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.

11.5: 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.

10.( ): The People of Sin City

Re-cap:

The captive Fortuna, Allen, and Carl have learned of Theta’s true nature as Francis. The two crime organizations of the Twin Cities are at war. Comissario Vincente Giustizia—Tau—has learned what Omicron has kept hidden from Theta. Omega has been killed by Jericho. Young Matilda is still trying to figure out why her coworkers—her friends—are leaving their shipping business. 

The people of the Twin Cities prepare for the curtain call as something within ELPIS begins to change.

Fortuna requested another round of Itero Recino. Theta didn’t question her about it when returning alone several hours after ELPIS’s truth was revealed, didn’t even question Tau on how he became locked in the room with them. When Tau left after receiving another proto-conductor from him, Theta settled into the requested game as if nothing had happened.

However, instead of inquiring about another warehouse after winning the match, Theta asked her, “Why do you still insist on playing?”

Fortuna answered without answering. “Obviously, I have a question I want to ask.”

Fortuna Romano didn’t fear Theta. Not anymore, at least. She admitted she was afraid at first—but only because she’d never dealt with an organization like ELPIS before. But fear faded with familiarity. She had learned this firsthand. Sneering, towering executives in the family that made her shrink backwards were now playing pieces in the game. Conductors that she had been once afraid to touch, she now easily turned over in hand as she inspected them for salability.

“Perhaps I should lose a round and satiate my curiosity.” Theta chuckled when Fortuna stiffened.

“… Please do.”

Fortuna consulted Allen with a glance, moved a piece. “I assume that ‘Lambda’ has resolved your…. allergy issue?”

Theta didn’t look up at her, ate one of her pieces with his own. “Yes. ‘Lambda’… You’re observant. It’s a pity that you’ve spent your skills in less favorable professions.”

“And you?”

Theta met her eyes.

Fortuna knew she was straying the line between arrogance and bravery.

“I was a teacher before becoming what you call a terrorist,” Theta explained. “Is it customary not to think that a favorable profession?”

Fortuna glanced at Allen again. Ate two pieces. “It certainly is more favorable than being an executive in a crime organization, but I doubt it pays as well.”

Theta paused.

“I’m not a psychologist nor a Conductor by any means, but from what I understand, you’re still an executive of the Foxman Family. Don’t you think there’s a conflict of interest here?”

Theta moved a piece. “I have put some thought into it. A dichotomy exists. I won’t deny that. The fact that I trusted you to tell me the locations of the warehouses if I won proves that I am more influenced than I initially believed. Or maybe that shows my personal naivety.”

“Then—”

“But that’s why I can rely on Omicron,” Theta said. “If I can’t follow through, Omicron always will… I recommend that you find someone you can truly rely on too. Even if it’s just one person, that is all you need.”

It sounded like advice.

Silently, Fortuna moved a piece, leaping over six of his in one move. Theta stared at the board in mild disbelief. The only piece left on it was hers.

“You won.” Theta looked up. “What do you want to ask?”

Fortuna swallowed despite herself under Theta’s gaze. “I need time to think about it actually…”

Something abruptly flickered in Theta’s gaze. “The Romano Family has decoy warehouses.”

Fortuna pulled her hand away from the board and stiffened.

“Yes, you told me—Francis—when you were much younger. The higher-tier executives like the capos and you use the destruction of decoy warehouses to send signals to each other.” Theta studied her. “You deceived me.”

Fortuna remained like a statue.

Theta rose from his chair and stared down at her. “The people of this city do not make any sense to me. They lie and lie and lie habitually despite not changing the outcome. But rest assured. I will ensure you take responsibility for everything you’ve done.”


When Omicron stepped in half an hour later, there was a kid riding on her shoulders. She did a quick sweep of the room, looked disappointed that only her prisoners were present, and sent the kid back off through one of the gates with some sweets she’d brought in a bag.

“That doesn’t have nuts in there, does it?” Allen asked from beside Carl.

Omicron glanced at them. “No, it doesn’t.”

“If you guys are foodies, you should try givin’ him some beef wellington. It’s Francis’s favorite,” Carl said, shrugging. “If you’re gonna treat my brother, you gotta treat him damned right.”

Carl had a long conversation with the peacekeeper about Francis. Alice didn’t believe in coating words with false hopes, and Carl liked that about her. She’d said transmuting a small amount of a Manipulator’s vitae from a victim was already hard enough. Removing an entire person’s vitae was unheard of. But Carl was used to being dealt bad cards. Bad situations could be muscled into good situations.

Omicron looked them over.

“So how long have you two been together?” Carl continued as she set the bag of sweets down. “You and Theta.”

The gears in Omicron’s head were turning. Carl could tell she was trying to figure out what he wanted. He could also tell that she was in love. And from his experience with working with underlings who were in love, love tended to make people loose-lipped. Maybe even a bit stupid. And Carl knew all about being stupid.

“Sixty-nine years.”

Carl’s jaw hit the floor. “Saints… you’re old then.”

Omicron frowned.

“Anyway, how’d you guys meet?”

“Through work.”

There was something dignified in the way she held herself. Reminded Carl of the Ariesian royal guards he’d see pictures of in the newspapers.

“I don’t understand the people of this city,” she said. “One moment you’re terrified of me, the next you’re angry, and now you want to converse. You change face too quickly. Accept everything too easily. Complacency. Lack of self-discipline. No sense of responsibility… Your circumstances don’t change simply because Theta happens to be related to you.”

“Yeah, Theta said he could rely on you ‘bout that.” Carl shrugged. “But from my point of view, my brother just happens to be Theta.”

Omicron paused. “You’re taking it in well.”

Carl shrugged. “Cooled my head off. Thought a bit. Still wanna hunt down and strangle the bastard who did my brother in, but if you’re not pulling my leg about not bein’ involved in what happened to him, then you’re not on the list.”

“And this is after you’ve put some thought into my position as your captor and executioner?”

“Yeah, Francis ain’t gonna go through with that.” Carl waved her off with his head. “I know my brother.”

“And I know Theta.”

“Theta’s an explosion enthusiast then?”

Omicron went silent.

“When you guys get married?”

Omicron cleared her throat.

Carl did a double-take. “…The hell? You’re slapping matching tattoos on each other’s faces, callin’ each other pet names, been together for over sixty years, and you’re not married?”

“They were different times,” Omicron huffed, straightening her suit.

The love-struck stupidity was leaking through.

“So you weren’t lyin’ when you said you’re from way back when,” Carl continued. “So you know what’s what when it comes to modern tech. That mean Theta doesn’t know how to use a telephone?” He glanced at Allen. “They didn’t have those back then… right?”

“Theta did struggle quite a bit…” Omicron admitted before she chuckled lightly. “It was actually a bit cute…” Omicron sighed fondly at some memory before turning to them tersely. “You have no idea how fortunate you are to have these things. But instead of working further to develop them, you decide to develop weapons instead.” She shook her head. “It makes no sense to me.”

“They say you should never mix business and pleasure,” Agape interjected suddenly. “Working with your partner never works out. You’ll either lose sight of what you’re doing or of each other.”

Carl had thought that Agape had fallen asleep again with how quiet she’d been, but he figured it made sense that she’d speak up when it came to this kind of topic. She was in the business of love, after all.

“It must be very convenient,” Agape continued. “Your relationship. If you ever have a big fight, you’ll just forget about it the next time your resistors are used. Like it never happened.”

Omicron tensed. “That’s not—”

Theta entered the room before she finished.

Omicron made her way to Theta’s side and took his hand in her own.

Theta stared at her. “What is it?”

Omicron opened her mouth, closed it, smiled. Finally, she said, “I’ve been thinking. It’s something akin to a miracle that we’re here at the same time. I’m just hoping that you’ll hold my hand until the very end.”

“You’re a ridiculous person.” Theta sighed after a beat. He cupped her hand in his own and said gently. “You are my precious magpie. My hands may be cold, but I want to hold you in them for as long as possible. Every single time.”

Omicron’s expression fell slightly at the last remark.


Theta was alone perusing the bookshelves a couple of hours later. Allen cleared his throat to get the man’s attention. The other executives were watching him like a hawk. Let them, Allen thought. He didn’t give a damn. Not anymore.

“Trying to find something?” Allen asked.

“I’m trying to find our records from around ten years ago,” Theta murmured after a pause. “But, as I suspected, they must have been lost some time ago. As most of them are.”

“Why you looking for records?”

“Why do you think people wade through them?” Theta continued scanning the shelf. “I’m sure of it. I was definitely active then.”

Allen grunted in response.

“You feel guilty for what happened,” Theta said suddenly, turning to him. “But you don’t feel guilty for everything else that has happened due to your underground businesses. The fact that you are shipping weapons of mass destruction does not give you any pause. Cognitive dissonance.”

Allen thought of Francis bleeding out on the dirty alleyway floor surrounded by a circle of their men and he grimaced. “Comes with the business territory—”

“I’m not referring to Francis being stabbed with my resistor,” Theta interrupted. “I’m referring to your guilt about not being able to protect your brothers from all of your father’s abuses.”

Allen stiffened and felt his skin crawl. “So, you got some of those memories then.”

“Yes. It’s only a small amount at this point, but it’s enough for me to see that you were a good brother.” Theta returned his attention to the bookcase. “As they say, every child deserves better parents, but not every parent deserves a child.”

“Hey. It’s not normal to bring stuff like that up casually in public,” Allen said. “Not polite.”

“What happened with your father was beyond your control,” Theta continued regardless. “But what’s happening in this city isn’t.”

Allen didn’t feel like continuing on this path. Switched gears. “Sounds like you like kids.”

“They’re inheriting the world from us.” Theta turned to meet his eyes again. “Just like you inherited it from us.” Then Theta looked to the side. “Or maybe it’s more appropriate to say that we’re borrowing it from all of you…”

So damned gloomy. Not even close to matching the manic energy Allen had seen when Theta had taken them up to the Dioscuri Bridge earlier.

There was a flash of pale tangerine light from the corner of the room, and Iota suddenly stormed in. Wailing like a banshee, she knocked down bookcases, stomped out candles with her foot, toppled book stacks.

Allen noticed with muted surprise that the woman was missing her lower left arm. There was a bandage going around the stub’s end. Unsurprisingly, the handicap didn’t stop her from thrashing everything in her sights. She eventually roared her way over to Carl and lifted her fist with a snarl, but Theta stepped in between them without expression.

“Iota, enough,” Theta stated. “What is this really about?”

Iota froze and stared holes into him. Wordlessly, frigidly, she pulled something out from the folds of her dress and held it out to him. It was a resistor. There was something swirling at the very corner of its glass handle. A drop of white vitae that was barely larger than Allen’s two fingers put together.

“This is Omega’s,” Iota murmured. “She gave it to me right before she left to go put mediums at that warehouse like you told her to. She’s… returned to her resistor.” Iota’s face crumpled. “I knew something was off! I knew it, but I…”

Theta took it from her and studied it. “Omega must have encountered a peacekeeper. Most likely, she encountered the peacekeeper with the suitcase.”

“There’s barely anything of Omega left,” Iota pressed, voice cracking. “What are we going to do?”

“Nothing,” Theta responded after a pause. “We will continue our search for the third vitae reservoir, and we will continue collecting the explosive conductors we’ve stolen from their warehouses—”

“What?! How can we do nothing?!” Iota spat. She reached forward and wrapped her fingers around Theta’s hand that held the resistor. She snapped out a couple of words Allen didn’t understand and then she hissed, “I mean, look at what they did to her—”

“This fate is something we have all accepted, Iota,” Theta stated. “We died the moment we bleached our vitae, so there is nothing to be lost and there is nothing to be returned to the cycle. You know this. Omega knew this.”

Iota closed her mouth.

“Our individual lives don’t matter. They never have. It’s our purpose that does.”

“Our purpose…?” Iota gritted her teeth. “Well, we’re taking too damn long with that purpose! If we’d just sank the damn city and reservoirs and generator conductors when we were first all here, then this wouldn’t have happened!”

“Not everyone in this city deserves to die, Iota. We need to ensure the innocent and the children are properly accounted for. The third vitae reservoir is important. And Omicron also needs to handle the Campana—”

“The children?! The innocent?!” Iota recoiled. “What is with you and Omicron?! You both keep acting like the past several centuries haven’t happened! Omicron keeps speaking about honor and valor and righteousness, and you just…” Iota slapped her chest. “I have memories of the war. I’ve seen what the conductors—what people using them—can do firsthand. And those ‘children’ aren’t as innocent as you think! They’re cruel as all the other people in this city. And if not, they become cruel!” Iota shook her head. “Let’s just use the damn conductors and blow up the two damn vitae reservoirs. Screw the other one! Let’s just crack this city in two!”

“Our goal is not senseless destruction, Iota. Do not forget.” Theta’s stolidness hadn’t changed. “There needs to be a lesson.”

Faltering under Theta’s gaze, Iota turned away. She glared holes into Allen, let out a snarl, ripped a book from one of the book stacks, and chucked it against the wall. The book rebounded back, flew through the air, and clipped Theta in the temple. Theta didn’t even flinch, but Iota did.

“I—sorry—”

“You need to collect yourself,” was all Theta said. “Come back when you can think clearly.”

Iota dipped her head, nodded, and left through a portal using Theta’s proto-conductor.

“Uh…” Carl cleared his throat. “Thanks for the save…” He trailed off and swallowed.

Theta was staring down at the resistor in his hand, and his eyes were wet.

What a bluff.

“You’re bleeding,” Allen said after a beat. “You should get that looked at.”


Maximallian had been working for the Foxman brothers for over five years. Spent months proving himself. Worked his way up to become the brothers’ most trusted man. Made a name for himself in his home city. Used to be called Maximallian “The Mouse” Jarrick. Now was Max “The Jackal.”

But on that night over a month ago when he’d escorted Francis out of the casino, he became ‘the Mouse’ again. He was incapacitated by a bullet from the dark and didn’t see the face of the bastard who ended up ramming a knife right up his boss’s stomach.

Max’d thought then that if the bullet wound didn’t kill him, Francis would. That was how things were in the city, after all. But Francis didn’t kill him. Instead, the boss visited him at the hospital, looked him right in the eye, and said— “We’ll hunt the ones who did this down, Mr. Maximallian. I promise.”

But then Carl and Allen went missing. And with all the pressure of running the family on his own, Francis delegated Max to watch over the Rosario Round casino when Max got out of the hospital.

Max did the best that he could for someone who’d never run a casino before. But he still preferred bodyguarding. And because of his preferences, when Francis took a couple of the other men with him to the west side of the city without asking Max for help, Max was off-put. Felt a bit useless, put to the side. But he still continued looking after the casino.

Then the men the boss went out to the west side with came back saying that the boss randomly took off was nowhere to be found—all while Max was running the damn stupid casino. Some of the others abandoned ship due to loss of paycheck. Max considered but figured he’d invested too much time into his occupation to give in that easily.

But at the same time, Max had no idea what to do. Spent all his time thinking about it. Went through the liquor cabinet at the casino for emotional compensation.

So when a Sagittarian tourist stumbled into the casino one day, Max wasn’t really interested. Too busy thinking what to do. When the tourist mentioned the swindler sent him, Max’s interest piqued. And when the tourist told him that he’d seen Luigi and Feliciano together, Max was invested. When he learned that the tourist had actually witnessed the night the boss was stabbed, Max was obsessed.

“I thought it was some sort of street performance,” the tourist said, “but I did see that Luigi fellow running off after running into that… Francis fellow. I saw him a bit later when I was window shopping. He was speaking to that frightening Feliciano fellow.”

It took everything in Max not to use the tourist as a punching bag.

That damn bastard Luigi.

Several weeks prior, Francis had shown rare mercy after they’d brought Luigi in and beat him down. The boss had let him walk off scott-free with only two dozen bruises. Carl had argued against it, while Allen had watched on silently. Max couldn’t understand it. There had been secondhand accounts and everything, and yet still Mr. Francis had said— “That’s enough violence for today.”

“I saw that Francis fellow playing with some children several weeks ago, so he must’ve made a speedy recovery,” the tourist added. “He’s a Specialist, correct? That is quite an interesting ability…”

Ignoring the tourist’s mad and irrelevant ramblings, Max took a couple of men and went on a hunt. It didn’t take them long to find Luigi. He was at one of his usual gambling dens and was losing terribly at a round of poker. Max figured he was doing the man a favor by ripping him out of his seat.

As Max and the men he’d brought began beating Luigi within an inch of his life in an alleyway at the back of the gambling den, he started spilling his guts. Begged for forgiveness. Begged them not to tell the boss. Offered money.

And that just made Max want to beat him in more.

Just as they were about to pound Luigi into an early grave, a woman appeared in front of them out of nowhere. She was wearing a polka dot dress and was missing half an arm.

“I’ve been about what I need to do to make Theta move,” the woman said, staring at them wide-eyed before a slow grin crawled up her face. “But hearing you say all of that just makes me realize I just have to make Francis move.”

The next moments came in broken flashes.

The woman raised her gloved hand, and there was a click-clack, click-clack sound. And suddenly Max was thrown off of his feet and was sent flying backwards through a dizzying swirl of tangerine light. When he hit the ground, it was dark.

As Max’s eyes adjusted, he found himself not on the dirty alleyway floor but in a room lit only by candles. There were no doors, no windows. Only bookcases, book towers, and a group of people tied to chairs. Max glanced to his left. Luigi foundered around in confusion beside him. The polka dot dress woman stood behind him.

“What the—Max?!” a familiar voice shouted from the lined-up row.

Maximilian squinted at the bound people. Recognized half of them. Boss Carl. Boss Allen. Caporegime Agape Rosario.

“Boss?!”

“Stay right there, Max, don’t move,” Allen said calmly from where he was tied beside Carl.

Max surveyed the room again in confusion. A group of about five people crowded the bookcases to his right. The commissario Vincente Giustizia was among the group as were two of his officers.

As soon as the commissario locked eyes with him, he stormed forward and snapped at the polka-dot dress woman— “Iota, what is this?! What are you thinking?!”

A hand on the shoulder stopped Vincente short, and he stepped aside. Francis stood there behind him with an ELPIS tattoo smack on the right side of his face.

‘Shit’ was the only thought Max had.

“Iota… what are you doing?” Francis asked. He approached Max and stared down at him and then at Luigi. “Who are these people?”

Luigi let out an incomprehensible, while Max stared up in confusion.

“This guy,” Iota said, kicking Luigi in the ribs, “apparently is the one who stabbed Francis with your resistor.” She nudged Maximallian with her foot. “At least, according to this guy. Which means guy number one knows where our resistors are.”

Francis stared down at Luigi. “Were you the one who initiated me?”

Luigi scrambled forward, grabbing Francis’s pants leg. “I-I had to. It was Feliciano. His pop. I owed ‘em too much money. I—”

A woman with a tattoo on the left side suddenly bulldozed in and shoved Luigi backwards. She glowered at him before turning to assess Francis. But the boss’s eyes were glued to Luigi.

“Yes, I remember seeing you at that moment I was initiated.” Francis’s speech pattern sounded off. “Right after you shot Maximallian and Stefano in the chest, you shot Luci, Barto, and Marcelle right through the head. Why did you do that?” He stared into Luigi. “Were you aware that Marcelle was only sixteen years old? She was only a child.”

“L-Like I said,” Luigi stammered, scrambling, “i-it was—”

“Always diverting the blame when you are the one taking the action.”

Francis reached over and pulled out a knife holstered to Vincente’s belt. Luigi whimpered but startled when Francis turned the knife on himself. The boss sliced his own palm and drew blood before handing back the knife.

One of the boss’s hands was gloved in a conductor, Max realized then. An odd sight. Before Max could make heads-or-tails of it, Francis rushed forward and shoved his bleeding palm over Luigi’s mouth. Luigi jerked away, gagged, spit.

“W-What was that?!”

The boss wiped his bloodied palm onto his gloved hand before silently pressing that hand against Luigi’s chest. There was a pale tangerine glow beneath his gloved palm before his hand passed right through Luigi’s chest. When Francis pulled his hand out a second later, Luigi began gagging and scratching at his throat.

The man ripped open his shirt, revealing a circular lump the size of a fist just beneath the skin over his heart. He foamed, made an inhuman sound Max’d never before in all of his years working in the underground, before he collapsed.

When Luigi stilled, Francis reached forward with his glove-conductor again and placed it on the lump. His hand passed through, and his fingers wrapped around the lump beneath Luigi’s skin. Upon pulling his gloved hand out in a flash of tangerine light, he held a familiar-looking cue ball.

“It looks like you can swallow it,” Francis said before dropping the ball on the ground and watching as it rolled its way over to Max’s foot.

There was a stretch of silence.

“T-Theta, he had information on where our resistors are!” Vincente snapped. “Why did you—”

“As you’ve heard, he was hired out by Donato of the Romano Family. So will just need to capture Donato,” Francis replied. “He was unneeded.”

The woman with the tattoo on the left side of her face pulled out a handkerchief from her pocket and wiped Francis’s hand with it.

“Oh, that’s right.” Saying this suddenly, the boss fell back into a sit on a stack of books just behind him. He placed a hand over his mouth. “No, I’m an idiot, Omicron.”

“What is it, darling?” the woman—Omicron—asked, pocketing the handkerchief.

“We started off with the wrong Caporegime,” Theta said, gaze fixating on Agape Rosario. “The one who handles the land and rent collection is Caporegime Bendetto. He shares a close relationship with Ricardo Romano. If anyone knew where the third vitae reservoir is, it would be him.”

“So then…” Iota pressed. “What now?”

There was a long stretch of silence again.

Omicron paled and knelt down beside Francis. “Darling, I still haven’t finished working on the west side yet. I still don’t have all the locations of the Campanas bases and—”

The commissario stared bullets into Omicron. He was sweating bullets too.

“The longer we leave it, the more it will fester,” Francis said, placing a hand on her arm. “As we speak, these organizations are still shipping out these conductors and children are still suffering. We’ve become complacent. We can’t bide our time any longer. It’s a cost-benefit analysis. We have more to lose the more we wait.” He moved his hand to her cheek. “You will have to move up your schedule, Omicron.”

Iota bounced on the heels of her feet.

“Since we’re in a city of indulgence,” Theta said, rising to a stand, “we should have a proper memorial for Omega. We should let this city know we’re here and why we’re here and what they’ve done.” He nodded at Iota, and there was a glint in his eye. “You can contact all of those ‘recruits’ that you’ve been gathering in the city, Iota. From the Campanas to the Romanos to the common people who have chosen to follow us. The directions are simple. Use my gates to plant the conductors at the vitae reservoirs and the points we’ve agreed on. Evacuate the children and those you deem innocent.”

A pause.

“And condemn those who profit from any form of conductor use and conductor trade.”

Iota nodded, beaming.

“Let’s have a proper eulogy,” Francis said before inclining his head towards one of the executives. “Mr. Etoile, rest assured. Your time will come soon. You will be our first example.”

Etoile melted like butter in his chair.

The next couple of minutes went by in a blur.

Max was strung up in glowing white chains and straddled between Allen and Carl. Francis left with Omicron through some sort of portal, and a handful of other people exited and entered and exited again in a stampede of footsteps. Soon, the only people who remained in the room besides Max himself, two-thirds of his bosses, and the executives were the commissario and his two officers.

Commissario Vincente paced up and down their line biting his thumb.

“A-Are you really going to go along with this, chief?” one officer stammered.

Vincente whipped around and snapped, “Of course, I’m going to go along with it. I don’t like it, but I have to go through with it! Theta was chosen as leader, and our rules say the one who’s chosen is the one we follow! If I break the damn rule now, then I set precedent to break the rules in the future—oh, don’t look at me like that when three months ago you were breaking the damn rules to try and bag of a couple yankee-dankee, two-bit criminals! You should be arrested!”

Max stared.

Vincente dug into his pockets and tossed the two officers an item each. “Here. Theta gave me extra proto-conductors since I got myself locked in here last time. Take it, use it, get your families out of this city.”

“But, chief—”

“Dammit, shut up and leave before I charge you for subversion of the law!”

The officers exchanged looks before nodding and heading in and through the wall in a flash of light.

“Sounds like you’ve bitten off more than you can chew,” Caporegime Agape said two heads down. Sweat dripped from her forehead, and her voice shook. “It’s no time for regrets unless you—”

“No regrets?” The commissario threw his head back and barked. “You really think everything that’s happening here is all us? I know Theta. Theta would never do any of this. Just read the records. Theta has always worked on the sidelines passively. Theta’s not violent, and Theta’s not a murder.” He shook his head and mumbled to himself. “We could’ve done this better. Using both of our new identities. Something permanent—”

“Well,” Carl scoffed. “Open your damn eyes. Your Theta is just as murderous as the rest of us—”

“You’re the one who needs to open your eyes, you greedy, stupid, dirty pig!” Vincente seethed, jabbing a finger at Carl’s chest. “It’s your damn brother!”


Caporegime Bendetto of the Romano Family wasn’t fond of Ophiuchus’s peacekeeping agents. They slithered around like snakes and wielded their badges like batons, intervening in places they deemed necessary and brushing their hands of areas deemed not. On paper, their accomplishments did look impressive. Treaties, peace accords, conducting law, but in reality, it was all laughable.

The fact was that the peacekeepers were now protecting people who were breaking the laws they were meant to enforce. But Bendetto knew that the peacekeepers weren’t stupid. They probably had more than an inkling of what the Romano Family really did in the city. He’d heard buzz from under the table about certain departments in Ophiuchus beginning investigations regarding their business, but none of those had come to fruition. Ophiuchus had always been the last thing on Bendetto’s mind because of this.

Then Ophiuchus came barging in saying that ELPIS could be in the city and that the Romano Family could be targets. It was too many ‘could be’s in Bendetto’s opinion, and he was rearing to decline their protective services, but—

“You’re mistaken about your position here,” the peacekeeping Agent Leona had said during their meeting. “It’s not that your power in this city keeps us from intervening in your activities. It’s that our power allows you to continue. It’s cost-effective for us. But if you continue to obstruct us, then we’ll remove that obstruction.”

Bendetto wasn’t stupid. He didn’t take a gamble when he knew it was bad, so he begrudgingly accepted Leona’s assistance. Maybe Agape would disagree with his decision, but she’d disappeared off of the face of the earth. Damn Campanas.

And so, Bendetto found himself accompanied by two peacekeeping agents—persuaded to be disguised as civilians—to his favorite casino just a block away from the newly refurbished TwinStars Pub. He had to keep up the casual appearances, after all, and had invited several of the Romano Family’s investors to play some rounds of poker with him.

At the moment, Bendetto sat at a large poker table with a disguised peacekeeper at his left and Bruno Perti—a wealthy investor who’d been with them for years—at his right. The male dealer at the table was wearing a surgical mask and watched their play with disinterest. Occasionally, the dealer eyed Bendetto’s hired guns crowded at the roulette tables behind him. Probably afraid.

They were ten minutes into the first round, but Bendetto couldn’t focus on the game.

Recently, their decoy warehouses had been under fire, meaning someone—probably Fortuna or Agape—was trying to send a message. Campanas had been seen leaving the scene of the attacks, which was contradictory to the message being sent out: danger from outside the city.

Abruptly, one of Bendetto’s men approached him from behind and whispered into his ear, “Boss, they’ve found Etoile.”

Etoile was one of their lower-tier executives who’d disappeared around the same time Agape had. Had the Campanas released him? Why?

“He showed up out of the blue at the front steps of the Casa.” A pause. “Boss, there was a conducting grenade insideof him. He took one step, and it detonated.”

“What?!”

Bendetto threw down his cards and rose from his seat, but a hand on his arm gave him pause.

Bruno Perti flashed him a grin. “Come on, Bendetto, the leaders are just about to clean everything up. Why don’t you stay for a bit?”

Before Bendetto could decipher what Bruno meant, the man reached into his suit and pulled out a handgun conductor. Without hesitation, he aimed it at Bendetto and pulled the trigger.

Bendetto was tackled to the ground by both the peacekeeper guarding him and one of his own bodyguards—but not before Bendetto saw the white vitae ray emerge from Bruno’s conductor and strike the high ceiling. The ceiling plaster crumbled down, and the patrons shrieked in alarm. The second peacekeeper wrestled Bruno to the ground, while the patrons around the table leaped to their feet in alarm.

“Everyone, stay calm!” the peacekeeper beside Bendetto said, helping him to his feet. The peacekeeper reached into his pocket, pulled out his badge, and flashed it. There was a collective of gasps.

Damn Ophiuchians.

While Bendetto was handed off to his own bodyguards, the peacekeeper pocketed his badge and approached the dealer at the table. The dealer responded in turn by reaching for his belt. The peacekeeper swiftly conjured a gun in a flash of verdigris light and fired it without hesitation.

The dealer stumbled backwards, gripping his bleeding chest before he abruptly straightened and hissed, “That’s attempted murder, dammit!” The bloodied bullet wound started glowing white beneath the dealer’s gloved hand. And as the dealer drew his hand away from the wound, a stream of the white glowing blood floated out from it before compacting into an easily recognizable shape. The glow faded as the gun solidified in the dealer’s palm.

The Conjuror peacekeeper’s eyes widened. “You’re a leader.”

Before the dealer could pull the trigger, the peacekeeper fired three additional rounds at him, each one hitting him square in the chest. A click, click, click indicated that the gun was now empty. The peacekeeper flourished his gloved hand to conjure another one but the dealer beat him to it. Without faltering from his wound, the dealer fired off six shots. One bulls-eyed right into the Conjuror peacekeeper’s head. Another struck the other peacekeeper that was pinning Bruno down in the arm, while the other four found their ways into Bendetto’s bodyguards. Only one dead thought.

Terrible aim.

Bendetto’s guards retaliated by whipping out the conductors they’d brought with them. The Projectors started firing immediately, while the Conjurors fired after they’ve conjured handguns. The dealer leaped back behind the table as the rain of vitae rays and bullets came down on him, while Bendetto was pushed back by several of his guards.

Some patrons screamed and ran. Others dropped to the ground.

The air was cluttered with fluttering cards, bouncing cue balls, and flying game chips.

And suddenly, in the middle of this chaos, the ceiling above Bendetto’s head began to glow and a chilling draft of wind filled the room.

White glowing chains slithered out from the pools of light. Three figures rode down on them, but Bendetto was in no position to pay attention. This was because the chains started raining down into the crowd. They acted like bullets, shooting through the bodies of patrons left and right without dispute. Bendetto himself was shoved to the side as one of his bodyguards was felled by a chain that went straight through his gut.

A shrill laugh resounded from one of the three that were still riding down on the chains: “That’s what you filth get! And you damn peacekeepers! How dare you call yourselves Ophiuchians!”

As soon as that shout hit the air, the last peacekeeper was impaled by a chain.

Screams resounded as the patrons scrambled to the door leading to the entrance hall. But something was off about that route—Bendetto could tell. It was an intuition—an instinct—he’d developed since serving on the eastern front during the Reservoir War.

It was a trap.

But it was too late to warn them. A group had already fled through the doors. As soon as they stepped past the threshold that was glowing with pale tangerine light, they disappeared. And reappeared tumbling out from the glowing light from the ceiling. Their bodies cracked against the floor, the billiard tables, the roulette tables, and the island bar at the center of the room. Those who were dashing towards the door scrambled away, only to be picked off by the mask-wearing dealer who was now firing into the crowd from on top of the island bar and by the chains still pelting down.

Bendetto was again shoved to the side by his guard, who was subsequently pierced through the head by a chain. Bendetto ripped the rifle conductor from the man’s corpse and aimed it at the trio still descending downwards.

Bendetto hadn’t fired a conductor in some time, but it was all muscle memory. He aimed and fired. A blood-orange vitae ray hurtled out from the conductor towards the descending trio, only to be obstructed by a collection of luminescent steel bars that came from nowhere. There was a fiery explosion upon impact, causing smoke to unfurl in the air.

Bendetto got on his knees below the smoke and, with several of his bodyguards behind him, began to crawl his way towards the staircase at the very back of the casino.

Lucy. He needed to get back to Lucy. No matter what. Couldn’t leave Lucy alone.

Just as he neared the staircase, however, another collection of steel beams bulleted the ground in front of him blocking his path. Bendetto froze, glanced back at his men, heart racing.

“Bendetto,” a familiar voice called out from the smokescreen.

Bendetto couldn’t believe his ears. “F-Francis?”

White beams flew out from the smoke and impaled the men behind Bendetto.

Out from the smoke shroud in the direction of where the white beams had come from, stepped Francis Foxman. He was wearing a dark turtleneck sweater with a suit jacket thrown over it like an afterthought. He had been one of the three people riding down on the chains, Bendetto realized as he took in the man’s outfit. And upon further inspecting the man’s face, Bendetto reached a more troubling realization.

Francis smiled thinly down at him.

“Shall we have a talk, Bendetto?”


To Matilda the Twin Cities was her home just as it was home to tens of thousands of others. Like them, she knew that the city was dirty and filled with disgusting people and things. Still, it was home. The place that accepted everything and rejected nothing. People here didn’t gawk at her butterfly-shaped birthmark, didn’t ogle her when she’d worn raggedy clothing or stolen food from trash bins. People here didn’t care. And that was a comfort.

Matilda had worked hard to get where she was currently at in the city. To get to the point where she was in the fancy restaurants looking outside instead of outside looking in. She’d made friends who’d made friends who’d made friends until together they’d formed a network of weak that was able to stand up against the strong.

Together, they had a fighting chance in this city where adults played games with each other’s lives. Together, they made more money working with the Foxmans and Romanos than any other delinquent ring in the city. Together, they could survive. Together, they were stronger.

And so Matilda didn’t understand why some of her friends started to break off from the group that they’d all painstakingly formed. Those who’d left said things along the lines of “what we’re doing is wrong,” and “we don’t have to work for them like this,” or even “they’re just taking advantage of us and don’t care about us.” And when Matilda had asked them where all of these ideas had come from, they said plainly, “Theta said it. Theta cares. Theta knows. Theta says we can live a better life somewhere else.”

Matilda secretly wanted to meet who this mysterious ‘Theta’ was. She was sure that the person was simply full of false promises, false hopes. She figured that Theta was someone who was manipulating all of her friends—someone who was seeking to take advantage of them.

And Matilda knew all about being taken advantage of. She’d been taken advantage of by Verga. She knew she was being taken advantage of by the Foxmans and the Romanos. But she was fine with it because she was taking advantage of them too. Being taken advantage of, she thought, was only dangerous when you weren’t aware of it. And Matilda was certain that her friends who were leaving their shipping business for this ‘Theta’ weren’t aware of it.

And so when one of her closest friends Fernando began to speak about ‘Theta’ too, Matilda decided to take him out to a casino party that Bendetto had invited her to. She wanted to show Fernando everything they’d worked for, everything they were working towards. She wanted to prove to him that if they continued working together, they could live in luxury too like all the adults.

The casino was fun at first. They were greeted at the door by Bendetto and greeted warmly by all the servers. The adults and patrons at the casino smiled at them warmly, jokingly offered them drinks, and showed them how to play some of the games.

But then things snapped in two.

As soon as Matilda saw the man beside Bendetto pull out a conductor, she grabbed Fernando’s hand and ran to the nearest escape she could find: a staircase at the back of the casino. They pounded up the seemingly endless marble steps, until they reached the highest floor, ran down the carpeted hallway, and burst into a mansion of a room at the end. Matilda scrambled around in the dark before she pulled herself under a cloth-covered table at the very corner of the room with Fernando in tow.

As soon as they were beneath the tablecloth, the screams from below started. Gunfire. Vitae ray fire. Thud, thud, boom, boom. The entire building shook and rumbled.

And then there was silence.

Matilda clutched Fernando’s hand and waited.

Suddenly, there was tap, tap, tapping. Someone was ascending the staircase. The door creaked open. There was scrapping, a click-clacking, a series of receding footsteps, and then silence.

Matilda met Fernando’s eyes and peered out from beneath the cloth.

The curtains in the room had been drawn open, revealing a window that took up the entire left wall. The entire twinkling, nighttime cityscape was visible from it. The city lights spilled into the dark room, stretched across the tiled floor that was littered with playing cards and poker chips, and reached all the way back to the room’s center where a man was tied with chains to a chair.

Matilda squinted and tried to make out the man. She instantly recognized Bendetto’s crisp suit. But—Matilda’s blood ran cold—Bendetto’s head was missing. At the base of his neck where his head should have been, there was an oddly glowing splotch of pale tangerine light. Contrarily, his chest was still moving up and down. He was alive?

Across from him facing the light from the city stood a figure. A man, holding open the page of a book. From that book, emerging from a pool of light, was Bendetto’s head.

Matilda nearly passed out from the sight of it.

“This city is actually pretty beautiful when I’m looking at it from up here,” the figure drew. “It’s a shame that it’s built on dirt and filth.”

Matilda recognized the voice. That was—

“Francis…” Bendetto’s head pressed. “What are you trying to do? No—why?”

Matilda gasped despite herself.

Bendetto continued, “Agape, Fortuna, Etoile, your brothers too—that was all you? Why?”

“How can you ask me that after everything you’ve done? Can’t you see the hypocrisy behind it?” Francis lifted the book so that Bendetto was eye-level with him. “But I have to thank you for the information about the third reservoir. I should’ve known it was there.” He chuckled. “Tell me, Bendetto, what do you think’ll happen if I close my gate with your head still stuck right here?”

Bendetto paled, eyes hardening.

Suddenly, Fernando pulled his hand out of Matilda’s and crawled out from beneath the table before she could stop him.

“Theta, you’re outside!” Fernando exclaimed, running up to Francis’s side while beaming.

“Theta…?” Bendetto repeated in confusion.

“Fernando.” Francis turned. The snake tattoo on the right side of the man’s face became cast in the city’s glow. “What are you doing here? I thought I told you and the others to leave the city.”

Fernando faltered, gaze flickering between Bendetto’s head and Francis’s face. “I… I…”

Francis stared past him, towards the table, towards Matilda. “Come out. The one that’s hiding. You can come out now.”

Matilda trembled but obeyed, pulling herself out from beneath the table.

“Come closer.”

Matilda again obeyed but stopped short a meter away, trembling.

“I-It’s okay, Tilda,” Fernando said. “It’s not Francis. It’s Theta. We’re safe.” He made it sound like whatever that meant was supposed to reassure her.

“I thought I told you to leave the city too,” Francis—Theta—said to her. He followed her gaze to Bendetto, and his brows furrowed. He abruptly dropped the book and started cradling his head and his stomach. The book snapped shut, Bendetto’s head disappearing along with the light.

Matilda whipped her attention to Bendetto’s body just in time to see Bendetto’s head pop out from the glowing light on his neck. The man gasped in relief, panting.

“T-Theta,” Fernando stammered, hands hovering.

“I’m alright,” Theta said. He straightened himself and placed his gloved hand on top of Fernando’s head. He then beckoned Matilda. “Come closer. I won’t hurt you. I promise.”

Matilda wanted to run. But she didn’t. Instead, she hesitantly took advantage of the mercy that he showed her and fell into step beside him.

Theta nodded his head towards the window. “Watch.”

The city lights started to flicker in unison. On and off, on and off—until they began to go dark one by one, patch by patch. The only thing left burning bright was the v-lights sparkling on the Dioscuri Bridge. But they too started flickering, until they completely went out, leaving Matilda in terrifying, complete darkness.

A warm hand rested on her head.

“It’s alright,” Theta said. “Wait for it.”

A sudden burst of light from a city street below bleached the surrounding skyscrapers and buildings in light. Several streets away came another flash of light. And then another, and another, illuminating the city blocks in sporadic blazes of white and almost taking the place of the illumination of the city’s v-lights themselves. Oddly pretty.

“This is all for you.”


“Come one, come all! Experience the fun that is the Twin Cities of Gemini! From the roaring dance halls to the flashy casinos to the one-of-a-kind resorts! You can do anything in the Twin Cities! Achieve anything!

As long as you don’t get caught!”

Twin Cities’s Top Attraction Tourist Pamphlet, mass circulated 1935

10.[]-2: A Brother’s Wrath (Pazienza)

(             )

Carl Foxman knew that he was dumb as bricks. His father said it all the time. His mother never denied it. Allen was probably thinking it all the time. Cadence always said good-naturedly, “Come on, Carl. Everyone’s a little stupid,” making Carl think that the fact maybe wasn’t so bad. Fortuna plainly said he was an idiot. Ricardo said he had smarts in other areas. But Francis always told him, “You’re smart, Carl. You wouldn’t have made it this far if you weren’t.”

Even so, Carl had an inkling that he probably wouldn’t make heads-or-tails of what Omicron was going to say next.

“What happened to you…” Omicron began, addressing Francis. “You have to have knowledge of what you call the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis.”

“Vitae is a cycle. Vitae has the capabilities of coding memories from the brain. Vitae is equivalent to the soul,” Alice explained beat-by-beat. “I’ll hold my suspension of disbelief. Continue.”

Omicron’s eyes narrowed, and she lifted her head like she was rearing for a fight. Finally, she elaborated, “Our resistors are similar to your proto-conductors. They’re capable of storing vitae. In much, much larger amounts than your proto-conductors.” She glowered. “But they’re not used as weapons. Instead, they store—”

“—an entire person’s vitae… And, in light of the Hypothesis, an entire person’s memories and soul,” Francis finished before he stiffened and frowned. He looked as confused as Carl felt about his knowledge.

Carl shared a look with Allen but said nothing.

Omicron nodded at Francis before she continued:

“Yes… there are several conditions that follow its usage. Firstly, the vitae being stored in the resistor must be processed so that it will return only to the resistor and not to the vitae cycle when the person it was used on dies. The process is beyond me as I am now, but it’s how our vitae becomes white. Whitening of vitae also tends to cause congenital analgesia.”

“The hell’s that?” Carl grimaced.

“The dulling of sensitivity to pain,” Francis answered, not even glancing at Carl. “Though it varies depending on the person…”

Omicron looked away from him.

“The second condition is that only the vitae that was initially stored in the resistor is capable of returning to that particular resistor. In other words, no new vitae can be added.”

Carl didn’t get it. Not really. Some of the executives looked baffled too. But Cadence, Francis, and Alice looked pale. Paler than normal.

“The third condition is that in order for the highest success of vitae being passed onto another person, that person’s vitae must be leaving their body for the vitae cycle itself. This allows the vitae stored in a resistor to enter that person without complication and interference, and when that person ‘comes back’ they will have full access to the memories given to them by the resistor.”

Vitae leaving the body…? When a person ‘came back’…?

“Of course, residual memories stored in the brain can still cause some interference but the lack of that person’s original vitae makes it difficult to ‘access’ in a sense.” Omicron locked eyes with Francis again. “We call the entire process ‘initiation’.”

This Carl understood, and he took a threatening step forward as he grabbed the woman by the scruff. “Are you saying that Francis was kil—”

“But that doesn’t always happen. It didn’t happen with you, Francis. You were very far away from death’s doors when you were initiated,” Omicron said softly, not even bothered by Carl’s grip. “What happened to you was a mistake. Whoever’s taken our resistors must’ve used one on you. You were stabbed with a resistor on that night. But don’t worry. I wasn’t initiated properly either, and I’m okay.”

Allen signaled for Carl to release the woman. Carl complied, shoving her back down in the chair.

“So the dichotomy between Francis’s vitae and Theta’s vitae…” Alice nodded, placing a hand beneath her chin. “If we’re speaking as if the Hypothesis is true… then the dichotomy of memories may have caused a dissociation leading to the formation of two separately operating identities. Seeing as how Theta wasn’t aware of Francis’s allergy and how Francis wasn’t aware of Theta’s existence and actions up to this point, I’m assuming that they aren’t able to communicate with one another.”

Carl didn’t like how nonchalant Alice was being about his brother’s issue.

“It’s rare that it happens like that,” Omicron elaborated. “It only happens when there’s a serious disconnect between the two. For example, I still retain my identity both as Charite Haussmann and as Omicron…” She glanced to the side. “Although you could say I’m a rare case of improper initiation turning out in a balanced way.”

Alice’s eyes narrowed. “So Iris McKillop….”

“Iota is too influenced by McKillop’s vitae and memories,” Omicron replied. “Iota isn’t violent, but McKillop’s psychosis pushes Iota as you can see. Another example of that would be Pi who was incorrectly initiated into Erwin Ersatz at the Capricornian-Aquarian border. Ersatz was a very… nationalistic and passionate person, and Pi became the same… Tau, Gamma, and Omega are the only ones who have been initiated properly.”

‘Gamma’? Who the hell was that? Carl was too pissed to even think about that right now. He just wanted to nail Omicron in the face.

“It’s an accident every single time the initiation is improper,” Omicron continued. “We’re not like them. It’s not our intention to steal away an entire person’s life. We wait until they’ve naturally met their end before we reach out. That’s why there’s so few of us operating at a time.”

“The hell are you trying to sound like a saint for?!” Carl growled.

Fortuna placed a hand on his shoulder, stopping him from lunging at Omicron again.

“So long story short,” Fortuna drew, releasing Carl from her hold, “your resistors store your memories—your souls, what have you—and you take over people whenever you use them.” Her eyes narrowed. “You’re disgusting.”

“The modified conductors you sell fuel wars and death. You end lives before they’ve naturally ended,” Omicron returned. “To me, you’re the disgusting ones.”

“Am I correct in my assessment that since resistors don’t accept new vitae, you aren’t capable of storing ‘additional memories’— for the lack of a better word— in them?” Alice pressed. “You’re stuck in the same state that you were in when you initially stored your vitae in these resistors.” Her eyes narrowed. “And if you’re using conductors—even if you replenish your vitae reserves through consumption of nutrients—since you usually don’t have the original person’s vitae, you’re slowly burning up your own vitae. Since no vitae can be added when you ‘return’ to the resistor then that means that you’re losing vitae and memories every time the resistor is used.”

“Theta was right,” Omicron noted with a chuckle. “You are a bright girl.”

“You’re whittling away, and you’re laughing.” Alice frowned. “All for what? In retaliation for what happened to Ophiuchus at the end of the war? That’s ludicrous.”

The atmosphere in the room changed suddenly, and a coldness pressed down on the heat that was building at the back of Carl’s neck. Omicron looked at Alice and seemed to be looking down at her despite the fact that she was sitting below her.

“How long do you think we’ve existed, little girl?” Omicron asked. “You think something comes into existence exactly when people ‘discover’ it? ELPIS has existed long before it started making headlines in your newspapers.”

Alice frowned, and her shoulders tensed. “You’re saying that you—”

“Ophiuchus was a country founded in a time of peace. There were no enforcers needed to define what peace was. That very idea is what’s ludicrous.” Omicron shifted her gaze to Francis. “I know this because, as Omicron, my father was one of the founding members of Ophiuchus. I’m sure you understand what I’m saying.”

Alice’s eyes narrowed, expression tightening. “You’re delusional.”

“You look scared, peacekeeper,” Omicron noted. “But you’re a child in all of this, so that’s understandable. I actually think you’re quite brave.”

Alice remained silent. Carl kept looking to Allen for what to do next, but Allen remained as stony-faced as ever.

“Rest assured,” Omicron continued, “there are only twenty-six resistors in existence at the moment. There are—were—only twenty-six of us ELPIS leaders. The other lower members of ELPIS—most don’t have any idea of what the truth about us is. And, well, all twenty-six of us have different viewpoints on what to do with those members. But those are opinions and not fact, and I don’t want to bore you with politics.”

“That’s… absolutely ridiculous,” Alice finally said, pinching the bridge of her nose. She paused, lowered her hand. “And what about Izsak. Wtorek Izsak.” Her eyes were sharp. “Is he…”

“That would be Gamma,” Omicron said evenly.

Alice’s eyes widened a fraction. “You mentioned that name earlier. So that means that the initiation was…”

Omicron studied her face before she frowned sympathetically. “So you were familiar with that peacekeeper then. I’m sorry.”

For a brief flash of a second, Cadence paled out of the corner of Carl’s eye. When he looked at her, however, she simply looked perplexed causing him to wonder if he was just seeing things.

Alice’s expression did not change. “And was it one of you who did it?”

“No,” Omicron answered evenly, “it wasn’t.”

Alice fell into silence afterwards. Since she was the one asking the leading questions and seemed to be the only one who knew what all this ‘vitae’ stuff was about, the silence stretched on.

Finally Francis cleared his throat and asked, “Is there any way to reverse this?” He gestured to his abdomen. If he was disturbed by anything he’d heard, he wasn’t showing it.

Omicron’s gaze softened as she laid eyes on Francis, and she slowly shook her head. “I’m sorry… But it’s alright. Eventually the distinction between your two vitae will fade away.” Her voice was gentle. “I’m sure you’ve already noticed it. Having knowledge you haven’t gained in your personal lifetime. Remembering things that have never happened to you. The same thing is happening to Theta. You will bleed into each other, and—”

That was enough.

Letting out a roar of fury, Carl grabbed the woman and threw her down onto the floor, chair and all. “You. Bastard!” He cracked a fist against her face. “How! Dare!” Again. “You act so. Damn. Casual!” Thud, thud, thud. “After what you! Did to my! Brother!”

A gentle hand on the shoulder gave Carl pause. He turned. It was Francis, who was expressionless. But his eyes. They were almost angry.

“Enough, Carl.” Before Carl could even form a coherent thought, Francis brushed past him and righted Omicron’s chair. “Being violent won’t solve anything.”

The executives began to whisper amongst themselves which pissed Carl off more but Carl conceded and rubbed his knuckles with a grimace. Omicron merely jerked her head to get some of her hair out of her face and spat blood to the side.

Allen wordlessly pulled a packet of v-cigarettes from his pocket and tapped Carl and then Francis on the side of the arm before shaking two v-cigs out. Carl plucked one, ignited it with a flick, and took a drag. Francis glanced at the box, hesitating.

“Ya always were a womanizer even though ya keep saying that you’ll be a bachelor for life,” came a bite followed by a chortle. Cadence. She had been chatting at the peacekeeper for whatever reason after Carl had started his beating and now stepped in front of them.

Francis chuckled musically, pulled out the v-cig, lit it, took a drag.

Cadence was smart, Carl thought. She always knew what to say.

“Cadence,” Allen addressed her suddenly with a nod, “Francis didn’t have a clue about what’s been goin’ on here which is understandable. But by the sound of it, it seems like Cavallo doesn’t have a clue that its ELPIS that’s after us, meaning you didn’t tell him.”

Carl glanced between them in confusion.

Francis paused and stared at Cadence. “Cadence, you were here before?” He lowered his v-cig. “When?”

“I…” Cadence averted her gaze. It was the first time he’d ever seen her looking so ashamed. “When Allen, Carl, and Fortuna disappeared the first time, I got taken with them. But I disguised myself and managed ta slip out.”

Fortuna snapped to attention. “Cadence, are you serious right now? You were here with us? And you didn’t tell Cavallo what happened here? The Campanas?”

Francis’s brows knit. “You knew they were being held captive by ELPIS, and you didn’t tell me?”

“I… I’m sorry, Francis,” Cadence stammered. “I… I honestly didn’t know what ta make of it when I saw you actin’ like ya had no idea what was goin’ on. I didn’t know who ya were. And Tau—the commissario—knew that I was hidin’ right off the bat, and he threatened me to keep quiet and Alma—”

“Dammit, Cadence!” Carl snapped, grabbing her by the scruff. “The hell’s the matter with you?!

“I didn’t know what ta do!” Cadence snapped back. “I didn’t know what was goin’ on. I’m sorry, okay?! What was I supposed ta do?!”

“So we’ve really fallen right into their plan…” Francis surmised. He shook his head and took a puff of his v-cig. “Don’t get too worked up, Carl, Fortuna.” He nodded at Cadence. “It’s alright, Cadence. On a personal level, I understand where you’re coming from. On a strictly professional level, on the other hand—”

“It’s alright?” Fortuna parroted. “What about this is ‘alright’? Cadence, you had the perfect opportunity to get us out of this mess—”

“No offense, Fortuna, but how is that the perfect opportunity?” Cadence interjected. “I had no idea— and still don’t have an idea—of where this place is, and Tau had his eye on me. What if something happened to Alma?”

Francis sighed, took a drag.

“Alma?” Fortuna frowned. “Again?”

“Why are ya surprised?” Cadence asked. “I mean you were practically usin’ her ta make me investigate Francis, Allen, and Carl.”

“I knew it!” Carl growled, jabbing a finger in Fortuna’s direction. “You really did send Cadence after us! What—you can’t even trust us?”

Fortuna frowned. “How do you expect me to react? You were against my engagement to Ambrose from the very beginning. How is that not suspicious? And I needed your support!”

“Well, it’s good that you sent Cadence on ‘em seein’ what’s happened to Francis,” an executive interjected.

“Shut up!” Fortuna and Carl snapped in unison.

Allen took a drag of his v-cig.

The entire ordeal reminded Carl of the old days when they were younger:

Allen would throw a bone out. Cadence would play with it. Carl himself’d bite it. Francis would try to de-escalate and Fortuna would get pissed at Francis for de-escalating because she’d think he was being sly. Nico would cry and try to get them to stop fighting. Cadence would somehow reap the rewards. It had been their routine for years but since they hadn’t come together in a while, Carl had nearly forgotten about it.

“That is unacceptable, Morello,” Agape stated, arms crossed as she glowered down at Cadence. “You are an associate of the Romano Family. You’re poor decisions have—”

Suddenly, Francis gripped his abdomen with one hand and rubbed his temple with the other. Carl had seen his brother go through these motions before. Francis had been going through them ever since the night he was stabbed. During those bouts of pain, he’d down the doctor’s painkillers and saunter off to bed. Some days, he wouldn’t show face for hours after.

Carl released Cadence immediately. “Shit, Francis, you need your meds?”

Cadence placed a hand on his arm. “Carl, I don’t think that’s what’s happenin’.”

“I believe you are about to switch, Francis,” Alice said. She’d finally come out of whatever silent daze she’d entered earlier and turned to Francis all calm-like. She held her hand out placatingly—to the executives, not to Francis. “Don’t panic.”

Francis stiffened immediately, and he chuckled although he was clearly not amused. “Well, Miss Kingsley, it’s difficult not to panic when you say that…” He trailed off, eyes becoming distant.

“Cadence,” Allen said warningly.

Nodding, Cadence snapped her fingers and disappeared in a flash of copper. Carl shot a quick look back at Omicron but the woman’s gaze was focused solely on Francis.

“Shit, Francis,” Carl stammered, turning to his brother and gripping him by the shoulder. “You need to fight it or something! Don’t just give i—”

Francis slapped his hand away and shoved him back. Carl did a double-take, glancing back at the others. The executives and Agape skirted backwards nervously, while Allen and Fortuna remained firmly planted in place. When Carl snapped his attention back to his younger brother, Francis was no longer rubbing his temple. He wasn’t gripping his stomach either.

Carl stared.

Theta stared back at him.

Carl didn’t really know how he knew it wasn’t Francis anymore. He just did.

The ELPIS leader took a swift scan of the room, inspected the v-cig in his hands, frowned with mild disgust, sighed. “I see.”

Without addressing any of them, he unignited the v-cig with a flick of his wrist, placed it down on the game board as he walked past it, and reached Omicron’s side. He placed a hand on the woman’s cheek before undoing her bindings.

“Which one did this to you?” Theta asked once she was free. “Are you alright?”

“It’s not a big deal.” Omicron rolled her neck as she rubbed her wrists. Her gaze flicked to the area where Cadence had disappeared but didn’t say anything else.

“Where is her conductor?” Theta pressed, extending his hand out and waiting.

Carl grimaced, pulled the clunky thing out from his pocket, turned it over in his hand. Instead of tossing it to Theta, however, Carl walked right up to him and dropped it into Theta’s waiting palm.

“Oh, you’re much braver than before,” Theta noted, handing the conductor to Omicron.

“Never ‘fraid to begin with,” Carl grunted. “Be stupid to be afraid of my younger brother.”

“I see… You’re a bit too loose-lipped, Omicron.”

Omicron slipped her conductor on with a shrug. “Sorry, darling, you know I love to talk.”

A beat of silence.

Suddenly one of the executives stepped forward, brushing past Carl. “Wait, if all you’re saying is true. You ELPIS leaders are… You’re basically immortal.”

Theta sighed. Omicron cleared her throat.

“No,” Theta corrected, looking back or the executive, “this is the opposite of immortality. This isn’t even living. We are very much dead. The moment we bleached our vitae, we died. Every time we use our conductors, we burn away at the original vitae that was stored in our resistors. That vitae does not return to the cycle. Eventually, we will burn away completely and become nothingness.”

“Vitae cycle?” The executive scoffed. “Who cares about that?” He closed the distance between them and grabbed hold of Theta’s arm. “Hell, if that’s the case then sign me right up. I have the connections. I can make this organization big!”

Carl started forward without thinking, prying the executive from Theta and shoving the bastard to the ground. Omicron, meanwhile, pulled Theta backwards and stepped in front of him with a set frown. For a brief moment, Carl made eye contact with the woman.

Theta brushed past Omicron and stared down at the executive. “You want to join ELPIS?”

The executive swallowed.

“Let me show you what we plan to do here,” Theta drew, “and if you can stomach it then perhaps you show promise.”

Theta sank down to a crouch and placed his gloved hand onto the floor. It was painted entirely black, Carl realized. And in an instant, that blackness beneath them became engulfed in tangerine light and a cold wind rushed at them from below. A weightlessness tickled Carl’s stomach before the light faded and Carl was left in darkness.

It took just a second for Carl to realize that they were all outside.

The starless night sky unfolded above him, and for the first time in weeks Carl was able to breathe in fresh air. Shitty -tasting and -smelling fresh air, but fresh air nonetheless. The wind was harsh, cold, biting.

Carl stumbled forward in the dark—and nearly stumbled off of a ledge and plummeted down into the open air below. Allen caught him by the arm and pulled him up right.

They were standing on the tip of one the spires of the Dioscuri bridge. The v-train station was just below them and just below it was the glittering night lights of the city. From the surface of the bridge, the lights and people had looked like ants. From the tip of this spire though, they looked like specks of dust.

“This city is too entrenched in corruption…”

Theta’s voice was carried by the howling winds, and Carl turned to find his brother standing on the very edge of spire. He was facing the city and pointing outwards with a book. The book was open, spine facing up.

“Sometimes there are no other options. Some things cannot be salvaged.”

Theta flipped the book over so that its pages now faced the sky. He balanced the book carefully, holding it so that the city that stretched out before them was held on its pages.

“We will take the modified conductors we’ve taken from you and your warehouses and take them to the vitae reservoirs. We’ll fill the city with them.”

He slowly closed the book as a smile took the corner of his lips.

“And this city will sink by them.”

He turned to them, to the executive who was still on the ground.

“And while we will save the children who have been taken advantage of due to these conductors, you will be set at the center stage. We will see this to the end even if we have to sink ourselves. Are you willing to make that sacrifice, Mr. Etoile?”

“T-That’s insane,” the executive stammered.

“That’s punishment.”

There was another flash of tangerine light from beneath Carl’s feet, followed by another rush of cold air, and then he was back in that windowless room. All of them were— though Carl had no idea if Cadence managed to escape or if she was still with them.

But as Carl counted heads, he realized there were two extras with them not including Cadence. A man and a woman were sitting at the game table which was now stacked high with the open pastry boxes. The commissario and Omega.

“What the hell is going on here?!” the commissario snapped, leaping to his feet when he saw them. He jabbed a finger in Carl’s direction. “Why are they out of their restraints?!”

Omega flipped her hair, plucked a nut pastry from the box, and began to nibble on it. “It looks like they went on a fun trip together, doesn’t it?

“We ran into some technicalities as people call it nowadays, but everything is fine now,” Omicron explained. She studied Theta’s face. “We should take you to Lambda.” She said glancing in Allen’s direction. “You had an allergy attack. I’m not sure how long the epinephrine will last.”

“You look like you’re in poorer shape than I am,” Theta responded.

“Then we can both go,” Omicron said lightheartedly.

“Wait a minute,” Tau snapped, gesturing wildly to Carl and those who stood beside him. “What about them?”

Omicron lifted her conductor and flicked her hand in their direction. The ropes scattered on the floor which were doused with her blood from her beating earlier glowed white and flew towards Carl and the others. In an instant, they were back in their chairs just as bound as before. No, it was tighter now. Back to square one.

“Before we go, I would like to finish the initiation,” Theta said. “Since the details are known.”

Omicron and Tau froze.

Carl didn’t like the sound of that either.

“Theta,” Tau said, “are you sure? I mean, you have Francis’s face and eventually, you’ll have some of his memories. We could still use that. His position. Or at least—”

“Shall I have it put in a place where it can’t be seen then? Like yours?” Theta asked.

Tau grimaced. “That’s not what I…”

“I understand where you’re coming from, Tau. And I understand your reasoning,” Theta said gently, “but I don’t want to have a place where I can return to this time. A reason to hesitate.”

Omicron placed a hand on his shoulder, and her expression folded. “Are you really sure…?”

Theta sank down to one knee in front of her in response.

“Where would you like it?”

Theta smiled. “I thought we already decided where ours would be. You were the one who suggested it.”

Omicron returned the expression. “I was just seeing if you still remembered.”

“You’re a ridiculous person.” Theta sighed before placing a hand over his chest and bowing his head.

The room’s atmosphere changed suddenly, and Carl almost felt as if he was in one of his executive meetings. Formal, reverent, professional. Ceremonial.

Omicron asked Theta something in a language that Carl couldn’t understand. Theta responded back in that same language as he lifted his head. Omicron held out her ungloved hand to Tau. The commissario walked over to her, pulled out a knife from his belt, and cut into her palm. Unflinchingly, Omicron dipped her gloved finger into the blood that began to pool in her hand. She then began to trace something with her finger onto the right side of Theta’s face which was turned away from Carl.

Instantly, Carl realized what was happening. He didn’t know jack about vitae and still didn’t know jack about ELPIS, but he still had enough smarts to put two and two together.

Carl struggled against his bindings, but he already knew it was too late.

Omicron’s gloved hand hovered over the right half of Theta’s face and a pale white glow began to emit from it. When the light faded, Omicron lowered her hand and Theta rose to a stand. The two stared at each, exchanged a couple more words in that language, before both inclining their heads.

Tau wiped his blade clean and slipped it back into his belt. Omega gave a small, cheery clap from where she sat in her chair, and Tau followed suit.

“It looks good,” Omega hummed. “Congratulations!”

Theta turned towards Omega. And Carl no longer felt angry. He just felt sick.

A white snake tattoo divided by a slew of foreign letters consumed the right side of his brother’s face.

“Omega,” Theta said, placing a hand on the woman’s shoulder. “I have a new warehouse location I would like you to place your mediums in and use my proto-conductor at.”

Omega did a loose salute. “You know you can always rely on me, Theta.”

Theta seemed to tighten her grip on Omega’s shoulder. “You should be careful when you go outside without traveling with my gates. The peacekeeper with the suitcase is in the city now.”

Omega saluted again.

Theta chuckled, musical.

After exchanging a couple more words with the other ELPIS leaders, Theta and Omicron left in a flash of pale tangerine side-by-side. Omega shoved the rest of the pastries into her mouth before she too flipped a proto-conductor in hand and disappeared into a portal she opened with it.

“See you next time, Tau,” Omega sang before she disappeared. “Enjoy the extra guest!”

And that left Tau, the bastard commissario, formerly Vincente Giustizia, sitting at the game board table. He glowered at them.

“You certainly chose a poor host didn’t you, Tau,” Agape finally said tersely. “Though I have to admit that this is an improvement.”

Tau arched a brow. “So they told you.” He clicked his tongue and shook his head as he loosened his tie. “Vincente Giustizia was stabbed in an alleyway outside of the Casa several months ago. By one of your workers, Agape Rosario. He bled out two blocks away from the hospital which was where Lambda used my resistor on him.”

“Bastard deserved it,” Carl grumbled. Francis didn’t.

“I agree,” Tau said. “Which is why I didn’t press charges against that Blanca Murio, though I’m sure she had enough of a punishment when she saw me up and walking.” Abruptly he snapped to attention and began to jab a finger at them. “And you bastards aren’t any better!”

And thus began another lengthy tirade. One that Carl didn’t really tune into. Instead, his mind drifted to Francis. They could fix this somehow, right? Undo it. There had to be a way.

“She’s here, isn’t she?” Tau abruptly asked, after taking five minutes to recollect himself. “Omega is a Manipulator, and she’s very good at manipulating items that can serve as observational mediums.” He scanned the room. “I’m talking to you, Morello. ‘Extra guest’.”

There was a beat of silence.

“I don’t give a damn about how you got in here, Morello, but the only way you’re getting out of here is through me,” Tau snapped, arms on hips. He patted his suit coat pocket. “I have a proto-conductor stored with Theta’s vitae here, and I sure as hell know you don’t have one—”

There was a shimmer of copper right beside the commissario, and he leaped backwards as Cadence appeared there.

“So ya’ve got that Omega doll under your wing for your mutiny spiel?” Cadence popped.

“Why are you back here, Morello?” Tau snapped, straightening his tie and pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “And it’s not a damn mutiny spiel.” He recollected himself again and turned to her with narrowed eyes. “What I give a damn about is whether you have information about Omicron and the Campanas. If you don’t then you and your Alma—”

“All I know is what their product is,” Cadence said evenly.

“Their product?”

“I don’t know much about Theta and Omicron or about their relationship,” Cadence explained, “but the product is probably why Omicron’s tryna handle the Campanas herself down under.”

“Just get to the damned point, you short, yapping, ginger raccoon.”

“You’re gettin’ really good with your insults,” Cadence noted before she held up her hands placatingly and elaborated. “Their sellin’ Specialists…” She grimaced, lowering hands which told Carl that it wasn’t going to be pretty. “Specialist children. Probably orphans or kids whose parents sold ‘em—”

Tau slapped a hand over her mouth. He placed a finger to his lips and waited for Cadence to nod before he detached himself. “You’re one hundred percent sure about this?”

Cadence nodded, eyes wide.

Carl grimaced. The Campanas were bastards through and through. He knew he wasn’t a good man. He knew he wasn’t a smart man. But even he knew that selling children was a one-way ticket to hell.

The commissario looked like he was about to keel over. He pressed one hand to his mouth and one hand to his forehead. “No, no, no. Damn.” He sank into the chair beside the makeshift table and bit his fist. “You’re disgusting…. All of you. I hope when this city sinks into that damn bay, all of you drown in the damn ocean.” He shook his head. “If Theta finds out in his condition then…” He rose to a stand, shoved Cadence aside, and paced over to them. “If any of you value your damned lives, you better keep your mouths shut. If you think you’re suffering enough punishment now, then you’re in for a big damned surprised.” He whipped around to Cadence. “And you—”

Cadence had made it over to the wall and was now spinning an item in her hands. It looked like the proto-conductor they had been using to open portals with.

Tau’s hand immediately went to his suit pocket. His eyes widened. “You—”

Cadence twirled the proto-conductor in-between her fingers and tapped it against the wall. Tau rushed forward just in time for Cadence to slip through the portal she’d made there. The portal closed as soon as she stepped through it leaving Tau to crash against the wall.


Resistors are items we use in order to continue our goal of preventing the syzygy. Inside of them resides everything that makes us ourselves. Our souls, our memories, our vitae. Using these resistors on a recently deceased individual will allow our vitae and therefore—in a sense—they will become us. The ethics and effectiveness of this is constantly debated, but we hope that we will only have to continue this for a short while longer.

10.08.1601, Entry 105, ELPIS Records

10.[]-1: A Brother’s Greed (Carità)

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


(             )

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that was more than enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another mouth to feed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Money was money, but family was family.

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“N-Nothingness?”

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

Lia shook her head.

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

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

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

Lia shook her head vigorously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This gave Theta pause. “Why?”

“Cheating,” Fortuna stated.

“Cheating?”

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

“And if you cheat?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fortuna tensed. Swallowed.

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

He stopped short, stared up at the ceiling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alice’s eyes narrowed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Allen tensed.

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

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

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

“Darling, what’s wrong?!”

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

It was all too familiar.

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

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

A peanut allergy.

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

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

Theta didn’t respond. Merely grimaced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How can you be like that when he’s—”

“He’s what?”

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

She really was in love with him.

Damn.

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

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

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

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

Omicron paled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Theta?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omicron said nothing.

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

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

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


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

Please see card #400 for information regarding finances. 

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

9.1-1: Cadence’s Stumble (Spirale)

Re-cap: 

The dominoes have fallen. 

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

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

(             )

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

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

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

This was not looking good.

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

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

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

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

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

Minimalists. Interesting.

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

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

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

Wait.

Cadence’s eyes darted left and then right.

What the.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sounds about right,” Cadence affirmed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deja vu.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was this person really—

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

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

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

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

Fortuna remained silent but didn’t avert her gaze.

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

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

Theta. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omicron. Alice. ELPIS.

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

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

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

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

In and out. In and out.

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

Something clicked in Cadence’s mind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doctor Alice Kingsley.

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

Relief. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The aggressive woman’s eyes widened.

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

Growling, Iota lifted her fist.

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

Alice’s eyes narrowed.

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

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

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

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

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

When the light faded, Vincente sighed.

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

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

“What happened to your hair?”

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

Cadence had no idea what the hell was going on.

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

“It suits you,” he said.

The corners of Omicron’s eyes crinkled.

What the—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agape tensed as he neared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cadence’s stomach started doing flip-flops.

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

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

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

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

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

There was a beat of silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No. They are necessary.”

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

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

Omicron nodded. “Of course, darling.”

‘Darling’? Okay. This was too much.

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

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

Tau frowned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A beat of silence.

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

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

Allen’s eyes narrowed.

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

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

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

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

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

Cadence agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a stupid guy, Cadence thought.

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

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

What?

Cadence stared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Theta!” Omicron shouted.

Depa charged.

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

Cadence’s heart hammered wildly in her chest.

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

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

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

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

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

Theta inclined his head to Depa’s corpse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

8.[]: An Inheritor’s Avarice (Generosita)

Re-cap:

The last domino falls.

Ricardo Romano, don of the Romano Family, has been stabbed alongside the don of the Campana Family at a meeting that was meant to unite the two rivals. Fortuna Romano, Ricardo’s daughter, temporarily puts aside her engagement with Ambrose Campana and orders Cadence to investigate both the Campanas and the Foxman brothers for possible involvement. 


Twin Cities, Gemini

Fortuna Romano could easily divide her life into three time periods. This was because for each of those time periods she held a different name—rather, a different title.

Her first title was ‘Trash’. A name ceremoniously bestowed upon her by the store owners residing in the poorest district of the Twin Cities which had become her first home. The name was never said with malice, merely offhandedly:

“Ah, Trash is outside again. Why don’t you bring her some food?”

At the time, Fortuna hated the name just as she hated her powerlessness in accepting the scraps of food they tossed out to her. She didn’t know the word ‘pride’ but she certainly understood the concept of it. She couldn’t object though, couldn’t upset them. If she did, she knew she might end up being even hungrier than she already was.

Her second title—name, rather—was given to her by Ricardo Romano on a particularly cold morning, mid-autumn. She wasn’t quite sure what day it was as she had never counted the days at that time. She instead counted meals. And Ricardo started off with bringing her the first meal of that day which was a slice of warm pizza with cheese that melted in her mouth like butter. He brought her the second meal on the next day as well as the third meal.

“Well, aren’t you fortunate being fed by me all the time?” Ricardo had asked one day as he shielded her from the rain with an orange-yellow umbrella. “You’re expecting it at this point.”

“You don’t look like you need the food,” she said in between gulps of the tomato soup he’d brought to her in a cup.

“Oh, quite a tongue on you.” Ricardo had chucked. “And what’s your name?”

She told him what it was at the time.

“’Trash,’ hm? That’s not a very flattering.” Extending a rough, calloused hand, Ricardo said, “How about we call you ‘Fortuna’, hm? Since you were fortunate enough to come across me. And let’s increase your fortune a bit, shall we? How about you come home with me?”

Fortuna didn’t see the man as much more than a food source at the time so she had accepted the invitation in order to get access to even more food.

In the beginning, she didn’t pay much attention to the quality of the food nor clothes that she was showered with when she had been taken in. She was much too hungry, much too cold, and much too focused on eating more and more. In other words, all she could think about was food, food, food.

Eventually, however, as the months under Ricardo’s care carried on, the ravenous hunger subsided and she began to realize the strangeness of her situation. One day, after she wandered her father’s mansion in search of him and discovered him lounging in his large office, she had asked, “Why are you being so nice to me?”

The man had laughed. “Well, I’m your father now. Shouldn’t that be the case?”

Father. It was a word Fortuna knew but not one she was familiar with. Another word she was not familiar with was ‘friend’ which Ricardo saw to educate her on. Thus, he introduced her to a boyish young girl with freckled cheeks and shockingly copper-colored hair. Upon their meeting, the boyish girl had taken a swooping bow and introduced herself as “Cadence Morello, black knight of the Romano Family.”

“Keep her out of trouble, all right?” Ricardo had asked, not clarifying who was to look after who, not seeming to worry about it.

But Cadence Morello had beamed at the time. And it was through Cadence that Fortuna met Nico Fabrizzio and the Foxman brothers. In the beginning, Fortuna had been spoiled so thoroughly in her father’s care that she had merely viewed their group as ‘ruffians’ and had wondered why her father even wanted her to be associated with them. Of course, time changed her thoughts just as time changed everything.

They had a strange dynamic—Nico and Cadence. Nico would always tearfully get himself into some sort of trouble, and Cadence would always rescue him from it with a smile and a slew of carefully woven words. That was something Fortuna had admired about Cadence back then and even now. The slick wit.

One day while Fortuna was with the two walking through an alleyway enroute to the Sognare, Nico got himself into a situation that Cadence struggled difficulty getting him out of. The situation involved the son of one of the executives of the Romano Family—one Feliciano Donato. Feliciano had taken a habit of pestering Nico and had recruited several of his friends to crow on the boy. Cadence had stepped between them attempting to assuage Feliciano but Cadence’s words seemed to only infuriate Feliciano more.

“Come on,” Cadence had said to Feliciano, nodding in Fortuna’s direction, “don’t want ta be violent in front of such a pretty doll, do ya? I mean, she’s Ricardo’s dau—”

Fortuna had skirted away from them as soon as Feliciano raised his fist and delivered a cracking punch to Cadence’s cheek cutting her off. Nico had yelped in alarm and lunged for Cadence only to be tackled to the side by Feliciano’s goons.

It was a sort of violent scene that Fortuna had thought was long behind her. And as the violence escalated and Feliciano turned his eyes on her, Fortuna couldn’t help but think of only escape.

It was then that Francis appeared from nowhere, rushing into the alleyway like a madman and delivering a well-aimed flying kick to Feliciano’s chin. It was something out of one of the superhero comics Fortuna’d read in the newspaper. But it quickly turned to something else, as Francis ripped off the lid from a nearby trash can and started beating Feliciano over the head with it. The flurry only lasted a second because Francis was soon tackled to the side by one of Feliciano’s friends. The latter was, however, tackled too—by Cadence of all people who leaped at him like a cat and began clawing and biting at his face.

As Francis had picked himself off the ground, he had tossed Fortuna the trash lid, had given her a nod, before leaping back in and helping Nico rip Feliciano’s friend off of Cadence.

Staring at the unraveling chaos in front of her for only a moment more, Fortuna had gripped the trash lid like a madwoman and then charged into fray, slamming the lid against heads, bodies, and limbs of friends—accidentally—and foes alike.

They had been, of course, fighting a losing battle since Feliciano’s gang outnumbered them greatly 10 to 4. However, at the last minute, Carl and Allen had stormed into the playing field, and their appearance had marked the changing tide of battle. All it had taken was Carl picking Feliciano up by the scruff and throwing him ten meters down the alleyway to make them all tuck tail and run.

After their small victory, Allen had taken them to a popular candy store where they had regaled their tale of victory to all of the other children within.

Fortuna admitted it. Those times where she ran through the streets of the Twin Cities with the other children were truly wonderful.

But then Fortuna had met Bianchi. It was him that changed everything.

Bianchi was one of the executives of the Family at the time and would always shower her with gifts when he would come to her father. That was why he had been one of her favorites and was also why she hadn’t question it when he’d taken her out for dinner that one night.

But the bastard had taken her to the Casa de Bambolle.

She was too young at the time to realize what kind of place it was and had skirted away from the half-naked men and women who lounged around on the silken couches. When Bianchi brought her to one of the couches at the corner of the establishment far away from watchful eyes, Fortuna had smiled and squirmed uncomfortably.

“Now, Fortuna, this is the first time you’ve ever been to place like this right?” Bianchi had put his arm around her shoulders. “I’m sure you’ll like it—”

Before he could make any further moves, however, a young woman who seemed to have come from nowhere grabbed him by the wrist. Fortuna had recognized her. She was a pianist that Cadence liked to visit at the Sognare—Alma.

“Excuse me,” Alma had said quietly, eyes lowered to the ground, “but there is an age limit at the Casa—”

Before Alma could even finish, the man had ripped his wrist out from her grip and slapped her across the face sending her onto the floor. Fortuna had flinched away from him an instant, cowering against the arm of the couch.

“Do you know who I am?!” he had seethed.

“What do you think Miss Agape Rosario will say if she’s seen you here with her?” Alma had murmured from the floor, holding her reddened cheek. “With a girl who looks too well-dressed and well-fed to be visiting this place.”

Bianchi had stared at the woman long and hard before the rage in his eyes cooled. Without another word, he left the premises with Fortuna in hand and returned her to her home. He hadn’t even looked at her when he’d dropped her off.

Still feeling rather skittish the following day, Fortuna had informed her father of the occurrence.

In that moment of revelation, Ricardo’s eyes had been terrifying; and even though he spoke to her with kind words afterwards, Fortuna found herself shivering in her shoes. Powerless.

Not so long after that, her father had introduced her to as an aspiring young and handsome police officer by the name of Vincente Giustizia. The officer had extended a kind hand down to her and had smiled charmingly: “You’re a brave girl, Miss Fortuna. Did you know that? Well, I’m here to help brave girls like you, okay? You can rely on me.”

Fortuna had been so enamored by him that she had merely flushed and nodded wordlessly.

Two days afterwards she watched as a handcuffed Bianchi was escorted out from the bank he owned in front of a crowd of photographers. He had looked pale, clammy as if he had already died.

“And that, Miss Fortuna,” Giustizia had told her after, “is what we call justice.”

Justice.

What a lovely word.

In her childish fantasy at the time, Fortuna had imagined herself being just like Vincente Giustizia—even by his side—as an officer of justice. Gallant, charming, powerful.

That was why when she came across a young woman being unwillingly dragged by a roguish man into the Casa De Bambolle on a particularly sunny morning while on her way to school, Fortuna had immediately gone to her father. When she told her father of this event, however, he’d merely rubbed his chin in thought. “That would be Mr. Enzo. He’s under the Campana Family. It’s best we turn a blind eye to that one. We’re just beginning to work things out with them.”

The dismissiveness of her father had been a slap to the face.

It wasn’t right, she had thought. She didn’t understand it at all. And as she continued to think about it, she began to recall Francis’s bravery and Giustizia gallantry.

She would take it upon herself, she decided. A powerful, brave woman of justice. And so that night she snuck out of her father’s estate and somehow made it to the city’s main police office.

Vincente had greeted her as warmly as she entered the brick stone building, smiling with even his eyes as he sat her down at his desk. Only a second after she began to explain her tale, however, did the very same man she had come to report enter Vincente’s office. Mr. Enzo. He strolled in casually, not even glancing at Fortuna as he walked up to the police officer.

“I made a bit of a mess last night,” Enzo said, reaching into his pocket and holding out a roll of Gemini Cens to the man. “Clean it up for me, will you?”

Pocketing the rolls of cens with a charming smile, Vincente had said, “Thank you, Mr. Enzo. Don’t worry about a thing.” After Enzo left, the police officer had turned back to her and brightened. “What were you saying, Miss Fortuna? I’d be happy to help. Did your father send you?”

Another slap to the face. The filth, the corruption, the false faces, and her at the center of it all. Fortuna had feltfelt unsafe. Powerless. Small. It was an unbalanced dichotomy from the start. Her craving for justice while despising powerlessness. Unachievable. The only thing that had changed since she had been known only as “Trash” was that she now had a full belly. Still relying on other people—for food scraps on the streets and for a place of comfort and rescue in her father’s care. Without her father, she had thought, what was she? Not Fortuna. Just ‘Trash.’ Was this just going to be her pattern of living from now on? Floundering around with some illusion of strength?

No, she thought to herself as she had stared wide-eyed at the corrupt policeman. Even if she was going to be bent out of shape while doing it, she was no longer going to allow herself to be like this anymore.

Thus, her third title was one she chose herself. Inheritor of the Romano Family. She wasn’t quite sure when she had decided on the title. Maybe it was when she had volunteered to take notes during her father’s meetings so that she could sit in on them. Perhaps it was when she had proposed networking with countries outside of Signum to provide conductors. Either way, it was a title she would not let slip from her grasp. Always waiting for an opportunity. It was never enough.

Finally, a golden opportunity had come with Ambrose Campana.

Fortuna had heard of the Campana head’s son in passing conversation but had never gone so far as to come across the man herself. It was on a sunny Saturday morning that she had encountered him at a musical instrument storefront based in the grey, neutral zone that separated the east and the west of the Twin Cities.

On that day, she had been wearing a hat decorated with expensive feathers from an exotic bird native to Virgo that matched the Capricornian-made pocket-watch dangling out from her satin blue dress pocket. With annoyance, she had flipped open that pocket-watch while cursing Cadence’s tardiness under her breath. That was when she saw him reflected in the glass of the watch.

Fair hair. Deep brown eyes and a prominent nose. He was very attractive. And it seemed as if he knew he was because he said to her as he fell into step beside her— “What’s a lovely bird like you doing here?”

She had thought of him as no more than an annoyingly flirtatious stranger at the time so she had dismissed him a wave of her hand. “This bird is named Fortuna Romano, and I’m waiting for someone.”

Usually, her surname alone made people skirt from her but—

“Well, Fortuna Romano, I am Ambrose Campana.”

Fortuna had startled, stepping away from him in an instant.

“I’m actually here on waiting for a date too but it appears as if they’ve stood me up,” Ambrose had said, extending a hand out politely. “Would you mind mending my wounded ego?”

“Do you realize what you’re asking me?”

He’d merely smiled. “We shouldn’t let the issues of the previous generation affect the current generation, right? I certainly don’t hate cinnamon just because my father hates it.” He still did not lower his extended hand.

It was on a whim of curiosity that she had accepted his invitation to accompany him to a nearby cafe. Something about his words and the way he held himself intrigued her. Although he was what people would call ‘charming,’ she could see that his niceties were artificial. Like plastic. She wondered if he’d melt if held to flame.

They took a booth by the window and were brought a pair of beautifully decorated sponge cakes. Ambrose got to work immediately and somehow managed to carry the conversation on his own in between mouthfuls of cake. He had been the one to bring up their family affairs first and had started off with a complaint about how he was still kept in the dark about certain affairs despite his contributions.

It was rather pathetic, really.

As Fortuna listened to him rant, she had stared out the window of the cafe and pondered to herself. If Ambrose were truly a bumbling friendly fool like this then she could use him, couldn’t she?

“You must be thinking ‘this is a great opportunity,’ aren’t you?”

Fortuna’s heart had skipped a beat, and when she turned back to Ambrose, she had found that he was grinning devilishly. The lightheartedness was gone from his eyes.

What a bastard.

“Well, I’m thinking the same thing. I don’t know what your end goal for your family is but I’m sure you’re thinking that something good could come out of this fateful meeting,” Ambrose had said as he cut into the delicate cake with his knife and fork. “Change is necessary in order to stay at the top, and although things are going well for both of our families at the moment, neither of our families have changed very much since they’ve found their niches. I believe both our families contain weaknesses that the other family can compensate for. If the weaknesses are not compensated, then they will be exploited.”

What?

Her eyes narrowed.

Was he really proposing what she thought he was proposing? Ridiculous. She could see right through him. Like plastic. His complaints paired with this suggestion. Obviously, this was a maneuver for power in his family. How relatable.

“I don’t want to associate myself with someone who believes in something like fate,” Fortuna had replied, stabbing her fork into her cake. “And I don’t want to associate with someone who makes a business proposal one hour after meeting someone… But I do understand the need for adaptation.”

It really was like looking into a mirror.

“Fantastic.” Ambrose had beamed. “When should we have our next date?”

Together, they carefully wove a tale of romance and companionship convincing enough to beguile executives of both families.

But all of Fortuna’s efforts came crumbling down in one night, and all it took was a sorry knife to the back. As she sat in Doctor Fabrizzio’s lobby on the night of her father’s attack, she hadn’t even been able to keep her head straight. Instead of thinking about the next step, all she could do was pace back and forth hoping for the doctor to bring her good news. Powerlessness.

“We should postpone our engagement,” she had when she had met up with Ambrose two days after the stabbing incident. They had met up in a small bar at the center of the Twin Cities, both taking care to ensure that none of their bodyguards had followed them.

Ambrose had smiled back wanly at her. “That does seem like the correct route. Of course, in the meantime I’m launching a full investigation on what happened that night, so I may not be in touch as often. We need to get to the bottom of what happened to our fathers, right? No matter who the perpetrator is.”

Bastard.

“Of course. It’s only natural,” Fortuna had returned.

***

Sitting at her father’s desk as she mulled over all of these things of the past and present, Fortuna began to bite her thumb.

She had contacted Agape two days prior but the woman had yet to return her calls. Cavallo was out dealing with the police force, and Benedetto had his hands full with managing the properties her father usually managed. Donato was flat out ignoring her requests for him.

This had never happened with her father.

What was it? Were they planning something against her? Scrambling for more power while her father was hospitalized. Just like her. She was alone in this, wasn’t she? Of course, she was—

Wait. Damn. Why hadn’t she thought of it sooner? What if one of the Romano executives had hired out the Specialist that had most likely attacked her father? For a grab at power? It could have been one of the lower-tier executives.

She couldn’t trust anyone.

A fly of soft pinks and blues caught the corner of her eye.

The flowers she’d received from the Foxmans. She knew that the three would never lay a hand on her father, but if she hadn’t ordered Cadence to investigate them too then her actions would be viewed as favoritism. Weak to affections. Not fit to head the Romanos. Powerless.

Still, despite everything she’d done, would they…?

At the very thought of requesting their assistance, she bit down harder and drew blood.

Damn. Completely powerless. A cycle.

***

“Fortuna? What in saint’s name are you doin’ here?!”

Looking up from the Sognare’s dismal menu, Fortuna was greeted by such a bewildered shout. Three figures crowded the bar’s the doorway. One stocky, one thin, one short. One missing.

“Cadence.” The thin figure turned to the short figure. “You said you had a lead on someone involved in Francis’s stabbing.”

Cadence shrugged. “I said I had a lead. Didn’t say what kinda lead.”

Carl stormed forward without a thought. “So what’s the deal, Fortuna? Can’t send out a normal invitation?” He side glanced at the empty bar. “At least invite us to a place that’s actually staffed. Where’s the bartender?”

“I sent him away.” Fortuna sighed and put down the menu. “Where’s Francis? I need two voices of reason here. Not just one.”

“Francis was feelin’ a bit under the weather,” Carl explained, seating himself across from her, “so he’s sleepin’ it off.”

Allen seated himself beside Carl and folded his hands. “What is this, Fortuna?”

Fortuna didn’t quite know what it was herself. What did she want from them? Assistance? She had only a vague idea of her desire when she had ordered Cadence to bring them here. So what was it?

“I just wanted to ensure that the Romano Family and the Foxman Family are still on amicable terms,” she said. “We haven’t reached out to you due to our current circumstances, but—”

“Of course we are,” Carl stated as if it was obvious. “But we’re busy ourselves, so sorry if we ain’t offering a hand with the old man’s case.”

“What’s the real issue here, Fortuna? Can’t trust Cavallo or Agape?” Allen probed, lighting a v-cigarette from his pocket. “Not Donato?”

A stab at her pride.

Fortuna frowned and thrummed her fingers on the table. “What a ridiculous implication.” She glanced to the side and frowned deeper when she saw Cadence leaning back against the table across from them. “For goodness sake, Morello, get a chair.”

“Nah, I’d rather stand,” Cadence said with a shrug. “I’m honestly just waitin’ for ya ta give me the all clear so I can—” She stopped short, face suddenly drained of color, expression unsettling.

Fortuna didn’t think she’d ever seen Cadence wear such an expression before in her life, and she was startled into silence in herself. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Carl and Allen assessing Cadence too.

“What’s the matter with you, Cadence?” Carl muttered, arching an eyebrow at the redhead. “What’s with that look? You look ready to kill someo—”

And then there was a familiar and chilling updraft of wind that seemed to whistle upwards from the floorboards.

Following this was a blinding flash of tangerine light that erupted beneath them and the floor fell away into nothingness. Before she could even scream, Fortuna was sent into free fall in a white void. And then there was black.

***

(            )

“—hate, hate, hate, hate people like you!”

Fortuna was awoken by such nonsensical shouting in Common. It took her a moment to get her bearings, and the shouting did not stop all the while.

“You people are the absolute dirt of this earth! Absolute filth! Admit it! You know what you are! I want you to say it! Spell it out for me!”

Fortuna found herself sitting upright and bound to a wooden chair. The knot in her back and neck informed her that she had been sitting in this position for a while.

Across from her was a stretch of black wooden bookcases that ate up the entire wall. The spines of the books shifted from colorless to colorful, unreadable to readable. A result of the flickering light that emanated from the wax candles which acted as the sole light sources in the room. In front of one of the bookcases sat a makeshift table with a board game propped up at its center. A woman wearing a blue polka dot dress with a bow in her hair sat there staring at the board pensively.

Wait.

Fortuna’s gaze flicked across the room.

There was no door or window in sight. Impossible. There had to be one. An escape route. Hidden. Behind the bookcase maybe.

“‘Bout time you woke up,” came a grumble to her right.

She glanced in the direction. It was Carl, bound on a chair just as she was. On his other side sat Allen who was similarly bound. Down the line were vaguely familiar faces: the businessman they had just instated as head of the city’s main bank, one of the mayor candidates—Depa Amaril—and a couple of lower-tier executives of the Family. They all looked worse for wear and were trying to crane their necks to see the one who was shouting at them from behind. Cadence was nowhere to be seen.

She glanced to her left. There was only one person there. A woman wearing librianesque glasses and bright red lipstick. Agape Rosario. The woman’s head was drooped down indicating that she was unconscious.

Grimacing, Fortuna wiggled her foot forward as much as she could and tapped Agape’s leg. Eventually, the woman stirred.

After blinking dazedly, Agape stared at Fortuna long and hard before grimacing. “So they’ve got you too, Miss Fortuna.” And then Agape stared past her at Allen and Carl. Her eyes widened. “What are you two doing here…? Why—”

“Agape,” Fortuna interjected with a whisper, “how long have you been here?”

The woman grimaced. “I’m not sure. It was Wednesday the last time I checked.”

“It’s Friday now,” Fortuna returned.

Agape understandably paled.

“Black market capitalism! Weapons trafficking! Money laundering! Human beings! Despicable!” The ranting continued on in the background.

Bubbling laughter suddenly blossomed in the cold air, and Fortuna stared past Agape to find a cluster of children darting around the towers of books dotting that side of the room.

“They’re Matilda’s workers from what I understand,” Agape whispered. “Rather, they used to be.”

What…? So this was Matilda’s work? The delivery girl? No. That girl wasn’t gutsy enough to do something like this, especially since she’d been elevated in society due to the work they’d given her.

Keeping this in mind, Fortuna continued to assess her surroundings.

Other than the children running around the far end of the room, the one who was shouting irately behind her to her left, and the polka-dot-dressed woman, there were three other hostiles present that she could see. The three sat together clustered at a table and were dressed in identical drab, grey uniforms. Police officer uniforms.

The police? What was this?

The dots connected when the man who was shouting irately from behind them came to continue his ranting in front of them.

Police Commissario Vincente Giustizia. The commissario was nearly frothing at the mouth as he yelled on and on. It was a startling to see Vincente like that. Nothing like the calm and collected man from her memory.

“You’ve been given positions of power in this city, but you abuse it! What are you, huh? Animals?” Vincente walked up the row, wagging his finger in the faces of those he passed. He stopped to glare at her and then Agape. “Despicable! How many people are there ten feet beneath the ground because of people like you? Using words like ‘family’ to brand and to romanticize yourself! As if you’re some good Samaritans working together for the greater good—but whose greater good? Your own! Sure, some of you lot might not be the worst people in existence. Sure, some of you might do charity but you know who else does charity? Politicians!”

“How dare you!” one of the lower tier executives shouted in Geminian, face red. “We can put you five feet under—”

“Shut up!” Vincente snapped back in Common. He stormed back to the man and leaned in close so he was nose-to-nose with him. “What are you doing, huh? Willing to confess to even more crimes now?!” Vincente pulled back. “Wait. So you are making a confession then?” He gestured to one of the police officers sitting behind him. “Are you getting this?”

The officer stared at him befuddled.

“He’s been ranting like this every couple of hours,” Agape informed Fortuna quietly. “There’s something wrong with that man’s head.” She then added even more quietly: “He’s the only one besides that woman in the dress over there that I’ve seen come here repeatedly.” Her gaze flicked to Carl and Allen. “And there’s also—”

“What are you doing here if you’re not writing this down? We need records! Records!” Vincente slapped his hands together with each syllable. “How are we supposed to move forward if we don’t have records!”

“Chief—” the police officer started.

But Vincente had already turned his attention away from the officer and now stalked up the line to Agape. “Miss Agape Rosario, do you know what justice is? No, do you know what morals are? Obviously, you must not have even an inkling of what they are since your host club and strip joints serve as money laundering fronts for your crime organization! Despicable! Absolutely despicable! The fact that people like you can—” A sudden cough, a heave. “—advantage of other people is just—” Another coughing fit and a heave. Panting. “—absolutely hate people like you!” More coughing and heaving.

The sole female police officer scrambled over to Vincente’s side with a glass of water in tow. He accepted it, downed it in two big gulps, before handing it back to her. The officer retreated back to her table with the other two officers a second later.

Fortuna grimaced. “I can’t even understand what you’re saying. I’d heard from the broker that you were losing your touch but to think you’ve fallen to this extent—”

“Fallen? Me?” Vincente snapped, nearly frothing again.

“Was the money not enough, Commissario?” Fortuna returned. “If you were patient, Cavallo would have made arrangements for you to make up for lost pay due to my father’s condition. Now though—”

“Money?” Vincente barked a laugh and pushed his glasses up his nose. “The nerve you people have! Just because you’re the type to bend over backwards for something people put value to centuries ago doesn’t mean others are just like you. Do you think someone like me would start investing in something like a slip of paper just because some punk told me to? No! I’m not a fool!”

He looked like a fool, Fortuna thought but she kept her lips sealed. And he most definitely was the type of person to do that.

Vincente continued on, seemingly following a completely different line of thought: “If something in the system is broken, you fix it! You don’t use it to your advantage! People like you tread over the hope people have in humanity! Street thugs like you—”

A clap resounding from behind Fortuna cut him off short, and a woman stepped into the candlelight between her and Agape. The woman had dark skin and was dressed in a loose suit. Her features were cat-like, and the hair that cascaded down her back was bleached white. “Your filibusters are entertaining as always, Tau.”

Fortuna tried to crane her neck back. Where had the woman come from? An exit. There had to be one.

Vincente scowled, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose again. “It wasn’t a filibuster, Omega!” He let out a sigh, pushed back his hair, and said, “I was citing points to prepare my counter-argument.”

“Your counter-argument?” the woman addressed as Omega pressed, smiling thinly.

“Yes, about why we shouldn’t keep these people here,” Vincente said, gesturing widely at their row. “This is all a bad idea. Too soon—”

“And yet you listed over ten points for why they should be here,” Omega hummed.

“Exactly!” interjected the polka-dot dress-wearing woman from where she sat at the board game table. She sent Fortuna a look that was so razor-sharp and full of pure-hatred that Fortuna physically startled despite herself. “I don’t understand the hesitation, Tau. These people are filthy. Using conductors is one thing, but making them and selling them? It boils my damn blood!” She slammed her hand onto the game board. “It’s taking everything in me to chain myself to the floor and not rip their damn spines out of their bodies! Disgusting!”

“If we all thought and acted like you, Iota,” Vincente rebutted, “there would be no hope for the human race.”

“What did you say?”

Omega slowly flipped her long white hair with a heavy sigh.

Fortuna’s eyes widened as the bare skin at the back of Omega’s neck became illuminated for the briefest second by the candlelight. There had been something there. Something. Fortuna saw it clearly, but. What was that? It couldn’t be.

“Let’s all get along,” Omega hummed, crossing her arms. “There’s no way to win an argument against a fool, right? I mean, you guys do argue the most out of all of us.” The corner of her lips drew upwards as Vincente scowled and as Iota pursed her lips. Omega flipped her hair lazily once more.

There. There it was again. There was no mistaking it. It was clear to Fortuna now. That tattoo.

Cold dread swept down to Fortuna’s toes, and she suddenly felt lightheaded. She felt the same squirming in her stomach that she’d felt when Bianchi had brought her to the Casa de Bambolle all those years ago. The same tension in her body that she’d felt when Vincente had accepted the cens from Mr. Enzo. This feeling. Fear. Powerlessness.

“I’m only kidding of course,” Omega amended with a chuckle.

“Saints, shut up already!” Carl snapped from beside her. “You bastards are as good as dead once—”

“Shut up,” Fortuna whispered.

Carl turned to her incredulously. “Wha—”

“I said shut up,” Fortuna snapped through gritted teeth. If she did not bite down as hard as she could, she was sure that they would be able to hear her teeth chattering.

Omega stared down at her and twirled a lock of hair around her index finger. A vague smile passed over her lips as if she’d just achieved some satisfying victory. Instead of addressing Fortuna, however, she addressed Vincente and Iota: “Well, now that they’ve both made their point, what appears to be the verdict?”

The three turned their attention to the far corner of the room.

One of the children pulled away from the playgroup and plucked one of the candlesticks off of the floor. She brought it slowly over to the corner of the room, coming to a stop in front of a stack of books.

There was someone sitting there, Fortuna realized, beside the books. Another person.

The light from the candle was not enough to illuminate the individual’s face, but Fortuna could tell that it was a man. The black turtleneck would have made him appear one with the darkness behind him if it were not for the white of his hands and the white pages of the book those hands held open.

“I’ve heard enough,” the man said. “There’s no denying it now.”

Vincente and Iota straightened. Allen and Carl visibly stiffened. Fortuna merely bit down harder. Her teeth felt like they were about to shatter beneath the force.

The girl brought the candlestick up a bit higher, and the flame peeled away the shadows veiling the man’s face.

As he slowly closed his book, Francis Foxman lifted his head to meet Fortuna’s gaze and said: “You need to take responsibility for everything you’ve done.”

“Why are you asking me if I think Miss Fortuna will be able to properly manage the Romano Family in her father’s place? I think her actions speak for herself, don’t they?”

Francis Foxman, executive of the Foxman Family 

8.1: Cadence’s Honor (Dishonore)

Re-cap:

The dominoes are beginning to fall.

The violence of the Twin Cities has reached even the criminal bosses who rule the city’s underbelly. Criminal boss and owner of the city ports, Francis Foxman, was stabbed several weeks prior and the assailant still remains at large. Not soon after this, during a meeting meant to unite the powerful Romano Family and Campana Family through the engagement of Fortuna Romano and Ambrose Campana, both dons of the Families are stabbed under mysterious circumstances.

Despite being caught up in all of this chaos, Cadence Morello still finds time to visit the Sognare and dreams of Alma, the pianist who had treated an orphaned Cadence kindly only to disappear many years ago.


Twin Cities, Gemini

“Why aren’t you saying anything, huh?!”

Thuds resounded through the near-empty casino.

“You just said you were going to talk!” Another thud. “A minute ago!” Thud. “So why!” Thud, thud, thud. “Are you so damned quiet?” There was a monstrous roar. “Talk, dammit!”

Whistling, Cadence watched as a man was sent flying through the casino hall and sent crashing into a billiard table. The cue balls lined up on its surface exploded upwards and ricocheted off of nearby poker and roulette stations which sent black and white poker chips clattering onto the waxed floor.

‘Talk,’ Carl had said, but Cadence presumed that the beaten man didn’t have enough teeth to talk at this point.

The man who was now draped across the billiard table let out a croak as if in agreement with her thought.

“You’re making a mess, Carl.” Francis stood beside Cadence while inspecting one of the cue balls that had hurtled towards him amidst his brother’s tantrum. “Is this any way to treat a guest at our fine establishment?”

Carl whipped around with a glower. “What? You want me to get him a chair?!”

Francis smiled. “Well, we could certainly do that. He may not be able to stand with what we have planned for him for the rest of the day.”

Carl arched a brow and then smirked. He signaled for the group of men and women lounging at the mini-bar at the opposite corner of the hall. Two of the men rose from their positions, one picking up a chair from a nearby table and the other grabbing the croaking man off the pool table. Utilizing a level of teamwork worthy of a cricket duo, they threw the beaten man onto the chair and dragged him in front of the brothers.

“And here, by ‘guest’ I was hopin’ you were referrin’ to me.” Cadence chortled and bent down to pick up one of the poker chips that had rolled over to her feet. She glanced at the man that had been dragged in front of them and resisted a grimace. She could barely make out his eyes beneath all that purple and red. “Is it always this excitin’ when ya guys are openin’ a new business?”

“Oh, you’d be surprised.” Francis set the cue ball onto the poker table behind him.

Allen sat at that table shuffling a deck of cards with a v-cig in his mouth. “Don’t break any more equipment, Carl. Replacing it’s expensive.”

Carl wiped his bloody fists on a towel provided by one of his men. “Come on. We can replace things, Allen. But we can’t replace blood.”

Something twisted in Cadence’s gut at his statement. The memory of Olive’s words and the look in the kid’s eyes on that morning the previous week.

Guilt.

Damn, that kid’s self-deprecation was infectious.

Allen rose from his table, pocketed the deck of cards, and walked over to stand beside Carl. Although Allen was smaller than Carl, he held a pressure that was ten times as suffocating. The seated man shrank into himself as that pressure weighed him down.

“If I heard you correctly over Carl’s shouting earlier, you would be Mr. Luigi, right?” Francis asked the man as he pushed between his brothers wearing his usual calm smile.

Out of all of them, Francis had always been the most mild-mannered one. Whether it was delivering business deals to executives or delivering orders to underlings, he always spoke politely and respectfully. Back in the day, she’d joke around with Carl that if Francis or Nico ever stepped foot out of the city, people would assume they were from the good walk of life. Francis had dropped into their conversation to point out that Cadence herself could appear as anyone she wanted so she had the upper hand in that case. But appearances were deceiving.

“Well, am I correct that you are Mr. Luigi?” Francis pressed calmly. “Just nod your head yes or no.”

Luigi swallowed and nodded slowly.

It seemed as if he thought Francis was a ray of mercy.

“We see you here quite frequently, Mr. Luigi,” Francis continued. “And we’re quite familiar with the large debt you owe not only to us but also to your bookie. But, since you also happen to be bringing in a large sum of patrons from your other gambling nooks, we’ve been turning you a blind eye. I understand how this is easy for you to interpret as giving us the slip but—”

“Who was it that told you to jump my brother, huh?!” Carl roared, grabbing Luigi by the throat. “And don’t you dare tell me that it wasn’t you! We have witnesses pinning you on the damned scene!”

“I don’t know!” The man sobbed, spluttered. “It wasn’t me! It wasn’t!”

“That’s not a name!”

“Please, believe me! It wasn’t me!”

Francis straightened himself and glanced at Carl. “What do you think, Carl? Does Mr. Luigi here seem to be telling the truth?”

“Well, I dunno, Francis.” Carl sneered. “You got an idea?”

Francis’s smile thinned. “How about this, Mr. Luigi. How about we resolve this with a simple request. If you do one small thing for me, we’ll let you go. Don’t worry. It’s not anything big. It’s the sort of thing you’d try to do if you maybe had just a little bit too much to drink. How about it?”

Luigi nodded fiercely.

“Are you sure, Mr. Luigi?” Francis pressed. “Well, while it is a small task, if you can’t do it then we’re going to have an even longer talk afterwards.”

“I-I’ll do it!” Luigi stammered, spitting out blood. “Whatever you want me to do to someone, I’ll do it! Whatever it is!”

Carl exchanged a look with Francis before he barked out a laugh. Francis remained smiling.

“Oh, Mr. Luigi, this isn’t something we’re asking you to do to someone else,” Francis explained. “This is something we’re asking you to do to yourself.” With that, Francis pulled out the cue ball he’d picked back up from the table a minute earlier and held it out to the man. “Think of this as a pill of truth. Swallow it whole, and we’ll believe you and let you walk.”

Luigi’s eyes widened as he stared at the ball. “B-But that’s—that’s—”

“You accepted, Mr. Luigi. A deal is a deal.”

Francis handed the cue ball to Carl who then began to slowly force the thing into the man’s mouth. Gagging and screaming followed.

Cadence felt a bit bad for Luigi. She could tell he was lying. Probably took the job out of desperation for money. Desperation made people irrational and stupid.

But at the same time, part of her was a bit happy at his suffering. That was probably because to her the Foxmans had a speci—

Bah.

She was getting too worked up about this. It wasn’t like any of this involved her anyways. This was strictly a Foxman issue. And Francis was fine, so—

Those are impressive mental gymnastics, came Olive’s thought paired with sarcastic mental clapping. Gauging by his demeanor, Cadence assumed that this was not an intentional synchronization. The synchronization was light, so she could only tell that he was eating breakfast and that he felt uncomfortable with his situation. He was not visible to her. So, you’re really doing it then. Thought you were friends with them.

Sure, we’re friends. Doesn’t mean I gotta always meddle in his problems and stick by his side. We’re grownups. Friendship is different when ya reach a certain age, Cadence returned. A smile tugged on the corner of her lips. Which is why enjoyin’ your little friendship breakfast hang out with Claire should be a priority—

Annoyance bled out from their connection. We aren’t—

Man, we’ve synchronized twice today already, kid. I know we’ve been gettin’ along real swell lately but—

“You seem to be in a good mood, Cadence,” Francis said suddenly, drawing Cadence out of her internal conversation. “Never thought you to be the sadistic type.”

During her spiel with the prince, Carl had ordered some of their men to drag out ‘Mr. Luigi’ to the back room where Cadence presumed additional hospitality would be offered.

“Saints, I wasn’t the one makin’ mincemeat with my fists,” Cadence quipped. “I’m a lover at heart.”

Carl scoffed, wiping his knuckles off with another towel. “You just don’t like gettin’ your hands dirty.”

The entrance doors to the casino abruptly flew open, and a woman wearing a fedora stepped in. She rushed to Francis’s side. “Boss, the police commissario is here,” she stammered. “He wants to speak with you.”

“Tell him to buzz off,” Carl muttered.

“He insists,” the woman pressed. “Says it’s important.”

Allen turned to the woman causing her to stiffen. But he brushed past her, walked over to the poker table, and sat back down slowly. He gave a puff of his v-cig and began inspecting the cards again.

Allen really didn’t know how to treat a woman. Well, he didn’t know how to treat anybody.

“I ain’t a fan of ‘the law’ seein’ my face,” Cadence said, pulling the bill of her hat down low, “so I’ll be makin’ my exit—”

The large wooden doors to the casino blew open without warning.

Cadence immediately snapped her ringed fingers and transmuted the form of one of the brothers’ men over herself. Francis glanced at her briefly before turning to face another one of his underlings who had rushed in from outside.

“Sorry, boss,” the man panted. “They wouldn’t listen—”

Francis nodded. “It’s all right, Clarence.”

“’All right’?” A scoff resounded from the door. “’All right’? What about the current state of things makes you think it’s ‘all right’?”

In stepped a group wearing familiar uniforms. Gray button-ups with billed gray caps and gray slacks. Very gothic in Cadence’s opinion. Matched the police’s state in the city perfectly. In front of this gray uniformed group stood a man in a suit. His dark brown hair was slicked back, his sharp eyes piercing through the square glasses that rested on his hawk nose.

Commissario Vincente Giustizia. The police commissioner of the Twin Cities of Gemini.

Cadence had purposefully stayed as far from his as possible not only at the dinner party with the Romanos and Foxmans but also in general. She didn’t trust law enforcers and trusted corrupt law enforcers even less.

Not talkin’ about you, Jericho, Cadence thought just for good measure.

“Commissario Giustizia,” Francis greeted the man with a practiced smile. “What do we owe the pleasure of seeing you today?”

“Oh, trust me. If it’s a pleasure, it’s only for you!”

Cadence resisted doing a double-take. Francis and Carl exchanged looks. Allen remained impassive.

“I mean, look at all this.” The officer stomped over to Francis, gesturing wildly around him. “How did this building even get approved by the city officials? What licenses do they actually have to run this establishment? And their restaurants? And their bars?!”

For a man who was rumored to be cool, suave, and level-headed, Vincente sure enjoyed shouting maniacally.

Cadence had heard many things about Vincente from the people of the city. That he was a handsome gentleman, that he was kind and considerate, that he was fighting for a safer city against the darker underworld. But people of that underworld knew the truth about him. And as Fortuna had so eloquently put it years ago, he “was a soulless, greedy pig who would bend over backwards for money only to flaunt it on women half a second later.”

Carl glowered, taking a step forward.

Francis held up a placating hand and stepped forward himself. “If you want our licenses, I’d be happy to provide them, Mr. Giustizia, as long as there’s probable cause for it. That is the law which I’m sure you—”

“The law?” Vincente huffed. “The law? I am the law! I’m more of the law than—”

“Why’re you here?” Allen asked plainly. “If you don’t give us a reason and continue to make a scene before our business opens then you’ll have to arrest yourself for disruption.”

“Arrest myself?!”

What a funny person. 

For a moment, a laugh tickled Cadence’s throat. But even though she did not allow the laugh to escape, Vincente whipped his head in her direction.

“You—are you laughing?”

“Uh, no, of course not. Sorry, sir,” Cadence responded, voice deep and gravely. She coughed and slammed her chest with her fist. “Bad cough. Tryna quit smokin’ but it’s givin’ me a hard time.”

Vincente scrutinized her.

Something about the man’s gaze made her skin crawl. It was almost familiar—the feeling. She couldn’t quite place it. An unpleasant nostalgia. A memory was on the very tip of her tongue. One of the others. Before she could reach out to any of them, he looked away from her and the itch faded.

“Well, you do have a point. My apologies.” Vincente cleared his throat, straightening his uniform. “That isn’t like me, is it?” He glanced back at the officers behind him who shook their heads with a collection of ‘No, chief’s. “I shouldn’t have been so straightforwar—”

“You still haven’t answered our question,” Allen said. “Why you’re here. Did Fortuna or Cavallo send you? Or are you here to complain about not receiving your pay off from Ricardo? I’m sure you know why that payment’s late.”

“You know why I’m here,” Vincente replied, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose.

“This is about what happened last week. The unfortunate circumstances that fell on Ricardo and Mr. Campana,” Francis concluded. “If you’re here to look into our involvement, you won’t find anything. We weren’t there on that night. And we’ve been in good business with the Romanos and wouldn’t dare to disrupt that.” He frowned, eyes hardening. “To even think that we’d raise a hand towards someone who we’ve been working with for years is an insult.”

“Why don’t you look into the Campanas?” Allen asked loosely, still not looking up from his cards. “Heard their don is already making a speedy recovery. Suspicious.”

Vincente didn’t acknowledge the man and instead placed a hand on Francis’s arm. “Look. I’m just here to ensure nothing else happens. For your sake—”

Several of the Foxmans’ men stiffened at this and directed their steely gazes towards Vincente.

Keeping his smile in place, Francis held up his hand to keep them at bay. He then grabbed the officer’s resting hand. “Commissario Giustizia, while your concern is warranted…” Tightening his grip, he removed Giustizia’s hand from his arm. “…your accusations and suspicions are not. Frankly, I find them very rude.”

Vincente rubbed his hand once Francis released it. He took a moment to study Francis long and hard, and Francis held his gaze in turn. Finally, the police commissioner turned on his heels and signaled for his officers to leave. He left a beat afterwards, stating rather ominously that they’d be seeing each other again soon.

“Who does that bastard think he is waltzing in here like that,” Carl spat once the doors to the casino had slammed shut. “Bet those damn Campanas are tryna get that guy to plant something on us or somethin’.”

“Ricardo owns him, not the Campanas,” Allen corrected.

“Still!”

“Seems like suspicion is comin’ in from all angles.” Cadence sighed, shaking her head. “It was pretty awful—that night. Can’t get his body outta my head—Ricardo’s, I mean. It just didn’t look right.”

“Yeah, always thought the mean old bastard would outlive us by at least fifty years,” Carl grumbled.

“Stop talking like he’s dead,” Allen interjected. “He’s in good hands with old man Fabrizzio.” He grunted. “Though I feel sorry for his bill.”

“How’s Fortuna…?” Francis asked suddenly.

“Ya know her. She knows the boss’ll pull through so she’s not even sheddin’ a tear.” Cadence chuckled. “She may have been a bit cold in the doc’s waitin’ room that night, but she really does appreciate the flowers.”

Carl turned with a grimace. “Yeah, well, good.”

“And is Fortuna the one that sent you here, Cadence?” Allen asked without hesitation.

“Come on, Allen. There’s no need to bully Cadence,” Francis sighed. “She may be many things—” He paused to chuckle at his own joke. “—but she’s a friend first and foremost.” He turned to her, wearing his usual smile. But his eyes were as hard as steel. “Right?”

“‘Course, I mean I can’t forget all the stupid stuff we’ve done together.” Cadence spread her arms wide. “Ya know, after Fortuna and Ambrose started gettin’ along together, I thought everything’d get sorted out… Thought it’d even somehow sort out your bad blood with the Campanas too.”

There was a long stretch of silence before Allen waved his hand of cards in the air. “Let’s play a round.”

“A round of cards?” Cadence huffed, feeling the corner of her mouth tug upwards as Carl joined his older brother at the table without question. “Now?”

“Why not?” Francis asked, joining Allen at the table too. “They’re always interesting, aren’t they?”

“Interestin’?” Cadence arched a brow. “Ya mean interestin’ in how we all end up somehow havin’ royal flushes at the end?”

Francis offered a musical chuckle in response.

***

After the game—after Allen won three times in a row—Francis offered to accompany Cadence on the way back to her apartment. She’d moved again recently and Francis had stated he wanted to check out the front.

It took a lot of convincing for Allen not to send them off with five additional men. Cadence assured the man that she of all people knew how to get out of sticky situations and that she was sure to pass on the knowledge swiftly.

The two were strolling along the sidewalk commenting on their previous game when Cadence spotted a familiar candy store coming up around the corner. A sign in the shape of a lollipop hung from its window.

“Hey, Francis, ya remember when we used ta do a trio routine with Nico t’pull one over on that candy shop owner?”

“Mr. Ferrari,” Francis recalled, glancing at the store in question. “Yes, I do remember that. It worked like a charm. We ended up stealing two hundred cens worth of candy over the years. The cops wouldn’t look into it, so he ended up putting up wanted signs he drew himself.”

“Yeah, didn’t he try ta put ‘em all around town or somethin’?” Cadence threw her head back and cackled. “Wait, I remember now. No one—”

“No one would let him put his signs up, so he ended up just placing them all around his store,” Francis finished. “And people started to think we were child candy brand models.”

“Man, the look on his face when we made our last heist. Cleaned out his entire stock of candied nuts.”

“And that’s how we discovered I was deathly allergic to peanuts.” Francis chuckled.

“Yeah. Never seen Nico cry that much before in my life. I had ta practically drag the both of ya ta the doc’s.”

“Don’t know what was worse. The anaphylactic shock, meeting Doctor Fabrizzio for the first time, or Allen beating us over afterwards.”

“Eh, Allen doesn’t even come close to the doc. No offense—”

“Matilda and her group remind me a lot of how we were before we started getting more involved in the city. Do you think a couple of years from now, she’ll also be…?”

Huh? That was random.

Cadence turned to address the odd change in conversation but paused when she saw a familiar figure peering into the window of the candy store they had been discussing. It was the Sagittarian tourist from that night in the alleyway with Feliciano and two of Matilda’s girls.

“Give me a sec,” Cadence said, patting Francis on the back as she approached the tourist from behind. She cleared her throat. “Well, talk about a twist of fate.”

The Sagittarian’s head perked up as he turned around. He squinted at her for a long and hard moment before he threw his hands up in the air.

“It’s you!” he exclaimed, suddenly wrapping Cadence in a tight hug. “My knight from the night! Cadence, was it?”

Cadence was taken aback but returned the gesture with a pat on the back. “For someone who doesn’t know up from down, ya sure got a knack for rememberin’ names. By the way, what’s your name?”

The man pulled away before dipping into a low bow. “I am Kuroihoshi Hideyoshi.”

Interesting customs.

“Your friend there…” The man popped up a beat after and seemed to register Francis standing behind her. With raised brows, he muttered, “Isn’t he…”

Cadence glanced back at Francis before placing a hand on Hideyoshi’s soldiers. “Listen, Hide—can I call ya Hide? Number one tourist experience be damned. Ya don’t want to be barkin’ up that tree.”

“I swear that he…” Hideyoshi rubbed his chin. He startled suddenly and whipped back to look inside the store. “Saints! They’re almost sold out.” He whipped around again and grabbed Cadence by the shoulders. “The limited-edition Cioccolato bar! How can I call myself an extreme tourist if I don’t get my hands one of these?!”

Extreme tourist? That sounded a bit familiar…

“Uh.”

Without another word, the man spun around again and dashed into the store. Cadence watched with mild amusement and confusion as the man began to shout ecstatically to Mr. Ferrari’s son who was currently manning the counter within.

“What was that guy’s deal?” Francis asked, approaching Cadence from behind.

“Touristy type,” Cadence explained as she nodded down the street and started walking again. “Met him a couple of nights ago while Feliciano was kickin’ him in.”

Francis frowned, falling into pace beside her. “Donato’s son?”

“Yep. Seems like he’s got a coupla screws loose—the tourist, I mean. Directed him to the Sognare to keep him off the streets for a little while—I mean, I do perform acts of kindness every once in a blue moon.” She chortled before she sighed: “This city keeps gettin’ weirder and weirder.”

It was more like the world, actually, that was getting weird.

“The Sognare…” Francis frowned. Realization flickered in his eyes. “Wait, Cadence, don’t tell me that you’re still—”

“What?” Cadence shrugged. “I gotta keep ‘em in business. ‘Specially since Nico is off playin’ soldier, you and your brothers are rakin’ in business, and Fortuna is Fortuna. One of us has got ta stick to the roots.”

“Nico is going to be back in town soon,” Francis murmured. “I almost forgot. Should we throw a welcome party for him?”

“Nah.” Cadence waved off the idea. “Ya know he’s not into that kinda stuff.” Plus with everything going on…

Francis seemed to consider this for a moment and stopped suddenly in his tracks. She turned to look back at him.

“Cadence. Don’t take what Allen said too seriously. About you being hired out by Cavallo or Fortuna. He just has to put up that front for the men. Honestly, you can just forget it ever happened.”

“And done.” Cadence snapped her fingers. “And should I forget what you said too?”

Francis shook his head with a wry smile. He stared off across the street before pulling out a v-cig from his pocket and igniting it with a flick. “You ever think back and wonder how things would’ve turned out if we made different choices? I mean, you always said you wanted to play on the Ophiuchian Way, and Carl and Allen wanted to open a bar of our own. Without all the extra things we’ve added on the side, I mean.”

“Not really.” Cadence shrugged. “That was a bit random, Francis. What’s got ya reminiscin’?”

Francis half-sighed, half-laughed. He took a drag and then rolled the cigarette between his fingertips. “It’s nothing. Forget what I said.”

“Already forgotten.”

They reached her apartment fifteen minutes later. Francis politely declined her invitation to stay for lunch and then headed on his way.

Not suited for this business, huh? Cadence mused, waving to him from her apartment window. As if anyone was suited for this business. People were just making due with what they had.

***

On the dawn after Ricardo Romano and the Campana head were attacked, Cadence had been called into Ricardo’s main office. With all of the chaos that had unfolded shortly after that night, Cadence was surprised at how swiftly things were dealt with.

Ricardo and the Campana don sent to their respective medical Conductors. Increased security for executives. A full investigation launched by the commissario that tore through both sides of the city. Not even a single drop of additional Campana or Romano bloodshed that night despite the circumstances. Not even a rumor of the events slipping out besides those who had attended the party and additional high-profile parties related to them.

Really, the city was terribly efficient.

When Cadence had stepped into Ricardo’s office, she was rather surprised at her lack of surprise at seeing Fortuna sitting at her father’s desk. For anyone else to do it, it might’ve been seen as disrespectful or callous. But Fortuna was different. She was putting her foot down. Her position of power nailed firmly in place. A sign for the other caporegimes to lower their greedy eyes.

So much for family.

Cavallo had stood beside Fortuna with a steely expression, but Cadence didn’t pay any mind to him. She approached the table swiftly.

“Fortuna, is everythin’ all—”

“I have a job for you, Morello.”

Cadence had paused, spreading her arms. “Already? Well, aren’t we workin’ fast—”

“Don’t look at Cavallo, Morello. I am the acting head,” Fortuna stated, folding her hands on the table. “And I am the one giving this order.”

Morello, appearances. Werner’s voice had ghosted the edges of her mind.

Cadence had lowered her hands, folded them behind her back. Cavallo arched an eyebrow at her but she had kept her gaze focused on Fortuna.

“The Campanas have already set their own paid police dogs loose in the city,” Fortuna had said. “They’re turning over every stone in sight to find the ones who did this. Starting with the Foxmans.”

“Now, I ain’t one to be involvin’ myself in drama and gossip, but that seems a little suspect, don’t ya think? I know the Romanos and the Campanas have a good thing goin’ but…”

Fortuna had held her gaze before speaking, “The engagement between the Campanas and Romanos has obviously been postponed. Goodwill aside, we can’t allow the Campanas to handle this investigation on their own.”

Saints, Cadence had thought. An entire engagement postponed just like that. Was the whole romance between Fortuna and Ambrose broken off like that? All that passion gone—rather, put on hold—in an instant? Was there even any passion to begin with, or were they both batting eyes at each other at face value?

But none of it had involved her. No use thinking about it.

It was then that Cadence had finally noticed the flowers sitting in the vase on the table behind Fortuna. “So ya want me ta look into the Campanas? I heard their don is makin’ a fast recovery, so it does seem a little weird. ‘Course, intentions aside, the idea that a don would knock himself into a hospital room just ta gain the upper hand does seem a bit extra—for both sides.” —She knew she had been rambling. Too much time talking to Atienna— “Then again, this city is—”

Fortuna had clarified after noticing Cadence’s gaze: “You’re mistaking my intentions, Morello. Yes, I want you to look into the Campanas, but I also need you to look into the Foxmans. One of them may have gotten their hands on a Specialist who was capable of doing something like that. I don’t care about why someone did this. I want to know who. And how.”

“Ya sure that’s a good investment of time? I mean, they weren’t even there.” Which made them even more suspect.

“Morello. You call yourself a freelancer, but a major source of your income comes from work from this Family. You are employed by us, Morello. Not the Foxmans. I hope you haven’t forgotten this.”

Cadence had kept her voice even and a pleasant smile on. “How could I? Black knight, right?”

Fortuna had only sighed. “Again that ‘knight’ talk. We’re a business, Cadence. The Foxmans are a business. Nico is an associate of our business and so are you. We’re not children anymore. You could argue that we never were.”

Do people really say these things and think they sound cool? 

“Things like this always come from the direction you least expect them to,” Fortuna had continued. “That’s why they happen. I want you to keep an eye on the Foxmans. See if they’re up to anything and what they were up to last night. It doesn’t matter if you find it out as yourself or as one of the Foxmans’ men. The same applies to the Campanas. I want you to keep an eye on the acting head in particular.” She had then reached into the desk drawer, pulled out a case, clicked it open. “This is the first half. You’ll receive the rest after you complete this.”

It had glittered alluringly—the stacks of cens all nicely wrapped up in a clear plastic packaging, all lined up in stacked up rows. The money Cadence had gotten from her most recent odd job swindle was nearing its end, and her monthly bills were coming on down the road—

And there Olive had appeared behind the table looking at her with an expression of both disinterest and judgment. A judgement that she felt curl up in her own chest.

“Look, the pay is swell and all, Fortuna,” Cadence had said, reaching out to close the case. “But I’m actually kinda booked at the moment—”

Fortuna had placed a hand above Cadence’s, effectively stopping her from closing it fully. “You have unusual monetary habits, Morello.”

Cadence had frozen. Had released the case.

“Splurging half of your pay as you please and storing the other half in a deposit at the city bank,” Fortuna had said, pulling the case open again. “What exactly are you saving all that money for? No. Who?”

“For myself, of course,” Cadence had returned smoothly. “Y’know Allen’s always preachin’ about savin’ up for a rainy day. Heard it so many times, thought I’d at least try practicin’ in.”

Fortuna had seemed to consider this before chuckling and pulling the case back open. “The owner of the city bank passed away a week ago. We were able to get one of our own into the vacant position. We’ve asked him to keep a special eye out on the accounts of the people who are associated with us. For protection’s sake.” Fortuna’s smile had thinned then. “Don’t you think you at least owe us something for the extra measures we’re going to ensure the safety of your funds?”

The threat had been clear. As clear as Olive’s piercing green gaze.

Regardless, Cadence had taken two steps backwards and offered an overzealous bow. “Of course, my liege. How can I forget your wonderful generosity?”

Olive had grimaced and turned away.

***

Near the end of the week after her stroll with Francis, Cadence opted to forgo her Foxman investigation in favor of a Campana investigation. She reasoned that she wouldn’t be able to get much from the Foxmans since they were too focused on their own personal investigation.

Unfortunately, however, the Campana’s security had increased tenfold. They checked for conductors at the entrance to all of their establishments and even had the city police running around every block checking every pedestrian in sight. It was as if the universe was directing Cadence in the Foxman’s direction. At this point, it wasn’t her fault.

Brushing these thoughts aside, Cadence made her way through the city and towards the Sognare. A soft tune was already drifting out of the bar as she approached. Her heart skipped a beat at the sound, and she continued further albeit a bit more slowly.

As she neared the entrance, the melody became clearer. Like water trickling down a stream into a still pool. The way of play—Cadence recognized it. There was only one person who could play in such a melodic manner.

Taking in a deep breath, Cadence snapped her fingers. She did not need to check a mirror to see that she was now dressed in a crisp suit instead of a beat down oversized one.

She pushed through the entrance. The bartender didn’t greet her as usual but this time it was not out of habit. This time his negligence of her arrival was due to his attention being drawn away to the center of the stage at the back.

Standing there beneath the spotlight in front of the old grand piano was a woman. A woman with short black curls, with pale ivory skin. Her small, thin frame was wrapped in deep black dress that glimmered with stones—like stars in the night sky. But even the stars paled in comparison to the glimmering smile the woman gave Cadence as she turned away from the instrument.

“Alma…”

Cadence drifted past the tables, nearly tripping over her own two feet as she neared the stage. Alma neared the edge at Cadence’s approach and sank down to a crouch.

“Hello, Cucciolo.”

Cadence extended her hand out to the other woman while taking a gracious bow. Alma accepted the gesture, bowed even more graciously, and pulled Cadence up onto the stage.

“My, this is more dramatic than when you stopped by our hotel with flowers,” Alma finally said as she guided Cadence over to the piano. “You still haven’t told me how you found me. We’d barely settled back into the city, and there you were with your roses. You left me so curious that I didn’t have any choice but to accept your invitation to come here. Playing on my curiosity like that.” She tutted.

Cadence had known the exact moment Alma stepped foot in the city. It had been exactly one week prior to the Romano-Campana meeting on a sunny Tuesday morning. 8:09 am to be exact on Werner’s watch. And while Cadence had known Alma was in the city the moment Alma had arrived, finding Alma had been an entirely different story. This was because, for these past ten years, Alma had been in the company of a dangerous party.

“Well, maybe if you swing by here tomorrow then I’ll tell you. Or the day after that. Or the day after that.”

Alma chuckled at this and looked Cadence up and down before the corner of eyes crinkled. “You’ve really matured so much since then. It feels wrong for me to keep calling you ‘Cucciolo’. I wouldn’t have even recognized you if it weren’t for…” Alma trailed off, raising a hand to twirl a lock of Cadence’s copper locks around her index finger.

“You could call me darling instead,” Cadence suggested, resting her hands on the piano keys and playing a C major. “And I’ve been reading lately, so I hand my maturity off to the that.”

A beautiful chuckle followed by a short musical staccato. Cadence returned the sound with a staccato of her own, albeit a bit faster.

“I meant to ask when you visited,” Alma drew, “how is Miss Agape? You must know her well now if the rumors that I’ve been hearing are true. She always treated me so kindly when I was working at the Casa…” Another smile crinkled the corner of her eyes. “I wouldn’t have been able to practice at the Sognare if she didn’t give me the time off… and then I wouldn’t have been able to meet you.”

“She keeps trying to get me to join the Casa or one of her other clubs.” Cadence sighed, playing another C major. “She’s always looking for profit—”

“Don’t do that, Cadence,” Alma whispered, eyes wide as she cupped Cadence’s cheek with her hand. “Not at the Casa or the clubs. You’re too talented, too precious to me to do something like that.”

“Hey, the workers at the Casa and the clubs are plenty talented.” Cadence chuckled, stroking a B flat. “I mean, I’m sure they lost a lot of talent when you left. Agape complained about it all the time.”

Alma’s eyes suddenly lost their light. “So, if you really do know Agape well enough for her to speak to you like that.” She pulled away her hand, “then it really is true. You really have been working with the Romanos all these years—”

“No!” Cadence shook her head. “I haven’t joined them. I’m only working for them. I’m not on any of their rosters or anything. Just odd jobs here and there.”

Alma remained silent.

“…I only decided to stay with them because I knew one of the executives bought you out from the Casa de Bambolle and—” And she had needed the funds.

“—and gifted me to the Campanas. As some temporary truce,” Alma reached her own conclusion. “Because one of the executives from the Campanas thought I was charming.”

Cadence stared down at the black keys in between all of the white.

“Oh, don’t look so sad, Cadence. He’s been very kind,” Alma drew. “Enzo, the one who bought me. He was just a capo for the Campanas then but now he’s second in command. Truth be told, I hated him at first. I did everything I could to upset him. I broke his favorite vases, called him names in public, and refused to speak with him at home. But he was very patient and always paid attention to me. When he found out that I missed playing the piano, he bought one for me. When he saw me get frustrated playing a complicated piece, he bought me a teacher.”

I can do that too, Cadence thought. I can do that for you too. And then she thought of Fortuna and her bank account. Fortuna really knew how to hit it where it hurt.

“He even rented a stage for me to play in front of an audience recently. Can you imagine that?”

“It sounds like he certainly knows how to treat people.” Cadence faked a smile.

Alma’s eyes twinkled again but in a different way. “He calls me his songbird even though I have a terrible voice. I thought he was being silly at first, but it turns out he really does think of me that way.” She glanced at the piano. “Like a bird in a cage. The only thing that’s changed are the surroundings.” She turned back to Cadence smiling. “He kept me in his villa in Cancer, did you know? It’s a very beautiful country.”

“Alma…”

Alma shook her head. “My feelings for Enzo—and Agape, the Campanas, and the Romanos—are still complicated, but I have a lot to thank them for. I mean, without the union between the two Families, I would’ve never come back here. I would have never been able to see you again.” She stared at the piano. “Cadence…. you’re special, you know that? You made me feel like I could do anything.”

Her words were like a dream.

Cadence felt her chest swell. “I guess I have a lot to be thankful for too. Since you’re here again. I… I’ve been making decent money here… and… maybe… I was thinking…” After this all settles down. “I could make a decent place for you here. Like your own piano playing joint—place, I mean.”

“A place for me here?” Alma remained smiling but the light in her eyes changed. “This city is as suffocating as I remember it. The skyscrapers remind me of the bars of a cage. It smells worse than before somehow, and there’s trash everywhere. And then there’s everyone else—those pitiable people clogging up the streets all thinking they’ll do something big someday.”

It wasn’t that bad, was it? Cadence hated the place too, but she’d grown up on these filthy streets. It wasn’t quite home, per se, but it wasn’t not-home either.

Cadence paused at her own thoughts.

Wait a moment.

Wasn’t it just a couple of months ago that she’d been dreaming about kissing the city goodbye? And playing on the Ophiuchian Way with Alma? But recently, she had been thinking that it wasn’t too bad staying here—that it was bearable. What exactly had changed…?

A cold began to creep up her spine as her mind drifted to the other five.

She was fickle. That’s all it was.

“Cadence.”

Snapped out of her thoughts, Cadence looked back at Alma and found her frowning.

“Something’s happened, hasn’t it?” Alma asked quietly. “Enzo has been distant these past few days. Cold. Stressed. Angry. He told me that the union between the Campanas and the Romanos was postponed, but he hasn’t told me anything else…. But—this involves little Francis and his brothers, doesn’t it…? I overheard Enzo speaking with the other executives the other day…”

The Campanas were talking about the Foxmans? Did they suspect them? Or were they trying to frame them? Or?

“They’re not so little anymore.” Cadence threw up an easy smile. She had to find a way to steer Alma off this conversation quick—wait. “’Angry’? What do you mean angry?”

Alma’s lips drew downwards. “They own the ports now, don’t they—Francis and his brothers? And little Nico is probably working with his father, and cute Fortuna is probably…” A hum. “I really did love when you would bring them by.”

“Yeah, but Alma, what do you mean by angr—”

“Cadence,” Alma said, “can you do something for me?”

“Anything, Alma,” Cadence said before she could stop herself. She was being watched by some of the other five. She could feel their gazes prickling her skin, ghosting her consciousness.

The others wouldn’t understand. The others weren’t like her. They had all grown up differently than her. And that was fine. That was just the hand fate dealt them. There was no helping it. Yes, they wouldn’t understand that—

—before Ricardo, before the Foxmans, before Nico, there was Alma. And before Alma—well, Cadence didn’t want to think of what came before Alma, so Alma to her really was the beginning. Alma, the pianist who would play a tune at the Sognare every Thursday night. Alma, the mysterious young woman who drew in all types of late-night walkers to the bar. Alma, who had beckoned an eight-year-old Cadence in from the cold winters outside with a pale finger. Alma who had ignored the words of protests from bar patrons and had allowed Cadence to sit at the table closest to the piano. Alma, who had taken Cadence into her small flat, not caring about how grimy Cadence’s cheeks were nor how dirty her worn-down shoes were. Alma, who had taken Cadence’s hand and twirled around her flat to music droning off the record player. Alma, who had given Cadence a home. No. Alma who had become home.

“I’m scared, Cadence,” Alma whispered, voice as breathy and lovely as always. “The Foxmans must have something to do with what’s going on. Could you look into it for me, please?”

Yeah. The universe really was directing her into the Foxman’s direction. There was no helping it now.


(            )

“It’s your move, Iota.”

“I know that, Tau.”

Conversing in a small room lit only by an assortment of wax candles, a man and a woman sat across from one another observing a game board on top of a stack of books. The man was wearing glasses and was dressed in a crisp suit. The woman was wearing a polka-dotted blue dress and had a red bandanna tied into a bow on top of her head. There were no windows present to provide better light nor were there any doors present to let in air, but this did not seem to deter the man and the woman at all.

The game board in question consisted of approximately 10 by 10 squares and was littered with small token-shaped black and white pieces. There were twelve white pieces left on the board and only two black pieces. It was evident who was winning.

After a longer beat of silence, the woman named Iota reached forward—the white snake-tattoo on the arch of her hand glowed in the candlelight—and moved one of the white pieces diagonally up and over the second to last remaining black piece. She tucked the black piece beneath under her palm as she did so and dropped it on her side of the table.

Iota’s opponent reached for his remaining black piece on the board and used it to jump across three of the white pieces—

“Dammit!”

Iota slammed her fist against the side of the makeshift book table, sending the playing pieces jumping into the air. She clicked her tongue and slid three black pieces over to the other man Tau. The man picked them up, removed the white pieces he had jumped over, and arranged the black pieces in their place on the board.

“Forget it!” Iota snapped, slapping her hand onto the board. “We’ve been playing for hours.”

“So you’re saying that I win the argument then?” Tau inquired, rubbing his wrists.

“Of course not!”

“Well, if we can’t resolve our arguments with words, we play the game. Whoever wins the game wins the fight. If we don’t follow this rule then we’d argue all the time and nothing would get resolved, and then we wouldn’t get anywhere with anything. That’s the law and order!” Tau said, starting off calm and then ending irate. Pausing, he turned his head to the corner of the room that was clustered with piles of books and warmed by soft candlelight. A figure sat there, sitting in silence and reading a book. “Isn’t that right, Theta?”

“And if the game remains unfinished then that means the fight wasn’t important enough to begin with,” came the affirmation from the direction.

“The children went looking for you again, Theta,” Tau said after a pause.

Iota glanced into the corner. “Your identity will be discovered soon, won’t it…?”

“And then the city will discover us,” came the quiet reply. “You sound like you don’t like that idea, Iota. Is it that you want to remain hidden for the rest of our time here?”

Iota threw her head back as laughter wracked her body. “Of course not!” Her eyes went wide, and she slammed her fist onto the board sending pieces clattering to the ground. “I’m just dying to tear this city limb from limb.” Her legs began shaking. “I’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting—watching those bastards walk around this place like they own it and throwing around those modified conductors like—”

“Calm down, Iota. Don’t be rash. We don’t want a repeat of what happened to the former mayor and the heads of the Families. When you act independently like that, you cause problems for the entire group.”

Iota shut her mouth immediately and grimaced. “Sorry, I…”

“I understand your frustration, Iota, but we must be patient.” The flutter of a page turning. “There’s no use rushing to the ending when the ending remains the same.”

“Right, ‘leader’. Patience I can do.”

Sitting in this room that had no windows and no doors—no exits—Theta smiled and continued to read in the dark.


“Ah, yes, Alma. I used to play duets with her down at the Sognare. She had big dreams, that one. Very kind too. Took in some orphan a while back. Kid became attached to her hip. Alma always did seem a bit… off though. Anyways, I haven’t seen them in years. I wonder what they’re up to.”

Sebastian Faux, former player at the Sognare

7.2: Cadence’s Family (Conoscenti)

Re-cap:

Synchronization has occurred. After investigating an attack on a bar belonging to the Foxman Family who share business relations with the Romano Family, Cadence has discovered that Romano Family executive Verga has been siphoning off illegal conductors from the Romano Family. Banding together with a group of street orphans who were wronged by Verga and who are headed by Matilda, Cadence is able to successfully reveal Verga who is switfly put down. A mystery still lies, however, in the mysterious cargo Verga had claimed to be shipping for ELPIS. 

Three months later, the city appears to be brewing once more with the death of the mayor and an attack on one of the Foxman brothers.

Twin Cities, Gemini

The synchronization meetings that Werner liked to hold at the beginning of each week were events Cadence actually enjoyed. But calling them meetings did them a disservice. Despite Werner’s attempts to keep things professional and controlled, they always unraveled into something resembling the chaos that graced cheap, late-night bars. Mostly in part thanks to Maria—but Cadence liked to think she had a hand in at least one or two of the derailments. Of course, neither Werner nor Olive found them particularly amusing and Atienna always tried to patch up the whole mess as gently as possible.

Still.

It was fun to pretend that they were more than a couple of randoms forced to work together due to mystical circumstances.

That being said, despite the get-togethers being enjoyable, Cadence could have done without it this week. She had two other meetings of high importance lined up after all. Two important meetings just because some guy fell in love with some girl.

Cadence paused on her stroll through the city on top of a small bridge as she thought on this. She peered down at her reflection on the softly rippling canal below her. She understood the sentiment. Falling in love and causing a bit of chaos. Love. The one thing that could conquer everything and anything.

Cadence frowned a bit. Her outfit wasn’t very appropriate for the meeting she was heading to, was it? Just her usual overly large suit that she still hadn’t gotten to the dry cleaners yet. It wasn’t really presentable for this kind of meeting, right?

Damn. Werner was rubbing off on her.

A gondola passed beneath her distorting the reflection.

She pulled away and snapped her ringed fingers. The usual glowing copper light began there at her fingertips before sliding up her arm to her shoulders to her other arm to her legs. When the light faded, she gave the gawking passersby a wink before inspecting her reflection again.

A crisp, well-fit reverse monochrome suit, and—

She touched her beaten hat and watched as it transformed into a black fedora in a flash of light.

“Perfect.”

***

The building that housed her second meeting of the week was one that everyone knew belonged to the Romanos. Like everything in this city, it was hidden under a false guise—an art museum. And what a grand art museum, it was.

Wide, polished marble stairs unfolded up to a path lined with the pillars that held up a stucco roof. The pathway, in turn, led to great glass doors that reflected back the dim city lights.

Climbing the stairs took great effort as did the walk to the doors. But it wasn’t bad. The weather was pleasantly warm with a soft wind blowing up from the south, and the crickets were just beginning to sing.

When she entered the building, she was met with a cold updraft, veiled darkness, and a burly man who gave her a once over and then a nod of approval. The v-lights in the place were dim, and she had to inch forward slowly in order to not trip over the rug. She could barely make out the glass cases of pottery that lined the walls and the abstract murals hung up on frames behind them. Not that she needed light to tell what they looked like. She used to sneak in here all the time with Nico, the Romano children, and the younger Foxmans when she was a kid. All to try and see if they could sneak into one of the executive meetings.

She slipped through the back door which was also guarded by another burly man and stepped into a different world.

A large ballroom unfolded before her. Glittering, gray chandeliers hung high above velvet-tiled floorboards and cast shattered rays of light across the pale walls and r square dining tables that dotted the room. At the center of it all was a large circular wooden table above which a grand chandelier twinkled. A spotlight on a stage.

Men and women huddled in loose yet tight circles with eyes that flickered, hands that gestured, smiles that assured. Waiters and waitresses weaved in and out of the sea of chatter smoothly, efficiently.

A pleasant place, a tourist might think if they took a quick glance around.

But appearances were deceiving.

Cadence weaved through the crowd, offering friendly handshakes and tips of the hat to the bigwigs. There was old Caporegime Donato, who once again asked her to transmute a couple of lottery tickets for him. He had a bad leg from the war and had unfortunately dragged along his son who had an attitude that even put Olive’s to shame. Feliciano Donato, a twenty-something man with a square jaw and narrow eyes that always seemed to be scheming and who wielded his father’s status like a police baton. Cadence didn’t really know the younger Donato too well, but she heard enough about him from the Foxmans to keep their conversation pleasant and short.

Then there was Caporegime Agape whose name meant love but whose Family-designated duties meant anything but that. Although she was a small woman, her presence was like none other. Whether it was due to her hawk like eyes, the deathly tight bun she always wore, or her bright red lipstick, Cadence hadn’t a clue. Maybe it was all three.

As usual, Agape appraised Cadence’s body from beneath her librarianesque glasses as they spoke of the hosts and hostesses working at her business front. As usual, Agape said, “If you’re not going to work in the medical field as a Transmutationists, you might as well come work for me. Being able to change what you look like would be very popular with the patrons.”

To which Cadence responded with, “I’m already popular with your patrons by personality alone, Agape.”

Cadence greeted Caporegime Benedetto, the realtor, next. Benedetto was a large man that made everyone in the room seem like dwarves. He had bad burn scars eating up half his face from the war and always seemed to be grimacing, but his loud and booming laugh was jolly enough to brighten anyone’s day. Even Verga had gotten along with him before he’d kicked the bucket.

Cavallo received Cadence’s next greeting, but the old man kept the conversation short and brief, stating that he had other people he needed to greet too. Or maybe he thought he was above her now since he’d recently been given the title of Caporegime. Cadence didn’t blame him. It was natural.

A minute later she spotted the police comissario of the city intermingling with one of the lower-ranking executives and immediately ducked her head. Vincente Giustizia. Although Ricardo paid the comissario off well enough, he was still someone she didn’t want remembering her face too well. The man was praised for his pretty boy face and suave personality, but he just rubbed Cadence the wrong way.

After making her last round greeting the Romano heads and a couple of their underlings, Cadence laid eyes on someone who was not intermingled with the rest of the chattering crowd. She approached this person slowly, thoughtfully, and then reached out to tap her shoulder.

“Hey, doll, what ya doin’ all by your lonesome?”

Matilda jumped and swiveled. Her lacy white dress flowered outwards at her turn. Her hair had grown out even more over the past couple of months and was tied into a neat ponytail. The tenseness in her shoulders eased slightly as she met Cadence’s eyes.

“Not gonna mingle with the others? Ya seem like that the social butterfly type, y’know?”

“I don’t know why I accepted the invitation. I don’t even understand what this is all about.” Matilda frowned, traced the butterfly-shaped birthmark on her face, crossed her arms stiffly. “I’m not like anyone here.”

It was hard to tell whether Matilda’s disdain was directed towards herself or to the others surrounding her, but Cadence had an inkling. The swindler cast a glance around the room and hummed in thought before flashing a grin. “Nah, ya fit in just right. I mean with the way you and your pals have been deliverin’ the goods these past couple of months, it’d be weird if ya didn’t get a pat on the shoulder. Saints! You’re practically parta the Family now!”

Matilda’s face brightened only briefly. There was still that dim fire in her eyes. Leftover embers from that night in Warehouse 13 three months ago.

“Word of advice. Take it easy and fake your confidence till ya make ‘cause there’s a lot of people out there who’d do more than kill ta get where you are.” Cadence pulled away with a tip of her hat. “And don’t think about it too much. There are times ta think and times ta enjoy.”

With that, Cadence re-entered the social sphere. She chatted up several of the waitresses who were walking around with platters of food and wine and was just about to get a phone number when—

“Well, you’re lookin’ unusually sharp today, Cadence,” came a rumbling voice that carried all the way over from the large round table at the center of the room.

The table was evidently much more lovingly attended to than some of the others. Expensive wines and half-eaten sirloin steaks and other foods Cadence didn’t recognize were piled up on there. The extravagance made sense. This was a table for executives, after all.

“Hey, what are ya implyin’, Mr. Carl Foxman?” Cadence approached the two men dressed dark green and dark blue suits seated there. The man in the dark green suit grinned while the one in dark blue suit remained impassive. “I’ve always been the most attractive one outta all of us.” She spied the empty seat to Allen’s left. “Is Francis doin’ any better?”

“Yes, he is,” came a voice from behind paired with a musical chuckle. “And I have to agree with Allen. You look nice.”

Cadence looked over her shoulder. And broke into a grin. “Francis! Well look at ya. The way they were all talkin’, I thought ya was a goner after ya got stabbed. Shouldn’t ya be restin’ a bit more or somethin’?”

“You’re starting to sound like the old doctor, but I do appreciate the concern.”

Cadence turned on her heels with a shrug. “I mean ya just called Carl Allen. I know ya guys are brothers, but I expected that sorta slip from Carl not you.”

“Hey!”

“I’m just pullin’ your leg, Carl, ya know that.” Cadence chortled.

Francis was dressed in his go-to crisp, dark maroon suit with his usual loosely slicked back hair. There were faint dark circles beneath his eyes—not the kind that could easily go unnoticed. Cadence didn’t have time to address it because the man was soon shaking out a cartoon of v-cigs in her face.

Waving off the offer, Cadence arched a brow. “Aw, come on, Francis, stop teasin’ me like that. Ya know I’m tryin’ to abstain from that kinda stuff.”

Francis lit a v-cig and put it to his mouth. He took a drag. “I thought I’d try at playing devil’s advocate.”

“Sure you should be doin’ that?” Cadence nodded to the cigarette. She craned her neck back towards Allen. “Nothin’ the eldest Foxman has to say?”

“Francis is an adult,” answered Allen.

“Smoking ain’t bad for you anyways,” Carl said as he accepted a cig from Francis. “That’s all propaganda. Tryna kill good business.”

“I’d expect the money talk from Allen but not from you,” Cadence returned, amused.

Francis took a seat beside Allen before taking another drag and gesturing to the chair across from him.

Cadence found herself arching a brow again. She chuckled. “That’s kind of ya, Francis, but ya know that—”

“Only don of the Romano Family and executives are permitted to sit at this table,” came a voice from behind.

Francis looked past Cadence and smiled. “Fortuna, it’s good to see you.”

“Aw come on, Fortuna. Can ya go one day without pickin’ on me?” Cadence sighed, giving Francis a look. “Besides, ya don’t really fall into any of those categories either, do ya?”

“If you think I’m not going to use Ricardo’s status to my advantage to combat my other disadvantages, then you’re naive,” came the reply.

“If I talked about my father like that, he’d beat me into a coma,” Carl scoffed. “And what’s this about disadvantages? I remember when we were younger—”

“Carl, careful. This isn’t the time or the place for that sorta talk,” Allen interjected, not even looking up from his steak. “This is a meeting between business partners, not friends or family.”

A mirthless chuckle. “Hearing you talk, I can tell that you four really haven’t changed at all.”

Cadence turned on her heels.

There she was. The girl.

Fortuna Romano.

Her wavy dark hair was tied in an elaborate bun that blossomed from the back of her head like petals of a flower. An equally dark dress hugged her neck and arms and ghosted her calves. Earrings that resembled the chandelier above their heads twinkled above her shoulders.

Fortuna was cute, alright. She’d always been the best looking one out of all of them. When they’d used to run through the streets wild causing trouble, Fortuna’d always be let off easy when they were caught in the act. Carl had argued that it was because she was a girl, Allen had argued it was because of her status as Ricardo’s daughter, while Francis had insisted it was because Fortuna had a silver tongue. Cadence knew it was all the above and then some. Her fortunate circumstances were one in a million, but her drive was also one in a million.

Fortuna brushed past Cadence and took a seat at the table. She waved her hand and summoned a waiter to fill up a glass of wine. After taking a sip, she nodded in Francis’s direction. “You must be feeling well to be at your v-cigarettes again—though you don’t look it.”

“I appreciate the concern, Fortuna,” Francis returned, “but even if I had a foot in the grave, I wouldn’t miss an important event like this.”

“Your foot was in a grave.” Fortuna frowned, swirled her glass. “If this is you merely trying to prove the Foxmans’ resilience in response to what happened that night then—”

“A bunch of cowards—just thinking about that night pisses me off!” Carl snapped abruptly. His fist started shaking. “Once I get my hands on the bastards who did it, I’m gonna—”

“There’s no use getting worked up here,” Francis assuaged. “Besides, everyone knows we have no leads on who paid those goons to jump me.”

“No leads—what, Francis!” Carl snapped. “It’s obviously those Campana—”

Uh-oh. Not good.

“Say, Francis,” Cadence interjected, leaning over the table and looking the man up and down. “I heard ya really went all out that night. Took out some of the guys in the alleyway yourself like some sorta superhero.”

“Is that how they’re playing it on the street?” Francis looked away from Carl and appeared amused. The expression flitted away quickly. “Well, unfortunately, reality isn’t such a pretty picture. Stefano and Maximallian were the only ones of ours who made it outta there alive.” A glower. “And three of them got away. I can’t even remember their faces—”

A creaking sound cut their conversation short, and the chatter around the room suddenly died down. Cadence didn’t need to look up to know who it was. The change in atmosphere at his mere presence was enough of an identification.

It was the boss. Ricardo Romano.

Cadence clapped a hand on Fortuna’s shoulder and arched a brow. “Not sharin’ the grand entrance with the boss?”

Fortuna merely gave a quiet humph and took a sip of her wine.

Quickly, quietly, the individuals within the room shuffled to their respective tables. Like clockwork.

The Caporegimes and other executives didn’t even glance at Cadence as they seated themselves at the table in front of her. Those sitting at the square tables behind her, however—well, she could feel their stares. Why are you speaking with the executives, those eyes seemed to ask, who do you think you are? Talk about drama. Well, that was fine. It was the situation, after all.

Giving each of the four a tip of her hat, Cadence pulled away from them. She spied Matilda sitting stiffly at a table with two other men and headed towards her. Might as well keep her company, Cadence figured.

“Please, Cadence. Sit here. You are family.”

Cadence froze and turned her head. Ricardo locked eyes with her from across the room. She hadn’t seen him face-to-face in a month or so, but it seemed as if he’d aged ten years since then. The wrinkles on his cheeks were accentuated by the fragmented light of the chandelier, and there were circles darker than Francis’s beneath his eyes.

What was the old man playing at?

“There is an empty chair beside Fortuna for a reason, Cadence,” Ricardo continued as he seated himself in-between Agape and Cavallo at the table. “The matter we’re going to discuss also pertains to you, so it would be easier if you were here too.”

That definitely hadn’t been notated in the invitation. Well, maybe it’d been in fine-print somewhere. But Werner would have pointed it out if it were, so in the end this had all been a trap. Well played, Cadence concluded.

“I see,” Cadence returned with a feigned smile of realization. “I didn’t realize. Thanks for the invite.”

As Cadence seated herself beside Fortuna, she felt something prick her back. An intense stare. Living in the Twin Cities made one attune to these sorts of things. It was always best to know when one had eyes on them—wanted or unwanted. Rolling her neck, Cadence threw a subtle glance back in the direction of the stare.

It was Donato’s son, Feliciano. He was seated at one of the smaller square tables closer to the central main table, and his glowering intensified as their eyes met. Jealousy, probably. Cadence figured he had some sort of complex. But since he was Donato’s son, she couldn’t say much about it. And so, picking up the knife and fork set beside the plate in front of her, she began to make diligent work of the steak there. She popped a piece in her mouth and felt it melt on her tongue.

Saints, this was good.

Appearances. 

She placed her utensils down after savoring the taste and glanced up to find Carl still working on his steak. The clack of his fork against the glass plate echoed around the quiet hall. Instead of kicking Carl into etiquette as she had been expecting, Francis’s gaze remained fixated on Ricardo. Allen instead whispered to Carl. The latter stopped, choked a bit on the large piece of steak he’d just swallowed, and straightened himself with watering eyes.

“First off,” Ricardo began as he signaled a waiter for a glass of wine, “I would like to thank you all for submitting your selection for the next mayor. We will take into consideration all of your selections and compile them. Of course, this will take additional time and consultation with the recent developments.” There was a pause. “Which is, as I am sure you all know, the reason for why we’re here today, and I’m sure you all have your opinions on this matter. Additionally, due to this matter, we will move our discussion on Ophiuchus’s investigation of Verga’s ELPIS shipment to next week. But first—” He gestured across the table to Francis. “I am glad you’ve made a full recovery, Francis.”

Francis returned the smile cordially. “I appreciate your kindness, Mr. Ricardo. And as always, we are glad that you’ve invited us to such an important meeting.”

“Of course, Francis. The Romano Family and the Foxmans have shared a partnership for many years. Not consulting you about this affair would not only be rude but also dishonorable. While on the topic of your incident, I once again am offering the Romanos assistance in finding the culprit.”

“No need,” Allen interjected thickly. “This is something we’ll handle on our own. But it’s appreciated, Ricardo.”

Ricardo nodded. “Then we may move to the matter at hand. In regard to the Campana—”

A chime rang through the room as Fortuna finally placed down her glass and met her father’s eyes. “There’s no point in beating around the bush. Ambrose Campana has proposed to me.”

Whispers followed.

Agape shook her head, pushed up her librarian glasses, and pursed her red lips. “That’s absolutely ridiculous. The gall that boy has. He’s worse than his father. At least the don of the Campanas is better at hiding his intentions.”

“Agape, I understand your position puts you in a mindset that,” Donato said with a hum, rubbing his bad leg and then reaching for his fork, “gives you a jaded worldview on love and the like, but I like to have a little faith in humanity. And the youth of today. Love.”

Bendetto grunted in agreement from beside him and stroked his scarred chin. “I remember when I met my Lucy. You said we’d never make it, Agape, but look at us. Ten years and still going.”

“I agree with Agape,” said another. “The Campanas obviously want to gain a foothold in the Family and—”

“Ultimately, it’s my decision since I am the one being proposed to.”

Everyone turned their attention to Fortuna. She met each of their stares head-on.

‘You four haven’t changed’ was what Fortuna had said to them earlier, but Cadence figured that out of all of them Fortuna herself was the one who’d changed the least. Always straightforward and to the point.

“A union between the Campanas and the Romanos would be advantageous for the Campanas, yes,” Fortuna said evenly, “but it would also be advantageous for the Romanos. We would be able to expand our business to the west side and make use of the manufacturing plants there too.” Uncrossing her arms, she finished with, “Any hurdles that we could encounter on the way are nothing if you can see the bigger picture.”

“Fortuna!” A loud bang resounded around the room followed by the clattering of silverware. “How dare you!”

Cadence whipped her head forward and found Carl standing with both of his fists pressed against the table. His veins were visible on his neck which was beginning to turn an almost inhuman shade of red.

“Hey now, Carl,” Cadence tried.

“Stay out of it, Cadence!” Carl jabbed a finger in Fortuna’s direction. “You know the Campanas are behind what happened to Francis!”

Cadence winced and glanced at Francis, but the youngest Foxman’s attention was still fixated on Ricardo instead of his brother. Cadence felt something crawl up her spine as she registered his expression. Something about it was familiar. Hot, burning ha—

“They went after us because we refused to do business with them!” Carl snapped, slamming his fist back down on the table. “Because we are loyal to you!”

Fortuna exhaled. “You think the Campanas would risk a war with us over something like that? That aside, what’s all this about loyalty? The Romanos and the Foxmans are business associates. If profit appears elsewhere, the Romanos are going to invest in that profit. That’s all there is to it.”

Carl faltered for a moment before he leaned across the table. “You really are a b—”

Before Carl could finish, Allen grabbed Carl’s arm. “Enough, Carl.”

Carl opened his mouth but then closed it and pulled back.

“It seems as if you already know our views on this situation,” Allen said, addressing the table as a whole as he released Carl from his grip and rose to a stand. He wiped his hands on the provided napkin, dabbed his mouth, and threw it onto his plate.

Cadence watched as Carl and Allen exited the room without another word. She then turned her attention to Francis who remained seated and staring at Ricardo. She kicked his foot from underneath the table.

Francis stirred from whatever daze he’d entered. He stared at her for a moment before he unlit the v-cig dangling from his fingertips and pocketed it. He leaned forward and cleared his throat—

“I apologize for my brothers’ outbursts. This whole situation has clearly gotten them riled up.” He clasped his hands together. “Their actions today do not define how the Foxmans view the Romanos, and I hope this does not sour our relationship in the future.” A pause. “I’m sure we will be able to work something out.” Francis stood, pulling his napkin from his lap and setting it to the side. “We appreciate the invitation.” He smiled cordially at Fortuna. “And congratulations, Fortuna. Ambrose is a lucky man.” With that, he too left the room.

Whispers returned with his exit.

Caporegime Donato rubbed his bad leg again and shook his head. “I knew it from the beginning. Those boys aren’t suited for this kind of business.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Cadence saw Feliciano smirk. The guy really had a punchable face. Why was Feliciano enjoying this so much anyways? Probably enjoys other people’s suffering since he’s so miserable himself. What a stand-up person.

“You’re just jealous ‘cause they hit it big in half the time it took you to,” Caporegime Bendetto said as he shoved a large piece of steak in his mouth.

“I’m not the type of person to worry about pride,” Donato returned, “but don’t tell me you’ve never thought about them like that. You know best that their needs to be a separation between business business and personal business.”

Cadence resisted arching a brow. She could’ve sworn Donato was fond of at least Allen.

Wow. I don’t really care, aren’t you and the Foxmans close? came Olive’s thought, which came much more forcefully than the previous thoughts had. The prince always precursored his statements with I don’t care which Cadence found humorous since she could feel that he in fact really did care.

Cadence spied the prince and his surroundings out of the corner of her eye. It looked like he was wandering that Sagittarian city again.

If you have any tips on being that two-faced, I’d like some. It’s impressive.

It’s a bit more complicated than that, kid, Cadence thought back as she side-glanced at Fortuna who had returned to sipping her wine.

“Cadence, I hope you don’t share their sentiments,” Ricardo called out to her suddenly. “You’ve been in our employ for many years now. I am aware that you view yourself as a mere associate of ours, but I was wondering if you would be willing to fully extend your services out to the Campanas as a friendly gesture.”

Cadence raised a glass. “Of course, boss.”

***

It didn’t help that right after the Romano-Foxman meeting Cadence and the others lost contact with Werner and Olive. It was strange. Not having the kid’s sarcastic snaps just ghosting the edges of her mind. Weird not having Werner’s reporting and understood and is that clear and, of course, the wonderful you should attend to that in reference to cleaning.

As their disappearance drew on, Cadence’s chest became wracked with worry and her stomach twisted with a bottomless nausea that started to knot into cramps. Atienna’s thinly veiled concern most likely, she figured. Cadence had half the mind to call Nico up about it but knew it would be fruitless since she hadn’t been able to reach him since he’d been sent out to Argo. In fact, Werner had been her only means of communication with him.

The silence was uncomfortable so the next day Cadence stopped by the Casa De Bambolle. She spotted Agape managing the storefront, so she quickly disguised herself as a patron and took to chatting up the hostesses and hosts within.

But the noise from there was still not enough.

Cadence then swung by the Sognare. As usual, the bartender did not even look up at her entrance. He cleaned the already spotless glassware behind the counter as she played her favorite hopping tune. When she was leaving after she’d finished her final song, the bartender grumbled as usual about his bar shutting down per lack of visitors.

“Don’t ya worry, pal. Y’know me, I’m always here ta keep this place open for ya.” She reached into her suit pocket, pulled out a fistful of cens from her wallet, and tossed it onto the bar top with a wink.

The bartender pulled the cens over the table grumbling. “Yeah, but what am I gonna do when you’re not here anymore?”

“We celebrate,” Cadence said. Right. A celebration. It was only a matter of time now. Everything was in place. “Besides, I have an inkling that you’ll get another visitor real soon.”

Relief came swiftly after when Werner and Olive returned to them. They both seemed to be tense from whatever had happened, but Cadence figured she’d be able to iron that out swiftly.

***

The dreaded Campana-Romano get together was at the very end of the week. If it wasn’t bad enough that Cadence had to attend the meeting instead of perusing the gambling dens for tourists like she usually did, she also had to traverse the maze that was the west side of the city.

While the east side of the Twin Cities was constricted by spider-webbing roads, the west side was threaded through with crisscrossing canals. The sound of slapping gondolas against small wooden ports was as common as the squawks of seagulls. The popularity of the gondolas in this half of the city made v-ehicle usage sparse, and only a few could be seen parked along the sides of buildings. The buildings were older here—more brick and mortar than metal and steel. Unglazed windows were a cens-a-dozen as were bird droppings. City workers armed with scrapers and mops made their way up and down the walkways mechanically, dutifully.

Cadence was familiar with these parts well enough to know which corners were tourist traps, which alleyways people were most likely to get jumped, and which districts were shown in the popular magazines. Cadence was headed to one such district.

The Giorno District. It was strategically littered with all sorts of high-end stores and restaurants with twisting metalwork displays of arts popping up in-between them. Men and women in suits and dresses flocked the streets like doves on a wedding day. When Cadence was younger, she’d like to imagine bringing Alma here. They’d laugh to themselves loudly and then quietly judge people who were just like Cadence—people who were from the opposite walk of light, people who did not belong in such districts. What a dream.

The meeting destination was hidden beneath a casino—the largest one in all of the Twin Cities. Its front entrance was blazed to the underworld and back with flashing v-lights, and its walls were decorated with all sorts of art pieces that originated from various countries around Signum.

Despite its grandeur, Cadence couldn’t help but think that the Foxmans’ casino was better. Despite the warm greeting she received in the back of the casino as the Campana bodyguards led her to a hidden room there, she couldn’t help but feel a bit out of place. She didn’t let them know that, however, and gracefully waltzed into the meeting room with a smile.

The atmosphere within this meeting room was completely different from the Romano Family one. If insincerity and tension had a smell, then this room was permeated with it. The scent was a lot like alcohol and not the good kind. Too clean.

Four tables had been set up at the room’s center in a square formation. Cadence didn’t really see a point to the tables being there since there was no food to be eaten anywhere. The only things close to a meal were the cheese blocks and wine bottles the waiters and waitresses carried around the room on stainless steel platters. Cadence resisted frowning. She’d hoped that she’d at least get some free food from this meeting, but it looked like she was going to have to hit one of the restaurants on the strip before heading home.

It was less crowded here than the Romano meeting, Cadence realized as she scoped the place out further. But she figured that it made sense since only executives and specially deemed associates had been invited to this one.

Only a handful of people were seated, and Ricardo was among them. He was lounging beside a thin man with dark eyes and dimples. The thin man’s face was lined with wrinkles, but his grin was youthful. The don of the Campanas. Oddly enough, he looked as normal as could be. If Cadence didn’t know any better, she would have thought he was some office worker in uptown.

Hands in pockets, Cadence kept to the walls. She smiled when she received glances from familiar faces and offered a respectful nod to those who greeted her. All formalities. Stiff and awkward.

There was a brief temptation in her to reach out to one of the others to garner some free entertainment but she thought better of it. Although she didn’t think she was a decent person, she felt like she was decent enough not to subject them to this kind of torture.

Cadence almost chuckled at the dramatic thought before freezing when she felt a particularly curious gaze prick her skin. She shrugged her stiffened shoulders and scanned the crowd. It did not take long for her to lock eyes with the starrer.

There he was. The boy.

Ambrose Campana.

He had inherited his Cancerian mother’s fair hair and skin while maintaining his Geminian father’s dark eyes, dimples, and height. When their eyes met, he beamed. Cadence mirrored the expression.

“That hair! You must be Cadence Morello!” Ambrose exclaimed, closing the distance between them. His voice was comparable to Francis’s in melodic quality, albeit several octaves deeper.

Cadence spread her arms wide open. “And you must be Ambrose Campana. Have ta admit. I’m a bit star-struck ta have the don’s son talkin’ ta me all friendly-like.”

The corners of Ambrose’s eyes crinkled. “Oh nonsense. You’ve known Fortuna for quite some time, haven’t you? And the Foxmans too.”

Cadence didn’t allow her surprise to show on her face. “I see the Campanas are well-versed in the word on the street.”

“Well, we have half a city to look after,” Ambrose provided. He scanned the crowd. “While it pains me to see that the Foxmans have declined our invitation, I’m glad you’re here. I’ve heard many good things about your services. Frankly, my father’s always wanted to hire you out, but his sense of rivalry against the Romanos prevented him from requesting you.” Ambrose extended a hand, still all smiles. “But now that there’ll be a union between us, I hope we can work together in the future.”

Cadence mirrored his smile again and accepted the gesture. “My pleasure.”

Intuition, came Jericho’s sudden thought. He was very lightly synchronized—Cadence could barely feel him. Regardless, his presence was a bit of a comfort. The memory of the emptiness left by Werner and Olive was still scratching at the back of her mind. This man is involved in illegal business.

Not really intuition, detective, Cadence thought back. Besides, look who you’re thinkin’ to.

…Yes, I know you are ‘Cadence’. A beat of silence. You shouldn’t be involved in this type of business. It is illegal. 

And yet ya still haven’t reported it to your Serpens Establishment. Kinda warms my heart actually. Makes it feel like we’re friends or somethin’. Cadence did not allow her mental smile to seep to her cheeks. We are friends, right?

Yes, we are friends. What— 

“Your thoughts seem to be elsewhere, Miss Morello,” Ambrose interjected. “Are you alright?”

Cadence glanced down and realized that she was still gripping Ambrose’s hand. Thanks to Jericho’s influence of course, she figured as she chuckled an apology and released the man from her grip.

“Just can’t believe you and Fortuna are a thing,” she said. “But the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. You two are perfect for each other.”

Ambrose’s eyes glittered, and his smile climbed a bit. It would’ve been charming if Cadence didn’t feel unnerved by it.

“I think so too,” Ambrose agreed. He stared past Cadence’s shoulder, and she could see Fortuna reflected in his eyes. “We’re going to make great changes to this city together—me and her.” He gave Cadence a cuff on the shoulder. “Well, time to join my bellflower.” And with that, he departed.

Good for them, Cadence thought, watching Ambrose join Fortuna who was speaking to one of the executives of the Campana family at the corner of the room. Cadence snagged a glass of wine off a platter and reclined back against the wall again. She took a sip, gave a pleasant hum in response, and watched the pre-meeting pleasantries unfold.

An abrupt and cold wind whistled through the room cutting Cadence’s serenity off short. For a moment she thought she had synchronized with the prince and was experiencing his windy city. But then—

—there was an ear-piercing scream from one of the waiters followed by a loud crash.

Cadence looked up and found herself frozen stiff in place. But not because of the cold.

The floor was littered with shattered bottles of wine. The red and purple liquids seeped in between the remnants of the glass bottles and around the fallen platters that once held them up. The silver platters themselves reflected a startling scene.

An invisible line now divided the men and women who had been casually chattering just a moment earlier. They faced that invisible line—rather, each other—in frigid silence. The Romanos were on the right and the Campanas were on the left. In-between them and eclipsing the invisible line was the table Ricardo and the Campana don had been seated at. It was almost perfect reflection accented by the weapons they had pointed at the divide, at each other. Normal pistols, conducting guns, conjured guns.

“Enough!” came a furious shout from the corner of the room. It was Fortuna who was now pushing herself between the two groups. Storming over to the Romano side of the room, she slapped away the gun that Bendetto had been pointing at a stocky Campana capo. “This isn’t the time to be doing this!”

Ambrose was behind her, snapping at the Campana side of the room. “Stop being idiots and get some medical Conductors in here now!” He didn’t wait to see if any of the Campanas abided by his order and instead scrambled towards the table that sat on the invisible line.

Fortuna soon joined his side and remained standing stiff as stone.

Usually Cadence would keep as far away from this type of chaos as possible—she’d fold into a corner somewhere, step behind someone, maybe even put on a different face—but this time she found herself being pulled forward by an invisible string. Jericho.

She pushed past the crowd that had gathered around Fortuna and Ambrose and nearly slipped on the wet floor. She managed to catch herself halfway through the action and grimaced down at her shoes. They were stained red now. But it wasn’t with wine.

Cadence slowly looked up at the table—the center point of the invisible line.

She saw the don of the Campanas first. He was lying face-first across the table, arms splayed out like a bird. There was blood pooling beneath him, but Cadence couldn’t tell from where.

Ricardo Romano was laying right next to him with a knife embedded into his back. There was something tied to the end of the knife’s hilt. A piece of paper. A note in Common.

Jericho read it to her plainly—

“You cannot run away from what you’ve done. What is taken must be returned.”


“The Romano Family of the east side of the Twin Cities and the Campana Family of the west side have shared a rivalry for many decades. Their rivalry stems over territorial issues. This nearly exploded into an all-out war a decade ago, but was prevented by a peaceful exchanging of gifts. Recent developments indicate a union between the two families.

The Romano Family has many money laundering fronts to conceal their true business from detection: illegal conductor manufacturing. The Campanas operate similarly, although their particular true business activities are kept very under wraps. Note: get this information from the Campana capo Enzo?”

– Information card #138, Category F, Date: 03.09.1941,  Astante’s Brokering Files