14.1: Observer & Peacekeeper, 0000 Unusual Activity

Ungewöhnliche Aktivität » Unusual activity, unrecorded 

Werner Waltz. Born January 1st. Blood type A. Vision, 20/6.6 in both eyes. Height, 183 cm. Weight, 80.1 kg. Ambidextrous. Personality type, ISTJ-Turbulent, changing. Parents, alive. Siblings, elder brother and younger sister, alive. 

Occupation, First Lieutenant of the 212th Division of the Border Force of the Capricornian Army. Nicknamed, ‘Cold Eye’ or ‘Kaltes Auge.’ Badges awarded; Iron Horn, Periwinkle Cross, Border Force Combat Clasps, Order of Duty [Rank II], Badge of Marksmanship [Rank V], Border Force Saturn Ring of Honor for Valor. 

Described by superiors as “efficient, accomplished, hardworking, orderly, pragmatic, driven, loyal, professional.” Described by subordinates as “strict, skilled, unyielding, cold, intimidating, focused, rational,” and “occasionally, surprisingly kind.”

Unusual activity: involvement in dismantlement of Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict, presence in Twin Cities during large-scale ELPIS-related event, associated with deceased True Conductor Fritz von Spiel, associated with deceased 98th Pi Erwin Ersatz. 

Probability of being a True Conductor, 89%. 

Probability of disrupting syzygy, 1%. Reason, obedient and cautious. When adjusting for influence from connected parties if assumption of being True Conductor holds, 56%. Reason, obedient but cautious. Resulting course of action…?

Turning over this particular topic in mind, the Saint of Passion spun his pen in hand as he studied the bulletin board on the wall across from him. The red strings crisscrossing the clusters of newspapers, photographs, and sticky notes there glowed in the light sauntering through the partially drawn blinds. 

“What’s the best way to steal sheep and a guard dog from a shepherd?”

The woman sitting straight-backed beside the bulletin board remained silent.

“A sheep is mindless. A dog is loyal.” He flipped his pen. “Therefore, the correct answer is not to directly deal with either of them. The best thing to do is to break the shepherd.” 

Again, silence.

“… Having a law that makes it so that conductors allotted to a country is inversely proportional to their vitae reservoirs was truly an ingenious strategy. A sensible, cruel law,” the saint candidate continued. “But it’s not enough. Capricorn isn’t in the state it should be in. Their vitae reservoirs are…” 

“Capricorn has only one major reservoir,” the woman finally spoke. “Near the border with Aquarius. Additional reservoirs are forming along the south.”

“When was the last major conflict again?”

“The Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict—”

“That was barely a conflict. How many died?”

“Approximately 150 Capricornians and 240 Aquarians.”

“Definitely not enough…” He let out a sigh. “Oh, Capricorn—a country graduated from war but still relishing in it. From the failed Watch to the southern borders shared with Argo to the eastern borders shared with Aquarius.” His lips curled. “Well… if they wish for war, then let’s give them a civil one, shall we?”

Rising from his sofa, the Saint of Passion glided over to the bulletin board and uncapped his pen. 

“Let’s seat the audience, set the actors on stage, and yell ‘fire’!”

With vehement glee, he drew large arcs across the map that was pressed flat below all of the photos, strings, articles. Over and over again he went at it until the tip of his pen snapped off and struck the window blinds. Dark blue ink dripped from his hands, trailed down the walls. 

“Can you hear it? It’s almost here.”

Panting, he took a step back to admire his masterpiece. 

“The pulse of the syzygy…”

A knock on the door drew his attention away. 

He rolled his eyes and sighed. 

“I suppose we can take a lunch break.”


Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

“Partner, it’s good to see you! I haven’t heard from you in days!”

Upon entering Gabrielle’s office, Ophiucian peacekeeper Jericho was met with this exclamation. He chose to remain unmoving as Talib Al-Jarrah fervently shook him by the shoulders. He did not remain still out of discomfort. He simply did not want to drop the stack of files he carried in both hands. 

“I thought the Organization almost had you for sure!” Talib continued, gesturing widely towards the occupied sofas before them. He curled his hand into a fist. “Recently, they’ve installed this diabolical device in the cafeteria that transmits strange sounds in up and down undulations in between stretches of static. Now, listen here, Jericho. I’ve done my research. Those sounds send subliminal messages right to our brainstems and increase our aggression so that we go at each other’s throats! It’s a ploy to dismantle our Ophiuchus!” 

Jericho cocked his head. Interesting supposition. Intuition: tinfoil hat conspiracy theory. 

“Saints! You mean the radio, Talib?” Ferris sighed from her usual spot to the left of the island table. Her lunch today was a tuna sandwich which she paused her exasperation to munch on. “I’m actually glad that they’ve finally installed one there. It’s been so… quietsince what happened down at the detention center.” She glanced at Wtorek Elizabeta who sat silent beside her before clearing her throat. “There’s that new singer I really like. Alma Miraggio. Her song ‘Red Fern’ is so good! I wish I could carry it with me everywhere! She’s on a tour, right? I wish she’d stop by here.” 

Red was also the color of Ferris’s hair now. She had dyed it three times in the past week and had settled on this color for two days so far. Jericho conjectured it would last two more days. 

“Oh, my sweet naive, Ferris.” Talib shook his head, detaching from Jericho’s side. “Your innocent trust of the public is—”

“Don’t call me that please, Talib.” Ferris sighed again.

“That is a bit absurd, Talib,” came the reply from the sofa opposite. “Even for you.”

Doctor Alice Kingsley sat there nibbling on her usual fruit salad. She had gotten a short haircut recently, and her blonde hair now fell well above her ears. Although Jericho liked the new haircut, he did not like how it made it more difficult for him to escape her mind-reading eyes. No bangs to curtain her gaze. Everything, clear. 

Talib joined her on the sofa while continuing on about how sound waves could change brain patterns. Alice rebutted every one of his theories. 

Again, their luncheon was missing three of its formal members. First, there was Roberto Gonzalez who was still investigating a case in Capricorn. Then there was Moraeni, still ensnared in the busiest department of Ophiuchus: the Licensing Department. Lastly, there was Flannery Caertas whom Jericho had recently discovered the reason behind her nickname “money bags.”

Flannery’s parents were from an old family in Libra with a lineage extending well before the Reservoir War. Her “great-to-infinity”— as she had put it—grandparents started one of the first conductor-manufacturing-slash-research companies in Signum. The business was passed down for generations and produced 2/3 of the conductors—generator and weaponized—currently in circulation. 

Flannery was in the process of inheriting the company herself and had taken a trip down to Capricorn to attend a diplomatic convention regarding the distribution of said conductors. But this was not of interest to Jericho—although the family company name was…. unique.

Pure Balance, it was called. 

Upon learning of Flannery’s ‘secret’ identity, Jericho had been bombarded left-and-right with questions from Olivier. The questions were filled with the prince’s indignation on how Jericho had not realized such a ‘high-up’ person could be in his presence.

“You’re a prince, kid,” Cadence had said in response to that. “Ain’t that even higher up?”

Werner had also shown interest in Flannery’s status. But Jericho suspected his intentions were not as academically-inclined as Olivier’s. 

“So,” Gabrielle drew after a yawn from where sat at her cornerstone desk, “how’s the new department treating you?”

Jericho took his usual position beside Ferris and set his stack of files onto the island table. Alice stared into him the entire time.

Alice had made her displeasure and disappointment regarding his choice to enter the ELPIS Investigations Department upon his acceptance known at every one of their sessions. Yet she still spoke with him ‘pleasantly.’ She would move on from the unpleasanttopic after voicing her disapproval of it and would address other topics such as his journaling and his daily activities. 

This was just concern, Jericho had learned. It always had been.

“I have not been put on any cases,” he replied. “Paperwork. Deskwork. Only that.” He pointed to the paper stack. “A lot of that.”

“And…” Wtorek Elizabeta peered at him over Ferris and then eyed the files. “Are any of the files…”

“They mention attempts to find Gamma,” Jericho answered. “But they do not mention contact with him.” He paused, thinking. “It is supposed to be confidential.”

“Keyword is ‘supposed to be,’ right?” Gabrielle returned, leaning back in her seat. She closed her eyes and remained silent for a very long time before she tried, “And Leona?”

“Has not contacted me since accepting my application.”

“Well, she is chair of the ELPIS Investigation Department.” Gabrielle sighed. “It’d be weird if she kept tabs on you.”

“Well, I say we should all enjoy the reprieve from all of the cases we’ve been bombarded with since that ELPIS incident, partner,” Talib interjected, arms crossed behind his head. “That way we can focus on what’s truly important. That nefarious radio—”

“Actually…” Ferris nibbled on her sandwich again before she finally said, “I hate to be the bearer of bad news but the Assignment Department is starting to see an influx of requests and cases. We’re handing out over three dozen assignments starting tomorrow.”

Talib lifted his hat to scratch his curly dark head. “This wouldn’t happen to be due to the diplomatic conductor convention going on in Capricorn, would it?” 

Gabrielle answered, “Sort of. A couple of agents from International Relations are already in the Capricornian capital overseeing it in light of what happened in the Zatmeniye Caverns in Aquarius two months ago.” She rolled her neck. “The main problem is that there’s a political organization that’s starting to make some noise in the capital because of that. Verbundene Augen—” 

“Connected Eyes,” Jericho translated to Common. He did not like that wordRather, that organization. Correction: Werner did not like it. 

She nodded. “It’s a party supporting demilitarization of Capricorn that formed after the Capricornian Watch was made known to the public. No ELPIS ties from what we’re aware of…”

Jericho nodded his head in confirmation.

“They’ve been around for a while, but they’ve become popular recently,” Gabrielle continued after offering Jericho a nod. “They’re planning a demonstration around the same time as the convention. The Capricornian government requested Ophiuchus to give ‘em a bit of a gander. So, here we are.”

“Haven’t been to Capricorn on a case in sometime…” Talib mused, rubbing his chin. “Well, Gabrielle, hopefully we’re assigned together. It gets quite lonely without someone there to appreciate my ideas.”

“I’m assuming, Talib—” Alice arched a brow. “—that you’re referring to how agents outside of ourselves tend to evaluate you in a negative light when you go on about your conspiracy theories?”

“Theories that will soon become fact!”

Jericho frowned. 

He… missed going out on cases with Talib. The feeling was similar to how he’d miss Werner when the man would lower synchronization to focus on his operations or how he’d miss Atienna when she did similarly to focus on diplomatic meetings. 

A knock on the door cut the conversation short. 

“I got it!” Ferris rose from her seat, rounded the table, opened the door. 

An agent wearing a cap that read DELIVERY SERVICE stood there holding a large wooden basket filled with festively wrapped boxes that were buried beneath a mound of envelopes. Letters. 

“Heard you all usually hang out together,” the man said, “so thought I might as well bring everything at once.”

“Oh!” Ferris brightened, taking the basket from him and beaming. “Thank you!”

The man tipped his hat and left down the hall. 

“Is it a mistake?” Jericho asked, staring. 

“No, silly.” Ferris laughed lightly as she walked over and set the basket on the island table. “People always send letters to peacekeepers after they complete cases. They come in such volume that the Communications Department usually sends them all in bulk semi-annually to save time.” 

Send letters?

“They’re ‘thank you’ letters,” Alice elaborated. “You started taking cases near the end of the last lettering season which is why you haven’t received any before now.” She leaned forward and selected an envelope from the basket. 

To Alice was written in swirling Common letters. 

Elizabeta silently pulled out a letter addressed to her and skimmed it without expression. After shooting her a sympathetic look, Ferris plucked a stack of envelopes from the basket, paced over to Jericho, and handed him half as she took a seat beside him. She flashed him a smile before digging through her own letters. 

Ferris had been very ‘friendly’ to him recently. Intuition told him she still felt bad about voicing her fear of him to Roberto. Unneeded. He had told her it was okay before. But he understood her. Almost. She did not want misunderstandings. She wanted to improve their relationship. Relatable. 

Jericho glanced left to see Alice already peeling open the envelope and scanning the letter inside. Jericho moved forward to do the same. Gingerly, carefully, he undid the first envelope which was cream-colored and hosted a stamp featuring a crab. 

There was a small piece of wrapped candy inside paired with a thin, folded letter. It read inked in black:

Dear Agent Jericho,

You probably don’t remember me, but I do remember you. I was the man who was manipulated into fighting you in Lepischau, Cancer. Thank you for your heroic actions on that day. I cannot put into words how terrible it feels to be manipulated. I feared the worst. I thought I would never see my family again. I thought I would be killed by the pursuers of the Manipulator. But you saw me. Saved me.

There are not enough words to express how grateful I am for your help. I will always remember you, Monsieur Jericho. 

I own a small but very renowned candy store within Lepischau that has been awarded numerous Cancerian golden stars. Within this envelope, I have sent you one of our finest confections made from the sugar trees of Virgo (Quite rare and since Virgo is just beginning to open its doors to trade. You will taste nothing like it!) and the milk of the finest Taurusian cow. We only make twenty of these a year. I hope you find it to your liking even though I know it will not be enough. Thank you again.

Sincerely, 

Leize Artigue

Jericho unwrapped the confection and popped it into his mouth. It melted like honey on his tongue. He knew Olive enjoyed the phantom taste, although he believed he himself enjoyed the letter more.

That’s lovely, Jericho, came Atienna. Since they had improved their control over synchronization levels within the past few weeks, she always hovered within a reachable distance. You should frame it. 

Yes. Jericho supposed he would. If it was customary. It was important too. It was his first.

He folded the letter gingerly and slipped it into his pocket before reaching for another one. The next envelope was dark blue and sealed with paraffin wax. A small card rested inside it with a singular sentence penned in blue ink.

I’ve got my eye on you! ❤

Beneath it was a cartoonish drawing of a pair of eyes. One was closed as if winking. The other was almond-shaped with three eyelashes protruding from its top. 

“Looks like you’ve got a secret admirer!” Talib crowed, leaning over the table to peer at the card. “Quite the swooner, you are!”

“Secret admirer?” Jericho stared. “Why would they keep it secret? They are hiding something. A threat.” 

“No, they just really like you, Jericho,” Ferris amended, carefully peeling open another envelope.

“I know.” Jericho stared down at the card and then back up at her. “It was a joke.” 

“Oh!” Ferris’s eyes widened for a second before her face lit up and her cheeks became a rosy pink. She chuckled squeakily, like a mouse. 

Cadence and Olivier had been providing him tutorials on humour. ‘Sarcastic’ and ‘dry’ were his favorite types from what they had shown him.

Ferris continued to chuckle, wiping a tear from her eye.

It was… pretty, Jericho thought. The shade of her cheeks. He wanted to sketch that color in his journal. Though—he realized now—he’d never used color in his drawings before. 

It’s a good time to start.

Yes, it was. 

A dull pain suddenly pricked the base of his right hand. When he studied the area, he found split leather and an open wound that ran across a pale, bleeding palm.

Werner?

He blinked.

The mirage disappeared. His dark skin remained unblemished and ungloved beneath the overhead lights. 

Yes. A minor injury on Werner’s end, it seemed. No problem—

But then Jericho felt nothing.

Absolutely nothing.

Not the rain drizzling down in the capital of Capricorn, not the cold moonlight spilling through the trees at the southern Argoan-Capricornian border, not the soot and salt of the Twin Cities, not the creaks of an old library, not a single buzz at the back of his mind. 

Silence.

Something was…

A clattering sound drew his attention away. Talib had tripped over the desk, sending all the letters he had been carrying fluttering into the air. They cascaded downward in a psychedelic, hypnotic, rainbow array, occasionally catching glow from the overhead v-lights. Like rain. Tumbling down. Like how Jericho had tumbled down those stairs all those months ago. 

Alice stared at him. “What’s wrong?” 

“Nothing,” Jericho replied.

The truth. 

Absolute silence. 

There was nothing. 

A falling letter landed at his feet. In curling dark blue letters, it read—

I will enter.

Pinpricks dotted Jericho’s vision as his knees suddenly gave way. He stumbled forward, lost his footing. His knees cracked against the floor first followed by his shoulder and then his head. 

Someone shouted in alarm. 

He did not feel pain. Not really. Just numbness along his head, neck, limbs. In other words, he could not move an inch. But. This sensation. It was the same. The same as how he’d felt when Omega had pushed him down the stairs of the Serpens Establishment before this all began. The only difference was that this time he was not alone. Faces ringed above him as his vision dimmed. 

He would not succumb to this, he knew. 

He clenched his fists tightly as the memory of lying in a pool of his own blood at the bottom of the steps of the Serpens Establishment seeped into his mind. 

Not until he’d reached the answer. Not until then. He had to hold on.

An unfortunate cut to black.

12.1: A Duet for a Prince & Peacekeeper

Re-cap:

Francis/Theta prepares to sink the Twin Cities in an explosive event.

Meanwhile, the Serpens Establishment of Ophiuchus also rumbles with change. Jericho, who has been thrown to Ophiuchus through one of Theta’s portals from the Twin Cities, now faces a dangerous enemy alongside Olive, who has just finished taking the written portion of his exam. 


Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

Jericho’s ears rang with the wail of sirens as he picked himself and his suitcase off the white tile floor.

It was an odd sensation. He knew where he had landed before he had even taken a survey of his surroundings. And that was because—

Jericho turned his head.

Olivier Chance stared back at him wide-eyed. Behind the Ariesian prince stood Sagittarian Prince Claire Yuseong, Trystan Carter, and the Sagittarian guard Felix. Jericho glanced backwards. Just behind him, two other peacekeepers were just beginning to right themselves. Gabrielle and Talib. They had been thrown to this location too through Theta’s portals, it seemed. And so had—

“Are you alright?”

Alice stood on the opposite side of the large portal that divided the hallway as she asked the question. Her voice barely carried above the wail of the sirens as her gaze swept from him to Olivier to Talib and Gabrielle. “Are you alright?” Her gaze pierced through him specifically.

She wants the truth. Not— “I’m uninjured.”

“I’m unsure,” Jericho replied after a moment’s hesitation.

Alice met his eyes and nodded. “Okay—”

“We’re fine, Alice. Go get reinforcements,” Gabrielle called above the sirens as she took in her surroundings. “Something isn’t right here. There aren’t any other agents around, and we’re right outside the Detention Center. Go. Now.”

Alice frowned, gaze lingering on Jericho and then Talib and Olivier, before she dipped her head and disappeared down the hall.

“Is that you, Olive…?” Gabrielle asked, finally noticing Olivier’s presence and then Claire’s. “And Prince Yuseong Haneul…” She reached over and shook Claire’s hand abruptly. “It’s good to see my home country getting along with Sagittarius. Though if you’re here for the State Conducting Exam, you’re in the wrong place…”

“Good to see you always focus on what’s important….” Olivier mumbled.

“Right…” Gabrielle rolled her neck and nodded to the portal. “Olive, Prince Yuseong, do you think you can make that jump? I would like to get you both as far from here as possible.”

Claire startled, glancing back at the portal before digging into his pocket and pulling out his conductor. “I can carry myself over with my conductor, but—”

Gunshots and a series of shouts resounded from down the hall in the direction of the detention center.

Jericho’s heart started racing. Correction: Olivier’s heart started racing.

The detention center. Olive’s fear bled through. Jin went down there. Izsak. I think… I’m not sure… I… the proto-conductor. I’m sorry…

It is okay, Olivier. 

Footsteps resounded down the hall and two figures came into view. A man and a woman. The man held the woman at gunpoint as he dragged her forward.

“Do not move, or I will shoot this woman.” The request barely carried over the call of the sirens.

Jericho stepped in front of Olivier. Trystan who was already in a protective stance in front of the prince gave Jericho an odd look. Jericho received the same look from Talib, but he wasn’t unused to receiving stares.

As the gun-wielding man and the hostage drew nearer, Jericho identified them. Wtorek Elizabeta, who appeared more concerned than afraid. And Wtorek Izsak, who was expressionless.

No. That wasn’t Wtorek Izsak. Cadence had heard Omicron confirm the fact days ago: Wtorek Izsak’s vitae had already left his body went the resistor was used on him. ‘Gamma’ had been initiated.

Jericho tightened his grip on his suitcase.

In other words, this Gamma had to die—

The image of the terribly conjured stuffed animal that was still resting on his bedside in his apartment abruptly flashed through Jericho’s mind. This was followed by a faded memory of Wtorek Izsak resting a hand on his head while conjuring a mountain of similarly ugly stuffed animals with a lackadaisical smile.

Jericho’s rage dampened abruptly, leaving him with an uncomfortable hollowness.

It didn’t matter who Izsak was before, Jericho thought. It wasn’t Izsak anymore.

“Move aside—” Gamma said as he pressed the gun to Elizabeta’s temple. He stopped short, however, as he registered Olive and Jericho. “True Conductors…”

“Trouble with the wife?” Gabrielle asked, smiling thinly, sweat dripping down her forehead.

Gamma didn’t respond.

How can she say that in this situation…?!

“Izsak, I’ve been hearing really weird things about ELPIS,” Gabrielle drew. “Things about ELPIS, the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis, and these things called resistors.” There was a pause. “How much of you is you?”

“Would my answer change anything?” Gamma asked.

Gabrielle’s expression darkened. “Yes, yes, it would.”

Elizabeta’s brows furrowed in confusion. She craned her neck towards Gamma and whispered, “Honey, please…”

False hope.

Before Gabrielle could continue, she was suddenly thrown to the left against the wall by an unseen force. Correction: by a surge of wind. Talib was at Gabrielle’s side in an instant, checking for damages.

The sound of footsteps resounded up the hall from the direction Izsak had come from and it was followed by a sigh: “Hey, I’m doing Omicron a big favor here by busting you out and ruining my stellar Ophiucian reputation, and you repay me here by running off without me?”

Still gripping Elizabeta tightly, Gamma turned his head. Jin Ilseong appeared behind him, bow conductor cocked.

“Aunt Jiji?” Claire stammered, wide-eyed.

“The saint candidate of Sagittarius,” Talib realized.

“Aw crap,” Jin blanched as she registered Claire. “What are you doing down this way? Oh, well…”

She pointed her bow conductor, aimed it at the center of their group, and jerked it backwards. Instead of a burst of air coming at them, however, the air around them stilled and became dotted with blue light.

Something was wrong.

Olivier suddenly gasped, scratching at his throat as he fell to his knees. Trystan was on the ground too, wheezing. Claire and Felix were topped beside them. Talib and Gabrielle were in the same state along the wall.

And then Jericho felt it. The air had thinned. His chest ached dully, while he felt Olive’s chest burn as if it were on fire.

Stumbling forward, Jericho clicked open his suitcase and dragged out his conductor. He gripped his weapon tightly as his vision blurred and doubled. With this level of concentration, he knew he wouldn’t be able to properly wield it. There was only one target possible.

But Jericho’s gaze was drawn not to Jin. Instead, it was drawn to the man standing behind Jin: Gamma, who had shoved Wtorek’s wife to the side and was now staring down at them with a look of righteousness.

Jericho tightened his grip, bit the inside of his cheek unknowingly until he drew blood. Olive wheezed beside him.

There shouldn’t be hesitation, Jericho realized. The choice was clear.

Jericho whipped out his conductor sending a thin line of vitae hurtling forward. It missed its target but the effect was the same. Jin’s conductor shattered in her hand, and the blue flecks of light dotting the area dispersed.

“My conductor!” Jin yelped. “That was expensive, you jerk!”

Gasps filled the air as everyone who had been subjected to the vacuum took in a deep breath.

Jericho rubbed his throat and coughed lightly, turning to Olive who was being helped to his feet by Trystan. Trystan himself was staring at Jericho’s conductor wide-eyed. However, Claire and Felix paid him no mind as they guided each other to their feet and neither did Gabrielle nor Talib as they righted themselves. Instead of addressing him, however, the wheezing Trystan whipped out his bow conductor and fired an arrow of flame vitae straight at Gamma who had aimed his gun at them. Jin darted forward and lifted a hand in alarm to block it. A crunch resounded as the arrow wedged itself right below her middle finger. Jin swore and cradled her hand as she ripped out the arrow. But it was too late. The fire spread, igniting her entire hand in a wreath of pale rose flame.

Jin screeched as she cradled her hand. “That. Is. It!”

A burst of blue-flecked wind whirled through the hall, causing the flames to die away and leaving her hand smoking.

Trystan stared. “How—”

Don’t tell me—

Jin aimed a mock gun at Trystan and winked. “Bang!”

Out from Jin’s mock pistol came a burst of glowing air. The invisible arrow hurtled forward, striking Trystan right through the shoulder and sending him flying backwards over the portal. He hit the ground on the opposite side, rolling to a stop after a couple of meters.

Worry and panic seized Jericho’s chest.

“Trystan!” Olive shouted.

Trystan grimaced as he cradled his bleeding shoulder and craned his neck towards them. “Y-Your highness, I’m fine—watch out!”

Jericho whipped around just in time to see Jin aim another mock gun at them.

“Bang!”

Jericho launched himself at Olivier and curled around him just as a gust of wind took them backwards and into the portal.

***

Olive’s ears rang as his eyes adjusted to the light. It took him a moment to realize that Jericho was draped over him. Their gazes met.

“Are you okay?” Jericho asked as if everything that had just happened was a walk in the park. He cocked his head. “It’s not a walk in the park. It’s dangerous.”

Jericho unfurled from him and rose to a stand to assess his surroundings. Olive did the same, albeit more hesitantly.

The atmosphere was warmer now, Olive realized, and everything was brighter. And colorful. Particles of light floated through the air fluorescently, casting everything in a multicolored, psychedelic glow. This light originated from below the raised bridge that they were now on top of. Vitae reservoirs. Thirteen of them.

It was the tourist attraction site within Ophiuchus that Jericho had taken them to before ELPIS attacked the detention center.

But… where were the tourists? It was empty.

It was shut down before I left. To do a double-check and clean down any of Theta’s portals. 

Well, they obviously hadn’t scrubbed it down well enough.

A duet of groans arose from just beside Olive. Talib and Claire, who were just beginning to pick themselves off of the ground. Talib rose first and offered Claire a hand. The Sagittarian accepted the gesture dazedly.

“It seems like we’ve been tossed to the Prognoikos Aurora Reservoirs,” Talib assessed.

Olive nodded at Claire. “You… okay?”

Claire was pale, dazed, quiet, unlike himself. His conductor was loosely gripped in his hand. “I…” His gaze flicked to and then past Olive.

Olive turned his head.

Theta’s portal was open just a couple of feet away from them at a hidden strip just in front of the railing on the left side of the bridge. In front of that portal stood Jin and Gamma.

It was just the six of them here, Olive realized. Gabrielle, Trystan, and Felix must have either been thrown to a different location if they entered the portal or they were still within the Serpens Establishment.

“I don’t have my suitcase,” Jericho whispered to both Olive and Talib.

“You don’t have your conductor,” Olive realized.

“Okay, okay,” Jin grumbled, brushing off her uniform and fixing her hair. She slid her hands into her pockets and nodded at them. “Let’s just go our separate ways now, alright?” She thumbed Gamma. “I’m just here for him. Not ya’ll. So let’s not create some dramatic fight about this, okay? I’m tired. My head hurts. My reputation is ruined.”

“I will not leave until those True Conductors have been put down,” Gamma said, gripping his handgun tightly. He glanced to the side at the light rising up the bridge from the vitae reservoirs below. “And this reservoir—”

“You’re the one who’s going to be put down.” Jericho glowered.

Olive blanched. Was it really the best idea to make threats without a weapon?

I need to let him know, Olivier.

Okay then.

“Yeesh. Why are you two so violent?” Jin sighed before nodding back at Gamma. “Omicron and your gang are waiting for you to tell them what’s what with the syzygy and everything, you know that?” She twirled a finger around her temple. “They’re missing some marbles. Your records aren’t so great.”

Gamma frowned. “You didn’t tell them?”

“I’m already doing enough for you, aren’t I?”

Gamma didn’t respond and instead lock eyes with Olive.

Olive’s hand subconsciously went to his throat as he felt the ghost of Wtorek’s—no, Gamma’s hand—hand wrap around it. The memory of the intent to kill in that man’s eyes in New Ram City all those months ago still haunted Olive’s nightmares. It was the same here. A nightmare bleeding into reality.

“There is no point in me being here if I don’t deal with this,” Gamma responded, lifting his gun.

Jin shrugged. “Well, you heard the man. He won’t go away until I put you down so it can’t be helped.” She took a step forward.

Olive’s heart raced, chest still achingly raw from Maria’s loss of Conta. He glanced at Jericho as cold sweat broke down his back before he pulled the peacekeeper behind him and extended his hand. With a grimace, he drew a line of flame vitae between his group and the two outsiders.

“I’ll burn you to a crisp,” Olive said, managing to keep the shake out of his voice, “if you take another step forward.”

“I heard rumors but….” Talib murmured from behind him. “You really can conduct without a conductor…”

Olive stiffened and looked back at Talib to find the man studying him perplexed. Before any words could be exchanged, however, a cold gust of wind speckled with blue blasted through the area. The torrent extinguished Olive’s drawn line and knocked him clear off of his feet. Jericho caught him by the scruff of his shirt and righted him.

“Wow, you’ve sure improved a lot in that short amount of time, kiddo.” Jin whistled, as she waved off the smoke in the air. “But air still beats fire. Like paper beats rock.” With that, Jin flicked out her hand and then curled it into a fist.

Unlike before, the vacuum formed in an instant. Olive fell forward as his vision blurred Talib and Claire were already collapsed on the ground. The Sagittarian prince was still conscious, however, reaching for his conductor which had fallen from his hands.

Jericho…

Jericho stumbled towards Jin but eventually he too fell to his knees. Still, he crawled forward relentlessly as Olive’s vision faded to black—

—and then brightness cracked across Olive’s vision. As he tried to get his bearings, Olive came to realize that he was somehow now only inches away from Jin who was looking down at him with an arched brow. No. He was seeing through Jericho’s eyes. Relentless Jericho.

“Geeze, Glasses, you’re desperate, aren’t you?” Jin sighed.

Fire needs oxygen to spread. And if Jin’s removing the oxygen via vitae particles from the air, then she has to be shifting the oxygen atoms somewhere else, Jericho. Somewhere else being right—

Olive urged Jericho to extend his fingertips further and further until Olive was able to feel the slight change in the air pattern surrounding the woman through Jericho’s fingertips.

—here. 

Just before the white sparks erupted from Jericho’s hands, a flicker of black appeared out of the corner of Olive’s—rather, Jericho’s— eyes. Olive knew who it was immediately. Lavi. She gazed through Jericho at him with a sharp expression that Olive had never seen on her face before.

“Don’t hold back,” she said. “Not with them.”

With an audible roar, the white flames burst forward in aninstant, consuming Jin in a white aura of fire. Gamma and Jericho were thrown backwards in opposite directions by the explosion.

Through Jericho’s eyes, Olive was able to see Claire gasp, grab his conductor, and whip it through the air. Flecks of sky-blue light shot out from his conductor followed by a gust of wind.

Olive’s eyes fluttered open. His senses returned to him as he took a deep breath, gasping, heaving. Air had never tasted so good. But as thankful as Olive was for the additional oxygen Claire had brought in, the gift came with an acrid, all too familiar scent. Burning flesh. At the smell, he gagged and retched before screeching and wailing reached his ears above the crackle of flame. Olive turned in slow horror towards the sound. The silhouette of a human enveloped in a crown of white flame stumbled back and forth along the bridge in agony.

“A-Aunt Jiji…”

Claire was wide-eyed, unmoving beside Olive.

And then Olive’s horror settled in—the horror at Jin’s immolation, the horror at the realization that he had meant to do this to Jin. It wasn’t like how it was with Gamma back in New Ram City. Not like how it was with the Sagittarian assassins weeks ago. This time, to protect the others, to not die, to continue on, he had been intending wholeheartedly to… kill?

Tears burning at his eyes, Olive bent over and gagged again as revulsion seized his entire body. But before he could fully empty his stomach contents, an agonizing anger crumpled his chest. His gaze was torn from Jin and towards Jericho who had picked himself off the ground only a second after the fiery explosion, who had run past the immolated Jin, who had launched himself at Gamma without hesitation. Now on top of the man, Jericho wrapped fingers around his throat.

Olive could feel Jericho’s hands tightening around Gamma’s neck, could feel the other man struggle fruitlessly beneath Jericho’s grasp, could feel life leaving the man’s body.

But what if Izsak is still

Jericho hesitated but only for one moment before he squeezed and squeezed and—

No. False hope. False hope.

—was tossed backwards by an abrupt torrent of wind.

“That really, really frickin’ hurt, kiddo.”

Olive’s gaze flicked to the one who had spoken and nearly fainted at the sight of her. It was Jin, no longer surrounded by white flames and instead cloaked in gray smoke. Her suit was badly tattered and singed at the edges, but despite that, her Ophiuchian armband shone brightly. And she looked unscathed. Unharmed. Just covered by a thin layer of soot and ash.

How…? Olive couldn’t comprehend it. Had she driven the oxygen away with her vitae particles? But he had seen her ignite in flame. What in the world—

“…But I see that you’ve got someone you’re connected to in our ranks,” Jin noted. “That changes things up.” She glanced at Claire then at Olive then at Jericho. She threw a look back at Gamma who didn’t look at all surprised by her lack of injury and then at Talib. “Let’s clear the stage of the non-essentials, shall we?”

And with that, Jin threw out her arms outwards towards opposite sides of the bridge. A gust of twin winds kicked up, one throwing Gamma straight into the portal and the other tossing Talib right off the bridge.

Jericho hesitated for less than a second, before he launched himself not towards the portal that Gamma had disappeared into but towards the railings after Talib. He managed to reach the rails just as Talib tumbled past him. Missed by a hairsbreadth.

“Claire!” Olive shouted in panic.

Claire snapped out of his stupor, twirled his conductor, and took off from the bridge in a blast of wind. He hurtled downwards after Talib, disappearing with a boom that shook the bridge.

Jericho stiffened and whipped his attention back to the portal—the portal that had dimmed away back into a black stain. Olive felt the rage in Jericho’s chest dissipate instantly. But the emptiness that the feeling left behind was almost as unbearable.

But they had to focus.

A click-clacking suddenly echoed from behind Olive. Upon turning his head, he found a newcomer coming up the bridge slowly. A woman. She was flanked on her left and right by a peacekeeper. The light from the reservoirs cast her golden hair in an odd light.

Leona.

It was the first time Olive had seen her up close himself, and something about her gave him unease.

Wasn’t she back in the Twin Cities? Had she fallen into one of the portals? Even if she did fall into one leading to the Serpens Establishment, why did she come here?

His gaze flicked to the two peacekeepers behind her.

And that wasn’t even close to enough people to handle Jin, was it?

Jericho was at his side immediately, expressionless.

“Are you two alright?” Leona asked as she fell into step beside them. She was calm. Unnervingly calm.

Olive tensed, nodded.

“How are you here?” Jericho. Direct as ever.

“I fell through one of Theta’s gates,” Leona explained, “and landed in the Serpens Establishment. With the sirens blaring, I suspected that Gamma was being freed. And if he was free, I assumed I would have to keep an eye on our reservoir. It seems as if I’ve made the correct choice.”

… How had she known Gamma’s name?

“My partner. Talib,” Jericho said. “He—”

“I saw,” Leona replied calmly. “Believe me when I say he will be fine. The Sagittarian prince—”

“Come on, Leo.” Jin sighed from across the bridge. “You’re always butting in where you don’t need to butt in.”

“You’re an embarrassment, Jin,” Leona replied, meeting the woman’s gaze. “Why are you doing this?”

So Jin hadn’t been lying. They did know each other. Closely.

“I just felt like it.” Jin shrugged. “Was bored. Felt like fighting for the losing side for once. A change of direction. Don’t you ever feel bored with winning?”

“And Gamma?”

“Gone with the wind.” Jin thumbed the black stain.

Leona looked her over. “And are you still to pursue this route, Saint of Arrow and Direction?”

Jin cracked a grin. “Of course, Leo. I mean—since we’re being formal now—of course, ‘Saint of Victory’.”

Leona motioned for one of the peacekeepers behind her with an index finger. The peacekeeper shuffled forward, placing a belt in Leona’s waiting hand. The belt was equipped with a number of bladeless hilts, several handguns lined with glass tubes, and other miscellaneous weapons. Conductors. She calmly clipped the accessory around her waist.

Leona nodded at Jericho. “Jericho, please escort the Ariesian prince back to the Serpens Establishment.”

Jericho stared.

Claire’s got Talib. I’m sure of it.

Jericho continued to stare. “You… will face Jin alone?”

“Of course,” Leona replied. “As I said earlier, the traitor who allowed all of this to come into fruition is not your concern. It is mine—”

Olive suddenly felt the hair on the back of Jericho’s neck rise. Jericho whipped around just in time to see Jin cock a mock gun in their direction.

“Bang!”

Leona pushed the both of them backwards, drawing out a bladeless hilt and igniting it in a flash of gold. She did a strange twisting movement with her wrist and dispelled the invisible arrow of air with a flourish.

Jin changed course and curled her hand into a fist. The air thinned again, and Olive’s vision blurred. However, in one swift movement that was barely perceptible to Olive’s eye, Leona plucked a bladeless hilt from her belt, ignited it, and threw it at Jin. The screech it made as it tore through the air was unsaintly, and it hit Jin’s shoulder right on target. The woman yelped, and the air instantaneously became breathable again.

“Dammit!” Jin snapped, before ripping the conductor from her shoulder and tossing it to the ground. She frowned, taking a step backwards. “I forgot how good you were when it comes to close quarters…”

Jin flicked her wrist, and the feel of the air changed. Olive braced himself gawked when Jin suddenly shot up to the sky leaving glowing flecks of blue light in her wake.

Leona reached into her belt again and drew out another bladeless conductor. Instead of throwing it, however, she swung it upwards. Out from its tip unfurled a gold whip that flew out and wrapped itself around Jin’s ankle. Giving the whip a sharp tug, Leona slammed Jin back onto the ground. The Sagittarian groaned as the bridge trembled.

Leona glanced back at them. “Agent Jericho, I told you to escort the prince away.” Her eyes were ringed with an intense golden light.

Without thinking, Olive stumbled back, grabbed a hold of Jericho’s hand, and pulled him backwards. And then he began to run, leaving behind Leona and her two apparently non-combative assistants, leaving behind Jin, leaving behind the reservoirs. He pounded up the bridge dragging Jericho along behind him. He had no idea if he was heading in the right direction. He just knew he had to get himself and Jericho away. Just like he had dragged Werner away from that battlefield. Pathetic. But sometimes running away was the best route.

A sudden and loud sonic boom resounded in the air followed by a loud clang. Olive glanced left just in time to see a wrestling Leona and Jin crash down from the sky onto a bridge running parallel to them. Jin untangled herself from Leona and shot up to the sky again; but the other woman leaped onto the railings of the bridge, ran along its length, launched herself up at Jin, and wrapped her arms around Jin’s legs. They fumbled there for a moment before Jin flew higher and higher until they disappeared into the clouds.

What in saint’s name…

This was ridiculous. Were they even human?

Abruptly, Jericho stopped running behind him.

Olive stopped too and turned. He knew what Jericho was thinking of. Gamma and the portal.

They have been right in front of me, Olivier. This entire time. This is the closest I’ve gotten. To them. And my purpose is to eliminate false hope. Destroy them. But I let them go. Not just here with Gamma. With Theta. With Omicron. Only Omega. It’s not enough.

Jericho stared into Olive, causing Olive’s heart to skip a beat. The man’s eyes were intense. Almost scary.

Is it this connection? Am I forgetting? A pause. I would rather become nothingness than for my anger to disappear. It’s my purpose. 

The memory of Theta’s words— “You’re already close to becoming nothingness”— to Jericho resounded within Olive’s mind.

I can’t fail. I am going to eventually become nothingness. That is fine. That is natural whether what ELPIS has taught me is true or not. But only if I fulfill my purpose before then. I can’t fail.

Olive’s heart dropped to his stomach. Hearing Jericho think that was…

They killed your family. But you don’t feel hatred. 

Olive’s heart dropped even further at the statement, but he shook his head. Was this really the time to be thinking about this?

Jericho continued to stare at him.

Olive guessed it was.

Of course I’m angry, Jericho. At them. At myself. I obviously want them to go down and to be locked up for good. But for me, killing them won’t do anything. It’s stupid and meaningless. And it doesn’t get anyone anywhere. And I can’t live with the guilt of doing something like that. No matter who or what they are.

Frowning, Olive studied Jericho from the corner of his eye.

I can’t wrap my head around your revenge thing at all. I don’t agree with it… And I know my opinion doesn’t mean much. Doctor Kingsley probably knows better. But I don’t think it’s good for you. I mean, there’s literally a bunch of books saying things like ‘revenge is a cycle’… then again, I’m an idiot and naive so who cares what I think. 

Jericho blinked. I care. What you think.

Okay. Then I don’t think the ‘become nothingness’ spiel even means anything. Doesn’t matter whether the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis is true or not. Burning energy versus burning a soul.

An uneasiness took over Olive at the thought of it ringing true.

But that’s not the point.

He grabbed a hold of Jericho’s wrist, tugging him forward and continuing with him onwards down the bridge.

The point is that there’s still stuff after too—whether you decide to keep going with this revenge thing or go for a different route. 

Their footsteps echoed along the walkway, interspersing with the resounding booms of Leona and Jin’s battle in the distance.

If being a part of this has taught me anything, it’s that there’s always stuff after. 

Olive let out a sigh of relief as the edge of the bridge neared their sights. Just beyond that was a pathway leading to an empty train station.

Not ‘nothingness’.

Jericho’s eyes widened slightly.

Finally, they reached the threshold of the bridge.

Olive slumped and proceeded to collapse onto the ground panting. Jericho blinked down at him, not even remotely out of breath.

“That is an ‘interesting’ way of thinking.”

Olive grimaced back up at him. “When you do air quotes, it’s just insulting.”

I think I appreciate it.

Olive stiffened before grimacing.

A shadow suddenly passed over both of their heads causing them to tense. When Olive looked up to the sky, however, he let out a sigh.

It was Claire, slowly sinking towards them while riding his staff conductor. Balancing precariously on the staff beside him was Talib who had one arm slung over the Sagittarian’s shoulder. Olive felt Jericho’s chest lighten immediately. Although Jericho didn’t fully comprehend the feeling, Olive did. It was relief, filling in the emptiness inside of Jericho.

“Partner, it’s good to see you in one piece!” Talib exclaimed as he hopped off of the staff with Claire’s assistance.

“I am glad you’re okay,” Jericho responded.

Olive winced. Jericho was still so awkward.

Jericho blinked down at him.

Olive winced again before he stiffened and turned to Claire “Leona and Jin—”

“Yeah… We saw both of them while we were flying over here,” Claire muttered. His expression was grim, pale, but still he offered Olive his hand and helped him up to his feet. “Seems like you were right then.”

Olive opened his mouth, unsure of what to exactly say, but then another boom resounded and he allowed the silence to continue.

Talib broke the quiet, peering at Jericho hopefully. “And… Izsak?”

“Gone,” Jericho replied curtly. “Through Theta’s portal.”

Talib’s expression fell.

A click-clacking suddenly echoed from behind them. It was Leona, drifting down the bridge towards them. She was sweating and panting lightly, but she appeared unharmed. She assessed them silently as she came to a stop in front of them before she paused and assessed Talib. “Are you all alright?”

Olive nodded as did Claire. Talib inclined his head. Jericho remained impassive.

“Good.” Leona extended her hand. “Talib, Jericho, I would like any of the suppression cuffs you still have on you.”

Without hesitation, Talib unhooked both of his from his belt and handed it to her. Jericho stared at Talib before following suit. Leona clipped the items to her own belt before turning on her heels and starting down the bridge again.

“Did… Did you…?” Claire called after her.

“I will take Ilseong Jin into custody where she will face trial for collusion with ELPIS,” Leona answered curtly, disappearing from their sights and leaving the click-clack of her heels echoing in her wake.

Olive glanced at Claire who was whiter than a ghost and winced. He opened his mouth and then closed it, still unsure of what to say. It was easy to convey his feelings to the others he was connected to, but with those outside of their group, it was still…

That didn’t go as planned, Jericho thought.

Olive turned to Jericho and sighed with a grumble. It never does.

Would it be customary to… hug now?

Olive hesitated, considering. No.

10.[]-1: A Brother’s Greed (Carità)

Re-cap: Allen Foxman has been captured by ELPIS alongside Carl Foxman and Fortuna Romano. They discover that Caporegime of the Romano Family Agape Rosario and several other lower-tier executives have also been captured alongside them. A man who calls himself Theta and wears Francis Foxman’s face is among ELPIS’s leaders. And although Cadence has made her escape from the exitless room, Allen and the others remain in ELPIS’s clutches. The truth of ELPIS is just around the corner.  


(             )

The Foxman Family had its founding roots in an insignificant town in Aries. A place not even worth naming. Better to bury it. Because at the time it hadn’t been so much of a ‘Family’ as it was a ‘family.’ Frankly, in Allen’s opinion, it hadn’t been much of a family either.

The Reservoir War broke across the country a week after Allen’s birth. As his father liked to put it later, Allen’s birth was the “catalyst for misfortune.” Even now Allen wasn’t sure if the man had been referring to the war or the forced marriage that came following his conception. Probably both.

Allen hated his father to his very core. When he was young, Allen couldn’t really wrap his head around the feeling. As he grew older, he couldn’t wrap his head around why he’d feel something towards someone who was his father. Realization eclipsed at adolescence:

His father was a bastard with a hair-trigger temper. Whenever the man would return from the battlefront on leave, the first thing he’d do was demand that his mother hand over the stipend that came with his mandatory service which he’d spend on booze while they were left hungry. Then he’d demand a warm meal and some “special time” alone with her leaving Allen to care for Carl by himself for many long nights.

Eventually, all of that ‘special time’ led to his mother’s third pregnancy.

At the time of Carl’s birth, Allen was too young to understand the economic ramifications that came with a new life being added to the mixture. At Francis’s birth, however, Allen understood that his mother wouldn’t be able to work in the factories anymore since she’d have to look after both Carl and Francis.

What a moron, Allen had thought as he worked the factories on an empty stomach in her stead. Just another mouth to feed.

But one night when Allen was peering in Francis’s crib, his brother reached out for him with his small, grubby hands. Absentmindedly, Allen had extended his index finger out in turn. And when Francis wrapped his tiny little hand around that finger, Allen knew he was screwed.

Allen began to worry as he neared drafting age. He wasn’t worried about dying in the war. He worried about the repercussions of his death. What would happen to his mother, what would happen to his brothers? What would they do if he wasn’t there to stand between them and his father?

It reached a boiling point when Allen returned from factory work one day to find his father home on leave and making his presence known. His father was making work of his favorite wooden chair, beating down on Carl who was covering Francis with his own body. His mother was cowering in the corner looking away and sobbing. Without hesitation, Allen had leaped in his father, wrestling the chair away from him only to be knocked to the ground and beaten with another wooden chair. Allen at the time hadn’t been thinking about his own pain. He’d been thinking of his brothers’ pain, thinking about how no one would step in for them when he was gone.

“You were an accident,” his father had grumbled when he had gotten in enough swings, “but your brothers were a damn mistake.”

And that was more than enough.

On that cool summer night, Allen had packed his brothers’ belongings in a small knapsack. He’d snuck into his parents’ room, collected the large wads of Ariesian bills out from where his father hid them beneath the floorboards, and placed a kiss on his sleeping mother’s cheeks. He ripped a newspaper article detailing how the Twin Cities of Gemini was becoming a booming economic center from the nightstand. Read it over. Picked Francis up, held Carl’s hand, and left that house without looking back.

It took them five v-trains and a lot of walking to reach the Twin Cities of Gemini. Once there, Allen rented a small place by the docks and informed his brothers that this was now home.

A couple days later Allen managed to snag a job as a laborer at the docks. It was cheap labor, but money was money. The boss liked him well enough and soon he shot up in the hierarchy. In between his working hours, he’d spend the time teaching Francis and Carl. School things. His brothers weren’t going to grow up dumb as bricks, that was for sure. Of course, despite all of Allen’s lessons, Carl still liked to solve things with his fists. Francis wasn’t as much of a lost cause. But neither used the textbooks to figure out how to bring more money to the table. Instead…

Sometimes Carl would beat the daily allowance out of the rich kids who would swagger through the streets pretending to be street rats. Other times, Francis would come home with pockets full of miscellaneous items like pocket watches, gold jewelry, and earrings. Allen never questioned either of them. Money was money.

One day Francis brought home an expensive-looking deck of cards. He’d said it was a gift from a friend and taught Allen and Carl a game he’d learned from that friend. So, they started playing card games to pass the time. Even started talking about future job prospects. Opening up a shop of their own. Maybe a bar. Allen knew the dreams were childish, but his brothers’ eyes were full of that stupid naivety so he fed into the delusions. A couple of days later, Francis brought home the regaled friend.

“She’s from Aries,” Francis had said. “Like us.”

The orange-haired little girl with the freckled cheeks introduced herself as Cadence Morello and happily helped herself to their pot roast dinner.

Another mouth to feed.

But Cadence contributed more than enough to the household. She’d bring home pockets full of all kinds of knickknacks and sometimes even food. Allen never questioned her. Money was money.

Cadence later introduced them to a seventeen-year-old named Brussi.

Brussi ran a pickpocketing gang of similarly-aged boys and girls on the east side of the city and had recently taken up a morrowheat smuggling job for a larger gang in the area. He wanted to borrow the warehouse for a couple of days to store the product in exchange for money.

It was a risk, Allen had thought at the time. He could lose his job and get fired. But then Allen had thought of Francis’s worn-down shoes, had thought of Carl’s raggedy shirt, and had affirmed a simple fact. Money was money.

“How about I offer you something better?” Allen had asked, sealing his and his brothers’ fate—maybe, Cadence’s too. “Work for me, and you can use the warehouse any time you’d like. Pay you extra too.”

After some thinking, Brussi had accepted the deal, bringing his gang into Allen’s personal fold. Their ring of delinquents grew and soon they had absorbed the entirety of the Pollux Bay. It wasn’t that soon after that that they were approached by Ricardo Romano and Bendetto.

***

The night Francis was stabbed all three of them had been fighting over what to do with the Campanas. Francis had left to cool his head but instead got a knife to the gut.

Allen knew they had chosen this life, and this was one of the risks that was in the contract. Going into this business without expecting an outcome like that was stupid. Still, on that night, Allen had spent over a quarter of his secondary savings getting Francis treated and another quarter of it hunting down the elusive perpetrators.

Money was money, but family was family.

Francis had latter politely berated Allen for spending so much money on him after he had recovered. But Allen figured he hadn’t spent enough. Because… he knew something wasn’t right with Francis after the incident. And it wasn’t PTSD or trauma like the old doc said. It was something else. It had been just a feeling at first—that something was off. It was like one of those ‘spot the difference’ puzzles Nico like to play with Fortuna when they’d been younger. And Allen knew that money wouldn’t be able to resolve this issue.

***

And then Allen found himself captured by ELPIS and at the mercy of Francis who was playing the character Theta. Francis spouted nonsense about not being Francis, but Allen knew his brother well enough to know that wasn’t the case.

Not long after a disguised Cadence had left with the commissario’s group following their capture, the women called Omega and Iota also left. Omicron eventually left too, leaving ‘Theta’ alone with them.

Theta spent the most time out of all the ELPIS leaders within the exit-less room. But Theta didn’t do much except read when he was there. He was shockingly—almost laughably—lethargic. He would often sit in one place for hours without moving while flipping through books. Other times, he would drape himself half across the makeshift game table, prop a book up on its edge, and continue on reading that way. Once he’d even laid across the floor.

There were only two times that Theta would show a hint of energy. The first was whenever the brats from Matilda’s gang would come. The second would be whenever Omicron would stop by.

Omicron would always bring gifts when she visited. Mostly books and food—although Francis had never been a bookworm nor a foodie. They were expensive gifts. Books hand-bound in leather with embossed pages, sometimes studded with gems. Delicacies straight out of a Cancerian five-star restaurant. Patisseries and gold-dusted dishes, all served on silver platters.

Theta accepted all the gifts graciously and spent Omicron’s visits dining with her at the board game table. They’d whisper to each other quietly, but not quietly enough for Allen not to overhear.

“You’re a ridiculous person,” Theta’d say.

“I haven’t seen you in such a long time. If I didn’t do this, then I’d be ridiculous,” Omicron would reply.

Omicron was ‘generous’ enough to offer them the food she’d brought along. But she didn’t have the decency to untie them so that they could feed themselves.

The peacekeeper—Alice or something—would refuse every single meal Omicron brought.

“It’s most likely that their way of using conductors is through vitae particles in the blood,” Alice informed them coolly. “It’s unorthodox, but if that is the case then consuming that—well—I’m sure you’re able to picture the consequences of that. You’ve seen it with that Amaril person.”

That was disgusting. But given what had happened to Amaril, Allen figured the other executives and himself had already been screwed over by it much earlier, so he helped himself to the meals. It was free.

Overhearing Alice, Theta had said, “You really are clever. I did do that to the other executives, but I assure you that this food is perfectly uncontaminated.”

Casual conversation was rare with Theta. Most of the time, he’d only ask about the locations of their other warehouses. During the questionings, he would send the interrogated’s limbs, fingers, and sometimes even their heads through one of his flashy portals. Allen had no idea where those things went, but whenever one of the interrogated would have their head put through one of them, they’d start running their mouth immediately upon their return.

Allen, Carl, Fortuna, and Agape had yet to be subjected to the torture. Allen supposed that just meant that Theta really wasn’t suited for ELPIS.

***

One day a girl from Matilda’s gang whom Allen vaguely recognized stumbled into the room from the light-doors in a flurried panic. She was very small with a clean face and hair that was carefully combed. She certainly didn’t look like she wandered the streets. ELPIS must’ve been taking very good care of her, Allen figured.

Theta was the only ELPIS leader present at the time and had set his book down as the girl rushed to him. The girl was cradling something in her hands and held it to him with hopeful eyes.

“C-Can you help him?” she stammered, voice wavering.

“What happened?” Theta asked, sinking down and inspecting what was in her hand.

“Some of the boys on the street were throwing rocks at him, and he got hit.” The girl peered into his face. “Can you help him?”

Theta silently held out his gloved hands, and the girl placed what was in hers into his. It was light, small, round, feathery. A bird.

“He’s already gone,” Theta concluded without hesitation.

The girl’s face crumbled and tears began to form. “No… oh no…”

He’d certainly gotten rusty with his people skills, Allen thought.

“It’s nothing to be sad about,” Theta said, cupping his hands around the bird fully and concealing it from sight. “All that has happened is that this part for him has ended. His vitae will leave his body and rejoin the cycle of vitae.”

There was a soft tangerine glow in Theta’s cupped palm, and when he opened his hands, the bird was gone. Up from his open palms floated orange orbs of light. Fireflies.

“That’s the ultimate fate for everything that contains, vitae,” Theta continued, the light from the insects casting warm light onto his face. “Nothing ever ends. Not really. It just becomes a part of something else.”

“So, maybe,” the girl sniffled, “in one cycle… parts of you and parts of me will be together…?”

Theta’s smile dropped slightly. “Not everything returns to the cycle, Lia… Some things are spliced out from the cycle and can never return. Once these things leave, their only fate is nothingness.”

“N-Nothingness?”

“Do you want to become nothingness, Lia? To disappear forever when you die?”

Lia shook her head.

Theta smiled thinly and placed his hands on the girl’s cheeks. “Good. Then you shouldn’t listen when the others ask if you want to join ELPIS. Whatever color is inside of you is what makes you you, Lia. A very beautiful color. You will make whatever you become a part of very beautiful. You will paint your existence into everything.”

Lia raised a hand and clutched Theta’s. “And you and Omicron?”

Theta pulled away his hand. “The moment you choose to become ELPIS, you become nothingness. The moment your vitae becomes white is the moment you can never go back. When you die, there will be nothing of you left. Do you want that?”

Lia shook her head vigorously.

Theta reached up to wipe the remnants of tears from her eyes. “Good girl. Now, go back to the library and read those books I told you about.”

The girl nodded again, catching one of the fireflies in hand before she left the room through a glowing doorway. Theta stared at the wall after she disappeared, the fireflies still floating around his head.

“How are you able to get people to join your ranks?” Alice asked suddenly. “Since you’re so adamant about nothaving people join your ranks.”

Theta slowly turned, drifted over to the woman, stared down at her. “How are you able to recruit people to join your peacekeeping organization…? How are you able to call yourself a peacekeeper…? Do you think you’re keeping the peace? You ask me all of these questions without questioning yourself.”

“You must really think lowly of us peacekeeping agents,” Alice returned, “if you think we don’t question our purpose and effectiveness.”

“It’s only natural…” Theta replied after a beat. “Someone who wasn’t born in a time of peace wouldn’t have the knowledge to implement a time of peace. You can use references, but if you’ve never experienced it, it’s still impossible. It was convoluted from the very start.”

Rather than lethargic, Allen realized as he listened to Theta continue on and on, it was more like he was gloomy.

“… So you truly operate solely based off of the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis,” Alice drew.

Allen had no clue what that meant. Didn’t look like Carl—unsurprisingly—Fortuna, Agape, or any of the other executives had any idea either.

“‘Hypothesis’ implies that it has yet to be proved,” Theta replied. “This is no hypothesis. It is law.”

“Laws are things that have rigorous research behind them proving that they’re true without a reasonable doubt,” Alice said coolly. “From my knowledge, that isn’t the case with the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis.”

Theta stared at her. “Is it customary for a peacekeeper to be this stubborn?”

“I just want to understand,” Alice amended. “Your hate for conductors, your actions, your leaders, your wayward recruitment strategies—what exactly is your goal?”

Theta considered her question with a hand on the chin. “…While our goals may be lost in translation as more people join our ranks, our end goal is to prevent the syzygy.” He seemed to be talking more to himself than to anyone else. “And because of that those disgusting generator conductors and vitae reservoirs need to be destroyed… and those True Conductors….”

“The syzygy?” Alice pressed. “What is that? A religious event in your belief system?”

Theta chuckled, sounding hollow. “If we were to speak in such terms, I would call it an apocalyptic event.”

***

Allen first witnessed how ELPIS solved their internal arguments and issues when the commissario and Iota started yapping about what to do with their underling in the Campana family. They shouted at each other for about fifteen minutes before settling in front of the game board and playing in silence. At the end of it, the commissario won and a scowling Iota agreed to his choice.

Allen personally found it ridiculous to solve problems with a board game. It made no sense. You could be cheated out by your opponent just like that. But ELPIS didn’t seem to fill their ranks with cheaters. Surprisingly, every person who played the game seemed to play fairly and honestly, regardless of how long the game took. Even Theta played by the rules which was a unique sight to see.

***

“I’ll tell you where our warehouses are. The ones the other executives don’t know,” Fortuna said one day. “On a set of conditions.”

Omega and Theta were the only two ELPIS leaders present when she said this and both turned away from their board game in mutual surprise.

While Agape sent Fortuna a whisper of protest, Allen kept his mouth shut.

“I said you knew what your position was before,” Theta said, turning back to the game and moving a playing piece, “but if you’re saying those things, perhaps my initial assessment was incorrect—”

“A game. The game you’re playing right now,” Fortuna interjected. “For every game you win, I’ll answer exactly one question. It could be a question about one warehouse. It could be a question about one of anything.” She lifted her chin. “But for every game I win, you have to answer one question for me.”

Agape now looked like she was about to keel over. Carl looked baffled.

Omega chuckled airily, covering her hand with her mouth. “Are you sure about that? Only Omicron has ever won while playing a game against Theta, and she’s only won about two percent of their matches.”

Fortuna lifted her chin. “Those odds seem fine to me.”

Theta gave a hum. “Okay. It would be more reasonable to gain information this way instead of through torture. More civilized.”

“But I’d like to move the table in front of them,” Fortuna continued, nodding her head up and down the row.

This gave Theta pause. “Why?”

“Cheating,” Fortuna stated.

“Cheating?”

“If you’re cheating then my associates will be able to catch you,” Fortuna said evenly. “I’m already at a disadvantage since I’ve never played before, and I don’t want to increase my disadvantages.”

“And if you cheat?”

“Then maybe I’d even the playing field.”

A chuckle, musical. “That’s acceptable.”

Omega undid Fortuna’s bindings while Theta moved over the make-shift table, chairs, and game board. The books making up the make-shift table were mostly history books—there were multiple editions of Countries of Signum—and a handful of journals with faded and archaic dates listed on their spines.

Theta explained the rules of the game which was called ‘Itero Recino’ to Fortuna. Each side had twenty-six different pieces, and each piece could move a certain way. Eaten pieces were removed from the table. But if a player captured an opponent piece that was the same type of piece as one that the opponent had previously captured, the player received the opponent’s piece and the previously captured piece back. It seemed simple but convoluted at the same time.

As expected, Fortuna lost the first round. The first round itself lasted thirty minutes, and at the end of it Fortuna offered up information on one of the Romano Family’s higher-tier warehouses. A warehouse that even Allen had no knowledge of.

But instead of focusing on Fortuna’s losses, Allen focused on Theta’s motions. Every single person had ticks they weren’t aware of. Maybe they’d lick their lips when they did a particular action. Maybe they’d run their hands through their hair when nervous or look up when lying. In the end, a person’s habits were their downfall. And with a bit of observation and underhanded hand-signaling to Fortuna on their end, she could probably win at least one round.

Fortuna lost three more rounds before Theta suddenly excused himself and left the room in a flash of tangerine light. Omega hummed to herself as she re-tied Fortuna to her chair, while Agape and the other executives kept silent dread. The Romano Family had divulged the location of three high-tier conductor warehouses in a span of four hours, after all. Lots of money down the drain.

Theta returned some unknown hours later but didn’t engage in another game. He did the next time though, and Fortuna lost again. Game, read, game, read. He flipped between the two as if the results didn’t matter to him. Gradually, however, the length of the games became longer and longer until they started lasting over an hour.

One day Theta came back looking worse for wear. He stumbled in hair dripping with rainwater and was for once not dressed in his usual turtleneck sweater. Instead, he wore a familiar-looking suit. After drying himself off, he undid Fortuna’s bindings and they continued their game from the last time.

“What makes you think you’re so much better than us?” Fortuna asked suddenly as she ate one of his pieces. “You do terrible things, but you justify it by saying it’s ‘necessary’. People like us are the same way. We do things because we view what we do as ‘necessary’. Our intentions may be different but the results are the same.”

Theta stared at her. “You haven’t won a game yet but you’re asking questions.”

Fortuna tensed. Swallowed.

“But yes, that is certainly a valid point,” he said, returning his attention to the game board. “While you are domestic terrorists, we are international terrorists. That’s set in stone. I’ve read the articles about the things we as ELPIS have done in the past. The real question is whether or not the ends justify the means…”

He stopped short, stared up at the ceiling.

“The more I think about it, the more uncertain I become. The easiest answer would be to not think about it at all, but that would be irresponsible. Perhaps….” He mumbled something into his hand. “Yes, that’s not so bad. There’s hope in that. And hope is all that is needed. For them. Perhaps not in your viewpoint but in ours—rather, mine. But still that seems too easy…”

“What the hell is he talking about,” Carl whispered beside him.

A flash of light and an updraft of air cut Theta’s ramblings off short.

It was Omicron, entering the room with two large white pastry boxes in hand. She hadn’t come around these past several days, so Allen had assumed that she’d died in a ditch somewhere.

Theta turned back to look at her. After a moment, he asked, “What’s wrong?”

“We ran into that suitcase peacekeeper again,” Omicron said with a grimace. “I had to take Iota to Lambda.”

Alice’s eyes narrowed.

“That peacekeeper is dangerous,” Omicron muttered, “and Ophiuchus’s increased their agents here. Our gate in front of the Casa is completely blocked off. I also spent the last of your vitae in the proto-conductor….”

“I can refill it for you,” Theta replied offhandedly.

“Thanks—but I do have good news,” Omicron continued, falling into step beside him. She popped open one of white boxes revealing a collection of assorted pastries. She paused, blinked at Fortuna as if finally noticing her, and then stared down at the game board. “What’s going on?”

“Fortuna Romano challenged me to a match of Itero Recino in exchange for information,” Theta replied. “I felt a bit nostalgic so I agreed.”

“Oh… How many times have you won already?” Omicron inspected the board with mild interest.

“If I win this one, it will be ten,” Theta replied. “But she is a quick learner.”

Omicron’s gaze flicked to Allen and the rest of the executive line up before she frowned. She followed Carl’s gaze to Theta’s hand, and her frown deepened. Instead of addressing anything, however, she plucked a flaky pastry topped with glazed nuts from the box and held it out for him.

Allen tensed.

“Open,” she ordered. “While it’s still fresh.”

Theta sighed. “You’re a ridiculous person.” But he opened his mouth anyways, and she popped it in. He chewed a bit and gave a nod of approval. “It’s good.”

Allen felt the tension leave his body immediately. He shifted his gaze away from their intimacy—

“Darling, what’s wrong?!”

Allen snapped up and found Omicron kneeling on the ground beside Theta. Theta himself had a dazed look in his eyes, and his face was being consumed by red splotches. His breathing was hard, shallow.

It was all too familiar.

“I…” Theta’s face contorted. “I can’t breathe…”

“Saints, Allen….” Carl whispered from beside him. “He’s got a…”

A peanut allergy.

Theta clutched his chest and began to slide off of the chair towards Omicron. Omicron caught him in alarm and lowered him to the ground, while Fortuna shot up to a stand and took several steps back.

“C-Conductor,” Omicron stammered. “Use your conductor. We have to get you to Lambda.”

Theta didn’t respond. Merely grimaced.

Allen bit the inside of his mouth, tested the bindings Cadence had loosened for him, and without hesitation tore right out of them. He rubbed his wrists as he rose to a stand, ignoring Agapes’ gape and Fortuna’s stare, and went immediately over to Theta and Omicron’s side.

Omicron blinked up at him in a confused and panicked daze before realization flashed across her face. She raised a conductor-gloved hand warningly. Allen grabbed her wrist, and she shoved him away in response. He returned the gesture right back at her.

“Enough. It’s an allergic reaction,” Allen stated, keeping his voice even. “You want him to die or you want him to live?”

She stared back at him tense, glanced down at Theta whose breathing was getting shallower, and pulled her arms away with a nod. Allen reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a small case no bigger than his palm. He flipped it open, showed her the vial labeled epinephrine and the syringe within.

Allen had the doc and Nico teach him how to use this years ago after Francis had gotten his first allergy attack after Francis and Cadence had robbed a candy store and had inhaled their nut-filled rewards. After that incident, Allen had made Carl, Nico, and Cadence carry a case of medicine with them at all times, but once Francis had identified what his allergy was, he asked them to stop carrying it. Instead, he carried one himself. “It’s expensive,” Francis had said at the time while insisting that Allen stop carrying it too. But Allen figured that the hospital bill for Francis would be even larger if he didn’t have one of these on him all the time. And so, he’d been constantly keeping one of these on his person for all this time.

Allen stared down at Theta, studied his face, met his glazed eyes, reached a decision. He swiftly filled the syringe and carefully injected it into Theta’s thigh muscle. He sat back afterwards, pocketing everything carefully.

“Wait.” Omicron pulled the still shallowly breathing Theta onto her lap. “What now?”

“Well, usually we take him to the hospital or the doctors after so they can make sure everything’s fine.”

“I can’t,” Omicron said, eyes wide. “I don’t have a proto-conductor with Theta’s vitae. I need Theta’s vitae in it in order for it to work, and Theta’s in no condition to use a conductor. We’re stuck here until one of the others comes back.”

“Then we wait,” Allen replied calmly. “It takes a while for epi to get working. He’s still breathing and awake. Probably just anxious. There’s no point in panicking.”

“How can you be like that when he’s—”

“He’s what?”

Omicron’s eyes widened. She looked away from Allen and refocused on Theta. Hesitantly, she raised her hands to Theta’s face and began to whisper things to him in a language Allen had never heard of before.

She really was in love with him.

Damn.

A couple of minutes passed with them like that. Fortuna moved back to sit on her chair, while Allen remained seated where he was. Theta’s breathing gradually became even as the minutes ticked on, and some of the redness began to leave his face. He seemed to gain some of his alertness back because he lifted his gloveless hand to press against his eyes. A groan escaped from his mouth, and a grimace pressed his face as he lifted his hand away.

Relief broke across Omicron’s face immediately, and she reached for his cheek again. “Darling, I—” A hand on the wrist stopped her short.

A perplexed expression folded across Theta’s face as he gripped Omicron’s wrist and studied her. And then studied the left half of her face. His eyes widened, and he immediately pulled away from her, still gripping her wrist.

“What kind of joke is this?” he asked, tone even.

Omicron paled.

Allen studied Francis for a beat before he tried, “Francis?”

The man whipped to attention immediately, eyes widening in recognition, confusion, relief. “Allen? You’re…” He released Omicron and rose to a stand as his gaze swept to those behind him. “Carl… Fortuna… and Miss Rosario. You’re all… alive.” It looked like a weight had come off his shoulders.

Out of the corner of his eye, Allen could see Carl and Fortuna exchanging looks.

Still tense and keeping an eye on the frozen Omicron, Allen stood up and jerked his head towards his youngest brother. Francis arched a brow in turn and cautiously walked over to him, scanning the room with terribly masked confusion. The bindings, the board game, the books, the lack of windows and doors—Allen knew that Francis was taking it all in and trying to make heads-or-tails of it.

“What is this?” Francis asked. “Where is this? What’s going on? Are you—”

Allen gripped Francis’s shoulders tightly, stopping him short. “Francis.”

Francis arched a brow. “Yeah, Allen, what’s—”

“Francis,” Carl snapped, drawing Francis’s attention. “You’re Francis?”

Francis stared at him. “Who else would I be?” He paused, startled. “Carl, you look like you’ve been hit by a v-ehicle. What the hell happened?”

Carl’s face lit up instantly. “I knew it! I knew you weren’t some look-alike, and I knew you weren’t really with ELPIS. It’s that damn Omicron. That Manipulator!”

“… Manipulator? ELPIS….?” Francis glanced at Allen.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Agape muttered. “So you’re not Theta?”

“Theta?”

“We’re being held by the real deal ELPIS,” Allen said plainly.

Francis tensed, frowned, the relief in his face dissipating in an instant. “What…?”

“I’m sorry, Francis, but I can’t let this go any further,” Omicron interjected, rising to a stand with a somber expression. She lifted her hand and—

—and realized that her hand was no longer gloved with a conductor. Something Allen had noticed much, much earlier. Before she could understand what had occurred, Carl burst out from his bindings that Allen had figured had probably been loosened a minute before Omicron’s conductor was whisked away. He lunged at the woman, tackling her to the ground and pinning her in place as she squirmed beneath him.

“Cadence,” Allen grunted, “no need to keep hiding any longer.”

There was a familiar snap. And in a burst of copper light, Cadence appeared in front of them holding Omicron’s glove conductor in hand. “Ya know, if ya go announcin’ my presence like that then it’s real hard ta do my job.” She tossed the conductor to Carl who caught it and shoved in his pockets with a sneer.

Francis ogled Cadence. “Cadence? Why are you…”

“I followed ya here, Francis,” Cadence explained. “I saw ya wanderin’ the west side by yourself. Ya looked bent outta shape, and I was worried, so I… I dropped everything and followed ya and I…” She gestured loosely around. “…ended up here.”

It was weird. Hearing Cadence say she was worried. Made Allen wonder if there was something wrong in her head too.

“West side…?” Omicron whispered from beneath Carl. “What were you doing in the west side?!”

Carl snarled, rising to a stand and jerking her up with him. “You don’t get to ask the questions anymore, you hear—”

“I was…” A perplexed expression folded across Francis’s face, and he locked eyes with Omicron from afar. “I arranged a meeting with the Campanas about their feud with the Romanos. I was seeing if I could work something out since I had an inkling there was someone else pulling the strings. I headed out with Maximillian and a couple of the other guys, but…” He shook his head. “The details are fuzzy after that.”

Allen nodded at Cadence signaling for her to take over, gave Francis a pat on the shoulder, before going over to help Carl tie Omicron to a chair. Once Omicron was bound and useless, Cadence left Francis’s side to undo the peacekeeper’s bindings while Carl, Francis, and Fortuna freed the other executives. While the others collected themselves, Allen gave Francis a rundown of everything that had happened since they’d fallen into the exit-less room.

“I… don’t remember doing any of that,” Francis said after a beat. He looked up at Allen, pale. “Allen, I’m sorr—”

Allen placed a hand on Francis’s shoulder. “Don’t get yourself in a knot about it.”

Francis nodded before addressing the others. “I deeply apologize for everything I’ve done to you all. Even if I was under the influence of a Manipulator, I—”

“Yeah, well, I think we should tie you up too, Francis,” one of the executives muttered. “If this is manipulation, we don’t know when you’ll crack and start shovin’ us through those damn creepy things again.”

“You talk a lot of talk,” Carl growled at the executive, taking a threatening step forward, “for someone who was sobbin’ out the warehouse locations just a day ago.”

“No, Mr. Etoile has a point,” Francis said. “We don’t know if the Manipulator responsible is actually Omicron. We don’t even know if the perp is actually a Manipulator. Manipulating a living being to this degree is unheard of it. We could be dealing with a Specialist.”

Allen frowned, and he looked over to find Carl frowning too. So was Cadence.

Francis was knowledgeable when it came to people and law, but when it came to things like vitae and conducting-types, he always referred to an advisor or a consultant. Where was all this coming from? Something wasn’t right here.

“Mister… Francis, was it?” Alice interjected coolly, arms crossed as she stared down at the bound Omicron. “You’re correct in saying that you weren’t at the mercy of a Manipulator. That much is obvious. If you were, you would still retain memory of your actions, and you wouldn’t operate with an independent and unique personality.”

Omicron said nothing.

“You’re still looking at Francis with affection despite everything that’s happened,” Alice continued. “Why is that? You ELPIS leaders… what is it that makes you tick?”

“I don’t care for your words, peacekeeper,” Omicron returned with disinterest before locking eyes with Francis. “But you…” Her gaze softened. “You deserve to know.”

Francis stiffened before nodding. “…Tell me then.”


Allen Foxman serves as the head of the Foxman family. He is wise in his investments and always cuts corners where he needs to. His main weakness is his strength. Filial affliction. If one wished to hurt the Foxman family, targetting just one of the heads would suffice.

Please see card #400 for information regarding finances. 

Information card #145, Category F,  Astante’s Brokering Files

9.1-1: Cadence’s Stumble (Spirale)

Re-cap: 

The dominoes have fallen. 

Omicron, a leader of ELPIS, has broken into Ophiuchus’s Black Constellation Detention Center in an attempt to retrieve Wtorek Izsak. Although her attempts ended in failure, Alice Kingsley was taken during the chaos.

Simultaneously, Fortuna and two of the elder Foxman brothers met up to discuss business only to suddenly fall through a mysterious portal. Upon awakening, they discover their captors are ELPIS and among their captors is the city’s commissario Vincente Giustizia and one Francis Foxman. Cadence who was with Fortuna, Allen, and Carl at their moment of capture is now…

(             )

The light that swallowed them all up was something out of a nightmare. No, that wasn’t right. Cadence was sure Atienna had said one time that nightmares and dreams were made of things taken from the real world: maybe a conversation you had, a book you read, or something you saw briefly while passing by some place. But what Cadence saw wasn’t anything remotely close to any of those things. Nothing in reality could even serve as a cue to bring it into a nightmare or a dream.

One minute Cadence was across from Fortuna and the next she was free-falling through the air into a void of pale tangerine light. And just the minute after that, she was hurtling towards a concrete ground along with the others. Her fall was broken by Carl who cracked against the floor beneath her first, leaving her only mildly jarred by the impact. She scrambled off of him immediately, still laying low, and let out a sigh of relief as he groaned in response.

He was still kicking. So were Allen and Fortuna who were both out cold. There were other bodies scattered alongside them. Lower-rung executives of the Romano family.

This was not looking good.

Cadence’s head pounded furiously alongside each beat of her heart. The pound resonated in her ears, drowning out the anger that had swelled up in her chest only moments earlier.

What had that feeling even been? One of the others? It had to be. Jericho? Definitely. No one else quite had that flavor of anger. She briefly considered reaching out to him but—

No, no. She needed to focus on herself first. The detective could handle himself.

Even so, she attempted to reach out but was met with a startling wall unlike anything she’d ever encountered before. It hurt to even near him—like someone was punching her repeatedly in the gut. Cadence figured if that wasn’t a sign telling her to focus on her own situation instead, she didn’t know what was. And a hairy situation it was.

Still keeping low, Cadence gauged her surroundings. It was dim and dark with the only light permeating the area emanating from a handful of candles that spotted the floor. There were bookcases lining the wall, and a board game toppled on top of a stack of books to the right.

Minimalists. Interesting.

At the center of the room sat a row of chairs. Several of them were occupied.

Cadence’s heart skipped a beat, and she stilled.

None of the two people sitting in the chairs moved. And upon closer inspection, Cadence realized that they were tiedto the chairs. Most likely unconscious. Other captives? Probably captured earlier. So this was a hostage situation. And there were no Campanas in sight. This had to be them then—

Wait.

Cadence’s eyes darted left and then right.

What the.

There was no door. There was no latch on the ceiling to an attic nor any cellar trap descending in the pits of saint’s knew where. Nothing.

No. There had to be a door. An exit. Maybe behind one of the bookcases. Like a hidden one.

A sudden updraft of wind blew through the room, carrying with it a conversation.

“—and then I told the chief, ‘That’s how they did it twenty years ago!’ Man, you shoulda seen the look on his face.”

“He’s definitely a character. But, you know what… don’t tell him this… but with the way things are heading now, I’m starting to have some hope for this city.”

They were voices Cadence’s recognized. But from where? She searched her memory for faces, and after a beat, she matched two and two. The voices belonged to two of the police officers who served under Vincente. The ones who had accompanied the commissario to the Foxman’s casino.

Gambling, Cadence snapped her ringed fingers and conducted the form of one of the officers she’d seen accompanying Vincente over herself. She popped up immediately and came face to face with a man and a woman dressed in police uniforms.

“Huh?” The woman officer stared at Cadence. “Butch, what are you doing in here already?”

“You tell me,” Cadence tried with a shrug. She scanned the area behind them. Where had they come from?

The man and the woman exchanged looks before the man asked, “Chief call you in too?”

“Sounds about right,” Cadence affirmed.

“Well,” the man sighed, gesturing to the bodies, “help us tie up all these bastards with the others before they wake up.”

And so with great effort, Cadence aided the two officers in lugging the bodies of the executives onto the chairs lining the center of the room. She was startled when she saw that Agape Rosario and one of the mayor candidates—Depa Amaril, if she recalled correctly— were already tied to two of the chairs, but she kept the expression hidden with a grimace and a yawn. Instead of focusing on those two, she focused her attention on making sure to place Fortuna, Allen, and Carl beside each other. As Cadence began tying up the eldest Foxman brother, he began to stir.

“Don’t throw a fit, Allen,” she whispered into his ear, tying the rope into a very loose knot around his wrists. “This ain’t the usual deal.”

Allen met her eyes as she pulled away and nodded as she winked.

After she finished helping the two officers with their work, she joined them at a table pressed alongside the bookcases lining the wall. She had barely managed to get a conversation started to try and gather some information when another updraft chilled the back of her neck. Following this temperature drop, two additional figures entered the room. Cadence nearly jumped at the sight of them.

Vincente Giustizia, the police commissario. And a woman wearing a polka-dot blue dress. But in the direction where the two had stepped out from, there had not been a door nor a window nor a tunnel nor anything like that—Cadence had double-checked. There was simply a flash of pale tangerine light, and then the two were suddenly stepping forward into the room from the bare wall.

Deja vu.

Cadence barely had time to comprehend the scene before Vincente rushed up to the row of bound executives and started a ten-thousand-words-per-minute rant. Any of the poor bastards who were still unconscious were immediately awoken by his shouting.

Cadence resisted gawking. She could tell by the reactions of the other two officers that this was a normal occurrence for them.

Vincente spent the better half of fifteen minutes yelling at the executives about vague concepts like justice and retribution, only taking seconds-lasting breaks to cough or down glasses of water. If the situation weren’t so serious, Cadence probably would’ve burst out laughing at the absurdity of it.

Another fifteen minutes in and there was another flash of light from the far corner of the room and—of all things—a group of children poured out and began to dash around wildly. Cadence immediately recognized them as members of Matilda’s gang. Which led to all of her theories up to that point flying out the window. Another figure entered the room behind the children but they seated themselves in the shadows at the corner there without speaking another word.

That was not the end of the mysterious appearances, however, and not even five minutes later another person—a rather beautiful woman—stepped out from a flash of light from behind Fortuna while flipping her hair.

There was more chatter, more senseless shouting, and then—

And then, a familiar voice wafted out from the darkness.

Cadence felt her head buzz as one of the children brought a candle to the corner of the room which revealed Francis Foxman sitting there. Unbound, reading leisurely. Cadence was so thrown out of sorts by his appearance that she didn’t even notice that he was speaking until he was standing in front of Fortuna and his brothers.

Cadence’s gaze flicked between Francis and Vincente and Fortuna, Allen, and Carl. Her mind spun and raced.

Was this person really—

“Francis!” Carl snapped, leaning so far forward in his chair that he nearly toppled over. “What the hell’s going on? What are you doi—”

“Shut up, Carl.” Fortuna snapped in a whisper. “No one say anything else.” She was pale, staring at Omega who kept flipping her hair. “That doesn’t matter now. Open your damn eyes.”

Cadence wasn’t sure if it was the look in Fortuna’s eyes or the audible tremble in her voice that did it but no one else dared to speak another word. The silence that followed was peppered only by the crackle of the flickering flames.

In that quietness, Francis towered over her—over all of them—and the candlelight twisted the shadows across his face in a way that made him look strange, foreign. Finally, he closed the book he’d been holding and spoke addressing Fortuna: “I see you’re a bright girl. You seem to know exactly what your position is.”

Fortuna remained silent but didn’t avert her gaze.

“And what about you?” Allen’s voice broke through the silence. “What’s your position in all of this?”

“Oh, can I answer that,” the one called Omega hummed, stepping into place beside Francis and leaning in close to Allen’s face. “Theta’s been designated leader this time around, so the position would be…” She lifted a hand up to gesture above her head. “On top of us.”

Theta. 

“Theta?” Carl echoed Cadence’s thoughts. “What’s that?”

Exactly. Why did that word—that name—sound so familiar? Wait. ‘Name’?

There was an updraft again—this time from the corner of the room where Francis had once been seated at.

“That would be my name,” Francis answered. A small smile touched the corner of his lips. “Or perhaps it would be better to call it a pseudonym. No. Let’s just call it a name for now.”

“What’s this?” came a voice from the direction of the updraft. “If you’re going to smile, Theta, I would at least like to be here to see what miracle made it possible.”

Another figure stepped out from the corner of the room in the direction of the updraft. A woman who was dressed in slacks and a loosely buttoned blouse. A woman with a tattoo emblazoned on the left side of her face. A familiar tattoo of a snake in the shape of an S divided by a vertical word. ελπίδα. ELPIS.

Omicron. Alice. ELPIS.

The synchronization hit Cadence like a punch to the gut, and she could barely keep her head on straight as the wall that had separated her from Jericho crumbled in an instant. The memories from Jericho’s recent encounter with this woman suddenly sharpened into focus and throttled through Cadence like lightning.

The atmosphere in the room changed instantly. Cadence could feel it. She could see it in the way Agape visibly stiffened, see it in the way Carl’s eyes widened, see it in the tremble of the soon-to-be mayor of the city, see it in Allen’s narrowed eyes. Fortuna and the soon-to-be mayor, however, remained pale and expressionless. They had already somehow known—ELPIS was their captor.

Seemingly undisturbed by Omicron’s appearance, Francis let out a quiet sigh. “You’re a ridiculous person.”

Saints. Cadence felt her legs begin to shake, felt her bones rattle in the cage of her skin. A cold dread seeped out from her chest, while a sweltering heat clenched the skin of her throat. A strong sense of awareness bled into her mind, and she suddenly became overly conscious of her own breathing.

In and out. In and out.

Wait, no. Think, Cadence, she told herself. Francis. Was he being held hostage? No. He was too calm. His demeanor, too casual. Like a walk in the park. Manipulation? It had to be, right? Like Izsak? Backtrack. Where in saint’s name had Omicron come from—had any of them come from? Teleporting. Portal. Yes. That was it. ‘Spatial manipulation?’ Was that what Werner had called it back when the man had synchronized with Jericho? That sounded like something out of one of Atienna’s ridiculous novels. But that was the only explanation for how they’d all come to this place. A flash of bright light and a rush of air. Just like what Jericho saw at the Serpens Establishment.

Something clicked in Cadence’s mind.

If she could just get to one of those portal things then—

The rage overcame Cadence before she could finish the thought. She’d felt it once before during that night of her first convergence with the other five. A boiling hot anger that bleached the world around her white. A terrifying fury. An inferno that ate away ate the cold dread in her chest. Eating away at reason. No, no, no.

Detective, calm down. Please, Cadence pleaded, biting the inside of her cheek as she saw her hand form into a fist, knuckles white. She tasted iron.

Not an override. Saints, please not an override. She wouldn’t survive that. She wasn’t like Werner or Jericho or Maria or Atienna. She wasn’t even like the prince. If she came out of her disguise, she was going to die. For sure. There was no doubt about it. And the others would probably die too.

Ya see, detective? Ya don’t want the others to die, do ya? Please, calm—

And then another figure stepped out from the darkness behind Omicron. It was a woman with layered blonde hair and piercing blue eyes over which a pair of square, red-framed glasses rested.

Doctor Alice Kingsley.

The anger dimmed in Cadence’s chest, and she felt her balled fist relax.

Relief. 

Look, they haven’t hurt Alice yet. I gotta keep low so I can get outta here and figure out how ta get the others out in one piece, aight? Cadence scanned the room for Jericho’s image but could not find him. Her thoughts weren’t a complete lie. Getting out was a priority.

“Who’s that?” Francis inquired, nodding at Alice.

“An Ophiuchian,” Omicron explained, grabbing Alice by the arm and jerking her forward. “Caught her on the way here.”

“‘Ophiuchian’?” the woman in the polka-dot dress spat, suddenly storming over to the peacekeeper.

Cadence tensed. Felt worry and fear and anger crash together in her chest. Calm down, Jericho.

“How dare you even call yourselves that?! You’re not Ophiuchians. You’re—” she roared, grabbing Alice by the scruff. “You’re pieces of—”

“I recognize you,” Alice spoke to Iota calmly. “You’re a Libran wanted war criminal. Wanted since the end of the Reservoir War. Iris McKillop.”

The aggressive woman’s eyes widened.

“You escaped the Black Constellation Detention Center five years ago,” Alice continued quietly, studying her from over her glasses. “You were imprisoned for targeting orphanages, medical hospitals, and neutral areas during the war. And you were vocally against the regulation of conductors after the war ended.” Alice lifted her head. “I find it hard to believe that someone like that would join an organization like ELPIS.”

Growling, Iota lifted her fist.

“Don’t, Iota,” Francis said, causing the woman to halt immediately. He walked over to Alice and stared at her. “Is it customary for a person who’s been captured by a renown terrorist organization to be this calm?”

Alice’s eyes narrowed.

“I see. So it was your intention to be captured.” Francis continued staring. “Why? Is it that you wanted to find out more about us?” He hummed in thought. “Curiosity is a powerful thing, but paired with a clever mind it’s quite fatal.” After a long pause of silence, his gaze shifted to Iota. “But we would also like to learn more about you too, peacekeeper.”

Iota released Alice with a scowl, before turning around and kicking down a nearby stack of books. The books toppled over onto the ground startling the children who had skirted back to the opposite corner of the room.

“Leave,” Francis addressed the children. “You can return tomorrow morning.”

Cadence followed his gaze to the children. Were they being indoctrinated into ELPIS? Just like Jericho had? Wait, no. Not the time to be thinking about that.

The children stiffened and nodded before herding together to the corner of the room where they had first emerged. One of them—the girl who had brought out the candlelight to Francis—pulled something out from her pocket. Something shaped like a shortened syringe. No. It was a conductor. She tapped it against a spot on the wall that was darker than the others, causing the spot to glow with tangerine light. Without hesitation, the children stepped through the light and disappeared from sight.

When the light faded, Vincente sighed.

“Dammit!” Iota let out a sudden roar and stormed over to where all the executives sat lined up. Without warning, she cracked a fist against Carl’s face sending the man backwards.

Carl crashed through a pile of books behind him and hit the floor with a loud thud, chair and all. Allen glowered from his restraints. Fortuna remained silent and tense. Cadence made herself appear only mildly miffed at the violence, although her heart raced wildly.

“What happened to your hair?”

Cadence returned her attention to Francis—Theta?—and found that he was now standing only a centimeter away from Omicron and was threading his fingers through her hair. Omicron didn’t seem at all disturbed by the intimate gesture.

Cadence had no idea what the hell was going on.

“That one that I mentioned. The one with the suitcase,” Omicron explained. “He was there. I believe he might have a promising profession as a barber.”

“It suits you,” he said.

The corners of Omicron’s eyes crinkled.

What the—

“The damned suitcase bastard again?” Iota scowled, rubbing her knuckles and glowering in Omicron’s direction. “The same one from New Ram City who got—”

Omicron held up a hand and nodded. “I wasn’t able to retrieve Izsak, and I wasn’t able to retrieve Ersatz either. But I’m sure Omega has regaled my failures already. People nowadays would call this a ‘bust’.” She glanced back at Theta. “You were right. We should have waited until we finished our work here before attempting to get them.”

“You mean I was right,” Vincente muttered. “At least you made it back in one piece.”

“Ersatz?” Theta inquired, pulling away from Omicron.

“Pi,” Omicron said as if that clarified anything at all. “Ersatz was shot by that suitcase peacekeeper. He fell through one of your gates, and I wasn’t able to slip him one of your proto-conductors, so I doubt he’ll make it back here.” She paused, peering into his face. “Do you happen to know where he ended up?”

Theta placed a hand on his chin. “No, I’m unsure of where they went. I wasn’t present at the time.”

A faint memory of a cold cave flashed through her mind, causing Cadence to realize that she had an inkling of where the major ended up.

“I thought the suitcase peacekeeper was a Projector,” Omicron said, “but as Omega suspected, he’s most likely a Specialist.”

“Maybe that’s a good thing,” Vincente interjected. “About Ersatz, I mean. He was unstable. The initiation process was faulty. What happened at the Aquarian-Capricornian border was reckless.”

“At least he did something,” Iota rebutted, smoothing out her polka-dotted dress and wiping her blood-stained knuckles with a handkerchief she had pulled out from nowhere. “All you do is run your little office and complain about everything.”

“And what do you do, Iota? Leave a blood trail pointing to us wherever you go?” Vincente scowled. “Do you know how many city laws you’ve broken since coming here? You—”

“We don’t need pointless arguments.” Ending the entire debacle with a simple statement, Theta returned his attention to the row of executives.

“You’ve lost your mind, Francis,” Agape drew, locking eyes with the man. “I understand being averse to the Campana and Romano Family’s changing relations, but this is ridiculous. Even I wouldn’t go as far as this. There’s no way you’re going to get out of this alive. Taking us all in like this is already a death sentence. But working with ELPIS—against yourfamily—you’re not coming back from this—”

Before Agape finished her sentence, Omega burst out into a feathery laugh. Cadence had almost forgotten that the woman was even there since she’d been quiet the entire time.

“No coming back?” Omega flipped her hair again slowly as she turned to face Agape. The sideways ELPIS tattoo imprinted on the back of her neck became visible in the dim light. “Are you making every decision in your life thinking you can go back and reverse it?” Omega bent down over her knees, looking down at Agape like she was talking to a child. “The moment we called ourselves ELPIS we knew we could never go back.”

Cadence felt her heart skip a beat. The statement in itself was not what unnerved her. It was the reaction to the statement by their captors that did. They all smiled. Even Vincente smiled faintly like it was some kind of joke, like they were all on the same page—whatever damn page that was.

“You’re sounding very indignant about your situation, Agape Rosario,” Francis—‘Theta,’ Cadence decided, since thinking about him as ‘Francis’ felt wrong—drew. “You seem to think you don’t belong here.”

Agape tensed as he neared.

“I suppose that’s fair. How about this. If you offer me a reasonable counter argument as to why you shouldn’t be here then I’ll release you immediately,” he continued. He glanced back towards Alice and watched as she was tied to a chair beside Agape by Omicron. “That is how you handle it in your peacekeeping state, right?”

Alice did not answer, merely observing Theta and the other ELPIS members quietly. Jericho was right—Alice’s icy gaze was almost mind-reader-like. Even though the woman wasn’t even looking in her direction, Cadence still felt like the woman was able to hear her thoughts.

That aside, it was clear to Cadence that Theta wasn’t at all serious with his proposal. He was teasing them. Baiting them. Only an idiot would—

“T-The city needs us,” one of the lower-tier executives stammered from beside Allen. “It’d fall apart if we weren’t here. Thugs would be roaming the streets and destroying people’s livelihoods. Small-time business owners would have to deal with loan sharks, and their debts would just pile up.”

“… Yes, you’re right about that. This city has become too reliant on your organizations,” Theta murmured, expressionless. “No, perhaps Signum has. Especially reliant on your product.”

There was a brief pause, and several of the executives directed their gazes at Alice.

“I doubt the peacekeeper is interested in your organization’s activities,” Theta stated calmly. “She’s been looking at us. Not at you. Besides, you’re arguing for your freedom. You’re almost acting as if you don’t want it.”

“A-And,” the executive continued, swallowing, “the southern countries wouldn’t be able to defend themselves from Argo. Without our modified conductors.”

“They wouldn’t have thought about engaging in war from the very beginning,” Theta rebutted, “if they hadn’t been provided with conductors. The easiest path is always the one that is chosen despite what lies at the end.”

“We’re not the ones who ‘chose the path’ if you want to speak in metaphors,” Fortuna interjected. “We sell the product. We don’t force people to buy it. So pinning it on us is just…” She stiffened into silence when Theta turned his eyes towards her.

Silently, the man sank down so that he was eye-level with her and stared directly into her eyes. “Shrugging off your responsibilities and problems just proves that you’ll never change.”

Cadence’s stomach started doing flip-flops.

“Well, obviously the defendants are doing a piss poor job at presenting their case, and I know you’re just playing around so I say we cut to the chase.” Vincente cleared his throat, breaking the silence that followed Theta’s statement. “So we’re really moving forward with this then?”

Theta rose slowly. “Do you have any objections, Tau?”

Commissario Vincente—Tau now apparently—sighed loudly before he shrugged his shoulders. “It can’t be helped. You’ve been elected the leader this time around, and rules are rules.”

Iota glanced between the two, still wiping her hands with the handkerchief. “So what’s first?”

“The entire city,” came Theta’s answer.

There was a beat of silence.

“We will swallow up this entire city,” Theta said, meeting each and every ELPIS member’s eyes. “The crime organizations. The conductor generators that power the east and the west and the one below. Everything.”

The pure conviction of the statement reverberated throughout the room sending shivers down Cadence’s spine. Everything? Swallow up? What did that even mean?

Omicron’s eyes widened, and she turned to Theta with an expression knotted with apprehension—Cadence took note. Iota, on the other hand, clapped her hands and whooped loudly.

“I knew it!” Iota exclaimed, spinning in a tight circle and sending her polka-dotted dress frilling outwards. She threw her hands into the air with a wild laugh. “With you here now, we can do anything! I’ll bring in some of the new recruits and—”

“It’s not going to be that explosive, Iota,” Theta corrected. “We’re still going to allow the crime organizations to whittle each other away with their paranoia first. There is no point in wasting energy.” He turned to look at her. “And I’ve already told you how I feel about recruiting more. If we grow too large, we won’t be able to control our limbs. We won’t be able to tell who knows what and who wants what. Just take a look at the group that’s operating in Scorpio using our name. Better yet, consider the suitcase peacekeeper.”

“Right…” came the grumble. “Should I call off that Campana recruit from attacking the warehouse then—”

“No. They are necessary.”

“You really think the Campanas and the Romanos will be at each other’s throats that easy?” Tau interjected.

“That is one of the reasons why I’ve only gathered the Romano executives and related parties,” Theta replied, voice stilted. “If that isn’t enough then our Campana recruit will put on a moving show.” He glanced at Omicron. “And I trust that aside from your rescue plan you’re still managing things fine on the west side of the city with the Campanas?”

Omicron nodded. “Of course, darling.”

‘Darling’? Okay. This was too much.

“If you’re having trouble,” Theta continued nonplussed, “I can—”

“No, no.” Omicron held up a hand. “I can handle everything on the west side on my own. I won the board game, didn’t I?”

Tau frowned.

“Well, I’m excited,” Iota popped, rather cheerful and bubbly for someone who’d just punched another person across the room. “We haven’t done anything this big since Aries.”

Aries? The…Tragedy of Aries? No, no, no.

Cadence pulled with all of her might away from Olive as she felt synchronization with him skirt her mind.

Not the kid. If the kid were to synchronize with her, he’d probably ask her—or make her—do something rash and stupid. Like some self-sacrificial bull. She didn’t blame the kid. Naivety was a sparkly thing, but she didn’t need any of it now.

But… Was this the same sect that caused the Tragedy of Aries then? Saints. This was a plummeting down the scale from bad to terrible.

“Theta, are you sure about this?” Tau asked suddenly, crossing and uncrossing his arms clearly agitated. “Is this really you talking?”

Theta stared at Tau before turning approaching the executives. He stopped in front of Fortuna and Allen.

“We have several things we want from you,” Theta said. “You’ve taken something from us. Something very, very important.”

Theta motioned for Tau who stepped forward. The police commissario drew out something from his pocket and dropped it into Francis’s waiting palm. It was a pendant almost identical to the one Omicron had that Jericho had destroyed. And it was also identical to—the memory trickled dreamily to Cadence now—the one that had been embedded in Mladen’s chest in Atienna’s cavern.

Theta held the pendant out to them. “The one called Verga was tasked with shipping these from Gemini to our designated location. They are called resistors.” He closed his fingers around the pendant. “You killed Verga. I don’t find fault in that. But we’ve lost our package because of it.”

This was what Verga had said that he was delivering for ELPIS? Resistors?

Tau scowled and ruffled his hair. “You know if I’d known he was such an unreliable and disgusting bastard, I wouldn’t have—”

“You were confused at the time and still adjusting to everything. No one blames you for advising Omicron to partner with Verga,” Theta replied to Tau without lifting his gaze from Fortuna and Allen. He then addressed the two again. “Where is it?”

“I’ve never seen anything like that before,” Fortuna replied evenly. “Even if I did, do you really think I’d tell you anything?”

“You should know whether or not we’ve ever shipped something like that,” Allen drew. “That is if you really are Francis.”

A beat of silence.

“You’re the ones who started assuming I was Francis Foxman,” Theta replied as he pulled away. He gingerly handed the item back to Tau who re-pocketed it.

What the hell did that mean? Cadence’s mind went in a loop. Was he implying manipulation or was he implying that he was really not Francis and was just a doppelgänger in disguise? How? A Transmutationist conducting vitae intraneously? Yeah. Maybe. But why? There really didn’t seem to be a point in doing that now. But then again, this person’s speech patterns were so different compared to Francis’s. Weird, stilted, unnatural. Was there any other explanation?

Allen’s eyes narrowed.

“Oh no, Theta,” Omega said breathily, “you’re going to make their heads spin if you say things like that. There’s nothing more dangerous than leaving someone alone with those kinds of thoughts. Around and around they’ll go.”

Acknowledging her with a nod, Theta continued: “If you can’t tell us that information, I’m expecting you to tell me to at least tell me where the third generator conductor in this city is and where you’re keeping the conductor parts you produce.”

“Third generator conductor?” Fortuna exchanged a look with Allen. “There are only two generator conductors powering this city. One in the east and one in the west. It’s been that way for decades.”

“There’s one more,” Theta stated this as if it was fact. “There is information I received from the information broker called Astante. Approximately one year after the Reservoir War ended, a new reservoir began forming here. It was discovered by the Romano Family. The Family has been quietly harvesting it for years in order to fuel their underground conductor manufacturing plants.”

“That’s the most ludicrous thing I’ve ever heard of…” Fortuna murmured.

Cadence agreed.

“Hm, so you’ve been kept in the dark about it too,” Theta surmised, studying first Fortuna’s and then Allen’s and Agape’s faces. “The one most likely to know about it would have been Ricardo Romano. Unfortunately, Iota has put him and the head of the Campana organization temporarily out of… what is the word?”

“Out of commission,” Omicron provided. She had moved to stand behind him.

Theta glanced back at the woman and offered a smile. “Yes.”

That was a conclusion that Cadence was already nearing but hearing it said out loud made a shiver go up her spine. ELPIS had been the ones behind Ricardo’s stabbing. An odd sensation built in Cadence’s chest as she acknowledged this: a weird mix of satisfaction at guessing correctly and a fear of the consequences of the correctness. And—betrayal, hurt, anger.

“You!” Fortuna bristled. “You were the ones who…” She took in a deep breath and glowered silently instead.

“I do apologize for what happened,” Theta said, fixating Iota with a look. “Things were meant to proceed more smoothly than that.” He turned back to her, smiling with just his eyes. “But we must move on regardless and take advantage of the cards we’ve been dealt… You still have knowledge of where you store your modified conductor parts.”

“Do you really expect me to tell you where it is after you’ve just told me that you attacked my father?” Fortuna questioned, tremble just barely audible in her voice.

Theta chuckled. Not musical. Made Cadence’s stomach flip flop.

“We already know the locations of two of your warehouses,” Theta said, inclining his head in Iota’s direction. “And if I’m timing this correctly, one of the warehouses is now up in flames and a Campana executive—one of our new recruits—will be seen on the scene implicating the Campanas—”

Abruptly, the mayor candidate Depa Amaril burst out from his seat, the rope binding him snapping with a sharp pop. Without warning, he rushed forward at Tau who happened to be standing closest. The two men fell to the floor as Depa ripped out the knife that he’d just embedded in Tau’s chest. Heaving, Depa sat on top of Tau’s body while brandishing his weapon.

What a stupid guy, Cadence thought.

But none of the ELPIS members paid Depa any mind and instead stared down at Tau’s body expressionlessly. Not even a hint of remorse or mourning. Cadence’s gaze flicked to the police officers she was sitting with. Nothing.

Suddenly, Tau shot up, cracking his fist against the to-be mayor’s face and sending the man flying backwards. Cradling his cheek, the commissario jabbed an angry finger in the to-be-mayor’s direction. “That’s assault, you know that?! That’s up to six months jail time in Gemini!”

What?

Cadence stared.

How was he still up and moving like it was nothing? Those were Jericho, Maria, and Werner levels of resilience, and those three weren’t normal. Wasn’t the commissario in any pain? No—about to kick the bucket? What was going on?

“M-Monster!” Depa stuttered, cradling his cheek with one hand and gripping the blood-stained knife with the other. “You’re all monsters!”

“Dammit!” Tau spat blood from his mouth and waved off the female officer who had finally rushed to help him to his feet. Whipping around, he jabbed a finger at Iota’s and then Omega’s directions. “I asked if you checked him for weapons! You said yes!”

“I don’t recall ever saying ‘yes,’” Omega hummed, flipping her hair. “I thought you did it, Iota.”

“My hands were full,” Iota snapped, “if you don’t recall.”

Depa scrambled backwards, but his meaningless escape was halted by another figure just behind him. Theta. Depa whipped around, jumping to a stand and pointing the knife at the man.

“Are you sure about this, Depa?” Theta asked quietly, raising both of his hands.

That was when Cadence saw it. Theta’s right hand was gloved. Most definitely a conductor.

“Theta!” Omicron shouted.

Depa charged.

There was a flash of red as the knife pierced through Theta’s bare hand which he had raised to block the knife. Instead of the knife coming out of the other side of his hand, however, it exploded out of Depa’s back. The mayor candidate’s eyes widened, and his body went slack. He toppled to the ground unmoving. Dead in an instant.

Cadence’s heart hammered wildly in her chest.

The blood on Theta’s palm from which the hilt of the knife protruded was glowing with a tangerine light. And as the man gripped the handle of the knife and began pulling it out from his hand, the blade of it slowly retracted back into Depa’s back. Without flinching, Theta ripped the knife out fully and tossed it into the floor.

Out of the corner of her eye, Cadence could see Omicron flinch in his stead.

“If you mean to kill someone, then it’s only natural that you should expect to be killed yourself.”

After saying this to Depa’s corpse, Theta turned back to face the row of executives—

“If you haven’t deduced it already, I am what you would call a ‘Specialist’ nowadays. Although I don’t expect you to understand the type of conducting you’ve just witnessed, I do expect you to understand this. The only way of getting in and out of this place is through me—whether that is through death or another means.”

Theta inclined his head to Depa’s corpse.

“The things people do not understand or cannot predict tend to be what inspires the most fear in them, so let me tell you this: what has happened to Depa can happen to you with a snap of my fingers. I hope this comforts you.”

“Are you okay, Tau?” Omega asked, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear as she approached the commissario. She peered at the bleeding wound on his chest. “That doesn’t look good.”

“Go to Lambda and have her fix that,” Theta stated to Tau, holding his own bleeding hand. “This has happened too many times to you already. You need to be more careful.”

‘Lambda’? Wait, that aside. Weren’t they being too casual about Tau’s injury?

“You should get your hand looked at by her too, Theta,” Omicron drew, approaching the man with a roll of gauze she seemed to have pulled out from nowhere.

“This is nothing,” Theta replied, although he allowed her to bandage his hand.

Tau grumbled to himself in the meanwhile before nodding in Cadence’s direction. Cadence’s heart skipped a beat at the attention but she let out a quiet breath when she saw the police officers still sitting beside her rise and join Tau’s side. Cadence followed suit and followed Tau and the other officers to the very same wall the children had disappeared into earlier. It took a great deal of effort to cross the room, and she could feel Allen’s gaze burning into her back the entire them. Not only that but—

It felt as if chains were weighing down her arms and legs making each and every step more labored than the last. It was Jericho, she knew. And she used every bit of her power to crawl away from his thoughts—from the feelings of guilt and worry—as she continued onwards after Tau. All she needed now were her own thoughts. Thoughts of escape. Thoughts of survival.

Tau drew something out from his pocket. The same proto-conductor the children had. He tapped its point against the wall, and the dark splotch there ignited with tangerine light. Without hesitation, Tau and the two other officers stepped on through.

Cadence, on the other hand, hesitated at the threshold and threw a glance back over her shoulder.

Theta was seating himself across from Omicron at the game board table. Alice, Fortuna, and Allen were still lined up in the neat row. Carl was still on the floor.

Shaking away the last of the invisible chains that bound her ankles and wrists, Cadence faced forward and stepped through the light.


Resistors are an item utilized by ELPIS and carried by the designated leaders of the organization. They are knife-shaped pendants, appearing to be almost like conductors. Their purpose is unknown but may be used in their initiation process. Verga, a member of the Romano Family, was contacted by Tau (ID: Commissario Vincente Giustizia) to ship these items into Ophiuchus. 

Add note: 15.07.1941 | Verga’s death has resulted in the loss of the shipment of resistors. 

Add note: 30.07.1941 | ELPIS leader Omicron (ID: Charite Haussman) requested information on location of resistors. None available. 

Add note: 16.08.1941 | The resistors have been discovered to be in the hands of ⬛⬛⬛. Omicron not to be contacted. 

Information card #456, Category E,  Astante’s Brokering Files

8.5: Jericho’s Reunion (Seperazione)

Re-cap: 

The dominoes are beginning to fall. 

After enjoying his usual luncheon with Gabrielle’s inner circle, Jericho begins to wonder if his connection with the other five has quelled his rage. Alice says it is good progress and invites him to visit ELPIS-converted Wtorek Izsak who is imprisoned in the belly of Ophiuchus. 


Prognoikos Aurora Reservoirs, Ophiuchus

“These security checks are ridiculous. We’re Ophiuchian peacekeeping agents. We shouldn’t have to go through these things like these tourists here.”

“Is it that you think you’re above all of these ‘tourists’, Talib? Do you think you’re above the security measures?”

“See! That’s exactly how the Organization wants you to think. They’re taking advantage of your docility and compliance! These vitae-spectrophotometer tests are just tools they use to find their next targets!”

“And how and why exactly would they do that? And who are these targets?”

Jericho paused and turned. Alice was walking right behind him and Talib beside her. They were all out of uniform. Jericho in a sweater vest, Talib with a blue scarf thrown over his shoulders, Alice in a blue ribbon dress.

They were walking along a wide bridge platform that rose high above the ground. Several meters below them glowed a cluster of oval-shaped vitae reservoirs. There were thirteen total with twelve smaller ones circling around a larger central one. The glow of them from this distance was psychedelic—shifting from soft blues to pale greens to bright purples. Particles of light rose from the pools and dusted the air coating everything in a dreamy haze.

It hurt to look at.

The platform they were walking across was one of twelve. Each platform hung over one of the twelve outer reservoirs and connected together at a central platform that stood tall above the largest reservoir. The platforms were congested, but not as congested as the streets of the Twin Cities.

Jericho approached the railing to his left and peered downwards into the light. His head pounded at the glow, but he took a deep breath and reached out to the other five. It took two tries. Synchronization was around 80 percent with all five appearing physically before him. Some were confused. Some were curious. One was excited.

Uh, what’s the deal, detective?

You said that there was nothing happening on my end, Jericho explained. I’ve heard that it is… customary… to visit places like this Prognoikos Aurora attraction since they are ‘touristy’—

“Jericho, put your hands down,” Werner interjected. “You’ll draw attention.”

Jericho put down his air quotation marks. Touristy. Uplifting to the spirit. That is what the books say. About this place. 

“That’s very nice of you, Jericho,” Atienna drew with a smile, clasping her hands together. “Thank you.”

Pleasant.

Maria threw her hands up the air and wrapped him in her arms before she peeled away and leaned over the railings. “Amazing! I have always wanted to visit this place!” She leaned forward. “What do you think it’s like to swim in it?”

“These are gigantic compared to the one in the royal palace,” Olivier noted, ignoring Maria as he peered over the railings beside her. He grimaced. “There’s so much of it here. I don’t understand why it isn’t just harvested and given out.” He glanced at Werner. “It’d save people a lot of trouble.”

It seemed as if Lavi was not with Olivier today. Jericho was somewhat disappointed. He had wanted to see her reaction.

“That’s not how economics works, kid,” Cadence said with a shrug, glancing with only mild interest at the reservoirs.

“And you know how economics works?” Olivier arched a brow back at her.

Cadence remained smiling. “Hey, who’s the one’s saved ya from gettin’ scammed in Sagittarius?”

“Well, this place is considered sacred in Monadism,” Atienna informed them. “It is used for the baptismal portion of saint candidate ceremonies. Although… I have heard that they are starting to begin the construction of a continent-wide insulator system to connect these reservoirs with other major vitae reservoirs around Signum. They’re hoping to provide the poorer areas with it too.”

Olivier perked up at this. “Really? I must have missed that…”

Atienna pressed her fingers to her lips. “It isn’t that you have missed it, it is that it has not been announced yet. Diplomats have very interesting conversations.” She smiled lightly. “Despite everything, we can still keep personal matters from each other. That is reassuring, don’t you think?”

Olivier shrugged and glanced at Jericho. Jericho had not heard of it either and mimicked the gesture.

Cadence cracked a grin, nudging Olivier on the shoulder. “See, friends in high places everywhere.”

“I’m literally the Ariesian prince…”

“Exactly!” Cadence snapped her fingers. “Anyway, I once sold a whole group of elites from Cancer phony VIP tickets to this place.” She slipped between Maria and Olivier at the railings. “I couldn’t really understand why a buncha people would fork over a thousand common coin to visit some vitae reservoirs but lookin’ at it now…”

“It’s pleasant,” Werner agreed. “The gesture is appreciated, Jericho. I’ve always wanted to see the Ophiuchian vitae reservoirs myself, so—”

What? Cadence’s grin widened. Mr. This-isn’t-a-vacation is takin’ in the scenic view?

“I do appreciate the natural wonders of Signum,” Werner returned coolly. “These are the things that fuel our countries. We should treat them with respect.”

“Hm—Hey, why are some of ‘em kinda lower than the rest?” Cadence inquired, gesturing to about eleven of the reservoirs. “It kinda ruins the whole symmetry.”

“It is a natural phenomenon,” Atienna explained, observing them far from the railings. “Every couple of decades, the levels of the vitae reservoirs rise and fall. I hear there is still research going on about it.” She glanced at Jericho before placing a hand on her chin. “However… During the end of the Reservoir War, the original country of Ophiuchus ended up desecrating half of the reservoirs here, so several of them have never risen since then.”

Cadence rocked back on her heels and grimaced. “That sounds like a history lesson I don’t wanna get into.”

The nausea that had been lightly holding Jericho’s stomach suddenly tightened as he watched them converse. He placed a hand over his stomach absentmindedly.

Olivier glanced back at him with a frown. “Look, Jericho, it’s not that great.” He loosely thumbed the reservoir below him. “You don’t have to show us this. A picture is good too.”

Cadence whipped around grinning. “Or ya could draw us it too. We could put it in a frame and everything. Hey, who knows? Ya might be the next big artist! People’ll be talkin’ about ya in the streets!”

“—uh, Jericho, are you home?”

Jericho snapped his attention to Talib who was standing right beside him waving a hand in his face.

The man startled at Jericho’s attention and placed a hand over his heart. “Saints! You scared me.” He straightened his scarf. “I was saying that this really is quite the view, isn’t it? And it’s nice to be out of uniform.”

Jericho stared back at him before he nodded. “No one stares.” He glanced around at the pedestrians passing by around them. “I didn’t realize. Some people aren’t fond of peacekeepers.”

Talib nodded slowly, following the passersby with his eyes. “Either we’re too controlling or we’re not controlling enough. Either we spend too much time saving people who don’t matter or we don’t spend enough time saving people who matter.”

“You’ve thought about this. A lot.”

“Yes, well… we can’t save, help, and make everyone happy,” Talib said. “But if we can save and help at least one person, I think that’s enough. Like that poor fellow and those women who were manipulated by that Cancerian—”

“Jericho.”

Jericho turned to find Alice behind him. She had been walking along the opposite railing and now stood before him with an unreadable expression as usual.

“I think this is good progress for you to come here,” Alice said curtly. “But today is also the day you said you would come with us to visit Izsak. I hope you don’t think that coming here this morning excuses you from your promise.”

“This is not an excuse.”

Alice nodded. “Good.”

***

Black Constellation Detention Center, Ophiuchus

Beneath the Serpens Establishment was the Black Constellation Detention Center. It was a prison that extended many meters below the ground and consisted of a network of halls and cells layered up on top of one another. Ferris had likened it one time to a beehive.

After passing through the ten security checks at the Center’s entrance—one of which consisted of a vitae-spectrophotometer test—Jericho, Alice, and Talib were allowed into a small elevator.

When Ophiuchus initially began using vitae-spectrophotometers, Jericho had been swept into an unexpected routine check, tested ‘white’, and had nearly been tackled to the ground after that. Alice had been nearby at the time, however, and had flashed her Ophiuchian chairman badge in his defense. Following that event, she had done a hefty load of paperwork and procured a special badge for him that allowed him to bypass the tests.

“Good ta know people in high places, right?” Cadence had chortled.

Sometimes Jericho wondered what those people who knew the color of his vitae thought of him. Rumors had probably already started.

They rode down the elevator in silence. Jericho watched as light from different levels bled through the crack in doors as they descended further and further. Ten minutes later the elevator dinged, and they reached the last floor.

When they exited the elevator, they were met with a sterile nearly all-white hallway. Lining the left of the hall were large two-way mirrors in-between which metal doors stood rigid. In front of each of those doors stood a pair of uniformed peacekeeping agents. The walls across from the guards were spotted with black metal benches. The walls themselves were dotted with occasional strange streaks of black.

Jericho glanced into the first two-way mirror as they walked past. Usian, laying down on the bed within with his hands folded over his stomach. He stared up at the ceiling with an unreadable expression.

The second two-way mirror down the hall contained another man. Major Ersatz. The Capricornian major paced the room back and forth while biting his thumb and muttering to himself.

Jericho’s gaze lingered on the man before he forced himself forward.

They came to a stop before the third two-way mirror.

Jericho glanced inside.

Wtorek Izsak sat at a table set at the room’s center. Across from him sat a woman in a black suit wearing a white armband. Her wavy brown hair was tied into a rather messy bun, and her hand was resting on the man’s upper arm.

Wtorek Elizabeta.

The heaviness in Jericho’s chest felt foreign and detached.

Alice immediately went up to the window and stood before it with crossed arms. Jericho stared after her for a moment before glancing at the opposite wall.

There was a girl sitting on the bench across from the two-way mirror of Izsak’s cell. She had wispy brown hair braided, caramel-colored eyes and appeared to be around fourteen years old. Resting on her lap was a strange-looking stuffed rabbit, reminding Jericho of the monstrous stuffed animal that rested on a table back in his condo.

“That’s Izsak’s daughter. Csilla,” Talib whispered, detaching himself from Jericho’s side and walking over to the bench. He sat down beside the girl and began speaking animatedly with his usual dramatic hand gestures.

Csilla giggled in turn. Entertained.

Jericho stared at the two and offered Csilla a small wave when the girl looked up at him. She returned the wave with a faint smile before her gaze drifted to the two-way mirror. Jericho followed her gaze before coming to a stand beside Alice in front of the glass pane.

“Maintenance still hasn’t gotten rid of those stains yet?” Alice grimaced and turned to one of the guards standing beside the door. “Mladen, it’s disgusting to look at.”

Mladen was a tall, lean man with a light mustache, a prominent brow, and an expression of complete indifference. An Aquarian, gauging by his sharp features.

The Aquarian grimaced. “Every time you complain I go up to maintenance and cleaning and tell them. After that we have to take the prisoners out to a separate level while the stains are cleaned out. Then we move them back in. You know what happens after that? More stains appear. And the cycle repeats. Someone is pulling some stupid prank, and I have to suffer for it either way.”

“Give me the names of the maintenance crew, and I’ll deal it with myself if you can’t.”

Stains?

Jericho looked around.

There. It was barely viewable from his current angle, but there was a black streak running along the wall just behind Izsak’s head. It was about the length of his arm, and it looked a bit familiar. It reminded Jericho of the paintings in Atienna’s cave. And…

Jericho turned his head.

There were similar black streaks on the wall behind him.

So it wasn’t a customary design then.

“That doesn’t help me,” Mladen complained. “I’ll just have to move all of them again when the stains reappear.”

Alice sighed and knocked on the steel door.

Elizabeta startled from within and pulled her hand away from her husband’s arm. She turned back towards the door and then glanced at the two-way mirror. Although she couldn’t see them, she nodded in their direction.

“Open the door,” Alice ordered.

Mladen rolled his neck and reached into his pocket. He pulled out a set of keys and inserted one into the slot in the door. There was a cold draft of wind as the door groaned open.

The guard beside Mladen shivered and grimaced. “Saints. They need to turn on the damn heat—”

A loud squelch cut the guard off. The sound was followed by a gurgle and then a steady drip, drip, drip.

Jericho turned, stared, and then tried to piece together the events that had preceded the scene before him. All he had seen was a flash of tangerine light, a glint of metal, and then—and then just red. Red seeping in-between the white tiles of the floor, red bleeding onto the guard’s Ophiuchian armband, red pooling out from the guard’s mouth—his mouth from which a steel beam now protruded. The beam extended almost all the way to the opposite wall, and the weight of the thing dragged the peacekeeper forward. His body crumpled to the floor in an instant, sending red droplets splattering onto the walls as he clutched his throat and gurgled.

“Z-Zeke!” Mladen shouted, rushing to the fallen guard’s side. He glared at the other Ophiuchian guards standing frozen around him. “Conductors! Get the damned medical Conductors! Don’t just stand there!”

“Wait! Nobody move!” Alice snapped.

The door to the cell behind her was just barely open. The chaotic noise from their side seemed to have traveled through the crack in the door, as Jericho could see that Elizabeta had shot up to a stand through the two-way mirror. Izsak, meanwhile, faced the wall and stared at the black smear there.

“Where in saint’s name did that come from?!” shouted another one of the peacekeepers closest to the elevator.

The elevator doors were closed. None of the peacekeeping agents had pulled out their conductors yet. The perpetrator was not in sight.

Jericho whipped his head around to where Talib and Csilla sat. The girl’s face was buried in Talib’s chest, and the man held her tightly while staring at Zeke with wide eyes.

The wall behind the two was glowing. No. The black patterns painted on the wall were glowing—glowing with pale tangerine light. And out from those numerous glowing splotches grew steel beams coated in white luminescence.

Familiar. Manipulator. White. That color.

The world around Jericho began to blur, the surroundings melding into one another.

Calm down. Think. 

Jericho whipped his head around and tackled Alice to the ground just as the steel beams whistled out from the pools of light. The ear-piercing screech was followed by the ring of metal against glass, metal against tiled floor, metal against body. When the sounds dampened, Jericho peeled himself off of Alice and observed his surroundings.

Talib was on the ground as well, body caged protectively over a shivering Csilla. They both looked unharmed. Several other peacekeepers had also made the successful dodge. A number of them, however, were flat on the ground—bodies pierced through with pieces of metal.

The glow from the wall dimmed, leaving behind the black smears that still seemed to hum with a faint energy.

Specialist…? But even for that, this is—

Jericho scrambled to his feet to fully assess the damage. The two-way mirror leading to Ersatz’s cell had shattered and the floor was flooded with blood, bodies, pieces of metal, and fragments of glass. The two way-mirror of Izsak’s cell was, however, still intact—the door, still cracked open just slightly.

Ears ringing, Jericho dashed towards it.

“Jericho, wait!” Alice snapped, rising to a stand only to slip on the blood that dyed the floor crimson.

Ignoring her shout, Jericho ripped the door open and rushed inside.

Elizabeta stared at him wide-eyed as he entered. “Jericho? What’s—”

Jericho’s gaze fixated upon the black streak on the back wall that Izsak was now extending a hand out towards. Before Jericho could move forward, however, he was pushed to the side by another peacekeeping agent. Mladen.

The peacekeeper flicked his gloved hands and conjured a pistol and a combat knife in a flash of deep green light. He pointed the pistol squarely at Izsak, gripped the knife tightly in his other hand, and snapped, “Don’t move, Wtorek!”

“What are you doing?!” Elizabeta hissed at him. “Are you craz—”

The black streak on the wall began to glow with pale tangerine light, bringing with it a chillingly familiar updraft of wind. Something slithered out from that glowing streak. A hand.

Elizabeta whipped her head around and stared at the glow gaping. “What in saint’s name is—”

Izsak started forward, reaching out towards the hand protruding from the wall.

“No!” Elizabeta cried, throwing her body across the table and tackling Izsak to the ground away from the light.

“You’re going to make this very hard for us, aren’t you?”

Jericho froze as the familiar voice drifted out from the glowing light. The same voice from that night at the docks. The same mocking tone. The same feeling building in his chest. A hot iron heat that sent a surge of electricity through his entire body. His head buzzed, his ears rang—

Jericho, calm down. 

The hand retracted back into the pool of light for a beat and then shot outwards again flinging out a spray of red that splashed across the room.

Without thinking, Jericho ducked beneath the splatter. Mladen, however, lifted his hand wielding the knife, and the red droplets caught on to his hand and the blade.

Mladen wiped the droplets from his face with a grimace. “Disgusting—”

And then the blood flecked upon his conjured blade began to glow white. The whiteness consumed the entire thing in an instant. Before the man had the chance to react, the knife flew from his hand and then flipped over to face him with its point. It hovered there for a moment before hurtling forward and piercing his shoulder. The force of the blow sent him flying back out of the doorway. He hit the wall in the hall with a thud before sliding to the ground motionless.

“‘Disgusting’? Isn’t that a bit too harsh? Unsanitary, yes—I have to admit that it is.”

Out from the glowing streak on the wall stepped a young woman dressed in a loosely buttoned blouse and a pair of black slacks. A chain glinted faintly on her neck, barely hidden by her loose rope of braided hair partially concealed her face. By her relaxed demeanor, however, it was evident that the concealment was not done purposefully. She had nothing to hide.

Sighing, the woman paused to brush off her shirt before glancing to the side of the room where Elizabeta remained hovering over Izsak. “You’re not going to cause trouble for us, are you?”

“Stay away from my family,” Elizabeta hissed, eyes fierce and cold. “He’s not one of you!”

The woman sighed again and snapped her conductor gloved fingers. The sound was followed by a whirling whine as the knife from Mladen’s shoulder flew out from his body and into her waiting hand.

“I’m sorry, honey,” Omicron said, pointing the knife at them, “but that man is no longer—”

Jericho rose to a stand, heart hammering, ears ringing, head pounding. If the others were there, he could not hear them or feel them. All he could feel was the heat that was building inside his chest just waiting to explode outwards. A feeling almost forgotten. Never.

Flipping her hair away from her face, the woman turned to face Jericho. In the pale overhead lights shining down from above, the white of the snake tattoo on the left half of her face blended into the pale of her skin.

Omicron. Yes. That was her name. He hadn’t forgotten since that night at the docks in the Twin Cities. He couldn’t recall the pain he’d felt when she’d pierced him through with the steel beams that night, but he could still recall the white glow of her vitae. A member—a leader—of ELPIS in here. In the Serpens Establishment. In the place Alice had said was safe.

Omicron’s eyes widened. “You’re…”

Recognition. Good. Good to know one’s executioner.

Izsak locked eyes with Jericho from beneath Elizabeta and held up a warning hand in the ELPIS leader’s direction. “Omicron, be careful, he’s a—”

What? Why was he—

Jericho grabbed one of the chairs that had toppled to the ground, leaped over the table at the room’s center, and swung the chair at her head. Omicron formed a fist with her gloved hands, and out from the pool of light on the wall behind her came another steel iron bar. The clang of metal against metal rang through the room as the bar slipped through the legs of the chair and locked it in place.

But Jericho was not deterred. He slipped beneath the thing and landed a solid kick to the woman’s chest sending both of them flying back into the wall and into the pool of light. Cold nipped at Jericho’s ears as they tumbled through a stretch of void and light. A tumbling free fall with no end and no beginning and—

—suddenly Jericho was falling out onto the messy floor of a familiar hallway. The floor was wet and red beneath him and littered with shards of glass, steel beams, and unmoving bodies dressed in monochrome.

He was somehow back out in the hall outside of Izsak’s cell. Above him, the black streaks on the wall were once again glowing with light.

Spatial distortion? Even for a Specialist, that’s hard to believe. Regardless. Pay attention. Look out for the other Conductor. Be careful. Get reinf—

Jericho’s ears began to ring again, muting Werner’s cool, calming voice. In the white noise, he began to evaluate his physical condition as Alice had directed him to do over and over again. The fragments of glass from the shattered two-way mirror of Ersatz’s cell had pierced his forearm, but he did not feel the pain. Operational still.

He focused his gaze upon Omicron who lay only a meter or so away from him. She was slowly rising to her feet now, groaning.

There was another peacekeeper laying beside him. At the peacekeeper’s waist were two conductors. One in the shape of a gun, and the other a bladeless hilt.

There was a sudden pang of horror in Jericho’s chest followed by remorse and disgust and pity at the sight of the body—the corpse—and then—

Probably a Projector’s conductor. Probably incompatible with a Specialist. It’s too dangerous—

Olivier.

But those facts didn’t matter.

Jericho lunged for the Projector’s gun, whipped around, and pointed it squarely at Omicron just as she turned to face him. Her eyes widened for a moment before an impassive expression slipped itself over her face. Acceptance. Without hesitation, he pulled the trigger.

The heat and the hum that trembled through the conductor told Jericho that his conducting-type was most definitely incompatible with the conductor. But the conductor still served its purpose. Out from its tip exploded a burst of blinding white light that hurtled right towards the woman’s torso.

In the moment before contact, however, another figure leapt in front of the white blast. The vitae ray caught the figure’s shoulder, and the force of the blast sent him flying back into Omicron. A familiar groan reached Jericho’s ears.

It was Ersatz, who lay draped across Omicron’s body while clutching his shoulder. Omicron stared down at him wide-eyed, before she reached into her pocket and slipped something into his hands. A pendant, knife-shaped and crafted with a glass handle.

Saints—your conductor!

Jericho glanced down and saw that the conducting gun was smoking.

You’re crazy! You cracked the insulator! It’s not usable anymore—

Jericho chucked the thing aside, gaze snapping to the bladeless conductor still at the dead peacekeeper’s waist.

Omicron whipped her gloved hand out again sending three of the steel beams that were scattered around the ground hurtling in his direction.

Jericho dove for the Projector’s blade conductor, activated it, and sliced through the steel beams with ease. Then without hesitating again, he lunged at her.

Omicron pushed Ersatz to the side as she launched herself backwards. She tensed as her escape was shortened by the two-way mirror behind her. Back pressed against the mirror, she glowered.

“You’ll die here,” Jericho stated before he swung again.

Omicron dropped and ducked below the swing but the blade skirted her braid, disintegrating it in an instant and leaving her with a rugged short cut. She flicked her wrist and sent another wave of pipes in his direction from all sides. She slipped out beneath him as he disassembled the pipes with three quick swishes. Before she could get out of his reach however, he grabbed her by what little remained of her hair and threw her back up against the pane. She hit it with a thud and slid to the floor with a slight grimace.

“Haven’t you heard of being a gentleman?” she asked.

Instead of answering, he swung at her again. She moved quicker than before, although she still barely managed to skirt him this time. His conductor, however, did make contact with something on her person—the oddly-shaped pendant of the chain that had been hanging from her neck. The pendant was knife-shaped with a clear handle just like the one she’d handed to Ersatz. It fragmented and shattered in an instant just like everything else Jericho’s vitae touched. This time, however, Omicron’s reaction was different. Her eyes widened in horror; and with a roar, she sent Jericho away from her with a solid kick to the chest.

Jericho hit the black painted wall behind him but immediately popped back up to a stand while flipping the conductor in his hand. The handle of it was hot in his grip, but he didn’t pay it any mind.

Omicron still had a completely stricken look on her face as she gripped the chain around her neck. Distracted.

He made towards her again but Olive’s thoughts rang out once more—

Jericho, it’s hot! You’re overheating the conductor! It hurts—

No sooner did the thought leave his mind did his hand suddenly release the conductor. It fell onto the floor, losing its blade of light immediately. It sizzled and smoked and popped, sparks bursting from its body.

He glanced at his hand. It was red and raw.

“You’re really crazy, you know that?”

He looked up to find Omicron standing and holding her gloved hand out in his direction. Surrounding him from all sides were rows of glowing white pipes. But he stared past them and stared holes into the woman. The woman grimaced and flicked her wrist—

—but before she could bring her hand down, Omicron was abruptly tackled to the side wall by another person. Jericho could barely register that the person was Alice before the two women fell into the glowing pools of light there and disappeared in an instant.

No.

Jericho dashed towards the wall but was stopped by a hand around the wrist. Turning his head, he found Ersatz standing there, eyes wide and livid, practically foaming at the mouth. There were white cracks along man’s body, bleeding out from his wounded shoulder. The cracks were gradually spreading, fragmenting along his lower torso. Still, Ersatz struggled forward, brandishing the knife Omicron had dropped onto the ground moments before. Before Ersatz could even make a move, however, he too was tackled to the side of the wall—and into one of the glowing pools of light—by another peacekeeper. Mladen. In an instant they too were swallowed up.

And then—

—just like that, the light on the wall dimmed into nothing, leaving the black smears looking just as they did when Jericho had first come into the hall.

Jericho drifted to the wall and placed a hand on one of the smears. Cold.

He couldn’t quite comprehend the scene.

Elizabeta was now out in the hall hugging Csilla tightly. There were other peacekeepers filtering in through the elevator. The sirens were blaring. Talib was standing in front of him, shaking him and shouting. Alice. Where was Alice.

Were those his own thoughts or Talib’s shouts. Jericho didn’t know.


(            )

“Oh…” Omega lifted her head as she flipped her hair. She was sitting at the board game table across from Tau and had been using one of her black pieces to capture one of his white ones when her eyes had suddenly glazed over.

“Omega?” Tau pressed, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “What is it?”

Omega returned her attention to the board game, eyes still glazed over, as she finished capturing his piece. “Omicron isn’t in the Serpens Establishment anymore. Neither is Ersatz.”

Tau clicked his tongue at her move and handed one of the black game pieces he’d captured previously back over to her. “That’s good…. Then, where are they?”

“I don’t know,” she hummed, accepting the piece and placing it in the spot that his had previously occupied. She flipped her hair again, this time over her shoulder. “They’re not anywhere that I’ve used my conductor at. I can’t see them through any of my mediums. Oh, but Izsak is still there—”

“What?!” Tau snapped, shooting up to a stand. “That’s not good at all! What was the point of Omicron going there? I knew trusting that peacekeeper was a terrible, awful idea! Dammit! Izsak has valuable information! If I hadn’t lost that damn game with Omicron then—”

“It was the peacekeeper with the suitcase again,” Omega said, voice sing-song. “But he didn’t have his suitcase this time around. What a terrifying person.”

“The suitcase bastard Omicron met in the Twin Cities?” Tau pinched the bridge of his nose. “Again?”

“Theta is off right now,” Omega sang. “I wonder what they’ll do when they find out their knight in shining armor has failed.”


“If someone asked for your help, cried in front of you, or asked for your love, what would you do? Certainly, the easiest answer would be to embrace them. It’s the simplest method with the fastest effect. But giving a hug or a kiss or even offering a drink—these are all temporary measures. What about tomorrow? The day after that? Would you embrace them every single time? And what if you’re no longer around? What then? That is why, Jericho, I will not be like any of the others. I will not simply embrace you.”

Doctor Alice Kingsley, Third Chairwoman of the Psychological Evaluations Department of Ophiuchus

7.6: Jericho’s Peace (Guerra)

Re-cap: 

Synchronization has occurred. 

Several months prior, peacekeeping agent Jericho was assigned to investigate the disappearance of a missing peacekeeping agent named Leona, future first chairwoman of the ELPIS Department of Ophiuchus. His investigation took him to the Twin Cities of Gemini alongside his assigned partner Talib Al-Jarrah where he encountered an ELPIS sect and ELPIS leader Omicron who had been working with Atienna’s teacher Usian. After falling into a period of stasis after their clash, Jericho arrived in New Ram City to rescue Prince Olivier Chance from former peacekeeping agent Izsak Wtorek who was discovered to have been manipulated and indoctrinated into ELPIS. 

Upon Jericho’s return to Ophiuchus, he was introduced by Talib to Gabrielle Law and her inner circle which consisted of his psychiatrist Doctor Alice Kingsley, Agent Ferris Hart, and a handful of other peacekeeping agents.

And now—

Lepischau, Cancer

“He’s going around back!”

Jericho skidded to a halt as Talib’s voice echoed around the stucco alley walls. He glanced up and found a paper crane enveloped in dark blue light racing over his head. He chased it down the opposite end of the alley and into the backdoor of what appeared to be a pastry shop. The pâtissiers within yelped and jumped backwards at his entrance sending a mist of flour into the air.

Jericho ignored them and scanned the area.

Floured counters, folded dough, piping bags gripped tightly in hands.

There.

The origami paper crane was fluttering over the counter that divided the kitchen from the front of the store which was crowded with startled customers. The crane began to ring around a patron who was slowly backing away towards the door behind him. A young blonde man with bulging, vacant eyes.

Jericho threw himself across the counter towards the man. Instead of running out the door as Jericho had calculated, the man grabbed the closest patron—an old woman wearing a floral shawl—next to him with one gloved hand and held out the other hand warningly. When Jericho continued forward anyway, the man flicked his wrist. At the base of his gloved palm flashed brilliantly light that flickered from a pastel pink to a mint green. Telling signs. The light eventually solidified into a distinct shape. A gun. A Conjuror.

The other patrons shouted, cowered, but Jericho paid no mind. Instead, he studied the gun. It was misshapen and crooked like someone had melted it the forge of a conductor-manufacturing plant. Seeming to not care about its malformation, the Conjurer lifted the weapon and pressed it against the older woman’s temple.

Without hesitation, the Conjuror moved his finger to the trigger. Without hesitation, Jericho kicked his foot out and knocked the gun right out of the Conjuror’s hand. The Conjuror didn’t hesitate to conjure another weapon—a knife—and he released the old woman and charged at Jericho.

The man jerked forward strangely. Like a puppet on strings. It didn’t take much effort for Jericho to dodge the thrust of the man’s blade. And as Jericho lunged forward to knock it out of the man’s hand, he found that the blade too was misshapen, bent. Jericho swung his suitcase up and uppercut the Conjurer causing the man to lose his footing. Using the open opportunity, Jericho spun the man around and slammed him against the wall. One of the patrons screeched.

Jericho reached for the suppression cuffs on his belt and slapped them onto the man’s wrists. The man immediately went slack and let out a groan.

“What is your name?” Jericho asked as he held the Conjurer in place.

“Leize. I’m Leize. My name is Leize,” the Conjurer whispered, eyes wide, words hollow. “That wasn’t me. I-It wasn’t. I saw. Not me.”

“You are okay, Leize,” Jericho said. “You will be treated by the Medical Department of Ophiuchus—”

“I’ve found the Manipulator!” This time Talib’s voice resounded much more closely. Just outside of the store.

The paper crane had slipped beneath the door and was now hovering outside the shop.

Jericho released the Conjuror who collapsed like a rag doll on the floor. He stared at the man for a moment, regretting that he had not put him down more gently. He then addressed the older woman whom the Conjuror had previously held hostage: “Please watch this man. And do not take off the cuffs.”

With that, Jericho burst out of the storefront following the fluttering paper crane through the busy streets of the Cancerian town. He blasted past the crepe stall that was pulled out on the side of the store and darted along the gray brick sidewalk.

The crowd casually strolling along the pathway let out shrieks and parted.

There.

The only one who was running away from him.

The Manipulator. A tall, blonde man wearing a dark blue suit. His escape was one full of clumsy stumbling with each step ending in a trip that he had to pick himself up from. Jericho was vaguely reminded of the drunk, swaggering man whom Cadence had played a round of poker with at a bar the last time they had synchronized.

The distance between them closed swiftly.

As Jericho neared him, however, the man abruptly whipped out a knife conductor and began swinging it wildly in an arc in his direction. Fortunately, the Manipulator’s erratic behavior earlier had already prompted people to stay as far away from him as possible. No complications.

Ducking beneath the swing of the blade, Jericho swept his leg beneath the man’s feet causing the man to flop backwards onto his back.

Jericho pounced on the fallen Manipulator and held him there, squeezing the hand that wielded the knife conductor. There was a crack and the Manipulator released the weapon with a yelp. Jericho placed a foot on the conductor, dragged it away from the man, and slipped it into a slot on his belt. He then felt along his belt and then paused.

Hm.

He had forgotten to grab an additional suppression cuff from his suitcase which was for once not attached to his arm.

What to do.

Abruptly, the Manipulator began writhing and convulsing beneath him. The man’s eyes snapped to the back of his head and his tongue lolled out from his mouth.

Jericho released the man and rose to a stand watching the man continue to contort almost as if having a seizure. Jericho knew this, of course, was not a seizure. Fact. This was penance. Justice.

Talib Al-Jarrah joined him half a second later. He was panting heavily but brushed past Jericho to inspect the perpetrator.

A sympathetic yet righteous look passed over Talib’s face before he knelt down to slap suppression cuffs on the man’s wrists. “What a fool.”

***

Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

“The Cancerian Manipulator was charged with five cases of illegal manipulation and conducting without a license. Four of the cases were women. They were treated by medical Conductors who managed to transmute most of the Manipulator’s vitae out from their bodies. They are in recovery. The same cannot be said for a charged suspect. It seems as if he’s suffering from the usual psychosis that results from living manipulation.” Rattling off the details of their latest closed case, Talib took a sip of tea and crossed his legs. He clicked his tongue and shook his head, huffing, “This is why Manipulators have such a terrible reputation. Because of people like this man.”

“If you aren’t careful, you’ll end up not so much different than him,” Doctor Alice Kingsley said from beside him. She was eating a fruit salad from a plastic container and had paused to gesture at him with her fork. “Although with the way you are, I’m not sure it’d make a difference.”

“Ah, yes, Alice, your words are as sharp as a knife that cuts through the heart as always,” Talib said. “Good. That’s how I know the Organization hasn’t gotten to you yet.” He pointed to her plastic fork. “But, if you continue using things like that then it’s only a matter of time. Don’t you know that’s how they’re able to move forward with their plans? They make small, subtle changes to your environment without you noticing. You think to yourself ‘oh yes, how convenient this disposable fork is,’ but in reality, that fork is a device they use to lower your guard—that’s how they get you. Ignorance is compliance!”

“It isn’t healthy to make blasé comments like that,” Alice returned. “You may eventually convince yourself that all you are saying is true, and then you may not even be able to discern reality from fiction.”

“Who says that it’s fiction?” Talib rebutted before his voice became gravely: “The Organization is a very real threat, Alice. I’ve known since childhood that you were of a person of intelligence so it’s strange that you would openly deny their existence—unless it’s that you’re trying to get them to think that you don’t believe they’re real which is quite ingenious—”

“For such a terrifying organization, Talib, why would they have such a common name as ‘Organization’? Assuming that they’re the megalomaniacs you’re painting them as then would they not choose a more eye-catching pseudonym?”

“Well—”

Jericho watched them go back and forth from the sofa across from him for a moment before he turned to study the others in the room. Ferris Hart from the Assignment Department was sitting to his left and was giving Talib a tired look. She had recently dyed her hair a bright popping blue, and Jericho still had yet to adjust to it.

“Adjusting to new things takes time,” Alice had told him during one of their first sessions. “And a willingness to accept.”

Roberto Gonzalez, a middle-aged man of Leonian descent with dark curls and full cheeks, was sitting to Jericho’s right and puffing a v-cig. Roberto belonged to the Commerce Regulation Department of Ophiuchus. Although the man was only a general agent in the department, as Gabrielle put it, “he had the keenest eye in Ophiuchus.” Accordingly, Roberto was able to spot conjured or transmuted counterfeits of anything on the spot. He had even closed a case that made headlines in the papers recently.

Although there was no seating chart in place that Jericho knew of, it always seemed as if they fell into the same seating arrangements whenever they had their lunch meetings in Gabrielle’s office. At the thought of Gabrielle, Jericho stared at the empty desk behind him. The dust piling up on the surface was unsightly.

“Regardless of your beliefs, your Cancerian criminal was handed to me,” Alice said, waving off Talib mid-rant. “I’ve heard from the chairman above me that they may transfer you both to more specialized departments.” She locked eyes with Jericho as she said this. “And I put a good word in for you both despite my initial misgivings, so we are making progress.”

“Well, your report was nicely typed, Talib,” Roberto commended. He spoke very fast like he was in a rush, but he appeared very relaxed. “Might get you a promotion up to maybe the fourth chair of the General Investigations Department. And with Gabe promoted to third chair last month, and Alice keeping it up as third chair of the Psychological Evaluations Department, we might actually be getting somewhere finally.”

“Correction, Roberto,” Talib interjected, “I wasn’t the one who typed up the report. It was my partner here, Jericho.”

“The ELPIS guy? Really?”

The guy who gets paid to play spot the difference? Really? 

“I’m not with ELPIS,” Jericho said. “It’s rude for you to say that.”

Roberto scoffed. “I still don’t get why Gabrielle roped you into this to begin with. She wants to create a big and good name for herself in order to head Ophiuchus, but she took you in. With a background like that, you’re bound to ruin her reputation.”

“Not many people know of my former association with ELPIS,” Jericho corrected. “Only the first chairs of the departments and the head chairman of Ophiuchus know. And Alice. And you all.” And the other five. “I don’t use my conductor often.”

“Roberto, how could you say something like that?” Ferris interjected. “We’ve been working with him for months now and you can see how dedicated he is. I can’t believe you.”

“That’s not what you said when you found out the first time he used to be a part of ELPIS,” Roberta scoffed. “You told me you were scared of him.”

Jericho paused and stared at Ferris. “Really?”

“I—”

“Enough,” Alice said, putting her salad down on the island table. “Even though Gabrielle is away, we need to keep consistent with our work. There is no point in remaining in the same position. We all need to work to elevate our rankings, including you, Roberto—”

“Hey, I’m trying—”

“Yes, Roberto is merely being stagnated by the Organization’s machinations—”

“Talib, be quiet—”

Jericho watched them fire back and forth.

In the past couple of months, Jericho had found that his social circle had increased somewhat. The addition of Olivier, Lavi, Cadence, Werner, Maria, and Atienna had already increased Jericho’s circle from one to seven. He was quite happy with his progress, although he could not inform Alice of it due to the group’s agreement of secrecy. Therefore when he was introduced by Talib to the individuals who were in Gabrielle’s inner circle, he supposed he had been something akin to ‘happy’ since Alice was able to see this progress.

“What are you looking at?” Roberto huffed suddenly causing Jericho to realize he’d been staring at the man.

“Nothing,” Jericho replied, looking away in favor of staring at Alice’s salad.

Jericho wondered if Roberto was someone who could even be considered a friend. He made a mental note to inquire Alice about it later. Or maybe Atienna or Cadence.

That aside, other than Gabrielle herself, three other people who were a part of Gabrielle’s ‘inner circle’ were missing from the luncheon.

The first was Moraeni, a man from Piscese who apparently knew Izsak and Gabrielle during the war. He worked in the Licensing Department and had a rather busy schedule. Cadence had tried several times to convince Jericho to “butter Moraeni up” so that Olivier could more easily pass the State Conducting Exam. Jericho hadn’t understood what she’d meant but Werner, Atienna, and Olivier had all shut down the idea.

Whenever Jericho would pass Moraeni in the hallways, the Piscese man would always give Jericho a wink and a small smile before rushing off to his next evaluation. Jericho would try his best to return the gesture. That was what their relationship amounted to.

Then there was Elizabeta. Wtorek Elizabeta.

Despite being apparently a significant part of Gabrielle’s operations, Elizabeta seldomly made her appearance. She was a Transmutationist in the Medical Department of Ophiuchus which was one of the busiest departments in the organization alongside General Investigations, Assignments, and Licensing. She was most likely preoccupied with her largest case. That of Izsak.

Izsak. Wtorek Izsak.

An Ophiuchian Conjuror originally from Taurus. Someone Alice, Talib, and Gabrielle respected. Someone Olivier was fond of. Someone who had been a part of Gabrielle’s inner circle. Someone who had tried to kill Olivier for being a True Conductor. Someone who had become a member of ELPIS. Correction, someone who had been manipulated via Manipulator into working with ELPIS.

Needless to say, Wtorek Izsak was also a no show.

The last no show was Flannery Caertas, but Jericho did not find her not being present unusual. She was not a peacekeeper by profession. And she apparently only swung by in their first meeting because she was well acquainted with Alice and Talib. Jericho was confused about the relation there, but he did not question it. “She’s the money bags,” Roberto had told him one day when he had been in one of his better moods.

Their luncheon concluded half an hour later, and they all headed back to their respective departments within the Serpens Establishment. While on the way back to the General Investigations Department, Talib excused himself to the toilet leaving Jericho to stand out in the hall waiting for him.

“Traitor.”

At the sudden whisper that tickled the back of his neck, a sense of deja vu whipped through Jericho’s mind and something akin to a chill ran up his spine. Jericho turned his head in the direction of the whisper but all he found was Ferris Hart.

“Hey, Jericho,” she said when she approached him, “sorry if I startled you—”

“You did not startle me.”

Ferris chuckled. “Oh, okay. Uhm…what Roberto said earlier. I—”

“It is okay if you are afraid of me,” Jericho stated, offering her a thumbs up since it seemed customary and appropriate. “I won’t force you to change how you feel.”

Ferris looked sad when he said this, but he couldn’t understand why.

***

His weekly session with Alice saw to them dissecting the contents of a small leather journal.

“I’ve noticed that you’ve been adding drawings to the weekly journal entries I’ve been requiring you to write,” Alice noted, flipping through the journal in question.

That was true.

After Jericho’s incident in the Twin Cities several months prior, Alice had begun requiring him to detail his thoughts, feelings, and activities in weekly journal entries which she would go over the following week.

His first journal entry had read, “Given advice by C. Suggested to use Ophiuchian badge to get occasional free drinks. Informed C that I do not drink alcohol.” The next entry read: “Spoke with Doctor Kingsley. Spoke with Talib. A stated interest in my journal. Spoke with member of ELPIS Department. Denied requested information. Will try again later.”

Alice had not been pleased at these entries, although she voiced her interest in ‘C’ and ‘A’ and only seemed mildly put off when he declined to speak on them.

The transition from writing in the journal entries to drawing in them had been a smooth one. When Jericho initially received the journal from Alice, he hadn’t been sure of what she wanted from the entries and had spent his free time staring at the blank journal page in thought. But it was during one of the first synchronization meetings that Werner held that Jericho had begun to sketch absentmindedly in the corner of his journal. He rendered the Capricornian Lieutenant in stick-figure form wearing a frown and the Ariesian prince with a scowl and fire spewing from his mouth. Olivier had noticed it first, glancing down at the drawing before snickering. Werner hadn’t been pleased and had made his displeasure known in a concise five-minute lecture. “A hobby was acceptable,” was something along the lines of what he’d said, “but a distraction was not.”

Afterward, Atienna had taken interest in his drawings and had suggested that he continue them in his spare time as to “have something to take his mind off of things”. Maria had asked for him to draw all sorts of things. He wasn’t sure if some of those things existed but tried to complete the requests anyway. Which landed him here with Alice squinting at a cat with bat wings.

“I was told it was customary to ‘doodle’.” Jericho stared. “This is not what you wanted?”

“Why would you assume that?” Alice asked tersely. She leaned back in her chair with crossed arms. “What you’ve drawn here has told me more than what you’ve written and spoken about in all of our sessions.” For a moment, Jericho thought he saw her smile. “They’re nice, Jericho. Continue them. But I am curious as to what’s inspired them though.”

Praise?

And then she stared at him with her piercing blue eyes.

Again he found himself wondering if she could somehow hear his thoughts. Maybe, he thought, she would be able to pry the other five from his mind if she stared long enough. He couldn’t let that happen. He broke off eye contact and stared at the corner of her desk.

“I’ve noticed that you haven’t mentioned ELPIS recently in your entries or in our sessions save for your recent interview with the ELPIS Department,” Alice drew suddenly. “What are your thoughts on Wtorek Izsak’s condition?”

“The Medical Department says that it’s complex. The manipulation. They’re having a hard time transmuting the Manipulator’s vitae from Izsak. Elizabeta would know more about this than me.”

“Yes, that’s what they say.” Alice raised her head. “And Elizabeta is only able to perform transmutations along the guidelines that they’ve provided her with. She’s told me that it’s been difficult to even do that.” She began tapping her fingers on the surface of her desk, her manicured nails click-clacking. “You’ve seen how suppression cuffs affect individuals who have been manipulated firsthand, Jericho.”

Recalling Leize’s groaning and stuttering, Jericho nodded. “Yes.”

“This detail hasn’t been released yet but Elizabeta has told me that the suppression cuffs render Izsak fully unconscious.” She shook her head. “And that implies that Izsak isn’t under such manipulation—something that Elizabeta refuses to believe…. As much as I believe in Izsak’s character, these are the facts. But there is something missing. The head of the Medical Department is still labeling this as a manipulation case despite everything. Something here isn’t fitting. I don’t like it.”

“Is that something Talib has said?”

Alice frowned. “Don’t insult me, Jericho.”

Jericho stiffened under her gaze.

But then she shook her head and pinched the bridge of her nose before reclining back in her seat with a sigh. “Forget I said anything.” She handed Jericho his journal back before reaching under her desk to pull out a leather, diamond-studded handbag. “Continue your journal entries, Jericho. And feel free to leave whenever you’re ready.”

Jericho accepted the journal.

Alice paused as she rounded the desk and seemed to evaluate him in the silence. After a beat, she said, “Elizabeta asked me to invite you to come down to the Black Constellation Center to visit Izsak.”

Jericho cocked his head. “Why? I wasn’t close to Wtorek Izsak.”

Olivier was.

“I’m surprised you’re not more interested in it to begin with given your goal,” Alice returned after studying Jericho for a beat. She then sighed: “Elizabeta’s being selfish most likely. I wasn’t going to even mention it. But given your recent journal entries, I thought it might be a good exercise. I’m also curious about it myself so I can’t deny I have a reason either.”

Jericho thought on it for a moment. “For you, Alice, okay. Izsak is not a real member of ELPIS but since he is being used by them, I will assist.”

Offering either a hum of approval of a sigh of disapproval, Alice departed from the office leaving Jericho in silence.

“Traitor.”

This time the whisper ghosted Jericho’s ear. When he turned his head, however, he only saw the awards and certificates dotting Alice’s wall.

A ghost of a memory? The blurring between reality and past illusions hadn’t happened in a while. What was it that Alice had said? Focus on a single point.

Jericho focused on a point on the wall. It was painted white, he realized.

White. ELPIS.

He wasn’t forgetting, was he? Forgetting ELPIS? Forgetting what they’d done? Forgetting that feeling?

He gripped the journal tightly, crinkling the pages beneath his fingernails.

No. He would never forget. His reason for being.


Suppression cuffs are a newly added addition of required equipment to be carried by Ophiuchian peacekeeping agents at all times. These items will suppress the vitae flow within a suspect who is capable of using a conductor and will render them unconscious. Going forth, each agent is to carry at least two suppression cuffs while out on investigations at all times.

Additional information: The discovery of these devices was made by Agent Leona of the ELPIS Investigations Department, and they have been tested thoroughly. Usage on victims being illegally manipulated will suppress the Manipulator’s vitae and allow the victim to operate at a somewhat normal capacity until the Manipulator’s vitae is removed. 

Mass Department Update posted in the main hall of the Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus, Post Date: 31.08.1941

1.6: Jericho Track

Re-cap:

Peacekeeper Jericho has just been assigned an investigative mission regarding a Capricornian-Aquarian border conflict out near Gradstall. His evaluator Doctor Kngsley gravely has shown her disaproval of his joining of the mission due to his nature.

As he prepared to leave Ophiuchus, however, he was pushed down the stairs and gravely injured by a mysterious individual.

Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

“The Conductors from the Medical Department have cleared me for travel.”

“So they have,” Alice Kingsley returned thickly. She sat across from him at her desk with crossed legs and arms. In front of her was a file with his name on it. She clicked her tongue. “The times certainly are tense.”

“Yes,” Jericho said after a beat. “If you clear me too, I can aid the Ophiuchian mission for peace.”

Alice waved him off. “Don’t try that with me. I’ve told you many times before—it doesn’t work with me.” She leaned forward and stared into him. “Let me get this clear. You’re insisting that you fell down the stairs.”

“I tripped,” Jericho amended.

“A trip that left you a bloody mess at the front of our SERPENS Establishment.”

Jericho nodded. “I am a klutz.”

Silence.

Alice did not smile. Jericho was unsure how to react.

“I can’t help people who don’t seek help themselves,” Alice clipped, tapping her fingers on his portrait photograph clipped to the file. “Since you’re insisting that you merely tripped, there is no evidence at present that allows me to hold you back.”

“So,” Jericho tried, “I’ve been cleared?”

“You’ve been reassigned.”

Jericho blinked. “Reassigned?”

“The team handling the Capricornian-Aquarian conflict has already departed,” Alice explained. “They left while you were in the Medical Department.”

“… Oh.”

“Instead, you’re being assigned to a missing person’s case,” Alice continued. She studied him, then made a sound that he assumed was a laugh. “No need to look disappointed. Any case assigned to an Ophiuchian is high profile. But even if that weren’t the case, shouldn’t someone who’s chosen to serve as an Ophiuchian agent not care whether or not something is high profile? Are we not called by those outside these borders as neutral peacekeepers?”

“Yes.”

Alice leaned back in her chair and studied him long and hard before she elaborated: “The missing individual is an Ophiuchian agent.”

Jericho perked up at this.

“You may have heard of her. Leona.”

“Leona.”

“The soon-to-be Chairman of the ELPIS Department, and an individual who completed the State Conductor Exam with the second highest score of all time. And a saint candidate.” Alice laced her fingers together and frowned. “The very fact that no one has seen her face and yet everyone knows these things highlights her position in our current world. Some say she is even the symbol of Ophiuchus. Peace.” Alice seemed to chuckle at the thought.

After wondering if he should laugh along, Jericho tried, “That’s… bad.”

There was a long pause of silence.

“I don’t know all the details, but the agent was last seen in the Twin Cities of Gemini,” Alice finally said, closing the folder gently. “And it seems as if you were granted your wish. This may involve ELPIS, although the uncertainty of it has not allowed the ELPIS Department to be dispatched.” She pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “Your train is to depart in an hour, so it’s best that you get ready. It would be unfortunate if you were to miss it again.”

* * *

Jericho arrived at the Grand Snake Train Station with a single suitcase in hand. In it was one change of clothes and his conductor.

The station was as busy as usual. Ophiuchian Conductors dressed in their monochrome uniforms crowded the platforms and left little room to breathe. Wrapped around many of their right upper arms was a white sash with the Ophiuchian symbol—the letter U with a wave running through its center—emblazoned on it. Interspersed between the agents were a handful of individuals who were not dressed in monochrome. Rather than boarding the trains, they were leaving them. They were most likely citizens here to submit requests for aid.

“Mister Jericho…?”

Jericho blinked down and found a young woman standing at his side. She was very small and slender. Tiny. He would not have even seen her if it weren’t for that pink.

Bubblegum pink. That was the color of her pixie-cut.

“You are Mister Jericho, right? Of the General Investigations Department?”

Jericho nodded.

“I’m Ferris Hart. Cancerian.” She extended her hand. “I work in the Assignment Department.”

Jericho stared at her hand for a moment before he shook it. For some odd reason, her face lit up at this and she cleared her throat and straightened her uniform.

“Please follow me, and I’ll introduce you to who you’ll be working with.”

Jericho followed the young woman through the crowd and nearly ran into her when she stopped short in front of a signpost. He glanced up. Platform 2, it read.

Two men and one woman stood by the sign, all dressed in monochrome suits. One man stood leaning against the post with his arms crossed, wearing a trench coat over his uniform and a homburg hat tipped over his eyes.

“Hey, everyone,” Ferris greeted them with a small wave before clearing her throat. She stepped to the side and gestured to Jericho. “This is Jericho. He’s been assigned the missing person’s case. Please introduce yourselves.”

The agent who introduced himself first stood a head taller than Jericho. He had curly light brown hair that was haphazardly slicked back. The pair of horn-rimmed glasses perched on his hawk nose made his hazel eyes seem twice as large.

“Wtorek Izsak—Izsak being my first name,” the man said with a bright smile as he extended his hand. He wore thick gloves lined with metal. “From Taurus. Conjurer. Happily married. Proud father. Bad vision.” He gestured to Jericho’s own square glasses. “We’re twins.”

“Jericho,” Jericho said, shaking his hand and studying his face. Something about it was familiar. “Not married. Or a father.”

Izsak stared at him for a long moment before he barked out a laugh and clapped Jericho hard on the back. “Gabe, looks like we’ve got one of the good ones!”

The one nicknamed Gabe stepped forward to shake Jericho’s hand. She was roughly his height and had dark skin and a dark rope of hair tied high into a ponytail. There were dark circles beneath her eyes but the smile beneath them was a blinding white.

“Gabrielle Law,” the woman said. “I’m originally from Aries. Lived in the countryside. I’m an Elementalist. I’ve heard a lot about you from Doctor Kingsley—er, is everything okay?”

Jericho found himself unable to release the woman’s hand. Unable to remove his eyes from the woman’s face. There was something about it that itched at his memory.

“Have we met before?” Jericho tried, still shaking the woman’s hand. “On another assignment?”

Gabrielle searched Jericho’s face. “No, I don’t think so.” She glanced down at their still ongoing handshake. “But it’s good to hear that you’ve heard of me… er…”

That wasn’t it. There was something else. Something about Gabrielle Law that was very nostalgic. Familiar. Jericho was certain.

“You…” Jericho was close now. Close to the answer. “You are… someone who looks like they have a terrible personality.”

Gabrielle stared. Ferris stared. Izsak stared. The unintroduced man stared.

Jericho released Gabrielle’s hand and covered his mouth. “I didn’t mean to say that out loud.” He paused. “Oh. I mean—”

Izsak threw his head back as a laugh tore through his body. He slapped Gabrielle hard on the back and wiped a tear from his eye. “Told you, you can’t get everyone on your side.” And then he leaned forward and gave Jericho a cuff on the shoulders. “You’ve got a good eye.”

“I am sorry.”

Gabrielle looked nonplussed. Unaffected. Maybe she was too tired to care. It seemed that way because the woman soon yawned and rubbed her eyes. “None taken. Can’t please everyone.”

Then the final agent in the trench coat stepped forward. He regarded Jericho with charcoal-colored eyes. His hair was the same shade of black, and his curls were barely tamed by his hat. A mole dotted his cheek right below his left eye.

After a very long pause, the man pulled down his hat. “The name is Talib al-Jarrah. Manipulator Conductor of Scorpian descent.”

Jericho reached out his hand.

Talib studied it before rubbing his chin. “I noticed that you have yet to say where you’re from or to state your conducting form. Why is that?”

“That’s—”

“Is it because you’re working for the Organization?”

Jericho felt his heart skip a beat. He frowned. “The Organization?”

“Yes, the Organization.” Talib nodded gravely before leaning in close and whispering in Jericho’s ear. “The ones orchestrating everything since the very beginning. The ones behind everything.”

“The ones behind everything?”

Before Talib could elaborate, Ferris cut in-between them. Her face was red. Jericho couldn’t tell whether she was angry or embarrassed.

“Talib!” Ferris snapped. “Not this again! Other agents will avoid going on assignments with you if you keep doing this!”

“Avoid me, Miss Hart?” Talib scoffed. “They only avoid me because they know that I’m onto them.” He leaned in close again. “The Organization is afraid of what I know.”

Jericho stared. “What?”

“Talib is our resident conspiracy enthusiast,” Izsak provided, looking more amused than anything else. “Sure makes the train rides go by fast. My favorite is the one about bubble wands being secret weapons of mass destruction.”

“You call it conspiracy,” Talib drew with a tip of his hat. “I call it the hidden truth.” He whipped his head round in Izsak’s direction and then formed a circle with both of his hands. “How you can even view bubble wands as a child’s toy baffles me. The chemicals laden in them make us all complacent!” He turned to Jericho again, clenching his fists. “The Organization is nefarious and clever. They’ve even found their way into Ophiuchus through the Assignment Department.”

Ferris threw up her hands. “Oh, so you’ve finally found our links to your Organization, have you?”

“Aha!” Talib pointed a finger at her face. “So you’ve admitted it! You are affiliated with them!”

“I don’t mean to interrupt your flirting,” Jericho interjected. “But I didn’t realize there would be so many people on this assignment.”

Ferris and Talib paused with their mouths ajar. Their cheeks reddened in unison, and their gazes met. In the background, Izsak chortled.

“That’s not—” Talib began.

Ferris cleared her throat and straightened her uniform. “Actually, Gabrielle and Izsak are on a different assignment, but they’ll be riding along with you partway.”

“A different assignment,” Jericho repeated.

Ferris cast a glance sideways as she dug into her bag. “Yes, it’s one that involves Leona—the subject of your missing person’s case.” She procured two manila envelopes stuffed with papers and handed them to Jericho and Talib. “The details are inside, but in short, before her disappearance, she was investigating a lead on a party we believed to be involved in an Ariesian assassination plot.”

“A party,” Jericho stated. He received odd looks.

“From the stories I’ve heard, Leona is a very skilled Conductor,” Ferris continued quietly. She glanced around. “I didn’t think anyone would be able to lay a hand on her, but if there were anyone able to then it’d be…”

ELPIS.

Yes, it had to be.

ELPIS.

Finally, he would be able to—

“But we still don’t know for sure.” Ferris waved the idea off. “At least until you and Talib investigate. If you find any possibility that ELPIS may be involved, you are to report back to the ELPIS Department.”

Jericho blinked out of his thoughts. So he was working with Talib Al-Jarrah, then.

“Anyways, the lead that Leona was looking into turned out to be true.” Gabrielle ran a hand down her face. “Which is why Izsak and I are heading to Aries. And since we’re riding together, it’d be a good opportunity to exchange information.” She laughed a bit as she studied Jericho. “And get to know our fellow agents.”

Jericho paused. “Aries. The assassination.”

“Yes.” Ferris nodded. She looked grim. “I heard you were in the Medical Department when it happened, but… There was an assassination attempt on the prince of Aries.”

Jericho’s shoulder throbbed with an odd phantom pain and he reached up to rub it. “I see.”

* * *

The four of them boarded the v-train half an hour after and found their way to their assigned compartment. Two booths faced each other within the compartment. Between them was a small table nailed to the floor.

Jericho took the window seat and Talib sat beside him. Gabrielle and Izsak sat across from them.

As the other agents became situated, Jericho spied out the window. From the sea of agents, he could barely make out Ferris’s bright pink head. She was waving. He raised his hand to wave back.

The train started up a second later and began to roll along the tracks. The compartment rumbled with each click, clack, click, clack. The horn bellowed.

The crowds of Ophiuchian agents standing on the platforms flitted past the window in a monochrome blur as the train pulled out of the station. The monochrome soon faded into pure white as the light from the central vitae reservoir pulled into view. It was even brighter than the sun. So white and bright that it was blinding.

Jericho held his stomach as it churned. He turned his eyes away from the window and flipped through the files he’d been provided. Odd. There was no picture of Leona inside. How were they supposed to find her if—

“So, Jericho, tell us a bit about yourself.”

Jericho glanced up and found Gabrielle studying him. Despite the fact she looked as if she was about to doze off, her lips were upturned in a smirk. A very odd combination.

“I’ve already made friends with Talib and Izsak here since we’ve been on a lot of assignments together,” Gabrielle continued. “I’ve seen you around, but we’ve never had the chance to talk.” She crossed her arms and gestured toward him. “I’d like to hear about you. Maybe we could be friends, too.”

There was some underlying intention in the woman’s words, Jericho knew. But he didn’t know what. Perhaps he was overthinking it.

“Aw, don’t haze the kid,” Izsak chuckled. “You can’t bring everyone under your umbrella.” He leaned forward and dug into his suit pocket. A burst of amber light erupted from the pocket, and out from the light, Izsak procured a fluffy, white object. An object that Izsak pushed forward with a wink.

Jericho stared at the offering in confusion before he took it in his hands. It was soft to the touch and had a pair of flopping ears, a pair of misshapen eyes, and a lopsided smile. A stuffed animal. Which animal, Jericho wasn’t sure.

“You know if you were going to get your Conducting License just to conjure up things like that,” Gabrielle sighed with a shake of her head, “you could have just been a stage magician.”

Jericho glanced at Izsak’s hands—rather, his gloves. They were conductors, it seemed.

“Hey, can’t believe I’m hearing that from you,” Izsak snapped back at Gabrielle. “I need to practice for Csilla, alright? You know how hard it is for Conjurers to do these kinds of things. We need to picture every single nook and cranny of the things we conjure down to the details. Anyway, Csilla loves this stuff.” Izsak glanced at Jericho and broke into a smile. “Csilla is my daughter. Here, let me show you.” Before Jericho even had the chance to digest the conjured stuffed animal, Izsak shoved yet another object into his face. A photograph.

A smiling young girl with light brown hair braided into twin pigtails sat covered in dirt next to a smiling woman. Their smiles were identical as were their light brown eyes.

“Right next to her is my wife, Elizabeta,” Izsak explained as he shook the photograph back and forth. “She works as an agent, too—people think Csilla takes more after her since Csilla took the V-Type Test and it said that she’s a Transmutationist like her mother, but we all know she’s a daddy’s girl.” A deep breath. “Did you know that she was almost chosen to be saint candidate too—my little Csilla!”

“You really have no shame.” Gabrielle sighed again.

Glancing between the two, Jericho found himself frowning. “I don’t understand.”

“You don’t understand?” Izsak pulled back and glanced at the photo. He chuckled again. “About what?”

“You and your wife work as Ophiuchian peacekeepers. You have a daughter.” Jericho frowned. “It’s one of the most dangerous professions. There are other Conducting License jobs. Better salary. Safer. Your daughter could lose both of you, and she would be left with nothing. I don’t understand.”

Izsak exchanged a look with Gabrielle, who exchanged the look with Talib. Jericho was also confused by his own behavior. Normally, he didn’t engage this much with his associates. It was too difficult. And Gabrielle and Izsak weren’t even on the same assignment as him. So why…?

Jericho’s temple throbbed.

There was a beat of silence.

“Well, it’s because we love our daughter so much that we chose to be agents,” Izsak replied as he sank back into his chair and pocketed the photo. He stared out the window with half a smile. “I want her to live in a better world than this.”

It was then that Gabrielle leaned forward, propped her elbows on the table, and rested her chin on her folded hands. She stared at Jericho in a way that reminded him of Alice. “And you? Why are you working in Ophiuchus, Jericho?”

* * *

Twin Cities, Gemini

Jericho wasn’t sure when or how he had dozed off, but when Talib shook him awake, the sky beyond the window was pitch black.

Jericho stepped onto the platform before the others since his suitcase was much smaller and lighter. Easier to remove from the compartments.

As soon as he stepped out of the train, he took in a deep breath and tasted salt from the nearby ocean port and soot from the nearby conductor manufacturing plant. It was an unpleasant, yet nostalgic taste. But the nostalgia was odd as he’d never been to the Twin Cities before. Never had an assignment directing him to the location. How had he even known there was a conductor manufacturing plant nearby?

He brushed the thought aside.

The platform was dotted only by a handful of people and was sparsely lit by v-lamps that ran parallel along the train tracks. He made his way to the metal railing at the very end and peered over its edge.

A fractured city unfolded beneath him. The buildings glimmered with faint light like tiny stars and a spider web of streets ran between them. Right below him ran a large river that split the city in two. The river stretched far into the darkness—so far that the light from the city couldn’t unveil it.

Talib joined him, lugging along a very large and black suitcase. Dropping it to the ground with a sigh, Talib panted out, “Yes, it’s quite the sight. This Dioscuri Bridge here is in fact one of the most famous attractions in all of Gemini.” After a beat, Talib added, “I believe the Organization is using this as a gathering place for their secret meetings.”

“I see.” Jericho leaned closer against the railings.

“Careful with Mr. Giggles there,” came Izsak’s good-natured laugh.

“Mr. Giggles.” Jericho blinked before he looked down at his hands. In his left was his suitcase, and in his right—Oh. He was still holding the stuffed animal. Was he the strange one here or was it Izsak?

He turned and found Gabrielle and Izsak standing right behind him. Both were carrying heavy suitcases.

“Our train to Aries leaves in a couple minutes,” Izsak said as he jerked his thumb backward. “So we won’t be seeing each other for a while.” He pointed to Mr. Giggles. “But you can keep him.”

“I don’t want to,” Jericho said, staring at the thing. He glanced up to find an amused-looking Gabrielle and a startled Izsak. “Oh. I didn’t mean to be rude.”

“It’s fine.” Izsak waved him off. “But I insist you keep it.”

“He just doesn’t want to have to lug it to Aries,” Gabrielle elaborated as she closed the distance between her and Jericho to shake hands. “Anyways, I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot of each other in the future,” she said, giving his hand one last shake. She smiled thinly before she turned to leave with a loose wave. “It was nice getting to know you.”

Izsak offered the same formality before turning on his heels. “Oh, I remember now!” The man chuckled again as he joined Gabrielle’s side. “The reason it was so funny that Jericho said you have a terrible personality. That’s what the prince said to you the first time you met him.”

Jericho stared after the two before Talib cleared his throat.

“Those are good people, Mr. Jericho,” Talib said as he picked up his suitcase. He walked toward the exit and inclined his head, indicating that Jericho follow. “I hope we can be as good as them.”

After stuffing the plushie into his suitcase, Jericho followed after him.

The descent to the city from the bridge station was long. The stone stairs that led to the inner city seemed to extend forever, both downward and to the sides.

“These stairs,” Talib grumbled from beside him. “The Organization probably built them this way to weaken us.”

“Right,” Jericho replied, not even glancing in his direction.

Their footfalls echoed in the silence that followed.

“Can never get used to the looks,” Talib said from beside him.

“The looks.”

“When people recognize our uniforms,” Talib elaborated.

Jericho glanced around. Although there were not many people walking up and down the stairs, the people who were present eyed them. The stares weren’t subtle. Many were outright ogling.

“Seeing how this city is run…” Talib grunted as he lugged along his suitcase. It looked even heavier than he was. “I can’t tell if those are looks of admiration or looks of ‘get out of my city!’”

Jericho reached over and plucked Talib’s suitcase out of his hands. “How is this city run?”

“Oh, my thanks, Mr. Jericho,” Talib said, dusting off his hat and shaking off his arms. He straightened his cap before he elaborated, “Yes, there are many organized crime groups running the city.”

“And Ophiuchus allows them?”

Talib thought for a moment before answering. “After the war, they helped reshape the economy of this country. Without them, Gemini would never have become the powerhouse it is today.” He slid his hands into his coat pockets. “The crime groups also act as a quasi-police force and help reduce crime.” A side-glance. “Their competition. Plans of regulation have been discussed in our advisory board, but nothing concrete has been set yet. For now, they are a necessary evil. Besides, it’s a bit of a foible since there hasn’t been any evidence of the need for Ophiuchian intervention. We don’t want to overstep our bounds. It’s best practice to leave it to Gemini’s own security forces to handle it. As much as I hate the idea.”

“I see.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t know about them, Mr. Jericho.”

Jericho ruminated a response. Finally, he said, “I’ve been living under a rock.”

Talib stared. “Was that a joke?”

“No.”

They reached the street level ten minutes later.

The buildings here scratched at the sky, leaving only a crack of star-dotted blackness above their heads. A narrow one-lane road unfolded a couple of meters in front of them, and it was sandwiched between two enormous sidewalks. Although the road was empty, the walkways were spotted with ambling pedestrians.

“Well, it’s getting late,” Talib said from beside him as he rubbed his chin. “We should stop at an inn for the night. You—”

Before Talib could finish, a small body collided into the man’s own with such force that it knocked his hat clean off. The offender was a teary-eyed child. A boy. A distinctive scar ran diagonally across the boy’s face.

“I’m so, so sorry,” the boy stammered as he bent down to pick up Talib’s fallen hat. He handed it to the man with shaking hands. “I didn’t mean to—” His eyes widened as he seemed to register the monochrome uniform hidden beneath Talib’s trench coat.

“It’s all right.” Talib waved him off as he accepted the hat. “But you should—”

The boy took off in the opposite direction before Talib could finish.

“Well, that was rude—”

But Jericho was heading off in another direction too. Jericho could hear Talib sputter in confusion behind him, but he, too, was confused by his own actions. He moved forward as if being led along by an unknown force. A string pulling him along the streets.

The streets. He knew these streets. He knew these streets like the back of his hand. A turn here, a turn there. How did he know these streets? His head pounded; his stomach flipped. His footsteps echoed around the alleyways.

He came to an abrupt stop—strings cut—in front of a strip with wooden barricades along its front. The strip housed a collection of shops. A coffee shop. A bookshop. And between the two was a pile of ash and rubble. Singed wooden planks and shards of glinting glass protruded from the ash pile. A store must have been there before. Jericho could almost see it in his mind’s eye. A tavern, maybe, with a rustic brown roof and fogged-up windows. Dimly lit, maybe, with smoke from v-cigs and regular cigs clouding up the air.

It was nothing now. Carved from its place. Unsalvageable.

Jericho drifted past the barricades and approached the remains slowly. Ash and wood and glass crunched beneath his feet.

“TwinStars…” He murmured to himself. The name slid off his tongue easily, like it was something he would toss around often. Which he knew was not the case. He crouched down and sifted through the ash in thought.

A second later, Talib emerged from the alleyway behind. He was panting heavily and doubled over once he saw Jericho standing amidst the debris. When he recovered himself, Talib approached Jericho with raised brows: “How did you know about this place? It wasn’t mentioned in the debriefing file.”

“This place. What is it?”

Talib gave him an odd look and scratched his chin. “This was an establishment run by the Foxman brothers.” He frowned. “If you didn’t know that then how did you—”

“The Foxman brothers?” The name felt familiar on Jericho’s tongue.

Talib studied him for a moment in silence before nodding. “Yes, one of the crime families I mentioned earlier. Like I was saying, I arranged an audience for tomorrow morning with both the Foxmans and the head of the Romano Family. They know everything that happens in this city, so they must know something about the disappeared Miss Leona.”

Conjuror: a Conductor who falls into one of the five general conducting-type categories. Utilizing the vitae within themselves, they are able to craft physical objects. It requires a great deal of concentration and great knowledge of the physical properties of what is being conjured. (Living things have not yet been recorded to have been conjured. Research on this topic is extremely outlawed. Conjuring currency is also outlawed.)*

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