19.3: Peacekeeper, 1500 Annihilation

References to (60) Part II | 9.6: Jericho’s (Lost) Raziocinio & (16) Part I | 2.6: Jericho Raid. 

Re-cap:

Jericho rampages through the streets of the Capricornian capital. He comes across Gamma, Tau, Beta, Oran, and Forschritt and attacks them relentlessly. Francis, Alice, Gilbert, and Klaus try to step in but Jericho’s powerful conducting dampens their efforts. When Jericho turns on Francis, Alice tries to stop him—but the distance she has maintained over the years is unreachable. And so, Werner rises to the occasion. Meanwhile Jericho is…


Vernichtung » Annihilation neared at 1500 hours

“Focus on a physical object you know is real.”

That was what Alice had told Jericho to do if he ever became confused about the present versus the past. But that was what Jericho had been doing, and still he was uncertain.

He vaguely remembered awakening on top of a wave of glowing purple water with a foreign-looking man dressed in a woolen cape at his right. His very first thought was Conductor. His second thought was purge. And so, he flung himself at the man without hesitation. As he tumbled through the air with the man, what he thought was the present came back to him in full force: He was a peacekeeper, not part of ELPIS. An upholder of peace, not hope.

“Sorry,” Jericho said to the man, once they had landed on the ground on top of each other. He righted himself and tried to offered the man a hand but noticed that one of his arms was slung in a cast. He promptly removed it and tossed it aside. “I just woke up.”

There was a light drizzle coming down from the gray sky, and it made the gray street below them shiny and reflective. The street itself was empty.

After picking himself off the ground, the man brushed himself off, straightened his woolen cape, and studied him. “You’re not Maria then? Is it an overlap? Well, retrieve her at once! We must find this Conta and—”

Jericho tilted his head. “I know Maria, but not Conta. I do… not think I can get Maria for you. I don’t know where she is.”

Jericho turned to survey the area. He was unfamiliar with this place. The square buildings built tightly side-by-side, the spotted trees dotting the sidewalk islands, the v-tram tracks on the ground and the wires hanging above them—it wasn’t a place he remembered coming to before. He couldn’t remember if the others had come to this place either.

Jericho turned away from the man and began to wander down the street. A strange pop-popping echoing in the distance gave him a sense of nostalgia. Firecrackers or gunfire.

“Hey—wait. Where do you think you’re going?” The foreign man’s voice boomed so loudly that it bounced off the buildings lining the street. “You dare walk away from Veles—”

But Jericho continued walking until he could no longer hear the man. Eventually, as he continued down the street, he tucked into a small open patio in front of a building with bread displayed at its windows and seated himself at one of the iron tables at its front. The woman peering out the bakery shop window gave him a fearful look. He waved back at her since it was the polite thing to do, but she pulled away inside her store. He stared after her for a moment before he suddenly became aware of the absolute silence around him. The others—he couldn’t hear them.

Abruptly, his head began to spin and his stomach gurgled uncomfortably. The wave of nausea took him out of his seat and sent him tumbling to the floor where he landed haphazardly in a puddle of water.

When he picked himself out of the puddle and peered at his reflection, Werner stared back at him.

An override?

The last thing Jericho remembered was reading letters in Gabrielle’s office back in Ophiuchus. And then—

“You forgot your promise, didn’t you?” 

Jericho froze.

The puddle was gone. The gray streets were gone. In their place were fine grains of sand shifting with the wind. The grains sparkled like diamonds beneath the sun which was now beating against the back of his neck. The air was thin but comfortable and familiar.

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see colorful tents glowing beneath the morning sun. Silk carpets were laid out on the ground, while hanging tarps billowed in the wind. Camels dotted posts set up outside the makeshift village, while silhouettes drifted from out behind the tents.

Jericho’s gaze became drawn to a particular tent set up at the very center of all the others. A figure stood just behind the hanging tarp at its front. A woman with dark curls and a thin, boney frame. She pulled back the tarp and called out—

Jericho!”

Jericho’s heart hammered wildly in his chest as he reached out in that direction.

Home…?—

“Traitor.”

Jericho stopped short and slowly turned his head as a shadow passed over his face.

Beside him stood a girl with a mole kissing her shoulder—a girl who visited him in his dreams with her last visit being the time she came to him during his train ride to the Twin Cities. She’d stopped visiting him after that, but Alice had said it was a good thing.

“Ayda.”

Jericho couldn’t tell if she was taller than him or if he was taller than her.

“Conductors aren’t natural,” she said. “Peacekeepers are bad. But look at what you’re doing now. Traitor.” 

“A lie,” Jericho returned. “They told us that so we would kill for them. They made us use conductors too. Hypocrites. They told us it did not matter. That everything returned to the cycle. They convinced us conductors were bad. Never told us why. Did not have a reason. But I will get revenge. For you.”

No. That wasn’t right. Wait—

“But they do return to the cycle,” Ayda said. “Everything returns to the cycle.”

A wind started to pick up along the ground.

“But conductors stop things from returning to the cycle.”

The wind dug its fingers into the sand, sketching outlines that formed into shapes that formed into people who formed into a scene:

A man holding a conducting rifle pointed it squarely at the head of a child. A vitae ray shot out from the man’s conductor and struck the child who collapsed to the ground. Her body began to bubble and then melted into a familiar item: a reservoir pool. The sandy faux pool expanded all around Jericho and began to bubble just as the girl had. Human faces emerged from the popped bubbles—all wearing expressions of agony, pain, anguish. There was no sound.

“Conductors are evil. See. That’s what they do.”

Jericho’s head spun.

This was not real. Ayda was in the past. Right?

He dug his fingers into the sand, and he could feel each and every grain sticking to the cracks in his skin. This was real?

“If we were right to begin with”—the girl’s voice cracked, and her entire body sprouted hairline fractures in the blink of an eye— “why did you do that to all of us?”

Before Jericho could think of a response, Ayda crumbled to dust, the wind sweeping what remained of her away. In the quiet heat, he still tried to search his mind for an answer. ‘Why?’ Why had he done that to them?

Because ELPIS was evil. Because he had felt—had intuition —deep down on that day that they were in the wrong. The villagers in that town surrounding the conductor generator had been on their knees, sobbing and begging for the lives of their families. He had felt like he had been looking into a mirror. But the others wouldn’t stop—Ayda and his friends. Everyone had been determined back then. And so he had to do it. In order to stop them. It was the only way. He returned them all to the cycle. And he had sworn to avenge them by destroying the false hope that pushed them to that extent. By destroying ELPIS—

“But ELPIS is made up of people like me.”

Jericho turned at the voice and found a familiar man dressed in a maroon-toned suit standing behind him. A white snake was blazed onto the right side of his face—

Theta?

Home…?

No.

Jericho recalled meeting this man during his first visit to the Twin Cities. This was Francis Foxman, a calm and collected young ‘business’man.

Disjointed memories of him holding Francis hostage in a leaky warehouse in order to exchange the man for Alice flooded Jericho’s mind. At that time he had known Francis was ELPIS, but he had not immediately executed the man—why?

Jericho could not understand himself, and so he thought and thought. His memories and thoughts of that time were disjointed, but he managed to bring them together:

Why? Because the people who were ELPIS leaders were initiated unknowingly. Not their fault. And for Cadence. Francis was important to Cadence.

“Well, if you’ve given up on going after ELPIS,” came an airy voice, “Why in the world did you return me to nothingness?”

The new voice brought to Jericho memories of an abandoned warehouse, of cold fury snapping through his limbs and fingers, of a prayer, and of Werner guiding him on strategy and attack.

Omega.

Stepping into his view, the woman chuckled and flipped her hair. The snake tattoo at the back of her neck became revealed, causing Jericho’s heart to throttle in his chest.

“Oh my… you didn’t return me to the cycle, did you? I can’t return. You sent me into nothingness. And all I wanted to do was to get justice for Ayda and the others poor children you killed.” Sinking to a crouch beside him, Omega sighed, then smiled thinly. “Oh, but nothingness is the perfect place to be. That’s where true peace is.”

Jericho tensed, confused as the fire in his chest was dampened by something heavy and suffocating—no. He tried to burn the feeling away. This person didn’t deserve the feeling. She—they—had taken everything. Lied. Tricked. But… Theta was Francis—

Omega’s smile fell, and she reached out to tap his nose. “If you pity me or feel guilty, then why did you kill me? Not even Iota is left to remember how I was now. So why?”

Just like Ayda before her, Omega crumbled into dust before he could answer.

Jericho head pounded. Something didn’t connect. He couldn’t understand it. There were too many contradictions. Alice said—

Another shadow flitted past him.

Tensing, sweating, Jericho looked up and found yet another familiar face staring down at him—Talib. Relief spread through Jericho’s chest at the sight of him.

“Hey, partner,” Talib greeted him with a two-fingered salute. “Fancy meeting you here.” 

“Talib, something is wrong,” Jericho said. “This place is wrong. The information is wrong.”

“It’s true, Jericho. All of it is.” Talib sank to a crouch in front of him. “Alice, Gabrielle, and I just found out about it. Weaponized conductors can elevate vitae to a higher level equal to what’s in reservoirs to some degree. Thirty-or-so percent is the conversion rate. People can be harvested for reservoirs, and when that happens, they can’t return to the cycle.”

Can’t return?

“There’s even people out there who’ve found a way to directly convert people into vitae for the reservoirs. One-hundred percent conversion. The chairs of Ophiuchus know about vitae conversion too.”

The sand in front of Jericho sifted upwards and took the shape of a human. The faceless figure turned towards Jericho as its skin blistered, the flesh from its head drooping onto its arms. Desperately, it reached out for him with a melting hand and touched his face before dissolving into a sickly puddle of dust.

No. Peacekeepers were good.

“Alice didn’t want me to tell you though. See, I’ve always had a hunch that she was working for the Organization. Had a hunch that Ophiuchus wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows too.”

Alice? Ophiuchus? Why? ELPIS was right.

“‘ELPIS is right’? Oh, come now, Jericho.” Talib chuckled. “They’re fools. Look at the damage that they’ve done in the pursuit of their passion. They say they’re the last hope, but they’re just like every other person out there. Self-righteous and pitiable. They made you use conductors too and use them themselves. Well, at least most of them have stayed true to who they are since the very beginning.”

A chorus of wails and cries erupted behind Jericho. When he turned, he saw flickering red flames consuming the place he had once called home. The fire ate away at the colorful tents and tarps, graying them away into ash. Silhouettes darted out from the tents and screeched as rays of white light struck them down. The parched sand soaked up all the red spilling out beneath the tarps, tents, and cloth.

Home

“It doesn’t matter if they’re ‘not the same people.’”

Jericho tore his eyes away from the decimation and found Talib rising to a stand.

“They’re still ELPIS. It was still some version of them that did all of those things. And even if they weren’t the exact same people who did those things to you, your family, and those children, they still influenced the people who did. Without them, all of this would’ve never happened. Wouldn’t you say so, Jericho?”

Yes. Correct. ELPIS was wrong. But—

“Saying ‘it wasn’t them’ or ‘things are different now’ just because you learned something new about them… What does that make everything you’ve done until now? Senseless murder? That’s not very peacekeeper-like.” 

Jericho stomach churned at Talib’s words. He didn’t understand why Talib was saying these things. Being around Talib usually was ‘pleasant.’ But not now. Intuition. Something was wrong with Talib—

“I’m not the one who’s wrong, partner,” Talib said gently. “But we can figure out who’s wrong together. And make sure they’re brought to justice.”

Justice?

But—no. Jericho did not want to think about justice or ELPIS or the past. He wanted to find something new. He wanted to see Atienna or Alice. They always said things that made sense.

“Focus on something new?” Talib frowned. “Can you really leave behind things that easily? You wouldn’t be so different from ELPIS if you did that. Pushing everything into one idea and then abandoning it. Over and over again.”

No, Jericho thought. He wasn’t ELPIS. Not anymore—

Another shadow passed over him. But it was not a shadow from the past—not exactly. Standing only a meter away from him was a small child with tanned skin and jet-black hair. His charcoal-colored eyes contrasted the whip of white vitae spilling out from the conductor in his hand. “Once something is a part of you, it can never leave you.”

The boy disintegrated into the sand, revealing Talib standing behind him.

“Don’t you want to bring peace to Signum? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do as peacekeepers? Realpeacekeepers, I mean. Everyone lies, Jericho. Ophiuchus, ELPIS. To themselves and other people. And because people believe in those lies—that’s why there can never be peace.”

Jericho looked up at Talib as he neared.

“‘Fortunately’ everything returns to the cycle—for the most part anyways.” Talib grimaced.

Yes. The cycle was real. The Anima-Vitae Hypothesis was real. ELPIS was right. Conductors were evil. Just like ELPIS was evil. And peacekeepers who knew about vitae conversion were evil. And Jericho knew he was both of those things. Therefore—

“You have the conducting ability to wipe out everything that’s wrong with the world just like that—without the eyes that make you see too much and hesitate.” Talib extended his hand, chuckling. “That’s why they say justice is blind, right? But the question is what are you going to do about it?”

Jericho hesitantly accepted the gesture and rose to his feet.

If everything was wrong, then the only way to make things right was by erasing all of that wrong. Yes. Erase everything. Reset to what was right. That was justice.

“If that’s what you think is right.” Talib nodded, smiling genially. “Whatever you do, partner, I’ll be on the ride with you.”

If Talib agreed to it, then it had to be the right path. Talib was ‘good’ when it came to these things. And they were partners. Yes. But how would they achieve their goals?

“I’ve got you there, partner.” Talib pulled out his knife pen conductor from his pocket and twirled it. “Gamma, Beta, and Tau actually abducted someone I was looking into. Dämon Forstchritt. They’re quite a smart bunch so they’ve been trying to hide from my view for the most part. But I actually gifted Dämon with a pair of earrings that I turned into my mediums much earlier. Bright woman swallowed them as soon as they caught her, so I found them and put another medium on them. We can track them that way.”

Yes. Talib was reliable. Talib made sense.

“If you lead,” Jericho said, turning to survey the sand, “I will follow—”

“Wait…”

Jericho turned back to Talib.

The man’s head was bowed low, his lips pulled downwards, his eyes narrowed. “Well, maybe this is all a bit too much. You’re… confused. This doesn’t make sense, does it? You should probably find Alice—”

Jericho could hear the blood roaring in his ears. “No. I need to finish it.”

Talib stiffened before his lips curled upwards. “Well, if you say so, partner. You were always the passionate sort. Say, do you remember what I said to you about passion the very first time we met?” 

Jericho shook his head.

“‘Passion is neither good nor bad,’” Talib recited. “‘Without it, there would be nothing driving a person to dream.’ So let’s complete your dream, partner.”

* * *

Jericho followed Talib through the orange-tone sandy dunes with the yellow sun beating over his head. Occasionally, he would see flashes of gray and black, the sound of static, a flash of men and women, and blue flags and picket signs. He wasn’t sure if they were real, but that didn’t matter. His end goal did.

Eventually, he and Talib stumbled across a Capricornian with one arm who seemed to have come out from nowhere. Although Jericho did not recognize the man, the man recognized him—recognized Werner. The man said his name was Gilbert and he went on to speak of things Jericho did not understand. 

Before Jericho could question Gilbert further, strange men in Capricornian uniforms rose from the sand around him, their bodies solidifying from grain into man. In their hands, they gripped conductors—ready to use without remorse.

Sinful. Breaking the cycle.

Talib whispered into his ear saying, “Look at them, partner. They’re disrupting the cycle of vitae. There can’t be any peace when people like them are around.”

Erase. 

And so Jericho disposed of all of them, returning them to the cycle so that they wouldn’t disrupt the cycle. They would be at peace that way. Everyone would be at peace that way. Real peace.

Despite holding this thought in mind, however, doubt curled in Jericho’s stomach as he watched Conductors crumble away beneath his conductor. But then Ayda appeared out from the sand beside Talib and reminded him—“You need to keep your promise, Jericho. Let’s focus.”

Correct. If he didn’t focus, then he had killed her back then for nothing. And so Jericho did just that, refocusing his attention on Gilbert who remained standing stiffly before him.

A Conductor? he wondered. But—

“Wait. Not him,” Talib interjected from behind him before Jericho could reach a decision. “He’ll be for later. Trust me, partner.”

Right. Gilbert knew Werner. Gilbert seemed to care for Werner. Conclusion: Gilbert was Werner’s friend. Not to be touched.

Leaving Gilbert alone, Jericho continued following Talib’s direction through the arid, sandy dunes until he eventually came face-to-face with them. He did not see those tattoos on their bodies, but his heart throttled with a familiar hatred. He knew it was them.

Izsak. No. Gamma. Beta. Tau. ELPIS Leaders. Wrong. 

Their names pounded into his skull—and so he began pounding into them. Sliding along the weak sandy ground, rolling down the mounds, crashing into the occasional cactus and barren tree—he gave them chase. He felt no pain as he crashed left and right. And he knew they didn’t either. And yet still they ran, their footsteps leaving faint impressions in the sand.

As he cornered them on a slope, he thought to himself, How dare they run from what they’d done—

Abruptly, Alice appeared out from nowhere, calling his name from a sandy hill in the distance. Her frigid gaze pierced him through and caused him to become hyper-aware of his every action. He felt as if she could read his mind, and for some reason, he felt ashamed.

Then, he noticed a peculiarity: despite there being no rain, Alice was drenched from head to toe. The water droplets that fell from her hair and clothes were swallowed by the parched sand beneath her feet. Intuition. Something was wrong 

Distraction. 

Right.

The next few moments came in a blur of beige and gray. Then suddenly, Jericho came across a man dragging himself away from him along the ground. The man was bandaged, the sun’s rays barely touching his pink skin that peeked out from beneath the wrapped cloth on his arms and legs.

“That’s P.D. Oran,” Talib informed him.

Oran was the one who broke the cycle. He discovered a way to turn people directly into vitae. Oran needed to be brought to justice.

Just as Jericho was about to bring the man to justice, however, a voice called out to him once more. It was Alice again, standing on that far-off sandy hill. Staring into him. She proceeded to tell him things that didn’t make sense. She said it wasn’t real, that he was being fed everything by a Manipulator, that the cycle didn’t matter.

But Alice was a peacekeeper, Jericho thought. And peacekeepers were wrong. Alice didn’t know. No, she knew, but she kept it from him. A liar.

And so he continued, wrapping his hands around Oran’s throat for the sake of peace. But just as the man’s bones were about to crack beneath his hand, Oran disappeared into the sand. Jericho clawed at the ground desperately, but it was no use. Gone.

Jericho stood, turned, and then saw her. Saw Theta. She stood in front of him, basking beneath the desert sun just as she’d done all those years ago. Her head was hidden by that same white cloak, and the tattoo on the side of her face glowed a familiar white in the heat. The one who had brought him in. Right before him.

“If anyone needs to be brought to justice, it’s Theta,” Talib said from behind him.

Jericho agreed. But as he went for Theta, Alice tried to stop him by putting her conductor around his wrist—still he continued forward after the ELPIS leader relentlessly. He pinned Theta down, stabbed through her conductor-gloved hand with a stray piece of glass he’d found in the sand, and lifted his whip conductor in the air.

The heat from the sun intensified, matching the heat surging from his chest to his head. Pounding, pounding. Just one touch. If it was in long enough. Gone—the beginning of everything. The end would come if the beginning didn’t exist.

Jericho brought the whip down with all of his might—

But then a hand around his wrist stopped him short.

Jericho turned, half-expecting to see Alice there again. Instead, he found another:

“Werner?”

The Capricornian stood beside him, eyes distant, lips drawn firmly into a frown. The sun’s rays beating down from above did not touch the man’s skin, so he looked trapped in shadow and unnatural.

He wasn’t real, Jericho concluded.

“I am real, Jericho,” Werner assured him. “You need to stop at once.”

Werner was real. He was here. Relief flooded Jericho’s chest at this. But—

“Stop?”

Jericho turned back to stare at Theta, only to find that her skin had abruptly softened into wet sand. The sludgy material slid from her face and revealed Francis Foxman’s face beneath it. The man stared up at Jericho with furrowed brows and tight lips. Something was not right. Jericho’s confusion, however, dissipated as soon as he laid eyes on the snake tattoo again. The one thing that did not change.

“You did not stop me before,” Jericho said. “You helped me. With Omega. But not with Theta. Why? You said it was better to complete what you start. No problem later. I need to finish.”

“That was a different circumstance,” Werner replied, tightening his grip. “Omega was an adversary. Francis is a potential ally. You need to calm down and stop using your vitae. From what I understand, the Manipulator’s presence in my body is stretching us thin. If you continue to expel your vitae, my condition will deteriorate and so will yours.”

“Manipulator?”

No—“deteriorate”? Werner deteriorate? Jericho did not want that. But—

“Francis is with ELPIS—

Werner grabbed Jericho’s left shoulder, jerked him back, and squeezed. “You do not have time to be engaging with ELPIS, Jericho. The highest priority enemy is Scorpio, the Manipulator that’s infected all of us through me. He’s fueling animosity in my country and is using it to harvest vitae for the reservoirs. Your duty as a peacekeeper is to protect and preserve the peace in Signum. Participating in and fueling the unrest in Capricorn is going against that. Regardless of what Ophiuchus as a peacekeeping agency may be, you must uphold your personal standards. Is that clear?”

“I became a peacekeeper to destroy ELPIS….”

“You won’t be able to destroy ELPIS by going after them like this,” Werner replied. “It needs to be torn out at the root and its supply cut off. If not, it will only regrow.” His eyes narrowed. “Like a spore.”

Jericho didn’t understand the analogy.

“We need to adapt, Jericho. All of us.” Werner tightened his grip on Jericho’s slightly and moved Jericho’s fingers to the switch on the conductor. “Jericho, enough.”

Head buzzing, Jericho allowed the man to switch his conductor off. The hilt of it still burned hot in his hand.

“What do you think you’re doing, Werner?”

Werner stiffened.

Jericho stared over the man’s shoulder and found a thin, pale woman standing beside Talib and Ayda there. The woman’s gaze was piercing just as Alice’s was. But instead of feeling as if she was reading his mind like Alice, Jericho felt more like she was putting thoughts into his mind. He looked back at Werner. It was the first time he had seen the man so tense and uneasy.

“What are you doing, honey?” The woman sighed. “Jericho is a peacekeeper. You’re interfering. It’s none of your business. It’s embarrassing! Look at him, Werner. What do you think he’ll think of you if you—”

“Ignore it,” Werner urged.

“What? You’re really deciding to become what she thinks you should be? It’s not even really you. You don’t even realize it.” The woman grimaced, half in disgust. “If you keep this up, there won’t be anything of you left.”

Both the woman and Ayda both melted into sand as Talib looked on expressionlessly.

Jericho tightened his grip on his conductor again. “But, Werner—conductors. ELPIS was right. Talib showed me. Told me.”

“That is not Talib, but an illusion that Scorpio is trying to use against you.”

An illusion? Like Cadence? But that didn’t change the fact that conductors—

Werner continued slowly, “The existence of ELPIS and conductors may not be acceptable to you from your standpoint, but both are still assets. If you want to achieve something, you need to do it methodically and pragmatically.”

Jericho stared.

“I understand you’re confused, Jericho, but acting out when you’re confused is not the correct course of action.”

That… made sense, Jericho thought: He should stop because he was confused. But his chest still burned with rage, and his limbs were on fire. He felt like he was going to explode if he pushed any of this down anymore. ELPIS. Conductors. Peacekeepers. And—

Jericho looked into Werner’s eyes, searching, “You are… not lying to me?”

Werner met his gaze evenly. “I’m not. I’m here to assist you, Jericho. You can trust me.”

Assist. Help—but why? Answer: Werner wanted to prevent his body from dying. To prevent a political disaster from the others dying from his death. To save his country.

“Yes, those are some of the primary reasons,” Werner agreed. There was a long stretch of silence. But I also don’t want you to be hurt. 

Jericho couldn’t comprehend the thought—the feeling. Werner had been the one out of them who wanted to cut the connection off the most. “Inefficient, risky, unacceptable in the long term, dangerous” was what he’d called it. But Werner had also helped him with Omega. Werner was…? Confusing.

Werner opened his mouth, hesitated, and then pressed his lips into a thin line.

I care about your well-being, Jericho. I want to protect you.

Thunder rumbled in the distance, and rain drizzled down as the sky began to gray.

Although Jericho could not comprehend how Werner had suddenly come to that conclusion, he could feel it. The words not said out loud. They seeped faintly through an unseen crack into him.

“If you continue acting recklessly, you will regret it,” Werner continued. “You need to control your emotions. There is no benefit in continuing this.” He glanced down at Theta. “Responsibility should be taken by the person who committed the action, but this is not the Theta who took you in. Pursuing the past when it’s no longer there is a poor investment of time.”

Jericho nodded slowly, feeling the pounding in his heart sizzle away as the drizzle thickened into dolloping droplets of water.

Right. Werner was reliable. Werner made sense. And Werner stated it himself: Werner… cared for him.

Reality slowly began to dawn on Jericho, and he suddenly became aware of the heat and weight of his conductor. He grabbed Werner’s phantom hand and squeezed. The man did not pull away.

“But then if you are… not lying. If you are real, then I—”

“Jericho. You’ve made a mistake,” Werner agreed calmly, “but it… isn’t your fault. This Manipulator is strategic. It can dissect and target weaknesses with ease. Regardless, you can’t change what you’ve done. Acknowledge what happened, then—”

Werner abruptly winced, pulled his hands away, and gripped his chest. Beneath his fingers, blue cracks appeared and began to expand across his body. Before Jericho could understand the development, Werner sank to his knees and began to hack and cough as he held the side of his head. He heaved and gagged and then—out from his mouth splattered a handful of shiny, iridescent, blue bodies. Scorpions.

The rain was coming down hard now, rinsing the grains of sand down the sloping hills.

“You’re hurt. I can’t feel you. I don’t understand.” Jericho reached out for him in confusion. “I can take some of the pain.”

Werner snapped his head up and met his gaze. “No. You need to be able to provide your vitae to the others to handle Scorpio’s towers and spores. It’s the only solution. And—”

A blurry image passed through Jericho’s mind. No, a single word. A message.

Before Jericho could fully digest the meaning of the word, the blue cracks enveloped Werner’s body completely. A terrible, crystalline sound like glass cracking echoed through Jericho’s mind before Werner’s image shattered to pieces before his very eyes—just like the way the people he used his conductor on shattered.

Then there was silence. Dead silence.

Suddenly, Jericho became aware that there was no sand. There was no sun. There was only rain—cold and pouring down in sheets. Beneath him was Theta, swimming in the puddle of water beneath him. Behind him was Alice. Glass was scattered on the ground. Cold, square buildings stood rigid at his left and right. Several steps away, he spotted Gilbert and another man rising to twin stands. Across from them stood two of the ELPIS leaders. Gamma, Wtorek Izsak. Tau. Another one pulled out from an alley to his right and stood behind Gamma. Beta, familiar.

There was no heat outside or inside. There was no hollowness. There was numbness. And there was heaviness, like an anchor pulling down his chest. Familiar.

Jericho pulled himself off of Theta and stared at him. At the tattoo on his face. Before Jericho could speak to the man, however, the man suddenly launched himself at him as a metallic bang rang out above the sound of the rain. Theta landed on top of Jericho as they fell, but the man quickly picked himself up and turned to face Gamma whose drawn pistol was still billowing with smoke.

“I will not let you harm this True Conductor. There is no point in targeting them,” Theta said, before gesturing loosely to Jericho. “Look at him, Gamma. He is a byproduct of what we’ve done in this era.”

“ I am not the one who took children in, Theta,” Gamma responded, cocking his pistol. “I’ve always known why we’re here.”

Across from Gamma, Gilbert reached for his own pistol. Theta seemed to notice him, and he held out a halting hand and shook his head. Gilbert scowled, brow arched, but stopped short and remained stiff.

“Returning them to the cycle is more generous than ‘saving’ them and having them suffer through enduring the aftermath,” Gamma said. “You should have known what was going to happen to them if you took them in.”

Jericho’s head swam at the phrase. Returning to the cycle—

Theta’s eyes narrowed, but then he smiled calmly and spread his arms. “Let’s make a deal.”

Gamma frowned. “What.”

Theta reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a knife-shaped pendant with a glass handle that emitted white light. He dangled it from its chain on his index finger.

“That belongs to Iota.” Gamma frowned. “You—”

“No. Scorpio did it,” Theta responded calmly. “Zu was initiated—incorrectly. He goes by Alwin now. Anyway, he encountered Iota on the train ride here. She gave her resistor to him since she was incapacitated by the Capricornians. I’ll give you it in exchange for a temporary… laydown of arms.”

“You—”

“And I’ll hand Oran over to you too.” Theta held up his crumbling conductor glove, the blood from his hand trickling down his sleeve. “After this is fixed, of course. You intend to keep him alive, which is a wise choice given his research and development work in this era—”

Francis,” Alice drew warningly. “We can’t just hand over—”

Theta glanced back at her and frowned. “I apologize, Agent Kingsley, but this is how business is done—”

Gamma interjected, “Do you think this is enough to—”

“I know where the daughter is,” Theta replied, turning back to face him.

Gamma froze, tense as he reached for his chest pocket and pressed his palm flat against it. He tensed after. Beta stared at him, eyes narrowing.

“The suitcase peacekeeper can conduct like Libra,” Theta continued casually. “He doesn’t have her eyes, but we’re in contact with someone who does. They’ve got more of a chance handling Scorpio than the rest of you do. No point in trying to educate the masses and prove a point in a situation like this either. No one will listen. Besides stopping Scorpio wasn’t why you came around here, right? We should divvy up the work to be productive.”

Gamma’s brows furrowed, and he did not lower his pistol. “That suitcase peacekeeper is infected.”

“And he can remove the infection.”

Gamma’s eyes narrowed.

“I understand your determination, Gamma, but I know you’re not unreasonable. Oran, Iota’s resistor, and my proto-conductors in exchange for allowing me to handle this problem we have here—for a time period of your choice, of course. What do you say?”

After a moment, Gamma held up three index fingers with his pistol-wielding hand.

Gamma,” Beta pressed but then fell silent and shook her head.

Theta tossed Gamma the resistor which the other man caught with ease. Gamma pocketed it, then they held each other’s gazes. In the distance, Jericho could hear the faint pop-popping sounds again in the rain-peppered tension. It sounded far off, like a dream. Finally, Gamma turned and began to stalk off down the street with Tau and Beta in tow.

Don’t let them go!

Jericho clutched his chest as his heart began to hammer wildly. No. Werner said not to act if he was confused.

Get them. Get them! I said get them! How can you let them go? Going after ELPIS is your only reason for livin—

“We should probably find somewhere to get out of the rain,” Theta said, turning to Jericho once the trio were out of sight. “I assure you that Gamma will not harm Oran if he’s kept Oran alive for this long—” He paused. “Are you alright?”

Jericho stared at the tattoo on Theta’s face again. The man held his gaze for a moment before staring over his shoulder. Jericho turned and found Alice approaching slowly him from behind.

“Who stopped you?” Alice asked once she was only a step away. She scanned his face. “Was it one of the ones you’re connected to?”

Alice knew? Alice knew. Knew about the truth about conductors too but did not tell him. A liar. Wait. No. Incorrect. Werner said not to act out if he was confused.

Jericho nodded stiffly. “He helped. Then he disappeared. Synchronization. He was in pain.”

Gilbert and the other Capricornian approached them slowly, cautiously, keeping a countable distance.

“Who’s ‘he’?” Gilbert asked. “Werner?”

They were afraid, Jericho realized. He dipped his head. “Unsure. I tried to take the pain, but he didn’t let me.”

“Sounds like Werner,” Gilbert grumbled before he searched his face and snapped, “Well? How is he?”

“I am alive, so he is alive. Unsure. I am…” Jericho searched for the word. “…worried.”

“Well if you’re worried, then I’m fucking screwed,” Gilbert muttered.

“I am sorry.” Jericho looked to the ground. “I… was… not me. I was me, but—” He gestured around himself “—this wasn’t here. I was somewhere else—”

“You turn a bunch of people into vitae particles and all you say is ‘sorry’?” Gilbert arched a brow. He paused, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Wait— what?”

Jericho opened his mouth, then closed it. “I… am not sure what else to say. Those people. I thought I was…. Returning them. But it won’t be the same. Alice said that. I remember now. I was confused. I am still confused. But I know where I am. Not back there. Here. I—”

—took people away from the people that cared about them. Just like before. Gone. All gone.

You haven’t changed.

“I am sorry”—this time Jericho’s words were not to those who currently stood before him but those who had once stood before him and his conductor. “I am sorry.”

Thunder rumbled across the darkening sky.

“‘Confused’?” Gilbert looked less angry now.

“But I… I will not act,” Jericho pressed. “I promise. Not when I am confused. I… am sorry. Again.”

Gilbert remained frowning, looking him over carefully before sighing. “Saints. Forget it…”

Jericho glanced down at Alice as he felt her gaze prick his skin. She was staring into him again, reading his thoughts.

“I knew I should have pushed harder against them when they approved you to take on cases.” Alice shook her head as she pulled the suppression cuffs from her waist. “I knew you weren’t ready, but I let it slip because you were so… enthusiastic about it. I gave in. You—”

Jericho felt his chest pound again but not with anger or a pumping drive. The pounding felt tight and constricting, making it hard to breathe in the cold, damp air. It was unpleasant. He did his best to not meet Alice’s mind-reading eyes.

Abruptly, Alice reached forward, not with her conducting glove or her suppression cuffs, but with her hands. She reached not for his wrists but for his waist. Before he realized what was happening, she’d wrapped her arms around him. He lifted his arms in surprise, stiff and uncertain.

“I’m sorry, Jericho,” she said through gritted teeth. “I let you go when I shouldn’t have. I didn’t notice the things that I should’ve noticed. You were too close. No, I was. I failed you as your doctor.”

Jericho hesitated, unsure of how to respond. He looked to those around him, but they avoided his gaze. After a moment of thinking and wishing he could consult Cadence, he slowly lowered his arms and returned the gesture. In turn, Alice tightened her embrace, and he rested his chin on her shoulder. Her warmth in the cold caused the pounding in his chest to slow to a steady beat.

“This is… good,” Jericho said after a moment.

Something out of the corner of his eye drew away his attention. Talib was still standing on a pile of sand a couple steps away, his trenchcoat and hat soaked completely with the rain.

When Jericho met his eyes, Talib bowed his head, pulling the lip of his fedora down. “I’m sorry, partner.”

Jericho stared at the man in confusion.

‘Sorry’?

Alice pulled out of Jericho’s arms slowly and showed him the suppression cuffs in her hand. Meeting his eyes, slowly, she said, “Jericho, I’m sorry, but we need to take precautionary measures.”

Recalling his first arrest by the peacekeeping agents many years ago, Jericho stared at the cuffs, then nodded slowly as he offered his wrists.

19.2: Doctor, 1130 Distance

References to (69) Part II | 10.5: Jericho’s Cycling (Vendetta).

Re-cap:

While Scorpio basks in his personal foreseen victory, a feverish Gilbert encounters Jericho who is being guided by Scorpio and destroying everything in his path. After following after the peacekeeper, Gilbert finds him engaged in combat against the ELPIS leaders Tau, Gamma, and Beta who have captured Dämon Forstchritt and P.D. Oran. Doctor and peacekeeper Alice Kingsley, pressed on by Scorpio’s taunts, nears the scene.

Meanwhile, Werner has reached a resolution at the threshold.


Abstand » A distance still unbreachable at 1130 hours

Alice had bought Jericho the blackbird as a form of therapy during the second year of him being in her care. To nurture another living being taught responsibility and the sanctity of life. Her coworkers, who occasionally shared Jericho as a patient, had thought it a brilliant idea. Deep down, however, Alice had known that she had been showing bias instead of discretion. The distance between patient and doctor quietly and irreverently breached, despite its maintenance being a necessity.

Her decision had not been motivated wholly by logic. She had simply seen Jericho admiring the local birds through the window of his room one day. Seeing him like that had stirred a sense of guilt in her since she’d received news from her department head that they wouldn’t be able to continue to have him in the department’s care due to budgetary concerns. Off to some other facility, he would be sent—which put a sour taste in Alice’s mouth since she knew the department head was aware of the poor conditions and state of such facilities outside of Ophiuchus. This paired with Jericho’s sudden relapse in behavior one day and the news one of her patient’s ‘suicide’ solidified Alice’s decision.

To this day, Alice still didn’t quite understand it. One evening, she had visited Jericho for one of their sessions only to find him glowering at her with an animosity she’d seen only when she’d gotten a glimpse of him when he’d first arrived in Ophiuchus. She’d conjectured that he’d somehow caught word of the ELPIS attack on the royal family of Aries and that had set back his progress.

Only when she’d given him the bird did he stop his glowering. He had been absolutely enamored with the bird, so much so that he’d dedicated his full attention to her when she’d explained how to care for it. He’d even shown great sadness, worry, and concern when the animal—which he’d cleverly named ‘Bird’—had broken its wing after a flight mishap. But then, on a warm evening in the middle of summer, she’d come into his room to find Bird resting in his hands with not only a broken wing but also a broken neck.

Alice had not approached Jericho with anger then—only requested an explanation. Much to her surprise, he had started talking about ‘cycles’ and returning things to the cycle. It was the first time she had heard such a concept from him; and she had to consult her co-workers’ notes for more information. There, she had found it all jotted down absentmindedly in the margins of one of their notes: ‘nothing truly died because everything returned to the cycle.’

It took her some time to gather her own notes, thoughts, and address the matter properly:

“‘You killed it to put it out of its suffering, and it doesn’t matter if it’s dead because it’ll return to the cycle’? Do you really believe that?” She’d looked him right in the eye then and said clearly: “That’s ridiculous. Even if that were true, even if someone’s vitae were to return to the ‘cycle,’ it wouldn’t be the same. It wouldn’t be ‘them’ anymore. Not really. The situation, the parts, the components will never be the same. That’s why they say life is precious. Do you understand?”

Jericho stared at her. “They… do not return to the cycle?” He stared at Bird in his hands. “Bird will not return to the cycle?”

“It doesn’t matter whether or not Bird returns to the cycle,” Alice had clarified, eyes narrowing. “It won’t be the same. The other birds who care for Bird won’t be the same. There will never be another Bird.”

“I returned people,” Jericho had responded. “With my conductor. The people with me in ELPIS too.” He had stared blankly ahead before his eyes drifted to her face. “What happened to them then? I thought they would return. But if not… then what did I do? I was wrong. I—” His searching gaze had stirred something in Alice’s chest.

After a moment, she had managed to gather her thoughts and settled on: “Forced ignorance is not willful ignorance. It wasn’t your fault back then, Jericho. But now that you know, it will be your responsibility from now on. Do you understand?”

Jericho’s brows had furrowed, reaching out for her arm with his hand. “No.”

Alice had pulled away. “If you don’t understand it, then you should refrain from using your conductor. Never act without understanding.”


Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

The rain was pouring down in sheets. Perhaps if it was any other circumstance, Alice Kingsley would have been reminded of home. Now, as she ran through Die Hauptstadt’s abandoned streets, it only registered as a nuisance. She’d already exchanged her high heels for a pair of boots she’d found discarded carelessly on the corner of a street earlier, but they were two sizes too large so running with them was difficult.

“How many of your patients relapsed back into the same old patterns, Alice?” Talib—no, Scorpio—had pressed when they’d been back beneath the leaking dome of the convention. “As you say, ‘the only person who can help yourself is you,’ so what are you even trying to do?”

Alice knew those had been merely words intended to incite a reaction. By belittling her work, Scorpio had hoped to whittle her will and confidence away. It was textbook. She also knew that it was not Talib but Scorpio saying those words, but the taunts still twisted her stomach.

The fact that Scorpio had led them go so freely also put her at unease. The memory of the pieces of his—Talib’s—imploded skull slowly fitting back together haunted her when she closed her eyes. It defied everything she understood about human biology—about humanity.

Obviously, there had to be some means for saint candidates to ‘die’ in order for their vitae to be passed on to another candidate—but given the extremities of a candidate’s capabilities, she knew they were nowhere near able to pull a feat like that off. So, rather than all of them leaving the convention intending to find a secondary solution to their problems, it seemed more like they were fleeing from him. And Scorpio surely lavished in that idea.

Alice knew her original purpose as a peacekeeper here was to evaluate the Augen movement and report any signs of potential threat and danger to the peace in Signum. She had obviously failed in that aspect. Just like, by not seeing and realizing the obvious, she had failed Flannery, Talib, Olive, and—no.

A shadow flitted ahead, causing Alice to duck behind the side of a building. Francis’s empty proto-conductor felt cold in her palm as she pressed against the wall with bated breath. She’d tried to use the proto-conductor numerous times already but with little result. She’d taken it from Gabrielle earlier when the woman had decided to split off and check on the safety of the diplomats who were apparently set to leave this evening at the train station. Gabrielle’s priorities were clear.

“You’re still trying to be peacekeepers?” Scorpio had chucked at this. “I guess we’re all habitual creatures even if it’s meaningless. Ophiuchus is a puppet.” 

Alice still wasn’t certain if Scorpio’s implication of Ophiuchus’s involvement and knowledge of the vitae conversion process was the truth. Scorpio’s intention in saying such things was to make them feel as if their efforts were meaningless. However, even if it were true that chairs of Ophiuchus knew of saint candidates and vitae conversion as Scorpio said—which in itself would partially explain how it had remained hidden for so long—it didn’t immediately imply that the entirety of Ophiuchus was involved.

Alice let out a quiet breath, watched as it fogged up the cool air, and re-centered her racing thoughts.

Although that was a pressing issue, at the moment it was a distant issue. The most prominent issue here for Alice now was Jericho. Her concern centered mostly around him gaining knowledge about the truth of conductors. If there was no one there—or perhaps if the wrong person was there—to help him process that revelation then…

The painful pops of gunfire peppered right by Alice’s ear as bullets chiseled away at the stone of the street. She squeezed her eyes shut as memories of huddling together with Talib and Flannery beneath bombardments whirled through her mind. Once the pattering rain was all she could hear, Alice returned to reality, opened her eyes, and peered around the corner. Faintly through the mist rolling down the street, she caught sight of the retreating slick back of a v-ehicle she hadn’t seen in years: a tank with a squarish body and a mounted v-cannon at its forefront.

When it disappeared from her sight fully, she pulled out from her hiding place. She continued down the road quickly, pausing only when a whimpering reached her ears. Alice stopped short and turned towards the sound just as she neared the street corner.

Nestled in the arch of a doorway was a young boy in suspenders and a cap that was soaked thoroughly through with the rain. The boy was draped over the pale, prostrate, unmoving body of a young woman in an evening dress.

Alice darted over to them and sank to the woman’s side. The woman’s dress was riddled with bullet holes, while red stained the blue ribbon tied into a bow at the front of her chest. Her neck was bent at an awkward angle, her glassy and open eyes filled with rainwater.

The boy blubbered in Capricornian but it was nothing coherent.

Something warm splattered onto Alice’s face as she tried to comprehend the scene. Upon looking upwards, she spied a deep blue Augen flag that was also riddled with bullet holes hanging from the highest window. A streak of red that ran down the flag was steadily dripping down onto her face. The banister hidden just behind the flag was soaked in the same color.

Alice concluded that this woman had been hit by a stray bullet because she had been standing behind the Augen flag and had subsequently fallen here. Dead upon or before impact. A civilian. An accidental casualty.

“Is this your mother?” Alice asked the boy in Capricornian.

“M-Mutti…” the boy whimpered.

“I understand you’re afraid,” Alice drew, extending her conductor-gloved hand, “but we need to leave now.”

The boy shook his head, drawing close to his mother’s corpse and clinging tightly.

“Your mother is dead,” Alice informed him calmly. “She died trying to protect you. Let’s not waste her efforts.”

The boy’s tears simply came out harder, and his wails nearly drowned out the rain. Before Alice could think of another solution, a burst of pale tangerine light warmed her back. Upon turning, she found Francis hovering just behind her. She tensed at the sight of him.

Offering her a nod, Francis sank to a crouch in front of the child, reached forward, and wiped a tear from the boy’s cheek. “Your mother has returned to the cycle, but I will still take her somewhere safe. Will you allow me to take you somewhere safe as well?”

The boy sniffled, then nodded.

Francis swept the boy into his arms and returned the boy’s death-like cling gently. “When kids are pulled into the fights that adults start, then that’s when you know you’re beating down the wrong path.” He rose up to a stand with the boy in tow. “That’s common sense, isn’t it? But there are some causes that people believe are important enough to ignore that common sense.” He glanced at her, smiling thinly. “I suppose I’m talking about us in ELPIS too.”

“And what do you plan on doing with that boy?”

Francis frowned, seeming to understand her implication. “I’ll take him somewhere safe. Once things settle in this country, I’ll find his family and return him to their care. If they have a home, they should be returned to their home. But right now it’s too dangerous.”

Alice stood up. “I tried reaching you earlier. Scorpio was Talib. He was hiding in plain view the entire time. He revealed himself at the convention.”

Francis’s gaze narrowed. “Mr. Al-Jarrah? That’s a shame…” He lowered his head. “I apologize. My focus was on finding Maria—rather, the peacekeeper. I didn’t think to pay attention to the convention… Where is Nico?”

Alice studied his face. “He went with the Capricornians.”

Francis relaxed slightly, his expression returning to its impassiveness. “I apologize for not getting to you sooner.” He turned to her, extending his hand. “I’ve found him. The suitcase peacekeeper. Agent Jericho. The situation isn’t looking too good. Miss Law said to come to you regarding him, but I’m not sure your presence or words will suffice. Although… I believe your suppression cuffs, in this case, will be especially useful.” He pointed to her conductor-gloved hand. “And perhaps that thing as well.”

* * *

After Francis dropped the boy off at some place he wouldn’t disclose to her, he took Alice through his gate. Passing through it again brought Alice back unpleasant memories of her time in the Twin Cities.

Personally, Alice did not hold Francis or Theta in high regard. Francis Foxman—although he hid it well—was the leader of a criminal organization operating out of the Twin Cities, after all. Theta, on the other hand, was a terrorist—perhaps even a cultist. Theta had been the one to hold her for ransom too, while a past version of Theta had been the one who had taken Jericho in. Although Alice felt some form of sympathy for Francis, she held less for Theta. Ironically, from her observations, she concluded that it was ‘Theta’ that disinclined Francis from acts of reckless violence.

Gabrielle’s ease working with less than savory parties like this had always put Alice at un ease but this alliance was pushing boundaries and felt unsaintly. Just being near the man put Alice on edge. Right now his calm, collected lack of urgency was unsettling and signaled a sense of detachment which didn’t help the discomfort she felt around him.

“What makes a peacekeeper a good peacekeeper?”  Scorpio had goaded. “Is it rigidity of morals or flexibility or morals? Flexibility or rigidity in beliefs? Does a good peacekeeper keep their standards the same when facing a group with different values or does a good peacekeeper adapt their standards to the situation? Well, in one case, you would be the perfect peacekeeper, Alice. In the other case, you would be the worst. The opposite goes for you, Frau Law.”

“You can open your eyes. We’re here.”

Alice hadn’t realized that she had been squeezing her eyes shut, but she didn’t need to open her eyes to know of their arrival. She could feel it in the air. There was a heaviness yet an electricity to it that made it suffocating.

Alice opened her eyes.

Toppled buildings missing either their top halves or sides barely stood on their legs around her. Smoke rose from them as thinning, faint off-white lines either dulled into nothing in the remaining stone walls or spread further and ate away at each brick. The street beneath her feet was scorched with claw-like marks and riddled with bullet holes.

“This way,” Francis said as he led her down the street. “I found the peacekeeper at the Kaiser’s rally. Gamma and the others were there too—their intentions were most likely to execute the Kaiser publicly due to his involvement and his property as a tower… Jericho most likely was tracking them. In the chaos, the Kaiser escaped—if you have lingering concerns about him.”

Eventually, Francis led her out from the street onto a narrow, metal bridge. Two familiar-looking men were standing at the bridge’s mid-section looking down the left-side railings. Klaus Kleine and Gilbert Wolff, if Alice recalled correctly. The last time she had seen Second Lieutenant Wolff was when they’d been below the city. It had only been a night or two ago since then, but it felt like an eternity, especially since the lieutenant was now clearly missing an arm.

Alice followed both men’s gazes to a v-tram that was rolling just below the bridge.

Wtorek Izsak—no, Gamma—stood on one end of the rain-slick v-tram. Behind him was a man barely identifiable as P.D. Oran. The bandages wrapped around the latter man’s arms and legs were weeping and soaked through.

Alice grimaced as the memory of the Ariesian prince standing in that blazing crimson inferno flashed through her mind. She folded it away and glanced to the other end of the tram.

On that end stood a familiar man dressed in a military police officer’s uniform—Tau. Beside him stood a woman Alice recalled seeing accompanying Gamma: Beta. White tendrils of vitae protruded from a large gash running down the woman’s forearm. Behind the both of them sat an almost unrecognizable Dämon Forstchritt, hair dampened, lab coat stained with mud. And yet, despite her less than put-together appearance, Dämon’s eyes were bright, her body tipped forward, and her mouth slightly parted. Fascination.

The object of her fascination seemed to be the man who stood in-between both ELPIS leaders at the center of the v-tram roof. Alice recognized him immediately from his body language: the stiffness, the rigidity, the tenseness—like a dam waiting to break. The off-white whip of vitae pouring out from his steaming conductor was the final identifier. Jericho.

Every other second, Beta would send out a tendril of white towards Jericho which he would simply disintegrate into nothing with a whip of his conductor. The sound that both lights made when crashing up against each other was something in-between a screech and a whine. The bullets Gamma and Tau fired off at Jericho met the same fate. The one who held the advantage was obvious.

As the v-tram rolled beneath them, Francis briskly walked to the opposite side of the bridge. As the tram came out from under that end, he dribbled his blood from a cut on his bare palm over the railings onto the tram. Gilbert joined Francis with a grimace. Instead of observing the tram with Francis, however, Gilbert dragged his body over the rails and made to fling himself down at the v-tram.

Alice darted to his side, grabbed him, and pulled him back down before he jumped—at least, she tried to. He was a rather muscular man, so the weight of him throwing himself off the bridge nearly took her down with him. Thankfully, Kleine grabbed her around the waist and pulled them both back up with a grunt. Once they were all collapsed back on the bridge safely, Gilbert stared at her.

“You’re the peacekeeper,” he noted as if just noticing her presence. “Lending us a helping hand finally?”

Alice frowned at him from where she sat panting. Despite the cold rain, his cheeks were deeply flushed and his eyes were half-glazed.

“Don’t be a fool, Herr Wolff,” she returned calmly in his native tongue. “You’re in no condition to do anything at the moment. Look at yourself. Stay here.”

Gilbert paled as if he’d been slapped, then grumbled, “Well, you peacekeepers sure are tactful.” He nodded over the railings. “Where’s the ELPIS Department when you need them? Normally I’d say to hell with those ELPIS bastards, but that guy is blasting out his vitae like he’s popping a damn champagne bottle. Werner’s looking more and more like shit with every second. Whoever that is, he’s dangerous and out of his mind.”

“T-That’s not Maria anymore, Agent Kingsley,” Kleine stammered, shaking the water from his glasses as he joined them. “It’s—”

Alice wiped her glasses too. “I know who it is.”

Kleine’s lips thinned.

Francis dribbled some of his blood onto the ground, then sank down, and pressed his gloved hand against the rainwater-diluted pool of red. The puddle lit up with murky pale tangerine light as did a spot on the v-tram behind Jericho’s back in front of Tau and Beta.

“Wait—”

But Francis sank into the light before Alice could stop him. As she expected, when Alice peered over the railings she saw Jericho abruptly swivel around and send out a whip of his vitae out towards the glowing tangerine gate on the v-tram behind him. A terrible, metallic screech filled the air as the colors clashed against each other. Both vitae shattered with a burst of blinding light.

Francis flew back out from the gate he’d entered beside Alice and then cracked against the opposite railings. Kleine darted after him and steaded him.

“A-Are you okay?” Kleine stammered. “What happened?”

“There is no pain,” Francis reassured him as he accepted the gesture and brushed himself off. “The suitcase peacekeeper broke apart the vitae particles that made up the exit gate. When there’s no exit, the only way is back… which is most likely why Gamma and the others haven’t made it through any of my gates.”

“So… Scorpio is just using whoever that is to add more to the reservoir?” Kleine asked tentatively. “And to take down ELPIS? Is that what he’s trying to do? Or is this all just…”

Francis’s eyes narrowed. “Bleaching of the vitae makes it impossible to return to the cycle. This property also makes it so that the probability of elevating vitae to the higher level is significantly lower. Our conductors paired with the way we conduct further decrease that rate. But the color of Jericho’s vitae now…” He shook his head. “Regardless, I believe all Scorpio is doing now is putting on a show.”

Alice could see that clearly. She grimaced, clenching her conductor-gloved fist, then eyed the pistol strapped to Francis’s side.

Another terrible screeching sound filled the air as a tendril of white light shot up to the sky only to disintegrate into nothing a second later.

Francis abruptly came up beside Alice and said, “I understand that ELPIS is your enemy. I understand you view us as terrorists. I understand you don’t like me as either Francis or Theta because of what we’ve done to you and what we are. I apologize although I know my apology means little. But I am…” He frowned. “…here to help—admittedly for reasons separate from yours, I’m sure. Gamma is the only one initiated who knows everything about the syzygy. We need him alive in the long run—”

“If what you need is a distraction so you can get them, then just say it.”

Francis’s eyes widened before his expression fell flat. “I need a distraction.”

Alice nodded before popping above the railings and shouting, “Jericho!”

“Crazy woman,” Gilbert hissed between gritted teeth, as if he hadn’t just been about to launch himself down at the man.

Jericho paused and looked over his shoulder towards Alice and then through her. His distant gaze was familiar and reminded her of the first time she’d ever seen him. Still, she held his gaze—although she tensed when she saw Beta lift her hand and send white tendrils into the air.

Before the tendrils could strike, Francis sank back into his gate. He reappeared behind Jericho’s back and pulled Tau, Beta, and Forstchritt back into the gate. Although Alice felt a draft of cold air behind her, she didn’t turn and instead continued to hold Jericho’s gaze. She supposed she would have held his attention for hours if Gamma hadn’t so obviously stiffened at Francis’s reappearance and disappearance.

Jericho whipped around and registered that the trio was no longer behind him before flinging his whip conductor back out at Gamma. Just before the tip of the whip made contact, Francis reappeared in front of Gamma and shoved the man down out of the whip’s way. The whip of off-white continued along its path, crashing against the buildings to the left, scoring off-white cracks into them. The cracks expanded and ate away at the brick and mortar and as structures gave way, falling into dust and rubble.

The rainfall was too loud for Alice to tell if anyone had still been inside. She felt faint. She knew Jericho was always reckless when it came to ELPIS. This was why she had been so against him taking up cases in the first place. A chance encounter could lead to destruction. She had thought that perhaps by joining with Gabrielle, he could find a new purpose and goal to strive for. After the Twin Cities incident, she’d even seen signs of improvement in Jericho’s obsession. But perhaps all that had been was the influence of these other ‘True Conductors’ he was connected with. Regardless, it was still progress. But now all of it was—

Before Jericho could raise his conductor again, Francis reappeared and dragged Gamma and Oran down through the gate. Alice pulled away from the railings as another burst of air brushed against her back and turned to find Gamma pointing his gun at Francis, who remained just as impassive as he had been when facing him earlier.

Betta snapped at Gamma, “This is not the time to be doing this.”

Alice looked over to Oran then Forstchritt who were being pinned down by Tau. Both conductor engineers were in poor condition—covered in bruises and panting heavily. Getting them out here safely for questioning was a priority.

Beta continued, “We need to handle the True Conduc—”

A spear of off-white light abruptly penetrated the bridge from below in-between where Francis and Gamma stood. White cracks immediately spread along the metalwork of the bridge.

Alice’s stomach flip-flopped as the bridge fell away beneath her, and she was sent tumbling through the air. She barely had the time to blink before her entire body jolted and her limbs seized as she cracked against the road below. She lay there for a moment, winded, eyes blurred, face pelted by rain, ears ringing as she tried to get a hold of her situation. Ignoring the pounding in her back, she rolled onto her stomach and dragged herself up into a crawling position. Scattered pieces of glass presumably from nearby buildings were embedded into her forearm, but she ignored the pain. The crackle of Jericho’s conductor reached her ears before the light of it reached her eyes.

Jericho was standing less than half a meter away from Oran who had hit the ground far from where the ELPIS leaders and the Capricornians had fallen behind Alice. Slowly, like a predator stalking its prey, Jericho crept on towards Oran who whimpered and began to drag himself away.

“Jericho!” Alice shouted, stumbling up to a stand. “That’s enough! Stop it now! Look at me!”

Jericho paused and turned to stare at her, then through her. “Alice. I know how to obtain it now.” The conductor crackled in his hand. “I need to excise all evil in order to bring peace to Signum. Everything fake and false needs to be removed. Conductors, false peacekeepers, false hope. People can be good then. Nothing to fight over. Everything is clear. When everything is gone.”

Alice stomach churned as she became aware of the rain seeping into her skin. Shivering in the cold, she managed, “Jericho… you’re being fed that nonsense by a powerful Manipulator. We talked about this. It’s notthat simple.”

Jericho nodded slowly. “Everyone is trying to manipulate me—manipulate everyone. First ELPIS and Theta, then the peacekeepers.” His eyes flitted to the side again.

Realization dawned on Alice as she followed his gaze and found only empty space. Not too much was known about living manipulation since it was outlawed, but the possibility that a Manipulator could influence the senses was not completely unsound. The human brain itself was not fully understood, after all.

“Jericho…” she drew, inching towards him with a placating hand, “what are you seeing right now?”

He glanced at her then looked around. “Sand. There’s sand everywhere. The sun is still in the east. Morning.” He glanced to the side. “Talib is here. Ayda too.”

Hearing his name felt like a knife to the chest. But Ayda—Jericho had mentioned her before. Ayda was a girl who had been indoctrinated with him.

“Jericho,” Alice said calmly, continuing forward, feeling the rain seep in-between the metal and glass tubes of her glove conductor, “it’s raining. There’s no sand here. We’re in Capricorn. Whatever you’re seeing isn’t real.”

Jericho’s gaze flitted to the side again.

“Jericho, look at me.”

His gaze refocused on her.

“You promised me. We compromised. I wanted you to stop using your conducting on living things. You wanted to pursue ELPIS. We agreed that you would not use your conductor unless you were facing an actual ELPIS member. Oran isn’t with ELPIS.”

“Right. Promise.” Jericho stared at the conductor in his hands before he slowly lowered it—but didn’t extinguish it. He covered his mouth and began to hack and cough, blood seeping between his pale fingers. Before Alice could digest the sight, he sank to his knees and wrapped his hands around Oran’s neck. “I need to return him properly.”

Alice started forward in alarm, but froze as Jericho turned to glower at her. The whip of his conductor sizzled along the ground and lazily spread white cracks along the gray ground, while its hilt smoked in the cold rain.

He still hadn’t gone all the way, Alice tried to reassure herself. At least not without his conductor. She could still salvage this—

“I told you,” she said. “Even if something returns to the cycle, it won’t be the same. If you want justice, then you hold those people accountable. How can they be held accountable if you—”

“You are defending him,” Jericho interjected, searching her face. He tightened his grip on both his conductor and Oran’s neck causing the man to flail desperately beneath him. “Even though he is evil.”

Alice tensed, inching even closer. “Jerich—”

A burst of pale tangerine light opened up below Jericho and Oran. Only the latter man fell through the formed gate, leaving Jericho to claw at the ground. Alice searched the clearing for Oran but couldn’t find him. She startled back to attention when Jericho leapt to his feet. He turned around with his conductor in hand; but when he registered the man standing behind him, he froze like a statue.

“Theta…” Jericho realized, eyes wide.

The sky lit up with a crack of lightning and illuminated the snake tattoo on Francis’s face and the scorpion tattoo crawling across Jericho’s.

Jericho put a hand over his chest and began to chant in a language Alice only understood because Jericho had recently transcribed to her its meaning:

“There is no end, 
 There is no beginning, 
 There is only a cycle. 
 Whether enemy, whether friend, 
 Whether family, whether stranger, 
 Whether on land, whether on sea, whether in sky, 
 Whether alone, whether in company, 
 Whether in peace, whether in war, 
 May all return to where all began—”

Francis frowned then interjected, “That’s only something that should be said when you’re preparing to return something living to the cycle. “

“I am,” Jericho stated. “I have.”

Alice’s blood ran cold at his affirmation.

“Theta. You took everything. Family. Friends. Home. From me. From others—” Jericho’s face and voice were flat, yet his eyes were wide and burning. “—And then you cared for us. You took us in. Then you left. And we did everything for you and to save everyone. Conductors destroyed, and the people using them. The peacekeepers told me you were wrong after, but you were right.” His gaze flitted to the side and then returned to Francis. “You destroyed everything, but not us. Why…?”

Francis’s brows furrowed slightly. He side-glanced at Alice, then nodded subtly. A signal. “I’m sorry, Jericho. I wouldn’t be able to answer that for you.”

While Francis held Jericho’s full attention, Alice slowly crept behind Jericho and flexed her conducting glove.

“You always had all the answers before. I need an answer.” Jericho’s gaze darkened. “No, the answer does not matter. Justice does.” With a grunt, he cracked his whip at Francis—

At that moment, Alice leapt at him and wrapped her conducting-gloved hand around his arm just before the whip’s tip reached the other man. She felt her glove buzz with warmth and then felt Jericho become rigid under her touch.

“Jericho, I’m just using my conductor,” she told him slowly, calmly. “You won’t be able to move, but I’m not hurting you. Let’s calm down together.”

Jericho’s eyes widened as he turned to stare at her. “Talib told me what that person did—what Oran did. What conductors really do.”

Alice felt her heart fall into her stomach. “Jericho—”

“You were wrong. You defended him. And you defend Theta. So you… you are evil—wrong—too.” And then Jericho’s voice cracked, his brows furrowed, and he grimaced. “Y-You make me think the way you think I should think. So I can act the way you want me to act. Without knowing the truth. Like everyone. Right, wrong. You say, then switch. You all take until there is nothing. Nothing is right. I can’t forgive it. There will only be peace when there is nothing else.”

More than anything else, in that exact moment, as Alice stared into Jericho’s searching eyes again, she had the urge to embrace him. But then Scorpio’s grin burned into the edges of her mind, and she refrained. No. She refused to abandon her standards. And so, she instead reached for the suppression cuffs clipped to her waist.

A tendril of white abruptly snapped through the rainfall towards them. Alice’s mind raced, but with a grunt, she shoved Jericho forwards and threw herself back onto the ground just in time to dodge the strike of the Beta’s vitae. Beta herself barely dove out of the way when Jericho returned her attack with a whip of vitae that shot out above Alice’s head towards her. Beta darted for cover down an alleyway, which was when Alice caught sight of Dämon Forstchritt darting into an alley opposite.

After shaking her head and pulling herself up onto her knees, Alice registered Jericho straddled across Francis who was flat on his back two meters away. Somehow during the chaos, Jericho had pierced through Francis’s conducting-gloved hand with a stray shard of glass. His other hand was wrapped around his whip conductor—ready to strike down. Francis’s free hand was touching the pistol at his side but did not move any further.

Alice struggled up to a stand again but her arms and legs wouldn’t obey her. With a cry of frustration, she slipped in the rain and collapsed beneath the weight of her fatigue and exhaustion. She couldn’t reach him—not with her hands nor with her words. The distance was too great.


Threshold

Off-white lines ran through the sky of the abyss and pulsated as if they were living veins. The crackle of what sounded like radio static interference seeped through the cracks downwards. Upon listening closely to the noise, however, Werner came to realize it was the sound of rain not static. In-between the pitter-patter, he was also able to faintly hear voices, disjointed and echoing:

“Theta. You took everything. Family. Friends. Home. From me. From others. And then you cared for us. You took us in. Then you left. And we did everything for you and to save everyone from conductors. Conductors destroyed, and the people using them too. The peacekeepers told me you were wrong after, but you were right. You destroyed everything but not us. Why?”

It was Jericho’s voice. The biting, venomous anger was clear beneath the facade of calm.

“I’m sorry. I wouldn’t be able to answer that for you.”

And Francis’s voice as well.

It wasn’t difficult to deduce from the tone of voices that they were facing each other antagonistically.

“Jericho…” Shion placed a hand to her mouth and clenched her fist. Anger and desperate anguish radiated from her in waves. “How dare Scorpio—”

Werner glanced at Shion with a frown.

If he was able to hear Jericho’s surroundings from down here, he thought, then the situation above must have declined considerably.

“Your body is falling apart,” Lavi confirmed from where she stood beside him. “Whoever is up there is probably expelling your vitae like crazy. It’s all collapsing now.” She grimaced, looking upwards. “Scorpio really is a fool. Always throwing himself into things and losing sight of everything else.”

When Werner looked down at her, he could see the fear in her eyes despite her apparent serenity. He didn’t need to have access to her thoughts to know she was worrying not about him or herself but Olive.

“Lavi.”

She turned to him, face tight.

“Brief me on how to return temporarily above like before,” Werner said.

“What…?” Lavi startled, eyes widening then narrowing. “I saw what happened to you when you went up there last time. Because you’re a True Conductor and infected, you’re more susceptible to all the other spores in Scorpio’s… network. It’s a different situation from back then. You’re like a balloon, overfilled with air. Any extra pressure might really be the end.” She mimicked a popping sound with her mouth and an explosion with her hands. “If you go up there through yourself instead of through Scorpio, I don’t know what’ll happen. I don’t even know if it’ll work.” She frowned. “You barely look like you’ve recovered from your previous trip up there…”

Yes—Werner agreed: it was a risky measure. But against the obstacle they were facing, it was a necessary measure.

Francis, whom Scorpio was most likely pinning Jericho against, was not only an asset with his knowledge, skills, and clear allegiance to Cadence, but he was also someone important to Cadence. At the moment, he was an individual that they couldn’t afford to lose. Additionally, Jericho was required to counteract Scorpio and excise him from Capricorn. Therefore, Jericho needed to be clear-minded and stable enough to take the appropriate steps against Scorpio. And—

“If I don’t attempt to handle Jericho now, the end result may be the same regardless,” Werner informed her. “If my body dies, the others including Olive will die too. Let’s not waste time. Please tell me the steps.”

At Olive’s name, Lavi frowned. “Even if you go up there,” she muttered, “do you think you’ll be able to stop him? It’s the peacekeeper, right?”

Werner considered this. “I’ve aided him before, although the situation was different. This will just require a different method of approach.”

Lavi paused, seeming to think, before she nodded.

Werner stared past her towards Shion who was looking at him as if he were on that side of the threshold instead of her. “Shion, in this situation, we must look at the long term,” he said. “I understand your concerns, but it’s impossible to go through life without getting hurt. This is the best approach.”

Shion smiled wanly. “I didn’t say anything, Werner.”

She didn’t need to.

“If this gives you any reassurance, I have subordinates who are capable of handling this situation if I’m incapacitated along the way,” Werner said evenly. “Rather, I trust them in handling it. You’ve seen them yourself.” He paused. “Jericho is a special case that would be better handled personally.”

The words felt strange in Werner’s mouth, and he still felt a sense of unease leaving matters in the hands of others if the situation declined to that point but—

“There are people outside of us that you can rely on…?” Shion whispered, hands dropping to her sides. “You’re sure?”

Werner met her gaze, thinking of the trenches, then of his time in the Twin Cities, and then of the faint memories that had trickled down from the other five—memories of his subordinates maneuvering without him. Finally, he nodded.

19.1: Second Lieutenant, 0730 Riot

Re-cap:

At the same time Scorpio is confronting the peacekeepers and the Capricornians in the convention building, Gilbert who is recovering from his injury in the shelter witnesses the crumbling of his country.

Meanwhile, Werner—guided through the threshold by Shion—nears a realization.


Aufruhr » A riot incited at 0730 hours

Threshold

Werner Waltz found himself standing in his childhood bedroom, its floorboards and walls reflecting the blue moonlight seeping through the window. The frost eating at the windows bled the cold into the room and nipped at his fingertips and toes. Across from him stood Viktoria, her cheeks fuller, her legs shorter. In between them stood their mother, thin and tall—the stick in her hands just the same.

Again, just like the time when their brother was standing in-between them, Viktoria looked to Werner tearfully. Although there were no words spoken, pleading expectation glinted in her eyes. And so, Werner presented his hands in turn. He couldn’t quite recall the details of this particular event, but he did recall that he had taken responsibility for whatever had been accused.

That does sound like something you’d do, came Shion’s voice, but wanting to be responsible wasn’t the reason why you did this—why you wanted to do any of it.

Werner tried to dissect the meaning behind those words as he waited for his mother’s approach.

Before he could reach a conclusion, however, a comet of golden light sheared through the memory and shattered his surroundings to pieces. As the fragments fell away back into the black abyss, the gold light coming down surged through his body:

Maria arriving to rescue his unit and defeating Leona. Gilbert losing his arm in the process. Maria joining the beginnings of a rally. Maria being guided into the bunker by Stein. The sign nailed to the bunker’s wall. Maria’s reunion with her group at the convention, and her subsequent raid and clearing of the area with the aid of the other True Conductor Veles. Finally, the plan to combine Jericho’s ability and Lita’s ability. 

As the memories faded, Werner became aware of his surroundings. Lavi appeared at his side, seeming somewhat surprised. Shion stood across the glowing line of vitae, seeming somewhat concerned.

“Jericho’s up there now probably…” Shion’s voice wavered unnaturally. “I… he’s not like Maria…”

“Jericho is that peacekeeper…?” Lavi muttered, tilting her head in thought. “The one who conducts like Libra…” Her eyes narrowed. “He’s the one who always charges into things, right? With that lack of self-control…. he’s dangerous.”

Werner tried his best to focus on their words, but he couldn’t because—

Gilbert’s arm. It was gone.

Injury was common in service. Amputees resulted from a unit ill-equipped with medical Conductors. Those handicapped soldiers would be given monetary compensation and an honorable discharge. The case would be closed.

But it was Gilbert.

A subordinate. Favoritism was unacceptable.

Shion’s hand drifted into view, and she tried for his cheek. “I’m sorry about Gilbert, Werner. You need to stay strong,” she said gently. “You know Gilbert is important to you. He isn’t just another subordinate. Don’t let ittry to convince you otherwise.”

Werner felt his chest become heavy. His eyes began to burn as memories of Gilbert’s constant presence from childhood through the periods of waiting in the trenches until now blazed through his mind.

Gilbert was loyal to a fault and had kept his promise despite it constantly putting him in less than desirable situations. Werner didn’t believe there was any possible way to repay Gilbert for everything. After all, the man had always taken pride in his ability to aim his conducting rifle with steady hands, but now that one of them was gone—

Before Werner’s emotions could spiral any further out of control, he recollected himself and began to think logistically: Now that Jericho was on the surface, there was a chance—though Werner hated leaving things to that—that his condition could be corrected. But as for what he would do after that—he was uncertain.

“Let’s just focus on one thing at a time, Werner,” Shion interjected.

Werner stared at her.

He still wasn’t able to logic what she was trying to show him. Her reluctance to simply state it was obstructive and unnecessary.

Shion’s expression fell, and she shook her head. “I can’t just tell you. It won’t stick that way when you go back up. You have to realize it yourself.”

Lavi glanced at her, frowning slightly. “That’s what you’ve been doing?” After a beat, she nodded thoughtfully. “That’s actually not too bad of an idea…” She looked at Werner, then said, “Scorpio likes bringing what he views as the ‘driving force’—the passion—behind a person’s actions to the surface. I’m not sure how they do it, but even after Scorpio’s been removed, that impulse stays there.” She pointed loosely at him. “If you survive this, when you go up there, you’re going to go up with whatever Scorpio thinks is you.”

Upholding appearances was everything. And the appearance of an exemplary soldier in the Capricornian army—

“But if you can make it your own…” Lavi looked away. “Well… it’s sort of wishful thinking.”

“I… didn’t even realize that. I was just trying to make things easier,” Shion murmured, looking between them, “but if that’s the case, then—”

This was the preparation: the first signs of a counter-offensive. If the others outside were able to cut Scorpio out of him, then there was a slim probability that he would be able to outmaneuver Scorpio’s influence here. In this situation, a slim probability was still significantly beneficial. And now, his actions here had purpose and meaning.

The unfortunate matter remained that he still didn’t understand what it was that Shion wanted him to become.

Shion frowned. “I told you, Werner. It’s not about what I want you to become. It’s about what you wanted to become… Since the very beginning.”

The words on the sign in that small bunker that Maria had stowed away in suddenly flashed through Werner’s mind: Schutz. Shelter. Protection.

Realization slowly dawned on him as he began to dissect the memories Shion had shown him up to this point. The thematic pattern ran just beneath the surface:

His rescue of Fenrir. His decision to switch to the Border Force to be with Gilbert. His decision to execute Magda in Gilbert’s place. His warning for Vogt at the Capricornian-Aquarian border. His leniency towards Cadence—and perhaps even towards Nico—paired with that event in which he overrode Cadence in the Twin Cities. All of these choices led back to that moment in his childhood home when Viktoria had stared at him tearfully from across the hulking silhouette that divided them. A wordless request.

It was the very first thing ever requested of him—asked of him—that didn’t concern appearances or perfection. No, it was the first expectation he’d ever risen to meet. No, it was the first expectation that he’d ever wanted himself to meet. And at this point, it was irrelevant whether or not someone had given that expectation to him. He would make it his own. He needed to.

He had come to accept now that it was true that he tailored everything about himself to keep up appearances and with expectations—layer after layer—but there was one thing that he’d kept constant beneath all of this. It had fueled all of his decisions since childhood. There were no numbers involved with this desire nor any logic nor reason nor cost-benefit analysis. Probability wasn’t even considered.

Don’t forget,” Shion had said as she’d tapped his pocket watch residing in his chest pocket the very ‘first’ time he had met her.

Who exactly are you?” Atienna had asked in the cold of the Zatenminye Caverns. “What’s your goal? What do you want to become?” She had assumed that he’d wanted to fold into the mold—the appearance—of the perfect Capricornian soldier.

But, that was incorrect. He did want to become something himself outside of that: like what Ludwig had been to him and Viktoria before he lost his legs in the Reservoir War. Perhaps, like what Shion had been to them all years ago. Like what Gilbert had been when he had stood up for the misfortunate, bullied students at the military academy. In other words—Werner concluded—he’d always wanted to become like all those whom he deeply admired.

Becoming a soldier in the Capricornian Army had been a secondary result of this desire, so had rising to the rank of First Lieutenant, so had serving as the leader of and a control point for the other five. He’d never wanted to become someone glorious or someone adorned in medals or someone who people admired or someone who represented the Capricornian gold standard.

Shion’s face brightened, and her cheeks flushed a rose color.

Right. What he wanted to become was someone who could shield others without fear of what others thought; someone who would be able to make the difficult decisions—cut losses—when no one else could in order to ensure the safety of the majority; someone who others could come to in order to seek reason and shelter.

It was a state of personhood that he’d only been able to achieve partially. And it was also so simple-minded, childish, and naive that it was almost embarrassing but—

“Being simple isn’t a bad thing,” Shion drew slowly, what sounded like joy, pride, and realization gushing from her voice. “Yeah, that’s right… If it makes it easier to live and keeps you going, then it’s more than enough.”

‘More than enough’?

Werner considered this.

He still wasn’t certain if he could face her. He wasn’t certain if he was at the state of mind where he wouldn’t unconsciously bend to the expectations of others yet. After all, he knew that appearances were truly everything. However, there was one certainty here. He knew exactly who he wanted to be.

A [protector].


Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

Gilbert Wolff felt like shit.

He was used to going in and out of consciousness—either a good time after hanging at a local bar or a bad time after getting a concussion from the residual blast of a grenade—but this was on a whole other level. Every time he drifted awake, he was met with a pulsating pain from his stub and the reality that his arm was really gone.

Usually, he’d bear it well enough with good company. But at the moment he didn’t quite have that. Brandt was buzzing around him like a damn fly. And although Gilbert knew it was for good reason and appreciated him, he still found the whole ELPIS thing weird. On the other hand, Stein was sitting in his corner, conducting rifle tucked between his legs while he flipped the Ariesian royal guard badge in between his fingers. Fischer was still bound, gagged, and sulking in the corner.

Gilbert had always thought Fischer was a pushover, but—dammit—Stein and Brandt had been pretty alright. But now they’d lost their marbles, ironically following in the footsteps of their first lieutenant. And Gilbert knew he was right there with them.

Earlier he had asked Brandt if there was any bad blood between him and Stein since Stein had probably killed Iota. Brandt just said calmly, “ She returned to her resistor. It’s fine.” Kind of scary to hear a medic say that.

“You should try to rest at least, Lieutenant Wolff,” Brandt said suddenly, cutting off Gilbert mid-thought.

“The hell do you think I’m doing?”

Brandt remained silent.

Damn it. Why did he have to make things awkward?

“Are conductor prosthetic limbs a thing?” Gilbert joked after a beat. “Maybe—I dunno—you could’ve made some back in the day? Don’t know how technology was centuries ago. Hell, wait—tell me how ELPIS and the saint candidates were back then. You remember it?”

“Vaguely,” Brandt muttered. “But I doubt that it’d do anyone any good knowing about that since everyone from then is different now. At least Theta and the saint candidates are.”

“So, basically this entire thing is a shitty academy reunion for you?”

“If you want to put it that way…” Brandt said before gesturing to his head. “I was surprised the most about Leona though. Like I said, it’s all vague, but I swear when we first started ELPIS… Leo was on our side.”

A rumbling suddenly shook the dust from the ceiling and caused the v-lights to flicker on and off.

Stein immediately popped up to a stand, shoved the badge in his pocket, and aimed his rifle at the ceiling.

“Saints, Derik, do you think something’s gonna come down through the roof?” Gilbert sighed and pulled himself up to a sit off the mattress. “It’s definitely going to come down if you start shooting at it. At ease.”

Stein lowered his weapon and shrugged. “Just being cautious.”

Gilbert unsteadily rose to a stand and leaned against Brandt for support. Grimacing, he made his way over to the ladder leading to up above as dust continued to rain down. It sounded like an entire damn army was marching above their heads.

Gilbert moved forward—

“Lieutenant Wolff, you just received a transfusion,” Brandt interjected, holding him black. “And now you’re running a fever. You might be having a bad reaction.”

“Brandt, not to pull rank-and-file, but I’m still your superior.” Gilbert nudged him aside and approached the ladder leading upwards. “Doesn’t matter if you’re ELPIS or not.”

Brandt opened his mouth then closed it and nodded.

Gilbert thought he looked a little bit too pleased by that statement. Kind of how Kleine, Bergmann, and Vogt looked whenever they received a drop of praise from Werner.

Shrugging the thought off, Gilbert reached for the first rung of the ladder with his good hand and then grimaced as he saw Brandt hovering behind him. Still, he was no damn quitter. With difficulty, he continued forward and struggled upwards. He ended up having to practically hug the thing as he ascended, hooking his armpit over the rungs to make up for his lost appendage. It took an embarrassingly long amount of time for him to reach the top, and he was covered in sweat by the end of it.

After he caught his breath, he popped the lid of their shelter open, peered outside, and was met with a welcome splash of cool water from the drizzling rain. As he shook the water droplets from his hair, he looked around.

Over a dozen men and women running around—even some children. They waved around Capricornian flags painted over with the Augen symbol and held signs—The Kaiser has no HonorNo Peace in Signum without Peace in CapricornMilitary Dogs—as they charged forward. Several of the buildings had similar signs and flags hanging from their balconies.

Everyone seemed to be heading in the same direction. Whatever that destination was, it held their full attention. Not a single person paid Gilbert any mind even though he was popping half out from a manhole in the ground. With effort, he pulled himself up onto the concrete and tried to make heads-or-tails of the situation.

Faintly past the drizzling rain, he could hear a steady thump, thump, thump paired with muffled shouting—almost underwater-like. For a brief dizzying moment, Gilbert swore he was on assignment back out at the border: rolling out into unoccupied territory and flattening everything in their path. In the next moment, he was back to himself.

Gilbert wiped the water from his face and took a step back towards the bunker.

Strategically speaking, it was probably not the smartest idea to get involved in whatever the hell this was. A protest? That saint bastard’s doing probably. Unfortunately, getting involved was just asking to get infected—

And then Gilbert saw him: Werner, hair dripping with rainwater, civilian clothing soaked through thoroughly, splint no longer being worn, being dragged by the arm along the street by a man and a woman wearing blue sashes with the Augen symbol sewn onto them.

What the—

Gilbert whipped around to Brandt and Stein who were just climbing out of the shelter behind him: “Brandt, Stein, stay here. Brief the others when they return. I’m going after Werner.”

Gilbert jogged forward through the street, weaving himself through the people heading forward with him. Eventually, he broke out into an open square that was filled to the brim with two crowds divided by an invisible wall of empty space. One side was made up of the military police—no, the suppression police as indicated by the yellow tag on their uniforms—while the other side consisted of civilians, some of whom were dressed in old military uniforms from the days of the Reservoir War. The Augen.

The Augen members at the front of the line had formed a human chain, linked arm-in-arm as they faced the well-organized wall of military police. Some of the Augen members at the very back of the lineup were waving vitae blades—most of them white—in the air. Mirroring them, the officers at the very back line of military police were also wielding blades with their tips pointed upwards.

Were these people actually infected or…?

Gilbert scanned both sides for Not-Werner, sincerely hoping not to find the man in the crowd. But, a flash of platinum blonde caught his eye in all of the gray and blue. Nestled in that wall of Augen members and linked arm-in-arm with a man and a woman was indeed Not-Werner himself. He was being jerked forward, backward, left, and right like a ragdoll, but his expression remained impassive. Not Maria.

Shit, Gilbert thought, head swimming with fever and half-thinking this was a dream. What the hell was going on? What happened to finding that Specialist girl?

“Forward!” shouted one of the officers. And with almost perfect synchronization, the wall of officers stepped forward and began to beat their batons in their hands.

“Werner!” Gilbert called.

No response.

Damn it.

Nervously, hesitantly, and fully aware of his stupidity, Gilbert feverishly crept his way through the divide towards Not-Werner. He was halfway there when something hard nicked the top of his head. Looking down, he found a small stone rolling at his feet. He glanced at the Augen members and saw some of them—the younger ones—casting stones across the invisible wall. Some rocks struck the officers, others were caught and thrown back.

Gilbert dodged most of these; but as he lunged to the side to escape one, he was suddenly pulled into line with the Augen members and locked into an arm link and a shoulder link. He tried to tug himself out of it, but the woman to his left snapped at him—

“Don’t break formation! We have to stand up!”

Gilbert prepared to swear back at her but shut his mouth in horror when he found a young girl probably no older than twelve in the lineup, just two men down. Just across from the girl stood a boy in a military police uniform—no, gauging by the red lapels on his chest, the boy was a trainee uniform. Fourteen? Fifteen? Sixteen-years-old? Did they even know what they were fighting for? No—why the hell did they even have to fight for it to begin with?

Gilbert shook his head and glanced right. Just five people down was Not-Werner—

Two successive shots abruptly rang out just as lightning streaked across the sky. There was a beat of silence.

Gilbert craned his head back. Lying on the ground just a meter away were two bodies. One was adorned with a metal gorget, the other with a dusted hat. It was impossible to tell which one fell first, but their blood pooled together in-between the brick street all the same.

A roar rang out from one of the sides—Gilbert couldn’t tell which—and both sides suddenly rushed forward. Gilbert broke free of the arm link as the line gave way and stumbled into the invisible barrier of space that was crumbling. He turned his head and saw that Not-Werner had stepped out into the empty space too. Not-Werner didn’t look in his direction, however, and darted down the space in the opposite direction.

Gilbert chased after him as the invisible wall crumbled away fully and both sides collided. Dodging the swings of batons and conducting blades, he leapt over a military police officer beating an adolescent with his baton, scrambled over a veteran pulling another officer into a chokehold, and dodged a stream of conducted glowing water hosing down a cluster of Augen members.

Eventually, he broke out of the mob and stumbled forward. Some onlookers dotting the sides of the street stared in horror at the chaos. Others broke away from the sidelines and leapt right into the fray. More still took photos.

Ignoring them, Gilbert scanned the area for Not-Werner and caught sight of a flash of platinum blonde hair disappearing down a far alleyway. As the drizzle thickened into a downpour, Gilbert darted into and through the alley after him before breaking out into another street—this one empty. Not-Werner, nowhere in sight.

Behind him, Gilbert could hear screeches, shouts, peppering gunfire, and the high-pitch whirs of vitae rays.

Really, he thought—those sounds shouldn’t be in this city so far from the border. What the hell were they fighting for out there if the same thing was happening here?

Two men in civilian clothing wielding Augen-painted flags popped out from the alley across from Gilbert. When he noticed that one of the men was holding an activated vitae blade, he swore to himself and took a step back.

“Look at that uniform. He’s with the Militärpolizei!” the conductor-wielding man shouted. “Get that pig!”

Seriously? Didn’t they know the difference between the Border Force and the Militärpolizei?

Gilbert stumbled backwards, reaching for the pistol at his side but found that it was stuck in the straps of his holster. After struggling to pull it out for a moment, he abandoned his attempts and broke out into a dash back into the alleyway he came from. Halfway down the alley, however, he lost balance and crashed to the ground. He whipped around to see the two men standing over him and glowering.

Lightning lit up the gray sky at that moment, causing Gilbert to wince and look away. Twin cracks followed by a metal twang resounded as thunder rumbled in the distance. When the light faded into a gray coldness, Gilbert made out Not-Werner towering above him wielding a small trash bin. The very corner of the bin was dripping with blood. Scattered at Gilbert’s feet were the two men, groaning and bleeding from broken noses.

“Are you injured?”

Gilbert stared upwards and was greeted with a stolid stare. A familiar one. Hesitantly, he tried, “Werner?”

“No, that is incorrect.” Not-Werner pulled back, setting the bin on the floor. “Are you also a Conductor?”

“Wha—”

“Are you a Conductor. Like them. Like the Elementalist.”

Instead of answering, Gilbert asked slowly as he struggled up to a stand, “Do you… know who I am?”

“You’re a Capricornian.” A pause. “You… were in the Twin Cities.”

“No, I meant my name.”

“You haven’t told me your name.”

Gilbert couldn’t believe it had gotten to this extent. He grimaced, then said, “I’m Gilbert. Werner’s… second lieutenant. Do you remember Werner at least?”

“Yes, I remember Werner.” But Not-Werner didn’t elaborate any further.

Saints. Great conversationalist.

“What’s your name?” Gilbert pried.

“Jericho.”

“The peacekeeper.” Gilbert let out a sigh of relief. “Saints. Finally.

“Peace,” Jericho muttered. “False peace.”

Gilbert arched a brow before shaking his head. “Well… welcome to the party,” he said, slapping him on the shoulder. “I’ll brief you since you’re probably confused.” He wiped the rainwater from his face. “Well, let’s get out of this shit show first.” He grabbed Jericho’s arm and gave him a tug, but the man didn’t budge. Frowning, Gilbert tried, “At least let’s get out of the rain—”

“It isn’t raining,” Jericho stated, looking upwards. “The sun is still on the east. It’s morning.”

The rain roared in Gilbert’s ears.

Another weird one then…?

Gilbert snorted. “What? Does all that mean something else in the peacekeeping world of Ophiuchus? Like a code word?”

Instead of answering him, Jericho turned his head, looked at the ground beside him, and nodded slightly. “Yes. I won’t forget, Ayda.”

‘Ayda’?

Gilbert followed his gaze but only found empty space. When he looked back to Jericho, he found the man staring down the alley towards a handful of civilians who were flailing their arms wildly as they ran towards them. Gilbert recognized one of them as the woman who had pulled him into the Augen line-up. She was wielding a rifle conductor. Pursuing her group were a handful of military police officers.

Jericho bent down to pick the fallen Projector blade. Its hilt sparked indigo, then copper, then crimson, then gold before paling into white—an off-white, almost gray. The insulating tubes of the conductor began to smoke, the metal of the hilt burning orange.

“Jericho,” Gilbert said in alarm, “you’re overheating it—”

The Augen members reached their side and swiveled around to face the oncoming officers who stopped short in front of them. One officer drew out a conductor blade, activated it, but kept it pointed backwards.

“Put down your conductor!” the officer ordered.

“Jericho, put down your conductor,” Gilbert hissed under his breath.

The officer stepped forward, holding out a halting hand. “Let’s not make this difficult, alright—”

Instead of the officer charging forward to apprehend them, Jericho charged forward. The officer brought his vitae-blade up in alarm as Jericho swung at him. As soon as Jericho’s blade touched the officer’s, the officer’s blade shattered into pieces. The man then brought his hand up reflexively, but Jericho’s blade slid through his fingers like butter.

The blade became lodged in the officer’s shoulder, causing the man to fall to his knees with a shout. Startled, the other officers started forward too, whipping out pistols and conductors. However, as soon as they saw grayish-white cracks spread out across the kneeling officer’s chest, they paused.

The cracks continued to spread until they consumed the officer’s entire body, and he shattered into nothing. Before the other officers could digest the scene, Jericho charged at them too. A water Elementalist officer tried to send out a whip of liquid from the rain in a panic, but Jericho disintegrated the water and the officer in the blink of an eye. Another one of the officers—a Conjuror—only created half a pistol before Jericho tore through him. Not even the rain around the peacekeeper escaped his touch, the droplets bursting into steam at the touch of his vitae.

In the end, Jericho was left standing alone.

Gilbert couldn’t even recall how many officers were there to begin with because there were no traces of them left.

“What the hell are you doing?!” one of the Augen members—the one wielding the conductor—snapped at Jericho, her eyes wide and livid.

“Wait—” Gilbert warned.

She approached Jericho, grabbed his shoulder, and turned him around to face her. “If you do that, we’re no better than them!”

Jericho stared at her blankly, then at the conductor in her hands, before driving his blade into her abdomen. She barely had the time to react before she crumbled into nothing too. The other Augen members scrambled backwards in terror as Jericho turned to pursue them.

In horror, Gilbert threw himself at Jericho, knocking them both to the ground. The vitae blade clattered to the floor, while the remaining Augen members escaped down the alley. Before Jericho could grab at the conductor, Gilbert clambered on top of him and pinned him to the ground with his knees.

“What the hell are you doing?!” Gilbert spat.

Jericho stared up at him blankly. “It’s okay.”

“Wha—” Gilbert’s words caught in his throat as lightning cracked again, illuminating the fully-formed blue scorpion tattoo that was crawling up Jericho’s face.

“They will return to the cycle. They were Conductors. They were evil.”

The Manipulator bastard—

Gilbert swallowed and shook himself, before grabbing Jericho by the scruff of his shirt. “Look in a mirrorYou’re a Conductor too!”

Jericho’s eyes widened slightly. “Right. Conductors are not the ones who are wrong. But something else has to be wrong.” Lightning lit up the sky again, dying the man’s skin a pale white and illuminating his eyes that now burned with frigid intensity. “False hope is what’s wrong.”

Startled, Gilbert released the man’s shirt. He’d seen bloodthirstiness before—Stein was renowned for his—but the cold fire in Jericho’s eyes seemed bottomless. No joy or exhilaration there.

Jericho suddenly coughed and hacked, bringing his bare hand to his mouth. Red seeped in between his pale fingers then trickled to the ground where it was washed away by the rain.

An effect of the prolonged override…?

“Shit!” Gilbert swore, scrambling to his feet and extending his hand. “We need to get you to Nico or Brandt—no, we need to get you to that Specialist. Stop using your conductor. Look. Right now, I’m sure you’re confused. You’re stuck in a possession thing because of a Manipulator. If you’re seeing some mumbo jumbo, it’s not real—”

Jericho didn’t accept the gesture and rose to a stand himself. He wiped the blood from his mouth with the back of his hand. “There is no pain.”

No pain…?

“And I have to keep the promise.” Jericho picked the smoking conductor off of the ground and turned. “My duty. I’m leaving.”

Promise.

Gilbert grabbed him by the shoulder. “Wait—”

Jericho abruptly lifted the Projector’s blade, activated it, and pointed it at Gilbert’s throat causing him to release Jericho’s shoulder. The heat of the blade burned at Gilbert’s skin, and for a moment Gilbert swore he saw his life flash before his eyes.

“Are you a Conductor?” Jericho asked. “No, are you with ELPIS?” Before Gilbert could even react, Jericho shook his head. “No, you are Werner’s friend.” He cast a glance down to the side again as he lowered the blade. “Right.”

Gilbert stayed frozen in place as Jericho began to saunter away before he placed a hand to his throat and felt his pulse hammering. Why the hell was he so afraid for? He’d faced countless life-or-death situations before. This one wasn’t any different—

The military police officer’s expression of agony as he shattered into nothing, without even a fragment of him left, burned itself into Gilbert’s mind.

Having not even a trace of him left—that was what terrified Gilbert. At least if he died out in the field, his mom would get a piece of his body or uniform. If Jericho ended him here, there wouldn’t be a dust particle of him left. No physical evidence of his existence. And that was terrifying.

Gilbert swallowed, stumbling back until his back was pressed against the brick of the wall behind him. He stared after Jericho, realizing that he didn’t even know this man or what kind of person he was. For all Gilbert knew, this could be who Jericho really was. This was insane. His country was falling apart now, and here he was flailing around with one arm after some lunatic—or at least someone driven to lunacy. This was too much.

His vision blurred, his stub throbbed, his cheeks flushed.

No, dammit! Gilbert shook himself. This was Werner. And he’d made a promise to Werner and owed him. There was no way he was going to let the guy check out of life before him. Greta’d hate him anyways, Nico would slap him, Werner’s siblings’d spit at him. Damnit—wait. Was Greta okay? Was ma?

“It’s more efficient to address issues immediately in front of you that you know you can correct, rather than issues you can only speculate about,” was something that Werner had always thrown around, right? Right.

Gilbert eyed Jericho’s retreating back again before peeling off the wall and following the man close behind. He kept a safe distance, out of sight.

He figured that at this point Werner had been knocked on the head so many times already that one more bash against the skull wouldn’t hurt. Of course, Gilbert knew he’d have to wait for Jericho to let his guard down. Who knew what Jericho could do with that kind of ability.

Jericho muttered to himself all the way to whatever destination he had in mind. Whoever he was speaking to—whoever he thought he was speaking to—was apparently short because he kept sparing glances downwards.

Eventually, Gilbert followed him across a low-hanging metal bridge. Just below, he caught sight of a handful of Augen members dashing down the street and around a somehow still-functioning and rolling v-tram. They were chased closely behind by a handful of Militärpolizei who fired off rounds in their direction.

Gilbert continued forward after Jericho until hushed whispers reached his ears. After peeling into an open square beyond the bridge, he found a crowd gathered in front of a large stage with a cloth tarp pulled up over it to shield it from the rain. Capricornian black flags that were soaked thoroughly surrounded the stage. The men and women of the crowd—all in civilian wear—stood beneath umbrellas and shivered in the cold. Standing rigidly in front of the buildings lining the square were military police officers, conducting rifles at port arms.

Gilbert couldn’t wrap his head around why they were all gathering here when there was chaos starting a couple blocks away.

Jericho stopped short in front of the crowd before worming his way in. After weighing his options, Gilbert followed him. He weaved through the men and women standing shoulder-to-shoulder and neared the front stage in his search. He nearly did a double-take when he registered the man standing on the stage.

Standing at the lacquered podium was the Kaiser himself. The man wore a stern face and looked out at them all like he was standing out there in the rain with them instead of beneath the cover of the tarp. As he spoke, his voice rang out through the cone-shaped speaker phones hanging on wooden posts around the stage:

“Together we stand stronger. We cannot let this temporary unrest disrupt the foundation of our great nation! They ask for peace and demilitarization… but look at their actions, look at the hospital, look at the bombings, look at the people who they choose to ally themselves with!”

An officer made his way through the crowd and climbed onto the stage. He whispered something into the Kaiser’s ear, causing the man to become grim.

“I’ve just received news that a riot has broken out in Vereinigt Square,” the Kaiser said gravely into the microphone. After a pause, he continued, “The members of the Augen movement have born arms against the very Militärpolizei who were sworn to protect them. They ask for responsibility but what about theirs?”

Audible gasps and whispers followed.

‘Just received news’?!—Gilbert grimaced—What bullshit! He wanted to throttle the lying bastard. He was even half tempted to whip out his pistol and shoot the man then and there—one tower down, just like that. A quick scan of the military personnel standing directly behind the Kaiser, however, convinced him otherwise. Gilbert figured he probably wouldn’t be able to aim correctly now anyways.

“We cannot let these insurrectionists ruin the country we’ve spent this past decade trying to heal and rebuild!”

Ignoring the Kaiser’s speech, Gilbert surveyed the crowd again for Jericho. He couldn’t wrap his head around why the man had come here—or why Scorpio had guided the man here. Scorpio wasn’t sending Jericho to kill the Kaiser, was he? Weren’t the Kaiser and the saint candidate working together on this?

Damnit—he hated thinking.

“S-Second Lieutenant?!”

Gilbert stiffened and turned, squinting at the man who had just squeezed into the crowd beside him. “Klaus…? The hell are you doing here? How the hell did you lose Maria?”

“S-Scorpio…” Kleine shivered, shaking his head, glasses dripping with water. “Lieutenant Wolff, it’s bad. The generals—some of them were infected. But—” He looked around as he ran his hands through his hair. “—I don’t think any of these people are infected. Are any of them out there infected? I—”

What?” Gilbert frowned. “Make sense, Kleine.”

“S-Scorpio. He was one of the peacekeepers. They didn’t know. He revealed who he was at the convention. He said he barely has any spores out here.” Kleine looked around. “We took the generals the peacekeepers apprehended—”

“You took the what?”

“—and Major General Von Spiel’s men who weren’t infected yet and Maria’s group to our bunker too. I don’t know what happened to the peacekeepers. Brandt told us what happened when we arrived, and the captain sent some of us out to look for you, but the riot—”

“Wait, Scorpio just let you go?” Gilbert took a step back and looked at Kleine with suspicion. “Why…?”

Kleine opened his mouth then closed it. “I… Sir, he’s already won.”

The rain roared in Gilbert’s ears.

That was something he had realized as soon as that Augen line broke. Right now all they were really trying to do was salvage the remains.

“Aren’t any of you afraid of getting infected?” Gilbert asked after a beat.

Kleine stared at him blankly. “Aren’t you, sir?”

Piercing screeches suddenly traveled through the crowd in a wave. In confusion, Gilbert followed the crowd’s gazes to the stage. Out from nowhere, tendrils of glowing white light shot up to the sky and pierced through half of the officers that surrounded the Kaiser. A second later, another wave of white tendrils erupted. This time their targets were the officers guarding the surrounding buildings. A familiar squelching sound filled the air as the water beneath Gilbert’s boots began to run red.

The crowd scattered immediately as shrieks filled the air, almost drowning out the sound of the rain and the peppering battle in the distance. Gilbert remained fixated in place as did Kleine and a handful of others.

Stepping up the stairs onto the stage came a young woman with mousy brown hair. The white tendrils were protruding from her arm, but with a snap of her wrists, they disintegrated into nothingness. The men and women officers who had been pierced through collapsed to the ground.

Another man wearing glasses came up behind the ELPIS woman, conjured up a pistol from a wound running along his arm, and shot through the remaining officers around the Kaiser. The Kaiser stiffened as the man pointed the pistol at him.

“You are a tower,” the man said to the Kaiser in Common as he neared him.

The Kaiser remained silent, eyes un-averted.

“You Capricornians preach glory and honor,” the glasses-wearing man said, his voice amplified through the microphone and ringing through the speakers. “But you turn your eyes away from all of those things for war and profit and use dirty conductors. ‘For your country’? For yourself.”

Another man in a military police uniform—a disguise—came up along the stairs dragging along two bound and gagged figures with him. He threw them at the other man’s feet before conjuring up a gun himself and aiming it at their heads. It was Oran and Forstchritt.

“Grand Kaiser Kafke Nezche, you inherited your position from former Kaiser Kaiser Friedrich Nikolaus Netzche who tried to drag your country out of war only to have you make it love war.” The glasses-wearing ELPIS leader gestured out to the thinning crowd with his free hand. “You rulers and leaders become worse and worse with each generation.” He cocked his gun, finger moving towards the trigger. “You’ve sealed the fate of your people. With this infection, they cannot be allowed to liv—”

A ray of graying white light zipped through the air suddenly and shot through, not only the tip of the ELPIS leader’s pistol but also the wall of the stage behind him. Both items shattered into nothing.

“Gamma,” the ELPIS woman said to the glasses-wearing man, “that style of conducting. It must be the suitcase peacekeeper in a polarized state.”

Gilbert followed the ELPIS leader’s unshaken gaze to find Jericho standing beside one of the fallen officers alongside the building to his left. The rifle conductor Jericho was still aiming at Gamma and the other ELPIS members was smoking and sparking at the insulation tubes. He seemed to notice this and discarded the thing before bending down to pull more conductors from the fallen officer’s waist. Then, he abruptly sank down onto one knee, bowed his head, and placed a hand over his chest. He took a deep breath and recited something in some language Gilbert didn’t understand.

Gilbert tensed, glanced over at the ELPIS leaders, and found them exchanging looks. In unison then, they placed a hand over their chests and began to chant to themselves. Their chanting—maybe a prayer—carried over the speakers and matched Jericho’s muffled words. Gilbert’s ears reverberated with the sound. It felt surreal.

Gamma stated, lowering his hand as the prayer ended, “A True Conductor.”

The officer at Jericho’s feet stirred, but Jericho activated one of the blade conductors he’d stolen from him and stabbed it through the man’s abdomen while rising to his feet. As the officer crumbled into nothing, Kleine startled and the few onlookers who remained scrambled away.

“ELPIS. Peacekeepers. Conductors.” Jericho drew slowly, lifting his sparking blade conductor and pointing it at Gamma. “Everything will be returned to the cycle.”


“The Unterdrückungspolizei, identified by the yellow tag on their uniform, are a special unit within the Militärpolizei trained to handle organized violence against the state. Elementalists compose approximately 50% of this force, and they must pass a rigorous examination in order to serve in this position. Usurpers captured by the Unterdrückungspolizei are sent to the Corrections and Re-education Committee.” 

Basics of Military Structure, The Foundation of Capricorn 5th edition

18.⭑-2: Saint Candidate, ∞ Schadenfreude

Re-cap:

Scorpio has revealed himself.

Now his fall and his plans come to the surface.


Schadenfreude » Pleasure at misfortune for eternity.

Talib Al-Jarrah knew he was born with a golden spoon in his mouth—granted, it was quite a bitter spoon. While most children in Scorpio during the war were out learning tactics and gun-play with the threat of an enemy attack over their heads, Talib and his family were pulled away from the war-zone and found haven in a well-furnished shelter with other wealthy families of Signum.

The bitterness came on the eve he was to leave Scorpio to the area hosting the shelter. On that day, Talib bid farewell to his childhood friend Omar, who was to depart the city on a later train, and promised to write letters to him. Not half an hour after Talib’s train departed, the city erupted into flames—the heat from the conducting grenades even reaching their cart on the train from the distance.

“I’m sure Omar and his family got out fine,” his mother had lied to him.

Still, Talib wrote letters to his friend. It was the only way to offset the nightmares of the different ways Omar could have met his end. That guilt of leaving his friend behind lived inside of Talib for years. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t figure out how anyone thought the war was worth the death of so many people—the death of his friend. Just for reservoirs? Really?

The shelter itself wasn’t too bad. It was there that he met Flannery and Alice, after all—though he always feared losing them like he’d lost Omar.

Flannery was like a tornado of fire, whisking them away on imaginary adventures around every twist and turn. Alice—oh, saints. He never quite got along with Alice. She was all about ‘reality this’ and ‘reality that’—held a high head even when they were all cowering beneath the bombarding shells. While she operated on actuality, he preferred to operate on possibilities. Flannery was the glue that held them together in the beginning. His unspoken promise with Alice to figure out what had happened to Flannery during the candidacy ceremony continued to fortify their odd relationship.

And it was through his personal relationship with Flannery that Talib had taken up the helm of the detective. It had started with a small blip—a joke. Flannery had misplaced the handbag Alice had gifted her one day, and Talib had joined her in her search. Absentmindedly, he had quoted a famous line from the detective of his mystery novel—something like “the mystery is afoot” or “ah, the perpetrator has found its way into our home.” And Flannery had laughed. It was the first time she’d cracked a smile since the ceremony, so he’d felt as if he’d just deciphered some archaic code. He continued pulling random lines from the novels; and when those lost their novelty, he even went on so far as to adopt the style of dress from the main character of the novel and incorporated the character’s speech mannerisms into his own.

He knew it was all nonsense. Absolute, utter garbage. But sometimes it was fun. His eccentric rants about diabolical bubble blowers tickled him so much that he went on and on with it until it became a permanent skit. Plus, it got Flannery and Alice to laugh—sometimes Wtorek’s daughter too. He was certain Jericho even smiled once at it. What better reward was that?

Now—his introduction to Jericho was peculiar. When Alice had first requested for him to fill in as Jericho’s partner after Gabrielle showed interest in the man, Talib had been taken aback. He was quite well aware of his personal reputation among his fellow peacekeepers as the ‘conspiracy theorist’ and the ‘weird one,’ so he didn’t think he was suitable for the role as an evaluator. But he wanted to do good by Alice and by Gabrielle especially. The latter was someone whom he respected greatly as a war hero; and he was still gobsmacked that she’d asked him to join her posse. Meeting Roberto, the Wtoreks, Moraeni, and Ferris—a very charming woman—through Gabrielle was icing on the cake.

In the end, what Talib had been tasked to evaluate were Jericho’s morals, values, and actions out in the field. Instead of doing that, however, Talib found himself evaluating Jericho more as a co-worker—no, a partner—and not just because they both happened to be originally from Scorpio. They shared a mutual ‘peculiar strangeness’ that turned eyes. That and Jericho’s intense passion for his work was somewhat inspiring—although Talib felt some personal pity towards him after learning about his personal history with ELPIS. That aside, Jericho actually listened to him when he went on his tirades about the Organization. It was nice to have an actively participating audience. They were like a duo straight out from his detective novels, or so Talib thought.

Needless to say, Jericho had Talib’s approval; and after Jericho was brought into Gabrielle’s fold, they continued to partner together on missions. During their downtime, they’d even bonded over their ‘arts and crafts’ as Roberto had called it.

Then Gabrielle had finally disclosed the contents of Izsak’s coded message about ‘saint candidates’ and ‘reservoirs.’ Talib was both startled and honored to be provided such a revelation. He promised to keep it discreet. However, he hadn’t been so willing to do it just because of selflessness. As always, Flannery’s failed saint candidacy whispered at the edges of his mind.

There was a connection somewhere between the two—he was certain. He just didn’t know what it was. Diving into Ophiuchus’s libraries proved fruitless as many of the texts were barebone or overly poetic when it came to the subjects like pre-Reservoir War history and the saint candidates.

When he ended up working alongside the Saint Candidate of Leo alongside Jericho in the Twin Cities, however, Talib began to wonder if he was in over his head. The revelation that the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis was fact paired with the truth of ELPIS’s origins opened up a whole new door in the realm of possibilities. If vitae could store memories, then what of the reservoirs? And what did that make the saint candidates whom ELPIS knew of and loathed so much?

Before Talic could get any of the notes down about it, one thing had led to the next and he was suddenly facing off against yet another saint candidate—of Sagittarius this time.

And then Talib fell in.

When Talib finally stumbled into his apartment in the aftermath of his fall, he immediately went to his standing mirror to confirm that it was still him standing there.

Something had gone wrong. He was certain.

More than having a full picture of everything from his bathing in the reservoirs, all he had were fragmented pieces—faded memories like photographs ripped straight out of an album, one picture for each page, each page either torn or missing. The feelings were intense—anger, despair, desire, longing—but there was no concrete knowledge to back it up.

And that was because he hadn’t bathed long enough in the reservoirs, he knew. Leona— Leo —hadn’t acknowledged the wrongness when he’d spoken with her briefly after he was rescued by the Sagittarian prince, so he deduced that there was a wrongness about her too. But if he just dipped himself into the reservoirs for a moment longer then everything would be clear—no, no, no.

Some things he remembered clearly enough, and that was already too much.

He remembered Nareen—rather, he remembered being Nareen. He remembered looking at himself through Nareen’s eyes during their encounter in that cafeteria. He remembered handing himself that folded lotus flower. And he remembered—

The war. The Reservoir War. Weaponized conductors capable of producing vitae for the reservoirs. The purpose of all of that was…? The end result of all of his, Alice’s, Gabrielle’s, the others’ efforts was…?

Saint candidates, the operators. ELPIS, the resistors. And True Conductors, the gears needed. From the very beginning, it had all been set in stone.

True Conductors—Jericho…? And then the Ariesian prince by relation too…? Could they be…?

In a fit, Talib stormed over to the bulletin board that Izsak had helped him put up on the wall months ago and stared holes at the crisscrossing red strings that connected articles to photos to small posted notes in a complex web. He had spent the past half-year putting this thing together and he’d been rather proud of it.

Now, it mocked him.

He lunged forward and tore the red string from the pins, ripped the photographs and articles away from the tape, and fell onto his back heaving as all the papers rained down around him.

Anima-Vitae Hypothesis, read one sticky note.

Aries, the Saint of Ashes, read another. That was Lavender Chance. He knew that now.

Taurus, the Saint of the Fortress. Wtorek Csilla—Izsak and Elizabeta’s daughter.

Leo, the Saint of VictoryLeona.

Virgothe Saint of Bonds. Dear Virgo.

Scorpio, the Saint of Passion. That was him now, wasn’t it?

Yes, it was.

Everything really had been put into place from the very beginning. The Organization was a reality.

Talib laughed.

But what was it all for?

The syzygy. 

The singular word shook him to his core. It was the foundation for plans that he couldn’t recall. The end result of it was unknown to him, yet the pulse of it surged through his limbs and mind like electricity. The desire to complete it like an unreachable itch, an unquenchable thirst.

The end result. The end result? He needed to know it, but he couldn’t recall it, yet a dip in the reservoirs would resolve it but—no!

Talib trembled.

He had to tell Gabrielle and Alice about the conductors, about the saint candidates, about ELPIS. Even if it meant that they’d have to lock him up forever. It was worth the sacrifice to end it all.

Instead of storming out the door, however, he crawled onto his bed and stared desolately up at the ceiling.

No, he couldn’t. The syzygy had to happen. No, it was going to happen. If he told Gabrielle or Alice, then it would take longer for them to reach that stage of completion.

Talib stiffened and turned his head towards the standing mirror just across the room. In place of himself in its reflection he found Nareen, the corner of her eyes crinkled, her lips pulled up ever so slightly.

“Regardless of whether you want it to happen or not,” Nareen’s image said, placing a finger to her lips.“It’s inevitable. It’s the force—the passion—of the people. You’ll realize it too. Just like I did.”

The first time Talib manipulated a human being, it had been by accident.

After falling into the reservoir, he’d been plagued by mirages—illusions—at the most random of times. Women dressed in loose, concealing, silken garments dancing out of the corner of his eye whenever he sank into his cubicle for work. Hooded caravans and saddled camels trudging along the road whenever he glanced out the window on a train ride. He’d even seen the sixth ruler of Scorpio kneeling in front of him at one point when he was eating breakfast.

Memories, he was certain. At times they were so distracting that they interfered with his work. He’d gotten himself into more than one sticky situation because of it.

The illusions culminated finally in a mission where he was sent to Scorpio to investigate a ring of conductor smugglers alongside a peacekeeper named Patrick McClellan. Frankly, he didn’t get along too well with Patrick, but since Jericho had gone off to join the ELPIS Department, Talib had put on his best charade.

They were chasing down the smugglers through the twisting city of Gavrivaz when Talib suddenly found himself separated from Patrick and meandering through a narrow alleyway surrounded by clay and limestone walls that reached so high they almost rivaled the walls of the Twin Cities.

Just as he had been about to send out his mediums to search for his partner and the perpetrators—he could send more mediums than before now, although he was still stuck using a conductor due to his faulty baptism—he had been ambushed by one of the smugglers. The man was rather scrawny, with a gaunt-looking face. Obviously, he was not a very strong combatant.

In his mind’s eye, however, Talib had seen the singular man as an entire mob of red-faced men and women wielding torches and pitchforks. The hallucination had Talib tearing down the empty alleyway in horror as the single man closed in on him and grabbed at his arm.

Fearing for his life, Talib reached for the closest thing he could use as a weapon—which just so happened to be his pen-knife conductor—and held it out blindly. Although he couldn’t see the tip of his conductor piercing the other man’s flesh due to squeezing his eyes shut, he could feel his vitae entering the man—feel himselfentering him. It was like diving into a pool of water on a painfully hot summer’s day—a shock to the system, refreshing. At that moment, Talib suddenly found that he knew so many things about the man—

Nash Alam. Height, 153 cm. Weight, 71 kg. Vision, 20/20. Family, two daughters and two sons. His wife, ill. Occupation, smuggler—but only because that was the only job he could find that paid enough to take care of his wife’s medical bills.

Surface-level memories of Nash tucking in his children into the small bed on the floor they all shared, of Nash pressing tender kisses onto the back of his wife’s hand as she lay there gray and dying, and of Nash’s employers consistently cutting his pay and him being only able to spare his family a small loaf of bread at dinner constantly as a result.

It was just so sad.

Only when Talib came back to reality a moment later and found Nash hovering blankly above him with the pen-conductor driven in his knee did Talib realize the atrocity he’d just committed. He scrambled back hastily in horror before hesitantly pulling the pen-knife from the man’s leg.

Nash didn’t even flinch.

“I am so, so sorry,” Talib stammered, hands raised. “Are… you okay?”

Nash nodded silently.

Talib felt no different than he had before, and he was certain that Nash—despite that vacant look in his eye—still had his mental faculties about him. Talib knew this because he remembered doing this many times before.

“What are you doing?” Appearing beside him, Nareen whispered in his ear. “You always thought that there was a communication error between peacekeepers and the common people, didn’t you? Now you’ve found the way to solve it. Now you have a chance to understand each other, so do it.”

How did she know he thought that?

“Because we’re the same now, Mr. Al-Jarrah.”

This was wrong.

Then again, he’d already done it.

Still…

“Don’t you understand that if you keep doing this, Nash Alam,” Talib murmured hesitantly, “there won’t be anyone left to take care of your children and your wife? You don’t want that, do you?”

Nash shook his head.

“You want to be there and protect your family, right?”

Nash nodded.

“Then you have to turn yourself in, Mr. Alam.”

But my family, my wife —came Nash’s thought that somehow made its way to Talib.

“I’ll take care of them for you,” Talib said. “I have the money. I can do it. I promise.”

After a moment, Nash blankly nodded again.

Relief spread through Talib’s chest before worry about his manipulation being discovered by other peacekeepers followed. If that happened, Talib realized, then not only would he be arrested and his license revoked, but then his vitae would be removed from Nash and the man would just go back to his old waysSo, Talib decided then to conceal his manipulation as best as he could—even somehow managed to make Nash lose awareness of the manipulation too.

It was a meticulous game.

Talib later watched through Nash’s eyes as the man reunited with his family, bid them temporary farewell, and then turned himself in to the local authorities. And Talib felt joy at this. He had done this. Their happiness was achievable because of his efforts. If he could do this much with this ability, what else could he do? Maybe, he thought to himself, he could use this ability to his advantage. He could help guide people who had lost their way and maybe even garner information on what this ‘syzygy’ was about without taking a full-dive in the reservoirs to ‘complete’ himself.

And so as time went on, he began to test his abilities further—to help people.

He didn’t do it too often—mostly on cases that he was on with Gabrielle in order to boost her record. After all, he didn’t want to draw suspicion, and he didn’t want to be dragged into a promotion position just yet. Gabrielle never suspected a thing. But why would she? It wasn’t as if he was doing anything wrong. The only reason living manipulation was outlawed was because it had negative effects on both the Manipulator and the living medium and because it was an unhealthy dynamic. He understood the science behind that now; and he was certain that although he didn’t contain the normal amount of high-energy vitae particles in himself saint candidates usually contained, he would still be able to inject his vitae into others without any side-effects. That and his intentions were altruistic instead of malicious.

It was all down to science and goodwill.

That aside, Talib found a sense of camaraderie connecting to individuals across Signum. Although they were from all different walks of life, they shared dreams, passions, and desires to better themselves and their lives. He felt that being ‘with them’ helped to quench his thirst to complete the syzygy, to ‘complete’ himself, to gain the knowledge hidden in the reservoirs.

But still, he needed more—more than just individuals involved in the peacekeeping cases he was working on. And so he did just that, converting random passersby at times into his mediums. Two mediums became four, four became sixteen, sixteen became two-hundred fifty-six, and more and more. But Talib reassured himself that he was only doing it to get more information through those connections for Alice and Gabrielle, to get more of an understanding about Flannery, to get more of an understanding of the goals of ELPIS—the organization that whisked Jericho away, the organization made of relics and of fools.

Talib assured himself that when he got all of the information together, then he would be ready to tell Gabrielle, Alice, and the others.

But then he met—entered—a young Taurusian woman named Fekete Evelin while on a routine checkup of the country’s main generator conductors. The woman was in no way involved in the case, being a local bartender in a town he’d stopped by during the assignment. He bumped into her accidentally while switching tables, and he caught sight of the dark bruises around her neck and arms. Worry filling his chest, he immediately used his conductor to enter her.

In horror, he found that the woman was filled with unending despair. It was the only thing she’d ever known. From neglectful, abusive parents to a neglectful, abusive husband who had beat her head on the kitchen sink over burnt toast just that morning—she was trapped in a cycle. At the moment, she was saving up money to try and leave him.

You don’t have to suffer. I’ll help you with the money, he told her in horror. You can be free. It’s your choice. You want to be free, don’t you? 

With glassy eyes, Fekete agreed—yes, she wanted more than anything to be free.

Then all you have to do is leave, he informed her.

That statement gave her so much relief—he could tell. And so he departed her side with a hop in his step.

It was on the train home to Ophiuchus that Talib felt Fekete select the kitchen knife from her cupboards and walk over to her husband who was drinking at the dining room table. As fury boiled over in her chest, she stabbed him over and over again before turning around and staring holes into the small figure standing just behind her. Without hesitation, she stabbed the small figure over and over again too.

What are you doing?! Talib cried in horror to her as he forced her to stop. Why?!

Her expression was eerily calm. There was even a faint smile touching her lips. This is freedom, she thought as she slit her throat. Now, I leave.

And just like that, his connection with her snapped in two.

After coming back to himself in the train cart, Talib immediately darted into the nearest bathroom and vomited.

Nash—Talib desperately reached out for the man for consolation, but in horror found that Nash was not sitting patiently in his jail cell in the Scorpioan city but dashing through the detention center’s halls as alarms blared around him.

He had planned a breakout attempt, Talib realized.

There was a gun in the man’s hand that had already been fired twice. But the man didn’t care about the lives he’d just taken. All he could think about was his family—getting back to his wife and daughter.

You need to stop! Talib ordered, now absolutely furious.

And Nash did stop—just in time to be bulleted through by the prison guards running up just behind him.

Talib agonized about Nash Alam and Fekete Evelin for weeks. But every time he tried to find comfort in the others he had entered, he only found that they too had reverted to their old ways—most going by some inane interpretation of the ‘orders’ he gave them. The alcoholics found solace in other addictions, the greedy found other ways to earn a surplus, and the abused fell to other abusers or became abusers themselves.

One night, Talib laid awake in bed feeling all of his mediums go through the cyclic motions in agony. In the end, he couldn’t change a thing.

“So you realize it now. That’s what passion is. You can’t stop it.”

The guilt was bottomless.

“But why should you feel guilty?” Nareen’s voice continued to whisper in his ear, although he had covered up his standing mirror weeks ago.

What happened to Fekete and Nash was—

“They both wanted this from the very beginning. You know that. All you were—all we are—is the passage of time or a burst of passion in a single moment.”

It was terrible.

“Aren’t you glad that Fekete’s husband died though? He was a wicked man, wasn’t he?”

Yes, he was. But Fekete—

“Well, you felt Fekete’s last moments. That euphoria of being free.”

It was true. What had truly disturbed Talib so much was not only Fekete’s death, but the relief the woman had felt as she’d plunged the knife into her throat.

She was happy and—”

It was all because of him that Fekete could move forward through the final act. 

Talib chuckled.

It was almost kind of funny how things kept ending. To be wandering around trying to change was the keystone of the suffering because realizing failure to change was true grief. It was better to revel in absolute unchanging self and maybe even hedonism—like Nash and Fekete had. Anyone who resisted was laughable—like Gabrielle, like Alice. Any suffering that they encountered was deserved.

As soon as the thought left Talib’s mind, nausea overtook him.

He needed help. Flannery could—no, not Flannery. Flannery—Libra—was a coward. Irresponsible, abandoning their plan for the syzygy as if it were nothing, like they hadn’t poured centuries of blood into it. Right now she was so useless. Slovenly. It’d be better if he’d just killed her and have someone else take up the helm of Libra—well, no. Libra had always been like that—standing back neutrally and looking down at everything and judging ‘right’ from ‘wrong’ like she wasn’t even involved. The arrogance! 

Talib shot up in bed, cold sweat escaping from every pore in his body.

How could he even think that about Flannery?

“What do you mean?” Nareen continued. “It’s not like we haven’t done it before—kill someone I mean. Although it was only that one time that we’ve ever killed another person ourselves. Most of the time, they all kill each other. It’s a pity.”

“You… You killed Shion,” Talib realized in horror as the memory of a cloud of blackbirds swirled in his mind.

“No, we killed Shion.”

No, that wasn’t true.

But he could still recall sending those flocks of birds on after Shion as she desperately tried to fly away. He remembered aiming the birds at her face, limbs, hands. He remembered her tumbling from her conductor and desperately searching for the sky for it right up until the very end.

“You know it’s true.”

And Talib laughed—laughed because he suddenly remembered Shion’s desperation in her final moments, her tearful struggle for the truth despite being just a simple woman. She’d tried to change and that was the result. A fruitless struggle. Laughable, hilarious, pitiable.

After his chuckles had subsided into pained groans of agony, Talib finally decided it firmly in horror: he needed help. Now. He couldn’t wait around and try to hold it off any longer.

Before he knew it, Talib found himself standing on the platform bridges that oversaw the Prognoikos Aurora Reservoirs. His legs were sore from walking the entire distance from the Serpens Establishment to the reservoirs since the trains were down for the night. But despite his fatigue, he continued onwards.

The sky was pitch-black save for the silver moon peeking in from in-between the clouds. But that sliver of light seemed to act like a spotlight on the glimmering reservoirs.

Talib needed to know more—what the syzygy was, why the saint candidates were so desperate to complete it, why things ended the way they did, and maybe some semblance as for the reason why Fekete and Nash suffered their fates. Had it been his own fault or theirs? Maybe that knowledge and wisdom were hidden away in the reservoirs somewhere, in the memories of past Scorpioan saint candidates; maybe there was something there to ease his concerns.

As Talib neared the spot above his reservoir and basked in the warm updraft from below, however, regret bombarded him. Why in the world had he come here?

The clicking of heels behind him cut off those thoughts shortly after.

“So you’ve finally come,” came a silken voice. “You took longer than I expected.”

Upon turning, he found a familiar woman with golden hair standing there—a faint, familiar smile touching her lips.

Leona, Saint Candidate of Leo, Saint of Victory. She was dutiful, strong, and just. Always had been. Even if she was half the person she was before.

“You were playing a dangerous game, Talib Al-Jarrah, manipulating people while having such a small amount of high-energy level vitae inside of you.”

“We’re the same in that regard, aren’t we?” Talib returned, feeling eerily calm. “So you’re going to force me to jump then, are you?

“I have quite a lot more vitae in me than you, Talib.” Leona chuckled. “And don’t be ridiculous. It’s still yourchoice.”

“My choice?”

“This time, yes,” Leona said. “In the very beginning, there was always a choice with the ceremony and potential candidates—do you recall? In fact, it was viewed as an honor to accept the role, and everyone did so knowing the responsibility they were taking on. If you step off now, you will just follow in the footsteps of so many before you.”

After a beat, he whispered, “What is it like…?”

“I suppose equating it to ‘enlightenment’ would be… the romantic way to put it.”

“Enlightenment you say…?” Talib suppressed a laugh at the ridiculousness of it—but still, his attention was drawn down to the reservoirs. The warmth felt like it was pulling him in. “Why…?”

“The amount of the high-energy vitae particles associated with Scorpio in you now is much larger than before. As you know, high-energy vitae particles—especially those of matching wavelengths—attract each other. At the moment, resisting the pull of the reservoir is going against the laws of physics itself.” Leona regarded him. “But rest assured. Afterwards, you will still be you.”

That last bit was surely a lie. But it sounded like she believed it wholeheartedly.

He would become like them—Talib was certain. It was only natural. Centuries upon centuries of memories from past saint candidates and others extinguishing his own sense of self. What was twenty or thirty years compared to two-hundred, three-hundred, four-hundred?

“If you wish, once you fully complete yourself, you can choose not to fulfill your duties as a saint candidate—just as Flannery did.”

“Flannery…?” Talib looked away from the reservoirs as the full realization dawned on him. “You put Flannery through this too without even giving her a choice…” He whipped back to Leona, now absolutely livid. “How could you?! You’re all insane… What you’re trying to do—even though I can barely remember what it is, I can still tell—you’re monsters.”

“Your words are unkind, Scorpio—”

“No, no—don’t call me that!” Talib snapped hysterically. “All you people are doing is shoving what you think is right on us! You and ELPIS both!” He slapped his hand against his chest. “How can change happen if you’re here interfering with everything?! Just give us a chance! The syzygy—”

“Wow… that passion. You truly are a suitable candidate,” another voice, deeper in tone, resounded from the dark.

“You…” Talib felt his blood run cold as he registered another figure emerging from the shadows into the silver moonlight. “You killed Izsak…?”

“I’m sure you’ll realize it once you remember it fully.” The figure reached out and placed a hand to Talib’s chest. “Nothing will ever change. Different faces, different stories, the same ending.” The figure chuckled. “You coming here instead of you going to either Gabrielle or Alice just shows that you’ve already made your choice.”

Talib knew with a falling heart that there was a partial truth in that.

Giving him a good and hard push, the figure left him with—“Good morning, old friend.”

Talib stumbled backwards off the platform and tumbled down through the night air. He barely managed to catch sight of the clouds pulling away from the moon revealing its beauty in full before he crashed through the waters of the reservoir.

The heat of it seared his skin and filled up his lungs, blinding his eyes and suffocating him in terrible things.

Memories of revolutions, assassinations, war, peace flooded him as did the experiences of the countless people he had turned into his mediums and offshoots with his spores in previous iterations of himself. All of their actions—despite the different times, the different situations, the different personalities—ended up being exactly the same. Those who tried to change died. Those who embraced themselves lived gloriously until the end. The very beginning of Signum, ELPIS, and himself eclipsed his mind as did the path sauntering downwards. The ending was clear.

If there was any word for all of it, he supposed ‘enlightenment’ really would fit.

As Scorpio broke up through the surface of the reservoir, he burst out laughing. His own meandering fit of anguish from earlier was just so hilarious. It was the first time he’d experienced an incomplete baptism like that, so it was an interesting experience at least.

The answer was obvious. There had never been reason or rhyme to any of it—not for Omar’s death, not for the war, not for Fekete’s and Nash’s fates. All of it was the cycle of life. And if it was to continue like that forever—or at least until the syzygy—then why not live by throwing oneself into passion and hedonism until the end?

The next time the Saint of Passion saw Flannery Caertas, he reveled in her expression of utter despair as she laid eyes on him. He’d always been curious about her ability to see the flow of vitae. It was such an omniscient ability—to see the beginning and end, life and death—that he was sure it bestowed some sort of wisdom. It was such a waste to be given to someone who refused to act unless slapping down a verdict at the very end.

Libra seeing her childhood friend become just the same as her—surely Scorpio thought that this would cause her to move. But then Libra had smiled and chatted about the weather as she’d seated herself beside him as if everything in the world was right.

It infuriated him. How dare she act as if everything was normal? Her lack of acknowledgment just showed her lack of care! The irresponsibility! Did she really just want to wait around for the syzygy to happen?

It took every single fiber of his being not to slap her every time he saw her.

What? Did she think that he was the same as her? Apathetic and careless? Not wanting to take up the helm?

That was when he’d decided to set one of his goals. He would drag her out of hiding and force her into the light that she averted her eyes away from. Look at it, look at it, look at it! 

But Libra wasn’t the only faulty party. The other active saint candidates too were wrong. Sagittarius was a traitor. And Leona, despite her heavy involvement in Signum’s affairs, wasn’t pushing the syzygy hard enough—wasn’t doing away with ELPIS to the full extent of her ability. Scorpio figured it was probably because her baptism was faulty like his had been. And so, he had delicately cut her out of the picture so he could take matters into his own hands. Of course, none of the others turned an eye—some maybe did so out of curiosity, others maybe out of negligence. Well, fine. He’d show them exactly how far he could go.

But after setting that goal, Scorpio realized it still wasn’t enough. There were too many others around Libra and himself that lived in delusions. Like that Gabrielle Law. The complete and utter arrogance of that woman was laughable. His mind rattled with memories of the riveting speeches she’d given to all of them about a world of true peace that she’d be able to bring if she made it to chairwoman.

Just who did she think she was? What made her so special? Why did she think she could accomplish something no one else could do?

He would have to correct that false way of thinking—force her to face the reality of herself and her ‘perfect, utopian’ world.

And that Alice. She was the worst offender of them all. She thought people were capable of true change—no, she mistook small shifts in habit and behavior as signs of true change. She didn’t see the full picture. She didn’t see that all of those small shifts would gradually take a person back to the very beginning, coming full circle. Or—at least she refused to see it. Ah, the arrogance and ignorance of it all.

But plainly telling them of their folly wouldn’t teach them. No one learned that way. Showing them and having them experience their folly and failures themselves—now that was how something stayed ingrained in the brain.

Not too long after infecting Leona, Scorpio decided to go to Capricorn to investigate a suspected True Conductor named Werner Waltz. As he made his way through Capricorn to the capital, he made sure to create living mediums whenever he could. He had no intention to convert them into infectious spores at that time. He merely needed to get as many eyes on Werner Waltz as possible.

Almost every other Capricornian he entered, however, contained in them suppressed anger, dissatisfaction, grief, and contempt. The oppressive and yet somehow paradoxically hands-off reign of the current Kaiser and the lack of vitae reservoirs and related shortages in the border-lining towns of Capricorn strangled the people. No one knew of it, but economic inequality was around every corner. In order to escape it, Capricornians often stayed longer in service than the required years to escape heavy non-service taxation and to earn enough of a stipend to move to cities and towns where vitae was supplied more readily. However, this led to work shortages in other areas such as agriculture and research and development. The chancellery had tried to adapt by creating military positions in science-related fields, but it was still insufficient.

In other words, the system that made Capricorn strong was tearing it apart. No system lasted forever. Every single one failed, only to be rebuilt again with ‘improvements,’ only to fail again.

Scorpio mulled over all of the pitiable Capricornians with empathy before deciding to visit the Kaiser at his place of residence—the location of which he pried out from the man’s v-ehicle driver.

The Kaiser showed no surprise when he found Scorpio lounging on the sofa of his living room.

“Who are you and what business do you have?” was all he asked.

“The Saint of Passion. I would like to speak with you, dear.”

“I know of your kind. The previous kaiser told me all about you,” the Kaiser had said after a minute pause. “I haven’t heard news of any ceremony recently. Aren’t you supposed to be primarily focused on Scorpio instead, not here?”

“Usually,” Scorpio replied, “but I’m here in search of a True Conductor who holds citizenship in your country.”

“You know Capricorn doesn’t involve itself with those things,” the Kaiser replied steadily, “so I’m unable to help you in that department.”

“You seem to know many things, Kaiser,” Scorpio conceded, extending a hand, “but you seem not to know the suffering of your people.”

The Kaiser didn’t budge. “What type of Conductor are you?”

“I’m a Manipulator,” Scorpio answered honestly. “But you needn’t worry about me manipulating you. I rarely do things like that. You know we only exist as mediums of knowledge and wisdom.”

Still, the Kaiser refused to move.

“There has yet to be a kaiser that has fully understood the will of the people.” Scorpio kept his hand extended. “Wouldn’t you like to be the first? This is the only chance you have. Do your people truly love you or hate you? You can find out.”

And so the Kaiser took his hand—the man was the youngest ever kaiser and the most curious of them all, after all. Thus, Scorpio showed him everything: the people’s thoughts, their feelings, their wishes and desires. In the end, the Kaiser collapsed on all fours on the ground, panting, heaving, half-weeping.

“I didn’t realize it had gotten that bad… I…”

“Most people don’t.”

“The reservoirs… we need more reservoirs.”

So that was what the Kaiser thought the problem was. What a foolish man.

Scorpio almost laughed but instead said, “I’ll see what I can do for you. Of course, I’d like information about my True Conductor first.”

Unfortunately, the Kaiser informed him that Werner Waltz had departed back to the border just two days prior. The development was somewhat irritating, but Scorpio continued his investigation by converting several Capricornians who were headed to the borders into spores and mediums to surveil Waltz better. And that was the end of it. Or so he’d thought.

Just as Scorpio was to depart the capital back to Ophiuchus, he encountered Marionette Engel in the capital’s main square. She looked much older than when he’d last seen her during the war, but her eyes still burned with the fire that he’d helped to light years ago. The crowd she was rallying, however, didn’t seem to contain that fire. And as she protested something or the other about ‘the Watch’ and the secrecy of the Kaiser and higher military officials, many turned a blind eye.

Frankly, Scorpio felt pity for her. Many movements died with the passage of time. If the defunct movements were lucky, they would inspire future movements. If not, they were simply forgotten. That was how it went.

He continued to watch Marionette even after her rally ended and after she bid farewell to her few supporters too. He watched as she stowed herself away into an alley and sank to the ground, back pressed against the wall.

How pitiable to see a flame die.

And so, as he passed her by, he transferred some of his vitae into a sheet of origami paper and subtly cut Marionette on the cheek with it.

Changehe reminded her. You want change.

Even if it was impossible.

Hah-hah.

It was only later—after he returned to Ophiuchus and conversed with a half-lucid Leona while admiring his newly fixed bulletin board—that he began to connect the dots together. The small Capricornian reservoir, the people’s unhappiness, the Kaiser’s internal defeat, Marionette’s desire—all the puzzle pieces were already set up, like a game.

That pursuit of passion—Scorpio loved it.

The infection of True Conductor Werner Waltz truly had been an accident. As soon as Scorpio realized that one of his offshoots had infected the man, he flew into a mad panic. True Conductors were extremely valuable, after all. And while there was just a small surplus of them compared to the amount needed for the syzygy, every single one of them was still precious—especially when they were so hard to find. His desperation almost led to him reaching out personally to Libra, but—

—then Scorpio felt Werner. He’d never entered a True Conductor before so the breadth and depth of entering one of them left him breathless. So many crisscrossing thoughts and feelings bleeding into each other—the vitae of one person operating independently yet in sync with all the others. The way they influenced each other was remarkable. It was so different to how saint candidates like himself and ELPIS leaders operated. And—

Scorpio was completely enamored by it. 

There was also something about Werner Waltz that reminded him vaguely of Fekete—as in being under the domineering oppression and watchful eyes of another. Unlike Fekete, however, Werner didn’t have a desire to escape. He bore on with it as if it were duty, bent himself to meet perceptions. Fascinating. Everything about him was fabricated—even his will and strength. Layers upon layers of lies.

Scorpio truly enjoyed getting to know the falsities in Werner as he did the falsities of Cadence, Atienna, and Olive. Cadence, the one who tried the hardest to change ‘for the better’ and who had attempted to pretend exteriorly until her interior matched—but failing every single time. Atienna, who after all of this time still remained fixated in spot— like Libra —while displaying a false facade of kindness and empathy. Olive, who had convinced himself that he was moving forward despite binding himself to the idea of ‘bringing back his sister’ and who more than anything—deep down inside—wanted everything to disappear. And Maria—no. Jericho—he waited with anticipation for.

Still, Werner was Scorpio’s favorite. He just couldn’t get enough of it; and so he kept dissecting Werner further and further, hoping to deepen his understanding of the man, hoping to get to the bottom of who the man truly was and who he was meant to be. Even if it met breaking them all in the process.

Poor thing.

Every so often doubt and regret would burn at the edges of Talib’s mind—though those episodes grew far and fewer in-between. He even cried over them sometimes. And he acted on them, of course, because he was a man of passion. Any resistance against internal desire was going against human nature itself. And he was made of thousands upon thousands of memories of so many humans—and, unlike Leona and her complex, he did not distinguish himself much from humankind.

And so he’d laid little hints for Gabrielle’s group. The notes, the biting remarks, the letters. It wasn’t his fault that they ignored all the signs. But that was human nature—averting the eyes to focus on their own bent version of reality. Still, he tried his best. But gradually his good intentions melded into something else. Instead of warning them to the best of his abilities, somehow he began turning the entire thing into a game, testing how far he could push until they realized something was off, testing how much he could act and pretend. Why? Because it was just too fun.


Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

It was exactly how Scorpio pictured it. Their expressions. Eyebrows furrowed and raised, lips parted into gapes or pulled downwards into grimaces. The atmosphere in the room was perfectly thin.

Scorpio placed a hand on his chin and allowed himself a moment to take it all in—their faces, the weapons in their hands, the way they either tensed or moved backwards. The fear in the room was poignant.

“You Capricornians should be thankful I offered my help to begin with.” Scorpio broke the silence with a hum. “I’m helping you refill your reservoirs even though this country isn’t my domain.” He chuckled. “All of those medals and speeches about glory, honor, and valor—yet you don’t even realize what or who you’re fighting for. For your country? You’ve already seen what your country wants to use you for. So if not that then for the people? But they all despise you. Maybe for money and power? Such temporary things—”

“No, don’t!” Gabrielle snapped suddenly.

Scorpio turned just in time to see one of Von Spiel’s men fire a rifle conductor at him. He barely had the time to blink before he felt the heat of the ray sear through his head.

Then, for a moment, there was nothing. Just black emptiness. In the next moment, Scorpio found himself lying on the floor and blinking up at the dome ceiling—with just one functioning eye.

“W-What the hell—” came the stammering whispers. “What the hell are you?”

Scorpio sat himself up and glanced at the floor around him. It was scattered with fleshy bits of his skull, flesh, and hair—and oh, his other eyeball too. Those fleshy remnants pulsated with dark blue vitae before vibrating and slowly slinking their way back to him. They crawled up his legs, went up his arms, flowed up his neck, before fitting into their correct places in his skull.

Blinking as the optic nerve of his other eye reattached itself, Scorpio lifted his hand and flicked his wrist. The paper cranes surrounding that particularly feisty Capricornian swarmed him and lacerated his skin. The man tried to take cover and swat them away but it was too late—

Gereon Böhm, 22 years of age, 182 cm, 115 kg, Lance Corporal. Andor so Scorpio realized as he dug through Gereon’s surface-level memories: such a poor, pitiable thing.

Scorpio ordered Gereon to stop his fit immediately. The latter obeyed, stilling and lowering his rifle.

Scorpio sighed, pulling himself to a stand and dusting himself off. “You were told at least a little bit about how high energy vitae particles work, right? Do you really think someone whose body contains the vitae particles that reservoirs are made of would be felled by some silly conductor?”

He peeled off his damp trench coat slowly and held it out to Gereon who paced over and took it from him. He’d always hated having to wear that thing for the act.

“High-level energy vitae particles are naturally attracted to each other,” Scorpio explained. “Every single vitae particle in my body is crying out to return to where the largest, nearest mass of my vitae particles resides—which is me. Now, you might be asking why I’m not being drawn into local vitae reservoirs or why local vitae reservoirs are not drawn into me.”

No one responded; everyone stared. Maybe no one was asking. But who cared?

“It’s all about the wavelengths and color attributes of vitae particles. That’s actually one of the reasons why a person is chosen to be a saint candidate. It’s quite complicated, Alice. Not as simple as you put it.” He turned to them and popped his neck. “Of course, I’m particularly good at this since I can directly manipulate my own particles, but I digress: killing me or trying to won’t do anything for you. I’m truly just an observer now.”

Ignoring the stares he continued to receive, he flicked his hand in the air again. This time Roberto stiffened, unholstered his pistol, and pointed it squarely at Alice and Gabrielle.

Gabrielle startled, eyes wide as beautiful realization dawned on her. “Talib… how could you?”

Scorpio ignored her and addressed Martin, “Major Von Spiel, you were so eager to sacrifice yourself and your men to me before, but what now? What is it for? Did you want to uphold the Capricornian standard for bravery and valor? Do you value you and your subordinates less than your country?”

“So you’re the one ruining our country,” was Martin’s response.

“Ruining your country?” Scorpio stared and then burst out laughing. He wasn’t quite sure how long he laughed for, but his throat was sore when the laughter subsided. Wiping a tear from his eye, he said, “You call the will of the people you’ve sworn to protect ‘ruining your country’?”

Another soldier began another aiming a rifle conductor at him, so Scorpio jerked his head. Gereon aimed the rifle conductor at his own mouth, paused, and then fired.

What a pitiable fool.

Gereon’s headless body hit the ground a second after. The initial soldier startled and screamed Gereon’s name, but Scorpio interrupted him—

“Two months ago, Gereon accidentally shot and killed a man and his daughter while attempting to apprehend Augen members at a rally. The Militärpolizei covered the incident up, and Gereon hasn’t been able to live with himself since. He’s thrown himself into every case he’s been assigned like it’s his last and was hoping to die on assignment. I gave him a choice, and he chose this.”

Scorpio gestured to all of them and sent several of his origami papers hurtling towards a select few of Von Spiel’s men. They too tried to shoot at and dodge the papers, but Scorpio nicked them quite easily.

“Now if you’re so eager to lay down your lives, I would at least like to know you all better.” He spread his arms wide. “I’ll grant you your deepest desires! Shall we see them all, everyone?” He turned back to Martin. “Unless you have a different idea, Major General.”

Martin grimaced and jerked his hand down, signaling his remaining subordinates to cast down their weapons. The sporeless subordinates obeyed.

But it wasn’t good enough.

“I want to hear it from your mouth, Martin.” 

Again, no answer. Only a glare.

Scorpio lifted his hand in the air—

“Stand down!” Martin spat through gritted teeth. “Everyone, stand down! No one fires at the saint candidate. Put down your weapons. We don’t have the faculties to go up against something like this.”

His words echoed through the hall, accentuating the sight of the conductors and rifles already lying on the floor.

Scorpio smiled. “Thank you. And now, Mr. Von Spiel, you know that honor in battle and Capricorn’s brand of bravery are not suitable for you. It wasn’t suitable for Fritz either. It’s truly a pity about him. If only we found him sooner, then we could’ve protected him.”

Martin grimaced, eyebrows furrowing and eyes afire, but he said nothing.

Scorpio prepared to move on but paused when he noticed that one Capricornian was still gripping a weapon tightly.

Ah, it was Ludwig Waltz.

“Ludwig,” Scorpio acknowledged him, causing the man to stiffen, “if only you showed this sort of rebelliousness and bravery all those years ago.” He smiled when Ludwig paled. “Do you think that performing something like a heroic sacrifice will make them forgive you? No, you’re just running away again. Let’s not make any more mistakes, okay?”

Viktoria placed a hand on Ludwig’s shoulder; and after they shared a brief look, Ludwig lowered the weapon.

Scorpio then approached Hilton and Louise who both tensed. “You can leave this place with each other. Both of you are very valuable to us, after all.” He jerked his head back towards the others. “None of them understand how truly special your kind are.”

Hilton grimaced.

“Oh, don’t worry about any Augen members stopping you. I’ll tell them to keep you safe. In fact, I’ll always be watching you from now on.”

Tensing and paling, Hilton glanced over Scorpio’s shoulder then relaxed slightly. Scorpio followed his gaze to Gabrielle who was nodding at him.

The arrogance of that woman.

Hilton grabbed Louise’s arm and slowly headed on towards the exit. He paused at the threshold, tense, as if expecting to be shot or attacked. When none of those things came to be, he broke out into a mad dash with Louise in tow.

Scorpio watched them disappear from his sights before switching over to watch them trek through the city via the eyes of his mediums. He then made his way over to Maria’s ‘crew’ and knelt before Lita who was surrounded by a protective barrier made of Morandi, Simon, and Emmanuel.

“You have eyes like Libra, though I see they’re much weaker,” Scorpio noted, extending his hand to her. “I wonder if you would have been a better Libra than her. Anyway, I would like to have my vitae read. Would you be so kind?”

Morandi and Simon pushed Lita further behind them and remained silent.

Scorpio ignored them, keeping his hand extended. “They saved you, I’m assuming? Would you be able to live with yourself if something happened just because you didn’t want to act? A fate of constantly having to be rescued? I’m not sure if it’s sad or disgusting. Poor girl.”

Trembling, Lita shoved past Morandi and Simon despite their protests and put on her glasses conductors. She tentatively reached out for Scorpio’s hand and then looked up at him. She paled not soon after her as her eyes widened in horror. With a screech of terror, she pulled away from him and buried herself into Morandi’s arms.

Seeking rescue again—hah-hah.

Scorpio pulled back with a chuckle. “Is it really that bad?” He glanced at Simon who was pale. “A Monadic priest like you being with these kinds of people is quite irresponsible. I’m sure even if you were not higher in the Monadic order, you would still know to bring special cases like this to the temples.” 

He turned back and ordered Roberto and the other Capricornians who had just been converted into his spores to release the bound Augen members. They do so without question.

He didn’t have them take away the weapons of those who were sporeless—because the result would be the same whether or not the sporeless fought back; and he wanted them to see and know this. He did, however, have his spores and mediums line the perimeter of the building and then sent one soldier out of the dome on an errand.

Once that was all settled, Scorpio snapped his fingers. “Now that you all seem to understand your situation and the stage is set, let’s talk.”

Several of the origami animals floating around the room refolded themselves into the shape of crowns. He guided those paper crowns down onto Gabrielle’s, Alice’s, Von Spiel’s, Weingartner’s, and Ludwig’s heads. After taking a bow, he snapped his fingers again. The crowns re-folded themselves into jester hats.

He chuckled.

Martin, Gabrielle, and Ludwig shook theirs off, while Alice and Weingartner remained impassive.

“You shouldn’t feel despair about the fact that you’re facing someone like me,” Scorpio said. “You should despair that even if you weren’t, the ending would be the same.” He tapped his chest. “As you’ve probably heard many times before, I didn’t force any of those ‘infected’ Capricornians to do anything they wouldn’t have actually done. Save for a few instances like now, I’ve never taken full control of them. In fact, only one-sixth of the Capricornians that are here for the protest in this capital have my spores in them. The others have been pulled in by their own passions. What’s happened within these past couple of weeks would have happened over the next several months regardless of whether I interfered or not. This animosity has been brewing since the war’s end. I’m sure Libra will make the same verdict.”

“Very wordy, Talib. But if you’re so confident about that,” Gabrielle said calmly, “then why didn’t you just let the months-long rolling plan happen instead? This seems a bit much, Talib, even for you.”

Arrogance burned in her eyes, but so did pathetic, hidden desperation—the same desperation she showed whenever Izsak was brought up.

Scorpio pressed his fingertips together. “I did say patience was a virtue, didn’t I? One I admittedly don’t have…” 

The soldier he’d sent off earlier returned carrying two red bottles of wine.

“Let me explain all of your positions to you fully.” Scorpio accepted a bottle and uncorked it. “First, Capricornians, your plan is to stop and dispose of the Kaiser, right? But who do you think will take his place? Who do you trust to do it?” He gestured to Martin—“You?”—then to Volker—“Or you?” When neither man responded, Scorpio chuckled. “The Kaiser used to be just like you with the same ambitions, morals, and goals—I know because I’m in him—but look at him now. What makes you think you’d be so different? You’re all about ‘now, now, now,’ but you don’t even think about the future.”

Thunder began to rumble outside.

Scorpio poured out the wine from the bottle and watched as the red leaked in between the tiles. “As for you, peacekeepers, all the first chairs of the departments are aware of the existence of us saint candidates just as all of them are aware of vitae conversion. I’ll let your imagination tell you what that implicates for the Reservoir War and for the other countries of Signum.”

“So, why are you telling us all of this?” Gabrielle asked.

Scorpio leisurely paced over to her and handed her the empty bottle.

After a moment of hesitation, Gabrielle took it from him and searched his face for something—someone—like a pitiable fool. “And… what’s this for?”

“Don’t you recognize it?”

Gabrielle arched a brow, staring into the bottom of the bottle.

“It’s going to be your best friend from now on.” Scorpio smiled as Gabrielle frowned in confusion. “How else are you going to be able to bear living with all of this from now on? Poor thing.”

Gabrielle’s eyes widened, then narrowed before she tightened her grip on the bottle and melted it into nothing with magenta flame. She, however, didn’t make any other daring moves. “Sorry, Talib, never was a drinker.”

“Alice, you see it too, don’t you?” Scorpio continued, not looking away from Gabrielle. “The only reason Gabrielle Law is so bent on becoming head chairwoman is because she can’t live with the guilt of what she did during the war. All of this ‘creating a better Ophiuchus to bring peace to Signum’ is a coping mechanism. It doesn’t matter if she drags down other people with her. There’s no altruism here. Still… we followed her.” He leaned in close so that he was only centimeters away from Gabrielle’s face and whispered, “You’ve fought for nothing, but you’ve lost everything.”

“Talib, you need help…” she muttered back.

Her worry and empathy bled into him. But then he cast a glance down at the paper jester’s hat at her feet before smiling and peeling back. He leisurely made his way to one of the convention tables still set off-center on the floor.

“Now what?” a Capricornian close to one of his offshoots muttered.

“Now, we wait,” Scorpio replied, seating himself on the table.

“For what?” whispered another.

“For the protest,” replied one other. “The riot…”

Scorpio closed his eyes and hummed. “I wonder which side will pull the trigger first?”

Through the darkness, he could see through the eyes of all his offshoots and mediums. Two sides with anger and venom coarsing through their body. One, wanting their sons, daughters, fathers, mothers to return home from the borders. The other, wanting to return home safely to their sons, daughters, fathers, mothers. Both, wanting their version of justice and retribution. The other side is wrong, they thought—The other side is being manipulated.

He could see the Augen members linked arm-in-arm on the streets facing off against the military police standing in a line and beating their batons in a steady, intimidating rhythm and matching the thunder rolling on the horizon.

Who would shoot first? Guessing was exciting.

After a moment of waiting, Scorpio figured it was time. He reached out to the spore budding inside of Werner Waltz and squeezed and squeezed, until he felt something crack, until Maria slipped under and another took her place.

Just one more. Then he would get them to Libra. It was just too enjoyable now.

Satisfied, Scorpio returned to himself and found that the dome was darker now. Rain was pattering on through the broken dome window above, and the floor was flooded almost entirely. The sporeless Capricornians, Gabrielle, and Alice shivered in the damp dark and watched him silently.

It was a hilariously familiar scene.

“All of you people just never change. Time, time again you live, fight, and die in vain. Don’t you realize it’s all just starting all over again? Another revolution is nearing its end. Different faces and different actors but the same ending. Don’t you want an end to that?”

He unlatched himself from the table and approached the glass-ridden floor beneath the dome.

“We’re all in a constant state of dynamic equilibrium. There’s movement but no change. We mirror the cycle of vitae and nature around us. It’s inevitable.”

He held out his fingers to touch the rainwater dribbling down.

“They say equilibrium is death, don’t they?”

“Talib,” Alice finally spoke, her voice even as she ignored the glares she received from the Capricornians, “you’re confused. You’re having a derealization or dissociative episode—I’m not sure which—but you need to come back to yourself before this can get any worse.”

“My dear Alice, you always prided yourself in keeping your distance from your patients,” Scorpio muttered. “You always took pride in your work. But you’re a hypocrite, you know? Did you call it ‘distance’ when you personally bought Jericho his glasses? I doubt he even knows how expensive it is, by the way.”

“Let me help you—”

“Like you helped the Ariesian prince too? You see how that ended. He almost murdered someone.”

“That was you.”

“No, that was him,” Scorpio replied. “You tried to help him when he was younger, right? He was troubled. But after seeing what he did earlier, you can see that your efforts were fruitless, can’t you? When something is broken, even after you glue it back together, those hairline fractures are still there. Nothing can be permanently changed. Not even your other patient, not even my partner, not even Jericho.” 

Alice tensed. “What did you do?”

He pointed over to the open door. “You can go and see if you can stop him if you’d like.” He then gestured widely at all of them. “In fact, all of you can leave. I won’t stop you myself.”

The sporeless Capricornians remain fixated in place.

Yes. Accept it.

“You can try to stop this hand of time—this wave of passion—if you’d like. You can cut down my two remaining towers and disconnect the spores connected to them—but what about those out there without the spores? What about the desires of my offshoots that have been drawn out onto the surface?” He chuckled. “Well, no matter. I would like to see you all struggle until the very end.” 

Scorpio raised his hand and drew all of his floating origami papers back into his hands and then signaled all of his offshoots and mediums to exit the building. Only when the last of his offshoots left did Volker and Martin exchange wordless glances. They both looked to Gabrielle, but Gabrielle didn’t acknowledge them. And so, after shouting a couple of orders, they took themselves, their remaining subordinates, and Werner’s family out of the domed building. Maria’s crew followed them out not too long after.

So they refused to accept it still, Scorpio thought. Well, watching them crumble completely with reality would be a suitable pastime.

All that was left now was himself, Alice, Gabriele, and Roberto.

“For a person who is all about passion and pushing forward,” Alice drew, after shooting Gabrielle a worried glance, “you’re giving us a lot of opportunities to disrupt your plans, Talib.”

Her gaze hurt.

My plans?” Talib chuckled. “They’re not my plans—” It was then that a small memory of Jericho’s trickled over to him—a memory containing Alice herself. “Oh.” He blinked. “Alice, you were the one who made Jericho promise to only use his conductor on ELPIS members, weren’t you? It was the best agreement you could reach with him about that.”

Alice’s eyes narrowed and then widened as she paled. “What have you done…?”

Smiling, Scorpio gestured to the exit.


The Saint Candidate of Scorpio, the Saint of Passion (renamed from the ‘Saint of Pleasure’), should uphold every aspect of our ancestors Scorpio. Drive to move forward, passion for the people, and compassion for the people should traits that exude. And just like the saint candidates before them, they should pursue the will of the people.”

Official Scorpioan Monadic Texts

>>>[Scorpio Mood Theme]<<<

@arkisan

18.[]: Peacekeepers, 2350 Verdeckt

Re-cap: 

Maria and Veles have offered their assistance to the peacekeepers and Capricornians, cleanly sweeping away the Augen members and the Augen-converted generals. Guided by Scorpio’s hand, however, Maria departs with Veles after Conta. Those who remain…


Verdeckt » A covert player unveiled at 2350 hours

Alice’s fascination about the human mind had developed at an early age. Of all the books her parents could’ve grabbed for her as they’d fled their mansion to the shelter during the wartime bomb raids, they had gone ahead and selected neurology and psychology encyclopedias from their library’s top-shelf. How they had thought this book was more suitable for a child than the short fantasy novel just a shelf below—Alice still had no clue. Regardless, she consumed those pages gluttonously:

Broca’s area, Wernicke’s area, the medulla, and the pons. A connected system somehow producing a coherent thought. Something not quite yet understood; something that never would be understood. Theories about how the electrical signals activated through a cascade of chemicals through synapses. The possibility of those electrical signals being able to transfer memory into vitae particles—romantic but not grounded in reality.

What Alice truly enjoyed about the human mind was its neuroplasticity. It was like an allegory for the change a person could go through throughout life. A little damage here, and a person could adapt functionally—up to a point. And it was that exact adaptability and change that Alice wanted to be a part of. That paired with her habit of watching the fretting adults and children inside and outside the shelter as the raids droned on acted as a catalyzing agent. Although she hadn’t been able to overcome her fear back then, she still had managed to guide and console some of the younger children—but only because she’d been inspired by Flannery’s bravery.

Flannery’s change in behavior following her saint candidacy near the war’s end was the final push. At first, Alice had assumed that the Monadic priests had done something to Flannery. But Flannery never exhibited the attributes of those types of traumas. She did, however, show a decreased interest in her hobbies and lost her rebellious spunkiness. Alice’s parents had said it was ‘maturity,’ but Alice had held doubts. However, no matter how hard Alice tried, she could never get to the answer. The books and her years at the university told her nothing. All she could do was theorize—but that in itself was faulty because it was through the lens of her own perspective. Absolutely frustrating.

Taking up the helm of peacekeeper was the culmination of these things. ‘Psychological Evaluations,’ they had named the division. ‘Quality Assurance’ and ‘Agent Screening’ were the other proposed titles. Its creation was the partial result of several incidents involving peacekeepers exhibiting trauma-related episodes that disrupted their assignments. The press was not happy about this; and with Ophiuchus needing analytical assessments of several external and internal sociological and psychological factors, the Psychological Evaluations Department was birthed as a result.

Why this department hadn’t been established as one of the first founding peacekeeping departments, Alice had no clue. Then again, it wasn’t a popular department. No one enjoyed being forced to have their problems dissected by a stranger and judged on whether or not those problems would hinder them on their job assignment. Many peacekeepers, in fact, came to dislike Alice for her straightforward strictness and thus christened her with the title “Ice-gate of Ophiuchus.” Many of Alice’s fellow department members thought her approach and non-leniency were overly harsh too.

Each person was different and preferred different methods of approach—that much Alice agreed on. But in her personal opinion, tiptoeing around reality didn’t solve problems. It only prolonged them. Embracing someone and feeding them with constant reassurances—although helfpul in itself—were temporary measures. It was better to be safe than regretful.

All in all, it was a rewarding job, despite her always taking care to keep her distance from her patients. The distance remained firm even when Jericho came under her care. Because “the only person who can truly help you is yourself” as she would tell her patients. Everything else in that person’s surroundings was a tool to guide them to that ‘salvation’—Alice included herself as such a tool and resource. If she became too close to a patient and her perspective on her patients became skewed as a result, then she wouldn’t be able to do her job effectively.

Talib, on the other hand, was much more hands-on and optimistic in his approach. Rather than being a cog in the wheel of change, he’d wanted to be one of the forces behind it. She never quite got along with him as normal friends would—with most of their conversations turning into sparring arguments. His humor was both sad and humorous at the same time. Still, she trusted him which was why she insisted that he become Jericho’s partner after Jericho had finally gotten the clearance for official assignments and when Gabrielle’s interest in him had been inevitably piqued.

Alice still recalled the day she’d asked Talib to do it—although the memory of the conversation before her askance was much more prominent in her mind:

It had been searingly hot in Scorpio on that day. Unlike Aries, the hot air was dry instead of humid, leaving Alice with the feeling that her skin was on the verge of cracking and that she was one sniffle away from a nosebleed. But Alice, despite her discomfort, had been prepared for it and dolloped sunscreen on—since oftentimes when she and Flannery would visit Talib in his home country, they would return to Ophiuchus and Libra with sunburns. How Talib could bear it, she didn’t know.

As Alice waited for Talib’s arrival, she had seated herself by her lonesome in the balcony shade of Talib’s mansion which oversaw the lime-stone city of Ubar. Not a single living thing was on the city’s dusted streets save for the camels tied to a hitching post and taking shade behind several v-ehicles.

“I had to go in for another courtship meeting,” Talib had complained when he’d finally arrived carrying with him two cups of her favorite cold drink in the country—limonana, made of mint and lime. “I shouldn’t have told my family that I was on vacation.”

“What was her name this time?” Alice accepted the drink from him.

“Farrah Nader.”

“Ah, from that one family that owns the land with the reservoirs in north Scorpio? You should be more considerate. I’m sure Miss Nader feels the same way.” She took a sip. “Besides, people would kill to have what we have. Going on occasional ‘courtship’ dates in exchange for bottomless wealth is a small price to pay.”

“It’s all a master plan for our family to accumulate wealth…” Talib took a sip too. “Well… we did have a good conversation. Spoke about the war.”

“Even though you never served in it?”

“We had a discussion about why it started,” Talib continued, ignoring her.

“It’s not difficult to rationalize why any war starts,” Alice replied. “It must have been a quick conversation then.”

“Hah!” Talib slammed his hands on the table. “That’s only on the surface! She agrees with me that there was a secondary force—the Organization —feeding the war from the sidelines!”

The Organization seemed to be Talib’s favorite conspiratorial entity. Why he didn’t think of a better name for it, Alice still didn’t know.

“While I’m glad that you’ve found someone who shares your interest, Talib, I’m still inclined to think you’ve been reading too many of those detective novels.” Alice loosely indicated the book he’d brought with him. “I’m surprised you haven’t grown out of them yet.”

One of the requirements to become a peacekeeper was to be conversational in at least four languages of Signum. Reading literacy was not a part of this requirement, but Alice had taught herself how to read in several languages regardless. Due to this and partially due to Talib’s tutoring, she was able to see that the Scorpioan swirling letters at the very corner of Talib’s book read—Reading ages: 9-12.

“It’s on a multiplier,” Talib argued. “That’s how Scorpioan literature works.” He amended later, “It’s more a guilty pleasure.”

“Is that your stress relief then?”

He picked the book up and tapped it against his head. “It would just be nice if we could fix all the problems like they do in here just by solving a mystery or defeating an evil organization.”

Alice had digested his words for a moment, wondering at the time if Jericho thought of ELPIS in the same way. Finally, she said, “I have a favor to ask you. A patient of mine…”


Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

“I should’ve been there,” Talib muttered as he wrung his hat that was sopping with water. “Maybe we could’ve convinced Flannery to stay together.”

Alice stared in the direction of the gate Theta had just sunken into. She sighed. “I doubt we’d be able to. There’s a point a person can reach where no amount of convincing can change their minds. The decision to change has to occur internally not by an outside force.”

“What? Are you saying that we should just give up on Flannery? Then what?”

“Talib, we need to be realistic. Look at the situation we’re in. Gabrielle refuses to acknowledge it, but the fact that this vitae conversion and the creation of reservoirs through it has remained unknown for so long implicates four possible things. One, it’s been kept secret by all the countries of Signum. Two, it’s been kept secret by Ophiuchus’s invisible arm. Three, it’s both. Four, there’s some external party involved. Whatever it is, we no longer have the luxury to be thinking like that.”

It was a needed distance.

Talib covered his mouth. Alice turned to him, and he proceeded to pound on his chest and cough.

“Water. Choking.” Talib wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “That Veles is something else. I can see why he was a potential saint candidate for Aquarius.” He glanced at Hilton, who had shed his proto-conductor ring and had seemed to return to himself, and Louise conversing in the corner of the room. “I was always the one talking about conspiracies and the Organization, but it looks like you’ve taken point on it.”

“Except my theories have sound, logical basis.”

“And mine don’t?” Talib challenged. “The signs are everywhere!” He sighed. “Anyway, here I was actually considering joining Monadism.”

“Talib, have I ever told you that your tendency to put on an act usually ends up with your act becoming reality for you? Even with your detective performance.”

“You tell me constantly.” Talib nodded before tugging on his trench coat. “But I’m insulted you think that my detective visage is an act. I did work as a PI at one point, you know? Before I became a peacekeeper.”

“Please. You started this detective persona only a month after Flannery returned from her ceremony. The correlation is clear.” She spared him a sympathetic look. “I understand the sentiment and the reasoning, but now that Flannery is no longer here, there’s no reason for you to keep up the habit.”

Saying the words out loud felt like a failure. A nail in the coffin.

“Correlation doesn’t prove causation,” Talib argued before staring down at the hat in his hands. “Though I suppose all acts have to end eventually… Otherwise, we’ll have an endless play on our hands.”

“It’s quite amazing how you can have a metaphor that sounds so meaningful yet holds no meaning.”

“Practice, my dear Alice.” He put his hat back on.

Alice was prepared to rebut him but quieted herself as Gabrielle approached them bringing an uncertain-looking Nico Fabrizzio along with her. Alice regarded the Geminian man who somehow had found his way into Capricornian ranks.

“Say, Mr. Fabrizzio, I’ve been meaning to ask,” Gabrielle said suddenly. “Since you know Francis, you probably know a thing or two about modified conductors, right?” 

Nico became rigid, glanced at Alice and Talib, then relaxed. “I’m not sure what you’re talkin’ about, Miss Law. Francis didn’t do that kinda work.”

“Really? Well, why else would a Twin Cities man like you throw themselves into a country like Capricorn? Didn’t even think the Capricornian military would accept a non-Capricornian citizen into the ranks.”

Nico looked to the side. “I volunteered for a special exchange program, Miss Law. Sorry if it seems suspicious. But everythin’ in life seems suspicious one way or another.”

Alice followed Nico’s gaze to Werner Waltz’s family residing in the corner by some tables and surrounded by Von Spiel’s men.

Alice ventured from her observations of Nico’s interactions that Nico most likely sought and needed stability in his life. She deduced the same for Francis Foxman and this ‘Cadence Morello’ she’d heard about on occasion. Gabrielle was never one to read people to such depths, however, so the woman merely patted Nico on the shoulder and directed him to his superiors at the opposite end of the hall.

Once Nico was out of sight, Gabrielle sighed, tightened her ponytail, then yawned. “Those Capricornians are still proud and diligent despite being driven into the dirt. Have to admit that I always admired that. Served with a couple of units during the war.”

“So what’s the game plan, Gabrielle?” Talib asked. “We have one, right?”

Gabrielle rubbed the back of her neck. “First thing’s first. We need to get out of here, for one. While Theta is looking for Maria, we can regroup. I spoke to some of the more coherent Augen members. There’s a protest going on tomorrow. Obviously, we need to handle that. Not sure if Leona’s on point there yet.” She revealed something she was holding in her palm: two proto-conductors filled with black liquid. “We can probably use these to make our great escape quicker. Theta—or Francis or whoever—”

“Hey… Gabrielle, wait…” Talib interjected. “This is a bit of a strange question, but I need some reassurance with all of this going on.”

“Well. Shoot.”

“Why… did you ask Alice and me to join you? In the beginning, I mean. Is there really anything we can do for you here? We haven’t exactly been trained for… combat.”

Gabrielle’s brows rose, and she rubbed the back of her neck—like she always did when caught off-guard. “… Well, it iskind of a bad time to be asking things like that, Talib.” She yawned. “But to make it short and simple—remember back a couple of years ago when that air Elementalist peacekeeper committed suicide and fell right into the courtyard of the Serpens Establishment?”

“It wasn’t suicide—” Talib interjected before he covered his mouth and began coughing again.

“Right. Shion Myosotis.”—Alice remembered her well.

Shion was a passed peacekeeper who Alice had diagnosed with a depressive disorder—possibly one partially affected by the weather and seasons. It wasn’t an uncommon find in Ophiuchus as many war veterans took up the peacekeeping occupation. Although Shion had admitted to having suicidal ideations, her mental health had improved with time. Shion had turned out to be a simple but very kind woman who seemed to take everyday with stride.

So, when Alice had heard news of Shion’s ‘suicide,’ Alice had been in utter disbelief. It had come out of the blue—Shion had shown almost no signs of that intention at all. Additionally, Shion planning a suicide in such a public space seemed unlikely. Those matters were usually done privately as the attempter typically didn’t want to draw the attention and worry others. In the end… it still had been another failure, another nail in the coffin.

“She was… almost like a mentor to me,” Talib admitted. “We didn’t speak often, but whenever I came across her in the lunchroom, she always had good advice to give.”

Gabrielle nodded. “I didn’t think it was suicide either. When the report on Shion came out, you two were the only ones who fought like hell to have a reinvestigation. I liked that fire.” She shrugged. “Plus you’re both smart. Combat doesn’t win everything.”

Alice stared at Gabrielle. “Are you saying you chose us just because of that? You had no other criteria? And not due to our familial statuses?”

“Well, Flannery is—was—money bags, not you, right?” Gabrielle shrugged again before jerking her head in the opposite direction. “Roberto!”

The man was standing alongside the far wall and suppression-cuffing the Augen general beside the two uninfected generals they had apprehended earlier. He glanced up at her call, then glanced back at the two generals. Both men were staring holes into the Augen general with varying expressions of disbelief—but that was what folly was.

After finishing his conversation with the duo, Roberto made his way over to them. “What’s up, Gabe?”

“You said you reached out to the others in Ophiuchus, right?” Gabrielle nodded at him in acknowledgment. “Mind giving us the rundown?”

“Yeah.” Roberto jerked his head. “So, Ferris, Moraeni, and Elizabeta are doing fine. Ferris was worried and confused. I didn’t give details like you said. Just told them to be cautious.”

“And… what about Csilla?”

Wtorek Csilla, beloved daughter of Wtorek Izsak and Wtorek Elizabeta. Failed Saint Candidate of Taurus—or perhaps Taurus themself.

“Elizabeta says she’s doing fine too,” Roberto grumbled. “Didn’t mention anything out of the ordinary.”

“Did you get the rest of the details from Ferris about those letters we received?” Alice inquired. “I’m referring to the lotus patterns on the back of the notes. There’s a possibility that Scorpio wrote them, and deciphering their meaning might help us in understanding his intentions.”

“Yeah.” Roberto dug into his pants pocket and handed her a slip of paper that was sopping wet. “I wrote it all down here. Hopefully, it’s still legible.”

Alice accepted it with a frown. She could see the blue ink bleeding through the parchment.

“Great.” Gabrielle clapped her and Roberto on the shoulder before she left with a wave. “I’m going to go head over and talk departure with the Capricornians. Regroup in a second.”

Roberto jerked his head back to the generals and left without saying anything else. After a beat, Talib dug into his trenchcoat pocket and pulled out a stack of origami papers protected by wax paper. After peeling the wax paper away, he indicated Lita who was pushing around fallen glass with her feet and holding the Monadic priest’s hand.

“I’m going to go speak with Lita for a bit,” he said. “Poor girl—being caught in all of this.” He slapped the stack of papers. “You know kids love these things.”

Strange priorities, but that was Talib.

“She’s blind, Talib.”

“Well, she can still carry it around. And it’s not like she can’t learn how to fold ‘em either. Flannery always enjoyed doing crafts back then—you know before.”

Alice caught herself and considered this. “You’re right. I apologize for my insensitivity.”

“You’re a strange one, Alice.” Talib arched a brow and nodded before heading off to Lita.

Alice returned her attention to the slip of paper Roberto had given her. She gingerly peeled it open and was surprised to find the writing still legible despite the blue bleed:

Always there for you. 3 lotus flowers on back.

I am here. 1 flower.

I’ve got my eye on you. 5 flowers.

Laughing and lamenting with you. 4 flowers.

Be there for you. 6 flowers.

Take me with you. 2 flowers.

Alice frowned in thought.

Was there an association between the number of flowers and the individual phrases? Or was this a collective message…? Maybe it indicated chronology?

Either way, she was certain that this was a message from Scorpio now. From what she had seen of his behavior so far, she could tell the saint candidate enjoyed playing games and pushing people to the end of their rope. Rather than wanting to be a cog in the wheel of an individual’s downfall, it seemed he enjoyed being the pushing force and then watching as the individual followed through with the momentum of the fall.

Alice scanned the room in thought and caught sight of Hilton. He was no longer conversing with Louise but was instead standing with the Sagittarian prince and Captain Weingartner. Hilton removed several black-and-white photos from his camera and handed them to Claire, who accepted them with a practiced smile. Upon noticing her stare, however, both Claire and Hilton stiffened. Claire quickly shoved the photos into the sleeves of his shirt and made his way over to her with a wave.

Claire, a peculiar adolescent wearing a variety of masks.

“Do you need something, Prince Yuseong?” Alice asked when he reached her side.

His smile dipped for a moment as he locked eyes with her, but he continued pleasantly, “I… actually have a couple questions about the saint candidates, Miss Kingsley. I admit I was kind of carried away earlier and ran off before understanding the situation fully.”

That was youth.

“The Capricornians still seem kinda confused about it and Miss Law is kind of intimidating honestly,” Claire continued, “so I figured I should try asking you instead, Miss Kingsley, if you have the time.”

And I’m not intimidating? Alice wondered, but she nodded. “Yes, your aunt was the candidate for Sagittarius, if I recall correctly? If you have questions about her, I wouldn’t be able to help you. She was taken into the custody of the ELPIS Department and is being contained in the Black Constellation Detention Center.”

“Oh, I figured that.” Claire half-shrugged, still smiling pleasantly. “I actually had questions about the saint candidates themselves and the ceremony. I understand that it’s passing on the memories from previous saint candidates,” he continued slowly, “but I had some questions about the process of it.”

Alice considered whether or not to disclose this information to him.

Despite his young age—as ‘sad’ as it was—he held lofty responsibility as a Sagittarian prince. Due to his experience in that realm, Alice deduced he had developed a certain amount of maturity ‘beyond his years’—although she despised the term. He deserved respect as such. That and she assumed he was also a True Conductor—though he had yet to admit this openly—so he was a centerpiece in this.

“Theta didn’t give us complete details either,” Alice informed him. “From what I understand, the ceremony involves being ‘baptized’ by head Monadic priests in the vitae of the Prognoikos Reservoirs of Ophiuchus.”

“The reservoirs…?” Claire’s smile faltered slightly. “What… about someone who just falls into the reservoirs without any special ceremony or Monadic priests or baptism…?”

“I would assume the result would be the same if they were a ‘suitable candidate’, since bathing in the reservoir seems to be one of the main requirements—though I could be wrong,” Alice replied. “The priests might be just an accessory to the main event.”

Now, Claire was pale.

Alice frowned. “What is it?”

“Didn’t he tell you…?” Claire pressed. “I told the peacekeepers when I was interviewed back then… It was only for a second because I went down with my conductor to pick him back up… but back when Olive and I ended up at those Aurora Reservoirs with my aunt a couple months ago—”

Alice slowly looked down at Roberto’s notes. She ordered them chronologically in mind as her ears began to ring:

(1) I am here. Received by Talib. 
‎(2) Take me with you. Received by Alice herself. 
‎(3) Always there for you. Received by Gabrielle. 
‎(4) Laughing and lamenting with you. Received by Ferris. 
‎(5) I’ve got my eye on you. Received by Jericho. 
‎(6) Be there for you. Received by Roberto.

Head buzzing, Alice stared over Claire’s shoulder towards Talib.

The man was crouched in front of Lita while Maria’s companions watched on from a litte ways away. He was busily folding a dark blue piece of paper. When he finished, he presented a folded lotus to Lita which she accepted before running back to the other men.

Alice returned her attention to the notebook. The first letters chronologically spelled out clearly: I am

—Talib,” Claire finished. “He… fell in.”

Alice looked back up at Talib who noticed her stare from the distance. He picked himself off the ground and proceeded towards them with his usual smile on his lips and his thick stack of origami papers still gripped in his hands.

“Claire,” Alice whispered calmly, “please take your guards and leave immediately.”

Claire, keeping himself faced forward, attempted to look over his shoulder.

“Don’t.”

Claire stiffened then nodded before taking off towards his two masked guards who were watching him closely from the sidewall. Talib fell into step in front of her just as Claire reached them.

“What happened?” Talib cocked his head as he watched Claire and his guards retreat out the door. “Are the Sagittarians going to leave the capital now…? Did you find out why they stayed for so long?”

Alice’s heart began to hammer wildly in her chest. She hadn’t even felt this sort of apprehension when facing Flannery.

Calm down, Alice urged herself. Think.

If Talib was Scorpio, then why hadn’t the generals said anything? Answer: they hadn’t met the actual Scorpio, only mediums and spores of Scorpio. If Talib was Scorpio, then why hadn’t Flannery said anything? Answer: personal conflicting feelings. If Talib was Scorpio then why had he gone undetected by them after all this time? Answer: he was never tested by Lita due to interference and—

Talib took a step forward, now only two steps away from her.

“Talib. Just stay there.” Alice held out a hand. “Please.”

“What?” Talib took another step forward, hand reaching. “Alice—”

“Stop!”

Talib stiffened and froze as all eyes in the room turned towards them.

Gabrielle frowned from across the room and approached them. “What’s going on here—”

“Gabrielle, don’t go near him!”

Gabrielle startled, looking between them. “Alice, you… think Talib’s been infected?”

“W-Wha…?” Talib did a double-take. “I-I’m not being manipulated!” He paled. “At least… I don’t think I am.”

Alice could feel the atmosphere in the room thin into almost nothing, making it difficult to breathe.

Gabrielle sighed, reaching for her belt. “Look, we can just snap suppression cuffs over him or have Lita read him if that’s the case and then wait it out for Jericho. Not a big deal.”

“I’m not even certain that they’d work,” Alice said testily. “And I don’t believe that girl should go anywhere near him.”

Gabrielle tensed as realization flickered in her eyes.

“W-What…?” Talib seemed to understand the implication too because he shouted aghast—“Just because I’m a Manipulator doesn’t mean that I’m the Manipulator! Is it because I’m Scorpioan?”

The Capricornians in the room reached for their holstered conductors and weapons.

Talib’s eyes went wide and wild with confusion. “T-That’s discriminatory!” He paused and then snapped his fingers. “It must be the Organization! This is a set-up! I’m not sure how it was set up, but—”

“Talib!” Alice interjected, taking a deep breath to recollect herself. “This isn’t the time for that.”

“Alice… I’m not…” Talib faltered, looking around fretfully. He swallowed, lifted his hands in the air, and then put them forward. “Look, like Gabrielle said—you can test the suppression cuffs on me or ask Lita to—”

“Why didn’t you tell us you fell into the reservoir in Ophiuchus?” Alice asked.

Talib stiffened, glanced towards the door where Claire had just exited, cheeks flushing. “I… I didn’t think it was a big deal back then! And after we found out about the saint candidates… I didn’t want this”—he gestured widely—“to happen. I-I’m me.”

Alice felt icy dread expand out from her chest.

Shame and embarrassment were things that Talib had forgone years ago. Another nail in the coffin; another failure—

But the possibility remained that Claire had seen incorrectly, or perhaps a brief dip in those reservoirs was an insufficient amount of time to transfer saint candidacy—

Noshe refuted. Stop denying reality. 

“This is crazy, Alice,” Roberto said, coming forward. “Who put that idea in your head? This is out of the blue.” He gestured loosely to Talib, then to her. “There haven’t even been any saint candidacy ceremonies recently. Nothing in the news. Besides, if Talib was the saint candidate then why is he out here helping us?”

The answer was obvious: to play a game.

Half the Capricornians now had their rifles and conductors drawn—the only thing keeping them at bay being Major General von Spiel’s halting hand.

“Wait, let’s calm down,” Nico murmured, holding his hands up in the air too. “This could be a trick by Scorpio to get us all to turn on each other. Not the first I experienced that. Let’s just have Lita retest us all—or if she doesn’t want that then we can just do a suppression cuff test, right?”

“Exactly!” Talib agreed, relaxing slightly. “We don’t know anything about how this Manipulator works still. Not for sure. Even Nico here—he was taken in and tortured by the Argoans. Since the Argoans faced off against the Capricornians, there’s a possibility that the Argoans near the border were infected and transferred the infection to him—to all the people he was around. And they still passed the test! Lita’s eyes might not even work like Libra’s, so the suppression cuffs sound like the best option.”

Some of the Capricornians looked to Nico.

Nico’s expression tightened, his gaze not directed at the staring Capricornians but at Talib. “How did you know that happened…?”

Talib’s eyes widened and a perturbed look crossed his face before he put his hand to his gaping mouth. Instead of hacking cough racking his body, however, his lips split into a grin beneath his fingers.

“That one was probably too easy of a hint. I apologize. There’s no mystery or suspense in that.” He sighed, pulling off his hat and ruffling his head of curls. “You weren’t getting any of my other earlier hints, and I was getting a little impatient. That is a virtue, you know. Patience.”

Talib spread out the stack of paper in his hands like a deck of cards. Slowly, one by one, each sheet of paper became illuminated with dark blue light—darker than his normal shade of vitae, as if it had been stained black. Slowly the papers rose into the air and folded themselves into different shapes. Some took on the form of cranes, others meticulously folded lotuses that were almost identical to the ones drawn on the back of the cards they’d all received.

The origami papers shot out in all directions, squeezing themselves into every single empty space in the hall. One crane hovered only half a meter from her face. A single papercut and they were done for.

Alice’s head spun at the beautiful yet terrifying display as an unyielding sense of ominous dread washed over her.

How had she not been able to see it? Was it because he still looked and acted the same just as Flannery had?

“You’re always so sure of people, Alice—so sure that you know who they really are,” Talib answered her question as if reading her mind. “All because you spent a couple of years reading from a textbook and received a flimsy piece of congratulatory paper? Not only are your deductions inaccurate half the time, but you even incorrectly assume that you can change people. What sort of arrogance is that…?”

His glare pierced deep.

“Saints, Talib…” Gabrielle’s face folded with both horror and pity as she tightened her conducting gloves. “How long…?”

Talib’s eyes narrowed. “That’s quite a bold look coming from someone like you, Gabrielle Law. You know who I am but you’re still speaking like you have a handle on the situation.” 

The origami cranes began to unfold and refold themselves into various shapes in a cyclic pattern: rabbits, fish, butterflies, turtles, frogs, stars. Only the paper lotus flowers remained unchanged.

“The sands of Scorpio were ground from rock by my very own two feet.” Talib—Scorpio—held out a finger and allowed a paper crane to alight on it. “And now I suppose Capricorn will be too.”


18.4: Beasts, 1800 Raid

Re-cap:

As those connected to the six outside of the six gather and then hide at the convention hall, Veles arrives and blows their cover.

Meanwhile, Shion guides Werner through the Threshold.


Überfall » A thorough raid completed at 1800 hours

Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

Maria loved the taste of the ocean. Sometimes when she was on still waters on the ship, she would scale down the side of the hull with rope, dip her fingers into the still ocean, and lick her fingers of the salt. 

Of course, she didn’t go around drinking cups of seawater. That was nonsensical. At the orphanage, they’d always taught her about the dangers of consuming saltwater and the dehydration that would follow. That and things like combat, culture, and ethics—although she never liked the last two things. 

Regardless, because of her intense love of the ocean, she wasn’t too upset when a torrent of water came down from the dome window above her head and soaked her to the bone. It was quite refreshing—although Emmanuel and Morandi, who lay beside her, didn’t seem to think the same. 

As Maria licked her lips, however, she spat at the saltiness and wiped her free hand across her blurry eyes. When her vision cleared, she found two familiar men standing on a glowing purple arm of water a meter above her head.

Veles and Simon.

Maria hopped to her feet in surprise and prepared to greet them but—

“You foolish Capricornians dare capture my guildmates and subjects!” Veles boomed, dark eyes narrowed with fury as his gaze fell on Morandi and Emmanuel. “I, Veles, will—” He paused, catching sight of Francis who was still gripping his dampened v-cigarette. “You—that tattoo—you are with ELPIS… with that Conta!”

A perturbed look crossed Francis’s face before an arm of water suddenly shot out from the spout that Veles and Simon were standing on and towards him. The wave swept him up and slammed him against the wall without mercy before encapsulating his entire body in a glowing sphere of liquid. 

Francis struggled in the waters, pulling the knife out from his belt and dragging it across his palm. The sphere became filled with red flecks of blood that glowed pale tangerine as he clenched his gloved hand. A couple of meters away, a dark patch of drying blood on the floor glowed tangerine too before erupting with a geyser of glowing purple liquid. The orb of water around Francis’s body shrank in turn. However, Veles extended his hand and simply added more water to the sphere.

“Francis!” Nico whipped out his pistol and fired at Veles’s gloved-hand.

Veles blocked the bullet with another arm of water and then sent out additional water whips to Von Spiel’s men dotting the balcony. The water engulfed them in suffocating light as the glowing tangerine patch on the floor dimmed. Francis then fell limp.

Maria leapt onto the railings and launched herself at Veles who pulled up a barrier of water to stop her. Piercing through the wall with a dive, she collided into the man’s body, effectively knocking him to the sidewall. She fell on top of him, pinned him to the ground with her knees, and pulled a combat knife from her belt just as the spout he’d been riding on top of with Simon began to waver. She whipped around and launched the combat knife at Simon who startled backward as the knife cut into the cloth at his shoulder and sent him flying backwards. The knife pinned him against the wall just as the water bridge he was standing on collapsed down to the convention hall below. 

“Veles—” the maskless Sagittarians abruptly shouted, scrambling forward with the other two masked Sagittarians. “Wait!”

Veles blinked up at the Sagittarian, lowering his hand. “Claire?” 

“Veles.” Claire sighed, doubling over with a pant. “They’re friendly! They’re all friendly. They’re with me!” 

Veles looked over to Morandi and Emmanuel who nodded furiously. He then clenched his gloved fist. The tomb of water encasing Von Spiel’s men and Francis fell away, sending globules of water and their bodies to the floor. Nico darted over to Francis’s side and began to perform chest compressions while the few who were spared—Werner’s sister among them—began to do the same to Von Spiel’s men. 

“Please, Veles,” Claire urged again. 

Veles flicked his hand in the air and out of the mouths of all the unconscious Capricornians and Francis flew orbs of purple water. Claire then sent out a burst of blue-speckled air towards the collapsed men and women and seemed to force air into their lungs. The men and women hacked and coughed and spit out water before groaning. 

Gabrielle darted over the railings and tensed as she peered down into the convention building. Maria craned her neck and followed Gabrielle’s gaze to find all of the drenched Capricornians down there staring up at them. 

Pulling her armband lower as if to hide it, Gabrielle called down to them—”It’s just a water leak! Doing plumbing! We’re wrapping up the convention. Hope you don’t mind—” She dropped to the floor just in time to dodge a barrage of bullets and a blinding white vitae ray. 

“They’re peacekeepers!” came the shout from below. “Working with the Kaiser! They’re spies!” 

Gabrielle grimaced as she adjusted her armband. “What kind of backwards nonsense is that—”

Another barrage of bullets and a couple of white vitae rays cut her off short.

Werner’s mother screeched and ducked her head. “What’s going on?! Why are they shooting at us?” 

Gabrielle turned to Nico who was hovering over Francis.

Nico shook his head. “He’s out cold.”

“Well, then it’s a good thing half of them don’t know how to aim.” Gabrielle tightened her glove conductor and sent out a burst of magenta flame below—only to be stopped by a hand around the wrist by Martin.

“They’re still Capricornians. They’re only being manipulated, peacekeeper. They’re innocent. You can’t be a fire Elementalist and conduct without someone being dead, so please stand down.” Martin signaled his remaining subordinates forward. They approached the railings with either rifle-conductors or regular rifles—one even handing a weapon to Ludwig who still lay prostrate on the ground. “Shoot to maim, not to kill!”

Gabrielle stiffened as did Friedhelm and Volker lying across from her. They exchanged grimaces as Von Spiel’s men began to slowly, methodically return fire.

“We barely have enough to hold them,” Volker said calmly as he pulled himself up onto all fours and made his way over to Martin and Gabrielle. “We can’t lose more to Scorpio’s spores.” His eyes narrowed. “With all due respect, Martin, you’ve been in the capital too long.”

“And you’ve been out at the borders too long,” Martin returned. 

“I agree with the major general, Captain,” Friedhelm interjected. “We shouldn’t—”

Maria’s attention was drawn away from them as she was flipped on her back by Veles. 

“Do you know who you’ve knocked to the ground?” Veles boom as he pinned his knee to her chest. “Who are you to—”

“It’s me—Maria!” she chimed before she flipped him over.

“… Maria?” Veles looked her up and down. “Nonsense! You can’t fool me—”

“I am stuck in this… ‘override,’ we call it! You know when you are in someone you are connected to, yes? Through vitae…?” She laughed. “Well, I don’t really understand it but that is how it is.”

Pausing, Veles looked her over again and then chuckled as he pushed back his mopping hair. “Oh, it’s clear now. I sensed it was you so that’s why I let my guard down.” 

Claire, who was now pressed against the floor by the two other Sagittarians, looked between them. “You… know each other?”

“I met him and Reneé back in Pisces, and we are traveling together—” Maria blinked, crawling off of the man. “Oh, you know Veles too!”

Claire blinked. “Reneé too…?” He then continued with a half-smile, “Reneé and Veles attended one of our first meetings back in the day. Funny how that works.” After pulling himself towards the edge of the balcony, he sent a burst of frigid air down. The water at the feet of several of the ones below iced over with the cold which froze them in place. 

An Augen member aimed a rifle up at Claire but then paused and instead shot just a centimeter away in Gabrielle’s direction. 

Gabrielle grunted, dodging backwards. “So, looks like that Scorpio’s willing to throw in the towel when it comes to True Conductors.”

Claire studied her then the Augen members, before turning to Veles. “We could really use your help, Veles.”

“Help you?” Veles rose to a stand, not flinching as a bullet whizzed past his ear. “Claire, I hold you in high regard but I have more important matters to attend to. I am Veles, after all, Beast of the Deep—”

“You—” Martin stormed over to him and grabbed him by the shoulder. “You’ve not only drawn the Augen’s attention but you’ve injured my subordinates and put our best escape route out of commission. Who—”

Veles slapped his hand away. “You dare touch me—”

Martin recoiled but Gabrielle picked herself off the ground and slipped in between them. She gently pulled them apart, saying calmly above the peppering gunfire, “Major General, Veles here was also a potential saint candidate…. of Aquarius, if I’m remembering correctly. Being even a potential saint candidate looks like it comes with a lot of quirks. Still let’s get along, okay?”

“I’ve evolved beyond this saint candidacy.” Veles waved the thought off. “Besides, I’m an extraneous Conductor. My vitae particles are blessed onto those water molecules only for a short period, and I’m not humored at the moment to do it again—”

“An extraneous water Elementalist?” Martin shook his head. “That’s just an over-glorified Manipulator…”

Veles whipped his hand out towards Martin’s face, barely touching the man’s nose with his palm. “I could rip the water molecules out from your blood and skin with just a wave of my hand. I would like to see a common Manipulator do that! I will not tolerate this disrespect—”

The door against the wall leading from the balcony to below began to rattle and shake as pounding resounded from behind it. Klaus, at Volker’s direction, conjured a large steel block several meters thick in front of it. He then collapsed to the ground after, panting heavily. The dull pounding vibrated through the steel still.

“We can’t keep arguing and stay here,” Gabrielle said. “If we keep shooting like this, the military police’ll be drawn by the noise and it’ll be a three-way massacre.” She looked over at Claire. “Do you think you could carry us out, Prince Yuseong?”

“I can’t carry more than one person at a time,” Claire said. “It takes too much vitae. But… I can try, starting with—”

“That’ll take too long.” Gabrielle shook her head. “They only have an advantage in numbers and most of them obviously haven’t shot a gun in a while… If we could just get someone down there—”

“Any person who goes down there will become infected,” Volker interjected. 

“If it’s to protect the country,” Martin muttered, “I’m sure plenty of my subordinates would be willing to do it. If necessary, I’ll go down there myself. If we become infected, then this Libra or Jericho can just come in and—”

“There are side-effects of infection, Martin,” Volker argued. “One of my men has already—”

“Weingartner, I’m still your superior—”

All this shouting… 

“But why does there need to be sacrifice?” Maria pipped. Upon receiving confused looks, she explained, “Well, since I am already this ‘infected,’ I can go down and take care of them without worry, yes? You cannot get infected when you are already infected—that is how it works?” 

“By yourself?” Martin asked uncertainly. 

Maria nodded, not understanding the apprehension. “I would like a proto-conductor though—preferably a sword one, yes?” 

“That’s insane!” Ludwig objected, whipping around from where he’d been aiming and firing off his rifle. “You can’t do that! Your arm is—”

Volker held up his hand. “I have faith in her. I’ve seen her in action.”

Friedhelm hesitated for a moment before handing over a blade proto-conductor from his belt with insulating tubes still glowing with his vitae. Maria accepted it and was prepared to ignite it when—

“W-What’s going on?!” Ducking beneath the rain of gunfire and white rays, Werner’s mother made her way over to them with Viktoria and Werner’s father following swiftly behind. “What sort of operation is this?”

Maria was rather surprised at how nice and combed her hair was, despite all the chaos going on. 

Coming up behind the woman, Viktoria rushed to Ludwig’s side and—after some resistance—helped him back into his chair. 

Still gripping his rifle, Ludwig glanced between them once seated. “I’ll handle this, Captain Weingartner. Sorry.”

Volker nodded as the entire building rumbled, prompting Ludwig to lead them all to the corner. A Waltz familiy adventure? Maria wondered.

Before they even reached that area, however, Werner’s mother began whispering. “You didn’t tell me that the Augen was involved in this, Werner. And, Ludwig, why are you involved in this? You’re no longer a soldier. You shouldn’t bother people.” She turned back to Maria. “Werner, I told you not to get involved in politics! Politics is dangerous to get involved in if you don’t have a high enough position. And you’re still a first lieutenant after all this time. You could be court-martialed. Think about what people will think of the family if that happens!”

As Maria stared into the woman’s eyes and listened to her words, something uncomfortably cold crawled up from her chest to her throat. What was this? Fear…? Apprehension? No, Maria refused it.

The woman looked around. “Is anyone going to explain to me what’s going on here?”

Ludwig grimaced. “It’s complicated. I can explain—”

Maria flicked her proto-conductor on and pointed it at Werner’s mother’s throat. The woman stiffened, eyes wide, pale face illuminated by the glow of vitae.

“Werner, what do you think you’re doing?” Werner’s father grabbed at Maria’s wrist and tried to pull her arm down, but she kept her hold steady.

“Maria!” Ludwig snapped. “Enough!”

Maria glanced at him and then deactivated the proto-conductor before smiling at Werner’s mother. “You act like you do not know, Miss Waltz… but how do I say this? I think Jericho called it intuition, yes? You already know that I am not him, but you are acting like you do not…. I’m not sure but I think—is it to keep up appearances?”

Werner’s mother stared.

Maria walked right up to her and pressed the de-activated proto-conductor to the woman’s abdomen. She leaned over and whispered into her ear, “I said the people who are important to the people important to me will be protected by me, but… I am reading the atmosphere now… and… well… you are not nice to the things important to me, so… Even if Werner is mad at me and hates me for it, if you are not nice I will just kill you. It is not a big deal.” She pulled back with a chuckle. “Okay? Understand?”

The woman didn’t respond.

Maria then noticed Simon still pinned to the wall by the knife behind them. She brushed past Werner’s family and unpinned Simon before catching him halfway through his fall and sheathing the knife. When she released him, Simon took a step back and studied her before he hesitantly tried— “Captain?”

“Simon?” she returned.

“I’m a bit overwhelmed…” he admitted, looking faint. 

Maria patted him on the shoulders and gestured over to where the rest of her crew huddled. After making sure Simon made it to them safely, she paced back over to where Gabrielle, Martin, Friedhelm, and Volker were now huddled together on the ground beside the railings. 

They all looked very tired.

Volker glanced back at Werner’s family. “Have you taken care of everything? Are you ready?”

“Yes, Other Captain, but before that!” Maria went through the proto-conductor rings in her pocket and found one that was etched with what looked like a cartoonish sun. “I think it would be best if I go as myself? I do not understand the politics of this country, but it would not be very good to have people think Werner is fighting all of his people, no?”

Gabrielle shrugged.

Maria slid the ring on and felt warmth as Cadence’s vitae slid over her arms, her torso, then legs. She didn’t care to check her appearance after the warmth faded because she knew Cadence’s transmutations were always the best. She did take notice, however, of how the Capricornians stared.

“You look… much more put together than I was expecting…” Klaus whispered from his position by the barricade.

Maria laughed. “What do you mean—”

“Wait.” Hilton, who had been taking cover beside Alice and Talib, inched forward along the ground towards them. When he reached them, he gingerly pulled off his camera and set it to the side as the fire rumbled in the background. He then gestured to the rings in her hands. “Let me help.”

Maria stared at him. “Will you beat them with your camera? That is… very creative!”

Hilton shook his head, extending his hand out to her. “Those proto-conductors—they’re filled with an intraneous Transmutationist’s vitae, right? Of different people? That you’ve met?”

Gabrielle tensed. “Wait, Hilton, what are you thinking?”

After a moment of thought, Maria dropped the rings into Hilton’s waiting hands.

Hilton started flipping through them and trying them on, each time taking on the appearance of someone familiar or vaguely familiar to Maria. There was Tulio, then Carl and Allen, then an Ariesian man Maria vaguely recognized, a man who looked like he’d come from a funeral, and then—a familiar blonde man with his hair done up in a ponytail. His checkered light blue suit was just as she remembered it.

“Reneé?” Maria gasped, realizing. “You’re connected to the photo-man!”

Superb!” Reneé sang, Librish accent melting into a Cancerian one as he examined his arms and legs. “Maria, your friend’s transmutation skills are exceptional if I do say so myself.”

Reneé flipped his ponytail over his shoulder and sighed before extending his hand out to Maria who placed her hand in his. He kissed it just as he did in the past before she flipped his hand over and returned the gesture all the same.

Gabrielle sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose. “I thought the plan was for you not to reveal the fact that you’re a True Conductor in front of Maria since she’s a medium.” She looked “I wasn’t exactly expecting you to show up though, Reneé. Is this one of those polarization override things?”

Reneé nodded then shrugged. “Hilton—the poor Libran fool—still believes in things like justice above all, so needless to say I will step in for him despite the ramifications. He is not quite… combat proficient?” 

“And does that not apply to you?” Gabrielle arched a brow. “Justice-believing, I mean?”

“As a chevalier, I believe in honor.” He gestured towards Louise who was tucked into a ball across the balcony. “She is a citizen of Cancer and it would be dishonorable to leave her in a foreign, dangerous land.” 

Louise tensed as she stared at Reneé from across the balcony.

“Aid from Cancer too?” Volker frowned, hesitant. “I don’t—”

“True Conductors are important to Scorpio,” Talib interjected suddenly from where he lay beside Alice. “I don’t believe he’ll be willing to infect another one after what happened to Werner. I think it’s worth the shot.”

Reneé nodded. “From what I understand, all I need to do is not get cut or shot by a… infected person’s weapon or vitae? That is not so hard. Training programs in Cancer are much more… individualized and specialized than Capricornian programs, after all.”

Several of the Capricornians shooting down at the convention briefly turned to glare at Reneé before continuing their fire.

Veles suddenly boomed with laughter. “Well, if my subjects and subordinates are joining the fray, then it would be unsightly for me not to do the same. Fine! Since you’ve asked, I’ll help you.” 

Gabrielle stared at him. “Do you even know what’s going on, Veles?”

“I’m omnipotent.” Veles lifted his chin. “There is not a thing that I don’t know.” 

Reneé smiled pleasantly before walking over to Klaus and whispering something into his ear. After exchanging a glance with Volker who nodded, Klaus conjured up what appeared to be a set of conducting gloves and handed them to Reneé. The effort left him panting heavily and sweating.

“Thank you, Capricornian,” Reneé said, sliding the gloves on and placing a gloved hand onto the steel barricade behind Klaus. The area beneath his hand began to glow. When he pulled his hand away, the glowing metal spilled out onto his palm and solidified into a rapier as the light dimmed. He ran his gloved hand on the blade causing it too condense before it took on the shape of a pistol. 

“You’re… a Transmutationist, Reneé?!” Maria gasped. “I thought you were a Conjuror this entire time! Can Transmutationists fight? I always thought they were more… doing the healing?”

“That is the stereotype…” Reneé said. “…but I wanted to become a chevalier when I was younger despite what my family said. So I found a way to be innovative. It’s a bit more convenient and less energy-consuming than conjuring. Transmutation can protect just as much as it can heal.” 

Nico tensed from where he tended to Francis out of the corner of Maria’s eye.

“—anyway…” Reneé gracefully made his way over to Louise—not minding the gunfire. 

Louise pressed against the wall as he stopped in front of her. 

“Miss Bonnefoy, I have been searching for you for months,” Reneé said pleasantly, extending his hand. “I know my form might be peculiar to you, but I’m glad to find you unharmed. Your family is very worried about you.” 

“Are you going to take me back?” Louise asked faintly. 

Reneé paused, retracting his hand. “Well… the most important thing right now is to keep you safe.”

“And who asked you to bring her home?” Gabrielle asked from across the balcony.

“That is a matter of Cancerian affairs,” Reneé replied slowly.

“So it was the minister?”

“Why are you interested, Miss Law?” Reneé turned to her. “And why did you bring Miss Bonnefoy up here with you?”

Gabrielle remained silent for a beat before saying, “She was in the local vicinity, so we wanted to see if she knew anything. That’s all.”

Reneé considered this and then knelt to one knee and held his hand out to Louise again. This time, Louise accepted the gesture. Reneé bowed his head in turn and bellowed out a slew of words in Cancerian. The language was quite similar to Leonian, but the distance and noise made it hard for Maria to understand it. Something about a creed and a promise?

Reneé rose to a stand afterwards and turned to Volker and Martin. “Okay, I am more than happy to offer my assistance now.”

Maria stared at him for a moment before pacing over to where Lita stood between the rest of her crew. She mimicked Reneé’s movements, dipping into a kneel and bowing her head as she took Lita’s hand in her own. However, she couldn’t quite think of what to say, so she simply kissed Lita on the hand and popped back up on her feet.

Veles chuckled, watching them and shaking his head. “I bow to no one.”

Maria made her way back over to the railings, ducking her head as she dodged a bullet and activated the proto-conductor. “We will beat them into submission, yes? And take care of any stragglers?” She nodded at Martin. “And no killing? That is not too hard. That sort of kindness and mercy can only be given by the strong, no? And I am strong—”

“Scorpio’s spore might make that a bit difficult,” Talib interjected. “Francis said that part of what Scorpio does is bring and intensify thoughts people already have to the surface. You might not be able to do that for all of them.”

Maria grinned as she hopped up onto the railing and whipped away a hurtling white vitae ray with a flick of her wrist. “Even a thought can be overcome with strength and will, no? Maybe my tale will spread even to here!”

Talib frowned slightly.

Offering Reneé and Veles a salute, Maria leapt. She aimed for an opening on the ground below but was suddenly swept away by a wave of glowing water. The cold shock jolted her awake, and she rode on it towards one of the generals. She sliced the rifle he was aiming at her in half before hooking him in the crook of her elbow and driving him against the wall as they were thrown against it by the wave. 

Once she picked herself off the ground and brushed back her moping hair, she found that the patches of water on the ground that were not iced over were now coiled around the legs of half the Augen members, locking them in place. Veles stood slightly above the floor on a platform of water and waved his hand lazily through the air. Reneé meanwhile twirled around the Augen members who were rooted in place and shot at their weapons and slashed at their legs with a mild manner. 

This is absolutely fantastic! Maria thought as she blocked an ill-aimed ray of vitae from a woman in simple clothing. She then sliced through the woman’s proto-conductor. It went through like butter.

Reneé was quite graceful, and Veles was quite strong, she thought. Although she figured Werner would say they were disorganized and unsynchronized, she knew they were a fantastic trio. If only those two men would accept an invitation to join her crew. In the past, she would’ve just swooped them up, but now… 

Maria turned on her heels and caught the charge of a sharpened, wooden picket. Ripping it from its wielder’s hands, she bashed it over their head— 

I know where Conta is.

Maria paused, the world around her slowing to a sluggish pace.

I’ll show you.

The convention disappeared from Maria’s eyes, and she found herself staring with an aerial view over a spotless alleyway in between two gray, square buildings. The alleyway was occupied by two figures. An older man with glasses sat against the alley wall and a woman bound in rope lay on the ground across from him.

Gamma and Dämon Forstchritt, Scorpio provided.

There was a monochrome photograph in Gamma’s hands. Captured in it was Gamma himself, a woman, and a young girl with braids. They were standing in what looked like a poppy field and having a picnic.

Another man with a metal gorget hanging from his neck ambled into the alleyway and came to a stop in front of Gamma. “What is that?” the man asked.

Even from the distance, Maria could hear them clearly. 

Tau, Scorpio provided again.

Gamma slid the photo back into his pocket. “It’s nothing important. Were you able to get the location of the Kaiser?”

“The bastard’s hosting a ‘speech to the people’ tomorrow. The same day as that protest.” Tau spat. “There’s no doubt about it. He’s absolutely working with Scorpio. The filthy, corrupt, vile—” 

“How extraordinary!” Dämon laughed abruptly. “You’re absolute relics but you still know about hypocrisy!” 

“Look at the vanity and egoism in this one.” Tau shook his head as he pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “Unsound medical practices, unethical malpractice—”

“You’re calling me unethical?” Dämon scoffed.

“You gleefully told us what you’ve been doing beneath this city and Kappa. Your cruelty, gluttony, and greed know no bounds!” Tau snapped before pulling back with a sigh. “Still, you deserve a fair trial…”

“Usage of conductors corrupts absolutely,” Gamma stated. “Desire to utilize and harvest more vitae leads to desperation. Desperation bleeds into violence.” He stared at her. “Conductors are items designed to take, weaponize, and harvest life. Pointless deaths, but still they continue to be used.” 

“And what about you?” Dämon struggled to sit. “What about your desperation to stop the use of conductors…? I bet you’ve killed more people than I have. The thing is—all of your work results in nothing. No progress. No change. If we’re talking about pointless deaths, you would be the experts.” 

“You viewing it as pointless proves you know absolutely nothing.” Tau shook his head. “You value nothing.”

Dämon shook her head back at him. “As Signum’s population continues to expand, the demand on the reservoirs will only increase. If we spend too much time debating ethics, we make no progress and the reservoirs deplete. We fight over the remaining reservoirs and either waste or obliterate each other. Before we know it, we won’t be here anymore to debate it. That’s why we need innovation now. Ethics comes later.”

“So you choose the easiest path,” Gamma replied evenly. “You have no work or moral ethic. No sense of responsibility.” 

“What’s your alternative then?” Dämon challenged. “What energy can be equivalent in force and power to a person’s life, memory, and soul? Nothing—absolutely nothing. Even if you find something equivalent, how will you change the people that’ve lived with its comfort for so long?”

Tau frowned, glancing at Gamma. “She knows a lot for knowing nothing though, I must admit…” 

Dämon chuckled. “That’s because Scorpio’s told me everything—all about you too. He pities you all. Everytime you destroy a generator conductor, a reservoir, or whatever is in between, it gets fixed and replaced a couple years later.” She leaned back against the wall behind her. “Still, you come back every single time. Restarting from zero.”

Gamma rose to a stand and walked over to her. He pulled out a pistol from his belt and aimed it at her forehead. Tau remained impassive, but Dämon tensed. Gamma then withdrew his gun.

Dämon shakily continued, “You know Scorpio may be my employer, but I pity him too. He said you live in the past and his kind lives in the future.” She glanced up, seemingly staring at Maria—and Maria could see a blackbird perched on the edge of a building reflected in the woman’s irises. “But the present is what matters.”

Gamma studied her before turning back to Tau— “You still haven’t heard from Iota?”

“No…” Tau shook his head. “Stubborn fool. She refused to rely on Theta’s proto-conductors and went ahead and took the damn train here. I’m not surprised she’s not here yet. Riding in something like that? I would rather walk!”

“The cost of an incorrect initiation,” Gamma agreed. “We should be sympathetic to her condition.”

Tau nodded before glancing at Gamma again. “Are you really going to return this Theta to the resistor?” 

“It’s for their own good. This ‘Francis Foxman’ is corrupt, profits from conductors, and is leading Theta astray. We wouldn’t have run into this issue if Theta was initiated correctly… The only other way is for Theta to conquer their condition—which I doubt will happen despite my respect for Theta.”

Another shadow spilled down the alleyway as a figure approached them. Maria recognized Conta immediately despite the woman looking a tad bit different. The sight of that mousy brown hair was unmistakable.

Gamma greeted Conta with a nod. “How is Oran, Beta?”

“Healing,” Conta replied. “His burn wounds look painful but they aren’t too severe.”

There was a beat of silence.

“I respected your opinion to keep Oran and Fortschritt alive,” Gamma finally said, “but their value to Scorpio highlights our need to return them to the cycle.”

“They could have knowledge on stopping the syzygy effectively,” Conta returned.

“Or their knowledge can catalyze it.”

“They still deserve to stand trial like I said,” Tau interjected. “We can’t abandon our morals.”

Conta glanced at Tau. “Were you always this dramatic? Every time I forget that Libra was your teacher, you’re inclined to remind me.” She then paused and looked up directly towards Maria—rather at the bird Maria now realized she was seeing through. 

Heart hammering, Maria used all of her strength to try and call out Conta’s name, but—

The alleyway faded from her vision, the convention hall taking its place.

Maria blinked in confusion. Although she was back in the hall, there were no longer any Capricornians or Augen members running around. Instead, the entire area was flooded with water and dotted with bodies—unconscious or groaning. Von Spiel’s group was going around and putting them in cuffs. Volker was speaking with Claire, while Friedhelm and Klaus were sitting beside each other against the back wall. Gabrielle and the other peacekeepers were assisting them, while Werner’s family was just coming down the ramp at the back. Nico, with Louise’s aid, was helping a now-conscious Francis down the ramp just behind them.

The fight was over? Already? That was disappointing…

Maria glanced to her left and was pleasantly surprised to find Simon, Morandi, Emmanuel, Lita, and Reneé standing at her side. 

“Are you alright?” Simon asked. “It is you, right, Captain?”

Maria beamed and wrapped an arm around the priest’s shoulder. “It is me! It is so good to see you, Simon! I was worried about you! You are very frail, no?” 

“Only when compared to you,” Simon replied pleasantly. “I’m a bit confused, by the way, Captain…”

“What do you mean?” Maria laughed. “What is there to be confused about—” 

So?

Maria’s vision was drawn to Veles who was now speaking with Gabrielle and the other peacekeepers. 

You’re both searching for the same thing. Aren’t you? I showed you where she is. 

Are you tricking me?

I may be many things but I’m not a liar. Even if I was, you’re ‘strong’ aren’t you? Strong enough to overcome my tricks?

Conta flashed into Maria’s vision again. 

“Veles!” Maria waved her hand wildly in the man’s direction. “I know where Conta is! I’ve found her!”

Simon, Morandi, and Emmanuel shared a look.

Veles broke away from the peacekeepers and stormed over to her. “How?”

“It… was told to me? And also intuition!” Maria nodded firmly.

Simon frowned at her. “Er, Captain—”

Veles stared before nodding with a chuckle. “Well, we both have exceptional intuition, and my intuition and omnipotence tell me that your knowledge is sound.” He gestured wildly towards the convention doors. “So—we return to the hunt!”

Reneé chuckled. “It looks like we’re parting ways then despite reuniting for just a moment.” He extended his hand. “You both always tend to attract interesting events—which just sohappened to help me find the person I was looking for so I thank you.” Then he retracted his hand and offered a bow. “Until we meet again.” With that, he headed on towards Louise, brushing past Gabrielle who was pacing towards them.

When the peacekeeper stopped short in front of them, she immediately said, “I don’t like what I’m hearing. We need to keep together until we get the plan down. Wait until—”

“I am telling you now like I should when I’m about to go,” Maria explained. “Besides—you said I should be solo until Jericho comes, yes?”

“No, not ‘yes’! That’s not what I meant—”

Veles waved his gloved hand in the air, causing the sheet of water laying on the ground to glow purple. The water rushed on towards them, swept them off of their feet, and out the door.


Francis watched as Maria and the water Elementalist were swept up by a tidal wave and out of the convention hall. Frowning, he made his way over with Nico’s assistance to Gabrielle who was still staring at the door and grimacing.

When Gabrielle noticed him, she turned with arched brows. “Oh, you’re up now? You have impeccable timing…”

Francis cut to the chase—“Maria is most likely being led by Scorpio to Conta—she was asking about her earlier. I have concerns that if the suitcase peacekeeper—Mr. Jericho—polarizes next, his vendetta against us will be taken advantage of by Scorpio.”

“Jericho…” Gabrielle looked over her shoulder to Alice who was inspecting one of the cuffed Augen members.

“Scorpio planned this well. He is expecting me to go after them.” Francis pulled out his damp packet of v-cigs and lit one for himself after offering some to Nico and the peacekeeper. After taking a puff, he muttered, “Or I could just be paranoid.”

“Are you going after them? If you are ”—Gabrielle jerked her thumb back towards Alice— “you can take her with you. She knows him.” She glanced around the hall. “I need to clean up here before unwanted extras come.”

Francis stared at her before shaking his head. “I will come back for Alice if I find that it is Mr. Jericho.” He pulled out three proto-conductors filled with his vitae from his jacket and handed them to Gabrielle before handing an additional one to Nico. “Because if I stumble on Gamma first and a Conductor like you is with me… it will be an unpleasant situation for all parties.” He met Gabrielle’s eyes. “Do you understand, peacekeeper? This is a sign of trust.”

With that, Francis slipped into a gate.


Threshold

The click-clacking of the train’s wheels against the tracks echoed in Werner’s ears. The darkness around him allowed him to enjoy the constant, calming, repetitive sound.

Werner opened his eyes after he felt a gaze prick his skin. Gilbert sat across from him staring pensively. No scars were crossing the man’s face, and his eyes were not bagged down by dark circles. No medals gleamed at his chest nor Werner’s own.

Another memory.

“What is it?” Werner asked just as he’d done before.

“What do you mean ‘what is it’?” Gilbert grumbled, uncrossing his crossed arms and falling back into his seat. “You’re not gonna tell me why you decided to switch from your nice stint at the capital to here?”

Werner glanced out the window and found Shion’s reflection staring back at him. “I’ve already told you.”

“So you’re just doing your duty as a Capricornian and didn’t want to rely on nepotism or whatever?”

“What other reason would I be here?” Werner asked, before closing his eyes again. “You shouldn’t be focused on other people’s reasons but your own reason.”

No. That isn’t why. That’s never been why. Not even… Not even after I was gone.

The memory of warning Otto about being dishonorably discharged if he didn’t perform up to par at the border conflict flashed through Werner’s mind.

Werner opened his eyes.

The scenery had changed again, the train windows becoming replaced by damp cement walling, the carpeted rug becoming replaced by a hard and earthen floor that was waterlogged up to his knees. Strung v-lights lined the wall near the ceiling, while metal bunk beds rose from the waters. 

Gilbert stood shaking in front of him. The man’s lips were pulled back with a snarl but his brows were furrowed with fear and regret.

This was the day of Magda Rath’s execution.

The bunkers around Werner melted down and then grew into matchstick trees as the waterlogged floor solidified into well-trodden, muddy earth. Instead of Gilbert standing before him now, it was Magda—kneeling with her back turned to him. 

Magda Rath: deserter and traitor to Capricorn. Henning Rath: husband of Magda Rath and murderer of Otto Vogt. Otto Vogt: exceptional sniper, deceased. 

The gun in Werner’s hand felt heavier than before. But he knew this had already happened. He had executed Magda Rath cleanly and had written up a report that very night—reduction of 212th Division soldiers by one unit. 

But… why did you do it?

To fulfill his duty as a Capricornian. Thinking any other way was traitorous and unacceptable. Because that was who he was and the appearance he needed to maintain in order to—

No. That isn’t why.

This was the same situation he’d faced when he’d confronted this memory with his mother, Werner realized. The same question: meaning and purpose.

I’m sorry for bringing you back here, Werner. I don’t want to hurt you… but I want to show you.

Hurt? From a memory? Impossible.

No one has to know what your reasons are. In fact, they don’t know what they are, and they’re not thinking about it either. They can’t see it. Because those reasons are yours and yours alone. You can be honest. 

Werner paused, considering, as he lifted the gun up to the back of Magda’s head.

These two actions and his warning to Otto had the same reason, he understood. But if he hadn’t done those things due to his desire to perform his duty as a Capricornian and to the Kaiser, then what was it?

18.3: Family, 1600 Fortress

Re-cap:

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


Festung » Fortress found at 1600 hours

Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then the peculiarities abruptly returned.

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

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

And even now:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A peculiar way of speaking…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Viktoria tensed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Viktoria wondered.


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

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

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

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

What…?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh. Money laundering cover-up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you see, Lita?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nico nodded, falling back to catch his breath.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nico opened his mouth and then grimaced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was the expensive stuff too.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nico hesitated.

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

Nico felt his ears burn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You said… ‘Omicron’… right?”

Nico turned and found Kleine standing behind him.

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

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

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

“I’ve laid her to rest.”

“Laid her to rest…? Where…?”

“At a distant place from here—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Proteus…”

Nico studied Francis. “Do you recognize it?”

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

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

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

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

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

Kleine exchanged a look with Nico but said nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kleine glanced at him. “Er… Right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was in our records.”

“What… does that mean?”

Francis looked away as realization dawned on Nico.

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


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

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

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

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

Martin stared at her before exchanging a look with Volker.

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

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

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

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

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

Martin arched a brow. “What…?”

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

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

Martin frowned. “They were… Aquarians?”

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maria glanced back towards Lita then towards Morandi and Emmanuel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was a pause.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maria considered this. “Like solo…?”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A stupid stereotype, Ludwig thought.

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

Morandi opened his mouth then closed it.

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

Weak?

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

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

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

Ludwig resisted snorting. “Seriously…?”

Maria nodded vigorously.

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

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

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

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

Heimler paled. “Ludwig—

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

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

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

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

“…Any family? Outside the ones here?”

“A wife.”

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Threshold

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

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

“Very good, Waltz.”

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

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

The bell rang as class ended.

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

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

No. That’s not how it happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It tickled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How about Fenrir?” Atienna tried.

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

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

“That’s… acceptable.”

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

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

I’ll show you,” she had said.

Show him what?


@m0biuzz

18.2: Pirate, 0600 Rally

Re-cap:

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

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

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

Meanwhile Maria…


Kundgebung » Rallying forces 0600 hours

Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

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

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

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

Another sigh. “Oh, Maria, please—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maria had never felt this terrible before.

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

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

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

…‘Voz’?

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

Maria thought she could almost hear a chuckle.

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

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

I see this isn’t worth the effort.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not perspective. It’s reality.

“But that is your perspective, yes?”

There was silence.

“Hello?” Maria called out again.

Silence again.

Well, that was disappointing.

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

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

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

Oh, exciting…!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maria shook her head.

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

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

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

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

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

Maria inspected her work.

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

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

“Conta…?”

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

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

—crack!

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

“Frau Engel!”

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

But Maria didn’t know her.

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

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

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

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

“Why… are you surprised?” Maria asked.

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

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

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

Maria blinked back at Engel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you also being manipulated?” Maria interjected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Engel looked pale when Maria turned to her.

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

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

Conta!

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

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

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

I’m showing you

“Fucking hell—is that you?!”

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Volker gave Alwin a nod.

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

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

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

Derik snorted.

“What’s so funny?” Maria pressed.

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

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

Derik frowned.

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

No one answered.

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

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

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

Nico tensed. “Well… Cadence—”

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

“Sorry, Captain,” Gilbert grunted.

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

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

“Jericho?”

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

Everyone stared again.

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

Again, staring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wilhelm froze.

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

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

“So you have heard of it, yes?”

“Alwin tells the story all the time.”

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

“‘Crafted legend’…?” Alwin frowned.

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

“Wha—”

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

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

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

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

There was a stretch of silence.

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

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

“Who dislocated Werner’s shoulder?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Still…?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Scorpio speaks to you…?” Nico frowned.

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

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

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

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

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

Volker grimaced. “I’m aware—”

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

“It’s more complicated than that.”

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

“Makes no sense.” Derik snorted again.

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

“Yes, sir,” came the affirmations unison.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gilbert startled and scowled. “What the hell—”

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

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

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

Derik grunted.

“Anyway, I can still—”

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

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

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

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

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

Hm…

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

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

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

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

“Huh? Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

Alwin grimaced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

Volker and Friedhelm then exited the building swiftly.

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

I told you. Once you lose someone—

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

“Uhm—”

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

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

“Werner?”

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

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

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

“Cadence!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frau ‘Waltz’? Ah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morandi—always so kind.

Maria skirted back as Emmanuel lunged at her.

Emmanuel—always so determined.

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

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

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

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

Emmanuel paused in his lunging to eyeball Maria.

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

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

Morandi and Emmanuel exchanged looks again

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

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

Lita nodded fiercely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s all sit down and talk.”

18.⭑-1: Saint Candidate, ∞ Zugzwang

Re-cap:

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


Zugzwang » An obligation to action for eternity

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

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

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

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

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

It never made any sense, of course.

But that was Flannery’s reality.

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

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

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

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

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

Splash!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ya’ve grown old.”

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

Flannery suppressed a grimace.

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

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

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

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

Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

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

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

A stern voice crackled out from the radio in Leonian:

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

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

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

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

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

She changed the channel by one degree.

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

She turned the knob one last time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flannery opened her eyes.

Nope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flannery tensed.

What in the world was he doing?

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

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

The diplomats and investors began whispering.

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

Now, everyone was rising to a stand.

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

Flannery tensed.

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

What a bold, unbelievable lie.

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

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

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

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

Flannery’s eyes narrowed.

What kind of game was he playing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh?” 

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

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

“No, I mean in here.”

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

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

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

So that was that then. A verdict was needed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s your raison d’être?”

“W-What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, that was violent.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He wanted this.

Fine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict: an unacceptable desire to have and act on.

“That’s unfortunate.”

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

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

Time to judge the rest.

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

She turned her attention forward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Questions…?”

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

“So y’know then,” Flannery murmured.

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

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

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

“Nice t’see ya, Vega.”

Theta paused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s yer plan then?”

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

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

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

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

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

“And when this happens again?”

“Then we will handle it just the same.”

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

“And what about you?” Gabrielle challenged.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?!” Gabrielle snapped to a stand.

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

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

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

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

Why?” Gabrielle asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t hard to find Leona.

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

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

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

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

“Miss Caertas?” Claire stared.

The Capricornians looked to him in confusion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flannery drew out her knife.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spunky.

Flannery pulled the knife out from him.

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

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

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

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

“The Saint of the Scales,” Flannery elaborated.

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

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

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

“And you?” Flannery asked.

Leona’s eyes narrowed. “Nothing.”

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

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

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

The Capricornians tensed.

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

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

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

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

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

Weingartner nodded, not moving to accept the gesture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wolff,” the captain pressed warningly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flannery turned to follow her but—

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

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

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

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

“But—”

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

“A game?” The captain now.

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

That was reality.


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

Official Libran Monadic Pages

@adalhyde

18.1: Second Lieutenant, 0900 Debt

Re-cap:

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

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

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


Schuld » A debt still unpaid at 0900 hours

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes… but it’s… nothing special.”

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

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

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

“Woah—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m responsible.”

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

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

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

Werner said nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s up, Werner?” Gilbert had asked once he’d caught up to him.

Werner had stared at him blankly.

“If you were going to take a midnight stroll, you should’ve asked me to join you. I could use some getting away from Fischer… Unless you were doing Hauptstadt dirty work again.”

Again, Werner stared.

It was almost maddening.

“Look,” Gilbert had snapped. “I’m not that much of a dumbass. The guys aren’t either. I’m your second-in-command, alright? If something happens to you, I’m the next person in line, so you’ve got to keep me up to date on shit.”

Again, a blank stare.

“Shit, Werner, I know we might not exactly be friends, but we’ve known each other long enough to where you can rely on me, right? Ask me for help. I’m not fucking here for no reason—”

“I don’t really understand what you’re saying,” Werner—rather, not -Werner, Gilbert later came to realize—interjected. “But what’s the point of saying it? Is it not better to just do it? Why must you let me know? Is it that you value letting me know more than actually doing it?”

Gilbert had been startled speechless by the remark and had remained speechless long after not-Werner had wandered away. It had been a gunshot to the knee. Awful. Embarassing.

Finding out later that Werner didn’t recall a single thing about that incident because of the override was a relief to Gilbert, which he knew was pretty sad. What was even sadder was the damned joy he’s felt when Werner had looked him right in the eye and asked him to keep him in line.

It was the first thing Werner had ever asked of him. A promise to a friend. Or more like a way to repay many debts.


Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

This was pretty sad, Gilbert thought to himself, back pressed against the metal shield the captain had conjured. The rumble of the vitae rays pounding against the barricade was turning his headache into a migraine. Above the rumbling, he could barely hear the howling of the wind the Sagittarian prince was sending out from his conductor and the high-pitched whines of Leona’s v-blade clashing against the prince’s guard’s blade.

It was more embarrassing than sad: the fact that they were receiving back up from a bunch of Sagittarian politicians. It was like a debt now. Ah, fuck it.

Gilbert dared to peek around the barricade again and aimed his rifle out into the open courtyard.

Nothing had changed in the past couple of minutes. Three-versus-one. Around and around in a loop. In any other battlefield or situation, the winner would’ve been clear. No bets, no wagers. And yet here Leona, a Projector, was—holding her own against a Conjuror, a Projector, and an Elementalist. A kid Elementalist, but an Elementalist all the same.

Wait. There.

Gilbert let out a slow breath and pulled the trigger to his rifle. A metal clang rang in the air as his bullet hit the hilt of Leona’s blade, sending it flying out of her hand. The porcelain-masked figure used the opportunity to lunge forward and take a swipe at Leona’s abdomen with a vitae blade, which forced Leona to stumble back and trip over her own feet.

Ha. Take that—

Leona performed a backflip as she fell backwards, kicked back the masked figure as she did so, and balanced deftly back on her toes. Without even looking in his direction, she drew out another blade from her belt, ignited it, and threw it at him. Gilbert pulled back into cover as it whizzed past his ear.

She missed—

A clang of metal against rock behind him cut the thought short.

Gilbert turned just in time to see the blade rebound off the tower wall behind him and ricochet back towards him. He didn’t even have the time to yelp as it seared into his arm just below his elbow. A beat after, it deactivated and clattered to the ground.

“You’ve got to be shitting me…” Gilbert whispered, head buzzing, heart hammering, arm pulsing.

What the hell kind of luck was this? What now…? Wait. Maybe it wouldn’t infect him because it was only in for a second. Maybe he wouldn’t become a medium. But the others probably wouldn’t think that. Maybe it’d be better just to keep quiet…?

“Captain!” Gilbert grimaced. “Captain, I… I’ve been hit.”

Heimler and the captain turned to him from where they crouched at the opposite end of the barricade. Gilbert lunged for the proto-conductor in Heimler’s hands and brought it to his arm just above his elbow.

“Wolff! Steady.” The captain’s warning shout gave Gilbert pause.

Dammit. Would cutting it even be enough?

His heart raced.

‘Cutting it’… off…?

Shit.

Sunlight suddenly burst over the bridge behind them, causing Gilbert to wince and hesitate. When his eyes adjusted to the morning glow, he registered a familiar silhouette standing on the edge of the bridge and surveying the carnage below. No uniform. Just a pair of slacks and a button down. Werner. No, the prince.

Wait. No. It couldn’t be the prince. Gilbert could tell. There was too much confidence oozing from the stance of the person perched up there, too much manic energy, and too much damn smiling.

Whoever it was leaped down from the bridge—

—and landed on top of the captain’s conjured shield with a clang! before swinging the proto-conductor blade in their hand out to block an oncoming vitae-ray. A beat after, they hopped down to ground level in front of Gilbert.

The captain looked to Gilbert for an answer, but Gilbert was flabbergasted.

Not-Werner placed a hand on Gilbert’s head and peered into his face. “You’re… My dear Gil, yes?”

The way they spoke Common sounded sing-song and accented strangely. A blend of the usual Capricornian lilt with something more eastern. Leonian maybe? Wait—‘My dear Gil’…?

“Who are you?”

The person paused, thinking. “I am… Werner?”

What…? ‘Convincing.’ Wait—

“You’re the one from the border…?” Gilbert realized, blinking up past the dim sun rays. “Look. We know everything already. No need to act. Saints, it’s not convincing anyways.”

“Oh, I see! Do you recognize me then?” Not-Werner beamed—absolutely terrifying—and pointed to their face. “It’s me: Maria!” Her gaze shifted to the wound on his arm. “Oh, you’re injured! You should be more careful, yes?”

Gilbert tightened his grip on Heimler’s proto-conductor blade. “Uh yeah. Well, Leona cut me. I’ve been infected. Gotta. Deal with it.”

She tilted her head. “Infected?”

Gilbert stared. “Didn’t the peacekeepers tell you? The Manipulator can control living things. If you’ve been cut by someone who’s been cut by the Manipulator, you’re also fucked. Wait, where are they—the peacekeepers? They are here, right?” He paused. “What the hell are you doing here then?”

Maria stared back at him. “Peacekeepers? Are peacekeepers here? Besides the ones shooting, I mean?” She tilted her head, inspecting his injury. “Manipulator… What was that again?”

Huh?

“Well, it sounds like a bad thing, yes? I just came because I heard a lot of noise, and you need help, you see? I am strong, so I will take care of it for you—”

“Wait, wait, wait.” Gilbert shook his head. “What?”

The captain made his way over to Gilbert’s side and grimaced down at the wound. He looked to Maria briefly and asked, “Were you not able to get into contact with the saint candidate?”

Maria tilted her head. “All this talk about Manipulators and saint candidates is so confusing. Maybe if you would explain it to me, I would understand more?”

The captain stared at Maria, shook his head in confusion, and wrapped his hand around the hilt of the blade in Gilbert’s hand. He muttered, “Don’t do anything rash. Maybe if we—”

“It’s me or the arm, Captain.” Gilbert’s heart hammered in his chest as he jerked his hand out of the captain’s and brought the blade closer to his arm. “It might not even work. I might just have to…”

Dammit.

His hand wouldn’t bring the damn conductor down no matter how much he demanded it to.

“You or your arm?” Maria murmured suddenly.

Then there was a flash of yellow-green light, then red, followed by a sweet yet putrid scent. Something flopped to the ground. It took a second for Gilbert to realize that it was his arm. He stared in disbelief and tensed as he watched as glowing dark blue pulsating veins formed at the base of the severed appendage. The blue coagulated to the base of his spasming palm and formed a scorpion tattoo that skittered around there.

Gilbert swallowed.

Maria pressed down further on his head and met his eyes. “You will not die.”

His head spun.

“Werner! Gilbert!” came a cry from above.

It was Nico, peering around the tower above the bridge and staring down at him in horror.

“Nic, get the fuck down!” Gilbert snapped.

A ray hurtled through the air from the opposite bridge towards Nico. Thankfully, someone pulled him down in the nick of time and the ray skimmed the tower wall behind him.

Maria’s expression darkened before she pried the proto-conductor out of Gilbert’s weakening grasp and flung it at the shadowy figure peeking out from the top of the opposite bridge. It hit whoever was perched there head-on and sent them tumbling down to the ground with a splat.

Maria laughed. “Did you see that? Werner’s eyes really are amazing!”

“Fabrizzio, down here now!” the captain shouted, pulling off his jacket and pressing it against Gilbert’s stub of an arm.

Gilbert stared at the stub, but still didn’t feel the pain. Shock, probably.

Suddenly Nico, conducting gloves equipped, was in front of him panting heavily, sweat dripping in dollops from his brow. He reached forward—

“W-Wait.” Gilbert tensed, pulling away. “It might not be safe.”

Nico frowned. “Gil, listen. You lost an arm. Please shut up.”

Fair enough.

Nico’s gloves buzzed with warm light and glided over Gilbert’s stub. With a grimace, Nico said, “The blade’s cauterized it, but—” His eyes widened as he stared past Gilbert’s shoulder. “Wait, what are you—”

Gilbert then realized that Maria was no longer beside him. He peered back around the barricade just in time to see Maria jump into the fray where the Sagittarians were dancing around Leona. Maria slid between the two Sagittarian guards and thrust her proto-conductor forward; and when Leona brought her blade up to block the blow, Maria swung her leg to the woman’s side. When Leona tried to block this with her free hand, Maria pulled her leg back before shooting it out towards Leona’s chest and sending her skidding backwards.

Maria chuckled at this as the Sagittarian looked on in confusion. Instead of pursuing Leona further, however, Maria delivered a kick to Claire’s chest. And not gently either. The prince flew through the air and crashed against their barricade before his guards joined him in alarm.

Maria wagged a finger in his direction as she flipped her proto-conductor in hand. Before Claire could respond, a rain of vitae came down from the bridge opposite, forcing Claire’s guards to drag him back behind the barricade with them.

When Claire righted himself beside Gilbert, he turned and then stared at him, wide-eyed. “You… your arm. I-I’m sorry—”

“Bound to happen someday, kid,” Gilbert muttered, blearily peering around the barricade again.

Infected True Conductor,” Leona stated, picking herself off the ground.

Maria turned back to the peacekeeper and grinned. “Leona—no, Oros, my dear friend! It is good to see you again, yes? I already forgave you for hurting my Conta and my crew, but now you are hurting people who are important to someone important to me.”

“You’re outnumbered,” Leona stated. “Forstchritt is gone, but we’ll still take you in.” She grimaced, eyes narrowed as she looked to the side and muttered, “The Sagittarian prince is allowed to be free under surveillance and shouldn’t be harmed, but this one must be taken in. We need to bring her into Libra.”

‘Forstchritt is gone’? What? Who the hell was Leona talking to?

Maria suddenly giggled—disturbing to hear from Werner—before she tapped her temple. “Ah, is the one you are speaking to the same as the one yelling here, then? It is nice to have another voice inside my head since the others are quiet, but… Telling me I am weak and that my strength is false and that I don’t understand a thing—well, you’re not very wise!”

Leona grimaced again, pinching her nose.

“The only person who knows me and defines me is me,” Maria said, gesturing to herself. “I might not understand everything, but I know I am strong. And right now, that is all I need.”

Why the hell was she monologuing, Gilbert thought incredulously.

Leona’s expression flattened as a dark blue scorpion tattoo crawled up from her neck to her cheek. Without hesitation, she surged forward and swung her blade out at Maria.

Maria took a graceful step back and blocked the blow with just a slight flick of her wrist. She held Leona there with one hand before swiveling around behind Leona and whipping out the proto-conductor towards the woman’s back in the blink of an eye. Leona’s response was just as quick—drawing out another blade conductor from her belt, igniting it, and blocking the blow in an explosion of dark blue and gold.

Maria hopped back, swinging the proto-conductor callously around again. She tilted her head. “I don’t really get it, but you do not move as beautifully anymore, my dear Leona. Are you this ‘infected’ too?”

Leona charged at Maria with both conductors drawn. Maria chuckled before blocking two swings with a single swing of her own and retreating across the long shallow fountain at the center of the courtyard and to the opposite bridge—no, not retreating.

Maria bounded over to the peacekeeper she’d impaled with Heimler’s proto-conductor only minutes before and unsheathed the still activated weapon from the peacekeeper’s stomach. She then swiveled around and kicked the corpse up towards Leona who paid it no mind. The peacekeeper sliced the body in half with her shorter blade while thrusting forward with the other. Maria met the thrust with a thrust of her own; and as the tips of their blades sparked against each other, she whipped her other blade out at Leona’s face. Leona quickly pulled her shorter blade back and blocked the blow, which was when Maria twisted her thrusting blade forward and slipped past Leona’s.

Maria’s blade ghosted Leona’s cheek causing the latter to side-step backwards. Then a line of red sprouted on her cheek, nearly splitting the scorpion tattoo there in half.

Abruptly, the vitae- and gun- fire battering their barricade and the tower above them where the others were stowed away stopped. Instead, it began raining down on Maria. She simply lifted one of her blades and spun it high above her head, deflecting the vitae and metal bulleting down on her. One ray deflected and decapitated one of the metal soldier statues at the center of the fountain; another chipped the corner of the conjured barricade. Still, Maria’s laughter filled the air and the dark spaces where the rising sun didn’t reach.

What the hell, Gilbert thought in hazy alarm, this person is crazy. But—

“She’s drawing fire. We need to cover her,” Gilbert grunted, turning with effort to face Weingartner. “Captain…”

The captain was already conversing—almost arguing—with the Sagittarian prince, although Gilbert couldn’t quite hear them. After another exchange, Claire took Heimler on his staff conductor and they shot up to the sky and towards the opposite bridge. Taking care of Leona’s backup then?

Everything sounded like it was underwater. Not good.

“Fabrizzio, stay here and watch Gilbert,” the captain said to Nico before darting out of cover and up the open staircase of their bridge.

The Sagittarian guards conversed with each other in their native tongue before dashing out of the barricade, slinking their way around the outer edge of the courtyard, and then up the stairs leading to the opposite bridge. To their prince probably.

Damn, Gilbert realized, I’m deadweight now. And that sucked.

In the far distance, he could hear the high-pitched whines of Leona’s and Maria’s conductors beating against each other in rapid succession.

The Ariesian prince brat had said something about the ‘last two’ being—

“Monsters, huh?” Gilbert muttered as his vision swam. He shook his head before darkness could take him fully. Nope. Not now. Not today. When he turned around the barricade and refocused on the fight again, he was met with startling sight.

One of Maria’s wrists was locked in a suppression cuff with Leona holding the other end of the shackles. Gilbert had heard about these cuffs, but this was his first time seeing one.

Maria looked as surprised as Gilbert felt. But she also looked way too damned pleased at the same time. Without skipping a beat, she twisted her cuffed hand like a snake, forcing Leona to release her shorter blade conductor. And as Leona righted herself, Maria sent out her foot, somehow unhooked the strap of Leona’s belt with the tip of her boot, and kicked it to the opposite side of the court.

Leona began slashing madly at Maria with her remaining bladed conductor in turn. Back, back, back, Maria retreated as she fended off each slash.

Leona was edging Maria towards the tower to his left, Gilbert realized. Cornering her. Before he could even give out the warning, Maria was already back-to-back against the tower wall.

Abruptly, however, Maria pushed off against the wall with her hind legs, launched herself at Leona, and grabbed at the woman’s shoulders. Using Leona’s shoulders as an axle, Maria flipped over the woman and landed deftly on her feet behind her.

Somehow, during the flip, Maria had clipped the other end of the cuff to Leona’s wrist.

Gilbert stared. How and why the hell did she do that?

Maria tossed her proto-conductor up and down in her hand playfully, but when she caught it the fourth time, the blade abruptly flickered and dimmed into nothing. She blinked in surprise before shaking it.

The vitae had run out, Gilbert realized, tensing. Was she not a Projector? Did she even know how to use a conductor? Either way, Gilbert knew she needed another one. And fast.

“Aw, is it out already—” Maria was cut off as Leona tugged her forward by the cuff.

Gilbert made for the proto-conductor blade lying at his feet despite Nico’s protest. Panting heavily, he concentrated with all his might and filled the thing with his vitae. When the glass tubes lit up with gray light, he flicked it to ignite it.

“Hey!” Gilbert shouted over his shoulder before hurling the ignited proto-conductor in Maria’s direction.

Maria beamed at him. She ran for it, plucked it from the air, and brought it up behind her back just in time to block the downswing of Leona’s blade aimed for the nape of her neck. Pushing Leona away with a back kick, she spun around and whipped the blade around wildly. Leona brought up her blade to block it, but Maria pressed down harder and harder. Just as it looked like Maria was about to gain ground, however, her proto-conductor flickered off. She stumbled forward as the weight gave way. Fortunately, the proto-conductor flickered back on just in time for her to pull it back up to block another one of Leona’s swings.

She needed another one, Gilbert knew. He hadn’t filled that proto-conductor with enough vitae—

The light from his proto-conductor finally gave way fully as Maria was driven flat back against the tower again. Nico grabbed for the rifle he’d brought down with him and aimed it in the duo’s direction. He fired only to have Leona slice the bullet cleanly in two. Maria took the opportune moment of distraction to duck underneath Leona and drag them back into the open courtyard.

Continuing to dodge Leona’s swings, Maria retreated to the central fountain. Their feet sloshed through the fountain, splashing the water onto the open square and sending droplets into the air.

The central statue of the soldiers was now straddled between the two of them.

Maria gave the connected handcuffs a harsh tug, causing Leona, who was already charging forward with a swing, to be pulled even further forward. Her head cracked against the statue with a loud clang! before she staggered to the ground.

Panting heavily and dripping with water, Maria lifted her empty-proto conductor and studied it in thought. “Wait a moment… I think Werner does it something like this—”

Leona popped up to her feet and began swinging her blade again.

A burst of indigo suddenly puttered out from Maria’s proto-conductor as she dodged an uppercutting sweep of Leona’s blade. It sputtered again as she ducked below a horizontal swipe. This time the vitae came out a copper hue. Crimson sparks came next as she looped around the statue again.

Then, as the water droplets pitter-pattered down back into the fountain and burst into steam at the touch of Leona’s blade, Maria’s blade ignited once more. This time with gold. The very same gold spilling out from Leona’s blade. Even from his position, Gilbert could feel the heat.

Leona’s pristine face—in that exact moment as the gold flushed her cheeks—twisted into something ugly. Her lips curled, her eyebrows furrowed, her eyes widened:

You!”

She surged forward with electric intensity, and the vitae in her conductor flared out wildly as it skirted Maria’s nose.

“Do you see this?” Maria laughed as she leaned back and brought up her blade to meet Leona’s own in a raining spark of gold. “I am seeing why you all like using these so much now—”

Clang!

Golden blue sparks erupted.

A body from the opposite bridge hit the floor as someone from their bridge sniped it out.

“You!”

Clang!

More sparks. Three bodies tumbled down. This time Gilbert could see Heimler, rifle conductor billowing with smoke, slinking out from behind the towers on the opposite bridge.

“You!”

Clang!

Four bodies.

“You!”

Over and over again Leona beat her conductor down on Maria who blocked the blows, skirted back, and tugged Leona along with her—towards the stairs and up the opposite bridge.

They disappeared from Gilbert’s sights as they went all the way up the bridge and dipped behind the tower there. Bursts of gold lit up the back-tower walls, and their twin shadows stretched across them. Gauging by the abrupt bursts of aquamarine light also bleaching the back-tower wheels, Gilbert figured Heimler was trying his best at support.

Abruptly, the light-show dimmed to nothing, and there was absolute silence.

Gilbert tensed, eyes and ears straining.

Then, in a burst of gold, Leona and Maria appeared behind the floral banisters. Both of their proto-conductors were sparking up against each other; and they were inching their way towards the edge of the building. Abruptly, Maria swept her blade free of Leona’s and delivered the woman a signature kick to the gut. Leona flew off the edge of the building—dragging Maria down with her via their bound shackles.

Gilbert’s heart dropped with them.

“Werner!” Nico shouted in alarm.

The two plummeted into the fountain below, which erupted with a geyser of water. As the water droplets pattered down and the mist cleared, Gilbert registered Leona lying motionless in the pool with both of her hands cuffed behind her. Maria stood on top of her with a firm boot placed against her back.

Well, shit.

Panting heavily, Maria wiped a hand across her brow as she chuckled. Seeming to feel his stare, she straightened and turned to him. Then she smiled.

* * *

When Gilbert cracked an eye open, it took him a moment to get his bearings because the world was spinning. He figured he must have passed out as soon as they arrived at this small greenhouse nestled in the eastern corner of the city.

The entire journey from the courtyard to this conservatory had been a blitzing blur. Frankly, Gilbert felt sorry for whatever poor soul would be making rounds in the morning since whoever it was would discover the massacre of peacekeepers, military police officers, and civilians that they’d left scattered behind them in the courtyard.

Dammit. This sucked.

Regret and guilt with these things always came delayed. And as much as Gilbert hated thinking, he couldn’t help thinking now about the fellow Capricornians he’d just killed. While he was never for the whole ‘glory, honor, victory’ spiel, he still took some pride in the ‘defending fellow citizens against danger’ concept.

Shit, he thought. If they weren’t considered treasonous before, they sure as hell were now. That damned saint candidate.

Grimacing, he wiped sweat from his brow.

It was irritatingly humid here, even in the shadow of the ferny canopy they were taking cover under. The damn sun blazing through the clear windows was not helping, nor was the conductor generator humming somewhere in the building. It was so damned hot that Gilbert was tempted to dunk his head into the man-made stream trickling just over the floral hedges to his right.

Kleine had suggested this place. He’d said he’d often heard Otto speak about it: a conservatory that only local biologists from the city’s military academy visited. In other words, this place would be away from the eyes of military police officers and extras. Infected and manipulated people, on the other hand…

Gilbert doubted they could remain here long.

At the moment, Gilbert was lying flat out on the floor. Heimler and Nico were on either side of him—one man, the doctor, and the other, the donor. Gilbert never liked watching transfusions despite stomping in piss, blood, and everything in-between when he was down south, so he stared across at the corner opposite instead.

Lying in a pile there were Leona, Stein, and Fischer. Despite the suppression cuffs slapped over her wrists, Leona was eerily staring blankly at them all and breathing shallowly. Stein—the stupid poor bastard—was keeled over with another pair of suppression cuffs they’d taken off from Leona’s belt slapped over his wrists too. Fischer was in regular cuffs and chained to a water pipe jutting out from the ground. His face was littered with bruises.

Gilbert would’ve laughed at the sight if it weren’t dampened by the fact that they’d somehow lost Forstchritt along the way. He would’ve much rather kept the crazy engineer than the bootlicking fanboy.

Brandt and Kleine were stationed in front of the semi-unconscious group. Standing beneath an overgrowth of vines crawling up along the bench across from the two were the captain, the Sagittarian prince, and the prince’s guards. It looked like they were discussing something serious.

Frowning, Gilbert lifted his head and did a second scan of the area. “Where’s—”

“She ran off,” Nico murmured, brows creasing. “As soon as we got here. Kleine and I tried going after her but…”

Shit. Dammit.

Gilbert struggled up to a sit but fell backwards as he tried using his hand that was no longer there. He grimaced and tried again, but Nico pushed him back down.

“Gil, you need to rest.”

Dammit.

The captain peeled away from the Sagittarians and approached him before kneeling down. “Gilbert, how are you feeling?”

“Can’t say I’ve been worse, Captain,” Gilbert replied. “Forgot to ask—I can still call you captain, right? ‘Major’ doesn’t really fit.”

The captain smiled lightly, tightly. “They’ll be searching for us. I can’t say for sure since living manipulation has rarely been studied, but even with the suppression cuffs on Leona and Derik, the Manipulator probably has some awareness over where they are—similar to any ordinary Manipulator’s mediums. Meaning we shouldn’t bring them with us to meet my associate. I was discussing it with the Sagittarian prince, but it’s probably best to leave them with those three peacekeepers.”

Brandt stared holes into Leona at this.

Kleine walked over to Brandt and murmured, “Saint candidates are similar to ELPIS members, right? So… do you know Leona? Like… know her?”

“Not like she is now.” Brandt frowned. “I know Scorpio was manipulating Leona, but I can’t believe the lieutenant—whoever that was—was even able to take her down… Leo—I remember… No, I know—was—isthe best.”

The captain regarded Brandt for a moment before turning back to Gilbert. “Fortunately, we don’t have to worry about you, Gilbert. Good man. You’re okay. You’ll come up with us.”

Nico frowned, eyes narrowed.

“Thanks, Captain.” Gilbert grimaced again. “But I’m not too sure if that’s a good idea. We need someone to watch over Stein and Leona, right? We don’t know if I’m really off the hook yet.”

“Gilbert,” the captain interjected, not looking at his stub, “the Sagittarians will handle communications and transportation to the peacekeepers for us.”

Gilbert remained silent. What exactly was the trade-off for that?

“Okay, Gilbert? You’re still with me.” Saying nothing else, the captain gave him one last squeeze on his good shoulder before returning to converse with the Sagittarians.

Dammit. The debts kept piling up. And…

Gilbert turned and looked at the empty space where his arm and hand should’ve been. He could still feel it there.

Ah, shit. His mother would be so damned pissed. She’d probably beat him senseless when she found out. Damn—and what would Greta think? Would she even consider taking a man who could only hold one of her hands at the altar? And Werner—shit, Werner would just shake his head and say, ‘you didn’t think before you acted and this is the result’ or maybe he wouldn’t say anything. That would be even worse.

Dammit!

Burying his face in the crook of his good arm, Gilbert grimaced and then choked on a sob.

* * *

Gilbert figured he must have passed out again because when he cracked open his eyes everyone was standing and either had a rifle in hand or a conductor.

A woman stood at the lip of the shrubs leading to their tiny hideaway. Her fiery red curls caught the sunlight filtering in through the windows above them. A dark red bomber jacket was draped over her sparkling dark blue dress. In other words, she looked like she’d just come from a dinner party.

But something about her was off. There was a butter knife in her left hand and a gun in her right. And despite none of those items being conductors, they were lined with a dark pink vitae.


Threshold

Werner knew he needed to get a hold of himself. The thoughts and feelings of hundreds of Capricornians still felt like they were crushing his skull and chest. But he needed to focus on what had just been revealed. The question now was how pertinent was this new information? What did it change?

In the long term, this development changed very little. However, despite this fact, for some reason, there was a heaviness in his chest.

Aside from this, there was the fact that his efforts here were meaningless. He was insufficient, powerless, controlless here. It needed rectifying, but he didn’t have the ability to rectify it.

Werner wanted clarity. He needed it. He wanted someone to tell him what to—

“Oh, I see now.” His mother sighed, her body still cracked by that worrisome pinkish blue light. “You’re truly a pitiable man. You’re almost like that Atienna, aren’t you? But instead of not wanting to choose, you’d rather have someone choose for you in the grand scheme of things? It’s so much easier to conform because appearances are everything. You always choose the path of least resistance.”

Her words pounded into his skull.

“It’s okay,” his mother whispered gently. “Staying true to who you are is what being alive is all about. People can’t really change, so trying to do it is just poorly spent time.”

That was logical. Time was a resource not to be wasted and could be better spent on routes that provided a more salient, quantifiable outcome. As long as one kept the standard, then anything was acceptable.

“Right. Now, I’ll always be here watching,” she whispered as she reached for his chest. “Even though you can’t see me.”

Her hand passed through the area as his shoulder pulsated with a familiar pain. She reached forward with her other hand and then burrowed back from where she had originally emerged from: inside of him.

It was painful, but he didn’t show it. Not even when she was gone.

His actions were irresponsible and unacceptable—Werner had time to realize now. 

Shion and Lavi began whispering to each other in the quiet that his mother left behind, but he had a hard time focusing on their words. Their words were not pertinent. 

Werner was aware he should’ve reported his status and condition from the very beginning. His loyalty was to Capricorn because he was a Capricornian lieutenant. 

Scorpio was working with the chancellery cabinet and the Kaiser. The Kaiser was absolute and becoming a Capricornian soldier meant swearing loyalty to the Kaiser. Therefore, logically, because he was a Capricornian lieutenant, adhering to Scorpio’s guidelines was expected…?

“Werner…” Shion neared the river of light that divided them. “Werner, come here.”

Werner considered the woman. Shion was a peacekeeper. Peacekeepers had international authority. In international situations, it wouldn’t be incorrect to say that they had a ranking equivalent to a major general. So he would have to listen to that authority. Yes, that was logical.

Shion’s frown dipped lower.

Werner tensed.

Was that an incorrect assumption? All assumptions had a degree of fallibility, which was why he didn’t like relying on them. But—

“Werner.”

Werner paused, picked himself up, and made his way over to her before standing at attention. He studied her, searching her face, wondering what she thought of him since she had another perception of him from the past.

Here was the incongruency again. The different perceptions—the different appearances and expectations he’d tailored to. There could only be one chosen, but the question was which one was the most acceptable choice and applicable in the long term.

The path of least resistance. 

No. Incorrect. Wait. Changing oneself was poorly spent time—

Shion’s brows furrowed before she raised her hand.

He braced himself for a slap and readied himself not to flinch. Instead, however, she placed that hand to his cheek.

“It’s not a waste of time,” she said. “I can’t tell you. It won’t mean anything if I do. But I can show you.”