14.1: Observer & Peacekeeper, 0000 Unusual Activity

Ungewöhnliche Aktivität » Unusual activity, unrecorded 

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

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

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

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

Probability of being a True Conductor, 89%. 

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

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

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

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

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

Again, silence.

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

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

“When was the last major conflict again?”

“The Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict—”

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

“Approximately 150 Capricornians and 240 Aquarians.”

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

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

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

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

“Can you hear it? It’s almost here.”

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

“The pulse of the syzygy…”

A knock on the door drew his attention away. 

He rolled his eyes and sighed. 

“I suppose we can take a lunch break.”


Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pure Balance, it was called. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Has not contacted me since accepting my application.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jericho nodded his head in confirmation.

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

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

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

“Theories that will soon become fact!”

Jericho frowned. 

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

A knock on the door cut the conversation short. 

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

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

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

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

The man tipped his hat and left down the hall. 

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

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

Send letters?

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

To Alice was written in swirling Common letters. 

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

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

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

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

Dear Agent Jericho,

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

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

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

Sincerely, 

Leize Artigue

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

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

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

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

I’ve got my eye on you! ❤

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a good time to start.

Yes, it was. 

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

Werner?

He blinked.

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

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

But then Jericho felt nothing.

Absolutely nothing.

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

Silence.

Something was…

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

Alice stared at him. “What’s wrong?” 

“Nothing,” Jericho replied.

The truth. 

Absolute silence. 

There was nothing. 

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

I will enter.

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

Someone shouted in alarm. 

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

He would not succumb to this, he knew. 

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

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

An unfortunate cut to black.

13b: Solitary Maidens

Re-cap:

The Twin Cities lives to see another day. Fritz von Spiel and Yulia Kriska are dead. The man formerly known as Wtorek Izsak has escaped from Ophiuchus. Ilseong Jin, the saint candidate, is in custody. The Twin Cities thus enters a period of change as Ophiuchian agents sweep through the streets. 


On Monday the following week, Eunji received the results of her State Conducting Exam. She passed with flying colors and received a printed certificate detailing her accomplishment, along with a note informing her she would receive her physical license within a few months. Her brother, Soha, and Felix congratulated her, while Olive offered her his usual shrug-nod of nonchalance. He didn’t personally think that this alone would satisfy Eunji.

Olive, of course, hadn’t been able to finish his practical portion of the exam, having been carted off alongside Claire, Trystan, and Felix for questioning following the incident with Ilseong Jin. And after that was all over and done with, he dreaded having to retake the written portion. After all, he had placed second out of all the test-takers, and he knew that achievement was unrepeatable. Maybe even a fluke, he thought to himself.

Cadence reassured him, “Come on, your highness, ya got the brains. Maybe this next time ya take it, you’ll score first since Eunji won’t hog that position.”

The Ariesian prince waved the idea off, but Cadence could tell he was pleased with her comment. Still keeping the facade of apathy despite everything. Very prince-like.

The prince even kept the facade in place despite his obvious concern about how Claire was dealing with Jin’s confirmed betrayal. But Claire merely voiced his own concerns regarding how Jin’s actions would affect his clan’s social standing. The betrayal seemed far from his mind.

“Right after Eunji was licensed too,” Claire had said with a casual sigh. “Things will get complicated again.”

Like a politician, Olive thought.

Or pretending to be one, Cadence amended.

The two princes bid each other farewell again at the Grand Snake Station after shaking hands—an action Olive initiated himself. And when Claire suggested that they meet up again sometime soon, Olive didn’tdeny the suggestion—though, he didn’t address it either. Eunji seemed pleased with this development, but Olive couldn’t wrap his head around why.

As Olive made his way back inside the Serpens Establishment with a bandaged Trystan after the farewell, he was pulled aside by Leona. Without speaking a word, the woman handed him a manila envelope sealed with wax. When he opened it up, he found a printed certificate stating that he had successfully completed the State Conductor’s Exam.

“I don’t think it’s fair for you to have to take the written exam again because of circumstances beyond your control. Especially given how well you performed,” Leona had said. “And I’ve witnessed your conducting myself.” She smiled. “I have to say, if that were the practical, you would certainly pass. The interview too.”

Olive was rearing to refuse it. He’d wanted to earn the license on his own right and was unnerved by Leona’s gesture. Werner shared a similar sentiment, but—

“Come on, you guys,” Cadence had interjected through a synchronization. “Ya accept what comes ta ya. Can’t reject everything because of pride. The faster ya get your license, the faster ya can figure out what’s goin’ on with Lavi, right? Your promise, your responsibility.”

And so, Olive accepted the gift and gave a polite word of gratitude.

Monday was also the day when Ophiuchian peacekeeping agents from the Conductor Regulation Department and the Conducting Law Department poured into the Twin Cities in droves. They raided the warehouses of both the Campanas and the Romanos, tore through cargo containers full of modified conductors, cracked open warehouses housing Specialist children in transit, and promptly brought in all associated parties for questioning. After all, Specialist children owned by the Campanas had been running through the streets during that night of chaos and modified conductors owned by the Romano Family had been the ones that nearly sank the city. There was no turning from it.

While most associated parties were questioned within the city, those executives found to be associated with ELPIS were brought into the depths of the Black Constellation Detention Center for further questioning.

Probably to never be seen again, Cadence figured.

Cavallo, with one arm slung up in a cast, acted as the main representative of the Romano Family. He was joined by the surviving Caporegimes Agape Rosario, Bendetto, as well as Fortuna Romano.

Following this meeting, the Romano Family’s modified conductor operations were swiftly dismantled. In exchange for a lesser sentencing and a form of protection, the don and the caporegimes offered up the files of the parties they had made business deals with. This included Argo, Aquarius, and many other wealthier, smaller parties. The files regarding Capricorn had already been tossed out as per Cadence’s request so there was no proof of their involvement, and the Romanos didn’t feel inclined to mention it. Another aspect of the lesser sentencing involved a sworn agreement to keep their discovery of ELPIS’s nature under wraps.

The entire thing was sketchy to Cadence. But that was the way the dominoes fell.

The aforementioned lesser sentencing was imposed on all executives of the Romano Family, and this included house arrest that would initially be implemented by Ophiuchian Agents aided by the city’s police.

The Twin Cities police force was undergoing a power shift. Police Comissario Vincente Giustizia who was confirmed to be an ELPIS leader had disappeared from the city alongside a number of the policemen and policewomen serving under him. It took less than a week for the mayor to select a replacement, and—as suspected—they were both in the Romano Family’s back pocket.

The Romano Family went through a shift of power within itself as well. Despite losing their main product of modified conductors, they still had their money-laundering fronts and land leases to fund their operations. Fortuna re-organized the truncated Family, delegating new seats herself, and even went so far as to offer Matilda a higher position due to the girl’s work in the city on that night.

The Foxman Family was not charged, on the other hand. This was in part due to the little evidence found regarding their exporting and importing of the modified conductors and due to their part in assisting Gabrielle Law with her case regarding the Campanas. They were, however, extensively questioned regarding the whereabouts of their brother turned business partner turned ELPIS leader. But neither Allen nor Carl had seen Francis since that night. And neither had Cadence. Omicron’s body hadn’t turned up either.

The Campana Family’s operations were also swiftly dismantled. Due to Gabrielle’s preliminary investigations and due to the nature of her findings, the Campana Family wasn’t offered lesser charges. Their assets were stripped from them, and they were found guilty on all accounts of trafficking. The don and associated executives were given life sentences in a Geminian specialized prison, while an investigation was launched to find connected parties and buyers. Ambrose was found not-guilty, despite his access to the organization’s files and records. And why this happened became clear as Jericho read the report that circulated through the Serpens Establishment not too long after: the files and records of the Campana Family merely identified the children by “item #”. Discovering this sent shivers down Olive’s spine.

“Good riddance,” the prince had spat with a scoff more to himself than the others.

But Cadence wasn’t too sure if the Campanas were getting the justice Olive thought they deserved. After all, the Campana executives had been locked in a rather well-furnished prison equipped with state-of-the-art showers, bedding, and a five-star chef to boot. But she tried her best to hide this from the prince.

Cadence, Atienna, Werner, and Jericho had also been brought in for questioning by the ELPIS Investigations Department. Atienna and Werner were questioned regarding their reason for being in the city and for their connection to Yulia Kriska and Fritz von Spiel respectively—both who had both been reported as having been in communication with ELPIS. Atienna and Werner were in suitable positions to deny their knowledge of ELPIS’s activities and highlighted their personal motivations—helping Sefu who had been caught in the crossfire; and arresting the colonel for suspected collusion with ELPIS and embezzlement of military funds, respectively.

Cadence and Jericho, on the other hand, were questioned about how they came to work together on that night the city nearly sank. Cadence and Jericho both informed their questioners that they had merely met up at a bar and realized they shared similar problems and goals. Cadence, wanting to help her childhood friend Francis Foxman who had gotten involved in ELPIS. Jericho, wanting to detain an ELPIS member for questioning.

It was a loose lie. A not very well crafted one, Cadence knew. But… Surprisingly, their answers were accepted.

The headline of the newspaper released that night pretty much wrapped up the city’s knowledge and perspective on the entire ordeal—

“Ophiuchian Crackdown on Crime Following TERRORIST Attack. IS ELPIS STILL IN OUR CITY? BEAUTIFUL PIANO KEYS LIGHT UP THE NIGHT SKY. Another Day in the Twin Cities?”

Cadence wondered about that.

***

On Tuesday, Maria paid Allen and Carl a visit at the docks. She brought with her Lita and was surprised to find their warehouse full of children. They seemed surprised themselves as did their lackeys as over a dozen children filled out all of the corners of the warehouse. Some skirted far from them. Others darted up daringly and tugged on the hemming of their suits.

“They just keep appearin’ outta nowhere,” Carl grumbled as he swatted them away. He muttered to himself, “Dammit, Francis. We’re tryin’ not to draw attention to ourselves.”

“Money’s still coming in from our casinos, bars, and dance halls,” Allen said with a grimace, “but we lost a major source of our income since the Romanos aren’t makin’ conductors for us to ship now. We can’t keep them here. Can’t afford it.”

But despite all their talk, the warehouse was filled with small makeshift beds. But Cadence was pretty sure that they weren’t acting so much out of the generosity of their own hearts than out of their desire to honor their brother’s wish.

Lita recognized about a dozen or so of the children, and they recognized her. In other words, Campana Specialist children made up half the lot. A problematic development for Allen and Carl, since Ophiuchus had been sweeping the city for the children. The reason as to why Francis didn’t want the children to fall into Ophiuchus’s hands remained largely unknown.

Maria thus offered to take some of the Specialist children out of the city on her ship for some time. She knelt before the children, sang about adventures and the sea, and then asked each of them one-by-one if they wanted to come along with her.

Cadence could tell though. Despite all of Maria’s brightness and cheer, her mind was fixated on Conta. And as Maria boarded her ship with Lita, Renée, and the Specialist children in tow, Cadence knew that one of Maria’s first touristing destinations would be Hapaira. Rather, Veles. The bounty hunter, the tracker.

Werner thought it was too dangerous. Cadence thought it was worth the risk.

“I will get my Conta back,” Maria had responded. “So please be patient with me…. yes?”

***

On Wednesday, several days after being released from questioning by the Ophiuchian agents within the city, Werner visited the Sognare. The bartender still hadn’t returned, and the shelves behind the bar were clear of all the wine bottles and liquor. The raiders hadn’t thought to dismantle the piano on the backstage, however, and it remained standing upright and tall. Werner drifted over to this stage and approached the piano, inspecting the dusty keys of the instrument with a frown.

As soon as the city was safe again, Werner had used the radio Kleine had conjured to contact the Capricornian capital. He informed them that the colonel had been caught in the crossfires of the city’s war while attempting to escape arrest—a white lie Cadence helped Werner craft and transmit. He also informed them that the colonel had confirmed that he had been embezzling money from the military’s funds and was indeed working with ELPIS. The capital officials were unhappy with this information and requested that Werner bring the colonel’s body back to Capricorn.

But this was impossible. The ELPIS Investigations Department had collected not only Fritz von Spiel’s body but also Yulia Kriska’s and Kovich’s as well. The peacekeepers reasoned that the bodies served as evidence regarding ELPIS.

And so, the Capricornian government stepped back to allow Ophiuchus to do their work. Cadence wasn’t surprised. Their underground dealings had nearly been dragged out to light, after all. She’d half-expected Werner to receive a promotion since he’d been indirectly behind saving face for Capricorn. But as Werner said, “Avoiding a problem isn’t worth praise.”

Hearing him say this made her feel a bit sad.

In the end, Cadence wasn’t sure whether to laugh or to feel uneasy about the Ophiuchian authority. Cadence also found herself wondering where Nico would fall in the Capricornian ranks now that the deal between the country and the Romano Family was no longer in action.

Thinking about all of these things, Cadence found herself strongly synchronized with the Capricornian as he examined the keyboard inside the bar.

“That rests on Nico,” Werner replied, resting his hands on the keys. “He has proven himself an asset in service, and the capital may believe he still serves as a possible liaison to connect them to the Romanos for future projects.”

There wasn’t much left for Nico in this city anyway.

Cadence grimaced. “It sucks that ya didn’t get the deal with the Romanos. The old deal is null and void now too.”

“Seeing as how Argo was being supplied by the Romano Family, this simply means we’re back on even territory. Fortunately, you had the Romano and Campana Family destroy those records,” Werner replied evenly. “I appreciate your actions.”

Cadence stiffened at the mention of Argo. “I honestly had no idea about the Romanos supplyin’ to Argo, Werner. I’m really sorry… Ya don’t even need ta thank me for that other thing either, really. I was just makin’ up for what I did… Or at least tryin’ ta.”

“I’ll accept your apology, Cadence,” Werner returned, resting his hands on the keys. “Since you’ve helped Capricorn escape a precarious situation.”

Cadence showed him a C-chord, and he copied. “It’s over with, but it doesn’t feel like we’ve won anything, Lieutenant.”

Werner remained silent for a moment before he said, “A battle is never won. Not truly. It’s simply that you’ve gained a tactical advantage over the enemy. Sometimes that merely means that you’ve lost less than them even if your loss is substantial. And still, people consider this winning.”

“And what do you think this is, Lieutenant? A battle?”

Werner didn’t answer.

“Ya know even with everything happening…” Cadence chuckled after showing him a couple more notes to play. “I’m still expectin’ Alma ta come through those doors. Ain’t that pathetic or what?”

Werner studied her for a moment before he lifted a gloved hand towards her head.

The door to the Sognare swung open before he could complete the gesture, however, and in came Nico and Gilbert.

“The guys are getting one last round at the TwinStars,” Gilbert explained, jerking his thumb backwards, “before we head home.”

Nico smiled a bit morosely. “Do you wanna come?”

“I won’t join you,” Werner said, rising from his seat, “but I will buy everyone a drink before we return.”

***

On Thursday, Atienna made it back to Aquarius alongside a properly healed Sefu and a properly amused Cvetka. They reached the original location where they were meant to originally attend their tripartite diplomatic meeting and found Moana and Chiamaka waiting there for them. Ophiuchian peacekeeping agents from both the ELPIS Department and an international relations department were also present and re-subjected them to a full questioning regarding their experience in the Twin Cities. Additional questions were asked regarding the mysterious Cancerian tourist who slipped away into the gates.

Atienna wondered how many Ophiuchian agents were questioning members of the Aquarian military as she herself was being questioned. She wondered how many scapegoats would be sacrificed for the betterment of their country. She wondered if their sacrifice would be worth anything.

After Sefu and Atienna were released from their interrogation, Chiamaka greeted them—

“It is good to see you both safe. But what you did was dangerous and foolish. You could have put Virgo’s international relations in jeopardy.” She did not mince words. “We must remain professional for the rest of this meeting, but we willdiscuss the ramifications afterwards.”

While all of this had been occurring, Aquarius had sent another diplomat down in Alexei’s place. Sigurd and Alexei guarded the diplomat tightly. And other than exchanging one long look, Atienna and Sigurd didn’t speak to one another for the rest of the time.

After brushing Chiamaka up on the customs of Aquarius and Pisces, Atienna waited in the hall outside of the meeting room alongside Cvetka and Sefu. Cvetka remained calm and quiet, acting as if everything that had just occurred were someone else’s predicament. She approached Atienna only once to hand her a slim index card with a number jotted down onto it.

“My employer,” she said, smiling as if in victory.

Three hours later, Chiamaka exited the meeting room with Kabal in tow.

“We’re continuing our relations with Pisces, but temporarily halting our negotiations with Aquarius,” Chiamaka informed them as they left the meeting building. “Their recent activities do not coincide with what Virgo stands for as a country. That being said, we will no longer be working together either, Atienna.”

As suspected, Atienna thought to herself, but not quite unhappily.

“Because I will be retiring from this position,” Chiamaka finished. “I admit, studying and teaching these subjects is very different from engaging in it. You can continue in this profession if you wish, Atienna, but you will be continuing without me.”

Atienna was somewhat startled by Chiamaka’s decision and felt someone responsible for it. However, she supposed it was an understandable choice. And this left her with her own choice.

As she gripped the index card tightly in her gloved hands, Atienna wondered if this entire time she had still been standing in place and averting her eyes. Frozen in place.

“Our first diplomatic outreach in years, and it ends like this.” Chiamaka shook her head. “We’ve stepped out into a dangerous world.”

***

On Friday, Jericho was finally able to have a session with Alice. Usually, he held no opinions of these sessions but this time he attended with alertness. He even had his journal ready and open.

Alice was, however, for once not alert. She remained silent, arms crossed, gaze distant.

“Was your questioning by the ELPIS Department…” Jericho began. “Unpleasant?”

Alice regarded him curiously for a moment before she sighed. “The ELPIS Department was very thorough with their questioning, Even more thorough with their threats. They put it fancifully, but they’ve practically threatened to put a case forward to have my license revoked if I were ever to speak of my experiences with external parties. For ‘endangering the countries of Signum by divulging sensitive information’. I’m sure they’ve told you the same.”

Jericho nodded. “Talib and I. Our licenses—”

“Yes, I heard.” Alice clasped her hands together. “And I also heard from Talib that Gabrielle’s now very interested in your application to the ELPIS Department.”

This was fact. During their luncheon the previous day, Gabrielle had brought up how Jericho’s recent actions would put him in good standing to work in the ELPIS Department. Elizabeta who had also been present at the time had stared holes to and through Jericho when Gabrielle had said this. Jericho hadn’t been sure if she’d been informed of Gamma’s identity, but he didn’t ask. It didn’t seem appropriate.

“Leona might personally approach you for a job offer,” Gabrielle had said. “I reckon you take it. We need someone in there. Especially now.”

“Yes,” Jericho confirmed to Alice as he recalled the memory. “Gamma. Izsak. It is important to Gabrielle.”

“And she needs someone in that department because of the department politics. It’s the least accessible department in all of Ophiuchus.” Alice leaned forward in her chair. “You’ve faced several ELPIS leaders in such a short amount of time, Jericho.” She clasped her hands together. “And you met the one called Theta too. Given the recent developments, I’m concerned about your stability in your continual pursuit of this department. What are your thoughts?”

“… I have a friend,” Jericho said after a moment of quiet, causing Alice to perk up. “He said there are things after. So I’ve been thinking about what to do after. I’ve been thinking about that. Even though I will still finish what I started.”

“And what is it that you want to do after?”

Jericho stared at her and then stared at the journal in his hands. “I don’t know.”

“It does take time to discover what you want to do next after accomplishing a goal that you’ve set for yourself,” Alice said, more gently than usual. “But as humans, it’s good to set goals. They help in moving forward.” She then frowned. “Although it is ultimately your choice and as much as I respect Gabrielle, I don’t think entering the ELPIS Department will be good for you, Jericho. Something isn’t right.”

Jericho agreed. Something wasn’t right.

Not so long after his session with Alice, Jericho was approached by Leona as Gabrielle had predicted. The woman merely greeted him and handed him a manila folder before departing. Upon opening it, he found his application to the ELPIS Investigations Department. Stamped across the top in big letters was APPLICATION ACCEPTED.

“Told you.”

Jericho turned and found Gabrielle leaning against the wall, arms crossed.

“Hello, Gabrielle.” Jericho offered a small wave.

“Hey, Jericho,” she returned, unlatching herself and approaching him. “Congrats on the acceptance.”

He stared at the file. “Thank you—”

“By the way, I’ve been meaning to mention this. Some ship captain named Maria said you were a part of some club with her. A ‘True Conductor’ club. Can’t help but think our Ariesian prince is also part of the club. Maybe even that swindler. Since you all seem to know each other.” Gabrielle waited for a reaction, but Jericho merely stared at her. She hung her head and sighed. “Alright. Well, if you ever feel like talking, I’m always ready to lend an ear.” She motioned Jericho forward. “Let’s grab lunch. Talib is treating with some homemade falafel.”

***

On Saturday, Boss Romano made his first public appearance.

Ricardo Romano strolled through the streets of the Twin Cities wielding the same aura he did from before he’d been stabbed. He didn’t even seem to care that there was an Ophiuchian agent at his left telling him he could only go so far from his property.

Cadence met Ricardo at a small park just outside of his residence with the bottle of wine he’d requested. She then accompanied him back into his manor and poured a glass for herself and him in his living room. The peacekeeper remained just outside of the room. Perched like a hawk.

“So, Cavallo has told me everything. About Francis. About ELPIS. About Theta.” Ricardo said as he swirled his wine glass. “You’ve met Theta, Cadence?”

Cadence tensed. “Yeah… I did. Briefly. Ya know. Like the others said. Met him while tryin’ ta capture Francis ta get him some help. Haven’t seen him since he went berserk at Warehouse 13.”

Ricardo hummed, taking another sip of wine, and the conversation lapsed into silence.

Finally, the boss said, “I was like you before, Cadence. An orphan on the street. Before the the war.” A pause. “I was taken in by a kind man who wasn’t from the best walk of life. Still, he was generous. He took me and many other children in. He even went so far as to offer us home and education.”

Ricardo took another sip of his wine, and the realization slowly dawned on Cadence.

“He passed during the war, but I thought that I would try to live up to his life. Of course, as you know, Cadence, this world is quite difficult to navigate and some things had to be sacrificed and exchanged along the way.” Ricardo set his glass down on the table in between them. “I had hoped taking individuals like you and Fortuna under my wing would suffice.” He folded his hands over his stomach and closed his eyes for a moment. “What do you think Theta thinks of what I’ve done with this extra life he’s granted me?”

Cadence looked away from the man she’d admired for years, the man she’d feared, the man she’d almost seen as her father. And she felt disappointment. “I think Theta’d be pretty sad…”

***

On Sunday, Cadence received a letter slipped under her door. She recognized the handwriting immediately. Those curling letters belonged to none other than Francis Foxman. But he must’ve forgotten she wasn’t savvy with reading with his mind all jumbled up. Still, she managed to get through the thing with Atienna’s occasional help.

It was an invitation. To the Sognare.

When Cadence arrived at the Sognare, she found Allen and Carl lounging at the bar there all casual-like. A look at the back of the bar informed her that the raiders had finally gotten to the piano. The empty stage made her chest crumple.

“No Fortuna?” she asked.

“No Fortuna,” Allen affirmed.

“Probably didn’t want a headache.” Carl scoffed.

“Probably figured she was too busy,” Cadence reasoned.

“And we’re not?” Carl snapped before he frowned, considering. “Yeah.”

The door creaked open, and two familiar figures stepped into the bar. Cadence personally recognized only one of them. The other she recognized through Atienna’s memories.

“You’re late, Francis,” Allen said before nodding at the person standing beside him. “Who’s your friend?”

“This is Pi,” Francis said, gesturing to the tall Aquarian standing beside him. “It seems he was initiated recently and somehow stumbled into one of my gates and ended up here during my…” Francis shook his head. “He’s a good person. We have similar mindsets regarding what we’ve become.”

While Francis was dressed in a turtleneck with a suit jacket thrown over his shoulders, Pi was dressed in an out-of-sorts, oversized shirt with tight suspenders. They looked out of place next to each other.

“He ELPIS?” Allen arched a brow.

Pi nodded. “Friend. Nice to meet.”

“What’s wrong with him?” was the first thing Carl asked.

Pi frowned, looking hurt.

“He wasn’t initiated properly,” Francis explained, placing a thoughtful hand on his chin and examining Pi. “I still haven’t dissected the specifics of what’s occurred, but you don’t need to be concerned about his behavior. Pi is still the person I remember him to be.”

“Nice ta meet ya.” Cadence offered Pi a hand with a grin.

Brightening, Pi accepted the gesture.

“What’s this about, Francis?” Allen asked grimly. He took out a box of v-cigarettes and shook one out for himself. He offered one to Cadence—which she refused—before offering them to Carl, Francis, and Pi. Carl and Francis accepted the v-cigs, igniting them with a shake, while Pi stared at Francis in slight shock and horror.

Francis took a drag of the v-cigarette before answering, “A friend… Rather, another ELPIS leader by the name of Gamma is searching for me. I came across him the other day.”

Izsak…?

“I think he’s planning to kill me,” Francis said casually, taking another drag of his v-cig. He glanced down at it with a grimace of disgust before puffing again.

Carl started forward, punching his fist into his palm. “The hell? You need us to sack him?”

Pi made an X with his arms, shaking his head. “Angry man. Want big boom. Again in city.” His frown deepened. “Not like. Before. Dangerous.”

“I refused his suggestion to target the reservoirs and generator conductors here again,” Francis elaborated, ignoring Carl’s outburst and Pi’s interjection. He puffed. “The guy didn’t seem to be too happy about that. Said I was only saying those things because I wasn’t initiated right.” He took another drag, shaking his head. “He wants to kill me here and now so I’ll return to my resistor. He wants to re-initiate me ‘properly’.” Francis’s gaze darkened. “I won’t let him take my last moments of Omicron away from me. And I’m not too keen on dying as Francis either. I also have some things I need to set straight. So you won’t be seeing me for a while.”

“You’re in trouble,” Allen concluded after a beat. “You need a place to lie low? We’ve got a couple places out of the city.”

“Yeah.” Carl nodded, almost desperately. “Got one in Cancer. Got another in Aries—”

“You misunderstand…” Francis drew, placing his gloved hand over his face and staring at them between his fingers. “I can’t be around any of you. When I look at you, I’m torn between disgust and affection. I need time to get my head on straight. And I need to figure out the next course of action…. It’s a mess.”

Silence stretched.

“Disgust and affection? That’s me at my reflection every day,” Cadence said good-naturedly. “It ain’t so bad.”

Francis blinked at her before offering a musical chuckle as he lowered his hand. “That’s why I didn’t invite Fortuna. She’s… a bit of a handful.”

“And Nico?”

Francis stared blankly at them before his eyes widened and he held his head. “I forgot Nico…”

“Eh, I doubt he’d want to come anyway,” Carl said, giving Francis a reassuring wave. “Been busy with his Capricornian pals. The bastard—”

But Francis turned away from Carl suddenly and turned to face Cadence fully. “I understand you have many questions. And I have only some answers given how much of my vitae has been lost through my many times of returning to the resistor. If you give me time, I will tell you what I know to the best of my abilities.” He shook his head. “My brain’s still a mess… but I will tell you this…”

Cadence perked up.

“True Conductors are like conductors themselves.” Francis tapped her chest lightly. “Human beings operate like their bodies when it comes to vitae. When people are born, vitae from the outside world flows in through a door that closes shortly after. When people die, a different door opens and vitae leaves your body. Some call it decay and loss of energy through the cessation of bodily function. But it’s not so simple.”

“Like blood,” Pi added suddenly, making a swooping gesture with his hand. “Flow through veins. Through valves. Open and close.”

“But you are different. Both doors are open constantly with True Conductors. You’re like open channels,” Francis elaborated. “It’s a defect. And because of that defect, extraneous vitae can easily enter. Connected True Conductors act as a very large channel. And when utilized properly, that channel can conduct a very large amount of vitae. You are more-or-less a tool. That is all.”

Cadence arched a brow. “Well, that’s one way ta flirt.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to come off that rudely,” Francis apologized, looking somewhat dazed. “But that’s as much as I can give at the moment.”

As much as Atienna’s curiosity scratched at Cadence’s mind and as much as Cadence selfishly wanted to push Francis further, Cadence let out a sigh and nodded. “Guess I gotta toss out the 100 questions I wrote down then—”

Abruptly, Francis pointed to Cadence’s pocket. “You have one of my proto-conductors.”

Cadence opened her mouth to whittle out another lie but thought better of it as she met Francis’s calm eyes. This was someone she wanted on her side. Not only for strategic purposes but because she genuinely did.

After digging into her pocket, she procured it for him. He gingerly plucked it from her hand and inspected it.

“It didn’t shatter with my outburst because there’s not enough vitae in it,” he said. Flipping the thing in hand, he rolled up his sleeve and pushed its needlepoint into his arm. The glass vial filled with blood as he pulled up the plunger. He pulled it out from his arm and then grasped it in his gloved hand. His palm and the red liquid within the vial began to glow with pale tangerine light. When the light faded, the liquid was pitch black.

“This is good for roughly six uses,” he said, dropping it back into her palm. “If you place the tip of this down on a drawn gate while the vial is full and speak of the place you wish to go, I will be able to hear you through my gate and send you as close as I can to that location. If not, you could end up anywhere.”

Cadence arched a brow. “It’s that easy?”

Francis didn’t answer and instead reached into his pants pocket to draw out two more similar proto-conductors. He gingerly handed one each to Carl and then to Allen before taking a step back. “I want you to have a way to leave,” Francis said, “if the worst comes into fruition…”

“The hell is that supposed to mean?” Carl arched a brow. “Stop being so ominous, Francis.”

Cadence patted Carl on the shoulder and arched a brow. “And what’s the catch?”

Francis dipped his head. “I know this is a lot to ask, but while I’m away, could you please look for and after the children who are looking for me? I need to focus on the task at hand, and I need to get my mind in working order… At the moment, I’m not suitable to care for the children.”

“And we’re suitable?” Cadence nearly burst out laughing as she thumbed herself and then Carl and Allen. “Us?”

“Yeah.” Carl crossed his arms. “Why not hand ‘em over to the Ophiuchians? I mean—”

Pi blanched and paled, while Francis glowered for half a second.

Francis took a moment to compose himself before he continued, “You can become suitable. Better than those peacekeepers.” He looked away. “I assure you, I am not abandoning them as I did in the past. But it will be dangerous with me. Just temporarily… Would you mind doing me a favor?”

Cadence curled her hands around the proto-conductor and met Francis’s eyes. “Ya got it, Francis. Didn’t even need ta ask.”

And so, on Sunday, Cadence made a promise.


“You know, Cadence, people might think you’re untrustworthy because of your profession, but I think it’s because of your profession that you’re as trustworthy as they come. You put on a sign saying that you’re untrustworthy with just your job title and your conducting type.”

“What in saint’s name is that supposed ta mean, Francis?”

Francis Foxman (?) and Cadence Morello, unknown time

13a: Copper Cadence

Choose your finale OST: 1 – 2 – 3

Re-cap:
As Theta/Francis tears through the Twin Cities, Cadence must face the person who strays the line between family, friend, and enemy.


Twin Cities, Gemini

Cadence pulled herself onto all fours with a grimace. Her head pounded, her ears rang, her mind was clouded by memories and feelings that weren’t her own—a battle between saint candidates inside Ophiuchus, the death of True Conductors, and a murderous rampage of revenge. From these things, she reached a conclusion—

Their plan had fallen through faster than a row of dominoes.

Werner had been right. There had been too many assumptions and too many unknown variables involved. Francis had…

Shaking her head, Cadence assessed her surroundings. It was dark and musty. There was a crack of light spilling in from somewhere, and there was a ceiling above her head that was hung so low that she couldn’t even stand up without brushing against it.

Wait.

Rock. Slabs of rock. No. Sides of buildings. They were everywhere around her, forming a tight, claustrophobic enclosement. Dust rained down from above as she scrambled backwards.

She was buried. Under rubble.

How had that happened?

Theta. He had lost it and started throwing portals left and right. And…

Cadence grimaced.

Had he really dropped buildings on them? Wasn’t that a bit much?

A groan resounded from beside her. Slowly, she turned her head and found Allen, Carl, and Fortuna sprawled out just beside her. They stirred in unison, rising and assessing their surroundings. Cadence figured it’d be better if they assessed themselves first.

There was a stream of blood running down Carl’s head, and he was breaking a hacking cough. He barely looked able to sit. Fortuna seemed slightly better, but her bare ankle was sporting a painful-looking purple bruise. Allen looked the worse than all of them. The front of his suit was torn open and a nasty gash ran diagonally across his chest.

No, no, no. This was way worse now—

“You all finally up?” came a casual voice from behind.

Cadence’s blood ran cold as she turned her head.

Kneeling casually behind her was Omicron. In the dimness, Cadence was unable to see the tattoo on her face. But Cadence couldn’t even really focus on the woman’s face, because—

There was a steel beam embedded in Omicron’s abdomen, extending from the ground to the slab of rock just above their heads. A stream of blood was dripping down the beam and had already formed a large puddle on the ground. All around them similar steel beams protruded upwards, keeping the rubble in place. They were pulsating faintly with white light. No, not white. Upon closer and deeper inspection, Cadence realized that the light surrounding the beams was a very, very, very pale purple. Off-white. She figured she probably wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference if it wasn’t right in front of her.

Perhaps Charite’s vitae had been some shade of purple before—

Realization settled in abruptly.

“Why…” Cadence did a double-take. “Why did ya…?”

Omicron frowned. “What do you mean ‘why’? You’re important to Francis. Why else?” She glanced down at her injury and grimaced. “Admittedly, I haven’t done a rescue in some time so I didn’t maneuver that smartly.” She spat some blood and sighed. “If I try removing this, this entire thing’ll come down.” She started mumbling to herself, almost delirious. “And you don’t look like you’re going anywhere anytime soon. And I’ll probably bleed out even more even if I take it out. Not that I have the strength left to conduct anyways.” She waved her gloved hand. “Your conductors are so…. Theta…”

Allen pulled himself up beside Cadence with effort, exacerbating the wound on his chest. Cadence shouted in protest but he waved her off.

“But you still have the strength to ramble?” Carl asked before he entered a coughing fit.

Fortuna frowned from beside him, hitting his back while eyeing Omicron’s wound with a frown.

“I’d just like some appreciation,” Omicron admitted with a light scowl. “I was the highest-ranking member in my field back in Ophiuchus so you should at least show some respect. Even the kids show me more respect than you do.” She nodded at a small opening in between two slabs of concrete where the light was spilling in through. “Small ginger one, you can squeeze through there and get some help. A peacekeeper if you have to. You look small enough. This structure’ll hold even when I die.”

Cadence grimaced. Talking about death like that so freely—

“I’m going to actually die this time…” Omicron’s eyes widened. “No, I’m going to become nothingness…” She winced and wrapped her hand around the iron bar going through her gut. “Not a trace of me left…”

“Hey, I thought you said you guys don’t feel pain…” Carl frowned. “‘Cause you bleach your vitae or whatever.”

“It dulls the pain,” Omicron returned flatly, almost rolling her eyes. “If there’s an iron bar going through my gut, of course, I’ll feel it. Especially since Charite’s vitae—my vitae—is still inside me. I’m still human.”

There was a stretch of silence.

“You think saving us now makes up for everything you’ve done?” Fortuna pressed sternly, lips drawn.

Omicron glowered at her. “I don’t want to hear that from you.” And then her expression lightened. “Then again… I’m supposed to get along with you since your Francis’s family and friends.”

Cadence figured Omicron really was getting delirious from blood loss.

“You know…” Omicron murmured suddenly, turning to Cadence with wide eyes. “The easiest way to get all of you out of here would be if you—”

“Ya can just straight out say ya want me ta get Francis,” Cadence muttered, grimacing as another sludge of red poured out from Omicron’s gut.

Omicron stiffened before she whispered, “You can’t let Theta go through with this. This isn’t them. They wouldn’t do this. I think it’s just that… they’ve finally… come together… and it’s just too much.” She shook her head. “You can’t let Francis—Theta—bring the city down.”

“Like you all weren’t planning to sink the entire city before?” Fortuna frowned.

“We were planning to get the children and innocent out first,” Omicron replied, grimacing slightly. “Now, Theta is just…”

“Like that’s any better.” Fortuna scoffed. “What gives you the right to dictate what’s right and wrong?”

“Saints! Fortuna, there ain’t no point in arguin’ now,” Cadence interjected. “Ya need ta save your breath.”

Fortuna’s eyes narrowed before she sighed and shook her head.

“He was my brother before he was your lover!” Carl suddenly, almost randomly, roared, struggling forward. “Don’t you tell me to rescue him! Of course, I—” He entered a hacking cough.

“Carl, you’re injured,” Allen interrupted him. “You’re not going anywhere. Fortuna’s not going anywhere. I’m not going anywhere. The ROI on dead people is zero.” He turned to Cadence. “Get Francis first. Stop Francis. Before the peacekeepers do. We’ll be fine here.” He paused, thinking. “It’s a high-risk job, so name your price.”

Fortuna and Carl remained silent.

Cadence chuckled faintly, nervously. “I’ll take the down payment of ya not dyin’ before I get back.”

Allen’s brows rose ever so slightly before he nodded. “Done deal.”

Omicron’s eyes widened. After letting out a sigh of relief, she whispered, “Thank you.”

Her words of gratitude churned Cadence’s stomach, but Cadence merely gave her a quick nod and a two-fingered salute to the others before crawling her way to the crack of light. As she drew near to it, however, she felt her heart drop. Two crisscrossing iron pipes tightly blocked the exit. There was no way in hell she was going to be able to squeeze through them.

Wait, no. She could solve this. They could solve this. But…

Cadence’s gaze flicked back to the Foxmans, Fortuna, and Omicron who were watching her before she turned back to the bars. Atienna’s image flickered behind them for half a second.

What’s important?

Cadence wrapped her fingers around the steel bars and reached out to Olive who was already faintly peering in. His image appeared beside her, his lips drawn tight, his brows furrowed.

“I… It may have been a fluke the last two times. I’m not sure how it works, Cadence. It’s almost an override. I don’t want to—”

Come on, kid. Have a little bit more faith in yourself.

Olive gave her a brief look of annoyance which she could easily tell wasn’t how he really felt. He grimaced and covered her hands with his own and closed his eyes. There was a beat of silence. Cadence’s head buzzed.

The next moment saw to copper sparks dancing at her fingertips. The metal piping melted away into nothing below her palm. Waving away the disgusting smoke, she let out a quiet breath and hesitantly glanced backwards.

Fortuna and Allen looked somewhat perplexed. Carl just looked confused.

Omicron’s eyes widened for a fraction of a second—she almost looked fearful—and then she sighed. “I see. That’s a unique case for a True Conductor. That makes so much more sense. It’s amazing what you can do.” She coughed. “Not sure if that’s a comfort or…”

“Stop talking,” Fortuna reproached.

But Omicron continued on, “Theta isn’t hotheaded and Theta isn’t violent. If you make a sound argument, then you’ll be fine.”

Saints. That wasn’t helpful.

“He also said something about children inheriting the world from us. About us just being borrowers,” Allen added. “Was a teacher. Apparently. And Francis is hotheaded even though he pretends not to be.”

That was helpful.

“Right, thanks for the tips.” Cadence nodded before giving another salute. “See ya on the other side.”

With a grunt, Cadence pulled herself up and out of the hole before surveying the area. She nearly fainted when she turned to see how much rubble had fallen on top of them. It was like a tower, a castle. If Omicron hadn’t pulled through for them, they would’ve been dead for sure.

Cadence looked away, shivering before pausing as she felt something in her pocket. She reached in and pulled out Theta’s proto-conductor. Still in one piece. Weird as hell that it didn’t end up like Olive’s or Jericho’s proto-conductors. She shoved it back into her pocket and took in her surroundings.

The sky was illuminated by the reflection of the lights from the portals that seemed to litter every corner as far as she could see. The surrounding warehouses had collapsed into themselves and large slabs of rock and stone that looked like they were from different areas of the city were scattered around. There were a couple of peacekeepers dotted nearby, but they looked too busy or injured to even pay her any mind.

Where was she even supposed to start? Was Francis still even in the city?

Morello.

Werner was reaching out to her, and she accepted the synchronization.

The Capricornian was perched on top of one of the lower-rise buildings dotting the canal that ran into the Pollux Bay. He was peering towards the Dioscuri Bridge through a sniper scope of a conducting rifle. His telescope sight was focused on a spot on the bridge up high. No, not a spot. A person.

Theta stood there at the tip of the spire above the bridge. His conductor-gloved hand was pressed against a thin pole protruding from the spire. Beneath his palm, there was a pale tangerine glow. In his free hand was a v-cigarette that he would take a drag from every so often.

Cadence started through the city as she continued to peer in through Werner’s eyes.

Every so often a ray of vitae would hurtle up towards Theta only to be swallowed up by an unseen portal and be returned back in the direction it was sent. It made for a horrifying light show.

Morello, pay attention.

Cadence blinked and skidded to a halt just as she was about to cross a street. On the opposite side of the road stood a cluster of men and women. She recognized them from when she’d attended the Romano-Foxman meeting weeks ago. They’d been lower-ranking members of the family who’d dotted the square tables at the very ends of the meeting room. And now, they all held conductors ignited with pale off-whiteness. Just how many had ELPIS managed to convert? And Romano Family members of all people? That was just convoluted as hell. She’d laugh if she weren’t afraid.

Cadence stumbled backwards before she ducked into the nearest alleyway only to trip over the body of a man in a monochrome uniform wearing a white armband. Flinching backwards, she snapped her fingers. The cluster of men and women entered the alleyway just as the copper light from her transmutation faded. They jogged past her invisible guise.

Cadence held her breath, remaining still on the ground.

Now all she had to do was wait a little—

“This is Morello we’re dealing with,” one of them said, stopping short of the opening at the opposite end of the alley. “She’s probably still here. Transmuted herself into a disguise. Give it a sweep. She’s just as guilty as the Romanos and the Campanas since she’s workin’ with ‘em.”

You’re Romanos, ya hypocrites! 

Cadence’s heart hammered in her chest as she saw the group split into two and start sweeping their way from the ends of the alley towards her in a line.

Saints. Why were they so smart?

Cadence scanned the dark for anything she could use. Then her eyes locked onto the bladeless hilt clipped to the dead peacekeeper’s waist.

It’s a Projector’s conductor. 

Cadence hesitantly reached out and wrapped her fingers around its hilt. A ghost of a gloved hand passed over her own. She looked up and met with Werner’s cool blue eyes.

We still don’t understand this well enough, Werner stated. He studied the conductor. And I’m ill-equipped when it comes to melee combat.

Another hand abruptly wrapped over both of theirs.

When Cadence looked up, she found herself meeting Maria’s somber green gaze. Do not leave my side.

Two at the same time has never been done before. Werner glanced at her with a frown then glanced back at the closing distance of her pursuers. But given the situation, the risk is acceptable. May we? 

Nodding, Cadence took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Then she felt the blade hum beneath her fingertips. Everything after came in flashes. Bursts of a copper blade of light, leaping over bodies, hopping on shoulders, twirling in the air, slashing wildly. And a whole lot of sadness.

When Cadence came to, she found herself panting heavily, sweating profusely, and standing above a trove of bodies. She stumbled away from them, dropping the conductor that was still warm in her hand.

Guilt, later. Save, now.

She turned on her heels and dashed down the alleyway and back out onto the street as she peered through Werner’s eyes again. It took a second for the big question to hit her: how was she supposed to make it up to the top of the bridge? An idea came a second later.

Lieutenant—

Okay. I’ll send Bergmann to assist. But as soon as it appears that you’re unable to proceed, you and Bergmann will fall back and allow the peacekeepers to settle this. 

Understood, sir!

This isn’t a joking situation. 

It’s the nerves. 

Cadence wove her way through the streets and to the walkway that lined the lip of the Pollux Bay. There, she was finally able to make out Francis standing at the tip of the spire with her own eyes. He was just a tiny spot in the dark, but he was a firm destination.

Eventually, Cadence reached where the road met the beginnings of the bridge and train station. She was soon met by a panting Bergmann who was pounding up the steps connecting the lower level of the city to the bridge.

“Hey, doll,” Cadence greeted her with a grin despite her nausea. “Ya know, there’s a shorter route.”

Bergmann stiffened. “I apologize, ma’am. I was sent here by my lieutenant to assist you.”

“I’m pullin’ your leg, Emilia.” Cadence raised her hands before jerking her head up to the spire several meters away. “Mind sendin’ me up there?”

Bergmann nodded firmly and together they set off up the bridge.

As they drew closer and closer to the spire, however, the winds began to howl around them harsher and harsher. The portals scattered around the bridge were the source of these winds, and they wailed in agony as the gales pressed into and out of them. It was a horrifying sound. It sounded like people were trapped inside of them.

Eventually, the winds whipped around so strongly that they couldn’t take another step without being pushed right back. The spire of the bridge was still several meters away, but Cadence figured those odds were enough. She turned to Bergmann. The woman nodded, fell into a crouch, and pressed both of her gloved hands against the ground.

The area beneath her hands began to illuminate. The light there slithered along the ground until it came to a stop beneath Cadence’s feet where the light formed a large square. Bergmann looked up at Cadence, prompting Cadence to give her an affirmative nod and wink.

With a rumbling crack, the glowing ground trembled beneath Cadence’s feet and then extended up through the night sky, carrying her up with it. Its growth stopped short when it was level with the spire. Now, Cadence could really see Theta— a human figure standing on the spire, separated by the empty space from Bergman’s rock tower.

Here we go.

Cadence snapped her fingers and transmuted Omicron’s guise over herself in a flash of copper. Without skipping a beat, she charged forward and shouted Theta’s name. The man turned in her direction, wide-eyed—

“Omicron?!”

And Cadence leaped forward off of the extended ground. She knew that she was definitely too short to make the jump but, as gambled, Theta reached out to her in alarm and flicked his gloved hand. A crack of pale tangerine opened up before her at the motion. After tumbling on through it, she stumbled out onto the cold metal floor of the spire. The wind stopped whipping at her face, and the air felt warm. As she righted herself, she looked up to find Francis—Theta—standing across from her.

He took a drag of his v-cig. “You’re not Omicron.”

Cadence stiffened under his gaze. The courageousness and determination that had filled her only a second ago fizzled away. Jericho’s anger wasn’t there to suppress her fear either.

Atienna’s image abruptly appeared beside her and met her eyes. Her hand ghosted hers. I’m with you.

Letting out a breath, Cadence snapped her fingers and dispelled the illusion. “‘Fraid not, but your lady was the one who sent me up here.”

He extended his un-gloved hand. “Then I’ll send you back—”

“Looks like ya got your hands kinda too full right now ta be doin’ that.”

He glanced at his gloved hand that was still pressed against the glowing spot on the pole and then took another drag of his v-cigarette. “So, are you planning to push me off then? That won’t change anything. Everything has—”

“You know I’m a lover, not a fighter,” Cadence interjected, hands raised.

The man stared. “Don’t tell me you came up here just planning to talk to me…”

Cadence shrugged. “Well, I’m lousy in a fight. I ain’t the sharpest tool in the shed—saints, I’m still learnin’ ta read. And I’m poor with money so I don’t have any of that ta give. Doubt ya’d take it anyways. Talkin’ is the only thing I’m good at.”

“You’ll only waste your breath,” he replied calmly. “Everything is set in stone.”

“That’s awfully fatalistic of ya, ain’t it? Aren’t ya people all about ‘hope’ or whatever?” Cadence interjected.

“There’s no ho—”

“Yeah, I heard your whole spiel through your portal thing.” She waved her hand in the air. “So what? Ya realized that ‘your work’ wasn’t as stellar as ya thought it was; ya realized people’re worse than ya thought and ya and gave up? Ya pissed so you’re tryin’ ta just wipe everythin’ out? Ya don’t even care about the kids in the city anymore? After all that shoutin’ at us about not savin’ the children? Gonna murder-suicide this?” She took a step forward. “What are ya? A kid yourself?”

“I’ve just reached a realization—”

“I ain’t just talkin’ about whatever breakthrough ya just had that’s makin’ ya want ta sink the city now. I’m talkin’ about that off-the-walls project in general.” Cadence took another step forward. “I mean—what good would sinkin’ the city do ta begin with even if ya did it later like ya planned?”

“This city is unsalvageable—”

“Sure, this city is shit and the people are shit and—hell—even some of the kids are little shits, but we weren’t always shit and we won’t always be shit,” Cadence pressed on. “Some of the kids and people here are gonna do great things—change the world maybe—and they won’t be able ta do it if ya sink this city. What you’re doin’ is no better than the Campanas. You’re stealin’ away the future—the world—that you’re borrowin’ from them!” She shook her head. “I don’t get it with ya and your ELPIS bunch. Always seein’ everythin’ in black and white. If a white bucket of paint gets a tiny little speck of black in there, ya just go and dump it all out. Ya waste it. So again. What good would it do?”

Cadence snapped her fingers and let loose a transmutation that stretched across not only her own body but stretched to the floor and to Francis too. When her copper light shattered, she gazed at him.

“And are ya gonna seriously tell me that there’s nothing that ya can see that’s redeemable? Nothin’ lookin’ back that makes ya think that it ain’t so bad…?”

“What is this?” Frowning, the man studied first himself and then her. “Are you trying to use Francis’s childhood memory against me?”

Transmuted over Francis’s—Theta’s body—was the illusion of Francis’s younger childhood self. And reflected in the man-turned-boy’s eyes was Cadence’s younger self which Cadence had transmuted over her own body.

The man had been correct in his assumption. That was what Cadence had been trying to do. Deception through nostalgia. People clung to the past, after all. But as soon as Cadence saw her short, chubby-cheeked, wide-eyed image reflected in his eyes, she came to a realization. That was impossible.

She shook her head, heart faltering. “I ain’t talkin ta the parta ya that’s Francis in the first place.”

He froze, wide-eyed.

“I’m talkin’ ta you, Theta,” Cadence clarified. “Francis… is an idiot. He gets pulled in way too easily into drama. Not suited for the business as it is. Doesn’t operate on normal people morals or even—ya know—logic when he gets worked up. He just operates on what he feels is right.” She looked him over. “But you, Theta—ya seem ta me like the type that actually has ‘em. Which makes what you’re doin’ ten times worse.”

The man—the boy—frowned slightly.

“Do ya think that you doin’ this is some kinda callin’ card—an end slide—ta this whole thing? Ya think you’re makin’ a difference?” She took another step forward, dispelling the illusion with a wave of her hand.

“I—”

“This is just you givin’ up and runnin’ away,” Cadence interjected. “Ya were doin’ that even before ya became Francis! And that’s the one big difference between you and him. Francis faces his problems head-on, but you—look at what you’re doin’. Ya think anything’ll change by ya doin’ this? I don’t have a clue why ya think destroyin’ reservoirs or generator conductors or the city’ll solve anything. I mean, ya went after the one in Aries years ago, and look at it—it’s back! All those people ya killed—the children who died or became orphans—ta get to it died for nothin’ then in your book, ain’t that right?”

“I wasn’t—”

“With the way you ELPIS leaders exist and operate… ain’t it just that everything you’re doin’ is just an illusion of good will and change?”

Atienna’s image flickered strongly out of the corner of Cadence’s eyes, and an intense sadness took over her.

“I mean, by the way ya talk, ya obviously view dyin’ a helluva lot different than the rest of us. People like me—we ain’t thinkin’ about returnin’ ta the cycle. That’s why we try so hard—struggle and grovel like idiots. This is it for us. The end of the line. We ain’t comin’ back like you when we kick the bucket, so everything we do here is full effort one way or another.” She paused, frowning. “Theta, can ya really put your full effort into somethin’ when ya know you’ll always get another crack at it? ‘Cause if it ain’t and you’re causin’ all this, you’re worse than us.”

Jericho reached out to her in the distance. Cadence hesitated for a moment before she threw away the idea of pulling away and allowed him to come. He came in strongly, carrying in his usual fury but this time in a different flavor.

“Not only are ya not making progress and hurtin’ kids ya don’t even know but… what do ya think happens ta all of the children ya take in when ya run off and do things like this?” Cadence pressed. “What happened ta the ones who survive when you’re gone?”

This gave Theta pause. “You said that before. What are you talking about?”

“Who do ya think that suitcase peacekeeper that’s constantly after ya guys is? Why do ya think he’s after ya?”

Theta remained silent.

“It’s ‘cause he was raised up and taught by a person named Theta after ELPIS raided his village. Theta who taught him all about vitae and cycles; Theta who disappeared with the wind leavin’ him in the care of all the other ELPIS quacks. And what do ya think happened to him after that?”

Theta’s eyes widened slightly.

“You guessed it. He was forced into ELPIS when he was just a kid. Forced ta do the same kind of things you’re doin’ here as an adult. He’s lookin’ for revenge for everything your group forced on him—on the other kids too. Because that’s the only thing he can do.”

Theta paled in the light.

Jericho’s image intensified in front of her eyes.

“I think givin’ people love and takin’ it away is a helluva lot crueler than not givin’ ‘em any love at all. ‘Specially when you use it against ‘em.” She gestured widely down to the city. “Ya gave those kids down there hope, and now you’re takin’ it away!”

“You’re lying…” Theta pulled his gloved hand away from the pole, and the light there dimmed.

The light illuminating the city skyline followed suit, and slowly they became draped in complete darkness.

“Everything I’ve said since comin’ up here is one-hundred percent the truth—a record for sure,” Cadence affirmed. “Ya know that I’m not lyin’. If ya did, ya would’ve shut me up from the very beginning.”

The guilt enveloped the man’s entire body in an instant—from his face that crumpled, from his shoulders that dropped, from his back-step of disbelief.

Hook. Line. Sinker.

Guilt was a great motivator, after all. A tool to break down or a tool to incite change. Cadence had learned that from Olive, and she figured she was beginning to experience it herself. And with the sense of victory came a feeling of righteousness, fulfillment, satisfaction.

Jericho’s image flickered away out of her vision, although she still felt him lingering at the corners of her mind.

“And it ain’t just him. He just happens to the most vocal one about… Or maybe he’s the only one left.” She paused, gesturing to the city below. “You leavin’ all of ‘em like this… The ones who make it out—what do ya think’ll happen ta them?” She jerked her thumb backward. “That Iota broad has more than a few screws loose. Ya think she’s gonna take care of ‘em or let ‘em all go on their merry way? She’s all about recruitment, ain’t she?”

Theta didn’t seem to be listening too closely anymore.

“Take your own damn advice and take some damn responsibility!” Cadence snapped, stepping forward, grabbing a hold of the man by his collar, shaking him. “It’s not ‘it can’t be helped so I’m just gonna let it be’ or ‘I’m going ta wipe it away and forget about it’! Of course, it can be helped!” She tightened her hold. “Despite everything we went through when we were kids, we still all had stupid hopes and dreams. We knew that we’d never be like the rest of ‘em and we’d make terrible life-choices, but we still wanted to continue. We didn’t even think we were unfortunate then. And those kids down there—the ones you took in, the ones the Campanas owned—are just like us. They deserve as much of a chance as we did! Even if they end up shit. What gives you the right ta take that away?”

Francis’s hands wrapped around her own as he struggled in her grip.

“And, Francis, look. I… I don’t know what kinda memories of Theta’s ya saw. Just by the sound of it, it seems like it was maybe paradise back then. And ya probably have every right ta be angry on Theta’s behalf for how bad things’ve gotten.” Cadence’s shoulders sagged. “I lied ta ya before, Francis. Things can’t go back to the way they were before. Not anymore. Not to whatever the world was like before ELPIS. Not to how things were like before we grew up. We can’t go back. Not really.”

Alma’s gentle smile flashed through Cadence’s mind, as did the memory of running through the streets with the Foxmans, Fortuna, and Nico at her side. Biting her lip, Cadence tightened her grip on the man’s collar.

“It hurts. Realizin’ everythin’ you’ve been doin’ up ta now might’ve been for nothin’. Realizin’ ya can’t go back to the good old times. Realizin’ that you’ve fucked up hurts. It sucks, it’s embarrassin’—I know. But all you’re doin’ is throwin’ up temporary solutions ta this problem. Ya gotta own up to it, stop shruggin’ your shoulders, and try ta work somethin’ out.” Despite the burning in her eyes, she lifted her head and met his gaze. “So stop sayin’ there’s no hope, okay? It hurts when ya say that you’re givin’ up. ‘Cause you’re family ta me—no joke—Francis. So, let’s just try ta be better, aight?”

Francis released his hold on her hands and stared at her wide-eyed.

He’s done, Cadence, came Atienna’s reassurance.

Cadence panted heavily in the silence that followed and then released him. He slid to the ground and fell to his knees. She fell back on her rear beside him, heaving.

“I….” he murmured. “Saints. What am I doing…? I messed up… All those children…”

Cadence ran her hand down her face. “Yeah. We all did.” She studied him. “Have ya calmed down some now? ‘Cause that’s all I got. How about we put a stop ta the whole sink the city plan now?”

Francis’s brows furrowed, and he studied her in the dark. “It’s too late… I… the conducting grenades and explosive conductors. They’ve been placed already. They’re going to detonate. There’s no stopping it.”

Cadence sighed. “Okay, did ya not hear my whole speech about not givin’ up and takin’ responsibility?” She chuckled. “Embarrassing’ hearin’ myself say that.”

“Unless you grow five-hundred hands to reach all of them, then it’s going to be a miracle, Cadence.”

“I got a billion of ‘em for ya.”

Francis frowned.

“Open up your portals again, Francis,” Cadence urged. “I gotta plan. And I’m gonna prove to ya that the people of this city—nah, the world—ain’t as bad as ya think. Despite circumstance and situation.”

Francis stared. “You’re not making much sense…”

“You can control where things go when they enter your portal, right?” Cadence asked. “Then all we need ta do is have ya open up the portals that’re near the explosives, have the portals lead ta somewhere far off from the city, and dump the bombs in.”

“There’s five hundred of them all around the city, Cadence,” Francis muttered. “I won’t be able to gather them and transport all of them in time.”

“You’re not gonna have ta. The city folks will. Through a little help of direction,” Cadence said, wiggling her ringed fingers. “Or should I say mis-direction?” She chortled. “Nah, I’m kiddin’. It’s direction. I’ll transmute an illusion out from your portal to show ‘em where the bombs are at.”

“That’s too risky.” He frowned. “The amount of vitae you would have to expel to create an aerial distortion—an illusion—of that magnitude… plus, relying on the people of this city…”

“Aw, come on, Francis.” She cuffed him on the shoulder causing him to stiffen. “We’ve taken worse risks than that before. Remember the Ferrari candy store fiasco of the early 30s? After we pulled our last candy raid and cleaned the shelves, the folks set up watches around the block ta catch and beat thieves like us. And then there was that other group that bought a bunch of his candy and threw it all on the streets for rats like us. They all coulda been sadist protectin’ their own stuff, but also coulda been saints. Who knows. Appearances are deceivin’. The fact is that this is still their city, and they’re all greedy a hell.”

Francis’s eyes widened, and he seemed to reminisce before dipping his head. “Okay, Cadence, I’ll let you deceive me one last time.”

Francis moved back to the extended pole marked in black and placed his gloved hand on top of it. The spot began to glow immediately, and shortly after the smog clouds began to reflect back the pale tangerine glow from the city below. The light wasn’t as intense nor as large in number as before—Cadence could barely make them out in the dark.

Francis extended his free hand out to her. Cadence accepted the gentlemanly gesture, let out a shaky breath, and reached out her other ringed hand to the edge of the portal.

She knew she had to transmute something simple. Something easy to discern. Something eye-catching that’d get people’s attention. Something she knew like the back of her hand.

The image crossed her mind. Perfect.

She snapped her fingers and copper light spilled out from her hand from her rings. It was a bit more difficult to manage—the proto-conductor rings. She had to periodically flip from filling the rings with vitae to expelling the vitae, but eventually, she got the hang of the back-and-forth. And so, she turned her eyes to the nightscape and watched as her illusions rose out from the darkness from Theta’s portal.

Gigantic black and white piano keys stretched upwards through the night sky. They were as wide as the skyscrapers they rose up in-between. And slowly from the top to the bottom, the keys lit up and dimmed with copper light as if someone were playing. One key at a time. The faux play of light continued down the keys until the light cascade hit the bottom. As soon as the last key brightened and then faded, the top key would light up copper and the luminousness would descend again. Enough to draw the eyes and trigger curiosity.

Guys, I know I’m askin’ for a lot now, but…

Cadence’s vision began to blur as a wave of exhaustion took over her, but she kept herself standing.

Understood.

Cadence could see all of the others she was connected to within the city start towards her copper illusions. Werner directed his subordinates to the illusionary keys they were closest to. He was efficient, disposing of twenty explosive conductors into Theta’s gates with ease. Maria was a beast, leaping across thin alleyways from building to building, swiping the explosive conductors where they rested in plain sight, and tossing them into the portals as she ran past.

Cadence heard Atienna exchanging carefully chosen words with Cvetka who then prompted the Ophiuchian peacekeepers they were with to move out towards the piano keys. The word spread through the city quickly. Rumors were like currency in the city, after all. Cadence could hear through the ears of Werner, Maria, and Atienna the whispers of the people of the city as they rushed back and forth—

“What in saint’s name is that in the sky? Let’s check it out!”

“Peacekeepers say the city’s damned rigged to blow. Explosive conductors. ELPIS. Apparently, they set up Specialist vitae things around the city. Near those floatin’ keys.”

“They’re tossin’ ‘em into those things. It’s like a fancy garbage chute. Don’t know if they’ll manage it all in time though.”

“Damn. You think there’s one at La Teglia? Like hell, I’m going to let my favorite pizza place go down. Finally managed to eat their long enough to get that discount. I’m gonna check it out.”

“I heard there’s lotta money involved. If you show proof that you threw away those explosive conductors, then the Ophiuchians’ll give you 500 cens for each one!”

And through their eyes, Cadence also witnessed the city act on those rumors and words. Matilda and her gang wove their way through the streets towards the glowing keys. Her network of street rats and orphans dispersed, reaching nearly every corner of the city as they searched for the explosives and dumped them into the portals. There was also Hideyoshi and Louise whom Maria witnessed working together with several police officers to toss a large explosive conductor into a portal. Ferrari was even spotted checking around his candy store.

Of course, there were some who ran away in the opposite direction, some who dismantled the conducting grenades and explosive conductors and stored their parts away in their pockets, some who took advantage of the chaos, but—as all things in the city were—everything was balanced. Half and half. Good and bad.

Chortling at her good hand as her vision began to fade, Cadence fell forward into darkness.

***

When Cadence cracked open her eyes again, the sky was dark and she was lying on the ground with her head propped against something soft and warm.

Francis’s face eclipsed her own. “Are you alright?”

At the faint sight of the tattoo on Francis’s face, Cadence didn’t feel the usual anger. Instead, she felt a heavy sadness. And uncertainty. But just for him.

Jericho.

“Ya know, I’d feel much better if I was layin’ on the lap of a pretty broad instead.”

Francis chuckled lightly, musically. “I think that answers that question.”

“Where are we?” Cadence asked after a beat.

“We’re still on top of the Dioscuri,” Francis replied.

The memory of the others weaving through the city trickled down to her slowly, causing her to cackle lightly. “Told ya we could save the city. I never bet on a bad game.”

“Eleven-twelfths of it,” Francis amended. “One-twelfth of the explosive conductors were set off before they were dropped into my gates.”

Cadence stiffened.

They didn’t detonate near any of the reservoirs. From the information I’ve received, they donated in the wealthier districts that evacuated when this incident first began, Werner provided, suddenly dipping into her mind. His shadow crossed her face. I apologize for the intrusion. It wasn’t intentional. A pause. You did well. 

Enjoyin’ the praise here. And I enjoy the company too, Lieutenant.

Cadence nodded back at Francis. “Yeah, those are good odds, ain’t they?” She groaned and rubbed the back of her neck. “I feel like I’ve got a hangover.”

“You expelled a lot of your vitae,” Francis said. He paused, studying her quietly. “To expel that much vitae, you’d have to be one of two things. Either a saint candidate or a True Conductor.”

Cadence tensed and felt Werner’s synchronization increase. “Ya ain’t gonna strangle me now are ya?”

Francis frowned, gaze lowering. “It’s not even funny that you’d suggest that after everything you’ve said…”

Damn… He was gloomy.

“Hey, hey, can ya blame me? Every time we come across any of ya, ya try ta put a bullet or whatever ya can find through us.”

“Yes, your existence is dangerous. You’re a necessary part of the syzygy,” Francis agreed. “But I’ve given your words some thought while you’ve been napping. It really is a temporary solution. The reservoirs and the True Conductors.” He smiled thinly down at her. “I might be biased though, since a childhood pal of mine is one.”

“And Theta’s pals?”

Francis frowned again. “They relied on my ability for this entire operation, and we put all of our stakes on this night. No one is getting their hands on those explosive conductors. Not any of the Families. Not any of them.” He looked out towards the faint cityscape. “And the others will not be able to move in this city without me.”

“Well, if we’re on the same page now, I was hopin’ ya’d answer a couple of questions for me—wait!” Realization jolted Cadence, and she shot up and grabbed a hold of his hand.

Francis startled in alarm.

“Francis—no, Theta?” Cadence shook her head. “Saints, it doesn’t even matter.” She tightened her grip. “It’s Omicron and the others.”

***

Francis took the both of them through a portal to outside of what remained of Warehouse 13 before Cadence guided him into the collapsed cavern of rubble. Fortuna, Allen, and Carl were still huddled together in the corner there, although they all looked much better than how when Cadence had left them. Fortuna’s ankle was wrapped tightly in gauze, Carl’s forehead was no longer bleeding, and Allen’s chest was tightly bandaged. The trio looked up at their appearance.

The relief that broke across Carl’s face almost made Cadence laugh. Fortuna meanwhile merely frowned, while Allen leaned back against the stone slab behind him and let out a sigh.

Cadence figured the new addition to the cave was the reason for their drastically improved conditions. And, as per usual, that new addition was too focused on his task at hand to notice her and Francis’s entrance. Cadence cleared her throat.

Nico Fabrizzio turned from where he knelt and stared.

“Cadence!” He brightened in a way that made Cadence’s heart warm. His expression faltered, however, when he registered Francis standing behind her. “Saints, Francis, you…”

“A warmer greeting would’ve been nice, Nico,” Francis said as he walked past Cadence to Nico’s side.

Then Cadence registered who Nico was kneeling in front of. Omicron. The woman was deathly pale, although the wound that the pole was protruding out of was no longer bleeding profusely. Nico’s work, no doubt. Omicron’s eyes were half-lidded, and she seemed to be staring at something deep in the ground.

“I… I know she’s ELPIS, but Carl and Allen gave me the go-ahead.”

Cadence arched a brow at the two brothers. They were inhabitants of the Twin Cities through and through. Fickle. Unbiased. Except when it came to family.

“I’ve been tryin’ my best,” Nico stammered as Francis knelt beside him, “but the pole’s pierced vital organs. I can only transmute so much without a donor or…”

Francis placed a hand on his shoulder. “It’s okay, Nico. That’s enough.”

Nico frowned in surprise and confusion, before Cadence approached him from behind, tapped him on the shoulder, and jerked her head backward. Nico opened his mouth to protest but then unfurled from Francis and joined Cadence at her side.

Omicron lifted her head at the commotion.

“You really are a ridiculous person,” Francis murmured. “Trying to look heroic at a time like this.”

“I am heroic… darling,” Omicron greeted him pleasantly, voice barely audible as she reached for his face with her ungloved hand. “The city?”

She didn’t seem to have the strength to reach him, however, and her hand fell short just a centimeter away. He intercepted the gesture, cupped her hand in his own, and pressed it to his cheek.

“It’s still standing,” Francis murmured. “I’m sorry for putting you through this…. all of you.”

Omicron opened her mouth but no words came out. It was too much of an effort. Francis tightened his hold on her hand.

“Please. My name. My real name. One more time.” Omicron’s eyes widened. The desperation in her voice was tight. “Just once. Please. If you remember—”

“Altair,” Francis affirmed. “I can never forget that.”

Omicron’s eyes widened before they softened. “My darling Vega.”

The affection in their words sparked a pang of jealousy in Cadence’s chest, but the feeling was quickly overtaken by a pang of heavy empathy. To be so close yet so far away from someone you cared about was…

And then Omicron’s hands slipped from Francis’s. The man grabbed it as it fell and pressed it against his cheek for a moment before gently placing it down. He placed a hand on the side of Omicron’s cheek that hosted her tattoo before moving forward to close her vacantly staring eyes. A pale light began to curl up from her body like smoke as he did so. A pure white light.

And then Francis began to murmur under his breath,

“There is no end,

There is no beginning,

There is only a cycle.

Whether enemy, whether friend,

Whether family, whether stranger,

Whether on land, whether on sea, whether in sky,

Whether alone, whether in company,

Whether in peace, whether in war,

May all return to where all began.”

Despite everything, Cadence couldn’t help but find the entire scene beautiful as the light filled the dark corners of the cavern and illuminated the steel beams as it seeped out of the cracks of rock.

When the light completed faded, Francis rose slowly and faced them. His eyes were wet but he didn’t seem ashamed.

“Er… I’m sorry, Francis. About your girl.” Carl sat up. “Did er… Omicron become… nothingness then?”

Cadence wanted to smack him. Couldn’t he read the atmosphere?

“Maybe…” Francis murmured, wiping his eyes and turning towards his brother. “Or perhaps she’s found peace.”

For a moment, no one spoke.

And so the six of them remained there in silence. Six childhood friends, always looking backwards, always being forced forwards. Staying the same, yet constantly changing. Unsure of what to do next, but always faking certainty. Accepting everything, rejecting nothing. Representatives of what the Twin Cities truly was. It truly was absurd—the different directions they’d all gone.

A romantic thought, Cadence mused. She wondered if Atienna was influencing her more than she liked to admit.

Francis reached into his pocket and drew out a knife. Nico startled, but Cadence squeezed his shoulder. Francis drew the knife across his palm and splashed a streak of red at their feet. He then sank to his knees and placed his gloved palm on top of the red.

“Don’t take too long, Francis,” was all Allen said. Carl nodded in agreement from beside him.

“You need to answer for everything you’ve done. The business, the Family, my father. You’re not walking away from this,” Fortuna added, eyes glowering. But she didn’t make any attempts towards him. “And you still have to answer one question since I won the game.”

Nico, as always, looked between them all with confusion and concern which turned into alarm as the space beneath their feet began to glow with tangerine light.

“See ya soon, Francis,” Cadence called out as she, Allen, Carl, Fortuna, and Nico began to sink downwards into the portal. “And I’m sorry.”

Francis merely smiled as he watched them disappear from his sights.

Given all of their responses to the situation, Cadence wondered if that despite everything, deep down they were still all the same, but—

—as she re-emerged from the portal and found herself in front of Doctor Fabrizzio’s underground clinic, she knew that there was no going back.

12.1: A Duet for a Prince & Peacekeeper

Re-cap:

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

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


Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

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

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

Jericho turned his head.

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

“Are you alright?”

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

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

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

Alice met his eyes and nodded. “Okay—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is okay, Olivier. 

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

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

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

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

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

Jericho tightened his grip on his suitcase.

In other words, this Gamma had to die—

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

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

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

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

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

Gamma didn’t respond.

How can she say that in this situation…?!

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

“Would my answer change anything?” Gamma asked.

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

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

False hope.

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

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

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

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

“The saint candidate of Sagittarius,” Talib realized.

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

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

Something was wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trystan stared. “How—”

Don’t tell me—

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

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

Worry and panic seized Jericho’s chest.

“Trystan!” Olive shouted.

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

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

“Bang!”

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

But… where were the tourists? It was empty.

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

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

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

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

Olive nodded at Claire. “You… okay?”

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

Olive turned his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I need to let him know, Olivier.

Okay then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jericho…

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

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

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

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

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

—here. 

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

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

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

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

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

“A-Aunt Jiji…”

Claire was wide-eyed, unmoving beside Olive.

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

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

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

But what if Izsak is still

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

No. False hope. False hope.

—was tossed backwards by an abrupt torrent of wind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Claire!” Olive shouted in panic.

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

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

But they had to focus.

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

Leona.

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

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

His gaze flicked to the two peacekeepers behind her.

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

Jericho was at his side immediately, expressionless.

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

Olive tensed, nodded.

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

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

… How had she known Gamma’s name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And Gamma?”

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

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

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

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

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

Jericho stared.

Claire’s got Talib. I’m sure of it.

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

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

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

“Bang!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What in saint’s name…

This was ridiculous. Were they even human?

Abruptly, Jericho stopped running behind him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jericho continued to stare at him.

Olive guessed it was.

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

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

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

Jericho blinked. I care. What you think.

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

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

But that’s not the point.

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

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

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

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

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

Not ‘nothingness’.

Jericho’s eyes widened slightly.

Finally, they reached the threshold of the bridge.

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

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

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

I think I appreciate it.

Olive stiffened before grimacing.

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

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

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

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

Olive winced. Jericho was still so awkward.

Jericho blinked down at him.

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

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

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

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

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

Talib’s expression fell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That didn’t go as planned, Jericho thought.

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

Would it be customary to… hug now?

Olive hesitated, considering. No.

11.6: Olive’s (Nascosto) Test

Re-cap:

Olive has been in the Bodhi Temple of Sagittarius studying for his State Conducting Exam. Alongside him is Claire and Claire’s sister Eunji who is also studying for the exam. The saint candidate of Sagittarius Ilseong Jin appears before Olive ominously casting doubt on Olive’s efforts and Olive’s sister Lavi. She is then revealed to have ties with ELPIS.

As the night of their plan comes into fruition, Olive’s part is to…

Olive opened his eyes.

The clicks and clacks of the train trudging along the tracks were the first things he became aware of. Then came his awareness of the surrounding animated chatter.

Across from him sat Jin, sandwiched in-between Claire and the latter’s step-sister Mai. At Claire’s left sat Eunji with her head buried in her book, and at Mai’s right sat Kai who was looking at the scenery flitting past the train-car window. The rest of the compartment was filled with Claire’s and Mai’s entourage. It was a rather tight fit, but the heat wasn’t unpleasant. It reminded Olive of the air back home. At Olive’s left sat Trystan who mumbled a “Did you sleep well?” as Olive gained his bearings.

“Yeah.”

No.

“Good morning, kiddo.” Jin flashed him a grin.

Ignoring her, Olive rose from his seat and headed over to the corner of the train cart where his bird had been placed alongside all of his other belongings. The blackbird tweeted at his approach, and he looked around expectantly for Lavi to show her face. But she didn’t.

Olive grimaced and stared at Jin’s reflection on the window beside him.

He knew that his portion in this plan of theirs was rather simple. Much more simple than the tasks of the other five. And yet still, he wouldn’t be able to do it without Cadence’s help. It was pathetic.

“Seeing that bird in that cage is pretty depressing.”

Olive startled and whipped around to find Jin hovering over his shoulder.

“I would say set the bird free,” Jin continued, “but what’s the point? It’s been conditioned to captivity, so it’ll be absolutely useless when you let it loose in the wild.”

“I see you’re an ornithologist now,” Olive muttered. “People really are into fields that reflect their personality.”

“Are you calling me bird-brained?” Jin whistled. “You have a lot of gusto, kiddo. Wonder if I’ll ever see that aloof arrogance disappear.” Her smile thinned. “I’ll be looking forward to it.” She chuckled. “Just kidding, kiddo. Maybe in my next life.”

***

Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

The train docked at The Grand Snake Station five hours later.

As Olive was gathering his belongings alongside Trystan and Claire, he kept his eye glued on Jin. She hadn’t brought much with her on their train ride and was busy chatting with the car attendant at the cabin’s exit.

It was now or never.

Olive sucked in a breath as he headed towards her; and then with unpracticed uneasiness, he tripped forward. He let out a yelp and reached out for the closest thing to him, which just so happened to be—as calculated—Jin. She whipped around quickly and caught him mid-fall. His vision went black for a moment. When it returned, Jin was flashing him another grin.

“Nerves?”

“Sure,” Olive muttered, peeling away from her and quickly shoving his right hand into his pocket. He beckoned for Trystan with a jerk of his head and headed through the train doors behind Jin. Abruptly, Jin reached out and grabbed his shoulder. Olive tensed, heart hammering, and turned back towards her.

“Good luck on your exam,” Jin hummed, tightening her grip. She nodded at Claire, Eunji, Mai, and Kai who had just finished packing their things. “All of you.”

“You’re not coming to watch?” Claire asked perturbed.

“I’ve got something I need to take care of first. I’ll be around though,” Jin answered, stepping off the train with a wave. “Good luck!”

Olive swallowed, curling his fingers around the proto-conductor that Cadence had just plucked from Jin in his pocket. Now all he had to do was keep an eye on her and figure out what to do with the proto-conductor. Keeping it away from her was the best option at the moment. But first, he had to stop acting suspicious. Shrugging his shoulders, he shuffled off the train and stepped out onto the platform.

It was annoyingly crowded. Men and women in black and white uniforms brushed past him without care, while men and women dressed in casual wear looked around at them in confusion. Despite the overwhelming crowd and noise, Olive didn’t find it jarring or uncomfortable. Even though he had been to this place only once many years ago, everything was still very familiar to him. Beside him, Trystan surveyed the area while balancing all of their belongings.

Claire appeared from behind with a pleasant smile. “Lost?”

Behind the Sagittarian prince stood Felix, Soha, and Eunji. Mai and Kai and their entourage seemed to be elsewhere. Good.

“Because we are,” Claire finished. “You wouldn’t happen to know a friend who knows their way around, would you?”

Olive didn’t know what Claire was playing at, and he was too tired and anxious to even think about it. So, without complaint or response, Olive led them to and through a straight pathway in an open yard dotted with statues of faceless, genderless figures. The pathway eventually led to a large white marble staircase that extended as far wide as it extended high. It seemed completely impractical, but instead of grumbling about it to himself, Olive found himself staring at a spot at the foot of the steps.

He was certain.

This was the very spot that Jericho had struck when he’d been pushed from the top by Omega. This was where Jericho almost died. This… was a safety hazard.

Olive shivered but was jarred out of his thoughts by a hand on his shoulder.

Claire chuckled. “Mentally preparing yourself for the climb?”

***

When they reached the top of the staircase, they were greeted by an army of peacekeepers who prompted them to turn in any conductors they had. Olive and Trystan flashed them golden, hexagonal medallions imprinted with the Ariesian royal ram, while Claire and his entourage flashed silver medallions carved with Sagittarian letters. The peacekeepers looked the identifications over, before allowing their group to pass with their conductors. A little bit of misdirection with Cadence’s assistance allowed Olive to slip the proto-conductor past them too.

“Perks of being royalty,” Claire sang.

After passing a vitae spectrophotometer test within, they were directed inside and given directions to a room to store their belongings. The directions were poor, of course, and vague too. But thankfully, Jericho synchronized at just the right moment and directed Olive on where to go. Eventually, Olive guided the group to a large storage room where they checked in their belongings with several peacekeepers.

Olive didn’t ask these peacekeepers for the directions to the examination room. Instead, he continued forward with a shrug and led the Claire and the others to an open room on the fourth floor of the establishment. STATE CONDUCTING EXAM was emblazoned on a plaque just outside of the room.

No use in it being there, Olive thought, if people couldn’t even find the room to begin with.

The room’s walls were guarded by rows of white waiting chairs, half of which were occupied. They bypassed these chairs in favor of approaching the half-circle receptionist desk at the room’s center.

A familiar man with black curls and a tattooed face manned the desk’s forefront. It was Moraeni, the Piscese peacekeeper who was a part of Gabrielle’s inner circle.

The man greeted them pleasantly at the desk; and after ascertaining which members of their party were taking the exam and checking their identities, he handed Eunji and Olive each a slip of paper with a number on it. He didn’t seem affected by their twin statuses of royalty.

“That’ll be your examinee number, and if you pass this exam, it’ll be your license number,” Moraeni explained in Common. “Please be aware that it’ll take around two months for you to receive your license if you pass due to secondary background checks. Also, while you can come in and take the written exam on any day of your choice, you must take the practical portion on the day you’ve taken the written portion. If you don’t, you’ll have to take the written portion again.” He gave an apologetic smile, the formality in his body and tone dissipating. “It’s just how the system works. Sorry.”

Olive nodded, not particularly caring.

“As you know, only the examinees are allowed to be in this room while the exam is being proctored,” Moraeni addressed Claire, Soha, Felix, and Trystan, “so go ahead and exchange your good wishes.” He nodded back to an ominous-looking black door just behind him. “When you’re done, the test takers may enter through that door to the examination room.”

Claire pulled Eunji to the side and began to speak to her quietly. Felix and Soha stood in front of them, blocking the siblings from Olive’s view. Not that Olive needed a first-row ticket to family drama. Ignoring them, Olive pulled Trystan to the far corner of the room.

“I need you to do something for me,” he said.

“What is it, your highne—Olivier?”

“I need you to find Jin and keep an eye on her.”

Trystan frowned somewhat but obliged. “… Of course, Olivier.”

“But keep your distance. Don’t… don’t get too close.” Olive reached out, squeezed his arm.

Trystan nodded hesitantly and departed from the room alongside Claire and his two guards. Olive sighed and grimaced before heading towards the ominous door. He found Eunji standing right in front of it, stiff with a constipated expression. He would’ve chuckled at the sight if he wasn’t as nervous himself. And not just about the exam.

“Come on.” Olive gave Eunji a nudge forward. “Can’t take the test standing.”

Together, they stepped inside.

The room was spacious and wide. It held a lecturer’s podium at its center with interconnected desks arching around it. A handful of young men and women who looked nauseous already occupied several of the desks.

The entirety of it reminded Olive of the lecture halls back in New Ram City.

Olive helped Eunji find her seat before walking over to the desk that was marked with his number and taking a seat himself. The test proctor came to a stand at the center of the room and monologued about rules, cheating, and time frames as another proctor started passing out the exams.

When Olive received his own exam packet, he grimaced. It was more like a tome than anything else. Almost an inch thick. As much as he cared for Atienna’s love of plants and trees, he sincerely hoped it was single-sided.

“—and now,” the test proctor boomed with an aggravatingly dramatic flourish, “you may begin!”

Taking a deep breath, Olive picked up the pencil that they had provided to him and flipped open to the first page.

Double-sided.

Damn. 

***

Olive finished the exam with an hour to spare. After double-checking his answers and switching back and forth between A and C for several questions on the multiple-choice section, he decided enough was enough. He shut the packet, signed his name at the front of the thing like he was signing his will, and handed the packet to the proctor.

As he made his exit, he realized that Eunji’s seat was empty. She had completed her exam before him, it seemed. It was a slight blow to his ego, but it was mended a second later when Olive spied Kai among the seated examinees. The man was staring holes into his testing paper and seemed to be sweating and swearing under his breath.

Olive swept out of the room and let out a sigh. He stopped short, however, as he registered Eunji sitting along the wall with her head buried in her hands. He grimaced and rubbed the back of his neck before walking over and sinking down beside her.

“What did you put for number 23b in section C?” Eunji asked, snapping up to stare at him. “The question about the vitae particles and kick-starter?”

“Would knowing what I put change anything?” Olive arched a brow.

Eunji stared down at her hands, opened her mouth, grimaced, fell silent.

Talk about awkward.

But Olive could tell what was going through her mind. Only a couple of months ago, he’d been going through the same thought process. The desire not to be useless but the fear of being useful. Trying to dissect if the effort was worth anything at all in the end.

“You should stop thinking so much and just worry about what you can do now. The rest will come later,” Olive finally said. When Eunji blinked up at him hesitantly, he jerked his head towards the exit. “Let’s go. Unless you have a friend you’re waiting for.”

Upon exiting the examination room with Eunji in tow, Olive found Claire, Soha, and Felix lounging around in the hall just outside. Claire beamed at their appearance and rushed over to Eunji’s side.

“How was it?” he asked.

Eunji shrugged.

Olive cast a glance to the side and was startled to find Trystan approaching them from down the hall. Olive detached himself from the Sagittarian and met Trystan halfway.

“Trystan?” Olive asked. “You couldn’t find her?”

“No, I did find her, Olivier,” Trystan replied, dipping his head. “But she entered a location that I was barred entry from.”

“What’s going on?” Claire asked as he joined them alongside his sister and bodyguards.

“It’s nothing—” Olive began.

“This is about my aunt, isn’t it?” Claire interjected.

Eunji looked between them in confusion. “What about Aunt Jiji…?”

Olive turned back to Trystan. “Show me where.”

Trystan startled. “But, Olivier, your practical exam is—”

“The practical portion isn’t for another two hours,” Olive interjected. “Take me, Trystan—”

Claire placed a hand on Olive’s arm and urged, “I’m comin with you. This is one of the people of my clan.”

Olive regarded him for a moment before brushing his hand aside and nodding.

Claire turned back to Eunji and his vassals. “Soha, stay with Eunji. Felix, with me.”

“Yes, my lord,” came the affirmations in unison.

***

Olive’s heart hammered in his chest as Trystan directed them through white halls, past suited peacekeepers who only spared their traveling group a glance, past rooms marked with department names and numbers, down several floor levels. As Trystan continued to lead them onwards and as they continued to descend the Serpens Establishment, Olive came to realize that he knew this route. Down, down, down they went until they reached the first-floor level and made their way through a near-empty corridor.

Olive knew what was at the end of this corridor. He—no, Jericho—had been down this way once before. At the end of this hall would be a series of tightly guarded checkpoints that only certain Ophiuchian agents were able to get past. After that, they would be greeted by a metal elevator that would bring them to the depths of the Black Constellation Detention Center.

Olive stopped short in his tracks halfway down the hall. Trystan, Claire, and Felix turned back to look at him.

It’s okay, Olive tried to reassure himself. As long as Jin didn’t have Theta’s proto-conductor, whatever she was planning, she wouldn’t be able to properly execute. She wouldn’t even think about doing that… right?

A loud boom resounded from down the hallway. The sound was followed by the rumbling and groaning of the entire building. Dust fell from the ceiling and a crack appeared on the floor.

Then the sirens blared.

Trystan was at Olive’s side immediately, bow conductor drawn. Felix drew near to Claire but didn’t move to conjure anything.

Olive was in no state to pay attention because Maria’s anguish suddenly tore through his heart like a knife. He doubled over at the intense emotion thatt weighed down his chest like an anchor. Olive thought he’d never feel like this again. This pain, this heaviness, this guilt.

Maria….

Olive had been alone when he had suffered these feelings after the Tragedy of Aries and—

He grimaced.

—he wouldn’t let Maria go through it alone like he did. He clawed his way towards her, increasing their synchronization through the haze of sorrow until he was with her. With her facing Conta. With her charging in fury at Conta. With great effort, he convinced Maria to quell her rampage, and he was left drained at the attempt. Maria was a force of nature. Sometimes Olive doubted if she was human. But still. He didn’t want her to be alone—

Something buzzed warm in Olive’s right pocket, bringing him back into his reality in the hallways of the Serpens Establishment. Glancing down, he found that his pocket was glowing. He dug into it, pulled out Theta’s proto-conductor. It was bright, burning hot.

Reflexively, he yelped and dropped the thing. It shattered as soon as it hit the ground, spewing the glowing substance across the floor with a splatter. The liquid-like substance trickled along the ground, crawling forward until it eventually divided the hall in two.

Trystan jerked Olive backwards away from the newly formed portal just as it nearly reached his foot. Olive offered him a subdued look of gratitude before he realized that their entire group was on the side of the hall leading towards the detention center. He looked back and then forward, measuring the distance the portal covered with his eye. It looked at least several feet wide.

Suddenly, from that newly formed portal, a familiar voice cracked out—

“There really is no hope.”

Only a second later, out from the pool of light flew four figures in monochrome uniforms. Three landed on Olive’s side of the hall, while one landed on the opposite side. Olive recognized one of the peacekeepers who landed on his side immediately. The recognition was paired with relief.

Jericho.


The State Conductor Exam (sometimes referred to as the State Conducting Exam) is a standardized examination given to propsective Conductors. Established six months following the foundation of Ophiuchus as a peacekeeping state, this exam consists of three portions: written, practical, and interview. The written portion consists of questions regarding conducting principal and vitae theory, while the practical consists of conductor maneuverability and usage. 

Altogether, the exam can take 7.5 hours to complete.

In order to receive a State Conductor’s License, one must pass this test. 

Conducting Informational Packet, circa 1935

11.5: Jericho’s (Dicotomico) Hatred

Re-cap:

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

Twin Cities, Gemini

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

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

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

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

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

Francis offered a thin smile.

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

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

Now, they waited.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I haven’t been practicing.

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

You will… be my teacher?

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

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

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

Jericho cocked his head.

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

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

Talib frowned at Francis’s address.

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

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

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

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

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

“What in saint’s name…”

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

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

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

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

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

“And Enzo?” Cadence pressed.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

He felt Cadence tense.

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

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

Jericho opened his mouth to respond, but—

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

— “I’m unsure,” he said.

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

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

Cadence nodded half-heartedly in agreement.

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

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

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

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

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

Jericho exchanged a look with Cadence and then with Talib.

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

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

“Whatever helps,” Francis replied after a beat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You know my answer to that.”

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

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

A pressure lifted itself off of Jericho’s chest.

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

The hell. We literally just told him that.

Theta stared at him. “Who are you?”

Ambrose blanched.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donato stiffened.

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

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

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

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

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

Theta remained silent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theta continued, “You will take responsibility for—”

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

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

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

Jericho stared at Cadence in surprise.

Was she… defending him?

Theta frowned. “What are you talking about?”

Cadence stared back. “What—”

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

… He doesn’t know. 

Cadence stared at Jericho.

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

Jericho stared at Cadence, ears ringing.

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

Jericho’s head buzzed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

“Okay, I will.”

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

That’s it…?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—and then Gabrielle released her.

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

Alice musta told Gabe what happened ta Izsak…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theta’s eyes widened. “When…?”

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

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

Hypocrite.

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

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

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

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

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

“Omicron—”

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

“Omicron, don’t do this.”

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

Two hours.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omicron sighed. “I figured as much.”

There was a stretch of silence.

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

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

“Don’t do this,” Theta stated.

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

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

Francis stared at her stiffly.

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

It ain’t that black and white, detective. 

Wasn’t it?—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“First chairwoman of the ELPIS Investigation Department.”

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

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

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

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

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

The atmosphere felt odd.

Ya mean ‘awkward’?

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

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

Jericho stared at Gabrielle. Was she covering for him?

Please stop starin’. It looks suspicious.

Jericho looked forward.

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

Aint she bein’ too casual?

But Gabrielle and the others kept quiet.

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

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

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

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

“I see. So you do know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

So it was an illusion of peace.

Jericho’s heart skipped a beat.

What. No. ELPIS was the illusion.

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

Leona didn’t respond.

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

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

Talib stiffened beside Jericho.

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

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

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

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

Jericho blinked at her.

There was a stretch of silence.

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

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

Jericho stared at her. “… So.”

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

Ya need ta get outta there, detective.

“ELPIS still exists.”

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

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

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

Jericho hesitated.

“Well?”

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

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

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

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

Theta hadn’t known.

But that changed nothing.

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

Irrelevant. Of course there was.

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

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

Hot!

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

Cadence’s terror came shortly afterwards.

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

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

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

11.1: Cadence’s (Sincero) Deception

Re-cap:

Cadence Morello has faced her own self-deception and self-illusion. She has learnt that Donato of the Romano Family was the one behind Francis’s stabbing and that the man is working together with Enzo of the Campanas. But the city has been moving quickly without her notice. Theta (?) has decided that it is time for ELPIS to make their move, and the Twin Cities begins to fragment under ELPIS’s terror and ‘hope’. Now, Cadence and the other five must come together and decide to…

Twin Cities, Gemini

Cadence opened her eyes.

She was flat on her back with the dampness of the pavement beneath her soaked into her suit jacket and pants. Pain throbbed up and down her limbs—unpleasant when paired with the taste of iron in her mouth.

She blinked and squinted.

It was pitch black. She couldn’t even tell if she was looking at the sky or the ground. If it were the sky, she figured she’d at least be able to see the city lights reflected back by the smog clouds, but there was nothing.

Was she dreaming? No. It’d be a terrible dream if she felt this awful.

Was she dead?

And then she heard the screams; the pit-pat-pit-pat of gunfire that reminded her more of Werner’s side of things than her own; and the blaring of sirens.

Maybe she was in hell.

“What in saint’s name…”

You lost consciousness.

Jericho’s face eclipsed her just as a sudden burst of burning white light became reflected on the smog clouds above her.

“Yep. Seems so. From pain instead of drinkin’ this time, though. Great.”

The white light faded from the sky, leaving her in complete darkness again.

“Detective… what the hell is goin’ on here?”

ELPIS made their move. They cut the insulation lines connecting the generator conductors around the city to the vitae reservoirs’ generator conductors around three hours ago. ELPIS members are on the street. Targeting civilians and searching for members of the Romanos and the Campanas. Bendetto has gone missing.

What…?

I’ve been put on a task force set to hunt the ELPIS leaders who are confirmed to now be present in the city. Theta, Omicron, Iota. A pause. Then Jericho added as if an afterthought—I also…

The memories of Omega’s execution in the damp, dark warehouse flooded Cadence’s mind. The anger, the hatred, the righteousness, the minute satisfaction. And the emptiness afterwards.

Cadence’s heart thundered in her chest.

We have not located Theta yet. Another pause. I have not informed Leona of the connection between Theta and Francis either.

Relief.

Thanks, detective. But…

“I… I don’t get it.” Cadence pulled herself up to a sit and groaned. “Why are they actin’ now? Thought they were aimin’ ta lie low till they found that mystical third vitae reservoir. Use the Families against each other.”

Yes, Leona believes ELPIS has uncovered the location of the third reservoir, and they are now aiming to destroy the three central generator conductors hooked to them simultaneously. She has increased the number of agents guarding them, but given Theta’s ability, it may not be sufficient. The city conductor engineers are attempting to restore power.

“Leona?” Cadence struggled to a stand and began to drag herself blindly forward, hoping she wasn’t walking towards a dead-end. “You tellin’ me that Leona knows that there’s a third vitae reservoir in the Twin Cities? That there actually isone?”

Another memory flashed into Cadence’s mind.

The limestone pillars at the front of the Leonian Monadic Temple in the Monadic District. Then the pews within, pointing towards the faceless statue at the back. Then the back room behind that statue, and then the trap door within the backroom that led to a descending staircase. Up from the depths of those stairs bled soft light and intense heat.

“Beneath the Monadic Temples…? Seriously? Brain’s a little mush right now, so I can’t even think of a good joke.” Cadence chortled and winced at the pain that followed. She pushed forward, drawing closer to a barely noticeable streak of light several meters ahead. “How did Le—”

“The first chairs of all the Department of Ophiuchus receive confidential reports from the different countries of Signum about newly formed vitae reservoirs bi-annually,” Leona had informed Jericho at the crowded roundtable meeting within the Abaccio. “Of course, the countries are free to do what they please with these reservoirs as long as they follow conductor regulation and don’t start conflict over them. This particular reservoir formed one year following the end of the war and was delegated to be harvested in only times of emergency.”

“So, the official papers say,” Cadence muttered.

Finally, she reached the streak of light—the end of the alleyway. She stopped at the threshold and peered out onto the street.

“What the…”

The street itself was lit by a handful of trash fires spotted in front of tourist trap shops that had either boarded-up or broken windows. The walkways were scattered with shards of glass. Men in suits, women in dresses, men in rags, women in rags stampeded up and down those walkways, shrieking at the top of their lungs. A v-ehicle blitzed on and off-road, nearly taking out a v-lamp and a group that was running down the sidewalk waving clubs and bats. Chasing after that group were three police officers waving batons.

As if that’s gonna help. 

Cadence took a step forward flabbergasted, only to be rammed and shoved sideways first by a woman in high heels and then again by a man with a bag full of Geminian cens slung over his shoulders.

“Screw the Romanos! Screw the Campanas!” the man whooped, fist-pumping the air and shoving an old woman who was coming up in the opposite direction. “This city belongs to us—”

A white ray of vitae cut across the darkness and struck the man mid-sentence. He was thrown to the ground instantly, the coins in his bag spilling out onto the street.

Cadence ducked back into the alleyway just as a crowd of men and women darted in the direction of the fallen man. She peered around the corner and found them all scrambling on the ground and shoving the scattered cens into their pockets. Cadence scanned the road opposite where the vitae ray had emerged from but it was empty save for two pacing girls. The two crossed the road and came to the aid of the old woman who’d been pushed to the side by the man earlier. They helped the woman to her feet and escorted her across the street away from the scrambling crowd. They sat her down there in front of a coffee shop with boarded-up windows.

Cadence recognized one of the girls immediately. The butterfly-shaped birthmark was undeniable.

Matilda.

Keeping low, Cadence forced herself forward again, crossed the road, and approached them with a wave. “Hey, Tilda, ain’t you a good samaritan?”

Matilda jumped and turned on her heels. “Cade—oh, saints.” Matilda’s relief folded into horror. “W-What happened to you…?”

“Long story. Been out a bit.” Cadence thumbed a man throwing a trash can into the window of a bookshop two blocks down. “You been in contact with any of the Romano capos in the past few hours? Can’t imagine they’d let this go down even if Bendetto’s been spirited away like everyone’s been sayin’.”

“Bendetto.” Matilda swallowed, shook her head. “You—Cadence, it’s completely nuts. There’s… ELPIS members’re running around saying that they’re cleansing the city of all the Families. A-And people have been saying that a couple of Romano executives were rigged with conducting grenades and sent off to Romano fronts. A-All the smaller gangs in the city are taking advantage of all the chaos.” She frowned. “I… haven’t reached out to Cavallo… The Campanas, the Romanos—I-I don’t know, Cadence. But ELPIS really is here. I-I saw them. I saw the Ophiuchians too. I saw…”

Cadence placed a hand on her shoulder. “What did ya see, Matilda?”

“You… You wouldn’t believe me. What I saw…”

“Try me,” Cadence said before she cracked a grin with effort. “I mean, I’m an illusionist.”

Matilda took a deep breath and informed Cadence of her experience in the casino right before ELPIS unleashed their brand of justice, about her experience with Theta—Francis—at the highest floor of the building, about how Bendetto had been tied and gagged and captured.

“He let me go afterwards. Told me to get out of the city…” Matilda finished.

“And why didn’t ya?”

Matilda frowned. “Where do I even go if I leave?” She nodded to the girl behind her. “Some of the people in my group can’t afford to leave either. They have family here, and they’re my family.” She grimaced. “That definitely wasn’t Mr. Francis. He was looking at me like I was the saddest thing in the world. I hated it. Like, this city might be awful, but it’s good too. People like him scare me… Saying that he needs to destroy it to fix it. Why not just fix it?”

Cadence studied Matilda for a moment and felt an odd swell of pride in her chest. “That’s my girl, Tilda.” She nodded at the old woman. “And the super-heroism?

Matilda shrugged. “If this all blows over, then I have a bunch of people who owe me. Simple as that.”

Cadence ruffled the girl’s hair. “Well, don’t overdo yourself, girlie.” She pulled away and turned on her heels. “And stay safe, will ya?”

“Wait, where are you going?”

Cadence waved. “For a drink.”

***

Cadence wove through the city streets that she knew like the back of her hand. She dodged a couple of delinquents swinging around metal pipes, misdirected a robber away from a group of cowering children hiding in an abandoned v-ehicle, and eventually found herself in front of the Sognare. A sign was posted at the front: CLOSED until further notice.

She peered inside through the window. Empty. She tried the door. Unlocked.

Cadence slipped inside and collapsed on the bar table. The bartender—as expected—was nowhere to be seen, so Cadence rounded the counter, poured herself a spritz, and downed it in two gulps. She slapped the glass down and slid to the ground against the wine cases at the back.

“Guys…” Cadence tried. She lowered her head and tried again, this time with feeling as she reached outwards: “Guys! Please!”

Slowly, gradually, the other five filtered into her view. Maria sitting up on the bar counter, Olive and Atienna leaning against it, Jericho and Werner standing to the side. Lavi didn’t seem to be around, but Cadence figured that was a good thing.

All of their intense feelings that she had felt wavering beneath the surface came at her like a tsunami upon synchronization. It took her a moment to separate her own anxiety from theirs. When she did, she found them all looking at her with varying expressions—but they all shared a similar emotion: concern.

Cadence buried her head in her hands as that warmth bled into her.

Damn.

Atienna moved forward and knelt down beside her, placing a hand on her cheek at the exact spot where she’d slapped her.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Cadence said, lifting her head and cracking a grin. “Now that you’re here, doll.”

The attention then turned to Werner. There was still a void of darkness stretching behind him, and there was a somewhat distant look in his eyes.

“I’m fine as well,” Werner stated. “That isn’t what’s pertinent at the moment.”

“Right.” Cadence spread her arms wide. “Well, we’ve got a saint candidate peacekeeper who’s workin’ with ELPIS, obviously. We’ve got a colonel True Conductor who’s workin’ with ELPIS and who’s connected to a murderous Aquarian advisor. We’ve got a buncha kids stuck in a hellish slavery bit. And we’ve got ELPIS mowin’ through the city like maniacs.”

Maria pressed her hands together. “It is rather exciting, yes? So many things happening at once!” She peered into Olive’s face and beamed. “And let us not forget that amazing conductor trick you did!” She looked around the bar at them. “I don’t really understand it, but if this is a True Conductor thing, does that mean I can do it too?” She leaped off the counter and slipped in between Werner and Jericho, beaming. “Both of your conductings are very cool! I would like to try—”

“That development is rather interesting, Maria,” Atienna interjected with a gentle smile, “but we should try focusing on the immediate issues, don’t you think?”

“Right. And there’s only one way we’re gettin’ out of this damn mess,” Cadence said, struggling back up to a stand. “And that’s by workin’ together. We need ta be honest with each other.”

There was silence.

Olive arched an eyebrow at her.

“I know, I know. I’m the last person in the position ta be sayin’ that. I’ve been sayin’ I’m sorry, but it’s not enough.” Cadence grimaced. “But, we’re all bein’ dishonest here. With ourselves and each other. I’m not trynna make excuses for myself. We gotta—me included—stop lookin’ at this whole True Conductor thing like it’s just a situation that’ll go away.” She took in a deep breath. “It ain’t. Our lives are literally on the same chord. One note off, and it’ll be a disaster.” She held her hands out. “I’m not sayin’ we should be all holdin’-hands-like, frolickin’ in the fields or anything. I ain’t that optimistic. But we should be on the same page, feelins out. We’re livin’ together literally; and—like it or not—we’re probably gonna end up dyin’ together; and we’re gonna end up carin’ for each other if we don’t already do. It’s hard not ta. The more we try ta deny, the more we’ll butt heads.” She tapped her temple. “It might be a lie. Who knows? I mean, appearances—feelings—are deceiving. But sometimes a lie can eventually work its way into becoming a truth. And it’s just as—if not even more—valid.”

There was a beat of silence as Cadence took a minute to catch her breath. The silence continued afterwards. If she were Olive, she figured she’d be embarrassed.

“Aw, come on, guys.” Cadence chuckled, wincing at the stomach pain that followed. “I know I’m ramblin’ here, but I’m pourin’ my heart out ta ya. Please don’t leave me hangin—”

“Honestly, that reminded me of one of those drama plays my aunt and uncle used to force me to watch,” Olive interjected. “And I’m pretty sure you contradicted yourself twice there, but…” Olive met her eyes and nodded. I understand.

Jericho gave a silent thumbs-up. Maria offered her a small, but cheery clap with a beaming smile, while the corner of Atienna’s eyes crinkled. Werner remained impassive.

As expected.

“Honestly, right now,” Cadence drew, “all I wanna do is ta get myself, the Foxmans, Fortuna, and Nico the hell outta this city; or at least get whatever the hell this is fixed.”

Despite everything, Alma flashed into Cadence’s mind. She grimaced and shook her head.

“All of those guys were like family ta me before all this True Conductor stuff went down. I’m still pretty selfish so I can’t think beyond what I want and what’s important ta me. Not the Families or even ELPIS,” Cadence admitted, gesturing to herself. As soon as those words left her mouth, she felt a weight lift off her chest. She then nodded at each of them. “Werner wants ta bring down Colonel Douchebag for Capricorn. Atienna wants ta keep that crazy secretary chained down and stop her from muckin’ things up with the diplomacy thing. Maria wants ta save the children the Campana’s are sellin’ ‘cause she feels like it—”

“Ay, you know me so well,” Maria hummed.

“—and Jericho wants ta save Alice and wipe all trace of ELPIS outta the city. Olive wants ta complete the State Conducting Exam—”

Olive uncrossed his arms. “I—”

“—and he wants us ta all make it outta this stitch alive, and save Lavi along the way, and also for all of us ta get what we want. Pretty greedy if ya ask me,” Cadence finished. “Anyway, I’m not satisfied with just a win on my end. I want there ta be a win on your guy’s sides too. Honest. There’s gotta be a way for all of us ta hit these marks. I mean, I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, but all of ya are pretty brilliant.” She paused. “Any ideas?”

There was a stretch of silence; and in that silence, there was rumination. Ideas zipped from one end of Cadence’s mind to the other, and she could barely catch hold of them before they were discarded in favor of a different idea. The others were shuffling through their thoughts faster than a shady dealer shuffled a deck of bad cards.

And then, it clicked. For all of them. It wasn’t that one person had come up with a completely brilliant idea; rather, it was more like they all came up with a part of an idea that somehow all came together to form a singular, coherent concept.

It was an odd feeling—the way it all coalesced together in Cadence’s mind. She figured—as she felt Werner smooth out that idea’s rough edges within his own mind—that this was what synchronization was about.

“Yes, that could work,” Werner finally said, a thoughtful hand over his mouth, “but it’s based on relying on many assumptions. Our timing also would have to be exact.”

“It’s a gamble,” Cadence agreed. “But I’m feelin’ a bit lucky this week.”

“There’s no such thing as luck, Cadence,” Werner corrected. “But given our few viable options, that is the route that seems the least… problematic.”

“Great,” Cadence popped, leaning back against the wine cabinet as she took in a deep breath. “Hopefully, the cards’ll fall in our favor….” She paused, unlatching herself and approaching Jericho hesitantly. She looked him up and down and then swallowed. “Look, detective, I know how you feel about ELPIS. I understand. But please…” Her voice cracked despite her efforts. “He’s still Francis.” She placed a hand on the peacekeeper’s arm. “He’s still Francis. His vitae wasn’t ‘returning to the cycle’ or whatever that means when they used their resistor on him, so it’s still him. I know I’m bein’ so selfish right now, but please just wait until… I honestly don’t know… but please, Jericho.” She tightened her grip. “We can figure something out. Just wait. For just a little bit.”

Cadence knew the peacekeeper could feel how much Francis meant to her. The childhood memories of them wandering the late-night streets in search of tourists to pickpocket in their younger years was just as much burned into his mind as it was hers. The thing was that she didn’t know if that was enough—

“Okay. I will,” Jericho agreed after a beat. “For you. Because he is still Francis.” Then something in his eyes sharpened. “And I would like to speak with Theta.”

“Got it.”

Cadence turned to Werner then who was standing right beside Jericho. She met the man’s gaze, curled her hand into a fist, and lightly tapped it against his chest.

“I will make this right, Werner. I promise.”

***

On the day of the plan’s execution, Cadence got a tip-off from Matilda on where Theta was. The girl informed Cadence that one of her workers—one of her friends—had told her that Theta had been inviting a cluster of children every so often to join him at a particular location within the city. The location itself was completely out of the woods, in Cadence’s opinion, and she wondered if he’d truly be there. But it was her only lead.

And so, Cadence slid on the proto-conductor rings she’d stolen from Russo, transmuted the guise of Matilda over herself, and took to the streets. The police had ordered a citywide curfew a day or two ago, but as usual, no one heeded it. The darkened walkways were crowded with ambling gangs of thieves, delinquents, and hustlers, all sneering and jeering as they stalked their newly minted territory.

Cadence ducked past them, swept through cement walkways that bled into cobblestone streets, strolled through one of the city’s few metropolitan parks, and made her way over to the one place in the city she had never stepped foot in. The Twin Cities Library.

It was a large building that resembled more of a Monadic temple than anything else. Guarded by two large stone pillars that held up a triangular roof, the library loomed over the empty cobblestone walkways and stretched shadows all across the street. A white limestone staircase unfurled up to the entrance of the building, where a pair of twin statues of cupids stood erect.

As expected, the streets around the establishment were empty. No one in the city wanted to steal books, it seemed. Cadence could feel Atienna’s relief at this.

Sucking in a breath, Cadence crept her way up the stairs and slipped inside. The smell of old, musty books greeted her immediately. The interior was dark, and she could barely make out the outlines of towering bookcases lining the walls. A small sliver of light bled out from the back of the library. After making her way around the bookcases and towards the light, she found a wooden door that was slightly ajar.

Steeling herself, she slipped inside.

The room within was small. A large, oak desk sitting front and center and was cluttered with stacks of books and littered with wax candles. Gathered around the wealth of knowledge and light sat Theta and a group of children and adolescents. With everything going on in the city, the group’s serenity seemed out of place, illusory.

Some of the children gathered recognized Cadence—rather, her guise of Matilda—and leaped to their feet, beaming.

“You came!” they exclaimed. Their expressions fell, however, when they registered her carefully practiced expression of panicked fear.

“T-Theta…” Cadence stammered, stumbling forward. When Theta looked up at her in mild surprise, she took a step backwards. “I-I know you told me to leave, but I… I couldn’t. Some of the others wouldn’t. And…” She forced tears to spill from her eyes. “A bunch of men… the gangs… t-they… they attacked us… They took Marzia and the others. I-I don’t know who to go to… There’s no one. I… I-I…”

Theta shut the book in his hands with a snap, rose from his seat, and paced over to her. The children parted as he did so, all wearing varying expressions of guilt and worry. When Theta reached Cadence’s side, he wiped the false tears from her eyes with his thumb.

“Use my proto-conductor as I’ve shown you,” Theta addressed the children behind him. “And leave this city.” He knelt down and met Cadence’s eyes. “Tell me where, Matilda.”

Cadence swallowed. “W-Warehouse 13. The—”

“One near the docks, running along the center of the city,” Theta finished. “Do they have conductors?”

Cadence nodded.

“I see.” The light in Theta’s eyes changed. “There’s no reason to be afraid. I’ll help you.”

The one good thing about Francis being Theta was that Theta was a bit gullible, Cadence thought. She didn’t quite know how old ‘Theta’ was, but she figured seniority could make people just as naïve as youth did in certain situations.

Theta extended his bare hand, and Cadence accepted it hesitantly. The man then pressed his gloved hand against the carpet beneath them, which Cadence now noticed was stained black. The stain glowed at his contact, and they began to sink down into the blindingly bright portal.

Cadence winced at the light and shut her eyes. When she opened them a second later, she found herself standing in a cool, dark, familiar warehouse.

Empty metal trash bins were rusted into the ground, and piles of metal pipes cluttered the dirt floor. A hull of a ship rested at the center of the warehouse, looking the same as it did when Cadence came into this place several months prior.

Theta scanned the darkness from beside her. “Where are they?” He looked down at her, expression impassive. “Matilda, tell me—” Theta’s eyes widened, and something flickered in his eyes. “Are you… Cadence?”

Cadence’s heart skipped a beat.

How had he known her name? She’d never encountered Theta as herself before, so that could only mean… Francis and Theta were starting to bleed into each other.

No…

“T-The swindler? She wasn’t the one who took them.” Cadence feigned confusion. She shook her head and scanned the dark. “They were just here. I swear. The gang must’ve—”

“Enough.”

Cadence tensed and turned to meet Theta’s eyes.

“You deceived me.” The man’s eyes narrowed, and he lifted his gloved hand. “You—”

Now!

Before Theta’ could finish his sentence, Jericho leaped down from his perch on the steel beam above their heads. The peacekeeper tackled Theta to the ground, pinning the man’s hands behind his back before slapping on a pair of suppression cuffs over his wrists. Theta went slack immediately, allowing Jericho to pry his conductor glove off of him. Jericho remained planted there unmovingly as he stared holes down into the man.

Jericho.

Jericho glanced at Cadence and removed himself from the man’s back. Snapping her fingers to dispel Matilda’s appearance, Cadence moved forward, stopped only momentarily by a hand around the arm. Jericho again. Cadence patted his hand; and he released her, allowing her to sink to the floor and crawl over to the unconscious man.

Come on, Cadence urged as she studied his face. Please let the kid’s idea work.

The man’s eyes fluttered open as soon as the thought left her, and a quiet groan escaped from his lips as he blinked blearily around. When he locked onto Cadence’s face, he stared. “Cadence…? What happened to your face?”

Cadence scrambled forward. “Quick. Tell me something only Francis would know.”

A perplexed expression flashed across the man’s face. “When I was fourteen years old, I snuck out with a girl one night to go to some party. You agreed to be me for the night so Allen wouldn’t find out. You still use that as blackmail to this day.”

Cadence brightened immediately, but then frowned. “Theta might know that too with the way this whole thing works. There’s gotta be somethin’ else.”

“How about we play a round of cards,” the man suggested. “If you win, then I’m Theta. If I win, I’m Francis and you can be Theta.”

“Okay, Francis, no need ta push it.” Letting out a sigh of unmeasurable relief, Cadence helped him up to a sitting position. “Take it easy.”

“What’s going on? Where are we?” Francis asked, scanning the warehouse. “Is this Warehouse 13?” He tried the cuffs behind him, eyes darkening. “What is this?”

“You are under the jurisdiction of Ophiuchus,” Jericho stated from behind Cadence. “We have placed suppression cuffs on you in an attempt to suppress Theta’s vitae in hopes of also suppressing his memory and influence. We have succeeded.”

“The suitcase peacekeeper…” Francis studied Jericho before his eyes widened. “You’re the Ophiuchian who came down here to investigate that other peacekeeper’s disappearance a couple months ago.”

Jericho stared down at Francis. Cadence could see in the peacekeeper’s mind eye that he was staring down into the past. Affection and hatred twisted together as one. It made Cadence’s stomach do flip-flops.

“Yes, that was me,” Jericho finally said.

Francis continued to study Jericho before he suddenly startled and whipped to Cadence. “Allen, Carl, and Fortuna—”

“Slow down, Francis,” Cadence said, squeezing his shoulder. “The city is lookin’ like a bad bar fight right now ‘cause ELPIS’s decided ta make their entry into the spotlight.”

Francis paled. “Did I…” He shook his head, eyes sharpening. “The Ophiuchians—”

“Aren’t really involved in this whole thing we got goin’ on right now.” Cadence thumbed Jericho. “He’s a bit of a black sheep with ‘em and he’s pullin’ one out for me, but he’s the best in my book. A friend of his that’s helpin’ us is comin’ along in a bit too.”

Francis seemed to digest this information slowly. “So, what’s the plan here then?”

“A couple of the execs from both sides are comin’ down here in a couple,” Cadence explained. “From the Romanos and the Campanas.”

Francis blanched. “How in the world did you manage that?”

Cadence rubbed the back of her neck. “I… kinda had ta tell them that I got the one behind orchestratin’ this entire thing on a leash.”

“So, they’re coming here for me,” Francis surmised.

He didn’t look happy.

“Look. They’re our best bet at gettin’ control of the city, and they all need ta get on the same page,” Cadence explained. “The police ain’t in any state to get the reins in, and Ophiuchus is focused on the reservoirs. Plus, we can explain the situation with you too. And Enzo and Donato—”

“Enzo and Donato?”

“Yeah, I’ll explain that bit later.” Cadence waved her hand. “But… I can call the executives off if ya’d like.” She scratched her head and sighed. “Though… I kinda pushed them ta do me an additional favor, so if I back out now, I’ll be in the ruts.”

“An additional favor?”

“Yeah, long story short, I asked ‘em both ta destroy any evidence that they’d been dealin’ with the Capricornian Army.” She poked him in the chest. “Mind if I ask ya ta do the same in exchange for me gettin’ your head half on?”

“Wait. Are the Capricornians pulling out of the deal?” Francis frowned. “I would have to consult Allen and Carl about that first. We keep records for a reason, Cadence.” He arched a brow. “And why are you pushing for this? Did they pay you?”

Cadence flashed a grin, placing a finger to her lips. “A secret.”

Francis shook his head, amused. “Well, it wouldn’t be very business savvy of me to just go and accept those terms, would it?” The very faint smile he had on fell. “Jokes aside, what’s going on with my brothers?”

“That part of the plan is in action as we speak. Don’t ya worry about it,” Cadence elaborated before she chortled. “By the way, how’s it feel to be a damsel in distress?”

Instead of receiving the slightly annoyed chuckle from him as she’d expected, Francis suddenly slumped forward.

Cadence caught him. “H-Hey, talk ta me, what’s goin’ on?”

“Sorry. I’m just… really… tired….” Francis shook his head, his eyelids drooping slightly.

Cadence reached over and lightly slapped him on the cheek. “Come on, Francis, stay with me.”

Francis blinked and shook his head again.

“Say… Cadence…” he murmured. “Who do you think has the moral high ground here?”

Cadence’s heart skipped a beat, and she grabbed Francis by the shoulder. “Francis.” She squeezed. “Look at me. We’re not the ones throwin’ this city into the shit.”

She was about to mention that they weren’t the ones who were taking advantage of children either, but then she remembered Matilda and then the Specialist children. Damn. What they had been doing was wrong. No two cents about it. But still—

Cadence continued, “We ain’t the ones runnin’ around actin’ as judge, jury, and executioner. And we ain’t destroyin’ lives on an international scale.”

“Aren’t we?” Francis stared into her, and Cadence couldn’t help but stare back at the snake tattoo on his face. “I mean all of the conductors that we’ve been shipping out, that the Romanos have been selling… we’ve been indirectly taking lives since we were teenagers… Those people may have been using the conductors we’ve been selling to protect their countries and families, but what’s our reason?”

What was this…?

Cadence reached out with both of her hands and grabbed a hold of Francis’s face. He stared back at her with raised brows. Cadence figured he was wondering if she was who was losing their mind. She figured she was.

“Francis, look. I’m not even sure if there’s even a ‘lesser of two evils’ thing here. I’m pretty shit, you’re pretty shit, they’re pretty shit,” Cadence said. “But unlike them—despite all their talk about responsibility, yada, yada—we can change. Them? As soon as they kick the bucket and return ta their resistor, they’re back ta square one. They can look through all the records and bookshelves they keep all they want, but they ain’t actually learnin’ anythin’ from it. They can’t take responsibility—don’t care ta— ‘cause they can’t even feel the guilt or consequences of what they do. ‘Cause they don’t even remember it.” A heat twisted in her chest. “All they do is spew some sorta rhetoric that the world is in the dirts now and spread the false hope that everything is gonna be peachy after they do their ‘work’.”

Francis arched a brow at her.

“Sorry. Got kinda heated there, but I really mean that first bit.” Cadence released him from her hold. “But, it’ll be okay. You’ll be okay, Francis. We’ll fix this and get everything back ta the way it was. I promise.”

Francis studied her before he lowered his head and chuckled. Musically. A wonderful sound. “Alright, Cadence. I’ll let you swindle me a little while longer.”

10.5: Jericho’s Cycling (Vendetta)

Re-cap:

Jericho has arrived in the Twin Cities along with Jericho and Leona under the latter’s request. Jericho and Talib are to assist Leona in her investigations of ELPIS within the city. Leona believes that Omicron who was present during an ELPIS attack on the Black Constellation Detention Center may be present in the city. Talib is set to scour the city with manipulated mediums, while Jericho is temporarily put on guard over Romano Family executives. Jericho clashes with Iota while protecting Caporegime Donato and encounters Cadence and Werner’s subordinates. Jericho manages to save Donato with assistance from Cadence, Werner, and Werner’s men.

And now Jericho has learnt of ELPIS’s true origins from Cadence’s end.

Jericho has decided to…

“I see you are still grieving,” Theta—rather, that version of Theta—had said, cupping Jericho’s cheek on that moonlit night all those years ago. The silver moonlight had made the tattoo on the right side of her face glow. “But there is no reason to be sad.”

“No reason to be sad?”

“They have died, yes, but in reality, all that has happened is that they have returned to the cycle of vitae. They have become a part of everything around you. They still exist all around you. That is how the cycle of vitae turns.”

“Vitae…?”

“Yes, so you shouldn’t grieve. You will only make them sad if you grieve. In the end, everything will return to the beginning. Isn’t that reassuring?”

Yes, it had been reassuring. Having lost his entire family, his neighbors, his friends, his town in one night, Jericho had found Theta’s words a comfort. Although she had been among the group orchestrating that massacre, he clung to her like a lifeline. As did the other children who were picked up along the way.

“Conductors are inherently evil,” she had told him. “Their main purpose is to kill people, to bring an end to everything. They are unnatural. Our purpose, on the other hand, is… well, you don’t need to worry about that.”

But when Theta had ‘died’, despite clinging onto every word she had said, Jericho had grieved. Just as he’d grieved when his mother was slaughtered in front of him by the same people who had taken him in.

One of the ELPIS members—perhaps an underling, perhaps not—took note of Jericho’s grief and the grief of the children who had become his friends under Theta’s care.

“Theta wouldn’t want you to grieve,” the ELPIS member had said to them. “Theta would want you to fight. Do you know what we’re fighting for?” A pause. “Would you like to know?”

For hope.

Jericho had embraced the ideology fully then. Just as the other children had.

Bleaching his vitae was excruciatingly painful, but Jericho rarely ever felt pain afterwards. He used to think that all the pain he was to endure in life was concentrated in that moment, leaving everything else going afterwards numb. Equivalent exchange.

Every generator conductor they destroyed together signaled a step closer to a hopeful future without reliance on conductors. Every Conductor killed represented one less murderer. But at the same time, death didn’t matter. All those who died were simply returning to the cycle. Over and over.

Jericho had carried this ideology even after he was taken in by Ophiuchus, by Alice. His perspective had only changed when he had put a bird with a broken wing out of its suffering and was discovered by Alice enacting the mercy kill.

“You killed it to put it out of its suffering, and it doesn’t matter if it’s died because it’ll return to the cycle? Do you really believe that?” Alice had clicked her tongue and shook her head. “I can’t believe the doctors haven’t handled this topic yet.” She looked him right in the eye then and said clearly: “That’s ridiculous. Even if that were true, even if someone’s vitae were to return to the ‘cycle’, it wouldn’t be the same. It wouldn’t be ‘them’ anymore. Not really. The situation, the parts, the components will never be the same. That’s why they say life is precious. Do you understand?”

It was difficult to break out of that thinking. If he did not think of it as a cycle, how could he rectify what he had done for so many years of his life? So instead, he stopped thinking of that aspect altogether. Alice had not been happy with his choice, but it had been the best he could do.

***

Twin Cities, Gemini

Recalling those memories that remained burned into his mind, Jericho stood on an empty street in front of a boarded-up liquor store. The building was large and took up an entire block by itself. He had to leap a wired fence to get to this place. And upon his landing on this side of the fence, he was greeted by a large sign at its front that read—UNDER INSPECTION AND DECONSTRUCTION. STAY OUT.

Jericho was grateful to Cadence because she was the reason for why he was standing here. He had received this information from her when she had been in Theta’s room listening in to all of their exchanges. Jericho surmised that she had been too affected by the revelation of ELPIS’s origins at the time to pay any attention to what was really being said. Jericho conjectured Francis’s brothers were also too affected to pay attention. Jericho couldn’t fathom why. Even if everything that was said was true, the fact was that—

ELPIS was still ELPIS.

And because Jericho knew this, he wasn’t distracted and was able to pick up the quick exchange between Omega and Theta regarding the warehouse location that Fortuna had given Theta.

“A conductor-manufacturing plant renovated from a renowned liquor store that went out of business fifteen years prior,” was what Theta had said. “Plant your mediums there and use my proto-conductor there.”

A quick check at the city hall and a dive into the records there paired with half an hour spent studying a map of the city had led Jericho here. To this warehouse. To this warehouse that Omega was most certainly within.

Jericho could feel her presence in the way his heart pounded, in the way his senses sharpened, in the way his ears rang. This was certainty.

Jericho. 

Jericho turned his head. A silhouette stood behind him.

Werner.

The Capricornian seemed tired.

Jericho wasn’t sure whether the man was exhausted because of his unconscious state or because he had taken on the brunt of Cadence’s pain. Jericho recalled his own bout of unconscious consciousness. It hadn’t been comfortable for him back then, so Jericho doubted that it was comfortable for Werner.

Werner’s image straightened and approached Jericho with a frown. “Engaging with an ELPIS leader without assistance is rash and high-risk.”

Jericho could already feel the lecture coming on, but he had come prepared: “Leona’s file. Omega is a Manipulator. She specializes in observational mediums. Intuition. She doesn’t have strong combat abilities. If alone, she will be easy to kill.”

Jericho had to do this. He had to. It was time. His fingers ached for it. His heart felt like it was going to explode if he didn’t achieve it.

Much to Jericho’s surprise, Werner nodded and said, “The weakest link. There is a high probability that she is the main information gatherer for ELPIS. Targeting her first is a reasonable strategy.”

Jericho blinked at him, confused.

“I know I can’t stop you, Jericho,” Werner responded evenly. “You’ve fallen out of following orders, as you’ve said. And I admit your sense of self—of revenge—is too strong for me to attempt an override without permission if the situation called for it.”

Jericho stared at him, still confused.

“As I’ve said, engaging with an ELPIS leader without assistance is dangerous—which is why I am offering my assistance.” A pause. “That and limiting their inflow of information will allow us to avoid detection as True Conductors for longer.”

“Are you sure?” Jericho cocked his head and pointed at him. “Is it customary to assist in battle when you have been through torture?” He paused, frowned a bit, and lowered his hand. “Suggestion… You and Cadence should rest.”

“Your concern is acknowledged, Jericho,” Werner said. “But I will not waste my time doing nothing while I’m in this… state.”

“… Thank you.”

Werner hesitated and then nodded. “What is your plan, Jericho?”

“I will kill her,” Jericho said simply. “This time. For certain. Intuition. Tonight. And then I will save Alice.”

“… We need to get as much information as we can from her first,” Werner returned. “And what will you tell Leona and the other Ophiuchian agents if they discover you?”

“Intuition…?”

In an unusual display of physical frustration, Werner pinched the bridge of his nose. “I’ll think of something then.”

Jericho shifted in place, gripping his suitcase tightly. “I… would like to say a prayer.”

Werner lifted his head. “… a prayer?”

“Yes.” Jericho stared into the darkness. “I don’t remember a lot before ELPIS. I was young. But I do remember the prayer my mother taught me. A Scorpian nomadic prayer. So, I would like to say it. Since I am ready. In control. It feels… ‘right’.”

“… Like I said, Jericho,” Werner said quietly. “I am not here to stop you. I am here to assist.”

Jericho nodded, set his suitcase to the side, and sank to his knees. He then dipped forward, pressing his forehead to the ground, palms faced downwards. He took a deep breath—

“Although our land is barren, our spirit is strong.
Although we are spread far apart in these deserts, we are connected through our spirit.
Each grain of sand we walk on is from a distant land connecting our ancestors past to us.
When we pass,
our bones will become the earth,
our spirits will become the sun shining on the land.
That is how we will become eternal.”

Jericho rose to a stand, picked up his suitcase, and turned back to Werner. The man silently met his eyes and then nodded.

“We are dealing with a Manipulator who is skilled at creating observational mediums. We most likely won’t be able to take the element of surprise during our initial encounter. She will most likely attempt an escape when she encounters you. There is no solution to this. If she does engage, she will use Theta’s proto-conductors to her advantage. I suggest you take advantage of the portals as well.”

Listening closely to Werner’s summary, Jericho closed the distance between himself and the warehouse. On Werner’s suggestion, he slipped in through an open window. He landed deftly on a high stack of crates just below and swiftly maneuvered his way down to the ground floor. In the darkness, he could make out looming machines and factory belts that crisscrossed across the ground.

An updraft of wind made him pause.

“My, my, the knight has finally arrived. I knew you’d come.” An airy laugh filled the air. “You cut an even more gallant figure up close.”

As expected, she’s already placed observational mediums in the building. By her tone, she means to engage. She’s been expecting you.

“I’ve always, always, always wanted to meet you, Jericho. I’ve been watching you from afar for forever.” A sigh. “From the moment the previous Theta took you in until now, I’ve been watching you. You’ve grown so, so, so much since then. But in the end, even after all this growing up, you’re still a—”

There was another updraft of air. This time from the left.

“—traitor.”

Jericho froze.

The voice was the same. The whispers from the walls. The whisper inside of his head. The whisper behind his back right before he was pushed down the stairs of the Serpens Establishment several months ago.

“I was hoping that the trip down the stairs would be the end of you, but it looks like I accidentally kick-started your path to True Conductorhood. Whoopsies.”

She knows. You have to kill her here. 

Jericho slowly undid his suitcase and pulled his conductor out.

“Don’t worry. Only Gamma and I know what you are. If I told any of the others, they would come right for you, and I don’t want that. It’s hard keeping a secret, you know? But I made it work.”

Another airy laugh.

“I want you all to myself. Which probably sounds weird since you’ve never met-met me before. You don’t know me at all. But I know you. I’ve been watching you forever, like I said.”

A loud boom resounded, and Jericho felt something whistle by his ear. Heat.

A bullet. She has a gun.

Jericho scanned the darkness. Metal piping, swinging chains from the ceiling, cold rectangular machines.

But her vision and aim are poor. Don’t activate your conductor, or she’ll be able to locate you in this darkness.

Jericho hesitated and stared at his conductor.

Jericho, you may not be able to feel much pain, but your body can still take on irreparable damage. A pause. Given the others’ reactions prior to our first synchronization, despite your analgesia, for whatever reason, the others are still able to feel your injuries. Do not activate your conductor.

Jericho nodded, clutched his conductor tightly in hand, ducked low, and began to head in the direction of where the last updraft had originated.

“You’ve been looking for us desperately this entire time, waiting for an opportunity like this,” came Omega’s sing-song voice. “But you know, I’ve been seeking you out too for the same reason.”

A bang resounded in the darkness, and a bullet ricocheted on a protruding pipe just above his head.

She has an obsession with you. She’s not operating rationally. 

“I hate you, Jericho. I really hate you.” Omega’s voice came out slightly higher-pitched than before. And it was coming from above his head. “I watched you, Jericho. The others have forgotten, but I haven’t. I’ve been active the longest out of all of them, you know? Ever since the Reservoir War ended…”

Another gust of wind.

A metal click-click, click-clack, click-clack resounded along the ground, and something rolled up to Jericho’s foot. He could barely make out its shape in the darkness. It was cylindrical, with a hollow glass tube lined with metal at its center.

“What you did to all the other little ones that were with you on that day—the ones who you grew up with—how can I forget? It’s burned into my brain. You lifted your conductor towards them, and you shattered them into nothing.”

The hollow glass tube began to hum and glow with a faint white light.

A conducting grenade. Jericho—

Jericho swiftly kicked the grenade right back in the direction it had come from.

“And when the peacekeepers took you in after you killed them all, they called you a tragic hero! And they hid you away, telling you that you were ‘strong’ for turning away from us, that you did the right thing by killing all the little ones.”

A fiery explosion erupted several meters away from him above his head. The fire illuminated the entire warehouse, stretching crooked shadows across the floor in between combing smoke. In front of that flame and on top of a factory machine, a woman stood with one hand snaking through her white hair and the other loosely holding both a gun and one of Theta’s proto-conductors.

“How do you think the little ones felt when they stared into the eyes of a friend-turned-murderer and felt their bodies crumble away into nothing? All because you thought for just one moment that what you all were doing was wrong,” Omega said, her voice barely carrying above the crackle of the flame. “I watched you spend all of these years without shedding even a single tear for any of them. You think we’re the monsters, but you’re the monster to me, you know? They were children.”

Children who were prepared to execute an entire community in cold blood because they had installed a generator conductor in their village. Children who wouldn’t stand down, who wouldn’t hesitate, in following through with their duties. Children—friends—whom Jericho hadn’t been able to deter with words.

“Yes, they were children,” Jericho agreed. “We were children.”

Omega’s eyes narrowed. “They became nothingness after you killed them. You know that, right? Because of the bleaching of their vitae, your vitae, our vitae… ‘It’s inevitable’ as Theta says, but… You should’ve become nothingness instead.”

“I said a Scorpian prayer my mother taught me before I came here,” Jericho stated. “I will also say the prayer Theta taught me. For them. When I kill you. Will that be sufficient?”

Omega stared and laughed.

The sprinkler system went off, and a torrent of water came gushing down, soaking Jericho to the bone. The fire dimmed, and once again the factory became shrouded in darkness. Jericho continued forward, his footsteps sloshing around in the puddles that had formed on the ground. The sound was deafened by the pitter-patter and whining of the sprinklers.

A loud bang resounded again, but Jericho did not hear the ricochet of the bullet.

Jericho, your arm.

Abruptly, Jericho found his left hand resting on his upper right arm. The fabric just above his Ophiuchian sash had torn. It was damp. The bullet had grazed him.

Omega knows where you are. Even if she’s filled this factory with mediums, her precision is too exact. She may have placed an observational medium on you without your knowledge.

Jericho paused and reached for his bleeding arm.

Intuition.

He ripped off his Ophiuchian sash and stared at it.

A lure.

He threw it on the ground and started off into the dark. After ducking behind a network of interlaced, low-hanging pipes, he fell into a crouch and stared out into the dark.

Jericho, we don’t know what other locations she’s placed her mediums. This hiding location is not—

Intuition. She has only placed observational mediums at the entrance and where she thinks the modified conductors are being stored. Not here. I don’t think. 

Jericho waited, listening intently to the tap-tap-tap of the water around him, tuning his ears to any discrepancy of sound.

Several bangs resounded in the dark. Sparks erupted around where Jericho had dropped his sash from bullets ricocheting off the ground. After that, for a long while, there was nothing.

And then, a figure emerged from the network of low hanging pipes opposite of him. Omega. She slowly stepped forward in the darkness, clutching her gun loosely in one hand as she extended the other blindly outwards. She stopped short just in front of the white band and squinted down at it.

“Oh my, you’ve grown smart though, haven’t you?”

Jericho activated his conductor with a flick; and with precision he assumed was from Werner, he threw out a whip of vitae across several meters right at her. Instead of piercing her through, however, he split his vitae out into a web that formed a bubble around her. He flicked his wrist, tightening the cage of vitae and leaving just her head exposed. He stepped out from his place of hiding. The heat from the vitae caused her to drop both the gun and Theta’s proto-conductor. The water from the sprinklers sizzled as it pitter-pattered onto the white cage.

“I really am not suited for this kind of thing, am I?” Omega laughed airily as he approached her. “This is more of Iota’s thing. Ah, Iota will be so mad at me…” Her eyes widened. “You took Iota’s arm… that’s right. I can’t forgive you for that either….”

“Tell me where Theta keeps the prisoners,” Jericho stated. “Tell me how to use Theta’s proto-conductors.”

The corners of Omega’s eyes crinkled as she traced his face. “You really have grown up since then.”

“Shut up.”

“Congratulations on getting closer to your goal of completely eradicating us. Vengeance for yourself? Or for your blood family? I still can’t figure it out… What did you call us when you were speaking to Talib? I was watching then too, you know? Right… You called us ‘false hope’?” Omega hummed. “What will you do now that you know that just killing us isn’t enough? Will you hunt down our resistors too? That’ll be a long road ahead, you know?”

Jericho brought up his suitcase and cracked it against her face. She stumbled to the side, pressing into the cage of vitae.

The smell of burning flesh filled the air paired with an unpleasant sizzling sound.

Omega righted herself quickly, pulling away from vitae. The contact was not long enough, leaving her skin intact.

“I said shut up,” Jericho stated.

“You should know. I’m just like you. My sense of pain is super-duper dulled,” Omega replied, blinking away the blood that had dribbled into her eyes from the wound that had formed at her temple. “So, things like this won’t work on me. And killing won’t work either. Not right now anyways.” Her lips turned upwards. “I’m not afraid of dying. It’s the same with you, isn’t it?”

Jericho didn’t respond. Merely tightened his grip on his suitcase that was dripping with her blood.

“After you eradicate us, what’ll you do, Jericho?” she continued. “Do you think peace happens instantaneously? You should know. We’re not something physical. If you really want to eliminate us, you have to eliminate ideology, you know? And that’s really hard—”

“You keep talking. But all that’s coming out of your mouth is garbage.”

“Could it be that you’re a bit of an airhead, Jericho?” Omega gasped. “I mean, the color of our vitae is the same, isn’t it? So, to really destroy ELPIS, you would have to—”

Jericho cracked the suitcase against her head again and again. She rattled against the small cage but righted herself.

“What is the syzygy?” Jericho found himself asking.

“Syzygy…” Omega cocked her head and then chuckled. “Who knows? I think I forgot what it was five lifetimes ago, but who knows, who knows. I don’t think Theta or Omicron remember either. Maybe just bits and parts. The records are falling apart now too… We just know that we have to stop it and how to stop it—which is by eliminating conductors and killing True Conductors like you, hm… that’s why we need Gamma—Wtorek Izsak, this time. Gamma’s barely been initiated so Gamma remembers almost everything.”

A ludicrous existence. 

“Hm-hm, I used quite a lot of my vitae this time around actually,” Omega said suddenly. “There might not be enough of my vitae left to be me… I really might become nothingness this time.” She stared off into the darkness. “That doesn’t scare me though. I’m only afraid that if I do make it back, I won’t remember everything. I won’t remember you or what you did at all. Nobody but you will. Ah… such troubles.”

“I will ask you one more time,” Jericho stated, tugging on his conductor and tightening the vitae cage around her. “Tell me where Alice is. Tell me how to use the proto-conductors.”

Omega paused in her airy laughter, straightened herself, and locked eyes with him.

“I hope you suffer,” she answered, her voice losing its light tone. “Just as they suffered, you hypocritical traitor.”

With a grunt, Jericho pulled his conductor backwards, tightening the cage of vitae around her. The lines tightened, tightened, pressing into her skin, constricting her like a snake, until the contact was enough and the crumbling began. The cracks crawled up her arms and legs, connecting at her chest before ascending to her face.

And then she crumbled away into nothing. Not even a dusted trace of her left. The cage of vitae fell loose in the absence of her body. Mist-like whiteness rose into the air and dispersed.

Jericho retracted his vitae back into his conductor, leaving him in the cold, wet dark. Slowly, he bent down to pick up the proto-conductor and gun and stored it in his suitcase. After a brief moment’s hesitation, he sank down onto one knee, bowed his head, and placed a hand over his chest. He recited in the original Ophiuchian language—

“There is no end,
There is no beginning,
There is only a cycle.
Whether enemy, whether friend,
Whether family, whether stranger,
Whether on land, whether on sea, whether in sky,
Whether alone, whether in company,
Whether in peace, whether in war,
May all return to where all began.”

Continuously repeating the chant under his breath, Jericho stared at the spot where Omega had drawn her last breath.

“—no beginning,
there is only a cycle.”

He had succeeded. He had killed her. She had said there was not enough of her left ‘to become her’ when she returned to her resistor. But her resistor didn’t seem to be on her person. He would have to find and destroy her resistor, to be sure. But if she was re-initiated in the meantime, it wouldn’t be the same. Still.

Conclusion: destroy all of their resistors.

Until there was nothing left. Absolutely nothing. Like how there was nothing left of her now. Eliminate the false hope. Completely.

“—whether in peace, whether in war,
May all return to where all beg—”

A hand on his shoulder.

Jericho turned his head.

Werner.

You should leave. The Romano Family will send people to investigate the disturbance here. 

***

Still dripping wet, Jericho made his way through the streets of the Twin Cities. He didn’t really have a direction in mind.

Werner was still synchronized with him lightly. Jericho could feel his presence, like he could feel the moonlight hazily seeping through the smog clouding the skyline. Jericho didn’t understand why Werner was still present despite the task being completed. Perhaps it was customary.

What next.

“Jericho!”

Jericho lifted his head and looked left then right. The streets were familiar to him. The windows of the shops and the people walking along the streets skirting around him scratched at his memory. Yes, familiar. Werner had been steadily directing him back to the Abaccio, Jericho realized.

“Jericho!” Came the shout again.

Jericho turned his head.

It was Talib, coming along down the walkway and waving his hand wildly in the air. The Manipulator came to a stop in front of him before bending over and panting. Even after all of the cases they’d had together, it seemed as if Talib’s cardio still hadn’t improved much.

“How did you find me?” Jericho asked after a beat.

“Leona is looking for you,” Talib said slowly, straightening himself. “I tracked you with my medium.” He tapped Jericho’s chest pocket.

Jericho reached into the pocket and pulled out the damp origami paper Talib had slipped in there several days earlier. Jericho had completely forgotten about it.

“You saw,” Jericho concluded.

“I overheard,” Talib corrected. “… You weren’t directed to chase after the ELPIS leader by Leona, were you?”

“No, I was not.”

“How did you know where that one would be?”

Jericho remained silent.

“And you didn’t get any information on Alice’s whereabouts…”

“No.”

“You… killed them.”

“Yes, I did,” Jericho affirmed. “Will you tell Leona this?”

This time Talib remained silent.

“I will meet with Leona,” Jericho said after a beat, turning back towards the direction he’d been walking.

Talib placed a hand on his arm. “Not with that look in your eyes, partner.”

When Jericho turned to Talib in confusion, Talib nodded over to a closed store with darkened windows. In the reflection of the pane, Jericho found his reflection captured. His face was pale, his lips were drawn tight, and his eyes were wide—wide and faintly glowing with a ring of white light.

“You can trust me, partner,” Talib said. “I won’t tell Leona what happened here, but I think we both need to talk with each other for a bit.”

They made their way over to a bench that rested on a desolate walkway and sat down. Talib ran into a nearby bar and returned with a towel. Jericho accepted it from him and began to dry his hair slowly.

“Did you know the framework of most conspiracy theories is based on fundamental attribution error?” Talib asked suddenly. “We as human beings tend to favor dispositional explanations for things rather than situational explanations. Say someone bumps into you and glares. You tend to think that the person doesn’t like you instead of considering that they might be in some sort of pain and bumped into you and glared accidentally. Say you choke on a piece of food while at a restaurant. Say instead of thinking that you choked on accident because you were eating too fast, you end up thinking that the chef is an assassin sent by a shadowy organization to kill you.”

That was one gigantic leap… wasn’t it?

Yes, it was.

Werner. Still present.

“But it’s not always circumstance,” Jericho said, pulling the towel from his head.

“Or is it?” Talib responded automatically, arching an inquisitive brow. He cleared his throat. “But most of the time it is. Or so we tell ourselves to make ourselves feel better.” Talib slid his hands into his pockets and stared across the empty street. “Say someone you respect hands a message off to someone else you respect. Then that latter person tells you to fulfill that message. That message involves you looking into yet another person you fear but respect. But the very first person who is a part of this chain turns their back on everything they stand for, while the person at the end of the chain begins to exemplify everything that the first person stood for. What is it? Situation or disposition? Coincidence or purpose. You can lose your mind in the conspiracy.”

“Gabrielle asked you to investigate Leona,” Jericho concluded, piecing together the details from Maria’s end of things. He paused and thought on Talib’s words. “Gabrielle received a message from… Izsak before he became involved with ELPIS.”

Before a resistor was used on Izsak and he became ‘Gamma’.

Talib would be sad if he found out… correct?

Yes. Cadence was sad about Francis. Theta…

Talib nodded. “Izsak gave a coded message to Gabrielle before he… converted. It was very strongly coded, so the decoded message was terribly brief. Just—‘saint candidate’ and ‘vitae reservoir’. Two concepts that could be connected. Or not. The thing is… Is this a wild goose chase that Izsak has sent on us or…?” Talib whipped out his notebook from his pocket and flashed it at Jericho. There were nonsensical scribbles within. “And then there’s you, Jericho. You were formerly involved with ELPIS too. Situationally, your aim is revenge. Dispositionally, your aim is revenge. You’re a constant. Alice was right about that.” Talib’s shoulders drooped, and he pocketed his journal. “Alice said you were very trustworthy…”

Jericho stared. “Are you… saying you trust me?”

Trust…

Talib nodded again and then bit his thumb. “Saint candidates, ELPIS, vitae reservoirs. Alice, Flannery. Leona, Izsak.”

Syzygy.

Talib shook his head. “I say Leona is exemplary, but at the same time, I have this sinking feeling that she doesn’t really care what’s going to happen to Alice. That doesn’t bode well at all.” He frowned. “Perhaps Leona’s involved in the Organization? No, that’s a separate thing. Or is it?”

“We will find Alice then. Together.” Jericho paused. “But, Talib, be careful.”

Talib startled and then chuckled. “I’m not the one who’s tackling ELPIS head first.” He rubbed his knees. “Well, if you know anything, I’d appreciate it if you told me. And if you want to know something, I’m all mouth.” He pointed to Jericho’s pocket where Jericho had restored the origami sheet. “I put that on you out of concern, but if you don’t feel comfortable then—”

“Talib… can I ask you for something?”

Talib stared at him. “Of course, partner, anything.”

“A paper crane. One that you manipulate as a medium. Can you place it on someone for me? I think they might be involved with ELPIS.”

Talib nodded. “Of course. Anything that’ll help us get closer to finding out where Alice is.” He paused. “Do you know what they look like? Can you give me a name? Maybe a picture?”

“I can draw one,” Jericho said as Colonel Fritz von Spiel’s face drifted into his mind.

… Thank you, Jericho.


Reversus Oratio: an ELPIS Ophiuchian prayer often directed towards a person one has strong feelings for. A prayer of parting. Sometimes said in memory of one who has passed away.

???

9.[]-2: A Soldier’s Promise (di un Amico), 2

Twin Cities, Gemini

Gilbert was guided by a hand on the arm through a back hallway and down a series of crisscrossing steps. Gilbert himself was not accustomed to covert operations so he fumbled his way forward bumping into walls and tables alike. Eventually, they slipped into a room divided into multiple sections by silk draperies. Smoke suffocated the air, curling around long and lavish sofas that spotted the room. Men and women were lounging on the sofas, puffing hookahs with lazily batting eyes.

The air smelled like morrowheat. They were high to hell.

Cadence pulled him along through a maze of curtains and rooms until they reached a back room that only seemed to be slightly suffocated with smoke.

There Gilbert found Colonel Fritz von Spiel puffing a cigar with one hand and swirling a glass of wine in the other. Seated across the table from him was a man with a sharp jawline dressed in a crisp suit with slicked-back hair. The table in between them was littered with half-eaten chicken breasts, sirloin steaks, and scallops. It looked ten times more lavish than what Gilbert had eaten upstairs. Bastards.

“Well, Mr. Enzo,” Colonel von Spiel said, placing his glass of wine down onto the table. “I think it’s about time we get to business.”

“Of course… Bring the samples out,” the suited man—Enzo—said, flourishing his hands in the air.

A beat after a cluster of bodies appeared from behind the curtain behind him. Seven total. Two of them—one tailing the front and one tailing the back—were men who looked like wrestlers but were dressed like waiters. And the other five—

Children. They were children. Small, nubby-nosed, frail-looking. None of them looked older than thirteen. All wearing white gowns. All keeping their eyes glued to the floor.

“As we’ve discussed,” Enzo continued motioning for one of the children to come close. He grabbed the child’s chin absentmindedly, “we’ve run numerous V-Type Tests on them and are 100% certain that they are Specialists. We’ve only been able to assess the ability of some, however, given the nature of Specialists.”

Enzo turned the child’s face away from himself as he inspected further. The child stared listlessly in Gilbert’s direction.

They were selling Specialist children.

Gilbert felt sick.

Where were their parents? Their guardians?

“There’s more of them here, isn’t there?” The colonel puffed his cigar. “I want to see all of them. I want to see their condition.”

“Herr von Spiel,” Enzo continued. “All of our product is perfect—”

“I said I want to see all of them!” the colonel snapped, slamming his fist against the table.

Gilbert startled. He’d never seen the colonel so angry before—and he’d personally seen the man drunkenly curse out a bartender

“Aw come on, Enzo,” came a voice from an adjacent room, “there’s nothin’ wrong with bein’ cautious, right?”

It was that brat. Feliciano. He was lounging on a couch behind a spread of curtains with women draped over his arms. Gilbert had no idea what the hell was going on but judging by the way he could faintly hear Russo whispering “bastard traitor” under his breath, Gilbert assumed it had to do something with the criminal organization rivalry. But that wasn’t important.

“Signore Enzo,” the colonel continued, leaning forward, “I like to see fully what I’m investing my money into. So if you would so kindly show me the rest that you currently have present, I would be grateful.”

Enzo smiled tightly and waved his hand again.

Five more children filtered out from the curtains and stood in front of them.

The colonel rose from his seat, approaching a pre-adolescent boy who stood at the end of the line.

“He’s of Aquarian descent,” Enzo explained, walking over to stand beside him. “His father sold him to us a couple of years back during Aquarius’s economic scare. You have a good eye. His Specialist conducting is something that would probably prove very useful in your field.” Enzo reached out a hand towards the boy’s head.

Fritz grabbed the man’s wrist, stopping him short without lifting his eyes from the boy. “Does he have a name?”

“Well, most of them don’t have a chance to get one but I think this one did. His father named him something like Kirill—”

“That’s a very unsuitable name,” the colonel interjected. He stooped slightly so he was at eye-level with Kirill and let out a sigh. “How about ‘Kovich’? Doesn’t that sound better?”

The boy lifted his head and met the colonel’s eyes.

“Isn’t that the name of that one obscure Aquarian philosopher?” Enzo asked. “I didn’t think a Capricornian would explore beyond their native literature.”

“It’s obviously not obscure enough if you know of it,” the colonel responded with a bite. He rose to a stand slowly, still not breaking eye contact with the boy. “I want all of your product. All of it.”

Enzo did a double-take, and Feliciano’s head popped up from behind the sofa. Gilbert himself felt bafflement over his disgust.

Enzo chuckled in confusion. “I-I am sorry, Mr. Von Spiel. Perhaps, I am not understanding you correctly—”

“You’re understanding me perfectly,” Von Spiel returned.

Enzo spread his arms wide. “Well, if you have the money, I can’t argue. Although… Do you mind if we finalize this with a down payment tomorrow? I have another guest coming in an hour or so, and I’d like to prepare.”

Feliciano scowled while Von Spiel gave a nod of approval.

A tug on the arm signaled for Gilbert that it was time to head back.

***

The sky was dark when Gilbert left the restaurant with Cadence, Bergmann, and Kleine. The colonel had left hours prior, citing that he had ‘to check the bank’. It was bullshit, Gilbert knew. Russo had also absconded somewhere which Gilbert personally didn’t give a damn about it.

As expected, Bergmann and Kleine were buzzing with questions, but engrained rank-and-file kept them silent. Still in Werner’s guise, Cadence walked along, casually yet somehow rigidly discussing points of interest within the city. She put in a few words of gratitude too. Kleine was a pushover, so he took to her conversation easily—that and Gilbert figured he probably interested in seeing another True Conductor. Bergmann was more reserved, keeping her head down and only smiling when addressed. She must’ve felt uncomfortable with Cadence’s disguise. Gilbert himself was uncomfortable with it— and the fact that Cadence was so unaffected by the children trafficking. Or at least she appeared that way.

Sure, the battlefield was hell, but this was something else. Screw the colonel and Capricorn. Those kids needed help.

Still. The plan was to head back to the hotel together and for Cadence to depart an hour or so later and leave Gilbert to the hell-on-earth paperwork, but they were walking at such a casual pace that they hadn’t made it even near the east side of the city yet. Gauging by the emptiness in the streets and the few late-night walkers passing by, Gilbert figured it was around two in the morning.

Just as they are turning a street corner, Cadence abruptly stopped short, face pale beneath the v-lamps that lit up the empty sidewalk. Gilbert turned back to her, eyebrow arched. She stared past him at some point in the distance.

A flash of pale light suddenly burst from the upper sidewall of the book shop they’d stopped in front of. And out from the square-shaped glow tumbled out three bodies. They fell to the ground meters from each other, unmoving.

Cadence paled, dispelled her guise with a snap of her fingers, and ran towards one of the bodies. Eyeing the patch of light still glowing on the upper wall, Gilbert paced after her, followed from behind by Bergmann and Kleine. When he reached Cadence’s side, he found her helping a tall and dark familiar man to his feet.

The man was dressed in a monochrome suit and wore a pair of square glasses. In one hand, he gripped a suitcase and in the other a deactivated conductor.

It was the peacekeeper Gilbert encountered in front of the Abaccio several days ago. Gilbert wasn’t stupid so he connected the dots fast. This was another person part of Werner’s group. Gilbert couldn’t help but laugh inside at the idea—the fact that Werner was connected with a peacekeeper.

Kleine had made his way over to the other two who had fallen out from the light. A woman in a polka dot dress, and an older man bound in chains. Cadence noticed Kleine go and somehow paled even more—

“Don’t!”

A click-clacking echoed through the night as the dress-wearing woman slowly rose to a stand without Kleine’s assistance. Kleine took a step backwards as she raised a conductor-gloved hand. The chains wrapped around the older man’s body began pulsating with white, unnatural light. As realization settled in, all Gilbert could think was ‘shit’.

And then he was blinded as the night skyline became lit up with numerous chains with arrowhead tips that were all pointed in their—rather, the peacekeeper’s—direction. The woman brushed back her ungloved hand, revealing the tell-tale tattoo engraved at the arch of her hand. She brought down her conductor, and the chains hurtled towards them, scraping against the air like nails on a chalkboard.

Without skipping a beat, peacekeeper flourished his conductor and out from it bled vitae that was even whiter than hers. It spilled out in an arc, clashing against the chains that spindled at them. The chains shattered instantly upon contact, falling away into pieces that dissolve into nothing on the ground.

Gilbert couldn’t help but laugh inside even further at the idea—the fact that Werner was connected with a peacekeeper who obviously had ties with ELPIS.

Having barely managed to get out of the attack zone, Kleine pressed back against the shop wall, gaze flicking between both parties in confusion. No fear. Calculation. He was already reaching into the pocket of his uniform where his conductor had been folded, stored, and untouched for weeks. A good soldier, Gilbert thought.

“It didn’t say in your file, Iota,” the peacekeeper said to the woman, “that you were a coward. But intuition.”

“Jericho,” Cadence stammered.

The peacekeeper Jericho, blinked slowly down at her as if just noticing her. “Hello, Cadence,” he said. “You are not avoiding me anymor—”

“Coward?!” Iota spat before jabbing a finger at him. “Look at the color of your vitae, and tell me who the damn coward is!”

The heat in the peacekeeper’s eyes reminded Gilbert of the time when an Argoan soldier snuck into their base camp aiming to assassinate Werner in his sleep because Werner had singlehandedly sniped off the man’s entire squadron. The hatred in that Argoan’s eyes that night was the same. A burning desire for vengeance.

Iota raised her hand. With a flourish, she sent white chains spilling out from the glowing patch on the wall. The chains hurtled towards them but before the peacekeeper could lift his conductor again, Bergmann leaped before them, slamming her hands that were now gloved with conductors onto the ground. The sidewalk erupted upwards, forming a wall of concrete. The barricade let out low rumbles as the chains battered against them.

Bergmann turned to Gilbert, clearly looking for reassurance. Gilbert nodded, still uncertain. She glanced at the peacekeeper, and Gilbert followed her gaze to the man’s conductor which is now deactivated.

Kleine appeared rounding the earth blockade with conducting gloves equipped. He looked at Jericho uncertainly, eyed his Ophiuchian band, and then eyed the lack of distance between him and Cadence. “Sir, should I conjure you a—”

“Do not get involved,” Jericho said, reaching into his suit pocket and flashing an Ophiuchian badge albeit upside down. “This is under the jurisdiction of Ophiuchus. You are to remain here while this issue is resolved—”

“Ya can’t be serious,” Cadence interjected. She paused, flipped over his badge for him, and stared at him.

There were no words exchanged. Not verbal ones, at least.

Cadence seemed to finally take notice of Gilbert and the others and gestured to Jericho’s arm. She began in a distant, formal tone— “Mr. Peacekeeper, I understand that—ah, screw it.” And ended with familiarity: “You’re hurt, detective.”

Gilbert couldn’t believe he hadn’t noticed it, but Jericho was indeed injured. There was a blood trail dripping down the man’s hand, but despite this his grip on his conductor was tight. Gilbert figured Jericho himself hadn’t even noticed it yet.

Kleine and Bergmann looked to Gilbert again, waiting for orders. Jericho and Cadence were, however, now staring off to the side together. There was nothing there. Just empty space. But Cadence’s brows were drawn up, and Jericho seemed to be mildly surprised—maybe even a bit happy.

Cadence’s face twisted with shame abruptly. “I—”

Cadence stopped short, paled, frowned at the empty space, and then nodded. She faced them, snapped her fingers, transmuted Werner’s guise over herself, and started giving orders of all things. Concise. Precise. Strategic.

Automatically, Kleine and Bergmann shouted an ‘understood, sir’ and then looked at each other in confusion. Gilbert just nodded, glad that he didn’t have to think of a way to get out of this mess.

As per the order dictated, Kleine conjured a Ghewer-43 rifle conductor and kickstarted it. Gilbert took it from him, pointing it at the wall several degrees to the right of where he assumed Iota was standing. Jericho faced the wall too, while Bergman crouched low and ready to sprint.

The wall crumbled as expected as the white chains burrowed through them. The chains shot above their heads before retracting back into the dust cloud that had formed. As the dust cloud began to clear, Jericho whipped out his conductor in Iota’s direction. There was a screech as it made its target, and Gilbert used the sound as a cue to fire his conductor. An azure vitae ray erupted from his conductor, cut through the clouds, and hit its target: the chain that connected the bound man to the ELPIS woman.

Bergmann broke out into a mad sprint towards the bound man, forming a wall of earth between Iota and herself as she did so. She reached the man, threw him over her shoulder, and stumbled back to them. The bound man was still unconscious when Bergmann put him on the ground. Cadence stared at down at him with an unreadable expression before stiffening and whipping her head towards Jericho who was now stepping into the clearing dust cloud. The man’s conductor was deactivated again.

Iota stood across from them, gripping her elbow with a glower. There were white cracks forming along her lower arm, and her fingers were crumbling away into literal dust. She took a step backwards as Jericho marched forward.

And then came a rain of glowing metal rods from the sky. Jericho skirted back as the rods pelleted the ground between Iota and himself.

Gilbert scanned the area for the enemy and spotted someone standing on the rooftop of one of the buildings. A woman. She maneuvered down the fire escape before landing deftly beside Iota. There was an unmistakable snake-like tattoo emblazoned on the left side of her face.

“Omicron!” Iota shouted in relief.

“What are you doing here, Iota?” Omicron snapped. “You’re supposed to leave the east side of the city to me—” She stopped short, eyes widening as she registered Iota’s steadily crumbling arm. She grabbed the woman and stared in horror. “We need to get you to Lambda.”

“You’re not going anywhere,” Jericho stated calmly from behind the bars of metal.

Omicron turned to face the peacekeeper with a frown. “It’s you again…? You’re really determined, aren’t you?” She raised a hand in their direction and then stopped short, eyes wide and locked onto something behind Gilbert. Rather, someone.

“C-Charite…?” Kleine stammered.

Stiffening at the name, Omicron continued to stare. “K-Klaus…?” Her hand shot up to the tattoo on her face, and she took a step back.

‘Charite?’ Gilbert searched his memory before it clicked.

“Your girl’s a member of ELPIS?” Gilbert hissed back at the Conjuror.

With one hand still clutching the side of her face, Omicron raised her conductor-gloved hand and sent another wave of metal piping at them. Gilbert threw himself to the ground away from the flurry, but he soon realized as he picked himself up that none of pipes had landed even remotely near him or the others. A distraction. He looked up, and sure enough, Omicron and Iota were gone. The glowing patch on the upper wall of the building was also gone.

Before Gilbert could make heads-or-tails of the situation, Jericho paced over to them—to Kleine.

A drop of water fell onto Gilbert’s cheek from the sky, and it began to softly drizzle.

“Do you work with ELPIS, Klaus?” the peacekeeper asked, stony.

“I—” Kleine looked as if he was half asleep—half in a nightmare.

“I asked you if you work with ELPIS,” the peacekeeper pressed. His glasses were dripping with water now, but his eyes seemed to be almost faintly glowing with a ring of white light. He reached forward slowly and grabbed Kleine by the scruff. “How do you know her?”

“S-She was my friend. I’ve known her since childhood,” Kleine stammered, eyes wide. “I-I thought she was one of you—” His gaze flicked to Jericho’s conductor which was still gripped tightly in his other hand. “You…”

“Jericho, he doesn’t work for ELPIS,” Cadence said, stepping forward and gripping his arm. “Trust me. He doesn’t.”

“Why?” Jericho stared back at her.

“…what?”

“Why should I trust you? How do I know you are not tricking me?”

Cadence paled.

“I’m not….” She released his arm. “I promise… I’m not.”

The peacekeeper continued to stare at her before nodding and releasing Kleine from his hold. He flipped his Ophiuchian badge at them again.

“Please do not speak of what occurred.” A pause. “Return home safely.”

Bergmann and Kleine nodded, both hesitant.

Jericho and Cadence held each other’s gazes for what seemed like hours before Jericho pulled away from her, threw the bound man over his shoulders, and headed down the street, suitcase still in hand. Gilbert stared after him, befuddled, and then turned to Cadence.

But Cadence was gone too.

Gilbert stared at the empty space she had once occupied.

What the hell happened to ‘going together to the Abaccio’?

“Sir, with all due respect,” Bergmann stammered, “what is going on here?”

Gilbert shivered in his damp uniform.

Damn. Gilbert hated thinking.


“Private Gilbert Wolff Shows promise. He gets along with his squadron-mates, and he’s skilled in combat. He’d make a fine office. But unfortunately, I find that he’s lacking initiative and dedication to our country. He puts heart in areas he shouldn’t.”

Major Erwin Ersatz, pre-Aquarian-Capricornian Border Conflict

9.6: Jericho’s (Lost) Raziocinio

Re-cap:

Ophiuchus has been breached through the use of portals created by the ELPIS leader and Specialist Theta. Omicron has entered Ophiuchus through the portals in hopes of retrieving Izsak Wtorek but escapes with Alice in tow. Alice has been seen alive by Cadence and is being held captive in an unknown room alongside Twin Cities underground criminal executives Still reeling from the developments, Jericho…

Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

Gabrielle’s office was quiet.

Roberto had been assigned a Capricorn case regarding a financial scandal involving a Transmutationist, the country’s capital bank, and “an unsaintly amount of damned sausages.” Ferris was swamped at the Assignment Department due to the recent attack on the Black Constellation Detention Center and had to take lunch while in her own office. Wtorek Elizabeta, meanwhile, kept to the detention center. Jericho didn’t understand her. Security for the lower levels of the detention center had increased tenfold, and medical Conductors were temporarily banned from entry. There was no point in waiting there.

All of these absences paired with Gabrielle’s continued absence left the luncheons for the past several days to just Jericho himself, Talib, and one Flannery Caertas who had started making frequent stops to Gabrielle’s office following the incident.

“Did you forget me already?” Flannery had cackled the first time she had appeared in the office after the ELPIS invasion. Her Librish accent was much harsher than Alice’s, but she continued on rapidly without care, “I’m codename ‘money bags,’ remember?” Her vibrant smile paired with her wild orange curls that fell just below her ears were an unusual sight.

“No, I remember,” Jericho had responded. “You are friends with Talib and Alice.”

Alice. Alice was still alive. ELPIS had Alice.

“I hope you won’t mind it if Flannery joins us for our lunches from now on, partner,” Talib had murmured with a tired smile from his usual spot.

“I don’t mind.”

Flannery grinned as she had leisurely seated herself beside Talib. “Good. That’s the spirit, Jeri. I appreciate ya. Y’keep your head on straight. Talib here’s all twisted up about it. But you and me—we know Alice’s probably makin’ those terrorists question their life choices, ‘ey?”

Jericho thought on it. “Alice is intimidating.”

“That’s it, lad. You got it. Alice’s holdin’ down the fort while your ELPIS Department gets a handle on everything. We gotta crack on, yeah?” After cackling, Flannery began to animatedly reminisce about times past with Jericho. Stories upon stories. Half of them seemed too strange to be real.

It was a form of comfort. 

Yes, that seemed like the case.

Childhood friends, Jericho had recalled again. That was what they were. Like Gilbert, Greta, and Werner. Like Atienna and Safiyah. Like Cadence, the Foxmans, Nico, and Fortuna.

Jericho wondered if he had something comparable to that. Alice had always said it was customary to form relationships at a young age and—

Alice.

***

Jericho’s lunches were shorter than they had been before due to the repercussions following the invasion. He had been assigned “clean up duty” the entire week which saw to him sweeping the halls of the Serpens Establishment and nearby locations to check for and to remove any black stains sighted. He shared this duty with Talib and dozens of other peacekeeping agents. Although he and the other agents had stopped finding the mysterious black streaks on their fourth comb through of the regions, Ophiuchus wanted them to be thorough.

Jericho didn’t hate it. He didn’t like it. It kept him busy.

“It’s like they’re making you run around like headless chickens,” Olivier had muttered. It was a statement that Jericho had agreed with.

In the times between clean up duty, Jericho would initiate a synchronization with either Cadence or Atienna. There was no progress on either end. Werner repeated patience. Jericho had patience. But he had no progress.

Then she appeared one day. Correction. She was there from the beginning.

When Jericho stepped into Gabrielle’s office with his usual sandwich four days after the incident, he found her sitting with her hands clasped together at Gabrielle’s desk. Talib sat stiffly in his usual spot on the sofa, and Flannery was nowhere to be seen.

Beneath the lights of Gabrielle’s office, her hair glittered gold and her amber eyes glowed. Now that she was dressed in the Ophiuchian monochrome suit and tie, she looked mesmerizingly stunning. He wanted to know more about this lovely person in spite of everything she had done.

No. There needed to be caution. 

Werner and Maria were watching.

Jericho could feel them tapping along the edges of his mind.

“You must be Jericho,” she said. “My name is Leona. I’m the chairwoman for the ELPIS Department… I believe we may have come across each other briefly before in New Ram City.” She gestured to a spot across from Talib. “Please sit.”

Jericho took a nibble of his sandwich and seated himself.

Silence fell.

“Why—I—it’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Leona,” Talib finally stammered. “I—what do we owe the pleasure? I mean, are you looking for someone? This office belongs to a chairwoman of the Assignment Department, but she’s off on a case at the moment—”

“The people I’m looking for are sitting right in front of me,” Leona informed him. “Agent Talib Al-Jarrah.” Her gaze wept over to Jericho. “Agent Jericho. I’m here requesting your assistance on a particular case.”

She knew your names. 

She is a chairwoman. She has access to the agent registry. 

Take precaution. 

“A case?” Talib questioned. “You don’t mean—”

“An ELPIS case,” Jericho stated more than asked.

Leona nodded, holding his gaze.

Jericho’s heart hammered wildly.

Talib did a double-take. “But, Miss Leona, we’re merely members of the Assignment Department. Is the ELPIS Department understaff—”

“I’m very aware of what department you two are a part of,” Leona interjected, folding her hands neatly in front of her. “But I am personally seeking you two out, do you understand?”

Talib exchanged a look with Jericho before nodding.

“Good. This is in regards to the case that a good portion of my department has been handling in the Twin Cities,” Leona elaborated. “I had earlier plans to request you two to temporarily offer me your services due to your particular skill sets. However, at the time, you both were handling an illegal manipulation case in Cancer.”

A missed opportunity, Jericho realized.

A dangerous one, someone corrected.

Talib leaned forward, perplexed. “You returned from the Twin Cities just to request us personally?”

A mirthless laugh. “No, I didn’t return for you specifically, Talib. I learned recently that an ELPIS leader might have gained access to Ophiuchus so I was returning to handle that. Seeing as how I’ve just arrived an hour ago, it’s clear that I wasn’t here soon enough.”

“I see…” Talib looked over at him again. “Then… do you know how—”

Leona held up a hand. “There may be a peacekeeping agent who is working with ELPIS. This peacekeeping agent in question most likely used a proto-conductor stored with the Specialist’s vitae within the establishment to allow the ELPIS leader to enter later.”

Talib stiffened. “That’s—”

“But that isn’t the topic I’m here to discuss,” Leona interjected. “At the moment, I want a Manipulator capable of manipulating multiple observational mediums long-range in order to comb the Twin Cities thoroughly. There are very few Manipulators who fit this criterion, Talib, and you are one of them. Your familiarity with the city is also advantageous.”

Talib remained silent.

“I also wanted to have someone who is more familiar with ELPIS’s movements to advise me,” Leona addressed Jericho now, her amber eyes glinting. “And your particular Specialist conducting may be useful.” She glanced at Talib who suddenly tensed. “And I’m sure, Talib, you are aware of what I mean about that.”

It’s natural that she knows, Jericho thought before the others could voice their apprehension. She is a chairwoman and head of a department. She is using me. But I will use her.

“Since we didn’t turn up any leads in the Twin Cities, I was under the impression that they had moved their operations to Scorpio since there has been activity reported there—though this has yet to be confirmed,” Leona continued. “Since a member who was active in the Twin Cities has made a movement here, however…”

“You think the ELPIS member who attacked the detention center has returned to the Twin Cities?” Talib tried.

“Yes, that is a possibility,” Leona confirmed. “Of course, if I’m understanding this correctly, you witnessed the ELPIS’s Specialist’s conducting abilities first hand. So, this may not hold true. I’m simply aiming to confirm or deny.”

Jericho’s head buzzed.

“All I ask is for two weeks of your time in the Twin Cities working temporarily alongside my department. After that, you will be returned to your departments.” Leona sighed, leaning back in Gabrielle’s chair and crossing her arms. “Since this is a case from a department that is not your own, I’ll give you a choice on whether or not to accept.”

***

They boarded the Grand Snake Train the following morning.

Jericho sat beside Talib in their designated compartment while Leona sat directly across from them.

Jericho was unsure of how to feel about Leona. If she was associated with ELPIS then he would have to act accordingly. If she was not then… he was not sure. Maria seemed to like her but the others did not. Odd.

Although Leona continuously looked Jericho and Talib over during the beginning of the train ride, she didn’t initiate conversation. The only words she spoke were to the dining-car service attendants. In the silence, Jericho had taken out his notebook and pressed his pen to the empty page. But he couldn’t think of what to write. Or even what to draw. Eventually, Jericho put the items back into his suitcase and began to doze off to the steady clack, clack of the v-train climbing along its route.

“—give me if this is rude, Miss Leona, but I’m actually quite curious about Monadism. I’ve been thinking to be a convert myself for some time now. How often are the gatherings?”

“I’m happy that you’re considering it, Talib. It’s a very respectful and kind community. People are welcomed in from all countries.”

Jericho awoke to such a conversation. When he lifted his head from the window, he found Talib leaning forward across the table and speaking animatedly to Leona. Leona herself was looking down at him with what Jericho assumed as amusement. He wasn’t certain. He’d never been good at reading people.

“Yes, the aspect about respecting one’s Ancestors has always intrigued me,” Talib continued. “And I think that having a saint candidate who uses the Ancestors as a role model while also acting as a role model themselves is very… inspiring.”

Leona smiled.

“Am I correct in saying that there are two active saint candidates at the moment?” Talib pressed onwards.

Leona’s lips dipped downwards briefly. “I still view a failed saint candidate as a saint candidate,” she replied. “They’ve already met all the criteria. They just haven’t mustered the strength nor the capabilities to take on the role.” She held Talib’s gaze. “So, yes, from my point of view, there are more than that. There’s the failed saint candidate of Taurus. And then there’s the failed saint candidate of Libra whom I’ve heard has been frequenting Ophiuchus as of late—despite her not being an agent.”

Talib stiffened.

Jericho connected the dots. Flannery was a failed saint candidate. There was most likely history there. But it was not relevant.

“Ah, yes…” Talib cleared his throat, leaning back into his seat. He shifted uncomfortably for a moment. “I wasn’t aware that saint candidates had responsibilities. Well, still—”

“Are these answers necessary to become Monadic, Talib? You seem to have an intense focus on saint candidates when that’s only a fraction of what Monadism is about.”

Talib flinched. “Well, Miss Leona, I apologize if my questions are excessive. I’m just a very cautious person, and I like to touch all bases before I dedicate my heart to something.”

Jericho waited for Talib to mention the Organization but he didn’t.

“That’s not a negative trait. In fact, it’s admirable,” Leona appraised. “You remind me of a close friend of mine. They were quite passionate, just as you are.”

“I… thank you,” Talib said uncertainly.

“Enough of that. It’s about time I went over the details of this case that you should know.” Leona glanced at Jericho. “Since you’ve come to, Jericho.”

Talib followed her gaze to Jericho and nodded at him in surprise. “Good morning, partner.”

Jericho nodded back.

“You must understand this before I debrief you,” Leona said firmly. “If you are to divulge any information I am about to give to you regarding ELPIS to outside parties, you will face disciplinary action. Your Conducting License will be revoked, and you will be removed from the agent registry. Additionally, you may be tried and held in the detention center. Is that clear?”

Jericho nodded. So did Talib.

“Good.” Leona reached for her suitcase beside her, withdrew a manila folder from within, and handed it to Talib. She explained, “There are two ELPIS leaders whom I know for certain are active and have had previous operations in the Twin Cities. The first would be a person who attacked the Black Constellation Detention Center.”

Talib flipped open the file and held it between him and Jericho. A photograph of a blurred woman’s face was paperclipped to one sheet of paper within. The sheet of paper read:

CLASSIFIED

      ELPIS Name: Omicron (#54)

      True Name: Unknown

      Country of Origin: Most likely Capricorn or Taurus

      Conducting-type: Manipulator

      Capable of manipulating 15+ items at once

      Incapable of using manipulated items as observational mediums

      Requirements—blood contact with item, conductor usage

      Location of tattoo: left-side of face

      Threat Level: A-

      Additional Notes: At least 3+ Licensed Conductors advised to engage.

Talib’s brows shot up. “Her manipulation ability is—”

“Yes, she’s much more adept than you at manipulating, Talib,” Leona agreed. “Although your talents aren’t something to be brushed aside.”

“… You flatter me, Miss Leona.”

Someone sounds like they’re tryna butter her up. 

Jericho didn’t understand the analogy.

“So, am I correct in saying that the names we’re referring to them by are pseudonyms of sorts?” Talib pressed. “To possibly hide their true identity?”

“They’re pseudonyms, but they have no desire to hide their true identities,” Leona replied. She reached over and tapped the number beside Omicron’s name. “That number indicates that this is the fifty-fourth person who has taken up the code-name Omicron. There have been fifty-three others who have taken up the name before them. They share similar conducting-types despite this.”

“They must go through leaders quickly then…” Talib noted, brows raised.

Leona pulled out another file from her suitcase and exchanged it for Omicron’s file. Talib flipped the new one open and held it out for Jericho again. There was no photo this time. Just a single sheet of paper:

CLASSIFIED

      ELPIS Name: Theta (#16)

      True Name: Unknown

      Country of Origin: Unknown

      Conducting Type: Specialist

      Capable of a form of spatial distortion

      Requirements—user’s blood marked with appropriate diameters at location of interest, conductor contact with separate blood marked area

      Location of tattoo: unknown, but most likely right-side of face

      Threat Level: S+

      Additional notes: Do not engage.

A faded memory flashed into Jericho’s memory once more. The sandy dunes that soaked up the tears and blood. And that person who had reached out for him amongst the destruction.

Leona continued, “Theta has been dormant for some time. This marks their first emergence in years.”

“Perhaps, it’s a new ELPIS leader then…” Talib suggested. His eyes then darkened. “I’ve never seen a Conductor with that kind of ability…” He handed the file back to her. “It’s dangerous. Am I correct to assume this ‘Theta’ is one of your capture priorities?”

“Yes, that’s the case. Although, this is the first time Theta has acted out so aggressively.” Leona’s eyes narrowed. “Something must have changed.”

“And… that conducting we saw,” Talib continued. “And these files. They’re using their blood as if it were vitae…”

“An old form of conducting,” Jericho recalled from Olive’s book reading only minutes ago.

Leona inspected him before nodding. “Yes, we believe that’s what it is. It’s a putrid form of conducting, but I have to admit that it’s one of the reasons ELPIS leaders are so hard to capture alive.”

“They gain an advantage every time they bleed,” Talib concluded.

Leona further elaborated, casting a look towards the window: “The conductors that we use aren’t capable of performing like that. They weren’t designed that way. We have yet to obtain ELPIS conductors to assess how exactly it’s done. Of course, their lower-tier members that we’ve captured are ignorant of this blood conducting.”

She was lying about something. 

“I’m surprised by your knowledge of it, Jericho,” Leona noted. “But you must have seen it in action yourself when you were with them. Perhaps, even taught about it. Though your file states that you had very little contact with actual leaders.”

Jericho hadn’t been taught this and had ever seen it himself. He supposed he was a ‘lower-tier’ member if that was the case. But he shouldn’t let her know that. It was time to change the subject.

“Are there any other ELPIS leaders who might be in the Twin Cities?” Jericho asked. “I would like to know. Please.”

Leona wordlessly reached into her suitcase and held out two files to him instead of Talib. Jericho accepted it, opened the first, and held it so that Talib could read as well.

ELPIS Name: Omega (#91)

      True Name: Unknown

      Country of Origin: Unknown

      Conducting Type: Manipulator

      Capable of manipulating an uncounted number of objects.

      Capable of using manipulated objects as observational mediums.

      Location of Tattoo: Back of neck

      Threat Level: C+

      Additional Notes: N/A

Jericho flipped to the next file.

A clear photo of a familiar woman with wild orange hair and glowering eyes was clipped to the corner.

ELPIS Name: Iota (#67)

      True Name: Iris McKillop

      Country of Origin: Libra

      Conducting Type: Manipulator

      Capable of manipulating 10+ objects at once

      Tends to favor chains as medium

      Location of Tattoo: Side of hand

      Threat Level: A+

      Additional Notes: Extremely dangerous, aggressive, violent. Do not engage unless accompanied.

Tugging the file out of Jericho’s hands, Talib stared down at the photo and paled. “She’s… the war criminal. She’s infamous in Libra. They used to tell horror stories about her back home… about how she’d drink the blood of children.” His gaze snapped up to Leona. “So she’s a leader of ELPIS…?”

Leona nodded silently. Talib returned to staring at McKillop’s photo.

“I see you enjoy reading files, Jericho,” Leona noted, crossing her legs and propping her elbow up on the armrest. She leaned into her fist. “I’ve personally read your file myself.”

“I’ve heard it’s a lengthy file,” Jericho replied.

Leona chuckled. “Yes, well… I do wish for you to find solace and closure here.”

Jericho stared at her. “…Thank you.”

The conversation lapsed back into silence, and Jericho’s eyes once again became heavy as he listened to the click-clacking and the low bellows of the train horn.

“Traitor.”

Jericho’s eyes snapped open. He winced as he was met with blinding white. The whiteness was pouring in through the windows of the train, bleaching everything of color. The compartment, the chairs, and—

Jericho turned back to face Talib but found that the man was no longer sitting beside him. Leona was no longer sitting across from him either. Jericho was alone. 

“You really are a traitor.”

A familiar young girl with hair that fell to her ears apparated beside him. Every detail of her was the same as it had been all those years ago: her small hands, the mole on her shoulder, her pointed nose. And as she turned slowly towards him, a large white crack appeared at her chest that began to creep outwards completing the image of the past. 

“We were going to save the world,” she said. 

“We were destroying it,” Jericho replied.

The cracks along the girl’s body grew.

“We were giving people hope,” she pressed.

“’Despair.’”

The cracks spider-webbed up her neck and bare limbs, but she continued to speak, “We were getting retribution.”

“I still am,” Jericho replied.

The girl’s lips turned upwards for a moment before they dipped downwards again. “Against the people who saved us.” The cracks reached her eyes, and they resembled tear stains.

“Against the people who made us their weapons.”

A pause. 

“We were friends.”

This was not reality. 

Jericho knew this well. Alice had gone over this particular dream with him many times before, but he didn’t feel remorse in these dreams so Alice had never had the need to dissect it any further. But now something was different. Something had changed. In his chest, a gaping hole was beginning to form. A hollowness. 

He didn’t understand it. 

“We were friends.”

Repeating that phrase one last time, the girl shattered into pieces as the fragmentation finished its course. 

“Jericho! Partner!”

Jericho startled and opened his eyes. Talib hovered over him, holding both of their suitcases in hand with great difficulty.

“We’ve arrived,” Talib explained. He glanced out the window behind him. “That Miss Leona is quite fast. She was off the train as soon as we arrived. We should catch up before the Organization can locate us.”

Jericho stared at the man blankly.

Even though the dream was over, even though reality now presented itself before him, Jericho still felt that gaping void. The emptiness.

Something wasn’t right. Something was missing.

Then it clicked.

It was Werner. His connection to Werner had been weakened to the point of almost non-existence, and a void now expanded between them. The fragmented events of what had occurred trickled down to Jericho slowly but he was only able to dissect three pieces of information from them. One, Werner had been overridden. Two, Cadence was the cause of the override. Three, Werner was injured because of the override.

“Er… partner?”

Staring up at Talib, Jericho reached out to Cadence. We were friends.

And silence answered him.

***

Twin Cities, Gemini

The first thing they did upon arrival in the Twin Cities was check into the Abaccio Hotel. The police were warding off the luxury hotel across the street from it. When Talib inquired what had occurred, the police officers informed him that hours earlier a generator conductor had blown. Talib didn’t seem pleased with the answer but after Leona asked him to let it be, he promptly dropped the topic and followed her inside the hotel.

While Leona and Talib checked into their rooms, Jericho remained outside and watched the police’s clean-up work. He wondered if the commissario Vincente Giustizia—no, Tau—was over there directing them on what to do.

It would be very easy to go over there, search for Tau, and stab him through with his conductor if he were present, Jericho thought. Jericho could picture himself going through the motion step-by-step. No, he would have to interrogate Tau first. Get him to show him where Alice was—

A silhouette suddenly appeared in front of Jericho. Atienna. He could tell that she was sitting in that small cavern within the large cavern again. He could tell she had just spoken with Cadence. He could tell—feel—that her knuckles were raw.

“Jericho, please don’t…” she said under her breath.

He stared at her.

If ELPIS didn’t exist, this would not have happened. If their ‘hope’ didn’t push people like this then… Yes. If ELPIS did not exist, then Alice wouldn’t, then Werner wouldn’t—

“Jericho,” Atienna whispered, “please be patient. I think I might have an idea. Please, just this once, avert your eyes.”

A brush against the shoulder jarred Jericho from his synchronization. Jericho turned his head and identified a tall man with light brown hair dressed in a military uniform.

“Sorry,” the man mumbled, offering a loose wave before sliding his hands into his pockets and turning to head down the sidewalk.

“Gilbert,” Jericho realized.

Second Lieutenant Gilbert Wolff stopped short in his tracks and whipped his head around. The man studied Jericho, eyeing the white band on his arm, before asking, “Do I… know you?”

Jericho blinked at him and looked across the street. Gilbert followed his gaze.

“Wait,” Gilbert began, facing him fully, “are you—”

“Ophiuchian agents know every person in Signum,” Jericho said, turning away swiftly. “Have a good day.” He entered the hotel without another word, feeling Gilbert’s gaze burning his back all the while.

***

Their second destination after arriving in the Twin Cities was the Leonian Monadic Temple. It was located at the exact point where the east and west halves met, and it resided within the Monadic District of the city. The streets within the district were clean and cobblestone. The buildings were pure white. There was not a single piece of trash on the ground, and there was not a beggar in sight.

The Leonian temple was large, consisting of a raised platform from which multiple pillars sprouted. The pillars were long and thick, supporting an extended roof that was carved with unfamiliar symbols.

Inside the temple was dark—lit only by a cluster of candles. There were only two small stained-glass windows on the left and right inside, ensuring that the light pouring in from the entrance was the dominant illuminator. Pews lined the walls and faced towards the back of the temple. The pews were filled with a cluster of men and women dressed in familiar monochrome uniforms. Peacekeepers. Most likely in the ELPIS Department. All of them turned to stare first at Leona and then at him and Talib as they entered. Their gazes, however, lingered on Jericho, leaving him to wonder if they knew who he was.

Without addressing him or Talib any further, Leona walked forward to the back of the temple where a large, startlingly realistic statue of a faceless person stood front and center. The statue was gilded with gold bits that caught the light from the windows.

Talib slid into a pew and motioned for Jericho to sit beside him. Jericho complied but couldn’t comprehend why they were stopping by this temple. The destination seemed irrelevant to their case at hand.

Eventually, Leona came back to them and motioned for Talib to stand. She nodded over to a cluster of peacekeeping agents whispering to one another at the corner of the room.

“The taller woman standing over there is Lucretia Long,” she explained. “She’s one of the senior agents in this department, and she’ll inform you of what you’re to do here, Talib. You’ll be working under her from now on.”

Talib nodded slowly before turning and extending a hand out to Jericho. Jericho stared down at it for a moment before accepting. Giving him a firm shake, Talib concluded with a, “See you around, partner,” before he headed over.

Jericho stared after him but then—

“Wow, this is so nostalgic!”

A pleasant buzz filled his mind. When he glanced to his left, he found Maria’s image sitting beside him. Faintly, he could make out where she was. On a canoe. In the middle of the ocean. Hm.

“This really brings me back,” Maria continued, “to the Monadic orphanage. We even had a statue of the Leonian Ancestor there too! I used to climb it all the time!” She paused, leaning forward to stare past Jericho.

He followed her gaze.

Leona was now seated to his left. She was admiring the statue.

Had she spoken to him? He hadn’t been paying attention.

“I didn’t hear anything.” Maria hummed. “She’s interesting though, isn’t she?”

Jericho stared at Leona, trying his best to figure out what about her Maria found interesting. Leona had formed an insurrection against Maria. A mutiny. But Maria herself held no ill will.

Jericho couldn’t understand her. And she couldn’t understand him.

“We should look into the crime organizations or the generator conductors in this city,” Jericho stated to Leona. “If we have no leads.”

Leona slowly turned away from the statue, her eyelashes catching the light and glittering. She studied Jericho impassively. “… I agree with looking into the generator conductors, and I’ve already put other agents on them. I’m working with the state to increase protection over them.” A pause. “But why exactly would ELPIS target the crime organizations? What about them would bring about ELPIS’s vindication?”

Leona was staring into him. Like Alice would. Almost like reading his thoughts.

“I know, right?” Maria whispered from beside him.

Jericho realized he had slipped. If he wasn’t connected to Cadence, he wouldn’t have knowledge of ELPIS’s dealings with the Romano executives and he wouldn’t have knowledge of the Romano’s underground work which made them targets of ELPIS.

“Intuition,” Jericho tried.

Maria nodded.

Leona regarded him. “I read your application form for the ELPIS Department. It said that you believe eliminating ELPIS will bring true peace to Signum. Do you mean that wholeheartedly?”

Jericho nodded. “Yes, they are—”

“The false hope that lures people astray,” Leona recited quietly. “But that could be said about any ideology. I’m sure if you looked into Signum’s history—beyond Signum’s history—you’d find groups similar to them.”

Jericho exchanged a quick glance with Maria who looked just as perplexed, albeit intrigued.

“And you’d find groups similar to us. Sometimes they win. Sometimes we win. In the end, it doesn’t matter. Regardless of the amount of guidance given, the same mistakes will happen over and over again.”

“Over and over again?” Jericho repeated.

“There will always be another ELPIS,” Leona said.

Another ELPIS. No, that was impossible. There was only one. If that wasn’t the case then—

A hand on his shoulder stopped the thought from completing its course. Maria. In the light that fell through the stained-glass windows, she was illuminated with a rose-colored glow.

“Well, you know what Conta tells me,” Maria hummed. “If you can’t find a solution to a problem even if you’ve spent a lot of time on it again and again, then all you need is a shift in perspective. Another person to help catch what you missed!”

Jericho informed Leona of Maria’s solution.

Leona gazed at him before chuckling mirthlessly. “That’s good. You have a good amount of pride. Pursue that goal to the ends of the earth. Just be sure not to look back. If you do, I’m sure you’ll be very disappointed.”

***

Acting on Jericho’s intuition, Leona met with several executives of the Romano Family the following day. Jericho wasn’t in attendance. He assumed Talib wasn’t in attendance either since the man had left the hotel to join his new team the previous night.

“Off to do long-range surveillance,” Talib had said before slipping a folded crane into Jericho’s pocket and finishing with, “but I’ll keep in touch.”

After the meeting, Leona invited Jericho over for lunch at the Gamma Geminorium. He learned here that he would be assigned temporarily as a guard for the Romano executives while she collected data about the days she was absent from the city from other agents. She informed him she would refer to him for ELPIS-related information after she’d finished and would move forward with him from there.

The first person Jericho was assigned to guard was Caporegime Bendetto of the Romano Family. Jericho recalled Cadence mentioning that the man handled land and collected rent for the organization.

Working alongside Jericho were two additional ELPIS Department agents who only exchanged words of greeting with him and nothing more. At first, Jericho had thought they were displeased with him because they knew of his connection to ELPIS. He later realized after witnessing them glowering in Bendetto’s direction that they weren’t fond of the crime families.

Bendetto spent most of his time in his apartment flat, taking calls from unknown business partners. He had a wife who brought him breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Lucy, was it? She was kind and warm, and Bendetto was kind and warm in return.

Late into his shift, Lucy brought Jericho a platter of multi-colored cookies and milk. Although he wasn’t hungry, he accepted them. He was joined by Olivier as he nibbled on the treats.

After offering a loose “hey” in greeting, Olivier muttered, arms crossed, “Have you talk-talked to Cadence lately?”

Jericho shook his head. He hadn’t spoken to her since Werner had been injured. Whenever he accidentally synchronized with her, she would always say something along the lines of “I’m really busy, detective. Sorry, maybe next time” before pulling away. Was this called ‘avoidance’?

Olivier frowned deeper. “Not surprised.” He rubbed his arm. “Anything… from Werner?”

Again, Jericho shook his head. And then heaviness came to him. It was uncomfortable and suffocating like there was an anchor pulling his entire chest downwards. He knew it was not his own feeling, but he didn’t know what to do with the knowledge that it was Olivier’s feeling.

On a whim, Jericho lifted the cookie he was eating and held up the cookie platter with his other hand. Does it taste good?

Olivier arched a brow, scoffed, rolled his tongue in his mouth, and said, “Yeah, they taste good. Are you sure they aren’t poisoned or something?”

Why would they be poisoned? 

Olivier scoffed again before glancing at the platter. “It’s really weird how that works. Being able to taste what another person tastes, I mean… It seems like a pretty useless thing.” He uncrossed his arms. “It’s been a while since I had any sweets. Sagittarius is surprisingly lax when it comes to that stuff.”

I can try more. If you’d like. Jericho stared down at the platter.

Olivier shifted from side-to-side for a moment before gesturing to a heart-shaped cookie. “How about that one?”

Jericho picked it up and ate it in two bites. He glanced at Olivier.

Olivier made a face. “Too much sugar.” He then pointed to a pumpkin-shaped one. “How about that one?”

After Jericho nibbled on it, Olivier gave a nod of approval. Then he pointed to another cookie.

After half an hour, the entire platter was empty, and Jericho was left feeling a bit nauseous. Olivier snickered at him before nervously urging him to drink water and milk.

Even after all the sweets, however, the heaviness eventually returned. Jericho supposed this meant that his efforts had failed. Alice would know, he thought, what the appropriate course of action should’ve been. Still, Olivier remained with him until the end of his shift.

Thus the first day and a half of the assignment passed without incident.

After his shift, Jericho made his way over to the alleyway outside the Casa de Bambolle. Not for entertainment purposes, he thought to the others just in case. For investigative purposes. When he arrived at the location in the alley where Cadence had emerged from after she had escaped her ELPIS capture, however, he found that it had already been warded off by ELPIS Department agents.

They knew what they were doing.

On the second night, Jericho was on guard over Donato and his son Feliciano. He was admitted into their lavishly furnished mansion on the outskirts of the city and was offered a plethora of refreshments. After ‘small talk’, he was taken into Donato’s home office where the man spent most of his time.

Two different ELPIS agents were assigned with Jericho for this shift and were already present upon his arrival. They too kept their distance.

Donato kept himself planted at his desk, going through piles upon piles of paperwork. Feliciano also kept to the office, watching with a grimace as the two other peacekeepers played cards in front of the fireplace sandwiched between bookshelves. Jericho himself began to go through the bookcases on Atienna’s behalf.

It was near the end of Jericho’s shift that Donato abruptly said, “I’m stepping out for a bit. I’ll be back in half an hour.”

Jericho turned on his heels. Donato was pulling a jacket from the coat hanger beside the door. His once cluttered desk was now empty. His gait was normal, his bad leg appearing not to bother him.

Jericho watched the man leave through the door and glanced over at the two agents. They hadn’t looked up from their game. Jericho detached himself from the bookcase and followed after Donato only to be stopped by a hand around the wrist. He turned and found Feliciano glowering behind him.

“Hey, Glasses, my dad said he was just steppin’ out for a bit. You deaf?”

“I am not deaf,” Jericho replied. “I am here to watch over you and your father. You were informed of this.” He stared at Feliciano. “Unless you are deaf?”

Feliciano stiffened and flinched away from him. “Creepy bastard…”

“I’m sorry if I scared you,” Jericho returned.

Feliciano flushed. “You didn’t—”

Brushing past Feliciano, Jericho exchanged a couple of parting words with the agents. He brushed past Feliciano again, picked up his suitcase from where he’d left it beside the door, and exited the office and then the mansion.

***

The night air was heavy and humid. Pitch black.

The mansions in this city were different from Olivier’s estate. These ones were all relatively close together, and their gated entrances met with the gray, brick sidewalk that connected the edge of the city to the heart of it.

Jericho wasn’t too familiar with these streets. He assumed this was because Cadence wasn’t familiar with them. But that didn’t matter.

Gripping his suitcase tightly, Jericho followed along the gray sidewalk in the direction of the city. The soles of his shoes squeaked against the wet sidewalk, highlighting the silence around him. The v-lamps lining the street were off, but Jericho didn’t mind it. In the distance, the active glittering lights from the city’s heart provided just enough visibility—

A flash of light suddenly burst across the street causing Jericho to stop in his tracks. He turned his head. Pitch black darkness met his eyes. But, even so, he swore he saw it. That color.

“Theta wants me to drag you back to base,” came a quiet voice from the darkness. “But I think it’s better if I just end you here.”

A high-pitched, metal click-clack, click-clack, click-clack followed the whisper, and it was paired with a rustling sound. Vaguely, Jericho could make out something writhing in the dark. It looked like a snake with an arrow-shaped head, its body twisting unnaturally in the air.

And then slowly, they became illuminated—the chains. They burned white, tips pointed, as they slithered through the night sky. A woman wearing a polka-dotted blue dress stood beneath them with her shadowed back to him. Her hand which was gloved in a metal contraption was extended outwards towards a man who was seated on the ground. Donato. He was bound in luminous chains that slithered over his body and mouth.

Donato’s eyes flicked over to Jericho, and he let out a muffled shout. The woman followed the man’s gaze, craned her neck, stared at Jericho.

“Huh?”

Jericho stared back at her. Stared back at the woman whose photo he had studied thoroughly only days earlier. Stared back at the woman whom Cadence had seen within that unknown room a week prior. Stared at the woman who had punched Carl across the room. Stared at the woman who had grabbed Alice’s wrist.

Jericho’s eyes darted to the woman’s ungloved hand that now rested lightly on her hip. There was a tattoo there. The symbol was unmistakable.

In that instant, every limb in Jericho’s body became electrified. Everything sharpened into focus. The unimportant things faded away into black.

There was only Iota and himself.

Jericho unlatched his suitcase, and his conductor fell into his waiting palm. He flicked it into activation, his vitae spilling out of it in the shape of a whip.

Iota’s eyes widened as the light from his vitae drained the color from her face.

“You’re…” Her eyes narrowed and she glowered at him. “You’re the suitcase bastard, aren’t you?” Kicking Donato to the side, she pointed her conductor-gloved index finger at him. “So they sent you here, huh? I’ve heard plenty of things about you from Omicron and Omega—”

“Shut up,” Jericho stated. “If you take me to Alice, I’ll let you live.”

Iota shut her mouth, flabbergasted. “Alice…? ‘Let me live’?” She barked out a laugh and flicked her hand outwards towards him. The chains obeyed her command and rushed at him.

With two quick whips of his conductor, Jericho shattered them along with the nearby v-lamps and gates that lined the sidewalk. Everything his conductor touched crumbled away into nothing. The trash bins, the gates, the gray brick sidewalk. Disintegration.

Ignoring the destruction, Jericho confirmed, “Yes. I will let you live long enough to choose your burial site.”