knocked Claire off of his conductor. Upon hitting the roof below, Claire caught sight of the vitae as it sank lazily back to the ground. His heart hammered wildly as he reached for his conductor that had fallen to his side. As he took a moment to catch his breath, Olive picked himself off the ground and offered him a hand. Claire accepted the gesture in a daze.

Once Olive righted himself, he paced back to the edge and threw out his hand despite Trystan’s protests. A wave of vitae flame flurried out in the air. But as soon as the flames hit the sky, another wave of the leaked vitae slowly rose up like a behemoth and battered the flames out of existence before crashing back down onto the ground. The sound the vitae made as it sloshed below was unnatural—not quite a howl, not quite a splash, not quite an earthly tumble.

“It’s reacting to the vitae. No, it’s being attracted to it. But… why?” Olive muttered to himself as his gaze followed the flow of the vitae uphill. He squinted in the distance before he paled considerably. “I… I think it’s heading to the convention. There’s a bunch of conductor engines and generator conductors in that building. Maybe the vitae particles are being attracted to it. I…”

Claire’s head spun.

Eunji—

Olive whipped around and grabbed hold of Claire’s hand. “Claire, wait. Let’s… work together.”

Claire shut his open mouth.

“Look, I know that it’s complicated with Capricorn right now and we have responsibilities to our countries.” Olive glared—his gaze coming out cold through Werner’s eyes. “We could at least help them get it contained. I’m not sure if they’ll even be able to contain it before it reaches the convention. I know it’s not your country—”

“No, the prospects of that are nice.” Claire nodded cordially. “Despite all this sourness, this could give Sagittarius quite a boost—intervening in a possibly disastrous accident in Capricorn.”

“Politicians,” Stein spat.

But politics was only half of the story.

Claire desperately needed to get all of that away from the convention, from Eunji, from his vassals. And Olive seemed to be offering him a good chance at that.

Olive’s face folded in disgust but he shook his head and pressed, “You’ve been here longer than I have. Do you know any good places without people around here?”

“43rd Street,” Claire suggested after a moment of thought. “It’s a historic area that’s practically abandoned, right?”

The Capricornians all shrugged.

Encouraging.

“We can maybe guide it with our vitae there then,” Olive said tentatively. “Since it looks like it’s attracted to expelled vitae…”

Trystan frowned. “Olivier, I object to this. It’s too dangerous for you. If you’re set on this, then allow me to—”

“You and the others can’t expel vitae like Claire and I can. It’s not enough,” Olive grumbled. “Not to mention it’ll be a pain if we have to double back for you.”

“But—”

“That’s not a bad plan. I don’t really get the whole ‘attraction’ thing but…” Gilbert interjected, arms crossed, “after you attract it, the rest of us can follow up behind you and make sure it doesn’t diverge somewhere We can get a couple of military police officers on it too so they can set up insulation shields. Stein?”

“I think it’s risky. Sending some pampered kid up there.”

Gilbert arched a brow at him. “What…? When did you grow a soft spot?”

Stein shrugged, dug into his uniform jacket, and pulled out a startling array of what looked to be long-ranged Projector conductors. He tossed a bladeless conductor to Gilbert who inspected it before giving a nod of approval.

Capricornians were strange.

Trystan seemed to think so too because he took a step forward and glowered. “Do you understand you are asking the heir of the Ariesian throne to risk his life for your country—”

“I’m not under your monarchy, Carter. Could care less about it,” Gilbert said. “He’s your prince, isn’t he? Isn’t it your job to listen to exactly what he says? If not, then what’s your relationship with him?”

Trystan stiffened while Olive opened his mouth seemingly to protest but then shut it a beat after.

“It’s a good idea,” Gilbert reaffirmed with a nod. “Don’t get a lot of those over here recently, so we need some positive reinforcement.” He waved his hand in the air. “Well, anyway, we might be out in the open with the True Conductor stuff, but we still can’t have Werner running around shooting fireballs from his hands. Got a solution for that?”

Olive dug into his pocket and pulled out a series of proto-conductor rings. He parsed through them before selecting one that was marked by etchings of what appeared to be a frowning face? Olive slipped on the ring and flexed his fingers. A shimmer of copper went up his arm and consumed his body. Upon the light shattering, Olive looked… very much like himself. Dark hair, sun-kissed skin, hazel-ish eyes. But there was something a bit off—

Trystan frowned. “Olivier… you’re a little bit shorter, I believe. This is a transmutation, isn’t it? Will this… deter you?”

Olive frowned. “What are you talking about?”

“You usually come up to my shoulders,” Trystan explained, tapping the area before moving his hand down to a couple of centimeters below that. “You come up to here now. Below my chest. Does it feel different?”

Olive frowned deeper as he inspected himself before scowling. “ Cadence… ” He shook his head. “It’s nothing. I can’t feel a difference.” He met Claire’s gaze. “Are you ready, Claire?”

Claire spun out his conductor and held out his hand. “You’re being friendlier than usual, Ollie.”

Ignoring him, Olive glanced back over his shoulder towards Trystan and gave him a quick nod before accepting Claire’s extended hand. With that, they shot upwards.

Not even a second after they hit the sky in a torrent of blue-flecked wind, a wave of vitae reached up towards them. Olive threw out his hand and out swam a swirl of crimson flame that consumed the encroaching wave in an instant. Claire kicked them off higher into the sky in a panic. As the smoke cleared below them, it became clear that Olive had somehow burnt away a section of the encroaching vitae wave—

—but then the vitae began to bubble, glow, and regrow the mass that it lost.

Clinging to him tightly, Olive half-shouted, half-whispered, “Did you see that?!”

“It’s growing back—”

“No!” Olive interjected, sounding excited despite the situation. “Look! It didn’t regrow fully.”

Claire squinted and frowned when he realized that the glowing vitae had in fact only regrown about three-quarters of what Olive had burned away.

“Maybe… Maybe… It has to do with the 70:30 ratio. I’m not sure what it is but…”

Claire had no clue what Olive was talking about. He kicked them higher as another appendage shot up at them until he felt they were well out of reach.

From this vantage point, Claire could clearly see how much vitae was swimming around the ground. It covered three blocks and spider-webbed further in-between nearby buildings—melting everything it touched. He squinted past all of the brightness and made out where the vitae was spilling out from. A kilometer or so downhill from their position was an open space surrounded by pristine white buildings marked with numbers. A trail of vitae led to this area and ended at what appeared to be a large drainage hole.

43rd Street.

Was that the location of an underground vitae reservoir? He’d never heard of such a thing. Ironic that it was their original target destination.

“Might as well take it back where it belongs then,” Olive grumbled when Claire informed him of this. He extended his hand out again and sent out a whirlwind of fire blasting out just above the glowing vitae.

Simultaneously Claire kicked his conductor forward and drove them towards 43rd Street. Tentacles of vitae reached out to them—to the flames, to the flecks of blue in the air—as they lurched forward.

“It’s working,” Olive muttered.

Claire threw a glance over his shoulder and saw tendrils of light retracting from their course uphill towards the convention. Something about the way the vitae moved made his stomach squirm but he ignored and refocused his attention forward.

In a momentary beat of distraction, a tendril of light shot up from in front of them nearly knocking them from the conductor. Claire managed to dodge to the left and grabbed Olive by the scruff before they tumbled to their deaths. As expected, he received a glare in response but met it with an apologetic smile before continuing forwards.

Once they reached the center of 43rd Street, Claire shot them up higher into the sky. Tendrils of vitae followed them upwards as light pooled below them in an almost perfect circle filling up the block. The pool of vitae stretched itself tight and then, reaching and reaching, until abruptly—

—down and down the vitae sank to the ground. A bubbling began at the center of its mass which was soon followed by a swirling. Like water draining down the sink, the vitae whirlpooled down into the open drain it had originally spilled out from until it was swallowed up completely. Almost no evidence of it left. An empty street littered with glass and half-melted lamp posts.

“Did it just…”

“I think it did…” Claire whispered back. “A bit anti-climactic.”

They stared silently at the ground for a moment before Claire cautiously, hesitantly guided them to them down to the surface several meters away from the drain. Claire stepped off of his conductor first before Olive hesitantly did the same. They approached the drainage hole together, peered down into the darkness, and upon seeing nothing, relaxed simultaneously.

Well, that was easy.

Claire lifted his hand in the air for a celebratory high-five. “Hey, we did it!”

Olive stared at him with an arched brow before looking away and loosely punching his fist into his waiting hand.

A stampeding of footsteps resounded from down the street. Along came the Capricornians and Trystan. Louise, however, was nowhere to be seen.

“Are you alright, Olivier?” Trystan pressed as soon as he reached their side.

“I’m fine—”

“The hell happened?” Gilbert managed after catching his breath. “Where’s the vitae? We’ve got half the military police running around with insulation shields.”

“Well—” Claire began before a loud crack from below cut him off short.

Claire held Olive’s gaze for a moment before they tentatively glanced down in unison.

Cracks were forming along the brick-laden ground below them. Cracks that grew and spread and consumed the entire surface beneath their feet. A final slick, crack! rang through the air as the ground fell away and they tumbled into darkness.


Threshold

The thing sighed, hanging its head. “You’re a very dull person, aren’t you? You couldn’t even spare a little bit of a reaction?”

The tick-tocking of the surrounding clocks resumed. Loudly, cacophonically. 

Werner regarded the thing cautiously. Clearly, it saw this entire situation as entertainment.

Abruptly, the blue light coating the thing’s entire body rippled like water and peeled back across its face—folding back like paper. What was revealed as it shed its blue coating was his mother again.

No, this thing, Werner realized as he met with the thing’s blue-gray gaze, viewed this as a game. But there was an opportunity here to—

“This entire situation was honestly an accident.” The thing frowned“I’m sorry about this. Really. If it makes you feel better, you did see that the person who did this to you was dealt with swiftly.”

The Augen member in disguise as an Argoan soldier. The memory of the knife crossing his hand suddenly became so cognizant that Werner could almost feel the ghost of the cut on his palm.

An accident…? There was no such thing as an accident.

But if I try to pull myself out of you or worm my way out, I might accidentally rip your own vitae right from your body. There’s just too much of me in you at the moment and given that you’re a True Conductor, it’d be especially messy. I do admire the effort you’re putting into it though.”

Werner tensed.

If this thing couldn’t leave the people that it entered on its own, then why—

Even if I somehow leave though, the impression I’ve left will be left behind regardless. Like those scars on your hands.

Werner remained silent.

It’s not your fault and neither is it mine. You might think I’m the one pulling all of these strings and controlling everything because I’m a Manipulator… but to be honest with you, I’m quite weak. Most of the time, all I do is enter a person and read into a bit of their surface-level thoughts and memory. If I want them to do something, I just plant a single thought—an idea. It’s up to that person to decide whether or not to act on that. I’m not unkind. Of course, if I’m a bit more desperate, I’ll go a bit further but I rarely do that. You understand, don’t you…?

The clocks around Werner began to tick slower and slower.

Of course, the ideas I leave behind are just thoughts that I’ve already found swimming around in the heads of the people I enter. Desires that they’ve suppressed due to thinking that it’s a waste of time or to keep up appearances, etcetera.”

It was speaking so casually about such a disgusting act. Living manipulation was abhorrent—

“That’s cruel. Is that what they teach you in your military academy?” It frowned. “I’m not so much different from a True Conductor. Though I can’t feel as deeply and remember as much as you people do, I still can feel the thoughts, memories, and feelings of those I’m in as if they were my own.”

If that was the case, Werner realized, then the situation was more disadvantageous than he’d originally thought. Pressing for answers was dangerous. Observation would be the best route. He wasn’t in the position to be making demands at this time. He was very well aware of that.

“Correct, dear.” It smiled, batting his mother’s eyelashes. “You could stretch to the point of saying you aren’t in the position to be making decisions either. Atienna certainly could but wouldn’t. But you… I do think you’re very decisive… but… you didn’t even try to change course.”

Was it referring to him going through the memories in order to excise it? All of those events had already occurred. Attempting to ‘change the course’ would be a time-consuming, fruitless effort without benefit. Nothing would truly change.

“Any normal person would’ve at least tried to resist though,” it continued. “Even the street orphan did.”

Morello.

“Yes, I’m very well acquainted with her now. She’s quite the liar—that one.” She smiled before chuckling. “But you’re much more of a liar than her surprisingly. You’ve even chosen a much easier way to live compared to Atienna.” She shook her head. “I just can’t wrap my head around it… You see, I approach every person by asking the same question: what does this person seek in life?”

The clocks had almost slowed to a single tick every ten seconds.

Money? Love? Status? Admiration? Yes, yes, and yes. This all culminates to the fact that every single person alive seeks self-fulfillment. By achieving this self-fulfillment, the theory is that they’ll obtain true peace. And… in a sense, self-fulfillment is equivalent to desires.”

Every thirty seconds now.

“Honestly, I’m not a bad guy. You can think of me as a wish granter.” She chuckled. “Since I’ve accidentally been inserted into you, I’ve been looking around as I’m sure you can tell… But—you see—I couldn’t and can’t find anything.”

The clocks hit one final tick and fell silent.

You’re completely hollow. There’s nothing there. You’re made up of a couple of stereotypical traits glued together. It just doesn’t make any sense. How can a man have such an impressive record and resume behind him and yet be so empty? Boring? Even that peacekeeper is filled with something—I do disapprove of all of you attempting to suppress his righteous anger, by the way. That’s very selfish of you—imposing your status quo like that.

These were meaningless, reaching words. What Werner was able to gain from this was that she already knew about Jericho.

“And what if I do know about him?” She pressed. “I thought you wanted as little to do with them all as possible? To cut off your connection as a True Conductor and continue with your duties as a Capricornian soldier to the fullest of your abilities? Or did your mind change to conform to what the others wanted unwittingly?”

Abruptly, the memory of the conversation with Atienna in the Zatenminye Caverns cut through Werner’s thoughts like a knife.

“Who are you exactly, Werner?” Atienna had asked. “What do you want? What is your goal?”

You don’t know.

When Werner got a hold of himself, he found her still sitting there at the desk and smiling at him pleasantly.

It was toying with him.

He needed to retreat.

“Like I said, it’s not about you giving me what I want.” His mother smiled again, extending a hand. “It’s about me giving you what you want. And if you don’t want anything—well—I can always fill up that empty space instead.” 

She reached across the table, and suddenly in a blink, she was standing before him. He took a tense step backwards but she grabbed at his wrists with unnatural strength.

“Let me see if I can show you what I mean—through my eyes.”

And with that, she tugged him into complete and utter blackness.

When his vision and senses returned, Werner came to realize that it was almost painfully hot. He was no longer standing in the tent but in an open area dotted with crimson embers. Smoke filled the air, and a ring of flames burned around him on the ground. Beyond that ring of fire, he was just barely able to catch sight of—Gilbert, Nico, Brandt, and Stein. Beside them stood Yuseong Claire who gripped his staff conductor tightly with an expression of horror and worry. Other figures Werner couldn’t make out stood behind them.

This is happening right as we speak, echoed his mother’s voice. This is what he wants.

Werner realized that all of his men’s gazes were trained on a singular target. He followed their eyes and found Olive standing only one meter behind him. For a moment, Werner felt something approximate to relief at the sight of the prince—at least until he registered Olive fully.

An expression of pure hatred twisted Olive’s face. And in the boy’s hold being consumed by the very same crimson flame blazing around them was a vaguely humanoid shape.


The Vklad Plemennykh Rabochikh Act, better known as the Tribal Worker’s Contribution Act, was signed into legislation following a surge of unemployment in Aquarius after the Reservoir War. The act was designed to create employment specifically for formerly-serving soldiers from the tribal states of Aquarius. Other benefits of this act include increased vitae-reservoir supply to the tribal territories and agricultural food assistance and support.

Positions range from military, fishing industry, and conductor manufacturing. The act requires a quota of job-filling to be met in order for the tribes to receive the additional benefits. In 1932, the act was extended to encompass the progeny of tribal members who served in the war.

Success of this program is still under evaluation.

Significant Legislation, Countries of Signum 20th edition by Various Authors

17.2: Royal Guard, 0620 Guidance

Re-cap:

Olive steps into the override and manages to subdue the ELPIS leader Iota. He aids a medical train containing both his body and Atienna’s and many other injured in continuing on its path away from the capital. After reuniting with his royal guard Trystan and having his status of prince revealed, he and Werner’s unit and captain realize that a Manipulator is pulling the strings from a distance. He continues on the journey to the capital of Capricorn, while Trystan Carter guards over him with apprehension.

As Werner breaks through a haunting memory of his mother, a cracking can be heard in the distance. Shion watches his progress from across the divide. 


Beratung » Guidance attempted at 620 hours.

Ariesian Royal Guard Trystan Carter had always desired change. From the days when he’d toil away working in the paddy fields governed by the appointed feudal lord to the days when he’d attended school lectures held by passionate, underpaid teachers—change was always on his mind. Perhaps it was because of the passion of those teachers that Trystan had grown to become passionate himself—first about the history of their nation, then about the politics of their nation, and finally about their socioeconomic disparity.

One day, at the tender age of ten, he’d stumbled upon a small union of local workers in the town hall. They invited him into one of their meetings despite his youth and introduced him to the injustice and greed that flowed through Aries:

The taxes that his parents paid to the feudal lords didn’t go to programs to support the people. Instead, it went into small vanity projects like self-idolizing statues and luxurious residential estates for the lords’ political supporters. To avoid beckoning the law, the feudal lords contracted the locals to complete the construction and paid them the bare minimum.

After recalling how his mother and father toiled away in the fields of such an estate day-in-and-day-out, Trystan became filled with righteous rage. 

When he had taken this issue up with the local council, they had all laughed down at him saying, “You’re a child. You care too much for unimportant things. You don’t understand how the world works.”

His schoolmates had thought similarly and had distanced themselves from him in turn. Although it did hurt, he didn’t care for their apathy. 

His parents had fortunately offered their support: “Look at our son,” they’d say, “trying to make life easier for us. Take it one goal at a time. Who knows how much you’ll change?”

And Aries began to show those shades of change after that fateful afternoon. Trystan still remembered the day of the Tragedy like it was yesterday. His entire town had gathered around the singular radio in the local library as the telegrapher reported the ELPIS invasion minute by minute. Some had gasped—some cried—as death after death was grimly reported.

“Maybe there’ll finally be change in this country,” one of the union workers had said a week after, “since there’ll finally be a fresh page to start off with.”

Trystan couldn’t believe his ears at the time. He wanted change and supported progress—but cheering for the death of hundreds in hopes for it? That was not what Trystan wanted at all. It disgusted him. 

But the Tragedy, as they’d all said, did bring about change. The taxes and poverty rates in the countryside skyrocketed as the sister of the late queen took the throne with her husband. Trystan wasn’t sure if this resulted from their inexperience, the influence of the new feudal lords, or their own greed and corruption. 

Unfit ruler after unfit ruler with a backdrop of scheming feudal lords was a seemingly cemented cycle no matter the changing times. Trystan had doubted there would ever be a ruler capable of tearing away from such a repetitive system. But—

“The prince is kind,” the union members had said. “He’s not pulled down by bureaucracy and tries to avoid it at all cost. Hopefully, when he takes the throne, he’ll take this country where it needs to go.”

And so Trystan had set sights on the prince. If there were any person who would listen to him, Trystan had thought, perhaps it would be this person—but first he would have to reach that person.

At that time, the best way for a commoner to reach that level was by becoming a servant in the royal palace. One step further were the servants who had the most contact with the royal family: the royal guards. And so, Trystan had set his sights on the position.

Unfortunately, his skills had never been academia, so he had sacrificed nights that bled into mornings toiling away at his studies and had spent ages refining his skill with the bow. But his hard work paid off. At the age of eighteen, he achieved his first goal and readied his mind for his next goal: falling in favor with the prince. 

But when Trystan had first laid eyes upon Prince Olivier Chance, he felt his stomach turn with disgust. He’d never seen such a disrespectful, apathetic, spoiled person in his entire life. The king and queen had allowed Olivier’s grievances—perhaps out of pity—and his ill traits had festered. 

Surely, Trystan had thought, this person would become the worst puppet king of Aries in history. The worst thing was that the prince seemed to know this but didn’t seem to care. How could he work with this?, Trystan had fumed to himself with utter disdain. What was the point? All of his efforts up until this moment had been fruitless. 

But then that very same spoiled person had galantly swept into Trystan’s jail cell when he had been framed and unjustly accused. It had befuddled Trystan’s mind at the time since Olivier had no reason to offer aid. In fact, Olivier had every reason to believe the verdicts and accusations. Why would someone so careless and apathetic reach out to another person they barely knew?

And then Trystan had realized something that seemed too simple to be true. Despite his apparent apathy, Olivier was a person of compassion who acted on that compassion regardless of consequence. With that, Trystan had found hope again. He’d thought that perhaps he would be able to properly guide the prince to the right path. 

“Take it goal-by-goal,” were the words his parents had sent him off with a week before his departure from Aries with the prince. It was clear that they didn’t want him to leave and Trystan himself had been apprehensive of his own dpearture, so their words had been a comfort.

As Trystan watched Olivier through their journey from Aries to Sagittarius to Ophiuchus to Libra to Capricorn, he came to three conclusions about the prince. 

First, Olivier actually enjoyed the company of others. It all seemed very convoluted, but despite the prince’s snappish words, he often sought out crowded areas and would engage in casual conversation with locals. 

Secondly, Olivier loved conductors. Not the weaponized kind, but general conductors. He often spent hours talking about the newest inventions even if they were sub-par. Trystan himself enjoyed listening to passionate people speak so he enjoyed the spiels-turned-rants fully. 

Most importantly, however, Olivier still hadn’t fully understood the importance of sacrifice. No, the necessityof sacrifice. He wanted everything and refused to lose anything—and this did not apply to acts of selfishness but also to acts of altruism and selflessness. Food, service, knowledge, giving aid, anything. Olivier wanted it all. It was not quite spoiltry, not quite naivety, not quite greed nor kindness. Trystan couldn’t quite think of a word for it.

Even now Trystan could see it in Olivier’s eyes despite the latter now wearing the face of a Capricornian who towered over him. ‘It’ being the fear of losing something, the refusal to give up something. The incident with the medical train had further proved this to Trystan as did the revelation of the existence of True Conductors. 

How such a secret had evaded him for so long, Trystan didn’t know and was ashamed of it. A small part of him still wondered if perhaps it was all some Capricornian ploy. But…

Trystan had stumbled upon the prince speaking to himself quite a number of times these past months. However, he’d always attributed it to the prince thinking out loud. He’d assumed the habit would go away with age. Besides, he was a royal guard. Therefore, his duty was not to question or object, merely obey and advise if necessary. And guide

And so after the confrontation with the imprisoned ELPIS leader within the train and after putting the prince to sleep, Trystan had dutifully gathered the prince’s favorite items, books, and pet bird from the opposite medical train and had transferred them all to the capital-bound train before waiting dutifully for the prince to awaken.


Capricorn

The Capricornians appeared to be very fond of all forms of smoking—be it v-cigarettes or normal cigarettes or cigars. This led to the entire train cabin smelling of it. Olivier bore with it for a surprising amount of time but eventually gave in and requested for Trystan to have them move to a different cart. 

Thus Trystan purchased a larger, more accommodating cart near the front of the train. While he guided Olivier to this area, they passed by the familial members of the man—Werner Waltz—whose face Olivier currently wore. They had a brief conversation in Common with them in which the mother pressed Olivier to get some rest because he ‘looked awfully exhausted.’

Something about the woman rubbed Trystan the wrong way but he held his tongue.

Immediately after they arrived at the newly purchased train cart, Olivier requested a full course meal. He’d slept for over an entire day following the ELPIS Leader’s escape, so Trystan was unsurprised by his hunger. After running the order through the kitchen cabin, he brought the prince a full plate of fruit-topped pancakes, a parfait, and a side of strawberry milk.

Just as Olivier picked up his knife and fork, the Capricornian second lieutenant entered along with one of the lower-ranking Capricornian soldiers. Gilbert Wolff and Derik Stein, if Trystan recalled correctly. Olivier had thrown out a very poorly-worded invitation to them so Trystan was surprised at their arrival. The invitation had gone something along the lines of “If you can quit smoking for a minute, then you can come over to my train cart if you want.”

Gilbert tried to take a seat in the booth across from Olivier but Trystan immediately stuck out his hand. The man merely shrugged and reclined back on the sofa along the wall opposite. Stein meanwhile helped himself to the small bar offset to the side.

“Didn’t think anyone could beat Stein in eating,” Gilbert noted, eyebrows arched as he watched Olivier down a slice of pancake in three bites. “And he’s the human embodiment of gluttony.”

“If I’m going to be sold out to someone, I want to at least have a decent last meal,” Olivier responded.

Gilbert remained silent. 

Stein lifted a glass of whiskey he’d poured from the bar and downed it.

Olivier recommenced his dive into the pancakes but paused briefly to mumble, “Still, thanks, Gilbert.”

Gilbert stared in disbelief but Olivier didn’t elaborate and continued working on his food.

The prince was into his third pancake when they were joined by the rest of the Capricornians—from the captain to the two common soldiers to the two combat medics to the two prisoners.

Trystan narrowed his eyes at the last group. Although he felt sympathy and understanding towards the Augen movement, they had been the ones behind the attack on the hospital where the prince had been residing and now were possibly in the fold a seemingly all-powerful Manipulator. Violence to bring about change was something that Trystan abhorred. The Capricornians bringing members of such a movement—the leader no less—into the same room with the prince was beyond irresponsible. 

While the other Capricornians explored the room while marveling and whistling, the captain approached their table. He made to sit but Trystan held out his hand. Olivier nodded, prompting Trystan to allow the man through. 

“We’re almost at the capital,” the captain said calmly in Common. “I think it would be best for us to get on the same ground. Although Cadence disclosed a certain amount of valuable information to us, I don’t believe she disclosed everything. I don’t blame her. Not only are all of you not my subordinates, you aren’t citizens of this country either. I can also understand your apprehension in trusting us.” 

Seemingly disinterested, Olivier took a long sip of his milk through his straw. 

The captain stared before clearing his throat. “We’re in the same unknown waters. I might be bound by duty, but I want to reassure you that my loyalty doesn’t lie with one man. I hold my own doubts, but I don’t believe acting without understanding a situation fully is the best route. If you’d be willing, I’d like for us to get to mutually find our way to the same ground.” After a beat of silence, Weingartner continued, “Werner is still my subordinate, and my subordinates’ well-beings are still a part of my priorities.” 

Olivier regarded him for a moment before setting down his cup. “I… have an idea to see if any of the others with us are possibly being manipulated.” He hesitantly pulled off the glove from his hand and showed them the dark mark there. “Maybe… marks like this are left by the Manipulator if someone’s been turned into a medium.”

The one called Wilhelm Fischer scoffed in accented Common, “With all due respect, Captain, that’s ridiculous. Why would a mark be left? And why would they choose to leave a mark in the first place?

Olivier flushed lightly. “It was just a suggestion.” 

“I remember seeing that mark before. Back in the unoccupied zone,” Kleine slowly drew. “It was on an Augen member who was disguised as an Argoan.”

Gilbert straightened, closing the distance between him and Olive. He took a hold of Olivier’s bare hand, stiffened, then looked away. “You’re right…” 

Fischer started again. “But—”

“What? Feeling a bit shy, Fischer, ‘cause you’re in front of royalty and a woman?” Gilbert arched a brow, unbuttoning the front of his uniform. “Not like you haven’t done it before. Anyway, better safe than sorry.”

Thus, all the Capricornians stripped down to their undergarments. The captain himself stripped as the other Capricornians lined up in single file down the line of the train. He then went down the line to inspect all of their bodies. 

It was surreal, awkward, and uncomfortable, but those feelings left Trystan’s mind when he registered the Capricornians fully. Most of their bodies were riddled with scars. They crisscrossed across arms and legs like roads on a map. Paired with the scars were blotchy spots of pinkened skin.

Trystan looked back to the prince and found that his expression had folded. His eyebrows furrowed, his eyes slightly wide, his lips pulled downwards. Empathy. 

When the captain reached Marionette, he stopped. A large sweltering scar ran across the woman’s front torso.

Weingartner pointed to it, asking, “And where was this from?” 

“It’s from the Reservoir War,” Marionette responded, pulling her shirt back up and rebuttoning. “The Second Raid of Okör. A Projector.”

Weingartner studied her before turning back to the booth. 

“You can redress,” he told his men before reseating himself and addressing Olivier. “There’re no markings. If that’s truly how we can identify someone who’s being manipulated, then I can safely say that no one here is being used as a medium.” 

Besides possibly the prince himself. 

“I would like to know the exact circumstances regarding the ELPIS leader’s escape,” Trystan interjected once the captain was fully clothed. “My duty is to the prince’s safety, so any activity that hints at otherwise draws my suspicion.” 

Weingartner nodded. “Alwin Brandt was the one who suggested that we separate the ELPIS leader from the other two. Derik Stein and Wilhelm Fischer were the ones assigned to watch over her, but there was confusion over the shifts. Usually, there would be a correctional discipline ordered, but given the circumstances, I’m willing to postpone that issue.”

“I’m sorry again, Captain,” Fischer stammered. “It won’t happen again—” 

“Of course it won’t happen again…” Olivier grumbled. “Because she’s gone.” 

Trystan refocused his attention on Brandt, Stein, and Fischer. He knew for certain that most Capricornians were highly-trained and highly-disciplined. To have someone escape under their watch was highly suspicious. 

“Mr. Carter, I understand you wish to accompany your prince to the capital and to keep him safe, but it’d be best if you didn’t draw attention,” Weingartner continued. “We’ll provide you with a uniform before we arrive.”

“But Captain,” Fischer protested, “he is not a Capricornian. We can’t just give him a uniform. Wearing this is an honor. It’s like allowing infiltration—” 

Weingartner sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Yes, I understand that, Fischer. But you forget there’s a bigger picture. Capricorn is not the only country in Signum.” 

“But, sir—” 

“If anything, we should be worried about you,” Olivier interjected suddenly. “We’re not the ones who sent assassins to your country. But I’m not the type of person to start another problem when there’s already a problem to be worrying about.” 

Fischer quieted, lips pulling tight.

Abruptly, a now fully-clothed Heimler broke away from Brandt and Fischer and darted over to their table. He grabbed for a hold of Olivier’s hand before Trystan could stop him and got on his knees.

“I know this is not the time for this,” Heimler pressed in barely accented Common, “but if you really are the Ariesian prince then you can speak for us. Speak for the Augen. If you’ve seen through the first lieutenant’s eyes, then you’ve seen how it is out here. Do you really want all this senseless fighting to continue?”

“Pathetic,” Stein spat. 

Fischer nodded in agreement. 

Trystan reached out to grab ahold of the man. 

“Stop it, Trystan.” Olivier held up a hand before looking down at Heimler with a frown. “I don’t get it. Why are you even asking me…?” He looked away. “Look at the situation. If I could do something, I wouldn’t be here to begin with…” He grimaced. “Putting all of your expectations in one person is stupid.” 

Trystan frowned.

Heimler stiffened. “Just your word would be—”

“Heimler,” the captain interjected tersely. “You might be under question of the state, but you have to realize that you still represent Capricorn and you represent me. Have some dignity. We’ve all lost things. That doesn’t mean we should grovel—”

“With all due respect, Captain, you used to represent me,” Heimler drew. “Pride is meaningless before dedication.” He balled his fists. “The government put an unfair burden on my son even though he was barely an adult and forced him into an early grav—” 

“And what do you think you’re doing now?” The captain frowned.

Stiffening, Heimler stared up at Olivier and paled. Stein stormed over and pulled Heimler to his feet and back into line. 

“I can speak for myself,” Olivier grumbled. “Just because I’m younger—” 

“What I’d like to know, if I may, Captain,” Fischer interjected, “is what other people are involved in your True Conductor connection. Cadence was a hostile party who tried to coerce through intimidation—”

Olivier stared. “You thought Cadence was intimidating…?” 

“She made threats—”

Olivier snorted before clearing his throat after receiving stares. “Well, if you thought Cadence was intimidating, then you’ll be in for a surprise… If I didn’t know them, I’d probably think those other two were monsters. Or just crazy.” There was a fondness in the prince’s voice despite the insult. “Even Werner has nothing on them.” 

Weingartner asked, “Would you mind elaborating on who those two are?”

Olivier stiffened. 

“That’s fine.” Weingartner nodded. “Let’s address this Manipulator now. We don’t know if the Kaiser is associated with them or if this is Cvetka’s employer or an adversary of both. It would be nice if we understood where we stood with them.”

“The Manipulator we’re dealing with might be—no, most likely is—a saint candidate,” Olive mumbled. “But they might be against the ELPIS Department… It’s happened before. Saint candidates not getting along, I mean.”

“And why do you think the Manipulator is a saint candidate?”

Olivier dipped his head. “It’s because…”

“Take your time,” the captain said calmly. 

Olivier looked away towards the window again. It was a minute before he spoke. “My sister was a failed saint candidate. She was with me on that day… And after the Tragedy, I began to see her everywhere. Like how she looked before.” 

Trystan stared at Olivier in disbelief as a chill went up his spine and a pang of empathy vibrated in his chest. 

“That’s when I was first able to conduct without a conductor. I thought Lavi was just… my mind playing tricks on me at first. That’s what a doctor at Ophiuchus said. I’m not going to get into that. But I met the Saint Candidate of Sagittarius not too long ago, and she could conduct without a conductor too. My ability to do it is probably because of my sister.”

The captain nodded. “I see… So in the end, it comes back around to saint candidates. And ELPIS…”

“About ELPIS…” Trystan cleared his throat. “There was suspicion that ELPIS might be involved in the attack on the hospital.”

Olivier straightened, frowning. “What…? Really? Why didn’t you mention that earlier?”

“It was mere speculation. I didn’t witness it myself, but there were rumors that the military police found proto-conductors filled with white vitae,” Trystan explained. 

“But…” the combat medic Brandt interjected suddenly. “That doesn’t make any sense.” 

“Right.” Olivier pulled back, frowning even deeper. “ELPIS and the saint candidates are… against each other, I think. And the Manipulator is a saint candidate and is manipulating the Augen… so why would the Augen be with ELPIS…?” 

“Maybe they’re framing ELPIS and the Augen,” Brandt pressed. 

“But why would they do that?” Gilbert arched a brow. “ELPIS is already public enemy number one.” 

“If one of the others were here, they could probably figure it out.” Olive stabbed a piece of fruit and popped it into his mouth as he leaned against the side window. 

The Capricornians stared. 

A lapse of silence passed before the captain pressed, “Is there anything else that you think would be helpful for our understanding of the situation?” 

Olivier played with a blueberry on his plate before mumbling hesitantly, “Well… While I was in Capricorn, I was looking into the different types of vitae: the soft and the hard. I was thinking maybe… there was a third form of vitae. I was thinking maybe that has to do with my ability to conduct.”

“A third form…?” Weingartner appeared skeptical. 

Brandt was frowning. 

“This is all theoretical, okay? It’s been researched, but no one’s ever found concrete proof of it… but there was this saint candidate named Pema. She wrote about her ability to conduct without a conductor and said it was from this third form of vitae. I found her notes in the Bodhi Temple of Sagittarius.” Olivier cleared his throat. “Anyway. I was talking to Werner’s sister earlier, and she gave me an idea. What if instead of different forms of vitae, we’re talking about different levels of vitae? Like energy levels. What if vitae isn’t in a constant state of energy flux? If that’s the case, then I think we can quantify what those levels are. And how they can connect to the saint candidates….” Olivier trailed off as he realized he was receiving stares. “Like I said. All theoretical.” 

Weingartner appeared thoughtful. “Well, what variables would you consider? The temperature, most likely. And what would you consider to be the upper and lower limits would be for those levels?” 

Olivier stared, frowning. “I didn’t think you’d take me seriously…” 

“Well, we have time on our hands. Any information—no matter how theoretical—would be very helpful. And I did teach vitae theory way back when myself.” Weingartner turned his head. “Kleine, we could use your input too.” 

“I’m not… good at the theoretical stuff… “ Kleine admitted in his accented Common, cheeks pinkening. “I read it… in one ear and out the other.” He brightened a minute after. “But have a lot of books! I bought them back when we were in Eisburg.” With that, he darted out of the room and returned a minute later with two stacks ten books tall. He set the books on the table and stepped back, gesturing. 

“I can help instead,” Brandt offered, one hand raised. “I might not look it but I graduated top of my class.” 

Trystan frowned again but before he could say anything Olivier requested for him to bring over the notes from the Bodhi temple that were tucked in the storage cart. Trystan complied, and when he returned with the notes, he found Marionette standing beside the table. 

“If you’d let me,” she said, “I can also help. My concentration in the military academy aside from political science was vitae theory.” 

“And why would you be interested in this?” Weingartner asked, regarding her carefully. 

“Are you serious?” Marionette’s eyes narrowed. “If our movement is being taken by this Manipulator then it’s my responsiblity.” 

“You do realize, Frau Engel, that your trespass across the border will still be tried in court as is.” 

“I’m aware I will be tried according to the system that’s in place.” 

Olivier looked between them. “Is this happening or not…?” 

Weingartner nodded and Marionette took a seat beside him. 

And thus the four began to delve into the books and spoke of particles and densities and other concepts that Trystan had long forgotten about after completing the state conducting exam. Eventually, Olivier requested him to leave. 

The other Capricornians—minus Heimler who was seated on the sofa and Fischer who guarded him—were gathered around the bar. Trystan wasn’t particularly interested in them—save for whether or not they were a threat to the prince—but he was thirsty so he went around to pour himself a glass of water. 

“So, is the salary good?” Stein asked from the bar stool as he chugged wine straight from the bottle. “For being a royal servant, I mean?” 

“Being a royal guard is an honor. Salary is secondary,” Trystan replied. 

“Come on,” Gilbert pressed, pushing him a glass of whiskey. “Loosen up. Sound a lot like someone I know.” 

Trystan caught the glass and inspected the second lietuenant carefully. Gilbert was unrefined but Trystan got from him a sense of loyalty. “Yes, the salary is suitable.” 

The Capricornian soldiers continued to converse in their native tongue for several hours before Marionette abruptly slammed her hands on the table, leapt to a stand, and drew the attention of the room.

After registering Olivier’s pale and nauseous expression, Trystan quickly went over to the table. There, he found a long sheet of paper filled to the brim with numbers, variables, and degrees. 

“You knew about this, didn’t you?” Marionette snapped to the captain in Capricornian. 

“No, I didn’t…” Weingartner responded calmly in Common, despite the sweat beading his brow. “You know I couldn’t have.”

Marionette sank to the table, remaining silent. 

“What is it?” Trystan pressed.

Dead silence.

Olivier was the one who spoke first— “…Going by Pema’s notes, hard vitae would probably be considered the lowest energy level. It wouldn’t be weird to assume that soft, living vitae would be at an energy level above that. The third form of vitae would have to be above that—again, going by Pema’s notes. So we were thinking that maybe the third level was… what vitae reservoirs were made of too.”

“Given the right conditions, vitae particles in the natural environment—and even in us—can sporadically jump up energy levels,” Marionette continued, “but from what we have here, that only occurs around 0.0001% of the time.” 

“You can bypass this barrier with a conductor,” Brandt interjected. 

Olivier nodded, staring down at the equations. “Because a conductor’s conducting core concentrates vitae particles from a person’s body, theoretically… it can cause the vitae particles of whatever it’s used on to jump energy levels. So if you use a vitae blade on a person then…” His brows furrowed. “70% of the vitae gets knocked down an energy level. But… it’s theoretically possible for that other 30% of the vitae to get elevated an energy level. With Conjurors, we don’t know yet but…” 

Weingartner added, “We cross-referenced major conflicts with recorded formations of reservoirs, and it lines up.” 

“Generator conductors harvest vitae from the reservoirs,” Brandt finalized. “But weaponized conductors can create vitae reservoirs under the right conditions.” 

A chill shot up Trystan’s spine as apprehension boiled in his chest. He became hyper aware of the weight of his conductor that he’d refused to put in the storage room at his hip. 

If this was the case then—

“Wait. But this… is all theoretical… right?” Kleine spoke nervously in his native tongue and looked to the captain. “I mean…something like this—if it was real, it had to have been publicized. I would’ve read about it.”

“I agree, sir,” Fischer said from the corner of the room. “The Kaiser and the government would tell us this if this was true. With all due respect, a couple of people coming up with random theories in a train cart doesn’t sound like concrete evidence. Right now all it sounds like is coincidence.”

“What’s the big deal anyways?” Stein yawned. “So using conductors on people can create the vitae in reservoirs? Well, might as well put some of the dead to use. Like recycling. Not like they’re being sling-shotted straight into a reservoir, right? We kill them; they maybe become fuel. Not too bad a deal.” He scratched his head. “What the hell happens to that vitae when generator conductors are used then—” 

“It isn’t natural,” Brandt interjected, sending Stein a glare. “That’s what’s wrong with it. And if this is how it is and if the people above us know, then there are a lot more reasons for them to send us out to the border. Suddenly, the Augen makes sense. Think about Otto.”

Stein arched a brow. “What’s up with you?” 

“I… sorry.” Brandt recollected himself. “This is a little too much.” 

Weingartner nodded, clasping his hands together and leaning forward. “Right. Let’s end this here for now.” 

“But, sir—” Kleine started. 

“That’s an order, Kleine.” 

Olivier locked eyes with Kleine, opened his mouth, closed it, and then looked out the window. 

“I’m going for a smoke,” Gilbert muttered as ruffled his hair. “Anyone wanna join me?”

Only Kleine and Brandt took up the offer and exited the compartment with him. Fischer meanwhile dragged Marionette back beside Heimler. 

Seconds bled into minutes bled into hours. 

Cottage houses flitted past the train window as they passed by a small village. A handful of children dressed in caps and shorts waved newspapers at them as they passed. 

“Is it weird…?” Olivier mumbled suddenly. “Coming back here after all that?” 

Weingartner blinked out of his daze before nodding slowly. “Yes, it’s strange.”

* * *

Trystan accompanied Olivier back through the train halls later when the latter excused himself to the restroom. As they made their way there in silence, the prince reached into his pocket and pulled out a flat rectangular object wrapped in wax paper. He unwrapped the thing and brought it up to his mouth. 

Trystan grabbed a hold of his hand. “Where did you get this from?” 

“Obviously my pocket.” Olivier frowned. “It’s just a chocolate bar.” 

“Is this from the Capricornian?” 

“Probably—” 

“Allow me to test it, Olivier,” Trystan said, prying it from the prince’s hands and breaking a square off. He popped it in his mouth, chewed, swallowed. “We can’t allow you to risk—” 

Bitter. Poison— 

“It’s not poison. It’s bitter chocolate. Popular over here.” Olivier grumbled, snatching the chocolate back and folding it into his pants pocket. “Now I don’t feel like eating it anymore—” He abruptly winced and reached for his shoulder.

“What is it?”

Olivier leaned against the window and rubbed the area. “It’s nothing.”

Trystan frowned. 

Olivier sighed. “This was where Werner was shot when everything started… Ever since Iota said what she said earlier, it’s been hurting. Probably my mind playing tricks on me. It’s nothing. Really.”

Trystan frowned and took in a deep breath before asking, “Olivier, what are your feelings towards the Capricornians?” 

Olivier recoiled. “Seriously? What does that question even mean?” 

“The man standing before me is someone you’re connected with—I understand that—but he’s a Capricornian soldier. I’m worried about how that will affect your…” 

“I can care about people outside of Aries, Trystan. I’m not in a mutually exclusive relationship with Aries. Anyway, Werner is part of the reason why I’m still alive. He and the others are the only reason I didn’t end up in an obituary article after that entire Watch thing.” 

Trystan felt a prick of inferiority and guilt at the statement. 

“Why are you worrying about that when you just learned what conductors can do…?” A brief look of fear and apprehension folded over Olivier’s face. 

Trystan frowned, placing a hand on his bow conductor at his hip. “I do find your discovery disturbing, but I don’t think that’s an issue we can handle right now, Olivier. Besides, the reservoirs aren’t the only issue in Signum.”

Olive grimaced again. “There are problems everywhere. Aries, Capricorn, Gemini… I know how it looks with me just wandering around when I’m the prince of Aries. But it’s not like I can do anything more than that right now without making it harder for everyone else. It’s frustrating. One thing after the other. I don’t know what to do.”

Trystan startled and stared. 

“Why do you look so surprised?” Olivier grumbled. “I’ve had people to bounce my ideas off in my head for months. Now there’s no one but you. I know Gilbert and the others through Werner, but it’s not like they know me, so…”

“No, I appreciate your confidant, Olivier. About what you said—that’s—”

“That’s the way the world works. I know. It is the way it is.” 

“No, I was going to say that that takes time,” Trystan said. “Life is hard and becomes harder the longer you live. I believe taking it simple goal by simple goal is a reasonable thing to do. Your ‘wandering’ research in Capricorn is for the princess, isn’t it? I think that’s a fine goal for the time being. The rest will come later.” 

Olivier looked away. “I wasn’t asking for your blessing or approval to begin with. Where did that even come from?”

Trystan felt his cheeks burn with embarrassment but he cleared his throat. “If I may say this, Olivier… I still think your rightful place is the throne of Aries. Once you come of age and the king and queen abdicate, it is your duty to take to ensure someone with ill intent doesn’t take it instead.” 

Olivier’s glower turned to surprise.

“That being said, your rise to the throne is not the reason why I’m out here with you.”—Trystan knew he was overstepping his bounds as a royal guard—“I know that’s what you think, but that’s not the case. I’m here for you, Olivier. Besides, the throne is still a long ways away. A goal in the far future. First, this current issue. Then the princess and your studies. Then the reservoirs. And then eventually the throne.”

After a beat, the prince asked, “You’re from Torrine, right?”

“How did you—” 

“You talk about it all the time.” Olive rolled his eyes and popped open the window. “I feel like I’ve practically grown up there at this point.” He put his head slightly out and seemed to enjoy the wind. “I’ve… looked into it. The tax burden there is a lot higher there than the northern regions of Aries where the cities are at. The education system there isn’t great either. The reservoirs… aren’t…” He tugged on a strand of hair and pulled back in. “If this works out okay and if I end up somehow being on the throne, then I’ll work there first…You know—set precedent or whatever.”

Trystan felt his heart skip a beat and his chest swell before he dipped into a deep bow. “Tha—”

“Enough with the bowing… We’re not even there anymore.” 

Trystan straightened. “I’m sorry, Olivier. I’m just. Grateful.”

Olivier squirmed before flushing and mumbling something under his breath. He became coherent a second later, saying, “No… Thank you, Trystan. For coming with me… Look, it’s hard for me… awkward for me to say things like this. But I mean it. I’m not just saying it just to say it like all those feudal lords back home to win loyalty.” 

Trystan startled, suddenly feeling somewhat embarrassed himself. “I-It’s my pleasure, Olivier.”

Olivier squinted at him. “That sounds disingenuous.” 

“I assure you it’s not.” 

Trystan knew now for certain he was a failure as a royal guard because he did not view Olivier as a prince, nor as a person to be protected and guided. Because of this, he was not able to offer a course correction if necessary. Simply put, he foolishly viewed the prince as a friend.

* * *

Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

Being back in the capital of Capricorn put Trystan on edge—even though he and the prince were now perfectly blended in with their uniforms. He had tried many times to dissuade Olivier from coming to this country to begin with. Because, after all, although the Watch had been dismantled, that still didn’t change the fact that the prince’s entire assassination plot had been originally a Capricornian machination—whether or not ELPIS was involved. But Trystan understood Olivier’s insistence now—up to a point. It was that compassion and refusal to sacrifice again. 

Upon stepping off of the train onto the platform, Trystan immediately held Olivier back with an extended arm while keeping Olivier’s belongings balanced on the baggage carrier with his other hand. 

Gathered around the ticket station only several meters away stood a crowd of people holding signs. At the center of that mass and standing on top of the booth was a man wearing a tweed coat. He was snapping in Capricornian at them—too fast for Trystan to pick up. Whatever it was, it seemed inspirational since the crowd cheered louder as he continued on.

A steady thump, thump of boots against concrete resounded to the left of the booth, and a file of military officers with shining gorgets approached the booth swiftly. 

Trystan and Olivier were pushed forward by Fischer who stepped out onto the platform with Marionette and Heimler in tow. The latter two were cuffed but had their hands hidden beneath the coats they held in their hands. The other Capricornians loaded out behind them and eyed the scene with varying degrees of interest and worry.

The captain requested them to wait in place while he went off to the telephone booth across the street. 

The military police officers meanwhile began to shout at the citizens as they pulled out their batons and began beating them against their own palms in a rhythm. One citizen shoved an officer back. This prompted the policemen to push forwards in retaliation against the crowd. A younger girl who had climbed up onto the desk to escape was dragged down by a policewoman which initiated a flurry of thrown fists. It was clear, however, that the police group was more in control of the situation. 

One of the officers abruptly broke off from the commotion, approached them, and addressed them cheerily in Capricorn, “Werner, Gilbert, what a surprise! It’s good to see you again. I wish the circumstances didn’t involve us having to clean up your mess at the border, but that’s life.” 

Mess? 

“It’s that one ranked police officer we always come across whenever we have to turn our report into the capital. Vash Something-something. Always claims we went to the academy together but I don’t remember him,” Gilbert whispered in Common to them. “Grade-A asshole.” He turned back to Vash and continued in Common, “Don’t know what you’re talking about, but they’re finally putting you to work, huh? About time.”

The language switch jolted the policeman, and he took a second to recollect himself before responding in the same language, “The amount of work done doesn’t exactly equal the quality work, does it?”

“You could say that if work was being done in the first place,” Olivier stated. With a grimace, he inclined his head towards the police who were finishing up rounding up the protestors. 

Vash straightened, cleared his throat, tipped his hat, and went back to rejoin the rest of his group. 

Gilbert sighed. “Feels good to have that directed at someone else instead of yourself.”

Trystan had to agree.

Once the policemen cleared out the ticket booth, Olivier approached it. Trystan swiftly followed behind him. The prince pulled out a newspaper from the stand there before immediately passing it to Gilbert when the man approached them from behind.

Gilbert scanned the headline. “Fuck.” He proceeded to hand the newspaper to the other men who joined them. 

The article was written in Common, and the headline readJustice Demanded for Border Slaughter. Unarmed Protestors Gunned Down. Kaiser Demanded to Put to Trial Those Involved. 

Fischer and Kleine paled, Brandt remained blank-faced, Nico looked to Olivier, while Stein crumpled up the paper and tossed it over his shoulder. Marionette picked it off the ground and showed Heimler what was written.

“We’re not going to receive disciplinary action for what happened at the border are we?” Kleine paled. “We didn’t know… And the Manipulator—”

Weingartner returned to them and took the newspaper from Marionette. “Don’t worry. I’ll make a case for you. I’m sure after I report our discovery into the chancellery cabinet with the generals, we can resolve all of this.” He nodded to the prince. “That being said, I’ve contacted the chancellery office to inform them of our arrival. They’ve directed us to wait at the Konvergieren Dome where the convention is being held for the time being.” 

“That’s dangerous,” Trystan interjected. “If this movement is being used by this Manipulator then putting Olivier in an open—”

Olivier placed a hand on his shoulder. “It’s fine, Trystan.”

Trystan frowned but obliged. 

As they wove their way through the capital, Trystan noted that it was much quieter than when he’d initially come here with the prince. Some of the store windows were boarded up, and there was not a child in sight running through the streets. The newspaper stalls dotting the stone walkways had their shutters pulled down. The openness and rigidity that he’d appreciated when he’d first arrived here now felt ominous and oppressive.

* * *

They arrived at the domed building which hosted the conductor convention just as a woman stepped off of the central stage. An intense and excited buzz clouded the air, and so Trystan assumed that the woman must have said something of great importance. 

A loud announcement boomed through the speakers in Capricornian a second after. Klaus roughly translated for them that they were halfway through a repose in the convention events and there was an hour left to go.

Weingartner guided them to a collection of leather cushions against the wall and again requested them to wait while he went to make another call. Olivier seemed to want to explore the convention but held his tongue and stayed seated. After Trystan made sure the prince was situated, he began to straighten the baggage he’d brought along and fed the prince’s blackbird in its cage. It tweeted cheerfully before an abrupt and booming shout from the center of the convention startled it into feathery flighty.

“What an amazing sight! Truly this place has prepared well for my—Veles’s—arrival!”

An odd, dark-skinned man with a fur cloak thrown over his shoulders commanded the attention of the entire dome. Behind him paced two men—an older one in sailor’s uniform and a younger one who was inspecting all of the conductors laid out on the tables. A small, glum-looking girl walked with them while holding the sailor’s hand.

Foreigners. 

“I… don’t believe this convention was put in place just for you, Mr. Veles,” the man in the sailor’s uniform whispered. “But please, would you keep it down?”

Trystan spied Olivier staring after the group and rising to a stand with creased brows.

“Do you know them, Olivier…?” Trystan inquired.

Olivier frowned. “No… I don’t think so…” He placed a hand to his temple and grimaced. “Something’s not right. I don’t feel good, Trystan.” He grabbed his shoulder with his free hand.

Nico and Gilbert turned to them, both frowning. 

Gilbert pressed, “What’s going on—” The man was cut off as Olivier grabbed a hold of his arm and leaned on him for support. “The hell? You’re scaring me,” Gilbert snapped before paling slightly as he peered at Olivier’s face. “What’s going on? What’s wrong with you?”

Nico peered into Olivier’s face too, inspecting the prince’s shoulder after prying his hand from the area.

Trystan looked to the combat medic. “What’s wrong with him?”

“I’m not sure.” Nico frowned. “Let’s sit you back down—”

“Oh, what are you doing here, Werner?” a voice called out from across the lobby area. “I thought you said you were going to be attending an important meeting.”

Olivier stiffened, causing Trystan to stiffen as well. When Trystan turned, he found Werner’s mother and siblings just a couple of feet behind. An older man was standing there with them as well. He held a grim, stolid expression like a displeased schoolteacher.

“Herr Waltz!” Gilbert extended a hand towards the grim man and beamed. He continued on cheerily in Capricornian and jerked his head back ever so slightly. 

A diversion—

“Oh, where did Werner just run off to?” the mother asked suddenly, interrupting Gilbert mid-exchange.

Trystan tensed and turned. Sure enough, the spot where Olivier once stood was empty. The prince had returned to pulling his greatest trick in the book. 

A great tremble suddenly rolled through the ground. It shook all the conductors and contraptions off from the tables and rattled the frames of the windows of the overhead dome. The glass cracked under the pressure, sending a crystalline clattering of shards raining onto the floor. Shouts of alarm rang out shortly after.

Trystan fell to the ground as the trembling continued. With effort, he managed to pull himself up, righting the birdcage that had fallen on its side before darting out of the building. He tumbled down the limestone steps outside and barely managed to straighten himself as he scanned the area. All the pedestrians were flat on the ground as the rumbling shook the surrounding lamps and buildings. One of the trams had stalled and now rocked back and forth on the tracks while the wires stringing it along swung wildly in the air.

And then Trystan felt it. An intense heat that reminded him of home rolled out in waves from down the street. 

Olivier?

He shot off in the direction of the warmth without hesitation. Resounding footsteps followed behind him, and a quick look over his shoulder informed him that Nico, Gilbert, Brandt, and Stein were tailing after him. He, however, paid them no mind. 

After rounding several corners towards the heat source, he found the prince standing in front of a conductor store. But it was not the prince’s conducting that was causing the humidity in the air. No, the prince was too preoccupied at the moment by a strange blonde-haired woman with caramel-colored eyes entangled in his arms. In fact, it appeared as if Olivier was trying to drag her away from the heat source which was spilling out onto the streets towards them:

A glowing mass of liquid-like light, flowing like a living river. It was psychedelic yet somehow colorless at the same time. The steel tram that this fluorescent mass flowed past melted with the feverish heat pulsating from its body.

A reservoir leak…?

Breaking out into a sweat from the hot haze, Trystan darted over to Olivier’s side and helped him drag the strange woman up to her feet. The Ariesian summer heatwaves had nothing on this intensity, and Trystan could feel the hair on his brows begin to singe off. As he dragged both around the corner, he heard a blood-curdling wail and a groan resonate through the air.


Threshold

Werner crushed another blue scorpion beneath his boot and smeared it into the muddy ground. The row of corpses lined up in front of him on the dirt fragmented to pieces, and the surrounding bony trees around him shattered back into black. The black was overtaken by a deep indigo two seconds later as a hanging full moon eclipsed the sky. The light illuminated Lavi who squatted at his side and Shion who stood across the divide from him.

He wasn’t certain if they had both bore witness to that memory with his mother in that room and the memories following that. At this point, he didn’t care anymoreHe had shown that he was capable of handling this predicament well enough, and he had shown satisfactory handling of the situations. Appearances kept; situation maintained. There were more pressing matters to be concerned with. 

“Were you able to brief Chance?” Werner asked Lavi. 

“Yup,” she affirmed. “I was only able to remember the word ‘Manipulator’ when I went up there, but I think he understood what I meant.” 

Chance was bright. That was to be expected.

“And the ELPIS leader?”

“She’s captured, but…” Lavi looked away from him. “I shouldn’t do that too much. Go up there, I mean. It’ll just accelerate the process… the strain is too much.” She seemed to pout—an expression Werner wasn’t personally unfamiliar with. “I need to tell Ollie to stop using my vitae and conducting like that since it’ll accelerate it too.”

“Accelerate it?”

“Can’t you hear it, Werner?” Lavi put her hands to her ears, causing Werner to vaguely recall when she’d done this in front of Olive when this had first all begun. “You’re already breaking.”

Werner tensed, feeling a sudden and sharp throb at his shoulder. He knew it wasn’t a real sensation so he didn’t address the area. 

“You can’t just say ominous stuff like that, Lavi,” came Shion’s sigh from across the white line. “You’ll just stress everyone out…” She looked to Werner, making an okay sign with her hand. “You’re doing fine.” 

Her reassurance held no meaning.

“This is the fifth memory I’ve acted through since Chance stepped into the override,” Werner said, eyes narrowing. “It doesn’t appear that I’ve made any progress, and I haven’t changed the person in the override. Is it the more that I progress, the more difficult—”

“You realized that you were dealing with a Manipulator earlier,” Shion interjected. “That must’ve come down partially from Atienna… But if you’re beginning to be able to hear the others, that means they’re being drawn down here too…” Her eyes narrowed. “This isn’t good…”

In other words, he was progressing too slowly. The issue was that he didn’t know how to progress faster. Unsatisfactory.

Shion opened her mouth and then closed it before an unnerving grief pulled down her lips and furrowed her brows. “Hey, Werner,” she finally said. “I’ve been meaning to ask this but what—”

The surroundings twisted as the moonlight above suddenly bleached everything a painful blue. Werner brought his hand up to block the brightness despite himself. And once the light faded and his eyes adjusted, he lowered his hand and found himself standing at the center of a familiar tent. Weightless clocks hung on the leather flap-walls around him, and faint rain was pattering down just outside. Despite the make-shift roof above his head, Werner kept seeing a glimpse of blue moonlight out of the corner of his eye.

“—exactly is the reason why you chose to be a military man to begin with?”

Upon turning, Werner found Captain Weingartner sitting behind him at a familiar wooden desk. 

“Well, Werner?” the captain pressed. “From Wilhelm, I get the sense of a desire to prove self-worth. I know Otto wants to support his parents with the stipend. Derik is here for the glory and the thrill, while Emilia is here partially out of family and loyalty. Klaus and Gilbert would rather be anywhere but here, but stay out of discipline and fear of the consequences of desertion.” He tapped the papers on his desk. “I’ve read through your profile and your mission statement, but I can’t help but feel like there’s a lack of passion. What is your goal in serving in the Capricornian army?”

The tick-tocking clocks and pattering rain filled in the silence.

“Enough roleplaying,” Werner finally said. “I can see your smirk from here.”

The tick-tocking stopped, the hands of all the clocks stilling. The rainfall seemed to evaporate.

The thing that wore Captain Weingartner’s face locked eyes with him before its features stretched and twisted unnaturally. Its eyes bled into its lips, and its brows dipped into its eyes. When the thing’s features settled, it was no longer wearing the captain’s face but his mother’s instead. 

Werner tensed despite himself.

The thing’s face morphed again into his brother’s then to Fischer’s then to Atienna’s, Cadence’s, Olive’s. Its skin cracked and a deep dark blue light seeped out from its pores. The blue light consumed its body until the entire thing was just an amorphous mass of glowing light. Although it had no eyes, Werner had the intense sensation of being watched from all angles.

A click-clattering resounded through the tent as shimmering, black, spiny, stinger-ladden insects spindled out from the thing’s body and petaled out onto the table and then to the floor. Soon the entire ground was teeming with them.

And then Werner felt it. 

He only had faint memories of this feeling from when Olive had first encountered Jin back at the Bodhi Temple: the ominousness. It was a bottomless dread that Werner had only personally felt once before during his very first battle at the southern border. 

“You’re the Manipulator,” Werner stated calmly. “The intruder.”

“That would be me.” Clasping its hands together, the thing smiled ear-to-ear as its voice reverberated from all directions. “It took some time but I’ve finally burrowed deep enough to talk face-to-face with you like this. It’s a pleasure to fully lay eyes on you, First Lieutenant Werner Waltz. Let’s get to know each other.”


art by my lovely friend @nichimiey and designs by my other good friend @jackadoodle-d