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 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 an 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 that were within yelped and jumped backwards at his entrance sending a mist of flour into the air.

He 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 haltingly to Jericho. When Jericho continued forward anyway, the man flicked his wrist. At the base of his gloved palms 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 were shouting and cowering now, 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 did not hesitate again 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 did not 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 Conjuror 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 screamed again.

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 Conjuror in place.

“Leize. I’m Leize. My name is Leize,” the Conjuror 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 store.

Jericho released the Conjuror who collapsed like a rag doll onto 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 and 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, however, the Manipulator began writhing and convulsing beneath him. The man’s eyes had snapped to the back of his head and his tongue was lolling out from his mouth.

Jericho released the man and rose to a stand watching him 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 blaise comments like that,” Alice returned, slowly inserting a piece of lettuce into her mouth with her fork. “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 them 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 second 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 chairmen of the departments and the executive 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, Cadence, Werner, Maria, and Atienna had already increased Jericho’s circle from one to six. 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 matter 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 Moaerni, 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 Moaerni up” so that Oliviercould 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 Moaerni 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 later 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.

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 had not 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 was not 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 is 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 before him 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 blur between reality and past illusions hadn’t been happening 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.

4.[]: Peacekeeper on the Verge

“Izsak? Oh, he’s a very nice man. His daughter is really cute… but his wife is a little bit scary. He conjured a box of sweets for me for my birthday once. It wasn’t too pretty and it tasted pretty bad, but it was a really nice surprise. At least until Talib said that the jelly beans were laced with a mind control drug, but that’s a whole nother story… but, yes… Izsak’s really nice.”

Ferris Hart, Assignment Department of Ophiuchus

New Ram City, Aries

Wtorek Izsak first learned how to use a conductor at the age of eight.

He grew up in a small, isolated, sheep-herding village called Okor embedded in the heart of the Great Lascaux Mountain that ran the length of Taurus’s eastern border with Ophiuchus.

The only thing they knew of the war were the occasional loud cracks they’d hear in the distance. Although rare, they were booming sounds that sent shockwaves rippling through the air.

Every time the rumbling would rock their village, his grandfather would rub his nose and say, “Guess that means the war’s still going on, ’ey?”

The day the conscription man came. He took names, birth years, heights, and weights, and gave each member of their village a V-Type Test. The test consisted of holding a metal handle connected to a glass vial. There would be a sharp prick at the base of the palm, and then a black, misty shape would form inside of the tube. The conscription man would take the vial, either give a grunt of approval or a sigh of disappointment, and then jot down whatever was satisfactory or dissatisfactory to him in his notes.

When it was Izsak’s turn to take the test, the shape that formed was a half circle. When the conscriptionist inspected the vial, a smile cracked across his face. To ten-year-old Izsak, it was quite frightening.

“Well, look at that! You’re a Conjurer! Just like me,” the conscriptionist boomed, giving Izsak a friendly shake before gesturing to the conducting gloves on his hands. “Most battles can’t be won without a Conjurer, you know that? We’re the backbone of the battalion!”

It was that afternoon that the Sagittarian descended upon them. The Elementalist Conductor came riding in on a storm of wind. Harnessing the power of air, she tore up trees from their roots, fences from their nails, houses from their foundations. A tornado of terror. When she came across the conscription man, she merely twirled her finger at him and watched as he suffocated in the vacuum she’d created around his head.

Izsak watched the man’s corpse drop to the ground from where he hid beneath the remains of his aunt’s house. He hadn’t known the man, but for some reason, he felt a righteous anger burn in his stomach at his death. Without thinking, Izsak tore from the rubble and ran for the man’s corpse. He ripped the conducting gloves off of the man’s hands and put it over his own.

They were too large, too heavy, and too cold for a child to wield but he did it anyways. His hand hummed with warmth, and a soft light emitted from the base of his palm.

It was quite feeble, the thing he conjured. It was the only thing he could think of, after all. A wooden shepherd’s stick.

He was left exhausted after its conjuring but let out an unruly shout when he swung it. The Sagittarian had easily dodged with a backstep. Still, he persisted, swinging and screaming, until he was a tired, panting, heaving mess on the dirty ground.

The Sagittarian laughed long and loud before turning away, taking the storm with her departure. Why she left him, he still didn’t know.

A hero, they later called him. His name was in the papers weeks after. ‘The Great Shepherd of Okor.’ He enjoyed the praise and the attention.

He just wished there was someone left in the village to share it with.

* * *

At the age of eighteen, after completing his conductor training, Izsak participated in his first battle. He was assigned as a support Conjurer for a joint Ariesian-Taurusian company in which he found easy comradeship despite his poor grasp on the Common language.

They were all young and eager for a fight. Some of them cried for revenge, others bragged about the numbers they would get under their belts, while others dreamed of the rewards they would receive when the war ended.

Izsak had his own way of counting ‘victory points,’ as they would call it. He had practiced conjuring weapons with his name engraved on them. “It counts as my kill,” he’d say to the chagrin of his company.

After the battle ended—they had won, of course—Izsak was sent with a group to trace back and pick up (or off) any survivors remaining on the battlefield. They joked all the while. Until they saw the bodies, that was.

When it came to battles, it was hard to see who one was shooting or swinging their conductor toward amidst the chaos. Even more so for Izsak, who usually hung along the rear, conjuring weapons and sometimes conductors for the front guard. But now, their victory points—their victims—were laid clear to them.

“Bastards,” mumbled an Ariesian as Izsak knelt to the ground. “Can’t believe they send…”

It was a child. A girl. Her hair wasn’t long enough to tie up into a ponytail, so it was splayed across her face and matted down with blood. There was a combat knife driven into her chest.

It was one of Izsak’s. His engraved name glowed in the faint sunlight on its hilt. Izsak Wtorek. One added victory point. One slain child.

The ride back to base camp was quiet.

While some of the returning soldiers bragged about their kills and others swore revenge for the fallen, most remained silent upon arrival at base and throughout lunch. Izsak was one of them, quickly grabbing his bowl of soup from the food aid and settling down in a far corner away from everyone else.

The soup was tasteless, but he continued to eat because he could not stand his reflection in it.

“They’re calling us Generation War.”

Izsak looked up from his nearly empty bowl.

“The poster children born into war, but fighting for a peaceful, righteous future,” the person continued. “I can’t really call someone who likes to sign murder weapons with their name a peaceful person though. Gotta say, you’ve changed since training, Izsak.”

It was a young woman. She had dark skin, a shaved head, and sunken eyes. Her uniform indicated that she was Ariesian. He recognized her. They had been part of a joint training exercise camp together months earlier. Gabrielle Law, was it?

“That’s not how you recruit people to a cause, Gabrielle,” came another voice. It was a pale young man with jet black hair. His eyes were as hollow as his cheeks. He looked like he’d drop dead any minute.

“I know what I’m doing, Moerani,” Gabrielle sighed before turning her attention back to Izsak. “So, you like killing kids then?”

“I…” Izsak had stared into the ground. “I didn’t know—”

“That you’d be killing children?” Gabrielle scoffed. “So if they were maybe—let’s say—eighteen years old, you’d be fine with it?”

Izsak looked away with balled fists. “You know the answer to that.”

“Do I?”

Izsak scoffed, angrily scooping up a spoonful of soup. “What do you want me to say? One battle and I’m already weak to my knees? Yeah, I am, so wha—”

“You’re a Conjurer, aren’t you?” Gabrielle had interjected, pointing lazily to his gloved hands. “Don’t you want to see a world where they pay you to conjure a stuffed animal instead of a weapon?”

Izsak had choked on his soup. “A stuffed animal?”

“Yeah,” Gabrielle affirmed. “This war is going to end within our lifetimes, and because it’s such a mess, they’re probably going to put a policing organization in place to clean things up afterwards. And that organization is going to control what the future is going to look like. People are going to abuse that power, definitely. Still, Izsak, that organization is going to be my ticket to bring order to this continent. Conjurers that conjure stuffed animals instead of weapons—that’s the future I want to see.”

Izsak frowned. “You sound like a villain, you know.”

Gabrielle shrugged. “If I’m the villain, do you mind being my minion?”

Izsak considered this. “Can’t I be co-villain?”

Gabrielle startled before she let out a booming laugh. A long laugh that lasted the better part of a minute. Izsak exchanged a look with Gabrielle’s companion, but the man merely shrugged.

“Sure, fine,” Gabrielle sighed, wiping a tear from her eye. “But there’s no turning back.”

Izsak arched a brow. “Well, if you’re going to do something crazy, of course I’m going to turn back. Anyways, why did you ask me?”

“You have a good reputation. The Shepherd of Okor, right?” Gabrielle smirked. “I need someone like that on my team.”

Not so long after, Gabrielle introduced him to Elizabeta, who immediately insulted his height. It was love at first sight. Izsak proposed to her on their third shared battlefront, and Elizabeta finally accepted on their seventh.

Several years after that, the formerly uninvolved central country of Ophiuchus declared an insane twelve-front war on the other twelve countries of Signum. The declaration was met with ridicule—at least that was until several vitae reservoirs were decimated in several countries by Ophiuchian Conductors. There was no better way to bring together bitter enemies than a common adversary. And that was how Izsak served in the final offensive against Ophiuchus. It was odd. Fighting beside Sagittarian, Virgoans, Scorpian, Libran, and Piscese soldiers that had been his enemy just a year before, but Gabrielle adapted quickly and seemed to forget the fact that the former had slain many of their comrades.

It wasn’t long after that the Treaty was signed by all twelve countries.

That night was the night Csilla was conceived. Izsak and his wife had decided to name her ‘Csilla’ after the Taurusian word for star. She was their star of hope, after all. Hope for a peaceful future.

At the war’s end, Izsak and Elizabeta settled back in his old mountain town. He’d spent his war funds building and renovating the perfect, quaint home for them, far away from the reaches of the politics of wartime’s end. The night they moved in, Izsak danced with Elizabeta across the rocky landscape, marveling with her at the beauty of a smokeless sky.

The next day, Izsak received a knock on the door. It was Gabrielle, dressed in a black suit with a white sash donned on her arm.

“Told you, didn’t I?” She had smirked, tapping her sash. “Ready to be my co-villain?”

How could he say no?

* * *

“And what exactly are you reminiscing for?” Gabrielle yawned from where she lay draped across the red velvet couch. She lifted the Manila folder that she had been using to block the sunlight from her face. “We’ve had the rug pulled right out beneath us.”

Izsak lowered the files he’d thumbed through and tossed them onto the glass table between them. “Well, I was just thinking of Eliza and Csilla just now—”

“That’s all you ever think about,” Gabrielle said, sitting up. “How is Csilla doing, by the way? I’ve been meaning to ask.”

“Aw, you know, all the boys in school are still fawning after her even after I threatened to conjure black widows in their rooms while they’re asleep.”

“An Ophiuchian Agent threatening a bunch of fourteen-year-olds,” Gabrielle hummed, lacing her fingers together. “No wonder they’re saying such good things about us. Even going so far as to impossibly conjure living things.”

“Well, they don’t know that it’s impossible,” Izsak huffed.

Gabrielle chuckled before pressing, “How is she really?”

Izsak offered a half-smile. “The doctors and medical Conductors say she’s doing better, but you know my Csilla—she’s still aiming to be the youngest to complete the State Conducting Exam even though she’s no longer a saint candidate.” Izsak sighed. “My sweet Csilla—”

Gabrielle chuckled. “You make me want to stay away from married life as long as possible.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Izsak returned the laugh. “Don’t take your anger about the case out on me. It’s not my fault that the Investigation Bureau here got to the culprit first.”

“Is that the real culprit though?” Gabrielle threw the file she’d been reading onto the table too and crossed her arms. “It’s all circumstantial evidence as best. Too convenient.”

“You think?” Izsak shrugged. “You’ve got a suspect who has pretty heated opinions about the royal family, and you’ve got matching weapons of choice.”

“Yeah, too convenient.”

“We could always ask the Ariesian Investigation Bureau for their case files.”

Gabrielle sighed. “Doesn’t change the fact that they are trying to kick us out as soon as possible.” She glanced around the room they were in.

It was well-furnished—perhaps, overly so. A golden ram statue sat in the corner and a diamond chandelier hung from the ceiling. They had been accommodated with a free room at the best hotel within New Ram City, after all. It was to be expected.

“Politics are the same here as always.” Gabrielle rubbed her face. “And as much as I want to get out of this place as soon as possible, I can’t deny that the feudal lord heading the Investigation Bureau might just be trying to use this to line their pockets.”

“You’re concerned about Olive,” Izsak realized. “There must be some national Ariesian loyalty in you left after all.”

“I’m surprised you’re not more concerned,” Gabrielle returned. “Thought your fathering senses would be tingling.”

“They are, mind you,” Izsak huffed. “But Olive seems to be doing a lot better than he was six years ago.”

Gabrielle grunted. “Still a brat.”

“By the way, how do you think Talib and Jericho are doing? Talib’s quite the handful, you know.”

“And according to Doctor Kingsley, Jericho is the handful,” Gabrielle said. “A perfect match.”

“You really think Jericho’ll agree to be your minion?” Izsak pressed. “I mean, he seems pretty smart. Not an idiot like the rest of us.”

“The question is if he’s worthy to join,” Gabrielle replied, reaching for the files again. “But Talib will be the one to determine that.”

“Talib does have good intuition about people,” Izsak agreed. “And what’s this about being worthy? Last I checked, you were desperately trying to get whoever you could on your better-future team.”

Gabrielle gave a noncommittal grunt in response before she flipped through the files again. She shook her head. “Everything’s just too convenient. Lining up too perfectly. The border conflict. Leona’s disappearance. That incident in Virgo. And now this. Plus, there’s ELPIS’s recent movements—or lack thereof.”

“You’re starting to sound like Talib,” Izsak noted. He responded to Gabrielle’s arched brow with a coy smile before a sudden thought occurred to him. He frowned.

“What is it?”

“I… there’s something I want to check.”

* * *

New Ram City’s largest library was located on its city’s university campus, which was nestled next to its royal palace. As expected, the library was extravagant. It boasted ten stories and had five deep-red banners emblazoned with the gold Ariesian ram at its front. Five of the ten floors were restricted to individuals with State Conducting Licenses, while three were restricted to Ariesian officials. To Izsak, there was no restriction at all. A quick flash of his sash and his badge to the librarian sitting at the front desk, and he was granted immediate access.

He started with the floors restricted to licensed Conductors. He could tell immediately that there was more love and care given to these levels. While the shelves on the lower floors were made of chipped and faded wood, the shelves here were not only much larger, but were also made of deep maroon oak. The windows were larger here as well, nearly taking up the full height of the walls. Many long, large, polished wooden tables were interspersed between the shelves—something that the lower levels did not have. These floors were surprisingly busy, so Izsak was forced to flash his badge to clear out a table for himself. It earned him a handful of glares, but that came with the job.

He secured his table by draping his suit jacket over the chair and paced over to the nearest shelf, which was labeled Conductors. There, he continued to ruminate and mutter to himself.

Prince Olivier Chance’s assassination attempt. The conflict between Capricorn and Aquarius. The current political unrest within Virgo. The missing Agent Leona. Agent Leona who was sent to investigate the possibilities of the assassination attempt despite not having any relations to Aries. Agent Leona who apparently was a saint candidate…

Saint candidates.

He shook his head. “Gabrielle’s making me paranoid.”

But…

He briskly went to the history shelf and pulled out a book titled simply Ariesian Potential Saint Candidates. He flipped it open to the first page and found a brief description there:


‘A concept and tradition within Monadism that has prevailed since Signum’s founding and throughout the Reservoir War. These are individuals who show exceptional results on the V-Type Test and subsequent follow-up tests. These individuals tend to become prodigal Conductors who are said to show capabilities similar to that of the founding Ancestors. A truly remarkable achievement. Only one individual is selected per country of Signum for saint candidacy.’

.

But he already knew that. His little, precious Csilla was almost chosen, after all.

“Csilla…” He sighed, reaching for his pocket where he stored his photo of her. He stopped short when he received a reprimanding shush from a passing Conductor. Izsak whispered an embarrassed apology before focusing back on the text.

Below the definition he found a long list of Ariesian saint candidates.

He flipped through to the last recorded person. Lavender Chance. So, she really was…

Poor kid. Shaking the thought away, he went up the list slowly. And then he froze. “It can’t be…”

Tearing himself away from the book, he darted back to the history shelf and pulled out the large encyclopedia that sat at the top shelf. He stumbled backward at its weight, nearly knocking into someone behind him. After offering another apology, he made his way back to the table and set down the encyclopedia with a thud.

He spent the next two hours flipping through both texts and jotting down notes on a spare sheet of paper that was left behind by the table’s previous occupant. It was at the end of the third hour that he reached the startling realization—

“Why are they…? Why would they…?” he murmured, shaking his head as he stood and stumbled backward. He collided with the bookshelf behind him. He was hushed in response, but he was in no state of mind to pay attention.

He had to tell Gabrielle—no, Olive. Olive was at the center of this. This was bigger than the assassination attempt. This was bigger than all of them. Olive had to be…

Frantically, he ripped a page out from the encyclopedia and scribbled down a slew of words there. He then grabbed the nearest person walking by and shoved the paper into their hands while flashing his badge.

“Turn this into an Ophiuchian Agent by the name of Gabrielle Law in the Cardinal Hotel. Room 13. Do you understand? This is important!”

Without waiting for an answer, Izsak dashed down the staircases and out of the library. The sky was pitch black, and the city lights glowed yellow on the horizon.

Had this much time really passed? No time to think about it.

He tore through the darkened campus walkway in search of the exit. There. An open hall lined with white pillars. He had entered through there earlier.

Just as he was making way past the hall, a voice echoed—

“Where exactly do you think you’re going, Izsak?”

Izsak abruptly froze in place. A chill crept up his spine, as he turned around. There, in the deep black shadow of a pillar.

“Y-You…”

The figure stepped out from behind the pillar. A hand was kindly extended. “You know I can’t let you go now. You should just come with me. You played the idiot, but you were always too smart for your own good.”

Izsak lowered his head and bit his lip. “Look who’s playing who.”

“I am truly sorry.”

“Sorry enough to let me go?”

“You know the answer to that question.”

“Well then…” Izsak held out his hand and flicked his wrist. There was a flash of light and a buzz of warmth. A familiar shape formed in Izsak’s palm. A pistol.

“Are you really going to—”

Without hesitation, Izsak pulled the trigger.

* * *

He had pulled the trigger nearly point blank, yet he was running for his life. He had somehow managed to make it off campus, but the royal palace was kilometers away despite it being within sight.

Unfortunately for him, the route connecting the university campus to the royal palace was completely deserted. No witnesses. Nowhere to hide. Talk about bad luck.

Izsak spotted a tree in the distance. He darted toward it and ducked behind, pressing his back against the trunk and trying to calm his heavy breathing. Tuning his ears to the silence that permeated around him, he waited.

“You’re a Conjurer, Wtorek,” came a sympathetic sigh from his side. “Projectors are the fighters, Transmutationists the healers, Manipulators the spies, Elementalists the destroyers, Conjurers—well. The best you can do is support others. You can’t win battles on your own. Especially against a Specialist. This was hopeless since the beginning. You should know this.”

Izsak gripped his bleeding shoulder and grimaced as he peeled away from the tree and glared into the darkness. “Yeah, I’m feeling pretty screwed right now. Kind of want to start praying to our Ancestors.”

A deep chuckle resounded. “Is this really the time to be joking?”

“This all feels like a joke to me, really,” Izsak remarked, as he heard the familiar hum of a conductor being activated. “To think that ELPIS of all things was right about conductors. Really, it’s bugging me. But it makes sense for me to agree with ELPIS. I’m a co-villain, after all.”

A small, but sharp light above him caught his attention. A star. Csilla.

His last thought was of her.

1.6: Jericho Track

Re-cap:

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

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

Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

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

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

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

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

“I tripped,” Jericho amended.

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

Jericho nodded. “I am a klutz.”

Silence.

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

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

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

“You’ve been reassigned.”

Jericho blinked. “Reassigned?”

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

“… Oh.”

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

“Yes.”

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

Jericho perked up at this.

“You may have heard of her. Leona.”

“Leona.”

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

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

There was a long pause of silence.

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

* * *

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

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

“Mister Jericho…?”

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

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

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

Jericho nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am sorry.”

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

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

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

Jericho reached out his hand.

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

“That’s—”

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

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

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

“The ones behind everything?”

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

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

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

Jericho stared. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s not—” Talib began.

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

“A different assignment,” Jericho repeated.

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

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

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

ELPIS.

Yes, it had to be.

ELPIS.

Finally, he would be able to—

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

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

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

Jericho paused. “Aries. The assassination.”

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jericho’s temple throbbed.

There was a beat of silence.

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

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

* * *

Twin Cities, Gemini

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

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

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

He brushed the thought aside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jericho stared after the two before Talib cleared his throat.

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

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

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

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

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

Their footfalls echoed in the silence that followed.

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

“The looks.”

“When people recognize our uniforms,” Talib elaborated.

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

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

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

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

“And Ophiuchus allows them?”

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

“I see.”

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

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

Talib stared. “Was that a joke?”

“No.”

They reached the street level ten minutes later.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, that was rude—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This place. What is it?”

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

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

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

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

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