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 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

17.1: Prince, 0400 Mandate

Re-cap:

While onboard a train enroute to the Capricornian capital, Cadence has a rooftop encounter with the ELPIS leader Iota after an argument with Nico. Viktoria who has followed her up onto the roof is caught in the crossfire. Fortunately, a conductorless Emilia Bergmann sweeps in and tries her best to hold her ground. But Iota erratically derails a nearby medical train, ties their train to the tracks, and locks them in an escapable cage.

In the knick of time, Olive burns his way into the scene.


Erlass » Mandate decreed at 0400 hours

Capricorn

Ariesian prince Olivier Chance had no idea what was going on.

The last two things he remembered before waking up face-first on the cold metal roof of the train were fluttering book pages and Trystan and Marta looking down at him in alarm. Now he was cold, nauseous, had an ELPIS leader ringed in vitae flame in front of him, and was surrounded by a handful of tall Capricornians.

It was a definite leap.

Obviously, he’d overriden Werner, but the why remained unknown. The time-frame didn’t match either.

Whatever this was, Olive knew he needed to cover for Werner. He’d acted without thinking again, and now everyone had seen his Elementalist conductorless conducting. He needed to think of an explanation for it but—

Right now, there wasn’t any time for thinking. Not even a second after he’d locked Iota in the fire ring, Emilia started whimpering from where she lay behind him. He whipped around immediately and sank to his knees beside her. As soon as he laid eyes on the red seeping out from her uniform and trailing down the roof of the train, his vision swam.

There was just so much blood.

Don’t paniche told himself in Werner’s voice. Put pressure on the wound. 

He followed through with the thought and tensed as she winced beneath him. Red seeped between his fingers—sticky yet slippery, warm yet cold, and very, very wet. Seeing blood through the other five’s eyes had nothing on this.

In the background, Werner’s captain shouted for Klaus to get Nico or Brandt before he stomped over to them. He sank down on the opposite side of Emilia, pressed a cloth over Olive’s hand, and pushed hard. He jerked his head, signaling for Olive to remove his hand.

Olive obeyed, tense.

“Don’t panic,” Weingartner said, although Olive barely understood him. “Keep control of your vitae flames over that ELPIS member.”

Olive stiffened, glancing over his shoulder towards Iota who was glowering at him from behind the wall of flame. After a beat of hesitation, he threw out his hand to add more fuel to the fire. When he turned back to the captain, he found the older man staring at him.

“Who are you?”

Olive’s heart skipped a beat. “W-Wha—” His voice cracked, and the words slipped out in Common. “What are you talkin—referring to, sir? That conducting was just part of a special, covert, routine, new conducting program that I’ve recently taken part in.”

That had sounded unbelievably stupid.

The captain stared right through him before switching to Common himself—“We spoke with a Cadence Morello just before you. And before that, there was someone else, but I didn’t catch their name. We knowabout True Conductors and ELPIS.”

Olive felt his blood run cold. “I—don’t know what you’re talkin—”

“Cadence informed us of everything,” Weingartner continued. “I know you’re not Lieutenant Waltz, and I know you’re stuck in what you call an ‘override.’”

Another shadow passed behind Olive, and Gilbert sank into a crouch beside him.

Gilbert grumbled in Capricornian.

Olive stared, uncomprehending.

The man then repeated in Common, “No need to act. The conwoman spilled everything.”

What…? Olive felt the world spin. What in the world was Cadence thinking?

“Your face is too readable.” Gilbert arched a brow, before gripping Emilia’s hand as she reached for him. “Thing is, Werner hasn’t checked in since we were back in unoccupied territory which was over two weeks ago—”

Two… weeks?

“—I’m guessing Cadence figured that whatever was happening to your possession group wasn’t going to stay under wraps and tried to use it to her advantage. Made a bunch of threats. Scared half the men to death.” He squeezed Emilia’s hand and whispered something down to her.

Olive stared, befuddled.

Gilbert whipped around abruptly and snapped into the wind. “Nico, stop moping and get your damn ass up here!”

Olive startled with a wince and sent the man a glare.

As if shouting was going to make Emilia do any better…

Gilbert met his glare and arched a brow. “It’s Olive, isn’t it? The one from the camp? I’d recognize that glare anywhere.”

Olive stiffened.

“Dammit, Nico!” Gilbert snapped back again before grumbling, “He probably ran off to the farthest train cart…”

Unconsciously, Olive extended his hands out towards Emilia which was when he caught sight of his fingers. They were coated in a thin layer of red. “I… I can try to cauterize the wound.”

The captain and Gilbert exchanged looks.

“Your flame vitae could spread further past the wound after it’s cauterized,” the captain said.

“I know that… but if I just do it with the top layer of skin… then maybe Nico can transmute it off,” Olive muttered. “Just to close the wound. I think… I can. I’ve practiced. A little bit.”

Weingartner pressed, “And you’re certain you can do it?”

“Better than I can stand here just talking about it.”—the statement came out ruder than Olive had intended.

Weingartner looked him over before nodding and placing a piece of cloth into Emilia’s mouth. Emilia bit down on it without hesitation as the captain said, “One… two—”

Olive stared at Weingartner incredulously.

What was the point of counting down without any warning?

“—three.”

Weingartner lifted his hands, and Olive moved his to take their place. Weak crimson flame emitted from his palm, causing small embers to putter down onto Emilia’s reddened skin. She winced and whimpered but remained still.

Weingartner and Gilbert were watching closely.

Although Olive hated it, he ignored it. Instead, he carefully lowered his hands to the area—

—and suddenly she burst into crimson flames right before his eyes.

Olive barely had time to register the sight before the heatwave knocked him right off his feet. He flinched back in horror only to see the vitae flames that consumed Emilia flurry out towards both the captain and Gilbert. The embers ate away at their uniforms, licked at their skin until it bubbled off, and crumbled their bones. Their agonized screams scrapped at his ears as memories he’d steadily stopped thinking about these past couple of months suddenly returned at full force.

162 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature skin melted. 482 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature human fat melted. Above 1600 degrees, cremation. 

No, no, no.

Nothing else was in Olive’s head besides that word.

Mind racing, he lunged for the three of them in hopes of somehow extinguishing the flames with his body but he fell forward onto ash. Their ashes.

He scrambled up to his feet only to find that he was no longer standing on top of the train. Instead, he was back in the long halls of the Ariesian royal palace with the signature red carpets and white walls stretching out endlessly before him. Down from the smoke cloud hanging high above his head rained black feathers that crumbled to ash as they hit the ground.

A terrible scent curled in the air—a scent he shouldn’t have been familiar with but was. 

You’re afraid of being a coward?

Olive spun around and saw an ebony figure wavering there. Its body was made of feathers yet it crackled as if made of fire. 

You should be more afraid of yourself when you’re being brave.

This wasn’t real. He knew it wasn’t. He’d dreamt this many times before. A nightmare that used to keep him up at night. 

Please let it be a dream.

Olive squeezed his eyes shut and focused on his breathing just as Doctor Kingsley had taught him years ago. 

Only when he felt something wet tap against his cheek did he open his eyes. Upon doing so, he quickly discovered that the Ariesian white walls and red carpeting no longer were laid out before him. Instead, gray clouds shrouded the skyline and concealed the moon above his head. A soft drizzle was starting to come down too. The droplets pitter-pattered against the roof of the still train, drowning out the distand sound of crackling flames in his ears.

And in the middle of all of that gray, an arrow with a tip inflamed by vitae was now being pointed squarely at his face. The pale rose light from the arrow’s tip illuminated its wielder—

“Trystan…?”

The royal guard stood only inches away from him and was dressed in his usual red-caped travel wear. Bow conductor poised, frown firm. Trystan Carter.

Was this still a dream?

A squeeze on Olive’s shoulder drew away his attention. Gilbert Wolff sat beside him frowning with furrowed brows.

“Y-You’re alive…” Olive’s shoulders sagged.

Gilbert seemed to relax slightly before he side-glanced at Trystan. “Uh, yeah. Thought you were dead or something.” He searched his face. “What’s wrong with you? You said you were going to cauterize the wound and you froze up.”

Olive scanned his surroundings in confusion.

Emilia was still laying in front of him, and Weingartner had moved back to pressing against her wound. Just beside him sat Nico Fabrizzio, conducting gloves on, hands hovering. Nico’s heavy panting indicated that he’d arrived rather recently.

Behind both men stood a young woman with wispy, pale blonde hair. She looked a bit familiar to Olive, but he couldn’t recall why.

Slowly, Olive turned back to Iota and found that the crimson ring of vitae that had once surrounded her had been extinguished by the drizzle. Fortunately, Stein and Fischer were both on top of her now. Gauging by their twin breaths fogging air and their heaving shoulders, Olive figured that they must have arrived recently too.

The pale-rose light from the arrow inched closer to Olive’s face as Trystan pressed, “How did you know my name?”

Still dazed, Olive turned to look back at him. “Are you really Trystan…? What are you doing here?”

Trystan tensed. “How do you know my name, Capricornian? What was that conducting you did just now?”

“Did you come from the other train?” Weingartner asked, calm and in Common. “The medical train? We aren’t the ones who manipulated the chains that brought it down.” He nodded to Iota. “We have that one in custody. I’m Volker Weingartner. I’m in command of this train.”

Medical train…?

Olive glanced to the left and stiffened. Laying there several yards away on the grass and bulging off of the opposite train tracks were derailed train carts.

“Why did that man call you ‘Olive’?” Trystan pressed. “I overheard him earlier. Paired with that conducting—what are you up to?”

Stein leapt to his feet and reached for something at his belt—presumably a weapon. “Who the hell do you think you are—”

“Wait!” Olive snapped. “Don’t, Stein!”

Stein halted immediately.

Without lowering his bow, Trystan procued a hexagonal, slender plate of gold from his pocket and presented it to them. The royal guard insignia.

“I serve directly under the royal family of Aries. It’s my duty to protect the prince and to attend to matters that may adversely—”

“Oh… fucking saints.” Gilbert sucked in a breath as he squeezed Olive’s shoulder hard. “You’re telling me you’re—you’ve gotta be fucking me. Kid, please tell me this isn’t what I think it is.”

Nico inched towards Emilia.

“Don’t move!” Trystan ordered, tauting his bow at Nico this time.

“Steady,” Weingartner said calmly.

“She’s hurt,” Olive urged, gaze flicking back to Emilia who now looked pale-white like a statue. “Just let him transmute her—”

“No one is moving until my questions are answered,” Trystan refuted. “Is this another Capricornian plot? Tell me what this is.”

Olive felt his stomach drop.

If he didn’t say it, Emilia might die. If he said it, he’d be revealing who he was to the Capricornians. And what if this knowledge spread? What would happen to Werner? What would happen to his own aunt and uncle…? Wait, no. Gilbert wouldn’t tell anyone, and Gilbert’d try to make sure no one else talked either. And Werner’s subordinates—at least most of them—were loyal to Werner. And besides, who would believe it? No, no, that was naive. He was naive. Right?

“I will ask you one more time, Capricornian.” Trystan pointed the arrow back to him.

You’re really going to let another person suffer—die—for the consequences of your actions. Again?

“Trystan, enough already!” Olive snapped up to his feet before grimacing and stating firmly, “Center cell along the left wall beneath the royal palace.”

Trystan froze at this before his eyes narrowed. “How—”

“Black tea with four sugar cubes and a drop of honey. Fresh-made strawberry milk on the side. Two waffles with maple syrup from the north. Every other morning.”

“You—You planted a medium to spy on the prince of Aries?” Trystan glowered. “The insolence!”

“No!” Olive snapped, now awake with complete irritation. He took in a deep breath and spoke rapidly, ‘For spark to ember to flame to inferno to smoke to ash—whatever I will become, whatever is needed, I will rise above or become the path that will be treaded.’”

Finally, Trystan’s eyes widened and he lowered his bow. He took a step back before looking Olive up and down. “I… don’t understand. That’s… the royal pledge. Only those who serve in the royal palace know it. How do you…?”

Dammit. Why couldn’t Trystan just infer from that?

“Saints, think, Trystan. There’s only one person who can know that and who can do this.” Olive held out his palm and allowed vitae flame to putter there. With a bit more effort than before he said, “Your duty as a royal guard isn’t to understand. It’s to follow what I say. That’s what you told me.”

The words felt sour on Olive’s mouth.

Trystan stared at him incredulously, but Olive held his gaze firmly. The royal guard startled back in response before shooting down into a kneeling bow. “I… Please forgive me, Your Highness. I-I don’t understand. Please forgive my insolence—I didn’t mean to point my conductor at you.”

“It’s fine, Trystan….” Olive grumbled. “Please… just get up.”

There was a beat of silence as Trystan obeyed.

Gilbert’s hand on Olive’s shoulder had slackened slightly. The other Capricornians had all either taken a step back away from him or were stiff as statues. Even the captain.

Nico was the only one who didn’t flinch back. He only looked mildly surprised and confused. And concerned—mostly about Emilia. In response, Olive gave Trystan a nod which prompted him to put away his bow-conductor completely. Nico moved forward immediately, glove conductors humming with soft light. He sealed up the hole entering Emilia’s abdomen and exiting her back before falling back with a deep sigh.

“So…?” Olive pressed nervously.

“She’s… lost a lot of blood,” Nico said, wiping his brow with the back of his hand. “She needs a transfusion. Type O, like… Otto.”

The tension in the air suddenly fell flat and was replaced by a heaviness that was almost suffocating.

Olive scanned the faces of those around him again. He couldn’t find Otto among them. The absence alarmed Olive arm since he’d always felt indebted to Otto. After all, the private had saved Werner’s life when Olive had accidentally distracted him with a synchronization mid-battle during the Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict.

Had Otto—

Come onOlive shook himself. You’re in charge now. Get yourself together. One thing at a time.

“Trystan, I’ll explain everything later,” he said, more irritably than he’d intended to. “Right now, she needs help.”

Trystan stared.

“I’m with you, right? My… body… I mean…”—Olive hated how awkward it sounded but he shoved his embarrassment down and continued—“So there are medical Conductors with us too.”

Trystan nodded. “The king and queen sent them personally from Aries.”

At the mention of his aunt and uncle, Olive’s stomach churned. He pushed the feeling away, however, and rushed down to Emilia’s side. “Captain, you can use my medical Conductors.”

Weingartner stared before nodding tensely.

Olive rose to a stand and addressed Trystan, “Take them to my medical Conductors and have them treat her.”

“I am not going to put a Capricornian in the same room as you—as your body—Your Highness. It’s not safe,” Trystan objected. “With all due respect, you must recall that the Capricornians were—”

“Yes, I know. I was there more than you, Trystan. And… don’t call me that. Not now.”

Trystan tensed. “Alright, Olivier, but I don’t feel comfortable leaving you here without understanding the situation.”

“I’ll be behind you…” Olive grumbled before he sighed in frustration. “I’ll tell you everything later. Now’s obviously not the time.”

Trystan hesitated, looked him up and down, before dipping his head. “Of course, Olive.”

Klaus quickly conjured up a stretcher which they loaded Emilia onto. Together, Nico and Klaus guided the stretcher off the roof and followed after Trystan over to the other train.

Olive was about to follow them but was pulled back by a hand around the wrist. When he turned, he found the blue-eyed blonde woman staring at him. She spoke to him in Capricornian with a wavering voice, but he had no clue what she was saying.

It was odd, he realized, how quickly he’d lost comprehension of Capricornian this time around. He had been trying to learn Capricornian on his own but it’d always been difficult to distinguish the others’ knowledge from his own so he’d put the pursuit aside. How Cadence managed to do it, he had no clue.

Gilbert approached them both and placed a hand over the woman’s shoulder. He said something in Capricornian which caused her to frown. He then guided her to the end of the train and helped her down the ladder back into the cart before turning back to Olive.

They stared at each other in silence for a moment.

Finally, Olive managed, “Who was that?”

A frown creased Gilbert’s mouth and he asked loudly, “What? You don’t recognize her?” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “That’s Viktoria. Werner’s sister. Told her you had a head injury, we’re on a secret operation, yada yada.”

Lavi flashed into Olive’s mind. 

“What…? Werner’s sister is on this train…? Why…?”

“The entire family is. Minus the old man. He’s in the capital already.”

Wasn’t that too convenient—

Abruptly, Olive’s mother and father’s smudged faces seeped into his mind, and he felt that heavy chain dragging down his chest once more.

* * *

Klaus, Nico, and Trystan were already inside one of the rear, still-railed carts on the medical train when Olive made it over. He’d slipped on the wet grass a couple of times on the way there—half out of clumsiness and half out of distress from seeing passengers climb out of the toppled train carts and dotting the wet ground. Gilbert, however, kept pulling him up and forward.

Instead of dipping inside into the medical cart after reaching it, however, Olive stopped short of the door and remained outside, leaning against the frame.

Gilbert didn’t dip in either, instead remaining annoyingly by his side. “I thought Aries was a sunny country, but you sure seem to like the rain.”

Olive was rather startled about how casually Gilbert was acting despite the revelation. But he didn’t hate it—“It just feels weird being in the same area… as me-but-not-me.”

“Didn’t you think it’d be a good idea to tip us off that you’re royalty?” Gilbert asked after a pause. “Though it explains a lot about the attitude.”

“Attitude?” Olive scoffed. “I see you’re very self-aware.”

Gilbert blanched, muttered something under his breath, but said nothing else.

“But… Werner said it was better that way… keeping it a secret, I mean.” Olive grumbled, rubbing a strand of blonde hair between his fingers. “You see how dramatically everyone reacted. It’d cause trouble for everyone else, even if people like you who already knew about it found out… Unless you like the sound of having a political scandal.”

“Politics are for people who have too much time on their hands. The other guys just all think you’re a celebrity or something—that’s all it is.” Gilbert waved the idea off. “They’ll get over it. And Bergmann’s tough too, if you’re worried about that. Stands toe-to-toe with Stein. She’ll be fine.” He puffed out his chest a little. “Anyway, if you’re that prince, that means you’re a teenager, right? Unlicensed, I’m assuming?”

“I did get my license actually…” Olive mumbled. “Just a couple of months ago.”

Gilbert whistled and applauded, and Olive couldn’t tell whether he was being mocked or congratulated.

After a while, Klaus and Nico reemerged from the train compartment along with Trystan who immediately pulled out an umbrella and pulled it over Olive’s head.

“Those medical Conductors are amazing…” Klaus was saying to Nico in accented Common. “I guess royalty really—” He stopped short as he registered Olive.

“Yeah, well, the pay and status make an excellent motivator,” Olive mumbled.

Klaus shut his mouth and swallowed. He quickly looped around to stand on the opposite side of Gilbert and proceeded to shoot Olive nervous looks. Nico in turn casually stepped into place beside Olive—or tried to. Trystan turned his body into a barrier.

They stood in silence for a while until a crunch of footsteps approached them from the direction of the other train. It was Stein and Fischer.

“The hell…!” Gilbert snapped as they approached. “You’re both supposed to watch over the ELPIS woman, Engel, and Heimler.”

“Sorry, sir,” Fischer apologized, “Stein kept insisting that we come.”‘

Stein shrugged. “Brandt’s got it under control.”

“He’s a combat medic and he’s alone, you dumbasses.” Gilbert pinched the bridge of his nose.

Before Gilbert could say anything else, Weingartner came on towards them from down the side of the train.

“I just spoke with the train conductors of both trains,” the captain informed them. “They’re working on getting the chains removed, and they’ve already contacted the capital. We’ll get more information regarding that later.” He paused, nodding at Trystan. “And… how is she?”

“She will make a full recovery,” Trystan replied, “but the medical Conductors recommended that she remain under their watch for at least a week.”

Weingartner sighed. “I see… So we’ll leave her in your care then.”

Olive allowed relief to relax him for a moment before he frowned. “Will the other passengers be okay…?”

“There were combat medics and military medical Conductors on board,” the captain explained. “They’re assisting in the relief efforts.”

That didn’t comfort Olive much and so he turned to Trystan and said, “Ask our medical Conductors to help with everyone here after they’re done with Emilia.”

Trystan hesitated for a moment before dipping his head in acknowledgment.

“Thank you, Your Highness, for your generosity,” the captain said, “and for your help with Bergmann.”

“You don’t have to thank me,” Olive muttered, looking away. “It’s not like I’m the one who’s actually doing anything. And you don’t have to call me that. Especially now.”

“So you really are…” Klaus looked around nervously, swallowed, and then addressed Olive, “I’m sorry for what I said last time we met. About the ‘hitting you at the back of the head’ thing. But… should we bow? To show respect?” 

His Common had improved greatly, Olive realized.

Stein began to dip his head in an uncharacteristically reverent fashion before Fischer cut in.

“Of course not. He’s not the Kaiser.”

Olive met Fischer’s glare head-on.

“You went out of your way to extend a hand to us,” Weingartner explained. “We really do appreciate your generosity.”

“It’s not generosity. It’s just being a person…”

After a beat of silence, Olive went ahead and gave a quick explanation to Trystan about True Conductors. Then he delved into the evolution of the connection, the overrides, the crossing of vitae, the syzygy, ELPIS, the involvement of saint candidates, and how closely they were all linked together. Even to death.

Judging by some of the Capricornian’s faces, however, Olive came to realize he had most likely given away something that Cadence had kept secret.

Trystan went pale. “So, if the other people you’re connected with are injured or die then the same would happen to you?”

Olive thought that for the most part Trystan was accepting all of this rather easily. Then again, Olive supposed it was his job.

“The hell… Werner and the other two didn’t say anything about that.” Gilbert rubbed his face. “How many of you are in there?”

“Olivier, why didn’t you tell me any of this? The king and the queen as well?” Trystan placed a hand over his chest. “It’s my duty to ensure your safety, but if the other people you’re connected to are in harm’s way then… The king and queen must be informed immediately—”

“No!” Olive snapped. “I don’t want to involve them in any of this—”

“But, Olivi—”

“Trystan. Whatever this is, involving them in this will only cause trouble for Aries. You’d have to be blind not to see that.” Olive frowned. “That’s what you care about most, isn’t it? Aries?”

Trystan remained silent.

“That’s… that’s an order, Trystan.”

“… Alright, Olivier. As you wish.”

“…And if I may ask,” the captain continued after a stretch of silence had passed, “what was that conducting we saw earlier?”

Olive replied hesitantly with a half lie, “I don’t understand much about it either so you’re wasting your breath asking me.”

Trystan moved on to explain what had occurred on his end of things. The fainting, the hospitalization through Claire’s help, and the attack on the hospital by the Augen.

Claire…

Fischer spat something in Capricornian under his breath. Probably something unkind.

“My apologies that I didn’t bring you back to Aries sooner, Olivier,” Trystan said. “I wanted to wait for a response from the king and queen first which was an egregious mistake on my part. However, the good news is that additional royal guards including Alexander have come to assist me alongside the medical Conductors.”

Olive tensed. “Alexander Charming… is a royal guard again?”

“He recently reclaimed the position after we left the palace. He’s still below rank from me, but he came here to help me escort you—your body—home. I didn’t mention this to him. Would you like me to?”

A brief relief spread through Olive’s limbs but he shook his head. “No, let’s keep this between us.” He dug the tip of Werner’s boot into the ground. “Wait… what about my bird?”

“As you wish, Olivier. I will keep this quiet. As for your pet—it’s in the compartment with your body.”

Next came Weingartner’s explanation of the events that had unfolded with Cadence and—Olive deduced—Atienna. Their capture in Argoan territory, their escape with Cadence, the conversation in Aquarius in Cvetka’s tent, the order from the Kaiser… and Otto Vogt’s death.

Olive felt sick and weak at the knees after. Panic paired with dread pumped his heart rapidly.

Although Olive hadn’t really known Otto, he’d still felt and understood Werner’s feelings towards him as a subordinate. Otto had always been an important gear in Werner’s unit. Whenever Olive would dip in to synchronize with Werner, Otto would be there somewhere in the background.

It felt unreal. One blink and a person was gone. Olive chest clenched at the thought.

Absentmindedly, Olive lifted his left hand and stared at it. Consuming his palm was a bluish-black blob with what appeared to be a tail and limbs protruding from it. Olive had assumed this entire ordeal was an undiscovered side-effect of being a True Conductor, but… in reality, they were trapped…? Realizing that the surrounding men were all staring at him, he lowered his hand and recapped, “So we’re being forced to go to the capital—”

Why did it feel like every time something terrible happened involving all of them, it always happened in a city? That and—

“—and you all just agreed…?”

“Like I said, it was an order from the Kaiser,” Weingartner explained. “An official military mandate. His orders are… absolute. The Kaiser is the highest authority in Capricorn—much similar to your king and queen. I understand your doubts, but there may be more to this than meets the eye, Olivier.”

The statement threw Olive in for a loop. It sounded like the captain was trying to convince himself.

“Cadence went along with it,” Klaus pressed. “She said it was the best option because they seem to know what’s going.”

Gilbert remained silent.

“Your lack of respect and honor precede you, Capricornians,” Trystan said with a frown. “Do you not realize that you’re now handing over the Ariesian prince?”

“Cool it.” Gilbert crossed his arms. “Obviously we didn’t find out about him until now. Like you.”

“Wolff,” Weingartner said testily.

“Then it’s worse. You were handing over a comr—”

“Saints, Trystan, it’s fine,” Olive grumbled. “Cadence is probably right. If they’re telling the truth, then Cvetka’s employer probably knows about what’s going on here. A person who knows what the problem is can generally fix it. Besides, True Conductors are important to them for some reason so they’d want to fix this… probably…”

“But—”

“I’m going, Trystan.”

“Your Highness, it’s my duty to serve and protect you. I cannot let you go back into this unknown territory with someone whose intentions are also unknown.”

“Where was all this protection with Ilseong Jin?” Olive scoffed.

“That was a mistake. And I’m learning from my mistakes, Olivier.” Trystan sounded irritable now. “I failed you then, but I won’t fail you now.”

“Well, there’s no point in me going like this to Aries.” Olive gestured to himself. “Even if you put ten thousand royal guards on me, it’s not going to work because the guards aren’t going to be able to cover everyone I’m connected to.”

Trystan opened his mouth.

Olive interjected with an air of finality—“I’m not going to let people suffer because I ran away. I was still researching back in Capricorn anyways. Maybe I can finish it when we go back there.”

“… Then I will come with you.”

Olive’s heart skipped a beat. “You’ll draw attention.”

“Then I will disguise myself,” Trystan replied. “With your permission, I will inform Alexander that I’ve been requested by you to do follow-up research on your studies in Capricorn. If you’d like, I will also bring your bird with me.” A bargaining chip.

“I guess…” Olive felt stupid for feeling happy at the man’s promised company. He knew it was just Trystan’s duty. But…

Pounding footsteps resounding on down towards them cut the thought off short.

When he turned, he found a man in a train conductor’s uniform approaching them—rather, Trystan.

Olive sure was getting tired of all these people popping in whenever they pleased.

“Mr. Carter,” the conductor said in Common. “We have a v-ehicle arriving that can transport our higher-profile passengers and patients to the next city hospital. It’ll arrive within a couple of hours.”

“Transport?” Olive pressed.

“Yes, sir.” The conductor saluted after eyeing the medals on his—Werner’s—uniform. “Since the train carts transporting them are damaged, they’ll have to—”

“What about the other patient passengers…?”

“They’ll… have to wait, sir.”

“Wait? Wait how long?”

“The next inbound medical train won’t be pulling into the capital until later next evening. So it’ll be a day or so after then—”

“Will they even be able to last that long? Are there enough supplies?” Olive pressed. “I don’t see why you’d have to wait for another train…”

“Well, the carts are damaged as you can see. I’m just following protocol.”

Was this guy being for real?

Olive side-glanced at the Capricornians and only found grim acceptance on all of their faces. Obedience and acceptance. Why—

You’re just lucky you’ve always had the opportunity to not have to obey. 

“Yes, I can see that,” Olive said, shaking away the thought. “But if that’s the only issue, then you can load them into the carts that are still on the tracks and keep going. There’s enough room. Look at these… They’re gigantic.”

“The engine to the medical train is blown and the vitae’s leaked out,” the conductor explained. “There’s no way to move the train even if we load all of the passengers and patients successfully. I’m sorry, sir, but we’re just following protocol—”

Olive resisted snapping and pressed, “Then we just transfer some of the vitae fuel from the other train to this train. It isn’t that hard.”

“We’ll delay that train then, sir, and that’ll throw off the schedules for subsequent trains.”

“Well, it’s not like that other train is going anywhere. They still need to get the chains off.”

“You would be able to find a way to transfer the vitae from one engine to another so quickly?” the conductor asked. “I don’t doubt the curriculum they teach at the academies, but—”

“Wha—”

Gilbert placed a hand on Olive’s shoulder cutting him off. “Look—”

Trystan grabbed a hold of Gilbert’s wrist and pulled the man’s hand off before dipping his head. He whispered under his breath, saying, “Olivier, I don’t believe getting involved in this situation would be wise. This is a different country. If it were Aries…”

Right. He was being too naive again—getting involved in things he didn’t understand. Always trying to help without realizing the consequences. 

But—

You know, just because everyone lives doesn’t make it a happy ending. 

But still… Olive knew he wouldn’t be able to live with the guilt otherwise.

He looked toward the toppled carts and frowned before whispering back, “I get that there are times when I should be thinking about who, what, why, or what’ll happen if I help someone—because of my status. But now is not one of those times.”

Trystan pulled away.

“Sound arguments, I must say, Waltz.”

Saying this in Common, a man flanked by heavily decorated military officers on his left and right approached them from the side of the cart. The man had a shining bald head, a curled mustache, and a chest littered with so many medals that Olive was almost blinded by them.

The man looked vaguely familiar but Olive couldn’t place a name to the face. Olive figured he must have been someone important because all of the Capricornians around him abruptly broke out into a salute—the captain included.

Gilbert stepped on Olive’s foot which prompted Trystan to kick Gilbert in the shin. Gilbert recoiled in turn and sent Trystan a glare while Olive took the opportunity to pull his hand up into a salute. Trystan reacted with aghast but kept his mouth shut.

“What are you doing here, General Watzmann?” Weingartner asked, lowering his hand. “I heard you were doing work in the capital.”

“I was going in for a routine medical check-up when—as I’m sure you’ve heard—the Verbundene Augen held a demonstration in front of the hospital that evolved into something tumultuous,” the general responded. He added something in Capricornian before he continued in Common, “I didn’t expect the journey to be derailed. I’m trying to figure out how that happened now actually; and you look like you’re a man with answers, Captain.”

The two continued on in Capricornian, presumably speaking about Iota.

“I see,” the general noted. “Well, it’s good that your train is headed to the capital then. The ELPIS Department’s chairwoman is there at the moment because of the Augen. You can report this Iota to her too.”

Olive’s head spun. Leona—at the capital… but what about Cvetka’s new employer?

“You’ve heard about our transportation operation then, General?” Weingartner inquired.

“No, I haven’t heard anything of the sort.” The general’s hummed. “You said it was an order by the Kaiser himself, hm? That’s quite interesting…” He waved his hand in the air. “Anyway, our service is to the land which includes the people of this land.” He nodded at Olive. “Waltz, if you believe your plan to be efficient, then you have my go-ahead. My men will go to work on the chains and re-coupling the carts of this train.” He addressed them all. “Our duty is to serve our people is it not? Let’s get to it.”

Everyone saluted again.

Olive resisted rolling his eyes at everyone’s sudden motivation and copied the salute despite Trystan’s clear displeasure.

* * *

When Olive asked Klaus to help him with the conductor engine, the man reacted with exaggerated surprise before following him, Trystan, and Gilbert to the main engine room of the medical train. The others returned to the main train, while Emilia remained in the care of his medical Conductors

Olive paced along the side of the train with the trio in uncomfortable silence. The rain pattered against the umbrella over his head, and the mud squelched beneath his boot.

Gross. 

It was on a whim that Olive had glanced into the window of the third cart they passed by. And it was then that he caught a glimpse of her. Before he realized what he was doing, he tore into the train cart, stumbled over the medical supply cabinets hammered to the ground within, and darted past the occupied hospital bed nailed to the floor by the entrance. His destination was the other bed pressed along the farthest wall.

In that bed he found a familiar, unconscious, shallowly-breathing woman lying there. Her delicate brows were furrowed ever so slightly and her dark skin glistened with sweat. Other than that, she looked peaceful.

Atienna…

Olive figured that it made sense that she would be here since she was in the same condition he was in and presumably stayed at the same hospital.

He felt light-headed just looking at her.

“What is it, Olivier?” Trystan asked from behind him.

Gilbert and Klaus were there as well and peered at Atienna curiously from over his shoulder.

Olive reached out and touched her hand. A brief spark of electricity went up his arm, but he ignored it and held up her wrist. Warm. Pulse, slow. Almost too slow. He interlaced their fingers and kneeled down—

“Unhand her this instant!”

Olive looked up, only to find the tip of a familiar-looking spear pointed squarely at his face. The wielder of the spear was none other than Sefu himself whose brows and nostrils were flared with anger. Trystan immediately pulled out his bow conductor, but Sefu didn’t budge.

Sefu snapped, “That is an advisor of Virgo that you are touching! Remove your hand at once—”

“And this is—” Trystan stopped himself short.

Sefu squinted at Trystan. “You are the Ariesian who was in our hospital room. With that prince.” He glanced at Olive. “Why are you with the Capricornians?”

“Sorry about him,” Gilbert said, reaching over and pushing the point of Sefu’s spear away. “He got a head injury a couple weeks ago. Hasn’t been the same since.”

Flushing, Olive quickly pulled his hand away from Atienna and rose to a stand. He turned to Trystan and whispered, “That’s Atienna. She’s… like me. Connected to me.”

“Would you like for me to request the medical Conductors to also attend to her?” Trystan whispered back.

Olive nodded.

That’s Atienna…?” Klaus stared at her, cheeks flushing.

Gross…

Sefu looked at them in confusion, still gripping his conductor tightly.

“I’m sorry for… the disturbance, Sefu,” Olive apologized before jerking his head and heading back off the train. “Good luck. You’re doing… good.”

“Wait… how did you know my name?” Sefu called back.

Olive quickly boarded off before he had to answer.

* * *

The engine room was smoking and clouded when they arrived. The engine conductor pressed along the back side of the small and cramped space was cracked open by a chain that now hung loosely at its side clank-clanking against its surface.

Olive peeled out of the room immediately, got on his knees, and gagged as he pulled the crook of his elbow to his face. As usual, Trystan brought out a handkerchief for him. It took Olive a moment of breathing through the fabric to quell the nausea. Faster than usual. The rain helped drown out most of the stench. When Trystan helped him up to a stand, Olive found Gilbert and Klaus staring blankly at him.

“It smells,” Olive said.

“But aren’t you a fire Elementalist?” Gilbert asked. “Thought you’d get used to stuff like that.”

Klaus stiffened beside Gilbert, eyes widening as if realizing something. “Second Lieutenant…”

Olive ignored them.

Once they aired out the engine room and Olive sealed up the crack by melting the metal together, they began designing an insulation system capable of transferring the vitae from one conductor engine to the other. Klaus was rigid in his ideas for the structure of the device, and Olive could tell that he was taking most of it from Capricornian conductors. Still, it was impressive—at least more impressive than Gilbert who spent the time glaring out at the sky.

Olive didn’t understand how it had taken Klaus so long to get a promotion. He also couldn’t wrap his head around why Werner hadn’t ever gotten a promotion either. Frankly, he was unhappy about it.

As they worked, Trystan watched over them like a hawk but was kind enough to procure Olive with the leather gloves he’d requested earlier and aided him with slipping them on.

Eventually, Stein out of all people joined them. The man was just as useful as Gilbert. He spent his time standing around and kicking the engine conductor like he’d magically kickstart it by the power of his foot.

Trystan refused to ease up the entire time.

And then Werner’s sister entered the engine room. She came in dripping with rainwater to causing Olive to hastily request Trystan to assist her with. As Trystan procured a blanket for her to dry herself with, she began to converse with Gilbert in Capricornian. It didn’t seem like a very pleasant conversation given the way she stormed over to them after.

Instead of shouting as expected, however, Viktoria sank beside them and studied their rudimentary blueprints. After a beat, she asked in accented Common, “Gilbert says you are suffering from a head injury, Werner? May I help? I have worked on conductor orders before. I know more than clocks.”

Thinking of Lavi and of the pocket watch ticking away in his shirt, Olive hesitantly accepted. Much to his surprise, Viktoria came up with an idea that involved multiple insulation levels that would speed up the transfer process.

“Multiple levels,” Olive muttered. “That’s an impressive idea…”

Multiple levels… multiple vitae … levels…? Olive stiffened in thought. What if that’s—no, not time to think about that nowShaking the idea off, he refocused on their work.

They finalized the blueprint of the system an hour later which left Klaus to conjuring up the needed parts. He did so proficiently, consulting the blueprints every so often. Meanwhile, Olive started to put together the pieces according to the blueprint in uncomfortable silence alongside Viktoria. Eventually, after conjuring about 100 parts, Klaus started to break out into a panting sweat.

“You can take a break, Klaus…” Olive mumbled, trying to keep the worry out of his voice. “There’s no point in conjuring everything fast if you’re going to pass out halfway through it…”

Klaus refused the suggestion at first, but a snap from Gilbert got him out of the room. Only a few seconds after that, another travesty struck. Another man whom Olive didn’t recognize entered the room. He was caked in mud and teetered haphazardly on a pair of elbow crutches. He exchanged a word with Gilbert before they both headed over together.

“Your brother Ludwig wanted to chip in too. Word spreads fast,” Gilbert explained in Common. “The faster we get this done, the better. Right, Werner?”

Didn’t Gilbert know how to tell people to go away—

Olive glanced at Ludwig’s legs and averted his gaze. He supposed the more hands involved, the faster he could escape this awkward predicament. So, he held his tongue, nodded, and pretended to be particularly fixated on his work for the rest of the time.

The silence was awkward and overbearing.

When Viktoria and Ludwig stepped out to take a break themselves—much to Olive’s relief—Nico entered the room. He exchanged a couple of words with Stein and Gilbert before seating himself across from Olive. Not before Trystan gave him an evil eye, of course.

Nico smiled. “Anything I can help with?”

Olive nodded, squeezing a gear into place. “We’re just fitting all the insulator connectors together. Try not to break anything.”

Nico picked up a glass insulation tube and jabbed it hazardously into a connecting piece that obviously didn’t fit. “You know, I wouldn’t have thought you were royalty if you didn’t say it. Ah, that’s a compliment, by the way—”

“If you want to ask me about Cadence then just say it…” Olive grumbled, snatching the parts out of his hands.

Nico stiffened. “You could tell?”

Olive rolled his eyes. “Well, it’s between her and you, not me and you, so don’t ask me. Don’t drag me into it.”

Nico blinked and then chuckled. “That’s exactly what Cadence said to me…”

“So it was about Werner then,” Olive concluded, more to himself than to Nico.

Nico flushed and looked around. “Hey—”

Olive arched a brow. “Don’t you have more things to be out here worrying about than that kind of stuff?”

“So… you know?”

“Know what…?” Olive tightened a screw with a wrench. “All I know is Cadence has been wanting to talk to you about you leaving the city… and that it involves Werner.” Grimacing, he fiddled with his wrench and turned it over a couple of times in his hand. “Why did you leave anyway…?”

As expected, there was a beat of startled silence.

“Forget it…” Olive grumbled. “It’s none of my business.”

“No, no, it’s fine. First time I’ve been asked that upfront, so I was just surprised.” Nico held up his hands in reassurance before a contemplative look crossed his face. “Honestly, I… really did just want to help. The Aquarians were down two medical Conductors back then. They wouldn’t have made it.”

“So, you’re a saint.”

“No, not really…” Nico dipped his head. “The border thing was just the reason I was waiting for. It’s hard to explain.”

‘A reason’… to escape?

Olive frowned. “Just because you tell me doesn’t mean it gets indirectly shunted to Cadence.”

“Oh, I know…”

A weird person, Olive thought. But escape, huh? Olive wondered if he was the same. He didn’t want to think about it.

After fifteen minutes, Viktoria, Klaus, and Ludwig returned.

The last seven hours saw them moving back and forth between the engine room of the main train and the medical train. They slinked several parallel insulating tubes adapted with Viktoria’s ideas in-between the two trains. Several of the less sickly patients from the medical train and passengers from the capital-bound train assisted with the effort.

Once the two engines were connected by the tubes, Olive used a kickstarter on the fuse box they’d fixed to the engine in the capital-bound train and watched with Klaus as glowing light began to spill out from the engine into the tubes. He followed the progression of the glowing light through the tubes by feet as did Klaus. Trystan tailed behind them. They dashed forward across the green and into the medical train engine room as the light spilled into the engine there from the tubes.

Ludwig was waiting there in front of the engine and reading a meter on its side. His hand was held in the air—halting. The seconds ticked by before finally Ludwig clenched his fist. Viktoria moved to flip a switch on the fuse box attached to the engine.

Olive looped around and read the meter. The needle was in green. Before he could stop himself, he jumped and clapped once. “We did it!”

When he turned, he found Klaus beaming brightly and proudly. Viktoria and Ludwig looked pleased but were staring at him in confusion.

Still, a bit of the heaviness had lifted away from his chest.

* * *

When Olive returned to the main train, the general’s men were still working on removing the chains around its body. With nothing else left to be done, Werner’s siblings departed back to their compartment with a stiff ‘see you soon.’

Uncomfortable.

After being guided with Trystan by Gilbert, Klaus, and Stein to the train cart where the unit was staying, Olive found Weingartner sitting in a compartment with his hands folded and his head bowed.

Olive hesitated for a moment in front of the captain, before asking, “May I… speak with Iota? She… I think she has some answers to some things I’ve been looking into for a while.”

Weingartner lifted his head and stared at them. After a moment of consideration, he led them into the next cart over. There, Olive found Iota squared away in a seat and guarded by Fischer who was soon joined by Stein.

Nestled on the opposite side of the compartment were two additional people whom Olive realized were also prisoners. He very vaguely recognized one as Friedhelm Heimler whom Stein had labeled earlier as a ‘damn coward.’ The other was a face he’d seen in the newspapers—Marionette Engel, signature scarf and all. They looked to him as he entered before exchanging glances.

Both Fischer and Brandt were wielding weapons—a rifle conductor and a handgun, respectively. The sight of the weapons in such close corners made Olive nervous.

As soon as Iota laid eyes on him, she dipped into a mocking bow. “Your Majesty.”

Fischer promptly butted the back of her head with his conductor.

Olive closed the distance in-between them and would’ve gotten closer if it were not for Trystan holding him back with a steady hand.

“You knew that I was stuck like this somehow, Iota,” Olive said.

Iota shrugged.

Before Olive could press further, he saw a flash of black out of the corner of his eye. He recognized that particular shade of black hair immediately, and his heart skipped an excited, hopeful beat. He’d never seen her when stuck in an override before.

He turned. “Lav—”

Olive’s words caught in his throat as he fully registered the small ghostly figure illuminated by the gray light filtering in from the train window. It was Lavi, but—

but her arms were blackened and charred, and the skin of her face was melting into the bones of her eye socket and teeth.

She looked just as she had on that day.

“What’s wrong, Ollie?” Lavi took a step forward. “I was worried since I haven’t seen you for a while…”

Olive took a step back, heart racing.

Lavi halted immediately, face falling. “Is there something wrong with me, Ollie? Why are you looking at me like that?”

Olive swallowed, steeled his nerves. “I-It’s nothing…” Ignoring the Capricornians and Trystan who were looking at him in confusion, he pressed, “What have you been up to?”

“I don’t know…” Lavi twirled a lock of hair around her finger. The strands cut past crusted flesh into bone. “But I was supposed to tell you something important… but I forgot… What was it…?”

“You’re so forgetful sometimes…” Olive grumbled, forcing himself to look at her.

“It was really important, Ollie,” Lavi pouted. “Oh, Werner will be upset if I don’t tell you—”

Olive froze. “You spoke with Werner—”

No. Don’t trust her. How could you trust her? She’s a saint candidate—a failed one but still. She’s hiding something—

Gilbert abruptly grabbed him by the arm. “Werner?! Are you talking to Werner, right now?”

Trystan jerked Gilbert away in turn. “Do not touch the—”

Gilbert shoved him aside. “Werner’s here?”

“It’s not Werner.” Olive shot him a scowl. “It’s my sister.”

“Your… sister?”

Trystan paused. “The late princess…?”

Ignoring them, Olive pressed, “You spoke with Werner? How? Where? What’s going on with him? Is he okay?”

“Oh! I remember!” Lavi snapped her fingers and brightened. “He told me to tell you one word! ‘Manipulator’!”

“Manipulator….?”

Olive blinked, and Lavi was gone. He stiffened a beat after, tore off his gloves, and stared at the mark on his hand.

The cut, the mark, Cvetka’s employer, the request for transport back to the capital.

‘AVOID CONDUCTOR’ was what Gilbert said Atienna had tried to tell him in code when she was here. And also ‘MAN.’ He’d said that Cadence hadn’t a clue what Atienna meant but—Manipulator! Atienna had been trying to warn them about a Manipulator!

Dammit, Cadence. 

Olive whipped to Iota and shoved his palm in her face. “What do you know about this? Why were you on this train? Why are you headed to the capital?”

“We asked her that already,” Fischer stated, eyes narrowed. “She won’t talk.”

Iota leaned away from Olive, not looking particularly startled. “So you really are already infected. They really did mess up so much with you—even though you’re their precious resource.”

“What’s going on, Olive?” Weingartner pressed.

“I thought it had something to do with being a True Conductor at first…” Olive clenched his fist. “But it’s a Manipulator… I know it sounds crazy, but I think Werner—”

“This is the first time I’ve seen a True Conductor infected.” Iota looked him up and down. “But I’m pleased to see our theories about what would happen if it ever did happen are true. A lock in the polarization state. But it looks like this lock is preventing the Manipulator from fully manipulating you, so you can take that as you like.”

Olive’s mind raced.

Iota cracked another grin. “By the way, are you feeling a little bit tired, Your Majesty? If you’re so smart, you should know that if you stay like this that much longer you’ll die.”

Olive froze, suddenly feeling faint. A ghost pain throbbed at his shoulder.

Trystan stepped forward and pulled out his conductor. “What do you mean?”

“What?” Iota scoffed. “Did you think your vitae overflowing into the people you’re connected to was a blessing? No, no—the universe is rejecting your existence, don’t you see? Every time you do it, you’re pushing your boundaries and catapulting yourself into the grave. Even now—well, actually…” She frowned. “I was speaking about Gamma about it—how have you survived this long in the first place? If that Ariesian saint candidate really did become one with you, then you should’ve died a long time ago… Well, it’s your problem. Not mine.”

“What are you talking about?” Olive managed.

She indicated his hand. “Whoever gave you that cut was also infected. Judging by the location of the wound, I’m assuming the soldier tried to do something heroic?”

Heimler shot up to an abrupt stand, only to be shoved back down by Fischer and Stein.

“But… living manipulation….” Klaus stammered. “Olive, you sound normal—not like you’re being manipulated at all. How could it be manipulation? And if it was through the cut, then… there was no conductor involve—” He shut his mouth, eyeing Olive’s hands.

“Theta—Francis…” Olive muttered, ignoring Iota’s frown. “He implied that True Conductors and saint candidates can expel more vitae than a normal Conductor. I’m terrible at vitae theory but that might have something to do with it… I don’t know.”

Nico stiffened at Francis’s name.

“What if… the Kaiser is being manipulated then?” Klaus whispered.

Weingartner held up a hand. “Let’s not jump to conclusions. All we know is that the Kaiser is working with the ELPIS Department and that they’re aware of Waltz’s status and condition. What we can say for certain is that if what this woman is saying is true, then the Augen might be influenced by this Manipulator. This is bigger than we thought… We should inform the general—”

“I’m not being manipulated,” Heimler interjected.

“I’m not either,” Marionette insisted. “My thoughts and actions are my own.”

“Yeah, but are your eyes?” Olive returned more snappishly than intended. “Manipulation isn’t just about controlling the motion of an object.”

“Sir,” Gilbert addressed the captain, “what if the general is being manipulated? Should we really be telling him any of this?”

“It doesn’t matter since he ’s being manipulated.” Fischer jabbed a finger at Olive. “He’s already broadcasting everything to whoever that Manipulator is.” He glowered down at Heimler. “The lieutenant should’ve just let you get stabbed, you dirty coward.”

“How do we even tell who’s being manipulated…?”

“Maybe…” Olive stared at his hand. He shook his head and glared at Iota. “How do we fix this?”

“Who knows? Who knows?”

Saints, she was irritating.

Iota rolled her head. “Well… I’ll tell you this. That Manipulator inserted into you an impossible amount of vitae to transmute out, so you have three options. One involves getting the help of someone who will definitely not help you, and the other two involve a lot of killing and dying. I prefer that option for you.” Iota pulled back. “Anyway, everything you’ve done since you’ve gotten cut is the result of that Manipulator moving you along. I mean, you’re a medium yourself. So really, it’d be easier for everyone if you died.” She smiled again. “Well, either way, I should still thank you.”

Olive dropped his hand and pulled the glove back on. “Thank me…?”

“You are that prince, aren’t you? You’re the one who let us in.”

Olive felt a cold wave sweep through his entire body.

“Well, I didn’t see you myself,” Iota continued. “I heard it from the others who were there with me. ‘A child let me into the palace because he saw that I was hurt. Such fortune.’”

“You were there…?” Olive stared.

“Our primary goal was to destroy that filthy generator conductor you have hooked up to your main reservoir and the reservoir itself,” Iota continued, “but everyone else just got in the way. But—hey—you shouldn’t worry. They’ve all returned to the cycle. The late king, the late queen, all the old council members, the maids.”

A memory of red and black burned its way into Olive’s thoughts, causing his chest to seize. Before he could stop himself, he took a step back. Gilbert caught him from behind and gave him a confused look while Trystan abruptly stormed forward.

“I actually had the pleasure of meeting the late king and queen myself,” Iota continued. “They were willing to lay down their lives in the throne room for that reservoir and generator conductor. I had no other choice but to put them down. But don’t worry. I made it quick. Just a snap of the neck.”

Trystan drew out his bow and pointed an inflamed arrow at her. “Monster! Do you know how many lives were taken that day?! How dare you speak of it in a mocking tone?!” He whipped around. “Your Highness, we cannot let her be taken to Capricorn! Nor Ophiuchus! She must stand trial in Aries for her crimes—”

Before Trystan could even finish, Stein abruptly rushed forward and cracked Iota across the jaw. She went flying back against the window only to grin as Stein was pulled back by Gilbert and Fischer. Trystan was only momentarily distracted, however, and grabbed Iota by the scruff of her shirt.

“Trystan, stop. She’s lying,” Olive said faintly.

Trystan froze and looked back at him.

“My parents died in the halls outside the council chambers, not in the throne room. And it wasn’t by a Manipulator’s medium but a Projector’s. They were decapitated by a vitae blade.” Olive mechanically repeated the same information he’d told Doctor Kingsley years ago verbatim. He met Iota’s gaze blankly. “She’s just playing games. Not much different from whoever’s messing with us, are you…?”

Iota’s face creased with outrage.

Silence stretched long and thin as Trystan released her. Just like all of those years ago, Olive could feel all of their stares of sympathy, empathy, and pity boring into him, weighing him down.

But it’s all just an act.

“I’m too tired for this…” Olive mumbled, turning on his heels and starting out of the room. “I’m pretty sure Cadence hasn’t slept at all, and I just spent eight hours of my life beating a wrench over some insulating tubes. I’m done. Trystan, help me find a room.”

“Hey—” Gilbert called out.

“O-Of course, Olivier.” Trystan followed quickly behind him.

Before they exited the compartment, Olive turned and fixated Iota with a glare. “I’m not running away, by the way. I just wanted to let you know that. You’re not very convincing.”

And with that, they departed.

Once they found an empty resting room two carts down, Trystan checked inside before allowing him in. After Olive declined the guard’s offer of retrieving additional cushions and blankets, Trystan closed the door.

Olive threw himself onto the narrow bed within that was pressed alongside the wall. Closing his eyes, he buried his face into the cushion, tasted ash on his tongue, and sobbed.

* * *

When Olive opened his eyes again sometime later, he knew he was dreaming.

He was standing back in the endlessly stretching halls of the royal palace—rather, he was walking down them as if being pulled along by a string. His body felt strange and didn’t obey his thoughts. One foot in front of the other without his directive. 

As he continued walking, however, the hall around him shifted. Royal red carpet bled into tiled wood. White pillared walls bled into metal frames embedded with rackety windows.

The train hall.

Protect the prince. Protect the prince. Protect the prince.

The mantra beat down in his head over and over again as he was forced to continue forward. 

Eventually, he entered a compartment that was occupied by a single person. Iota. She blinked up at him slowly from where she was curled up on the seat cushion before her eyes widened. 

You…!” Iota seethed. “So you were infected too…” Hurt and betrayal folded across her face followed by shame. “Why do you always look at people when they’re at their lowest?”

He lifted his hand and showed her the de-activated blade conductor in his grip. With a flick of his wrist, it ignited with crackling blue light.

“Please… don’t…” Iota doubled over with the beg. 

Olive was startled by her sudden change in demeanor. 

“I won’t remember Omega when I return. Not this Omega. She’s gone and never coming back—I—” Iota lifted her head and met his eyes. “Please, I’m the only one who still thinks of her. Who’s going to get revenge for—”

You can’t ‘die,’” he interjected, voice garbled in his own ears. “You’re already dead. You died centuries ago. You’re just a ghost. If it hurts for you to think of Omega, think of how it hurts me to see all of you every single time. Over and over again—the same mistakes. It doesn’t matter whether you’re initiated property or not. Well I suppose, you’re a pretty little fool this time at least...”

Iota hung her head, tears dripping onto her dress. 

Despite himself, Olive felt a pang of empathy.

He sank down in front of her. “You, Alpha, Omega, Theta, Gamma, Kappa—you’re all just imitations. Memories. Incomplete remnants.” He gently touched her face. “But I still care for you, so I’ll bring you one step closer to nothingness anyways.

With that, he drove the blade into her abdomen.

* * *

Olive was startled awake by a hand on the shoulder. When he cracked open his eyes, he found Trystan eclipsing his face.

“I apologize for disturbing you, Olivier,” Trystan whispered, “but… the ELPIS leader Iota has escaped.”

Before Olive could get his head on straight, he was dragged out from the room and down the hall. A glimpse of flitting trees outside the train window and the click-clack rattling the carts told Olive that they had successfully freed the train and were now en-route back to the capital again.

Trystan led Olive into a cart at the very back of the train—the same cart from his dreams. Unlike his dream, however, all of the Capricornians minus Heimler and Marionette Engel were inside. Unlike his dream, Iota was not sitting at the very corner of the cart. Unlike his dream, the train window beside that empty seat was wide open.

“We separated her from Heimler and Engel on captain’s orders,” Gilbert explained, seemingly not to alarmed. “It didn’t feel safe keeping them all together. There was a mix-up on who was supposed to guard her.”

“We should’ve just killed her to begin with,” Stein sneered.

“Or we should’ve kept a better eye on her,” Fischer muttered.

Olive tensed as his gaze went from the Projectors in the cart: Gilbert, Fischer, and Stein.

A dream…?

16.[]: Peacekeepers, 0900 Sehnsucht

Re-cap: 

Alice, Talib, and Gabrielle are on a mission assignment in the capital of Capricorn to look into the Verbundene Augen. While there, they come across Flannery Caertas who is there for business regarding the conductor convention and Roberto who is there on a case. 

They come across an comatose Olive who is under Claire Yuseong’s care but is soon set to be transferred back to Aries and then a scheming news reporter by the name of Hilton Tyler who holds negative views of Ophiuchus. Along with these things, they learn that Leona is also in the city.

As their investigation continues, the diplomatic conductor convention looms in the background.


Sehnsucht » Yearning for the ideal at 0900 hours.

Peacekeeper Alice Kingsley still remembered the sound of the conducting grenades pounding above her head as she’d huddled between her parents in the shelter. The sound had been a deep bellow—always proceeding a high-pitched whine and a brief skip of silence. 

She had known at the time that there had been nothing to be afraid of. The shelter was state-of-the-art, designed to keep the wealthy families that supplied the East-Western Powers safe from the most powerful Projectors and conducting grenades flying in from the north and south. 

Usually after the bombardments stopped, they would be advised to remain underground for three hours. During this period, Alice had been free to wander around the bunker. She often spent the time exploring. 

However, there had been little to explore besides the cement walls and wooden shelves stocked high with dryfoods in brown packaging or glass jars. There had been multiple rooms to the shelter, but one room looked no different from the other. And so, when she explored, she’d often bide her time observing the people threading in and out of the rooms in the connecting hall. Duchesses, dukes, heirs, businessmen and businesswoman—her parents had all introduced her to them. There had not been a face she didn’t recognize, until that one day she stumbled upon two faces that were unfamiliar— 

A girl with startling fiery red curls wearing a pair of sunglasses and a boy with barely-tamed black curls. When Alice had found them, they had been walking hand-in-hand, the boy leading the girl. 

Flannery Caertas and Talib Al-Jarrah, Alice would soon come to know. 

“Are yer sure it’s this way?” Flannery had asked to which Talib had answered, “Yes, of course, I’d never lead us astray. We’re almost there!” 

Alice had followed them from behind curiously, holding Talib’s gaze whenever he’d look back in her direction until he’d looked away. 

“What are you doing?” Alice had eventually inquired after she’d followed them around the hall in three loops. 

Flannery had turned her head and snickered. “We’re escapin’ this hellhole.”

Unsophisticated, Alice had thought before stating plainly, “You’re just walking in circles.” 

Talib had stiffened, shaking his head profusely and smashing his fingers to his lips.

“Circles?!” Flannery had gasped before turning and swatting at Talib’s head. “Yer a liar! Y’said we were almost there! Admit it—y’only led me around ‘cause ya wanted t’be m’friend!”

Talib had stammered. “M-My mom says there’re monsters outside! Real monsters! We can’t go out! I’ve seen them myself!” 

“Monsters aren’t real,” Alice had rebutted him. “Your imagination is too hyperactive.” 

“Hyperactive…?” Both Talib and Flannery repeated the word in confusion. 

“When did you guys meet?” Alice had asked after a beat of silence. “I’ve never seen you around before.” 

“We met just yesterday, actually,” Talib had replied before Flannery had interjected with an exclamation— 

“But we’re already tighter than two peas in a pod!”

“Your eyes…” Alice had gasped then. 

Flannery’s eyes had been milky in color—almost indistinguishable from the whites of her eyes in the dark. Blindness. 

Flannery had merely pulled at her lids and had grinned widely. “What? Do they look funky or somethin’? ‘s what happens sometimes when y’spend t’much time directly lookin’ at pure vitae from the reservoirs when yer so young, y’know? They came up with a new word for it. Got t’name it m’self. Vitae Caecas.”

“Then why would you want to leave so badly?” Alice had asked then, rather rudely. “You think you’re being brave, but that’s just because you can’t see. Literally.”

“It’s not about bein’ brave. S’bout not bein’ fair,” Flannery had pouted. “All the grownups are makin’ it a mess up there and forcin’ us t’stay down here. Why do we have to be punished? Really hate bein’ left behind—”

That was when the alarms had gone off again and the bombardments returned. 

Boom, boom, boom —even now Alice still remembered the sound. 

The adults around them back then had shouted over each other as they’d rushed back and forth in the halls. All of the noise had caused Talib to fall into a cowering crouch. Alice herself had frozen in place, terrified since she usually was with her parents during these times. 

But Flannery had been all smiles. “Finally!” She’d grabbed both of their hands before placing them against the wall. “Feel! Isn’t it cool?”

Cool? Alice had thought, feeling the rumbles through the concrete. It had tickled her palm and made her more aware of the fragility of the shelter than anything else.

But Flannery had continued to grin as she’d pressed her entire face against the wall. “It’s calming.”

After watching Flannery for several minutes, Alice had closed her eyes and pressed her head against the wall too as the trembling of the shelter engraved itself into her body.


Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

Pinching the bridge of her nose to dispel the memories of childhood, Alice B. Kingsley returned her attention to the files laid out on her lacquered desk. She had gone through approximately 50 of them. Name, age, occupation, etc. The sample size was smaller than what she preferred but it was what they had to work with. 

From the door-to-door interviews she’d conducted over the past couple of days, she’d come to the realization that the Verbundene Augen had started quite some time before the Capricornian Watch was made public. It was only after the Watch became known that a name had finally been put to the movement.

Many of its members were veterans of the Reservoir War or spouses and parents who had lost their children to conflict at the southern border. Most didn’t hold extreme ideology. In fact, most didn’t support full demilitarization—rather, they wanted the government to invest in increasing the number of generator conductors instead of weaponized conductors. There was also a theme of wanting slowly to withdraw from the Argoan border and for the Kaiser to sign an armistice between the two countries. Animosity against peacekeepers was surprisingly at a minimum. 

Of course, there were radicals but they were the vocal minority. 

The only similarity between the radicals and the moderates she’d interviewed was that they shared a particular interest in the diplomatic conductor convention. It seemed as if they were planning to gather together to meet or to protest there. This was of particular interest to Alice, and she wanted to sit down and observe one of these meetings. She supposed, however, once the military police got word of this, they would be eager to shut it down instead.

Pity. 

Well, it wasn’t her position to judge. Merely evaluate. 

That aside, what interested Alice the most was the profile of Marionette Engel, the leader. The woman had served near the end of the Reservoir War, had earned several distinguished honors, and had even come from a wealthy family with a strong presence in the military. Her father had a chair in the country’s Commerce Chamber and had recently pushed policy to increase funding of a regional conductor manufacturing company. 

It just didn’t add up. 

Either way, Alice already had an approach model and an assessment typed up to hand into the Capricornian government on the most effective measures to take regarding the movement. She was going to let Talib look it over before handing it off to Gabrielle to present in front of the needed parties. And that was it. 

They would stay for a couple more days to aid with suggestions and policy implementation then they would depart back to the Serpens Establishment. Perhaps, Alice reasoned, Gabrielle would extend their stay even longer than that to ensure the Ariesian prince boarded the train back to Aries successfully from the hospital.

Ironic. 

When they had been sworn in to become Ophiuchians, they had sworn service to Signum and had renounced their former alliances to their respective countries. Yet Gabrielle still had personal concerns regarding the Ariesian prince. 

But moving that matter aside… 

Alice put down the files and picked up the notepad at the corner of her desk. A series of sentences were scribbled there beside names. 

Laughing and lamenting with youReceived by Ferris.

Be there for you. Received by Roberto. 

There was a line drawn beneath the last sentence and below it came additional sentences: 

Always there for youGabrielle.

I am here. Talib.

I see you. Jericho. 

Jericho… Alice pinched the bridge of her nose and recollected her thoughts:

Moraeni hadn’t received any letters but that was unsurprising given his lack of contact with those outside of seeking to obtain a conducting license. 

The thematic pattern of all these letters—presumably written by the same person—was ‘being present.’ Unfortunately, Roberto had been the one to call Ferris in and had forgotten to ask if there were any lotus symbols drawn on the back of the cards that were still back in the Serpens Establishment. So for now, it was all inconclusive. 

A groan drew Alice away from her analysis. She paid it no mind at first, even as it grew into a moan. It was only when the moan grew to yelling and the sound of thumping did Alice rise from her desk. She turned her attention to the three large beds set just across the room. Her bed—unfolded at the moment—rested at the left wall, Gabrielle’s at the center, and Flannery’s along the right wall. 

Gabrielle was tossing, turning, arms flying out as she shouted incomprehensibly. Alice quickly approached her, dodged her blindly swinging arm, before gently nudging her leg and whispering into her ear. Eventually Gabrielle’s eyes fluttered open, and she blinked into the dark in confusion. 

“You were having a nightmare again,” Alice whispered. 

“Oh…” Gabrielle gave a noncommittal grunt before murmuring, “I’ve always wondered why we don’t have nightmares of nice things instead. Would kill for a nightmare about a beach vacation.” 

“They wouldn’t be called nightmares then.” 

Gabrielle yawned and rubbed her eyes. “You two didn’t end up serving until the near end of the war, right? You and Talib. I know Roberto was drafted right when he reached the age. Moraeni and Izsak served in my joint unit. Never thought to ask.” 

“We were more involved with the after-war fallout,” Alice affirmed. “Our family’s contributions allowed us to be kept away from most of the fight.” 

“Espionage and reconnaissance?” 

“Service and volunteering.” 

Gabrielle snorted. “Of course, you and Talib are saints.” 

“It’s a bit of reach calling it that.” Alice paused in thought. “But is that why you asked Talib and me to join you?” 

“Of course not. I chose you both because you were the only ones who didn’t look away…” 

“From what?” 

Gabrielle looked across the room towards the bed pressed against the wall. “We would’ve been enemies, you know? Back in the war.” 

Alice followed her gaze to the bed and found Flannery entangled in the sheets there—legs half-hanging off the bed, head buried into her pillow. “Let’s not jump to conclusions.” 

Abruptly, Flannery lifted her head, cracked open her clear cerulean blue eyes, locked gazes with Alice from across the room, and flashed a smile.

* * *

The kitchen to Flannery’s villa was just as Alice remembered it. A cobblestone hearth crackled away perpendicular to the kitchen stove, while a large window taking up the entire wall opened up to the left and let in gray light. At the center of the kitchen stood a glass table toppled high with a mix of Libran and Capricornian dishes: fish, chips, meats, and potato dishes. From the maids, most likely. 

Talib, bedhead somehow even more curly than usual, was already sitting at the table and shoveling eggs into his mouth. Gabrielle made her way to the chair across from him, picked up a piece of buttered toast, and nibbled at it as she sank down. 

It was tradition for them to stay at one of Flannery’s villas whenever they happened to take on missions and assignments in the same location Flannery was in. 

Suddenly, Roberto stormed into the kitchen from the arched door leading to the bedroom halls and tossed a newspaper onto the dining room table. “It’s not looking good with your assignment, Gabrielle.” 

The headline read: Shots Fired Across the Southern Border—And not at the Argoans! 

Gabrielle picked up the newspaper and scanned it, while Alice read over her shoulder. It detailed in Common a purportedly ‘covered-up’ incident occurring at the Argoan-Capricornian border in which soldiers were ordered to fire on Augen protestors…? 

Alice resisted pinching the bridge of her nose. Gabrielle did, however, throwing down the newspaper. 

Talib picked up the article, scanned it, choked. “Written by Hilton Tyler? That’s your newspaper friend, isn’t it, Flannery? The one who you invited to dinner with us that other night?”

“The one that insulted us under the table?” Gabrielle arched a brow. 

Flannery’s smile dipped for a moment before she winced. “Is it? Sorry. M’parents wanted me t’get some good publicity for the company, and he runs one of the most popular newspapers in Signum.” 

“Don’t worry about it.” Gabrielle yawned and chugged an entire cup of coffee with one gulp. “But this isn’t good. Whether it’s true or not, this will definitely cause the Augen to retaliate—” 

A sudden boom trembled through the kitchen—no, the building—rattling the windows in their frames. Alice’s mind flashed back to the days in the bunker, and she shot up to a stand reflexively. Gabrielle was already storming out the door of the villa with Roberto trailing behind her. Alice exchanged a look with Talib before following the two out the door with him at her tail. 

“B’careful!” Flannery shouted as she lingered behind.

* * *

When they poured out onto the streets, they were nearly stampeded by screeching civilians running in the direction opposite of where a smoke pillar was rising into the gray sky. They worked against the tide of bodies and headed in that direction. As they drew nearer and nearer, the screaming grew louder and the dust screen grew thicker. Eventually, Alice came to realize that the smoke was coming from the direction of the hospital they’d visited earlier—where Olive was residing. 

Gabrielle caught a man who crashed into her. “What’s happened?”

“An explosion!” the man stammered. “The damned Augen and the military police just opened fire on each other. The Augen—they’re working with ELPIS! They brought down the main wing of the hospital! Half of it was in flames!”

ELPIS…? With the Augen? No, impossible. 

Alice had completed a thorough opinion assessment, and all those she interviewed had scored low on ELPIS-ideological leanings. She’d even multi-layered those questions too to not seem biased— 

“Are you hurt?” Gabrielle pressed. 

“I’m fine. We’re fine. A water Elementalist put out the fire. The doctors and the military police are—” 

“A water Elementalist?” Gabrielle gripped the man. “What was his name?” 

The man blubbered something senselessly before ripping himself free of Gabrielle and dashing away. 

Gabrielle didn’t seem too deterred by this and instead shouted at them as she gestured around the area. “Split up! Let’s get as many people out here as we can!” 

Roberto shot out immediately in the direction opposite. Meanwhile, Talib remained at Alice’s side as he sent out a handful of paper crane mediums to presumably guide civilians out from the dust cloud. 

Grabbing a hold of his arm as his eyes glazed over, Alice marched forward through the smog. During her combing, she helped a cowering woman out from beneath a flight of stairs and aided a man in guiding his children out from the smokescreen. 

As they drew closer to the hospital, Alice spied doctors, nurses, and medical Conductors scattered around the area tending to the wounded. Around them ran a handful of unaccompanied children. Before Alice could decide on which group needed her assistance the most, Talib grabbed her hand and started pulling her through the smog without warning. She didn’t resist, and eventually, he tugged her past a twisted, toppled iron gate to a clearing where Gabrielle stood stiff, tense. 

After joining Gabrielle’s side alongside Talib, Alice followed her gaze to two figures opposite of her—one of whom Alice recognized immediately. 

Francis Foxman, one of the heads of the Foxman crime organization. Or perhaps it was Theta, ELPIS leader. Possibly both. His face wasn’t marked with his identifying tattoo—a touch-up? A white vitae blade was gripped in his hand. Proto-conductor. 

Alice’s mind buzzed as she recalled those days in that windowless, doorless room. She still remembered the sensation of the rope digging into her wrists, still remembered Theta’s apathetic gaze, still remembered the darkness and the cold. 

It took a moment for her to recollect herself, but when she did she noticed that beside Theta stood a young woman with straw blonde hair and caramel brown eyes. She clung to Theta’s unarmed arm. The tourist, Alice recalled. 

“Didn’t think ELPIS would be fond of proto-conductors,” Gabrielle said calmly, clenching her gloved fist. “Didn’t think you were the type to use a Projector’s conductor either. Always thought you were more of a ‘drop them from ten feet’ type. Not a ‘slice-n-dice’ type.” 

“This was not my doing, Miss Law,” Theta explained calmly. “Although justifying myself in front of a peacekeeper whose work involves deception and bowing her head seems…” 

Gabrielle remained in startled silence for a moment, before humming, “Well, I figured you were still alive after what happened in Gemini, so it’s good to see my deduction skills are still sharp. Sad to see your courteousness has gone downhill.” 

“I apologize for my rudeness, Miss Law,” Theta said, lowering the blade. “I’m trying to ascertain what happened here.” 

“You’re saying this wasn’t you?” 

“It was not,” Theta affirmed. “And I don’t believe this was Gamma’s work either. Another sect, perhaps, but given the recent developments that is unlikely.” 

“Recent developments?” Gabrielle continued, spreading her arms. “Look, I’m not pointing fingers. If you come with me, maybe we can work together and you can help us figure out exactly what happened here. A lot of people are hurt. What do you say?” 

Theta almost seemed to chuckle. “I don’t think I will. I don’t deny my faults, but I also don’t see the point in turning myself into a corrupt, puppet organization.” He locked eyes with Gabrielle. “October 30th. Think about it.” 

Alice frowned but noted that Gabrielle had stiffened. 

Abruptly, out from the haze of smoke sparked a burst of gold light. A short vitae blade. It hurtled towards Theta without warning, and the man barely had the time to raise his own blade conductor before it nearly took off his head. There was a spark of blue as the two blades collided and then a loud clatter as the golden blade deactivated and hit the ground. The woman standing beside Theta’s side yelped and clung to him tighter.

Out from the dust cloud stepped Leona, chairwoman of the ELPIS Department. Her golden hair seemed to glow in the smog now just like how it had done in the darkness of the Twin Cities. 

“I see you’ve made a gamble,” Theta said, lowering the weapon slightly. “You’re reckless.”

As Leona ran at him with another vitae blade drawn, he sank to his feet and touched the black spot on the ground there. He disappeared into the portal in the blink of an eye—but not before the tourist leapt in to join him. Leona stopped short in her dash, de-igniting her blade before slowly turning to face them all. 

“Good to see you, Leona.” Gabrielle extended her hand. “I caught word that you were in Capricorn when I first arrived here. It’s a pleasant surprise.” 

Leona approached her, hand extended. There was a dullness to her amber eyes that seemed unnatural. “Yes, I heard you were in this city too, Gabrielle. It looks like we’re destined to keep crossing paths—if there were such a thing as destiny.” 

There was something unusual on Leona’s back neck just below her shirt, Alice realized. It almost looked like a bruise—no, a tattoo. The shape vaguely reminded Alice of a scorpion. 

“That being said, I’m aware that you were assigned to investigate the Verbundene Augen on behalf of the Capricornian government, Gabrielle,” Leona continued, voice cutting through Alice’s thoughts. “Your assistance is no longer needed. Clearly, the Augen is associated with ELPIS. My department and I will take things from here, although we would appreciate your assistance with the relief effort.” 

Peacekeepers suddenly flooded the grounds, stampeding this way and that. Alice didn’t recognize any of them. The ELPIS Department, most likely. 

Gabrielle frowned. “I know it looks like ELPIS, but isn’t it weird that proto-conductors are being used instead of regular conductors? Theta was carrying one, and I spotted a couple of them when I was helping the civilians… Theta mentioned he had no idea what was going on too—” 

“Gabrielle. You would trust the words of a terrorist over the words of your fellow peacekeeper?” Leona’s eyes narrowed. “You said you conversed with him…?” 

Gabrielle didn’t frown and instead held up her hands. “Never said anything like that. Jurisdiction is jurisdiction. I’m just putting in my two bills.”

Leona smiled thinly. “I understand, Gabrielle. Enjoy your return trip. Hopefully aiding in the relief effort now will show that you made at least some effort here.”

And with that, she turned on her heels and departed into the smog. 

Peculiar behavior. 

“Well, she seems more charming than usual,” Gabrielle muttered, rubbing her neck. “Definitely not how I wanted to start the morning.”

Alice crossed her arms. “I suspect that you’re not planning on leaving Capricorn any time soon?” 

“Not even thinking about it,” Gabrielle returned. “Say, Talib, you were talking about wanting to see the diplomatic conductor convention earlier, weren’t you? How about we finally cash in that vacation time?”

* * *

When they arrived back in the villa the next morning after spending the entire night helping with relief efforts, Gabrielle received a return call from Trystan. The royal guard respectfully apologized for not getting in contact despite Gabrielle’s numerous attempts to reach him and then informed them that the Ariesian prince had made it out from the hospital safely and that they were now on board a hospital train heading out of the capital. 

Alice felt relief. 

And old patient was still a patient. 


The military police officer wouldn’t stop laughing. He was on the floor, practically rolling around as he held his shaking abdomen. 

Dämon frowned down at him. “What do you find so amusing this time?”

“Cadence Morello. Born between June 2nd and June 4th. Blood Type AB. Vision, 20/32. Height, 156 centimeters. Weight, 47 kg. Ambidextrous. Personality type, ESFP-Assertive. Parents, dead. Blood siblings, none. Other considered ‘siblings,’ four elder brothers and elder sister, alive.

Occupation, swindler, con woman, freelancer, too many to list. Known by seventy-two different aliases. Owes gambling debts under twenty aliases. Is owed gambling debts under forty-two aliases. 

Described by friends as ‘easygoing, fun, sociable, life of the party.’ Described by employers as ‘skilled, charming, worth-the-money.’ Described by locals as ‘deceitful, crass, cheating, unreliable.’ Described by tourists as ‘lovely, kind, helpful.’ Described by children as ‘the best one, their favorite, funny, cool.’

Unusual activity: involvement in underground modified conductors deal with Capricornian government and involvement in the Twin Cities incident with ELPIS. 

Probability of being a True Conductor, 100%. 

Probability of disrupting the syzygy, 6%.” 

Dämon hummed. “And what did you do to this one?” 

I didn’t really do much.” The officer rose to a sit causing the scorpion-shaped tattoo resting at the nape of his neck to become visible. “It was something she’d been feeling deep down this entire time. It seems like she thought she’d conquered her self-deception already. ‘But that was also a lie.’” He threw his head back and laughed again at some inside joke Dämon didn’t understand. The arrogance—poor thing! I just helped bring that realization to the surface. People can’t change. Not really, not permanently.” 

“Aren’t you going through them too fast? I always thought you were a person of pleasure.” 

Hm? Not really. The first one to take the wheel was way too clever, admittedly, so I had to do away with her. Though… I suppose it would’ve been more fun to keep her around to see how far we could go. This political atmosphere suits her. ” 

“And I’m guessing you adjusted your approach with this Cadence?” 

Sleep deprivation and lack of inhibition tend to bring out the purest form of human nature. You always put on a face and mold yourself to expectation—so much so that you continue despite no longer under another person’s gaze.” 

“Forcing sleep deprivation to get what you want seems very unlike you, I have to admit,” Dämon said, turning back towards the swirling pool of light contained by the glass case behind her. “I’m a bit disappointed—” 

She stopped short as she felt cold fingers wrap around her neck from behind and remained still as she felt hot breath ghosting the back of her neck. Something cold prick against both of her ears. When the officer pulled away, she felt a weight pulling down her earlobe. 

Hesitantly she reached for the area. Dangling earrings. She couldn’t tell what shape they were in but they were made of paper and wet from the blood dripping down from her newly pierced lobe. 

“Me as well? Are you classifying me in the same department as Cvetka then? Someone who needs constant surveillance and advising?” Dämon arched a brow. “I do enjoy my privacy.”

“There’s no such thing as privacy,” the officer said, before he added quietly, “By the way, they’ll be coming down here soon.”

“The True Conductor?” 

The officer smiled. “No, the peacekeepers.”

Dämon hummed, unconcerned. “Well, you still didn’t answer what you found so entertaining.” 

The officer blinked before smirking and glancing off to the side in the distance. “Oh… right… Well, who would’ve thought such a familiar face would be hiding in plain sight?”

“A familiar face?” 

One of her former patients just entered my sights. I’ve always had an inkling about him, but I would’ve never expected this. And if he’s a True Conductor, then it means that other peacekeeper under her wing is also a True Conductor in the same group. And that means that two of her patients—former and current—are in my hand.”

“Her again?”

“Of course. That cold arrogance, that cool-headed defiance, acting as if everyone is beneath her and that she can see into them. Her approach to her practice is ‘only you can save yourself.’ Wrong from the very beginning.” The officer bit his thumb. “I can’t get her out of my head. Even though she denies it, I can see it. I’ll just show her all of her work was fruitless from the very beginning.”


Following the attack on the city’s main hospital, the diplomatic conductor convention was moved from outdoors to indoors—with increased security bolstered by the ELPIS Department. Gatherings of ten or more people aside from state events were now prohibited. 

Alice admitted that she much preferred it this way—the interior-hosting, that was. No mud on her shoes, no rainwater soaking her purses and dresses, no wind messing up her air. And much easier to hide conversation. 

The convention was now being held inside a large building with tiled marbled floors and a series of pillars that held up a large glass dome. Gray light bled in through that dome illuminating the people filtering through within. They were colorful people—some wearing silken garments with embroidered flowers, others wearing tight leather clothes that concealed everything, more wearing tight and crisp business suits, and more yet wearing cloaks clipped with tassels. 

The booths propped up evenly throughout the building were just as colorful. Signs in languages ranging from Common to Capricornian to Sagittarian and Geminian were posted above wooden tables hosting various contraptions of varying length and sizes: v-batteries and small v-generators and other devices Alice didn’t recognize. Some even stood as tall as the ceiling. 

“My, do you see that, Alice?” Talib whispered from beside her. “They’ve even developed a vitae-powered clock! Waltz & Tick, ey? Well, that certainly is a name to remember. You know… it’s suspicious that their initials W&T sound almost the same as that dismantled spy agency, right…?” 

Alice glanced at the sign Talib was gesturing to and found a grim-looking elder man with russet brown hair and ice-blue eyes standing beneath it. The desk behind him was spotless save for a cylinder-like contraption with flipping digital numbers typed on small white cards. It appeared to be vitae-powered.

“Talib, we need to keep an eye out for members of the Augen,” Alice said. “Keep the games and charades for some other time. Preferably when I’m out of ear’s reach.”

“I’m being covert, dear Alice,” Talib whispered. “They taught me back in the day that being the most noticeable person in the room is the best way to blend in.”

Alice eyed the passersby who were giving Talib odd looks. “I think your interpretation leaves much to be desired.” 

“I gotta agree with Tal here, Alice,” Flannery interjected as she looped one arm over Alice’s neck and the other around Talib’s. “People’ll always look away from bright, flashy lights.” 

The three of them—all in civilian wear—had decided to come here together to save them multiple trips. Gabrielle, however, had left the villa earlier to come to this place, while Roberto’s assignment here had him trapped back in the villa running over tax paperwork. Too many people in one place would be suspicious, so Alice supposed that was fine. They were pushing the limit as it was. 

Alice’s attention was drawn away by a large crowd gathering around a stage that sat centermost in the open space beneath the dome. She tugged on Talib’s sleeve, prompting him to abandon his tirade and follow her to the area. As she neared the lip of the crowd, she spotted Gabrielle and drew near to her with Flannery and Talib. For once, Gabrielle was not in a suit but a comfortable pair of slacks and a loose blouse. Her Ophiuchian armband was nowhere in sight—and neither were Alice’s or Talib’s. 

“Looks like this is the main show on the itinerary,” Gabrielle said. 

At the center of the stage stood lead scientist Dämon Fortschritt in front of a large rectangular object cloaked by a red curtain. Beside her stood a vaguely familiar woman with a wiry frame and a pair of overalls that seemed to go against the sophistication in the room. 

Marta, if Alice recalled correctly. Alice had seen the woman in a photograph taken in one of Gabrielle’s written reports and had heard of her from time to time back when she had been speaking with the Ariesian prince. Alice had gotten the impression that Marta was hard-headed, but right now all Marta seemed like was nervous. 

Alice looked past Marta back to Dämon who seemed to bask in all of their gazes before abruptly spreading her arms wide and signaling for the red curtain to be dropped. When it fell away, Alice instinctively winced at the brightness. It was a glass case filled with what appeared to be vitae. 

“You all look at this here”—Dämon rapped against the glass—”and you think that I’ve merely brought you something from one of the vitae reservoirs. But I tell you that isn’t the case! What you see here is an artificially induced pool of vitae.” 

A chill ran down Alice’s spine, and she uncrossed her arms as she shared a look with Gabrielle. 

“As we all know—hopefully since we all have our licenses here, right?—vitae falls into two distinct and broad classifications depending on what in particular the vitae particles are associated with: soft and hard; living and non-living. We know that we ourselves contain both hard and soft vitae, while the rocks beneath our feet are hard vitae completely. Our reservoirs—we know—are hard and naturally occurring.” 

Dämon rubbed her hand against the glass. 

“But things that occur naturally tend to be difficult to come by. Vitae researchers and conductor engineers all over Signum have dedicated their lives to understanding the formation of vitae reservoirs—even going so far as to try and extract hard vitae from things like rocks and earth to try and create an artificial reservoir but to no avail.” 

Dämon pulled away, gesturing to Marta: 

“But together with my special team and partners—including Marta John who is here today—” 

Marta smiled weakly. 

“—we’ve done it! This vitae you see here was induced from the stone gravel just outside of our buildings.” 

Alice couldn’t believe her ears. 

“I know a demonstration is in order, but the reaction needed for this to happen requires a very stable environment. If you’d be willing to travel, I’d be happy to show you in my lab.”

Now Alice was skeptical. 

But when Alice looked over her shoulder towards Gabrielle, she found the woman looking both hopeful and horrified. Alice didn’t blame her. Gabrielle had fought in a long war over this energy source. To now find out there was now possibly an easier way to obtain that energy probably brought into question in Gabrielle’s mind the worthwhileness of the sacrifices she’d made up until this point.

Upon turning to Flannery, however, Alice found that she was absolutely pale—almost grimacing.

“This form is also not quite stable yet, however, which is why we’ve only brought a small sample of it,” Damon continued, drawing away Alice’s attention. “Nothing is ever perfect. But this is just a preview. I hope to show you soon the full potential of my research, so we can move together towards a more sustainable, peaceful Signum.” 

And with that, Dämon bowed. 

A chorus of applause erupted. 

It almost felt like a dream. 

As the crowd dispersed when the curtain was put down over the glass case, Gabrielle approached the stage. Alice followed after her with Talib, while Flannery excused herself to her own ‘business-y affairs.’ They made it to Gabrielle’s side just as Marta was descending the steps of the stage to the ground floor. 

“How’s it going, Marta?” Gabrielle greeted her with a nod. 

Marta took a step back, pale. “Who are you…?” 

“It’s Gabrielle,” Gabrielle explained. “We had a quick chat in Aries after the prince’s… incident a while back. Put in a word for you about your vitae spectrophotometer after his majesty and her majesty mentioned it to me. Glad to see you making your way up the ladder.” 

“Peacekeepers…” Marta murmured before her eyes widened. She glanced over her shoulder towards Dämon who was speaking with a cluster of wealthy-looking investors onstage. Abruptly grabbing a hold of Gabrielle’s hand, Marta whispered quickly: “The real research facility is at 43th street. Beneath. Just keep walking. Look closely. You need to see it… T-This isn’t why I became a conductor engineer—” 

“Woah, what?” Gabrielle placed her hands on the woman’s shoulders. “Look, slow down. I don’t understand what you’re saying—”

Marta abruptly shut her mouth and stared at something past Gabrielle’s shoulders. When Alice followed her gaze, however, she found nothing.

“I-I should go,” Marta whispered, before peeling Gabrielle’s hands away and darting back up the stairs to Dämon’s side. 

“What was that about?” Gabrielle arched a brow after a beat. 

Alice stared after Marta for a moment before turning her attention back to the covered glass case. 

Could it really be that easy?

* * *

When the convention temporarily closed its doors for a two-hour repose, Alice, Gabrielle, and Talib took to the streets in search of any suspicious gatherings. There were clusters of military police scattered around all the sidewalks and alleys, alongside peacekeepers—presumably from the ELPIS Department. 

Gabrielle requested Talib to send out some of his mediums to scour the area, so Alice was left with once again guiding a glazed-eyed Talib around by hand.

It was while they were combing down an alleyway behind a restaurant that they overheard a peculiar conversation in Capricornian between chefs crowding the backdoor of the restaurant:

“—eren’t meant to attack the hospital!” 

“I understand that, but all I’m saying is that it wasn’t unjustified. You saw what they did at the border! They’ve turned us into their very own target practice! You know that that hospital is used mostly by military officials! The ones who sent us out there in the first place! After we fought in their other war!” 

Gabrielle immediately stowed away behind a trash bin diagonally across the Capricornians. Alice did the same, dragging Talib down along with her.

“But there were normal people there too!” argued a man wringing a chef’s hat in his hands. He paced back and forth, running his fingers through his hair and rubbing his face—half of which was consumed by burn marks. “What about them?” He stopped short and flung his hands out. “This isn’t why I became a member of this. I wanted to serve my country—not become an enemy of it!”

“Enemy? No, no, no—can’t you see?” another, shorter chef returned. “They’re taking us seriously now!”

“They think we’re working with ELPIS! That we’re terrorists!” the other man laughed, clearly irritable. “Of course they’re going to take us seriously!” He shook his head. “Why the hell did we take those proto-conductors from her? We’re not criminals. Marionette would never—”

“Well, Engel isn’t here.” 

“Talib,” Gabrielle whispered back to them, “plant one of your mediums on—” 

A high-pitched whining followed by a soft ca-chack! resounded just behind Alice and cut Gabrielle off short. 

The Capricornians snapped to look at them—no, behind them. Alice followed their gazes and found a man crouched just a little ways behind her. He was poised at the very center of the alley—open, exposed. 

It was the news reporter whom Flannery had invited out to eat with them several nights ago and who had written the Augen-border article. Hilton Tyler. 

Hilton lowered the camera before leaping to his feet and taking a step back. 

Alice faced forward and found Gabrielle standing with raised hands. The Capricornians were now ringed around them, the shorter one looking them up and down. 

“What’s this?” he asked, eyeing Hilton’s camera. “News reporters?” 

Now that they were closer, Alice could better distinguish their features. Thankfully, none of them were any of the people she had interviewed recently so she knew she wouldn’t be recognized. However, this also highlighted how poor her sample size for her interviews had been. 

She quickly noted that all six of the chefs had the Augen mark tattooed somewhere on the bodies. For the chef who had been wringing his hat, it was just peeking out below his collarbone, while for the shorter chef it was barely visible behind his neck. But paired alongside those tattoos were—Alice squinted—scorpion tattoos. Much like Leona’s. 

Peculiar.

A new fad?

“Hey! What’s going on down there?” came a shout in Capricornian from down the alley. “No large gatherings of over ten people!”

At the lip of the alley stood four military police officers. 

“Militärpolizei!” the shorter chef shouted.

“Wait—” Gabrielle interjected.

But it was too late because the shorter chef was already escaping down the alleyway. Without skipping a beat, Hilton dashed out of the alleyway opposite and flashed a reporter’s badge at the policemen. The befuddled police officers looked between the departing Hilton and the chef in confusion.

After a beat of hesitation, the other Augen members fled down the alley, some heading back into the restaurant and others dashing after the shorter chef. The military police started after them, pushing Alice to the side as they brushed past. Two of them followed the ones who went into the kitchen, while the other two darted after the short chef and the duo that had followed him. Abruptly, however, the shorter chef skidded to a halt mid-pursuit, turned on his heels, and pulled out something from his waist just as a female officer reached his side. As said officer reached for his shoulder, the chef swung out with a slash of white light. 

A blade conductor. No, gauging by the wavering light of the blade, it appeared to be a proto-conductor much like the one Theta had held in front of the hospital. It split the fabric above the officer’s chest, disconnected her hanging gorget from its chain, and blossomed a red streak at her chest. 

“Oh, great,” Gabrielle grumbled before dashing to the scene. 

The wounded officer stumbled backwards, cradling her injury with a groan. The other officer caught her and lowered her to the ground before reaching for his belt. 

Gabrielle reached the scuffle just as another one of the Augen members drew out a knife and lunged for the standing officer’s legs. He dragged the blade across the officer’s back leg just before Gabrielle grabbed his wrist, threw him over her shoulder, and ripped the blade out of his hand. She kicked back the shorter chef and sent him flying into the alley wall before dragging the grimacing officer back. Without skipping a beat, she pounced on the formerly dagger-wielding Augen member and slapped a pair of suppression cuffs on him from her belt. 

“Haven’t been in service recently, right, sir? It can get you a little rusty.” Gabrielle rose to her feet, reached into her suit pocket, and pulled out her conducting license and Ophiuchian badge. 

The remaining chefs froze at the sight of it.

“Two things you should notice. One, I’m a peacekeeping agent. Two, I’m a fire Elementalist. You’ve served; you know how this’ll end. Plus, I don’t want to have to write about extra reports of having to use my conductors on civilians either, so…” 

The chef lowered the proto-conductor. 

“Great,” Gabrielle popped. “I’m going to cuff you, but I have a couple of questions for you later. Especially about that fancy proto-conductor.”

Alice walked over to the officer whose back legs had been cut and assessed the damage. She couldn’t tell whether or not the tendon was damaged but she could tell that the officer was putting on a brave face. When she pressed a handkerchief she drew out from her purse against his injury, he whimpered. He looked young—perhaps still in adolescence. 

Talib scrambled over to them and tended to the other officer before sending out several mediums—presumably to get help. 

“Good call,” Gabrielle said. 

Alice turned her attention back to the adolescent officer. As she inspected his wound further, she noticed something peculiar. Imprinted on his skin just above the cut was a familiar blue-inked tattoo of a scorpion. 

Twice was a coincidence. Thrice was a pattern. Or so Talib said. 

“You’ll be fine,” she said before asking:”Where did you get this tattoo?”

“T-Tattoo?” The officer grimaced. “What are you talking about? I-I don’t have any tattoos…”

Alice frowned. “It’s right—”

The officer stared at the female officer across from him before turning to glower at the Augen members who Gabrielle was busily detaining. “They don’t know when to stop.”

Alice followed his gaze.

Peculiar. Not even one of the Augen members was resisting. Mob mentality was certainly possible. However, given their violent actions earlier, Alice had expected at least some of them to put up a fight, but… 

The shorter Augen member slumped as Gabrielle slapped suppression cuffs over his wrists. She caught him and lowered him down onto the ground before moving to the final member.

“They don’t even deserve to be arrested,” the young officer growled suddenly, clenching his fists. “My best friend was in that hospital. He was just supposed to have a daily check-up, but now they say they don’t know if he’s gonna wake up because he was caught up in the explosion…”

“Your justice system will handle their situation accordingly,” Alice informed the man curtly. 

“Justice system?” the officer’s face contorted before he struggled to a stand. “If they—”

Alice pushed him down, reaching into her purse again for a thin cloth glove lined with metal. “Sit down—”

The officer suddenly whipped around and spat in her face before raising his fist at her.

“Hey!” Talib shot up to a stand and grabbed his wrist. “What do you think you’re—” 

The officer whipped around and cracked Talib so hard against the jaw that he went flying back to the wall.

“Hey!” the wounded female officer grimaced as she held her bleeding chest wound. “Tom, what do you think you’re doing?!”

“These peacekeepers are the reason why we’re like this in the first place!” the officer—Tom—spat. “My dad says if it weren’t for them—”

Alice took the opportunity to slip on her conductor. As Tom turned and lunged for her again, she grabbed his wrist with her conductor-gloved hand. There was no doubt that he had much more physical strength than her. However, when she activated her conductor, he froze in place, eyes wide.

Tom’s facial muscles twitched, his eyes flitting back and forth. His mouth barely formed words: “Wh… at happ… ing?”

“I’m a Specialist,” Alice informed him calmly. “The vitae particles inside your body are now frozen in place. They will continue to be frozen in place until I release you. Do you understand?”

The officer let out a breathy sigh in response. 

“Now, I’m going to ask you to take a deep breath and—”

A loud bang resounded from just behind the officer, and he abruptly fell forward onto Alice’s body. Tensing and keeping her grip on his wrist, Alice slowly lifted up his head. A bullet hole marked his forehead. Feeling her blood run cold, she released him and remained frozen there, the dead man in her lap. She slowly lifted her head to see who had fired the gun and registered a familiar man standing at the mouth of the alley. 

Familiar square-rimmed glasses were perched on his prominent nose—a different one than what he usually wore meaning it was a recent purchase. He’d cut his hair short since she’d last seen him nearly over a year ago, and he was dressed in a raincoat. Crawling up from his neck onto the lower part of his right cheek was a snake tattoo. 

Izsak. No, Gamma.

Why was he here?

“Izsak…” Gabrielle called out from behind.

All the Augen members who she’d been tousling with were now the ground—suppression cuffs faintly glinting around their wrists. The military police officer was staring wide-eyed at her fallen comrade but trembled rigidly in place. She looked young too.

“Peacekeepers?” came a voice from behind Gamma as a woman stepped out around him. 

The woman had mousy brown hair tied back into a tight bun and had an unbuttoned Capricornian officer’s uniform shirt thrown over her shoulders. 

Although Alice didn’t recognize her, Gabrielle clearly did—

“…Conta? I see that got you too, huh?”

“….I recognize that peacekeeper.” Conta nodded to Gabrielle. “She was investigating the Campanas several months ago. I believe her name is—”

“Gabrielle Law.”

Conta glanced at Gamma. “Yes. I don’t recognize the other two though. Are they—”

“They’re not with the ELPIS Department,” Gamma answered. “General Investigations and Psychological Evaluations. They must be here to investigate the Verbundene Augen.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Conta said. “Anyone here is a possible host. We should act accordingly.”

“Agreed.”

“Hey, hey, now, at least involve us in the conversation if you’re planning to off us,” Gabrielle interjected, fingers inching slowly towards her pants pocket where her conductor was stored. “You, Izsak, and Conta both—”

A groaning emitted from behind Gabrielle cut her off short. Alice stared past her and froze as she saw one of the Augen members who was cuffed begin to stir and groan. 

Impossible. Suppression cuffs constricted the flow of vitae in a person and effectively rendered an individual unconscious. The only way a person could remain conscious with suppression cuffs on was—

There was a burst of bright white light. 

Arching through the air now were four glowing white appendages. Their origin was Conta’s bleeding hand, which tightly gripped a knife also dripping with blood; their director was the conducting glove on Conta’s extended hand; and their targets were the remaining military police officer and the three cuffed Augen members. The Projector-like vitae ran through each of their heads like a hot knife to butter. 

Alice felt nauseous. 

Abruptly blue cracks began to crawl along Conta’s vitae starting from the Capricornians she’d bulleted through. The cracks crept back towards her slowly as if fighting an uphill battle. 

“Conta,” Gamma said tersely.

“I know.” Contra lowered her extended hand, her vitae disintegrating before the blue cracks made their way to her.

During the distraction, Alice noted that Gabrielle had been reaching for her pants pocket again.

Locking eyes with Gabrielle, Gamma pointed the gun at Alice. “Don’t.”

Gabrielle froze. Talib almost glowered.

Gabrielle’s face contorted then, and in an instant she pulled out her glove conductor and shoved it on. Alice ducked as Gamma fired off a shot in response and then pressed against the walls as a torrent of magenta flames erupted in the alleyway. However, only a second after, the flames died abruptly. 

When the smoke cleared, Alice registered Gamma and Conta standing stiffly in the same place they had been standing before.

Alice hadn’t been expecting Gabrielle to kill them, but she had been expecting her to at least incapacitate them. When she turned her attention to Gabrielle, however, she came to realize the reason for this.

Gabrielle’s conductor-gloved hand was stuck in the alleyway wall. Rather, it was embedded in a familiar pale-tangerine portal that glowed there. Gabrielle tugged against the portal to no avail. 

A sudden draft of familiarly cool wind whistled through the alley, and the smell of v-cigarettes curled in the air. Turning her head again, Alice registered a figured half-covered in shadow standing at the opposite end of the alley. To the wall at his left glowed a familiar portal out from which Gabrielle’s gloved hand protruded. The figure gripped Gabrielle’s protruding wrist tightly, prying off her conductor slowly with one hand before releasing her. Gabrielle fell back onto the floor away from the other portal with a gawk—now conductorless.

“You came,” Gamma said. “Theta.”

Tucking Gabrielle’s conductor under his arm, Theta stepped out into the light and removed his gloved hand from the wall. “And you’ve seen what’s been developed in this country.”

Gamma’s eyes narrowed. “You should have killed P.D. Oran when you had the chance. It’s clear that this is the result of his research.” 

Theta tensed. “You’ve lost Oran? Tau didn’t mention—”

“Of course not. His pride won’t let him admit that he’s done wrong,” Gamma pointed his gun at him. “Your actions in the Twin Cities were flawed due to your faulty initiation. I have your resistor with me. If we return you now, I can find a suitable person quickly—”

“I refuse.” 

Without hesitation, Gamma fired a round. At the same time, however, Theta pulled out a silver pistol from his waist and fired a round too. A whine screeched through the air for a split second as their bullets collided and ricocheted against opposite walls. 

“If we are speaking of experience, I have more of it in wielding this type of weapon than you, Gamma,” Theta said, cocking his gun. “This would be a poor time to be returning to your resistor.” His gaze shifted to Conta. “Beta? It’s good to see you again.”

“And you as well.” Conta—Beta—dipped her head. “But I can’t disagree with Gamma’s opinion.”

“You’re wearing a dead man’s skin and pretending to be him,” Gamma said, lowering his gun. “You’ve pretended so much that you’ve convinced yourself that you are him.”

“Regardless, I plan to live out the rest of my life like this,” Theta replied, almost as if amused. “I refuse to have merely a record of my last time with Altair. For me, this will be the last chance. Perhaps that way, I’ll give it my all.” Theta reached into his suit pocket and threw something at the duo.

Beta immediately sent out projections of vitae. The glass object twirling through the air shattered just above their heads. Black liquid and glass rained down on them and onto the floor beneath their feet.

Beta tensed, glancing down at the stains. “You’ve become a fool.”

“There’s no ‘becoming’ one.” 

And with that, Theta placed his gloved conductor against the alleyway wall beside him again. In the blink of an eye, Gamma and Beta were swallowed up into a portal that opened below them. 

Theta lowered the gun a beat after and then inspected it. “This really is Al’s lucky pistol. Always thought he was being dramatic about it but that doesn’t seem like the case. I got really lucky there.” 

“Any reason you decided to break up the party?” Gabrielle asked, tense and eyeing her conductor in his hand. “Where did you send them? 

“You already know why but you don’t need to know where,” Theta replied. He approached her slowly, holding out her gloved conductor. “Though I suspect you won’t be able to relax until I give this back—” 

Gabrielle hesitantly extended her hand to accept it but Theta did not release it from his hold.

“—which I will do after you take off your clothes and I confirm you are not infected. After that, we can work together.”

Alice paused, heart hammering, suddenly aware of the officer’s blood staining her dress. 

Gabrielle frowned. “Who said we were going to work together?”

Theta paused. “I apologize. That’s on me. I thought my message when we met at the hospital was clear—’October 30th,’ the day we agreed to work together to investigate the Campanas. Allow me me state this clearly then: I’d like for us to work together. A partnership.”

His accent was fluctuating, Alice realized through a haze of tension. Interesting. 

“Oh yeah.” Gabrielle eyed her conductor. “I’ve been giving that some thought.” 

Talib finally shook himself from his daze and slowly inched over to Alice as she picked herself off the ground. She stared at the lifeless officer at her feet. 

“What is going on…?” Talib whispered. 

Frankly, Alice had no clue. And she despised the fact.

“Under normal circumstances, working with peacekeepers would be something I would consider abhorrent,” Theta said. “But perhaps a change of pace and perspective is needed. As you can see, I am not a very combatively adept individual. I would like your assistance in that department. And your perspective and resources as well.” He paused. “We have worked together previously.”

“I get what you’re saying,” Gabrielle drew, “but I was working with Francis Foxman and his brothers.”

Theta paused, frowning slightly. “Who do you think is standing in front of you?” He studied them. “I understand you’ve got questions, Miss Law, Mr. Al-Jarrah, Miss Kingsley. I’ve been watching you ever since we came across each other at the hospital. I’ve got answers.”

“Is that supposed to be convincing?” Gabrielle arched a brow. “And what does that have to do with the stripping?” 

“So I can determine whether or not you have been infected by the Manipulator,” Theta explained. “If you have the scorpion mark, then this won’t work.”

Scorpion mark? Alice tensed. Did he mean a scorpion tattoo? Her mind went to the Augen members, the officer, and then to Leona.

“A Manipulator?” Gabrielle scoffed before composing herself and shrugging. “We’re standing here and talking normally. Obviously, we’re not being manipulated.”

Theta loosely gestured to the bodies on the floor. “And what of them? You saw it yourself. Fully coherent and feeling, but clearly being manipulated.”

Gabrielle stared past Theta towards the bodies with a grimace. 

“Gamma and Beta knocked them because they were infected by the Manipulator. Would infect others. It was what they viewed as necessary,” Theta said before he abruptly, rapidly explained the concept of offshoots and spores and compared the Manipulator in question to a basically a mushroom.

It was ridiculous. As ridiculous as believing that the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis was true—which Alice had gradually, begrudgingly come to accept. 

“But how is that possible?” Talib interjected hesitantly, “You explained it, but living manipulation—”

“I mean this with respect, Mr. Al-Jarrah, but you all have much to learn regarding vitae theory.”

Theta took out a v-cig from his suit, lit it, before continuing: 

“Important associates of mine have been afflicted by this Manipulator which is what prompted me to come here in the first place… But that’s not the subject that concerns me the most at the moment nor is it the subject for why I’m approaching you here today.”

He took a drag.

“I need to find the Capricornian conductor engineer Dämon Forstchritt’s research facility. After witnessing her presentation today, I have reason to believe she and her research may be involved with this Manipulator. And that research is more pressing than the Manipulator themselves.”

“Priorities aside, what if we decline the offer?” Gabrielle pressed. “I mean, you’re not offering a lot of concrete evidence. Doesn’t mean you’re going to drop concrete on us, are you?”

“No. If that is the case then I will investigate on my own, and you can continue out here running into situations you will have difficulty understanding… And then you will most likely become infected yourself.”

“Like Leona?” Alice tried.

“Clever girl,” Theta said after a beat. “You’ve seen it then.” 

Gabrielle pinched the bridge of her nose. “Wait. You’re saying the chairwoman of the ELPIS Department is being… manipulated?”

Theta took another drag. “If you accept this offer, then I will answer the questions you have to the best of my abilities.”

“Why not work with your ELPIS friends?”

“Clearly you can see that our ideals no longer coincide. And I do believe doing something different might be the best option. Perhaps this is something Omicron would do…” 

After seemingly recollecting her thoughts, Gabrielle said, “My friend Izsak Wtorek was looking into saint candidates and reservoirs before he became your Gamma. Would you be able to tell me about that? The usual textbooks aren’t really doing much.”

“Yes, I would be able to,” Theta replied. “That much, I still do recall.”

Alice’s heart skipped a beat. “And failed saint candidates?”

“There’s no such thing as a true failed saint candidate,” Theta replied, echoing the words Talib had said Leona had said on the train. “But if you have questions about them, I can answer those for you too.”

“Hey, Gabrielle…” Talib said tersely as he readjusted his beaten hat. “You’re not seriously thinking about this… are you?”

“I’ve been seriously thinking about it for a while now,” Gabrielle muttered. “Sure, I don’t mind licking a couple of boots to get where I want to, but I’d like to at least be thrown a treat or a bone here or there. And so far, there’s been a famine and a leash.” She glanced at them. “I did say right before you joined me that I was going the villain route, didn’t I? You don’t have to follow me.”

And with that, Gabrielle began to strip. 

Alice watched her in utter shock before she swallowed her pride and did the same. It wasn’t for Gabrielle that she was doing this, however. It was for herself. 

Talib immediately covered his eyes, grumbled something about this being a necessary part of defeating the Organization, and also stripped. Despite his words, Alice was certain Talib’s intentions were a bit more selfless than hers. 

After inspecting all three of them and seeming to be satisfied, Theta handed Gabrielle back her conductor. “You can put on your clothes now.” 

“Thanks for the permission,” Gabrielle grumbled, quickly sliding on her conductor before moving onto her clothing. “And why don’t you strip? To reassure us too?” 

“You didn’t seem like you believed me about the Manipulator earlier, but now you do…” Theta regarded her carefully before he began to peel off his coat jacket. “As you wish—”

“No, stop!” Gabrielle held out her hand halting. “Saints, I was joking! Mr. Foxman, come on. It is, Mr. Foxman, right?” She extended her hand out to him—not the conductor-gloved one. “Second time’s the charm.”

Theta stared at it before accepting the gesture. 

It felt unholy. 

“My mediums made contact with the military police,” Talib said. “They’ll be here soon.”

“Right. Mr. Foxman, you mentioned wanting to look into Dämon, right?” Gabrielle asked. “Actually, we were in contact with a conductor engineer who’s been working alongside Dämon just recently. She said some things that didn’t really make sense earlier but might make sense to you. It was a location.”

“I may have a gate placed there.” Theta extended his hand to the wall. “Tell me. Let’s go.”

* * *

When Alice reemerged from Theta’s portal alongside the others, she found herself stepping out in front of a series of brick buildings labeled in gold-gilded numerals. She had been half-expecting Theta to lead them back to the windowless room and trap them, so she was pleasantly surprised. 

The buildings were guarded by white pillars and the street sign read 43rd. The roads were empty, the clouds gray, the Capricornian flags billowing in the wind. 

Hands on hips, Talib twirled around. “If I recall correctly, Roberto mentioned that the buildings on 43rd are where the Capricornian government keeps its old war relics from the Reservoir War. I didn’t think it would be so easy to get to this place without jumping through hoops; and I didn’t expect it to be so empty either. The Organization must’ve spirited away the common folk.”

“No. Either we’ve been expected and this is a game,” Theta said. “Or they simply don’t care. If you could control everyone, would you care what people knew or care what to protect? Whichever way—it doesn’t matter.”

“Reassuring…” Gabrielle noted. 

Alice looked from the buildings to the ground. Right in front of the building on the gray-bricked road was a lidded storm drain. She nodded to the area. “I suppose you don’t have one of your gates placed down there, do you?”

Theta frowned. “It’s putrid. Of course not.”

Gabrielle and Talib both worked to lift the storm drain cap. A ladder extended into the dark down the hole beneath it. Talib, drawing the short end of the stick as always, descended first after sending down a medium to scope the area. Theta stared at him all the while.

What they found down below was not a running sewage system tunnel but a small room that barely fit them all in it. Unfolding opposite to the ladder was a single doorway hosting a staircase that seemed to descend endlessly.

Without any reluctance, Theta stepped through the doorway and began walking down the steps. Yawning with a stretch, Gabrielle ignited her gloved conductor to provide light and followed down after him. Alice exchanged a look with Talib and followed suit. 

Pipes and insulating cables ran alongside the narrow walls. Occasionally, a humming or buzzing sound would emanate from them. And even a nostalgic boom, boom, boom. Other than that, there was dead silence.

During their descent, Theta would frequently pause, cut his hand, and run the injured area along the lower space of the wall.

“An exit,” was all he replied when asked for an explanation.

“Okay, no more beating around the bush,” Gabrielle finally said as they continued down. “Do you mind if we try to get on the same playing field now?”

“That was what was agreed. Ask your questions.”

“Izsak…” Gabrielle’s face twisted. “Is there anything of him left? Anything?”

Theta stared at her. “The brain is a complex organ. Its neuroplasticity is something to be admired. How much information is preserved after a person’s vitae leaves their body and another’s enters? How many neurons survive after hypoxia? In the end, every person is different.” 

“It’s really just a yes or no question.” Gabrielle arched a brow. 

“When your friend shows you a photograph they’ve taken and tells you the circumstances of the picture, can you say that you’ve experienced the same? It all falls under your perspective, Miss Law.”

Gabrielle remained silent for a while. “He has a wife. A kid.”

“If it disturbs you so much, I suggest you kill him to give yourself peace of mind.”

“That’s an awful thing to say about someone you’re buddy-buddy with.”

“Gamma will simply return to his resistor if you kill him. He doesn’t use his vitae often, so there will still be enough of him left to form him.” Theta glanced at her. “Of course, preferably, you won’t kill him. If you just remove a problem without addressing it, the problem will only return the same as before.”

Alice interjected, “And how do you think the brothers of Francis Foxman feel?”

Theta stopped in his tracks. “Miss Kingsley, I apologize if I’ve been a little less than cordial. Please believe me when I say that I am trying my best”—he turned and stared into her much like how he had back in that windowless, doorless room—“but I ask that you refrain from bringing my brothers into this.”

Interesting. 

Alice regarded Theta from a moment before nodding. “Fine. But which do you prefer to be called?”

Theta faced forward slowly. “Either.”

“Omicron. The Specialist children. That woman who was with you,” Talib interjected. “What happened to them? They all disappeared without a trace. You had something to do with the children, didn’t you?”

Theta’s face tightened for a moment. “I’ve laid Omicron to rest. Those children are none of your concern, but they are safe. The woman is safe as well, although I had a difficult time getting away from her… She has no association with me.”

“I figured as much.” Gabrielle yawned. “You brothers are really loyal to each other, aren’t you? I trust you won’t be dropping any buildings on them—the children, I mean. Ideally, they’d be under the protective service agencies of their respective countries.”

“They would only be taken advantage of…” Theta frowned. “I’m beginning to realize that vitae reservoirs are only an overarching problem this time has. So much has changed for the worse…” 

Gabrielle studied him before pressing, “Anyway, I think it’s about time I ask what’s going on with the vitae reservoirs and the saint candidates.”

“Have you witnessed someone conducting without a conductor before?” Theta returned without skipping a beat. 

Alice tensed and exchanged a look with Gabrielle as Olive flashed into her mind. 

“By the silence, I’m assuming yes. That is exactly how that Manipulator can influence living things with ease. It’s something only a saint candidate can do.” Theta ignited his v-cig from his pocket again and took a drag. “You all have conducting licenses meaning you understand vitae theory basics—or at least what you believe to be the basics—correct?”

“I would hope so,” Gabrielle replied.

“Okay, I will explain now. Keep an open mind since I’m certain what I’m about to tell you will partially go against what you’ve been taught.” He turned to Alice. “I’m sure you will have much to say. You are very clever, but also very stubborn.”

Alice tensed. “Don’t assume things about me.” 

Theta turned away from her before beginning, “On average, there are 7×10 27 vitae particles in a single human body. Up to 1/4th of this vitae is in dynamic equilibrium—constantly being burned off from the body in the form of energy while being replenished through ingestion of vitae particles found in food.” 

The fraction was new but nothing else was.

“But three-fourths of that is what is considered uniquely you. It is what is expelled when a conductor is used, and this cannot be replenished. You can try to replenish this by ingesting vitae particles found in food but it is not the same because it exists at a different energy level.” 

Different energy level? Was he referring to vitae’s constant state of energy fluctuation? 

“Now I will switch to a different topic. There is a term you use for the amount of vitae particles an object can contain at maximum.”

“Yeah, vitae capacity,” Gabrielle provided. “Unknown number.”

“Human beings have a high vitae capacity but they generally aren’t able to reach full capacity because they are closed channels—unless it is done forcefully, but that requires an exceptional amount of energy and a catalyst. The exception would be True Conductors but that’s an entirely different topic.”

Alice’s mind went to Jericho.

Gabrielle tensed. “True Conductors—”

“Like I said, that’s a different topic,” Theta interjected. “As I mentioned earlier, vitae does in fact have different levels of energy. They do not exist in a state of flux as you’ve been taught. To keep things simple, I will categorize it into four levels. The lowest is what you consider hard vitae. This is the baseline, and when a living thing dies, the vitae particles temporarily enter this level before returning to the cycle. The second level is what you would consider soft vitae—what you consider living vitae. The third is the 3/4ths vitae within you that I mentioned. And then there is the fourth.” 

Alice began to feel a warm draft rising from below.

“This fourth energy level of vitae is highly volatile and unstable. Vitae particles in this state naturally coalesce together due to their similar energy states. Without the use of a conductor due to this coalescing, these vitae particles are visible to the naked eye. Also due to the high energy level these particles are in, they are unable to return to the cycle until their energy level drops down.” 

Gabrielle pressed, “Are you saying that vitae reservoirs are at this fourth level of energy?”

“There is no suggestion. This is fact.”

“But it’s still hard vitae…” Gabrielle tested. 

Ignoring the comment, Theta continued, “Saint candidates—”

Alice’s heart skipped a beat.

“—contain in themselves vitae particles that are at this highest energy level and therefore contain a much higher volume of vitae particles than a normal human being. In fact, you could say that the number of vitae particles they contain is equivalent to several hundreds or thousands of humans. This is possible because of a human’s naturally high vitae capacity—” 

Theta suddenly tripped forward over a large insulating cable that ran down the length of the steps. Gabrielle caught him and guided him back up to his feet. 

They were getting close.

Brushing himself off without so much of a blush, Theta continued: “The issue with living manipulation for normal Manipulators is that they aren’t able to expel a high enough amount of vitae or vitae at a high enough energy level to completely overcome their living target’s vitae without a dilution effect occurring. This doesn’t occur with saint candidates. This elevated energy level in their vitae also allows them to freely expel vitae without a conductor. 

Faintly, Alice made out light at the bottom of the steps. “And how…”

“For us, it’s called initiation. For them, it’s called a baptism. I believe you would call it a ‘saint candidacy ceremony.’ A different name, a different series of steps, a somewhat different end result, but the general mechanism and purpose is the same.”

There it was. The itching suspicion, the uneasiness that had been gnawing away at Alice’s stomach for months now. To hear it confirmed did not bring her relief.

“Even at that highest energy level,” he continued as they reached the doorway at the very bottom of the steps. “Vitae still is capable of storing memories. However, since this vitae is still in an elevated state of energy, it tends not to return to the cycle. As centuries pass by, this vitae continues to collect, continues to store memories. Nothing is forgotten. I suppose that’s the true immortality people tend to seek.”

There was a beat of silence.

“Supposing this is all real,” Alice pressed, “how exactly did you come to find this information…?”

“We didn’t find it,” Theta replied. “We were the ones who developed and refined it. The parts of the vitae theory that you’ve been taught and have come to know were developed by us.”

Alice felt a chill run down her spine.

Gabrielle pressed her ear to the door. After apparently hearing nothing, she clenched her gloved-conductor and pushed open the door.

They were immediately blinded by the light pouring out from the room but Theta and Gabrielle didn’t hesitate. They stepped into the room in unison and called back to say that the room was clear. Despite this, Alice found herself lingering to collect her thoughts. However, her head was empty. Nothing came to mind. 

Talib abruptly pressed his arm against hers. When she looked up at him, his brows were furrowed slightly but he was half-smiling.

“We still don’t know everything yet,” he said, tapping his nose. “I say we wait before we draw conclusions.” He paused, frowning. “I’m still trying to wrap my head around the elevated vitae levels. It’d be nice if we had some actual proof and evidence behind it, but I guess we have to lean on intuition.” He sighed. “You know… do you think Jericho’s condition has to do anything with this or am I reaching again?”

Frankly, Alice had never expected Talib and Jericho to develop any sort of relationship besides a professional one, but their camaraderie was a pleasant development. 

Alice frowned. “I don’t believe anything is reaching at this point.” With that, she entered the room alongside Talib.

The appearance of the room was rather anticlimactic. At the center beneath a series of low-hanging pipes and insulating cables sat a large, square table toppled high with files. 

The room’s walls appeared to be made of glass with small metal divides rigidly running parallel in-between them. Upon closer inspection, however, it became evident that the walls were actual glass cases similar to the one Dämon had presented to the crowd. And much like the case Dämon presented to the crowd, all of the cases lining the room were also filled with psychedelic pools of vitae.

That was really all there was to it.

Wandering around the room and inspecting everything, Theta continued, “This has never been a conflict between your countries nor has it been a conflict between your ELPIS Department and us…”

Alice approached one of the glass walls and peered into the vitae there. 

“… It has always been between us and them.” 

boom, boom, boom resounded from the pipes. 

Not quite absentmindedly, Alice pressed her ear against the glass and felt warmth and vibration bleed into her. 

And then she heard a groan.


“The Diplomatic Conductor Convention is a technological, engineering, conductor symposium held in a select country of Signum on a rotating schedule once a year. This event started back in 1925 as a way to unify and promote cultural exchange in Signum following the Reservoir War. 

It is at this convention that engineers and researchers from across Signum gather to present their research and inventions to the public eye in hopes of garnering the attention of the powerful political circles of Signum.” 

‘Events of Signum’, Countries of Signum by Multiple Authors, 20th edition 
Leona, art by adalhyde

16.6: Elementalist, 0100 Scorched Earth

Re-cap:

Cadence is on her way to the capital alongside Werner’s family and his unit. Influenced by insomnia, a voice at the back of her head, and her own suppressed feelings, Cadence lashes out at Nico for his abandonment before escaping up to the roof of the train. There she has an encounter with Viktoria and Iota. 

Meanwhile, Shion finally stops leading Werner astray, and he confronts his second obstacle. 


Verbrannte Erde » Scorched Earth utilized at 0100 hours.

Corporal Emilia Bergmann was secretly in love. She still remembered the first day she saw her destined one on a cold autumn evening. She had just come off of her last class of the day at her first year at the military academy in a small northeastern village in Capricorn that wasn’t even on some maps. 

Emilia’s mind had been on her most recent Capricornian philosophy class at the time. 

“Courage, heart, loyalty, glory, victory, and honor,” the teacher had said. “Those are the principles of a true heroic Capricornian.” 

Emilia hadn’t paid it any thought until the teacher exclaimed mid-lecture: 

“Isn’t this great? The new Kaiser’s made it so that you don’t have to come from a wealthy military family to rise in the ranks. Background doesn’t matter. Skill and the principles of an individual Capricornian does.”

As she’d crossed down the dirt road and the swaying reeds that connected her school to her house out on the prairie, she’d come across a large cluster of her classmates gathered in front of a man standing at a podium. Uniformed soldiers stationed before the podium were handing out cardboard containers and plastic forks.

The smell in the air had been unbelievable. Rich, heavy, poignant. The bread, jam, and ham at home had nothing on it—not even the buttery Bienenstitch that her mother made once a month. The scent had beckoned Emilia to line up with all the others. And although the line had moved quickly, Emilia’s stomach still had grumbled with impatience.

“The Kaiser would like all those who serve to be rewarded and provided with all they deserve for their commitment and dedication,” the man at the podium had said to one of the military students as a soldier had handed them a container. He’d repeated this too to Emilia as she’d received a container herself.

After stowing away from the crowd in a spot in front of the reeds, Emilia had hesitantly popped open the box, only to be blinded by the golden decadence that awaited her within. It had taken a moment for her eyes to adjust to the glittering beauty. But when she’d laid eyes on it, it had truly been love at first sight. Käsespätzle.

She’d only seen it in pictures in the newspaper since cheese was scarce in a location so far away from the vitae reservoirs and cities of Capricorn. The pictures had nothing on its actual appearance. In fact, Emilia had difficulty even putting it into her mouth because it looked so beautiful. But her stomach had dictated her actions, and she’d shoved a spoonful in her mouth before she’d even realized what she was doing.

Savory, cheesy gooiness had melted on her tongue with every bite. But she’d resisted shoveling the entire thing down her throat. Instead, she’d stowed it away in her backpack and continued on her long trek home through fields, woods, and thickets.

Once at home on her grandparents’ farm, she’d combed through the barnyard for her younger siblings. All seven of them, all handfuls, all with their own unique school bullies that she’d had to fend off constantly.

They hadn’t been at the house nor in the barn when she’d arrived, but she hadn’t been worried. They always played soldier in the afternoon, pretending they were on opposing factions of the Reservoir War, combing through the trees, and pretending they were either snipers or spies. It had taken about half an hour for Emilia to weedle through the trees and bushes to find them. A remarkable achievement. When she’d handed them the Käsespätzle, they devoured it in the blink of an eye—faces warm, bellies a bit full.

If the newly coronated Kaiser was making all of this possible, Emilia had supposed she was in love with him too. Even though her parents hated him.

Upon becoming a licensed Elementalist Conductor, Emilia had received not only the baseline pay of all licensed Conductors in the Capricornian Army but also a surplus conducting-type pay. Elementalists received the second-highest pay out of all Conductors in the army on a multiplicative percentage-based scale. Of course, earth Elementalists and externalists received pay on the lower end of that spectrum, but Emilia knew money was money.

Emilia’s first deployment was to the Sagittarian border. Life there had been uneventful. Instead of feeling like she was serving on the Border Force, she’d felt more like she was serving on ‘Border Patrol.’ However, she’d enjoyed seeing all the different products Sagittarian merchants brought across the border and always purchased something from passing by food carts to send home to her family along with 2/3rds of her stipend.

Needless to say, she’d been surprised at her transfer to Captain Weingartner’s division and Lieutenant Waltz’s unit at the Aquarian border. Her surprise hadn’t been so much at the transfer itself as it had been at the gaunt and cold faces of the soldiers that greeted her. There had been word of brewing unrest at the border with Aquarius, but there hadn’t been battle yet so their pessimism made no sense to her. It wasn’t until later when she’d served in the south herself that she’d realize.

Upon boarding the unit, she’d hastily befriended Klaus Kleine and then Otto Vogt and Alwin Brandt too when they’d transferred in after her. Not so much with Stein and Fischer who reminded her siblings’ bullies. On the other hand, she’d thought the second lieutenant was charming. And as for the first lieutenant—well—she was terrified of him. Most of the unit was.

Still, she’d enjoyed her time getting to know them all during the lapse of peace that none of them seemed to have been accustomed to—at least until the first shot rang across the border.

* * *

Courage, heart, loyalty, glory, victory, and honor, Emilia had thought as she’d marched to the border with Aquarius and flattened those soldiers left and right, as she’d raised earthen leverage points for long-ranged Projectors to fire from, as she’d put up the earthen wall to defend her unit as Major Ersatz turned against them.

But what was the glory and victory in defeating someone who was from her own country?, Emilia wondered as she’d watched Ersatz be guided into detainment in cuffs along with a dozen ELPIS members.

“You don’t even know what you’re fighting for,” the major had muttered, half-laughing then. “We have to change. We have to change.”

* * *

Courage, heart, loyalty, and honor, Emilia had thought to herself in the Twin Cities as Lieutenant Waltz had disclosed that Capricorn had been enlisting the aid of underground organizations to supply them with modified conductors.

But what was so honorable about buying illegal weapons from criminals?

Later she’d wondered if there was any honor when they had confronted Colonel Fritz von Spiel in that dark alleyway and the lieutenant had allowed the man to walk. Perhaps it had been courage.

A month after, the lieutenant had pulled her aside voicing concerns about her recent performance. Her numbers had declined significantly, and the most recent operation had seen to her being separated from her conductor and entering a close-ranged shooting match with a wounded Argoan. None of her shots had landed, and they’d tangled in the muddy dirt for what seemed like hours when their bullets ran out. It was only after Otto had sniped through that Argoan’s head from a distance did Emilia manage to catch her breath.

“I heard from Fischer that you lost your conductor during the last skirmish and you had difficulty maintaining even ground with an Argoan. Mistakes like that are unacceptable in this occupation, Bergmann,” the lieutenant had told her when they were back in the trenches. “Your non-conducting skills are subpar, so we’ll work on them.”

He had taken her to the firing grounds after that, had handed her a gun, and had ordered to hit at least five targets.

Emilia had known she was not the best at target practice, but her first shot in front of the lieutenant had been particularly terrible—as in ‘missed the entire target board by half a meter’ terrible. She had been nervous because frankly she’d still been a little bit afraid of the lieutenant, and she’d only had a one-on-one with him twice before. For the same exact issue.

“The entire unit functions at the highest performance when everyone in it is at their highest performance,” he had said after adjusting her stance and then firing five rounds exactly into bullseye with his own gun. “You need to be able to adapt in combat situations without relying on your conductor. We must be prepared for everything.”

“Yes, sir.”

She’d expected him to conclude with something like “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” and so she was surprised when he instead said, “A rusted part slows down the cogs turning in the machine. All it needs is polish.”

* * *

Courage, heart, and loyalty, Emilia had thought as Second Lieutenant Wolff broke the news of Otto’s death during their imprisonment in Argo. The details about the Verbundene Augen hadn’t sunken in until later. All of it seemed so trivial compared to the sharp pain of realizing that there would no longer be anyone huddling beside her during the long stretches of nothing in the trenches. She was certain the last time she’d spoken to Otto he’d promised to send her fresh basil from his parent’s herb garden.

A broken promise.

Emilia was used to seeing and hearing about people in the squadron dying. It was expected. But the thing was—as terrible as it sounded—she hadn’t known them. They were passing faces she would occasionally smile at or a pass a packet of cigarettes to. But Otto—Otto was different. She knew Otto.

But despite the dull pain in her chest, Emilia couldn’t shed a tear for him and she despised herself for it. It was like saying he hadn’t been important to her. And most of all she despised Marionette Engel for bringing her movement where it didn’t belong. If Emilia ever got the chance, she knew she would definitely…

But where was the heart in that?


Capricorn

Courage and loyalty, Emilia reminded herself as she witnessed Cadence lunge for Nico in the otherwise empty train compartment. The sight of the lieutenant red-faced was both startling and horrifying. The idea of Cadence who’d been nothing short of amicable if not a bit overly friendly was capable of making such an expression was terrifying.

But Cadence recollected herself quickly, cleaned up the mess of glass and liquid on the floor, before making her exit. It was scary how well Cadence mimicked the lieutenant. It made Emilia wonder if she could be just as easily replaced by a talented doppelgänger.

After Captain Weingartner ushered back the crowd that had formed at the end of the cart, Emilia was ordered to follow after Cadence along with Gilbert, Stein, and Fischer. The second lieutenant was already out the door before the order was even made. Emilia followed last behind Stein and Fischer.

As she trailed behind them, she heard Lieutenant Wolff swear about losing sight of Cadence. Emilia stopped short then as she watched the trio stampede ahead with more fervor than before.

It was on a vague hunch that Emilia decided to double back and comb through their previously passed train carts. That was when she witnessed Viktoria Waltz climbing up onto the roof of one of the train compartments. Emilia hadn’t spoken to the woman before—only had a glimpse of her when they’d arrived in Eisburg. Viktoria was very pretty and very delicate-looking. Quite the opposite of the lieutenant. And more daring than the lieutenant too—recklessly climbing up there like that.

Filled with worry, Emilia followed Emilia up the train cart. As she pulled herself onto the roof, she found herself blinded by white light. When her eyes adjusted, a familiar clink-clink-clink resounded in her ears.

No…

White chains. They were everywhere, crisscrossing across the sky like shooting stars and twisting like snakes on the horizon. Mediums. Manipulator. ELPIS.

The maestro of the chaotic scene was one red-headed woman who stood in front of a grimacing Cadence and a shaking Viktoria who were crowded together.

Iota—Emilia still recalled the woman’s name from that night months ago. Swallowing, she reflexively reached for her pants pocket.

Empty. Dammit.

Her conductor was back in the storage unit of the train. But it wouldn’t do any good here even if she had it, Emilia reasoned. If she tried to use her conductor on the metal roof, she would destroy it and possibly destabilize the entire cart.

She tested the idea of retreating for backup or at least retrieving a gun from the storage unit. But no. There wouldn’t be enough time. Cadence and Viktoria were non-combatants. They wouldn’t last. But engaging in combat against a Conductor without a conductor was…

Her siblings flashed into her mind, and fear gripped her insides. When Otto flashed into her mind, tears burned in her eyes.

She didn’t want to die. She wanted to go home, to eat Käsespätzle, to pet her farm sheep, to see her siblings and grandparents.

Why did she have to be dragged into whatever this was? For what purpose? For what people? For what person?

Emilia bit her inner cheek.

Courage and loyalty.

The chains were rising in the air again, but Cadence was frozen on the spot as was Viktoria beneath her.

When the points of metal hurtled down, Emilia threw herself forward and tackled the duo to the side, nearly sending them all off the train. She grabbed hold of Cadence’s arm when the woman nearly rolled off the side while she kept Viktoria tucked beneath her. As she gathered her bearings and looked back up at Iota, she froze.

“You were there too!” Iota hissed at Emilia, face contorted with either rage or grief. “I’ll make you wish you died that night.”

Emilia stiffened before a loud horn blaring to her left tore away her attention. There was another train with red-crosses decorating its sides that ran opposite there. A medical train. Odd to see one heading out from the direction of the capital instead of heading towards it.

Wait, no. No getting distracted during battle.

Emilia faced forward again only to find Iota staring at the medical train too.

“That’s coming from the capital, isn’t it?” Iota muttered.

The look in her eyes sent chills down Emilia’s spine.

Iota lifted her gloved hand and sent another wave of chains flying into the air. The metal links did not hurtle towards Emilia, Cadence, or Viktoria however. Instead, they shot outwards and bulleted their surroundings: the forestry and the train that was chugging parallel. The chains pierced through the windows and shattered glass there. Shouts of terror and alarm bled out and were lost to the wind.

When Iota clenched her gloved conductor into a fist, the chains tightened and dragged half of the carts right off the tracks. A storm of dust was kicked up as metal scraped against the earth. The rest of the train was locked onto the tracks by snaking chains that constricted the train’s body.

Very faintly, Emilia could hear moaning and desperate shouting from the toppled carts. Civilians. Injured. People she was bound by her duty as serving. It was different than casualties on the field. Those casualties had happened in enemy territory. This was in her home.

“They could be infected,” Iota muttered to herself. “Better to get rid of them now.” Despite her voice sounding remorseful and her eyes looking somber, her lips were twisted into a grin.

Emilia paled. “You monste—”

Chains rained down around Emilia, cutting her off short. She curled instinctively into a ball around Viktoria and shouted in alarm to Cadence. But the piercing pain never came even as an ear-splitting grating howled through the whipping winds. When Emilia lifted her head, she found Iota’s mediums shooting up out from all the edges of their train cart. A cage of chains.

“Omega probably was trapped just like this with that damned suitcase peacekeeper,” Iota growled. “I’ll make you suffer the same.”

Emilia picked herself up immediately and rushed forward to grab a hold of the chains that had nearly impaled Cadence and Viktoria earlier. They were still embedded into the center roof of the train but were no longer glowing white and now whipped uselessly in the wind. She tore them from their resting spot and gripped them tightly. Without hesitation, she whipped the chain out towards Iota.

That was the problem with Manipulators. The more mediums they manipulated, the less control and awareness over the individual mediums they had. That and their mediums were only viable for as long as the Manipulator’s vitae was present in them. Too many mediums, less vitae to go around, less long-lasting mediums.

Iota blocked the attempt with a single glowing chain and laughed above the crash of metal. “What? Don’t have your conductor on you? Talk about useless—”

This woman liked to talk a lot, Emilia thought as she whipped the chain around again. The point of it swung around this time and hurtled towards Iota’s back. But a quick wave of the hand sent up another barrier.

Oh, Emilia thought. This was just embarrassing. But there wasn’t much else she could do.

“This is what happens when you rely on these things so much,” Iota growled as she swept her conductor-gloved hand in the air. “You can’t live without them.”

This time it wasn’t the sharp point of the chain that came at them. Instead, the body of a chain swept all three of them right off of their feet and into the air above the top of the chain jail. She eyed the chain that had thrown them into the air. It was no longer glowing and whipped wildly in the wind. In other words, it was no longer an effective medium.

Emilia grabbed hold of the chain with one hand and Cadence’s arm in the other hand. Cadence, now swearing profusely, grabbed a hold of Viktoria in turn. For a moment, they were all in the air clinging tightly to the chain and each other. In the next, they were crashing smack flat against the roof of the train. Their hands unlinked at the force, and Emilia was sent flying against the bars of the chain cage. The metal cut into her skin, wetness dampening the back of her uniform. Still, Emilia picked herself off the ground. Viktoria was shakily rising to her knees half a meter away while Cadence remained flat and motionless.

Stay calm and think of a solution. There is always a solution, Lieutenant Waltz had lectured during the required weekly ranked-officer meeting weeks ago. Although the meetings themselves were required, most unit officers had put them off or marked the meeting minutes complete preemptively. There is no such thing as an unsolvable problem. Advantages can be found in weaknesses.

And a Manipulator had many weaknesses.

Emilia’s heart thundered as she balled her fists and took in a deep breath. Poising herself on the ground, legs bent, knees relaxed, she let out a sigh and thought of her siblings, her grandparents, her farm, and Käsespätzle. And then she sprinted forward towards Iota.

Glowing chains shot outwards at Emilia but she was expecting this and slipped beneath them easily. The hurtling chains rattled against the bars of the makeshift jail before rebounding and coming back after her. Ignoring them, Emilia pounced onto Iota. The chains stopped short just a centimeter behind her as Iota willed them to.

Too many mediums, not enough control, not wanting to get skewered too, Emilia figured as she grabbed hold of Iota’s hand. She kicked the woman twice in the stomach before driving her back against the bars of her own jail. Sweeping Iota’s legs out from beneath her, she then pinned the woman to the roof and gripped the pointed spike of the chain that she’d carried with her all this way. With a grimace, she drove it into Iota’s side and twisted. Warm liquid dyed her hands red.

But there was no fear or desperation in Iota’s eyes, Emilia realized. It didn’t look like she felt any pain either.

Wait.

Hadn’t Cadence briefly mentioned that most ELPIS leaders were impervious to pain…? And cared little for bodily damage and harm?

That just meant she was being toyed with—

Warmth suddenly spread across Emilia’s abdomen. She could feel wetness seeping down the cloth of her uniform both at her front and her back. Upon glancing down, she found a glowing chain running clean through her stomach.

No…

Emilia gripped her chain-spike and drove it down again—this time to Iota’s throat. But before she could make contact, she was thrown backwards by another sweeping line of metal and crashed back against the bars. She felt the chain slide out from her gut as she slid down to the roof with a groan. An excruciating hot pain erupted at her stomach only a second after. She placed a hand over the area, feeling wetness seep through. She glanced down at her damp hand and saw red. Red on her hands, red pooling on the metal below her, red soaking her beloved medals and uniform.

The pain amplified tenfold at the sight of the wound, and her fingers trembled.

She was terrified. Absolutely terrified. She didn’t want to die. She wanted to go to her siblings, to go home to the farm, to eat Käsespätzle, to sheer the sheep with her grandparents. How would her siblings and grandparents afford clothing and food and school books without her stipend? How would they react if they saw her return home in a casket?

No, no, she couldn’t do that to them.

Otto, she thought, oh, Otto. He’d felt like this too, hadn’t he?

Emilia’s vision blurred, but she managed to catch a glimpse of Cadence stirring and shaking her head.

The train lurched to a halt abruptly, causing Emilia to jerk forward. When she gathered her bearings, she came to realize that Iota had sent her mediums all around the train, effectively locking it in place on the tracks. The carts groaned with the train, the horn screaming several meters away.

But this was good. There was a chance of escape now.

“Cadence,” Emilia heaved. “Use your proto-conductor and hide.”

Cadence stiffened and snapped up to look at her. The swindler’s wide-eyed gaze flattened into a startling glare. “How do you know…” She stopped short as her eyes went to Emilia’s abdomen. “Saints, you’re hurt—”

The clink-clink of chains resounded above the howling wind as the bars of their cage shot upwards and lit up the night sky in a dozen streaks of white.

Viktoria curled up into a ball beside Cadence, but Emilia stared up at the chains tearfully. She couldn’t be courageous in the end, she thought, but at least she’d been loyal.

And that was when she saw it out of the corner of her eye—blue sparks that leapt into copper embers that burst into crimson flame. They flurried out, consuming the chains hurtling at them and turning them to molten liquid in an instant.

Smoke clouded the air in the inferno’s aftermath. When it cleared, Emilia registered the captain and Gilbert hanging from the ladder on the side of the cart. Back-up. Finally. Relief warmed Emilia’s hands at the thought as her gut twisted. She then realized they were staring at her. No, past her.

The whites of Iota’s eyes glinted in the moonlight. “You.”

Emilia followed all of their gazes.

Cadence stood there panting heavily with a grimace. She was cradling her hands, the leather of her gloves flaking off in ashen pieces. There was nothing in her actual hand, however. Nothing hanging at her waist; nothing by her feet. No conductor, no weapon.

Iota threw her hand out again, and a trio of spiked white chains hurtled out to them. Cadence whipped her hand out, fingertips sparking with crimson. Flames torrent outwards, catching onto the metal links and melting them in an instant.

A fire Elementalist? Not Cadence. Not the lieutenant either, Emilia realized. Then who—no, that wasn’t what was astounding.

Emilia stared at the Elementalist as the faint wisps of embers still lingering in the air were battered away by the wind.

Emilia wondered if she was hallucinating now because of the blood loss.

Without a conductor…? Like magic.

“I can’t believe my luck!” Iota laughed, somehow completely unphased by the sight of the conductor-less conducting. “Three birds with one stone! It’s not that I want you to die anymore either—it’s that you need to die!”

“You all sound like broken records…” Not-Cadence-nor-the-Lieutenant muttered. “Is monologuing the only strategy you have?”

You’re the True Conductor Gamma came across in New Ram City. I didn’t believe it at first, but it’s true.”

Not-the-Lieutenant tensed, and his face became folded with clear regret and—fear.

Iota’s ecstatic grin became cruel. “The saint candidates really did mess up with you. I wonder if you can hear me, Aries.”

“Saint candidates…?” Not-Lieutenant stiffened. “Aries? What are you talking about?”

Instead of answering, Iota flung out her conductor again. This time the chains came from behind. Not-the-Lieutenant whipped his hand out in response and crimson flames shot out from his fingertips. Again, the chains were incinerated.

Lowering his hand as smoke streaked the sky, Not-the-Lieutenant looked over Iota with a frown. “Aren’t you embarrassed…?”

It was only because Emilia was so close to him that she could see that he was trembling. But Emilia figured that she had to be hallucinating because it didn’t make sense for such a powerful Conductor to be afraid in a situation like this.

Iota let out another roar and flung her conductor outwards. This time before the chains even began to rise in the air, they crumbled to ash in a burst of crimson.

“Give it a break already….” the Elementalist muttered before glancing back towards Emilia. His eyes were filled with worry and that fear again.

Another non-combatant, Emilia realized. There was no other reason why he would turn his back on the enemy.

“Look… out…” she managed as Iota threw out her conductor once more.

Not-Lieutenant stiffened and turned just as chains jetted at him from behind. Before they pierced him through, however, a gunshot whistled through the air followed by a grunt as Iota fell to the ground. Her conductor shattered to pieces on the ground as her mediums lost their glow and clattered lifelessly onto the roof.

The second lieutenant was standing on the roof now with Klaus and the captain just beside him. There was a gun still billowing with smoke in Gilbert’s hands. Klaus must’ve conjured something quick for the second lieutenant, Emilia realized, vision swimming.

The Elementalist lifted their hand and drew an encircling wall of fire around Iota as the woman turned on her heels and lunged at Gilbert. Iota winced back from the heat and whipped around to glare at the Elementalist.

“You don’t understand,” Iota snapped in her flame jail. She extended her hand past the wall of flame and her skin began to bubble and blacken.

The Elementalist tensed, paling in the deep red light as he increased the width of the flame.

Eventually, Iota recoiled back inside the cage but continued seething, “It’s not about Omega anymore. You have to die. You have to! Can’t you see that you people being alive is going to be the end of everything?”

There was a beat as the flames crackled.

“Well, too bad,” Not-Lieutenant murmured as Emilia’s vision began to fade. “Looks like I’m going to have to live.”

Courage and loyalty.


Threshold

Werner Waltz, a child in body only, stood in his bedroom which hosted a dustless table, a neatly made bed, and smearless windows that let in soft moonlight. Unlike the previous time he was here, he knew exactly what he needed to do. He waited patiently, gaze fixated on the open door as footsteps resounded up the staircase.

A shadow was perched like a bird in the corner of his room at his desk. Feathers gathered beneath the shadow’s feet. 

A mess.

“You were going to end up here anyways,” Shion muttered, sounding exasperated. “I was just trying to give you a break. You’re more stubborn than anything else.”

He did not want her here to bear witness to this memory, but he hadn’t yet found the ability to remove her. He’d never found the ability to push away the other five either.

Werner regarded the peacekeeper for a moment before speaking calmly: “There are many people entering and leaving the vitae cycle, but of all places, you’ve ended up here with me. You said you’re here to help, but all you’ve been doing is apparently wasting my time. If you truly wanted to help me, then you would tell me exactly what’s going on here.”

Shion hummed with a shrug. “I already told you everything. You were invaded, you’re on the edge of life and death, and you need to cut out the invader. You’ve been succeeding so far. Nothing more and nothing less.”

No, there was something else. The events—the memories—he had to wade through to get back to this point felt too real to be figments, yet the inaccuracies and anachronisms were disorienting. While he did believe that memories were faulty—which was why detailed reports were needed—those childhood memories had contained vague mentions of their True Conductor unit, despite their first synchronization not occurring until almost a year ago. And that was too strange. Shion’s ability to traverse this place against Lavi’s inability to was too coincidental.

And there was no such thing as a coincidence.

Shion frowned.

“How did you end up here?” he probed.

“… I have an inkling the papers said it was suicide,” was all she said.

Werner withdrew his attention from her as a shadow spilled out across the floor that was painted blue by the moonlight. A thin figure, face shadowed over, stood at the doorway.

“Show me,” Mother ordered without repose.

Werner went over to his desk and gingerly pulled out the black box he’d kept hidden for over a year there tucked away. The surface glinted in the light, its internal gears and maze of insulators gleaming inside its black casing. He took it over to her and presented it.

“What is that?”

“It’s… a vitae illumination box. A conductor,” he explained, just as he’d done years ago. “It’s a pictograph that uses v-lights powered by vitae that you put in it to draw a picture.”

He wrapped his small hand around a protruding metal handle. At the motion, the insulation tubes visible above the gears of the box glowed with indigo light. Werner twisted the knobs on the other side of the device and directed his vitae to flow to different areas of the box. Shakily, he drew a misshapen smiley face.

“It’s a toy.”

Werner remained silent, just like how he’d done years ago.

“Whose idea was it?”

It had been an idea of a friend, but Viktoria had been the one who had begged him to build it. On the weekends, she would sneak over to his room from the window, and they’d work together on it sometimes until dawn.

He’d known at the time that Viktoria had been likely waiting out in the hall. He’d imagined that she was frozen to the spot, and he’d recalled all the times she’d looked to him for protect—

“Mine,” he said.

“Will it help you in the future?”

Werner had remained silent then and remained silent now.

“I asked if it will help you in the future? With your military career as a Capricornian? Make people think more of you? Make you an exceptional officer?” she’d repeated. After he continued to remain silent, she’d said, “There you go. You have better things to focus on than useless things like this.” She spoke lightly but her voice weighed heavily on his shoulders—“Break it. Now. Here.”

Werner froze despite himself as the memories and feelings regarding this incident flooded his mind.

The illumination box had been a piece he had spent an entire year working on: hours upon hours toiling away after school and staying up late nights to ensure each component fit in with the other. He had fond memories of working on it alongside his siblings. It was something they’d all had and shared outside of what was expected of them.

But an order was an order; and he was very well aware now that this temporary hobby had been useless and a waste of time. There truly were better things he could have spent time on. And yet the hesitation from the past still bled into him.

Regardless, he nodded and released the conductor from his grasp. It hit the floor with a heavy thud and its surface cracked. His stomach dropped with it.

“I said break it, Werner.” Mother sighed. “I told you that you shouldn’t ever leave a job unfinished.”

Werner did as he was told, blankly stomping on the thing over and over again until it was in shards and fragments.

“Good,” she said, pulling out something from behind her back.

He already knew what it was—knew its length, its splinters, and its sharpest areas very well. And so he held his palms out in preparation. But instead of bringing down the wooden stick to his palm, his mother let out a gasp and grabbed a hold of his hands.

“Oh your hands…honey,” she said. “They’re so ugly, Werner… I told you to take better care of it and clean it after every single time! What will people think if they see this?” Her fingernails dug into his skin. “Does it hurt…?”

“It doesn’t hurt,” he’d said. “I’ll hide it. No one will know.”

A grin split her shadowy face as she rested her hand on top of his head. “That’s right. You should take responsibility for your mistakes.”

After a beat, he repeated the question he couldn’t help but ask then: “How did you know?” About his project.

Her lips curled up into a smile.

I’m always watching you, Werner,” Mother said, lovingly as she stroked his hair. “Well, everyone is. That’s why appearances are everything… They’re all always thinking about you and whispering about you. Trust me. I know… And I only want what’s best. Do you understand?”

Werner nodded.

“What would be a good example to really drill the lesson home…?” Mother murmured before her gaze turned towards the window.

Werner followed her eyes and found the bright orb of the moon stark against the black sky.

“Oh, yes, like that. You see that moon out there, honey? Imagine that’s me. I’m always there looking down on you even if you don’t see me.”

The moon cracked in the sky beyond the window and fell to pieces on the snow gathering on the trees and ground just below it. What was unveiled beneath the moon was a large eye. It stared down at him unblinkingly.

I see you. 

Werner held its gaze for a moment before turning away and looking down to the ground. The pieces of the shattered conductor had changed shape and had become living, breathing scorpions that were skittering across the floor.

Werner extended his foot and stomped on a blue, iridescent scorpion that was scrambling just by his mother’s foot. The exoskeleton of the arachnid cracked beneath his stomp. His surroundings too shattered and fragmented with the impact.

When those pieces fell away, Werner found himself back in the endless stretching abyss. The weight of the moon was off his shoulders, and the soft glow of the white vitae stream greeted him approximately two meters in the distance. His mother was not in sight, and he spied Shion standing behind the stream again.

“That took longer than last time,” came a hum to his right. It was Lavi who was crouching with a bored expression. “I’m guessing Shion had something to do with that. All of you are so stubborn, like Ollie. I was starting to get worried.”

She popped up to a stand and drifted back towards Shion and the stream. Werner hesitantly followed her and came to a stop in front of the stream before meeting Shion’s gaze.

“Are you hurt?” Shion pressed.

“It was a memory,” Werner said. “Memories can’t hurt you.”

Shion frowned again. It was almost a pout.

A swirl of copper suddenly seeped down from above hazily. Werner was aware he couldn’t escape it, so he let it come. As it drifted towards and through him, intense images, sounds, and feelings flashed through his mind. It came more chaotically than before, so it was difficult to make sense of it:

Imprisoned in Argoan territory. Encountering the captain and Bergmann. Revealing the nature of True Conductors to the unit and the captain. Escaping back to Signum through an enemy Argoan criminal organization.

He’d been compromised, Werner realized. His unit and his superior were now aware of his nature as a True Conductor. This thought did not alarm Werner as much as he thought it would, nor did he feel particularly upset at Cadence. Although she had taken a colossal risk, she dealt with the situation in a way she saw fit. At this rate, it was only a matter of time before the unit had discovered his nature. It was better to be on top of matters than caught off guard.

The outcome was acceptable, but her deceptiveness was undesirable. What did alarm Werner, however, were the reactions of his men and his captain—

Stumbling into Cvetka Akulova’s tent in Aquarian territory. Cvetka revealing that she knew that Cadence, Atienna, and Sigrid were True Conductors. Nico’s attempted transmutation of the black mark on his hand. Cadence’s pain. Cvetka’s deal with the captain to transport Cadence to the capital. And an order signed by the Kaiser. 

Additional memories and feelings seized Werner without warning, and it took a moment for him to recollect his thoughts.

Pushing down a regretful grimace at Cadence’s pain and a growing sense of apprehension, he stared at his gloved palm.

They had all fallen into the hands of Cvetka’s new employer, which brought up questions regarding Leona’s current status. Additionally, Cvetka’s new employer’s knowledge of the override brought up the issue of howthey’d obtained that information.

But why was the Kaiser involved in all of this? The possibility of him working with the ELPIS Department wasn’t a far reach given the nature of Ophiuchus. He also seemed to hold knowledge of True Conductors.

But if that were the case, why had no mention of True Conductors been made by the government? And why did Colonel von Spiel escape detection for so long, despite his increasingly erratic behavior?

But an order from the Kaiser had the highest authority.

Yes, and Werner knew his duty was to serve beneath the Kaiser as a Capricornian. That was his position from the very beginning and hadn’t changed.

In fact, Werner had always wondered if his failure to report his status as a True Conductor to higher command had been a mistake. After the events in the Twin Cities, he’d thought he’d taken the correct course of action. But now doubt began to grow—

Additional memories cut through his thoughts:

Taking the detouring train back home. Seeing Viktoria, Ludwig, Mother, and Fenrir. Reboarding the train. The sleepless exhaustion. The argument with Nico. The escape to the roof of the train. And finally, Iota. And then a snapshot of Bergmann whipping out a chain. 

Cadence—Werner swallowed a sigh. She’d let her emotions get the better of her again. And this had indirectly led herself, his sister, and Bergmann to be put in danger. No, the danger was already there.

That aside, judging by Bergmann’s actions, Werner deduced that she didn’t have her conductor on her. Werner estimated that the corporal would be able to hold her ground for at most six minutes and thirty seconds. Fortunately, Iota had been causing enough of a disturbance for the unit to be alerted. Back-up should arrive swiftly. But relying on chance was undesirable.

But…

Werner reasoned that if Cadence’s memories indicated that she had stepped out of the override, then that meant one of the others was taking her place. And if he were to assume that there was a pattern to these overrides, there was a high probability that one of the other five who had not taken the position of overrider yet would take point from here. The most favorable outcome would be if it were Jericho stationed up there. The least favorable outcome would be an override by Chance due to the boy’s non-combatancy, his particularly distinguishable conduct, and his status. If it was Chance, however—

Werner glanced at Lavi.

—perhaps he would be able to open a communication channel through Lavi. But—

They knew. They all knew.

The thought cut through Werner’s mind.

It was only a matter of time before his mother found out too. What would they think of a lieutenant whose mind was frayed in different directions? A man who wasn’t in full control of his actions? A Capricornian who lied to his subordinates and superiors about it? What sort of leader was that?

Cold sweat broke out across Werner’s back without warning. It was not a feeling he was unfamiliar with but he had not felt it with such intensity in years.

No. What sort of person was that?

“Werner,” came Shion’s voice. “That’s not important.”

Right. Stay calm and think, he told himself. That wasn’t what was pertinent here for now. Those were useless and egocentric thoughts. He had to focus on the ways he could progress and be useful, not the opposite.

His thoughts turned to the cause of the predicament. Firstly, his own actions. And secondly…

Cvetka’s employer had somehow been able to track Cadence down. The only logical explanation for this was a traitor or a Manipulator…? Not a Specialist. And the medium would be…

The invader. 

The cut on his hand.

Living manipulation…?

That was ludicrous.

But if the cut had been made by a Manipulator capable of conducting without a conductor and capable of living manipulationthis was not a problem centralized to himself. His entire country could be at risk. The Kaiser’s actions could also be explained.

But he didn’t have enough information to draw a sound conclusion, and working with far-fetched assumptions and vague memories from Cadence and Atienna was near baseless. Admittedly, he didn’t like it. His beliefs and reason were being tested lately.

He had to move onto the next stage and exit this place quickly to regain a firm handle on the situation—

Werner was pulled out of his thoughts as a wisp of ember flared out of the corner of his eye. His eyes widened one second later as he registered Lavi’s ghostly form. Her entire body rippled and flickered as if made out of flame. Parts of that flame floated upwards to the sky.

So it was Olive then.

“Is this what happens when Chance conducts without his conductor?” Werner inquired evenly. “The vitae he uses belongs to you. Because you’re a saint candidate.” Without Olive here to weigh him down, the accusation and analysis came out more smoothly.

“Most of the time, yes,” Lavi affirmed. “He’s using me.”


Conducting-type pay: is a payment system used in Capricorn in military services. Conductors who fall under what the government views as a more useful conducting-type will receive an additional payment on top of the basic stipend. The highest conducting-type pay add-on is given to Specialists while the lowest to Projectors.  

Amendment clarification made by the Economic Chamber of Capricorn, 1929

16.5: Swindler, 0630 Filial Affliction (2)

Re-cap:

Cadence finds herself stuck in an override over Werner and guided towards the capitol of Capricorn by Cvetka’s employer. On the way there with Werner’s unit and captain, she makes a stop at Werner’s hometown and has an unpleasant encounter with Werner’s family who are also bound to the capital on the very same train. In the background, Cadence’s animosity boils, while Werner’s brother Ludwig has an encounter with a strange woman while boarding the train.


Filialleiden » Filial affliction erupting at 0630 hours

Capricorn

“That was embarrassing, Werner! How could you do that to me? Didn’t you think of how I’d feel? You’re no different from your brother!” 

Cadence had been at the brunt of those words following the awkward dinner with the captain, Gilbert, and Werner’s family. All she’d wanted to do was at least keep up Werner’s appearances in front of his family, and that had been the result.

After the free feast had ended and everyone had left, Werner’s mother had stormed into the bedroom, demanding an explanation for why the door to the bedroom was closed.

At first, Cadence had thought it was a joke. Closing a door? Really? Werner was an adult, for saint’s sake.

But when Werner’s mother went on a rant about the rules of the house and feeling disrespected, Cadence came to realize that his mother was completely serious. Some nonsense about responsibility and how important it was to keep up appearances and how the way ‘he’ acted affected the entire family followed. Then came the finale of the disappointed sigh, the pinching of the nose, and the quiet departure.

Viktoria had hovered in the hall during the entire ordeal. Cadence couldn’t quite recall what Werner’s relationship with her was like, so she’d just slipped back inside her room after—careful not to close the door.

A couple of hours later, Werner’s mother had returned with an apology that wasn’t even an apology:

“I haven’t seen you in so long, honey. You understand how stressful it is waiting here for here. I just want you to be the best. I don’t want anything more.”

That was when Cadence had excused herself out the window—after Werner’s mother had left, of course. She’d felt a bit like the prince as she’d made her escape. It was a kind of a thrill, so she could see why Olive had done it all the time. She’d stumbled over those gorgeous wheat fields not too long after that and had for a moment found peace—at least until Ludwig rolled along with his awkward temperament.

Just remembering the previous night gave Cadence a migraine on top of her migraine. At least she knew that her own mother hated her. Hard to tell with Werner’s. Cadence seldom hated anyone but now prayed that she wouldn’t have to see that woman before they arrived at the capital.

No wonder Werner was so anal all the time, Cadence thought—though she had the feeling that the man didn’t think it was anything more than discipline. Which was pretty depressing. She wondered if she’d be able to convince him otherwise.

“—Morello?”

—Cadence blinked out of the memory and her thoughts and found Gilbert, Stein, and Nico staring expectantly at her from across the table. There were cards in their hands. Just beyond the rattling train window to her left, gray scenery flitted by.

Right… They were on the train now.

“Cadence…?” Nico’s voice cut through her thoughts hazily.

He sounded distant, fuzzy. Well, everything was fuzzy. She just wanted to sleep. But she couldn’t. No. She wouldn’t.

Now that she thought about it, this was probably the longest all-nighter she’d ever pulled in her life. How many hours had it been? 49? 56? 78?

Dammit.

She was so tired that she couldn’t even remember who’d started this poker game to begin with. Which was bad. Too add to the mayhem, after studying the cards in her hands, she realized she couldn’t remember who had the bad hand either.

When she glanced up to read all their expressions and determine the state of affairs in this card world, she felt her blood run cold. Gilbert’s and Stein’s faces looked blurred—smudged like a smear of oil on canvas—as were their other features. Their medals, their uniforms, their hands, their legs—she couldn’t make out any details about them. The only thing that remained crystal clear was Nico.

It was happening again, Cadence realized. Just like back in Argo. Back then she’d thought it was a symptom of the botched, prolonged override. Now…? Exhaustion?

“Thinking of another way to pull one over on us?” Gilbert’s voice came out monotone, flat.

If it wasn’t for the fact that Cadence had seen Gilbert sit down in that spot across from her earlier, she wouldn’t have been able to tell it was him. She couldn’t read him. Couldn’t read any of them. Frustrated? Excited? Smirking? Frowning? She didn’t know, so she couldn’t tailor her responses smoothly. That meant she couldn’t trust anyone here either because she had no one here. Not even Nic—

Ah, screw this.

Cadence stood up. “Actually, ya know what. I just had a brilliant idea.”

She swung herself to the booth behind her. Two indistinguishable figures resided there in opposite seats. She was certain at least one of them was Klaus Kleine because she’d seen him sitting there earlier. Probably.

Leaning towards the blob closest to her, Cadence asked, “Mind if I ask ya a favor, Klaus?”

“Oh, I’m not Klaus,” came the light response. Monotone again. “I’m Emilia. Emilia Bergmann. We’ve met but… I’m a corporal. I’ve served in this unit for about a year. I was at the border with Sagittarius before that. Attended the Norden Military Academy in—”

Cadence had no clue why Emilia was sharing her autobiography now. Well, it was still cute—even though Cadence couldn’t see her face.

“I’m just pullin’ your leg, ‘Milia,” Cadence interjected. “But I’d be happy ta sit and talk whenever ya’ve got the time. Norden, ya said? Heard that’s a good place ta vacation to.”

“Do you need something, Cadence?” came the gray mass sitting across from Emilia-blob.

Oh. There he was.

“Hey, Klaus, would ya mind conjuring up some Transmutationist proto-conductors for me?” Cadence asked. “I’ll transmute ya anyone ya like in exchange. Any crushes ya got in mind? Or popular musicians? Actresses—from different walks of life? Heard those types of books—if ya know what I mean—are all the rage here.”

“Uh—I—t-there’s no need for that, Cadence,” Kleine-blob stammered. “I memorized the components of the general proto-conductor, and I think I might be able to adapt it to your preference… But I haven’t trained much on it, and I usually have at least a blueprint if I’m unfamiliar with it. It’s pretty complicated—”

“Application is the best practice. Besides, I have faith in ya.”

“Oh, well… of course then.”

Although Kleine-blob’s voice was monotone to her, Cadence imagined the man enjoyed the praise.

“I—” Kleine-blob fell silent. “I should probably get approval from the captain first…”

Cadence understood the hesitation. It wasn’t like she was his actual superior or anything.

Just as the thought left her mind, a pair of footsteps came up from behind her. It was another faceless figure, no different from the ones sitting in front of her. Maybe… the captain?

“What’s going on?” the new blob asked.

“I just had a spark of brilliance,” Cadence explained. “How about I fill a couple of proto-conductors for ya?” She gestured to herself. “My skillset is pretty rare. Heard that only 15% of Transmutationists are internalists like me, so I think havin’ a couple of proto-conductors with my vitae in it’ll help ya in the long run. Whatdya say?”

“Kleine hasn’t studied the engineering behind nor structure of proto-conductors fully yet,” the blob replied. “But… I do agree that your skillset is… valuable.”

Sounded like the dear lieutenant, Cadence thought.

“If you’d be willing to provide your conducting for us, we’d greatly appreciate it,” the captain continued. “There’s no obligation of course.”

He was being a bit easy, she realized. Probably felt some order of guilt for playing the tin soldier and treating her as a package. Well, she didn’t blame him.

“I’m offerin’. ‘Course I’ll put a long-term favor token in my back pocket in exchange.”

“Go ahead, Kleine,” captain-blob affirmed. “And, Morello, if the proto-conductor begins to feel in anyway hotter than normal when you try to fill it with vitae, you should stop, alright? A misconjured wire is all it takes to turn a conductor into a bomb. Just be careful.”

“Got it, Captain,” Cadence responded, offering a two-fingered salute.

“Alright, sir. I need to go get my conductor from the storage cart.” Kleine-blob rose and squeezed himself out of the booth and out of the cart. “I’ll be back.”

Blob-Klaus returned ten minutes later with a handful of proto-conductors and an apology for his tardiness. Cadence accepted them graciously before excusing herself into one of the private rooms “ta better concentrate” on her work.

She glanced over her shoulder just as she slid into the room set to the side of the corridor. Nico was still sitting in between Stein-blob and Gilbert-blob. Chuckling lightly. Not looking too concerned or worried for once.

Irritating.

* * *

Once inside the room, Cadence shut the door, sank into the bed provided, and pulled off Werner’s gloves. Drawing from faces she’d encountered in the past few months, she began to spill her vitae into the proto-conductors and store the illusions inside of them. After a while, she transmuted her own red-headed image over herself and pulled out Werner’s pocket watch to study her reflection.

Funnily enough, she wasn’t sure if she’d gotten the details right. Freckles, check—but had her nose always been that small? Even funnier than that was that she remembered other people’s physical characteristics better than her own. If Atienna were present, Cadence figured she’d probably say something philosophical about identity.

After filling the last ring with vitae, Cadence slipped all the proto-conductors into her pocket and studied her bare palm. The black spot hadn’t changed at all, so Cadence didn’t pay any mind to it. Instead, she ran her fingers along the deep, red, bumpy lines that were barely visible beneath it.

“If anyone should be ashamed, it should be her, not you,” she mumbled before rocking back and stretching out her limbs. “And I’m really talkin’ ta myself now. Fantastic.”

She held out Werner’s pocket watch again. Her eyes were so foggy that she could barely read the hands. 6:30.

Just a minute of sleep wouldn’t hurt, right…?

Right

Cadence stretched out her limbs and fell back against the bed. Folding her arms behind her head, she closed her eyes—

—and opened them a second later.

However, it wasn’t sight that returned to her first but sound. A hopping piano trill paired with some dampened trombone notes and violin strokes.

When her vision returned, she found herself standing in a narrow alleyway with walls that extended up so high that she couldn’t even see the crack of the sky. She glanced down into the puddle at her feet and found her nine-year-old self staring back at her. A quick check of her hands and limbs confirmed she had indeed somehow turned back the clock of time.

A dream.

The music suddenly amplified and crashed down in disjointed echoes across the grimy walls of the alley. A milky, sultry voice in Common wafted down:

“Presenting this heart for you—”

“Alma?” Cadence whispered, staring upwards at the sky she couldn’t see.

A rumbling resounded down the far end of the alley. When Cadence turned her head in the direction, she found only endless darkness—a haze of black that seemed to creep closer and closer. Deep, throaty growling and barking resounded from within the shadows.

“—against all those who you can choose.”

Suddenly filled with body-numbing terror that she’d only ever experienced in childhood, Cadence ran in the opposite direction. The rumbling, barking shadow followed her as she scrambled away—gaining ground with every step.

An exit. She needed to find an exit.

In the distance, she saw light spilling into the alleyway from doors that were ajar along the walls. Relief blossomed in her chest, as she threw herself to the nearest doorway. She froze as she registered what was inside.

Mom. Dad. Sitting at a round wooden table in front of a copper fireplace that crackled away. Cadence almost couldn’t believe the sight of them because they were both smiling, hands intertwined, cheeks rosy with life—that was, at least until they turned their eyes on her. Their smiles dropped, their stares piercing through her skin.

Cadence took a step back and blinked.

The table was gone—the fireplace too. Her mother was now dead on the ground entangled in sheets with a fistful of morrowheat in her hands just like that night many years ago. Her father stood right by the doorframe, glaring down at her.

Your mother died by morrowheat, his eyes seemed to say as he shut the door in her face. How could you go around flaunting it like that?

Cadence shook her head before dashing to the next door.

Fortuna was standing there with all the Romano capos and the boss sitting behind her at a round table. The Romano heiress stared down at Cadence with large, unnatural eyes too big for her face and with an inhumanly cold gaze. Without saying a word, she too shut the door.

The rumbling, howling behind Cadence grew louder and louder.

She stumbled to the next doorway and found Allen, Carl, and Francis sitting on a stack of crates within. They looked younger—probably around the age when they’d all met. Cadence threw herself at them in relief but was shoved back to the ground by Carl. She gathered her bearings only to see Allen pulling the door to a close.

You expect us to let you back in after what you did? came their silent words.

However, before the door shut completely, Francis stopped it and pulled it back open. There was sympathy on his face but not pity. But just as relief began to seep back into Cadence’s body, Francis’s face began to bubble and blacken as if someone was putting cigarettes out all over it. Eventually, his face crumbled away into ash.

Before Cadence could reach out to him, the door slammed shut. She stepped back in horror before throwing herself at the closed door, struggling to pull it open and then pounding on the door when she failed. She only tore herself away when the howling reached her ears again.

Only one door left at the dead end.

A child was already standing there eclipsed in light. Nico. He held his hand out to her, his face folding with its usual worry. Upon reaching him, she grabbed a hold of his hand—warm like the sun—and stepped into the doorway only to find herself stepping back out into the alley. When she turned, she found a glass door behind which an older Nico stood chattering with Stein and Fischer—all the while smiling straight at her.

Against all these ones that’ll abandon you,”

The door disappeared in a blink.

No more doors left. All of them were closed. No exit.

The rumbling, howling grew louder behind her, almost completely drowning out the cheery tune still trilling out. As it descended upon her, Cadence tucked herself into a squat, squeezed her eyes shut, and covered her ears.

Then there was nothing.

Hesitantly, Cadence cracked open her eyes, uncovered her ears, and unfurled herself. She winced against the harsh, singular, indigo spotlight pouring down on her from an unknown source. The dissonant jazzy tune was resounding around the black emptiness that extended out around her.

Well, this definitely wasn’t what she had in mind when she’d said she’d wanted to play on the Ophiuchian Way.

A soft click echoed in the distance.

Turning towards the sound, Cadence found another indigo spotlight cast on a single woman draped over a stack of books far away. Surrounding the woman was a series of closed doors.

It was… Atienna? Looking lovely as always.

Cadence’s heart nearly leapt for joy at the sight of her. She wasn’t the type to be sappy, but finally —

Terror seized her a moment afterwards as Cadence registered that there were small, shiny black bodies crawling all over the Virgoan. They were in her hair, all over her limbs, and pattering across her face. Scorpions, tails raised and poised, ready to strike.

Shoving her cowardice down, Cadence started forwards. “G-Get away from her!”

“So I’m presenting the one who doesn’t ever choose,”

As Cadence neared Atienna, the bugs suddenly burst open and out from them grew red flowers. They had thin, dripping petals that seemed to act as fingers crawling along Atienna’s skin.

Chills running down her spine, Cadence stopped short. Only for a second. She started forward sa second after. But just as she was within reach of Atienna, the light above the woman suddenly went out leaving Cadence panting in complete darkness again.

A soft, familiar click resounded just a second after.

This time a spotlight formed farther away in the distance. It was brighter and harsher this time, illuminating a figure leaning against an upright rifle conductor.

Cadence recognized that broad back immediately. Werner. The apprehension and fear eased from her shoulders immediately. Good to see the real him instead of staring at his reflection.

“Presenting the one who will become whatever you choose,”

A figure was draped over his back. A tall, thin woman with sinewy limbs enveloping his neck. The crazy woman—his mother.

The woman’s form rippled suddenly, blue cracks forming along her body until she shattered. What was left of her was a glowing mass of blue. The thing barely held a humanoid shape, but Cadence could tell that it was smirking at her. And as it seemed to laugh haughtily, it began to seep and dig into Werner. It was painful—Cadence knew—but he didn’t even flinch.

“Werner!” Cadence snapped, glowering. “Get outta him, ya creep!”

As she took a step towards him, however, another burst of indigo flared out from the corner of her eye. When she turned, she found an additional spotlight shining directly behind her. A woman wrapped in a thin silken black dress stood below it—Alma, humming the tune of the echoing song in front of a stand-up microphone. At her feet crawled scorpions that were slowly making their way up her leg to her chest. No, they were crawling beneath her skin—writhing, squirming under all that porcelain. But she was still smiling in song.

Cadence’s chest seized at the sight of Alma—heart soaring and mind-numbing. When she managed to tear her gaze away from Alma and back to Werner, her heart dropped to her stomach. The distance between them had suddenly increased tenfold. He was almost a speck now. And when Cadence turned back to Alma, she found that the same distance had grown between them.

Cadence hesitated for only one moment before she started towards Werner as the music rose into a cacophony.

Alma was Twin Cities through and through, Cadence knew. Alma’d claw her way up and drag people down to get to the top just fine. To Alma, Cadence had the sinking feeling she’d just been a beloved stepping stone too. But Werner…

Just as Cadence reached the spotlight and extended her hand past the blue rays, the light cut to black. Again.

“Choosing the one you love,” came a sing-song voice in Cadence’s ear.

Whipping around, Cadence found Alma less than half a meter away from her.

“No….” Cadence took a step back. “I didn’t choose ya—I didn’t!” She turned around and searched the dark, cupping her hands and shouting—“Werner! Atienna!”

“It doesn’t matter how much everything changes,” Alma sang into the mic. “ Deep down, your choice and heart will stay the same.”

Cadence froze and locked eyes with Alma just as a scorpion popped out from the corner of the woman’s eyes. Her attention was drawn away from the horrifying sight by an itching at her palms. She looked down in terror to find something squirming beneath the black mark on her hand.

“Can’t you see that none of them are for you because the only one will ever love you is—”

“Cadence.” A woman suddenly appeared behind Alma in the darkness. She had a dark rope of hair, a monochrome suit, and a white band wrapped around her left arm. Feathers rained down from above her. Wake up.”

Alma extended her hands out and cupped Cadence’s cheeks as she sang the last word.

“—you.”

—Eyes flying open, Cadence jerked up to a sit and looked around wildly.

The wooden walls of the train’s private room greeted her as did the dampened click-clacking of the train tracks. The v-lights to the room flickered on and off as the compartment rattled with each bump. Beyond the door to her left, she could hear muffled chattering. It smelled like v-cig smoke too. Normally she appreciated the smell, but now it turned her stomach.

Cadence stiffened. “Kid?” She scanned the room, half-desperately. “Olive…?”

Silence answered.

Wiping the sweat from her brow, she checked the pocket watch that had fallen on the floor. 6:30–still? Only fifteen seconds had passed? And she still felt so tired.

Cadence was ready to kill for a drink but she didn’t want to accidentally turn Werner into an alcoholic. Bad enough that she’d been chain-smoking nonstop since getting here.

Shoulders sagging, she buried her head in her hands.

What the hell was she doing here with all of Werner’s men anyways? She should’ve run when she had the chance, she knew. If she had just taken Werner’s body, Nico, and Gilbert and run then—

—then Weingartner and Werner’s men would’ve been stuck with the consequence of the situation she’d put them in.

The others weren’t important. Self-preservation was the law of the land. That’s just how it was.

But they were important to Werner.

He would’ve gotten over it.

No, he wouldn’t have. She knew him and knew he wouldn’t. On the surface, yes, to keep up appearances he’d rattle on about numbers and statistics. But not really. Besides, she doubted she could convince Gilbert to come along. She had imagined that maybe she could convince Nico, but she could see now that—

Why was she caring about people who didn’t care about her? Who didn’t know her? What was she trying to prove? It was a bad investment.

That she—

In the long run, what was she trying to accomplish here? What about in the Twin Cities? With all of those children? Just involving herself was causing her to fall into a negative balance—a deficit. Cost-benefit analysis pointed to that.

No, the money was third-rate. She’d wanted to help the Foxmans in any way she could—

Even though she’d always be second-rate to them?

Cadence’s chest squeezed.

Well, that was fine, she thought. As long as she could just make all of those children have a childhood better than hers then that would be enough.

But that was also self-deception. Because in realityshe was just using that as a way to make her feel like a better person. 

And so what if she was?, Cadence rebutted. She was sure that she wasn’t doing that. But if she was, at least she was doing some good by it. If everyone acted only on intention, the world would be crapsack.

But she was only thinking like this because of the others. This altruism wasn’t really hers.

True. Cadence had often imagined what it would be like to think clearly without the other five’s sense of morality or amorality pressuring her all the time. Life would be simpler.

“Easier,” she agreed. To be free from all that … all this …?

But cost-benefit analysis painted a clear picture. Being buddies with literal royalty, a guy who was the definition of reliable, a pretty dame who could think and fight, a beast ready to get her out of sticky situations, and a get-out-of-jail-free card peacekeeper? Working with the other five was worth the payment of all this extra weight.

So that’s not the route to go then.

The thought gave Cadence pause.

Something wasn’t right… Cadence knew something wasn’t right from the very beginning. But she was so tired and she couldn’t think. And—

A quiet tune seeped into the room through the cracks in the door.

Cadence felt numbness spill out into her limbs as she turned towards the sound.

Presenting this heart to you,” came the familiar milky, sultry voice, barely audible singing behind the door. “Against all the ones you can choose… ”

Cadence leapt to her feet and threw open the door. Faceless figures were gathered at the tables in the train hall. She couldn’t tell whether they were staring at her or ignoring her, but she paid them no mind. Instead, she scrambled towards the whispering melody, brushed past the passengers crowding the compartments, blazed from cart to connecting-bridge to cart.

Eventually, she made it to the cart the music was emanating from. The compartment was empty, the only signs of former occupancy being the stray glasses of whiskey on the table.

Presenting the one that won’t ever choose.

Where was it? There. In the corner resting on the farthest table.

Cadence very vaguely recalled seeing it in Ophiuchus through Jericho’s eye—a portable radio, powered by vitae through some mechanism she again only vaguely recalled Olive reading about. It was wooden and small with a fenced-looking front and numerous small knobs and buttons lining its body.

Cadence grabbed the radio and jabbed at the buttons and turned the knobs, but the damned thing wouldn’t turn off. Alma’s voice only blared louder and louder and—

Lieutenant, what’s wrong?”

Cadence straightened and turned.

“Against the ones who will abandon you…”

Nico stood there looking worried as always.

“Lieutenant.” Nico glanced nervously through the window of the door behind him. “What’re you doing?”

Cadence pointed to the radio. “Who put that on? Did you do that?”

Nico shook his head. “I think it was Stein. He likes her singing. I thought you’d like it too…”

Why was he so clear while everyone else was blurry?, Cadence wondered. She couldn’t stand it. She’d rather she not see him at all. Because right now she could see that all he was concerned with was—

“Werner—”

“Werner, Werner, Werner—that’s all you say,” Cadence scoffed before she could stop herself. “I thought you’d at least pick up a bit more Capricornian when you were out here, but that’s all ya seem to know.”

Nico startled. “What? What are you talkin’ about…?” He glanced through the window and ducked his head again. “This isn’t the place, Cadence. There’s passengers in the other carts. If something’s wrong, we can talk somewhere else—”

“There you go again. You’re always playin’ the tender-hearted, responsible, innocent, carin’ victim,” Cadence muttered. “I know ya’ve always thought ya were better than us, but ya gotta quit flauntin’ it.”

What was she saying…?

What she truly felt

“That’s not true—” Nico stiffened, glancing over his shoulder again. “Where is this even comin’ from—”

“There ya go again. Ya always talked about how ya wanted ta leave the life. Talkin’ about how ya’d get outta workin’ under your dad.” She spread her arms. “Well, congratulations, Nic. Ya did it in the most backwards way possible. Ya happy?”

Nico’s eyes widened.

She knew his buttons like the back of her hand. Hook, line, sinker.

“Why’re you bringin’ him into this…? What does that have to do with anything?” Nico almost snapped, fists clenched. “I’m helpin’ good people. It’s my choice. What my dad’s doin’ is—”

“Ya think those guys are any better than us ?” Cadence scoffed. “At least we’re honest about who we are and what we do.” She jabbed a finger at the door behind him. “They’re out here foolin’ themselves. For glory? For honor? For the paycheck, more like it! Ha—what kind of paper-thin reasonin’ is that?! What’s yourreasonin’?”

“My—”

“Bendetto ordered a hit on a group of delinquents who tried ta take advantage of all the chaos after what happened back home. Ya know what he said when he strung up all those kids by the docks? He said it was for honor.”

“You’re not here—you don’t know what they go through or their reasons. You don’t have to know. And you don’t have to know mine,” Nico interjected. “But I can you tell that it’s more than just a paycheck. For their families—”

Red hot anger throttled through Cadence’s chest. Before she even realized what she was doing, she grabbed a whisky glass from a nearby table and threw it at him. Nico dodged it with wide-eyed alarm, and it shattered against the window behind him.

“For family?! Rich comin’ from you! How can ya even say that?” She slapped her chest. “And I am here! How do ya think this whole thing works? I see almost everything he sees. Remember half the things he remembers. And because of that, I know the real reason you’re stayin’ here. Not ‘cause you’re a damned saint—that’s for sure.”

“Who said I was a saint to begin with—” Nico stopped short, pinched the bridge of his nose, and sighed before raising his hands again. “Look, I’m sorry for yellin—”

“Please, just stop with that act. I see how ya look at him,” Cadence spat. When she registered Nico’s stricken expression, she felt a surge of thrill. “What? Do you always have to have someone you cling to? First it was your dad, then it was me, and now him?”

Nico’s ears began to burn red. “Stop bringing my d—”

“I really thought you’d changed but you’re still the same old crybaby Nico clingin’ ta whatever poor sap treats ya nicely,” Cadence interjected. “You’re always expectin’ someone ta come get ya out of whatever mess ya get yourself into—”

I’m not expectin’ anythin’ from anyone,” Nico interjected, gesturing to himself. Basically—‘You’re selfish.’

“But ya admit that’s the reason why you’re out here—”

What?” Nico recoiled. “No! How could you even say that? Is that really what you think of me? You don’t even know me! Stop actin’ like you do! You always do this!”

“Stop changin’ the subject. ‘Cause you know what?” Cadence glowered at him. “It’s all for nothing! I’ve seeninside his head. I know what he thinks of you.”

Nico’s face became tight. “Cadence, stop—”

“You’re just a tool that’s lost its use,” she pressed on despite the lie twisting in her stomach. “The only reason he tolerates ya is ‘cause he remembers me savin’ your ass all the time. It’s the only reason he cares about ya even. That and you’re a decent Transmutationist. But besides that”—she mimicked Werner’s icy expression—“you’re just an annoyance.

Nico paled as if slapped. But after a beat, he scoffed, “At least… At least I’m not chasing after someone who clearly doesn’t care about me. I’m not a masochist unlike you. I’m not addicted to people leavin’ me out to dry.”

He knew what buttons to push for her too.

Cadence moved before she thought, launching herself at him like she’d launched herself at his bullies back with the Foxmans years ago. Nico caught her fist in alarm before they tumbled back against the table.

“I don’t care how ya feel about Werner. And ya know what? I don’t care why you’re out here—” Cadence spat, her frustration forming tears in her eyes. “But ya should’ve been back home! We needed you! Back when Francis was losin’ his shit. After he lost it. Before he lost it! Back when Verga and his lot were makin’ a mess of the Romanos and pinnin’ it on Matilda’s gang. But you left! And I had ta put my neck on the line ta get Werner not ta murder ya!”

Nico’s face crumpled, and he held her by an arm’s length. “Werner said… he said you said everything was fine back home.”

“That was a lie!”

Nico paled before his brows furrowed and he fired back, “Do you hear yourself…? A lie—you said it! I can’t read your mind, Cadence!”

“Don’t give me that bull. I can’t read your damn mind either!” Cadence snapped. “But I still came ta your rescue whenever ya said ya were fine when you were really gettin’ a shakedown down by some holier-than-thou kid from the Monadic District.” She scoffed. “Are ya seriously tellin’ me that ya heard about Verga kickin’ the bucket, heard about Francis literally becomin’ a damn terrorist, heard about all of ‘em bein’ kidnapped and held for ransom—and ya thought, ‘Oh, they’re just damned fine.’ Ya knew we needed help but ya just pretended not ta know! What kinda damn doctor are you when ya ignore people like that!”

“If you would’ve just asked for my help, I would’ve come home!”

“Okay, then go home,” Cadence hissed, meeting his gaze and fisting his shirt into her hands. “Right. Now.”

“You… You know I can’t do that, Cadence,” Nico stammered. “Look at the situation. I’m sorry—”

Frankly, the statement brought relief to Cadence. She was glad that there was someone else reliable by Werner’s side. But with the relief came the bitter realization that in turn that meant no one would be by her side. “ See.

“You can’t say it like that…” Nico’s face twisted into a grimace. “Why do you expect me to know when you’re lyin’ and when you’re not…? You lie all the time! And you—you always lie to me! It’s like you can’t livewithout lyin’.”

The words wouldn’t have stung if anyone else had said it.

“Not just that. You’re always twistin’ me this way and that—ever since we were kids! You keep draggin’ me along like I’m some pet. But I still went along with it ‘cause I lov—”

“Oh, I’m dragging you along?” Cadence scoffed. “You’re the one draggin’ me along. You just kept me around— all of us around—‘cause none of the normal kids wanted ta hang out with ya since ya were the doc’s kid and a pushover. Ya hear that? Ya were—and are —the doc’s son. Ya were practically livin’ the high life when you were a kid. Ya had food on the table—even brought food ta us sometimes—and ya had clothes on your back. Ya didn’t need to be around us, but ya still went around pretendin’ ya were a street rat until ya didn’t need us anymore! But that’s the city, ain’t it—”

“Are you serious?!” Nico recoiled. “You’re the one who does that. You drop everythin’ as soon as it involves Alma! Doesn’t matter if it’s me or Francis or Fortuna or—” His eyes narrowed. “Or even Werner.”

“I apologized for that already—”

“You think an apology does anythin—”

“That’s between me and him, not you!” Cadence paused, grip loosening, as she grimaced. “And I’m sorry for playin’ ya like that all those times. I just wanted ta protect ya—”

“Oh, there you go. Pretendin’ you’re a white knight in shinin’ armor?”

Cadence winced and then glowered. “Well, that seems ta be your type.”

“See. You’re not sorry. Not really,” Nico scoffed. “Because you’re still doin’ it. You’re the same. This right now. And, I mean—our song? Really? You don’t think I can tell you did it on purpose—”

“Well, like ya said—I can’t know if upsets if ya if ya don’t tell me!” Cadence snapped.

Nico opened his mouth, shut it, then glowered. “You’re a hypocrite. You’re selfish.”

You’re a hypocrite. You’re selfish!”

No matter where she went or who she was with, she would never be the most important person for anyone; and that meant that when push came to shove, she had no one. And nothing to lose.

“The hell is going on here,” came a monotone voice from behind before Cadence found herself pulled away from Nico.

Nico was aided to a stand by two blobs. There were blobs crowded by the entrance to the cart too.

Crap.

Cadence blinked as her vision blurred and then stiffened as the blobs became recognizable human beings again. Stein and Kleine were the ones helping Nico up, while the one who had pulled her off of Nico was Gilbert. Werner’s other men crowded in the doorway. His family was there too—from the crazy woman to Viktoria to Ludwig. Cadence had no clue how long they’d been standing there.

Gilbert grabbed her arm and whispered, “The hell are you doing…?”

The tired fog returned to Cadence as the adrenaline left her.

Shoot.

She cleared her throat. “Everything is in order. There was a minor dispute.”

“Everything is obviously not in order,” Gilbert hissed “Half the train heard you shouting. What’s going on? If you want to fight, take it to a damned private room—”

“I said everything was in order, Second Lieutenant.”

Gilbert stiffened reflexively and loosened his grip.

Cadence pulled her arm away. She picked up a trash can resting nearby the opposite entrance, swept the shards of whiskey glass scattered around into it, and then turned to the ones crowded by the left entrance. “I apologize for the disturbance.”

She made her exit through the opposite door before anyone could respond. The frosty night air of the connecting bridge greeted her and slapped some of her fogginess away before she entered the next compartment.

Sloppy, she knew. She’d messed up. Big time.

Cadence continued from cart to cart to cart. She had no idea where she wanted to go. All she knew was that she needed to find an exit. To get her thoughts together. And to sleep.

Eventually, she found herself stopping short just outside one of the last compartments on one of the metal walkways linking the carts together.

A half-moon hung low in the night sky, illuminating both the forestry rushing around her and another train running opposite and parallel to here. Said train looked no different from the one she was on besides the red cross stamped onto every other cart. Medical transport, probably.

A stampeding of footsteps behind her drew her attention away.

They were following. She needed to escape. Go where they couldn’t find her. Quickly.

She reached for the ladder fixated beside the door on the next compartment over and climbed. Once she pulled herself onto the top of the cart and stumbled forward to the center of the roof, however, she paused. Blinking back tears from the whipping wind, she peered over the edge and felt nausea at the sight of the ground rushing below her.

Cadence sank to all-fours.

Why the hell had she thought this was a good idea? The only reason she’d been able to confront Francis on that spire of the Dioscuri months ago was because she had been running on adrenaline and pure determination. All she was running on now was regret and fizzled-out anger. Matter-of-fact—why the hell had she thought taking it out on Nico was a good idea?

Guilt coiled in her stomach at the thought.

It was true that she’d always thought those things deep down. In fact, she’d be filled with frustration, hurt, and anger whenever she spied Nico through Werner’s eyes. It was a miracle that Werner hadn’t acted on her feelings. But despite her animosity, she’d understood Nico’s perspective. To an extent. She’d been planning to talk it over with him—Atienna’s go-to solution—but she’d pushed discussion back every single time.

“Werner!”

Cadence turned to see a flash of blonde catching the moonlight just at the edge of the train cart. It was Viktoria, shakily pulling herself up on the roof. Her hair was whipping wildly in the wind, her pale cheeks reddened with the cold.

Seriously…?

“Do not come up here, Viktoria,” Cadence ordered, keeping her tone hard and cold.

Viktoria continued climbing and crawled to Cadence swiftly. When their eyes locked, Cadence suddenly became aware of Werner’s pocket watch ticking away in her pocket. Viktoria abruptly cupped Cadence’s face. Her icy blue eyes were identical to Werner’s.

“Viktoria—”

“I knew it. I thought something was strange when you didn’t ask me to check on the pocket watch when you came home. It was an important gift, don’t you know?” Viktoria’s face crumpled. “Where did you go this time…? Who are you?”

Cadence froze.

What?

Before Cadence could think of a way to respond, an oddly familiar clink, clink, clink emanated loudly from behind her. At first, she thought the clinking was from the train itself, but then she saw the white glow reflecting in Viktoria’s widening eyes.

“I knew it,” came a voice from behind. “I thought that the Capricornian in the wheelchair looked familiar. Are you two related or something?”

Cadence felt her stomach drop. The chilly air had nothing on the cold that washed through her entire body. With effort, she broke free of the ice entangling her limbs and grabbed hold of Viktoria’s hands before throwing herself at Viktoria. They tumbled along the slope of the roof just before a flurry of white, spiked chains bulleted the area they’d just been sitting at.

“Are y’alright?” Cadence asked Viktoria below her who responded with a wince.

A woman with wild, fiery red hair barely tamed into a ponytail stood at the edge of the cart eclipsed by the moonlight with her polka-dot blue dress billowing in the wind. She was missing half an arm. But her good hand was gloved and extended outwards. At the gesture, a torrent of chairs unfurled out from behind her in a pattern that vaguely resembled wings.

Although everything else was fuzzy, the terror that had seized Cadence the night she’d worked alongside Werner’s men and Jericho to try and rescue Donato from this ELPIS leader was still crystal clear.

“You were working with that suitcase peacekeeper, weren’t you?” Iota whispered, eyes so wide that Cadence could see the whites—it seemed as if Iota hadn’t forgotten that night either. “Back in Gemini.”

Always bad luck with women.