14.2: Prince & Swindler, 0000 False Ignorance

Re-cap:

Olive has received his State Conductor’s License after clashing with the Sagittarian saint candidate Ilseong Jin at the Prognoikos Aurora Reservoirs of Ophiuchus. Now he is able to access the notes of Pema (a Sagittarian saint candidate who once served in the Body Temple) who was able to conduct without a conductor. Olive is certain the answer to his sister’s condition coincides with this ability. As Olive delves into his research two months later, he is drawn to…

Cadence Morello has made a promise. As Francis/Theta leaves the Twin Cities after it’s near destruction to recollect his mind, the Specialist children who have been taken advantage of by the deposed Campana crime family are left in Cadence’s, Allen’s, and Carl’s care. Now with more to care for (and more to lose), Cadence…


Falsche Unwissenheit » False ignorance, unrecorded 

Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

Ariesian Prince Olivier Chance was onto something. At least, he thought he was onto something. If he wasn’t actually onto something, he figured he might as well leap out the window to make up for the twelve hours he’d just wasted.

At the moment Olive resided on the third to highest floor of the Beobachter Library. It was an old building with wooden floorboards that creaked and groaned whenever Trystan Carter would walk over to bring him the books he requested. Having just brought over a rather large stack of gothic-looking books with yellowed pages, Trystan now sat across the table—reading a book instead of staring, as per Olive’s request. At the moment, the man was going through a thick anthology of Capricornian fairy tales with unusual interest.

Although Olive hated to admit it, even after holding a license for two months, he still found coming up onto these limited-access floors nerve-wracking. Everything here had an air of professionalism to it when compared to the lower levels, from the robust round tables, to the glass bookcases, to the stained-glass windows, and to even the people. Suited men and suited women, scholarly and serious, threaded around the study tables around him with purpose beneath the drooping stone chandeliers that hung down from the dome-shaped ceiling. Orderly. Executive. Intimidating.

Olive wondered if this was just Capricornian design, engineering, and culture at work. Truthfully, he’d been a bit excited to come to this country. And not just for research. It was embarrassing to think about it, but he’d spent more time than he’d liked when he first came to this country admiring the old gothic-looking, gray-bricked, many-windowed buildings and ‘squareness’ found in the design of everything. He’d gotten a glimpse of this place through Werner’s memories, but it wasn’t the same as seeing it for himself.

“Excuse me, sirs,” came a voice in Common as a shadow spilled over the table, “are you foreigners?”

Glancing up, Olive found an auburn-haired young man holding a handful of pamphlets. Not waiting for an answer, the young man reached forward with one of them. Before he could deliver the item, however, Trystan grabbed him by the wrist and squeezed. The man stiffened, staring wide-eyed at Trystan. Olive nodded and signaled the guard to release his grip. Upon being freed from Trystan’s iron hold, the Capricornian offered a genial smile and handed Olive the pamphlet.

FIGHT FOR THE PEOPLE NOT FOR THE COUNTRY, it read in Common. Just below it was the image of the curly-mustached Kaiser aiming a conducting rifle at some enemy in the distance. Half of the Kaiser’s body peeled away like torn paper to reveal a skeleton hidden underneath. Part of his conducting rifle peeled away in a similar artistic style to reveal that what the Kaiser ‘truly’ held was a death certificate. Tiny letters were printed just below the image: ‘Sponsored by the Verbundene Augen.’ Beneath that print was a cartoonish drawing of an eye with three lashes.

The imagery was provocative, to say the least. The meaning was clear.

“We’re having a meeting later today,” the young man continued. “The founder—Frau Marionette Engel, I mean—won’t be on-site, but we’d appreciate all the support we can get from—”

“Who exactly do you think they’re out there fighting for?” Olive asked, glancing up at him. “It’s easy to say all this when you’re here, right?”

“What…?”

It wasn’t like Olive disagreed with the idea. He just disagreed with people speaking about it without doing anything about it. Empty words. Just like the politicians back home. Saints, Olive could hear them now, filibustering in the meeting chambers about the same thing over and over again without actually implementing any policies. Not that Olive himself knew any better.

For a moment, he considered crumpling the pamphlet and tossing it over his shoulder. But then he thought better of it, smoothed it onto the table, and folded it into a rectangle.

“Bookmark,” he said in Capricornian when the man arched brow.

The man frowned before walking off without another word. Olive didn’t bother watching him go and refocused his attention on his work.

Laid out on the oak table in between him and Trystan were stacks upon stacks of books and papers. Werner had synchronized with him several hours prior when Olive had initially arrived at the library and had spent several minutes organizing everything into a manageable, efficient set-up to streamline Olive’s research process. The entire thing had fallen into disarray since then but Olive figured as long as nothing was scattered on the ground it was fine.

To Olive’s left rested translated pages from Pema’s journal that he had snuck out from the Bodhi Temple in Sagittarius. As Cadence had pointed out, “They said ya can’t bring a book down. Doesn’t mean ya can’t bring a copy ya made yourself down. Loophole!”

It had been a touchy task. A risk. He was still the prince of Aries, after all. He had expectations riding on his shoulders.

But he had ta do what he had ta do. 

And Olive knew he couldn’t stay cooped up in one place forever. The answers never pooled together in one place—or so was Atienna’s thought. And that line of thought had marked Olive’s decision to leave the Bodhi Temple behind.

It had taken Olive several weeks to find a library that hosted P.D. Oran’s works regarding the topic he’d taken interest in since the incident at Ophiuchus two months ago. Weeks of looping through the tightly structured bookstores of Libra, through the libraries squeezed between the weeping canals of Pisces, through the art galleries that dotted every street in Cancer, and finally to here. The capital of Capricorn.

The topic that evaded him so? That would be the one regarding the two different forms of vitae in existence. The ones Olive had known about since it was taught to him upon starting classes at the Royal University. Soft, living vitae and hard, non-living vitae.

And so Olive had turned to P.D. Oran, whose publications regarding vitae basics were taught universally in Signum. Most of P.D. Oran’s other works were censored or redacted by the Literary Department of Ophiuchus due to their provocative and anti-conductor rhetoric, insistence on the Vitae-Anima Hypothesis, and constant criticism of Ophiuchus’s state in Signum. Oran’s works regarding vitae theory beyond the basics were therefore practically non-existent. The only advanced books about it that Olive had seen were Conductors: Who is Using Who? which Atienna owned back in Virgo and the one that currently sat opened on the right side of Olive’s table: Between Vitae.

Former crime executive-turned-ELPIS leader, Francis Foxman, had told Cadence that True Conductors were like open channels, constantly accepting and releasing a flow of vitae. He’d said that normal people were not like that. He’d also obsessively talked about cycles. Olive figured it was all a metaphor, but….

There was a broken link in theory here. And Olive was certain it wasn’t on Francis’s end. The man had taken on the memories of Theta after all. And Theta probably knew a lot more about vitae than even the top professors at New Ram City’s Royal University.

That being said, the general, widely accepted belief was that vitae was merely energy—burned off after usage through a conductor—and could be replenished through ingesting soft, living vitae in food. But if the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis was true—if vitae was representative of the soul—then replenishing it seemed impossible. How could someone even replenish a soul? Quantify it? Was that why ELPIS was so against conductors? Because it utilized ‘the soul’? And where did hard, non-living vitae fall into this? The vitae reservoirs even?

Jericho had only vague impressions of conductors being evil, and Francis still hadn’t contacted Cadence since the Twin Cities incident. No answers from the most viable sources.

And what about conductor usage? Holding the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis true, vitae returned to the cycle after it was used by a conductor, didn’t it? The only time in theory that it didn’t return to the cycle was when vitae was bleached white. So, in theory, Lavi had returned to the cycle during the Tragedy of Aries and had somehow entered him—an old hypothesis that Olive was on the verge of confirming. But had Lavi entered him because he was a True Conductor and had an ‘open channel’? But that was before he’d become a True Conductor.

On another note, Pema’s notes had suggested very annoyingly vaguely that her ability to conduct without a conductor—like Olive himself could—had to do with her utilizing vitae that was in a different state than soft and hard. Which was completely off the books. But P.D. Oran’s Between Vitae also stated the possibility of there being a third form of vitae that was the ‘missing link’ between soft and hard vitae. A highly-energized state of vitae.

Of course, Oran’s words bordered on the line of pseudoscience, and half of his proposals on it weredenounced. Paired with Pema’s drunken ramblings, it didn’t seem very reliable, but still…

And so after constantly turning these topics over inside his head—and with Atienna’s assistance—Olive had come to develop a hypothesis over these past few weeks:

This third state of vitae mentioned in both Pema’s notes and P.D. Oran’s texts had to do something with what happened to Lavi. And that third state of vitae involved saint candidates and his own ability to conduct without a conductor.

At the thought of his sister Lavi, Olive frowned. She’d been appearing around him less and less recently. His stomach churned with worry and apprehension at the thought. He hated thinking about it. But at the same time, he was somewhat relieved by it. Lack of question and confrontation.

Stupid, Olive thought, drawing a hand down his face.

Where was the line between pseudoscience and science drawn anyway…? Reality and fantasy?

Ugh. I’m becoming like Talib… he thought.

“Olivier,” Trystan said suddenly, “I know that your research is very important to you… But I really believe you should pay the king and queen a visit, especially since you’ve managed to obtain your Conducting License. I’m certain they would be glad to receive a visit. Plus, your future prospects—”

Olive grimaced, no longer listening.

That was how it always was with Trystan nowadays. Always talking about going back home. Always wanting to push him back towards the royal palace. That had probably been Trystan’s agenda to begin with, Olive figured. Probably wanted to push his political agenda. Probably the only reason Trystan had insisted on bodyguarding him.

Oh, Olive, you know it’s not like that… It’s more than that, don’t you think?

Right.

Olive shook his head. That was a stupid thought—

A woman suddenly slid into the chair across from him right beside Trystan. Her hair was wiry, her face smudged with oil, the goggles resting around her neck fogged over with soot. The overalls she wore were in a similar state.

Trystan didn’t make any moves towards the woman. Merely gave her a tight frown of disapproval.

“Well.” The woman blinked at Olive expectantly. “Let’s see it!”

Here sat the second reason for Olive being in this capital. Marta John, the Ariesian conductor engineer whose shop Olive frequented back at New Ram City whenever he’d run away from his guards. He liked her because she never cared much for his royal status nor his history and she was blunt. Several months ago, she had been called into Ophiuchus to implement her new vitae-spectrophotometer invention, and her name had been in the papers ever since.

Olive had written to Marta upon receiving his physical State Conducting License. He’d been writing to his aunt and uncle at the time and had just done it on a whim, really. And frankly, writing to Marta had been much easier than writing to his aunt and uncle. Olive hadn’t been expecting to receive a card back from her Marta handing it to the carrier, but lo-and-behold, he did. Paired with Marta’s congratulatory letter came an invitation to the diplomatic conductor convention in Capricorn.

Two birds with one stone, Olive figured.

Olive dug into his coat pocket and pulled out the plastic card that he personally thought held too much power. His half-smiling, half-frowning portrait was captured on the left-hand side of the card while his personal details were listed to the right.

Olivier Chance / 16 / M
License Special Class Royalty
Conducting Type Elementalist (Sub: Fire) / Intraneous User
Color Crimson
Most used c.a. N/A
Conducting No 16-81-55-14-924 
Issued Year 1941 / Expires Year 1945

The Ariesian ram horn was watermarked in red just behind the slew of information, while the Ophiuchian stamp of approval was slapped right over his portrait.

“Well, look at that…” Marta arched a brow. “You actually went out and got one. You know, I need someone to keep an eye out on my shop in New Ram City since I’ve been so popular lately. You heading back to the royal life after your research spree, or do you want a job?”

Olive gave a non-committal grunt. Not something he wanted to talk about. One thing at a time. “So you said you’re here for that convention, right?”

Marta returned the shrug with a nod, adjusting her goggles around her neck. “Was invited by Dämon Fortschritt, leading face of Capricornian conductor engineering, himself. Head conductor engineer of the state and all that.”

“Never heard of him…” And Olive had heard of everyone in the conductor engineering sphere.

Marta nodded, half-heartedly. “His work in previous years was mostly in the pseudoscience realm, but he’s made a name for himself recently since he’s one of the ones who helped to develop the proto-conductor.”

Olive perked up at this, frowned. “…. Literally have never heard of him.”

“Well, anyway, I’m working with him on a new project,” Marta continued. “Word is that P.D. Oran might also be involved.”

“P.D. Oran…?”

Olive recalled his encounter with the somber, reclusive, fidgety man back at the Bodhi Temple. He hadn’t seen Oran when he’d returned to the temple after completing his exam and had figured Oran was just avoiding him. Olive would’ve never guessed that Oran had returned to the public realm. Maybe to repair his reputation?

“You gonna stick around for the conductor diplomatic convention thing?”

Olive shrugged, but then paused in thought. If he could directly speak to P.D. Oran now, since Oran seemed to be openly engaged in his research, then maybe he could get a word in with him about Between Vitae.

“Hey…” Olive grimaced. “Look. I hate asking for favors. I’m not demanding it. Not pulling the prince card. But… do you think you could…” He grimaced harder, looked away, rubbed the back of his neck. “Can you maybe introduce me to him?”

Marta blinked, returned his earlier shrug. “Well, like I said… It’s all rumor, but I can put in a word for you. I mean, you are the Ariesian prince, like you said. Flash that badge of yours, and I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

A pressure came off of Olive’s chest. “Thank—”

A sharp prick at the base of his palm cut Olive off short. He gripped his right hand with a wince before glancing down.

Nothing.

Did Werner—

Absolutely nothing. Dead silence. Radio static.

Olive’s ears rang as he came to realize he could no longer feel or hear any of the others. It was like a void had opened up and swallowed them whole leaving him completely—

—alone.

Before he could digest the feeling, his shoulder suddenly erupted with burning pain—like it was on fire. He tumbled out of his seat and onto the floor sending the papers cluttering his study table fluttering into the air. Trystan shouted in alarm before coming to his side.

“Your Highness! Your Highness!”

Olive had told Trystan many times not to call him that. But he couldn’t even focus on grumbling about it because—

There was that all-consuming, deathly silence. And the terrible burning heat eating away at his shoulder.

Olive stared wide-eyed at the high-rise ceiling as the papers rained down around him. Some of the pages caught the light spilling in from the stained-glass windows, causing several words to become illuminated,

I.

Will. 

Enter.

The pain felt exactly like the pain he’d felt when he’d fallen out onto the brick pathway outside the Royal University over half a year ago. The memory forced its way into Olive’s mind, painting over the library’s ceiling, over Trystan’s concern, over Marta’s alarm.

The memory of air that was no longer thin and dry but heavy and cold. The memory of a dimming sun. The memory of shouting guards. The memory of thinking it was all a bother.

The present returned a beat later as Trystan and Marta’s shouts rang in his ear. And then, she finally appeared before him.

As he lay on the floor, her dark hair fell like a canopy over his face as darkness crept in at the corners of his vision. He couldn’t help but think the reason she was here was to watch this unfold—

What? No. He couldn’t. Lavi. The others. Trystan.

He had to fight.

“No, Ollie, it’s too late,” Lavi whispered down to him.

Her dark hair dragged him into black.


Twin Cities, Gemini

“Again! Again! Again!”

Ariesian-Geminian, part-time swindler Cadence Morello clawed her way out from beneath the tangle of arms and limbs as she gasped for air. Her assailants were cruel, however, dragging her back into their clutches as they stomped on her legs and shoulders.

“Again! Come on, Cadence! Do it one more time! Please?”

The dock warehouse’s metal walls and closed windows threw back their sadistic cries at her.

“Ya know, just because I can make myself look like a horse doesn’t mean I’m actually one!”

“Giddyap! Giddyap!” were their responses to that as they pounded on her back.

Damn brats.

A creaking paired with a soft gust of wind indicated that the warehouse doors had been opened. Twin shadows spilled over Cadence’s face.

“Cadence,” was the first greeting.

“Good to see you’re in good company, Cadence,” was the second paired with deep laughter and a grin.

Cadence cracked open an eye, flashing that same grin back in the latter speaker’s direction. “‘Course—oh, wait! Carl, were ya serious when ya told me that you were gettin’ the kids a buncha candy from Ferrari’s store?”

Carl arched a brow. “What are you talkin’ about—”

Hook. Line. Sinker.

“Candy!” the children screeched as they scrambled off of Cadence’s body and mobbed Carl with their tiny fingers.

Carl let out a shout of alarm, stumbling backwards as they dangled from his arms, clung to his waist, darted between his legs.

Cadence picked herself up off the ground, dusted off her beaten suit, and stepped into place beside Allen. She watched with a cheery-eyed amusement as Carl transformed from a crime executive into the best new playground on the block. All without a conductor.

“Ya know,” she said to Allen, “for all that complainin’ that Carl did about Maria only takin’ the older bunch of kids, he gets along with ‘em all better than the both of us. Think it’s ‘cause they’re on the same wavelength?”

Allen gave a noncommittal grunt.

Carl spent five minutes trudging back and forth across the warehouse with the children acting as ball-and-chain before finally handing off the babysitting task to two of his lackeys who happened to enter the warehouse just then. Maximillian and Stefano. Poor saps. As Carl stomped away from the children and approached them, Cadence offered a smirk and a tip of her hat.

“Business ain’t good, Cadence,” Allen said suddenly. “We’re barely reigning in profit at this point. People’ve been conservative with spending since what happened with ELPIS. We’d be more than comfortable if we were just looking out for ourselves, but…” He eyed the children who were dragging Maximillian and Stefano to the ground.

Cadence glanced at him. “What are ya suggestin’, Allen…?”

“Ain’t gonna break the deal with Francis,” Allen explained. “But we gotta find a different way to deal with this. Another business opportunity. Something.”

Damn. Back to the black path?

Cadence figured she could probably take a couple more odd jobs here and there. Maybe even one from Fortuna. But the caveat of it all was that if she found herself kicking it with a not-so-nice employer, she actually had something they could use against her this time. Something to really lose. Something other than… Alma.

“Any word from Nico?” asked Carl. “From your weird psychic-link thing?”

Allen and Carl were both privy to her status as a True Conductor. They’d nonchalantly asked her about it the last time they’d met up with Francis at the Sognare two months ago. And she’d told them. They didn’t know more than the fact that she was connected to five other people across Signum and that ELPIS didn’t like True Conductors much, but the two brothers didn’t bother asking too many questions.

Accept everything. Reject nothing. Twin Cities motto.

“Geeze, not so loud, Carl. Anyone ever tell ya that ya’d make a terrible spy?”

“That’s why I ain’t born as a Manipulator.”

“And how would ya know that if ya never used a conductor or one of ‘em V-Type Tests before?”

“Can feel it in my bones. Hell, you’ve never takin’ one either. Why you boggin’ me?”

Cadence chortled. “Well, just wanted ta point out that ya can make a bangin’ cens if ya sell that skill on the market. Probably.”

“Cadence.” Allen frowned.

She rolled her neck in thought.

Nico, unlike them, had made a successful escape from the city. Nothing holding him back here anymore. The past buried behind him. In between the Foxmans, Nico, Fortuna, and herself, Cadence wondered if Nico had somehow managed to get the best hand in the game. But good for him. Right?

She sighed. “Doesn’t look Nico’s comin’ back any time soon. He’s in the deep necka the woods. Fully into his combat medic life.”

Allen took out a v-cig and shook it. Took a drag. “Could really use his help. ‘Specially with the sick kids. ‘Least he won’t charge like a damn debt collector like his father.”

Cadence absentmindedly played with the rim of her hat as she listened to the children squealing. Finally, she said, “Hate to say it, but it looks like Nico’s moved on—”

She was cut off as a sharp pain pricked her right palm. Swearing, she doubled over and cradled her hand.

“The hell, Cadence?” asked Carl.

“It’s nothin’.” Cadence waved him off as she studied her bare, unblemished palm. “Looks like the lieutenant got a minor injury is all.”

I will enter.

Suddenly, Cadence found herself face-first on the floor. Her limbs ached, her chest burned, her eyes stung. It felt she had just been pounded against the ground. Almost like when Feliciano and his gooks had nearly beaten her—Werner—within an inch of her life. No. Like when she’d been thrown sideways by that explosive conductor in the TwinStars Pub months ago. Back when this whole schtick began.

With a hell of a lot of effort, she cracked open her eyes. Allen, Carl, and a ring of children were looking down at her.

Did one of the others—

Others?

Saints.

She couldn’t hear or feel any of the others. A nauseating, dizzying sensation. Like she’d been pushed down into an endless abyss. Stomach-flipping, puke-inducing. Not pretty. She wanted to puke so bad but everything hurtso much that she couldn’t. She wished someone would just knock her out to put her out of her misery.

“Cadence! What’s goin’ on with you?!” came a shout from one of the faces above.

She couldn’t quite make out their expressions anymore. They were all clouded over by a memory. A memory of air that was clouded in smoke. A shroud of it, suffocating her with its gray hands.

She couldn’t breathe.

Not only that.

She couldn’t move.

Really, just like that time when it all began in the burning TwinStars Pub over half a year ago.

Memories of flames danced on the outskirts of her vision. In her mind’s eye, those flickering embers were reflected in the shards of glass scattered around her. 

No. It couldn’t be. Not like this. Not when she had all these people to take care of, all these people relying on her. Not when she’d made that promise with Francis.

She gagged, hacked, coughed.

The last thing that crept into Cadence’s mind as memory blurred into reality was an unnerving distorted image.

Captured in those shards of glass on the bar floor in her memory was the reflection of dozens of eyes all gazing back at her.


State Conducting License Format [FOR LICENSING DEPARTMENT USE ONLY]

Name / Age / Sex
Licensee Special Status (ex. royalty, diplomat, foreign alien, military, peacekeeping agent, conductor engineer, etc.)
Conducting Type (ex. Projector, Manipulator, Elementalist, etc. PLEASE NOTE: Elementalist’s subcategory required.) / Extraneous vs Intraneous -user
Color (of vitae)
Most used c.a. (Most used conductor apparatus. In general terms: glove-conductor, rifle-conductor, blade-conductor. Specific brand and model not required but may be added upon request.)
Conducting No (Examinee number)
Issued Year / Expires Year (Renewals required every four years.)

* Licenses are to be watermarked with an emblem of the licensee’s country of origin. Ophiuchian seal is required to differentiate from counterfeits. 

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.

11.[]: Francis’s (Theta’s) Singularity

Re-cap:

Chairwoman Leona has arrived inside Warehouse 13 and has taken the reins from Cadence and Jericho. Fortunately, Omicron has already given up ELPIS’s captives and Theta has been successfully suppressed. The main problem that remains is the explosive conductors and conducting grenades scattered around the city. Leona does not seem too concerned, and the city inches towards salvation. However, while restricted under the suppression cuffs, Francis begins to…

Twin Cities, Gemini

The past had become a blur for Francis.

Sometimes memories of running barefoot across limestone brick on a warm summer’s day crossed over with memories of squeezing between tight alleyway walls while wearing hole-riddled shoes. Echoes of laughter ringing through open halls lined with white pillars bled into echoes of the metal clicks bullet cases made as they clinked against the ground. Recollections of shaking hands on business deals merged with recollections of reaching out to grasp an extended, waiting hand at the beginning of a dance. Orders shouted to grim-faced underlings swirled around with practiced lectures made to wide-eyed children.

Everything was clouded and uncertain in his mind to the point where he wasn’t sure if he was able to distinguish dream from reality.

One thing he was sure of, however, was that the suppression cuffs were back on his wrists. He also knew he was being guided out of Warehouse 13. He was pulled left and right, shoved forward and back by men and women in monochrome uniforms. Eventually, he was put in front of a woman with golden hair and molten eyes.

At the sight of her, his heart started racing. When she took hold of his chin and turned his face to the right, he felt a wave of disgust and disappointment. His sentiment was reflected in her eyes.

“You’re still such a fool…” the woman murmured.

She eventually departed from his side, and he was once again shoved forward.

Men and women in suits crowded the area. He searched the crowd for a face that itched at his mind, but he could not find her among them.

People conversed around him. Words he wasn’t quite able to understand. Everything sounded garbled like it was underwater—

—underwater. He had been underwater once before. Diving into the depths and swimming among schools of fish on a vibrant coral reef. He had captured a jellyfish once to study its dietary habits and had released it back after he had made his notes.

The beaches were blue back then. A cerulean blue. A friend had tried to paint the seascape once, but had never been able to capture that exact color. 

Those were peaceful times. Not a worry in the world. 

“—Campana crime organization investigation—”

“—separate investigations of the Romanos and the Foxmans—”

“—ELPIS ties.”

“—explosive conductor locations—”

“—my brother! Get the hell out of the way!”

“Mr. Foxman, sir, I understand your feelings, but we can’t allow you to—”

“Alright, alright.” A yawn. “Third chairwoman of the Assignment Department here. Let them through.”

“But—”

“They’re involved with my case. And since it’s my case and I’m a chair and you’re not, I’m the authority here.”

Suddenly Allen and Carl were in front of him. At their side stood the yawning peacekeeper Gabrielle Law.

“So what’s gonna happen to him?” Carl asked. “They ain’t gonna lock him in Ophiuchus forever, are they? I mean, it ain’t his fault.”

“That’s up to the ELPIS Investigations Department,” Gabrielle replied. “But since you helped me out, I’ll try to see if I can work something out. After they finish questioning Omicron and get this whole city out of the danger zone, I mean.”

“Try or will?” Allen replied thickly.

“Try,” Gabrielle stated. “I’m not going to make empty promises. But… the silver lining in all of this is that the Campana case is near a case-closed. I was able to get the evidence.”

“The Campanas?” Carl arched a brow. “Yeah, it’s good that they’re bein’ buried under. But what’s the point if we’re buried under with them?”

“That’s what immunity is for,” Allen interjected. “That was part of the price for our involvement—”

“The case we’ve been working together on?”

The three turned to stare at him after exchanging looks.

“Yeah, Francis,” Carl said, “we got Gabrielle on Maria’s ship so she could find out what the Campanas product was. Remember?”

Their product?”

“It’s unpleasant stuff,” Carl said. “Even for me.”

Gabrielle’s brows rose. “You three know already?”

Carl nodded at Gabrielle. “Got the whole thing dumped on us by one of our pals not too long ago. Though… that Omicron didn’t want Theta to know about it for some reason. Some ELPIS drama thing I don’t understand.”

Why would Omicron hide it?

“What was their product…?” he asked.

No. He didn’t want to know.

But he had to know.

Carl arched a brow at him. “…Specialist children. That’s the Campana’s product.”

The world inverted.

“What are you talking about?”

Gabrielle frowned. “Francis—”

“Why are you standing here talking to me when you know that children are being sold like furniture?”

Gabrielle’s frown deepened slightly, and she lifted a hand. “I’m going to submit my report to the Serpens Establishment, and we’ll take it from there. I’m not sure how much time it’ll take with everything going on, but—”

“I don’t understand.” He stared at her. “‘Time’? How long will they have to wai—”

A cacophony of high-pitched squeals suddenly rang through the air, and out from the darkness behind the warehouses stampeded a herd of—children. Gowned in white. They wove their way through the startled peacekeepers before disappearing into the dark and leaving their shrieks turned laughter ringing in the air. Gone as fast as they came. It was surreal.

“What the hell…?”

The peacekeepers looked around flabbergasted.

“Looks like Maria’s got to work while I’ve been here…” Gabrielle muttered beside him. “What a mess.”

He stared at her, still numb, before his attention was drawn away by two lingering children who approached him. A boy and a girl.

“Theta, there you are!” the girl exclaimed, tugging the boy forward. “This is Emil! He and a couple of others wanted to meet you! It’s a lot to explain but he was with the Campanas before…” She trailed off as she registered his cuffed hands.

It was one of the girls that he had taken in earlier. Lia. Yes, that was her name. She was a pick pocketer who had been abandoned by her Taurusian parents. She had been near death’s door when he had taken her in and had been one of the ones who clung to his side the most. He had told her to leave the city, and yet here she was…

The girl worriedly slipped something into his hands—something he recognized immediately. His glove conductor.

The boy beside the girl peered at him curiously, innocently. The boy was dressed in a pure white nightgown. From beneath that whiteness, the bruises that purpled the boy’s neck were especially prominent.

A Specialist child owned by the Campanas…? So all of those children that had just run past had also been…? No…So many of them? This entire time?

The boy’s bruises reminded him of the bruises that had littered his own body when his father would come home mad and drunk. Allen would have to save him every single time, and—

“You idiot, don’t—” came Gabrielle’s shout that drew him out of his daze.

He looked up just in time to see an Ophiuchian agent swing a blade of glowing red vitae at him. He brought up his hands to defend himself as it seared downwards. Although he felt only faint pain as the weapon scraped against his arm, there was a vibrant gush of red as a jagged cut opened along the area. Absentmindedly he watched the peacekeeper who had attacked him wipe his blood from her face as she was restrained by Carl and Gabrielle. And then—almost out of habit—he slipped on the conductor and wiped the blood off of his arm with it.

The atmosphere changed instantaneously. The surrounding peacekeepers went for their conductors as the boy and the girl screeched and were pulled away. It was a heart-wrenching sound. But it was good that they were running away, he thought. Because in that moment, as the last pieces of the suppression cuffs fell away from his wrists, he reached a singularity. A sense of clarity.

“Francis!” came a cry of alarm. It was Cadence, standing only half a meter away from him behind a wall of peacekeepers. Her eyes were wide, her hands raised. “Don’t freak out on me.”

She was trying to deceive him again.

But the truth was this:

He had taken in these children because they had suffered at the hands of conductors. No. They had suffered at the hands of people using those conductors. But what about these ones? If he had missed them, then how many others…? In the end, had all of his efforts been—

A Projector peacekeeper fired a conducting rifle, sending a persimmon-colored vitae-ray hurtling at him.

The ray didn’t reach, of course.

His blood droplets were still hanging in the air from that initial attack, after all. And those droplets had been converted into small, almost imperceptible gates as soon as he had wiped the blood from his arm onto his conducting glove. He usually never used these small gates because they were so dangerous to manipulate. But.

The persimmon ray disappeared into the gate, splintering within the spatial distortion as it sheared through the tiny opening. Clenching his fist, he released the ray back through the other tiny gates floating in the air. The ray fragmented as it was forced out through them, and the splinters rained outwards, bulleting the peacekeepers who stood closest to him.

He clenched his fist again, and his blood on the peacekeeper who had initially attacked him morphed into a gate that cracked open and tore the peacekeeper in two. There was another rain of red, and his gate spread even further onto those who had been surrounding that peacekeeper.

A flurry of vitae rays came at him paired with a green roll of vitae flame. They all entered his small gates, splintered within them, and fragmented as he sent them back out with a flick of his wrist. Several of the splinters came back and struck his arms and legs, but the pain was nothing. All it did was enable him to produce more gates.

“Stop firing, dammit!” Gabrielle snapped.

Her voice resounded from behind a stack of crates alongside Warehouse 13. She had taken cover, it seemed.

He clenched his hand again, stepping back into a pool of blood that had formed on the ground from his injury. He sank down into its depths as it glowed pale tangerine and reappeared on top of Warehouse 12 from a gate he had placed there weeks ago.

He stared down at them all from his new height in fury.

“I’ve spent all of my lives trying to make it so that children who’ve been used and abandoned could have at least some chance at a hopeful future. All this time I’ve spent reading through all of the records, I’ve thought—even though I knew it wasn’t enough—that we’d made at least a little bit of a difference.”

The winds howled around him as he tore open all of his gates with a snap of his wrist.

“But how were things when I came to this era?!” He gripped his abdomen as it throbbed with phantom pain, and his voice cracked. “Children continue to suffer! Exploited for your petty wars, for your pocket change!”

Memories clashed together in a cacophony in his mind. Memories of extending out a hand to pat the head of a small child huddling at the very corner of an alleyway. Memories of spending hours and hours pouring through articles detailing the casualties of the Reservoir War. The displaced, the murdered, the orphans, the uncounted. Memories of himself cowering beneath the rage of his father. Memories of taking to the streets to pickpocket alongside Cadence and Nico on an empty stomach as adults turned a blind eye.

And all of these memories clashed with—

—memories of himself extending a hand out to Matilda as he hired her to deliver conductor parts. Memories of signing off on a lease to convert buildings street orphans had used as home into warehouses to temporarily store shipped conductors. Memories of himself chuckling alongside one of his hired men who had served as a child soldier in the war. Watching as that man gleefully beat an adolescent within an inch of her life because she had stolen from them. Memories of him watching Matilda coercing her friends and the younger street children to follow on behind her in her shipping business.

“They suffer and suffer and grow up only to cause more children to suffer!”

He panted heavily, heaved.

They had been right. They had been right from the very beginning. A senseless cycle.

“And you…” Theta glowered down at all the cowering peacekeepers, at all the leaders of the criminal organizations. “You all just stand by and watch, acting like it can’t be helped, turning your eyes away because it’s easier!” He staggered forward, gritting his teeth. “You could’ve helped them! Saved them!”

They all stared at him silently, wordlessly, looking at him as if he was some immovable object, as if he was the obstacle they needed to overcome instead of their own negligence and carelessness.

Theta couldn’t help but chuckle at the sight.

What was even the point? Even if they helped the children now, the children had already suffered so much. And those children would simply transfer their suffering onto other children. Once it began, there was no stopping it. Over and over. In an endless cycle.

He couldn’t take the failure any longer.

They really had been right.

He flicked his injured hand outwards, and an arc of red rained down on all those below. “There really is no hope.”

“What are you doing!?”

He turned to find Omicron running along the rooftop towards him. She stopped short just in front of him, raising a hand to his cheek. Her hand was gloved again with a conductor. She must have taken one off of one of the peacekeepers. Always so prepared, so reliable, so heroic. But a liar.

“I’m going to send the signal for all of the others to place the rest of the conducting grenades and the explosive conductors,” he replied calmly. “All they need to do is drop them into one of my gates, and I’ll direct them to where they need to go myself. Five-hundred locations. Even Leona won’t be able to get them all. Not when she’s trying so desperately to protect her reservoirs and those generator conductors. Beneath the Monadic Temple, on the east, on the west. But don’t worry. I’ll drop the explosive conductors in those places myself at the final moment. So in an hour and a half, this city will—”

“W-What about the children…?” Omicron interjected.

He’d never seen Omicron like this before. Her eyes were wide, her hand shaking as it caressed his cheek. There was fear in her. Fear of loss and death. Foolish.

“They will return to the cycle.”

Omicron pulled her hand away. “You don’t mean that… You—”

“Are you going to tell another lie of omission to convince me otherwise?” he asked. “Like how you hid your resistor and how you hid the Specialist children…?”

“I was going to get them out of the city before…” Omicron whispered. “So you wouldn’t have to see… so they could be free and leave. I’m sorry that I hid it from you, but what you’re doing now is—”

“Just because they can’t be seen doesn’t mean they haven’t suffered. Just because you take them out of their suffering doesn’t mean that you’ve saved them.” He found himself chuckling. “If you say you’re going to do something, you have to follow through. No matter what.” He shook his head slightly. “It’s been a bad hand since the very beginning…”

Omicron’s eyes widened. “Franc—”

He hovered a hand over her cheek, not quite touching. “Despite everything, you’re still my precious magpie. So please fly away for me.” He pulled his hand back, snapping his fingers.

A rain of brick and metal torrented out from his gates that hung in the air. Shouts resounded as all of stone and metal came crashing down below in front of the warehouse in a cacophony. A musical sound.

And with that, Theta stepped back into the portal, tuning his ears to the lovely sound the city made as it neared its end.


“You have to acknowledge it, Omicron. Theta was incorrectly initiated into a dangerous person. Regardless of the progress that person adds, we have to consider the fact that Theta may become as despicable as everyone else in this city.”

Vincente Giustizia Tau, Police Comissario of Gemini Leader of ELPIS

11.5: Jericho’s (Dicotomico) Hatred

Re-cap:

As the plan’s final knots are tied, Jericho finds himself in Warehouse 13 alongside Cadence and one captured Theta/Francis. They await not only the arrival of the crime organization executives, but also Omicron’s arrival to seal the deal and save the city. As the strings of their plan unravel, Jericho faces the one who brought him into ELPIS to begin with.

Twin Cities, Gemini

Talib had many questions for Jericho when he arrived at Warehouse 13. He procured a bullet-pointed list out from his journal and promptly read the list out word-for-word:

“Why did Jericho want me to track Colonel Fritz von Spiel? Why is Jericho working alongside an associate of the Romano Family? Why is Jericho not on guard duty? Why did Jericho ask me to bring along a chair and rope? Is the Organization involved? Why—”

As soon as Talib laid eyes on Francis Foxman’s tattooed face, however, he fell silent.

Cadence propped up the chair Talib had brought, and Francis collapsed onto it with a polite word of gratitude. Jericho assisted her in binding the man to the seat with the rope.

“Sorry, Francis,” Cadence murmured, “we can’t be too careful.”

Francis offered a thin smile.

“I will explain when the others come,” Jericho said to Talib as he fastened the last knot. “No repetition.”

“Okay, partner…” Talib eyed the suppression cuffs around Francis’s wrists.

Now, they waited.

No one within the warehouse had a watch to count the time that ticked by, but that was not an issue. Werner would check his pocket watch every so often as he wove through the city streets and would increase synchronization just enough to provide an update. Every time Werner did this, Jericho would consult Talib about the location of Colonel Fritz von Spiel and would relay that information to Werner.

Cadence spent the time pacing the full length of the warehouse, while Talib busied himself folding origami with glazed eyes. Jericho remained standing in place, gripping his suitcase tightly and staring at Francis. Correction: staring at the tattoo on the right side of Francis’s face.

“Mind if I ask you what your story is, Mr. Jericho?” Francis asked suddenly.

“I want to destroy ELPIS,” Jericho answered without pause.

Francis blinked. “Well, that’s pretty straightforward.”

“Long story,” Cadence replied before meeting Jericho’s eyes. That ain’t the best conversation starter, detective.

I haven’t been practicing.

‘Practicing’…? Well, how about I practice with ya and show ya how ta do it so ya don’t have ta go practicin’ all the time?

You will… be my teacher?

“Are you two an item, Cadence?” Francis looked between them. “Didn’t think you’d be the type to go for someone like that.”

Saints. It’s so easy ta slip into that.

Cadence approached Jericho and threw an arm around his shoulder. “I mean, they do say that opposites attract, ‘ey?”

Jericho cocked his head.

“Partner, I know you said you’d explain everything later,” Talib drew as he finished folding a paper frog, “but this is quite… perplexing.”

Francis chuckled. “So we’re both being strung along then, Mr. Al-Jarrah?”

Talib frowned at Francis’s address.

Francis averted his gaze. “I understand your reservations—seeing that I’m not only the head of a crime organization but also a leader of a terrorist organization now. Two things you’re sworn as a peacekeeper to be against.”

Talib ran his fingers along the brim of his hat. “Well, you put it eloquently into words…”

Jericho felt something twist in Cadence’s gut. When he looked over to her, however, she was wearing a casual smile.

The Romanos arrived at the warehouse shortly after. First came Cavallo, alone as requested. And then came Cavallo’s special guest, bound with rope and guarded by two tall, suited men. As soon as the tied-up Caporegime Donato registered Cadence and Francis, he paled. His jailers and Cavallo also stiffened at the sight of Francis. No. At the sight of the tattoo on Francis’s face.

Only a second after came Ambrose Campana, accompanied by two guards. Not as requested. Another request Ambrose did not fulfill: bringing along Enzo. When Ambrose’s gaze passed over Francis’s face, he took a slight step backwards.

“What in saint’s name…”

“I’m aware that you’re young, Ambrose,” Cavallo drew, “but I was hoping you would still be attentive to Cadence’s request.”

Ambrose turned to Cavallo and then smiled as if amused. “Ah, yes, Cavallo, I’m very aware of our age difference as well.”

There was a tense stretch of silence as the two members of the crime organizations regarded each other, but Cadence swiftly stepped in between them, smiling.

“Hey now,” she sang, “we all reached an agreement before comin’ here right.” She gestured to Ambrose. “But like Cavallo said, I can see not everyone kept ta the deal.”

“I was merely being cautious, Cadence,” Ambrose replied. “I expected Cavallo to do the same, but I see now that he’s more honorable than what I originally took him for.” He placed a hand over his heart. “I apologize for my lack of tact.”

“And Enzo?” Cadence pressed.

Ambrose frowned. “His apartment was empty when we stopped by. I think that’s pretty self-explanatory—”

“Okay… what’s going on here?” came a voice from the doorway.

Gabrielle stood at the threshold there, panting. Her Ophiuchian band glowed on her arm.

“Talib? Jericho…?” She sighed and rubbed her hand down her face. “How much have I missed—” Her eyes widened as she registered Francis’s face. “Okay, brief me.”

***

With all parties present, Jericho proceeded with a prompt, general synopsis of what he and the other five had discovered about ELPIS’s origins, ELPIS’s goal of sinking the city and of targeting the reservoirs through Theta’s ability and proto-conductors, and how ELPIS was manipulating the Families from behind the scenes. Cadence interjected to describe Donato and Enzo’s role in the events and filled in the holes regarding how she and Jericho had stumbled across this information. She omitted any mention of True Conductors and refrained from mentioning their possession of two of Theta’s proto-conductors.

“Anyway, we met at a bar,” Cadence finished, thumbing herself and then Jericho. “Got drunk. Talked a little. Found out we got a lotta shared problems.”

Probably didn’t even need to pull wool over their eyes on that part, Cadence thought to him after they concluded their explanation. I mean, look at ‘em.

All of them—from the peacekeepers to the Family executives to the Family’s bodyguards—were quiet, stiff, pale as they digested the information.

“Do you have any idea when or where—other than the reservoirs—they’re going to set off the explosive conductors?” Gabrielle asked quietly.

Jericho shook his head once. “We are going to ask Omicron when she arrives.” He glanced at Francis. “Or Theta.”

He felt Cadence tense.

Gabrielle eyed Francis. “I’d like to say that I’d doubt they’d set it off when they’re still in the vicinity or that they don’t even have the firepower to, but…” Her eyes narrowed. “… with the way they operate, and Theta’s ability too…” She bit her thumb. “I hate to say it, but we really are going to have to rely on this Omicron to pull through.”

“Wait, so Izsak…” Talib drew dazedly. He turned to meet Gabrielle’s gaze. “Is he like Mr. Foxman here or…?”

Jericho opened his mouth to respond, but—

Not a good idea ta get emotions all riled up now. Things are tense as it is.

— “I’m unsure,” he said.

“They’re practically immortal… Right?” one of Ambrose’s guards muttered. “Is that even possible?”

“That’s not important.” Cavallo held up his hand before turning to Cadence. “Are you sure your plan will follow through, Cadence?” He folded his hands over his stomach. “Inviting us here when this city could be sunk into the Pollux Bay at any moment is quite callous.”

Cadence nodded half-heartedly in agreement.

Cavallo continued, calmly, “And if you do manage to complete this plan of yours, Cadence, what are you expecting to happen to Francis here? If what you’re saying is true, then he’s not only stolen from us but he’s also murdered several of our executives and is now planning to attack our territories.”

Francis didn’t acknowledge the mention of his name and continued to stare ahead at nothing with a strained expression.

“He attacked my father,” Ambrose interjected. “And he kidnapped and tortured Fortuna. Obviously, he needs to be held accountable.” Ambrose gestured to the ceiling. “The damages to the city. The current danger to our territories.” He shook his head and addressed Cavallo: “We shouldn’t even be waiting here. It may sound crude, but the best thing for us right now is to get Francis to talk no matter what means we’ll have to use—”

“That was Theta, not Francis,” Cadence argued. “And Theta happened because of Enzo and Donato. I get where you’re comin’ from, but before ya start pointin’ fingers, shouldn’t ya take a look at the ones who started all of this ta begin with? Plus, ya really think ya can make that guy talk? You’re charmin’, Ambrose, but even I can’t—”

Gabrielle finally stepped between them all with a yawn. “Look, you don’t decide what’s going to happen to him. Ophiuchus does.” Her gaze drifted over to Ambrose, and she smirked lightly. She nodded at Jericho and Talib. “And, you two, is there a reason why you didn’t turn Francis into Leona? You mentioned that she’s here.”

Jericho exchanged a look with Cadence and then with Talib.

Grunting noncommittal at the lack of response, Gabrielle leaned in towards Francis and inspected the tattoo on his face. “Anyway, Mr. Foxman, mind if I get a conversation in with your worse half?”

“That was parta the plan…” Cadence murmured, rubbing the back of her neck. She glanced at Francis with a frown. “But are ya up for it, Francis?”

“Whatever helps,” Francis replied after a beat.

Gabrielle nodded to Jericho, prompting him to move forward and undo the suppression cuffs over Francis’s wrists. The man grunted in turn and slumped immediately. A stretch of silence followed.

Cavallo and Ambrose puffed their v-cigarettes as they waited. Donato squirmed in his bindings. Talib and Gabrielle exchanged looks. Cadence bounced on the balls of her feet. Jericho drilled holes into the back of Francis’s skull.

Finally, the man at the center of their attention lifted his head, scanned his surroundings, scanned the gathered group, and tried his bindings.

Jericho stiffened. Ambrose and Cavallo stopped puffing. Donato froze. Talib and Gabrielle exchanged looks again.

“I see…” A sigh, amused. “It’s only natural that people of the same constitution would come together.”

“You’d be Theta, right?” Gabrielle pressed, walking forward and inspecting the man. “You’ve caused a lot of trouble, you know that?” She sighed. “I’m out of office for a little over a month and I come here to learn that you’ve gone and kidnapped one of my associates. And now what—”

“You’re referring to the blonde peacekeeper who wears glasses, I’m assuming,” Theta replied. “She is quite stubborn.”

“Do you mind telling me where you’re keeping her?” Gabrielle asked casually.

“You know my answer to that.”

“What about the others you’re holding captive?” Cavallo interjected. “Would it be too much to ask what their condition is, Mr. Theta?”

Theta turned his eyes onto Cavallo, and something akin to mirth enveloped his features. He answered in a quiet voice, “Before Cadence Morello captured me, the ones who we had not made an example of yet were Allen Foxman, Carl Foxman, Fortuna Romano, Agape Rosario, Bendetto, and a man whose name I believe is Maximallian. But rest assured. Even though I am not there, their time will come.” He turned back to Gabrielle. “You needn’t worry about your fellow peacekeeper. She is not a component of this. Her behavior aside, she is a very nice conversationalist—”

A pressure lifted itself off of Jericho’s chest.

“Are you the one who attacked my father?” Ambrose interjected, pressing forward. “The one who took Fortuna?”

The hell. We literally just told him that.

Theta stared at him. “Who are you?”

Ambrose blanched.

Something tickled the inside of Jericho’s chest. When Jericho turned to Cadence, he found that although she was frowning, there was a light in her eyes. She was amused, though Jericho didn’t know why.

“I’m Ambrose Campana,” Ambrose finally replied.

“Oh, I see.” Theta looked him up and down. “You’re his son. How dutiful… It wasn’t me who attacked your father, but an associate of mine,” Theta returned. “However, I will take responsibility for—”

Jericho felt a tug from Werner’s end, so he went over to Talib and asked the Manipulator to switch over his medium from Von Spiel to Omicron. Jericho kept his eyes glued onto the unfolding conversation all the while.

“—and Wtorek Izsak,” Gabrielle pressed. “This whole initiation thing—is he like you or is he…?”

“Would my answer change anything?” Theta inquired. After studying Gabrielle for a moment, however, he amended, “I’m unsure if he was properly initiated. I wasn’t the one who did it, and I didn’t ask.”

Gabrielle’s expression didn’t crack, and she pulled back in silent thought.

Theta regarded her for a moment before he registered the silent Donato standing just behind her. He chuckled. “I see you’ve brought the one who started this all here. It’s ironic. You people have caused your own downfall.”

Donato stiffened.

“The polite thing to do would be to thank you, Donato,” Theta continued, “but you’ve taken something from us.” The lightness in his tone fell flat. “Where are our resistors?”

Jericho detached himself from Talib’s side and stepped before Theta, blocking the man’s view of Donato.

“We’re asking the questions,” Jericho stated. “You don’t deserve to ask.”

“That’s quite a fire you’ve got in your eyes…” Theta murmured. His gaze flicked down to the suitcase in Jericho’s hand. “Oh. I see. You must be the suitcase peacekeeper that’s been causing us a lot of trouble—”

“How do you use your proto-conductor?” Jericho pressed. No. That wasn’t the question he wanted to ask.

Theta remained silent.

Jericho could feel Gabrielle’s gaze prick his skin, and so he pulled away to allow Gabrielle to push forward again.

The woman studied him for a moment before addressing Theta once more: “Mind telling me when you’re planning to detonate the conducting grenades at the vitae reservoirs? And around the city? Where around the city?”

“You don’t have trust in your fellow peacekeepers to watch over the energy source you’re so dependent on?” Theta returned.

“Not really,” Gabrielle admitted. “Especially when you’ve got your handy Specialist conducting paired with those proto-conductors filled with your vitae—”

“What is the point?” Jericho interjected again, causing Gabrielle to glance at him with an unreadable frown. This was once again not the question Jericho wanted to put forward.

“Why are you asking me that question when the color of your vitae is the same as mine?” Theta murmured. “If you chose to bleach your vitae, then you should know and understand our feelings. Towards conductors and towards those who use them. It’s unnatural. It upsets the cycle. Those things are only used to take lives and sow the seeds of destruction. If you look all the way to the end, by eradicating those things and the people who use them and fight over them, you will save many more lives.”

“Interesting soliloquy…” Gabrielle noted, clearly unaffected by his words.

But Jericho was. He pressed, “You don’t think you’re evil?”—but this was not the question he had wanted to ask either.

“Evil?” Theta chuckled. Musically, familiarly. “I’m sorry for laughing, but isn’t that kind of a childish concept, Mr. Jericho? You’re the one who offed Omega, aren’t you? When you were about to kill her, how did she look at you? Did she look like she was about to be put down by some noble knight? Did she grovel on the floor and beg for forgiveness? No, I’m sure she was very aware of where she stood and where you stood.”

The memory of Omega’s eyes on that night flashed through Jericho’s mind. They had been wide and full of hatred.

“Look at the people surrounding you, peacekeeper. People who you peacekeepers are supposed to put behind bars. People who sell modified conductors outside of your regulations, who turn profit from the wars they fuel.”

Gabrielle and Talib frowned, exchanging looks before studying Ambrose and Cavallo. Ambrose froze under their gazes while Cavallo took a drag of his v-cig.

Theta shifted in his chair, examining Jericho pensively—almost in disappointment. “They are right under your view, but you avert your eyes to their crimes. What is worse? Acting or staying in place?” He met Jericho’s eyes. “Now that I look at you, suitcase peacekeeper, I see you’re quite pitiable. You made a choice, and you can’t accept responsibility for it. Instead, you seek to blame others, to find a purpose and reason. I look at you, and I can already tell. Although you’ve left ELPIS, you’re still after us—still with us—because you’re unable to find anything beyond us. Nothing afterwards. Because you know we’re right.” He paused. “I’m sure you’ve already realized that even without dying, you’re already close to becoming nothingness.”

Jericho cracked his fist against Theta’s jaw, nearly sending the man to the ground. Before he could take another swing, however, he was pulled back by both Talib and Cadence. Theta hadn’t even flinched.

“You need to keep a chain on your Ophiuchian friend, Cadence,” Cavallo said. “We can’t afford losing our bargaining chip.”

Another chuckle escaped Theta’s lips. This time it sounded flat. “Oh, I see. You all seem to be under the impression that my life has value and weight. Perhaps you think you can get one of my associates to trade those executives or the locations of the detonation points in this city for me.” Theta cast a somber look to the side. “You are quite mistaken. I know as much as the others do that our individual existences are nothing compared to our purpose. If you’ve contacted any of them, all you have done is signal that we need to move forward. Even the person who values me the most knows this. They won’t come for me.”

Jericho curled his fists, but Gabrielle extended an arm to hold him back.

“You can kill me here if you’d like,” Theta continued calmly. “Perhaps I will return to my resistor, or perhaps I won’t. It doesn’t matter. Someone else will take my place. I’ve given them enough of my proto-conductors to operate without me. All you are doing is failing to even prolong the inevitable.”

The guards Cavallo and Ambrose brought along tensed as Theta seemed to loom over the crime executives despite remaining unmoving.

Theta continued, “You will take responsibility for—”

“Shut up about the damn cycle and takin’ responsibility!” Cadence snapped as she untangled herself from Jericho. She gestured back to him wildly. “How can ya even talk like that when ya forced him into this!”

“The peacekeeper made his choice,” Theta responded. “You’re responsible for your own actions.”

“Look, I completely get all your talk about responsibility,” Cadence drew. “But how can a dumb kid take responsibility for bein’ coerced into somethin’ he didn’t even understand?”

Jericho stared at Cadence in surprise.

Was she… defending him?

Theta frowned. “What are you talking about?”

Cadence stared back. “What—”

And then Jericho felt something clicked in Cadence’s head.

… He doesn’t know. 

Cadence stared at Jericho.

Omicron was tryin’ ta hide the Specialist kids from Theta. And if she was doin’ that, she’s probably hidin’ the fact that some of the kids Theta’s taken in got the whole recruitment spiel. Maybe she’s thrown away the records or whatever they bookkeep with. Because Theta probably wouldn’t be too happy if he found out about that and Omicron—

Jericho stared at Cadence, ears ringing.

I ain’t defendin’ Theta by no means. I mean, he’s blowin’ up half the city. And I’m not sure if it even means anything. But maybe, we could use that against him.

Jericho’s head buzzed.

“You’re wrong about that, ya know,” Cadence addressed Theta again, thumbing her chest. “I don’t mean ta sound cheesy, but I know from experience. Love makes ya stupid. And right now, I bet ya my life that Omicron is about ta walk right through those—”

As if on cue, the doors to the warehouse swung open. Cavallo’s and Ambrose’s guards went for the guns on their hips, while Gabrielle flexed her gloves. Jericho himself tightened his grip on his suitcase, while Cadence skirted back behind him.

Theta stared wide-eyed at the woman standing at the threshold. “Why?”

Omicron held her bare, ungloved hands in the air as she stepped into the warehouse. “A deal is a deal.”

Behind her were a group of men and women. Four men. Two women. Status: tentative, confused, hesitant as they entered behind her.

Ambrose raised his hand. His bodyguards hesitated, exchanging looks.

“She doesn’t have a conductor,” Ambrose said through gritted teeth. “Hurry up.”

His guards startled before slowly making their way to Omicron. Upon reaching her, they patted her down cautiously before pulling her arms tightly behind her back.

“Alice!” Talib detached himself from the gathered circle and ran over to the side of one of the women who had come in behind Omicron.

The woman’s red square glasses were undeniably recognizable, as were her piercing blue eyes. As soon as those eyes locked onto Jericho’s, he momentarily forgot about Theta sitting beside him and Omicron standing in front of him. A lightness filtered into his mind as the woman approached him. She came to a stop a quarter of a meter away while inspecting him.

“You are safe,” Jericho said. He searched his mind for the correct words. “I am… glad.”

“You look like you need more sleep, Jericho,” Alice returned. “Have you been writing in your journal?”

“No.”

Alice clicked her tongue and shook her head. “You need to keep up with these things even when I’m gone.”

“Okay, I will.”

They held each other’s gaze for another moment before Alice headed back towards Gabrielle. Talib who had followed behind Alice remained planted at Jericho’s side.

That’s it…?

Jericho wasn’t sure whose thought that was. Was that not the customary greeting for a reunion? He looked to Alice for confirmation, but it seemed she was preoccupied.

Once at Gabrielle’s side, Alice extended a hand. Gabrielle accepted the gesture with a slight smirk before they conversed with one another quietly. Gabrielle’s face paled as their conversation continued, and she shook her head before looking to and through Theta and then to and through Omicron.

Jericho glanced over at Cadence to find her surrounded by Allen Foxman, Carl Foxman, Fortuna, and Maximallian. Fortuna and Allen soon detached themselves from that circle, however, and moved over to speak with Ambrose, Agape, Bendetto, and Cavallo who were speaking within their own circle. Fortuna, Allen, and Carl kept throwing glances back at Theta. But Cadence didn’t pay the behavior any mind. Although her shoulders were loose and her arms widespread, Jericho could feel the relief, the joy, leaking through their connection. There was a slight swelling in Jericho’s chest at this feeling, prompting him to consider the fact that he was ‘happy’ for her, but—

Jericho’s gaze flicked over to Omicron. Their eyes met. Jericho tightened his grip on the handle of his suitcase.

“I would like to speak to Theta,” Omicron said, turning away from Jericho and towards Ambrose.

“You’re in no position to be making demands!” Ambrose snapped, voice thin.

“Okay, cool it.” Gabrielle sighed, pacing over to them. “What’s going on here?” She seemed dazed. “What’s with the shouting?” She also seemed angry, irritated, unhappy. Sad.

“I just want to talk with Theta,” Omicron reiterated, shrugging herself out of the guards’ hold with ease.

Gabrielle ogled her. “You want to talk now?”

Gabrielle placed a hand on Omicron’s chest. For a moment, magenta sparks danced beneath the peacekeeper’s gloved fingertips. Gabrielle crumpled Omicron’s blouse in her hand—

“Please,” Omicron pressed. “I’ll tell you everything you want to know after. And…” She paused as if reading Gabrielle’s mind. “It wasn’t me. When I came across him, Wtorek was already—”

—and then Gabrielle released her.

“I don’t believe you,” Gabrielle muttered. “He’s not…” She trailed off, pulling away and motioning Omicron forward. “You have two minutes, and then you’re telling me exactly what happened on that day.”

Alice musta told Gabe what happened ta Izsak…

Jericho thought of the deformed stuffed animal still resting on the desk at his bedside in his condo. An uncomfortable tightness squeezed his chest.

Surprised that Gabe didn’t knock Omicron in. Guess the prince doesn’t give her enough credit. Or maybe she’s in denial—

That was why ELPIS was truly evil. They allowed false hopes like this to exist. An illusion.

Omicron sank down to her knees in front of Theta and placed her hands in his lap.

“What are you thinking?” Theta asked, tone flat.

In response, Omicron lifted the chain around her neck—the same one that hosted the resistor Jericho had shattered weeks ago—and revealed its bareness to Theta.

Theta’s eyes widened. “When…?”

“When I tried getting into Ophiuchus,” Omicron replied. She glanced at Jericho briefly. “I’ve been meaning to tell you—no, that’s a lie. I didn’t want you to know. Like how I didn’t want you to know the other things that happen in this place.” She chuckled half-heartedly. “It looks I’m doomed to make poor and stupid decisions as Charite.”

“We can put your vitae into my resistor…” Theta muttered. “It will take some time and research, but—”

Hypocrite.

“It won’t be the same,” Omicron murmured. “I’ve been thinking about things that way for a while now, but my resistor breaking forced me to really face it.” She rested her head on top of Theta’s lap. “This is the only time this me and this you will meet each other.”

“You’re not making any sense. You’re putting our work at ri—”

“Aren’t you tired, darling? It’s like we’re all going through the same motions over and over again. Reservoir after reservoir, generator conductor after generator conductor, True Conductor after True Conductor. They fall and rise and fall and rise, over and over again. Reading the records has become such a chore now because I’m just reading the same thing in a different setting.”

“You’re only saying that because you weren’t initiated properly,” Theta stated, frowning. “Don’t be foolish. That is still progress. You’re beginning to sound like the—”

“Could you call me by my name one last time?”

“Omicron—”

“No, not those ridiculous code names we chose from the alphabet.” Omicron shook her head. “My real name.”

“Omicron, don’t do this.”

Omicron sighed and rose to her feet, turning towards Gabrielle and Alice. “We’ve been planning to deploy the conductor grenades and explosive conductors we’ve stolen from the Romano Family at certain areas in the city. Half of them have been placed already, and we’re currently in the process of placing the rest. They’re rigged to blow in two hours.”

Two hours.

Jericho tensed and saw Talib and Gabrielle do the same. The former captives of ELPIS didn’t appear startled in the least bit. Intuition: they were informed of this truncated timeline during their capture.

Saints. Two hours? Cadence was pale. Jericho could feel her scrambling for the others through their connection. I thought we’d have longer than that. I—

“You’re planning on leveling the entire city in two hours?” Gabrielle shook her head in disbelief. “Are you insane? Do you know how many people live here?”

“Our plan was to evacuate the children and those we deemed innocent,” Omicron replied, “before that happened.”

Gabrielle stared. “In that time frame? Just what gives you the right to say who’s innocent and guilty?”

“I admit it was a recent… rash idea,” Omicron replied, “but I’ll tell you the locations we’ve chosen as long as Theta is given some form of immunity or at least some protection.”

Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed. “That isn’t my call.”

Omicron sighed. “I figured as much.”

There was a stretch of silence.

Omicron gestured to Gabrielle’s side. “May I borrow those suppression cuffs?”

Gabrielle regarded Omicron for a moment before unlatching a pair from her belt and tossing it to the other woman.

“Don’t do this,” Theta stated.

Omicron reached over Theta, pulled both of his hands forward from beneath the rope, and pressed the suppression cuffs over his wrists. The man slumped immediately. She waited there patiently until Francis lifted and shook his head. He blinked in bewilderment, tensing when he registered her face.

“I’m sorry, Francis,” Omicron said, placing a hand on his cheek. “I was selfishly thinking this entire time that we might get to know one another. It’s pretty ridiculous, isn’t it? I’m sorry this happened.”

Francis stared at her stiffly.

It enraged Jericho. He couldn’t comprehend how they could show kindness to each other like this, but not to others outside of them. He wanted to shatter them both right then and there. But he knew he couldn’t because Omicron was needed to save the city and because Theta was Francis. And because Theta was…

It ain’t that black and white, detective. 

Wasn’t it?—

The door to the warehouse abruptly swung open. Jericho felt Cadence’s heart take flight in her chest.

“If anyone activates any of their conductors,” a familiar voice called out from the threshold of the doorway, “I will order them to open fire.”

Cadence, who was halfway to snapping her fingers, lowered her hand as she stared at the silhouette standing at the entrance. That ain’t part of the plan. How in saint’s name did she find us here?

Omicron took a step backwards, eyes widening. “Leona…”

Yes. It was Leona who stood there at the entry, her golden hair seeming to glow in the darkness. Behind her clustered a group of men and women in monochrome suits. The chairwoman stared past them all and locked eyes with Omicron, then Francis.

Omicron followed Leona’s gaze to the man before stiffening and making an attempt towards him. However, Leona’s peacekeepers were on Omicron in an instant. They tackled her to the ground, pulled her to her feet, dragged her out of the warehouse as she cried Theta’s name.

“Please take the civilians in for questioning as well,” Leona added

The peacekeepers obliged, surrounding Cadence and the other executives and herding them outside. Cadence threw a look back at Jericho before dipping her head and allowing herself to be guided out. Although she was gone from his sights, he could still feel her peering in.

Leona signaled for Jericho, Talib, Alice, and Gabrielle to come to her. Gabrielle obliged first, followed by Talib and Alice. Jericho was the last to join. He approached the gathered group just as Leona introduced herself to Gabrielle with an extended hand:

“First chairwoman of the ELPIS Investigation Department.”

Gabrielle accepted the gesture. “Third chair of the Assignment Department.”

Leona turned her eyes onto Alice and shook her hand. “And you would be the third chair of the Psychological Evaluations Department. The one who was captured by ELPIS. I’m glad to see that you’re well.”

“Thank you. I appreciate your words,” Alice replied.

“You’ve certainly got your hands full,” Gabrielle said after a beat. “The city’s timeline is a bit tight so maybe we should—”

“We will handle the issue,” Leona said, “since it falls under the ELPIS Department. Please don’t overconcern yourself. We’ll handle it.”

The atmosphere felt odd.

Ya mean ‘awkward’?

“I’m very curious how this all came about,” Leona continued. “Captives of ELPIS, two peacekeepers off-mission, and a chairwoman gathered together with crime organization executives and leaders of ELPIS. I’m aware that you four are very close associates, but this seems too planned to be a coincidence.”

“I’m actually pretty curious about how you found your way here too, Leona,” Gabrielle replied. “I’ll detail it in my report, but I was pointed here by some of the city residents. ‘Course, like I said… it seems like there’s a bigger issue here.”

Jericho stared at Gabrielle. Was she covering for him?

Please stop starin’. It looks suspicious.

Jericho looked forward.

“You’re speaking of the explosive conductors set around the city. As I’ve said, the ELPIS Department will handle it. While you were here, we’ve been working with an information broker within the city to handle this issue and working towards locating and dismantling them as we speak. The addition of Theta and Omicron will, of course, be helpful.”

Aint she bein’ too casual?

But Gabrielle and the others kept quiet.

“And to answer your question, I was also given a handoff by the broker,” Leona replied. “Can you imagine my surprise when I found you all here? Gabrielle, you were on a covert operation?”

“That I’m just about to wrap up,” Gabrielle confirmed.

“Well, I congratulate you on that,” Leona continued, “but given this current predicament, I need you to tell me exactly how much not only you but how much everyone else has learned here regarding ELPIS.”

“Are you asking me if I know about the individual details of the ELPIS members,” Gabrielle drew, “or about how they’re shoving themselves into pseudo-conductors and transferring themselves into people who’re practically living corpses?”

“I see. So you do know.”

“Sounds like the ELPIS Department is privy to it too.”

“I’m aware of ELPIS’s origins,” Leona replied. “The ELPIS Department has been aware of it for quite some time. ELPIS is an old cult of extremists who have discovered the ability to extract their vitae and forcibly inject that—and therefore themselves, their ideology, their memories—into unfortunate victims.”

“So the ELPIS Department accepts the idea of the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis? I don’t mean to come across as rude, but wouldn’t that information be useful to other Ophiuchian Agents? Or Conductors in general? Especially our Research Department.” Gabrielle paused. “Unless the chairs of the department already know…”

“And what good would unveiling this information do if the hypothesis is real, Chairwoman Law?” Leona inquired, arms crossed. “All it will do is drive more people to ELPIS. Tell me, the very idea of being able to separate oneself—one’s vitae—from one’s body for pseudo-immortality is alluring, isn’t it? People will be drawn into ELPIS just for the chance at that if they believed it was possible.”

Gabrielle shrugged. “Rather than that, I was thinking more along the lines of the ethical implications of what that means.” She arched a brow. “You don’t sound like you have that much faith in humanity.”

Leona looked her over. “If you’re concerned about ethics, then consider the fact that human beings are quite unethical when they’re desperate. That’s why we exist in Signum. Souls, vitae, memory. Artificial immortality. There will be a cold war between all the countries here if they thought the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis were true, and our job is to keep the peace.”

So it was an illusion of peace.

Jericho’s heart skipped a beat.

What. No. ELPIS was the illusion.

“I have to say I’m impressed by the amount you know, Leona,” Gabrielle said after a beat. “Will I get that same information on my desk in a classified folder when I become first chairwoman of the Assignment Department, or is that something that the Chairman of Ophiuchus only provides to certain departments?”

Leona didn’t respond.

Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders. “Just checking job perks.”

Leona smirked and then addressed Jericho and Talib, “I did mention, Talib, Jericho, that if you were to divulge any of the information regarding the case files I’ve handed to you to any outsider, I would have a case put forward to have your licenses revoked—”

Talib stiffened beside Jericho.

“With all due respect, Chairwoman Leona,” Gabrielle interjected, “everything I learned just now, I learned from—”

“However,” Leona continued, holding up a hand, “since you were able to bring Theta and Omicron into our custody—a feat none of those under me were able to achieve—I will allow the digression to pass.”

“I—your understanding is greatly appreciated, Miss Leona,” Talib stammered. “I—”

“I would like to speak with Jericho alone,” Leona interjected.

Jericho blinked at her.

There was a stretch of silence.

Talib and Alice shared a look with each other before glancing at Jericho. Gabrielle, on the other hand, gave Jericho a nod before heading outside. After a moment, Talib and Alice followed suit.

Leona waited for them to pass the threshold of the doorway before she asked, “So?”

Jericho stared at her. “… So.”

She chuckled. Not with him. At him. “So have you found your peace here yet?”

Ya need ta get outta there, detective.

“ELPIS still exists.”

Leona chuckled again. “That may be so.” She extended her hand.

Jericho glanced at it and shook it. When he retracted his hand, however, she still held hers out, palms up.

“You have Theta’s conductor, don’t you?” Leona pressed. “That’s important evidence for the ELPIS Department.”

Jericho hesitated.

“Well?”

He dug into his pocket, pulled out Theta’s glove conductor, and dropped it into Leona’s waiting palm.

Leona smiled thinly, curling her fingers around the glove. “You have promise, Jericho. Once this is resolved, I will take a look at your application to my department myself.”

Her praise didn’t make him feel ‘good’. In fact, it accentuated the hollowness that had been carving itself in his chest ever since he had shattered Omega that night. He hadn’t been expecting to feel anything when he had completed the deed. But this emptiness was uncomfortable.

Leona said a word of parting to him before she exited the warehouse and left him in the quiet. In the new silence, the warehouse seemed vast, empty, like a void. And it left Jericho with his thoughts.

Theta hadn’t known.

But that changed nothing.

But that also meant that all the ELPIS leaders might not know either. Was there a point in shattering them all if they weren’t aware of their crimes?

Irrelevant. Of course there was.

But Theta. The question Jericho had truly wanted to ask Theta—

Suddenly, a terrible screech resounded from outside the warehouse, and a cold wind whipped the wooden doors ajar. His attention was drawn away from this by a pale tangerine light emitting from his suitcase. When he clicked it open, he found Theta’s proto-conductor that had been stored within glowing. He picked it up in confusion.

Hot!

Jericho dropped the thing at the thought. It shattered on the ground upon impact, spewing its contents all across the ground. A portal, gaping wide.

Cadence’s terror came shortly afterwards.

Jericho turned away from the portal and dashed outside to find the sky afire with the reflection of pale tangerine light. The ground was littered with large planks of wood and singed with the aftermath of vitae-ray fire. Behind the crates scattered between the debris hid the peacekeepers. Jericho could feel Cadence’s fear and worry as she hid among their monochrome uniforms. And as if drawn by her feelings, Jericho found his gaze being pulled away from the scene and up to the roof of the warehouse just beside the one he had come out of.

At the top of Warehouse 12, Francis stood free of suppression cuffs. On his left hand was Theta’s glove conductor. On his face was an expression of distraught. No, of righteous fury.

Jericho started forward at the sight, only to suddenly sink downwards. He barely managed to register the portal that glowed beneath his feet before he was in free fall.

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

11.2: Werner’s (Fidato) Command

Re-cap:

The Twin Cities is in chaos as ELPIS reigns through the streets. The six have come together to formulate a plan in order to resolve each of their interconnected issues. Cadence has successfully completed her portion of the plan and has captured the ELPIS leader Theta with Jericho’s assistance.

Werner is out of commission due to an override by Cadence but was previously looking into Colonel Fritz von Spiel’s invovlement with ELPIS after it was brought to his attention by Private Derik Stein. Von Spiel has been revealed to be a True Conductor connected to a child owned by the Campanas and to Aquarian secretary Yulia through Cadence’s and Atienna’s investigations.

As their plan unfolds, Werner’s role begins to come into play. And it’s all about trust.

Twin Cities, Gemini

Werner Waltz opened his eyes.

He immediately assessed his surroundings. He was lying on a firm bed; there was a sharp, antiseptic smell in the air; it was dim; and there was a brass sound trilling through the air. Saxophone. A record.

He was injured, clearly, given the soreness at the back of his neck and arms. And he was forgetting something. The memory he sought, however, slipped from his fingers as soon as he reached for it. This prompted him to shuffle through his memories.

Firstly, Morello had overridden him, resulting in his injury. Given that occurrence, it was most likely that he was currently under Nico’s care.

Werner frowned.

He had allowed himself to be overridden twice within a month. A single error was already inexcusable. The same error made twice was unacceptable.

But that was not what he had been forgetting, so Werner temporarily set it aside as he searched his memory further.

Following a period of darkness, he had come to and had assisted Morello when she was captured by Caporegime Donato. He had overridden her and taken her place during Feliciano’s sadistic torturing. Yes, that had been a logical choice. However, there was a digression. At that moment when he had offered Morello his assistance, he had reached out for her with a comforting hand on the cheek.

Werner couldn’t dissect why he had done such a thing. It hadn’t been appropriate. And it was rather… intimate. This issue too was insignificant, however, and Werner set it aside as well.

After he had assisted Morello, he had assisted Jericho in his conflict with Omega. The confrontation had been reckless, but the outcome was justifiable. ELPIS’s source of information and espionage had been cut off at the head.

Following this, he had guided Jericho back to the hotel since the man had seemed unstable. This was logical as well, but Werner couldn’t comprehend why he hadn’t directly advised Jericho to get a hold of himself and had instead assisted the peacekeeper quietly from the sidelines. Not significant.

Jericho had encountered Talib not so long after that, and Werner had observed their conversation from afar. The two peacekeepers had spoken of ‘trust’, and then Jericho had asked Talib to place one of his manipulated mediums on the colonel.

The colonel.

Werner forced himself up into a sitting position. The world around him spun, but he kept himself upright.

There was a white curtain drawn to his left, and behind it shadows danced in a backdrop of candlelight. Werner pulled the curtain open and found an older man in a lab coat sitting at a drab desk pressed against the wall. There was a candle flickering on the surface there acting as the sole source of light in the room.

“Ah, I see you’ve finally woken up,” the man said, turning in his chair. “How are you feeling?”

“I’m fine. Thank you for your hospitality,” Werner responded. “Are you affiliated with Nico Fabrizzio?” He knew the answer already, but it would be suspicious not to ask.

“Yes, I’m Nico’s father actually,” Doctor Fabrizzio explained. He gestured around the room. “I apologize for the dismal conditions. The city’s power has been cut, it seems; and my portable generator conductor went out just the other day.”

“I see. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Doctor Fabrizzio,” Werner said. “Is Nico present?”

Doctor Fabrizzio smiled thinly, snapping his fingers. “Yes, he is. Let me retrieve him for you.” The doctor rose from his seat and exited the room, leaving Werner in dark and in silence.

Welcome back, Lieutenant! Just in time too! Told ya Nico does great stuff!

Cadence’s image appeared before Werner suddenly. The grin she wore quickly became a frown of concern. “You alright, Lieutenant?”

I’m fine, Morello. Re-inform me of the points in our plan. 

Their synchronization increased slightly, and the memory of their discussion in the Sognare trickled to Werner gradually.

Cadence stiffened, reaching out and placing a hand on his shoulder. “Ya don’t remember yourself?”

There was no point in lying.

My recollection of everything that occurred while I was unconscious is hazy, Werner explained. It’s coming to me slowly, but I wanted to be clear on everything. And now I am. 

“Well… that doesn’t sound like a bad thing. Hopefully, the whole thing with Feliciano’s escaped your memory too?”

No. I remember that clearly, but that’s not important. 

Cadence blanched and rubbed the back of her neck. “I… I didn’t say this earlier ‘cause of everything that’s been happening but… Thank you for doing that, Werner. Sincerely. And don’t say there’s nothing ta thank ya for. There is.” A second of silence. “I’m sorry, Werner. I really am.”

Nothing is accomplished in being sorry, Morello, Werner informed her. Just be better.

Cadence half-laughed, half-sighed. “Ya got a way with inspirational words, Lieutenant…” Her gaze drifted down to his lap—no, his hands which rested on his lap.

They were bare, he realized. His hands were bare, his palms visible.

Before Werner could pull them away, however, Cadence placed her hand over them. Although she was not present, he could still feel the coolness of her touch.

Werner stiffened, unsure of how to respond. For once, however, he didn’t feel shame.

Cadence desynchronized abruptly as footsteps pounded up the hall. Nico stumbled into the room with black curls wild, face flushed from running, shirt disheveled. In his hands were Werner’s folded uniform and a glass of water.

“You’re—you’re awake,” Nico stammered. “I—my transmutation—I thought I missed something because you wouldn’t wake up. I’m…” He took a deep breath. “How’re you feeling? Do you have any prominent pain anywhere? I’m glad you’re alright.”

“Your work is good, Nico. My prolonged condition may have had something to do with me being a True Conductor.”

Nico handed him his uniform and the glass of water. “Then… you know what’s been happening?”

“If you’re referring to what’s happening in the city at this moment, then yes. I am aware,” Werner replied after slipping on his gloves and then moving to take a sip of water. “I’m also aware that Cadence hasn’t been in contact with you recently.”

Nico took the empty glass from him and set it on the table. “I heard that she infiltrated the Campanas from Gilbert, but that’s it…” Nico frowned. “She overrode you, didn’t she?”

“That needs to be set aside, Nico. I’m working in tandem with Cadence now to resolve our current issues here.” Werner felt a press at the back of his neck. “Cadence wanted me to tell you something.”

Nico’s brows rose. “Cadence did?”

Werner informed the man of Francis’s fate and ELPIS’s nature. It was a short debriefing, but it seemed to take its toll.

Nico fell pale afterwards and sank down to the bed beside him. He buried his head in his hands and remained silent. Finally, he turned to study Werner. His face was calm, expectant, waiting. “So do we have a plan?”

Werner was rather surprised at how readily Nico accepted these developments given his less than calm display earlier. It was a satisfactory change.

“Yes, we do. Where are the other men?”

“They’re actually in the rooms we have open here,” Nico drew dazedly. “I called them here as soon as the power went out. They… Well, Stein’s sorta figured out that I’m not from the best walk of life. Sorry about that—”

An odd tenseness in Werner’s shoulders released.

“Stein is awake?”

Nico nodded. “He woke up just the other day. He’s doin’ fine. Angry, but…” Nico moved forward. “If it’s alright with you, I’d like to move forward with my medical assessment first before—”

“Nico, I’m fine.”

Nico frowned, pulling out his conducting gloves from his pockets. “You’re my superior on the battlefield, Werner, but I’m your superior in this field.”

Werner considered this and conceded with a nod. Nico quickly, efficiently went through all the medical checks he usually would when they were in the field. Afterwards, he pulled back and beamed before leaving the room to allow Werner to change.

Werner slid on his uniform, straightened the medals on his chest, and combed back his platinum blonde hair. He then checked his pocket watch that had been stored safely away in his pants pocket.

Twelve hours exactly.

As he prepared to leave the room, a wooden picture frame resting on the desk caught his eye. After a moment of hesitation, he picked it up.

Captured in black and white, there was a group of six smiling children. There was a cross-armed, long-haired girl glaring at a freckled, boyish-looking girl. The latter had one arm slung over the shoulder of a calmly smiling, amused-looking boy and the other around the waist of a nervous-looking, curly-haired boy. Behind them stood a smirking, thick adolescent with crossed arms and a young man wearing an expression of indifference.

Werner could remember when this photograph was taken.

They had taken it using a portable camera stolen from an Ariesian tourist. They had spent all day choosing outfits for the picture, and it was nearly sundown when they’d managed to all come together for it. Then they spent three hours trying to figure out how to get a good image out; and by dusk, they were at each other’s throats. Still, in the end, they came together to capture this single moment. Afterwards, Allen had treated them for some gelato as they waited for the v-lights on the Dioscuri Bridge to flicker on.

It was a warm memory.

A silhouette in the door’s threshold behind Werner became reflected on the picture’s surface.

“What is with you and wanting to hop right back in death’s door when you literally just got away from it?”

Werner turned.

Gilbert was leaning against the doorframe, arms crossed.

There were three seconds of silence.

“You feeling alright? Sleep good?”

“This is no time to be joking around, Gilbert.” Werner set the photograph down. “Were you able to submit the report about the colonel to the capital?”

Gilbert uncrossed his arms. “Yeah, I did. Klaus conjured a radio after the power went out.”

“And?”

“The capital said they were going to run a preliminary investigation. Didn’t give us any directive, so I’m assuming they’re expecting us to just hang tight. Colonel’s gone AWOL too.” Gilbert grimaced. “Sorry.”

The development wasn’t unexpected. Carrying on the plan without the capital’s personal mandate would be less than satisfactory, however. Werner was very aware that he had already acted outside of orders against a superior once. If he did it once more—regardless of his intentions—they could mark him down for misconduct and insubordination. He would appear rebellious and disorderly. Unsatisfactory.

Capricorn’s deal with the Romanos could be compromised by this plan going awry as well. And if the deal were compromised, then Capricorn would be at an impasse with Argo. And there was Gabrielle’s investigation to consider. If during the plan’s execution, Ophiuchus found out about the deal then—

Saints, ya think too much. It’ll be alright. Cadence. Below eighty percent synchronization. Like I said, I’ll make it right. Ya don’t have ta worry about your country’s dirty deeds bein’ caught on by Ophiuchus. I promise.

Reassurance.

Right. The colonel held military secrets regarding Capricorn’s conductor development and most likely held classified information regarding Capricorn’s generator conductors and reservoirs. It wouldn’t be unfounded to believe that the colonel would trade these secrets for whatever ELPIS was offering if the offer involved Kovich. That was the desperation of connected True Conductors. The thought unnerved Werner. Regardless, sacrifices were necessary.

“Werner…?”

“It’s not your fault, Gilbert,” Werner finally said. “That was beyond your control.” He paused, approaching the man at the threshold and meeting his eyes. “Thank you for helping her—Morello—in her investigations of the Campanas.”

“No problem. Anyway, you two worked out your drama then, I’m assuming?” Gilbert shrugged before his expression soured. “So… do you know?” He tapped his head. “From Cadence?”

“Yes, I’m aware, Gilbert.” About the children.

“Makes me feel disgusting for even eating in places owned by those people.” Gilbert spat. “How the hell are they still operating? Ophiuchus is busy breathing down our necks about border agreements, but they’re letting this run? I hate sounding like those nationalists, but the hell is the point of them even being here?”

“I understand your feelings, but you need to remain calm,” Werner replied. “We need to focus on what we can manage.”

Gilbert’s eyes narrowed and then widened. “You mean… the colonel?”

Before Werner could respond, a pair of footsteps pounded up the hall. Upon turning, he found Kleine doubled-over and panting.

“L-Lieutenant,” Kleine stammered after straightening to attention with a salute. “I-I heard you were awake, sir, and I’m glad to see you awake. But, sir, I need to tell you. My childhood friend Charite. She’s an ELPIS leader. I had no idea. I thought… it doesn’t make sense. I—”

“Dammit, Kleine!” Gilbert snapped. “Where is your respect? The man just woke up, and you want to barrage him with some half-assed explanation? He knows all that already.”

Kleine glanced in between them before he continued regardless, “I had no idea, Lieutenant. Believe me, sir. I really thought she was one of you. A True Conductor. But I—” Kleine fidgeted with his glasses. “I was completely wrong. I’m sorry, sir, if I’d known, I would have told you. I… I don’t understand it. But I promise you can still trust me, sir.”

There was that word again.

“Kleine, calm down and lower your voice,” Werner ordered, holding up a hand. He scrutinized the man. “Has it ever occurred to you that I might be like Haussmann? That I might be affiliated with ELPIS?”

Kleine stiffened and stared, clearly confused. “What…? No, sir. Of course not.” He adjusted his glasses. “Is… Is this a test, sir?”

This was trust.

That was naïve. It was rank-and-file obedience.

Was it?

Werner’s head buzzed.

“I’m going to need your assistance, Kleine,” Werner finally said. “I need to know if I can trust you, if I can rely on you.”

Kleine blinked out of his daze. “Rely on me?” He straightened and nodded. “Of course, sir.”

“Good.” Werner nodded before elaborating: “Colonel von Spiel is a True Conductor like myself. One of the individuals he is connected with is under the ownership of the Campanas—the organization that owns the restaurant you visited with Morello prior—and he is working with your childhood friend.”

Kleine startled, opened his mouth, closed it, digested the information. Finally, Kleine murmured, “He’s working with…. ELPIS?”

“I understand you have questions, Kleine,” Werner continued, “but I’ll address the remaining details with the others.”

***

After Werner collected his thoughts, he made his way into the reception room of Doctor Fabrizzio’s underground clinic. There he found all of his subordinates that had accompanied him to this city waiting for him. Kleine and Bergmann were squeezed together on a small sofa in the corner of the room, while Stein and Gilbert were leaning against the wall. Nico stood off to the side, smiling lightly. They all stood at attention at his arrival, remaining silent and watchful.

Werner nodded at Stein whose left arm was slung up in cloth. “It’s good to see that you’ve recovered, Stein.”

“You too, Lieutenant.”

“Are you well enough to fire a rifle conductor?”

Stein straightened. “I’m always ready for a fight.” He moved his slung arm. “This is just for the ladies.”

Werner nodded at him before he began his debriefing:

“As you’ve been made aware, our true purpose in this city isn’t for luxury and recess. We were meant to act as a cover for Capricorn’s engagement with a crime organization that supplies us with modifier conductors. These were the orders handed down to us by the capital.”

Bergmann bunched up her pants legs in her hands.

“Colonel Fritz von Spiel has been colluding with ELPIS for unknown reasons. It most likely involves his unsanctioned dealings that my associate investigated on my behalf. Stein found evidence of the ELPIS collusion this prior to his injury.”

Kleine nodded. Bergmann gasped. Stein grunted. Nico lowered his gaze, while Gilbert remained impassive.

“Then everything that’s been happening in the city…” Bergmann murmured before rising to a stand. “Has the capital been informed? What are we supposed to do?”

“What do you think the lieutenant is talking to us for, Bergmann?” Stein scoffed.

“Stein, no one asked—”

“I am giving you all a briefing,” Werner interjected. “If you believe that what you have to say is an important point that I’m not aware of, then you can speak. If it’s just commentary or questions that will be answered during this briefing, I ask you to remain silent.”

The two quieted.

“There are no orders from the capital regarding what to do with the colonel. In fact, they have indirectly requested us to stand by,” Werner continued. He allowed a brief pause of silence. “I’m choosing to move forward and put the colonel under arrest. I will clarify that this differs from former major Ersatz’s—” Werner’s stomach churned, but he pushed it aside. “—betrayal. This is not a defensive position. This is offense.”

There was a beat of silence, and Werner could feel all of their gazes boring into him.

“I understand that given all the secrecy and lack of certainty in these developments, you may be hesitant to follow behind me.”

There was another beat of silence, but none of them exchanged looks as he’d been expecting.

“But what I am asking from you is not your blind obedience,” Werner stated. “What I am asking for is your trust and your assistance. I will take full responsibility for it.”

Werner met each of their gazes—the gazes of soldiers who had served beneath him for years now. They stared back at him, either wide-eyed or perplexed.

Werner knew his request was large and unprofessional. He had no doubt that their opinion of him had most likely decreased with this, but at the moment that wasn’t what was important.

“There are certain details I cannot divulge to you, but what I can tell you is this: the colonel is going directly against Capricorn’s interest and may compromise the country that we’ve served and protected all of these years.” Werner’s hands began to itch, and he had to take a moment to compose himself to continue: “Trust is something traded. You should know what I mean when I say this. So what is your answer?”

There was another stretch of silence, and Werner could easily count the seconds that ticked by without glancing at his pocket watch.

And then—

“Yes, sir!” In unison, in chorus, with the same certainty, they all stood at attention.

Their conviction was startling. And Werner had to carefully hide away his surprise with a curt nod of confirmation.

Gilbert paced over to him, placed a hand on his shoulder, and whispered, “Did you really even need to ask?”

The risk of their non-compliance had to be evaluated and accounted for, so of course, he had to ask—is what Werner wanted to say. Instead, however, he addressed them firmly: “I will now brief you on what our next steps will be.”

***

On the morning of the plan’s execution, Werner ordered Kleine to conjure conducting rifles and normal ranged weaponry. Although they did not need this many weapons to capture the colonel, the city was at war with itself and precautions were necessary.

As Kleine rested and as they were loading, kickstarting, and cleaning the weapons, Werner consulted Cadence and Jericho through eighty percent synchronization. The two had successfully detained Theta on their end; and Talib had just arrived at their warehouse. Werner watched in his mind’s eye as Jericho pulled Talib to the side and requested information on the medium that had been placed on the colonel.

As the information regarding the colonel’s whereabouts trickled down to Werner, he and his subordinates took to the streets.

The streets and alleys of the Twin Cities were dark and in chaos. People tore through the walkways and roads, either running at each other with weapons or away from each other with money. Every so often, the resounding cracks of gunfire would pepper the air and would be followed by the sharp whine of vitae ray fire. The smog clouds overhead would reflect back the bursts of vitae light and illuminate certain blocks briefly.

The atmosphere reminded Werner of the skirmishes on the fronts. His men seemed comfortable as they stalked the streets beside him, so it appeared to be a shared sentiment.

They encountered several hostile parties as they wove their way through the city. The first was a group of delinquents aiming for extortion. The second was a group of ELPIS cultists who demanded that they repent with their lives for carrying conductors. The third was a cluster of Twin Cities police officers who attempted to put them under arrest for being out past the set curfew.

None of these groups, however, were as efficiently trained as the enemies Werner had encountered during border service, nor were they as efficiently trained as Werner’s own men.

A shot to the leg of the ringleader of the first group acted as a signal for that group’s tactical retreat. A larger skirmish occurred with the ELPIS group. As with every ELPIS encounter, Jericho’s wrath surged beneath the surface. With difficulty, Werner kept focus, and the cultists were dismantled with a series of vitae rays and without casualties on Werner’s end. The third group was settled with Cadence’s assistance and suggestion: multiple rolls of Geminian cens.

But these were all distractions. The colonel was their key battle.

And as Jericho and Talib directed, Werner found Colonel Fritz von Spiel stepping out from a familiar shop on a dark, deserted street. There was a lollipop sign hanging down from the extended roof of the store, and its storefront was littered with discarded candy wrappers and ribbons. Tucked beneath the colonel’s arm as he headed down the street was a plastic-wrapped gift basket filled with an assortment of sweets and topped with a bow.

Peering at the colonel from around the corner of the block, Werner slung his conducting rifle over his shoulders and pulled out a common handgun from his side. He signaled for his men to go around to the back of the strip before stalking the colonel quietly from behind.

When he was within a meter of the man, Werner calmly ordered, “Put your hands in the air, Colonel.”

A Projector fired a conductor somewhere in the distance, lighting up the clouded sky with a flash of blue light.

The colonel stopped in his tracks just in front of the alleyway that divided the candy shop from a coffee shop. He peered over his shoulder, frowning. “What do you think you’re doing, First Lieutenant Waltz?”

“Colonel Fritz von Spiel, you have been found to be in collusion with the terrorist organization ELPIS and are suspected of divulging to them military secrets,” Werner stated calmly. “For this reason, I am taking you into custody.”

“What? I’m your superior, Werner,” the colonel said. “Where is your evidence? Without that, all I see is insubordination.”

The man was obviously scrambling.

The clouds darkened above them.

“There is a key witness who saw you conversing with an ELPIS leader—”

“You mean Stein?” The colonel scoffed. “He’s spent his entire time here with more alcohol in his bloodstream than there is in all of Gemini’s wineries. He’s hardly a reliable witness.”

“If you have nothing to hide, sir,” Werner stated calmly, “then please come in and testify. The capital is already running a separate investigation. I will take responsibility for my misconduct if it comes to that.”

“Alright then,” the colonel said.

There was a pause.

The colonel’s hand darted for his waist.

Werner aimed and fired without hesitation. The gunshot resounded through the streets as the skyline was once again lit up by the glow of vitae in the distance.

The colonel snarled, grabbing hold of his hand that now hosted a bullet-sized hole. The gun that the man had been reaching for clattered uselessly to the ground. Despite being wounded and deprived of his weapon, however, the colonel still kept the basket tucked tightly under his arm.

“Dammit…”

The colonel abruptly took down the alleyway at his left—just as calculated.

Werner dashed after him, side-stepping the glass bottles and trash bins that were carelessly scattered around. The colonel’s footing was not as exact, however, and the man tripped over a wine bottle before falling face-first. The basket flew from his hands, landing half a meter away. The colonel scrambled forward desperately, stopping short as he registered that Werner’s men stood guard only two meters down the alleyway. Grimacing, the colonel pulled himself up to a stand and picked the basket off the ground just as Werner neared him.

“This is ridiculous.” The colonel glowered at Werner and then at Werner’s men who drew closer. “Did the capital order this pursuit? This is absurd. This is insubordination.”

Just as Werner was about to take another step forward, three white-hot iron bars lit up the dark alley and bulleted the ground in front of him.

This was a good development, Werner thought calmly. It appeared as if all their assumptions required for this plan were holding.

The colonel’s eyes brightened at the sight of the bars. And he became ecstatic when the iron bars rose high from the ground and turned their tips towards Werner. Their target was clear.

The bars hurtled downwards—

—and then Kleine stepped in front of Werner.

The iron bars halted immediately midair. The colonel paled in confusion, searching the skyline with desperation.

“C-Charite, I don’t know what happened to you,” Kleine called out to the dark, “but please—let’s talk. Please, Charite.”

A lengthy stretch of silence ensued before a figure dropped down from the fire escape right between Kleine and the colonel.

Omicron.

The snake-like tattoo on the left side of her face was unmistakable.

Werner’s hand twitched, and it took a minute for him to suppress the urge to lift his handgun and shoot her through the head then and there.

This was the first time Werner had seen the woman himself. Her body was poised for combat like that of a soldier, but her gaze was softer than he’d expected.

Gilbert and Bergmann tensed from behind the woman, while Stein tightened his grip on his conducting rifle. Nico studied her silently, curiously, hopefully.

“Klaus,” Omicron whispered, “you should leave this city—no, the country. You don’t understand what you’re getting involved in.”

“You know I can’t leave.” Kleine nodded at the colonel standing behind her. “I have a duty.”

Omicron’s eyes narrowed. “So do I—”

“You know someone named Theta, right?” Kleine interjected.

Omicron froze, eyes wide, face pale. “How do you know that name, Klaus…?”

Kleine’s face crumpled. “I’m sorry, Charite. Right now Theta is currently being held captive by another group. That group reached out to us because they have an interest in the colonel too.”

A truth twisted into a half-lie.

“Their demands are—”

“Release the prisoners you have captive,” Werner finished. “No harm will come to Theta if you do this. If you don’t, they will kill him. If you contact any members of ELPIS, they will also kill him.”

The rage in Omicron’s eyes was undeniable; and with a flick of her wrists, she sent the metal pipes flying up in the air again.

“If you are concerned about the children owned by the Campanas,” Werner drew coolly, “I have received information that they are being freed through the joint effort of Ophiuchus and the party that asked us to deliver this request.”

A disturbing expression of both horror and relief eclipsed the colonel’s face, while Omicron’s expression became unreadable.

“It is your choice whether or not to believe me,” Werner continued. “What happens to those children and Theta next is entirely based on your decision.”

Omicron stared at him. If she didn’t agree to this, he could still get a head-shot in. Of course, the fall-out would be catastrophic, and the rest of the plan would unravel. It was an irritatingly unavoidable risk that had to be taken. All of it was.

Omicron lowered her hand, causing the floating steel beams to lose their white glow and clatter to the floor.

“Y-You can’t be really considering this, woman,” the colonel stammered, grabbing Omicron by the shoulder. “I completed every single request you had. I gave you your information. I bought all the children. You said you would give us that proto-conductor! You said we could escape—”

“How will I know where to go?” Omicron asked, brushing aside the colonel’s hand.

Jericho.

Somewhere in the distance, Jericho exchanged a word with Talib.

In the next moment, a colorful slip of origami paper that was outlined in dark blue light slipped out from the colonel’s pants pocket. It fluttered above Omicron’s head where she plucked it from the air.

“That will lead you to the location of where Theta is being imprisoned after you’ve met your end of the bargain,” Werner explained.

“A Manipulator capable of putting up a strong observational medium…” Omicron concluded. An expression of pain passed over her.

Werner suspected she was thinking of Omega.

Omicron pocketed the slip of paper and drew out one of Theta’s proto-conductors. She tapped it against the alley wall behind her, and a door ignited in pale light there. Stein and Gilbert lifted their conducting rifles in alarm, but Werner held his hand in the air, signaling them to stand down.

“Klaus, I…” Omicron locked eyes with Kleine before lowering her head and stepping into the light.

Kleine took a step forward, but Werner placed a halting hand on the man’s shoulder.

“No…” The colonel dropped the basket and stumbled towards the glowing portal just as it dimmed into black. The colonel stared at the dark spot before he threw himself against the alley wall again and again. “No! No! No!” He pounded the wall with his fist. “You promised me! Come back!”

The man’s cool, suave, collected demeanor shattered in an instant, leaving Werner and his evidently gaping men startled. But perhaps this was Von Spiel’s true demeanor. As Cadence always said, appearances were deceiving.

“Dammit!” the colonel snapped, whipping around and glaring at Gilbert. “This is all your damn fault! Yours!”

“The hell…” Gilbert grimaced, cocking his rifle. “I’m not the one who made you—”

“It wasn’t enough that I lost all my inheritance putting it in the market to try to get enough back to buy him, but you had to make me take this stupid mission! Made me take those damn funds out from the country’s damn treasury!” the colonel spat. He paused, staring past Gilbert and snarling. “Of course, they’ll know it was me! They probably already know at the capital since they already started their investigation! I’ll be thrown in prison!”

Gilbert exchanged a look with Werner over the colonel’s shoulder.

Atienna. Werner reached out to her lightly, keeping their synchronization as low as he could as to not distract himself. Monitor—

I know, Werner. Be careful. 

“You’re suggesting that you’ve embezzled money from the Capricornian government,” Werner stated. “That will be an additional reason for your arrest—”

“Like hell, you helped me get this damn position!” The colonel grabbed hold of all the medals on his chest and tore them off their seams. “I never wanted this! You made me want this!” He threw the medals on the ground and stomped on them. “Why couldn’t we just take our time?! I was fine working in the damn capital! I could’ve worked my way up to a higher salary! All we had to do was be patient!”

Bergmann and Kleine looked to Werner in confusion. Gilbert frowned. Stein appeared rather disgusted, and Nico simply appeared concerned.

The colonel abruptly fell silent, hanging his head, before he turned to Werner suddenly and held out his wrists. His expression was eerily calm. Werner signaled Stein with two fingers. Slinging his conducting rifle over his shoulders, Stein moved forward and cuffed the colonel. Before Stein pulled away, however, the colonel grabbed hold of Stein’s wrist.

“At least kindly light one last smoke for me, would you?”

Stein grimaced, but then glanced back at Werner who nodded. Stein scowled, removed a box of cigars from the colonel’s pocket, lit one, before shoving it haphazardly into the man’s mouth. The colonel puffed calmly, acting as if his former irate outburst had been someone else’s.

Gilbert joined Stein on the other side of the colonel and together the two jailed him in tight, secure, while Werner ordered Bergmann to sweep the streets outside of the alleyway with Kleine. As Werner watched the two set off down the alley, he collected his thoughts.

All they would need to do now was safely transport the colonel back to Doctor Fabrizzio’s clinic and wait for the rest of the plan to unfold. As soon as the power was restored, he would return to Capricorn with a ready report via v-train. His superiors would decide the rest.

Werner checked his pocket watch. Eleven hours, eleven minutes, and eleven seconds exactly.

They were ahead of schedule—

“—never forgive you. I won’t forgive you. You—”

Anguish and rage clashed together in Werner’s chest. It was an overwhelming tidal wave, nearly submerging him in despair.

Something had gone wrong.

On Atienna’s and Maria’s end.

Werner’s head pounded as his chest curled in on itself.

This suffocating feeling belonged to—

“I won’t ever, ever forgive someone who has taken something that’s mine!”

—Maria?

The sorrow was sharp and painful, like a knife. The feeling of personal loss. Something he had never experienced before and—with the way Maria was reacting—something Maria had never experienced either.

A hand on his shoulder dragged Werner out of the whirlpool of heartache. Gilbert was standing beside him with an expression of concern.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost, Werner. What’s going on?”

Werner looked past Gilbert towards the colonel. Von Spiral was still handcuffed rigidly beside Stein, but was now gawking at Werner with incredulity.

“You…” The colonel realized, his cigar falling out of his hands onto the ground. “You’re one too…?”

And then something went wrong on Cadence and Jericho’s end.

Before Werner could even comprehend the events that had unfolded so shortly one after another, a terrible, inhuman screeching whine clawed its way through the air. It resounded from all directions. From below, from above, from beside, from between—from the black spot on the alleyway wall that Omicron had stepped into. A crack of white appeared there, stretching open wide and wider until it took the shape of the familiar glowing door. But no one stepped out from it. It dimmed and closed a second later but—

“Saints. Werner, look…”

Gilbert was pointing at the sky.

The smog clouds were afire with the reflection of pale—almost white—tangerine light.

But this was not an event restricted only to their square in the city.

Werner could see it all—through the eyes of all those within the city whom he was connected with:

Every single street corner, every single building, every single surface in the Twin Cities was littered with glowing portals. And from all of those spatial distortions, a singular, familiar voice cracked out in anguish: “There really is no hope.”


“Colonel Fritz von Spiel’s remarkable achievements in the past three years are exceptional. Once hailed as the record-holder for Capricorn’s most military failures, Von Spiel has flipped every single one of his defeats into a victory. He has shown heart, passion, and dedication to improvement. Moreover, he has shown the Capricornian public that any soldier can rise to bring good to Capricorn regardless of past grievances. 

As his father states with utmost affection: It’s almost as if he’s become a different person.”

Der Militärzeitung, Wöchentliche Ausgabe #78, 17 August 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.”

10.2: Cadence’s Gambling (Fallacia)

Mood OST for this chapter: (ಥ﹏ಥ)

Re-cap:

Disguising herself as Werner, Cadence works with Gilbert and Werner’s men to investigate Colonel Fritz von Spiel and his dealings with the Campanas. After a confrontation with Gilbert, the two work to together to discover that the Campanas are selling Specialist children and the colonel is more than willing to buy.

Afterwards, Cadence stumbles across Francis and follows him back to Theta’s room. Here, Cadence discovers the truth behind ELPIS, the resistors, and Theta’s plan. Reeling from this discovery, Cadence escapes and…

Twin Cities, Gemini

Cadence stumbled out of the portal, heart and head pounding. She didn’t have a clue where she was—it was too dark to make anything out. If it wasn’t for the fact that she could hear herself panting, she might’ve thought she were dead.

Scrambling blindly forward, she ran smack into a wall, tripped backwards, fell flat on her back, and blinked upwards. There was a crack of skyline there, and the smog clouding the sky reflected back the blue-orange lights from the city.

Judging by the thickness of the smog and the color of the lights, she figured she was in an alley in the west side of the city. The Louvre District again.

“What in saint’s name do I do…”

Save Alma. Right. They could leave this city together. Cadence’d gotten the means to do it. She’d get Alma to safety.

And then what?

What would happen to the city?

Well, that was Ophiuchus’s responsibility. They’d handle it fine. Since they were in the city already, they’d find the trail. And Jericho would probably say something about ‘intuition,’ swing that suitcase of his, and everything’d be okay. Werner hadn’t even needed to contact Ophiuchus to begin with. Right? Yeah.

No. That was a lie.

Would Ophiuchus even be able to find Theta’s room?

Cadence reached into her pocket and pulled out Theta’s proto-conductor that she’d taken off Comissario Vincente Giustizia—no, Tau.

She could just turn this into Ophiuchus, she thought. Make up a story. Say she’d encountered Jericho’s scuffle against Iota and found it on the streets afterwards. Everything’d be peachy then.

No. That was also a lie.

Cadence doubted Ophiuchus knew how to use the thing. And if she gave it to them, they’d just be hopping from place to place willy-nilly hoping they’d get the jump on ELPIS. Pure luck and chance.

And…

Jericho wanted it. He was the reason why she was gripping it so tightly in her hand. Any tighter and she’d shatter the thing. Jericho wanted it so that he could get to them. And if he got to them…

What would Jericho do to Theta—no, Francis?

Cadence paled as a chill ran up her spine.

ELPIS’s origins were irrelevant to Jericho. His hatred remained unchanged regardless of their circumstances. Cadence knew this—could feel this. And if that was the case then…

What would happen to Francis?

Cadence rolled over on all fours and stared at the ground, digging her nails into the damp, dirty concrete.

If Ophiuchus couldn’t fix this in time, what would happen to Allen, Carl, Fortuna? Alice? The executives? Werner’s men? Nico…?

Something hot and putrid crawled up her throat, causing her stomach to flip flop. She hadn’t felt this sick since she’d gone out drinking with the Foxman brothers and Nico before Nico had left for the Aquarian-Capricornian border.

As the memory of that drunken, chatter-filled night surfaced, Cadenced heaved, gagged, and puked.

Take damn responsibility,” Gilbert had said.

In that moment, as Gilbert had berated her, Cadence had felt intense shame. In his eyes, she’d only been a cowardly, selfish, two-faced liar. And Cadence knew that was what she was. That was how she grew up. There was no helping it. But still, when she met Gilbert’s disapproving eyes, she’d wanted to curl up, hide away, drink, change.

It was ridiculous. She barely even knew Gilbert. Which meant that Werner cared a lot about what Gilbert thought. Appearances and whatnot.

No.

It was different with Gilbert. By just a slight shade. Werner had cared because of… ‘Friendship’? That didn’t seem like him at all.

Cadence herself had never thought too deeply about the word. She’d purposefully stopped herself from thinking about people that way. There was no such thing in this city.

That was a lie.

All she was doing was trying to find the easiest way out. Like usual. A victim of circumstance. 

“I know that,” Cadence whispered, wiping her mouth. “But what in saint’s name am I supposed ta do?”

Who could she go to? No one. She’d burned all her bridges. No. They had never been there to begin with. She’d built up false bridges that held no substance. Try and walk across and she’d fall right through the illusion.

Damn.

No time to think about that.

She had to report into Cavallo. About the Campanas?

Cadence scrambled to her feet, pocketed Theta’s proto-conductor, and stumbled forward blindly. Eventually, she squeezed herself out of the alleyway and stumbled out onto a near empty street lit dimly by v-street-lamps.

“… Is that you, Cucciolo?”

Cadence straightened and turned.

A familiar woman with jet black hair that curled to her ears stood beneath a flickering light. Her red satin dress glowed in the dark as did her cherry red lips. Her eyes were soft, sad.

“Alma…” Cadence took a moment to take her in before she stumbled towards her. Cadence embraced her, and after a beat, Alma returned the gesture.

“You were… disguised as that Capricornian soldier, weren’t you?” Alma whispered into her hair. “You saved me that night, didn’t you? And you came to Enzo’s dinner tonight too… right? That was you.”

Alma had known. Of course, Alma had known.

“Are you alright?” Alma pressed, examining Cadence’s face. “You seemed really hurt in that explosion, and then you showed up at Enzo’s dinner like it was nothing… You poor thing…”

Werner’s bloodied body flashed into Cadence’s mind, and Cadence felt bile climb up her throat again.

“Alma,” Cadence breathed, grabbing hold of the woman’s hand. “Come with me.”

Alma stared at her, hand loose. “Come… with you?”

“Out of this city,” Cadence stammered, digging into her pockets, brushing past Theta’s proto-conductor, and pulling out the collection of proto-conducting rings she’d stolen from Russo. She held them out for Alma to see. “We can disguise ourselves. Sell these things. Use the money and get ourselves a place. I’ll buy you a piano. I—”

“Oh, Cucciolo.” Alma sighed, placing a hand on Cadence’s cheek. “If we run away, what then?”

“What… then?”

“Where will I play, Cucciolo? No—who will listen when I play? People are just starting to know who I am. If I leave and disappear now, they’ll surely forget me.”

What…?

“Y-You don’t need any of that—”

“Of course, I do, Cucciolo,” Alma said gently. “What’s the point of playing a song when no one is there to listen? A caged bird always sings for someone, right?” Alma pulled her hand out of Cadence’s grasp. “You should leave this half of the city, Cucciolo… Enzo was talking about looking for you earlier. He seemed very angry…”

Cadence remained frozen in place. Confused, flustered.

“I should go… but you should stay safe, Cucciolo,” Alma said as she began to pull away. “It was nice seeing you again. And… thank you for saving me. See you some time.”

Without sparing another look back, Alma continued on her walk down the street in the opposite direction—carrying on as if it was just any other night in her life. Unreachable.

“A-Alma… Alma, meet me at the Sognare!” Cadence shouted, voice cracking, as she curled her fingers around the rings. “Meet me at the Sognare! And I…” She trailed off as Alma disappeared from her sights. “Please…”

Silence.

Cadence turned on her heels, continued forward. Absentmindedly, she shoved the rings in her suit pocket and tried to collect her thoughts.

Shrug it off. Yeah. Just shrug it off. Alma would come back around. She would. She promised. If not, then it was just bad timing. Just the situation—

A sharp crack and pain against the back of her head cut the thought short, and Cadence fell forward into darkness.

***

When Cadence came to, she realized that not only was she bound to a metal chair but she was also cold. Cold as hell. She was in a small room with metal walls, with a metal ceiling lined with hanging icicles growing in-between slabs of meat on metal hooks. A cooler. Damn bad luck. At least it had an exit: a heavy-looking door just across from her.

But—to check the last box on the checklist of misfortune—she could no longer feel the familiar press of her conducting rings on her fingers. Whoever had taken her in had known enough to take them off.

Fortunately, she could still feel the press of Theta’s proto-conductor and the ring proto-conductors in her pants pocket. She would’ve felt more relieved, however, if she could actually move her hands enough to reach them. Her captors had bound her with metal chains wound so tight around her chest, arms, and legs that it hurt to breathe, move, shiver. No sticky-fingering or muscling her way out of this one.

The cooler door abruptly opened, and two figures stepped in. Two familiar men who shouldn’t have been anywhere near each other.

“Well, this is an odd sorta friendship ta see,” Cadence mused lightheartedly. “Did ya guys meet-cute?”

Donato of the Romano Family chuckled as he approached her, while Enzo of the Campanas stood beside him with a tired look. It seemed as if Donato’s encounter with Iota hadn’t shaken the old coot up a bit.

“A Caporegime of the Romanos and an executive of the Campanas meetin’ up with one another while the families themselves are beatin’ the snot outta each other,” Cadence hummed. “Now that’s a good secret.”

“And you’ll keep it a secret?” Donato mused. “Like how you’ll keep the Campana’s product a secret?”

“Product?” Cadence arched a brow.

“Oh, come on, Cadence.” Donato sighed. “I know you were at Enzo’s meeting. We found Cavallo’s dog Russo just as he was leaving the area and pulling off a proto-conductor ring. A ring that was obviously filled with your vitae.”

Dammit, Russo.

“And… where would Russo happen ta be now?”

“Six feet under,” Enzo replied. “Unlike you, he wasn’t as willing to lend an ear and was feelin’ a bit loose lipped.”

Dammit, Russo…

But. Okay. This was good. Bad for Russo. But good for her. They were planning on letting her live… up to a point. She had to get more information in the meanwhile, but she couldn’t overstep her bounds.

“So, given what’s goin’ down in the city that now, I’m guessin’ none of the bosses or any of the other executives know that you two are buddy-buddy. How long ya been pen pals?”

“How long have I been capo?” Donato returned.

Cadence arched a brow. “Geeze, so from the very beginning, huh? Pretty impressive how ya got under the bosses’ noses. Bet ya both were excited when Fortuna and Ambrose said they were gettin’ engaged, huh?”

“You too, Morello.” Enzo nodded. “I mean, that meant that the divide between you and Alma would no longer be there, right?”

Cadence froze.

“Alma talked about you a lot when she first came to me,” Enzo explained. “‘Course, she stopped after she got used to the good life, but I have a good memory.”

“She’s talked about ya a lot too when we met up,” Cadence returned good-naturedly. “Gossip, right?” She paused, pulling back. “I’m not a gossiper myself. Especially when my life is on the line—”

“I’m sure you said the same thing when you were dealing with Verga,” Donato interjected. “And Verga is stupid so he believed you.” He gestured to himself. “You can see there’s a difference here.”

Cadence smiled with effort. “That’s why you’re a capo and he wasn’t.” She shrugged. “If you’re gonna consider doin’ me in, can I at least get some of the details? Can’t let me die with curiosity, can ya?”

Donato considered this before chucking. “I like you, Cadence, so here it is—”

Obviously, he didn’t like her to not beat her over the head and tie her up, she thought.

“—You know this for fact: the Campana Family is selling Specialist Conductor children. The market for them is crazy. Especially in countries who’re bordering less-than-friendly countries outside of Signum. The wealthy love them too. And I’ve been providing some of them to Enzo in exchange for…” Donato slapped his bad leg. “Well, you see, they’ve got an amazing Specialist who’s been slowly but surely healing my leg. Soon, I’ll be walking like everyone else.”

Betraying the Family just for one healed-up leg? What a rat.

“Congratulations,” Cadence said faintly. She swallowed, cocked her head. “That’s great for ya and everything, but aren’t ya concerned about what’ll happen if any of the executives find out? I mean, they’re all busy dealin’ with killin’ each other, but ya know Francis is a good multitasker—”

“Francis?” Donato threw his head back and barked. “He’s probably completely lost his head by now. He’s not doing anything anytime soon.”

Cadence’s heart skipped a beat.

Donato knew. And if he knew, then…

“What…. did you do?” she whispered.

Enzo walked out of the cooler abruptly.

“You see, the Foxmans and the Campanas have had a bad relationship for some time now,” Donato explained. “The problem is the Foxmans are too loyal. Too nosey. So, honoring their relationship with the Romanos, they covertly started working with Ophiuchus to investigate the Campanas in an effort to take ‘em down. ‘Course if they started investigating the Campanas, then there’s no telling when they’d dig up our business agreement. Enzo and I would both be in bad waters with our bosses.”

Enzo returned carrying an open wooden crate and dropped it at Cadence’s feet. Cadence peered inside, and another wave of nausea overtook her. Resistors. The crate was full of resistors. Some of their glass-tube handles were filled with a swirling white light, while others were hollow and empty.

“Enzo found a whole cargo shipment full of these conductor-looking, knife-things stored in a warehouse in the west side,” Donato explained. “Apparently, Verga was shipping these for a certain group.” He bent down to pick up a resistor that was empty. Its blade was caked with dried blood. “What you’re seeing here is the very knife Francis was stabbed with.”

Cadence balled her fists, bit the inside of her lip, kept her face calm and even.

“It’s quite interesting—the effect of these things when they’re filled with the white vitae stuff.” Donato ran his finger along the blade. “Enzo had his boys test them on a couple of poor saps, and they completely went off the walls. We had to put most of ‘em down. ‘Course one managed to get away, but that’s not relevant.” He tapped the tip. “It surprisingly took a while for Francis to crumble, but the entire thing took the Foxmans’ eyes off of us for a while.” He chuckled. “Well, forever now.”

“Do ya even understand what ya’ve done…?”

“These things have something to do with ELPIS, yeah.” Donato nodded, tossing the resistor back into the crate. “But I’m not too concerned about them. We have what they want, after all. ‘Course dealing with Ophiuchus is another issue. I had to put in a lot of legwork to get away from the guards they put on me. And you know me—I’m old and I’m not as slick as I used to be—”

“This is all your fault!” Cadence seethed, startling herself, Donato, and Enzo. “You… You!”

“What has gotten into you, Cadence?” Donato sighed and rubbed his wrist. “You of all people should understand. In time, whatever this is will pass, and people’ll move on. ELPIS’ll do its thing, and they’ll leave like they always do. The Families’ll resolve their issues.” He paused, smiled genially. “Same goes for all the people you’ve deceived for us, right?”

“People’ll move on…?” Cadence parroted. She laughed. “Ya can’t be serious, Donato. I mean, ya’ve gotta be pullin’ my leg again, right? How in saint’s name are they gonna move on from this? This is ELPIS. They—”

They hadn’t moved on for centuries.

“I’m leaving you in Feliciano’s care while I decide what to do with you, Morello,” Donato said, nodding at Enzo. “Though, a couple of Feliciano’s friends have ended up as stiffs recently, so I can’t say he’s gonna be in too good a mood. He’ll be visiting soon.”

Enzo bent down to pick up the box of resistors and with Donato he exited the room. The cellar door shut quietly behind them, leaving Cadence alone in silence.

Cadence began to tremble despite herself.

Feliciano’s ‘care’?

Saints. They were going to beat the living hell out of her.

Cadence stared at the floor, mind racing. Would she be able to talk her way out of a beating?

Feliciano’s sneering face flashed into her mind.

No, definitely not. Not with Feliciano. He’d had a bone to pick with her since they were kids. Think.

Saints—

A shadow spilled across the floor in front of her. Cadence stiffened and yelped instinctively. But as she registered—as she felt—who was present, she startled.

Werner.

The Capricornian first lieutenant drew near to her, meeting her eyes with an unreadable expression. Just like how he’d looked at her when she’d encountered Jericho and Iota in the Louvre District. A void stretched out behind Werner. He still wasn’t awake.

“Morello, this will be excruciatingly painful.”

Cadence blinked.

What? What was he doing? Rubbing in it? Yeah, that made sense after what she’d done. She didn’t blame him at all.

Werner frowned. “I am not here to ‘rub it in.’ Morello, you’re unable to escape, and the others will most likely feel the pain Feliciano and his men are about to inflict on you. It may compromise us, and that cannot be afforded.”

The guilt came in like a flood at the realization. She had been so caught up in her own situation that she hadn’t even thought about how she’d affect the others.

Werner regarded her silently before extending a hand. “Allow me to override you, Cadence.”

Cadence did a double-take.

What…?

“There is evidence that when one of us is overridden, the others are unable to access the memories of the events nor the sensations the overrider experiences,” Werner explained calmly. “At the moment, this is our best option since the others are preoccupied.”

Cadence gaped.

He would go to such lengths to protect the others? It didn’t make sense. This didn’t seem like something he would do.

“Cadence, it’s not just them. You don’t have enough pain tolerance to handle this. Your reaction to Jericho’s injury during our first synchronization meeting makes this obvious,” Werner said. “As I’ve said, this is the best solution.”

Cadence stared at him incredulously. It really didn’t make sense. After everything she’d done, she wouldn’t blame him if he despised her, hated her, maybe even wanted the worse to happen to her. But…

“Why—” She met Werner’s eyes and felt her voice catch in her throat.

No…

The answer needn’t be said. Cadence could feel it. She wished she couldn’t but she did. It was a simple feeling, but a strong one. Not pity, not disappointment, not resentment—

Despite her selfishness, he cared for her. No, he still cared for her.

It hurt.

“I… I’m sorry, Werner,” Cadence whispered. She felt her eyes burn, felt her heart crumple, felt shame and disgust curl in her stomach.

If only she had her damn conductor. Then she could just snap her fingers and make everything go away. Disappear the shameful tears that were beginning to prick her eyes. Mask the trembles that were cascading down her body into a suave, casual, relaxed pose. And hide it. Hide everything away. Hide her cowardice, hide her selfishness. Shrug off her problems—

Just proving that you’ll never change,” Theta had said.

“I’m so, so sorry…” she whispered. “I don’t know what I’m doing. I just wanted to help Alma.” No, that was a lie. What she wanted was to stop Alma from leaving her side. Pathetic. Another blow. “I didn’t want ya to get hurt, Werner.” A truth. “I wasn’t thinking. I wasn’t thinking at all. I was so stupid. I coulda killed ya…” Saying it out loud was horrifying. “Saints, I coulda killed all of ya…”

—a hand suddenly touched her cheek.

She lifted her head to find Werner staring at her, blue eyes piercing and hard—but not exactly cold. A faint memory, faded at its images, floated into Cadence’s mind: a long, tall, thin woman standing in the middle of a cold, empty room wielding a long, tall, thin stick—an overbearing shadow.

They were the same, Cadence realized, paling. But that made Werner’s proposal so much worse. She couldn’t understand it. They had been in similar situations and circumstances, but they had turned out so different. How was that possible?

“Enough, Cadence,” Werner said tersely. “They’re coming.”

He really meant it, she realized. He really wanted to override her and endure the pain instead. But that didn’t make any sense. Was this really his choice?

Werner frowned. “Although I do believe my current state of mind might be somewhat altered due to my condition, this is my choice, Morello. Make no mistake.” He seemed to read her mind. “If you are truly sorry, then accept whatever guilt comes by me doing this. Accept responsibility, live with it, and don’t let it happen again.”

That was awfully manipulative of him.

The cellar door creaked open behind Werner, and a cluster of men eclipsed him. Feliciano and his lackeys.

“It’s time, Cadence,” Werner said calmly as always. “Are you ready?”

Before she could respond, Cadence felt the darkness pull her away from him almost instantly, felt him relax into the cold chair in her place, felt her consciousness slip away into blackness.

And in that pitch-black dark, she dreamt. No, in the dark, she remembered.

She remembered her mother with her long copper locks and her father with his freckled cheeks. War veterans in search of a better life in the Twin Cities. They’d only received a singular benefit package from Aries after the war’s end and had struggled to even afford a place to stay in the city.

Cadence had spent many nights home alone because her parents were always out working. One night, as she’d roamed through the house in the dark waiting for them to return, she’d discovered her mother’s conducting rings. She’d slipped them on, thinking they were fashionable items, adoring the way they’d make her fingers tingle. She’d try them on every single night while she waited for her parents to return, and it was by mere luck that she managed to activate them one day. She’d transmuted herself into one of the dresses she’d seen in her mother’s favorite fashion magazine and had been giddy with excitement and glee.

Slowly, slowly, she refined her skill until one night—when her parents came home late—she revealed her conducting to them. They’d both been ecstatic, proud, cheering as they spun her around the room.

Talented, they exclaimed, amazing. My talented, amazing daughter.

But that happiness was not the norm.

It was a stressful postwar era. Her parents constantly argued over money, food, bills. But Cadence hadn’t been bothered by it because to her that was normal. Besides—or so she had thought—as long as they had each other, it didn’t matter. Not the arguments, not the occasional thrown fists. It wasn’t perfect, but it was enough.

Then one night, her mother returned home with a black a shadow riding on her shoulders. When Cadence had greeted her at the doorway, her mother sank to her knees and wrapped her fingers around her neck.

“If it weren’t for you…” her mother had seethed, squeezing tight. “I wouldn’t have to be with that man. If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have to suffer like this. I wouldn’t be the damned laughing stock at work. I wouldn’t have to deal with people always looking at me with pity. It’s because of you. It’s all because of you, you, you!”

Cadence had sobbed, clawing at her mother’s hands as she gasped for air. Just as her vision began to fade, her mother released her and pulled back with a sob of her own. When Cadence had finally gained her bearings and her breath, she found her mother crying apologies under her breath—

“I’m terrible. Oh, I’m so terrible. I don’t deserve to be your mother. I’m terrible.”

It had hurt for Cadence to see her mother like that. Hurt more than the throbbing around her throat. And so, Cadence had crawled up to her mother’s side and said, “I-It’s not your fault, mommy. You’re just angry because you’re tired, right? It’s not your fault… And I’m okay, you see?” Snapping her fingers with a grin, Cadence disappeared the bruise marks on her neck in a flash of copper.

The way her mother’s eyes had lit up afterwards was like a dream, and the warmth from her mother’s embrace made Cadence forget all about the pain.

This wasn’t her mother’s fault at all, Cadence had thought. It was merely the situation, the circumstance.

That incident marked the first time her mother had a bad morrowheat trip. And it wasn’t the last.

“It’s stress relief,” her father had told her as he began to take morrowheat up himself. “We get nightmares, you know. About the war.”

This had been before morrowheat became properly refined and legalized. In its unrefined form, it was terribly addictive and often caused hallucinations, mood swings, lethargy. And as her parents continued to take the drug, they became less and less inclined to leave their apartment for work. Instead, they lounged together with interlocked limbs on the mattress on the floor that they all shared.

It was okay though. Because they were together. It was enough.

But then, Cadence’s mother passed. Just like that. In her sleep. They didn’t have enough money to hire doctors to figure out why. They didn’t have enough money for a funeral. And so, Cadence was left standing in front of her mother’s unmarked grave wondering exactly what had happened. There were no answers. There never were.

Cadence spent the following weeks curled up on their mattress in her mother’s spot. She’d burrowed into her mother’s blankets, breathed in her scents, and imagined that her mother was still there lying beside her. Cadence had even used her conducting rings to bring the illusion to life once. It was momentary comfort.

One day Cadence’s father came home and spoke to her about things she didn’t understand. Her mother had a savings account with a decent amount of money, he’d said. They’d both been saving the funds so that they could eventually send Cadence to school, he’d explained. But because of Gemini’s strict personal protection and privacy laws at the time, only the owner of the account was able to withdraw funds. And so, he wasn’t able to access any of it.

“Y…You can do it, can’t you, Cadence?” her father whispered with bags under his eyes as he held her hand. “You can make yourself look like mommy and take the money out, right?”

The desperation in his voice had been pitiful—so pitiful that several nights later, Cadence found herself wearing her mother’s conducting rings and standing in front of their chipped bathroom mirror. Snapping her fingers, she’d watched with joy, disgust, relief, horror as her deceased mother’s form shimmered over her own.

When Cadence brought home all of her mother’s savings from the bank the following morning, her father had been ecstatic. He’d picked her up and twirled her around, proclaimed how much he loved her, showered her with gifts—

Happiness. It was enough.

And then one day, he didn’t come back home.

Cadence spent those following weeks roaming the house, digging into the pantries for food, curling up on their mattress, waiting and waiting—until there was a knock at the door. It was the landlord who told her curtly, strictly, firmly that she needed to pack up and leave.

“You’re lucky that I’m not making you take on your parents’ debt,” was what he had left her with.

And so, for the first time in her life, with only the clothes on her back and her mother’s conducting rings on her fingers, Cadence stepped outside onto the streets of the Twin Cities alone. She’d learned quickly though. Learned to pickpocket, steal, swindle. Learned to take advantage of other people’s pity. Learned to use her conducting to get herself out of tight situations.

And then Alma found her. Rather, she found Alma. A beautiful, gentle person whom Cadence could always find at the Sognare. A person who smiled at her with apparent affection instead of pity. A perfect person. A constant.

Not so long after that, Cadence had encountered—rather, pickpocketed—Ricardo Romano who then introduced her to Fortuna. Literally days later Cadence befriended the Foxmans and then finally Nico. Together they had roamed the streets, claiming territory childishly as their own, challenging other delinquent rings to pick-pocketing feuds, swindling tourists with gambles and games.

Happiness. A constant.

Perhaps, that was why Cadence adored Alma so much. Meeting Alma marked the beginning of the best time in Cadence’s life… But Alma’s departure also marked the end of it.

Cadence still remembered it as if it was yesterday—the day that Alma left. After whispering apologies about being unable to stay by Cadence’s side, Alma had placed a hand on her cheek and had said with a dreamy smile: “Oh, I’m so excited, Cucciolo. All the girls at the Casa say that Enzo is so wealthy, and he knows so many famous people. Maybe with him, people will finally listen to my song…”

But Cadence had blamed Alma’s words on too much alcohol.

Fortuna took up on her father’s mantle not too long after that, while the Foxmans abandoned their pipe dream of running their own bar in favor of running the city’s docks. She’d congratulated all of them at the time, of course. Always appeared crooked-smile, bought them congratulatory presents using money she’d swindled from tourists, never showed a hint of jealousy, disdain, disappointment, hurt.

But appearances were deceiving.

Still, at least Nico would stay by her side, Cadence had thought to herself foolishly. Out of their entire group, the two of them had spent the most time together. Huddled in between alleyways, swallowing cigarettes whole for laughs, pick-pocketing wealthy kids who were in over their heads. Playing piano at the dwindling Sognare, sharing drinks at the bar after a rough day of work, musing about their unattainable dreams.

Right. Nico needed her, she’d thought, always followed her, would never leave her. It was something Cadence treasured. A constant.

But then… Nico had left too. Left for the borders of Capricorn while following his dream of being free of his father’s shadow in that twisted way of his. Left for that dream of his that had suddenly become attainable.

And Cadence was happy for him. Truly. But still she thought—

It was better to have an unattainable dream. Something that always needed to be pursued. No disappointment when it came down to it. No losing the dream and its perks, since it’d never be achieved. A constant. The same thing came to people. Situation over disposition.

***

When Cadence sluggishly came into consciousness, she was greeted with pain and cold. It felt as if cement had been filled in between her muscles and bones. She also no longer had any sensation in her fingertips. And her mouth tasted of iron.

Sure enough, when she got her bearings and surveyed her surroundings, she found that she was lying in a pool of her own blood. The cellar door was locked tightly. The only positive she collected from a second look around was that during the beat down, Feliciano and his goons had decided to untie her and leave her untied.

She tried to crawl up into a sitting position, but a dull pain shot up her limbs in protest. She collapsed and laid in place. Too much pain to even shiver.

If it hurt this much for her now, she thought, how much had it hurt for him?

It’s not your fault, whispered a familiar voice at the back of her head. Werner offered.

“Shut up,” she muttered.

It wasn’t your mom and dad’s fault either, the whisper continued, relaying the echoes of her dream. They couldn’t help their situation. They couldn’t help reacting the way they did. It was the stress, the poverty, the drugs. It’s all circumstance. 

Cadence shivered, wincing at the shooting pain it brought her.

One-way ticket to hypothermia.

But even so, despite the cold, she could still feel Werner’s warm hand against her cheek.

No, no. She didn’t want to think about that. Not now.

Right? It’s all circumstance. It’s not your—

“Shut up!” Cadence sobbed and pulled into herself. The tears stung the cuts on her cheek but she knew that the stinging pain was incomparable to what Werner had taken on for her. “Damn it! Shut up! Stop lying!”

Silence answered her.

Right. The person she’d been deceiving the most—Cadence realized in the quiet—had been herself all along. The truth was that it wasn’t all just circumstance. Not with herself. Not with her mother, not with her father, not even with Alma.

The answer was ridiculously clear:

A child representing past mistakes and an inescapable situation. 

A tool to earn money. 

And a person who was more pitiable than herself, a person who made her feel as if her own life wasn’t that awful.

—this was how her mother, her father, and Alma had viewed her in those moments that Cadence had painted over as ‘circumstance’.

It was as simple as that.

And simplicity hurt.

Cadence sobbed and curled deeper into herself.

How dare she think about herself after everything that had happened? How dare she—

“What in saint’s name are you doing…?”

Cadence blinked the frozen tears out of her eyes and found Olive standing before her. He felt her pain—she could tell—and was barely managing to hold back a wince. Damn.

“Of course, I can feel your pain,” Olive half-growled, half-grumbled. He knelt down beside her, hands hovering, hands shaking, eyes… wet? Tears. They were leaking from his eyes, and he was failing terribly at holding them back.

“S-Saints, your highness…” Cadence cracked a grin with effort. She had a cut on her lower lip that stretched open with the action. “Y-You should be laughin’ at my situation. Not cryin’. Specially after everything I did and everything I said to ya.” She grimaced. “I-I’m sorry about that, kid. You were right about everything… so ya gotta stop cryin—”

“It’s just sad okay, dammit… It’s not fair.” Olive wiped his eyes. “Those kids— they’re almost my age… it’s wrong what the Campanas are doing… and what…” His voice cracked. “W-What happened to you… and to Werner.” He shook his head. “It’s just not fair! How can people do that?”

It was easy for people to do that, Cadence thought. It was hard for them not to do that.

“You’re a good kid, Olive.” She sighed. “I mean it.” She laid her head back and groaned. “I’m sorry. For everything. It was all my fault. You’re all way too good for me.”

Him, Werner, Atienna, Jericho, Maria.

A pain more terrible than the throbs running through her limbs seized her chest.

And Nico, Francis, Allen, Carl, Fortuna too.

“You’re stupid,” Olive said, shaking his head. “You’re stupid and you’re so unbelievably selfish.”

Cadence tried to squint at him but even that was too much effort, so she laid back her head and closed her eyes.

“It wasn’t circumstances with Alma, your mom, or your dad,” Olive continued. “But it’s also not circumstance with me, and it’s not circumstance with any of the others. When it comes to us… I…” His cheeks flushed, and he took a deep breath before he grimaced. “If you get what I mean… I’m not here because of circumstance.”

Cadence cracked open an eye.

“You’re good enough for me,” Olive said, meeting Cadence’s gaze. “As long as we’re constantly trying to improve and trying our best to not make the same mistakes, we’re good enough for each other.”

Cadence abruptly recalled she was talking to a prince, and she couldn’t help but laugh. He was regal when he put the effort into it.

“We need to get out of here,” Olive muttered, rubbing his arms absentmindedly.

Right. Even if it hurt like hell, she had to find a way out of here before Feliciano came back. She couldn’t make Werner go through that again. She couldn’t let the others deal with the fading pain either. Responsibility, dammit.

Biting the inside of her cheek, Cadence forced herself up into a sit. The world spun around her, but she pushed herself further to an unstable stand and began to wobble to the door.

Pain, pain, pain.

Cadence, please don’t push yourself…

But she had to.

Cadence managed to make it to the door and pressed her hands against its surface. She could barely see more than a crack because her eyes were so swollen, but she didn’t need full vision to see that the door was frozen shut.

Suggestion. Don’t panic.

That was hard to do.

Kick it down! You can do it!

Really? Why was that even a suggestion?

“Claire said something…” Olive muttered from beside her. “He told me that there’s something special that True Conductors can do when it comes to vitae right before you overrode Werner… Since I’m able to conduct without my conductor—no, since I am a ‘conductor’—it might be different, but…” He placed his hands over her own and closed his eyes.

Cadence arched a brow at him, wincing at the pain that followed the motion.

And then she felt warmth. A buzz at the base of her palm that spread to her fingertips.

She turned slowly and managed to catch a glimpse of her bruised hands right before copper sparks of light erupted into copper flames beneath her palms.

“What the—”

Olive grabbed her and pulled her backwards as the door was engulfed in flames of vitae. Flames that she had created. Without the appropriate conductor. Without being an Elementalist.

“Saints…!” she exclaimed in unison with Olive.

The heat crackled wildly, eating away at the frost and the door itself, melting everything it touched. Soon the door became molten metal and ash, and the icicles that had been hanging above her head began to drip, drip, drip into puddles of water around her.

Once the fire died and warm night air spilled in from the door-less doorway, Cadence turned to Olive and blinked. “Did ya just see that?”

Olive snapped, “Of course I saw that. I’m right here! This is—”

“Kid, my body hurts like hell, and I don’t think I can spare another brain cell ta try and figure out what in saint’s name just happened,” Cadence said as she stepped forward, “so I’m just gonna get outta here now and leave the thinking ta you, Werner, and Atienna.” She paused and looked back at him. “Thanks, Olive. And not just for the mojo melting thing.”

And Werner too. She needed to thank him. But she wanted to say it to his face. It was only fair.

Hesitantly, Cadence stepped through the melted doorway and out into a dark alleyway just beyond. She took a deep breath. Soot, salt. Home.

“Woooooow.” A clap echoed from above. “I was just swinging by and thought I was gonna have to pull a heroic rescue, but look at this!”

Cadence recognized that voice. No, Olive recognized it. But that was impossible.

A series of metal clangs filled the air—each lower in tone than the last—and down from the darkness dropped a slender, tall figure concealed in shadow.

Cadence felt it immediately. The apprehension. The dread. Ominous.

A woman dressed in a monochrome suit stepped into the light pouring out from the cooler.

There were two things that Cadence noticed about the woman. One: there was a white Ophiuchian sash on her arm. Two: she wore sunglasses despite it being nighttime.

Cadence. Olive’s heart was hammering. I don’t understand. How is she here

Peacekeeping saint candidate Ilseong Jin stood before Cadence in the flesh.

I literally just saw her—

“A-Are you a peacekeeper?!” Cadence stammered, rushing to Jin and wincing with every step. “Ya gotta help me. I-I got jumped. A hospital. I need ta get to a—”

“How’s that Ariesian prince doing?” Jin asked, cocking her head. “Just saw him a minute ago but still.”

Cadence froze and felt Olive’s fear seep into her aching bones. “What…? What are ya talkin’ about?”

Cadence stumbled slightly. Jin caught her with one hand. But it was not a comfort. The peacekeeper’s touch sent chills down Cadence’s spine.

“Oh, come on,” Jin grumbled. “First the prince and now you? I mean, I literally saw your conducting!” She squinted. “At least you’re a bit more convincing. Though it really does look like you need to go to a hospital.” She squeezed Cadence’s shoulders sending Cadence a ripple of pain. “But congrats on taking the next step of True Conductorhood. First time I’ve ever seen a vitae crossover without an actual conductor though!” She released Cadence nonchalantly. “Cool.”

Cadence stumbled backwards, barely keeping her footing. “I’m guessin’ ya didn’t come here by train…”

“Nope. Just came to check on a friend though…” Jin took a step back and gave Cadence another once over. She then slipped a familiar, needle-shaped proto-conductor filled with black liquid out from her pocket and tapped it against the wall behind her. The wall immediately became engulfed in a familiar pale, tangerine light.

Cadence paled.

“I like the stupid kiddo, so needless to say, I like you,” Jin said as she stepped into the light with a wave, “so I’ll leave you with a warning. Omicron’s told me that Theta’s priming ready to snap, and when that happens…” She aimed a mock gun. “… the city’ll go with it no matter what plan they have.”

10.1: Olive’s Dimming (Fiammata)

Re-cap: 

Olive is at the Bodhi Temple studying for the State Conducting Exam. He is also there to partially protect Claire’s sister Eunji from rival clans using his status as Ariesian Prince. In exchange, Claire is to translate Sagittarian texts for him.

On a moonlit night, Olive encounters the saint candidate of Sagittarius, Ilseong Jin, who is also a peacekeeper and is Claire’s aunt. Jin unnerves Olive with her knowledge of True Conductors, his sister, and the mysterious syzygy but does not seem to be hostile. Fortunately, Olive is able to form a bond of trust with Claire despite the circumstances. His trust with Cadence, on the other hand, crumbles as he realizes that she has selfishly overridden Werner. Still far from the dangers of the Twin Cities, Olive…

Bodhi Temple, Sagittarius

Thwack.

“We’re leaving for Ophiuchus at the end of the week, Ollie.”

Thwack.

“… Already?”

Thwack.

“Eunji is bright. Way brighter than me, and I’m pretty bright. She’s already memorized all the materials that they usually put on the exam and then some. She’s just got to memorize a couple more of the conducting motions for the practical and we’re ready to go.”

Thwack.

“And memorizing is the same thing as learning?”

Thwack.

“Well, you can’t learn anything if you don’t memorize it. Education in Sagittarius is centered around memorization, actually.”

Thwack.

Silence.

Thwack.

“I know what you’re thinking, Ollie. You’re thinking about the others in your circle, aren’t you? I can see it all over your face. And I get it. We’re both lucky to be born in positions where our struggles are more social and political than physical… I’m sure at least some people in your circle aren’t as lucky as us.”

Thwack.

“But it’s really a waste of energy thinking about it, Ollie.”

Thwack.

“Wow, Claire…” A mocking clap. “Thanks for your unwanted words of wisdom. Did they teach you that in politician school?”

Thwack.

“Hey, I’m trying to be helpful here. One of yours was seriously injured that night, right? You’re lucky to be alive… I’m serious.” A sigh. “Anyway, I’m assuming from the way you’ve been acting that you haven’t been able to talk to the one who got hurt. That really sucks, but the fact is that you’re all still alive. And you’re not doing whoever it is any favors by moping about it. Trust me. I know first-hand. You should focus on the things you can do instead of the things you can’t—”

Crack!

Olive startled, turning his attention away from Claire and towards the archery range laid out in front of them. A row of targets bulleted with arrows was lined up at the far end of the range. Just below the open terrace Olive occupied, Trystan and Jin stood side-by-side poised with their bow conductors.

Claire leaned forward with interest beside Olive, and Claire’s guards who stood behind him did the same. Several monks had gathered around to watch the spectacle as well, leaving Olive to wonder how much free time they actually had. Then again, the current archery match unfolding truly was something to gawk at—especially on Jin’s end.

If Jin had terrified Olive the other night with her showy ridiculous enigmatic monologue, she had now completely horrified him with her prowess at both conducting and archery.

Trystan who was most definitely a skilled archer was clearly losing ground.

Alexander Charming used to rattle on about Trystan’s skill back at the palace. Olive hadn’t cared much for Alexander’s praise then, but over the past few months, Olive had come to appreciate Trystan’s prowess. In fact, Olive had felt a bit of pride when Trystan had first stepped out onto the archery range and had hit each of the targets right through the bullseye marks with a single arrow of fire vitae each. But then Jin had swooped in, twirling her bow conductor in hand before splitting and extinguishing Trystan’s fire arrows with invisible arrows of air.

It seemed unnatural—both Jin’s loose archery style and her bow conductor. Her bow conductor was long, black, sleek, light, string-less. It was so lightweight that Olive barely made out the glass insulators on its body. Something about the device didn’t seem right, but Olive couldn’t put his finger on it.

Trystan, rather than being embarrassed or flustered at his gradual defeat, seemed to be utterly gobsmacked by Jin’s precision and clapped loudly whenever she’d obliterate one of his arrows.

It was ridiculous. Olive figured Trystan was a masochist.

“I don’t really mean focusing on my aunt or anything when I say that,” Claire added under his breath. “That’s not something you or I can do right now. Probably. Since we don’t even know what’s happening on that front. But maybe I could ask. Maybe she’d tell me.” He turned to Olive, smiling. “Playing the fool is the way to success.”

Olive glanced at him. “I can see that.”

The monks around the range started clapping and cheering.

Jin had won, obviously.

The saint candidate turned on her heels, aimed a mock gun in Olive’s direction, and winked— “Bang!”

***

Olive regretted his decision to confront Cadence as soon as he did it. As usual, Olive found that his words were not as carefully chosen as Atienna’s and his thoughts not as collected as Werner’s. And so, he ended up saying something he didn’t mean:

“Aren’t you supposed to be good at reading people? It’s pretty obvious to me that Werner cares more about you than Alma does—if she even cares about you at all.”

And thus, as expected, Cadence completely snapped. She tore into him, dug out the tiny feelings he kept to himself, and laid them out to light.

It was embarrassing—the fact that Cadence could see through him so well. It hurt—the fact that Cadence knew what words would hurt him and said them anyways.

But she was right. It was stupid. How could he even think that the other five were anything remotely like family to him? They weren’t even friends. And that truth stung. But it didn’t matter. What mattered was what Cadence had done.

As his shouting match with Cadence reached its climax, Atienna synchronized with them both and intervened. She looked Cadence’s image right in the eye and slapped her hard. Cadence’s synchronization with him faded after that, but not before Olive managed to catch a rather disturbing look of hurt satisfaction flash across Cadence’s face.

Atienna remained with him several minutes afterwards. They didn’t exchange many words and refrained from speaking about what had occurred. However, just before Atienna departed, she placed a hand on his cheek and said, “You’re important to me, Olive. And that’s enough for me.”

The relief Olive felt at her reassurance was just as embarrassing as Cadence calling him out, and he could not reciprocate Atienna’s words.

Lavi came to him a while afterwards and seemed concerned about the lack of synchronization meetings. She wasn’t truly connected to him, Olive knew, so she wasn’t aware of what had happened between Werner and Cadence. As always, Lavi tried to get to the bottom of what had occurred, but he brushed her worries away.

It wasn’t something she needed to deal with, he told himself. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust her. Not at all.

Still, despite everything that had happened, Olive absolutely refused to mope around and to spend the day rolling around in bed. And so, right after his confrontation with Cadence, he rinsed his face in his bathroom sink and headed out with Trystan in search of Claire.

There were Sagittarian texts that needed to be translated, after all.

Olive found Claire and his masked guard Felix standing stiffly in front of the library’s doorway. The two were conversing with a duo standing at the threshold there. A woman and a man. The woman had short black hair that came up to her ears and had on a pair of circular glasses. Just by looking at her, Olive could tell that she was mean. There was something in her eye that just glinted viciousness. The man, on the other hand, had a mess of spiky dark hair and drooping eyes that made him look half asleep.

The woman locked eyes with Olive and glowered.

“Who’s that foreigner?” she snapped in some dialect of Sagittarian that Cadence knew. “You keep bringing people who aren’t of Sagittarian blood into our traditions. Don’t you have a sense of pride? First you bring a foreigner to be your vassal and now—”

Felix stiffened.

“Sister, I understand your concerns but although Felix may not have the blood of the Seong Clan running through his veins,” Claire responded politely, “his heart is Seongese through and through. He has spent all but five years of his life serving me, and he is one of my people. I would appreciate you treating my people with the same amount of respect you treat me with.”

Which apparently is none, Olive thought.

“Come on, Mai,” the spiky-haired man said from beside the woman. “Give Haneul a break, would you? We’re all here for the same thing.”

“Unlike that one, Kai,” Mai clarified, “you will pass your Conducting Exam with flying colors.”

“You doubt my sister’s prowess still, I see,” Claire said, smiling thinly.

“You’re ridiculous. He’s a disgrace—” Mai stopped short, sending a glare in Olive’s direction. “Why is that foreigner looking at me like that?”

“The foreigner’s name is Olivier Chance,” Olive responded in the dialect they were speaking as he joined their circle. He gave her a well-aimed look of disinterest. “Ariesian prince.” He nodded at Trystan who trailed behind him. “This is Trystan, my royal guard.”

Mai stiffened, looked him over, and then dipped into a deep bow. “I—my apologies, Prince Chance. I didn’t realize it was you. I heard rumors but…” She cleared her throat. “That aside, my name is Liuxing Mai of the Xing Clan. The man beside me is my younger brother: Liuxing Kai.”

Kai dipped into a bow too, looking more amused than anything else.

Olive arched a brow. “‘Liuxing’—oh, I recognize that surname. You were the group that went to Virgo in search of aid during the Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict, right?” He turned to Claire. “Haneul here came to Aries and managed to get my uncle and aunt to approve of his request within days. How did it go for you again?”

Mai’s face deepened red as she rose from her bow. “Our initial requests for aid were declined but subsequently Virgo did offer their assistance—”

“Right.” Olive shrugged. “But that was separate from your personal request, right?”

Mai’s face reddened further.

For once, Felix gave him a look of appreciation. Claire, on the other hand, had a careful expression of calm indifference folded across on his face. But Olive had seen it already—Claire’s brief smirk was undeniable.

“Woah, look at this!” came a familiar sing-song voice from down the hall. “All my favorite family members and favorite people gathered all in one spot.”

Olive grimaced and turned to find Jin casually strolling down the open hall towards them. Mai, Kai, and Felix dipped into bows at her approach. Jin merely offered a half-hearted, two-fingered salute at them in turn.

“So, Kai, you really going to take your State Conducting Exam at the end of this week?” Jin asked. “Coming here to cram right before?”

“That’s how Mai’s calendar is looking,” Kai replied. “Two Conductors capable of ascending the throne for the Xing Clan is better than one.”

“Mhm. Anyway, that’s when Eunji is taking it too, right?” Jin inspected them all from beneath her sunglasses. “All the clans will be watching closely because of that, huh?” She cracked a grin. “I’ll be watching too, of course.”

Claire and Mai exchanged a look and stiffened together.

“Really?” Claire pressed. “You’re coming to Ophiuchus too?”

“Of course! I wanna see you kiddos complete the State Conducting Exam.” Jin flashed a grin. “Besides, I have a feeling it’s going to be an explosive event.”

***

In between his time spent at the temple’s archives, Olive often went to observe the monks practicing with their conductors in the open courtyard that extended out just behind the library. He had discovered this courtyard during his second night at the library after looking out the leftwing window. The courtyard was large, square, and laid with a network of crisscrossing tiles that formed the image of a lotus. Barely. He had to squint to really see it.

Usually when the monks concluded their practice and emptied the field, Olive would take their place and try to emulate some of their motions. He often requested for Trystan to remain within the library so he could have the entire square to himself and to not risk Trystan being somehow caught in a crossfire. Trystan had reluctantly agreed but always kept a watchful eye on him from the second-floor window of the library facing the courtyard.

And so, right after Olive’s awkward conversation with Claire and his half-siblings, Olive decided to put reading texts aside and took to the courtyard instead. Trystan took to his perch in the library window. The monks were nowhere to be seen this time around, however, and Olive started off on his own.

As usual, his first ten conducting attempts ended with small sparks of vitae that puttered out into weak flame that spiraled out lazily and died quickly. Too weak. It was always either too weak or too strong whenever he tried to conduct.

The smell of burning flesh and the sobbing Sagittarian assassin abruptly flashed into his mind.

Olive grimaced and shook his head. He could never rein it in the way he wanted to.

He flicked his hand again to dispel the memory. Another poor spark and sputter.

If only he could achieve that sort of freedom air Elementalists had when conducting, Olive thought to himself, then maybe—

A clap resounded through the open square.

Olive stiffened and surveyed his surroundings. He glanced up at Trystan cautiously. The man was frowning from his post at the window and staring down and out towards an open hallway that ran at Olive’s right. Olive followed Trystan’s gaze and swallowed. Ilseong Jin was watching him from the walkway there. She was leaning against one of the pillars supporting the roof with arms crossed. Her bow conductor was slung over her back.

“Wow,” Jin said, singsong as she stepped out from the hall and carelessly skipped across the small stream that ran just beside it. After shaking off the water from her pants legs, she came to a stop in front of him and grinned. “I clapped because it felt like the right thing to do, but that was kinda sad.”

Olive tensed as he felt the familiar ominousness swirl at the pit of his stomach. “A lot of people must have said that to you, huh?”

“Yeesh, kiddo.” Jin sighed. “You have more salt in you than there is in the Piscese Ocean. Anyway, you looked like you needed help so I thought I’d—”

“Maybe you should get your prescription checked,” Olive said, gesturing to her sunglasses. “You’re seeing things that aren’t there.”

Go away. Go away.

Even with Trystan watching over his shoulder, Olive felt uneasy.

“Well, I’m seeing it pretty clearly, kiddo. You have issues conducting, don’t you? Without a conductor, I mean. Need a tip—”

“No.”

“Yeesh, kiddo—for real?” Jin chuckled. “At least let me lay my case first: I’ve read them. Pema’s books. The old monk’s sister. The one who conducted without a conductor. I read all of ‘em.”

Olive tensed.

“You wanna know a tidbit of what she wrote in there?” Jin grinned. “Just say please. I won’t tell anyone that I told you. We don’t want to both get into legal trouble, do we?”

Olive remained silent.

“Oh, fine, whatever. I’ll tell you anyways.”

Again, Olive remained silent.

“You say you’re not conducting with a conductor, but you are,” Jin said, tapping his chest. “Your entire body is the conductor. Your blood vessels and veins are the insulators. Your heart—your soul—is the conducting core. You get the picture, right?”

Olive slapped her hand away but digested the information she’d given him. That was very unusually backwards thinking. Conceptually, it seemed ridiculous.

Jin grinned, tucking her hand in her pocket. “Another tip: you shouldn’t hold back in anything you do. The more you try to control something, the harder it gets to control. Just like the more you try not to think of something, the more you think about it. Regrets hold you back—even in conducting.”

“Are you going to monologue again?”

“I’ll save my monologue for later.” Jin shrugged. “Anyway, what do you plan to do about the State Conducting Exam? The practical part, I mean. Since you can conduct without a conductor—well, that’s gonna draw a lot of unwanted eyes, you know?” She unfastened her conductor and twirled it in her hands. “Why don’t you try making something that looks like a conductor and use that? You look smart enough to do it.”

“For someone who says they’re on neutral ground, you’re giving me a lot of advice.”

Jin grinned thinly.

A cluster of monks started walking along the hall behind them and caught Olive’s attention. The group passed by slowly without acknowledging them. A particular ‘monk’ caught Olive’s attention—P.D. Oran. The man kept his head ducked low as he walked by with the group and kept his eyes glued to the ground. For his sake, Olive looked away.

“Ah, there he is,” Jin said singsong. She smiled back at Olive, waved her hand lazily through the air, and departed after the group of monks.

Olive waited until she disappeared before relaxing somewhat. Shivering his uneasiness away, he returned his attention to the task at hand and extended his arm out in pensive thought. Conducting without a conductor without restraint seemed impossible. But thinking of himself as a ‘conductor’ rather than a ‘Conductor’… It was a ludicrous idea, definitely, but…

He scanned the courtyard quickly. No one nearby. No one to be harmed.

His heart hammered in his chest as he closed his eyes and extended his hands outwards further. He pictured the components of a conductor in his mind’s eye. The insulator, the conductor core, the connecting tubes. His veins and blood vessels, his heart, his body. He pictured the vitae particles, the carbon atoms, the oxygen atoms—

The Sagittarian assassin’s burnt body flashed into his mind, but instead of shoving it away, he allowed it to pass.

—He then pictured the hum of the conducting core, the beat of his heart, and the culmination of atoms and particles into an explosive wreath of flame. Just this once. No restraint.

This is stupid, he thought. And then he flicked his wrist. The familiar spark of heat tickled his fingertips, and a gust of warmth flushed the front of his body.

Olive cracked open an eye.

A wreath of crimson flame swirled in front of him, twirling into the figure-eight shape he’d pictured in his mind. Nausea built up at the pit of his stomach at the smell of smoke that followed the ignition, but Olive was too flabbergasted to even register it.

Ridiculous. It couldn’t be that simple, could it?

He closed his eyes, imagined himself as a conductor, flicked his wrist again. When he opened his eyes, he found the flames dancing in a circle before him—once again just as he’d pictured. He chuckled nervously and did it again and again and again. Each time, the crimson flames obeyed.

Olive wanted to desperately synchronize with the others to show them all what he’d just learned, but he restrained himself as Cadence’s words rattled through his mind. Instead, he went through the motions for several hours before the usual fatigue that followed excessive vitae usage consumed him. Afterwards, he wiped the sweat from his brow, fell back onto the ground, and chuckled again despite himself as he watched the clouds pass overhead.

State Conducting Exam at the end of the week?

Focusing on the things you can do,” Claire had said.

That didn’t sound too bad.

But then, the knowledge of the Specialist children being sold by the Campanas suddenly bled into Olive’s mind from Cadence’s end.