15.3: Lance Corporal, 0610 Enemy Encounter

Re-cap:

Atienna is locked in an override over Werner. After discovering that a Capricornian was disguised among their Argoan attackers, she follows Gilbert’s lead to complete the mission assigned to them–to meet with Captain Weingartner in the unoccuppied territory. As they near their point of destination, however, they find that the captain’s camp has been ransacked and three survivors remain: an Argoan named Emil, a fellow Capricornian soldier, and Marionette Engel of the Verbundene Augen movement.

Meanwhile, Werner finds him at the supposed threshold of life and death where he untangles himself from a memory only to encounter Lavi and the owner of the mysterious voice that always escapes his memory.


Feindliche Begegnung » Enemy encounter at 0610 hours

Unoccupied Territory, Argoan-Capricornian Border

Lance Corporal Klaus Kleine was accustomed to seeing dead bodies. He’d seen his first five years ago in his city-town of Buchstadt before he’d even been officially deployed. That day, the newspapers had praised Capricornian victory against an Argoan onslaught from Abschnitt 45 to 51, pushing forth celebrations all across the country. What the government gifted their citizens for their victory and sacrifice were caskets. They were of polished black wood, engraved with rigid gold lines, and embossed with the Capricornian sea-goat. No names designated.

The first casket to arrive in Buchstadt contained the body of Klaus’s senior at the military academy, Ulrich Stoeffman. Klaus had been witness to Stoeffman’s mother’s tears as the Militärpolizei peeled away the coffin lid to reveal his body. She had caressed Stoeffman’s pale face and wailed for hours—all in the town square.

That night, a resident fire Elementalist Conductor set all the bodies and caskets aflame as they sang the country’s national anthem.

For mother, for father, 
For glory, for honor,
Victory is upon us…”

Fear thundered through Klaus’s bones as he’d repeated the hymn ingrained in him since primary school. As his childhood friend Charite—before she became Omicron—had gripped his arm tightly, he could hear her thoughts echoing his own. I don’t want to die; I don’t want to die.

When Klaus had seen his first dead body on the battlefield—one felled by his own conjured rifle and fresh with ichor pouring out from all bodily orifices—he had puked. Stein had tormented him all the while, urging him to conjure a book “to help him grow some balls.” Klaus had continued to heave on the ground until First Lieutenant Werner Waltz ripped him up to a stand with an iron grip.

“Enough, Private Kleine,” Werner had said coldly. “You’re a Capricornian. If you have time for regrets, then you’re wasting my time.” In other words, there was no time for regrets.

And it was true.

Even here at their mysteriously fallen camp, as Klaus joined the others in collecting the name tags from their own and the Argoans, there was no time for regrets—no time to wonder if they could’ve done anything more, if they could’ve come earlier.

Stein swore from beside Klaus suddenly. He plucked a tag from a corpse draped over a log. “It’s fucking Lukas. He… He owes me twenty marks from poker.”

Klaus glanced down and registered the face of the man he had lent a book to only a week prior. He grimaced and gave an internal Monadic prayer before his gaze trailed over to a clearing in the campsite where Gilbert, Nico, and Werner—Atienna—stood in front of three seated individuals. The first was the captive Argoan Emil. The second was the survivor Heimler had found, Henning Ratha soldier from the 212th Division whom Klaus was not familiar with. Lastly, there was Marionette Engel, leader of the Verbundene Augen.

Klaus had been keeping a sharp eye on her political movement for some time now. He happily ate up the group’s surprisingly uncensored news pieces in his free time.

“A Capricorn without war.” It sounded nice.

***

At dusk, Klaus handed off a dozen tags to Second Lieutenant Wolff at the center of camp. Nico, Marionette, Emil, and Rath stood in a cluster just a meter away from Gilbert. Vogt was stationed behind them, watching like a hawk. Atienna was not present.

“Kleine.” Gilbert jerked his head and motioned him closer.

Kleine swallowed and complied.

“Go keep an eye on ‘Werner’ for me. He was collecting the tags and moving the bodies with the others, but I had him start the campfire instead.” Gilbert nodded across the field where Atienna was collecting pieces of wood from desecrated tents within eyesight.

“Yes, sir.” Klaus eyed Marionette Engel. “Sir, can I ask… how she even made it past the border?”

“Don’t think too hard, Kleine, and keep your damn lieutenant company,” was Gilbert’s response to that.

And that was that.

By the time Klaus made it over to Atienna, her fire was already crackling away. She was seated before it, knees pulled up to the chest, staring into the flames. At his approach, she lifted her head and offered him a small smile:

“Oh… hello, Klaus.”

It was odd hearing his first name used out here. But it was nice. Made him feel like more than a cog in the machine. Made him feel a little bit more human.

“Hi…” Klaus fumbled with his glasses. “Er… you’re good at making fires.”

“Oh, I’ve had quite a lot of practice.” The corners of Atienna’s—the lieutenant’s—eyes crinkled. “Is there something I can do for you?”

Weird but pleasant.

“I… was just wondering what Miss Engel, the Argoan, and Rath said about what happened here.” —A half-lie. He didn’t think she’d like the idea that he’d been sent over to keep an eye on her, after all.

“Oh…” A soft hum. “Did Gilbert not tell you this himself?”

Klaus stiffened. When he locked gazes with her, however, her lips were turned up slightly.

“But…” She averted her eyes. “A friend of a friend of mine advised that if you can’t solve a problem, you should ask a friend for a different perspective. And I agree.” Before Klaus could digest what she meant, she continued, “The three have differing stories… Miss Engel says that she came with a group of protesters. They planned to form a line at the middle of the unoccupied territory… She didn’t elaborate on her plans much further than that and demanded a lawful representative.”

A demonstration? One that seemed dangerous and stupid.

“She says that the Capricornians discovered her group and started attacking, so they tried defending themselves. Mr. Rath says that Miss Engel’s group attacked them first, and they defended themselves. He lost sight of Captain Weingartner during the confusion but suspects that he retreated. That Argoan—Emil—is still in shock… poor thing.”

‘Poor thing’—coming from the lieutenant’s mouth was very weird. Especially when it was in regards to an Argoan.

“Miss Engel didn’t mention anything about why she was in a Capricornian uniform—not even the possibility that it was used for her demonstration … which is a bit strange, don’t you think?”

“It’s like someone was trying to hide her identity,” Klaus realized, sinking down beside her. “Or maybe they were trying to blend in with us? Did she do it herself? What’s the point?”

“That’s exactly what I’m wondering,” Atienna murmured. “An elaborate political demonstration that’s gone wrong…?”

Klaus studied her and figured that she was probably a pretty person, before he cleared his throat. “It’s best to leave this to higher command. This isn’t really your problem to solve.”

“Are you saying that I’m an outsider looking in?” She side-glanced at him, Werner’s eyes piercing and cold. “And what makes you think you know who I am? I’ve seen you through Werner’s eyes, but you haven’t seen me. I might be closer than you think”

Klaus stiffened beneath that frigid gaze.

“I’m sorry. I was just teasing you.” Atienna chuckled, looking away sheepishly. “I know exactly where my place is. It’s not something I wonder about.”

Klaus liked Atienna. A lot. And he also knew his place like she did. Cog in the wheel. Part. Replaceable. Easy to do it—as easy as it was to conjure a single part of a conductor.

“I’m sorry you had to see all of this,” Klaus said after a beat, adjusting the strap of his conjured rifle. “It’s ugly…”

“It’s something Werner and the rest of you have to face every day. It seems a bit wrong that you’re apologizing to me… I’ve only collected fifteen tags so far, but you’ve collected so many more.” A hum. “Gilbert is more careful than he appears to be—sending you over here like this. Although I do enjoy the company.”

So she knew.

“I know Werner already gave you his condolences about Omicron—Charite…” Atienna continued. “But I would like to offer you it myself. I hope I’m not overstepping my bounds by saying this… but Charite was heroic in her last moments. I’m certain her encounter with you was one of the things that spurred her on.”

A slight heaviness entered Klaus’s chest as faint memories of his childhood wandering his hometown with Charite filtered into his mind. He wished he could mourn her more—mourn more for the others in his unit who had died too. But it was hard. A waste of time, even.

Wait. ‘Condolences’?

Klaus thought back to the lieutenant’s words just before they had left the Twin Cities.

“The ELPIS leader Omicron passed away,” Werner had said, after pulling him aside. “I’m heading to the capital with the second lieutenant, Bergmann, and Stein. While you’re expected to make a report yourself, the report isn’t due until a week from now. The train ride to the capital will take approximately two to three days.” He’d paused. “Take as much time within that allotted period that you require. Just be sure to report to the capital before the deadline. You’ll be marked if you don’t, Lance Corporal Kleine.”

Now that Klaus thought about it, the lieutenant had been unusually considerate in his approach. Klaus himself had been too dazed by the revelation of Charite’s death at the time to register it. Afterwards, he’d used the allotted time before the reporting deadline to visit Charite’s parents in his hometown. He couldn’t tell them anything, of course, but he’d thought his presence was better than nothing.

“Are you alright, Klaus?” The lieutenant’s voice in Atienna’s tone jarred Klaus from his thoughts.

“I’m just… a bit confused,” Klaus replied. “This… override is lasting a very long time.”

Atienna nodded, sullen.

“I just want to preface this by saying that this is a complete compliment.” Klaus squeezed his knee. “But this isn’t a place for someone like you… Not a place for Bergmann, Vogt, or me either. People who are here collect enemy military tags like they’re trophies. They hold scoreboards for who’s killed the most.”

Vogt and Heimler approached the fire from behind them and took a seat across the flame.

Atienna asked, “Do you really think they are excited about taking another life?” Her eyes seemed to ask—Do you think Werner is?

Klaus eyed the two newcomers before shrugging. “Stein said that he’d be happy to shoot even a half-Argoan Capricornian if he could… sir.”

Atienna hummed, placing a hand on her cheek. “…Things said out loud aren’t able to fully reveal what lays behind, don’t you think? And I’m not referring to just lies and self-deception.”

Klaus realized Atienna was a bit odd. Her way of speaking was very roundabout.

“Even though I’m speaking honestly with you now, I’m not able to fully convey my thoughts. Words simply aren’t enough. Neither are actions.” Atienna side-glanced at Heimler. “Perhaps that’s why there’s so much conflict… That small bit of discrepancy is all that it takes to switch something from being perceived as ‘right’ to being perceived as ‘wrong.’ Justice and vengeance. Maybe that’s why we can’t achieve peace. Because we can’t fully convey everything to each other.”

Heimler stiffened. Klaus couldn’t dissect the exchange.

Atienna’s gaze lingered a moment longer before she turned back to the flame. “Maybe… you would think that being able to know another’s thoughts—without needing to use words—would resolve this issue.”

Was she referring to her connection as a ‘True Conductor’ with Lieutenant Waltz and the Geminian redhead?

“You can liken it to reading the appendix or a glossary of a book… But seeing those types of book sections just makes you more aware of everything you don’t know, don’t you think? …Or is it better that way?”

Klaus figured it was a question that didn’t require an answer—

“It would make it harder, sir, I think,” Vogt interjected—Klaus assumed the silence had compelled him to respond. “The appendix… If you have too much information… it could make you hesitate. You wouldn’t be able to do as you’re told.” He eyed Atienna’s shoulder. “… That was one of my problems when I first started. I know that now, sir”

“What do you think the correct answer is then, Otto?”

“T-The… answer?” Vogt blinked, perplexed. He glanced at Klaus then at Heimler before meeting Atienna’s gaze. “Find… a balance?”

Atienna didn’t respond, averting her eyes ever so slightly.

Vogt melted. “I didn’t mean to interrupt the conversation, sir—”

“You… didn’t interrupt. You contributed.” The corners of Atienna’s eyes crinkled again. “There is a difference.”

“Right…” Vogt scrubbed a chunk of dirt off of his boot with his heel. “By the way… are you feeling any better, sir? With your head injury, I mean.”

There was a glint in Atienna’s eye. “Are you alright, Otto? You’ve been working hard today…”

Vogt perked up. “I’m fine, sir.” He reached for his neck and ran his fingers along the tag that hung there glinting silver in the firelight. “I… It’s nothing. Thank you for asking.” He scuffed his shoes again and tried hesitantly, “I hope this doesn’t affect our leave….”

“Leave?” Atienna murmured.

“Military leave.” Vogt nodded, relaxing fully. “To go home. I haven’t been back in over three months. They keep increasing the number of operations I have to take every time I meet the quota.”

“Yes… It would be nice… to go home.”

“Home with all the booze,” came a singsong voice from behind. It was Stein, squeezing himself in between Vogt and Heimler. “With all the home-tied beauties ready to admire all my medals.” He shoved Vogt to the side. “Heard Heimler got loaded after the Reservoir War and lives in a mansion. What’ve you got to look forward to returning to, Vogt? Your mom?”

“Your botanical store-school, right, Otto?” Atienna interjected.

Vogt’s fallen expression brightened. “Yes, sir. But… Stein is right. I miss my mom’s potato pancakes more than anything else. She made the best in the town. Grows her own. Potatoes, I mean.”

Stein snorted.

The corners of Atienna’s eyes crinkled again. “Do you not miss your family, Derik?”

Stein stiffened and then shrugged. “Well, of course, I miss my parents, sir. It’s just not something to think about out here.” He held a mock gun, aimed it at Vogt, and fired. “Here, I’m just thinking about the number of Argoans I can shoot down with one vitae ray.”

Klaus regarded Stein silently.

***

At the crack of dawn, Gilbert made the call for them to set off back to the border to report in their findings. After tallying up all of the tags overnight, it was clear that a handful of soldiers in Captain Weingartner’s platoon were missing. This included the captain himself, Emilia Bergmann, and several others. Gilbert had surmised that the missing had either retreated or had been captured. Klaus was relieved beyond belief at the possibility of Bergmann and the captain still being alive—and at the fact that they were returning home.

Their route back to the border was accompanied by lightning clapping through the sky. By the smell of the air, Klaus forecasted rain within the hour. The occasional booms of thunder shaking through the trees stretching around them made Klaus wonder if they would have to find a hole-in for the night. No one looked like they were ready to entertain the idea.

Emil and Marionette Engel sauntered on sandwiched in-between Stein and Heimler. Rath limped just behind them with the Gewehr-43 conducting rifle Klaus had conjured for him dangling in his hands. Usually, Klaus would feel disrespected by the mistreatment of creations, but at the moment he was in decent spirits. After all, he could almost taste and smell home—

A loud crack resounded again, but not from above. It thundered out from the thicket of mist and trees to their left. A high-pitched whine accompanied the sound and was followed by a snap as one of the branches from the trees to their right splintered off from its base. Then came the barrage. Bullets peppered down on them like torrenting rain. One whizzed by Klaus’s ear, while another struck the ground a centimeter away from his foot.

“Take cover! The trees!”

Instinct moved Klaus before Gilbert’s orders reached his ears. He dove behind the tree-line to his right and swung himself behind a thick trunk before falling into a crouch. He pulled his rifle from his shoulders and wrapped his fingers around the trigger—ready to fight. But as the trunk behind him shook with pounding bullets, he shrank further into himself.

Wait.

How many made it?

Atienna.

Klaus stiffened and scanned the area to his left. The combat medics Nico and Alwin were hidden behind a cluster of thin trees just a drop away. Behind a thick fallen log to his right, Fischer and Stein were caged around Marionette and Emil. A shaking Rath was pressed against the floor in front of them. It looked like he had somehow lost the conducting rifle. A waste.

Klaus glanced right. Relief came soon afterwards as he rounded off survival numbers in his head.

Vogt and Gilbert were pressed back against the tree stump beside him while Atienna was seated low in-between them. There was sweat beading her brow but her eyes were eerily calm, her breathing even. Almost like Werner.

For a moment, the barrage of bullets halted.

Maybe the lieutenant—

“Are you all alright?” Atienna asked quietly under her breath.

The illusion shattered.

Before Klaus could reply, another storm of bullets sprayed just above their cover. Stein and Vogt both lifted their rifle conductors and returned fire, only to be hampered down by another flurry of metal. Machine-gun? Klaus had heard about the Argoans developing higher-caliber artillery in the past few months, but this was something else.

“I need a headcount! How many of them are there?” Gilbert shouted, whipping around the trunk to fire off into the fog before pulling back again as a barrage of bullets ricocheted just above his head. “Dammit… how the hell did they get around us?” He swore. “This is why Werner wanted some damn Manipulators in this unit! Is that too much to ask for? Just a bit of damned medium-surveillance?!”

Vogt gave him an odd look before glancing at Atienna.

“Stein, Vogt, help me give Fischer some cover fire,” Gilbert ordered before nodding at the plethora of short-ranged conductors clipped to the latter’s belt. “Fischer, put those things to damned use.”

Atienna stiffened.

“Don’t worry,” Gilbert muttered to her. “He’s trained for this.”

Not seeming to hear the exchange from the short distance, Fischer nodded, locked eyes with Rath, and tossed the man his conducting rifle. He then pulled out a bladeless hilt from his waist and ignited it in amethyst with a flick of his wrist.

“Kleine.” Gilbert nodded. “Grenade.”

Klaus lifted his conductor-gloved hands, closed his eyes, and concentrated. He pictured the strike lever, the detonator, the percussion cap, the filling hole. Everything exact. One wrong ingredient and the entire thing could go off in your hands, as the instructors at the military academy had said.

His palms warmed and his arms became heavy. He, however, kept his concentration sharp. One last detail. One last serrated, cast-iron shell and—there. Klaus opened his eyes as the grenade solidified from the sky-blue light emitting from his palm.

Gilbert nodded at him. Signaled one, two, three. “Now!”

Klaus pulled the pin, drew out from cover, locked eyes with shadows moving through the smog, threw. A boom rang out a second later, followed by a gust of smoke and heated wind. Stein and Vogt immediately opened fire into the opposing tree-line. Fischer darted out from behind the protective cover fire and zipped through the mesh of fog and smoke. He slipped into the gray shroud, the light from his ignited blade serving as the only indication of his position. The faint amethyst line of light slithered through the smog in an arc before swinging up in a circle. A hissing sound as vitae tore through metal followed this motion, and the gun-gattling ceased. Then came the minute pops of gunfire followed by howling screeches.

It was a bit funny how they all sounded the same, whether they were afraid or dying—whether Argoan or Capricornian.

Gilbert signaled them to move forward. Projectors first. Combat medics last. Stein on Marionette and Emil, and Atienna ‘keeping an eye out’ behind the trees.

Rifle ready, Klaus filtered out behind Gilbert in a low crouch alongside Vogt. He kept close to the latter private as he always did—ready to conjure another conductor if Vogt cracked his insulation system or his conducting core as he usually did. Klaus himself scanned for movement in the smoke. There. Just two meters away. A woman was trying to reload her rifle. This was where conductors dominated.

Vogt fired his conductor at her before the woman could get the bullet into the chamber. She folded onto the ground. Gilbert gave a firm nod before disappearing into the gray. One down. Unknown number to go—

“Kleine, behind!”

Klaus whipped around at Vogt’s shout just in time to see an Argoan charge at him from behind with a bayonet. Less than a meter away. This was it—

But there was a loud crack, and suddenly the bayonet was spinning up into the air. The Argoan grunted, staggering backwards away from the one who had kicked up his weapon: the lieutenant—no, Atienna.

She grabbed the Argoan, swept his legs out from underneath him, and then drove his face into the ground in one swooping motion. Swinging her rifle off her shoulders, she cracked the butt of it against the back of the Argoan’s head before swinging it out and jabbing it into the gut of another Argoan coming up just behind her. She uppercut him with the rifle a second later, and when he fell to the ground, she pounded down on his face twice, thrice, until he was no longer moving. She pulled back, panting heavily before turning around—

“Are you alright, Klaus?”

Beneath all of that odd concern, her eyes were afire. She looked like how Stein looked after he made a headshot. Absolutely…. alive.

The Argoan she had just incapacitated abruptly whipped out a pistol from his holster. Before he could fire it off, however, an arc of shimmering amethyst light severed his gun-wielding hand from his arm. The Argoan screeched in alarm but was soon muted as the amethyst light drilled its way through his chest.

Panting heavily, Fischer pulled his blade conductor out from the Argoan’s torso, turned to Atienna, and searched her face for approval. The only thing he found there, however, was wide-eyed shock. But before anything could be said, another figure lunged out at them from the smokescreen with a roar. It was—

—Rath?

The Capricornian tackled Fischer to the ground with a snarl.

“I’m friendly!” Fischer snapped, deactivating his conductor as he held up his arm to defend himself. “Look at my uniform! My conductor!”

Rath let out a guttural growl as he ripped Fischer’s conductor from his hands. Stumbling backwards, he flicked his wrist and activated the blade with a shimmer of light yellow. “You! It was one of you! My Magda!” And then he swung it down.

Fischer swiftly drew out another blade-less conductor from his belt and activated it just in time to block Rath’s oncoming attack. Sparks erupted as the blades screeched against each other. The steam from the heat and their panting breaths filled in the space between them.

Before Klaus could react, another pepper of gunfire came down in their direction. He ducked low, rolled into a wave of smoke cloud billowing towards him, and aimed his rifle at three Argoans who peeled out from the smog. Two shots. One to the chest, one to the face. Vogt took down the other one with a vitae-ray straight through the head. The Argoans dropped dead. Danger eliminated.

When Klaus turned back to Fischer and Rath, he found that their two vitae blades were still scratching against each other. But—something about Rath’s vitae blade looked odd. Cracks ran along its body—cracks that reminded Klaus of the vitae cracks that had run along the lamia tree Atienna had taken an interest in the other day. The cracks along Rath’s blade were dark blue instead of white, however, and they were pulsating, spreading. In an eerie fashion, the cracks crept forward along Rath’s blade towards Fischer’s blade—

Atienna kicked both Fischer’s blade conductor and Rath’s conductor up out of their hands before the strange cracks were able to complete whatever course they were taking. Without skipping a beat, she lunged forward and kneed Rath in the abdomen before grabbing him by the scruff and throwing him over her shoulders. He hit the ground with a thud before groaning and remaining motionless. Pulling away from him, she turning her attention to Fischer.

“Sorry, sir.” Fischer panted.

Atienna offered him a silent hand. Fischer startled before accepting it as if it were a gift from a saint. Klaus had never understood Fischer’s gushing admiration for Werner. While Klaus did respect his lieutenant, he wasn’t fanatical.

A movement from behind the two cut the moment in half. A bloodied-face Rath had pulled himself up into a sit and was now pointing a weapon he seemed to have pulled out from nowhere at them. The conducting rifle Klaus had conjured for him earlier.

Rath fired off two bursts of vitae without hesitation before Fischer charged at him with a newly drawn dagger conductor. Klaus dodged the blasts as did Atienna—her movements swift and fluid. Fischer drove the conducting knife into the man’s gut before pulling it upward in one clean slice. There was a splurge of red followed by the smell of unnatural iron and then silence.

Heaving, Fischer pushed Rath’s divided corpse off himself before turning to face them. Then, he stared past them. Klaus froze and followed his gaze right to Vogt—no, to Vogt’s stomach.

Klaus took in a breath. “No…”

Vogt whimpered as he stumbled backwards. He unbuttoned the front of his singed uniform, peeled away the fabric that had melted into his skin, and gripped his abdomen. “Oh, saints. Oh no… please no.”

It was an ugly, gushing wound, and for a faint moment, Klaus thought he could see right through it.

Atienna was at Vogt’s side in an instant, catching him before he hit the ground.

“M-Medic!” Klaus shouted hoarsely, running up to their side. “Alwin!”

Atienna pulled out a handkerchief from her pocket, placed it over Vogt’s wound, and applied pressure. Klaus found himself looking to her—to the person who wore his lieutenant’s face—out of habit for direction but instead found her looking to him for reassurance.

The world blurred; the background popped with spits of gunfire; Vogt’s sobs cut in out of the deafening sounds; and then came the pounding footsteps. Klaus whipped around with his rifle drawn but stopped short. Finally.

Nico and Alwin, conducting gloves already equipped, seated themselves on opposite sides of Vogt. Atienna’s gaze flicked from medic to medic, but all Klaus could focus on was Vogt—Otto.

“Get the morrowheat from my left lower pocket,” Nico said. “It’s the liquidized version. Inject it in his left leg. Keep applying pressure, Ati—Lieutenant. You’re doing good.”

Klaus fumbled through Nico’s orders, pulling out a capped needle from the man’s pocket and injecting it into Otto’s leg as instructed. As he did this, Alwin pulled a combat knife from his belt and tore open Otto’s pants leg. While Atienna continued to apply pressure to the wound, Nico and Alwin began to run their conducting gloves from the skin of Otto’s exposed lower leg to the gaping wound at his abdomen.

Another set of footsteps crunched on towards them from behind causing Klaus to finally realize that everything had fallen deathly quiet. No gunfire, no screams, no booms.

Gilbert emerged from the fog a moment later, rifle still gripped in his hands, but with loose shoulders and hop in his step. “The lot of them are retreating. We—” His eyes widened as he registered Rath’s corpse and then Otto bleeding out on the floor. He turned to the opposite woods and whistled sharply. “Stein, if you’re still alive, bring those two out here. Now!”

A smirking Stein came out from the wooded cover a second later with Marionette and Emil in tow. Upon laying eyes on Otto, however, the man swore. He then swiveled around and drove the butt of his conductor against Emil’s head. “You damn groan! This was a trap, wasn’t it?!”

Emil yelped and hit the ground before curling up into a ball. “It wasn’t! It wasn’t! I don’t know anything!”

“Dammit, Stein! Enough!” Gilbert ordered. “One headache at a damn time. Keep a damn eye out.” He sank to a crouch beside Nico and glanced between him and Alwin. “How’s it looking?”

“We’re almost done with the graft,” Nico replied, forehead dripping with sweat as he continued to move his conductor from Otto’s leg to his stomach, “but he’s lost too much blood.”

During Stein’s ordeal with Emil, Atienna had been ushered aside by the combat medic and now hovered beside Klaus. She looked between them all with a painfully hopeful expression.

Alwin nodded at Nico in agreement. “We need to get him to a dressing station.”

“He…” Nico hesitated. “He might not make it.” He shook his head. “We need to stabilize him for transport. Klaus, get a gurney ready.”

Conjuring the gurney wasn’t as difficult as conjuring a grenade. Fewer parts, less dangerous. It took less than a second for Klaus to create it, and with Atienna’s help, he situated it parallel to Otto’s body.

Nico and Alwin peeled away from Otto as they finished their transmutation. Beneath all of that blood, they had managed to pull over a thin sheet of skin over his stomach. The transmuted area glistened in the dull light looking like it’d tear at any moment. Otto looked like a corpse.

Klaus had seen this many times. It was always strange—how fast the color was drawn out from a person’s face as they were dragged closer and closer to the door of death. Pink to pale white to ashen gray.

“We need a transfusion,” Nico muttered. He glanced up at Alwin. “Otto is type-O, right?”

Alwin nodded and grimaced. “No one in the unit is—”

“I… I am…” Atienna whispered, placing a hand on Nico’s arm.

Nico’s eyes widened and then softened, and he consoled her: “Werner is type-A. Otto is the only type-O in the unit. ” He called out to Marionette and Emil. “Type-O! Are any of you type-O?!”

No one answered. No one moved.

“None of you are type-O?!” Nico swung around wildly before his face crumpled. “Let’s just move him as fast as we can. Help us get him onto the gurney.”

Stein came around, swinging his conductor over his shoulder and locking eyes with Klaus as he hooked his hands underneath Otto’s arms. Klaus nodded, grabbing Otto by the legs. One, two, three—

Otto cried and kicked and squirmed as they hoisted him up. “Let me down! Let me down! Please! It hurts!”

“F-For, saint’s sakes, Vogt!” Stein snapped. “We’re trying to save you, you pussy!”

“Put him down!” Alwin shouted. “His transmutation grafting is tearing!”

Klaus stiffened and turned his eyes towards Otto’s stomach. The thin, shiny flesh there had split into two and a geyser of red spurted out from it.

Saints.

“Gently, you guys, gently!”

With great difficulty, Klaus placed Otto back on the ground with Stein’s help. Alwin didn’t move forward, however. He merely sank to his knees and ran a hand down his face. Nico did, hands extended. His face contorted as he began the effort to transmute more of the skin from Otto’s leg to his abdomen.

“There’s not enough left for grafting,” Alwin said calmly. “Nico, you’re wasting your energy.”

Nico stiffened. “Then we use the other leg—”

“It’ll just tear. And I know you saw it. The amount of blood. The abdominal aorta—”

Klaus stared at Alwin in disbelief. “Don’t just sit there and—”

“I-I’ve been hit,” Otto stammered, eyes fluttering. He searched Nico’s face and then Klaus’s as he placed a hand to his stomach. He stared at his bloodied hand. “Klaus, Nico, I’ve been hit…”

Delirium.

From the corner of his eye, Klaus saw Atienna slowly, silently pulling away as she averted her gaze. Before she could make her escape, however, Otto grabbed a hold of her arm.

“A-Am I dying, Lieutenant…?” came the cracked sob.

Atienna’s eyes widened and her fingers trembled as she wrapped them around Otto’s hand. No words came from her mouth. No confirmation.

“Yes…” Nico said quietly. “Yes, you are, Vog—Otto. I’m sorry.”

There was a stretch of silence as the reality sunk in.

“T-Talk to me. Please,” Otto whimpered. “Someone please talk to me.”

Talk? With what? Empty words? Emptier than the pages of poetry that Klaus always dove into to ignore the sound of gunfire and stupid, senseless chatter when he was stationed in the trenches at Abschnitt 45?

Atienna leaned forward, her face eclipsing Otto’s. She whispered, “You… You did good, Otto. You did very good.”

Empty words. And another empty stretch of silence.

“Will you write to my parents for me…?” Otto murmured after a long quiet. “It would mean a lot coming from you.” A shaky breath. “Tell mutti that I love her. Can you tell them I was good? Just… like you said now… Even if it can’t convey everything. It’s enough.”

Atienna side-glanced at Gilbert before nodding and placing a steady hand to his face.

“I’ll write, Otto,” she whispered. “I’ll write. Anything you want. About your plan for your botanical garden. About your horticulture class—”

Atienna was cut off by a hand on the shoulder. Nico, eyes calm but somber. She didn’t look away from Otto to meet those eyes but the message was clear. The one her words had been intended for was gone.

And the only thing Klaus could do was try to remember if he had lent Otto a book back at Abschnitt 45.


Threshold

The threshold between life and death’? That was ludicrous. That threshold was not a location. It was a state of being.

Cacophonic flapping and chirping resounded across the divide of light.

Werner squinted past the darkness towards the origin of the voice. There, he found a humanoid shape inching closer and closer to the stream of light between them. Its form was undefined, devoid of color, and pitch-black. Rippling, shifting, quivering—breaking apart at its edges. Breaking apart into something that fluttered, that flapped, that sent thin jet-black feathers swirling through the air. Blackbirds.

Werner’s eyes widened then narrowed.

A dream?

He glanced down at Lavi briefly. Her eyebrow was arched, her face impassive.

“It’s not a dream,” the voice across the divide continued, milky but clear. “Not in the literal sense.”

She could hear his thoughts, he realized.

“Yep,” the figure popped, her voice resonating above the chirping of the birds enveloping her body. “But not in the literal sense.”

It made logical that she could hear him and knew his name. If this was a dream, anything beyond the realm of reality was possible. This surreality.

“I mean this in the gentlest way possible, but the more time you spend thinking that this is a dream, the more dangerous your current situation becomes.”

Current situation?

“You’re in a perilous position right now, Werner. You and the other five.”

At the mention of the others, Werner tensed and moved his hand towards the gun clipped to his belt.

The blackbirds crowding the figure peeled away slowly, fluttering upwards into the darkness. As the birds dissipated, her features slowly became revealed. First came the black of her suit jacket, then came the white of her armband. Next, her short black hair was freed from the swarming birds, followed by her almond-shaped black eyes and round nose. Her appearance vaguely stirred Werner’s memories, although he was certain he had never met her before. Perhaps one of the other five had.

The unknown appeared to be a woman of Sagittarian descent who was affiliated with Ophiuchus, Werner surmised as he felt the cold tip of his pistol at the tip of his fingers. Normally, it would not be wise to engage with foreign peacekeeping bodies. The consequences would be severe. The evidence that this was not normal circumstance, however, was clear.

“Like I said, you’re on the threshold,” the woman said. “You’re here but you’re not really here, so you don’t need to be worried about those kinds of consequences. And that gun you’re reaching for isn’t really there either.”

Werner paused, glancing down to his waist where his holster sat empty. He lowered his hand.

It appeared as if certain assumptions would have to be made.

“Exactly!” The woman nodded. “I know you’re a logical person, so if you see it right before your eyes, then you have to assume it’s real. If we want to get metaphysical about it, it became real as soon as you laid your eyes on it.”

You’ve been invaded, Werner,” Lavi said, her fingers ghosting his hand that still gripped her arm. “You’re being strangled by an idiot who doesn’t know how to stop. You and the others. If you don’t do something, you really will all…”

Werner released his hold on her. Was this truly Lavi? His eyes narrowed. “What do you mea—”

“Well, she’s a truer Lavi than the one you’ve seen,” the woman across the divide interjected as she pointed upwards. “While it’s pretty easy to make it down here, it’s pretty hard to make it back up without crossing this line. And, well, if you cross this line—I’m sure you know what that means. Of course, being a True Conductor does make it easier for you to return in the direction you came from.”

If she could hear his thoughts, it was unsurprising that she knew his position as a True Conductor. It was also unsurprising that she knew of Lavi. And if the presumption that this place was truly a ‘threshold’ was accepted then a reasonable theory could be made as to why Lavi was with him. This other woman’s presence, however, was unexplainable.

“Identify yourself,” he said calmly. “You’re a peacekeeper. Why are you here?”

The woman’s lips pulled tight but then she shrugged. “I’m Shion Myosotis. Weird name, I know. Mother was Sagittarian; father was one-third Ophiuchian. Kept the surname. And I, my dear, am here because I kinda died and got stuck. I’m just the result of doing too little too late.”

It’s too little, Werner. A soft, stern voice whispered at the back of Werner’s mind. A faint memory, expanding like a fractal sheet of ice. And it’s too late—

Shion tutted loudly. “Be careful now. Like I said, you’re at the place where vitae enters and leaves the cycle. And since vitae stores memories, memories hold more power here than normal. You can easily slip into something you’ll have a hard time crawling out of. Metaphysical stuff.”

Werner stiffened despite himself. It had already been difficult to adapt to the other five being able to access his thoughts and memories. A sixth intruder was—

“Memories make up reality,” Lavi argued. “There’s nothing metaphysical about it. It’s fact.” Her words were sharp and direct, so unlike the airy and timid girl that would ghost their synchronization meetings. “Just take a look at your history textbooks,” she continued. “We all know those types of things aren’t fully accurate. They’re based on the recollections of people who wrote them. But because they’ve been recorded and remembered, they’ve become fact—”

“Enough,” Werner interjected. “What is happening?”

“Always down to business with you.” Shion sighed. “Like I said earlier, I’m the result of doing too little too late. I’m stuck here—kinda like how Miss Chance is stuck here. And if you don’t act soon, you’ll be stuck here too—”

“No,” Lavi interjected. “You’ll die. You and the others. My brother.” She turned, pushed herself up on toes, and grabbed hold of his shoulders. “You need to free yourself.”

Die? Free himself?

Werner tensed. “Explain.” He studied Lavi for a moment—faint memories of running through sun-dappled courtyards hazed the edges of his mind—before he provided a respectful, “Please.”

Shion pointed to her open palm. “You had an accident, you see. It’s not your fault, but the moment it happened, you and the people you’re connected to were visited by an intruder’s vitae.”

Werner stiffened, before tightening his gloved hand into a fist. The memory was faint but he could still vaguely recall the ghost of the knife cutting into his palm. The knife had belonged to Heimler, and Werner was certain it had not been a conductor. Unless… An individual who was able to use vitae without a conductor was involved and had wielded the weapon.

Werner frowned.

He hadn’t even considered the possibility. A miscalculation. So if everything said was true, then this occurrence was his fault. Unacceptable and shameful. He would need to rectify it.

“Invaded by what?” Werner pressed. “A Specialist? A saint candidate?”

Lavi answered, “You can compare it to something like a monster. The point is that True Conductors are like channels. Each True Conductor group serves as one channel. When something else is added to it or if something that is part of it breaks away, the channel is either put under pressure or crumbles in on itself. What entered you is slowly constricting you and the other five—my brother.” Her eyes narrowed. “It’s playing with you. Loosening, constricting, loosening, constricting.”

Werner studied Lavi carefully. He already had suspicions about her nature, her history as a failed saint candidate, and Olive’s ability to conduct without a conductor. He hadn’t addressed it for reasons that he realized now were unclear to him. Influence from Chance, most likely. And now Lavi’s knowledge here was highly disturbing, but he couldn’t make himself think of her as anything but an ally. Again, Chance.

“Right now,” Shion continued, “you’re the only one here. Most of the others are probably caught somewhere between here and the surface. Maybe one of them is on the surface. Your surface. Meaning, only you can fix this.”

Was she referring to an override? Then that was even more disconcerting given the physical position of his body in the unoccupied territory—his mission. And if Olive or Cadence were on the surface then…

He pressed, “And how exactly do I rectify my mistake?”

“You’re reacting really well to being told you’re dying,” Shion noted with a grin before frowning. “And I told you, it isn’t your fault…”

There would be no point in panicking in this situation. And responsibility always needed to be accounted for. They needed to get to the matter at hand.

Shion gave an abrupt laugh. “Well, since you’re so eager—think of it like this. Right now, whatever’s invaded you has its fingers embedded in you—in your vitae. Meaning, in your memories. All you need to do is cut off those fingers.”

An unclear answer, but first—

“You know a significant amount of information regarding this,” Werner said. “How did you obtain this information? You told me your name, but that isn’t proper identification.”

He felt ridiculous—questioning something that might as well be a part of his own subconscious. But he had taken enough risks already and had possibly put the others in danger due to those risks. He would not make the same mistake again.

“Well, Miss Lavender and I have been stuck here for quite some time. You tend to pick up a thing or two. Sometimes things come on down here just like you did now. But, look, trust us, don’t trust us. We’re here to help you regardless.”

Trust—Werner thought of his men. Here, however, that was an empty word. Too many variables. Too much uncertainty. Too much risk.

Shion clasped her hands together. “The deal is the longer you stay at this threshold, the closer you all are to dying. Because of that constriction. Eventually you’ll be constricted to the point where you’re no longer connected with the others—and that connection is what’s keeping you all alive. The clock is ticking, Werner.”

Tick, tick, tick, tick—Werner’s pocket watch abruptly began to thrum away over his heart in his chest pocket. He refrained from reaching for it—refrained from thinking of the one who made it—and kept his pose firm and his ears peeled.

“The only way to get out of this mess—to remove the hold it has on you,” Shion continued, “is to find exactly where it’s embedded in you—in your vitae. A.K.A., which memories it’s embedded in. Pretty easy to find ‘em since we’re at the threshold.” A frown creased her lips, and she folded her right hand into a mock gun which she rested in her left. “After you find the memories, you need to wade your way through them, and break it—the finger, I mean.” She pulled a mock trigger. “It’s as metaphysical as that.”

A distant memory resounded within Werner’s mind at Shion’s motion: the bang of the bullet exiting its chamber as he’d pulled the trigger of the gun aimed at the back of Magda Rath’s head.

15.2: Combat Medic, 0705 Head Trauma

Re-cap:
Atienna is locked in an override over Werner. The events surrounding this are clouded in mystery. After investigating the Argoan woman who injured Werner, Atienna discovers that the woman was in fact a Capricornian who was involved with the anti-military Verbundene Augen movement. The woman’s purpose remains unknown, but as per Werner’s personal request to Gilbert, the unit pushes forward to complete their objective of cutting off the Argoan line and meeting up with Captain Weingartner. As they push forward into the battlefield, Werner…


Schädeltrauma » Head trauma reported at 0705 hours

Unoccupied Territory, Argoan-Capricornian Border

Underground doctor-turned-combat medic Nico Fabrizzio’s mind was always full of ‘what if’s. For example—what if Cadence was his little sister? What if flowers fell from the sky instead of snowflakes—instead of ash? What if conductors didn’t exist? What if the pictures at the theater were in color? What if Wilhelm Fischer was second lieutenant instead of Gilbert? What if Argo and Capricorn and Aquarius got along? What if his father had never gone into the underground business? What if Nico himself had never grown up in the Twin Cities? What if Werner had grown up in the Twin Cities with the rest of them? What if Werner…

As Nico brushed aside these thoughts and continued trudging forward along the marshy ground, his gaze drifted to Atienna who was pacing alongside Gilbert. The rifle that Kleine had conjured for her was swung up on her back, but it looked like it was weighing her entire body down.

A fog rolling up from the south snaked its way in between the thinning tree line around them and covered up the muddy ground that was patched over with a network of ice. The high-hung sun could not pierce through the veil of clouds shrouding the sky, and so everything felt cold, gray.

Nico sighed, his breath fogging up the air and adding to all the drabness.

A couple more kilometers and they’d reach the captain. While that was definitely a reassuring thought, it still wouldn’t be some time until they reached ‘true safety.’ They had been walking for several hours now and had thankfully not come across any additional Argoan pockets. Gilbert had suggested for Atienna keep to his side just in case the worst-case scenario came knocking. Atienna had not objected—merely offered words of gratitude. Gilbert reveled in it a lot more than he should have. A shameless guy. A lot like Cadence. But…

There was definitely something wrong, Nico knew. This ‘override’ was lasting longer than any other override Werner had told him about before. The longest one Werner had referenced had been Maria’s cheery-eyed override during the Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict. The shortest had been Cadence’s override in the Twin Cities to save Alma two months prior. And now… how many hours had it been? Six? Seven? If only there was a telegram line so he could use a conjured radio to call up Cadence to see what was going on on her end.

Atienna seemed to share his concerns but did not address them directly. Instead, she had approached him earlier this morning, asking him to re-evaluate Werner’s hand injury. Maybe she thought the injury had to do something with the override.Nico did as she requested before they were set to leave. After removing the glove that was constantly kept over Werner’s hand, he’d undone the bandages and inspected the injury. Thin grafted-skin ran diagonally across Werner’s palm where the cut had once been. The skin at the area hadn’t yet split indicating that enough skin had been transmuted to hold. Upon further inspection, however, Nico found a tiny dark spot he hadn’t noticed before beneath the transmuted skin there. Most likely petechiae or purpura as a result of the injury. Would probably disappear within a few days. Leaving it at that, Nico had resolved to assess it periodically.

As Nico had re-bandaged the hand, however, he couldn’t help but stare at Werner’s palm. He hadn’t ever had to treat the area—or even Werner, in general—so he had been… alarmed when he had first seen it. He had contemplated addressing it after Werner awoke, but when Atienna awoke instead…

“I… may be making a baseless assumption here,” Atienna had interjected during his rumination, “but if you’re thinking what I’m assuming you’re thinking, then perhaps it would be best to wait to address it face-to-face instead.” She’d stared right through him. “Middlemen—from your personal experience—aren’t too good, don’t you think?”

Nico was drawn out of his memories of that event as Stein, Brandt, and Fischer approached him from the side. He greeted them with a slight nod.

“So?” Stein took a drag of his v-cig and passed it to Brandt. “What’s really wrong with the lieutenant, Fabrizzio?”

Although the question had been asked casually, Nico could see the glint in Stein’s eyes. Stein had been present in the Twin Cities during the ELPIS incident, after all. He’d witnessed Werner’s confrontation with Colonel Fritz von Spiel and the fallout of Francis’s rampage—but he still hadn’t been given the down-low on what was what with True Conductors. Neither had Bergmann. Stein himself never asked for the details but he’d been keeping one eye keenly peeled ever since.

“It’s like Gilbert says.” Nico flashed a practiced smile. “The lieutenant is fine. He suffered light head trauma from when he fainted from exhaustion earlier. He’s still disoriented.”

“Poor lieutenant…” Combat medic Alwin Brandt sighed, passing the v-cigarette to Fischer beside him. “Are you sure there’s nothing you missed? I’ve been on leave since that border conflict with Aquarius, so I wouldn’t mind checking for you if you’d like. Been itching to get my hands into something. It’s not a bother.”

Nico frowned. The statement in itself was an insult. “No, I’ve got it. Thanks though, Brandt.”

It wasn’t that Nico didn’t like Brandt. It was just that since they were in the same occupation in the same working space, they often butted heads on how to handle certain procedures. “Competition is bad for business,” as Allen would say.

“And still the lieutenant marches on,” sang Stein suddenly. “That’s a Capricornian through and through.” He craned his neck around and jeered. “Unlike some people here.”

Heimler and Vogt who were walking beside one another behind them shared a grimace.

“A bunch of pansies.” Stein spat.

Stein reminded Nico a little bit of Feliciano Donato, one of his many personal childhood bullies. Same aggressiveness, same condescending tone, same swagger. Except Stein had some redeeming features. Definitely a lot more honor. But still.

“Knock it off, Stein.” Nico sighed before he hummed. “You never know. You might be in a situation where Stein or Heimler are the only ones who can bail you out. Pretty sure you won’t think that they’re that then. As we always say, ‘never throw all of your cards away because you’ll end up chucking a card that wins a hand.’”

Stein scoffed. “Those two are joker cards. If anything I’ll be the one’s saving their asses.”

“I’ll raise you one on that.”

Stein’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t feel comfortable doing that when it’s with you of all people.”

Nico shrugged but then paused as a chill went up his spine. It seemed as if their conversation had gained the attention of Atienna. Nico locked eyes with her across the path, and she flashed him a smile in turn. It was a very nice smile, but… There it was again. That look. As if she was looking on at Stein’s malicious behavior from a far distance. Like it didn’t truly involve her. Just like how she’d looked that previous night while inspecting the Argoan’s corpse.

Initially that night, despite Atienna’s attempts to hold her expression steady, her horror, disgust, and sympathy upon gazing at the pile of corpses had shone through clearly—so clearly Nico had almost felt ashamed that he hadn’t been nearly as affected as her.

But then, that changed.

Nico could still picture it now.

The way the moonlight had bled through the spaces between the trees, streaking Werner’s face in splashes of silver and highlighting that curious fascination as Atienna had examined the corpses. Like a detective observing a crime scene. No. Like an outsider looking in. No. Like a movie-goer watching the flickering monochrome film reel. A reader flipping through pages of a book.

Truthfully, Atienna unnerved Nico.

The dichotomy of warm sympathy and cold curiosity reminded Nico too much of his own father.

***

Gilbert had them take a short break when they passed by a slowly trickling stream. Nico knew that Werner probably wouldn’t have made this less-than-scenic stop but was appreciative of the opportunity to rest his legs.

While the others sat and puffed their v-cigs, cleaned their weapons, or opted for an additional wink of sleep, Atienna hovered around uncertainly before settling beneath a large tree. She rested the conjured rifle against the trunk before gazing at Gilbert who was inspecting a map a meter or so away. Nico studied her from where he lounged puffing a v-cig with Kleine and Stein before pacing to her side.

Atienna greeted him with a pleasant smile at his approach. Like she’d been expecting him. “Oh, hello, Nico.”

Unnerving.

But Nico offered a genial smile and thumbed behind him. “Want to refill your water with me?”

Atienna’s gaze swept the area, and she seemed to take note of the glances she was receiving from the others. With a thoughtful hum that made Nico think she was evaluating the meaning—the worth—of those stares, she inclined her head.

They walked down a slope towards the stream in silence. Only the sound of crunching leaves and iced dirt, the occasional slosh as Nico misstepped into a deep puddle, and the trickling of the stream as they drew nearer and nearer. Atienna did not walk with the same sense of rigidity and purpose as Werner did, Nico noted. If anything, she floated.

Heimler and Vogt were crouched side-by-side by the bank when they arrived. The two men were conversing quietly with one another, so engrossed in their conversation that they didn’t even notice his and Atienna’s approached. But Atienna didn’t make her presence known and settled down further along down the bank. Nico crouched down beside her, uncapped the bottle, inspected the stream hesitantly. The water ran clear. He turned to back to Atienna but found her attention elsewhere—she was staring down the stream bank towards Vogt and Heimler.

Nico arched a brow. If she was interested in them, why didn’t she sit closer to them to begin with?

After a pause, she asked, “Do you mind if I ask, Otto—”

Vogt snapped up to a stand. He scanned the area, locked eyes with Atienna, stiffened. “Sorry, sir! I didn’t even notice you were there. I was distracted. It won’t happen again!”

A very quiet, brief chuckle almost akin to a sigh passed Atienna’s lips. An accident, probably, given by how her mouth pulled into a tight line afterwards. Nico couldn’t tell if the two had seen the slip.

“I was wondering how you knew about the sternblume we found on that Argoan’s…boots,” Atienna continued, voice even but still way too soft. “If I recall correctly, you’re from the Felsenberg region. Far west from the area that sternblume grows.”

“Er, yes, that’s where I’m from.” Vogt nodded. “My mother is a botanist, you see. My father’s a florist. Know about all sorts of plants.”

“Botany…” Atienna’s brows rose. “Is that what you want to pick up again when your military service is over?”

“When my service…?” Vogt blinked.

Heimler, eyes suddenly sharp, drew up to a stand.

Nico arched a brow at him, but paused when he noticed Atienna regarding the man carefully with that lookin her eye again. Was she honestly curious about Vogt’s situation, or did she have another intention in mind?

Vogt finally nodded, cracking a nervous smile. “I have a lot of catching up to do when I get back. I was hoping to do a duel-business where I sell and teach people about different flora.”

“Have you thought of bringing along a book to study…” Atienna paused. “…while you’re here?”

Otto grimaced. “I don’t like reading much…”

Atienna rose to a stand, capping her now filled flask of water. “Well, that’s a shame, don’t you think? You can miss out on a lot of things by avoiding things you dislike… But you could always ask one of the others to read to you. It would be good practice for both parties.”

“Like a bedtime story, sir…?” Otto chuckled nervously, glancing at Nico in slight confusion.

Not a very good joke, but Nico didn’t blame him given the strangeness of the situation.

“If that’s what you perceive it to be,” Atienna responded. “But—”

Nico glanced up at her.

Atienna was staring across the river—wide-eyed, pale. An almost imperceptible shiver slithered down her entire body as she took one small step backwards.

Nico followed her gaze but only found a patchwork of trees and rock at the opposite end of the stream. He rose to a stand. “Lieutenant?”

Atienna snapped to him, tightened expression lessening slightly before she glanced past the stream again. She turned back to him slowly and held up her flask. “Are you done, Nico?” As if nothing had occurred.

Nico nodded, tense.

“Should we head back then?”

Again Nico nodded.

Atienna bid farewell to Vogt and Heimler before heading up the slope leading back to the forest clearing. Vogt offered a wide-eyed wave in turn, while Heimler gave a curt, one-worded goodbye with lingering eyes.

“Did you see something?” Nico asked as he caught up to her from behind. “Was it one of the others…?”

She stopped short, turning to him. Her brows were beaded with sweat. “No… I… saw…” She raised a hand to her mouth. “I thought I saw someone I used to know. But it couldn’t be because she died several months ago…”

Nico paused.

“I suppose if none of you saw it then…” A frown creased her lips. “I… need to look further into this…” She flashed a distant, tired smile with almost a faint glint of mischief. “I hope I didn’t scare you.”

***

The unit started off again half an hour later after checking their conductors, weapons, guns.

Taking on the occupation as a combat medic meant that Nico had to learn how to use a gun. The ‘correct’ way. It was one of the things he’d been looking forward to the least when he’d decided to come on out to serve here—bullet, chamber, gunpowder, bang.

It wasn’t like Nico was unfamiliar with it. He’d used a gun once before when his father’s clinic had been raided by city newcomers trying to make a name for themselves. Missed every shot. Fortunately—or unfortunately—the Romanos had handled the rest so it hadn’t mattered in the end. But here, Nico had been taught the ‘correct’ way to hold and fire the weapon. It was one of the perquisites he had to complete before shrugging into his role as liaison for the Romano Family. Werner had been the one to teach him—and saints was he a strict teacher. But now Nico was certain he would at least get one shot in if the time ever called for it. And he hoped it wouldn’t.

It seemed like an oxymoron—the term ‘combat medic,’ but so had the term ‘underground doctor.’ This was better, Nico was certain. Much better than before. These people weren’t fighting greedily, selfishly for themselves. They were fighting for their country. Each other.

“We haven’t come across any Argoans this entire time,” Kleine said suddenly. “It’s weird.”

Although the glasses-wearing Conjuror usually hung back with Otto or Heimler, Nico noted that today he paced just a step behind him, Atienna, and Gilbert.

“You know what they say about rats in a sinking ship,” Stein quipped.

Fischer smirked. Otto chuckled.

“… They say you should follow them.”

There was a stretch of silence.

Seeming to not notice the stares she received, Atienna continued walking along beside Gilbert examining the tree line. Nico had a feeling she wasn’t scanning them for enemies. And he realized a beat afterwards that she was very aware of the stares she was receiving because finished her comment with—

“…Don’t they?”

“Yes, they do.” Kleine nodded.

“They do,” Fischer agreed immediately despite his prior laughter. A boot-licker, as Gilbert liked to say. A guy who knew where to play his cards, Cadence would most likely argue contrarily. “Happened all the time when I was on those boats with my dad off the coast of Pisces. Every time we had a leaky hole, the rats would scramble, sir.”

Stein snorted. “How the hell did you get off the coast of Pisces if you’ve got holes in your ship—”

Gilbert held his up hand and brought it into a fist. Nico immediately halted as did the others—save for Atienna who stopped short three steps afterwards. Everyone pulled out their weapon or their conductor. Nico himself swung his rifle off of his shoulder and moved his finger to the trigger. Then Gilbert jerked his head up. Telling smoke trails bled skywards in the distance right above where they were to meet Captain Weingartner.

***

It was a kilometer or so through the thicket of trees that they found the designated point they were intended to unite with Captain Weingartner. Rather, they found what was left of it.

Toppled tents were pounded into the ground in between pyres of smoking flame. Steam drifted upwards from spaces of bulleted earth. Vitae-ray marks were scorched into the dirt and filled with bullet shell casings. Around them lay conductors and guns and combat knives. Gripping those weapons were uniformed men and women—some in Capricornian dark gray, others in Argoan forest green.

The air smelled stale yet sharp, felt thick but thin. The only audible sound was the crackling of the dying embers. No birds, no animals, no breathing.

Nico’s stomach churned.

The two things that were different about the Twin Cities and here were the amount of bodies and the way those bodies were handled. Back in Gemini, all the stiffs were buried ten feet under. Here, they were always out in the open.

Gilbert held Atienna back with one arm. “Stick together—”

Heimler suddenly darted off into the campsite without warning. He slipped several times in his mad dash but managed to pick himself up before disappearing into the carnage. Gilbert began to shout after him but bit his tongue and swore under his breath.

“Next person that runs off, I shoot!” he hissed. “Stick together, dammit!”

Gilbert locked eyes with Nico and then Kleine and jerked his head. Nico drew closer to Atienna as did Kleine.

They threaded their way through the campsite quietly, cautiously, eyes peeled, muscles tense. Whenever they would pass a body that didn’t look completely mutilated and riddled with either vitae-ray singes or bullet holes, Nico would draw near and assess the pulse. Every single time there would be nothing.

It hurt. His profession was one of healing and saving people. Each body ticked another failure. Of course, he knew that there was no way he could have saved them, but that nagging feeling remained. “Don’t be naïve. There are more pertinent things to concern yourself with,” Werner would say, “than things that are truly beyond your control.”

As they drew deeper and deeper into camp, it became harder and harder to tell what was blood and what was mud. Everything melded together into one. Iron, smoke, dampness. And then—

A groan emanated from just beneath a collapsed tent to their left. The tarp strung above the broken metal frame shifted and groaned before a man dragged himself out from beneath the entangled mess. Nico broke off from formation and ran to the man’s side. He flipped the man over before pausing as he studied the man’s face and then the color of his uniform. Realization settled in a second later. The injured person was not a man, but a boy—barely touching on adolescence. And not a Capricornian, but a—

“It’s a damn Argoan!” Stein spat, shoving Nico away and aiming his conducting rifle squarely at the adolescent’s face.

In a flash, Atienna was beside Stein and shoving the point of his conductor down. The shot went off with a flash of blue and burned a fist-sized hole into the dirt beside the boy’s head.

“It’s discourteous to shoot without question. Especially during a surrender.” The glint in Atienna’s eyes was almost Werner-like. “Nico, would you mind?”

Nico nodded before moving onto his usual medical assessments with the Argoan. The boy tensed under his searching hands and barely stuttered answers to his assessment questions. Pulse, 85 beats. High—but probably from anxiety and stress. And fear. That was clear. Gilbert approached them from behind meanwhile, dealing a slap upside Stein’s head. Nico pulled back a minute later after finishing his run-through.

The Argoan was uninjured. Merely in slight shock. All in order—although Nico figured the boy would appreciate a blanket. He informed Gilbert and Atienna of this, but it was Stein who spoke:

“With all due respect, Lieutenant Waltz—” Stein jabbed a finger at the Argoan. “—but your head’s still not right. He’s the enemy and just a foot soldier. We won’t get anything from him than blubbering and—”

“The conductors are still here,” Atienna drew calmly. “Whatever happened here, the Argoans didn’t have the time to collect them all. None of the tags have been taken off any of the soldiers either. I imagine that the Argoans would want to collect both of those things. In other words, whatever happened here was unexpected for both parties.” She studied Stein for a moment. “I understand where you’re coming from, Derik, but…”

Stein stiffened at the mention of his first name.

“So interrogation,” Gilbert tried, searching her face for Werner.

Atienna responded by sinking to her knees in front of the Argoan who shakily propped himself up in response. “What happened here?” Quietly, gently in Common.

The young Argoan shook his head ferociously, wide eyes flitting back and forth as if expecting something to pop out from behind them—no, as if expecting them to lunge at him. He scooted back, looking to Nico desperately as if asking for rescue.

And then Atienna placed a hand on the Argoan’s cheek causing not only him to stiffen but also all of the other men. “It’s okay,” she continued, nonplussed. “You’re safe.”

The Argoan shook his head, eyes wide. “T-They…” The words seemed to be stuck in his throat.

“What’s your name?”

“E… Emil.”

“Okay, Emil, you’re safe. I promise. My name is Werner. I’m a first lieutenant. I’ll make sure you get home, okay? You can trust me.”

Emil nodded dazedly, focusing in on Atienna’s—rather, Werner’s—face. Nico could see everyone besides Gilbert and Kleine exchanging looks.

Atienna pulled her hand away slowly. “How did you end up here, Emil? You… weren’t directly involved in this attack… correct?” A pause. “It’s okay. Take your time—”

“No!” Emil sucked in a breath, reaching to grab Atienna by the arm before she could fully fold into herself. “The Capricornians—you—were attacking each other.”

What…?

“My unit and I… we saw this camp… we were too small to engage, so we were just going to go report to our superiors.”

Stein clicked his tongue and shared a heated look with Fischer.

“W-When we were trying to slip past you—you just started attacking each other. First, it was one, and then it was everyone.” Emil’s eyes went wide. “My captain wanted to take advantage of the chaos and had us wait… had us wait… but… but…”

“He’s obviously lying!” Stein snapped, kicking up mud with his foot. He whipped around, gesturing wildly. “The Argoans ambushed us but we fought back and they ran off! This guy got left behind and is just trying to scramble! He doesn’t know anything!”

“Stein, shut up,” Gilbert muttered back. “Cool off.”

The sound of sloshing footsteps came at them from behind before anything else could be said. Fischer and Stein raised their conductors while Nico’s hand went for his rifle. He lowered his hand a second later, however, as he registered the figure approaching them.

Heimler. And he was not alone. To his left stood a freckled man dressed in Capricornian dark gray. To his right stood a woman dressed the same, although she kept her head dipped low and her chin buried in the collar of her coat.

Survivors.

“T-They’re ours,” Heimler said, voice trembling with unusual nervousness. “I found them—”

Nico stepped forward but was quickly pushed to the side by Gilbert who first stared—as white as a sheet—at the freckle-cheeked man before turning to the woman. He pulled down her collar exposing her face. Nico recognized the woman immediately. He’d seen her before in the Capricornian newspapers once or twice. In the papers, she’d be posed with her fist raised up in the air, her wispy blonde hair popping out of a tight bun, her prominent brow furrowed. Behind her would be a flag with a cartoonishly drawn symbol of an eye flapping in the wind. 

“What the hell…?” Gilbert seemed to recognize her too. 

Marionette Engel, leader of the Verbundene Augden movement.


???

Werner Waltz returned back from his post at dusk, 2021 hours exactly. He slipped back past the line, reported his numbers to Major Ersatz, and made his way through the trenches. It had rained approximately 13 centimeters that morning, and the entire trench was flooded up to the knees. The gutters had become clogged with debris, so the sewage system was not running properly. Unsightly.

As he manuevered through the waterlogged trenches, the gazes of the soldiers tucked away in the walls bore into him all the while. News of his success in breaching the Argoan stronghold at Abschnitt 46 must have made its way here to Abschnitt 45.

It was nothing to be praised.

He had merely assisted the offense there alongside the others in his division. If anything, his numbers were lower in this operation compared to his previous performances. Improvements needed to be made.

After locating his designated bunker through the watery maze and tucking down into it, Werner found his bunk bed as orderly as he had left. His bed was at the top rung so it had not been affected by the rising flood. Gilbert’s bed that rested just below his, however, was completely submerged. Gilbert himself sloshed around in the waters lugging his bag and throwing clothes and shoes up onto a bunk parallel to theirs. He was by himself, the v-lights accentuating his loneliness as they flickered on and off.

Werner frowned. “Wolff, what are you doing? You’re making even more of a mess.”

Gilbert tensed, back still turned. “It’s Magda.” He threw down his bags. “They sentenced her to death. Just an hour after you left. I’m supposed to be the one to do it. ‘Cause I was the highest-ranking rifleman around at the time. As if being a lance corporal means anything.”

Werner digested this information. “Yes, I heard about Magda. She deserted during the Schwarzer Streifen operation and was found by Rittberg’s unit in Abschnitt 24. Deserters are to be executed by article—”

“I don’t give a damn what article says what!” Gilbert snapped. “That’s too much!”

“She deserted, Wolff.” Werner folded his hands behind his back. “They were generous not to have her executed by firing squad or hanging.”

Of course she deserted! She has two children waiting for her at home! A sick father! Her husband in the 44th was nearly killed in that skirmish at Abschnitt 21! They won’t get their damn pension until the end of the month!”

“We all have to make sacrifices. That’s what it means to be a part of a functional society like Capricorn. Once she turned her back on her country, she became an enemy of a state. She is no different from the Argoans standing on the opposite side of this line.”

“Saints, Werner, do you hear yourself?” Gilbert whipped around and gestured wildly. “I was just sharing a drink with her yesterday! And now they’re asking me to murder her?”

Werner paused, glancing over his shoulder to the entrance. “Gilbert, calm down. You were given a task, and you have to follow through.” He repeated from memory, “You have to do what’s expected of you.”

Gilbert scoffed, turning back to his bags and resuming his packing. “No, I don’t. I’m done with this. All of this. If you ever see me again, it’s gonna be in the Twin Cities drunk on life—”

Werner’s eyes narrowed. “Or beside Magda being executed with her.”

Gilbert froze. “And I’m guessing you’re going to be the one aiming the conducting rifle at us?”

“Don’t be irrational, Gilber—”

“Don’t be this, don’t be that. Do this, do that.—I can’t flip a damn switch in my head and kill one of our own like it’s nothing!”

“You’re a Capricornian. You’re a soldier. This merely falls in line with duty. Don’t act like this is unexpected—”

“Give me a break!” Gilbert snapped, whirling around like a storm. “Don’t tell me you actually believe that bullshit—”

“If you can’t serve your country as a Capricornian,” Werner interjected coldly, “then I will.”

Gilbert froze wide-eyed, water dripping from his sleeves and his hair into the pool below. He did not speak; he did not move forward. In other words, he did not object. And so Werner locked eyes with him, reached over to draw his pistol from his belt, and exited the barracks to fulfill his duty.

Werner picked up Magda Rath from the bunker where she was guarded by two enlisted women. Few words were exchanged before he took her from them. The path they took to the soon-to-be execution ground was a short one. A path without spoken words. A path without resistance.

When they arrived at the thickly forested area, he ordered Magda to kneel. She obeyed and didn’t tremble as he loaded Gilbert’s pistol. Despite the brave face shown here, she had still chosen to desert instead of serving her country. Regardless of her well-meaning intentions, she appeared a coward to outsiders. Cowardliness was unacceptable, unsightly, and anti-Capricornian.

Werner lifted the gun to the back of her head. Only then did Magda start shaking. Her trembles reminded Werner of Otto Vogt’s trembling—and Vogt’s refusal to comply and open fire—when they had come into conflict with the Aquarians at the Ziegenberg Ridge. Unsightly cowardice.

But…

Chance often solved his problems by running away. At times, that choice had led to acceptable outcomes: the escape from the Watch, the escape from the battle between Leona and Jin, and even ordering that tactical retreat during the override.

Werner froze.

Something wasn’t right.

His finger moved away from the trigger.

This had happened already. He had executed Private Magda Rath one year and two days before the Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict broke out along the east—before the skirmish with the Aquarians Ziegenberg Ridge with Vogt’s hesitation.

What was—

The world spun, inverted, blackened. When color bled back into his awareness, Werner came to realize he was somehow lying on his back. Light from a campfire encircled by his subordinates—Vogt, Fischer, Stein, Heimler, Brandt, Kleine, Bergmann—and Gilbert flickered in the distance.

A face eclipsed his own. “Are you alright, Lieutenant? Do you have any pain anywhere?” The voice was instantly recognizable.

“Nico?” Werner tried. “How long have I been unconscious?”

Nico reached into his right pocket and pulled out his conducting gloves. He slipped them on quickly and said, “Let me check something—”

Werner grabbed the man’s wrist and rose to a slow stand.

Nico blinked up at him in confusion. “Werner, you’re injured. You shouldn’t—”

“Nico stores his conducting gloves in his left pocket, not his right. The right pocket is to store additional ammunition,” Werner said, eyes narrowing. He inclined his head towards the campfire but did not look away from the imposter. “Bergmann is not in this unit for this operation, and they are all wearing our previously issued uniforms.” He tightened his grip. “You will tell me what this is. And where this is.”

The imposter regarded him for a moment before sighing: “Well, memories are a bit subjective so you can’t blame it for not taking the shape you remember it to be. Who says the way you remember things is even correct?”

Before Werner could respond, the imposter rose to a stand and took a step back. Fine, hairline cracks appeared across their face—cracks that were reminiscent of the white fragmentation that appeared along anything Jericho’s conductor touched. The cracks spilled down from the imposter’s head to their toes. The pieces of the facade fell away from their face, their torso, their legs slowly, until Werner was able to identify—to recognize—who it was that truly stood before him.

“Lavi,” he realized, loosening his hold.

Lavender Chance’s dark hair fell like a cloak around her pale face, and her dark eyes bore into him with a sharpness that he had never seen in her before. The white cracks continued to spill out from her feet and onto the ground before spreading endlessly into the distance and splintering the environment. Like a shattered mirror. The fragmented pieces fell away revealing almost complete and utter blackness. It seemed to extend infinitely above, below, behind, and in front of him. The expansiveness made Werner’s stomach flip for a brief moment but he grounded himself.

Panic did nothing. Observe.

There was a singular source of light in the abyss. Just behind Lavi glowed a large river of light that stretched out endlessly into the distance east and west. Every so often wisps of light—at times blue, at times green, at times red—would float down from the darkness above and enter the river from one side. Periodically, light would also exit it from the opposite side and disappear upwards.

“To answer your earlier question,” came a voice from the darkness on the opposite side of the glowing divide, “you’re at the point where vitae enters and leaves the cycle, so not exactly physically anywhere.”

It was a voice Werner recognized. The same voice that had whispered to him not to reveal the modified conductors to Major Ersatz—Pi—at the Aquarian-Capricornian border. The same voice that had consoled him after he had been injured in the Twin Cities following Morello’s override. The voice that he had heard right before coming to wherever this was. The voice he had forgotten up until this point.

“In other words,” that voice continued, “First Lieutenant Werner Waltz, you’re standing right on the threshold between life and death.”


The position of combat medic is open to all Conductors within the Capricornian army. Preference is however deferred to those whose conducting-types fall under the Conjuror or Transmutationist category as their natural abilities are more equipped for the profession. Upon completion of service, combat medics are encouraged to seek employment as researchers in the Institution for Military Vitae & Conductor Scientific Research.

Enlistment Information, published by the Iron Horn Recruitment Comittee & edited by the Capricorn Chamber of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, 1936

15.1: Advisor, 0001 Log Open

Re-cap:
The psychic connection between the six is abruptly cut as an intruder eerily states that they have entered. 


Protokoll Geöffnet » Log opened at 0001 hours

Unoccupied Territory, Argoan-Capricornian Border

“—stop bullshitting, Vogt.”

“It’s the truth…”

“Stein’s right. Why in saint’s name would you lie about something like that? What’s wrong with you?”

“Fischer, it’s the truth!”

“Like how you said it wasn’t you who woke up screaming about the damn Aquarians three nights ago?”

A cackle. “Vogt’s still dreaming about the border mix-up. What? You wanna go back and kill some Aquarians? No, be friends with some Aquarians? Kleine, he wants to go back and be friends with Aquarians! Why don’t you go and conjure him a bouquet of flowers so he can hand it over to ‘em.”

“Don’t involve me, Stein… Besides, you know it’s impossible to conjure living things.”

“Says who?”

“Did you not actually pass your State Conductor’s Exam, Stein?” A different voice, a different sort of sigh. “I’m still a ranking officer. If it seems to me that you’re unfit—physically or smarts-wise—then I’m gonna have to write you up.”

“It was only a joke, Wolff.”

“Who said you could talk to me that way? I’m your second lieutenant.”

“But you said—”

“That was then. This is now.”

“Yes, sir…”

A pause.

Then laughter.

“I’m just messing with you, Stein.”

The familiar pop and crackle of wood in between beats of unpleasant conversation drifted into Atienna Imamu’s awareness. The ground was cold beneath her back, but her face was warm. The sensation caused her mind to wander back to the past, back to her month within the frozen Zatmeniye Caverns, back to the pleasant conversations turned sour, back to Yulia’s cold and open lifeless eyes—

With great difficulty, Atienna forced open her heavy eyelids and dispelled the nightmarish image. A dark, starless sky greeted her awakening. Faintly out of the corner of her eyes, she could make out the soft glow of fire a couple of meters away. Around her stretched a network of black trees holding up a cold, yet damp air that smelled of moss and dirt. Familiar.

“You’re up.” A shadowy face eclipsed her own. “How are you feeling, Lieutenant? Does your shoulder still hurt? Can you sit up?” And then more quietly, “Did something happen to the others? Was it Cadence?”

Those dark curls and amber eyes were instantly recognizable. The scrapes and bruises seemed a bit new and foreign, as did the half-moons beneath the eyes—but this was undeniably Nico Fabrizzio, Cadence’s childhood friend turned Werner’s left-hand man.

What a surreal dream, Atienna thought. Or perhaps this was a memory.

It was a bit unusual though. She rarely saw Werner’s memories. As accessible as that man was, everything surrounding his past was shrouded thickly by the smell of gunmetal, soot, moss, and iron. The only clear, resonant thing was that memory of that pale woman standing in that white room. And what an unpleasant thing that was.

“Werner…?” Nico frowned in the dark. “Can you hear me?”

Loud and clear—oh.

“… is this not a memory?”

At the sound of Werner’s voice coming from her own mouth, Atienna pressed a hand to her throat. Her hands were gloved, she realized. Leather-gloved. She could feel bandaging just beneath the leather over her right palm.

So, that was how it was… How troubling. How had this happened? The last thing she recalled was attempting to make that phone call in the capital of Capricorn. And then…

“Werner?”

“I don’t mean to alarm you,” Atienna said quietly after a pause, “but I believe something may have gone wrong…”

Nico pulled back and studied her face with wide eyes before he called for Gilbert over his shoulder.

***

Atienna waited patiently by a thick cluster of bare-bone trees that jutted up from the ground away from the campfire. The campfire itself was ringed by a half-circle of familiar uniformed men who were chattering quietly as they sipped from tin cans. Their slurping was quite thunderous in light of the silence that now occupied her mind.

To feel fully her own thoughts, to hear only the whistle of wind through the tree branches and not the distant trickle of commotion from the others, to feel only her—rather, Werner’s—heartbeat was… a bit lonesome. To think this was how she had felt prior to their connection… A foreign familiarity.

So, this was an override, Atienna continued to ponder. It seemed as if Maria and Olive’s experience of being ‘cut off’ from everyone else during overrides was a certainty now. However… There were several discrepancies here, and that worried her.

Atienna turned her attention back to the trees.

Strange…

She recalled reading about these particular trees before. They were even more lovely up close since she could see the identifying white veins of vitae threading through their black bodies. But…

A leaf fell from one of the branches and landed by her feet. She followed its cascade downwards and spied at Werner’s boots. They appeared immaculate despite the marshy landscape. She supposed she should try to keep them clean like this for him until he returned.

If he returned.

The crunch of leather boots against leaves and twigs drew Atienna’s attention away.

Gilbert Wolff and Nico Fabrizzio came to a stop just before her—close enough to see the dirt dusting their faces but too far for her to make out the color of their eyes in the dark. Both of their collared uniforms were eclipsed with a single silver-woven bar at the shoulder pads designating their rank. Nico’s arm was adorned with a crimson cross, while a billed cap similar to Werner’s rested on top of Gilbert’s head. The same yet different. But together they seemed to share some sort of mutual hesitance and uncertainty. Together, they scanned her quietly.

“Hello,” Atienna greeted the second lieutenant with a dip of her head.

If Nico was the left hand, then Gilbert was the right hand. “Proficient in different aspects,” as Werner would say.

“Er, hi…” Gilbert looked her over again and then spoke in Common. “It’s happened again?” He pulled the cap off his head, tucked it under his arm, and extended his hand. “Gilbert Wolff.”

“I know who you are, Herr Wolff.” Atienna couldn’t help but smile. “I should be the one introducing myself.” She reached out and accepted the gesture. “I’m… pleasantly surprised at how gentlemanly you are.”

“You’re a different one than the last couple of times,” Gilbert confirmed, not at all appearing offset. “Haven’t gotten along so well with some of the others before. Figured I should try a friendlier approach.”

“I do appreciate the effort,” Atienna returned genially, pulling her hand away as he released it. “I am…” She paused, considering. “… Atienna. Although, it’d be strange if you started calling me that, don’t you think?”

“You’re a woman?” Gilbert stared. “Well, I mean, Cadence was one, but she wasn’t…” He gestured towards her—rather, Werner’s—body.

“That’s a beautiful name,” Nico interjected quickly in an obvious attempt to save face. “It’s got a nice ring to it. Like from a romance novel. I bet Gil’s just jealous he doesn’t have as nice of a name as that.”

Atienna chuckled despite herself. The duo’s responses were rather predictable. Charmingly crass and charmingly polite. It was certainly a comfort. Her response—she realized—was not as predictable, however. At least not for them. The two stared, ogled.

“Thank you, Nico,” Atienna said, before addressing Gilbert. “But are you concerned about something in particular, Gilbert?”

Gilbert continued to stare at her, mouth slightly ajar.

“I do have a younger brother,” Atienna provided. “And I’ve had to care for him when he was younger—if that answers your concerns…”

Gilbert stared at her again but this time the stare ended with him snickering. He nodded. “You speak Capricornian?”

“It’s a beautiful language,” returned Atienna in said language.

Gilbert offered a nod of approval and then continued in his native tongue. “So, we should—”

“I don’t mean to interrupt, but shouldn’t we invite Klaus to discuss this with us?” Atienna interjected quickly, inclining her head in the direction of the campfire—rather, towards the soldiers gathered there in a ring. “It would make things flow a bit smoother… I believe.”

Gilbert regarded her for a moment before shrugging. He then gave a sharp, ear-piercing, two-fingered whistle causing Atienna to startle slightly— “Kleine!”

The glasses-wearing man stiffened from where he sat at the foot of the campfire. After quickly shoving the book he’d been reading into his pack set beside him, he jogged on over.

When Klaus reached them, Gilbert explained the recent developments. Although—in Atienna’s opinion—Gilbert put it a bit more forthright than she would have. The term ‘possession’ and ‘physical recalibration’ were thrown around several times but Atienna politely requested a reconsideration of the latter idea. She doubted being hit upside the head would resolve this issue regardless of what Olive had experienced when he’d overridden Werner several months ago.

“So, how long’ll this one last?” Klaus tried after a pause. He studied her but would not meet her eyes.

“I’ve never overridden anyone before, so I’m not too sure. But I’m… questioning if this is what you would actually consider one.” Atienna studied the frost decorating the scattered leaves on the ground. She placed a thoughtful hand on her cheek. “Usually, there is intent when that occurs…”

“And there wasn’t ‘intent’ or whatever this time?” Gilbert arched a brow.

Werner’s recent memory of the Argoan woman lying in a pool of red came to Atienna slowly. The colors—pale white and silver against all of that crimson… A terrible thing. But the Argoan’s behavior had been quite odd. Atienna had heard of extreme patriotism before—patriotism to the point of suicide upon capture, but….

This was what choice did to people. And now no one could tell the deceased Argoan woman whether she was right or wrong.

“We’ve…” Atienna met Gilbert’s eyes for a moment before looking away. “We reached an agreement in a prior meeting to stay at a low level of synchronization for the rest of the week unless it was a dire circumstance.” She paused in thought before staring at her right gloved hand. She had considered stepping in when Werner’s palm had been cut, but her intention then had only been to console not to intrude. The desire to override had not been remotely present. “Still, there’s so much we don’t understand about what it means to be a True Conductor. This could be an entirely different development… or…”

Or what? Why was she always looking for reason and rhyme where it didn’t exist? Some questions didn’t have answers. 

“And you can’t communicate with any of the others right now, right? Not Werner?” Nico tried. “That’s what the… last one said…”

“Olive did say he couldn’t hear nor feel any of us when he overrode Werner during that one incident,” Atienna confirmed in thought. “It wouldn’t be so strange to imagine that the same thing would occur here.”

“Olive?” Gilbert arched a brow. “That the name of the brat?”

Atienna felt her lips dip slightly, but she supposed that was just his opinion. Olive was a bit… cheeky at times.

“H-He saved my life,” Klaus stammered, “back when Argo got their hands on conductors. I’ve been wanting to thank him, but uhm…”

Basically, Werner was too intimidating to approach in person.

“… Yes, Olive is a very kind-hearted person,” Atienna agreed. She offered Klaus a smile of reassurance. “I’ll be sure to convey your thoughts to him.” Pausing, she glanced at Gilbert. “You’re in the middle of an operation…?”

“Right. We’re doing a pincering movement,” Gilbert explained, fitting his cap back on his head. “Meeting with two platoons headed by Captain Weingartner. Cutting off the Argoans from their supplies and sweeping down the line. At the moment, we’re in unoccupied land. Wider strip than what’s in front of our trenches in Abschnitt 45.” A scoff. “Called ‘unoccupied,’ but the capital insists that it’s our land. Anyway, other platoons went ahead of us. We’re just picking off any stragglers.” He gestured behind him and then behind her. “Stretches roughly fifteen kilometers.”

‘Picking off stragglers’…

Of course, Atienna had been aware that this aspect had existed even before she’d been connected to Werner: a profession to protect ultimately crossed over with a profession to kill. She glanced at Nico and thought, even in the profession of medicine… Right, because, ‘As soon as you valued one person more than another, you automatically became a villain.’

Absentmindedly, she glanced back at the tree cluster growing beside her. It really was strange…

“What?”

She blinked up and found Gilbert frowning at her.

“It’s…. nothing.”

“Come on. If it was nothing, then you wouldn’t be caught up about it.”

What a difficult person…

“I didn’t think that there would be vitae streams beyond Signum…” She reached out and touched the brambles. The gloves prevented her from feeling its rough surface. “This is a lamia tree. They grow in areas of Signum that don’t receive a lot of sunlight, and they gain energy from vitae streams underground—runoffs from reservoirs. However, if this is unoccupied territory then…”

“Oh. Well, it’s why we’re out here…” Gilbert drew after a pause. “The Kaiser claims this was our land before the Reservoir War broke out ‘cause there’re vitae reservoirs here. Argo says otherwise. I say fuck both of ‘em. And Ophiuchus? Well… ” He cleared his throat when he noticed her stare.

There went his gentlemanly guise, she supposed.

“…Ophiuchus has no say in countries outside of Signum,” Atienna finished, more to herself than the others. “I do recall reading about this issue of unoccupied territory, but I always thought…”

“Thought it was propaganda?” Gilbert seemed to be asking himself instead of her. He scoffed. “‘Reading’ about it, huh? Well, we’re living it. Propaganda galore.”

“I don’t believe that’s what Werner would call it…” She felt the corners of her lips tug upward.

“Can you not refer to Werner as ‘Werner’?” he grumbled.

She had done it on purpose but inclined her head regardless.

“So what do we do?” Nico pressed, concern knitting itself across his brow and lips. “I mean… you are—Werner is…. a first lieutenant. A leader. A soldier. And this is a battlefield… And right now…”

“We’re only going to go deeper in to meet up with the captain.” Gilbert shifted on his feet. “It’s going to be dangerous. But Werner specifically asked me to complete this operation. Plus, this entire thing relies on units like us clearing away the debris—”

‘Debris’…?

“—We can’t leave them high and dry as much as I’d like to. We can’t stop moving, so—”

“We can’t leave Werner behind…” Nico interjected. “There could still be Argoans escaping back this way. What if we miss them? And… there aren’t any units coming up behind us for another day.”

“I wasn’t saying that we should leave him.” Gilbert grimaced, placing a hand on his hip and casting a glance towards the campfire. He nodded back at Atienna. “I’m assuming you’ve never killed anyone before?”

“Does that always have to be one of the first questions you ask people?” Nico sighed, exasperated. He turned to Atienna apologetically.

“I didn’t ask you that when you first joined up,” Gilbert interjected pointedly.

“Right. You asked me if I’ve ever dissected a person alive before.”

“Good icebreaker though.”

Atienna supposed Gilbert’s directness could be considered endearing, and she had often wondered how well Bachiru and Gilbert would get along. At this particular moment, however, his behavior was not very endearing at all.

The image of Yulia’s and Kovich’s and Alexei’s bodies draped over one another on that damp street beneath the illuminated night sky forced its way into Atienna’s mind as she considered Gilbert’s words. That trio had been all alone. Unable to reach. Their choices, neither right nor wrong.

“I find things like this… unpleasant,” Atienna admitted, “but it isn’t my place to say…”

However, Werner would be very displeased if he thought people viewed him as too much of a burden.

“But if you’re looking for a way for us to all be satisfied…. perhaps, we could say that I’m—Werner is—suffering from head trauma from the fall,” Atienna suggested after a pause. “And you could take the lead for a little while… I’d hate to put this burden on you, but I’m not very well equipped to handle leadership positions like this… Your experience far exceeds mine, don’t you think?”

Gilbert stared. “Damn… wish I could record those words coming out from Werner’s mouth. The bit about me exceeding him. Mind repeating that again so I can keep it in memory?”

Atienna chuckled lightly, hiding her smile with her hand out of habit.

“Anyway, you know how to use a conductor?”

“I…don’t personally have a license,” she responded slowly.

Klaus’s eyes widened to comical proportions.

“That’s fine.” Gilbert held up a hand. “We’ll just have to keep a tight circle around you in case anything goes south—”

“I don’t have a license, but I do know how to handle myself in unpleasant situations,” Atienna returned. “I’ve… thrown quite a few people around…”

Gilbert snorted as if amused, and the atmosphere seemed to lighten. “Well, all it all, it seems like an idea worth trying. Werner probably won’t be happy being temporarily stripped of his position though, I reckon.”

“I reckon not,” she returned pleasantly.

He scuffed her shoulder and then hesitated. “You’ll be safe under Capricornian eyes, don’t worry.”

She wasn’t too worried at all. Not about that at least. Handing off the torch to Gilbert had relieved a fragment of her unease.

Because the truth was that she just didn’t want the responsibility of having all of their lives in her hands. 

***

Atienna hung back behind Gilbert as he informed Werner’s unit that he would be taking point on the operation. They had both been saluted at upon approaching the campfire which Atienna found rather strange. It was a different feeling from the respectful greetings she had received when her father had still been chieftain of the Imamu tribe. There was warmth with each greeting back then—although she had personally held her distance. Here, there was a distance without her even having to skirt away.

Her father… Her family…

She hadn’t seen them in months. And now here she was even further away from home than before…

“—leave at 0500 hours. So get your rest,” Gilbert finished.

A chorus of ‘Yes, sir’s erupted at the end of speech which was followed by Werner’s men dispersing—though, Atienna could feel their gazes linger.

Gilbert drew back to her afterwards. “You should get some rest too. Maybe Werner’ll come back when you wake up.”

Atienna touched his arm just before he brushed past her. She felt him stiffen, and so she quickly removed her hand. Displays of consideration and affection were different for different people, she supposed. And even though she knew Gilbert, he didn’t know her.

“Can I ask a favor?” she asked. “I… would like to… see the one you were facing before this all happened. The Argoan…”

***

“W-We put them over here, sir,” Otto Vogt stammered as he and Wilhelm Fischer guided Atienna, Nico, and Gilbert through the tree lines.

“Your stutter is worse than Heimler’s,” Wilhelm scoffed. “And you’re only one-third his age. What kind of Capricornian are you?”

Atienna peered at Wilhelm, feeling a frown touch down on her lips.

How unpleasant. Werner had deemed this as ‘necessary’ hazing. Pressure to break the layer of insecurity that enveloped a person. Hatching into something stronger. Coal to diamond. But Atienna herself wasn’t so sure.

But truly, she was so judgmental for someone who still remained the same after everything. Always keeping quiet until it was almost too late and averting her eyes like always. One step forward. Two steps back. The unpleasant thing here was herself. No one else. She was—

“Is there anything wrong with a stutter?” Atienna questioned, despite knowing it would be best to remain silent. “If the meaning gets across?”

Wilhelm stiffened and whipped his head back to face her. His reaction was akin to someone having been slapped. Otto stared too, wide-eyed.

“Er, sir,” Wilhelm managed, “of course not. I was just—”

“Just knock it off, Fischer,” Gilbert ordered.

They eventually came to a circular clearing where moonlight sauntered on down through the trees. If she were to stand at the center of the clearing, Atienna was certain the waxing gibbous moon would act as a spotlight. However, the center of the clearing was already occupied.

“Right here, sir.” Wilhelm nodded as he rounded the mound of bodies casually with Otto.

Pale-faced, blue-faced men and women laid there, stiff like porcelain. Limbs were entangled with limbs. Eyes stared out vacant and glass-like, like the eyes of dolls. Dark red caked the ground below. Inhuman. Really, like dolls.

This wasn’t like the times she had seen through Werner’s, Maria’s, Cadence’s, and Jericho’s eyes. No, she was here. And the smell was…

Nico and Gilbert followed on behind Otto and Wilhelm just as nonchalantly.

Atienna remained at the edge of the clearing, unmoving. She averted her eyes from the scene. “You haven’t buried them…?”

How many bodies had there been? She would have to take another look to count. Another look at that terrible scene. How awful…

“We just haven’t gotten around to it yet,” Gilbert explained. “Don’t have to worry about wild animals. This area doesn’t have a lot of them.”

That wasn’t what she’d been referring to. Still, she nodded.

Otto and Wilhelm dragged one of the bodies away from the pile and brought it before her. They dropped it in front of her without care, although Otto appeared pale. He avoided looking at anyone, anything.

Atienna sank to her knees and studied the Argoan woman’s corpse carefully. The woman was young—most likely only in her early-20s. She had a sharp and angular face that death still had not hollowed out. Dried blood stained her jaw, contrasting the light blue of her vacantly staring eyes.

How sad.

Yulia flashed into Atienna’s mind, sending a wave of nausea throttling through her stomach. Letting out a quiet breath, Atienna reached out and closed the woman’s eyes. She then checked the woman’s hands, turning them over in her own. Her eyes narrowed.

“We already did a strip, sir,” Wilhelm said. “Got some supplies from the groan—

A derogatory, Common term. ‘Groan.’ Used to refer to Argoans because of the way their war cries tended to sound like groans from a distance. An anagram also. Clever, but cruel.

“That’s enough. Thank you for that information, Wilhelm,” Atienna said more tightly than intended. “One moment.”

She inspected the woman’s nails before rising and moving towards the woman’s feet which were adorned in muddied, military-grade leather boots. Kneeling down slowly, Atienna began to examine the spiked soles of the woman’s boots.

There.

Atienna reached forward and plucked something that had been impaled on a spike. Leaning backwards, she inspected it in the moonlight. A white petal.

“What is it?” Gilbert asked.

“It’s a bit strange….” drew Atienna as she held out the petal for them to see. “This is a sternblume. It only grows—”

“In the Grünland region of Capricorn,” Otto realized, brows rising.

Atienna regarded him in surprise for a moment. “Yes, exactly, Otto.” She moved forward, gently turning over the woman’s hand before she showed them the woman’s polished fingernails. Each nail hosted the same design painted white on black. “This symbol…”

“Wait a minute.” Wilhelm startled, squinted, leaned closer. “I’ve seen that somewhere before, sir.”

“It’s the trademark for a political organization that was founded inside of Capricorn. Just this year, actually. Verbundene Augen.”

“Those anti-military zealots?” Wilhelm frowned.

“Fischer, shut up,” Gilbert snapped.

“Yes, sir,” came the automatic response.

Unpleasant…

Otto inched forward. “What are you saying, sir?”

“I…” Atienna pulled away.

How would Werner put this? Certainly, he would be direct and to the point. Even if the words troubled the heart. ‘Cold eye.’ She wondered about that.

“This woman is not an Argoan. She is a Capricornian,” Atienna finally said. “For whatever reason, she chose to disguise herself as an Argoan soldier. That’s my theory.”

No one spoke nor objected.

“It may also be possible that this is a tactic being used to sow dissent and confusion among the Border Force….” she continued. “But I believe if that were the case, there would be a more blatant attempt than this… And I have heard that certain sects of the Verbundene Augen can be…” She shook her head. “This warrants some investigation, don’t you think?”

Still, what was the intention here? An organization promoting peace that utilized violence? Was this some sort of extreme demonstration by the Verbundene Augen? Did Argo actually have any involvement? If not, then where else would the Augen movement be able to procure these uniforms?

Curious…

“Why?”

When Atienna looked up, she found Gilbert, Otto, and Wilhelm staring down at her—rather, at the Capricornian woman—wide-eyed. She wanted to apologize for not only her rambling but also for this revelation, but she knew that words would not suffice.

Why…?” Wilhelm pressed, searching her face for an answer. “We’re out here fighting for… fighting for them!”

Atienna looked away.

“There’s… There’s another tattoo, sir.” Otto gestured to the woman’s forearm.

Atienna inspected the area and paused. At the base of where the woman’s palm met her arm was a dark-blue-inked tattoo of a scorpion. It was not a very detailed tattoo—it bordered on almost cartoonish—but something about it unnerved her. How had she not noticed it before?

Wilhelm stomped his foot on the ground and kicked up a flurry of ice, leaf, and dirt as he spun on his heels. “Unbelievable!” He turned to Atienna. “Sir, we have to report this to the capital immediately. We should send a runner. This is treason. That organization should be dismantled. The traitors punished!”

For some reason, it looked as if he wanted praise.

“Okay, enough, Fischer. One thing at a time.” Gilbert waved him off. “You and Vogt head back to camp. And keep your mouths shut, will you?”

Both men exchanged a look before nodding affirmative and heading back into the direction of camp. No protest. Rank-and-file. Such a powerful thing obedience was.

Atienna waited for the crunch of their boots against the frost laden ground to recede before she let out a quiet sigh. After a moment, she inquired, “Would you like me to inspect the other bodies, Gilbert? To see if there are more involved?”

The man gave her an odd look before he nodded. “That’d probably be a good idea.”

Nico remained silent.

Atienna glanced at the mound of corpses. “Will you… send a runner like Wilhelm suggested?”

“We’re already down one man. I don’t feel comfortable moving forward with two gone. Probably best to just meet with the captain and let him decide on what to do.” Gilbert sighed, rolled his neck. “Damn, I hate thinking.”

A pause.

Atienna slowly rose to a stand. “Do you think you’ll tell your subordinates about this, Gilbert?”

“You ask a lot of questions, you know that?” Gilbert arched a brow before he shrugged. “Wouldn’t do good for morale. Finding out the people you’re supposedly fighting for could be mixed in with the people you’re pointing a conductor at.” He frowned abruptly, waved his hand. “Inspect the bodies tomorrow. You should get some sleep. Maybe Werner’ll return from his vacation by then, and he can deal with this mess.”

***

But Atienna awoke several hours later to the sound of grumbling, packing, and stomping leather boots. Peeling herself off up Werner’s thin sleeping pack, she blinked blearily as she observed his men shuffling back and forth around the campsite.

The campfire had been long extinguished, any evidence that it had once been burning carefully hidden away by a pack of dirt. The soup cans and paper ration wraps that had been scattered across the forest floor the previous night had also been hidden away somewhere.

Atienna was rather pleased with the latter development. She’d spent the last couple of minutes before sleep gathering what she could of those items in a bag. The earth needed to be treated with respect, after all. Despite war’s strangulation.

Werner’s men had done impressive clean-up work. The area almost looked as if it had not been occupied at all. But still… the emptiness of the campsite gave everything an odd sensation of desolation and seemed to make the morning chill feel even colder.

Atienna shivered, feeling the gazes of all of Werner’s men pressing upon her. She sighed.

By the look and sound of things, it seemed as if she had been the last to wake up…

But despite all the noise of morning bustle, it was all still too quiet.

Absentmindedly, she lifted a hand to her ear. All too quiet…

Her palms abruptly itched as a creeping apprehension crept from her stomach to her shoulders. She tensed and pulled the blanket closer around herself. She was forgetting an important detail, she knew. What was it…?

She spotted Gilbert at the very lip of the forest’s edge conversing with Wilhelm. Gilbert seemed to have felt her stare because he turned towards her and arched his brow. She shook her head slowly in response, causing him to offer a mere shrug-nod in acknowledgment. However, his concern was now clear beneath the gray overhead sunlight seeping in through the clouds. Atienna glanced away from him when something floating down from those clouds caught her attention. A snowflake sauntering down lazily. She held out a hand to capture it—off-white against her gloved hand.

It did not melt.

She realized it was ash.

14.3: Advisor & Pirate, 0000 Lost Connection

Re-cap:
Atienna has freed herself from the conflict in the Zatenminye Caverns of Aquarius. At a cost. True Conductor, Aquarian secretary Yulia Kriska has passed away along with the others in her connected group. Atienna has been confronted by True Conductor(-hunter) Cvetka Akulova and has been offered an opportunity (?) to work alongside Cvetka’s employer. Two months later, Atienna’s uncertainty remains…

Maria has suffered her first defeat. Having lost her childhood friend Conta to ELPIS, she has set off to find Conta and fulfill her promise. Despite this tragedy, Maria has found an odd  kinship with fellow almost-saint-candidate and True Conductor Veles (a bounty hunter who claims to be a guild leader) and also with Chevalier Renee LeBlanc, another True Conductor. Two months later, Maria’s search leads her…


Verlose Verbindung » Lost connection, unrecorded

Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

“Papers,” the man ordered in accented Common, hand extended. “Papers, please.”

Rainwater trickled down the brim of his charcoal-colored cap onto the metal gorget hanging around his neck by a thick chain. The imprint of a sea-goat lined the top of the accessory with the word Militärpolizei stamped in bold, capital letters just below it. A baton, a holstered gun, and a conductor of an unknown type hung at the belt around his waist.

Military police.

Balancing her small evergreen umbrella above her head, Virgoan advisor Atienna Imamu searched the small satchel that hung from her shoulders. After shifting aside three thick books and a stack of folded papers, she pulled out a slip of paper stamped with a Virgoan M-seal and her tribe’s seal.

The man accepted the identification and scanned it. Despite his hard eyes, his neatly trimmed ginger mustache brought some color to his face.

At the moment, they both stood at the corner of a sidewalk with steady traffic. A very large and gray stone-laden square unfolded before them. It was dotted with just-as-square v-trams that rolled along the tracks and around medium-sized, closely packed, just-as-square buildings. Several of those buildings were capped off with mint-colored domes, but the predominant colors in the area were beige and gray—gray from the clouding skyline. Despite the low, overbearing clouds, however, there was a sense of extended space to the square—an openness. Although there were most likely hundreds of people bustling around, it was not very crowded.

“Ah, I see. You are an advisor, Atienna Imamu.” The man nodded, handing back her slip and flashing her a cordial smile. “You are here for the Leitertechnik Diplomatisch Konvention! The conductor diplomatic convention! Is it true that people from even Libra and Sagittarius are coming over here?”

“Well, you’re very knowledgeable, Herr…?”

“Herr Schmidt,” replied the man with a grin, tipping his cap and sending some rainwater pattering onto the sidewalk. “Are you not with a bodyguard?” He glanced down the brick-stone walkway. “While it is quite safe here, there have been a couple of… incidents because of a… certain political group as of late. It would be best to travel with someone who can protect you, Frau Imamu. We would not want harm to come to a diplomat visiting our city.”

Atienna dipped her head. “I am just out to make a quick phone call.” She pointed to a building marked with long windows and capped with a triangular maroon roof just across the street.

Sefu was in there on the fourth floor being hustled around by the newly appointed Virgoan diplomat to Capricorn—Nyimbo Dimka of the Maneo Tribe. The man was much younger than the former diplomat Chiamaka had been and was much more energetic too. Thus, Atienna had used Nyimbo’s overzealousness to her advantage and had slipped away from them all minutes prior.

“I am just in there, so it is not so far.” She flashed the officer a genial smile. “I do thank you for your concern.”

“Enjoy your stay here, Frau Imamu.” The military police officer tipped his hat before pointing down the road. “There is a phone booth just down this street and to the left. It will be right across from the… how do you say… newspaper booth.”

Atienna dipped her head in thanks as the officer departed before following on down the road as the officer instructed. Her leather shoes click-clacked against the path, accentuating the subdued chatter ghosting the square.

After rounding the corner, she found the telephone booth as the military police office had described—rectangular, green-painted, straight across from the newspaper stand. Closing her umbrella, she slipped inside and took a moment to admire how clean and well-kept it was. She even thought she caught a hint of lemon-scented, cleaning-agent near the windows. She paused in her admiration to eye the phone box resting alluringly in front of her.

Her palms itched.

Atienna took in a deep breath and pulled out a slip of folded paper from her pocket. She had treated it with care ever since she’d received it from the True Conductor—rather, True Conductor hunter—Cvetka Akulova, and so it looked the same as it had when she’d accepted it two months ago. Though, she supposed she hadn’t so much treated with ‘reverent’ care as with ‘fearful’ care. Fear of deciding to use it. Fear of deciding not to. She had discussed this numerous times with Cadence and Werner. But the choice, Atienna knew, was ultimately her own.

She picked the phone off the receiver and waited to connect to the operator. After offering a polite word of greeting, she read the number off to the woman and waited as the phone trilled a ring before the line connected.

“Hello. Secretary speaking,” came the voice on the other end. Clipped, almost mechanical.

“Hello—”

“This is a private line that is being recorded for quality assurance purposes,” the voice continued. “At the moment, I’ve been directed to transfer all calls to a separate receiver. Please hold while I send you on over.”

Before Atienna could answer, the line rang again.

Oh. Okay.

“Hello,” came another voice—cheery—a second later. “You’ve reached the General Investigations Department of Ophiuchus! This call may be recorded for quality assurance purposes. Are you calling to submit a new request or to address an old case? If it’s the former option, I’d be happy to direct you to the Assignment Department. If it’s the latter, may I please have your case number or the name of the peacekeeper you’re in contact with?”

Atienna paused. “Oh… I suppose I have the wrong number. I’m sorry. Goodbye.” She slowly placed the phone back onto the receiver. And then she let out a sigh—of both disappointment and relief.

It seemed as if she had narrowed her number of tasks considerably after having only been in the city for a day. Still, it was odd. Had something happened to Cvetka’s contact or had it all been a taunting ploy….? It was something that definitely needed to be addressed… Perhaps, at a synchronization meeting.

Atienna spied the newspaper stand across the square and contemplated giving it a gander. Eventually, she pulled out her umbrella and started across the square. She politely addressed the vendor within and paid for the daily newspaper with one Capricornian mark.

The newspaper headline detailed the diplomatic conductor convention. Hosted below the informational article was a rather passionate, anti-military piece written by Marionette Engel, leader of the recently popularized Verbundene Augen movement:

—the political aficionados refuse to admit that the reason they support our constant skirmishes at the southern border is because it lines their pockets with money. In short, the Capricornian military is overfunded. Some economists may argue that these monetary resources trickle over to other economic sectors. While this may be true, they must acknowledge that, with every large investment, there is always a large down payment. And that down payment is the lives of our sons and daughters—

A sharp prick at the base of Atienna’s palm distracted her from her reading.

Werner, it seemed. But they had all promised to keep a low level of synchronization whenever he and Jericho were on operations or assignments. Atienna contemplated reaching out for him regardless but thought better of it. She didn’t want to distract him. And so, she returned her attention to the newspaper.

She blinked.

That was odd…

The words were a bit hard to read. Fuzzy. Out of focus.

Several words seemed to stand out from all the blurred ink. One from the headline article, one from the demilitarization piece, and another from an ad printed at the bottom corner.

I—

will—

enter.

Now, everything seemed out of focusThe noise around her. The movements of the pedestrians and vendors around her. Her own movements. The movements of the other five—no…. The others were drifting away from her. She could feel it, feel them pulling away, leaving her in cold, cold darkness.

The newspaper slipped from her hands and fell onto the floor. Her knees buckled, and she followed it to the ground a moment after. As she lay cold on her back, she blinked up at the gray sky in confusion and studied the shape of the clouds. They almost looked like eyes, peering down at her unyieldingly.

Dark faces ringed around her like a halo. Capricornian words shouted in alarm and concern. Beside her, the rainwater bled into the pages of her newspaper.

This sensation… the heat at the pit of her stomach and the cold enveloping her skin…. It was like when she had been poisoned by sorrowheat back at the dinner meeting in Virgo. Exactly the same.

The others…

She couldn’t complete the thought. Heaviness weighed down on her eyelids. As she drifted away, the pitter-pattering of the rain sounded like whispering in her ears.

I see you. I see you. I see you.


Slidr River, Aquarian-Capricornian Border

“Am… Am I really walking on water?”

“Yes, this is called a blessing, child Lita. I—Veles—have made it so!”

Maria Gloria-Fernandez threw her head back and hummed as she gently took both of Lita’s hands in her own and guided her forward in a slinking dance. “You are certainly amazing, my dear Beast of the Deep!”

At the moment, Lita was indeed walking on water. As was Maria. As was the bounty hunter Veles, as was the Monadic priest Simon, as was the sailor-turned-pirate Morandi, as was the foreign conductor engineer Emmanuel. Barefoot and walking along the surface of a crystalline river speckled with particles of glowing purple light.

There was an encroaching winter chill in the air, and the rocks guarding the side of the riverbank were lightly frosted. Overhead, grayed sunlight bled in through the archway of branches and barely touched their skin. Every so often a chunk of ice would roll on down the stream towards them. In response, Veles would offhandedly wave his conductor-gloved hand and the current would change causing the ice to flow around them.

It was quite strange feeling the water pushing up against her toes and keeping her afloat, Maria thought. It reminded her of that time she had stolen a hot-air balloon from Cancer and had ridden on its top all the way to Taurus. The airy buoyancy, the feeling of exhilaration of being at the divide two different terrains. It was peaceful.

“Golden Beast, your words are too kind!” Veles returned as he marched forward in front of them. Every so often, he would flick his hand and the glow of water beneath their feet would expand further ahead of them and recede a bit behind them. Despite the cold, Veles was still bare-chested, although he had taken up a much thicker fur-lined cloak that concealed his entire body.

Maria herself had a similar cloak wrapped around herself. She had gotten it in exchange for some of her medals back at an Aquarian port.

“I-It’s too bad Giorgio couldn’t come…” Lita mumbled, her words muffled in the fur-lining of her thick leather coat.

Maria moved forward to pull up the girl’s hoodie.

“Yes, well, he and the others have to take care of all the children,” Morandi said, gazing with uncertainty at the water flow below him. “It’d be precarious to bring them all along…” He glanced down at the girl. “Just as it is precarious for us to bring you along—”

Lita turned in his direction and frowned. “More precarious than when I was under the Campanas?”

Morandi grunted. “Well, dear, ELPIS and the Campanas are completely different organizations…” As he said this, his eyes widened and he hung his head. “What in saint’s name are we doing? This is crazy.”

“I still can’t wrap my head around it…” Emmanuel scratched the back of his neck as he shrugged his cloak more over his shoulders. “I have studied the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis. For my license. But my impression was that it was… not real? But you say memories can be stored in vitae? So… your Licensing Department in Ophiuchus… is wrong?”

“There is only one truth you need to know, Emmanuel,” Veles boomed. “And that is that I—Veles—will avenge my fallen guildmates!”

“Yes, we will find Beta, and I will rescue Conta,” Maria affirmed with a nod. She cocked her head at Emmanuel. “Was that not clear when we left the ship?”

Morandi choked and coughed, hard.

Maria blinked back at him, brow arched. “Are you alright, Morandi…?”

“Yes, Captain,” Morandi managed, pounding his chest. He glanced at Veles then back at her. “I was just concerned about whether or not we’re all on the same page…”

“Same page?” Maria inquired.

“I know we’ve been working together for several weeks now, and we and Veles share similar goals…” Morandi elaborated. “But the execution of those plans seems a bit… different.”

Maria recalled the day two weeks prior when she’d bounded into Veles’s hideout in Hapaira after dropping off the Chevalier Renée LeBlanc. She had quickly dismantled Veles’s bounty hunting associates—without any deaths included, since ‘that wouldn’t be a good way to make friends’ as Atienna had pointed out—and had approached Veles who reclined at the back of his hideout on a leather sofa. There, she had graciously bowed before him and requested his assistance in locating Conta. He was not interested in her request at first—at least, not until she explained that Beta was most likely the one who had executed his underlings. After that, he had immediately packed his bags and left with her.

It was through Veles’s efforts paired with Cadence’s trickle of information from the information broker in the Twin Cities that they had made it to this river that ran along the Aquarian-Capricornian border. Maria had left her ship in the Aquarian bay that this waterway poured into and had then left their canoeing boat behind too as the river had narrowed to the point where it was no longer accessible by it. The river had widened since then, but they had decided to settle on a more scenic route instead of opting for locomotive transportation.

Their destination?

The capital of Capricorn!

Yes, the trail of ELPIS sightings across Signum led there. A destination in sight. Die Hauptstadt.

Emmanuel was coming along to the capital due to his interest in the conductor convention there, while Lita wished to offer the assistance of her eyes in finding Conta. Morandi was there as a ‘nanny’ as Olive had put it. And as for the silent Simon who was taking in the scenery beside her—Maria supposed he was concerned about Conta. Or perhaps….

“Well, we both wish to protect what is ours…” Maria murmured, releasing Lita’s hand and fingering her blade beneath her cloak. “Is that not—ow…!”

Maria jerked her hand away from the blade before blinking down at her bare, tanned palm. She shook it absentmindedly and looked up to find Veles and the others studying her.

“Ay, that was strange…” She chuckled.

And suddenly, she became winded, her lungs igniting with intense, burning pain. Before she could even comprehend the situation, she was face down on the water. Its press against her cheek was both warm and cold, both wet and dry.

“Maria?! What—”

She didn’t hear the rest because she abruptly broke through the barrier and fell into the depths of the river. The cold gripped her tightly, forcing her to release her held breath and sending air bubbles out from her mouthHer limbs would not obey her, frozen stiff in the cold of the dark waters.

The memory of being caught in that conducting grenade explosion onboard Morandi’s ship over half a year ago seeped into her mind intrusively.

The only difference was that now she was not bleeding and that now she was in the middle of seeking something that had been stolen from her instead of stealing from other people. And—the air bubbles too. They were different. They almost looked like eyeballs, staring directly at her as they rose to the surface.

Maria sank deeper and deeper into the frigid dark.

Right.

All she needed to do was kick her legs a bit, and she’d break through the surface to rejoin her crew. She had to. She had to find Conta. To fulfill that promise.

An intrusive thought invaded her mind as black dots pricked her vision:

I don’t want to lose again—


“The Verbundene Augen is a new political movement that is seeing steady growth. Its foundation in the Die Hauptstadt appears to be in relation to the recent publicization of the Capricornian military Watch. Its strong stances on demilitarization and criticism of the Kaiser can be problematic for future progressive development. Proposals of defaming the group through associating it with ELPIS have been suggested due to both groups’ apparent anti-conductor stances. The leader Marionette Engel, however, has denounced ELPIS publicly so this may prove to be difficult. Further investigations into this group are suggested and to be approved by General Falke Sperber.” 

Report from Capricorn Chamber of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, 08/1941

13b: Solitary Maidens

Re-cap:

The Twin Cities lives to see another day. Fritz von Spiel and Yulia Kriska are dead. The man formerly known as Wtorek Izsak has escaped from Ophiuchus. Ilseong Jin, the saint candidate, is in custody. The Twin Cities thus enters a period of change as Ophiuchian agents sweep through the streets. 


On Monday the following week, Eunji received the results of her State Conducting Exam. She passed with flying colors and received a printed certificate detailing her accomplishment, along with a note informing her she would receive her physical license within a few months. Her brother, Soha, and Felix congratulated her, while Olive offered her his usual shrug-nod of nonchalance. He didn’t personally think that this alone would satisfy Eunji.

Olive, of course, hadn’t been able to finish his practical portion of the exam, having been carted off alongside Claire, Trystan, and Felix for questioning following the incident with Ilseong Jin. And after that was all over and done with, he dreaded having to retake the written portion. After all, he had placed second out of all the test-takers, and he knew that achievement was unrepeatable. Maybe even a fluke, he thought to himself.

Cadence reassured him, “Come on, your highness, ya got the brains. Maybe this next time ya take it, you’ll score first since Eunji won’t hog that position.”

The Ariesian prince waved the idea off, but Cadence could tell he was pleased with her comment. Still keeping the facade of apathy despite everything. Very prince-like.

The prince even kept the facade in place despite his obvious concern about how Claire was dealing with Jin’s confirmed betrayal. But Claire merely voiced his own concerns regarding how Jin’s actions would affect his clan’s social standing. The betrayal seemed far from his mind.

“Right after Eunji was licensed too,” Claire had said with a casual sigh. “Things will get complicated again.”

Like a politician, Olive thought.

Or pretending to be one, Cadence amended.

The two princes bid each other farewell again at the Grand Snake Station after shaking hands—an action Olive initiated himself. And when Claire suggested that they meet up again sometime soon, Olive didn’tdeny the suggestion—though, he didn’t address it either. Eunji seemed pleased with this development, but Olive couldn’t wrap his head around why.

As Olive made his way back inside the Serpens Establishment with a bandaged Trystan after the farewell, he was pulled aside by Leona. Without speaking a word, the woman handed him a manila envelope sealed with wax. When he opened it up, he found a printed certificate stating that he had successfully completed the State Conductor’s Exam.

“I don’t think it’s fair for you to have to take the written exam again because of circumstances beyond your control. Especially given how well you performed,” Leona had said. “And I’ve witnessed your conducting myself.” She smiled. “I have to say, if that were the practical, you would certainly pass. The interview too.”

Olive was rearing to refuse it. He’d wanted to earn the license on his own right and was unnerved by Leona’s gesture. Werner shared a similar sentiment, but—

“Come on, you guys,” Cadence had interjected through a synchronization. “Ya accept what comes ta ya. Can’t reject everything because of pride. The faster ya get your license, the faster ya can figure out what’s goin’ on with Lavi, right? Your promise, your responsibility.”

And so, Olive accepted the gift and gave a polite word of gratitude.

Monday was also the day when Ophiuchian peacekeeping agents from the Conductor Regulation Department and the Conducting Law Department poured into the Twin Cities in droves. They raided the warehouses of both the Campanas and the Romanos, tore through cargo containers full of modified conductors, cracked open warehouses housing Specialist children in transit, and promptly brought in all associated parties for questioning. After all, Specialist children owned by the Campanas had been running through the streets during that night of chaos and modified conductors owned by the Romano Family had been the ones that nearly sank the city. There was no turning from it.

While most associated parties were questioned within the city, those executives found to be associated with ELPIS were brought into the depths of the Black Constellation Detention Center for further questioning.

Probably to never be seen again, Cadence figured.

Cavallo, with one arm slung up in a cast, acted as the main representative of the Romano Family. He was joined by the surviving Caporegimes Agape Rosario, Bendetto, as well as Fortuna Romano.

Following this meeting, the Romano Family’s modified conductor operations were swiftly dismantled. In exchange for a lesser sentencing and a form of protection, the don and the caporegimes offered up the files of the parties they had made business deals with. This included Argo, Aquarius, and many other wealthier, smaller parties. The files regarding Capricorn had already been tossed out as per Cadence’s request so there was no proof of their involvement, and the Romanos didn’t feel inclined to mention it. Another aspect of the lesser sentencing involved a sworn agreement to keep their discovery of ELPIS’s nature under wraps.

The entire thing was sketchy to Cadence. But that was the way the dominoes fell.

The aforementioned lesser sentencing was imposed on all executives of the Romano Family, and this included house arrest that would initially be implemented by Ophiuchian Agents aided by the city’s police.

The Twin Cities police force was undergoing a power shift. Police Comissario Vincente Giustizia who was confirmed to be an ELPIS leader had disappeared from the city alongside a number of the policemen and policewomen serving under him. It took less than a week for the mayor to select a replacement, and—as suspected—they were both in the Romano Family’s back pocket.

The Romano Family went through a shift of power within itself as well. Despite losing their main product of modified conductors, they still had their money-laundering fronts and land leases to fund their operations. Fortuna re-organized the truncated Family, delegating new seats herself, and even went so far as to offer Matilda a higher position due to the girl’s work in the city on that night.

The Foxman Family was not charged, on the other hand. This was in part due to the little evidence found regarding their exporting and importing of the modified conductors and due to their part in assisting Gabrielle Law with her case regarding the Campanas. They were, however, extensively questioned regarding the whereabouts of their brother turned business partner turned ELPIS leader. But neither Allen nor Carl had seen Francis since that night. And neither had Cadence. Omicron’s body hadn’t turned up either.

The Campana Family’s operations were also swiftly dismantled. Due to Gabrielle’s preliminary investigations and due to the nature of her findings, the Campana Family wasn’t offered lesser charges. Their assets were stripped from them, and they were found guilty on all accounts of trafficking. The don and associated executives were given life sentences in a Geminian specialized prison, while an investigation was launched to find connected parties and buyers. Ambrose was found not-guilty, despite his access to the organization’s files and records. And why this happened became clear as Jericho read the report that circulated through the Serpens Establishment not too long after: the files and records of the Campana Family merely identified the children by “item #”. Discovering this sent shivers down Olive’s spine.

“Good riddance,” the prince had spat with a scoff more to himself than the others.

But Cadence wasn’t too sure if the Campanas were getting the justice Olive thought they deserved. After all, the Campana executives had been locked in a rather well-furnished prison equipped with state-of-the-art showers, bedding, and a five-star chef to boot. But she tried her best to hide this from the prince.

Cadence, Atienna, Werner, and Jericho had also been brought in for questioning by the ELPIS Investigations Department. Atienna and Werner were questioned regarding their reason for being in the city and for their connection to Yulia Kriska and Fritz von Spiel respectively—both who had both been reported as having been in communication with ELPIS. Atienna and Werner were in suitable positions to deny their knowledge of ELPIS’s activities and highlighted their personal motivations—helping Sefu who had been caught in the crossfire; and arresting the colonel for suspected collusion with ELPIS and embezzlement of military funds, respectively.

Cadence and Jericho, on the other hand, were questioned about how they came to work together on that night the city nearly sank. Cadence and Jericho both informed their questioners that they had merely met up at a bar and realized they shared similar problems and goals. Cadence, wanting to help her childhood friend Francis Foxman who had gotten involved in ELPIS. Jericho, wanting to detain an ELPIS member for questioning.

It was a loose lie. A not very well crafted one, Cadence knew. But… Surprisingly, their answers were accepted.

The headline of the newspaper released that night pretty much wrapped up the city’s knowledge and perspective on the entire ordeal—

“Ophiuchian Crackdown on Crime Following TERRORIST Attack. IS ELPIS STILL IN OUR CITY? BEAUTIFUL PIANO KEYS LIGHT UP THE NIGHT SKY. Another Day in the Twin Cities?”

Cadence wondered about that.

***

On Tuesday, Maria paid Allen and Carl a visit at the docks. She brought with her Lita and was surprised to find their warehouse full of children. They seemed surprised themselves as did their lackeys as over a dozen children filled out all of the corners of the warehouse. Some skirted far from them. Others darted up daringly and tugged on the hemming of their suits.

“They just keep appearin’ outta nowhere,” Carl grumbled as he swatted them away. He muttered to himself, “Dammit, Francis. We’re tryin’ not to draw attention to ourselves.”

“Money’s still coming in from our casinos, bars, and dance halls,” Allen said with a grimace, “but we lost a major source of our income since the Romanos aren’t makin’ conductors for us to ship now. We can’t keep them here. Can’t afford it.”

But despite all their talk, the warehouse was filled with small makeshift beds. But Cadence was pretty sure that they weren’t acting so much out of the generosity of their own hearts than out of their desire to honor their brother’s wish.

Lita recognized about a dozen or so of the children, and they recognized her. In other words, Campana Specialist children made up half the lot. A problematic development for Allen and Carl, since Ophiuchus had been sweeping the city for the children. The reason as to why Francis didn’t want the children to fall into Ophiuchus’s hands remained largely unknown.

Maria thus offered to take some of the Specialist children out of the city on her ship for some time. She knelt before the children, sang about adventures and the sea, and then asked each of them one-by-one if they wanted to come along with her.

Cadence could tell though. Despite all of Maria’s brightness and cheer, her mind was fixated on Conta. And as Maria boarded her ship with Lita, Renée, and the Specialist children in tow, Cadence knew that one of Maria’s first touristing destinations would be Hapaira. Rather, Veles. The bounty hunter, the tracker.

Werner thought it was too dangerous. Cadence thought it was worth the risk.

“I will get my Conta back,” Maria had responded. “So please be patient with me…. yes?”

***

On Wednesday, several days after being released from questioning by the Ophiuchian agents within the city, Werner visited the Sognare. The bartender still hadn’t returned, and the shelves behind the bar were clear of all the wine bottles and liquor. The raiders hadn’t thought to dismantle the piano on the backstage, however, and it remained standing upright and tall. Werner drifted over to this stage and approached the piano, inspecting the dusty keys of the instrument with a frown.

As soon as the city was safe again, Werner had used the radio Kleine had conjured to contact the Capricornian capital. He informed them that the colonel had been caught in the crossfires of the city’s war while attempting to escape arrest—a white lie Cadence helped Werner craft and transmit. He also informed them that the colonel had confirmed that he had been embezzling money from the military’s funds and was indeed working with ELPIS. The capital officials were unhappy with this information and requested that Werner bring the colonel’s body back to Capricorn.

But this was impossible. The ELPIS Investigations Department had collected not only Fritz von Spiel’s body but also Yulia Kriska’s and Kovich’s as well. The peacekeepers reasoned that the bodies served as evidence regarding ELPIS.

And so, the Capricornian government stepped back to allow Ophiuchus to do their work. Cadence wasn’t surprised. Their underground dealings had nearly been dragged out to light, after all. She’d half-expected Werner to receive a promotion since he’d been indirectly behind saving face for Capricorn. But as Werner said, “Avoiding a problem isn’t worth praise.”

Hearing him say this made her feel a bit sad.

In the end, Cadence wasn’t sure whether to laugh or to feel uneasy about the Ophiuchian authority. Cadence also found herself wondering where Nico would fall in the Capricornian ranks now that the deal between the country and the Romano Family was no longer in action.

Thinking about all of these things, Cadence found herself strongly synchronized with the Capricornian as he examined the keyboard inside the bar.

“That rests on Nico,” Werner replied, resting his hands on the keys. “He has proven himself an asset in service, and the capital may believe he still serves as a possible liaison to connect them to the Romanos for future projects.”

There wasn’t much left for Nico in this city anyway.

Cadence grimaced. “It sucks that ya didn’t get the deal with the Romanos. The old deal is null and void now too.”

“Seeing as how Argo was being supplied by the Romano Family, this simply means we’re back on even territory. Fortunately, you had the Romano and Campana Family destroy those records,” Werner replied evenly. “I appreciate your actions.”

Cadence stiffened at the mention of Argo. “I honestly had no idea about the Romanos supplyin’ to Argo, Werner. I’m really sorry… Ya don’t even need ta thank me for that other thing either, really. I was just makin’ up for what I did… Or at least tryin’ ta.”

“I’ll accept your apology, Cadence,” Werner returned, resting his hands on the keys. “Since you’ve helped Capricorn escape a precarious situation.”

Cadence showed him a C-chord, and he copied. “It’s over with, but it doesn’t feel like we’ve won anything, Lieutenant.”

Werner remained silent for a moment before he said, “A battle is never won. Not truly. It’s simply that you’ve gained a tactical advantage over the enemy. Sometimes that merely means that you’ve lost less than them even if your loss is substantial. And still, people consider this winning.”

“And what do you think this is, Lieutenant? A battle?”

Werner didn’t answer.

“Ya know even with everything happening…” Cadence chuckled after showing him a couple more notes to play. “I’m still expectin’ Alma ta come through those doors. Ain’t that pathetic or what?”

Werner studied her for a moment before he lifted a gloved hand towards her head.

The door to the Sognare swung open before he could complete the gesture, however, and in came Nico and Gilbert.

“The guys are getting one last round at the TwinStars,” Gilbert explained, jerking his thumb backwards, “before we head home.”

Nico smiled a bit morosely. “Do you wanna come?”

“I won’t join you,” Werner said, rising from his seat, “but I will buy everyone a drink before we return.”

***

On Thursday, Atienna made it back to Aquarius alongside a properly healed Sefu and a properly amused Cvetka. They reached the original location where they were meant to originally attend their tripartite diplomatic meeting and found Moana and Chiamaka waiting there for them. Ophiuchian peacekeeping agents from both the ELPIS Department and an international relations department were also present and re-subjected them to a full questioning regarding their experience in the Twin Cities. Additional questions were asked regarding the mysterious Cancerian tourist who slipped away into the gates.

Atienna wondered how many Ophiuchian agents were questioning members of the Aquarian military as she herself was being questioned. She wondered how many scapegoats would be sacrificed for the betterment of their country. She wondered if their sacrifice would be worth anything.

After Sefu and Atienna were released from their interrogation, Chiamaka greeted them—

“It is good to see you both safe. But what you did was dangerous and foolish. You could have put Virgo’s international relations in jeopardy.” She did not mince words. “We must remain professional for the rest of this meeting, but we willdiscuss the ramifications afterwards.”

While all of this had been occurring, Aquarius had sent another diplomat down in Alexei’s place. Sigurd and Alexei guarded the diplomat tightly. And other than exchanging one long look, Atienna and Sigurd didn’t speak to one another for the rest of the time.

After brushing Chiamaka up on the customs of Aquarius and Pisces, Atienna waited in the hall outside of the meeting room alongside Cvetka and Sefu. Cvetka remained calm and quiet, acting as if everything that had just occurred were someone else’s predicament. She approached Atienna only once to hand her a slim index card with a number jotted down onto it.

“My employer,” she said, smiling as if in victory.

Three hours later, Chiamaka exited the meeting room with Kabal in tow.

“We’re continuing our relations with Pisces, but temporarily halting our negotiations with Aquarius,” Chiamaka informed them as they left the meeting building. “Their recent activities do not coincide with what Virgo stands for as a country. That being said, we will no longer be working together either, Atienna.”

As suspected, Atienna thought to herself, but not quite unhappily.

“Because I will be retiring from this position,” Chiamaka finished. “I admit, studying and teaching these subjects is very different from engaging in it. You can continue in this profession if you wish, Atienna, but you will be continuing without me.”

Atienna was somewhat startled by Chiamaka’s decision and felt someone responsible for it. However, she supposed it was an understandable choice. And this left her with her own choice.

As she gripped the index card tightly in her gloved hands, Atienna wondered if this entire time she had still been standing in place and averting her eyes. Frozen in place.

“Our first diplomatic outreach in years, and it ends like this.” Chiamaka shook her head. “We’ve stepped out into a dangerous world.”

***

On Friday, Jericho was finally able to have a session with Alice. Usually, he held no opinions of these sessions but this time he attended with alertness. He even had his journal ready and open.

Alice was, however, for once not alert. She remained silent, arms crossed, gaze distant.

“Was your questioning by the ELPIS Department…” Jericho began. “Unpleasant?”

Alice regarded him curiously for a moment before she sighed. “The ELPIS Department was very thorough with their questioning, Even more thorough with their threats. They put it fancifully, but they’ve practically threatened to put a case forward to have my license revoked if I were ever to speak of my experiences with external parties. For ‘endangering the countries of Signum by divulging sensitive information’. I’m sure they’ve told you the same.”

Jericho nodded. “Talib and I. Our licenses—”

“Yes, I heard.” Alice clasped her hands together. “And I also heard from Talib that Gabrielle’s now very interested in your application to the ELPIS Department.”

This was fact. During their luncheon the previous day, Gabrielle had brought up how Jericho’s recent actions would put him in good standing to work in the ELPIS Department. Elizabeta who had also been present at the time had stared holes to and through Jericho when Gabrielle had said this. Jericho hadn’t been sure if she’d been informed of Gamma’s identity, but he didn’t ask. It didn’t seem appropriate.

“Leona might personally approach you for a job offer,” Gabrielle had said. “I reckon you take it. We need someone in there. Especially now.”

“Yes,” Jericho confirmed to Alice as he recalled the memory. “Gamma. Izsak. It is important to Gabrielle.”

“And she needs someone in that department because of the department politics. It’s the least accessible department in all of Ophiuchus.” Alice leaned forward in her chair. “You’ve faced several ELPIS leaders in such a short amount of time, Jericho.” She clasped her hands together. “And you met the one called Theta too. Given the recent developments, I’m concerned about your stability in your continual pursuit of this department. What are your thoughts?”

“… I have a friend,” Jericho said after a moment of quiet, causing Alice to perk up. “He said there are things after. So I’ve been thinking about what to do after. I’ve been thinking about that. Even though I will still finish what I started.”

“And what is it that you want to do after?”

Jericho stared at her and then stared at the journal in his hands. “I don’t know.”

“It does take time to discover what you want to do next after accomplishing a goal that you’ve set for yourself,” Alice said, more gently than usual. “But as humans, it’s good to set goals. They help in moving forward.” She then frowned. “Although it is ultimately your choice and as much as I respect Gabrielle, I don’t think entering the ELPIS Department will be good for you, Jericho. Something isn’t right.”

Jericho agreed. Something wasn’t right.

Not so long after his session with Alice, Jericho was approached by Leona as Gabrielle had predicted. The woman merely greeted him and handed him a manila folder before departing. Upon opening it, he found his application to the ELPIS Investigations Department. Stamped across the top in big letters was APPLICATION ACCEPTED.

“Told you.”

Jericho turned and found Gabrielle leaning against the wall, arms crossed.

“Hello, Gabrielle.” Jericho offered a small wave.

“Hey, Jericho,” she returned, unlatching herself and approaching him. “Congrats on the acceptance.”

He stared at the file. “Thank you—”

“By the way, I’ve been meaning to mention this. Some ship captain named Maria said you were a part of some club with her. A ‘True Conductor’ club. Can’t help but think our Ariesian prince is also part of the club. Maybe even that swindler. Since you all seem to know each other.” Gabrielle waited for a reaction, but Jericho merely stared at her. She hung her head and sighed. “Alright. Well, if you ever feel like talking, I’m always ready to lend an ear.” She motioned Jericho forward. “Let’s grab lunch. Talib is treating with some homemade falafel.”

***

On Saturday, Boss Romano made his first public appearance.

Ricardo Romano strolled through the streets of the Twin Cities wielding the same aura he did from before he’d been stabbed. He didn’t even seem to care that there was an Ophiuchian agent at his left telling him he could only go so far from his property.

Cadence met Ricardo at a small park just outside of his residence with the bottle of wine he’d requested. She then accompanied him back into his manor and poured a glass for herself and him in his living room. The peacekeeper remained just outside of the room. Perched like a hawk.

“So, Cavallo has told me everything. About Francis. About ELPIS. About Theta.” Ricardo said as he swirled his wine glass. “You’ve met Theta, Cadence?”

Cadence tensed. “Yeah… I did. Briefly. Ya know. Like the others said. Met him while tryin’ ta capture Francis ta get him some help. Haven’t seen him since he went berserk at Warehouse 13.”

Ricardo hummed, taking another sip of wine, and the conversation lapsed into silence.

Finally, the boss said, “I was like you before, Cadence. An orphan on the street. Before the the war.” A pause. “I was taken in by a kind man who wasn’t from the best walk of life. Still, he was generous. He took me and many other children in. He even went so far as to offer us home and education.”

Ricardo took another sip of his wine, and the realization slowly dawned on Cadence.

“He passed during the war, but I thought that I would try to live up to his life. Of course, as you know, Cadence, this world is quite difficult to navigate and some things had to be sacrificed and exchanged along the way.” Ricardo set his glass down on the table in between them. “I had hoped taking individuals like you and Fortuna under my wing would suffice.” He folded his hands over his stomach and closed his eyes for a moment. “What do you think Theta thinks of what I’ve done with this extra life he’s granted me?”

Cadence looked away from the man she’d admired for years, the man she’d feared, the man she’d almost seen as her father. And she felt disappointment. “I think Theta’d be pretty sad…”

***

On Sunday, Cadence received a letter slipped under her door. She recognized the handwriting immediately. Those curling letters belonged to none other than Francis Foxman. But he must’ve forgotten she wasn’t savvy with reading with his mind all jumbled up. Still, she managed to get through the thing with Atienna’s occasional help.

It was an invitation. To the Sognare.

When Cadence arrived at the Sognare, she found Allen and Carl lounging at the bar there all casual-like. A look at the back of the bar informed her that the raiders had finally gotten to the piano. The empty stage made her chest crumple.

“No Fortuna?” she asked.

“No Fortuna,” Allen affirmed.

“Probably didn’t want a headache.” Carl scoffed.

“Probably figured she was too busy,” Cadence reasoned.

“And we’re not?” Carl snapped before he frowned, considering. “Yeah.”

The door creaked open, and two familiar figures stepped into the bar. Cadence personally recognized only one of them. The other she recognized through Atienna’s memories.

“You’re late, Francis,” Allen said before nodding at the person standing beside him. “Who’s your friend?”

“This is Pi,” Francis said, gesturing to the tall Aquarian standing beside him. “It seems he was initiated recently and somehow stumbled into one of my gates and ended up here during my…” Francis shook his head. “He’s a good person. We have similar mindsets regarding what we’ve become.”

While Francis was dressed in a turtleneck with a suit jacket thrown over his shoulders, Pi was dressed in an out-of-sorts, oversized shirt with tight suspenders. They looked out of place next to each other.

“He ELPIS?” Allen arched a brow.

Pi nodded. “Friend. Nice to meet.”

“What’s wrong with him?” was the first thing Carl asked.

Pi frowned, looking hurt.

“He wasn’t initiated properly,” Francis explained, placing a thoughtful hand on his chin and examining Pi. “I still haven’t dissected the specifics of what’s occurred, but you don’t need to be concerned about his behavior. Pi is still the person I remember him to be.”

“Nice ta meet ya.” Cadence offered Pi a hand with a grin.

Brightening, Pi accepted the gesture.

“What’s this about, Francis?” Allen asked grimly. He took out a box of v-cigarettes and shook one out for himself. He offered one to Cadence—which she refused—before offering them to Carl, Francis, and Pi. Carl and Francis accepted the v-cigs, igniting them with a shake, while Pi stared at Francis in slight shock and horror.

Francis took a drag of the v-cigarette before answering, “A friend… Rather, another ELPIS leader by the name of Gamma is searching for me. I came across him the other day.”

Izsak…?

“I think he’s planning to kill me,” Francis said casually, taking another drag of his v-cig. He glanced down at it with a grimace of disgust before puffing again.

Carl started forward, punching his fist into his palm. “The hell? You need us to sack him?”

Pi made an X with his arms, shaking his head. “Angry man. Want big boom. Again in city.” His frown deepened. “Not like. Before. Dangerous.”

“I refused his suggestion to target the reservoirs and generator conductors here again,” Francis elaborated, ignoring Carl’s outburst and Pi’s interjection. He puffed. “The guy didn’t seem to be too happy about that. Said I was only saying those things because I wasn’t initiated right.” He took another drag, shaking his head. “He wants to kill me here and now so I’ll return to my resistor. He wants to re-initiate me ‘properly’.” Francis’s gaze darkened. “I won’t let him take my last moments of Omicron away from me. And I’m not too keen on dying as Francis either. I also have some things I need to set straight. So you won’t be seeing me for a while.”

“You’re in trouble,” Allen concluded after a beat. “You need a place to lie low? We’ve got a couple places out of the city.”

“Yeah.” Carl nodded, almost desperately. “Got one in Cancer. Got another in Aries—”

“You misunderstand…” Francis drew, placing his gloved hand over his face and staring at them between his fingers. “I can’t be around any of you. When I look at you, I’m torn between disgust and affection. I need time to get my head on straight. And I need to figure out the next course of action…. It’s a mess.”

Silence stretched.

“Disgust and affection? That’s me at my reflection every day,” Cadence said good-naturedly. “It ain’t so bad.”

Francis blinked at her before offering a musical chuckle as he lowered his hand. “That’s why I didn’t invite Fortuna. She’s… a bit of a handful.”

“And Nico?”

Francis stared blankly at them before his eyes widened and he held his head. “I forgot Nico…”

“Eh, I doubt he’d want to come anyway,” Carl said, giving Francis a reassuring wave. “Been busy with his Capricornian pals. The bastard—”

But Francis turned away from Carl suddenly and turned to face Cadence fully. “I understand you have many questions. And I have only some answers given how much of my vitae has been lost through my many times of returning to the resistor. If you give me time, I will tell you what I know to the best of my abilities.” He shook his head. “My brain’s still a mess… but I will tell you this…”

Cadence perked up.

“True Conductors are like conductors themselves.” Francis tapped her chest lightly. “Human beings operate like their bodies when it comes to vitae. When people are born, vitae from the outside world flows in through a door that closes shortly after. When people die, a different door opens and vitae leaves your body. Some call it decay and loss of energy through the cessation of bodily function. But it’s not so simple.”

“Like blood,” Pi added suddenly, making a swooping gesture with his hand. “Flow through veins. Through valves. Open and close.”

“But you are different. Both doors are open constantly with True Conductors. You’re like open channels,” Francis elaborated. “It’s a defect. And because of that defect, extraneous vitae can easily enter. Connected True Conductors act as a very large channel. And when utilized properly, that channel can conduct a very large amount of vitae. You are more-or-less a tool. That is all.”

Cadence arched a brow. “Well, that’s one way ta flirt.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to come off that rudely,” Francis apologized, looking somewhat dazed. “But that’s as much as I can give at the moment.”

As much as Atienna’s curiosity scratched at Cadence’s mind and as much as Cadence selfishly wanted to push Francis further, Cadence let out a sigh and nodded. “Guess I gotta toss out the 100 questions I wrote down then—”

Abruptly, Francis pointed to Cadence’s pocket. “You have one of my proto-conductors.”

Cadence opened her mouth to whittle out another lie but thought better of it as she met Francis’s calm eyes. This was someone she wanted on her side. Not only for strategic purposes but because she genuinely did.

After digging into her pocket, she procured it for him. He gingerly plucked it from her hand and inspected it.

“It didn’t shatter with my outburst because there’s not enough vitae in it,” he said. Flipping the thing in hand, he rolled up his sleeve and pushed its needlepoint into his arm. The glass vial filled with blood as he pulled up the plunger. He pulled it out from his arm and then grasped it in his gloved hand. His palm and the red liquid within the vial began to glow with pale tangerine light. When the light faded, the liquid was pitch black.

“This is good for roughly six uses,” he said, dropping it back into her palm. “If you place the tip of this down on a drawn gate while the vial is full and speak of the place you wish to go, I will be able to hear you through my gate and send you as close as I can to that location. If not, you could end up anywhere.”

Cadence arched a brow. “It’s that easy?”

Francis didn’t answer and instead reached into his pants pocket to draw out two more similar proto-conductors. He gingerly handed one each to Carl and then to Allen before taking a step back. “I want you to have a way to leave,” Francis said, “if the worst comes into fruition…”

“The hell is that supposed to mean?” Carl arched a brow. “Stop being so ominous, Francis.”

Cadence patted Carl on the shoulder and arched a brow. “And what’s the catch?”

Francis dipped his head. “I know this is a lot to ask, but while I’m away, could you please look for and after the children who are looking for me? I need to focus on the task at hand, and I need to get my mind in working order… At the moment, I’m not suitable to care for the children.”

“And we’re suitable?” Cadence nearly burst out laughing as she thumbed herself and then Carl and Allen. “Us?”

“Yeah.” Carl crossed his arms. “Why not hand ‘em over to the Ophiuchians? I mean—”

Pi blanched and paled, while Francis glowered for half a second.

Francis took a moment to compose himself before he continued, “You can become suitable. Better than those peacekeepers.” He looked away. “I assure you, I am not abandoning them as I did in the past. But it will be dangerous with me. Just temporarily… Would you mind doing me a favor?”

Cadence curled her hands around the proto-conductor and met Francis’s eyes. “Ya got it, Francis. Didn’t even need ta ask.”

And so, on Sunday, Cadence made a promise.


“You know, Cadence, people might think you’re untrustworthy because of your profession, but I think it’s because of your profession that you’re as trustworthy as they come. You put on a sign saying that you’re untrustworthy with just your job title and your conducting type.”

“What in saint’s name is that supposed ta mean, Francis?”

Francis Foxman (?) and Cadence Morello, unknown time

13a: Copper Cadence

Choose your finale OST: 1 – 2 – 3

Re-cap:
As Theta/Francis tears through the Twin Cities, Cadence must face the person who strays the line between family, friend, and enemy.


Twin Cities, Gemini

Cadence pulled herself onto all fours with a grimace. Her head pounded, her ears rang, her mind was clouded by memories and feelings that weren’t her own—a battle between saint candidates inside Ophiuchus, the death of True Conductors, and a murderous rampage of revenge. From these things, she reached a conclusion—

Their plan had fallen through faster than a row of dominoes.

Werner had been right. There had been too many assumptions and too many unknown variables involved. Francis had…

Shaking her head, Cadence assessed her surroundings. It was dark and musty. There was a crack of light spilling in from somewhere, and there was a ceiling above her head that was hung so low that she couldn’t even stand up without brushing against it.

Wait.

Rock. Slabs of rock. No. Sides of buildings. They were everywhere around her, forming a tight, claustrophobic enclosement. Dust rained down from above as she scrambled backwards.

She was buried. Under rubble.

How had that happened?

Theta. He had lost it and started throwing portals left and right. And…

Cadence grimaced.

Had he really dropped buildings on them? Wasn’t that a bit much?

A groan resounded from beside her. Slowly, she turned her head and found Allen, Carl, and Fortuna sprawled out just beside her. They stirred in unison, rising and assessing their surroundings. Cadence figured it’d be better if they assessed themselves first.

There was a stream of blood running down Carl’s head, and he was breaking a hacking cough. He barely looked able to sit. Fortuna seemed slightly better, but her bare ankle was sporting a painful-looking purple bruise. Allen looked the worse than all of them. The front of his suit was torn open and a nasty gash ran diagonally across his chest.

No, no, no. This was way worse now—

“You all finally up?” came a casual voice from behind.

Cadence’s blood ran cold as she turned her head.

Kneeling casually behind her was Omicron. In the dimness, Cadence was unable to see the tattoo on her face. But Cadence couldn’t even really focus on the woman’s face, because—

There was a steel beam embedded in Omicron’s abdomen, extending from the ground to the slab of rock just above their heads. A stream of blood was dripping down the beam and had already formed a large puddle on the ground. All around them similar steel beams protruded upwards, keeping the rubble in place. They were pulsating faintly with white light. No, not white. Upon closer and deeper inspection, Cadence realized that the light surrounding the beams was a very, very, very pale purple. Off-white. She figured she probably wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference if it wasn’t right in front of her.

Perhaps Charite’s vitae had been some shade of purple before—

Realization settled in abruptly.

“Why…” Cadence did a double-take. “Why did ya…?”

Omicron frowned. “What do you mean ‘why’? You’re important to Francis. Why else?” She glanced down at her injury and grimaced. “Admittedly, I haven’t done a rescue in some time so I didn’t maneuver that smartly.” She spat some blood and sighed. “If I try removing this, this entire thing’ll come down.” She started mumbling to herself, almost delirious. “And you don’t look like you’re going anywhere anytime soon. And I’ll probably bleed out even more even if I take it out. Not that I have the strength left to conduct anyways.” She waved her gloved hand. “Your conductors are so…. Theta…”

Allen pulled himself up beside Cadence with effort, exacerbating the wound on his chest. Cadence shouted in protest but he waved her off.

“But you still have the strength to ramble?” Carl asked before he entered a coughing fit.

Fortuna frowned from beside him, hitting his back while eyeing Omicron’s wound with a frown.

“I’d just like some appreciation,” Omicron admitted with a light scowl. “I was the highest-ranking member in my field back in Ophiuchus so you should at least show some respect. Even the kids show me more respect than you do.” She nodded at a small opening in between two slabs of concrete where the light was spilling in through. “Small ginger one, you can squeeze through there and get some help. A peacekeeper if you have to. You look small enough. This structure’ll hold even when I die.”

Cadence grimaced. Talking about death like that so freely—

“I’m going to actually die this time…” Omicron’s eyes widened. “No, I’m going to become nothingness…” She winced and wrapped her hand around the iron bar going through her gut. “Not a trace of me left…”

“Hey, I thought you said you guys don’t feel pain…” Carl frowned. “‘Cause you bleach your vitae or whatever.”

“It dulls the pain,” Omicron returned flatly, almost rolling her eyes. “If there’s an iron bar going through my gut, of course, I’ll feel it. Especially since Charite’s vitae—my vitae—is still inside me. I’m still human.”

There was a stretch of silence.

“You think saving us now makes up for everything you’ve done?” Fortuna pressed sternly, lips drawn.

Omicron glowered at her. “I don’t want to hear that from you.” And then her expression lightened. “Then again… I’m supposed to get along with you since your Francis’s family and friends.”

Cadence figured Omicron really was getting delirious from blood loss.

“You know…” Omicron murmured suddenly, turning to Cadence with wide eyes. “The easiest way to get all of you out of here would be if you—”

“Ya can just straight out say ya want me ta get Francis,” Cadence muttered, grimacing as another sludge of red poured out from Omicron’s gut.

Omicron stiffened before she whispered, “You can’t let Theta go through with this. This isn’t them. They wouldn’t do this. I think it’s just that… they’ve finally… come together… and it’s just too much.” She shook her head. “You can’t let Francis—Theta—bring the city down.”

“Like you all weren’t planning to sink the entire city before?” Fortuna frowned.

“We were planning to get the children and innocent out first,” Omicron replied, grimacing slightly. “Now, Theta is just…”

“Like that’s any better.” Fortuna scoffed. “What gives you the right to dictate what’s right and wrong?”

“Saints! Fortuna, there ain’t no point in arguin’ now,” Cadence interjected. “Ya need ta save your breath.”

Fortuna’s eyes narrowed before she sighed and shook her head.

“He was my brother before he was your lover!” Carl suddenly, almost randomly, roared, struggling forward. “Don’t you tell me to rescue him! Of course, I—” He entered a hacking cough.

“Carl, you’re injured,” Allen interrupted him. “You’re not going anywhere. Fortuna’s not going anywhere. I’m not going anywhere. The ROI on dead people is zero.” He turned to Cadence. “Get Francis first. Stop Francis. Before the peacekeepers do. We’ll be fine here.” He paused, thinking. “It’s a high-risk job, so name your price.”

Fortuna and Carl remained silent.

Cadence chuckled faintly, nervously. “I’ll take the down payment of ya not dyin’ before I get back.”

Allen’s brows rose ever so slightly before he nodded. “Done deal.”

Omicron’s eyes widened. After letting out a sigh of relief, she whispered, “Thank you.”

Her words of gratitude churned Cadence’s stomach, but Cadence merely gave her a quick nod and a two-fingered salute to the others before crawling her way to the crack of light. As she drew near to it, however, she felt her heart drop. Two crisscrossing iron pipes tightly blocked the exit. There was no way in hell she was going to be able to squeeze through them.

Wait, no. She could solve this. They could solve this. But…

Cadence’s gaze flicked back to the Foxmans, Fortuna, and Omicron who were watching her before she turned back to the bars. Atienna’s image flickered behind them for half a second.

What’s important?

Cadence wrapped her fingers around the steel bars and reached out to Olive who was already faintly peering in. His image appeared beside her, his lips drawn tight, his brows furrowed.

“I… It may have been a fluke the last two times. I’m not sure how it works, Cadence. It’s almost an override. I don’t want to—”

Come on, kid. Have a little bit more faith in yourself.

Olive gave her a brief look of annoyance which she could easily tell wasn’t how he really felt. He grimaced and covered her hands with his own and closed his eyes. There was a beat of silence. Cadence’s head buzzed.

The next moment saw to copper sparks dancing at her fingertips. The metal piping melted away into nothing below her palm. Waving away the disgusting smoke, she let out a quiet breath and hesitantly glanced backwards.

Fortuna and Allen looked somewhat perplexed. Carl just looked confused.

Omicron’s eyes widened for a fraction of a second—she almost looked fearful—and then she sighed. “I see. That’s a unique case for a True Conductor. That makes so much more sense. It’s amazing what you can do.” She coughed. “Not sure if that’s a comfort or…”

“Stop talking,” Fortuna reproached.

But Omicron continued on, “Theta isn’t hotheaded and Theta isn’t violent. If you make a sound argument, then you’ll be fine.”

Saints. That wasn’t helpful.

“He also said something about children inheriting the world from us. About us just being borrowers,” Allen added. “Was a teacher. Apparently. And Francis is hotheaded even though he pretends not to be.”

That was helpful.

“Right, thanks for the tips.” Cadence nodded before giving another salute. “See ya on the other side.”

With a grunt, Cadence pulled herself up and out of the hole before surveying the area. She nearly fainted when she turned to see how much rubble had fallen on top of them. It was like a tower, a castle. If Omicron hadn’t pulled through for them, they would’ve been dead for sure.

Cadence looked away, shivering before pausing as she felt something in her pocket. She reached in and pulled out Theta’s proto-conductor. Still in one piece. Weird as hell that it didn’t end up like Olive’s or Jericho’s proto-conductors. She shoved it back into her pocket and took in her surroundings.

The sky was illuminated by the reflection of the lights from the portals that seemed to litter every corner as far as she could see. The surrounding warehouses had collapsed into themselves and large slabs of rock and stone that looked like they were from different areas of the city were scattered around. There were a couple of peacekeepers dotted nearby, but they looked too busy or injured to even pay her any mind.

Where was she even supposed to start? Was Francis still even in the city?

Morello.

Werner was reaching out to her, and she accepted the synchronization.

The Capricornian was perched on top of one of the lower-rise buildings dotting the canal that ran into the Pollux Bay. He was peering towards the Dioscuri Bridge through a sniper scope of a conducting rifle. His telescope sight was focused on a spot on the bridge up high. No, not a spot. A person.

Theta stood there at the tip of the spire above the bridge. His conductor-gloved hand was pressed against a thin pole protruding from the spire. Beneath his palm, there was a pale tangerine glow. In his free hand was a v-cigarette that he would take a drag from every so often.

Cadence started through the city as she continued to peer in through Werner’s eyes.

Every so often a ray of vitae would hurtle up towards Theta only to be swallowed up by an unseen portal and be returned back in the direction it was sent. It made for a horrifying light show.

Morello, pay attention.

Cadence blinked and skidded to a halt just as she was about to cross a street. On the opposite side of the road stood a cluster of men and women. She recognized them from when she’d attended the Romano-Foxman meeting weeks ago. They’d been lower-ranking members of the family who’d dotted the square tables at the very ends of the meeting room. And now, they all held conductors ignited with pale off-whiteness. Just how many had ELPIS managed to convert? And Romano Family members of all people? That was just convoluted as hell. She’d laugh if she weren’t afraid.

Cadence stumbled backwards before she ducked into the nearest alleyway only to trip over the body of a man in a monochrome uniform wearing a white armband. Flinching backwards, she snapped her fingers. The cluster of men and women entered the alleyway just as the copper light from her transmutation faded. They jogged past her invisible guise.

Cadence held her breath, remaining still on the ground.

Now all she had to do was wait a little—

“This is Morello we’re dealing with,” one of them said, stopping short of the opening at the opposite end of the alley. “She’s probably still here. Transmuted herself into a disguise. Give it a sweep. She’s just as guilty as the Romanos and the Campanas since she’s workin’ with ‘em.”

You’re Romanos, ya hypocrites! 

Cadence’s heart hammered in her chest as she saw the group split into two and start sweeping their way from the ends of the alley towards her in a line.

Saints. Why were they so smart?

Cadence scanned the dark for anything she could use. Then her eyes locked onto the bladeless hilt clipped to the dead peacekeeper’s waist.

It’s a Projector’s conductor. 

Cadence hesitantly reached out and wrapped her fingers around its hilt. A ghost of a gloved hand passed over her own. She looked up and met with Werner’s cool blue eyes.

We still don’t understand this well enough, Werner stated. He studied the conductor. And I’m ill-equipped when it comes to melee combat.

Another hand abruptly wrapped over both of theirs.

When Cadence looked up, she found herself meeting Maria’s somber green gaze. Do not leave my side.

Two at the same time has never been done before. Werner glanced at her with a frown then glanced back at the closing distance of her pursuers. But given the situation, the risk is acceptable. May we? 

Nodding, Cadence took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Then she felt the blade hum beneath her fingertips. Everything after came in flashes. Bursts of a copper blade of light, leaping over bodies, hopping on shoulders, twirling in the air, slashing wildly. And a whole lot of sadness.

When Cadence came to, she found herself panting heavily, sweating profusely, and standing above a trove of bodies. She stumbled away from them, dropping the conductor that was still warm in her hand.

Guilt, later. Save, now.

She turned on her heels and dashed down the alleyway and back out onto the street as she peered through Werner’s eyes again. It took a second for the big question to hit her: how was she supposed to make it up to the top of the bridge? An idea came a second later.

Lieutenant—

Okay. I’ll send Bergmann to assist. But as soon as it appears that you’re unable to proceed, you and Bergmann will fall back and allow the peacekeepers to settle this. 

Understood, sir!

This isn’t a joking situation. 

It’s the nerves. 

Cadence wove her way through the streets and to the walkway that lined the lip of the Pollux Bay. There, she was finally able to make out Francis standing at the tip of the spire with her own eyes. He was just a tiny spot in the dark, but he was a firm destination.

Eventually, Cadence reached where the road met the beginnings of the bridge and train station. She was soon met by a panting Bergmann who was pounding up the steps connecting the lower level of the city to the bridge.

“Hey, doll,” Cadence greeted her with a grin despite her nausea. “Ya know, there’s a shorter route.”

Bergmann stiffened. “I apologize, ma’am. I was sent here by my lieutenant to assist you.”

“I’m pullin’ your leg, Emilia.” Cadence raised her hands before jerking her head up to the spire several meters away. “Mind sendin’ me up there?”

Bergmann nodded firmly and together they set off up the bridge.

As they drew closer and closer to the spire, however, the winds began to howl around them harsher and harsher. The portals scattered around the bridge were the source of these winds, and they wailed in agony as the gales pressed into and out of them. It was a horrifying sound. It sounded like people were trapped inside of them.

Eventually, the winds whipped around so strongly that they couldn’t take another step without being pushed right back. The spire of the bridge was still several meters away, but Cadence figured those odds were enough. She turned to Bergmann. The woman nodded, fell into a crouch, and pressed both of her gloved hands against the ground.

The area beneath her hands began to illuminate. The light there slithered along the ground until it came to a stop beneath Cadence’s feet where the light formed a large square. Bergmann looked up at Cadence, prompting Cadence to give her an affirmative nod and wink.

With a rumbling crack, the glowing ground trembled beneath Cadence’s feet and then extended up through the night sky, carrying her up with it. Its growth stopped short when it was level with the spire. Now, Cadence could really see Theta— a human figure standing on the spire, separated by the empty space from Bergman’s rock tower.

Here we go.

Cadence snapped her fingers and transmuted Omicron’s guise over herself in a flash of copper. Without skipping a beat, she charged forward and shouted Theta’s name. The man turned in her direction, wide-eyed—

“Omicron?!”

And Cadence leaped forward off of the extended ground. She knew that she was definitely too short to make the jump but, as gambled, Theta reached out to her in alarm and flicked his gloved hand. A crack of pale tangerine opened up before her at the motion. After tumbling on through it, she stumbled out onto the cold metal floor of the spire. The wind stopped whipping at her face, and the air felt warm. As she righted herself, she looked up to find Francis—Theta—standing across from her.

He took a drag of his v-cig. “You’re not Omicron.”

Cadence stiffened under his gaze. The courageousness and determination that had filled her only a second ago fizzled away. Jericho’s anger wasn’t there to suppress her fear either.

Atienna’s image abruptly appeared beside her and met her eyes. Her hand ghosted hers. I’m with you.

Letting out a breath, Cadence snapped her fingers and dispelled the illusion. “‘Fraid not, but your lady was the one who sent me up here.”

He extended his un-gloved hand. “Then I’ll send you back—”

“Looks like ya got your hands kinda too full right now ta be doin’ that.”

He glanced at his gloved hand that was still pressed against the glowing spot on the pole and then took another drag of his v-cigarette. “So, are you planning to push me off then? That won’t change anything. Everything has—”

“You know I’m a lover, not a fighter,” Cadence interjected, hands raised.

The man stared. “Don’t tell me you came up here just planning to talk to me…”

Cadence shrugged. “Well, I’m lousy in a fight. I ain’t the sharpest tool in the shed—saints, I’m still learnin’ ta read. And I’m poor with money so I don’t have any of that ta give. Doubt ya’d take it anyways. Talkin’ is the only thing I’m good at.”

“You’ll only waste your breath,” he replied calmly. “Everything is set in stone.”

“That’s awfully fatalistic of ya, ain’t it? Aren’t ya people all about ‘hope’ or whatever?” Cadence interjected.

“There’s no ho—”

“Yeah, I heard your whole spiel through your portal thing.” She waved her hand in the air. “So what? Ya realized that ‘your work’ wasn’t as stellar as ya thought it was; ya realized people’re worse than ya thought and ya and gave up? Ya pissed so you’re tryin’ ta just wipe everythin’ out? Ya don’t even care about the kids in the city anymore? After all that shoutin’ at us about not savin’ the children? Gonna murder-suicide this?” She took a step forward. “What are ya? A kid yourself?”

“I’ve just reached a realization—”

“I ain’t just talkin’ about whatever breakthrough ya just had that’s makin’ ya want ta sink the city now. I’m talkin’ about that off-the-walls project in general.” Cadence took another step forward. “I mean—what good would sinkin’ the city do ta begin with even if ya did it later like ya planned?”

“This city is unsalvageable—”

“Sure, this city is shit and the people are shit and—hell—even some of the kids are little shits, but we weren’t always shit and we won’t always be shit,” Cadence pressed on. “Some of the kids and people here are gonna do great things—change the world maybe—and they won’t be able ta do it if ya sink this city. What you’re doin’ is no better than the Campanas. You’re stealin’ away the future—the world—that you’re borrowin’ from them!” She shook her head. “I don’t get it with ya and your ELPIS bunch. Always seein’ everythin’ in black and white. If a white bucket of paint gets a tiny little speck of black in there, ya just go and dump it all out. Ya waste it. So again. What good would it do?”

Cadence snapped her fingers and let loose a transmutation that stretched across not only her own body but stretched to the floor and to Francis too. When her copper light shattered, she gazed at him.

“And are ya gonna seriously tell me that there’s nothing that ya can see that’s redeemable? Nothin’ lookin’ back that makes ya think that it ain’t so bad…?”

“What is this?” Frowning, the man studied first himself and then her. “Are you trying to use Francis’s childhood memory against me?”

Transmuted over Francis’s—Theta’s body—was the illusion of Francis’s younger childhood self. And reflected in the man-turned-boy’s eyes was Cadence’s younger self which Cadence had transmuted over her own body.

The man had been correct in his assumption. That was what Cadence had been trying to do. Deception through nostalgia. People clung to the past, after all. But as soon as Cadence saw her short, chubby-cheeked, wide-eyed image reflected in his eyes, she came to a realization. That was impossible.

She shook her head, heart faltering. “I ain’t talkin ta the parta ya that’s Francis in the first place.”

He froze, wide-eyed.

“I’m talkin’ ta you, Theta,” Cadence clarified. “Francis… is an idiot. He gets pulled in way too easily into drama. Not suited for the business as it is. Doesn’t operate on normal people morals or even—ya know—logic when he gets worked up. He just operates on what he feels is right.” She looked him over. “But you, Theta—ya seem ta me like the type that actually has ‘em. Which makes what you’re doin’ ten times worse.”

The man—the boy—frowned slightly.

“Do ya think that you doin’ this is some kinda callin’ card—an end slide—ta this whole thing? Ya think you’re makin’ a difference?” She took another step forward, dispelling the illusion with a wave of her hand.

“I—”

“This is just you givin’ up and runnin’ away,” Cadence interjected. “Ya were doin’ that even before ya became Francis! And that’s the one big difference between you and him. Francis faces his problems head-on, but you—look at what you’re doin’. Ya think anything’ll change by ya doin’ this? I don’t have a clue why ya think destroyin’ reservoirs or generator conductors or the city’ll solve anything. I mean, ya went after the one in Aries years ago, and look at it—it’s back! All those people ya killed—the children who died or became orphans—ta get to it died for nothin’ then in your book, ain’t that right?”

“I wasn’t—”

“With the way you ELPIS leaders exist and operate… ain’t it just that everything you’re doin’ is just an illusion of good will and change?”

Atienna’s image flickered strongly out of the corner of Cadence’s eyes, and an intense sadness took over her.

“I mean, by the way ya talk, ya obviously view dyin’ a helluva lot different than the rest of us. People like me—we ain’t thinkin’ about returnin’ ta the cycle. That’s why we try so hard—struggle and grovel like idiots. This is it for us. The end of the line. We ain’t comin’ back like you when we kick the bucket, so everything we do here is full effort one way or another.” She paused, frowning. “Theta, can ya really put your full effort into somethin’ when ya know you’ll always get another crack at it? ‘Cause if it ain’t and you’re causin’ all this, you’re worse than us.”

Jericho reached out to her in the distance. Cadence hesitated for a moment before she threw away the idea of pulling away and allowed him to come. He came in strongly, carrying in his usual fury but this time in a different flavor.

“Not only are ya not making progress and hurtin’ kids ya don’t even know but… what do ya think happens ta all of the children ya take in when ya run off and do things like this?” Cadence pressed. “What happened ta the ones who survive when you’re gone?”

This gave Theta pause. “You said that before. What are you talking about?”

“Who do ya think that suitcase peacekeeper that’s constantly after ya guys is? Why do ya think he’s after ya?”

Theta remained silent.

“It’s ‘cause he was raised up and taught by a person named Theta after ELPIS raided his village. Theta who taught him all about vitae and cycles; Theta who disappeared with the wind leavin’ him in the care of all the other ELPIS quacks. And what do ya think happened to him after that?”

Theta’s eyes widened slightly.

“You guessed it. He was forced into ELPIS when he was just a kid. Forced ta do the same kind of things you’re doin’ here as an adult. He’s lookin’ for revenge for everything your group forced on him—on the other kids too. Because that’s the only thing he can do.”

Theta paled in the light.

Jericho’s image intensified in front of her eyes.

“I think givin’ people love and takin’ it away is a helluva lot crueler than not givin’ ‘em any love at all. ‘Specially when you use it against ‘em.” She gestured widely down to the city. “Ya gave those kids down there hope, and now you’re takin’ it away!”

“You’re lying…” Theta pulled his gloved hand away from the pole, and the light there dimmed.

The light illuminating the city skyline followed suit, and slowly they became draped in complete darkness.

“Everything I’ve said since comin’ up here is one-hundred percent the truth—a record for sure,” Cadence affirmed. “Ya know that I’m not lyin’. If ya did, ya would’ve shut me up from the very beginning.”

The guilt enveloped the man’s entire body in an instant—from his face that crumpled, from his shoulders that dropped, from his back-step of disbelief.

Hook. Line. Sinker.

Guilt was a great motivator, after all. A tool to break down or a tool to incite change. Cadence had learned that from Olive, and she figured she was beginning to experience it herself. And with the sense of victory came a feeling of righteousness, fulfillment, satisfaction.

Jericho’s image flickered away out of her vision, although she still felt him lingering at the corners of her mind.

“And it ain’t just him. He just happens to the most vocal one about… Or maybe he’s the only one left.” She paused, gesturing to the city below. “You leavin’ all of ‘em like this… The ones who make it out—what do ya think’ll happen ta them?” She jerked her thumb backward. “That Iota broad has more than a few screws loose. Ya think she’s gonna take care of ‘em or let ‘em all go on their merry way? She’s all about recruitment, ain’t she?”

Theta didn’t seem to be listening too closely anymore.

“Take your own damn advice and take some damn responsibility!” Cadence snapped, stepping forward, grabbing a hold of the man by his collar, shaking him. “It’s not ‘it can’t be helped so I’m just gonna let it be’ or ‘I’m going ta wipe it away and forget about it’! Of course, it can be helped!” She tightened her hold. “Despite everything we went through when we were kids, we still all had stupid hopes and dreams. We knew that we’d never be like the rest of ‘em and we’d make terrible life-choices, but we still wanted to continue. We didn’t even think we were unfortunate then. And those kids down there—the ones you took in, the ones the Campanas owned—are just like us. They deserve as much of a chance as we did! Even if they end up shit. What gives you the right ta take that away?”

Francis’s hands wrapped around her own as he struggled in her grip.

“And, Francis, look. I… I don’t know what kinda memories of Theta’s ya saw. Just by the sound of it, it seems like it was maybe paradise back then. And ya probably have every right ta be angry on Theta’s behalf for how bad things’ve gotten.” Cadence’s shoulders sagged. “I lied ta ya before, Francis. Things can’t go back to the way they were before. Not anymore. Not to whatever the world was like before ELPIS. Not to how things were like before we grew up. We can’t go back. Not really.”

Alma’s gentle smile flashed through Cadence’s mind, as did the memory of running through the streets with the Foxmans, Fortuna, and Nico at her side. Biting her lip, Cadence tightened her grip on the man’s collar.

“It hurts. Realizin’ everythin’ you’ve been doin’ up ta now might’ve been for nothin’. Realizin’ ya can’t go back to the good old times. Realizin’ that you’ve fucked up hurts. It sucks, it’s embarrassin’—I know. But all you’re doin’ is throwin’ up temporary solutions ta this problem. Ya gotta own up to it, stop shruggin’ your shoulders, and try ta work somethin’ out.” Despite the burning in her eyes, she lifted her head and met his gaze. “So stop sayin’ there’s no hope, okay? It hurts when ya say that you’re givin’ up. ‘Cause you’re family ta me—no joke—Francis. So, let’s just try ta be better, aight?”

Francis released his hold on her hands and stared at her wide-eyed.

He’s done, Cadence, came Atienna’s reassurance.

Cadence panted heavily in the silence that followed and then released him. He slid to the ground and fell to his knees. She fell back on her rear beside him, heaving.

“I….” he murmured. “Saints. What am I doing…? I messed up… All those children…”

Cadence ran her hand down her face. “Yeah. We all did.” She studied him. “Have ya calmed down some now? ‘Cause that’s all I got. How about we put a stop ta the whole sink the city plan now?”

Francis’s brows furrowed, and he studied her in the dark. “It’s too late… I… the conducting grenades and explosive conductors. They’ve been placed already. They’re going to detonate. There’s no stopping it.”

Cadence sighed. “Okay, did ya not hear my whole speech about not givin’ up and takin’ responsibility?” She chuckled. “Embarrassing’ hearin’ myself say that.”

“Unless you grow five-hundred hands to reach all of them, then it’s going to be a miracle, Cadence.”

“I got a billion of ‘em for ya.”

Francis frowned.

“Open up your portals again, Francis,” Cadence urged. “I gotta plan. And I’m gonna prove to ya that the people of this city—nah, the world—ain’t as bad as ya think. Despite circumstance and situation.”

Francis stared. “You’re not making much sense…”

“You can control where things go when they enter your portal, right?” Cadence asked. “Then all we need ta do is have ya open up the portals that’re near the explosives, have the portals lead ta somewhere far off from the city, and dump the bombs in.”

“There’s five hundred of them all around the city, Cadence,” Francis muttered. “I won’t be able to gather them and transport all of them in time.”

“You’re not gonna have ta. The city folks will. Through a little help of direction,” Cadence said, wiggling her ringed fingers. “Or should I say mis-direction?” She chortled. “Nah, I’m kiddin’. It’s direction. I’ll transmute an illusion out from your portal to show ‘em where the bombs are at.”

“That’s too risky.” He frowned. “The amount of vitae you would have to expel to create an aerial distortion—an illusion—of that magnitude… plus, relying on the people of this city…”

“Aw, come on, Francis.” She cuffed him on the shoulder causing him to stiffen. “We’ve taken worse risks than that before. Remember the Ferrari candy store fiasco of the early 30s? After we pulled our last candy raid and cleaned the shelves, the folks set up watches around the block ta catch and beat thieves like us. And then there was that other group that bought a bunch of his candy and threw it all on the streets for rats like us. They all coulda been sadist protectin’ their own stuff, but also coulda been saints. Who knows. Appearances are deceivin’. The fact is that this is still their city, and they’re all greedy a hell.”

Francis’s eyes widened, and he seemed to reminisce before dipping his head. “Okay, Cadence, I’ll let you deceive me one last time.”

Francis moved back to the extended pole marked in black and placed his gloved hand on top of it. The spot began to glow immediately, and shortly after the smog clouds began to reflect back the pale tangerine glow from the city below. The light wasn’t as intense nor as large in number as before—Cadence could barely make them out in the dark.

Francis extended his free hand out to her. Cadence accepted the gentlemanly gesture, let out a shaky breath, and reached out her other ringed hand to the edge of the portal.

She knew she had to transmute something simple. Something easy to discern. Something eye-catching that’d get people’s attention. Something she knew like the back of her hand.

The image crossed her mind. Perfect.

She snapped her fingers and copper light spilled out from her hand from her rings. It was a bit more difficult to manage—the proto-conductor rings. She had to periodically flip from filling the rings with vitae to expelling the vitae, but eventually, she got the hang of the back-and-forth. And so, she turned her eyes to the nightscape and watched as her illusions rose out from the darkness from Theta’s portal.

Gigantic black and white piano keys stretched upwards through the night sky. They were as wide as the skyscrapers they rose up in-between. And slowly from the top to the bottom, the keys lit up and dimmed with copper light as if someone were playing. One key at a time. The faux play of light continued down the keys until the light cascade hit the bottom. As soon as the last key brightened and then faded, the top key would light up copper and the luminousness would descend again. Enough to draw the eyes and trigger curiosity.

Guys, I know I’m askin’ for a lot now, but…

Cadence’s vision began to blur as a wave of exhaustion took over her, but she kept herself standing.

Understood.

Cadence could see all of the others she was connected to within the city start towards her copper illusions. Werner directed his subordinates to the illusionary keys they were closest to. He was efficient, disposing of twenty explosive conductors into Theta’s gates with ease. Maria was a beast, leaping across thin alleyways from building to building, swiping the explosive conductors where they rested in plain sight, and tossing them into the portals as she ran past.

Cadence heard Atienna exchanging carefully chosen words with Cvetka who then prompted the Ophiuchian peacekeepers they were with to move out towards the piano keys. The word spread through the city quickly. Rumors were like currency in the city, after all. Cadence could hear through the ears of Werner, Maria, and Atienna the whispers of the people of the city as they rushed back and forth—

“What in saint’s name is that in the sky? Let’s check it out!”

“Peacekeepers say the city’s damned rigged to blow. Explosive conductors. ELPIS. Apparently, they set up Specialist vitae things around the city. Near those floatin’ keys.”

“They’re tossin’ ‘em into those things. It’s like a fancy garbage chute. Don’t know if they’ll manage it all in time though.”

“Damn. You think there’s one at La Teglia? Like hell, I’m going to let my favorite pizza place go down. Finally managed to eat their long enough to get that discount. I’m gonna check it out.”

“I heard there’s lotta money involved. If you show proof that you threw away those explosive conductors, then the Ophiuchians’ll give you 500 cens for each one!”

And through their eyes, Cadence also witnessed the city act on those rumors and words. Matilda and her gang wove their way through the streets towards the glowing keys. Her network of street rats and orphans dispersed, reaching nearly every corner of the city as they searched for the explosives and dumped them into the portals. There was also Hideyoshi and Louise whom Maria witnessed working together with several police officers to toss a large explosive conductor into a portal. Ferrari was even spotted checking around his candy store.

Of course, there were some who ran away in the opposite direction, some who dismantled the conducting grenades and explosive conductors and stored their parts away in their pockets, some who took advantage of the chaos, but—as all things in the city were—everything was balanced. Half and half. Good and bad.

Chortling at her good hand as her vision began to fade, Cadence fell forward into darkness.

***

When Cadence cracked open her eyes again, the sky was dark and she was lying on the ground with her head propped against something soft and warm.

Francis’s face eclipsed her own. “Are you alright?”

At the faint sight of the tattoo on Francis’s face, Cadence didn’t feel the usual anger. Instead, she felt a heavy sadness. And uncertainty. But just for him.

Jericho.

“Ya know, I’d feel much better if I was layin’ on the lap of a pretty broad instead.”

Francis chuckled lightly, musically. “I think that answers that question.”

“Where are we?” Cadence asked after a beat.

“We’re still on top of the Dioscuri,” Francis replied.

The memory of the others weaving through the city trickled down to her slowly, causing her to cackle lightly. “Told ya we could save the city. I never bet on a bad game.”

“Eleven-twelfths of it,” Francis amended. “One-twelfth of the explosive conductors were set off before they were dropped into my gates.”

Cadence stiffened.

They didn’t detonate near any of the reservoirs. From the information I’ve received, they donated in the wealthier districts that evacuated when this incident first began, Werner provided, suddenly dipping into her mind. His shadow crossed her face. I apologize for the intrusion. It wasn’t intentional. A pause. You did well. 

Enjoyin’ the praise here. And I enjoy the company too, Lieutenant.

Cadence nodded back at Francis. “Yeah, those are good odds, ain’t they?” She groaned and rubbed the back of her neck. “I feel like I’ve got a hangover.”

“You expelled a lot of your vitae,” Francis said. He paused, studying her quietly. “To expel that much vitae, you’d have to be one of two things. Either a saint candidate or a True Conductor.”

Cadence tensed and felt Werner’s synchronization increase. “Ya ain’t gonna strangle me now are ya?”

Francis frowned, gaze lowering. “It’s not even funny that you’d suggest that after everything you’ve said…”

Damn… He was gloomy.

“Hey, hey, can ya blame me? Every time we come across any of ya, ya try ta put a bullet or whatever ya can find through us.”

“Yes, your existence is dangerous. You’re a necessary part of the syzygy,” Francis agreed. “But I’ve given your words some thought while you’ve been napping. It really is a temporary solution. The reservoirs and the True Conductors.” He smiled thinly down at her. “I might be biased though, since a childhood pal of mine is one.”

“And Theta’s pals?”

Francis frowned again. “They relied on my ability for this entire operation, and we put all of our stakes on this night. No one is getting their hands on those explosive conductors. Not any of the Families. Not any of them.” He looked out towards the faint cityscape. “And the others will not be able to move in this city without me.”

“Well, if we’re on the same page now, I was hopin’ ya’d answer a couple of questions for me—wait!” Realization jolted Cadence, and she shot up and grabbed a hold of his hand.

Francis startled in alarm.

“Francis—no, Theta?” Cadence shook her head. “Saints, it doesn’t even matter.” She tightened her grip. “It’s Omicron and the others.”

***

Francis took the both of them through a portal to outside of what remained of Warehouse 13 before Cadence guided him into the collapsed cavern of rubble. Fortuna, Allen, and Carl were still huddled together in the corner there, although they all looked much better than how when Cadence had left them. Fortuna’s ankle was wrapped tightly in gauze, Carl’s forehead was no longer bleeding, and Allen’s chest was tightly bandaged. The trio looked up at their appearance.

The relief that broke across Carl’s face almost made Cadence laugh. Fortuna meanwhile merely frowned, while Allen leaned back against the stone slab behind him and let out a sigh.

Cadence figured the new addition to the cave was the reason for their drastically improved conditions. And, as per usual, that new addition was too focused on his task at hand to notice her and Francis’s entrance. Cadence cleared her throat.

Nico Fabrizzio turned from where he knelt and stared.

“Cadence!” He brightened in a way that made Cadence’s heart warm. His expression faltered, however, when he registered Francis standing behind her. “Saints, Francis, you…”

“A warmer greeting would’ve been nice, Nico,” Francis said as he walked past Cadence to Nico’s side.

Then Cadence registered who Nico was kneeling in front of. Omicron. The woman was deathly pale, although the wound that the pole was protruding out of was no longer bleeding profusely. Nico’s work, no doubt. Omicron’s eyes were half-lidded, and she seemed to be staring at something deep in the ground.

“I… I know she’s ELPIS, but Carl and Allen gave me the go-ahead.”

Cadence arched a brow at the two brothers. They were inhabitants of the Twin Cities through and through. Fickle. Unbiased. Except when it came to family.

“I’ve been tryin’ my best,” Nico stammered as Francis knelt beside him, “but the pole’s pierced vital organs. I can only transmute so much without a donor or…”

Francis placed a hand on his shoulder. “It’s okay, Nico. That’s enough.”

Nico frowned in surprise and confusion, before Cadence approached him from behind, tapped him on the shoulder, and jerked her head backward. Nico opened his mouth to protest but then unfurled from Francis and joined Cadence at her side.

Omicron lifted her head at the commotion.

“You really are a ridiculous person,” Francis murmured. “Trying to look heroic at a time like this.”

“I am heroic… darling,” Omicron greeted him pleasantly, voice barely audible as she reached for his face with her ungloved hand. “The city?”

She didn’t seem to have the strength to reach him, however, and her hand fell short just a centimeter away. He intercepted the gesture, cupped her hand in his own, and pressed it to his cheek.

“It’s still standing,” Francis murmured. “I’m sorry for putting you through this…. all of you.”

Omicron opened her mouth but no words came out. It was too much of an effort. Francis tightened his hold on her hand.

“Please. My name. My real name. One more time.” Omicron’s eyes widened. The desperation in her voice was tight. “Just once. Please. If you remember—”

“Altair,” Francis affirmed. “I can never forget that.”

Omicron’s eyes widened before they softened. “My darling Vega.”

The affection in their words sparked a pang of jealousy in Cadence’s chest, but the feeling was quickly overtaken by a pang of heavy empathy. To be so close yet so far away from someone you cared about was…

And then Omicron’s hands slipped from Francis’s. The man grabbed it as it fell and pressed it against his cheek for a moment before gently placing it down. He placed a hand on the side of Omicron’s cheek that hosted her tattoo before moving forward to close her vacantly staring eyes. A pale light began to curl up from her body like smoke as he did so. A pure white light.

And then Francis began to murmur under his breath,

“There is no end,

There is no beginning,

There is only a cycle.

Whether enemy, whether friend,

Whether family, whether stranger,

Whether on land, whether on sea, whether in sky,

Whether alone, whether in company,

Whether in peace, whether in war,

May all return to where all began.”

Despite everything, Cadence couldn’t help but find the entire scene beautiful as the light filled the dark corners of the cavern and illuminated the steel beams as it seeped out of the cracks of rock.

When the light completed faded, Francis rose slowly and faced them. His eyes were wet but he didn’t seem ashamed.

“Er… I’m sorry, Francis. About your girl.” Carl sat up. “Did er… Omicron become… nothingness then?”

Cadence wanted to smack him. Couldn’t he read the atmosphere?

“Maybe…” Francis murmured, wiping his eyes and turning towards his brother. “Or perhaps she’s found peace.”

For a moment, no one spoke.

And so the six of them remained there in silence. Six childhood friends, always looking backwards, always being forced forwards. Staying the same, yet constantly changing. Unsure of what to do next, but always faking certainty. Accepting everything, rejecting nothing. Representatives of what the Twin Cities truly was. It truly was absurd—the different directions they’d all gone.

A romantic thought, Cadence mused. She wondered if Atienna was influencing her more than she liked to admit.

Francis reached into his pocket and drew out a knife. Nico startled, but Cadence squeezed his shoulder. Francis drew the knife across his palm and splashed a streak of red at their feet. He then sank to his knees and placed his gloved palm on top of the red.

“Don’t take too long, Francis,” was all Allen said. Carl nodded in agreement from beside him.

“You need to answer for everything you’ve done. The business, the Family, my father. You’re not walking away from this,” Fortuna added, eyes glowering. But she didn’t make any attempts towards him. “And you still have to answer one question since I won the game.”

Nico, as always, looked between them all with confusion and concern which turned into alarm as the space beneath their feet began to glow with tangerine light.

“See ya soon, Francis,” Cadence called out as she, Allen, Carl, Fortuna, and Nico began to sink downwards into the portal. “And I’m sorry.”

Francis merely smiled as he watched them disappear from his sights.

Given all of their responses to the situation, Cadence wondered if that despite everything, deep down they were still all the same, but—

—as she re-emerged from the portal and found herself in front of Doctor Fabrizzio’s underground clinic, she knew that there was no going back.

12.2: A Duet Between a Soldier and Advisor

Mood OST

Re-cap:

As Francis/Theta tears through the Twin Cities, Werner faces Colonel Fritz von Spiel while Atienna faces Yulia Kriska. Two connected True Conductors against two connected True Conductors. One seems to show mercy and the other ruthlessness, but the truth is…

Twin Cities, Gemini

Pulling Sefu closer to herself, Atienna tuned her ears to the sound of the small footsteps drawing nearer from down the road. Yulia sank to her knees, arms widespread. A beat after, a familiar boy flew into her arms from the side of the street. He wrapped his arms around her neck and buried his face in her nape. The two of them sat there embracing each other for a very long and quiet moment.

“K-Kirill…?” Alexei whispered in realization. His face paled, and he suddenly looked to be in more pain than Yulia had put him in.

The boy unfurled from Yulia’s side and peered down at his father who tensed immediately. Yulia took off her conducting gloves and fitted them gingerly onto Kovich’s hands.

“K-Kirill…” Alexei stammered. “I… I’m so sorry. I had to do it. We had no money, Kirill. No food. But they could feed you, Kirill. They said they’d take care of you. And they did, didn’t they? And I had to. But now. I’m almost there. Not yet. I’m not ready yet. I haven’t been able to make a place for you yet. But when I did—when I do—I was going to…”

Yulia’s brows furrowed and her lips tipped downwards, but Kovich placed a hand on her arm. He then looked up and meet Atienna’s eyes.

“It’s your choice,” Atienna said to both Kovich and Alexei, “but choices can’t be undone.”

Still… How sad.

Even if this was Alexei’s attempt to dissuade Kovich from using his conductor, Atienna knew that there was some truth to the man’s words. Yes, Atienna could see it clearly—what his intentions had been. Good intentions sometimes led to terrible outcomes. Atienna’s mother was an example of that, although Atienna was certain her mother would never make a choice like this one.

That aside, Atienna knew that even the cruelest, most selfish person tried their best to make the ‘right’ choices. But that also meant that the kindest, most selfless person sometimes made the ‘wrong’ choices—

Kovich sank into a crouch in front of Alexei.

The man’s eyes widened. “K-Kirill—”

The boy reached forward with his gloved hand—

—and placed an index finger to Alexei’s lips as he shook his head.

“‘Kovich,’” he corrected in Aquarian before pulling his hand away. “You left me. I think I understand why now. But that doesn’t matter to me anymore. Because Yulia and Fritz won’t leave me. Ever. And they’re all I need.” He pulled himself up to a stand, locked hands with Yulia, and looked up at her.

Yulia frowned back down at him before she sighing, nodding, and tightening her grip on his hand.

So that was Kovich’s choice then.

Atienna let out a sigh of relief.

“Can we go now?” the boy asked. “Get Fritz? He seems really angry…”

And then laughter rang from Werner’s end into Atienna’s ears.

***

Colonel Fritz von Spiel threw his head back and laughed as he locked eyes with Werner. “You are like me. To a Virgoan advisor of all people?” He doubled over, still laughing. “You’re probably going soft!” He turned to Gilbert, then to Stein, then to Kleine, then to Bergmann. “Your lieutenant is as bad as I am! If you’re going to arrest me for collusion with an enemy party, then you might as well cuff him too.”

“You say he’s like you, but I don’t see him working with ELPIS,” Stein grunted.

“Well, it’s probably because all of the people you’re connected to are well off, aren’t they?” The colonel scoffed wryly, bitterly at Werner. “Lucky you…”

Werner’s men looked to him uncertainly, but before Werner could give an order, the colonel charged towards him and grabbed the nose of his handgun. As his men started forward, Werner held up a hand. Werner’s grip on his gun was still tight. The only thing that the colonel had done was line his own forehead up with the mouth of the weapon.

“Shoot me. Do it. Shoot me now.”

Werner’s eyes narrowed.

“I’d rather die than rot away in prison. I’d rather die than be stuck in one place forever with—with—” The colonel jerked his head back down the alleyway, cuffs clacking. “—with them constantly burrowing into my head!”

Werner froze. “Colonel von Spiel, you will be taken in for questio—”

“If you really are a True Conductor, then you understand.” The colonel’s eyes were livid as he gripped the nose of the gun tight with his injured hand. “It’s torture! Constantly being pushed back and forth against your will. Being forced to want things you don’t want. To the point where you don’t even know what you want anymore! Basically falling damn apart.” The colonel stared holes into him. “Isn’t that right?”

Werner didn’t respond.

“If you don’t put a bullet in me now,” the colonel continued. “I’ll tell everything I know about Capricorn to Yulia and I’ll have her go tell Aquarius’s government agencies about it. And if I go to jail for this, then I’ll tell Capricorn that you’re like me too—that you’re a liability.”

Werner tensed, finger twitching. He couldn’t allow the colonel to divulge Capricornian military secrets. The dangers that it would impose on Capricorn would be monumental. And… the others…

“Do it!”

At that moment, Werner saw through Atienna’s eyes:

Yulia silently shook her head as she pulled Kovich closer to herself.

It wasn’t going to happen.

Colonel Fritz von Spiel paled before choking out a laugh. “…. Why? Why can’t you even let me escape…? Do you want to make every single moment in my life torture—”

Through Atienna’s eyes, Werner saw Kovich lower his gaze teary-eyed.

“Stop looking like that… Dammit, you…” the colonel whispered, releasing his grip on Werner’s gun and taking a step backwards in defeat. “And now because of you two, I look like a damn fool…”

Silence.

“…the fuck is going on?” Stein muttered.

Gilbert responded by telling him quietly to shut up.

“You’ll be given a fair but thorough investigation and trial, Colonel von Spiel,” Werner said, lowering his gun slowly. “And you are mistaken. I will always be loyal to Capricorn—”

A gunshot suddenly rang out without warning.

Werner stiffened before doing a quick, rapid assessment of all of his subordinates’ weapons. None of them had fired. He hesitantly looked over his own weapon and let out an internal sigh of relief. He had not unknowingly fired either.

But the colonel doubled over cradling his throat and let out a groan of pain. When he removed his hands from his throat, however, there was no wound, no blood. Instead, red dribbled out from the corners of his mouth.

“You’ve got to be kidding me…” The colonel spat and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “That… stupid woman…”

***

Yulia’s hand went to her throat where a bullet-sized hole had suddenly formed. The wound spurted out red, dribbling out in-between her shaking fingers. Kovich let out a wail, simultaneously reaching out for Yulia while cradling his own neck which was not bleeding.

“Y-Yulia.” He whimpered. “Y-Yulia!”

Atienna stared, frozen. What exactly had just—

The world suddenly went black.

When color returned again, it took a moment for Atienna to get her bearings. She was pressed back against the alleyway wall behind a large garbage bin. Sefu was pulled tightly against her lap, his legs parallel to the wall beside them and hidden away from anyone peering into the alley. Her left hand was cupped over his mouth, while her right hand was over her own. Sefu blinked up at her, wide-eyed and confused.

Werner had overridden her, it seemed.

Yes, I apologize. Werner’s synchronization skirted her mind, and his mirage phased in front of her. He pressed a finger to his lips. Remain silent.

A pair of footsteps resounded by the mouth of the alleyway. Despite the hammering in her heart, Atienna’s curiosity itched inside of her mind. She carefully peered around the trash bin.

A man with brown hair wearing a pair of square-rimmed glasses stepped in front of the entrance of the alleyway. Wtorek Izsak. No. Gamma. There was a gun that was billowing out smoke in his conductor-gloved hand. He stared remorselessly down at Yulia who was now gagging on the ground and then at Kovich who was clutching her body and coughing up blood.

Atienna’s heart plummeted, the world spinning around her.

They were not ‘what was important’ to her, but she didn’t want this to happen either. This wasn’t the ending that she wanted. No…

“Was this the only one?” Gamma asked

Another woman stepped into view beside him. The polka-dotted blue dress was unmistakable. Iota.

“Yep, Omega saw Omicron meeting with her and some Capricornian soldier,” Iota replied, peering down at Yulia and Kovich. She nodded at the boy who had gone into convulsions on the floor. “Looks like this kid was connected to them too though.”

Kovich’s body stilled.

Alexei who had been cowering away from the two stiffened when he noticed this and tentatively reached out to the boy. “Kirill…?”

Gamma reloaded his gun, jerking his head towards Alexei whose eyes were glued to Kovich. “And who is this one?”

“Dunno. He looks Aquarian.” Iota studied Alexei before bending down and tapping the crystalline formations protruding from his arms. “Did a conductor do this?” She shook her head and clicked her tongue. “You see, this is what happens when you play with fire.”

“What did you do to him?!” Alexei spat as he crawled forward to his son. “You—”

Gamma pointed the gun at the Aquarian’s head. “Do not fear. You will return to the cycle.” And he fired.

The gunshot rang loudly through Atienna’s ears. She squeezed her eyes shut and pulled back behind the trash bin. Sefu startled in her hold and almost snapped up to a sit, but she gripped him tightly in place.

“Whoever he was, he might have been a True Conductor too,” came Gamma’s voice.

There was a clattering sound.

He’s discarded his weapon, Atienna, but he’s a Conjuror. Werner’s image was still perched in front of her, finger still pressed to his lips. Remain still.

“They always tend to gather together.” —the sound of receding footsteps followed Gamma’s statement.

“It’s good to have you back, Gamma,” Iota drew as her footsteps faded along with this. “You came back just in the nick of time.”

Atienna’s heart hammered wildly in her chest as she pulled Sefu even closer to herself.

This had been the result of her choice. Her choice to let Yulia go had led to this encounter. A correct and incorrect choice in one. Atienna had thought that she had been showing Yulia mercy, but she wondered if what she had shown the woman instead was truly cruelty—

You made your choice, but they also made theirs. Werner looked down at Sefu. There is no time for regret when a decision has been made.

He had merely told her the words she had expected him to say. Firm, concise, logical. And that was both very troubling and very comforting to her.

Werner frowned and opened his mouth to address her thoughts. But before he could speak a word, he was suddenly pulled back into his own surroundings.

***

Fritz covered his mouth and hacked a cough. Blood seeped out in-between his fingers. He pulled back his hand and stared at it in disbelief. Werner’s men stared at the red with a mixture of confusion and surprise. Nico appeared concerned.

“That stupid woman…” The colonel hissed before abruptly bending down to pick up the candy basket he had discarded earlier. He turned away from Werner and started forward down the alleyway without hesitation.

Werner’s men raised their weapons at his approach.

Werner cocked his own handgun.

The colonel froze at the sounds.

“I can’t let you leave, Colonel von Spiel,” Werner stated plainly.

“I can’t leave anyways, Waltz,” the colonel returned before he retched and more blood poured out from his mouth. He held the basket away from his body, almost as if to not dirty it. “And now look at what they’ve done. They’ve turned me into a damned deadman walking.”

The colonel took another step forward, prompting Werner’s finger to drift towards the trigger of the gun—

And then a pair of hands enveloped Werner’s own. Looking down, he registered Atienna’s image. Her eyes were pained and sad, and he could feel her wavering remorse spill into him dizzyingly.

Regardless, it was his duty to bring the colonel in.

Werner tensed despite himself as Atienna lifted one of her hands in response to his thought. Her gaze merely softened, however, and her hand ghosted his cheek causing him to tense. The intimacy was strange, although he oddly didn’t think it was inappropriate. And although she was far from him, he could feel the warmth of her palm. He was also able to feel her intentions. And none of those intentions involved her overriding him or subtlety influencing him to make him choose what she thought was right.

He has only one place he can run to.

And the choice here, Atienna was saying, was his own. To follow through with his duty, to prevent the colonel from leaving, to attempt to heal the colonel so that the colonel might have the slim possibility of living long enough to be questioned by Capricorn. That or to allow the colonel to try and reach Yulia’s and Kovich’s sides before they died. To be more precise, to show mercy.

Werner turned his attention back to the colonel. The man wasn’t looking in his direction at all. Instead, Von Spiel stared down south of the alleyway past Werner’s men and in the direction of where Yulia and Kovich most likely were.

Werner didn’t know enough about the link True Conductors shared to tell if medical Conductors would even be able to aid the colonel’s injury. The colonel looked near dying despite not suffering any external afflictions. And although Werner despised assumptions, given the events presented so far, he knew it wouldn’t be unsound to assume that the colonel was being dragged to death’s door through his connection with Yulia Kriska.

It was dangerous.

Yes. And it was also rather unfortunate. 

Werner found himself lowering his weapon before he could even register he was doing it. His palms immediately began to itch causing him to freeze. This show of mercy could paint him as traitorous—perhaps weak. But when he turned to his subordinates, he found that all of them had already followed along with him in lowering their weapons—although, Stein did it while grimacing. Now they looked to him expectantly.

This was not rank-and-file. This was trust. Respect.

The colonel stared at him in dulled surprise before he scoffed and coughed out more blood. “You too, huh?”

Werner signaled for his men to step to the side. His men obeyed, drawing to the alley walls, some more hesitantly than others. The colonel glanced at them with an almost grateful expression as he dragged himself forward. The man stopped short at the mouth of the alley before turning towards them with a grimace.

“Why? Even though they’ve ruined everything in my life…” His grip on the basket tightened, and his voice cracked. “I can’t help but go to them when they call me…”

And with that, the colonel stumbled forward and disappeared down the street. Silence followed.

Nico was the first to break the quiet. “Did he…?”

“No.” Shaking his head, Werner closed his eyes—

***

— and Atienna opened her eyes.

She let out a quiet breath and peered around the trash bin to the mouth of the alleyway once more. The first thing she was met with was Yulia’s open, lifeless gaze. Draped over the woman’s still body was an unmoving Kovich. And beside them both lay Alexei, one hand extended out towards the boy.

“Are you alright, Miss Atienna?” Sefu whispered from on top of her.

“I—”

A click-clacking echoing through the streets cut her off. Before she could fully register the sound, a shadow passed over them.

Atienna’s heart hammered as she turned to look upwards.

“Cvetka…?” Sefu’s brows rose. “You entered through the light too?”

The way Cvetka’s black hair curled around her pale cheeks made her appear ghost-like. The only signs that she was among the living was her very light panting.

Cvetka ignored Sefu and studied Atienna. “Good. At least you’re still alive.” She glanced down the alley towards Yulia. “Was that you?”

Atienna shook her head. “ELPIS.”

Cvetka let out a quiet sigh before glancing at Sefu and finally answering him, “I ended up coming out of one of those portals four blocks away.” Her gaze flicked back to Atienna. “Although I doubt my employers will accept that excuse.”

Struggling up to a stand despite Atienna’s protests, Sefu managed, “Your diplomat. Alexei—he—”

“Is dead,” Cvetka confirmed. “So is Yulia. So is Kirill Drei. So is Fritz von Spiel.”

Sefu paled.

Atienna felt her heart sink.

What a terribly sad ending.

“The good news for the both of you is that this started and began as a strictly Aquarian issue,” Cvetka continued. “It won’t affect Virgo at all.”

Sefu did a double-take. “What are you saying? He is one of your people, is he not?! How can you say something like that? He’s dead!”

Atienna tensed.

Sefu truly had a good heart, but…

Atienna rose to a stand and put herself in between Sefu and Cvetka. She could feel Sefu’s gaze press against her, but she remained firm and in place. Cvetka regarded her before she inclined her head towards Sefu.

“He’s injured,” she said. “I will contact some of the Ophiuchian Transmutationists in the city. They may be able to assist Sefu, and we can seek protection and escape under their care while what’s happening here passes.”

Those few sentences alone revealed many things to Atienna. Firstly, Cvetka was connected to someone in the city. Secondly, Cvetka had enough authority to be in direct communication with Ophiuchian agents. Thirdly, Cvetka’s Ophiuchian contacts were most likely in the ELPIS Department given that those were the mainly active peacekeepers in the city. And finally, all of these things together led to the theory that Cvetka’s employer belonged to the ELPIS Department. And that would most likely be—

“Despite everything that’s happening, the gears in your head are still turning,” Cvetka noted, drawing Atienna out of her thoughts. “You would do really well working in my occupation. It’s safe. It’s comfortable. You and those you care about are protected.”

“It’s a bit strange hearing you say that…” Atienna murmured, eyes downcast. “It’s almost as if you’re trying to convince yourself that.”

Cvetka chuckled lightly. “I know you know. The three of us aren’t so different from each other.”

11.3: Atienna’s (Inverso) Heroism

Re-cap:

Having finally come together, the six have formulated a plan to handle all of their life-staking, respective, inter-connective issues at once.

Atienna has confirmed the following: Aquarian secretary Yulia Krista is a True Conductor connected to a Specialist child named Kovich who is under the Campana Family’s ownership; Yulia accidentally murdered Kalama after mistaking Kalama for Alexei; Kovich is Alexei’s child whom Alexei sold to the Campanas; Yulia wants to kill Alexei to avenge Kovich’s current circumstances; and Werner’s Colonel Fritz von Spiel is also connected to them.

After confirming what is truly important to her, Atienna confronts Yulia in the cavern and threatens her into submission. But as the night of the plan carries on… 

Zatmeniye Caverns, Aquarius

Atienna opened her eyes.

The firelight was crackling half a meter away, highlighting her face in warmth while leaving her back in the cold. Across the flickering flame she could see Yulia jotting away in her notebook again. The Aquarian woman’s back was facing the sleeping Aquarian party—away from Alexei.

Atienna pulled herself up to a sit, drawing the attention of Yulia who locked eyes with her. They held each other’s gazes for a moment before Yulia dipped her head and looked away.

Following their confrontation with one another at the back of the cave earlier, Yulia had agreed to step down from her attempt on Alexei’s life without question. It was rather anti-climactic, but Atienna supposed that was the desperation of connected True Conductors.

Atienna rolled her neck in thought.

Her own part in this plan of theirs was rather simple. She was to watch over Yulia and ensure that the secretary didn’t act out after Werner executed his portion of the plan. If all went well, then Atienna wouldn’t need to lift a finger.

Atienna felt a bit concerned, however, about the others. It wasn’t hard to see that their shares in this schema were much more perilous than her own. Truthfully, she hadn’t wanted any of them to take part at all. Deep down she had wished for them to take a step backwards and watch everything unfold from afar. A safe distance. Let those who were outside of them settle everything and avoid the danger. That was a choice—right from one angle and wrong from another. And the difference between that choice and averting one’s eyes was debatable.

But the people whom she was connected with wanted desperately to move forward; and Atienna had agreed with that choice personally herself months prior. She did wonder if this was considered blundering forward blindly, however. They had all unified so resolutely together that night that Atienna had decided to keep her reservations to herself to the best of her abilities. She had wanted to consult Werner about it privately later, but the lieutenant seemed to have been drawn in tightly either through his own patriotic sense of duty or through the influence of the others.

Atienna glanced behind her and found Chiamaka sleeping away quietly. Sefu was on guard, half asleep, leaning against an ice rock a little way away. Kabal was on guard over Afu somewhere in the cavern; but Atienna reckoned if he were on guard here instead of Sefu, he would do just the same.

But it wouldn’t do very well to sit here and highlight her idleness, Atienna thought to herself. She’d already finished reading the books she’d brought with her twice over already but wondered if she could approach it with a unique perspective on a third read-through.

Before Atienna could reach into her satchel for her books, however, she was joined by Cvetka who suddenly settled down beside her. Atienna assumed the Aquarian advisor had woken up earlier and had developed the sudden desire to converse.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about Kovich recently,” Cvetka said.

Heart skipping a beat, Atienna turned to her.

“About his writings, I mean,” Cvetka elaborated. “That passage about valuing a person more than others and then becoming another person’s enemy as a result.”

“It’s an interesting perspective on the sociality of human nature,” Atienna drew slowly. “A rather pessimistic perspective.”

“Pessimistic or realistic?” Cvetka met Atienna’s eyes.

Something in Cvetka’s demeanor had changed since they had last spoken, Atienna realized. There was a sharp, calculating glint in the woman’s eye that had not been there before. No. Rather, it was more likely that it had been hidden away until now.

“That’s up to the reader, don’t you think?” Atienna replied with a smile.

“You’re knowledgeable, Atienna,” Cvetka said, looking away. “But as Kovich says—”

“Knowledge isn’t wisdom.” Atienna followed her gaze. Yulia.

“Fortunately, our professions as advisors don’t require wisdom,” Cvetka returned. “But I’m assuming that you are like me and only playing the role.”

Atienna’s heart skipped another beat, and she turned to find Cvetka staring at her. The woman’s gaze was intense, unwavering, un-averted.

“Why have you been avoiding me, Atienna?” Cvetka pressed. “Is it because… you know that I am a True Conductor like yourself? That is very rude.”

The Aquarian’s eyes were like pitfalls. They didn’t seem to reflect back the light from the fire due to their bottomlessness. And Atienna had just fallen into the pit.

Atienna managed to keep her composure. “Am I correct in thinking that you reached that conclusion before I reached my conclusion about you?”

“If you realized I was one only when that ELPIS member fell out from that portal, then yes. We’ve known before you’d even stepped foot in this cave.”

‘We’? It didn’t seem as if Cvetka was referring to whoever she was connected to.

“Just as we’ve known Yulia is one,” Cvetka continued. “It’s quite unexpected actually to have many True Conductors gathered together. But as another True Conductor once told me, ‘It’s only natural that True Conductors all come together.’”

Was she referring to Veles, the rather powerful Elementalist True Conductor Maria had encountered…?

“You’re very observant,” Atienna noted, “to find True Conductors so easily.”

“It’s merely my job to search for True Conductors,” Cvetka replied. “If I wasn’t observant, then I would be in trouble with my employers.”

Atienna’s mind went to Olive’s conversation with Claire. The two princes had spoken of True Conductors who could be hunting down other True Conductors for unknown reasons and—as Atienna realized now—for unknown employers.

A cold sweat broke down the back of Atienna’s neck. “And you would not be in trouble with your employer telling all of this to me?”

Cvetka’s red lips curled upwards. “Are you under the impression that you can do anything about it even with this knowledge?”

‘Knowledge was power’—that was a naivety, Atienna realized.

“You and me, and all of the other people like us—we’re just ants to them,” Cveta drew. “Or maybe we’re specks of dust in the air.”

“It’s very mysterious if you keep referring to your employers as ‘them,’ don’t you think? Would it be too much to ask who your employer is?”

“You could guess, and then I can confirm or deny.”

“I could… And then you could narrow down the people whom I connected with through my knowledge.”

Cvetka remained smiling.

This differed from her confrontation with Yulia, Atienna knew. With Yulia, Atienna had held the foothold, held the knowledge, the advantage. Here, Cvetka was the one who possessed all the cards. The cards Atienna wanted. Not only that but—

Cvetka’s eyes narrowed.

—this woman was clever and dangerous. Like Cadence.

“I will tell you this,” Cvetka finally said. “If this entire thing were a novel, ELPIS would merely be the secondary villain.”

“Well, that’s reassuring,” Atienna finally said.

“How so?”

Cvetka was fishing for information again.

“Well, ELPIS is a terrorist organization, isn’t it?” Atienna returned.

“You say that, but you were being very friendly with an ELPIS leader.”

Had Cvetka had a slip of the tongue? How surprising.

“So your employer knows about the true nature of ELPIS then?”

And here, Atienna realized, she had slipped too.

Cvetka’s eyes widened a fraction, and then she chuckled, shaking her head. “It seems as if we’ve both gotten too carried away. Well, it doesn’t matter.” She hummed. “We will find all of the ones you are connected to, Atienna. But as long as you all stay in line, nothing will happen to you or to them until it’s time for the syzygy.”

So True Conductors truly were valuable to whoever Cvetka’s employer was, Atienna concluded. Up to a point.

Leona’s haughty yet merciful demeanor onboard Maria’s ship flashed through Atienna’s mind, followed by Jin’s mention to Olive about how saint candidates were allies of True Conductors.

So that was how it was.

Were the saint candidates—as Cadence liked to say— ‘end game’ then? And how exactly were they the villain here? Through machinating the mysterious syzygy? How perplexing.

Atienna’s hands itched for the answer.

Cvetka’s gaze shifted across the fire towards Yulia again. “For those who refuse to stay in line, however…”

Atienna’s gaze flicked to Yulia. “Might I ask how big all of this is?”

Cvetka reached forward and drew a small circle on the ground with her index finger. “This is Aquarius.” Cvetka drew a large circle around Aquarius. “This is Signum.” And then she drew a larger circle around it and slapped her hand down on the image. “That is the end.”

Atienna stared at Cvetka’s hand for a moment before she tried, “Really… why are you being so open to me?”

“There’s a lifelessness to you. An apathy. And I think you’re proud of it,” Cvetka said without falter. “You look down on others for caring about things like this.” She gestured loosely around the camp. “It’s unsightly to you. How people tear each other and themselves apart for an ‘idea’ they think is right. You think you’re better.”

“You speak so eloquently, Cvetka.” Atienna reflected the woman’s smile back to her. “It’s as if you’re drawing conclusions from your own heart.”

Cvetka seemed to have understood the insult as her lips twitched downwards slightly. Atienna couldn’t help but find a small victory in this.

“I just wonder if you’ll make the same choice as I did when my employers approach you—and they most certainly will.” Cvetka turned back to the campfire as the others began to stir and greet the morning. “What’s more important to you, I wonder… All I want is for myself and those I care about to be able to live comfortably until the end.”

***

It was near nightfall on the same day when their plan was executed.

Cvetka’s intrusion and revelation came too close to the plan’s initiation for them to revise and hold off. The time dependency of the plan also had to be accounted for; and after weighing the prominence of danger, they all decided to move forward—albeit more carefully.

Thus, Cadence kick-started the plan.

Atienna could see it all play out in the distance in her mind’s eye through a thin veil of fog as she sat once again in front of the campfire with the others sleeping around her. The guard rotation was the same as it had been that morning—Sigurd and Sefu, both appearing tired or disinterested.

Atienna had a book poised on her lap to not look suspicious as she observed the other five initiate their portion of the plan.

It was rather impressive—the way it was all coming to fruition.

Distantly, faintly, Atienna could see Cadence and Jericho successfully capture Theta. She could see Maria begin her haphazardous freeing of the Specialist children under the Campanas. And then she could see Werner stalk Fritz von Spiel from behind—

Yulia abruptly snapped up from where she’d been sleeping across the fire from Atienna. Without even casting a glance at Atienna or any of those sleeping around her, Yulia rose to a stand and paced to the back of the cave. Cvetka who was sleeping only a meter away from Yulia remained still.

After a moment of thought, Atienna rose from her bedding and followed behind the Aquarian secretary. She found Yulia facing the black-painted wall at the back of the cavern. The woman was quietly muttering to herself there as she stared holes into the black spot.

Atienna drew closer in an effort to better hear her.

“—calm down. Don’t panic. We knew this was coming,” Yulia muttered. She clicked her tongue and shook her head. “Why are you running?”

Given Yulia’s lack of subtlety here, Atienna could clearly see how Cvetka had been able to deduce that she was a True Conductor. How Cvetka had discovered Atienna’s own status as a True Conductor was troubling. Atienna had little contact physically with the others, after all. Perhaps then, it had been Virgo’s leave from isolation that had drawn the attention of Cvetka and her employers. If that were the case then that indicated that Cvetka and her employers didn’t believe at all in coincidences. Which was dangerous. But there had to be more to it.

Yulia suddenly fell silent.

Werner buzzed at the back of Atienna’s head and then—

Atienna. Monitor—

I know. Be careful, Werner. 

Suddenly, Yulia sank to her knees. The woman lowered her head, hands pressing against the cold ground as she trembled. “He’s free… He’s finally free… I—” She lifted her head, a frown gracing her features. “What are you doing? You look ridiculous—” Yulia shot up to a stand. “They won’t know it was you—”

Another stretch of silence. Atienna could hear the colonel’s aggravation from Werner’s end. It sounded muddled, like an echo resounding in a cave.

“What is wrong with you?!” Yulia snapped. “He’s finally free! Why are you only thinking about yourself? After everything he’s suffered—” She suddenly took in a deep breath and continued evenly, “Calm down. You’re pulling me in—”

“What is all this shouting about?!”

A stampede of footsteps resounded from behind Atienna. And upon turning, she found a half-asleep Alexei, a perplexed Moana, a tense Sigurd, a worried Sefu, a tired Chiamaka, a frazzled Louise, and an alarmed Pi standing behind her. Cvetka wasn’t among them.

“Atienna?” Chiamaka looked her up and down. “What is going on here? Why have you left the campsite?” The Virgoan diplomat paused, staring past Atienna towards Yulia.

When Atienna followed Chiamaka’s gaze, she found Yulia staring back past her. Atienna already knew who Yulia was looking at. Alexei. Yulia’s gaze flicked back to Atienna.

Atienna shook her head slowly before noticing that Yulia had already slipped on conducting gloves. It seemed as if a decision had already been made.

“One thing he was right about was that this is not fair,” Yulia drew dissonantly, staring holes into Alexei. “Why do we have to suffer just because of a choice you made?”

Alexei blanched in confusion. “What…?”

Yulia drifted forward like a ghost towards Alexei, but before she could reach him, Sefu and Sigurd stepped between them. Sigurd hovered over Alexei, while Sefu pushed Yulia back with a loose hand.

As Atienna moved forward to calm Yulia, however, a wave of anguish overcame her. It was an intense heaviness—a void—that opened up at the bottom of her chest. A feeling that reminded her of the achingly painful months following her mother’s injury.

Loss.

Gone.

Maria… Atienna realized, tears pricking her eyes.

And then a terrible screech unfurled from the black-painted wall. A crack appeared in pale tangerine there, slowly expanding outwards until it consumed the entirety of the black stain. A cold draft blew out from the newly formed portal and it carried an eerily familiar voice—

“There really is no hope.”

“Theta…” Pi whispered from behind Atienna.

When Atienna turned to the man, she found him staring down at her with wide eyes.

“Fix. Change,” he said. “Make up. Is what is important.”

Atienna froze. “Pi, wait—”

But Pi did not wait. With brows furrowed in determination, he darted forward and leaped into and through the portal, disappearing in an instant.

“M-Mladen?!” Alexei exclaimed a second too late.

And suddenly Louise let out an airy, giddy laugh as she too dashed forward. She twirled around and waved her hand in the air with a “Thanks for everything!” before she leaped through the portal.

“L-Louise?!” Alexei shouted, again a second too late and echoing Atienna’s confusion.

Abruptly, Yulia rushed at Alexei with a roar, tackling him to the ground and pinning his arms to the sides with both of her hands. Alexei struggled under her weight for a moment before he let out a screech of agony as his arms began to glow a gray-blue beneath her gloved hands. The next instant saw to a burst of that same light erupting physically from the man’s arms. The light solidified, taking the shape of a familiar-looking, crystalline structure that resembled a flower. The same structure that had been blossoming out of Kalama’s corpse.

Moana’s eyes widened, and she paled before her face became twisted with rage. “You—”

Atienna held her back with one arm.

Yulia had ousted herself. She could no longer frame anyone. There was no exit for her anymore. She had trapped herself.

“Do you recognize it?” Yulia whispered as Alexei wailed beneath her. “This conducting? It’s amazing, isn’t it? To be able to send the vitae particles in your bloodstream haywire just by just touch—”

Yulia was cut off as Sefu ripped her off of Alexei. She whipped around and delivered a well-aimed kick to the gut that sent him flying backwards. Sefu righted himself immediately, whipping out his conducting spear and aiming it at her.

“Sefu!” Chiamaka exclaimed. “Do not fire! This is an internal affair, Sefu!”

Sefu gave Chiamaka an incredulous look, as did Atienna. But upon further thought past Maria’s haze of despair, Atienna supposed it made sense. To Chiamaka, Virgo was the most important thing here.

Sigurd approached Yulia from behind while swinging out her own halberd conductor. “Don’t move, Yulia,” Sigurd drew slowly, locking eyes with the secretary. “This isn’t wise.”

But Yulia didn’t obey. In one swift movement, she threw Alexei over her shoulders as if he were a rag doll and placed a gloved hand over his throat. “You stop me. He dies.”

Sigurd’s eyes narrowed, but she lowered her conductor.

Slowly, carefully, Yulia inched herself away from them and towards the still glowing portal.

Atienna’s mind raced.

Victim, perpetrator, and circumstance—the lines blurred with motivation, past, feeling. Now that all the variables meaningful to Atienna had been removed, what was the choice?

Atienna took a hesitant step backwards.

Just before Yulia reached the portal, however, Sefu let out a war cry and made an attempt at Alexei. A brief scuffle ensued, but before Atienna could comprehend the scene, Sefu, Alexei, and Yulia fell into the light and disappeared.

No…

Atienna started forward.

“Atienna, don’t!”

Atienna turned her head and found Chiamaka staring at her wide-eyed.

“Don’t get involved! Think about Virgo!”

Truly, that was the last thing Chiamaka should’ve said, Atienna thought to herself. But Atienna supposed Chiamaka was right in a certain light—just not Atienna’s own light.

Atienna couldn’t afford to lose someone else. Not after Maria had lost…

Atienna turned away from Chiamaka, away from the pain that crumpled in her chest, and dashed toward the portal.

A hand around her wrist stopped her short just as she reached it, however. When she turned, she found not Chiamaka but Sigurd gripping her tightly.

“Bad choice,” Sigurd said.

“He’s as important to me as that clever prince is to you,” Atienna whispered.

Sigurd’s eyes widened, and she released Atienna from her grip. “You really do know everything.”

And with that, Atienna stepped through the shimmering gate—

***

Twin Cities, Gemini

—and stumbled out into a warm, damp alleyway.

It was her first time seeing an alleyway marked with red brick and littered with debris. It was strange not seeing vines creeping up a wall like this one, strange not seeing moss growing along the floor. The air tasted strange as well—an ashen flavor with a touch of salt. But at the same time, all of this was nostalgic.

“—do you even think of him?!”

Atienna peered down the alleyway. At the mouth there stood Sefu, Yulia, and Alexei. Sefu was sandwiched between the two Aquarians, pointing his spear at Yulia with one hand. His other hand was crystallized over with red. Yulia didn’t even seem to comprehend the fact that Sefu was standing in front of her, however, and glared down at Alexei with malice. Alexei himself was lying on the ground on his stomach and was cradling his injured arms.

Atienna immediately started towards them.

“What are you…?” Alexei whispered to Yulia from on the ground. “You’re a Manipulator, but… how can you…?”

Yulia darted forward. Sefu pulled up his conducting spear defensively but before he could swing or aim the thing, Yulia swept him off his feet with her leg and slammed her conducting gloves over his left calf as soon as he fell.

Her movements were not that of a secretary. They were the movements of a trained soldier. No doubt Fritz von Spiel’s influence.

A burst of gray-blue light flashed from beneath Yulia’s gloves, followed by Sefu’s agonized scream.

No!

Atienna ran forward swiftly, spun around, and cracked Yulia against the skull with her foot just as the secretary turned towards her. Yulia flew back into the open street before colliding against a store wall behind her.

But Atienna didn’t pay her any mind. Instead, she wrapped her arms around Sefu’s waist and began to drag him back into the alleyway.

“M-Miss Imamu,” Alexei stammered, “w-wait—”

Atienna met Alexei’s eyes, gave him a sympathetic look, and continued to drag Sefu backwards. Alexei paled. Yulia pulled herself up to a stand and staggered over to Alexei’s side. She didn’t make an immediate move towards Alexei, however, and studied Atienna curiously.

“I warned you…” Atienna murmured as she held the groaning Sefu in her arms. “You will only cause him more pain by doing this.”

“An eye for an eye,” Yulia challenged.

“Makes the world blind,” Atienna finished the cliché line.

“Then let’s all be blind together.”

Atienna considered the thinly veiled proposal before she dipped her head. “Before you make that choice… He should be able to meet him first, don’t you think?” She glanced at Alexei. “To decide himself. It’s only right.”

Alexei stiffened.

“You can see it, can’t you?” Atienna continued. “He’s almost here.”

Yulia froze, wide-eyed. She then turned her attention down the road as a pair of light footsteps resounded through the streets.


Yulia Kriska is an exceptional woman. She has always contributed to the good of Aquarius: from her former days spent as a farmer to her current days serving in Aquarius’s political realm. Her childhood friends say that she didn’t always cut such an imposing, straight-laced figure and that she used to be very shy. When questioned on how she conquered her ‘crippling shyness,’ she said: “Find something you will die for and dedicate your heart to it.”

Truly, her heart lives and breathes with Aquarius.

Narodnaya Gazeta Issue, Yezhenedel’noye Izdaniye #87, 17 Avgust 1939

11.1: Cadence’s (Sincero) Deception

Re-cap:

Cadence Morello has faced her own self-deception and self-illusion. She has learnt that Donato of the Romano Family was the one behind Francis’s stabbing and that the man is working together with Enzo of the Campanas. But the city has been moving quickly without her notice. Theta (?) has decided that it is time for ELPIS to make their move, and the Twin Cities begins to fragment under ELPIS’s terror and ‘hope’. Now, Cadence and the other five must come together and decide to…

Twin Cities, Gemini

Cadence opened her eyes.

She was flat on her back with the dampness of the pavement beneath her soaked into her suit jacket and pants. Pain throbbed up and down her limbs—unpleasant when paired with the taste of iron in her mouth.

She blinked and squinted.

It was pitch black. She couldn’t even tell if she was looking at the sky or the ground. If it were the sky, she figured she’d at least be able to see the city lights reflected back by the smog clouds, but there was nothing.

Was she dreaming? No. It’d be a terrible dream if she felt this awful.

Was she dead?

And then she heard the screams; the pit-pat-pit-pat of gunfire that reminded her more of Werner’s side of things than her own; and the blaring of sirens.

Maybe she was in hell.

“What in saint’s name…”

You lost consciousness.

Jericho’s face eclipsed her just as a sudden burst of burning white light became reflected on the smog clouds above her.

“Yep. Seems so. From pain instead of drinkin’ this time, though. Great.”

The white light faded from the sky, leaving her in complete darkness again.

“Detective… what the hell is goin’ on here?”

ELPIS made their move. They cut the insulation lines connecting the generator conductors around the city to the vitae reservoirs’ generator conductors around three hours ago. ELPIS members are on the street. Targeting civilians and searching for members of the Romanos and the Campanas. Bendetto has gone missing.

What…?

I’ve been put on a task force set to hunt the ELPIS leaders who are confirmed to now be present in the city. Theta, Omicron, Iota. A pause. Then Jericho added as if an afterthought—I also…

The memories of Omega’s execution in the damp, dark warehouse flooded Cadence’s mind. The anger, the hatred, the righteousness, the minute satisfaction. And the emptiness afterwards.

Cadence’s heart thundered in her chest.

We have not located Theta yet. Another pause. I have not informed Leona of the connection between Theta and Francis either.

Relief.

Thanks, detective. But…

“I… I don’t get it.” Cadence pulled herself up to a sit and groaned. “Why are they actin’ now? Thought they were aimin’ ta lie low till they found that mystical third vitae reservoir. Use the Families against each other.”

Yes, Leona believes ELPIS has uncovered the location of the third reservoir, and they are now aiming to destroy the three central generator conductors hooked to them simultaneously. She has increased the number of agents guarding them, but given Theta’s ability, it may not be sufficient. The city conductor engineers are attempting to restore power.

“Leona?” Cadence struggled to a stand and began to drag herself blindly forward, hoping she wasn’t walking towards a dead-end. “You tellin’ me that Leona knows that there’s a third vitae reservoir in the Twin Cities? That there actually isone?”

Another memory flashed into Cadence’s mind.

The limestone pillars at the front of the Leonian Monadic Temple in the Monadic District. Then the pews within, pointing towards the faceless statue at the back. Then the back room behind that statue, and then the trap door within the backroom that led to a descending staircase. Up from the depths of those stairs bled soft light and intense heat.

“Beneath the Monadic Temples…? Seriously? Brain’s a little mush right now, so I can’t even think of a good joke.” Cadence chortled and winced at the pain that followed. She pushed forward, drawing closer to a barely noticeable streak of light several meters ahead. “How did Le—”

“The first chairs of all the Department of Ophiuchus receive confidential reports from the different countries of Signum about newly formed vitae reservoirs bi-annually,” Leona had informed Jericho at the crowded roundtable meeting within the Abaccio. “Of course, the countries are free to do what they please with these reservoirs as long as they follow conductor regulation and don’t start conflict over them. This particular reservoir formed one year following the end of the war and was delegated to be harvested in only times of emergency.”

“So, the official papers say,” Cadence muttered.

Finally, she reached the streak of light—the end of the alleyway. She stopped at the threshold and peered out onto the street.

“What the…”

The street itself was lit by a handful of trash fires spotted in front of tourist trap shops that had either boarded-up or broken windows. The walkways were scattered with shards of glass. Men in suits, women in dresses, men in rags, women in rags stampeded up and down those walkways, shrieking at the top of their lungs. A v-ehicle blitzed on and off-road, nearly taking out a v-lamp and a group that was running down the sidewalk waving clubs and bats. Chasing after that group were three police officers waving batons.

As if that’s gonna help. 

Cadence took a step forward flabbergasted, only to be rammed and shoved sideways first by a woman in high heels and then again by a man with a bag full of Geminian cens slung over his shoulders.

“Screw the Romanos! Screw the Campanas!” the man whooped, fist-pumping the air and shoving an old woman who was coming up in the opposite direction. “This city belongs to us—”

A white ray of vitae cut across the darkness and struck the man mid-sentence. He was thrown to the ground instantly, the coins in his bag spilling out onto the street.

Cadence ducked back into the alleyway just as a crowd of men and women darted in the direction of the fallen man. She peered around the corner and found them all scrambling on the ground and shoving the scattered cens into their pockets. Cadence scanned the road opposite where the vitae ray had emerged from but it was empty save for two pacing girls. The two crossed the road and came to the aid of the old woman who’d been pushed to the side by the man earlier. They helped the woman to her feet and escorted her across the street away from the scrambling crowd. They sat her down there in front of a coffee shop with boarded-up windows.

Cadence recognized one of the girls immediately. The butterfly-shaped birthmark was undeniable.

Matilda.

Keeping low, Cadence forced herself forward again, crossed the road, and approached them with a wave. “Hey, Tilda, ain’t you a good samaritan?”

Matilda jumped and turned on her heels. “Cade—oh, saints.” Matilda’s relief folded into horror. “W-What happened to you…?”

“Long story. Been out a bit.” Cadence thumbed a man throwing a trash can into the window of a bookshop two blocks down. “You been in contact with any of the Romano capos in the past few hours? Can’t imagine they’d let this go down even if Bendetto’s been spirited away like everyone’s been sayin’.”

“Bendetto.” Matilda swallowed, shook her head. “You—Cadence, it’s completely nuts. There’s… ELPIS members’re running around saying that they’re cleansing the city of all the Families. A-And people have been saying that a couple of Romano executives were rigged with conducting grenades and sent off to Romano fronts. A-All the smaller gangs in the city are taking advantage of all the chaos.” She frowned. “I… haven’t reached out to Cavallo… The Campanas, the Romanos—I-I don’t know, Cadence. But ELPIS really is here. I-I saw them. I saw the Ophiuchians too. I saw…”

Cadence placed a hand on her shoulder. “What did ya see, Matilda?”

“You… You wouldn’t believe me. What I saw…”

“Try me,” Cadence said before she cracked a grin with effort. “I mean, I’m an illusionist.”

Matilda took a deep breath and informed Cadence of her experience in the casino right before ELPIS unleashed their brand of justice, about her experience with Theta—Francis—at the highest floor of the building, about how Bendetto had been tied and gagged and captured.

“He let me go afterwards. Told me to get out of the city…” Matilda finished.

“And why didn’t ya?”

Matilda frowned. “Where do I even go if I leave?” She nodded to the girl behind her. “Some of the people in my group can’t afford to leave either. They have family here, and they’re my family.” She grimaced. “That definitely wasn’t Mr. Francis. He was looking at me like I was the saddest thing in the world. I hated it. Like, this city might be awful, but it’s good too. People like him scare me… Saying that he needs to destroy it to fix it. Why not just fix it?”

Cadence studied Matilda for a moment and felt an odd swell of pride in her chest. “That’s my girl, Tilda.” She nodded at the old woman. “And the super-heroism?

Matilda shrugged. “If this all blows over, then I have a bunch of people who owe me. Simple as that.”

Cadence ruffled the girl’s hair. “Well, don’t overdo yourself, girlie.” She pulled away and turned on her heels. “And stay safe, will ya?”

“Wait, where are you going?”

Cadence waved. “For a drink.”

***

Cadence wove through the city streets that she knew like the back of her hand. She dodged a couple of delinquents swinging around metal pipes, misdirected a robber away from a group of cowering children hiding in an abandoned v-ehicle, and eventually found herself in front of the Sognare. A sign was posted at the front: CLOSED until further notice.

She peered inside through the window. Empty. She tried the door. Unlocked.

Cadence slipped inside and collapsed on the bar table. The bartender—as expected—was nowhere to be seen, so Cadence rounded the counter, poured herself a spritz, and downed it in two gulps. She slapped the glass down and slid to the ground against the wine cases at the back.

“Guys…” Cadence tried. She lowered her head and tried again, this time with feeling as she reached outwards: “Guys! Please!”

Slowly, gradually, the other five filtered into her view. Maria sitting up on the bar counter, Olive and Atienna leaning against it, Jericho and Werner standing to the side. Lavi didn’t seem to be around, but Cadence figured that was a good thing.

All of their intense feelings that she had felt wavering beneath the surface came at her like a tsunami upon synchronization. It took her a moment to separate her own anxiety from theirs. When she did, she found them all looking at her with varying expressions—but they all shared a similar emotion: concern.

Cadence buried her head in her hands as that warmth bled into her.

Damn.

Atienna moved forward and knelt down beside her, placing a hand on her cheek at the exact spot where she’d slapped her.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Cadence said, lifting her head and cracking a grin. “Now that you’re here, doll.”

The attention then turned to Werner. There was still a void of darkness stretching behind him, and there was a somewhat distant look in his eyes.

“I’m fine as well,” Werner stated. “That isn’t what’s pertinent at the moment.”

“Right.” Cadence spread her arms wide. “Well, we’ve got a saint candidate peacekeeper who’s workin’ with ELPIS, obviously. We’ve got a colonel True Conductor who’s workin’ with ELPIS and who’s connected to a murderous Aquarian advisor. We’ve got a buncha kids stuck in a hellish slavery bit. And we’ve got ELPIS mowin’ through the city like maniacs.”

Maria pressed her hands together. “It is rather exciting, yes? So many things happening at once!” She peered into Olive’s face and beamed. “And let us not forget that amazing conductor trick you did!” She looked around the bar at them. “I don’t really understand it, but if this is a True Conductor thing, does that mean I can do it too?” She leaped off the counter and slipped in between Werner and Jericho, beaming. “Both of your conductings are very cool! I would like to try—”

“That development is rather interesting, Maria,” Atienna interjected with a gentle smile, “but we should try focusing on the immediate issues, don’t you think?”

“Right. And there’s only one way we’re gettin’ out of this damn mess,” Cadence said, struggling back up to a stand. “And that’s by workin’ together. We need ta be honest with each other.”

There was silence.

Olive arched an eyebrow at her.

“I know, I know. I’m the last person in the position ta be sayin’ that. I’ve been sayin’ I’m sorry, but it’s not enough.” Cadence grimaced. “But, we’re all bein’ dishonest here. With ourselves and each other. I’m not trynna make excuses for myself. We gotta—me included—stop lookin’ at this whole True Conductor thing like it’s just a situation that’ll go away.” She took in a deep breath. “It ain’t. Our lives are literally on the same chord. One note off, and it’ll be a disaster.” She held her hands out. “I’m not sayin’ we should be all holdin’-hands-like, frolickin’ in the fields or anything. I ain’t that optimistic. But we should be on the same page, feelins out. We’re livin’ together literally; and—like it or not—we’re probably gonna end up dyin’ together; and we’re gonna end up carin’ for each other if we don’t already do. It’s hard not ta. The more we try ta deny, the more we’ll butt heads.” She tapped her temple. “It might be a lie. Who knows? I mean, appearances—feelings—are deceiving. But sometimes a lie can eventually work its way into becoming a truth. And it’s just as—if not even more—valid.”

There was a beat of silence as Cadence took a minute to catch her breath. The silence continued afterwards. If she were Olive, she figured she’d be embarrassed.

“Aw, come on, guys.” Cadence chuckled, wincing at the stomach pain that followed. “I know I’m ramblin’ here, but I’m pourin’ my heart out ta ya. Please don’t leave me hangin—”

“Honestly, that reminded me of one of those drama plays my aunt and uncle used to force me to watch,” Olive interjected. “And I’m pretty sure you contradicted yourself twice there, but…” Olive met her eyes and nodded. I understand.

Jericho gave a silent thumbs-up. Maria offered her a small, but cheery clap with a beaming smile, while the corner of Atienna’s eyes crinkled. Werner remained impassive.

As expected.

“Honestly, right now,” Cadence drew, “all I wanna do is ta get myself, the Foxmans, Fortuna, and Nico the hell outta this city; or at least get whatever the hell this is fixed.”

Despite everything, Alma flashed into Cadence’s mind. She grimaced and shook her head.

“All of those guys were like family ta me before all this True Conductor stuff went down. I’m still pretty selfish so I can’t think beyond what I want and what’s important ta me. Not the Families or even ELPIS,” Cadence admitted, gesturing to herself. As soon as those words left her mouth, she felt a weight lift off her chest. She then nodded at each of them. “Werner wants ta bring down Colonel Douchebag for Capricorn. Atienna wants ta keep that crazy secretary chained down and stop her from muckin’ things up with the diplomacy thing. Maria wants ta save the children the Campana’s are sellin’ ‘cause she feels like it—”

“Ay, you know me so well,” Maria hummed.

“—and Jericho wants ta save Alice and wipe all trace of ELPIS outta the city. Olive wants ta complete the State Conducting Exam—”

Olive uncrossed his arms. “I—”

“—and he wants us ta all make it outta this stitch alive, and save Lavi along the way, and also for all of us ta get what we want. Pretty greedy if ya ask me,” Cadence finished. “Anyway, I’m not satisfied with just a win on my end. I want there ta be a win on your guy’s sides too. Honest. There’s gotta be a way for all of us ta hit these marks. I mean, I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, but all of ya are pretty brilliant.” She paused. “Any ideas?”

There was a stretch of silence; and in that silence, there was rumination. Ideas zipped from one end of Cadence’s mind to the other, and she could barely catch hold of them before they were discarded in favor of a different idea. The others were shuffling through their thoughts faster than a shady dealer shuffled a deck of bad cards.

And then, it clicked. For all of them. It wasn’t that one person had come up with a completely brilliant idea; rather, it was more like they all came up with a part of an idea that somehow all came together to form a singular, coherent concept.

It was an odd feeling—the way it all coalesced together in Cadence’s mind. She figured—as she felt Werner smooth out that idea’s rough edges within his own mind—that this was what synchronization was about.

“Yes, that could work,” Werner finally said, a thoughtful hand over his mouth, “but it’s based on relying on many assumptions. Our timing also would have to be exact.”

“It’s a gamble,” Cadence agreed. “But I’m feelin’ a bit lucky this week.”

“There’s no such thing as luck, Cadence,” Werner corrected. “But given our few viable options, that is the route that seems the least… problematic.”

“Great,” Cadence popped, leaning back against the wine cabinet as she took in a deep breath. “Hopefully, the cards’ll fall in our favor….” She paused, unlatching herself and approaching Jericho hesitantly. She looked him up and down and then swallowed. “Look, detective, I know how you feel about ELPIS. I understand. But please…” Her voice cracked despite her efforts. “He’s still Francis.” She placed a hand on the peacekeeper’s arm. “He’s still Francis. His vitae wasn’t ‘returning to the cycle’ or whatever that means when they used their resistor on him, so it’s still him. I know I’m bein’ so selfish right now, but please just wait until… I honestly don’t know… but please, Jericho.” She tightened her grip. “We can figure something out. Just wait. For just a little bit.”

Cadence knew the peacekeeper could feel how much Francis meant to her. The childhood memories of them wandering the late-night streets in search of tourists to pickpocket in their younger years was just as much burned into his mind as it was hers. The thing was that she didn’t know if that was enough—

“Okay. I will,” Jericho agreed after a beat. “For you. Because he is still Francis.” Then something in his eyes sharpened. “And I would like to speak with Theta.”

“Got it.”

Cadence turned to Werner then who was standing right beside Jericho. She met the man’s gaze, curled her hand into a fist, and lightly tapped it against his chest.

“I will make this right, Werner. I promise.”

***

On the day of the plan’s execution, Cadence got a tip-off from Matilda on where Theta was. The girl informed Cadence that one of her workers—one of her friends—had told her that Theta had been inviting a cluster of children every so often to join him at a particular location within the city. The location itself was completely out of the woods, in Cadence’s opinion, and she wondered if he’d truly be there. But it was her only lead.

And so, Cadence slid on the proto-conductor rings she’d stolen from Russo, transmuted the guise of Matilda over herself, and took to the streets. The police had ordered a citywide curfew a day or two ago, but as usual, no one heeded it. The darkened walkways were crowded with ambling gangs of thieves, delinquents, and hustlers, all sneering and jeering as they stalked their newly minted territory.

Cadence ducked past them, swept through cement walkways that bled into cobblestone streets, strolled through one of the city’s few metropolitan parks, and made her way over to the one place in the city she had never stepped foot in. The Twin Cities Library.

It was a large building that resembled more of a Monadic temple than anything else. Guarded by two large stone pillars that held up a triangular roof, the library loomed over the empty cobblestone walkways and stretched shadows all across the street. A white limestone staircase unfurled up to the entrance of the building, where a pair of twin statues of cupids stood erect.

As expected, the streets around the establishment were empty. No one in the city wanted to steal books, it seemed. Cadence could feel Atienna’s relief at this.

Sucking in a breath, Cadence crept her way up the stairs and slipped inside. The smell of old, musty books greeted her immediately. The interior was dark, and she could barely make out the outlines of towering bookcases lining the walls. A small sliver of light bled out from the back of the library. After making her way around the bookcases and towards the light, she found a wooden door that was slightly ajar.

Steeling herself, she slipped inside.

The room within was small. A large, oak desk sitting front and center and was cluttered with stacks of books and littered with wax candles. Gathered around the wealth of knowledge and light sat Theta and a group of children and adolescents. With everything going on in the city, the group’s serenity seemed out of place, illusory.

Some of the children gathered recognized Cadence—rather, her guise of Matilda—and leaped to their feet, beaming.

“You came!” they exclaimed. Their expressions fell, however, when they registered her carefully practiced expression of panicked fear.

“T-Theta…” Cadence stammered, stumbling forward. When Theta looked up at her in mild surprise, she took a step backwards. “I-I know you told me to leave, but I… I couldn’t. Some of the others wouldn’t. And…” She forced tears to spill from her eyes. “A bunch of men… the gangs… t-they… they attacked us… They took Marzia and the others. I-I don’t know who to go to… There’s no one. I… I-I…”

Theta shut the book in his hands with a snap, rose from his seat, and paced over to her. The children parted as he did so, all wearing varying expressions of guilt and worry. When Theta reached Cadence’s side, he wiped the false tears from her eyes with his thumb.

“Use my proto-conductor as I’ve shown you,” Theta addressed the children behind him. “And leave this city.” He knelt down and met Cadence’s eyes. “Tell me where, Matilda.”

Cadence swallowed. “W-Warehouse 13. The—”

“One near the docks, running along the center of the city,” Theta finished. “Do they have conductors?”

Cadence nodded.

“I see.” The light in Theta’s eyes changed. “There’s no reason to be afraid. I’ll help you.”

The one good thing about Francis being Theta was that Theta was a bit gullible, Cadence thought. She didn’t quite know how old ‘Theta’ was, but she figured seniority could make people just as naïve as youth did in certain situations.

Theta extended his bare hand, and Cadence accepted it hesitantly. The man then pressed his gloved hand against the carpet beneath them, which Cadence now noticed was stained black. The stain glowed at his contact, and they began to sink down into the blindingly bright portal.

Cadence winced at the light and shut her eyes. When she opened them a second later, she found herself standing in a cool, dark, familiar warehouse.

Empty metal trash bins were rusted into the ground, and piles of metal pipes cluttered the dirt floor. A hull of a ship rested at the center of the warehouse, looking the same as it did when Cadence came into this place several months prior.

Theta scanned the darkness from beside her. “Where are they?” He looked down at her, expression impassive. “Matilda, tell me—” Theta’s eyes widened, and something flickered in his eyes. “Are you… Cadence?”

Cadence’s heart skipped a beat.

How had he known her name? She’d never encountered Theta as herself before, so that could only mean… Francis and Theta were starting to bleed into each other.

No…

“T-The swindler? She wasn’t the one who took them.” Cadence feigned confusion. She shook her head and scanned the dark. “They were just here. I swear. The gang must’ve—”

“Enough.”

Cadence tensed and turned to meet Theta’s eyes.

“You deceived me.” The man’s eyes narrowed, and he lifted his gloved hand. “You—”

Now!

Before Theta’ could finish his sentence, Jericho leaped down from his perch on the steel beam above their heads. The peacekeeper tackled Theta to the ground, pinning the man’s hands behind his back before slapping on a pair of suppression cuffs over his wrists. Theta went slack immediately, allowing Jericho to pry his conductor glove off of him. Jericho remained planted there unmovingly as he stared holes down into the man.

Jericho.

Jericho glanced at Cadence and removed himself from the man’s back. Snapping her fingers to dispel Matilda’s appearance, Cadence moved forward, stopped only momentarily by a hand around the arm. Jericho again. Cadence patted his hand; and he released her, allowing her to sink to the floor and crawl over to the unconscious man.

Come on, Cadence urged as she studied his face. Please let the kid’s idea work.

The man’s eyes fluttered open as soon as the thought left her, and a quiet groan escaped from his lips as he blinked blearily around. When he locked onto Cadence’s face, he stared. “Cadence…? What happened to your face?”

Cadence scrambled forward. “Quick. Tell me something only Francis would know.”

A perplexed expression flashed across the man’s face. “When I was fourteen years old, I snuck out with a girl one night to go to some party. You agreed to be me for the night so Allen wouldn’t find out. You still use that as blackmail to this day.”

Cadence brightened immediately, but then frowned. “Theta might know that too with the way this whole thing works. There’s gotta be somethin’ else.”

“How about we play a round of cards,” the man suggested. “If you win, then I’m Theta. If I win, I’m Francis and you can be Theta.”

“Okay, Francis, no need ta push it.” Letting out a sigh of unmeasurable relief, Cadence helped him up to a sitting position. “Take it easy.”

“What’s going on? Where are we?” Francis asked, scanning the warehouse. “Is this Warehouse 13?” He tried the cuffs behind him, eyes darkening. “What is this?”

“You are under the jurisdiction of Ophiuchus,” Jericho stated from behind Cadence. “We have placed suppression cuffs on you in an attempt to suppress Theta’s vitae in hopes of also suppressing his memory and influence. We have succeeded.”

“The suitcase peacekeeper…” Francis studied Jericho before his eyes widened. “You’re the Ophiuchian who came down here to investigate that other peacekeeper’s disappearance a couple months ago.”

Jericho stared down at Francis. Cadence could see in the peacekeeper’s mind eye that he was staring down into the past. Affection and hatred twisted together as one. It made Cadence’s stomach do flip-flops.

“Yes, that was me,” Jericho finally said.

Francis continued to study Jericho before he suddenly startled and whipped to Cadence. “Allen, Carl, and Fortuna—”

“Slow down, Francis,” Cadence said, squeezing his shoulder. “The city is lookin’ like a bad bar fight right now ‘cause ELPIS’s decided ta make their entry into the spotlight.”

Francis paled. “Did I…” He shook his head, eyes sharpening. “The Ophiuchians—”

“Aren’t really involved in this whole thing we got goin’ on right now.” Cadence thumbed Jericho. “He’s a bit of a black sheep with ‘em and he’s pullin’ one out for me, but he’s the best in my book. A friend of his that’s helpin’ us is comin’ along in a bit too.”

Francis seemed to digest this information slowly. “So, what’s the plan here then?”

“A couple of the execs from both sides are comin’ down here in a couple,” Cadence explained. “From the Romanos and the Campanas.”

Francis blanched. “How in the world did you manage that?”

Cadence rubbed the back of her neck. “I… kinda had ta tell them that I got the one behind orchestratin’ this entire thing on a leash.”

“So, they’re coming here for me,” Francis surmised.

He didn’t look happy.

“Look. They’re our best bet at gettin’ control of the city, and they all need ta get on the same page,” Cadence explained. “The police ain’t in any state to get the reins in, and Ophiuchus is focused on the reservoirs. Plus, we can explain the situation with you too. And Enzo and Donato—”

“Enzo and Donato?”

“Yeah, I’ll explain that bit later.” Cadence waved her hand. “But… I can call the executives off if ya’d like.” She scratched her head and sighed. “Though… I kinda pushed them ta do me an additional favor, so if I back out now, I’ll be in the ruts.”

“An additional favor?”

“Yeah, long story short, I asked ‘em both ta destroy any evidence that they’d been dealin’ with the Capricornian Army.” She poked him in the chest. “Mind if I ask ya ta do the same in exchange for me gettin’ your head half on?”

“Wait. Are the Capricornians pulling out of the deal?” Francis frowned. “I would have to consult Allen and Carl about that first. We keep records for a reason, Cadence.” He arched a brow. “And why are you pushing for this? Did they pay you?”

Cadence flashed a grin, placing a finger to her lips. “A secret.”

Francis shook his head, amused. “Well, it wouldn’t be very business savvy of me to just go and accept those terms, would it?” The very faint smile he had on fell. “Jokes aside, what’s going on with my brothers?”

“That part of the plan is in action as we speak. Don’t ya worry about it,” Cadence elaborated before she chortled. “By the way, how’s it feel to be a damsel in distress?”

Instead of receiving the slightly annoyed chuckle from him as she’d expected, Francis suddenly slumped forward.

Cadence caught him. “H-Hey, talk ta me, what’s goin’ on?”

“Sorry. I’m just… really… tired….” Francis shook his head, his eyelids drooping slightly.

Cadence reached over and lightly slapped him on the cheek. “Come on, Francis, stay with me.”

Francis blinked and shook his head again.

“Say… Cadence…” he murmured. “Who do you think has the moral high ground here?”

Cadence’s heart skipped a beat, and she grabbed Francis by the shoulder. “Francis.” She squeezed. “Look at me. We’re not the ones throwin’ this city into the shit.”

She was about to mention that they weren’t the ones who were taking advantage of children either, but then she remembered Matilda and then the Specialist children. Damn. What they had been doing was wrong. No two cents about it. But still—

Cadence continued, “We ain’t the ones runnin’ around actin’ as judge, jury, and executioner. And we ain’t destroyin’ lives on an international scale.”

“Aren’t we?” Francis stared into her, and Cadence couldn’t help but stare back at the snake tattoo on his face. “I mean all of the conductors that we’ve been shipping out, that the Romanos have been selling… we’ve been indirectly taking lives since we were teenagers… Those people may have been using the conductors we’ve been selling to protect their countries and families, but what’s our reason?”

What was this…?

Cadence reached out with both of her hands and grabbed a hold of Francis’s face. He stared back at her with raised brows. Cadence figured he was wondering if she was who was losing their mind. She figured she was.

“Francis, look. I’m not even sure if there’s even a ‘lesser of two evils’ thing here. I’m pretty shit, you’re pretty shit, they’re pretty shit,” Cadence said. “But unlike them—despite all their talk about responsibility, yada, yada—we can change. Them? As soon as they kick the bucket and return ta their resistor, they’re back ta square one. They can look through all the records and bookshelves they keep all they want, but they ain’t actually learnin’ anythin’ from it. They can’t take responsibility—don’t care ta— ‘cause they can’t even feel the guilt or consequences of what they do. ‘Cause they don’t even remember it.” A heat twisted in her chest. “All they do is spew some sorta rhetoric that the world is in the dirts now and spread the false hope that everything is gonna be peachy after they do their ‘work’.”

Francis arched a brow at her.

“Sorry. Got kinda heated there, but I really mean that first bit.” Cadence released him from her hold. “But, it’ll be okay. You’ll be okay, Francis. We’ll fix this and get everything back ta the way it was. I promise.”

Francis studied her before he lowered his head and chuckled. Musically. A wonderful sound. “Alright, Cadence. I’ll let you swindle me a little while longer.”

10.4: Atienna’s Questioning (Riposto)

Re-cap:

Atienna’s diplomatic journey reaches a standstill when she becomes storm-locked in a cavern alongside Virgoan diplomat Chiamaka, their guards Kabal and Sefu, and the Cancerian tourist Louise whom they’d rescued. Already locked in the cave are Piscese diplomat Moana, Pisces advisor Kalama, Piscese guard Afu; Aquarian diplomat Alexei Drei, Aquarian secretary Yulia, Aquarian advisor Cvetka Akulova, and the guards Nikita Knovak and Sigurd.

Kalama is mysteriously murdered one day in, and Afu is put on arrest after lashing out at Alexei. As tensions built up inside of the cavern, a portal opens up, dumping Ophiuchian peacekeeper Mladen and Major Ersatz within. The major dies shortly after, leaving an oddly discombobulated, nonsensical Mladen who insists on being called ‘P’ to deal with the dysfunction.

On Atienna’s mind: P’s relation to ELPIS; Yulia’s, Sigurd’s, Louise’s, and Cvetka’s knowledge of the word ‘syzygy’, and the probability of them being True Conductors; and Kalama’s murder. One mystery appears to be nearing solved as P finally reveals his association to ELPIS to Atienna… 

Zatmeniye Caverns, Aquarius

“Rather than calling you ‘P’ then, perhaps I should call you ‘Pi’? I’ve been reading a bit about the original Ophiuchian language and that seems to be appropriate…”

The person—

who had killed Mladen 

who had become Mladen 

who had passed on memories to Mladen 

—who had taken over Mladen’s life stared at Atienna with wide eyes.

Slowly, Pi nodded.

Jericho’s rage pulsated beneath the surface, but the peacekeeper’s mind was too focused on the task he was currently pursuing for it to take Atienna over.

Atienna sighed, closed her eyes, felt the cold of the ice wall behind her press through her layers of clothing. She tried to amalgamate the information she had gathered from Pi and from Cadence’s end.

Firstly, ELPIS was not a new terrorist organization. It was an ancient one. Secondly, what was assumedly ELPIS’s original founders passed on what were essentially their souls and memories to people near death’s door via resistors. In a sense, Atienna thought, that was strangely similar to the way to how True Conductors came to be. Curious. Thirdly, every experience an ELPIS leader underwent while in someone else’s guise was lost when the ELPIS leader ‘died’ and entered another person’s guise.

Really… what a ludicrous existence. 

If anything, this just proved the truth of the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis. And that truth was rather…

“Unsure…” Pi muttered from beside her. “What to. Do.”

When Atienna turned to him, she found that he was looking at her in askance. How troubling.

“It depends on how you view your current self,” Atienna drew uncertainly. “Would I be correct in saying that you don’t agree with ELPIS’s current trajectory…?”

Pi froze and nodded. He let out a breath that clouded the air before his eyes widened and he stared off into the distance. “Have I… Past me. Done that. Too?”

If Pi’s vitae had occupied Major Ersatz previous to its current occupation of Mladen, then the answer was clear.

However, Atienna remained silent.

An interesting case. An ELPIS leader who did not agree wholeheartedly with ELPIS ideology.

Atienna wondered if she was lucky to have encountered Pi instead of another ELPIS leader. Pi himself did not seem to be as antagonistic as Iota nor as ideological as Theta. Atienna was uncertain if this was an aspect of Pi’s faulty initiation or of his true nature. Or… Perhaps it was that Pi was lucky to have encountered her. Such hubris.

“Do you consider,” Atienna began, “how you are now as a uniquely different to all those other versions of you? Do you think you should take responsibility for those actions or will you move forward without looking back? Which way do you think is right?”

These were answers Atienna truly wanted to know.

Pi stared at her blankly. Instead of answering, he stated, “You… no fear…”

Atienna offered him a thin smile. “I must admit that I am more curious”—and furious—“than afraid.”

“You. Scary,” Pi said, nodding. “A little.”

Atienna blinked in surprise. “Shouldn’t our reactions be reversed…?”

Pi shrugged before studying her hesitantly. “Now you know. What do. For you?”

“I’m wondering that myself…”

***

When Atienna learned of the Specialist children being taken advantage of by the Campanas, she felt her heart sink. She had always known that activities such as these were commonplace, but baring witness to it through Cadence’s eyes solidified it as reality as compared to fiction on paper.

Then when Atienna witnessed Werner taking on Cadence’s pain in that cold, dimly lit cellar, she was filled with emotions she could not dissect in one sitting. A sense of unity, a sense of sadness, a sense of guilt, a sense of worry, a sense of happiness.

Going along with the rush of all of these hard to digest feelings, she found herself prying open the letter she had been neglecting since she’d departed Virgo. She sat in her pocket in the cavern—Pi remained at her side, quiet and contemplative—as she read the curling Virgoan letters:

My dearest sister, Atienna,

I suspect you have put off reading this letter despite your love of reading. I am unsure if this is in part due to your newfound duties or if it is due to the argument we had prior to your departure. But you are kind and caring, so I doubt it is the latter.

I know I have argued against you serving as an advisor to Chiamaka as has father. I am not sure what father’s case is still, but as for me… It isn’t because I don’t believe you can serve as an advisor. In fact, I believe wholeheartedly that you will become the best advisor Virgo has to offer. Perhaps, if you choose to do so, you will climb up to become the best diplomat Virgo has ever had.

My reservations come from the fact that I fear you may become like me—rather, like how I was when I was working alongside Usian. Carried away by patriotism and ideology. During that time, I lost sight of what was truly important to me and fell into convolution. I don’t wish the same to befall you. That is all my hesitation and reservations amount to. I am sure, however, you are shaking your head as you are reading this. You are thinking, ‘how can my little brother dare to give me advice about a situation I helped him out of’. And I agree. You are much wiser than I. But I had a feeling that it still needed to be said. You know me and my impulsivity.

I apologize for not telling you all of this directly. Safiyah is right about me not being well-versed when it comes to apologies. But let me just say that she is not well-versed when it comes to it either.

So, yes, my dear sister, the purpose of this letter is mostly to serve as a long-winded apology. I hope my feelings come across clearly and are not lost in my usual drivels and ramblings.

Kamaria, Kichea, father, and I eagerly await your return. I suspect by the time you are reading this, they are near driving me to complete insanity.

As promised, Safiyah and I are tending to your garden together so you mustn’t worry about that. Then again, I do recall Safiyah somehow managing to obliterate your purple asters when you asked her to look after them for an hour. I will try my best to protect your garden from her until you return.

To close this poorly formed letter, I would like to leave you with a request. I know this is selfish to ask with you so far away from us and moving forward, but I simply request that you do not forget what is important to you.

Sincerely,

Bachiru

Atienna let out a final breath and folded the letter back into the envelope. She sighed in exasperation and pressed the paper to her lips.

As always, Bachiru acted as the final push, the final reminder.

“Pi,” she murmured under her breath, “perhaps all you need to do is realize what is the most important to you out of all of this.”

***

Atienna knew Kalama’s murderer was still in the cave. Pi’s arrival in the cavern was merely a confounder. She had known since the beginning, but she had refrained from speaking and acting. There was just too much uncertainty. She didn’t know all the details, after all. And because she didn’t know everything, she hadn’t made the choice.

She had assured herself repeatedly that she would make a choice. It was just that she just didn’t have the necessary components to make that choice yet.

Information, pattern, hypothesis theory. Or theory, hypothesis, observation, confirmation. It was insufficient.

It had been the same case with her approach of Pi. A threshold of information had been reached before she had chosen to address him. And until that threshold had been reached regarding Kalama’s case, Atienna had decided that she would just have to deal with the itch of curiosity. But that was just an excuse. A form of self-deception. Prolonging false peace. Delaying the inevitable.

Atienna realized now that the only information that was required to reach the threshold in this circumstance was this: what was important to her.

And so, when everyone reclused to sleep around the campfire that night, Atienna kept her eyes trained on the Aquarian side of the camp. As usual, there were two people on that side who remained awake and sitting. One was the Aquarian guard on duty and the other—

The other Aquarian was sitting with their back to the campfire and using it as a reading light for note-taking. About half an hour after everyone fell asleep, that person rose from their seat and hovered over Alexei’s sleeping form.

Atienna peered at the posted guard on that side. Sigurd. Perhaps if Nikita Knovak was on guard instead, he would have asked exactly what that person was doing. But Nikita was on watch over Afu, and Sigurd merely looked on with disinterest.

Atienna silently rose from her bedding, cast a look at Sefu who was dozing off on guard behind her, before she slinked over to the hovering figure. She placed a gentle hand on the figure’s pale arm.

Yulia turned back to her with wide eyes. The same eyes Atienna had seen in Jericho and Werner. The eyes of a killer.

“It’s about Kovich, isn’t it?” Atienna said quietly.

The light in Yulia’s eyes changed, and suddenly she had the eyes of a mother.

Atienna glanced at Sigurd, who was watching them unmovingly. Atienna pressed gently, “We should speak elsewhere, don’t you think?”

In silence, they walked over to Atienna’s small cavern pocket. There, they reached a standstill, face to face with another. Atienna’s back was to the campfire, so she was able to see the way the orange light stretched thin shadows across Yulia’s unsmiling face.

“So, you are one too. I thought so.” Yulia broke the silence. “After what happened in Virgo, I suspected another True Conductor was involved. Cvetka did mention that Virgo’s leave from isolation was too sudden… I assume you have one that is close to my dear colonel then. That’s the only way you would know the importance of that name.”

And with that, it was confirmed.

Fritz von Spiel, the Capricornian colonel; Yulia, the Aquarian secretary; and ‘Kovich’, the Specialist child owned by the Campanas, were connected True Conductors.

Atienna had suspected it when she had observed the colonel’s note-taking skill and posture when Werner had accompanied him to the Romano Family meeting. It had been the exact mirror image of Yulia’s posture. Then came their echoed words— “If you don’t come to your senses, you’ll fall apart”. And finally, came Yulia’s adoration of the Aquarian author Kovich—which was the name the colonel had addressed the Specialist boy with at the secret Campana meeting Cadence had witnessed. And the connecting piece was…

“Alexei… is that poor boy’s father, isn’t he?” Atienna whispered. “Alexei is Kovich’s father.”

“Alexei is a bastard,” Yulia spat vehemently. “He puts on that face like he’s a saint, but all he cares about is himself.”

Atienna realized that Yulia must have pushed Afu into lashing out at Alexei then. How unpleasant.

Yulia’s voice began to rise: “We all suffered during Aquarius’s economic crisis! I had nothing to eat but a loaf of bread for weeks! But… never did I ever… I never turned my back on my family. I spent months looking for work so I could feed them, and Alexei—he—”

“He sold Kirill—Kovich—to the Campanas,” Atienna finished steadily.

Yulia’s expression folded. “Can you even understand what it feels like to be sold by your father while he holds your hand acting like nothing is wrong? Without a second thought?” Her mask of indifference cracked in the light of the fire, and she stared into Atienna. “Do you know how many times I’ve tried to tell Kovich it wasn’t his fault…? No matter what I do—no matter what I think or say—he goes to sleep every single night wondering what he did wrong! I tried to even change his name to distance him from that bastard, but how can Kovich forget his father when every morning he wakes up as a slave under the Campanas—the people that his father sold him to?!”

How terrible…

That distant sympathy curled up in Atienna’s chest.

“So, you plan on taking revenge on Kovich’s behalf?” Atienna inquired after allowing a moment for Yulia to recollect herself. “By killing Alexei Drei… using Kovich’s own Specialist conducting? I wonder if that’s considered poetic justice…” She lowered her gaze. “And Kalama…”

“That was a mistake on my part,” Yulia elaborated, tone even. “I was going to kill Alexei when we found ourselves trapped in this cave initially. I was determined to. It was the opportunity I had been waiting for while working under him for all of these years. It would be very easy to cover it up as a cave accident with Kovich’s conducting.” Yulia’s eyes glinted. “…. but then the Piscese diplomats came, and I had to wait and wait… And then you came.” She frowned. “I was… too rash that night. I did not realize that Alexei had given Kalama his jacket… I just saw it, saw the opportunity.” Her frown deepened. “I would apologize, but that would do nothing now.”

“‘Now’,” Atienna repeated. “And what happens now…? If you move forward with this, then… perhaps you’ll frame Afu? Or you’ll say that the murderer came from the portals… which is why you are so attentive to Mladen. You know he is ELPIS. About how ELPIS truly operates. He could be your key out of here… and he may hold information regarding Fritz’s dealings with Omicron, which must somehow involve the Campanas.”

Yulia stared at her wide-eyed before she shook her head and chuckled mirthlessly—no, nervously. “Cvetka was right when she said you knew everything.”

Atienna didn’t know everything, but if Yulia thought that she did, then that was good. That meant that Yulia believed that there was nothing that she could hide from Atienna. Knowledge was power. Knowledge could be used as a trap. Against someone who knew everything, one could do nothing.

“And you’re aware of Cvetka’s nature as a True Conductor?”

Yulia paled slightly. “What…?”

So, she didn’t know.

Yulia was out of her depth, it seemed.

“Yulia… I’m not in your situation,” Atienna drew quietly, “so I won’t truly understand your pain. But… There must be a way for us to reach a peaceful resolution. Enough blood has been spilled, don’t you think? If you try and harm Alexei, you’ll start something that’ll be difficult to stop… You must also consider that Fritz is already on his way to free Kovich—”

“A peaceful resolution? Even if Kovich is free, as long as that man takes a breath, he will still be trapped.” Yulia grimaced. “Didn’t you hear me from the beginning? I don’t care what happens to my country—”

“I don’t care either.”

Yulia paused.

Atienna looked to the side. “It feels both a relief and a pain to admit it, but I don’t care what happens to Virgo… Although, I wonder if I’m failing my patriotic duty by saying this.”

After all, it was because of ‘Virgo’ that her mother ended up the way she had. It was because of ‘Virgo’ that Bachiru had fallen in with Usian. The concept that the country in itself was more important than the individual—some viewed this as a positive, altruistic perception, and perhaps it was. But not to Atienna.

She wondered if Werner, her father, or her mother would be disappointed in her line of thought.

“I’ve been participating in all of these political things only because it is considered ‘what is right’,” Atienna continued. Because it was what her mother would have viewed as ‘right’. And… “Because if I do it, then I will be able to better protect the things that I do care about.”

Bachiru, Kichea, Kamaria, her father. Even Sefu and Nia. And, of course, now the other five.

A handle—an eye—on the developments of Virgo would put her in a better position to protect them. Everything else that happened was just an inconsequential itch. Something to bide her curiosity. Perhaps.

This was the true choice Atienna had made when she had confronted Usian in front of the Great Tree all those months ago.

“It makes sense,” Yulia said. There was no judgement in her eyes. “It makes sense that we True Conductors would feel similarly. We’re given positions where we’re able to be outsiders looking in. So then—”

“If you kill an Aquarian diplomat and if you choose to divert the blame, you will start something irreversible between all three of our countries,” Atienna interjected, holding up an apologetic hand. “And that will bleed out to other countries—to the people I do care about within those countries and within my own country. That’s something I can’t look away from.”

Yulia’s gaze darkened.

“So, I am asking you, Yulia… I will keep your secret about Kalama… but please do not move any further than this. Let’s leave this behind us and return to the people we care about. You will end up ruining your own happiness if you—”

Yulia abruptly pushed her back. “I do not need your words of advice nor your words of sympathy, Miss Imamu.”

Atienna rubbed her shoulder. “Kovich has been through enough pain already, don’t you think? And any pain you feel, he will surely feel himself.”

Yulia took a single tense step backwards.

“It’s somewhat embarrassing to admit this, but my… tousle with Afu was my choice—my skill—alone.” She met Yulia’s eyes and saw the woman pale considerably. “Perhaps, saying that ‘I am asking you’ is an improper choice of words.”


Aquarius’s long awaited change from the pre-war moneta bill to the dracul coin has led to extreme inflation of the new currency. The Treasury of Aquarius is currently attempting to rectify the issue and is expected to push forward several legislations to help curb a market stumble. Time will tell.

Novosti Newspaper, 13 January 1932