14.1: Observer & Peacekeeper, 0000 Unusual Activity

Ungewöhnliche Aktivität » Unusual activity, unrecorded 

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

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

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

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

Probability of being a True Conductor, 89%. 

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

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

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

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

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

Again, silence.

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

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

“When was the last major conflict again?”

“The Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict—”

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

“Approximately 150 Capricornians and 240 Aquarians.”

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

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

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

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

“Can you hear it? It’s almost here.”

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

“The pulse of the syzygy…”

A knock on the door drew his attention away. 

He rolled his eyes and sighed. 

“I suppose we can take a lunch break.”


Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pure Balance, it was called. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Has not contacted me since accepting my application.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jericho nodded his head in confirmation.

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

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

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

“Theories that will soon become fact!”

Jericho frowned. 

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

A knock on the door cut the conversation short. 

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

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

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

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

The man tipped his hat and left down the hall. 

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

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

Send letters?

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

To Alice was written in swirling Common letters. 

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

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

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

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

Dear Agent Jericho,

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

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

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

Sincerely, 

Leize Artigue

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

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

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

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

I’ve got my eye on you! ❤

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a good time to start.

Yes, it was. 

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

Werner?

He blinked.

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

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

But then Jericho felt nothing.

Absolutely nothing.

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

Silence.

Something was…

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

Alice stared at him. “What’s wrong?” 

“Nothing,” Jericho replied.

The truth. 

Absolute silence. 

There was nothing. 

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

I will enter.

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

Someone shouted in alarm. 

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

He would not succumb to this, he knew. 

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

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

An unfortunate cut to black.

12.1: A Duet for a Prince & Peacekeeper

Re-cap:

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

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


Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

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

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

Jericho turned his head.

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

“Are you alright?”

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

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

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

Alice met his eyes and nodded. “Okay—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is okay, Olivier. 

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

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

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

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

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

Jericho tightened his grip on his suitcase.

In other words, this Gamma had to die—

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

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

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

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

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

Gamma didn’t respond.

How can she say that in this situation…?!

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

“Would my answer change anything?” Gamma asked.

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

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

False hope.

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

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

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

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

“The saint candidate of Sagittarius,” Talib realized.

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

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

Something was wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trystan stared. “How—”

Don’t tell me—

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

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

Worry and panic seized Jericho’s chest.

“Trystan!” Olive shouted.

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

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

“Bang!”

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

But… where were the tourists? It was empty.

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

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

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

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

Olive nodded at Claire. “You… okay?”

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

Olive turned his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I need to let him know, Olivier.

Okay then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jericho…

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

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

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

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

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

—here. 

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

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

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

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

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

“A-Aunt Jiji…”

Claire was wide-eyed, unmoving beside Olive.

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

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

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

But what if Izsak is still

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

No. False hope. False hope.

—was tossed backwards by an abrupt torrent of wind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Claire!” Olive shouted in panic.

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

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

But they had to focus.

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

Leona.

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

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

His gaze flicked to the two peacekeepers behind her.

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

Jericho was at his side immediately, expressionless.

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

Olive tensed, nodded.

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

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

… How had she known Gamma’s name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And Gamma?”

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

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

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

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

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

Jericho stared.

Claire’s got Talib. I’m sure of it.

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

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

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

“Bang!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What in saint’s name…

This was ridiculous. Were they even human?

Abruptly, Jericho stopped running behind him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jericho continued to stare at him.

Olive guessed it was.

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

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

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

Jericho blinked. I care. What you think.

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

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

But that’s not the point.

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

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

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

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

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

Not ‘nothingness’.

Jericho’s eyes widened slightly.

Finally, they reached the threshold of the bridge.

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

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

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

I think I appreciate it.

Olive stiffened before grimacing.

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

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

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

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

Olive winced. Jericho was still so awkward.

Jericho blinked down at him.

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

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

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

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

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

Talib’s expression fell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That didn’t go as planned, Jericho thought.

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

Would it be customary to… hug now?

Olive hesitated, considering. No.

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

Re-cap:

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

Twin Cities, Gemini

The past had become a blur for Francis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“—Campana crime organization investigation—”

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

“—ELPIS ties.”

“—explosive conductor locations—”

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

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

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

“But—”

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

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

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

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

“Try or will?” Allen replied thickly.

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

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

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

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

The three turned to stare at him after exchanging looks.

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

Their product?”

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

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

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

Why would Omicron hide it?

“What was their product…?” he asked.

No. He didn’t want to know.

But he had to know.

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

The world inverted.

“What are you talking about?”

Gabrielle frowned. “Francis—”

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

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

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

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

“What the hell…?”

The peacekeepers looked around flabbergasted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was trying to deceive him again.

But the truth was this:

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

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

The ray didn’t reach, of course.

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

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

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

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

“Stop firing, dammit!” Gabrielle snapped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And all of these memories clashed with—

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

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

He panted heavily, heaved.

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

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

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

Theta couldn’t help but chuckle at the sight.

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

He couldn’t take the failure any longer.

They really had been right.

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

“What are you doing!?”

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

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

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

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

“They will return to the cycle.”

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

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

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

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

Omicron’s eyes widened. “Franc—”

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

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

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


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

Vincente Giustizia Tau, Police Comissario of Gemini Leader of ELPIS

11.5: Jericho’s (Dicotomico) Hatred

Re-cap:

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

Twin Cities, Gemini

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

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

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

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

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

Francis offered a thin smile.

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

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

Now, they waited.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I haven’t been practicing.

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

You will… be my teacher?

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

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

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

Jericho cocked his head.

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

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

Talib frowned at Francis’s address.

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

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

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

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

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

“What in saint’s name…”

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

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

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

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

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

“And Enzo?” Cadence pressed.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

He felt Cadence tense.

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

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

Jericho opened his mouth to respond, but—

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

— “I’m unsure,” he said.

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

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

Cadence nodded half-heartedly in agreement.

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

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

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

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

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

Jericho exchanged a look with Cadence and then with Talib.

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

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

“Whatever helps,” Francis replied after a beat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You know my answer to that.”

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

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

A pressure lifted itself off of Jericho’s chest.

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

The hell. We literally just told him that.

Theta stared at him. “Who are you?”

Ambrose blanched.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donato stiffened.

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

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

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

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

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

Theta remained silent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theta continued, “You will take responsibility for—”

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

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

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

Jericho stared at Cadence in surprise.

Was she… defending him?

Theta frowned. “What are you talking about?”

Cadence stared back. “What—”

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

… He doesn’t know. 

Cadence stared at Jericho.

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

Jericho stared at Cadence, ears ringing.

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

Jericho’s head buzzed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

“Okay, I will.”

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

That’s it…?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—and then Gabrielle released her.

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

Alice musta told Gabe what happened ta Izsak…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theta’s eyes widened. “When…?”

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

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

Hypocrite.

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

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

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

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

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

“Omicron—”

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

“Omicron, don’t do this.”

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

Two hours.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omicron sighed. “I figured as much.”

There was a stretch of silence.

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

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

“Don’t do this,” Theta stated.

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

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

Francis stared at her stiffly.

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

It ain’t that black and white, detective. 

Wasn’t it?—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“First chairwoman of the ELPIS Investigation Department.”

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

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

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

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

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

The atmosphere felt odd.

Ya mean ‘awkward’?

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

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

Jericho stared at Gabrielle. Was she covering for him?

Please stop starin’. It looks suspicious.

Jericho looked forward.

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

Aint she bein’ too casual?

But Gabrielle and the others kept quiet.

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

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

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

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

“I see. So you do know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

So it was an illusion of peace.

Jericho’s heart skipped a beat.

What. No. ELPIS was the illusion.

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

Leona didn’t respond.

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

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

Talib stiffened beside Jericho.

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

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

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

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

Jericho blinked at her.

There was a stretch of silence.

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

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

Jericho stared at her. “… So.”

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

Ya need ta get outta there, detective.

“ELPIS still exists.”

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

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

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

Jericho hesitated.

“Well?”

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

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

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

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

Theta hadn’t known.

But that changed nothing.

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

Irrelevant. Of course there was.

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

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

Hot!

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

Cadence’s terror came shortly afterwards.

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

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

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

11.4: Maria’s (Primo) Defeat

Re-cap: 

The night of the grand plan is afoot, and Maria is aiming to rescue the children owned by the Campanas. With peacekeeper Gabrielle and Chevalier Renee welcomed into her crew, Maria is ready for a night of excitement. At the back of her mind, however, she has a rare two worried. Conta’s aloofness after their fight. And the identity of who set the bounty on her head. 

Twin Cities, Gemini

Maria opened her eyes as she stood at the bow of her ship.

She was met with a complete darkness that was occasionally broken up by flashes of colorful light reflected by smog clouds hanging overhead. Whenever the clouds would light up, the city below would also be illuminated. The skyscrapers’ reflective windows and the stone buildings that popped up between them all were a beauty to behold in front of the backdrop of light.

“What the hell happened here?” Gabrielle muttered under her breath from beside Maria. “The generator conductors…” She glanced at Maria with a frown. “I need to figure out what’s going on in the city first before anything else. We will save the children, but you need to stay put while I ring in before that.” She grimaced, squinting into the dark. “Or try to. Could really use a Conjuror right now…”

Maria turned to the peacekeeper and then back to her crew scattered around the deck. Some of them gaped at the skyline while others scanned the empty docks they had just pulled the ship into.

“Speaking of Conjurors… do you want to know what has happened to Wtorek Izsak?” Maria inquired.

Gabrielle stiffened. “I’m guessing you know who that is because of that ‘True Conductor club’.”

“Warehouse 13,” Maria said, smile faltering for just a moment as the sky was lit up by a flash of orange light. “I promise you will find what you want to know.”

Maria turned around again and found the blind girl standing right behind her. She took the girl’s hand in her own before sweeping the girl off of her feet and hopping onto the railings of the ship.

“M-Maria?” the girl stammered in confusion.

“Wait, Maria—” Gabrielle began.

Maria leaped from the railings and landed with a thud onto the wooden dock below. A pair of footsteps pounded down the platform connecting the boat to the pier a beat after; and off of the ship came two figures. Renée and Conta.

Maria blinked at Conta before chuckling. “Ay, I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist an adventure with me even though you are angry!” She glanced at Renée. “And you?”

“I cannot call myself a Chevalier of Cancer,” Renée explained, “if I just turn away from injustice.”

“Maria!” Gabrielle called out from the deck. “You can’t just charge in by yourself without—”

“Warehouse 13!” Maria called back with a wave.

The blind girl then slipped on her conducting glasses, blinked once and then twice, before gasping as she stared up at the dim sky. Maria studied her curiously.

“It’s everywhere. Vitae—I, uhm…” The girl swallowed. “I can barely make out anything. They’re just so many colors—I…” She frowned, nodding. “I can still tell you where it is. I remember.”

“Off we go then!” Maria hummed.

The girl directed them along the route to the warehouse through descriptions of steps, sounds, and smells.

“When you start to smell the pastry shop, turn left down the alleyway that smells like mildew. Yes, this one.”

And—

“When you start hearing the canal, cross the bridge, take ten steps, and make a right.”

It was a rather fun activity, Maria thought as she wove her way through the city streets. It was like solving a puzzle. Something Atienna was sure to enjoy.

The girl, Renée, and Conta didn’t seem to think it was fun, however. Instead, they seemed to be very focused on the excitement buzzing around the streets of the city. People running this way and that way, v-ehicles soaring through the streets. If Maria wasn’t on such an important task, she would’ve stopped by to join the activities.

Eventually, the girl’s directives became more precise, and she finally said, “Down the alleyway and to the left. It should have a swinging sign in front, or… like a weathervane on top of it. It goes bang, tap, bang, tap. That’s where they keep us overnight sometimes.”

Maria followed along with the girl’s directions with a hop in her step. Sure enough, after taking a left, Maria discovered a modest brick building that hosted a rooster-themed weathervane at its top. The building was a very normal-looking one with a pair of large white doors at its front and a set of stairs leading up to it. The only thing Maria supposed was odd was that it only had two windows placed at its very top. Fortunately, there was a stack of crates pressed along the wall that stretched up all the way to one of the windows.

Maria climbed the stack deftly with the girl in tow before peering in through the window. The only source of light within came from a handful of candles that dotted the floor. Sleeping around that sparse light on thin mattresses was a cluster of around thirty children gowned in white. Around those children, a group of suited men and women stood guard.

Maria put the blind girl gently down on the crate with a grin, fluffed the girl’s hair, and pulled open the window.

“Wait, Madame,” Renée whispered from the ground below. “Should we not come up with a plan—”

Maria didn’t wait to hear him finish and slipped inside. She looked to the ceiling and spied iron support beams crisscrossing up there. After deftly leaping into the air, she grabbed hold of one of the beams, hoisted herself onto it, and began to silently stalk forward along it. She passed quietly overhead one of the suited guards.

She supposed her shadow must have caught his attention, however, because he suddenly peered up into the darkness, and grumbled, “What the hell is tha—”

Hooking her feet to the bar, she swung down, pulled the man from the ground, and up into the darkness in one movement. As he struggled in her hold, she pulled her sword out from her scabbard and drew it across his throat.

Brief stomach-churning nausea gripped her stomach, but she quickly brushed it aside.

She threw the guard back down onto a female guard who collapsed under the weight before pulling back up into the darkness.

“Intruders!” one of the guards screeched, marking him as her next target.

Maria ran above him and pulled him up into the dark with another quick sweep. To this guard, Maria gifted a swift snap to the neck before tossing his body back down onto another guard.

The children stirred below, cowering in the dimness. Ignoring them, the guards fired their weapons at the ceiling. Flashes of reds, blues, and greens from vitae rays peppered in between orange sparks as bullets ricocheted against the steel beams below her feet.

Maria laughed merrily as she dodged them all, dashed along the bars, and hoped between the bars. She scanned the floor below, selecting her next victim before swinging down and pulling him up into her territory. The gunfire and vitae fire did not stop all the while, and so she decided to turn the man into a shield. His body jerked left and right with each bullet and ray before she tossed him onto another guard. Not skipping a beat, she ran along the bars again, dipping down to pull a younger man who was firing out blindly. She pulled him up into the dark and wrapped him in her arms as she pressed her blade against his throat.

“I am the Golden Beast,” Maria whispered into his ear. “I will hunt down every single person who hears my name, yes? The only way to extend your life is by telling my story to other people because whoever hears my name last is my next victim, understand?” For dramatic effect—as Cadence always liked to highlight—she drew her tongue up the man’s face before releasing him onto the ground.

The guard hit the floor with a thud before scrambling to the doors. He fumbled for his keys, unlocked the doors, and dashed out, all while whimpering. Cold air filled the room at his exit, leaving the remaining guards to stare after him in the chill. Their expressions of confusion turned to surprise, however, when a figure eclipsed the door’s threshold. Renée.

“My, could I perhaps ask you to quiet down?” the Cancerian inquired. “You are making quite a ruckus.”

One of the guards closest to the doorway lunged at him, but in a flash of light, the Chevalier twirled a knife in hand and drove it up the guard’s chin.

Maria took Renée’s distraction as an opportunity to shop around for her next victim—a shaking, gun-wielding woman who looked as if she were about to faint. Maria pulled the woman up into the dark and gutted her, before throwing her down on one of the other guards firing at Renée.

That’s cruel. 

They were not friendly people in Maria’s book, so she didn’t see it like that.

The children screamed at the sight of the woman’s body and stiffened in fear.

See. 

“Come on, children,” Renée called out in a reassuring tone. “The door is open for a reason.”

None of the children moved. Fear of the unknown. It looked as if some convincing was in order, Maria thought—

But then the blind girl joined Renée at the threshold.

“Guys, come on!” the girl shouted. “Let’s go! Don’t you want to be free? Come on, come on, come on!”

The children gasped at the girl’s appearance—at the sight of one of their own free, perhaps—before they all became electrified into action. In a herd they stumbled and dashed forward towards the exit, weaving around the guards who were still occupied with either firing up at Maria or across at Renée. One guard lunged for one of the girls dashing towards the door, but Maria swooped down and plucked the guard from the ground. She threw him up in the air while swinging from the beam with her hands and cracked him against the skull with a kick. The guard smacked the beam just across from her before tumbling down and hitting the ground with a thud.

“Hey, aren’t you one of ours?!” came a growl from below.

A high-pitched screech and wail followed the question.

Upon peering down, Maria found the blind girl being dragged to the side by a burly-looking guard. Renée was still dealing with the last two guards at the doorway, and so Maria marked her next prey. But before she could swing down and rip the man to shreds, a gunshot rang out from the dark and the burly man collapsed. Conta stood behind him, gun still billowing with smoke. In the background, Renée finished off the last two guards with two quick jabs of his knife.

Conta welcomed the trembling girl into her arms and comforted her for a moment before she peeled away to inspect the girl’s face. The girl, however, stared back at Conta wide-eyed through her conducting glasses and paled.

“Wow,” Maria hummed as she dropped from the steel beams to the ground in front of them. She clapped loudly. “That was a dazzling rescue, Conta! I am so proud—”

The girl abruptly ripped herself out from Conta’s hold and ran over to Maria’s side. Clinging to Maria tightly, the girl cowered, shivered, trembled. Conta extended her hand out to the girl in slight confusion.

Maria blinked down at the girl with the same confusion before glancing up at Conta. “What is wrong, my dear? Is it the gun? They are not very elegant, yes, but—”

“I-I saw,” the girl stammered, gripping her conductor glasses tightly with one hand. “A-As soon as I touched her, I-I saw…” She dragged off her glasses and pulled herself closer. “I-It was white, Maria. White.”

Conta’s hand dropped to her side, and her expression of concern fell flat.

“What are you talking about…?” Maria asked the girl, her eyes still trained on Conta.

The girl didn’t respond and merely buried her face deeper into Maria’s back.

Without speaking another word, Conta reached into her pocket and pulled out two items. A singular glove lined with metal, which she slipped on slowly. And a knife with which she used to slice open her bare palm.

“Captain Maria Gloria-Fernandez, you are a True Conductor,” Conta stated. “We cannot allow you to live.”

What…?

“That’s awfully mean of you to say, Conta…” Maria murmured, chuckling. “Are you still angry at me—”

Conta extended her gloved hand outwards. The blood dripping down her other hand glowed a blinding white. And then Conta jerked her gloved hand upwards, sending the streams of glowing blood hurtling in Maria’s direction. Like spears. Almost like a Projector.

Maria couldn’t comprehend the scene well enough to dodge the onslaught. The spears pierced through her right arm and left leg. One scrapped against the side of her ear, drawing blood. But she didn’t feel pain there. Instead, there was a pain in her chest. Like a cracking. Something fragile was cracking. Paired with the pain was a light in her head.

“Maria!” Renée exclaimed, starting towards her.

The white spears crumbled away into specs of light that floated up into the air. Eventually, they faded away leaving them in darkness.

“If you come over here, Renée…” Maria murmured, extending a hand out towards him. “I might accidentally kill you.”

Wait… what?

Maria knew she never did things accidentally. Everything she did, she did because she could do it. With purpose. There wasn’t anything she couldn’t do. And…

“Who… are you?” Maria asked, staring at the woman before her.

“So, you are connected to someone who knows,” Conta surmised. “I am Beta.”

A letter in the original Ophiuchian alphabet.

No. That’s the wrong answer, Maria thought to herself as the world spun.

When had it happened?

Enzo had his boys test them on a couple of poor saps,” Donato had said to Cadence in that cold room. “‘Course one managed to get away, but that’s not relevant.”

Was it then?

The Conta who had returned to the ship on that day they were to depart from the Twin Cities all those weeks ago—had that not been her Conta?

No, no. Maria would’ve noticed if it wasn’t her Conta. She would’ve.

Why hadn’t she noticed?

Conta was gone for so long, and Maria hadn’t even noticed. Maybe it was because Atienna and Cadence had suggested for her to keep her distance from Conta after their fight.

“Give Conta time,” they had said. “Let her digest her feelings.” Maria had thought that she had understood what they were saying then, but perhaps she hadn’t truly understood anything at all.

How would Conta feel if she realized that Maria hadn’t noticed she was gone?

Conta would be sad, of course. And Maria didn’t like it when Conta was sad. Being mad was better than being sad. Conta—

Conta who had always been by her side. Conta who held her hand as they ran through the grass fields in front of the orphanage. Conta who had leaped with her from the ocean cliff-side in their childhood despite being terrified. Conta who had tentatively told her in the days following Leona’s departure from their ship that she had taken Leona’s necklace because she had wanted Maria to compliment her on it. Conta who filled in Maria’s shadow perfectly.

Conta was gone?

No, that was impossible.

Because Maria never lost, and she never broke promises. Whatever she put her mind to, she accomplished. So, when she promised Conta that they would travel the world together forever, promised Conta that she would never allow her to die, she meant it. She was going to make that possible. But.

Conta was gone.

And a world without Conta was impossible.

But nothing was impossible.

Then… okay.

“I won’t forgive you,” Maria stated calmly before pushing the girl behind her into Renée’s waiting arms.

“Maria—”

Without skipping a beat, Maria charged at Not-Conta with her drawn blade. Not-Conta flicked her gloved hand again, sending another barrage of glowing white spears of vitae at Maria from her blood. This time Maria dodged swiftly, which prompted Not-Conta to send out another barrage. This barrage snapped Maria’s blade into shards and scratched at her arms and legs, but Maria didn’t care. She simply plucked the sharpest shard from the air and tackled Not-Conta to the ground. She pinned Non-Conta there as she heaved and gritted her teeth. It wasn’t hard to keep Not-Conta locked beneath her. Conta wasn’t very physically strong after all.

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

She drove the shard through Beta’s gloved hand and ripped the conductor off with the blade as the woman groaned. The sounds of Beta’s pain were terrible, but Maria ignored them and wrapped her free hand around Beta’s throat as she brought the shard back up with her other hand.

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

Maria drove the shard downwards but—

—was stopped by a tanned hand around the wrist.

Olive. He stared at her, green eyes wide as saucers, as he struggled against her thrust. In his background, she could faintly hear the blaring of sirens. Still, this mirage of him was oddly strong.

Wait, Maria!

Why? 

Think, Maria, please.

I am thinking. I am thinking that I will kill this person. 

I mean, think. She was probably the one who hired the bounty hunters. 

All the more reason to kill this impersonator.

But why did she send the bounty hunters?

She wanted to kill me. Just like she killed Conta—

Another roll of rage and anguish and fury overcame her, and she drove the knife downwards once more.

No! She couldn’t do it herself. That’s why she hired them! She couldn’t bring herself to! Because she’s still Conta!

Maria stopped driving the blade downwards, but Olive’s ghostly hand remained gripped tightly around her wrist.

And she was probably the one who killed them. Maybe. I don’t know. But…

A wave of nausea that she knew was not her own swept over her.

Maria, please! Olive’s eyes were wide, fearful, concerned. I don’t want you to do something that you’ll regret.

And Maria lacked regrets. But she still lacked understanding, she knew. But Olive’s feelings—those, she could understand as if they were own.

But—

Maria squeezed the shard tightly, drawing blood. She met the eyes of the woman below her and drove the blade down again—this time, into the ground right beside the woman’s head. She peeled herself off of the other woman and stared.

Beta slowly rose from the ground, holding her bleeding hand with a slight wince. She didn’t make any moves—merely regarded Maria with an unreadable expression.

Before Maria could say anything, however, a terrible whine rang through the air. The sound resounded out from Beta’s left pocket which was now glowing a pale tangerine. Beta reached in and drew out what Maria soon recognized to be one of Theta’s proto-conductors. Its glass tube was filled with pulsating pale tangerine, liquid-like light.

Beta’s hand twitched as the glow from the proto-conductor intensified, and the proto-conductor tumbled to the ground. The glass capsule of the thing burst open with a crash, sending the pale liquid within splattering across the floor. The liquid spread far, consuming nearly a quarter of the ground before an icy wind blew out from it. And that icy wind carried a familiar voice—

“There really is no hope.”

“Theta…” Beta murmured. She cast one last, long look back at Maria before she leaped into the tangerine light and disappeared.

Maria started after her but found her knees suddenly giving way. She fell forward on all fours and stared blankly at the ground. Something wasn’t right. Her head wasn’t right. Her chest didn’t feel right. Nothing felt right. This wasn’t fun anymore. No.

Maria buried her head in her hands and felt her eyes begin to burn.

What was going on?

What was going on, Maria knew, was that she had broken her promise. Her promise to Conta.

And as Maria pictured herself returning to the ship without Conta by her side, sailing the ship without Conta at her shadow, spending the nights without listening to Conta count their treasures and supplies, Maria’s heart collapsed in on itself.

No, she didn’t like this feeling at all. This emptiness—like a piece inside of herself had been sliced out cleanly, leaving a gaping hole.

And then, for the first time in many years, Maria wept.

10.3: Maria’s Battling (Riposo)

Re-cap:

Maria is to pick up a package for the Campanas in Hapaira, Pisces.

After some mishaps involving murders and capturing a disagreeable bounty hunter, Maria discovers that the package is in fact a blind girl. The girl insists on being returned to the Twin Cities immediately. In an attempt to return faster, the girl tricks the Chevalier Renee, who is also in Hapaira searching for something, into battling it out with Maria. Before their duel can reach its climax, however, a wave sent by the Elementalist bounty hunter sweeps the three into the ocean. Maria rescues the girl, bonds with her, and learns that the girl is actually a Specialist who is capable of seeing the flow of vitae with a conductor. The two are eventually rescued by Maria’s crew. Still on Maria’s mind, however, is the mysterious beast of the deep and Conta’s odd behavior.

Aboard Gloria’s Grail, International Waters

Renée was already on Maria’s ship when she climbed on board with the blind girl in tow. He was in the middle of assisting Giorgio and Simon in lowering the ship’s flags when Maria stumbled across him. After they stared at each other for a full minute, she rushed at him and bound him with the rope that was being used to lower the flag. He didn’t have his conducting gloves on, so it was easy to take him down. She placed Renée alongside the bounty hunter who was already tied at the foremast.

Morandi brought Maria and the girl a bundle of blankets, while Maria heartily explained to her curious crew exactly what had occurred between herself, Renée, and the girl. None of them were surprised, it seemed. Ley and Conta took in the information with unreadable expressions, while Morandi, Simon, and Giorgio just appeared exasperated.

“We pulled Renée out of the water when we first came out looking for you,” Giorgio explained, perplexed. “We had no idea that happened. He didn’t mention it either. He just started helping around on deck.”

When Maria came around to Renée with the little girl attached to her hip, the Chevalier looked them over and chuckled wryly.

“My, my, Miss,” he said, addressing the girl, “you certainly create quite a lot of strife around yourself, don’t you? Well, I am quite happy to see you safe.”

The girl lifted her head but then mumbled to the ground, “Maria, can you please let him go? Everything was a misunderstanding…”

“A misunderstanding?” Maria peered down at her.

The girl flushed. “No, I lied to him so…” She dipped her head in Renée’s direction. “I’m really sorry for lying to you. Maria is a good person.” She looked back up at Maria. “And Renée is a good person too, so…”

Maria considered the girl’s words before she addressed Renée, “I like you a lot, Renée. If we can all get along, then I can free you, yes?”

Morandi and Giorgio exchanged a look from beside her.

“Well, if this girl is not in any harm’s way, then being in your company unbound would be a pleasure,” Renée returned with a good-natured shrug. “I am not one to raise my hand against fair maidens when I’m given a reasonable choice.”

And that was that.

Maria cut his bindings with a quick draw of her blade and offered him a hand.

“Madame Gloria-Fernandez, I thank you for your generosity,” Renée said, inclining his head and accepting her gesture. “And I do apologize for being so rough with you earlier.”

“You weren’t being rough though?” Maria blinked at him.

Renée chuckled. “Ah, yes, it was you who was rather rough with me, but I do love fierce women.”

Maria stared at him before she laughed and slapped him on the back. “You are funny, my dear Renée!”

“I am overjoyed that I can humor a beautifully fierce woman like yourself,” Renée returned. He glanced down at the bound bounty hunter. “Might I ask where you are off to now? I don’t mind a detour, but I do have things I must do.”

Maria scratched the back of her head. “Well, you see, my friend, since we are already out at sea despite trying not to be out at sea, I say we move forward and head to the Twin Cities just as planned, yes?”

The girl’s grip on Maria’s arm tightened.

Maria blinked down at her in surprise. “You don’t want to return to the Twin Cities anymore, my dear?”

The girl opened her mouth, closed it, and thumbed the conductor glasses around her neck.

Maria put little thought into it and nodded. “Well, we don’t have to go.”

The girl startled. “R-Really?”

“If you don’t want to do something, then you don’t do it,” Maria replied. She paused, frowned, thought of Cadence, Werner, and Jericho. “Hm… but I might go on my own…”

“Captain,” Morandi interjected, “while I’m no fan of the Campanas and I’m ecstatic that you’re suggesting putting aside the Campana’s request, this is still the Campanas we’re dealing with. We should be—”

“I do not think that the Campanas will be thinking of us much with everything that is going on in the city,” Maria returned.

Morandi frowned. “What do you mean by that, Captain?”

Maria placed her hand on the girl’s head and hummed. “I will tell you some other time, yes?” She had a strange feeling he would be upset if he learned what had happened to the Foxmans. And she had seen enough people upset recently. No more!

“We should probably head to land even if we’re not headed back to Gemini,” Ley interjected from where she’d been watching the exchange from the sidelines. She yawned. “Water Elementalist is still out there, right?”

Maria hummed in agreement, thrumming her fingers along the girl’s head. She peered down at the girl and beamed. “You say you have never seen the Scarabeé Temple, yes? How about we start there?”

***

The next day, however, as Maria swung on her hammock in her quarters, she learned of the Campanas ‘product’ from Cadence’s investigations. She didn’t like it at all. Something about it gave her discomfort. And whenever Maria didn’t like something, she sought to change it. But before she could reach a final decision, she was jarred out of her thoughts by a commotion coming from up on deck. Stampeding footsteps above her head, audible shouts of alarm that carried through the levels down to her quarters. In other words—excitement.

Maria darted through the empty halls and made her way up onto deck. Upon breaking out onto the surface, she was met with the warmth of the sun. Despite this warmth, however, there was a misty chill in the air.

Maria approached the railings at the mast of the ship where nearly all of her crew members had gathered. Giorgio, Simon, Chef Raul, Emmanuel, Morandi, Renée, Ley, and even Conta crowded the area, pointing, gasping, muttering amongst themselves with their gazes focused on the horizon.

The blind girl stood a little way off from them, shivering in confusion as she stared blankly around. Maria tapped the girl on her shoulder, took hold of her hand, and squeezed both of their bodies in front of the gathered group.

Maria spotted the attraction immediately.

It was a wave. A gigantic ocean wave—almost tsunami-like—that stretched endlessly east and west. Its body was filled with flecks of purple light that gave it a luminous, unearthly glow. The entire ocean trembled as it barreled towards them. And its behemoth force sent the ship rocking back and forth.

“The Elementalist,” Ley said with a grimace.

Simon began muttering a Monadic prayer under his breath from beside her. Maria reached over and patted him on the shoulder absentmindedly as the wave continued its course towards them. As it drew nearer and nearer, it began to deafen the surrounding chatter. Closer, closer, closer—

But just as the wave was about to crash into the side of the ship, it came to an abrupt stop. There it remained, towering above them like an arching wall. It concealed the sun, leaving the ship cast in a purple glow. Large dollops of sea water splashed onto the deck of the ship from the wave’s body, drenching half of Maria’s crew members

It was like a salivating beast, Maria thought to herself. She wasn’t afraid, however. Merely fascinated.

“You have dared to turn the hunter into the prey?” A deep, baritone voice boomed out from somewhere within the wave. “And then you turn tail and run? Who do you think you are to run from my—Veles’s—presence?! Who are you to take one of my followers from me—Veles?!”

The bounty hunter who was still bound to the mast of the ship threw his head back and laughed. “You’re in for it now, pirate. The beast of the deep is gonna sink you to the depths of the ocean!”

“It’s him!” the girl shouted from beside Maria. “The leader I told you about!”

“Is it?” Maria stared at the curiosity before she cupped her hands and shouted upwards, “Are you the bounty hunting leader?”

Her voice barely carried above the roar of the rushing water, but her crew members seemed to catch on and offered her mixed expressions.

“You dare address me with such disrespect!” the voice called out from the towering wave. “I—Veles—am not a bounty hunter leader. I—Veles—am a guild master!”

Saints. Another delusional seafarer. Great.

Olive was looking in. He seemed a bit upset. Probably about the children.

A part in the waves suddenly formed, and a figure stood on top of a spout of glowing purple water in the newly formed gap there. It was a shirtless man with a tanned, bare chest. His hair was black, wavy, salt-damaged. He looked a bit regal with the golden earrings dangling from his ears and the golden chain hanging from his chest—or so Maria thought. She certainly fancied the fur cloak that was thrown loosely over his shoulders.

He looked like—

some drunk pretending to be a king. What is he wearing.

The man lifted his hand in the air. It was gloved. A conductor.

The sea between the ship and the man glowed purple and rose, forming a bridge of water between the man and the front of the ship. The man walked forward onto that bridge, pacing across it with reverence.

Maria’s crew skirted backwards as he stepped onto the deck, while Maria studied him with interest. The girl cowered behind Maria, still holding her hand.

The man—Veles—flicked his conductor out in the direction of the bound bounty hunter. A razor slash of glowing water shot out from the seawall behind him and sliced the rope binding the bounty hunter in two. The freed man stumbled forward, rounding Maria and her group before coming to a tense stand behind Veles.

Veles pointed at Maria with a gloved finger. “You—”

“Okay, okay, let’s settle down now.” Saying this, Ley stepped in between Veles and Maria with her hands raised. She yawned tiredly and pulled off the magenta veil that she had constantly kept over her face. Simultaneously, she reached into the folds of her shirt and pulled out a familiar-looking badge that she flashed for all to see. “My name is—”

That’s—

“Oh.” Maria stared. “It’s Gabrielle.”

Ophiuchian Peacekeeper Gabrielle Law stared back at Maria, mouth hanging slightly ajar. The woman shook her head and flashed her badge again.

“My name is Gabrielle Law,” she stated clearly, meeting each person’s eyes and shining her badge at them. “Third chairwoman of the General Investigations Department of Ophiuchus. Since we are on open, international waters within Signum, you all fall under my jurisdiction. I seek to mediate the conflict here… and to resolve a case I’ve been assigned that you happen to be caught in the middle of.”

She really has a terrible personality. Swooping in like that last minute just for show…

Veles threw his head back, laughed, and pointed at Gabrielle. “What dominion do you think you have over me—Veles?!”

“Leader,” the now freed bounty hunter whispered from behind him. “We’re licensed by Ophiuchus. The peacekeeping agents do have legal authority over us. We can’t bounty hunt without their approval…”

“Nonsense!” Veles boomed. “Do you know who I am?”

Saints. Here comes a monologue… 

“I am the sea. I am the beast of the deep. The oceans roll with each step I take. I am not in your presence—you are in mypresence! Yes, that’s exactly who I am. I am someone who was selected to potentially become the Saint of the Deep. I am someone who saw a higher purpose than becoming tha—”

“I was a potential saint candidate too!” Maria interjected, while clapping in support of his speech. “I am Maria Gloria-Fernandez and—”

“I know exactly who you are,” Veles interjected, glowering. “You are the one whose head I am seeking! You are the one who slaughtered my fellow guild mates and captured—”

“If you’re talking about those people in that surfboard shop, I wasn’t the one who killed them,” Maria said.

“How dare you lie in my presence?” Veles snapped.

“I can vouch for Miss Gloria-Fernandez,” came a voice from behind. “If you cannot trust her words, I do hope you can trust mine.”

Veles stared past Maria with a frown before recognition flickered in his eyes. And then his expression brightened. “Renée!”

Maria turned and found Renée standing behind her wearing an amicable smile. The towering wall of water hadn’t seemed to disturb him in the slightest. In fact, he seemed more annoyed by the fact that he was drenched from head to toe than anything else.

“You two know each other?” Maria asked, brows arched.

“It’s been quite some time Renée LeBlanc,” Veles bellowed in confirmation.

“I am graced by your presence, Veles. Your entrances are as eye-catching as always,” Renée answered, dipping into a bow. He side-glanced at Morandi, who was gawking at him, and he added under his breath: “Please try to humor him. It improves his mood.”

Veles threw his head back and laughed. “To think I would encounter another fellow True Conductor at a place as quaint as this.”

Renée tensed. “Veles, perhaps—”

Maria, wait—

“What?!” Maria gasped, eyes sparkling. “You are both True Conductors too?!” She gestured to herself. “I’m one as well, yes?”

Don’t know why I even try.

***

“Ohhh, so you and Renée met each other at a True Conductor meeting a couple of years ago, and you met Claire there too.” Maria nodded.

Maria was sitting at a round table that she had Giorgio and Morandi set up for her on deck. Chef Raul had thrown a white tablecloth over the top and had nervously placed all their best wines on its surface before stepping back and observing from the sidelines.

The sun was warm above their heads; the sea was calm; the wine was fragrant. All-in-all, it had turned out to be a perfectly pleasant day.

Sitting alongside Maria at the table going clockwise was Gabrielle, Veles, Renée, Morandi, and the little girl. Her other crew members and Veles’s man were dotted around the deck, looking in with terribly concealed curiosity. Maria, Veles, and Renée were the only ones seated who had taken up wine-drinking. Gabrielle was as relaxed as they were, however, and was leaning back in her chair with arms crossed.

Veles took a sip of wine. “And you, Miss Captain, as you’ve said, have encountered Claire through one of the ones who you were connected with. As they say, True Conductors are drawn to each other.” He raised his glass of wine towards her. “And those who were sought to become potential saint candidates naturally become acquainted.”

“Here, here!” Maria chimed. “To the strong!”

“M-My apologies, Captain, excuse me,” Morandi interjected from her left. He cleared his throat and then muttered, “But pray tell… what in saint’s name is bloody going on here?!”

Maria looked to Veles, then to Renée, and then to Gabrielle. “We are… having a tea party, yes? A wine party!”

“A wine party,” Morandi repeated, glancing at Veles and then at Gabrielle. “With a bounty hunter who is after your head and who wants revenge because he thinks you killed his fellow bounty hunters…” He glanced at Gabrielle. “And with an Ophiuchian peacekeeper.”

“Let me correct you, commoner,” Veles drew. “I am a guild master, not a bounty hunter.”

—how is it possible for someone with as many screws loose as you to exist—

“It just so happens to be that I dabble in affairs that you call ‘bounty hunting’ because it amuses me.”

“Great…” Morandi muttered under his breath. “We have another one…”

Veles met Maria’s eyes. “As for my fellow guild mates…”

“Let’s just get some discrepancies out of the way,” Gabrielle interjected, leaning forward. “Veles, we aren’t the ones who killed your… guild members. If you’d like, once I return to Ophiuchus, I can see if I can get a separate investigation going for you regarding that. I was with Maria when she discovered the bodies. They were long dead before we even arrived at Hapaira.” She folded her hands in front of her. “I’m also acting on my authority as a peacekeeping agent to retract your bounty on Maria Gloria-Fernandez since she’s currently involved in my case. We can move further with this if we need to after my case is—”

“Nonsense!” Veles boomed. “I am acting on my own authority to retract my bounty on Maria Gloria-Fernandez.” He extended a hand out to Maria. “If you truly have not murdered my fellow guild mates in cold blood, then that leaves only one relationship for us—camaraderie through our shared True Conductorship and potential saint-candidacy-ship.”

“I didn’t kill them,” Maria affirmed. She paused, glancing to the side. “But I am sorry for your loss. Losing things is… painful, yes?”

Veles studied Maria for a moment and hummed. “Oh, and what of my guild mates that returned to me missing fingers and needing care after their encounter with you?”

“I mean, your crew was aiming to kill my crew too, yes? And you gave them a fright!” Maria chuckled. “I have to protect what is mine.”

“I must also protect what is mine,” Veles responded. “So, reparations clearly have to be made.”

“Oh, most definitely.”

There was a beat of silence.

Morandi swallowed nervously from beside Maria.

Maria herself could not fathom why he was nervous. Actually—Maria scanned the deck—everyone seemed nervous save for Gabrielle and Veles. She didn’t understand it at all.

“Well, it’s good that we are on the same page then!” Maria beamed, raising her glass of wine.

“Truly,” Veles cheered, lifting his glass to clink against her own.

In unison, they took a sip.

Morandi let out a quiet breath. “What…? T-That’s… it?”

Maria turned to Gabrielle and leaned forward. “So, Gabrielle! You surprised me! What is a peacekeeper doing on an adventurer’s ship?”

Gabrielle pinched the bridge of her nose before she folded her hands in front of her and elaborated: “My purpose on this ship is to investigate the crime organization known as the Campana Family. Since they’re extremely covert and are partially allowed to exist by Ophiuchus itself due to a blind-eye agreement, their activities have remained mostly unknown to us.” She paused, gaze drifting to the girl sitting beside Maria. “We’ve been waiting for an opportunity like this—for one of their shipments to end up on our radar—to assess their activities to see whether intervention is necessary. The Foxmans were kind enough to extend a helping hand by placing me in your group. I’m now asking for your cooperation.”

Morandi and his men brightened.

“You have it,” Maria popped. “Now that I know you are Gabrielle, I like you even more, Ley!”

“Right… Now that this is out in the open,” Gabrielle continued, “I’d like to speak to Maria, Renée, Veles, and the young girl alone.” She paused, gesturing to the surrounding men and women. “Now. Please.”

Maria waved her hand in the air, as did Veles. Morandi rose from the table and inclined his head towards the doors leading below deck. Begrudgingly, the rest of Maria’s crew along with Veles’s man followed him downwards. Conta who had been observing everything from the crow’s nest of the ship lingered for a while longer before disappearing below along with them.

“I wasn’t aware you were selected to be a saint candidate, Miss Gloria-Fernandez,” Gabrielle said after a lapse of silence. The peacekeeper studied her for a moment before moving on to Veles. “And you were selected too, but for Aquarius. But you both never actually went through the candidacy ceremony… Is that correct?”

“The Monadic orphanage Conta and I were a part of was raided by pirates right before I was supposed to head to Ophiuchus for the ceremony,” Maria recalled.

“… by pirates, you say?” Veles set his wineglass down. “You wouldn’t happen to be referring to the guild master, would you?”

“Guild master?” Maria cocked her head.

“Yes, I was also in a Monadic orphanage, albeit in Aquarius,” Veles elaborated. “It was a small, quaint place that was graced by my presence. It was only natural that I would be selected for saint candidacy. However… right before my ceremony, a man claiming to be a guild master recruited me to work under his wing for a short while.”

Something strange tickled Maria’s chest.

“What did he look like?” Maria pressed, leaning forward.

“… He was tall,” Veles replied, rubbing his chin. “Muscular. I believe he had a graying beard. And he also had an eyepatch over—”

“—his left eye,” Maria finished. She locked eyes with him and then chuckled. “What a coincidence!”

Veles nodded. “Truly.”

It’s obviously not a coincidence! Olive again. Still keeping her pleasant company. His mood seemed to be slightly alleviated.

“So, you were both prevented from starting the saint candidate ceremony by the same person,” Gabrielle concluded. “Is there any information you can offer me about saint candidacy? Maybe… any connection to ELPIS?”

Maria felt her heart skip an odd beat at the mention of ELPIS, but she shrugged it off and shook her head. “You certainly ask a lot of strange questions, my dear Gabrielle.”

“Saint candidacy is beneath me now.” Veles waved the notion off.

Clear disappointment flashed across Gabrielle’s face, and for a moment she remained silent. After the moment passed, she pressed, “There are several more things I would like to ask you. Firstly, what’s this ‘True Conductor’ that you keep mentioning? And secondly…” She locked eyes with Maria. “How did you know my name?”

“It has to do with me being a True Conductor—how I know your name, I mean,” Maria replied without skipping a beat. “Jericho is mine, you see.”

Gabrielle tensed. “You know Jericho? The Ophiuchian peacekeeper?”

Maria…

“Yes, he is mine, like I said.” Maria scratched her head. “I actually don’t really understand it well myself, but what he knows I know.”

I don’t even know why I try. Again.

Gabrielle stared at Maria long and hard before sighing and clasping her hands together. She glanced at Veles, then at Renée. “Can any of you elaborate any further?”

Renée shrugged his shoulders. “Miss Law, I am afraid that the best I can do is to say it is an exclusive club.”

“A club.” Gabrielle frowned. “Right.” She stared at him. “I actually do have a personal question for you myself, Renée. What exactly is a Chevalier of Cancer doing all the way in Hapaira? Chevaliers are almost always bound to remain within Cancer, so as a peacekeeper I can’t help but be curious.”

“I am searching for a Cancerian duchess who’s run away from home,” Renée explained, swirling his glass of wine. “I was ordered by the royal throne of Cancer to retrieve her.”

“And her name?” Gabrielle pressed.

Renée set down his glass of wine. “My apologies, Miss Law, but it is only by coincidence that I have found myself in your beautiful presence. I don’t mean to sound rude, but that truly is none of your business. This is a Cancerian issue.”

Gabrielle arched a brow at him before leaning back and holding her hands up in their placatingly. “That’s fair enough, Renée. My main purpose here is to handle the case with the Campanas. Everything else is just bonus…”

Gabrielle abruptly reached across the table and tapped the blind girl on the shoulder. The girl had been sitting tensely, quietly beside Maria all the while. Maria had almost forgotten she was present.

“Hey, kid, I’m one of the good guys,” Gabrielle said. “I’ll take care of you. If you’re alright with it, would you mind coming with me back to Ophiuchus?”

The girl hesitated.

Gabrielle grimaced, but then glanced at Maria. “I have to question the captain too, so she’ll be there with you.”

The girl, still tense, nodded slowly.

Veles rose from his seat. “This conversation no longer holds any pertinence for me, so I—Veles— will take my leave.”

“I don’t need to question you for the case so you’re free to leave,” Gabrielle affirmed, offering a loose wave. “I’ll submit a report about what happened to your guild mates for you. It’d most likely be handed down to Piscese authorities, though.”

“No need.” Veles waved his hand.

“Well, I kinda have to,” Gabrielle elaborated.

“So soon though, Veles?” Renée inquired, brow arched.

“There is no bounty here for me to claim any longer,” Veles explained. “And the murderer I seek is supposedly not on this ship. My time is valuable, my friend. I will not waste it.”

With that, he departed from the table and headed below deck. He returned a minute later with the other bounty hunter in tow. He paced over to a puddle of seawater half a meter away and dunked his gloved hand right into it. The puddle began to glow with purple light, and with a flick of his wrist, he sent the puddle back into the ocean. When he drew up his hand a second later, the ocean rumbled and a platform of water rose up to the ship. He walked over to the newly formed platform before pausing and nodding back at Maria.

“I will tell you this, fellow potential saint candidate,” Veles said as he stepped onto the water alongside his bounty hunting guild member. “The request I received for your head was most definitely made by someone close to you. It was submitted to one of my fallen brethren and held very detailed information about your persons. Information only someone close to you would know.”

“Is that so?” Maria hummed. She offered him a wave. “Thanks for the concern, my dear!”

With that, Veles flourished his hand in the air once more and road off on an ocean wave into the distance.

Maria stared after him until she could no longer see his silhouette.

What in saint’s name just happened…

I got to meet an exciting person, my dear Olive, Maria explained with a grin.

You mean a crazy person. A pause. Maria’s gaze was drawn to the little girl. You saw that on Cadence’s end too… right? The kids… 

Olive’s chest twisted into knots that knotted Maria’s own heart.

“…. Say, shall we rescue your friends?” Maria asked quietly as she stared off in what she assumed was the direction of the Twin Cities.

The girl startled beside her. “R-Rescue them…?”

“Yes, rescue them!” Maria chimed, nodding with certainty before she took the girl’s hands in her own. “There are others like you under the Campanas, yes? And if you are scared to return to them now, then how do you think those who are still there feel?”

The girl’s milky eyes widened. “I…” Guilt carved itself into her features.

“If you are too scared, my dear, you needn’t worry,” Maria hummed, releasing the girl’s hands and rising to a stand. “I can rescue them all on my own, yes—”

The girl grabbed a hold of Maria’s hand. “I-I know where they keep them. Where they kept me. Even though I can’t see, I remember the way. I… let me come… please?”

Maria beamed down at her. “I was hoping you would say that, my dear—”

“Maria,” Gabrielle interjected tersely. She was standing now, frowning deeply. “Look, I understand how you feel, but I need to bring this back to Ophiuchus first. This is beyond your paygrade. The best thing you can do to help children who might also be this girl’s situation is to come to Ophiuchus and testify—”

“How will that help?” Maria cocked her head. “I know they are there in the Twin Cities, yes? What will going to Ophiuchus and telling the people there that I know the children are in the city do? The children will be in that place longer if I go. It is… sad, no?”

“These are complicated things, Maria,” Gabrielle explained with a sigh. “You need to look at the bigger picture. These crime organizations need to be dismantled slowly so the social structure of the Twin Cities doesn’t fall apart. A testimony and a key witness need to be present so we can have a verdict to move this case forward with better resources. This is all just preliminary footwork. If we act too fast, the Campanas may be able to do a cover up and even more children can be hurt.”

Her career could be on the line if she loses control of this case. Like I said. Terrible personality.

“When you put it like that, it does sound complicated….” Maria agreed. She snapped her fingers. “But that’s just because you think it the way. If you think it’s uncomplicated, then it won’t be complicated. I mean, right now all I see is someone I want to save. And I will save them—”

“Look, I’m not saying that we’re not going to save them—”

“But you are going to wait to save them? That makes no sense to me.” Maria rested a hand on the girl’s head. “You said much, much earlier that you knew someone who was good with kids, yes? What do you think he would do?”

Gabrielle’s eyes widened a fraction, and she seemed to stare past Maria into the distance. Her gaze dropped down to the girl at Maria’s side and something flickered in her gaze.

“You know, I’ve moved up a lot of ranks in my department recently. Starting to think that’s because that guy’s no longer there to hold me back all the time.” Gabrielle sighed and fell back into her chair. She ran her hand down her face and met Maria’s eyes. “I’m going to take point on this, and I’m going to make a call to Ophiuchus before anything goes down.”

Renée poured the peacekeeper a glass of wine.

Maria beamed again. “They say you have a terrible personality, but I can clearly see that you are strong!” She hummed in thought. “They’ve also always said that I should try and make my point instead of just doing things, and I must say doing it this way is refreshing!”

Gabrielle paused. “Who’s ‘they’?” She sighed. “And what’s this about a terrible personality?”

But Maria was already running up to the wheel of the ship. She gave the thing a spin and exclaimed—

“Twin Cities, away we go!”


The Beast of the Deep is the pseudonym for a bounty hunter known as Veles Yakut. He is a powerful water Elementalist who conducts vita extraneously and commands a large guild of bounty hunters. Successful bounties range in the thousands. 
Contact information: XXX.

Information requested by Beta on 30.10.1941

Information Card #891, Category B, Astante’s Brokering Files

7.6: Jericho’s Peace (Guerra)

Re-cap: 

Synchronization has occurred. 

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

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

And now—

Lepischau, Cancer

“He’s going around back!”

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

Jericho ignored them and scanned the area.

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

There.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There.

The only one who was running away from him.

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

The distance between them closed swiftly.

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

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

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

Hm.

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

What to do.

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

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

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

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

***

Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The ELPIS guy? Really?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jericho paused and stared at Ferris. “Really?”

“I—”

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

“Hey, I’m trying—”

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

“Talib, be quiet—”

Jericho watched them fire back and forth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then there was Elizabeta. Wtorek Elizabeta.

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

Izsak. Wtorek Izsak.

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

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

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

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

“Traitor.”

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

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

“You did not startle me.”

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

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

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

***

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

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

That was true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Praise?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that something Talib has said?”

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

Jericho stiffened under her gaze.

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

Jericho accepted the journal.

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

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

Olivier was.

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

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

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

“Traitor.”

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

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

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

White. ELPIS.

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

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

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


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

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

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

6b: Crimson Volition

Re-cap:

The Watch has been stopped. Wtorek Izsak has been revealed to be affiliated with ELPIS and has been apprehended by Gabrielle Law. Due to the efforts of the swindler, the soldier, the chieftain’s daughter, the pirate,  the peacekeeper, and the prince himself, the prince has survived. They have survived. But questions and choices still need to be made. It is time to move on forward.

Olive felt like he’d been picked up by a whirlwind, tossed around in the air for the better part of a week, and then gently placed back down onto the ground as if all was in order. Everything fell into place the next couple of weeks after the Watch’s attack so perfectly that Olive couldn’t help but feel unnerved.

Gabrielle and Jericho left a week after the incident with Izsak in cuffs. Other Ophiuchian Agents, including Leona and Talib, arrived to apprehend the remaining members of the Watch and to bring them in for questioning. Samuel and the other guards present during the attack were making a recovery at the hospital. Olive had visited them for the most part during the stay, but as soon as they were well enough to make lengthy conversation, he stopped visiting.

Trystan was released from prison and was re-offered his position, but he declined the offer. Meanwhile, the feudal lord heading the Ariesian Investigation Bureau was called into questioning in his place. Olive figured that if he looked hard enough, he might find poetic justice in there somewhere. 

Olive learned from Cadence that the Romano Family and the Foxmans were working with Ophiuchus to find out exactly what else Verga had been shipping for ELPIS. Ricardo and the Foxmans had also rented out Matilda and her crew’s services. They were delivery men again, although they now transported conductor parts from facility to facility instead of whole conductors to civilians. It was stupid, Olive had thought, for them all to end up right back where they started. 

“That’s how the city works,” Cadence answered with a shrug as she attended the party celebrating the new partnership. “They had nowhere else to go anyways. Rinse and repeat.”

In the middle of a toast at the aforementioned party, Francis had coyly offered to Cadence a packet of normal cigarettes and a bottle of wine.  But after casting a glance in Olive’s direction, Cadence accepted only the wine.

Werner appeared to be ending on a slightly more positive note. After extensive interviews from Ophiuchian Agents and Capricornian officials, it was decided that Werner acted appropriately in the situation regarding Ersatz and ELPIS and that he was uninvolved with Ersatz’s plan. A statement by the Aquarian Captain Dunya Kramer also proved his and his division’s innocence. The Capricornian government was ruled to be involved in the ELPIS machinations as well.

Major Ersatz had survived the battle and was brought to Ophiuchus to be detained and questioned about his ELPIS involvement. He was given a dishonorable discharge by Capricorn, and the Watch was dismantled shortly after—per order of Ophiuchus. Werner was revered as a hero and given temporary leave, which he extended to the rest of his division.

The Ophiuchians also mediated the border conflict, and it was resolved with the vitae reservoir being declared as belonging within Capricornian borders. There were reparations to be made on both sides. Gilbert had derised the swiftness of it all and had something akin to “if it was solved that easily then why fight over it to begin with” to which Olive couldn’t help but agree. 

Soon after that, a new combat medic was introduced to Werner’s division. His placement was followed by a sudden influx of weaponized conductors. The oddity was questioned by common soldiers but remained unquestioned by high-ranking officers. On the surface the medic’s responsibilities seemed to merely be tending to the injuries of those within the division. However, his true responsibility lay in acting as a liaison between “the Capricornian army and certain organizations in Gemini” or so stated the official documentation Werner received a week prior to the medic’s arrival.

Cadence was worried, but they all knew Werner was reliable. Nico would be fine.

Maria’s side was surprisingly more subdued. Her ship had been quiet and empty since Olive’s incident. She pulled back into Pollux Bay a few days following the event, and the Foxmans greeted her warmly, much to the surprise of Morandi and his men. After hearing about her circumstances from Conta, the Foxmans offered her the services of Morandi and his men with condolences. Although there was some resistance at first, a flash of Geminian cens sealed the deal for Morandi’s group. They set out to sea the very next day.

When Olive asked what Maria’s goal really was on a stormy night at sea, she had laughed and said, “There was only one moment when I was not in control of my life, and I am in the search of the person responsible for it.” When he asked why in the world she would chase after someone like that, she simply responded with her usual ‘why not?’ Olive didn’t think he’d ever understand Maria.

Atienna’s conclusion made a bit more sense to Olive. Virgo ended its isolation two weeks after Usian’s arrest. Atienna’s father, however, resigned from the Tribal Council and stepped down as chieftain of the Imamu Tribe. Bachiru was upset, but Atienna thought it was for the best. She was planning to take a step forward, after all. Not as chieftain, of course. That responsibility was for someone else more worthy. Now that Virgo was ready to reach out to the world again, a diplomatic party needed to be formed to interact with the other countries. And Atienna was determined to have a foot in it. Despite the strength of her words, however, Olive could feel the falter through the link that they shared. He decided not to address the matter. 

Atienna herself spent quite some time researching the meanings behind ‘syzygy’ and ‘True Conductor’, but it seemed as if without a Conducting License she could barely scratch the surface of anything. How ELPIS and Leona knew of these words was also a mystery. And since there were so many dangerous unknowns involved, the six of them agreed to keep their connection under the table until they figured out how to resolve it. This agreement occurred following Atienna’s long-winded proposal, of course.

A small resolution came with Claire as well. With the conclusion of the Capricornian-Aquarian border conflict and the promise of reparations, Claire graciously returned home. But not after solidifying Sagittarian-Ariesian relations with the king and queen and then insisting that he and Olive become pen-pals during the same meeting. No tact at all, or perhaps too much tact. Olive had declined the offer point-blank in front of his aunt, uncle, and the feudal lords. Of course, Claire had just laughed the entire ordeal off.

While Olive’s personal relations did not seem to improve much, Olive discovered that Jericho’s relations did.

When Jericho returned to Ophiuchus, he did his best to avoid the commotion that came with his mission completion. The mystery of what had unfolded was the new buzz of the Serpens Establishment, and wiithin the first few days of his return, Jericho was approached by over a dozen peacekeepers pressing him for details. Thankfully, the ELPIS Department made a statement on Leona’s disappearance and Izsak’s involvement not long after.

According to the report, Leona had been ambushed by ELPIS after a fellow peacekeeper disclosed her location to them. A traitor to the upstanding, philanthropic Romano organization of the Twin Cities was then tasked by ELPIS to handle her imprisonment, but the traitor was discovered by the organization and was dealt with swiftly. Meanwhile, Leona managed to break free of her captors and successfully stopped the assassination of the Ariesian prince. The assassination was orchestrated by a recently ELPIS-converted Capricornian major with the assistance of the aforementioned peacekeeper. There was no mention of Maria’s ship.

Talk about paintin’ a pretty picture, Cadence thought as Atienna read the article in the newspaper. Not givin’ credit where credit is due.

The traitorous peacekeeper involved in the assassination attempt and Leona’s capture, the ELPIS Department elaborated, went by the name of Izsak Wtorek. A Taurusian who had served in Ophiuchus since its founding. Izsak was believed to have been under the influence of a Manipulator Conductor and was currently undergoing treatment in Ophiuchus through the Medical Department and the Psychological Evaluations Department.

Jericho and Talib’s names were mentioned only briefly at the end of the article. When pressed by Cadence, Jericho informed the group that he felt neither pleasure nor displeasure at this.

Shortly after the article was published, Talib invited Jericho to a party to celebrate a successful case closed and led Jericho into an office at the very back of the Serpens Establishment.

Within the office, Gabrielle sat at a desk with Alice Kingsley at her right and the pink-haired Ferris at her left. On a couch in the room sat three men and two women. All assessed Jericho with differing expressions upon his entrance.

“How would you like being my minion?” Gabrielle had asked, extending a hand. “I’m planning to become head chair of Ophiuchus and bring real peace to Signum, and I could really use someone like you on my team. You have a thing against ELPIS, right? Well, if you work with me, I can get you to them.”

Truly, a terrible personality.

Even so, Jericho accepted Gabrielle’s hand.

And with that, an entire month passed by.

Now Olive found himself kneeling before his uncle and aunt in the throne room of the royal palace. He had bowed upon entering and remained prostrate despite their insistence that he stand.

The red of the carpet below his feet was nostalgic. Almost alluring. Beckoning him to stay. To reconsider. To return to how things were before—skipping classes at the university, watching council meetings with disinterest, escaping to Marta’s shop to sleep for hours. It really was tempting. An easier way. Drifting through days with indifference.

But—

Mustering all of his courage, Olive lifted his gaze from the carpet to his aunt and uncle.

“I’ve decided to take the State Conducting Exam.”

Both his aunt and uncle beamed.

“That’s wonderful, Olive!” Terra hummed. “Now that this is over with, you can return to the university and—”

“I’m going to study on my own,” Olive said. “I’m leaving the Capital.”

“What?”

“Olivier, you can’t—”

There was a flicker of black out of the corner of his eye. Not any of the others. Lavi.

“I don’t care if it looks like I’m running away. If I stay here, I’ll fall back into the same patterns over and over again. I won’t change,” Olive continued, rising to a stand. “I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, and I’ll never be able to repay you. I know it seems selfish of me leaving like this, but I have to take responsibility.”

His uncle and aunt remained silent. There was disappointment in their eyes. But he could live with that. Letting out a small breath, Olive turned away from them and exited the chambers with his sister following right behind.

“My brother’s been looking weirdly determined recently. Usually, I’d think that’s a bad thing but he looks kinda cool so maybe it’s a good thing this time.

Lavender Chance, unknown time

6a: Chance Ignition

Re-cap:

The Capricornian Watch, and the truth behind the assassination. Yuseong Haneul. Lavi Chance. 

Prince Olivier Chance’s mind is swirling with these recent revelations and with everything he has revealed to the others about that tragedy six years ago. Meanwhile, peacekeeper Wtorek Izsak has disappeared after making a mysterious, startling discovery. Unbeknownst to Olive, a spark has ignited and New Ram City braces itself for the flame.

New Ram City, Aries

“Run and hide.” That was what Werner said right after admitting he knew of the secret Capricornian organization behind Olive’s assassination attempt. Ten out of ten. Still, there had been regret in the man’s eyes and guilt too. And…

It was weird feeling concern coming from that man. A Capricornian soldier who executed people without a second thought.

No. Olive knew the situation wasn’t as black and white as that. It had just been easier for Olive to think of people that way. It made rejecting people easier, which made it easier for people to keep their distance. No loss for either party. But Olive wouldn’t be able to do that now. He wouldn’t be able to reject and run away. Not with this connection. Not with the others.

He still felt raw and exposed from his earlier outburst, and part of him just wanted to bury his head beneath the ground. The embarrassment was almost too much. Sleeping forever and forgetting all about this—it’d be easier if he just did that. Even better if he just disappeare—

Olive stopped the thought before it fully formed. He focused on the road ahead. It was a dusty, dirt road reaching from the mansion gates to the royal palace. As he glanced between the iron bars to the palace that was no bigger than his fist in the distance, he realized how isolated it truly was. The only people who travelled this path were maids, butlers, and guards coming and leaving work. Occasionally a merchant cart would roll by selling goods, and Olive could see one approaching them on the road now. Nowadays, merchant carts visited the mansion more often than his aunt and uncle. So, in reality, this place had been home for Olive alone. A fact he hadn’t noticed before.

Olive turned his head and glanced at Samuel beside him. The guard was conversing with the other guards posted at the gate. They were marveling at the v-ehicle they had pulled in from the palace. Olive had to resist rolling his eyes.

Fifteen minutes earlier, Olive had informed Samuel he had found a lead on the assassination plot. But Samuel didn’t seem alarmed by his information. Samuel’s casualness was most likely linked to Olive’s past unreliability. Even still, the guards were so casual about the entire affair that for a moment Olive felt he’d been overreacting about the entire thing. Werner did seem the type to over-worry anyway. It was ridiculous—Werner worrying about this when the man had just barely made it out of a battle alive. Really—

Before Olive even finished the thought, an arrow whizzed right past his head and ricocheted off of the iron bars behind him. Olive turned his head in confusion and found a familiar arrow resting on the ground at his feet.

He looked up. The traveling cart that he’d seen only a moment before was parked right across the road. A man dressed in a chef’s uniform and wielding a conducting bow peered out from behind the cart. A handful of people Olive recognized from his days spent wandering the Ariesian markets were beside him. Shop owners. Customers. Beggars. All holding conductors.

“Forward! Forward! Forward!” They spoke Capricornian.

There was a flash of periwinkle light.

“Your highness!”

Samuel rushed at him.

There was a burst of blue, and they both flew backward to the ground. The world spun. Olive’s ears rang.

Shaking off his stupor, Olive lifted his head. The blast had sent him back onto mansion grounds. The gates were now twisted and bent out of shape. He scanned the area around him and froze. Samuel was beside him. Unmoving.

No. Not again.

Olive stumbled to Samuel’s side but was abruptly jerked backward by a hand around his wrist. His heart leapt to his throat before he realized who it was. Cadence. Even though he knew she wasn’t actually there, he could feel her fingernails digging into his wrist.

“Hey, your highness, their job is ta put down their lives for ya, yeah?” Cadence pressed. “Don’t go wastin’ their efforts.”

“Bu—”

“Those guys are here for you, kid! If ya wanna play hero, then ya should be gettin’ as far away from them as possible!”

Olive stiffened.

She was right.

He started toward the gate but stumbled back when he saw a cluster of the Watch blocking his path. Inside was the only way. But there were non-Conductors within the mansion. He needed to warn them.

Olive sprinted into the mansion and was met with perplexed looks from workers and guards alike. “Intruders!” He snapped. “Run! All of you!”

The mansion guards rushed to the door without hesitation, while maids and butlers scrambled away. A guard shoved Olive back and ordered him to climb the stairs.

Before Olive could argue, a ray of vitae blasted through the window next to the door and sent out fragments of wood and glass.

Olive’s ears rang.

Run.

Olive clambered to his feet and darted up the stairwell behind him.

He could hear them following. The stomp, stomp, stomp of their steady footsteps. Their panting breaths. Their shouts in Capricornian. He just barely managed to duck as a bullet ricocheted off the wall behind him. As he reached the last step, his foot caught on the rug beneath him. He face-planted on the floor before scrambling to his knees. He lifted his head and turned to a Capricornian pointing a rifle at his face.

“Pathetic,” came the accented Common.

Olive scoffed despite the fear. “I may be pathetic, but wouldn’t that make you—the person who’s trying to kill someone as pathetic as me—even more pathetic?”

A grimace. “Die, prince.”

Atienna appeared before Olive and guided his hand up to grab the Capricornian’s wrist. The man froze in confusion and Atienna used the opportunity to make Olive flip the man backwards and kick him in the face. The gun clattered to Olive’s side before the man tumbled down the stairwell. A handful of the Capricornians rushing up the stairs stepped to the side as the man fell, while others further went down to assess the damage.

“Keep going, Olive!” Atienna said before flickering out from his vision.

Olive grabbed the gun and ran down the hall. He ducked as a bright green ray of vitae whistled just above his head. He stumbled again and rolled, scrambling around a corner. He remained there for half a second to catch his breath, only to be startled as a vitae bolt barely missed the top of his head and gouged a hole in the wall above. Plaster rained down onto his hair and into his eyes. Taking a deep breath and gagging on the dust that clouded the air, Olive wiped his eyes and peered around the corner.

The Ariesian guards were holding off the Watch. Both sides were struggling. Projectors taking advantage of Conjurers on both ends. Elementalists blasting through them. Their numbers appeared even.

But Capricornians are more combat-ready. That is fact. Even after War’s end, they’ve been heavily trained. Many have seen real battle at the southern border with Argo.

As if to highlight this, a Capricornian Projector’s vitae bolt shot through the shoulder of an Ariesian flame Elementalist who had just gained the upper hand against a Capricornian Conjurer.

Olive bit his lip, heart hammering. He had to help. Somehow. He couldn’t be useless.

Werner appeared then, synchronizing in front of him with absolute clarity.

“Chance, calm down,” came Werner’s voice. He crouched down to Olive’s eye level. The man’s eyes were cold. Calm. He wrapped his hand around Olive’s own, which wielded the gun. “May I?”

Olive nodded.

Werner moved to cover Olive’s eyes with his other hand.

There was a silence in the darkness, then a handful of cracks. Shots fired.

The hand was removed from Olive’s eyes. A number of Capricornians were now on the floor cradling their legs. Confused Ariesian guards stood over them.

“One centimeter off,” Werner clicked his tongue. He turned to Olive. “I merely incapacitated them. I won’t kill another Capricornian. I’m only aiding you because your death will harm Capricorn.”

Uh.

“But I apologize that I didn’t inform you of this sooner. I have put you and Capricorn in unnecessary harm.” After a moment of staring, he said, “What are you doing? Run.”

Olive swallowed, nodded, ran. He stumbled down the hall and clambered up the next staircase before reaching the top floor. It was simply attic space, containing a handful of crates and valuables and a large open window at the end.

This had been a terrible idea.

Abruptly Maria appeared before him. Olive startled in surprise.

“Ollie, you are afraid, yes?” Maria asked. “I think I understand.”

“This really isn’t the time to be realizing your character development,” Olive snapped, whipping his head around toward the staircase. He could hear them coming up now. How many of them were there? Werner had listed some large number earlier, but Olive was in no state of mind to recall it.

“Do you trust me, Olive?”

Olive turned his head back to Maria.

Trust. That was a strong word. But…

“I guess…”

Without warning, Maria took his and guided him—

“Wha—”

—right out the window.

As the open sky rushed past Olive, his only thought was that he should have expected this from someone like Maria. The earth mocked him as he hurtled down toward it.

Olive squeezed his eyes shut and braced for impact but was abruptly jerked backward by a hand around the arm. At first, he thought it was one of the others, but then realized that would be impossible. Olive opened his eyes. The ground danced only inches below his dangling feet. Mocking again. He looked up. A hand was wrapped around his wrist. A familiar hand.

It was Claire. No, Haneul. Floating in midair on a staff. Wind sparkling with sapphire specs of light whistled out from the holes beneath the center of the staff.

“Y-You! Haneul!” Olive stammered as he dangled from Haneul’s grip. “You are a Conductor! What else have you lied about?!”

“That’s what you want to talk about?!” Haneul exclaimed. “And it’s still Claire!” With that, he pulled Olive up onto the staff. “Why do I always find you in situations where you’re running from something—”

He was cut off as a ray of vitae hurtled toward them from the window. He grabbed ahold of Olive’s shirt and blasted them out of the ray’s trajectory and up into the sky with a gust of wind. They whistled forward like an arrow, and the city flitted past them in smears of reds and browns. The wind whipped at Olive’s face, stinging his cheeks and his eyes, and the city blurred further with his involuntary tears.

“We have to get help! The royal palace!” Olive shouted. “Samuel and the other guard—”

“They’ll be waiting for you! Disguised! I need to keep you away from them! Trust me!”

He’s right.

“You haven’t exactly proven yourself to be trustworthy!”

“Yes, yes, I get it,” Claire sighed. “I’m actually a prince. I lied. I’m sorry. Seriously, I am. But honestly, I didn’t just approach you just because you were the Ariesian Prince. You’re actually a pretty okay person to hang out with.” He glanced at Olive. His eyes were remorseful but determined—although Olive wasn’t sure how much of either of those emotions were true. “Still, I would do it again. For my country.”

“And you said that I didn’t seem like a prince…”

“Well, I’m nothing special. There’s a prince or princess for each clan in Sagittarius. It’s actually pretty complicate—”

“Where are we going?” Olive asked as he realized their trajectory. They were heading to the city walls. “You’re going in the opposite direction of the royal palace! We have to—”

Claire remained silent before leaning forward and dipping the nose of the staff down. The air rushing them lessened and became almost pleasant as they descended. Eventually, their descent led them to an area along the city’s wall undergoing construction. There was a deep hole there in the wall—an unhealed scar from the War—and a wooden platform strung up by a rope alongside it for construction. Waiting for them on the platform were Claire’s masked vassals. Olive tensed as he saw them and recalled the night he had first met Claire.

“My lord!” the white mask exclaimed as they hovered on the conductor beside the platform. “What is going on? Why are you not at the royal palace—”

“The assassins have come,” Claire said. “I’m taking Olive away from the city. I want you and Felix to go to the royal palace and inform them that I have the prince in my custody.”

So this was another political ploy then.

At least he’s helping ya, kid.

“But, my lord,” the wooden-mask—Felix—objected. “Shouldn’t one of us come with you? What if they have an air Elementalist Conductor among them?”

“It’d be too heavy to carry someone else,” Claire sighed. “Besides, Capricornian Elementalist Conductors are rare.”

“Yeah, if you ignore the one who fired the flaming arrow,” Olive scoffed.

“The insolence!” Abruptly, Felix stepped forward threateningly. “My Lord, allow me to cut out his tongue!”

“A good way to kickstart an international incident,” Olive said with disinterest.

“Yeah, don’t do that.” Claire waved Felix off.

The man immediately stiffened. “B-But—”

“We’re going now. Be swift,” Claire ordered with an air of finality. The light and easygoing tone he had been using earlier had dissipated. His dark eyes were sharp and harsh—almost like Werner’s.

Felix tensed and then bowed his head.

With that, Claire kicked them back up to the sky. They ascended in a blur and burst above the clouds. The city was barely visible from this height, and the sun’s already unbearable rays whipped out mercilessly without the cover of the clouds. “I’m going to exit on the opposite side of the wall to throw off the Watch,” Claire continued as he moved them forward.

Olive frowned and watched as the city streamed underneath them. “Hey… even if there’s a second motive for why you’re helping me… thank you.”

Claire glanced back at him and smiled.

“I’m not talking to you,” Olive clarified.

Claire arched a brow before shook his head and chuckled. “Hold on to me.”

“What?” Olive frowned, peeling away. “Why?”

“In case you pass out,” Claire supplied. “The air is thinner up here. I’m used to it but—”

He was cut off as an arrow whistled out from below and knocked him right off the staff. Olive barely had time to discern where the arrow had come from before they were both in free fall.

“Claire!” Olive shouted as they tumbled through the open sky. He reached for the Sagittarian and just barely grabbed a hold of him.

His conductor!

The wind whipped at his eyes, but Olive blinked the tears away as he searched the skyline for Claire’s conductor. There. Only a centimeter away from his hand. How lucky. He grabbed it and fought the wind to bring it to Claire’s chest. “Claire!”

Claire’s eyes fluttered open and widened. He wrapped his fingers around his conductor and sent a burst of air out of it just as they were about to hit the ground of the bazaar below. But they were still too low. They crashed through a fruit stall in the marketplace before tumbling across the pavement.

Screams filled the air. Olive ignored them, wiped off the fruit juices that had splattered onto his face, and turned to Claire who lay beside him. The Sagittarian’s brows were furrowed in pain, and he gripped his shoulder where the arrow protruded. The arrow was still surrounded in flame-like vitae.

“The vitae’s spreading,” Olive realized in horror. “We need to get you to a Transmutationist.”

The guards ringed around them.

“Isn’t that the prince…?” one of them whispered uncertainly.

“Assassins!” Olive snapped for the fifth time that day. “We’re under attack! Evacuate the civilians!”

The guards barely had the time to exchange looks before a deep green vitae bolt exploded the flower stall next to them. Splinters shot out, petals fluttered, bystanders shouted and scattered.

Across the street, four Capricornians emerged from a dark alleyway. Two ducked behind the fallen stalls and pulled out long-ranged conductors: three rifles, one bow. The other two charged the Ariesian guards who had also drawn out their conductors amidst the chaos. There was a pause as the guards and the assassins locked eyes, then a flurry of dizzying light.

Four guards. Four Capricornians.

Another flurry of light.

A pottery stall imploded just feet away, sending shards of clay and ceramic cracking against the walls of nearby buildings.

Two guards. Three Capricornians.

Another flurry of light—

A dark green vitae bolt tore through the extended brick roof of a bakery, and a rain of blasted brick cometed the dusty square. The debris floated down into a soup shop just below it and knocked a steel pot right off of its nesting place above a fire. Its contents spilled across the ground and lapped at the feet of the two Conductors remaining.

One Ariesian guard. One Capricornian assassin.

The Capricornian who remained was the bow wielder. As the guards closed in around him, the assassin abandoned his bow for a melee conductor hanging at his hip. He ignited the weapon and produced a blade of vitae flames. The remaining Ariesian guard, a Conjurer, produced a haphazard sword that locked with the Capricornian’s blade. But the Capricornian’s sword was blazing, and the Ariesian’s began to melt against the heat. Globules of molten metal dribbled from the point of contact onto the ground.

Just as the Ariesian was about to collapse beneath the weight of the other’s sword, a bang rang out from the alley. A gunshot. The Capricornian fell to the ground. Relief spread over the Ariesian guard’s face as he squinted into the shadows of the alleyway. A figure stepped out.

A monochrome uniform and a white sash. It was—

“Mr. Wtorek…!” Olive sighed in relief. He turned to Claire who was still tense beside him. “It’s okay. He’s Gabrielle’s partner. Gabrielle’s the one who was in the throne room.”

The Ariesian guard approached Izsak while clutching his conjured blade like it was a lifeline. “Sir, I don’t know how many are left but they appear to be Capri—” The guard was cut off as Izsak brought up his gloved hand to the man’s mouth. “Sir—”

There was a bright flash of light at the base of Izsak’s glove conductor followed by a squelching sound that Olive found vaguely familiar. It was a sound that echoed within Werner’s and Jericho’s memories. A terrible sound.

The Ariesian guard stiffened, then went limp. Izsak released the man from his grip, and the man hit the ground spluttering. Protruding from the guard’s mouth was a mass of barbed wire.

“M-Mr. Wtorek?”

Get away from him.

Olive wasn’t quite sure which of the others had shouted it, and he couldn’t see any of them either. He wished he could. This didn’t make any sense.

Izsak coolly stepped over his victim before flicking his wrist. There was another flash of light, and a circular shape formed at his palm. But Olive was entranced by something else.

White. It was white.

Izsak’s vitae.

It was a pure white.

It didn’t make any sense. How—

Damn, Jericho was right, came Cadence’s thought. Everything really is ELPIS. But isn’t this guy your peacekeepin’ pal? Why would he—

What—

Grenade.

Werner’s thought sharply cut through Olive’s horror. Izsak casually dropped the conjured grenade and watched as it rolled to a stop a few feet away from Olive’s foot.

Olive grabbed Claire by the scruff and threw him backward before leaping away himself. It was a pretty useless and pathetic attempt. It probably wouldn’t have mattered whether he had made the escape attempt or not. But screw it, he thought. After all of the efforts the others had made to ensure his survival, he figured it would be even more pathetic if he didn’t try anything.

The grenade detonated, sending both Claire and Olive flying through the air.

Olive was thrown back into another stall. In the dazed confusion that followed, it took him a second to comprehend the colors that surrounded him: the flash of a blue bed sheet, the cotton plush from a mattress, and the red silk of a carefully woven blanket. By some means of ridiculous luck, he had been sent crashing into a stall that sold bedroom furniture.

A large tarp fell over his head from behind, and he fought against it for a panicked minute before he broke through the surface. Feathers from imploded pillows fluttered down around him obscuring the skyline. He stumbled over a bundle of silken pillowcases before tripping over a body. Claire. Olive darted to the Sagittarian’s side and shook him hard. Claire only groaned.

Olive opened his mouth to snap at him only to get a mouthful of feathers. He spat and gagged and spat again.

Pay attention.

Olive froze and looked up.

Out from the storm of fluttering white stepped Izsak Wtorek. His glasses were gone. And without them, he looked unnatural as he stood before the backdrop of raining feathers. In the man’s left hand was another grenade and in his right was a conjured pistol which he pointed in Olive’s direction.

“M-Mr. Wtorek, w-what—”

The man’s finger pressed down on the trigger of the gun.

Olive kicked up the thin blue mattress lying at his feet. He wasn’t quite sure if he had done it on instinct or if one of the others had overridden him to do it. Regardless, he was grateful for the mattress that exploded in place of his head.

Olive stumbled to his feet, grabbed Claire by the arm, and pulled him out of the mound of blankets, pillows, and mattresses. He tripped and stumbled and cursed with every step. Claire’s added weight paired with the sweltering Ariesian sun made the fatigue building in his legs almost unbearable.

“You’re so. Heavy,” Olive panted as he dragged the Sagittarian to the corner of the street. He was half-tempted to just leave Claire there. He was a two-faced bastard, after all. But Olive knew he wouldn’t be able to live with himself, so he continued pulling and panting.

Olive barely managed to drag Claire to the mouth of the alleyway before another grenade casually rolled to a stop an inch away from his foot. Without thinking, Olive kicked the thing as hard as he could. It flew a couple feet in the air before it erupted into flames and smoke.

The blast wave sent Olive into and through another stall that featured mechanical parts and accessories. There was no mattress to break his fall this time around. And Olive began to feel knob-like bruises pulsating at his rib cage where he had landed awkwardly on a small generator conductor. His ears rang, his body ached. His hands were sticky with a black substance.

Get up, Chance. Get up.

No. He couldn’t. It hurt.

Get up, Olive!

Olive bit his lip and pushed himself up. He stumbled over the remnants of the stall in front of him and assessed his surroundings. A canister filled with a black substance to his left. A couple of stray metal parts, an insulating tube, and a kick-starter were scattered hazardously across the ground.

But where was Claire?

There—only a couple feet away. And only a couple inches from Claire: Izsak. Izsak who was approaching Claire with his conjured pistol.

No.

Olive desperately scanned the area for anything he could use.

Not again.

This didn’t make sense.

The pieces didn’t fit. His thoughts didn’t either. Blurs of the past and the present. Heat from an unstoppable fire in his mind’s eye—heat from the sun whipping down from above his head. A memory. A reality.

And the reality was that Olive couldn’t let Claire die. Not when Claire had risked his life for him. Even if Claire was a dirty politician, even if Claire was just like the feudal lords who had whispered things behind his back after the Tragedy.

Olive knew that even with everything the other five had told him just that morning, he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if Claire died. But he couldn’t let himself die either.

There was only one way. He didn’t know how to control it, but he would have to.

Olive reached down for the canister filled with the black substance and threw its contents onto the peacekeeper. Izsak lifted his hand in surprise as a strip of oil painted him half black.

Sorry Izsak. Sorry Izsak. Sorry Izsak.

Olive repeated the endless mantra in his head as nausea and terror built up in his stomach.

Control it. Small.

Olive extended his hand out, and sparks erupted at his fingertips. Izsak’s eyes widened just as a stream of fire raced right toward him. The fire ate up the oil trail leading up to the man and consumed him in an instant. Smoke clouded the air.

Stop, Chance. You’ll exhaust your vitae reserves!

It was too late. The flames at his fingers died.

Olive’s head spun, and he felt faint. He staggered to the ground, squinting up past the smoke as it peeled away with a breeze that drifted through. The acrid smell still made him sick. But not as sick as he felt when he realized what he’d just done. Hot bile climbed up his throat, and he heaved onto the floor before wiping his mouth.

Kid, ya had to.

He rejected this thought and forced himself to look up.

Standing in the place Izsak had been was a large metal shield singed at its center. Out from behind that shield stepped Izsak, coated in the oil but perfectly unharmed.

Olive felt both relief and horror. The relief faded as Izsak’s gaze focused on him. The man approached Olive with purpose. There was no light in his eyes, and Olive knew from Cadence and Werner’s end that there was an intent to kill glistening there.

No. He couldn’t die. Not when all of their lives were tied to his. Not when Lavi was—

Olive scrambled backward desperately.

Izsak came to a stop a foot away from him.

“M-Mr. Wtorek…” Olive stammered wide-eyed. “Why…?”

Izsak stared holes into him. “What you did just proves it. You really are one of them.” He reached forward—and for a stupid moment, Olive thought that the man was going to offer him a cuff on the shoulder and shout ‘just kidding!’ Instead, the man wrapped his glove conductor around Olive’s throat.

Tears pricked Olive’s eyes as he scratched at the Izsak’s hand. He couldn’t breathe. Suffocating. Throat-crushing. A pressure. Just like that time six years ago.

“A saint candidate—no. You’re one of the connected. A True Conductor.” Izsak’s eyes seemed to glow white as his grip tightened. “You can’t be allowed to live… The Tragedy of Aries. You should have died then.”

Something inside Olive’s chest crumpled at the words and he felt tears prick his eyes. Olive wasn’t sure whether the tears were from the man’s words or from the fact that he was on his last breath.

“If the syzygy happens, then—”

—and from nowhere a black suitcase cracked against Izsak’s head, sending the man stumbling away. Olive fell to the ground and gasped for air. He rubbed his throat and looked up. Standing in Izsak’s place was Jericho, suitcase and all.

Olive felt the fear gripping his stomach release. “How—”

“I regained consciousness,” Jericho explained. “Doctor Fabrizzio Senior’s treatment.”

“I can see that…”

“The ELPIS initiates in the cargo warehouse are in custody. They informed me that the ELPIS leader went to Aries. Capital city. Intuition.”

Olive nodded slowly.

“Atienna convinced… me to abandon the ELPIS initiates. To come to you. Talib is at the port in Gemini to pick up Leona. Now I’m here.” He paused in thought. “Without jurisdiction. Off mission. Doctor Kingsley will yell at me.” Jericho clicked open his suitcase and turned toward Izsak, who was just rising to his feet.

Olive tensed.

A familiar, nightmarish-looking stuffed animal popped out from Jericho’s suitcase first and fell to the ground. Izsak stared at it for a moment before returning his attention to Jericho, who had pulled out a slim, cylindrical conductor from his briefcase.

“Wtorek Izsak,” Jericho said, activating his conductor with a flick of his wrist. “I’m apprehending you for involvement with ELPIS.” He glanced at Olive and Claire. “For making an attempt on the lives of the Ariesian and Sagittarian princes.”

Light spilled out from Jericho conductor’s tip forming the shape of a whip. The color. Pure white. It was blinding just looking at it.

“So you’re the traitor that Omicron was talking about,” Izsak said as he observed the conductor. “The traitor she met in Gemini.” He glanced at Olive. “The fact that you knew to come here means that you’re connected to him. You are a True Conductor too.”

Olive could barely grasp what was happening.

Why was Izsak…? Why was Jericho’s vitae color…?

Jericho’s past was hazy to Olive, but he had seen flashes of it. Memories of rolling sandy dunes, of a person in a white cloak extending a hand, of the very same hand offering a pat on the head as Jericho pulled the trigger on a trembling young Conductor.

You were indoctrinated into ELPIS when you were young… came Atienna’s realization that was filled with a wave of sympathy.

“Yes,” Jericho affirmed. “But I am here now to eliminate them.”

Jericho swung his conductor, and it hurtled out toward Izsak’s side. Izsak quickly conjured a thick pipe to block it. The whip wound around the pipe’s body. Izsak glanced at it with disinterest. Disinterest quickly morphed into surprise as white cracks appeared along the steel. Izsak released the pipe just as it crumbled to dust.

“You’re a Specialist,” Izsak realized.

“Stay back,” Jericho said as he threw Olive a look over his shoulder. “I am able to break apart vitae particles with my conductor.”

“You could’ve told me that before you swung that thing!” Olive snapped as he struggled to a stand. “Something isn’t right. You know Izsak… This is…”

Jericho’s glowing white whip straightened into a blade and Jericho quickly thrust it in Izsak’s direction. Izsak barely managed to dodge the jab, but he did not make it out untouched. The blade caught onto his Ophiuchian band which disintegrated in an instant. In a split second, the white blade of the sword splintered and shot out in all directions.

Rather than a whip or a sword, it seemed formless.

One of the splinters pierced Izsak’s leg, but the man quickly ripped himself away from it.

Not in long enough, came Jericho’s thought. He then recalled the splinters of light back with a flick of his conductor. The next moment he was charging at a crouching Izsak who was nursing his leg. Jericho transformed his vitae into a blade and raised it high.

Wait! This doesn’t make sense. Mr. Wtorek is—

Jericho hesitated.

Izsak took the opportunity to roll out from beneath him. He rose to his feet and glowered at them. “I’m outmatched,” he confirmed. “But I can’t allow you to live. Your existence is unnatural.” With that he brought up his hand and conjured an object.

A conducting grenade. A whole handful of them.

Get away—

A great wave of heat exploded out from the alleyway and a torrent of magenta flames enveloped Izsak’s hand. The man let out a yelp before ripping off his glove conductors that were beginning to melt in the oil-fueled heat. Before he or Olive or Jericho could react, Gabrielle burst out from the alley and tackled Izsak to the ground. The two Ophiuchians tousled around, throwing punches and kicks and snarls. Eventually, Gabrielle managed to deliver a well-aimed crack to Izsak’s jaw which dazed him. Grimacing, she hoisted herself up on top of the man and pinned his hands behind his back with an unreadable expression.

“Stay down, Wtorek,” she whispered.

Izsak struggled a bit more before going limp.

“We were just informed of the Watch by the Capricornian military. It’s a special-ops group of theirs that’s been given orders by a dissenting officer,” Gabrielle panted as she studied Izsak’s face. “Half of the royal guards have been dispatched around the city and are cleaning them out. The order from the Kaiser has been sent out for Watch members to ceasefire.”

As if on cue, the square became flooded with Ariesian guards. Some rushed to the fallen guards while others rushed to aid Gabrielle, civilians, Olive. Medical Conductors and palace guards surrounded him and barraged him with a flurry of questions.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Olive snapped, waving them away. “The others need more help than me. Samuel at the mansion and…” Claire.

Claire was attended by several Ariesian guards and had been joined by his vassals, who were frantically shouting at the Ariesians in Sagittarian. Claire appeared more amused at the situation than anything else.

Their eyes met. Claire cracked him a grin and gave him a thumbs up. Olive glared and looked away. Jericho was still standing beside him, staring holes into Izsak.

“You okay?” Olive eyed Jericho’s conductor which he had deactivated as soon as Gabrielle had burst through the alley.

Jericho blinked at him. “Yes.”

They stared at each other for a long while before Olive bent down to pick up the fallen stuffed animal off the floor. He stared at Izsak for a beat, felt something crumple in his chest, before he handed the plush to Jericho.

They stood in awkward silence.

Jericho asked, “Hug. Would that be customary?”

Saints. Jericho was weird.

“No.”

What a terrible week.

Specialist: a Conductor who does not fall into one of the five general conducting-type categories. Their ability to utilize vitae ranges with each manner of utilization vastly different from the next. There is still not much known about them as they consist of only 1% of the Conductor population.

Conducting 101 by L.B. Ran

5.1: Chance Rejection

Re-cap:

Olive Chance, guided by Cadence, Atienna, and Werner, and aided by Claire, has managed to gather evidence proving that the arrested Trystan Carter is not the one behind the assassination attempt through the use of a vitae spectrophotometer. All he needs to do is find the right moment to present the evidence—the three samples—to the king and queen, but… 

New Ram City, Aries

Olive’s walk back to the royal palace was oddly filled with thoughts of Maria. He could only faintly see her in his mind’s eye. In a dark and dim cell with hands cuffed in chains, Maria sat without a smile. The very sight of her was unnerving. Betrayal must hurt.

When Olive finally made it back to the palace, he was greeted by Samuel and the other guard who had escorted him there.

“Your highness!” Samuel exclaimed. “Where have you been?”

“I—”

“The king and queen request your presence immediately.”

* * *

When Olive entered the throne room, he was immediately ushered into his chair beside his uncle and aunt’s thrones. They were already sitting there, both grim and stiff. They didn’t even look at him when he seated himself. Something he welcomed. Oddly enough, they were dressed formally. Dressed in the attire they would wear only to diplomatic meetings. A black suit and a red tie for his uncle, and a black dress laced with red for his aunt.

Olive then noticed Gabrielle standing to the side of the room with crossed arms. Izsak wasn’t with her. He needed to get the vials to her.

Before he could think on it any further, one of the royal guards abruptly entered the room and boomed, “Your highnesses, please welcome the nineteenth prince of Sagittarius. Yuseong Haneul of the Seong Clan.”

Oh. So they were expecting a prince from another country. That explained things. Talk about late notice. He thought of Atienna and wondered if they were here to seek aid.

Olive threw a disinterested look to the doors of the throne room, which creaked open slowly.

A person drifted forward, gliding in a way that made them seem as if they were floating on clouds. Sky-blue Sagittarian silken robes laced with silver-woven clouds wrapped around them. Their hands were hidden by the long, dangling sleeves of the robe, while their face was hidden by a black hat. The hat’s rim was wide and circular, and its top rose to a flat top above their head, slightly higher than a normal hat would. A blue and white beaded string connected to the ends of the hat hung inches below their chin.

They bowed low as they neared the throne before lifting their head to meet the king’s and queen’s eyes.

Olive felt faint as soon as he registered the face hiding beneath the brim of the hat. A coldness seeped into his bones. His head buzzed, his stomach burned, a buzzing panic seized his chest.

“It is a pleasure to meet your acquaintance,” Claire said calmly, smoothly, voice as steady and tranquil as Atienna’s. “I greatly appreciate your acceptance of my presence given the current circumstances that befall your crown prince.” He inclined his head in Olive’s direction, and their eyes met.

Olive felt bile climb up his throat as understanding dawned on him. He couldn’t breathe. He could taste smoke in the air.

“Prince Yuseong,” his uncle said calmly, “we are always glad to welcome a member of the Sagittarian royal clans even with short notice. However, given the current political state of things, I do have to question your reason for coming here.”

“With all due respect, that’s exactly what I’ve come here for,” Claire interjected. “While I understand your desire to keep out of the border conflict due to your current internal issues, I must say it would be impolite to reject the request of a party that has aided you.”

“What are you saying, Prince Yuseong?”

Olive shakily reached for his coat pocket. Empty. When did he…?

Claire gestured behind him. Two figures entered the room and came to a stand beside him—one of his left and one on his right. Both of them were donning masks—one a porcelain white and one a wooden brown.

“These are my vassals,” Claire said. “The one with the wooden mask is Felix, and the one in the white mask is Soha.” He waved his hand in the air, and the two stepped forward each presenting two items in their hands with a bow. One vial and one arrow each. “This is evidence that Trystan Carter is not the assassin.”

“How did you get your hands on those arrows?”

“I’ve been investigating the assassination since I arrived,” Claire answered. “I will be open. The two individuals that went after the prince several nights ago were my vassals here, but I meant no harm. I was merely trying to lure out the true assassins which did not turn out as planned unfortunately.” He gestured to Olive. “And as to how I got my hands on these arrows… you could ask Prince Chance that.”

Olive felt his uncle and aunt staring at him.

“We have much to discuss,” Claire—no, Haneul—finished with the smile of a politician.

* * *

Olive wasn’t really aware of being led back to his room nor was he aware of walking to his bed and sinking down into it. His bird was tweeting loudly, but he could barely hear it above the ringing in his ears.

Shut up already.

He buried his head.

Out of the corner of his eye, five shadows flickered into existence. What? All of them? He didn’t need this right now. Eighty percent synchronization. Eighty percent suffering.

“Leave me alone…” Olive muttered.

They didn’t move. One drifted closer. Atienna. She brought her with a sensation of calm. A calm he didn’t deserve.

“Leave me alone!” Olive snapped, leaping from the bed.

“Do you…” Atienna began. She paused then continued gently, “I understand if you don’t want to talk about it, but you have to understand… we’re connected, Olive. The things you feel, we feel too.”

Olive sent her a glare. “Sure, anything to distract you from your own problems.”

Atienna froze.

“Hey now, your highness, let’s not get too harsh here,” Cadence said as she drew near. “It ain’t all that bad, kid. I know it sucks that Claire stabbed ya in the back, but it ain’t your fault. He was very convincin—”

“This wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t listen to you and just let it be!”

“Yeah, prince, you’re right,” Cadence reassured him. But I did say the kid was a liar. “You shoulda just done your own thing. Ya know better than us about these kinds of things. You’re right—”

“I knew. I knew… It was pointless for me to try to help, but I did it anyway.” Olive kicked the pole of the birdcage, sending his bird into a fluttering panic. “I’m an idiot who never learns. Always the same thing over and over again. I—”

I should just die.

Like a lightning bolt, Olive’s thought rattled through the room.

Silence, shock. Shame, anger.

“Whoa, kid, that’s a bit much. Ya messed up, but there’s no reason ta start goin’ ta those lengths—”

“Why?” Olive scoffed. “Every time I try to help, I end up dragging down everyone around me. This, me freeing Oros, and—the world would be better if I was gone.” He shook his head before glowering at Cadence. “And what do you care? Sure, you might be connected to me, but I know what you really think. I’m just a spoiled brat to you. You act so sad, but it’s just an act in the end.”

All of them remained silent.

“Stop looking at me like that. Does feeling pity toward other people make you feel better about yourself? ‘I may be bad, but at least I’m not like that.’ Is that what you’re thinking? I know it is. You just don’t want to admit it.”

“Kid, you might be brat, but you ain’t that bad—”

“Not bad?” Olive scoffed. “I’m the one who caused the Tragedy of Aries!”

Another beat of silence.

Cadence exchanged a look with Werner. “Kid, I don’t know much history, but I doubt that you—”

Werner held up a hand. “Tell us.”

Olive stared at him wide-eyed. Words lodged in his throat. Heart hammering in his chest.

Atienna drew near and guided him onto the bed. There was no pity in her eyes. Only understanding. Nothing right, nothing wrong.

Screw it.

Olive swallowed and let out a breathy sigh. “I… My little sister was really talented. They said she had the ability to become a saint candidate. They took her to Ophiuchus to do the tests, but she failed. She was so upset after. I just wanted to cheer her up.” Saints, he was pathetic. “I did everything I could. Tried to build stupid toy conductors. But none of it was enough. So I snuck her out of the palace one day when my p—” Olive clenched his fists. “My parents had a meeting there. Bought her a stupid bird even though I had no idea how to take care of it. She was so happy after that. She was probably just tired of being cooped up all the time—I… I felt like I’d accomplished something. I got full of myself. So stupid.”

It was a memory forever burned into his mind. Her last smile.

“When we came back to the palace, there was a homeless man outside. None of the guards noticed him. And he was hungry and tired, and he asked for help. And… And… Because I was feeling like some self-righteous hero, I snuck him in. I…” He felt his voice crack. “I let him in… And he—”

“He let in the ELPIS members who murdered the people inside the royal palace,” Jericho realized. “The ones who started the fire.”

“ELPIS didn’t start the fire.” Olive felt somewhat lightheaded. “There were bodies everywhere, and it was all my fault… I…” He buried his head in his hands, eyes wide. “I tried to get Lavi away. I tried so hard. I ran. I ran. I ran, but they—she—”

The image of her small body dangling from that man’s white gloved hands invaded his mind. He felt sick.

“Maybe one of them could be saved, but I—” Olive dug into his hair. “I was just thinking to myself that I… that I couldn’t look at it. I just couldn’t look at her. At any of them. That’s all I could think. I couldn’t control it. I…”

The memory flashed in his mind. The fire that erupted from his hands without warning, spilling out from his fingertips, devouring everything in sight without discrimination. The white cloaks that the ELPIS members wore. The bodies strewn on the floor. His sister.

The smell had been revolting. It was truly something that no one should ever experience. The odor of burning flesh. The screams as bones and muscles melted. Seared into his memory.

When the Ophiuchians arrived later, they found Olive curled up in a pile of ash. Gabrielle had been the one to find him. Izsak had conjured mountains of stuffed-animals to try to get him to speak. But Doctor Kingsley had been the one to break through. They were the few who knew about his ability to channel vitae without a conductor. Something that he’d been able to do ever since that day.

Saints. He was pathetic. Saying he should just die or disappear when that was too easy of a punishment. Like an ant.

“Channeling vitae without a conductor…” Jericho stared.

Yes, it was all out now. They all knew what he’d done—

Jericho said, “ELPIS… their fault.” There was an edge to his voice, but Olive couldn’t feel the righteous anger from all those times before.

“That’s right, kid,” Cadence agreed. “Even if you didn’t let them in, they still would’ve gotten in. Besides, you were just a—”

“Don’t say that!” Olive snapped. “Just saying that doesn’t make it better!”

“That is obvious,” Werner interjected. He closed the mental and physical distance between them and lowered himself, so they were eye-level. “But now you know you must take responsibility. You believe your sister is still present, correct? She is more than an illusion. That line of thinking isn’t illogical given our situation.”

Atienna glanced at him and then nodded. “I’ve been giving it some thought since you mentioned her. In the context of the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis, your sister may actually be alive in a sense. During the Tragedy, when she was near death, her vitae may have left her body and entered you. It might also explain why you’re able to conduct without a conductor.”

“If that’s the case,” Werner continued, “then you are partially responsible for her current condition.”

“Werner—”

“And it’s your responsibility to find a way to reverse it,” Werner finished. “You have a goal now and a duty to reach that goal’s end. For your sister.”

An image flashed through Olive’s mind. It wasn’t Lavi. It was a young, frail-looking girl with platinum blonde hair and pale blue eyes. But the feeling was the same. A sibling affection.

Something clicked into place within Olive’s chest, and it suddenly felt as if the world became a bit clearer. He was ashamed at the feeling but at the same time…

“I’ll avenge you too,” Jericho interjected.

Too?

“I don’t want revenge.” Olive frowned. “And I don’t want anyone being killed on my behalf. I’m not like that.”

Jericho cocked his head at him.

“Nothing’ll be solved by beating someone with a suitcase,” Olive grumbled, rubbing his arms and then wiping the tears away from his eyes. Had he been crying? Embarrassing. “But thanks for the thought, I guess.”

Still, it didn’t feel right. It felt too easy. It really didn’t feel like he deserved this sort of redemption or whatever this was. It felt like an escape.

“You cannot die, Olive Chance.”

Everyone turned their attention to Maria. She was still within her jail cell on her ship—they could all see this—but she was standing now and gripping the bars of her cell. Tightly, just like Trystan had.

“I won’t allow you to die,” Maria elaborated. “Because I like you, and you are mine.” She looked toward him. “And I don’t let bad things happen to things that are mine.” She brightened abruptly and addressed all of them. “And that’s all of you.”

They all stared.

“Chance…” Werner said suddenly. There was an edge to his voice. “The attempt on your life was not an assassination attempt.”

Olive blinked a couple of times at the sudden nonsensical change. “Uh, what?”

“It’s very well known that Sagittarius is seeking aid from other countries after being pulled into the border conflict. It’s also known that Aries and Sagittarius have shared good relations following the Reservoir War. It follows that Aries would come to aid Sagittarius if anything were to happen to them. That is unless Aries had their hands full with something else.”

“Werner…” Atienna murmured. “What are you saying?”

Werner opened his mouth, then shut it. His eyes widened, then darkened. Abruptly, the synchronization between them was cut.