14.1: Observer & Peacekeeper, 0000 Unusual Activity

Ungewöhnliche Aktivität » Unusual activity, unrecorded 

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

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

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

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

Probability of being a True Conductor, 89%. 

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

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

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

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

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

Again, silence.

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

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

“When was the last major conflict again?”

“The Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict—”

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

“Approximately 150 Capricornians and 240 Aquarians.”

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

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

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

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

“Can you hear it? It’s almost here.”

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

“The pulse of the syzygy…”

A knock on the door drew his attention away. 

He rolled his eyes and sighed. 

“I suppose we can take a lunch break.”


Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pure Balance, it was called. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Has not contacted me since accepting my application.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jericho nodded his head in confirmation.

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

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

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

“Theories that will soon become fact!”

Jericho frowned. 

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

A knock on the door cut the conversation short. 

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

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

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

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

The man tipped his hat and left down the hall. 

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

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

Send letters?

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

To Alice was written in swirling Common letters. 

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

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

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

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

Dear Agent Jericho,

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

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

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

Sincerely, 

Leize Artigue

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

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

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

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

I’ve got my eye on you! ❤

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a good time to start.

Yes, it was. 

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

Werner?

He blinked.

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

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

But then Jericho felt nothing.

Absolutely nothing.

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

Silence.

Something was…

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

Alice stared at him. “What’s wrong?” 

“Nothing,” Jericho replied.

The truth. 

Absolute silence. 

There was nothing. 

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

I will enter.

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

Someone shouted in alarm. 

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

He would not succumb to this, he knew. 

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

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

An unfortunate cut to black.

7.6: Jericho’s Peace (Guerra)

Re-cap: 

Synchronization has occurred. 

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

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

And now—

Lepischau, Cancer

“He’s going around back!”

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

Jericho ignored them and scanned the area.

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

There.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With that, Jericho burst out of the storefront following the fluttering paper crane through the busy streets of the Cancerian town. He blasted past the crepe stall that was pulled out on the side of the store and darted along the gray brick sidewalk.

The crowd casually strolling along the pathway let out shrieks and parted.

There.

The only one who was running away from him.

The Manipulator. A tall, blonde man wearing a dark blue suit. His escape was one full of clumsy stumbling with each step ending in a trip that he had to pick himself up from. Jericho was vaguely reminded of the drunk, swaggering man whom Cadence had played a round of poker with at a bar the last time they had synchronized.

The distance between them closed swiftly.

As Jericho neared him, however, the man abruptly whipped out a knife conductor and began swinging it wildly in an arc in his direction. Fortunately, the Manipulator’s erratic behavior earlier had already prompted people to stay as far away from him as possible. No complications.

Ducking beneath the swing of the blade, Jericho swept his leg beneath the man’s feet causing the man to flop backwards onto his back.

Jericho pounced on the fallen Manipulator and held him there, squeezing the hand that wielded the knife conductor. There was a crack and the Manipulator released the weapon with a yelp. Jericho placed a foot on the conductor, dragged it away from the man, and slipped it into a slot on his belt. He then felt along his belt and then paused.

Hm.

He had forgotten to grab an additional suppression cuff from his suitcase which was for once not attached to his arm.

What to do.

Abruptly, the Manipulator began writhing and convulsing beneath him. The man’s eyes snapped to the back of his head and his tongue lolled out from his mouth.

Jericho released the man and rose to a stand watching the man continue to contort almost as if having a seizure. Jericho knew this, of course, was not a seizure. Fact. This was penance. Justice.

Talib Al-Jarrah joined him half a second later. He was panting heavily but brushed past Jericho to inspect the perpetrator.

A sympathetic yet righteous look passed over Talib’s face before he knelt down to slap suppression cuffs on the man’s wrists. “What a fool.”

***

Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

“The Cancerian Manipulator was charged with five cases of illegal manipulation and conducting without a license. Four of the cases were women. They were treated by medical Conductors who managed to transmute most of the Manipulator’s vitae out from their bodies. They are in recovery. The same cannot be said for a charged suspect. It seems as if he’s suffering from the usual psychosis that results from living manipulation.” Rattling off the details of their latest closed case, Talib took a sip of tea and crossed his legs. He clicked his tongue and shook his head, huffing, “This is why Manipulators have such a terrible reputation. Because of people like this man.”

“If you aren’t careful, you’ll end up not so much different than him,” Doctor Alice Kingsley said from beside him. She was eating a fruit salad from a plastic container and had paused to gesture at him with her fork. “Although with the way you are, I’m not sure it’d make a difference.”

“Ah, yes, Alice, your words are as sharp as a knife that cuts through the heart as always,” Talib said. “Good. That’s how I know the Organization hasn’t gotten to you yet.” He pointed to her plastic fork. “But, if you continue using things like that then it’s only a matter of time. Don’t you know that’s how they’re able to move forward with their plans? They make small, subtle changes to your environment without you noticing. You think to yourself ‘oh yes, how convenient this disposable fork is,’ but in reality, that fork is a device they use to lower your guard—that’s how they get you. Ignorance is compliance!”

“It isn’t healthy to make blasé comments like that,” Alice returned. “You may eventually convince yourself that all you are saying is true, and then you may not even be able to discern reality from fiction.”

“Who says that it’s fiction?” Talib rebutted before his voice became gravely: “The Organization is a very real threat, Alice. I’ve known since childhood that you were of a person of intelligence so it’s strange that you would openly deny their existence—unless it’s that you’re trying to get them to think that you don’t believe they’re real which is quite ingenious—”

“For such a terrifying organization, Talib, why would they have such a common name as ‘Organization’? Assuming that they’re the megalomaniacs you’re painting them as then would they not choose a more eye-catching pseudonym?”

“Well—”

Jericho watched them go back and forth from the sofa across from him for a moment before he turned to study the others in the room. Ferris Hart from the Assignment Department was sitting to his left and was giving Talib a tired look. She had recently dyed her hair a bright popping blue, and Jericho still had yet to adjust to it.

“Adjusting to new things takes time,” Alice had told him during one of their first sessions. “And a willingness to accept.”

Roberto Gonzalez, a middle-aged man of Leonian descent with dark curls and full cheeks, was sitting to Jericho’s right and puffing a v-cig. Roberto belonged to the Commerce Regulation Department of Ophiuchus. Although the man was only a general agent in the department, as Gabrielle put it, “he had the keenest eye in Ophiuchus.” Accordingly, Roberto was able to spot conjured or transmuted counterfeits of anything on the spot. He had even closed a case that made headlines in the papers recently.

Although there was no seating chart in place that Jericho knew of, it always seemed as if they fell into the same seating arrangements whenever they had their lunch meetings in Gabrielle’s office. At the thought of Gabrielle, Jericho stared at the empty desk behind him. The dust piling up on the surface was unsightly.

“Regardless of your beliefs, your Cancerian criminal was handed to me,” Alice said, waving off Talib mid-rant. “I’ve heard from the chairman above me that they may transfer you both to more specialized departments.” She locked eyes with Jericho as she said this. “And I put a good word in for you both despite my initial misgivings, so we are making progress.”

“Well, your report was nicely typed, Talib,” Roberto commended. He spoke very fast like he was in a rush, but he appeared very relaxed. “Might get you a promotion up to maybe the fourth chair of the General Investigations Department. And with Gabe promoted to third chair last month, and Alice keeping it up as third chair of the Psychological Evaluations Department, we might actually be getting somewhere finally.”

“Correction, Roberto,” Talib interjected, “I wasn’t the one who typed up the report. It was my partner here, Jericho.”

“The ELPIS guy? Really?”

The guy who gets paid to play spot the difference? Really? 

“I’m not with ELPIS,” Jericho said. “It’s rude for you to say that.”

Roberto scoffed. “I still don’t get why Gabrielle roped you into this to begin with. She wants to create a big and good name for herself in order to head Ophiuchus, but she took you in. With a background like that, you’re bound to ruin her reputation.”

“Not many people know of my former association with ELPIS,” Jericho corrected. “Only the first chairs of the departments and the head chairman of Ophiuchus know. And Alice. And you all.” And the other five. “I don’t use my conductor often.”

“Roberto, how could you say something like that?” Ferris interjected. “We’ve been working with him for months now and you can see how dedicated he is. I can’t believe you.”

“That’s not what you said when you found out the first time he used to be a part of ELPIS,” Roberta scoffed. “You told me you were scared of him.”

Jericho paused and stared at Ferris. “Really?”

“I—”

“Enough,” Alice said, putting her salad down on the island table. “Even though Gabrielle is away, we need to keep consistent with our work. There is no point in remaining in the same position. We all need to work to elevate our rankings, including you, Roberto—”

“Hey, I’m trying—”

“Yes, Roberto is merely being stagnated by the Organization’s machinations—”

“Talib, be quiet—”

Jericho watched them fire back and forth.

In the past couple of months, Jericho had found that his social circle had increased somewhat. The addition of Olivier, Lavi, Cadence, Werner, Maria, and Atienna had already increased Jericho’s circle from one to seven. He was quite happy with his progress, although he could not inform Alice of it due to the group’s agreement of secrecy. Therefore when he was introduced by Talib to the individuals who were in Gabrielle’s inner circle, he supposed he had been something akin to ‘happy’ since Alice was able to see this progress.

“What are you looking at?” Roberto huffed suddenly causing Jericho to realize he’d been staring at the man.

“Nothing,” Jericho replied, looking away in favor of staring at Alice’s salad.

Jericho wondered if Roberto was someone who could even be considered a friend. He made a mental note to inquire Alice about it later. Or maybe Atienna or Cadence.

That aside, other than Gabrielle herself, three other people who were a part of Gabrielle’s ‘inner circle’ were missing from the luncheon.

The first was Moraeni, a man from Piscese who apparently knew Izsak and Gabrielle during the war. He worked in the Licensing Department and had a rather busy schedule. Cadence had tried several times to convince Jericho to “butter Moraeni up” so that Olivier could more easily pass the State Conducting Exam. Jericho hadn’t understood what she’d meant but Werner, Atienna, and Olivier had all shut down the idea.

Whenever Jericho would pass Moraeni in the hallways, the Piscese man would always give Jericho a wink and a small smile before rushing off to his next evaluation. Jericho would try his best to return the gesture. That was what their relationship amounted to.

Then there was Elizabeta. Wtorek Elizabeta.

Despite being apparently a significant part of Gabrielle’s operations, Elizabeta seldomly made her appearance. She was a Transmutationist in the Medical Department of Ophiuchus which was one of the busiest departments in the organization alongside General Investigations, Assignments, and Licensing. She was most likely preoccupied with her largest case. That of Izsak.

Izsak. Wtorek Izsak.

An Ophiuchian Conjuror originally from Taurus. Someone Alice, Talib, and Gabrielle respected. Someone Olivier was fond of. Someone who had been a part of Gabrielle’s inner circle. Someone who had tried to kill Olivier for being a True Conductor. Someone who had become a member of ELPIS. Correction, someone who had been manipulated via Manipulator into working with ELPIS.

Needless to say, Wtorek Izsak was also a no show.

The last no show was Flannery Caertas, but Jericho did not find her not being present unusual. She was not a peacekeeper by profession. And she apparently only swung by in their first meeting because she was well acquainted with Alice and Talib. Jericho was confused about the relation there, but he did not question it. “She’s the money bags,” Roberto had told him one day when he had been in one of his better moods.

Their luncheon concluded half an hour later, and they all headed back to their respective departments within the Serpens Establishment. While on the way back to the General Investigations Department, Talib excused himself to the toilet leaving Jericho to stand out in the hall waiting for him.

“Traitor.”

At the sudden whisper that tickled the back of his neck, a sense of deja vu whipped through Jericho’s mind and something akin to a chill ran up his spine. Jericho turned his head in the direction of the whisper but all he found was Ferris Hart.

“Hey, Jericho,” she said when she approached him, “sorry if I startled you—”

“You did not startle me.”

Ferris chuckled. “Oh, okay. Uhm…what Roberto said earlier. I—”

“It is okay if you are afraid of me,” Jericho stated, offering her a thumbs up since it seemed customary and appropriate. “I won’t force you to change how you feel.”

Ferris looked sad when he said this, but he couldn’t understand why.

***

His weekly session with Alice saw to them dissecting the contents of a small leather journal.

“I’ve noticed that you’ve been adding drawings to the weekly journal entries I’ve been requiring you to write,” Alice noted, flipping through the journal in question.

That was true.

After Jericho’s incident in the Twin Cities several months prior, Alice had begun requiring him to detail his thoughts, feelings, and activities in weekly journal entries which she would go over the following week.

His first journal entry had read, “Given advice by C. Suggested to use Ophiuchian badge to get occasional free drinks. Informed C that I do not drink alcohol.” The next entry read: “Spoke with Doctor Kingsley. Spoke with Talib. A stated interest in my journal. Spoke with member of ELPIS Department. Denied requested information. Will try again later.”

Alice had not been pleased at these entries, although she voiced her interest in ‘C’ and ‘A’ and only seemed mildly put off when he declined to speak on them.

The transition from writing in the journal entries to drawing in them had been a smooth one. When Jericho initially received the journal from Alice, he hadn’t been sure of what she wanted from the entries and had spent his free time staring at the blank journal page in thought. But it was during one of the first synchronization meetings that Werner held that Jericho had begun to sketch absentmindedly in the corner of his journal. He rendered the Capricornian Lieutenant in stick-figure form wearing a frown and the Ariesian prince with a scowl and fire spewing from his mouth. Olivier had noticed it first, glancing down at the drawing before snickering. Werner hadn’t been pleased and had made his displeasure known in a concise five-minute lecture. “A hobby was acceptable,” was something along the lines of what he’d said, “but a distraction was not.”

Afterward, Atienna had taken interest in his drawings and had suggested that he continue them in his spare time as to “have something to take his mind off of things”. Maria had asked for him to draw all sorts of things. He wasn’t sure if some of those things existed but tried to complete the requests anyway. Which landed him here with Alice squinting at a cat with bat wings.

“I was told it was customary to ‘doodle’.” Jericho stared. “This is not what you wanted?”

“Why would you assume that?” Alice asked tersely. She leaned back in her chair with crossed arms. “What you’ve drawn here has told me more than what you’ve written and spoken about in all of our sessions.” For a moment, Jericho thought he saw her smile. “They’re nice, Jericho. Continue them. But I am curious as to what’s inspired them though.”

Praise?

And then she stared at him with her piercing blue eyes.

Again he found himself wondering if she could somehow hear his thoughts. Maybe, he thought, she would be able to pry the other five from his mind if she stared long enough. He couldn’t let that happen. He broke off eye contact and stared at the corner of her desk.

“I’ve noticed that you haven’t mentioned ELPIS recently in your entries or in our sessions save for your recent interview with the ELPIS Department,” Alice drew suddenly. “What are your thoughts on Wtorek Izsak’s condition?”

“The Medical Department says that it’s complex. The manipulation. They’re having a hard time transmuting the Manipulator’s vitae from Izsak. Elizabeta would know more about this than me.”

“Yes, that’s what they say.” Alice raised her head. “And Elizabeta is only able to perform transmutations along the guidelines that they’ve provided her with. She’s told me that it’s been difficult to even do that.” She began tapping her fingers on the surface of her desk, her manicured nails click-clacking. “You’ve seen how suppression cuffs affect individuals who have been manipulated firsthand, Jericho.”

Recalling Leize’s groaning and stuttering, Jericho nodded. “Yes.”

“This detail hasn’t been released yet but Elizabeta has told me that the suppression cuffs render Izsak fully unconscious.” She shook her head. “And that implies that Izsak isn’t under such manipulation—something that Elizabeta refuses to believe…. As much as I believe in Izsak’s character, these are the facts. But there is something missing. The head of the Medical Department is still labeling this as a manipulation case despite everything. Something here isn’t fitting. I don’t like it.”

“Is that something Talib has said?”

Alice frowned. “Don’t insult me, Jericho.”

Jericho stiffened under her gaze.

But then she shook her head and pinched the bridge of her nose before reclining back in her seat with a sigh. “Forget I said anything.” She handed Jericho his journal back before reaching under her desk to pull out a leather, diamond-studded handbag. “Continue your journal entries, Jericho. And feel free to leave whenever you’re ready.”

Jericho accepted the journal.

Alice paused as she rounded the desk and seemed to evaluate him in the silence. After a beat, she said, “Elizabeta asked me to invite you to come down to the Black Constellation Center to visit Izsak.”

Jericho cocked his head. “Why? I wasn’t close to Wtorek Izsak.”

Olivier was.

“I’m surprised you’re not more interested in it to begin with given your goal,” Alice returned after studying Jericho for a beat. She then sighed: “Elizabeta’s being selfish most likely. I wasn’t going to even mention it. But given your recent journal entries, I thought it might be a good exercise. I’m also curious about it myself so I can’t deny I have a reason either.”

Jericho thought on it for a moment. “For you, Alice, okay. Izsak is not a real member of ELPIS but since he is being used by them, I will assist.”

Offering either a hum of approval of a sigh of disapproval, Alice departed from the office leaving Jericho in silence.

“Traitor.”

This time the whisper ghosted Jericho’s ear. When he turned his head, however, he only saw the awards and certificates dotting Alice’s wall.

A ghost of a memory? The blurring between reality and past illusions hadn’t happened in a while. What was it that Alice had said? Focus on a single point.

Jericho focused on a point on the wall. It was painted white, he realized.

White. ELPIS.

He wasn’t forgetting, was he? Forgetting ELPIS? Forgetting what they’d done? Forgetting that feeling?

He gripped the journal tightly, crinkling the pages beneath his fingernails.

No. He would never forget. His reason for being.


Suppression cuffs are a newly added addition of required equipment to be carried by Ophiuchian peacekeeping agents at all times. These items will suppress the vitae flow within a suspect who is capable of using a conductor and will render them unconscious. Going forth, each agent is to carry at least two suppression cuffs while out on investigations at all times.

Additional information: The discovery of these devices was made by Agent Leona of the ELPIS Investigations Department, and they have been tested thoroughly. Usage on victims being illegally manipulated will suppress the Manipulator’s vitae and allow the victim to operate at a somewhat normal capacity until the Manipulator’s vitae is removed. 

Mass Department Update posted in the main hall of the Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus, Post Date: 31.08.1941

1.6: Jericho Track

Re-cap:

Peacekeeper Jericho has just been assigned an investigative mission regarding a Capricornian-Aquarian border conflict out near Gradstall. His evaluator Doctor Kngsley gravely has shown her disaproval of his joining of the mission due to his nature.

As he prepared to leave Ophiuchus, however, he was pushed down the stairs and gravely injured by a mysterious individual.

Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

“The Conductors from the Medical Department have cleared me for travel.”

“So they have,” Alice Kingsley returned thickly. She sat across from him at her desk with crossed legs and arms. In front of her was a file with his name on it. She clicked her tongue. “The times certainly are tense.”

“Yes,” Jericho said after a beat. “If you clear me too, I can aid the Ophiuchian mission for peace.”

Alice waved him off. “Don’t try that with me. I’ve told you many times before—it doesn’t work with me.” She leaned forward and stared into him. “Let me get this clear. You’re insisting that you fell down the stairs.”

“I tripped,” Jericho amended.

“A trip that left you a bloody mess at the front of our SERPENS Establishment.”

Jericho nodded. “I am a klutz.”

Silence.

Alice did not smile. Jericho was unsure how to react.

“I can’t help people who don’t seek help themselves,” Alice clipped, tapping her fingers on his portrait photograph clipped to the file. “Since you’re insisting that you merely tripped, there is no evidence at present that allows me to hold you back.”

“So,” Jericho tried, “I’ve been cleared?”

“You’ve been reassigned.”

Jericho blinked. “Reassigned?”

“The team handling the Capricornian-Aquarian conflict has already departed,” Alice explained. “They left while you were in the Medical Department.”

“… Oh.”

“Instead, you’re being assigned to a missing person’s case,” Alice continued. She studied him, then made a sound that he assumed was a laugh. “No need to look disappointed. Any case assigned to an Ophiuchian is high profile. But even if that weren’t the case, shouldn’t someone who’s chosen to serve as an Ophiuchian agent not care whether or not something is high profile? Are we not called by those outside these borders as neutral peacekeepers?”

“Yes.”

Alice leaned back in her chair and studied him long and hard before she elaborated: “The missing individual is an Ophiuchian agent.”

Jericho perked up at this.

“You may have heard of her. Leona.”

“Leona.”

“The soon-to-be Chairman of the ELPIS Department, and an individual who completed the State Conductor Exam with the second highest score of all time. And a saint candidate.” Alice laced her fingers together and frowned. “The very fact that no one has seen her face and yet everyone knows these things highlights her position in our current world. Some say she is even the symbol of Ophiuchus. Peace.” Alice seemed to chuckle at the thought.

After wondering if he should laugh along, Jericho tried, “That’s… bad.”

There was a long pause of silence.

“I don’t know all the details, but the agent was last seen in the Twin Cities of Gemini,” Alice finally said, closing the folder gently. “And it seems as if you were granted your wish. This may involve ELPIS, although the uncertainty of it has not allowed the ELPIS Department to be dispatched.” She pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “Your train is to depart in an hour, so it’s best that you get ready. It would be unfortunate if you were to miss it again.”

* * *

Jericho arrived at the Grand Snake Train Station with a single suitcase in hand. In it was one change of clothes and his conductor.

The station was as busy as usual. Ophiuchian Conductors dressed in their monochrome uniforms crowded the platforms and left little room to breathe. Wrapped around many of their right upper arms was a white sash with the Ophiuchian symbol—the letter U with a wave running through its center—emblazoned on it. Interspersed between the agents were a handful of individuals who were not dressed in monochrome. Rather than boarding the trains, they were leaving them. They were most likely citizens here to submit requests for aid.

“Mister Jericho…?”

Jericho blinked down and found a young woman standing at his side. She was very small and slender. Tiny. He would not have even seen her if it weren’t for that pink.

Bubblegum pink. That was the color of her pixie-cut.

“You are Mister Jericho, right? Of the General Investigations Department?”

Jericho nodded.

“I’m Ferris Hart. Cancerian.” She extended her hand. “I work in the Assignment Department.”

Jericho stared at her hand for a moment before he shook it. For some odd reason, her face lit up at this and she cleared her throat and straightened her uniform.

“Please follow me, and I’ll introduce you to who you’ll be working with.”

Jericho followed the young woman through the crowd and nearly ran into her when she stopped short in front of a signpost. He glanced up. Platform 2, it read.

Two men and one woman stood by the sign, all dressed in monochrome suits. One man stood leaning against the post with his arms crossed, wearing a trench coat over his uniform and a homburg hat tipped over his eyes.

“Hey, everyone,” Ferris greeted them with a small wave before clearing her throat. She stepped to the side and gestured to Jericho. “This is Jericho. He’s been assigned the missing person’s case. Please introduce yourselves.”

The agent who introduced himself first stood a head taller than Jericho. He had curly light brown hair that was haphazardly slicked back. The pair of horn-rimmed glasses perched on his hawk nose made his hazel eyes seem twice as large.

“Wtorek Izsak—Izsak being my first name,” the man said with a bright smile as he extended his hand. He wore thick gloves lined with metal. “From Taurus. Conjurer. Happily married. Proud father. Bad vision.” He gestured to Jericho’s own square glasses. “We’re twins.”

“Jericho,” Jericho said, shaking his hand and studying his face. Something about it was familiar. “Not married. Or a father.”

Izsak stared at him for a long moment before he barked out a laugh and clapped Jericho hard on the back. “Gabe, looks like we’ve got one of the good ones!”

The one nicknamed Gabe stepped forward to shake Jericho’s hand. She was roughly his height and had dark skin and a dark rope of hair tied high into a ponytail. There were dark circles beneath her eyes but the smile beneath them was a blinding white.

“Gabrielle Law,” the woman said. “I’m originally from Aries. Lived in the countryside. I’m an Elementalist. I’ve heard a lot about you from Doctor Kingsley—er, is everything okay?”

Jericho found himself unable to release the woman’s hand. Unable to remove his eyes from the woman’s face. There was something about it that itched at his memory.

“Have we met before?” Jericho tried, still shaking the woman’s hand. “On another assignment?”

Gabrielle searched Jericho’s face. “No, I don’t think so.” She glanced down at their still ongoing handshake. “But it’s good to hear that you’ve heard of me… er…”

That wasn’t it. There was something else. Something about Gabrielle Law that was very nostalgic. Familiar. Jericho was certain.

“You…” Jericho was close now. Close to the answer. “You are… someone who looks like they have a terrible personality.”

Gabrielle stared. Ferris stared. Izsak stared. The unintroduced man stared.

Jericho released Gabrielle’s hand and covered his mouth. “I didn’t mean to say that out loud.” He paused. “Oh. I mean—”

Izsak threw his head back as a laugh tore through his body. He slapped Gabrielle hard on the back and wiped a tear from his eye. “Told you, you can’t get everyone on your side.” And then he leaned forward and gave Jericho a cuff on the shoulders. “You’ve got a good eye.”

“I am sorry.”

Gabrielle looked nonplussed. Unaffected. Maybe she was too tired to care. It seemed that way because the woman soon yawned and rubbed her eyes. “None taken. Can’t please everyone.”

Then the final agent in the trench coat stepped forward. He regarded Jericho with charcoal-colored eyes. His hair was the same shade of black, and his curls were barely tamed by his hat. A mole dotted his cheek right below his left eye.

After a very long pause, the man pulled down his hat. “The name is Talib al-Jarrah. Manipulator Conductor of Scorpian descent.”

Jericho reached out his hand.

Talib studied it before rubbing his chin. “I noticed that you have yet to say where you’re from or to state your conducting form. Why is that?”

“That’s—”

“Is it because you’re working for the Organization?”

Jericho felt his heart skip a beat. He frowned. “The Organization?”

“Yes, the Organization.” Talib nodded gravely before leaning in close and whispering in Jericho’s ear. “The ones orchestrating everything since the very beginning. The ones behind everything.”

“The ones behind everything?”

Before Talib could elaborate, Ferris cut in-between them. Her face was red. Jericho couldn’t tell whether she was angry or embarrassed.

“Talib!” Ferris snapped. “Not this again! Other agents will avoid going on assignments with you if you keep doing this!”

“Avoid me, Miss Hart?” Talib scoffed. “They only avoid me because they know that I’m onto them.” He leaned in close again. “The Organization is afraid of what I know.”

Jericho stared. “What?”

“Talib is our resident conspiracy enthusiast,” Izsak provided, looking more amused than anything else. “Sure makes the train rides go by fast. My favorite is the one about bubble wands being secret weapons of mass destruction.”

“You call it conspiracy,” Talib drew with a tip of his hat. “I call it the hidden truth.” He whipped his head round in Izsak’s direction and then formed a circle with both of his hands. “How you can even view bubble wands as a child’s toy baffles me. The chemicals laden in them make us all complacent!” He turned to Jericho again, clenching his fists. “The Organization is nefarious and clever. They’ve even found their way into Ophiuchus through the Assignment Department.”

Ferris threw up her hands. “Oh, so you’ve finally found our links to your Organization, have you?”

“Aha!” Talib pointed a finger at her face. “So you’ve admitted it! You are affiliated with them!”

“I don’t mean to interrupt your flirting,” Jericho interjected. “But I didn’t realize there would be so many people on this assignment.”

Ferris and Talib paused with their mouths ajar. Their cheeks reddened in unison, and their gazes met. In the background, Izsak chortled.

“That’s not—” Talib began.

Ferris cleared her throat and straightened her uniform. “Actually, Gabrielle and Izsak are on a different assignment, but they’ll be riding along with you partway.”

“A different assignment,” Jericho repeated.

Ferris cast a glance sideways as she dug into her bag. “Yes, it’s one that involves Leona—the subject of your missing person’s case.” She procured two manila envelopes stuffed with papers and handed them to Jericho and Talib. “The details are inside, but in short, before her disappearance, she was investigating a lead on a party we believed to be involved in an Ariesian assassination plot.”

“A party,” Jericho stated. He received odd looks.

“From the stories I’ve heard, Leona is a very skilled Conductor,” Ferris continued quietly. She glanced around. “I didn’t think anyone would be able to lay a hand on her, but if there were anyone able to then it’d be…”

ELPIS.

Yes, it had to be.

ELPIS.

Finally, he would be able to—

“But we still don’t know for sure.” Ferris waved the idea off. “At least until you and Talib investigate. If you find any possibility that ELPIS may be involved, you are to report back to the ELPIS Department.”

Jericho blinked out of his thoughts. So he was working with Talib Al-Jarrah, then.

“Anyways, the lead that Leona was looking into turned out to be true.” Gabrielle ran a hand down her face. “Which is why Izsak and I are heading to Aries. And since we’re riding together, it’d be a good opportunity to exchange information.” She laughed a bit as she studied Jericho. “And get to know our fellow agents.”

Jericho paused. “Aries. The assassination.”

“Yes.” Ferris nodded. She looked grim. “I heard you were in the Medical Department when it happened, but… There was an assassination attempt on the prince of Aries.”

Jericho’s shoulder throbbed with an odd phantom pain and he reached up to rub it. “I see.”

* * *

The four of them boarded the v-train half an hour after and found their way to their assigned compartment. Two booths faced each other within the compartment. Between them was a small table nailed to the floor.

Jericho took the window seat and Talib sat beside him. Gabrielle and Izsak sat across from them.

As the other agents became situated, Jericho spied out the window. From the sea of agents, he could barely make out Ferris’s bright pink head. She was waving. He raised his hand to wave back.

The train started up a second later and began to roll along the tracks. The compartment rumbled with each click, clack, click, clack. The horn bellowed.

The crowds of Ophiuchian agents standing on the platforms flitted past the window in a monochrome blur as the train pulled out of the station. The monochrome soon faded into pure white as the light from the central vitae reservoir pulled into view. It was even brighter than the sun. So white and bright that it was blinding.

Jericho held his stomach as it churned. He turned his eyes away from the window and flipped through the files he’d been provided. Odd. There was no picture of Leona inside. How were they supposed to find her if—

“So, Jericho, tell us a bit about yourself.”

Jericho glanced up and found Gabrielle studying him. Despite the fact she looked as if she was about to doze off, her lips were upturned in a smirk. A very odd combination.

“I’ve already made friends with Talib and Izsak here since we’ve been on a lot of assignments together,” Gabrielle continued. “I’ve seen you around, but we’ve never had the chance to talk.” She crossed her arms and gestured toward him. “I’d like to hear about you. Maybe we could be friends, too.”

There was some underlying intention in the woman’s words, Jericho knew. But he didn’t know what. Perhaps he was overthinking it.

“Aw, don’t haze the kid,” Izsak chuckled. “You can’t bring everyone under your umbrella.” He leaned forward and dug into his suit pocket. A burst of amber light erupted from the pocket, and out from the light, Izsak procured a fluffy, white object. An object that Izsak pushed forward with a wink.

Jericho stared at the offering in confusion before he took it in his hands. It was soft to the touch and had a pair of flopping ears, a pair of misshapen eyes, and a lopsided smile. A stuffed animal. Which animal, Jericho wasn’t sure.

“You know if you were going to get your Conducting License just to conjure up things like that,” Gabrielle sighed with a shake of her head, “you could have just been a stage magician.”

Jericho glanced at Izsak’s hands—rather, his gloves. They were conductors, it seemed.

“Hey, can’t believe I’m hearing that from you,” Izsak snapped back at Gabrielle. “I need to practice for Csilla, alright? You know how hard it is for Conjurers to do these kinds of things. We need to picture every single nook and cranny of the things we conjure down to the details. Anyway, Csilla loves this stuff.” Izsak glanced at Jericho and broke into a smile. “Csilla is my daughter. Here, let me show you.” Before Jericho even had the chance to digest the conjured stuffed animal, Izsak shoved yet another object into his face. A photograph.

A smiling young girl with light brown hair braided into twin pigtails sat covered in dirt next to a smiling woman. Their smiles were identical as were their light brown eyes.

“Right next to her is my wife, Elizabeta,” Izsak explained as he shook the photograph back and forth. “She works as an agent, too—people think Csilla takes more after her since Csilla took the V-Type Test and it said that she’s a Transmutationist like her mother, but we all know she’s a daddy’s girl.” A deep breath. “Did you know that she was almost chosen to be saint candidate too—my little Csilla!”

“You really have no shame.” Gabrielle sighed again.

Glancing between the two, Jericho found himself frowning. “I don’t understand.”

“You don’t understand?” Izsak pulled back and glanced at the photo. He chuckled again. “About what?”

“You and your wife work as Ophiuchian peacekeepers. You have a daughter.” Jericho frowned. “It’s one of the most dangerous professions. There are other Conducting License jobs. Better salary. Safer. Your daughter could lose both of you, and she would be left with nothing. I don’t understand.”

Izsak exchanged a look with Gabrielle, who exchanged the look with Talib. Jericho was also confused by his own behavior. Normally, he didn’t engage this much with his associates. It was too difficult. And Gabrielle and Izsak weren’t even on the same assignment as him. So why…?

Jericho’s temple throbbed.

There was a beat of silence.

“Well, it’s because we love our daughter so much that we chose to be agents,” Izsak replied as he sank back into his chair and pocketed the photo. He stared out the window with half a smile. “I want her to live in a better world than this.”

It was then that Gabrielle leaned forward, propped her elbows on the table, and rested her chin on her folded hands. She stared at Jericho in a way that reminded him of Alice. “And you? Why are you working in Ophiuchus, Jericho?”

* * *

Twin Cities, Gemini

Jericho wasn’t sure when or how he had dozed off, but when Talib shook him awake, the sky beyond the window was pitch black.

Jericho stepped onto the platform before the others since his suitcase was much smaller and lighter. Easier to remove from the compartments.

As soon as he stepped out of the train, he took in a deep breath and tasted salt from the nearby ocean port and soot from the nearby conductor manufacturing plant. It was an unpleasant, yet nostalgic taste. But the nostalgia was odd as he’d never been to the Twin Cities before. Never had an assignment directing him to the location. How had he even known there was a conductor manufacturing plant nearby?

He brushed the thought aside.

The platform was dotted only by a handful of people and was sparsely lit by v-lamps that ran parallel along the train tracks. He made his way to the metal railing at the very end and peered over its edge.

A fractured city unfolded beneath him. The buildings glimmered with faint light like tiny stars and a spider web of streets ran between them. Right below him ran a large river that split the city in two. The river stretched far into the darkness—so far that the light from the city couldn’t unveil it.

Talib joined him, lugging along a very large and black suitcase. Dropping it to the ground with a sigh, Talib panted out, “Yes, it’s quite the sight. This Dioscuri Bridge here is in fact one of the most famous attractions in all of Gemini.” After a beat, Talib added, “I believe the Organization is using this as a gathering place for their secret meetings.”

“I see.” Jericho leaned closer against the railings.

“Careful with Mr. Giggles there,” came Izsak’s good-natured laugh.

“Mr. Giggles.” Jericho blinked before he looked down at his hands. In his left was his suitcase, and in his right—Oh. He was still holding the stuffed animal. Was he the strange one here or was it Izsak?

He turned and found Gabrielle and Izsak standing right behind him. Both were carrying heavy suitcases.

“Our train to Aries leaves in a couple minutes,” Izsak said as he jerked his thumb backward. “So we won’t be seeing each other for a while.” He pointed to Mr. Giggles. “But you can keep him.”

“I don’t want to,” Jericho said, staring at the thing. He glanced up to find an amused-looking Gabrielle and a startled Izsak. “Oh. I didn’t mean to be rude.”

“It’s fine.” Izsak waved him off. “But I insist you keep it.”

“He just doesn’t want to have to lug it to Aries,” Gabrielle elaborated as she closed the distance between her and Jericho to shake hands. “Anyways, I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot of each other in the future,” she said, giving his hand one last shake. She smiled thinly before she turned to leave with a loose wave. “It was nice getting to know you.”

Izsak offered the same formality before turning on his heels. “Oh, I remember now!” The man chuckled again as he joined Gabrielle’s side. “The reason it was so funny that Jericho said you have a terrible personality. That’s what the prince said to you the first time you met him.”

Jericho stared after the two before Talib cleared his throat.

“Those are good people, Mr. Jericho,” Talib said as he picked up his suitcase. He walked toward the exit and inclined his head, indicating that Jericho follow. “I hope we can be as good as them.”

After stuffing the plushie into his suitcase, Jericho followed after him.

The descent to the city from the bridge station was long. The stone stairs that led to the inner city seemed to extend forever, both downward and to the sides.

“These stairs,” Talib grumbled from beside him. “The Organization probably built them this way to weaken us.”

“Right,” Jericho replied, not even glancing in his direction.

Their footfalls echoed in the silence that followed.

“Can never get used to the looks,” Talib said from beside him.

“The looks.”

“When people recognize our uniforms,” Talib elaborated.

Jericho glanced around. Although there were not many people walking up and down the stairs, the people who were present eyed them. The stares weren’t subtle. Many were outright ogling.

“Seeing how this city is run…” Talib grunted as he lugged along his suitcase. It looked even heavier than he was. “I can’t tell if those are looks of admiration or looks of ‘get out of my city!’”

Jericho reached over and plucked Talib’s suitcase out of his hands. “How is this city run?”

“Oh, my thanks, Mr. Jericho,” Talib said, dusting off his hat and shaking off his arms. He straightened his cap before he elaborated, “Yes, there are many organized crime groups running the city.”

“And Ophiuchus allows them?”

Talib thought for a moment before answering. “After the war, they helped reshape the economy of this country. Without them, Gemini would never have become the powerhouse it is today.” He slid his hands into his coat pockets. “The crime groups also act as a quasi-police force and help reduce crime.” A side-glance. “Their competition. Plans of regulation have been discussed in our advisory board, but nothing concrete has been set yet. For now, they are a necessary evil. Besides, it’s a bit of a foible since there hasn’t been any evidence of the need for Ophiuchian intervention. We don’t want to overstep our bounds. It’s best practice to leave it to Gemini’s own security forces to handle it. As much as I hate the idea.”

“I see.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t know about them, Mr. Jericho.”

Jericho ruminated a response. Finally, he said, “I’ve been living under a rock.”

Talib stared. “Was that a joke?”

“No.”

They reached the street level ten minutes later.

The buildings here scratched at the sky, leaving only a crack of star-dotted blackness above their heads. A narrow one-lane road unfolded a couple of meters in front of them, and it was sandwiched between two enormous sidewalks. Although the road was empty, the walkways were spotted with ambling pedestrians.

“Well, it’s getting late,” Talib said from beside him as he rubbed his chin. “We should stop at an inn for the night. You—”

Before Talib could finish, a small body collided into the man’s own with such force that it knocked his hat clean off. The offender was a teary-eyed child. A boy. A distinctive scar ran diagonally across the boy’s face.

“I’m so, so sorry,” the boy stammered as he bent down to pick up Talib’s fallen hat. He handed it to the man with shaking hands. “I didn’t mean to—” His eyes widened as he seemed to register the monochrome uniform hidden beneath Talib’s trench coat.

“It’s all right.” Talib waved him off as he accepted the hat. “But you should—”

The boy took off in the opposite direction before Talib could finish.

“Well, that was rude—”

But Jericho was heading off in another direction too. Jericho could hear Talib sputter in confusion behind him, but he, too, was confused by his own actions. He moved forward as if being led along by an unknown force. A string pulling him along the streets.

The streets. He knew these streets. He knew these streets like the back of his hand. A turn here, a turn there. How did he know these streets? His head pounded; his stomach flipped. His footsteps echoed around the alleyways.

He came to an abrupt stop—strings cut—in front of a strip with wooden barricades along its front. The strip housed a collection of shops. A coffee shop. A bookshop. And between the two was a pile of ash and rubble. Singed wooden planks and shards of glinting glass protruded from the ash pile. A store must have been there before. Jericho could almost see it in his mind’s eye. A tavern, maybe, with a rustic brown roof and fogged-up windows. Dimly lit, maybe, with smoke from v-cigs and regular cigs clouding up the air.

It was nothing now. Carved from its place. Unsalvageable.

Jericho drifted past the barricades and approached the remains slowly. Ash and wood and glass crunched beneath his feet.

“TwinStars…” He murmured to himself. The name slid off his tongue easily, like it was something he would toss around often. Which he knew was not the case. He crouched down and sifted through the ash in thought.

A second later, Talib emerged from the alleyway behind. He was panting heavily and doubled over once he saw Jericho standing amidst the debris. When he recovered himself, Talib approached Jericho with raised brows: “How did you know about this place? It wasn’t mentioned in the debriefing file.”

“This place. What is it?”

Talib gave him an odd look and scratched his chin. “This was an establishment run by the Foxman brothers.” He frowned. “If you didn’t know that then how did you—”

“The Foxman brothers?” The name felt familiar on Jericho’s tongue.

Talib studied him for a moment in silence before nodding. “Yes, one of the crime families I mentioned earlier. Like I was saying, I arranged an audience for tomorrow morning with both the Foxmans and the head of the Romano Family. They know everything that happens in this city, so they must know something about the disappeared Miss Leona.”

Conjuror: a Conductor who falls into one of the five general conducting-type categories. Utilizing the vitae within themselves, they are able to craft physical objects. It requires a great deal of concentration and great knowledge of the physical properties of what is being conjured. (Living things have not yet been recorded to have been conjured. Research on this topic is extremely outlawed. Conjuring currency is also outlawed.)*

Conducting 101 by L.B. Ran with an addendum by the Literary Department of Ophiuchus