15.2: Combat Medic, 0705 Head Trauma

Re-cap:
Atienna is locked in an override over Werner. The events surrounding this are clouded in mystery. After investigating the Argoan woman who injured Werner, Atienna discovers that the woman was in fact a Capricornian who was involved with the anti-military Verbundene Augen movement. The woman’s purpose remains unknown, but as per Werner’s personal request to Gilbert, the unit pushes forward to complete their objective of cutting off the Argoan line and meeting up with Captain Weingartner. As they push forward into the battlefield, Werner…


Schädeltrauma » Head trauma reported at 0705 hours

Unoccupied Territory, Argoan-Capricornian Border

Underground doctor-turned-combat medic Nico Fabrizzio’s mind was always full of ‘what if’s. For example—what if Cadence was his little sister? What if flowers fell from the sky instead of snowflakes—instead of ash? What if conductors didn’t exist? What if the pictures at the theater were in color? What if Wilhelm Fischer was second lieutenant instead of Gilbert? What if Argo and Capricorn and Aquarius got along? What if his father had never gone into the underground business? What if Nico himself had never grown up in the Twin Cities? What if Werner had grown up in the Twin Cities with the rest of them? What if Werner…

As Nico brushed aside these thoughts and continued trudging forward along the marshy ground, his gaze drifted to Atienna who was pacing alongside Gilbert. The rifle that Kleine had conjured for her was swung up on her back, but it looked like it was weighing her entire body down.

A fog rolling up from the south snaked its way in between the thinning tree line around them and covered up the muddy ground that was patched over with a network of ice. The high-hung sun could not pierce through the veil of clouds shrouding the sky, and so everything felt cold, gray.

Nico sighed, his breath fogging up the air and adding to all the drabness.

A couple more kilometers and they’d reach the captain. While that was definitely a reassuring thought, it still wouldn’t be some time until they reached ‘true safety.’ They had been walking for several hours now and had thankfully not come across any additional Argoan pockets. Gilbert had suggested for Atienna keep to his side just in case the worst-case scenario came knocking. Atienna had not objected—merely offered words of gratitude. Gilbert reveled in it a lot more than he should have. A shameless guy. A lot like Cadence. But…

There was definitely something wrong, Nico knew. This ‘override’ was lasting longer than any other override Werner had told him about before. The longest one Werner had referenced had been Maria’s cheery-eyed override during the Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict. The shortest had been Cadence’s override in the Twin Cities to save Alma two months prior. And now… how many hours had it been? Six? Seven? If only there was a telegram line so he could use a conjured radio to call up Cadence to see what was going on on her end.

Atienna seemed to share his concerns but did not address them directly. Instead, she had approached him earlier this morning, asking him to re-evaluate Werner’s hand injury. Maybe she thought the injury had to do something with the override.Nico did as she requested before they were set to leave. After removing the glove that was constantly kept over Werner’s hand, he’d undone the bandages and inspected the injury. Thin grafted-skin ran diagonally across Werner’s palm where the cut had once been. The skin at the area hadn’t yet split indicating that enough skin had been transmuted to hold. Upon further inspection, however, Nico found a tiny dark spot he hadn’t noticed before beneath the transmuted skin there. Most likely petechiae or purpura as a result of the injury. Would probably disappear within a few days. Leaving it at that, Nico had resolved to assess it periodically.

As Nico had re-bandaged the hand, however, he couldn’t help but stare at Werner’s palm. He hadn’t ever had to treat the area—or even Werner, in general—so he had been… alarmed when he had first seen it. He had contemplated addressing it after Werner awoke, but when Atienna awoke instead…

“I… may be making a baseless assumption here,” Atienna had interjected during his rumination, “but if you’re thinking what I’m assuming you’re thinking, then perhaps it would be best to wait to address it face-to-face instead.” She’d stared right through him. “Middlemen—from your personal experience—aren’t too good, don’t you think?”

Nico was drawn out of his memories of that event as Stein, Brandt, and Fischer approached him from the side. He greeted them with a slight nod.

“So?” Stein took a drag of his v-cig and passed it to Brandt. “What’s really wrong with the lieutenant, Fabrizzio?”

Although the question had been asked casually, Nico could see the glint in Stein’s eyes. Stein had been present in the Twin Cities during the ELPIS incident, after all. He’d witnessed Werner’s confrontation with Colonel Fritz von Spiel and the fallout of Francis’s rampage—but he still hadn’t been given the down-low on what was what with True Conductors. Neither had Bergmann. Stein himself never asked for the details but he’d been keeping one eye keenly peeled ever since.

“It’s like Gilbert says.” Nico flashed a practiced smile. “The lieutenant is fine. He suffered light head trauma from when he fainted from exhaustion earlier. He’s still disoriented.”

“Poor lieutenant…” Combat medic Alwin Brandt sighed, passing the v-cigarette to Fischer beside him. “Are you sure there’s nothing you missed? I’ve been on leave since that border conflict with Aquarius, so I wouldn’t mind checking for you if you’d like. Been itching to get my hands into something. It’s not a bother.”

Nico frowned. The statement in itself was an insult. “No, I’ve got it. Thanks though, Brandt.”

It wasn’t that Nico didn’t like Brandt. It was just that since they were in the same occupation in the same working space, they often butted heads on how to handle certain procedures. “Competition is bad for business,” as Allen would say.

“And still the lieutenant marches on,” sang Stein suddenly. “That’s a Capricornian through and through.” He craned his neck around and jeered. “Unlike some people here.”

Heimler and Vogt who were walking beside one another behind them shared a grimace.

“A bunch of pansies.” Stein spat.

Stein reminded Nico a little bit of Feliciano Donato, one of his many personal childhood bullies. Same aggressiveness, same condescending tone, same swagger. Except Stein had some redeeming features. Definitely a lot more honor. But still.

“Knock it off, Stein.” Nico sighed before he hummed. “You never know. You might be in a situation where Stein or Heimler are the only ones who can bail you out. Pretty sure you won’t think that they’re that then. As we always say, ‘never throw all of your cards away because you’ll end up chucking a card that wins a hand.’”

Stein scoffed. “Those two are joker cards. If anything I’ll be the one’s saving their asses.”

“I’ll raise you one on that.”

Stein’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t feel comfortable doing that when it’s with you of all people.”

Nico shrugged but then paused as a chill went up his spine. It seemed as if their conversation had gained the attention of Atienna. Nico locked eyes with her across the path, and she flashed him a smile in turn. It was a very nice smile, but… There it was again. That look. As if she was looking on at Stein’s malicious behavior from a far distance. Like it didn’t truly involve her. Just like how she’d looked that previous night while inspecting the Argoan’s corpse.

Initially that night, despite Atienna’s attempts to hold her expression steady, her horror, disgust, and sympathy upon gazing at the pile of corpses had shone through clearly—so clearly Nico had almost felt ashamed that he hadn’t been nearly as affected as her.

But then, that changed.

Nico could still picture it now.

The way the moonlight had bled through the spaces between the trees, streaking Werner’s face in splashes of silver and highlighting that curious fascination as Atienna had examined the corpses. Like a detective observing a crime scene. No. Like an outsider looking in. No. Like a movie-goer watching the flickering monochrome film reel. A reader flipping through pages of a book.

Truthfully, Atienna unnerved Nico.

The dichotomy of warm sympathy and cold curiosity reminded Nico too much of his own father.

***

Gilbert had them take a short break when they passed by a slowly trickling stream. Nico knew that Werner probably wouldn’t have made this less-than-scenic stop but was appreciative of the opportunity to rest his legs.

While the others sat and puffed their v-cigs, cleaned their weapons, or opted for an additional wink of sleep, Atienna hovered around uncertainly before settling beneath a large tree. She rested the conjured rifle against the trunk before gazing at Gilbert who was inspecting a map a meter or so away. Nico studied her from where he lounged puffing a v-cig with Kleine and Stein before pacing to her side.

Atienna greeted him with a pleasant smile at his approach. Like she’d been expecting him. “Oh, hello, Nico.”

Unnerving.

But Nico offered a genial smile and thumbed behind him. “Want to refill your water with me?”

Atienna’s gaze swept the area, and she seemed to take note of the glances she was receiving from the others. With a thoughtful hum that made Nico think she was evaluating the meaning—the worth—of those stares, she inclined her head.

They walked down a slope towards the stream in silence. Only the sound of crunching leaves and iced dirt, the occasional slosh as Nico misstepped into a deep puddle, and the trickling of the stream as they drew nearer and nearer. Atienna did not walk with the same sense of rigidity and purpose as Werner did, Nico noted. If anything, she floated.

Heimler and Vogt were crouched side-by-side by the bank when they arrived. The two men were conversing quietly with one another, so engrossed in their conversation that they didn’t even notice his and Atienna’s approached. But Atienna didn’t make her presence known and settled down further along down the bank. Nico crouched down beside her, uncapped the bottle, inspected the stream hesitantly. The water ran clear. He turned to back to Atienna but found her attention elsewhere—she was staring down the stream bank towards Vogt and Heimler.

Nico arched a brow. If she was interested in them, why didn’t she sit closer to them to begin with?

After a pause, she asked, “Do you mind if I ask, Otto—”

Vogt snapped up to a stand. He scanned the area, locked eyes with Atienna, stiffened. “Sorry, sir! I didn’t even notice you were there. I was distracted. It won’t happen again!”

A very quiet, brief chuckle almost akin to a sigh passed Atienna’s lips. An accident, probably, given by how her mouth pulled into a tight line afterwards. Nico couldn’t tell if the two had seen the slip.

“I was wondering how you knew about the sternblume we found on that Argoan’s…boots,” Atienna continued, voice even but still way too soft. “If I recall correctly, you’re from the Felsenberg region. Far west from the area that sternblume grows.”

“Er, yes, that’s where I’m from.” Vogt nodded. “My mother is a botanist, you see. My father’s a florist. Know about all sorts of plants.”

“Botany…” Atienna’s brows rose. “Is that what you want to pick up again when your military service is over?”

“When my service…?” Vogt blinked.

Heimler, eyes suddenly sharp, drew up to a stand.

Nico arched a brow at him, but paused when he noticed Atienna regarding the man carefully with that lookin her eye again. Was she honestly curious about Vogt’s situation, or did she have another intention in mind?

Vogt finally nodded, cracking a nervous smile. “I have a lot of catching up to do when I get back. I was hoping to do a duel-business where I sell and teach people about different flora.”

“Have you thought of bringing along a book to study…” Atienna paused. “…while you’re here?”

Otto grimaced. “I don’t like reading much…”

Atienna rose to a stand, capping her now filled flask of water. “Well, that’s a shame, don’t you think? You can miss out on a lot of things by avoiding things you dislike… But you could always ask one of the others to read to you. It would be good practice for both parties.”

“Like a bedtime story, sir…?” Otto chuckled nervously, glancing at Nico in slight confusion.

Not a very good joke, but Nico didn’t blame him given the strangeness of the situation.

“If that’s what you perceive it to be,” Atienna responded. “But—”

Nico glanced up at her.

Atienna was staring across the river—wide-eyed, pale. An almost imperceptible shiver slithered down her entire body as she took one small step backwards.

Nico followed her gaze but only found a patchwork of trees and rock at the opposite end of the stream. He rose to a stand. “Lieutenant?”

Atienna snapped to him, tightened expression lessening slightly before she glanced past the stream again. She turned back to him slowly and held up her flask. “Are you done, Nico?” As if nothing had occurred.

Nico nodded, tense.

“Should we head back then?”

Again Nico nodded.

Atienna bid farewell to Vogt and Heimler before heading up the slope leading back to the forest clearing. Vogt offered a wide-eyed wave in turn, while Heimler gave a curt, one-worded goodbye with lingering eyes.

“Did you see something?” Nico asked as he caught up to her from behind. “Was it one of the others…?”

She stopped short, turning to him. Her brows were beaded with sweat. “No… I… saw…” She raised a hand to her mouth. “I thought I saw someone I used to know. But it couldn’t be because she died several months ago…”

Nico paused.

“I suppose if none of you saw it then…” A frown creased her lips. “I… need to look further into this…” She flashed a distant, tired smile with almost a faint glint of mischief. “I hope I didn’t scare you.”

***

The unit started off again half an hour later after checking their conductors, weapons, guns.

Taking on the occupation as a combat medic meant that Nico had to learn how to use a gun. The ‘correct’ way. It was one of the things he’d been looking forward to the least when he’d decided to come on out to serve here—bullet, chamber, gunpowder, bang.

It wasn’t like Nico was unfamiliar with it. He’d used a gun once before when his father’s clinic had been raided by city newcomers trying to make a name for themselves. Missed every shot. Fortunately—or unfortunately—the Romanos had handled the rest so it hadn’t mattered in the end. But here, Nico had been taught the ‘correct’ way to hold and fire the weapon. It was one of the perquisites he had to complete before shrugging into his role as liaison for the Romano Family. Werner had been the one to teach him—and saints was he a strict teacher. But now Nico was certain he would at least get one shot in if the time ever called for it. And he hoped it wouldn’t.

It seemed like an oxymoron—the term ‘combat medic,’ but so had the term ‘underground doctor.’ This was better, Nico was certain. Much better than before. These people weren’t fighting greedily, selfishly for themselves. They were fighting for their country. Each other.

“We haven’t come across any Argoans this entire time,” Kleine said suddenly. “It’s weird.”

Although the glasses-wearing Conjuror usually hung back with Otto or Heimler, Nico noted that today he paced just a step behind him, Atienna, and Gilbert.

“You know what they say about rats in a sinking ship,” Stein quipped.

Fischer smirked. Otto chuckled.

“… They say you should follow them.”

There was a stretch of silence.

Seeming to not notice the stares she received, Atienna continued walking along beside Gilbert examining the tree line. Nico had a feeling she wasn’t scanning them for enemies. And he realized a beat afterwards that she was very aware of the stares she was receiving because finished her comment with—

“…Don’t they?”

“Yes, they do.” Kleine nodded.

“They do,” Fischer agreed immediately despite his prior laughter. A boot-licker, as Gilbert liked to say. A guy who knew where to play his cards, Cadence would most likely argue contrarily. “Happened all the time when I was on those boats with my dad off the coast of Pisces. Every time we had a leaky hole, the rats would scramble, sir.”

Stein snorted. “How the hell did you get off the coast of Pisces if you’ve got holes in your ship—”

Gilbert held his up hand and brought it into a fist. Nico immediately halted as did the others—save for Atienna who stopped short three steps afterwards. Everyone pulled out their weapon or their conductor. Nico himself swung his rifle off of his shoulder and moved his finger to the trigger. Then Gilbert jerked his head up. Telling smoke trails bled skywards in the distance right above where they were to meet Captain Weingartner.

***

It was a kilometer or so through the thicket of trees that they found the designated point they were intended to unite with Captain Weingartner. Rather, they found what was left of it.

Toppled tents were pounded into the ground in between pyres of smoking flame. Steam drifted upwards from spaces of bulleted earth. Vitae-ray marks were scorched into the dirt and filled with bullet shell casings. Around them lay conductors and guns and combat knives. Gripping those weapons were uniformed men and women—some in Capricornian dark gray, others in Argoan forest green.

The air smelled stale yet sharp, felt thick but thin. The only audible sound was the crackling of the dying embers. No birds, no animals, no breathing.

Nico’s stomach churned.

The two things that were different about the Twin Cities and here were the amount of bodies and the way those bodies were handled. Back in Gemini, all the stiffs were buried ten feet under. Here, they were always out in the open.

Gilbert held Atienna back with one arm. “Stick together—”

Heimler suddenly darted off into the campsite without warning. He slipped several times in his mad dash but managed to pick himself up before disappearing into the carnage. Gilbert began to shout after him but bit his tongue and swore under his breath.

“Next person that runs off, I shoot!” he hissed. “Stick together, dammit!”

Gilbert locked eyes with Nico and then Kleine and jerked his head. Nico drew closer to Atienna as did Kleine.

They threaded their way through the campsite quietly, cautiously, eyes peeled, muscles tense. Whenever they would pass a body that didn’t look completely mutilated and riddled with either vitae-ray singes or bullet holes, Nico would draw near and assess the pulse. Every single time there would be nothing.

It hurt. His profession was one of healing and saving people. Each body ticked another failure. Of course, he knew that there was no way he could have saved them, but that nagging feeling remained. “Don’t be naïve. There are more pertinent things to concern yourself with,” Werner would say, “than things that are truly beyond your control.”

As they drew deeper and deeper into camp, it became harder and harder to tell what was blood and what was mud. Everything melded together into one. Iron, smoke, dampness. And then—

A groan emanated from just beneath a collapsed tent to their left. The tarp strung above the broken metal frame shifted and groaned before a man dragged himself out from beneath the entangled mess. Nico broke off from formation and ran to the man’s side. He flipped the man over before pausing as he studied the man’s face and then the color of his uniform. Realization settled in a second later. The injured person was not a man, but a boy—barely touching on adolescence. And not a Capricornian, but a—

“It’s a damn Argoan!” Stein spat, shoving Nico away and aiming his conducting rifle squarely at the adolescent’s face.

In a flash, Atienna was beside Stein and shoving the point of his conductor down. The shot went off with a flash of blue and burned a fist-sized hole into the dirt beside the boy’s head.

“It’s discourteous to shoot without question. Especially during a surrender.” The glint in Atienna’s eyes was almost Werner-like. “Nico, would you mind?”

Nico nodded before moving onto his usual medical assessments with the Argoan. The boy tensed under his searching hands and barely stuttered answers to his assessment questions. Pulse, 85 beats. High—but probably from anxiety and stress. And fear. That was clear. Gilbert approached them from behind meanwhile, dealing a slap upside Stein’s head. Nico pulled back a minute later after finishing his run-through.

The Argoan was uninjured. Merely in slight shock. All in order—although Nico figured the boy would appreciate a blanket. He informed Gilbert and Atienna of this, but it was Stein who spoke:

“With all due respect, Lieutenant Waltz—” Stein jabbed a finger at the Argoan. “—but your head’s still not right. He’s the enemy and just a foot soldier. We won’t get anything from him than blubbering and—”

“The conductors are still here,” Atienna drew calmly. “Whatever happened here, the Argoans didn’t have the time to collect them all. None of the tags have been taken off any of the soldiers either. I imagine that the Argoans would want to collect both of those things. In other words, whatever happened here was unexpected for both parties.” She studied Stein for a moment. “I understand where you’re coming from, Derik, but…”

Stein stiffened at the mention of his first name.

“So interrogation,” Gilbert tried, searching her face for Werner.

Atienna responded by sinking to her knees in front of the Argoan who shakily propped himself up in response. “What happened here?” Quietly, gently in Common.

The young Argoan shook his head ferociously, wide eyes flitting back and forth as if expecting something to pop out from behind them—no, as if expecting them to lunge at him. He scooted back, looking to Nico desperately as if asking for rescue.

And then Atienna placed a hand on the Argoan’s cheek causing not only him to stiffen but also all of the other men. “It’s okay,” she continued, nonplussed. “You’re safe.”

The Argoan shook his head, eyes wide. “T-They…” The words seemed to be stuck in his throat.

“What’s your name?”

“E… Emil.”

“Okay, Emil, you’re safe. I promise. My name is Werner. I’m a first lieutenant. I’ll make sure you get home, okay? You can trust me.”

Emil nodded dazedly, focusing in on Atienna’s—rather, Werner’s—face. Nico could see everyone besides Gilbert and Kleine exchanging looks.

Atienna pulled her hand away slowly. “How did you end up here, Emil? You… weren’t directly involved in this attack… correct?” A pause. “It’s okay. Take your time—”

“No!” Emil sucked in a breath, reaching to grab Atienna by the arm before she could fully fold into herself. “The Capricornians—you—were attacking each other.”

What…?

“My unit and I… we saw this camp… we were too small to engage, so we were just going to go report to our superiors.”

Stein clicked his tongue and shared a heated look with Fischer.

“W-When we were trying to slip past you—you just started attacking each other. First, it was one, and then it was everyone.” Emil’s eyes went wide. “My captain wanted to take advantage of the chaos and had us wait… had us wait… but… but…”

“He’s obviously lying!” Stein snapped, kicking up mud with his foot. He whipped around, gesturing wildly. “The Argoans ambushed us but we fought back and they ran off! This guy got left behind and is just trying to scramble! He doesn’t know anything!”

“Stein, shut up,” Gilbert muttered back. “Cool off.”

The sound of sloshing footsteps came at them from behind before anything else could be said. Fischer and Stein raised their conductors while Nico’s hand went for his rifle. He lowered his hand a second later, however, as he registered the figure approaching them.

Heimler. And he was not alone. To his left stood a freckled man dressed in Capricornian dark gray. To his right stood a woman dressed the same, although she kept her head dipped low and her chin buried in the collar of her coat.

Survivors.

“T-They’re ours,” Heimler said, voice trembling with unusual nervousness. “I found them—”

Nico stepped forward but was quickly pushed to the side by Gilbert who first stared—as white as a sheet—at the freckle-cheeked man before turning to the woman. He pulled down her collar exposing her face. Nico recognized the woman immediately. He’d seen her before in the Capricornian newspapers once or twice. In the papers, she’d be posed with her fist raised up in the air, her wispy blonde hair popping out of a tight bun, her prominent brow furrowed. Behind her would be a flag with a cartoonishly drawn symbol of an eye flapping in the wind. 

“What the hell…?” Gilbert seemed to recognize her too. 

Marionette Engel, leader of the Verbundene Augden movement.


???

Werner Waltz returned back from his post at dusk, 2021 hours exactly. He slipped back past the line, reported his numbers to Major Ersatz, and made his way through the trenches. It had rained approximately 13 centimeters that morning, and the entire trench was flooded up to the knees. The gutters had become clogged with debris, so the sewage system was not running properly. Unsightly.

As he manuevered through the waterlogged trenches, the gazes of the soldiers tucked away in the walls bore into him all the while. News of his success in breaching the Argoan stronghold at Abschnitt 46 must have made its way here to Abschnitt 45.

It was nothing to be praised.

He had merely assisted the offense there alongside the others in his division. If anything, his numbers were lower in this operation compared to his previous performances. Improvements needed to be made.

After locating his designated bunker through the watery maze and tucking down into it, Werner found his bunk bed as orderly as he had left. His bed was at the top rung so it had not been affected by the rising flood. Gilbert’s bed that rested just below his, however, was completely submerged. Gilbert himself sloshed around in the waters lugging his bag and throwing clothes and shoes up onto a bunk parallel to theirs. He was by himself, the v-lights accentuating his loneliness as they flickered on and off.

Werner frowned. “Wolff, what are you doing? You’re making even more of a mess.”

Gilbert tensed, back still turned. “It’s Magda.” He threw down his bags. “They sentenced her to death. Just an hour after you left. I’m supposed to be the one to do it. ‘Cause I was the highest-ranking rifleman around at the time. As if being a lance corporal means anything.”

Werner digested this information. “Yes, I heard about Magda. She deserted during the Schwarzer Streifen operation and was found by Rittberg’s unit in Abschnitt 24. Deserters are to be executed by article—”

“I don’t give a damn what article says what!” Gilbert snapped. “That’s too much!”

“She deserted, Wolff.” Werner folded his hands behind his back. “They were generous not to have her executed by firing squad or hanging.”

Of course she deserted! She has two children waiting for her at home! A sick father! Her husband in the 44th was nearly killed in that skirmish at Abschnitt 21! They won’t get their damn pension until the end of the month!”

“We all have to make sacrifices. That’s what it means to be a part of a functional society like Capricorn. Once she turned her back on her country, she became an enemy of a state. She is no different from the Argoans standing on the opposite side of this line.”

“Saints, Werner, do you hear yourself?” Gilbert whipped around and gestured wildly. “I was just sharing a drink with her yesterday! And now they’re asking me to murder her?”

Werner paused, glancing over his shoulder to the entrance. “Gilbert, calm down. You were given a task, and you have to follow through.” He repeated from memory, “You have to do what’s expected of you.”

Gilbert scoffed, turning back to his bags and resuming his packing. “No, I don’t. I’m done with this. All of this. If you ever see me again, it’s gonna be in the Twin Cities drunk on life—”

Werner’s eyes narrowed. “Or beside Magda being executed with her.”

Gilbert froze. “And I’m guessing you’re going to be the one aiming the conducting rifle at us?”

“Don’t be irrational, Gilber—”

“Don’t be this, don’t be that. Do this, do that.—I can’t flip a damn switch in my head and kill one of our own like it’s nothing!”

“You’re a Capricornian. You’re a soldier. This merely falls in line with duty. Don’t act like this is unexpected—”

“Give me a break!” Gilbert snapped, whirling around like a storm. “Don’t tell me you actually believe that bullshit—”

“If you can’t serve your country as a Capricornian,” Werner interjected coldly, “then I will.”

Gilbert froze wide-eyed, water dripping from his sleeves and his hair into the pool below. He did not speak; he did not move forward. In other words, he did not object. And so Werner locked eyes with him, reached over to draw his pistol from his belt, and exited the barracks to fulfill his duty.

Werner picked up Magda Rath from the bunker where she was guarded by two enlisted women. Few words were exchanged before he took her from them. The path they took to the soon-to-be execution ground was a short one. A path without spoken words. A path without resistance.

When they arrived at the thickly forested area, he ordered Magda to kneel. She obeyed and didn’t tremble as he loaded Gilbert’s pistol. Despite the brave face shown here, she had still chosen to desert instead of serving her country. Regardless of her well-meaning intentions, she appeared a coward to outsiders. Cowardliness was unacceptable, unsightly, and anti-Capricornian.

Werner lifted the gun to the back of her head. Only then did Magda start shaking. Her trembles reminded Werner of Otto Vogt’s trembling—and Vogt’s refusal to comply and open fire—when they had come into conflict with the Aquarians at the Ziegenberg Ridge. Unsightly cowardice.

But…

Chance often solved his problems by running away. At times, that choice had led to acceptable outcomes: the escape from the Watch, the escape from the battle between Leona and Jin, and even ordering that tactical retreat during the override.

Werner froze.

Something wasn’t right.

His finger moved away from the trigger.

This had happened already. He had executed Private Magda Rath one year and two days before the Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict broke out along the east—before the skirmish with the Aquarians Ziegenberg Ridge with Vogt’s hesitation.

What was—

The world spun, inverted, blackened. When color bled back into his awareness, Werner came to realize he was somehow lying on his back. Light from a campfire encircled by his subordinates—Vogt, Fischer, Stein, Heimler, Brandt, Kleine, Bergmann—and Gilbert flickered in the distance.

A face eclipsed his own. “Are you alright, Lieutenant? Do you have any pain anywhere?” The voice was instantly recognizable.

“Nico?” Werner tried. “How long have I been unconscious?”

Nico reached into his right pocket and pulled out his conducting gloves. He slipped them on quickly and said, “Let me check something—”

Werner grabbed the man’s wrist and rose to a slow stand.

Nico blinked up at him in confusion. “Werner, you’re injured. You shouldn’t—”

“Nico stores his conducting gloves in his left pocket, not his right. The right pocket is to store additional ammunition,” Werner said, eyes narrowing. He inclined his head towards the campfire but did not look away from the imposter. “Bergmann is not in this unit for this operation, and they are all wearing our previously issued uniforms.” He tightened his grip. “You will tell me what this is. And where this is.”

The imposter regarded him for a moment before sighing: “Well, memories are a bit subjective so you can’t blame it for not taking the shape you remember it to be. Who says the way you remember things is even correct?”

Before Werner could respond, the imposter rose to a stand and took a step back. Fine, hairline cracks appeared across their face—cracks that were reminiscent of the white fragmentation that appeared along anything Jericho’s conductor touched. The cracks spilled down from the imposter’s head to their toes. The pieces of the facade fell away from their face, their torso, their legs slowly, until Werner was able to identify—to recognize—who it was that truly stood before him.

“Lavi,” he realized, loosening his hold.

Lavender Chance’s dark hair fell like a cloak around her pale face, and her dark eyes bore into him with a sharpness that he had never seen in her before. The white cracks continued to spill out from her feet and onto the ground before spreading endlessly into the distance and splintering the environment. Like a shattered mirror. The fragmented pieces fell away revealing almost complete and utter blackness. It seemed to extend infinitely above, below, behind, and in front of him. The expansiveness made Werner’s stomach flip for a brief moment but he grounded himself.

Panic did nothing. Observe.

There was a singular source of light in the abyss. Just behind Lavi glowed a large river of light that stretched out endlessly into the distance east and west. Every so often wisps of light—at times blue, at times green, at times red—would float down from the darkness above and enter the river from one side. Periodically, light would also exit it from the opposite side and disappear upwards.

“To answer your earlier question,” came a voice from the darkness on the opposite side of the glowing divide, “you’re at the point where vitae enters and leaves the cycle, so not exactly physically anywhere.”

It was a voice Werner recognized. The same voice that had whispered to him not to reveal the modified conductors to Major Ersatz—Pi—at the Aquarian-Capricornian border. The same voice that had consoled him after he had been injured in the Twin Cities following Morello’s override. The voice that he had heard right before coming to wherever this was. The voice he had forgotten up until this point.

“In other words,” that voice continued, “First Lieutenant Werner Waltz, you’re standing right on the threshold between life and death.”


The position of combat medic is open to all Conductors within the Capricornian army. Preference is however deferred to those whose conducting-types fall under the Conjuror or Transmutationist category as their natural abilities are more equipped for the profession. Upon completion of service, combat medics are encouraged to seek employment as researchers in the Institution for Military Vitae & Conductor Scientific Research.

Enlistment Information, published by the Iron Horn Recruitment Comittee & edited by the Capricorn Chamber of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, 1936

9.2: Olive’s Naivety (Sapienza)

Re-cap: 

Seemingly far away from ELPIS’s machinations, Ariesian Prince Olivier Chance travels to the Bodhi Temple of Sagittarius in an attempt to study for his State Conducting Exam and in hopes of learning more about his sister’s ghostly condition. He makes a deal with Sagittarian Prince Claire Yuseong to help “protect” the former’s own sister from rival clans in exchange for access to the temple and aid in translation of the Sagittarian texts. On the way there, Claire reveals that he too is a True Conductor. 

Bodhi Temple, Sagittarius

As the air v-tram descended through the clouds, the extravagance of Bodhi Temple’s square arches became revealed. They rose tall and black against the brown peaks of the mountains and stood over a large stone path that wound up the mountainside. At the end of the stone path was a large brass door fitted in-between two mountain peaks. It loomed so tall that even from where Olive stood in the boxcar, he couldn’t see over its top.

When the tram docked at the near-empty sky v-tram station and Olive realized the distance between the station and the temple gate, he nearly climbed right back into the boxcar.

But then the other five flashed into his mind. At the thought of them, Olive shoved away his complaints. His problems were minuscule compared to the problems they were facing. He didn’t deserve to complain.

But Eunji voiced her complaints instead—

“It’s so far! Claire, you said it was only ten minutes from the station!”

Claire simply swiveled around and buttoned up his sister’s coat with a beam. “It is if you put your back into it!”

Eunji scowled before glancing at Olive, straightening herself, and nodding her head. “Let’s go then.”

What a weird girl.

They began to slowly, painfully wind their way up the stone path to the looming gate. The steps were wide and far apart, almost as if they’d been designed for giants. They were in good condition, however, and were clear of debris. Cared for tenderly.

They reached the top of the staircase after an unsaintly amount of time, and if Olive were not so bogged down by exhaustion, he might have marveled at how titanic the gates truly were. They seemed to scratch the sky.

“I know, right?” Claire hummed as he walked up and rapped on the door thrice. The metallic bongs ran up the door’s belly and bled out into an echo in the surrounding air.

When the door creaked open, they were met with a gust of pleasantly warm air, a soft glow of yellow light, and an army of bald men and women all wearing deep dark blue robes. An older man wearing a beaded necklace headed the group and seemed to evaluate them in the silence.

Monks…? Intimidating monks.

Claire, Eunji, Soha, Felix, and Claire’s other guards dipped into deep bows and were given bows of equal depth in turn. When the older monk turned his eyes onto Olive, Olive quickly dipped into a bow too and watched from the corner of his eye as Trystan mimicked the behavior. When Olive straightened himself, he found that all of the monks were returning the gesture.

It felt natural—being bowed at. And Olive hated himself for feeling this way.

“This is my friend,” Claire said to the old monk in Seongese, gesturing to Olive. “Olivier. I was hoping you could offer him hospitality. He’s studying for the State Conducting Exam like Eunji. He heard the rumors about the Bodhi Temple’s great library and wants to read some of the great texts.”

The old man studied Olive carefully.

Appearances.

Olive straightened himself and stood a bit taller.

“There are more details, of course,” Claire continued, “but I believe that may be better discussed privately.”

The old man broke out into a smile and nodded before speaking in Common: “Of course, of course. We are not ones to deny those who seek knowledge to improve themselves. Come in, come in.”

The sea of monks parted forming a straight path for them to enter. Claire, Soha, Felix, and the other Seongese guards entered without hesitation. Olive followed suit with hesitation and with Trystan at his feet.

What lay beyond the gate was a large stone courtyard populated with small, well-kept gardens. The courtyard seemed to extend for a sizable distance and a handful of robed men and women paced in the background. Beyond them stood pagodas interconnected by roofed but open halls that were reinforced by wooden beams. A small stream ran along the outside of the halls, and it pooled into a central pond that was littered with lotus flowers. Surrounding the pond were a cluster of monks who sat cross-legged and closed-eyed. Meditation, maybe. Olive wasn’t too familiar with the idea.

They were led into a large dining hall where a handful of monks were already seated at wooden tables that ran long, low, and parallel.

Olive was ushered to a table by Claire who then ordered some of his guards to bring them food. Trystan sat to Olive’s right, stiff, unmoving, awkwardly rubbing his fingers along the conductor at his side. Eunji who sat on Claire’s left kept glancing past Claire towards Olive himself. Whenever Olive would look at her, she would flush and look away.

Seeming to not be aware of this interaction, Claire happily accepted a bowl of rice porridge from his guards and started digging in. Claire’s guards soon followed suit, removing their masks to enjoy the meal.

Soha and Felix were the only two of Claire’s guards who were seated with them given the crowdedness of the halls. The duo sat directly across from them; and although Soha was freely enjoying her meal without her mask, Felix had barely lifted his mask enough to feed himself.

He most likely had some complex, Olive figured.

Olive stared down at his own rice porridge as he listened to others downing their food.

It was peaceful. Like at Claire’s villa before the assassins had attacked—

At the thought of the young assassin’s charred body, Olive’s stomach churned. Then came the memories of the corpses that had been laid out in front of Maria, of Kalama’s body, of the peacekeepers strewn about on the floor of the detention center, of the knife that had emerged from the mayor candidate’s back as Theta looked on calmly, and of Alice sitting bound to the chair.

Grimacing, Olive set down his spoon.

“It’s a waste if you don’t finish that,” came a voice in Common diagonally across from him. A man.

Keeping his frown in place, Olive gave the nosey man a disinterested look. “It’s weird if you watch people eat.”

The man had wispy blond hair and gray eyes. Obviously not of Sagittarian descent. He was, however, dressed in a robe like all of the other monks. The wrinkles lining his brow and sagging his cheeks betrayed his age and gave him a sagely appearance as if highlighting his monkliness.

He looked a bit familiar, Olive realized as he inspected the man further. Something about him was…

As Olive searched his memory and the memories of the other five to put a name to the man’s face, it suddenly clicked. Not only had Olive seen this man’s face before, but so had Atienna, Werner, and Jericho. They had all seen his face printed on the back cover of numerous textbooks on vitae theory.

Olive gaped. “You… are you P.D. Oran? You wrote all of those books about the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis!”

The smiling man’s lips drooped down immediately, and his eyes went wide. He gaped like a fish before leaping up from the table and dashing out the hall without another word.

“Wait!” Olive stammered, shooting up to a stand.

“It is best to leave him be,” came a voice from behind in Common

Turning his head, Olive found the old man who had greeted them at the doors standing there with a whimsical smile.

“Some people come here for knowledge to improve the outer world,” the old man said. “While others come for knowledge to improve the inner world.”

So basically Oran had issues, Olive surmised. Probably due to all of the backlash the man had received following his publication supporting the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis. The publication had practically murdered his career. Gaining infamy for being associated with just one thing was terrible—Olive knew the feeling well.

Feeling a bit guilty for calling the man out, Olive sank back down. He was startled to find no one staring. All the monks merely continued to mind their own business. It was a relief.

“Claire has informed me of your situation,” the old monk continued. “And I would be happy to provide some help.” He inclined his head. “My name is Tenzin, and I am what you would call the ‘head monk’ of this temple. You would be Olivier? If you’d like, I can give you an overview of what this temple can provide for you in your particular pursuit.”

Olive glanced at his still full bowl of porridge before nodding slowly and rising back up to a stand. “I’d like that… Thank you.”

Trystan followed suit but Tenzin held up a halting hand. “I believe it will better benefit Olivier if I am able to speak to him alone. The more people present, the more we tend to conceal ourselves.”

Olive hated proverbs.

Regardless, he gave Trystan a curt nod, and that was that.

***

Olive followed the monk through a maze of paper-door-lined hallways before he was led into what he presumed was the man’s office. It was rather plain and empty with only two cushions set to the side of a low wooden table. The only decorations consisted of a scroll splashed on with black-inked characters hanging on the back wall and two bamboo plants placed in opposite corners.

“Claire tells me that you can conduct without using a Conductor,” the monk said as soon as he seated himself at the table.

Well, that was one way to start a conversation.

“I’m glad… he keeps his mouth shut,” Olive grumbled, following suit. The ability wasn’t something he was particularly hiding, but it unnerved him to have it pointed out so readily. Still, Olive figured that if anyone needed to keep their mouth shut, it was himself.

“I have only seen one other person with the ability to do that,” the monk said casually.

Olive startled.

The monk grinned. “Well, that got your attention, young one.”

The fact that the man didn’t sound condescending irked Olive but he remained silent, waiting.

“Her name was Pema. She was an air Elementalist Conductor and a monk here,” Tenzin explained. “She was also my sister. And… she was a failed saint candidate.”

A saint candidate…? A failed one. Like Lavi.

Olive felt the hairs on his back rise as he digested this information.

“I believe she began to show the ability shortly after returning back from Ophiuchus after failing the saint candidate initiation ceremony. This was before the war broke out, of course. All of us at the temple were intrigued at her ability, but we didn’t actively question it. Earthly matters like that don’t pertain to the pursuits we have here.” Tenzin hummed. “Still, she told us that it was a confidential matter, and we were to keep it a secret lest we create a buzz within the Monadism community.”

And the old man was telling him?

Again, Olive kept his mouth shut.

“She didn’t stay in the temple long after she returned. She renounced us and began traveling the world.” He stroked his chin. “She kept a journal of her travels. It’s likely she may have detailed her experiences with the conducting oddity there. After her death, her journals were stored in the archives of our great library here.”

Olive perked up at this, leaning across the table. If his conducting ability really was connected to Lavi who was a failed saint candidate then maybe—

“Of course, you would have to have a State Conducting License to access her journal.”

“What…?” Olive couldn’t help but scowl. “I thought Ophiuchus didn’t step foot in here.”

“They don’t,” Tenzin replied. “There are things that Ophiuchus does as a peacekeeping organization that I don’t agree with, but using the license as a key to the gate of knowledge is not one of those things. If one is not prepared for it, one will be overwhelmed by knowledge and be unable to make use of it. That is dangerous for not only oneself but for those one keeps close.”

“So you’re saying a slip of plastic is the key to wisdom?”

The monk chuckled. “I don’t believe I’ve said anything about wisdom. But the license is a badge showing the hard work and effort you have put into your pursuit of knowledge. It proves that you have gone out of your norm of comfortability to gain it. That is the first step. And things must always be taken one careful step at a time or one will surely miss something important.”

Heart sinking, Olive frowned. “Is that a proverb?”

Tenzin smiled. “When you’ve completed your State Conducting Exam, you’re free to come back here and read her entries.”

Letting out an internal sigh, Olive averted his gaze. “Thanks. That’s really generous of you.”

“Of course, completing the exam is one thing. Passing it is another,” the monk continued. “Feel free to access the books on the lower levels of our library. There are books even on those levels that you will not find anywhere else in Signum.”

This time Olive bowed his head. “Thank you.”

***

Atienna accompanied Olive frequently on his first several days of rounding the archives. Whenever he’d pluck a particularly old-looking book off the shelf, he’d be overwhelmed with the urge to run his fingers along its leather bindings and leaf through its pages to breathe in its musty scent. Atienna would appear beside him smiling pleasantly during these times, and he’d find himself treating the texts rather gingerly in her presence.

Olive couldn’t comprehend how Atienna could be so calm with everything going on in her end of things. Maybe she just wasn’t thinking about it? Averting her eyes? No, she’d renounced that months ago. Whatever it was that she was doing to maintain ease, he wished he could do the same. Eventually, however, Atienna stopped reaching out for synchronization whenever he’d come to the archives and that left him alone on many nights with just Claire, Felix, and Trystan.

A majority of the texts in the archives were written by the monks themselves. Some texts dated back several centuries, but Olive presumed even older texts were located in the upper areas sanctioned off by the monks. Areas only accessible to State Conducting Licensees.

Similarly to the royal libraries back in New Ram City, texts that were in those sanctioned levels were not allowed to be brought down from them. On Cadence’s suggestion, Olive had tried to get Trystan to sneak out books from one of the upper floors but that had only ended with a lecture from both Werner and an intimidatingly muscular monk.

Regardless, the basic texts and manuscripts that Claire was able to translate for him were useful. It seemed as if the monks at the Bodhi Temple viewed vitae similarly to how Virgoans viewed it. As a cycle of vitae ebb and flow, of life and death, over and over again. The concept of reincarnation was thrown around several times, although it was spoken about in a sense of a ‘universal’ reincarnation. And Olive had no clue what that meant.

Some of the texts on vitae theory dipped into philosophical musings that Olive could barely wrap his mind around. What was the point of using flowery paragraphs when getting to the point just took three words? Unfortunately, Werner and Jericho had informed him that the written portion of the exam did contain questions regarding different theories of vitae. So flowery paragraphs, it was.

Which was unfortunate.

Olive despised vitae theory.

At least in conductor engineering books, everything was concrete and quantified. Numbers, variables, parameters. What was fact versus what was error.

‘How many joules of vitae will be produced by a conductor when it contains an insulator with a diameter of 2.5 cm and a conducting core capacitor capable of allowing a current of 6.7 x 10^7 vitae particles?’— Easy.

‘Using the most widely accepted school of thought, soft vitae and hard vitae are best used by what type of Conductors?’ —Who the hell knew.

Damn.

Olive wondered briefly how Eunji was doing. She had been whisked away with her guards and Soha after their first dinner here, and he hadn’t seen either since. He wondered if she was struggling as much as he was.

Frankly, part of Olive wanted to see if Werner or Jericho would be willing to synchronize with him while he took the written portion to feed him answers, but another part of him wanted to prove to them that he could score high on his own. To impress them.

It was embarrassing to think about.

Mulling about these things to himself as he sat at a moonlit table in the library alongside Claire and Trystan, Olive continued to read Claire’s written translations of an encyclopedia on vitae theory.

About an hour had passed before he finished dissecting the translations. And when he turned to see what else Claire had managed to translate for him during the half hour, he found the Sagittarian prince face down on the table and faintly snoring. Across from him Trystan was also out cold, head hanging back against the chair. Felix, on the other hand, stood rigidly behind Claire, arms crossed.

“I’m going to the restroom,” Olive said, rising from his seat. He nodded in Trystan’s direction. “Just in case he wakes up and panics.”

Felix didn’t give any indication he’d heard so Olive shrugged and wound his way around the tables to the library’s exit. The tables that had been crowded earlier were now empty, leaving the area with a sense of loneliness. As Olive inspected the tables half-heartedly, his eye caught onto a lone book resting on one of the tables.

On a whim, Olive went over to examine it but then hesitated when he saw what was printed in the corner on its cover. ACCESSIBLE TO STATE CONDUCTING LICENSEES ONLY.

Who had left this textbook out? And how had they gotten it out from the upper sections of the library?

His eyes darted down to the title.

Conducting Variants: Vitae, Energy, Life, Blood. Soul? Notes by Pema.

The head monk’s sister.

Olive’s heart skipped a beat and he held his breath as he scanned the area.

No one around.

Olive grabbed the book and flipped it open to a page that had been marked with dog ears.

The text was scribbled out in curling Common:

When the science of conducting was in its initial stages of development, various methods to conduct vitae were employed in an attempt to utilize it to its full capacity. The final form of conducting seen today was achieved through centuries of trial and error, and it’s curious to look back on the failed and discarded attempts of conducting. And to make fun of those idiots.

The irreverent comment jarred Olive but he pushed forward reading.

One method of vitae conducting that has been long since abandoned forgotten is one that directly harvests the vitae particles found in the bloodstream. Due to this peculiarity, this method was available only to those who were able to utilize vitae intraneously. Instead of separating vitae particles from the body as is done with present-day conductors for intraneous users, this form of conducting bypasses the separation leading to a more intimate usage of vitae. This method may be more ‘powerful’ than modern conducting but it’s also more taxing on the Conductor due to the higher purity and density of the vitae particles being expelled. Also—blood loss. Duh. 

This method was developed by Ophiuchus centuries ago and has been forgotten centuries ago. As of this journal entry, you can’t even call it a myth anymore. It’s nonexistent. 

Omicron and Theta’s bloodied hands immediately flashed into Olive’s mind.

Was that the type of conducting that they used…? What in the world…? This was too much of a coincidence.

With a chill seizing his spine, Olive threw the book back onto the table and quickly made his way out of the library. As soon as he stepped outside into the open hall, he was greeted and calmed by the cold, cool night air. A full moon was bleaching everything in light blue, and the silence was crept on by the trickling stream that ran alongside the hall.

Olive let out a quiet breath and prepared to start forward. But then he froze.

A woman dressed in a crisp black and white suit stood in his path. The blue moonlight cascading down in between the wooden beams of the hall fell in separated layers across her face and acted as a spotlight on the white band that glowed on her arm.

What was a peacekeeper doing here? No—why on earth was she wearing sunglasses?

Despite the time of day, a pair of circular shades perched on the woman’s nose. They were jet black—the same color as her rope of dark hair.

Something wasn’t right.

Olive took a step backwards as a frigid cold dripped down from the back of his neck to his toes. A numbing dread seized his limbs that didn’t allow him to move any further.

Something about her wasn’t right. Something about her made his skin crawl.

“Hey, kiddo,” she called out to him in Common. “You’re the Ariesian prince, right? Seen you in the papers. If you’re not him, you’re one helluva look alike.”

Olive’s heart skipped a beat at her baritone voice. “… Who’s asking?”

A white smile cracked across the woman’s face. “Ilseong Jin of the Seong Clan. Saint candidate of Sagittarius. Saint of the Arrow, Saint of Direction.”

What… A saint candidate? Here? Wh—

In the blink of an eye, Jin closed the distance between them, gliding over the lotuses that grew up onto the floorboards from the stream. She stopped only inches away from him, hands in pockets, as she inspected him over her sunglasses.

“Cool, suave, handsome, never misses a shot, war hero,” Jin continued sing-song. “I could list more details if you’d like. I do like talking about the many talents I’ve honed over the years. My life is practically a shooting star.”

Olive pulled back, heart hammering.

Jin grinned. “You’ve met Leona I’m assuming? During your whole assassination thing couple months back?”

Olive frowned, trying his best to keep his voice even. “Leona? You mean the chairwoman of the ELPIS Department? She spoke to me a little after everything. Don’t remember really. Not interested in stuff like that.”

Jin rolled her neck. “Yeah, well if you’ve seen her, I can sorta understand why you’re so unfriendly since I’m a saint candidate too. She can be a B, right?”

Olive resisted doing a double-take and peered behind the woman. An escape route. Be casual. “So saint candidates aren’t cliquey?”

Jin barked out a laugh before waving him off. “Sure we are, but even I can clearly see that Leona’s got an inferiority complex—or is that a superiority complex? Well, whatever. She’s got one of them.”

“Good to know,” Olive mumbled, stepping around her.

Jin side-stepped along with him, blocking his path. “But enough about that. What’s the Ariesian prince doing up here at our sacred temple? Huh. You look taller in the papers.”

Olive’s heart skipped a beat again, and his nerves began to run his mouth. “What’s a peacekeeper doing at a sacred temple? Thought peacekeepers were all about cultural competency. I’m a prince, like you said. Don’t you think you’re being too casual with me even if you’re a so-called saint candidate?”

Jin’s smile thinned. “Your sister was a saint candidate, right?”

Olive’s heart began to thunder.

“A ‘failed one,’ I mean,” Jin amended. “Allegedly died in the Tragedy of Aries? Ironic for the Saint of Ashes, yeah?”

It was like a punch to the gut. A terrible combination paired with the ominous dread that was already wrapped around his stomach.

“People skills must not be a criterion to get saint candidacy,” Olive returned. The words slipped out before he could stop them, and he felt his limbs tightening in anticipation at the expected retribution. When he looked up at the woman, however, he found that Jin was still grinning.

“I’m not the type to believe the newspapers. About your sister, I mean. You know what they say about the media.” Jin leaned in close and stared directly into him. “Does ‘syzygy’ mean anything to you?”

What…?

“What’s a syzygy?” Olive asked, hoping he was channeling enough of Cadence to sound convincing.

“Hm, so you know it but you don’t know it.” Jin traced his features with her eyes. “Ever heard of Kovich?”

“The author of the Endless Cycle…?” Olive recalled from Atienna’s bookish conversation with Cvetka.

“Smart kid,” came Jin’s unwanted praise. She pulled back, hand on hip, poked a finger at his chest. “It’s the end of that.”

What did that even mean?

Olive arched a brow. “What? What are you talking about? If you want to start a book discussion then there’s a library back there—”

“Do I have to spell it out for you, kid?” Jin sighed. “What is the dictionary definition of a syzygy? ‘The lining up of celestial bodies’ aka stars. It’s just a fancy word. An analogy. Don’t remember who in the world thought it up, but basically…” She poked him in the chest again. “People like you are the stars that need to be lined up in order to make thathappen. That is, if Izsak was right about you being a True Conductor.”

Olive felt his blood run cold, felt nauseated and lightheaded.

“Ding, ding. Looks like I’m right,” Jin mused. “But don’t worry, kiddo. Izsak is locked up and isn’t rearing to kill you. And while Leona suspects you after that whole thing in New Ram City, she probably thinks that you’re something else. I won’t tell her either. Your secret is safe with me.”

Olive swallowed.

Who did Jin think she was fooling? And what did she mean by ‘something else’? And why was she talking to him about this? What did she want? Was she going to disappear him like the other True Conductors? What about the other five? What—

“It’s a shame what happened to Izsak,” Jin hummed. “I met him when he was just a kid like you. Saw him rise up to become the ‘Shepherd of Okor’ myself.”

“L… Like I said, I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Olive managed, stepping around her again. “Syzygy? True Conductor? Izsak? I’m trying to focus on the State Conducting Exam here. And right now I just want to use the restroom—”

“Don’t you want to know what really happened to one Miss Princess Lavender Chance? I mean, she’s still floating around in there somewhere, right?”

Olive stopped short and turned. “How—”

Jin faced him with a grin. “I thought so. Dang, I’m smart. And you’re too honest, kiddo. People’ll see right through you if you don’t learn to think before you react.”

“Ollie. Stay away from her,” came a sudden whisper in his ear. “She doesn’t seem right. Please, Ollie.”

Olive glanced over his shoulder and found his sister standing just behind him. Her pale fingers were gripping the side of his arm, and she was glowering at Jin. Olive had never seen such a hostile expression on his sister’s face before, and it unnerved him.

“Is that why you’re here, kiddo?” Jin continued. “To search the temple records to see if you can find out anything about it?” A grin cracked across her face again, and she tapped her temple. “Come on, kiddo, use your head. Why’re you looking around for something like that when the answer is right in front of you?”

“Ollie…” Lavi pressed, tugging on his arm. “Please…”

Olive glanced back at Lavi, registered her crumpled expression of desperation and fear, and then took a step backwards.

“Look,” he said, placing his hand over his sister’s, “Jin, you must like hearing broken records because—again—I have no idea what you’re saying. I’m sure you’re enjoying your monologue but you should probably find another person who has a lot of time on their hands like you—”

“Come on. Stop with the charades. It’s kinda pathetic if you stretch it too far. Like I said, your secret is safe with me. And don’t look so scared, kiddo. Us saint candidates want to preserve True Conductors like yourself,” Jin said, once again closing the distance he had formed between them. “It’s really ELPIS y’need to look out for. They think that people like you need to die.”

Olive’s mind flashed to Francis—Theta—and then Omicron, Izsak, and Alice. And then Cadence and Jericho. And then Werner, Atienna, and Maria.

Olive paused, felt Lavi’s grip on his arm tighten. He hesitantly looked Jin over. “Let’s say I know what you’re talking about. Are you saying that you’re on my side? Because you’re a saint candidate…? And we’re important for the ‘syzygy’?”

Jin looked away and shrugged. “Well in the short run, yes. In the long run, no. But I’m personally trying to freestyle a bit now. Kinda tired of the whole duty and ceremony saint candidate thing—so, you do you. You’re on your own, kiddo.”

“You’re making it sound like that’s a bad thing.”

Jin barked out a loud and abrupt laugh. “Sorry. You’re really just so honest, kiddo. Earnest too. Maybe a bit stupid. Nah, just naive.”

It wasn’t the first time Olive had heard the word tossed around. Ever since leaving the royal palace, he started feeling that it was the most commonly used word in Signum. Back then, when he had been spending the months lounging around in the palace, he had thought he had known enough. Not everything. But enough. Enough to not try learning anything anymore. That was naive.

“At least that means I can still learn something,” Olive returned. “What does that make you?”

“Stupid, probably,” Jin popped.

The response again jarred Olive, and it took him a moment to relocate his train of thought. “So… who’s behind this whole syzygy thing? Is it… the saint candidates? A Monadism thing?”

Jin reached out and placed a hand on his head causing him to stiffen. “You were looking to skedaddle, kiddo, but you’re curious now, aren’t you? Anyway, if I gave you all the answers now then I’d have to listen to Leona’s ranting for the rest of this life. Besides, I’ve probably given you enough to chew on.”

“Why are you even… telling me this?”

Jin grinned, smile white in the blue light. “Why not? I mean… what are you going to even do about it?” There was a beat. “But… I’ll tell you this, kiddo, this whole rodeo’s been going on for a lot longer than you realize.”

What—

“Aunt Jiji!”

Startling, Olive whipped around to find Claire emerging from the library entrance while waving like a madman.

“‘Aunt’?”

“My favorite nephew!” Jin called back before amending, “Well, my only nephew, right?”

“What’re you doing here?” Claire asked, rushing up to her. “I thought you were in Ophiuchus!”

“I was just a minute ago,” Jin replied, giving the Sagittarian prince a cuff on the shoulder. “Thought I’d swing by.”

“Eunji will be so happy to see you!” Claire beamed. “She’s probably asleep already though, but…” He side-glanced at Olive and startled as if just noticing him. He gestured to Jin. “Oh, Ollie, this is my aunt! Jin!”

“I sort of figured when you shouted ‘Aunt Jiji,’” Olive mumbled, arms crossed, heart still thundering.

“Eunji’s studying for the Conducting Exam, right?” Jin popped, nodding at Claire. Her interest in him seemed to have waned, Olive realized, which came as a relief. She continued offhandedly, “Just a fair warning. Heard Kai and Mai Beijixing from the Xing Clan are coming up this way too. You should probably keep an eye out when you leave.”

“Oh, I know. I already prepared for that,” Claire said, side glancing at Olive. “But thanks for the heads up.” He beamed again, smiling with unusual earnesty.

Olive could see it now. The reason for why Claire had been so oddly defensive about saint candidates. It all dwindled down to family. Olive wondered if Claire’s aunt even knew of his status as a True Conductor.

And then, Olive thought of his own aunt sitting back on the throne back in New Ram City. Did he even cross her mind? Probably not. She was probably too busy doing queenly things to even think about him. Maybe even secretly relieved that he was gone. He wondered if the other five would think the same if their synchronization ended.

Olive shook his head. He needed to stop thinking like that. Especially right after a harrowing encounter.

“Yo.” Jin directed a nod behind Olive with a wave before dipping into a surprisingly deep bow. “I see you’re still kickin’.”

Still gripping his sister’s hand, Olive turned his head to find Trystan, Felix, and Tenzin standing behind him.

Tenzin bowed at Jin in return. “I see you’ve finally returned to the temple. What brings you here?”

“I was feeling a bit nostalgic,” Jin replied with a shrug. “And I’m looking for someone. An Ophiuchian special mission. Top secret.”

“Well, I hope the person you’re searching for is a willing person,” Tenzin replied. “Free will and choice are very important in life—in case you’ve forgotten the teachings of the temple since your pre-candidacy days.”

“I’ll ask politely,” Jin said. “Don’t worry.” She pointed loosely to the bow conductor at Trystan’s side. “I use one of those too. There’s an archery range around back, Mr. Bullseye. We should practice together. You don’t want to get rusty sitting around reading books all day, do you?”

Trystan frowned—at least until Olive whispered Jin’s identity into his ear—and then he bowed. “It would be an honor.”

Olive startled and tried to subtly shake his head to signal for Trystan to decline the offer. Trystan merely gave him a look of confusion. Typical.

While Claire and Jin began speaking animatedly with one other, Olive took the opportunity to slink away from them. He managed to get Trystan to follow suit and held his sister’s small hand tightly as they looped around the hallways. Olive separated from Trystan in the residential halls and slipped into the small bedroom he’d been provided for his stay.

As soon as he heard Trystan’s step recede from behind the doorway, he whipped around and gripped his sister’s shoulders tightly. He searched her face.

“W-What’s wrong, Ollie?” she stammered, worry creasing her brow.

His stomach twisted.

“Lavi…” Olive began after a second of hesitation. “Why did you want me to… stay away from Jin? How long were you watching?”

“I just have a bad feeling about her,” Lavi murmured. “That’s all… she doesn’t seem like a good person.”

Olive studied her, tightening his grip. “I… when you were… in Ophiuchus… for the saint candidate ceremony… did you…” He realized he didn’t even have a full grasp on what he wanted to ask her but managed, “A couple months ago… you said something about a ‘syzygy’ when I first started getting synchronized with the others. What did you mean? ‘The pulse of syzygy.’”

“Huh? Did I say that?” Lavi questioned, cocking her head. “I don’t remember ever saying that.” She peered into his face. “You don’t believe me? Everything’s really fuzzy, Ollie. I’m sorry but I don’t remember ever saying that—really. I was just so excited that we were talking to other people. You know I don’t pay attention to some of the things I say…”

“Lavi—”

A knock on the door drew Olive’s attention away, and when he looked back towards his sister she was gone. Letting out a sigh of frustration, Olive wrung his hands and made his way to the door. When he pulled it open, a smiling Claire stood waiting.

“What are you doing here?” Olive arched a brow, already pushing the door shut.

Claire wedged his foot in the doorway and pressed a finger to his lips. “I wanna talk to you about something. Just the two of us. Just for a minute. Come on.”

“Unconvincing argument.” But after a beat, Olive conceded and let the prince through.

Claire made himself at home, strolling in and inspecting the room before walking right out onto the balcony that opened up at the side of the far wall. Olive rolled his eyes and followed him outside.

The moon was still beating down harsh in the night sky, revealing the mountain range’s ruts and cliff faces in startling detail just as the sun would.

“You know, I never really wanted to be involved with politics,” Claire said when Olive fell into place beside him. His gaze was fixated on some far point beyond the tips of the mountains. “Never really wanted to be a prince either, but you can’t choose what you’re born as.”

Olive glanced at him unimpressed. “Wow. Your life sounds awful.”

“I know how that sounds.” Claire chuckled. “A lot of people would kill to be where I’m at.”

Definitely. Olive knew people probably thought similarly about himself.

“Good to know you’re at least a little self-aware,” Olive muttered. “Is that what you’re here to talk about? The monks would be better therapists than me.”

“No… that’s not it. I could tell that you were nervous about my aunt,” Claire replied. “She told you she was a saint candidate, didn’t she?”

“It was in her lengthy introductory speech.”

“Yeah, she can be like that…” Claire mumbled, rubbing the back of his neck. “I mean, she’s kind of earned the right to. If it weren’t for her becoming saint candidate, my clan would still be considered a lower-rung clan and we wouldn’t…” He trailed off.

Sounded complicated.

“Alright, I’m listening,” Olive grumbled. “If you want to tell me your backstory so much then let’s get to it.”

“Well, when you put it like that then I feel awkward.” Claire frowned. He held up a hand, stopping Olive short before he could retort.

Olive shut his mouth and waited.

After what seemed like half an hour, Claire finally spoke: “Haneul… my real name… it means ‘sky’ in Seongese but it can also mean ‘heaven’. My mother told me that the name chose me because ‘it was my destiny to bring the Seong clan to the heights of the heavens above all the other clans.’ That it was a name befitting an emperor.” A rare frown pulled down Claire’s lips, and he glared down into the darkness stretching below. He brightened a beat after and scoffed. “The sky is supposed to be free and open, but the name is so oppressive. Suffocating, you know? Can you even imagine a person like that? As an emperor ruling over all these clans? Having to watch their back all the time?”

Olive glanced at him. “Yeah, the way your government works sucks.”

“That’s exactly why I want to abolish that clan system in Sagittarius.” Claire chuckled again. “Well that’s not true. I just want to live in a place where I don’t have to worry about problems like that. Where my sister doesn’t. Where other people don’t. Everyone would just be free to do whatever they wanted without dealing with those kinds of expectations. The restrictions. The divisions.”

That was ridiculous, Olive thought. There was no way anybody could do something like that. People’s self-interest and greed would always get in the way. And even if someone were to achieve that, someone else would just undo everything further down the line.

“Anyways, I told my aunt Jiji I hated my name one day, and she just said, ‘Then why don’t you just change it’. Made me feel kinda stupid for not doing it before. And so I did. Chose ‘Claire’ because I thought it sounded cool. Like the Common word for clear.” Claire peered down into the cliff face below them. “Anyways, choosing my own name was the first step in all of this. And I wouldn’t have been able to do that without my aunt. She actually helped me a lot when I was younger…. so I’m basically asking you to give her a chance.”

So Jin meant a lot to Claire. And despite Claire’s slipperiness, he was still just a kid. What a pain. Still, averting your eyes from a problem did nothing.

And so, after a minute of agitated mulling, Olive informed Claire of the things Jin had said to him only half an hour prior. Syzygy. True Conductors. ELPIS. Saint candidates.

Claire digested the information silently with an unreadable expression. The quiet stretched long and thing before he finally spoke again. “Thank you… for telling me that. I… there’s probably an explanation…” He shook his head before leaning against the banister. “Syzygy…” He paused, lifted his head, and turned to Olive. “Wait… you said my aunt asked about your sister too, right? Why was that?”

Olive revealed the true reason for why he was pursuing a State Conducting License. The incident at the Tragedy of Aries. His sister’s failed saint candidacy. How her ‘spirit’ became visible to him afterwards. And how it could be connected to his ability to conduct without a conductor.

Claire ogled him afterwards. “That’s a pretty crazy backstory… I’ve never heard any True Conductors seeing ‘ghosts’ before so I don’t think it has to do anything with that.” After a pause, he said, “And you started being able to conduct without a conductor after that happened?” Another pause. Claire glanced over Olive’s shoulder. “And… does Lavi know anything about it?”

“She says she doesn’t.”

Claire considered his words before sighing. “So we both have family members who might not be trustworthy. Saint candidates…”

Olive frowned. “Don’t put my sister and your aunt in the same boat. My sister was a failed saint candidate so whatever it is—”

“—has to be something else?” Claire finished. “Maybe it is.” He straightened himself abruptly and began digging into his pocket. “Well, I wasn’t going to show this to you because it was risky for my circle but since we’re really being honest with each other now, I thought I’d show you. It might be useful for you in the future.”

Claire pulled out a narrow cylinder the size of his palm and gave it a twirl. Additional segments extended from each end of the device with the motion. Claire’s staff conductor.

“Why?” Olive asked plainly.

Claire whipped his conductor around once. Nothing happened. And then he whipped it around another time, sending out a cold, frigid wind speckled with blue lights. The twin movements seemed a bit familiar. Something scratched at the back of Olive’s mind—

Then came the snowflakes. They cascaded down onto them from the area where Claire had sent out his whip of wind. Although the snowflakes appeared normal at first glance, a closer inspection revealed them to be faintly glowing with blue vitae.

“Great, you can change weather patterns,” Olive stated, unimpressed. He caught a snowflake in his palm with disinterest. But as he watched a snowflake lose its glow as it melted, the realization slapped him hard. He turned to Claire in disbelief. “Are you saying that we can—”

An excruciating pain throttled through his core cutting him off short. Every limb in his body seized with agony, and he fell onto the floor with a thud.

“Ollie?!”

Ignoring Claire, Olive bared his teeth and reached out in the direction of the pain. He pulled himself along the invisible thread until the temple room faded away behind him and became replaced by an entirely different scene:

People screaming, people crying, people shouting, people running. Smoke clouded the air as they rushed around him—half of them tripping on the cobblestone ground that was laden with shattered pieces of brick and glass. At his right was a crumbled building still billowing out a steady stream of smog and dust.

The scent was nauseating, but—

Where was this?

Olive glanced to his left across the street and found a familiar high-rise building with a golden plaque at its front: Abaccio Hotel.

Gemini. The Twin Cities. Cadence or Werner.

Olive’s heart felt as if it were about to explode as he reached out for both of them in desperation. And then he saw it out of the corner of his eye—a flash of copper hair.

Cadence. She stood frigid amongst the chaos, seeming to not notice the bodies strewn around the floor nor the people running past her. As he tapped into his synchronization with her and met her gaze, he realized that she was not truly there either. Then that meant—

“I…” Cadence ran her fingers through her hair as she stared blankly past him. “It was an accident… I didn’t…”

Olive followed her gaze and the tug of pain down to the ground behind him. Only a couple of feet away amongst the rubble was a woman with curly black hair and porcelain skin.

Alma.

She was unconscious, but it appeared as if she was unharmed because right beside her—no, draped right over her protectively—was Werner. There were large pieces of brick, stone, and glass strewn over his normally immaculate military uniform and red was pooling beneath his head.

No…

Olive was at Werner’s side in an instant, grasping the man tightly.

“H-Help!” he stammered desperately to the people who he knew couldn’t hear him, to the people who probably wouldn’t help even if they could. “Help! Please!”

No.

Olive’s mind raced with memories of fire, screams, smoke, burning flesh, curling up into loneliness—

—and then came the memories of long-winded lectures, of the meetings that filled the spaces of emptiness between his studies, of the feeling of for once not being on the outside looking in, of being able to share thoughts that he’d kept to himself for years, of not having to face everything alone.

No.

A void was beginning to expand outwards from Werner’s body, and the surroundings around the man began to flicker and dim. Just like the void that had surrounded Jericho when he had been injured all those months ago. The blackness encroached quickly, stealing away the warmth that Olive still felt faintly seeping from Werner’s body. Their synchronization was weakening.

No.

Olive gripped onto Werner’s body like a life-line, holding with all he could onto their synchronization.

“Please, somebody—”

Werner was—

And then, Olive was back on the balcony in the Bodhi Temple on all fours. Claire was beside him but Olive paid him no mind. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Cadence’s image staring at him silent and pale. She had been desynchronized from Werner too. But—she was near Werner. She could help him. She had to. Werner was still alive, but he was hurt. Bad. Olive could feel it.

Werner. 

What had even happened?

The memory of the event Cadence and Werner had just experienced would not come to him. And then a cold, creeping realization dawned. The few times when there were gaps in the memories they shared despite synchronization were during overrides.

Torn between nausea and horror, Olive turned to Cadence and whispered, “Cadence, what… what did you do?”


“Yep, the saint candidate of Sagittarius would be me. What? Why I stepped down as chairman of the ELPIS Investigation Department? Dunno. I mean, it just got boring. ELPIS is just so old fashioned, you know? It gets repetitive. They just keep making the same mistakes over and over again. It’s not even a game of cat and mouse at this point. Hm, ‘what does that mean’? Well, I’ve given you enough to chew on, haven’t I? If you really want to know then why don’t you give the ELPIS Department a shot? Hell, maybe you’ll get my old spot”

Jin Ilseong, former head chairwoman of the ELPIS Investigations Department of Ophiuchus 

7.1: Olive’s Bravery (Codardia)

Re-cap:

Ariesian Prince Olivier Chance, having spent the past six years rejecting everything after the Tragedy of Aries took away of his family, is now accepting that he must move on forward. After surviving an assassination attempt by the Watch and an attack by the former peacekeeperIzsak Wtorek, Olive has decided that he must complete the State Conductor Exam and leaves the palace life behind him. He hopes by completing the exam, he will be able to gain better access materials that may help in understanding his sister’s condition–his bodyless, ghostly sister whom only he and the over five can see.

Three months have passed since he’s left New Ram City with Trystan at his side and now…

Thousand Name City, Sagittarius

Chance, the minutes from last week’s meeting.”

This was pointless.

“Chance, if we don’t clarify what topics were discussed last week then this meeting and subsequent meetings will be meaningless. We need to understand what every person has been doing and what we will be doing in order to not interfere with one another.” A pause. “Besides, this will aid you in the interview portion of your Conductor Exam.”

Olive didn’t see Werner’s logic but he figured he’d humor Werner like they all had been doing for the past three months.

Werner’s image resided in the corner of Olive’s room. The man was sitting at the round table, hands clasped in front of him. A gray rain cloak caked with dirt, mud, and grime was thrown over his shoulders. The uniform and medals beneath his cloak were, however, as immaculate as always.

“Fine,” Olive sighed walking over to his desk drawer. After arching a brow at Jericho who was standing beside it, he pulled out a bound notebook, flipped it open, and began to read: “The first five minutes of last meeting were spent reviewing what happened in the meeting before that. I summarized my arrival at Sagittarius and how my studying and research have been going, Cadence talked about the Campana-Romano drama that’s been going on, you gave a very detailed report on the Argo…” Olive frowned and looked to the side. “…front. Atienna just left for Aquarius with—”

“Sorry, Olive, but may I ask Cadence something before we move further?” Atienna interjected. Her image was sitting across the table from Werner. She was bundled up tightly—wrapped head to toe—in swaths of colorful silken cloth. The only part of her that he could see were her eyes that twinkled with their usual inquisitiveness.

Olive shrugged.

“Cadence, have you gotten any farther in that book I recommended you?” Atienna pressed. “I believe it was thirty pages long, so I was hoping it wouldn’t be too much…” Olive could feel her smiling beneath her scarf. “But I understand if you’re a bit busy with everything going on…”

“Don’t give her excuses, Atienna,” Werner interjected. He sighed, offered her an almost apologetic look. “I understand your perspective, but we all have things we need to do regardless of our circumstances.” He raised his head in Cadence’s direction. “Well, Morello?”

Cadence was leaning against the wall with crossed arms. “Guys, come on, what’s the point? I mean, if I need ta read somethin’ I can always get one of ya ta help me with that.”

Olive was still rather surprised that Cadence was illiterate. She seemed to be verbally fluent in almost every other language in Signum, so he had assumed that had applied to her reading ability too. He’d only found out about her illiteracy two months ago when he’d synchronized with Jericho at random. At that time their random synchronizations were still a bit awkward—not that they weren’t awkward now—and the peacekeeper had let slip that Cadence had called upon him to help her read a notice that had been posted outside her favorite bar. The news traveled fast after that.

Werner frowned. “We still don’t have a complete handle on this synchronization. You may be put into a situation where you will be required to use those skills without our assistance.”

A life-or-death situation where Cadence would need to read to survive? That sounded like the plot to a terrible book.

Werner gave Olive a pointed frown.

The man really did believe that a situation like that was a possibility. Made sense. ‘Nothing could be left to chance’ was his law.

“I mean, we’ve got enough a handle on the synchronization ta have meetin’s like this once a week.” Cadence shrugged.

“We can make it happen approximately 65 percent of the time. We cannot prevent it from happening. And while we are beginning to grasp the ability to decrease synchronization, we still can’t prevent the desynchronizations that occur at random,” Werner amended.

“Exactly.” Cadence unfolded from the wall, hands wide-spread. “If I’m in a pickle I’ll just keep throwin’ out a line till I connect to one of ya.”

There was a mental sigh from somewhere. Although Olive couldn’t quite pinpoint who had given off the feeling, he knew which of them hadn’t. Jericho and Maria.

During his entire note reading routine, Maria had been wandering around the room marveling at the furniture. Her first comment had been about his bed which was a thin but fluffy mattress laid straight across the wooden floor. While rambling on about how marvelous it was to see a Sagittarian-style bed again, she had strayed over to his bird cage and was now inspecting the animal inside.

“Captain Gloria-Fernandez,” Werner began.

“My turn, yes?” Maria hummed before she threw herself back on Olive’s bed. She folded her hands beneath her head and stared up at the ceiling. “I’m off to Pisces to pick up something mysterious!”

“Ya can just say that ya got a delivery pick up for the Campanas,” Cadence said, peering down at her. “I’m not the type to hold that stuff against ya. I mean, like I’ve said I’m just a Romano associate. No hard feelins.”

Maria twirled her hair. “Hm? What do you mean? Did I not mention that?”

“‘Course. Forgot who I was talkin’ to.” Cadence chuckled. She then nodded to Jericho. “And how ‘bout you, detective?”

During the entire conversation, Jericho had been doodling away in a small leather journal. He’d been doing that a lot lately, and Olive attributed it to both Doctor Kingsley’s work or Atienna’s suggestion. Werner had lectured the peacekeeper on the importance of paying attention during meetings a while back but had given up about two months ago. The reason? Despite the supposed distraction, Jericho always seemed to be able to keep track of what was going on in the meetings. A weird sort of multi-tasking ability. And with Werner, as long as things were efficient, then they were acceptable.

Closing his journal, Jericho said, “I received the letter about my ELPIS Department application. Yesterday.” A pause. “I was rejected.” Stated concisely without a hint of shame or embarrassment. Not so much as a flush even after a long stretch of silence passed.

“Right.” Werner ruminated. “I will coach you on your next interview then.”

Jericho cocked his head slightly. “My last interview went well.”

It had not gone well.

They had all bore witness to Jericho’s one-on-one two weeks prior. The first chairman of the ELPIS Department, Agent Leona, had still been in the Twin Cities at the time, so the second chairman of the ELPIS Department had conducted the interview. The first thing Jericho had done was follow through on Cadence’s advice of complimenting the interviewer. So Jericho had complimented the second chairman on his wonderfully balding head. “It sparkles nicely,” he had said. Then Jericho had considered Werner’s advice of exemplifying his personal strengths by connecting them with his previous accomplishments. Jericho took this literally and informed the chairman of how he’d beaten an ELPIS member to the point of unconsciousness with only his strength and his suitcase. It had only spiraled further from there.

“Improvements could be made,” Werner finally said.

He was being gentler than usual.

Cadence drifted over to Jericho and gave him a tight squeeze on the shoulders. “Don’t overthink it too much. We’re all a bit lackin’ somewhere—”

Cadence was cut off as she appeared before them, floating down from nowhere like usual with her dark black hair falling into place just as they turned to face her.

“Hey, Lavi.” Cadence offered a tip of her hat and a grin.

“Hey, Cadence.” Lavi waved. She peered at Werner. “How are you doing, Werner?”

“I’m doing fine, Lavi,” Werner answered curtly. “Thank you for your—”

Maria shot up from the bed and bounded over to Lavi’s side before taking the girl’s hands in her own. “I’ve been waiting for you to appear, Lavi! Really! I wish we could speak freely without my dear Olive having to be present all the time.”

Before Olive could even react to the unintended insult, Maria continued:

“I saw something magical two days ago! It was a sea creature! I know you like these types of things, yes? So I tried to catch it, you see. My men said it was impossible, but nothing is impossible, yes?”

“When it comes to you, yes,” Lavi agreed with a chuckle.

Maria was a dangerous influence for sure. But Lavi….

Lavi was different from them. The more Olive spent time with the others, the more he came to realize it. The fact was that Lavi didn’t seem to be connected to the others at all. She couldn’t synchronize with them, couldn’t see any of their memories. The only connection she had with them was through him.

“Enough. We need to stay on task,” Werner stated clearly, concisely. It was amazing how his voice carried despite him not actually shouting. Olive supposed that was something one picked up when they were in a position of leadership.

“—fifty cens worth if you find the right market. ‘Course, you can transmute that kinda stuff and fake it but that takes the fun out of it.”

And somehow, during Olive’s split-second of distracted introspection, the conversation had derailed to this extent. He arched a brow at Cadence who had joined in on Maria’s antics. Despite being connected to the former woman, Olive had a hard time telling whether or not she was truly invested in these meetings.

“Enough,” Werner repeated, turning to Atienna as if for assistance, “we need to at least get through this meeting—” He trailed off.

And Olive could see exactly why.

With even Atienna looking more amused than concerned, it was already too late to salvage this meeting.

Abruptly, a loud boom echoed from Werner’s end. The man shot up to a stand, staring off into the distance. Olive hesitantly peered deeper into Werner’s surroundings. The man had been sitting on a small boulder hidden behind a cluster of rotted trees. The sound had caused the ground to shake and sent the droplets of water collecting on his cloak to splash up into the air.

Without another word, Werner bent down to pick up the conducting rifle he’d set beside him and turned away from them all. And just like that, as if by a pair of saintly pliers snapping down on a single link, the chain between them all disintegrated and the other five disappeared form his sights.

Olive swallowed, half-tempted to reach out and start another synchronization. He paused, however, when he saw Lavi standing beside the birdcage with her hands folded by her back. She quirked a brow.

He held out his free hand in turn, palm up. For a moment, there was nothing. And then pops of crimson light danced around his fingertips. Pops that sparked into embers that twirled around his fingers.

The sight of it was still nauseating, the smell kickstarting a headache at his temple. But… with practice every single day like Werner had recommended then maybe—

Lavi’s gaze brightened, and she gave him a small applaud.

A knock at the door jolted Olive causing him to dispel the flame vitae with a wave. He turned back to his sister only to find that she had apparated into thin air once again. After snapping his meeting notebook shut and shoving it back into his drawers, he walked across the room and pulled open the door.

It was Trystan Carter, the former Ariesian head royal guard turned his personal guard. Even though Trystan had shed the honorable Ariesian title, he hadn’t yet shed the demeanor that came with it. Straight backed with furrowed brows even though he didn’t have anything to prove. Pointless.

“Are you ready, your highness?”

***

The afternoon sun hung low, shrouded by a thin layer of clouds that crawled across the skyline. The wind was fresh, clean, and light, almost like a glass of cold water on a particular hot Ariesian day.

Olive took in a deep breath. And then sneezed. He shivered and accepted the coat Trystan pulled out from his travel pack. Shrugging it on, he took in the cityscape.

It was much more open here than in the tight network of interconnected marketplaces of New Ram City. The flattened dirt roads were wide and lined with medium-rise buildings with tiled roofs that sloped down in a curvature. In-between the v-streetcars that rolled along the crisscrossing tracks pedaled men and women on bicycles. Half of them were dressed in neck-high buttoned shirts and silk dresses that went to their calves, while the other half wore loose garments. There were a couple of bicyclists around his own age, all dressed in what resembled black sailor uniforms. Students, probably.

“What will it be today, your highness?” Trystan asked.

Olive inclined his head across the street, and Trystan followed him over to a restaurant there.

While Trystan went in to grab a table, Olive wandered over to the newspaper stall across the street. Two large posters hung from the sides of the stall—both of a water-color portrait of a man with an elegantly long beard and a cone-shaped crown at the top if his head. There were characters underneath the portrait that Olive could not read but he assumed it said something along the lines of “All Hail the Emperor!”

The stall vendor peered down at Olive, stroked his graying mustache. He then grunted and disappeared behind a stack of papers in the back.

Crossing his arms, Olive perused the displayed papers. Each rack boasted the same article but in a different language. But not Capricornian, not Geminian, not Virgoan. Not even Common. The newspapers were in the different languages of Sagittarius.

Upon Olive’s decision to come to this country, Werner had questioned him on which languages of Sagittarius he had been familiar with. Olive’s subsequent confusion resulted in Atienna gently and Cadence amusedly informing him of his ignorance. Atienna had then further elaborated on the diversity of the Sagittarian languages in a lengthy lecture. Each one of the ten clans of Sagittarius had its own respective language paired with its own unique characters, dialects, and alphabets.

This resulted in this particular city having eleven names. Ten in the different languages of Sagittarius, and one in Common. The Common name for it was ‘Thousand Name City.’

Whoever had come up with that name was ahead of their time, Olive had thought when he’d read the Common sign that was stacked up on top of ten other signs at the city’s north entrance upon his initial arrival.

The stall owner abruptly popped back up at the counter and waved a newspaper in Olive’s face. It was in Common. The man gave a surprised but pleased grunt when Olive handed him five Sagittarian wuen-dongs in exchange dipping back into the depths of his stall.

Tucking the paper under his arm, Olive joined Trystan back at the restaurant. They were seated by one of the open paper windows and were served two cups of piping hot corn tea. After taking a sip, Olive began to peruse the newspaper.

The first article detailed Ophiuchus’s adoption of a highly advanced vitae-spectrophotometer that would enable them to solve cases more efficiently through vitae-color identification. A small time Ariesian conductor engineer had spent months developing the device and found recognition upon debuting it at New Ram City.

The second article was a political opinion piece about Virgo’s current diplomatic relationships with Pisces and Aquarius and how everything was still in the preliminary stages. About how everything was so uncertain.

The third was about a weaponized proto-conductor that was able to store a Conductor’s vitae in a way that made it available—properties, abilities, and all—for another Conductor who was not of the same conducting type. At the moment, only Conductors who were able to utilize vitae intraneously were able to store their vitae within the device.

Olive wanted to dig his nails into this proto-conductor. He had caught a glimpse of them on Cadence’s end when she’d been tasked to keep tabs on Matilda and her delivery crew a month or so back. The proto-conductors has been among their deliverables. When he had pressed Cadence for details—about whether it operated similarly to conducting grenades—Cadence had merely responded with an impish smile.

“Well, wish ya’d be that enthusiastic when ya were talkin’ ta me about normal things,” she had said.

“Your highness—” Trystan began.

“Not here.”

“Sir—”

“Weird for someone older to be calling someone younger ‘sir.’” Olive could see Trystan taking a deep breath from the corner of his eye.

Finally, Trystan said, “I still think finding a translator would be best, Olivier.” He waited until the waitress brought them two bowls of soup and left before continuing. “I admit that your understanding of the Sagittarian languages is… impressive. But we need to find someone who can translate the written word. You’ve only been reading the Common texts, but I truly believe that Sagittarian ones would be beneficial for your exam studying.” He glanced around the restaurant and continued in a quieter voice, “Besides, the way Sagittarian wind Elementalists utilize vitae through their conductors might—”

“Be helpful in showing me how to control the way I use vitae without a conductor?”

Trystan stiffened, eyes darting around the room. “Olivier, please, don’t talk about your ability so loudly. Someone might be listening.”

“Why?” Olive arched a brow. “Everyone’s going to see it when I take the practical portion of the exam anyways.”

Trystan looked as if he wanted to argue further. But instead, he said, “We should still find a translator.”

“I know,” Olive grumbled, lowering the article and tapping his fingers on the table, “but I’d rather get a translator who can also get us access to that Sagittarian temple that the guide mentioned.”

Bodhi Temple.

“A temple not of religion but of wisdom,” the guide had said. “It has sovereignty over itself, so Ophiuchus and the Sagittarian government barely touch it. It’s a sacred place. If you’re seeking knowledge, you’ll find it here. Of course, gaining entrance is no easy feat. That’s why Ophiuchus hasn’t ever reached that place!”

“Of course, Olivier. I see your point.” Trystan picked up the bowl to sip before he paused and said hesitantly, “I understand your apprehension, but perhaps we could ask—”

“Only when I’m desperate,” Olive interjected quickly.

But after spending the entire day searching the windy city for a translator and encountering only swindlers that were half Cadence’s caliber, Olive wondered if he was nearing that desperation.

***

As Olive continued his search through the city in defeat the next day with Trystan, he found his thoughts straying to Werner. The booming sound that had cut off their meeting from Werner’s end was still engrained in his memory. It had sounded like thunder almost.

Werner hadn’t synchronized with him above the thirty percent level since the incident. While Olive knew the man was alive and unharmed, he couldn’t help but feel anxious. He hoped Werner didn’t know that.

Out of all six of them, Werner, Cadence, and Jericho were the ones who got their hands the dirtiest. Maria didn’t count since her view of the world was a complete outlier. But those three—their lives were filled with violence and death every single day, and yet they didn’t seem to pay it any mind. Or maybe they were just pretending. Or maybe…

Olive absentmindedly wandered into a small bookstore as he continued mulling and selected a book from the first shelf he saw without so much as a thought. Trystan followed him, patiently studying the book spines crammed into the small shelves.

And what about me, Olive thought to himself, all I’m doing is studying for this stupid exam. I’m not even close to finding out about what I can do for Lavi. 

It didn’t feel fair at all.

Olive brought the book to his face and buried his head into it. Stupid exam. Stupid Sagittarian temple. Stupid guide. I’m really… 

“Your highness?”

With a sigh, Olive lowered the book. And then he froze.

Storm clouds were slathered across the sky. Low and overbearing, like they could drop down and crush him at any moment. There was a terrible smell in the air, and the dirt beneath Olive’s feet felt wet. Stretched out before him was a muddy marsh peppered with small craters and fallen trees. Jutting out in-between the scattered trees and waterlogged holes were boulders that stood as tall as him.

A crack of thunder rumbled on the horizon. No. Not thunder. A conductor. A Projector’s vitae ray. A flash of light blue.

This was not the bookstore.

Chance?

Olive turned his head to the left.

Werner was tucked up behind a boulder there. His cloak was dripping with dirt and rainwater, and his usually combed back platinum blonde hair was falling into his face. The rifle conductor in his hands gave off steam. It had been fired recently.

Their gazes met.

Werner’s eyes were terrifying. They seemed to glow an ice blue in the dark. A razor-sharp focus. Eyes that had just taken a life.

You shouldn’t be here.

“I didn’t mean to…” Olive managed. He glanced behind him and saw a group of Capricornian soldiers huddled against a cluster of rocks. And—

—a body. There was a body lying right behind Werner. No, half a body. The uniform was Capricornian. The blood staining the periwinkle uniform was beginning to wash away with the rain, and the mud slowly consumed what little was left of the body—the corpse.

A bright flash of light and a terrible whine exploded just behind Olive. A jolt of pain throttled every limb in his body, and he was left gasping for breath. But this wasn’t his pain. It was Werner’s. But Werner wasn’t harmed. Olive knew this. He felt this. But.

Olive shook his head, attempting to dispel the ringing in his ears and searched the swampy ground for Werner. There.

The Capricornian had been thrown back several feet by the blast and was bringing himself back up into a crouch. Without glancing at Olive, he returned to the cover of the boulder—half of which had been annihilated by the blast—and signaled his groaning, recovering men to lay low but move forward.

“I need three men on that target,” Werner ordered. “They may have gotten their hands on conductors, but they don’t know how to use them efficiently. Vogt, go back to base and report that the Argoans at the twenty-third section have conductors. We need reinforcements.”

“But—”

“Go!”

Vogt scrambled to a stand and darted back through the muddy swampland. Werner, however, remained pressed up against the rock. He locked eyes with Olive and answered the unasked question—

I’m staying. I was ordered to gain control over this section. I will hold here until we have reinforcements. 

Werner turned his back to Olive, aimed his conductor, and fired.

What? But this was crazy. Why were they still pushing forward? There was no way they’d win. No way.

Olive had seen it because Werner had seen it. They were outnumbered. Even if they came out of this with a win, it wouldn’t be worth it.

Run away. They all had to. If they didn’t then they would—Werner might—

Olive reached out for Werner’s back but—

—then slipped forward and face-planted into the mud. He scrambled to his feet and reached for Werner again. But the man was nowhere to be found. Realization dawned a beat after as Olive registered that his outstretched hand was gloved. Werner’s hand.

Oh no.

“Lieutenant?!”

Someone scrambled to Olive’s side. A familiar-looking, glasses-wearing man with dark black hair caked in mud. There was blood running down his face.

Olive stared at him. The man stared directly back.

“How many grenades should I conjure, Lieutenant?! Do you need another conductor?!”

Olive opened his mouth, closed it.

“Lieutenant?!”

And then Olive reached out and grabbed the man’s wrist. The man stiffened, looked down at Olive’s hand, and then back up at Olive.

“Retreat,” Olive said slowly, quietly.

“… what?”

“Retreat!” Olive snapped, jerking the man towards him as he scrambled to a stand. “Is it that hard to understand?!”

Without waiting for a response, Olive began to run, dragging the man along with him. They had barely made it a foot away from the rock before there was another flash of light and the entire thing exploded into fragments. One of them fragments caught Olive’s temple, and he stumbled forward blindly. When he caught himself and looked up, he found the cluster of Capricornian soldiers staring at him wide-eyed and gaping.

“Retreat!” Olive shouted at the flabbergasted soldiers as he tugged the glasses-wearing man along. “What will staring do? Retreat—now!”

There was only a split second of confusion and hesitation before the soldiers scrambled to their feet and fled backwards. Olive followed after them, tugging the glasses-wearing man along with him for only a little while longer before he shoved him forward to run on his own.

Their flight was met with a rain of light from the direction that the grenade had come from. Vitae rays. And Olive didn’t know what was worse—the boom they made as they pelted the ground around him, or the moment of blindness he had when one hit an area in front of him. All he knew was that he had to run.

Run. Run. Run.

Olive wasn’t sure how long he ran for but eventually his knees gave out and he collapsed on all fours. Everything was a haze. Footsteps around him, panting, gasping.

Was he even still alive?

He fisted the mud and felt the cold seep in between his gloved fingers. Something wasn’t right. Saints. He felt sick. He wanted to heave but couldn’t.

A pair of feet entered his periphery.

Olive struggled to a stand, still panting.

A man with peppered grayed hair loomed in front of him. The man looked would’ve looked like schoolteacher if it weren’t for the dead look in his eyes and the mud and blood caked to his military uniform.

Olive recognized this man. He was Werner’s captain. Captain Weingartner. The man’s lips were moving—

“—retreat?”

What?

“Werner, what’s going on? Why did you retreat?”

Capricornian. Clipped, rough, precise. It still felt strange to Olive—being able to understand it despite paying very little attention in his language classes back at the university.

“Werner.”

Olive blinked at Weingartner through a haze of heat, dirt, and sweat. In the background, he could make out the shapes of heaving, shifting soldiers. He swallowed, panted, wiped the sweat from his face. What in the world was going on?

He could feel the wetness of the air, feel the grit of dirt rubbing in between his toes and the rubber of his shoes. The squelching of rubber against mud, the absence of the open breeze, the cling of cloth against his sweaty back.

Something was definitely wrong. Why was he still here? Why—

“Lieutenant Waltz, answer me—”

“If you really like the sound of your voice that much you should be a politician.”

As soon as the words left Olive’s mouth, his heart stopped. In the place of the thrumming of his heart, he instead felt the beat of Werner’s heart. Hammering, thumping, beating.

The full weight of what he had done sunk in.

Olive stared at the captain, and the captain stared back. And then the captain’s eyes narrowed.

“Lieutenant Waltz, would you care to repeat that?”

A stampede of sloshing footsteps from behind cut Olive off before he could retort. Someone clamped a hand on his shoulder and jerked him backward. Olive turned his head.

Brown hair and slate gray eyes. A half-grin, maybe smirk. Gilbert Wolff. Werner’s second lieutenant and childhood friend. Someone who knew about the synchronizations. Vague memories came to Olive’s mind.

“Captain Weingartner.” Gilbert gave a salute. “I think Lieutenant Waltz may have a concussion. I saw him hit the ground pretty hard earlier before the retreat. I think I should take him to medical.”

Captain Weingartner looked apprehensive.

And so, for effect, Olive promptly bent over and puked.

***

Gilbert guided Olive through a ridiculously slippery path. Every step led to a mudslide that the Capricornian had to rescue him from. Olive had resisted at first but eventually conceded to the man’s help after he ended up slipping right into a five-foot pit. After a mile or so of silent treading, they came across a large stone slab. When they rounded the rock, Gilbert grabbed Olive’s shoulder and spun him around.

“Werner?” The man’s eyes searched Olive’s for something he evidently did not find. He then tried again in Common: “…who are you? You—” Then, he stared.

It took Olive a moment to realize why the man was gazing at him so intensely. He was shaking, shoulders trembling. Olive wasn’t sure if it was from the frigid cold that was burning his cheeks or—

Saints. He was pathetic.

Olive jerked himself away. “Don’t touch me.”

Gilbert recoiled and raised his hands, eyes wide. He paused and swallowed, before he said, “My bad.” His gaze lingered. “The tent’s this way. Nico’ll probably know how to handle this better.”

They found Nico in the first of a series of lined up tents that were set up behind a cliff face a mile deeper into the forest. When they entered, Olive was immediately overwhelmed by a putrid smell. An overwhelming alcohol-like poignancy, and a nauseating wave of suffocating iron.

Pulling the crook of his elbow up to his face, Olive recoiled away from the tent’s flap. Gilbert paused and turned back with a raised brow. Undeterred. Olive dropped his hand and frowned.

“It smells.”

Gilbert nodded. “Well, yeah.”

After a beat, he followed Gilbert into the tent and surveyed the interior.

There were rows of beds lining each side of the tent with nothing between them besides an occasional metal cart. The beds were occupied by uniformed men and women who were pale but sweating. Some of them looked like moving an inch would cause them to die of exhaustion.

A coldness gripped Olive’s inside at the sight of them, and he felt as if just by breathing in the same space as them he was decreasing their chances of survival—

“Hey, you home?”

Olive ripped his gaze away from the groaning woman on the bed closest to him and came face-to-face with a frowning Gilbert Wolff and a pensive Nico Fabrizzio.

Olive regarded Nico. Cadence’s longtime, childhood friend. Olive had only seen flashes of Nico from the handful of Cadence’s memories that would occasionally trickle to him. And in those memories, Nico had been a teary-eyed, curly-haired mess who followed Cadence around like a lackey. Now he stood before Olive tall and almost dignified. Almost intimidating.

“So you’ve switch places? You guys call it an override or something, right?” Nico drew slowly in Common, wiping his gloved hands on a rag at his side. “You can’t switch back?”

Olive’s teeth were clacking inside of his mouth, and he was sure if he tried to answer he’d bite his—Werner’s—tongue right off. Nico’s eyes widened before he headed to the back of the tent.

“Nico’s the only medic in here,” Gilbert provided. “So you don’t need to hold your breath.”

When Nico returned, he was holding a folded blanket which he held out. After a long beat, Olive accepted it and threw it over his shoulders. He shrugged into its warmth.

“So.” Gilbert crossed his arms. “Why’re you here?”

Olive scoffed. “You’re acting like I want to be stuck in the middle of a mud swamp in the middle of a death zone. We obviously don’t share the same interests.” When he registered Nico’s wide-eyed stare, he clarified. “I’m not a masochist.”

Nico’s gaze softened. “Right. This must be pretty terrifyin’ for you.”

The pity in Nico’s eyes was aggravating.

“I’d be more terrified of someone who wasn’t terrified of something like this,” Olive returned.

Nico and Gilbert exchanged a look. Right. After the whole fiasco with Major Ersatz, Cadence, ELPIS, and the Aquarians, the two men had somehow struck up some weird sort of friendship. Olive personally didn’t understand it. From what he’d seen from Cadence’s and Werner’s memories, Gilbert and Nico were almost complete opposites. Weird. Creepy.

Then again, these were two people that Werner trusted. And Olive himself could feel that trust the man felt for them so—

“This is the first time I’ve overridden someone, so I’m on edge.” Olive shrugged the blanket closer around him. “Maria’s the only one who’s done it like this before, but she’s something else so I can’t draw from her or anything.”

“Okay. That’s alright.” Nico nodded encouragingly. “Do you know what you were doing before this happened?”

“I doubt it’s going to help, but all I was doing was looking for books to study for the Conducting Exam,” Olive recalled. “And then I synchronized with Werner. And I—”

“Study for the—how old are you?!”

Olive sent Gilbert a pointed glare before looking away. “Not as old as you are obviously, old man.”

“Old man?!”

“Look, I just wanted to…” Olive grimaced, fisting the blanket. “…help. I wanted to help. Excuse me for not wanting to jump into a suicide run.”

“So you were the one who ordered the retreat then. Not Werner.” Gilbert pulled back and sighed. He ruffled his hair and rolled his neck. “Well, that makes more sense… So, what do you make of this, Nico? Can you fix it?”

Nico’s shoulders sagged. “I… I honestly don’t know. Sorry. But… Werner is all right, right? What are the others in your group saying about what’s going on?”

“The others…” Olive reached out for them as he’d done countless times before and then froze. He reached again—this time a bit more desperately. There was a vast stretch of cold emptiness in the intangible space they’d always hazily occupied. It wasn’t like those times when their synchronization fell below thirty percent. Even then, he was able to feel them in the distance. Nothing like now. Nothing like this pit that reminded him too much of those six years after the tragedy. He covered his ears hoping that maybe all the groans of death and dying were just too loud for him to hear them, but— “I can’t feel the others…. I can’t.”

“It’s okay. Calm down.” Nico was easing him down onto a crate at the corner of the tent. “Just relax.”

Olive lowered his hands, suddenly feeling weak. “What if…” What if he was stuck like this? What if Werner was—

A brush on his shoulder cut the thought off.

“Look, kid. If you’re really connected with Werner, you should know he’s much tougher than that. Don’t worry about things that don’t need to be worried about.”

Olive glanced up. Gilbert. The man looked uncomfortable, his hand barely, delicately resting on Olive’s shoulder—like he thought that even the slightest touch would make Olive crumble to ash. Olive wasn’t sure whether he should be annoyed or laugh at the ridiculousness of it. He’d seen Gilbert’s demeanor through Werner’s eyes, after all, and ‘delicate’ was definitely not a word to describe the man.

“I really don’t need reassurance from someone who’s been stuck as a second lieutenant for four years,” Olive said after a beat as he pulled away from the man and unfolded from himself.

“Hey!” Gilbert pulled his hand away and then frowned deeper, rubbing the back of his neck. “Did Werner tell you that or something?”

Clownishness aside, Gilbert was right. There was no use feeling sorry for himself.

Olive held out his gloved hand. Clenched it and unclenched. The leather that was sticking to his sweating palm felt like it was ripping his skin right off. Why did Werner even like wearing these things? “Atienna said something about emotional state having to do with it but—”

“I-Is Lieutenant Waltz, alright?” came a question in Capricornian.

Olive felt his nausea intensify as he lifted his head. Standing at the flap of the tent was the Capricornian soldier Olive had literally dragged through the mud in his escape. The blood had been cleaned up off the soldier’s face, and he was now sporting bandages around his head. The man’s name came to Olive slowly. Klaus Kleine. A Conjuror in Werner’s squadron who was present during the Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict.

“What are you doing here, Kleine?” Gilbert asked in Capricornian, stepping in front of Olive casually. “You know Nico can’t fix your glasses if you’ve broken them again. Can’t you conjure yourself a new one?”

Flushing, Klaus Kleine pushed his glasses up the bridge of his short nose and stammered, “I-It’s not that, sir. I just wanted to see if the Lieutenant was alright. He helped me during the retreat.” Klaus looked up. Their eyes met.

Olive reflexively glared.

“Is the Lieutenant—”

“Look, Kleine,” Gilbert sighed as he drew to the tent’s entrance, “it’s great that you’ve got yourself promoted to Lance Corporal, but don’t get ahead of yourself. You still have a couple more ranks to go before you can be friendly with the First Lieutenant. Hell, look at me. I’m only one rank under and—”

“Does this have to do with what happened to the Aquarian captain three months ago?”

Olive’s heart skipped a beat. Before he could even think of what Klaus was implying, Gilbert grabbed the man by the scruff and dragged him into the room. Klaus stared wide-eyed at Gilbert and struggled to stay on his toes as he was lifted off the floor.

Werner was going to be so pissed.

“Hey, saints, calm down—” Olive began to mutter with a frown. A sharp pain abruptly struck his temple, cutting him off short.

“Yeah, Gilbert, let’s hear what he has to say first,” Nico agreed.

Gilbert and Klaus glanced at the combat medic before the former released the latter. Klaus stumbled back and steadied himself before he said something quickly in Capricornian. Clipped and harsh as usual. But—and a chill crept up Olive’s spine as he realized this—Olive couldn’t understand what the man was saying. His head buzzed at the revelation, and he tried his best to hang onto their exchanged words. But it was gibberish.

What was going on?

Even at the very beginning of their connection, Olive had been able to understand vaguely what the Capricornians had been saying on Werner’s end despite only speaking Common fluently. So now why—

Gilbert had turned to him was now addressing him in Capricornian.

The sounds meant nothing to him.

Gilbert seemed to have recognized his confusion, because his brows rose and he asked in Common, “Oh yeah, you don’t speak Capricornian, right?”

Olive forced a shrug.

“Well,” Gilbert continued in Common, “Kleine here says that on the day the Aquarian captain disappeared, he saw a certain someone with that Aquarian captain waltzing through the woods. Apparently, there was a confrontation between that someone and Kleine, but Kleine here decided to keep his mouth shut for curiosity’s sake.”

Maria. Of course, it was Maria.

Olive narrowed his eyes first at Klaus and then at Gilbert. “What did you tell him?”

“Only what Werner told me.”

Olive stiffened further. His mind raced. Werner would definitely not want to involve any more people he knew in this mess. Out of all six of them, Werner had been the most stringent about keeping things discrete and quiet after the events following Ersatz.

Swallowing his alarm, Olive muttered, “You must be the type of person who tells people where you hide your money. Might as well tell the entire world at this point.”

“Kid, enough with the brattitude already.”

Klaus said something again in Capricornian before he got a nudge on the back by Gilbert. Klaus startled, glanced wearily in between them, and then spoke in accented Common: “Ever since then, I have been…” He seemed to struggle to find the word. “… keeping an eye out. I knew it was something else. The lieutenant is good at appearing normal, but I watch. Carefully. I thought lieutenant had condition.” He gestured to Nico and Gilbert. “I thought Doctor Fabrizzio transferred here to help with condition. But then secrecy between you three so I figured something else. Did not expect this. Phenomenon.” He mumbled to himself a bit more before he gave a salute and hesitantly extended his hand. “Lance Corporal Klaus Kleine.”

Olive frowned at the extended hand before pointedly crossing his arms. “I know who you are.” He looked away and found his gaze fixated on the unconscious woman on the bed again. He wasn’t sure if she’d become several shades paler since he’d walked into the room or if his eyes had adjusted to the light. He squeezed his arm and muttered, “It’s too convenient. That you’d be interested in helping Werner. It’s suspicious as hell.”

Klaus stared at him wide-eyed before exchanging a look with Gilbert who shrugged.

“Look, Olive, right?” Gilbert gestured offhandedly. “I don’t know where you’re from, but here, we don’t have time for that. Save that for the politicians. If Kleine really wanted to run off with this info, he’d have done it three months ago. Besides, the only thing you’re doing right now, kid, is making Werner look crazy.”

“Well, then at least now Werner will blend in with the crowd here,” Olive offered nonchalantly. “But fine. This is your place, not mine.”

Klaus was gaping again.

Gilbert rolled his eyes. “Thank you.”

Olive shrugged the blanket closer around him. He was certain now. It wasn’t just his nerves that had him shaking. It was freezing out here. He couldn’t understand how Werner and the other soldiers could stand it.

“Stop looking so stressed, kid. I get that your little possession group likes to keep things tight and under the table. Makes sense. But still—” Gilbert grimaced and shook his head as he looked Olive over. “This is so damned weird. I’m looking at Werner but I’m not.”

“Don’t look at me then,” Olive returned. He thought back to the incident with Izsak and Leona and then to Usian, Ersatz, and Verga. “It’s not like we don’t have a good reason to be cautious.” Before Gilbert could respond, Olive addressed Klaus with a slight nod. “So what’s in it for you? Do you want to blackmail us or something? Money? Promotion?” Olive squinted. “Eye surgery?”

Klaus’s eyes widened to comical proportions, and he shook his head wildly. “No, no, no, of course not! I—” He dug into his pants pocket and then shoved something into Olive’s hands. A small, leather-bound journal no larger than his hand. Reminiscent of Olive’s own journal. “Here. Notes in here.”

Olive arched a brow and opened it. “It’s in Capricornian,” he stated flatly but continued to flip through it anyways. He did recognize a couple of words. Oberleutenant, First Lieutenant. Morgen, morning. Geheimnis, secret. Each page was marked with a date at the top. While the initial entries were short and concise, the latter entries following July 5th were much more detailed. July 5th. When Maria overrode Cadence and Werner.

“Want to know. I like to observe—”

“You don’t need to try to defend your hobbies to me. I don’t really care what you do in your free time.” Olive interjected. Klaus would probably get along well with Talib, he thought to himself as he turned another page.

“I—er—” Klaus glanced at Gilbert who again shrugged. He flushed in turn.

“It’s still weird…” Olive paused halfway through on a page that contained a sketch of what appeared to be a conductor. It was a set of thick ring conductors connected together by insulation tubes. “You’re trying to design your own custom conductor?”

Klaus flushed again. “Yes. Military conductors not tailored to Conductor. Hard to use sometimes, it is. New conductors shipped in recently—”

Olive figured he was referring to the conductors the Romanos and the Foxmans were shipping to the Capricornian Army as a part of the new deal Cadence and Werner had initiated. The idea didn’t sit well with Olive at all. Illegally producing conductors and selling them to fuel a war. Cadence had of course wiped her hands clean of the matter, and whenever Werner spoke of it he merely said that it was none of Olive’s concern.

“—said we can request our own custom conductor—”

“The concept is good but there is no way that this’ll be able to handle the amount of vitae particles you expel as Conjurer to create things,” Olive said. “You’ll overheat the thing. Conductors who conduct intraneously will never be able to use something like this. If you’re a Transmutationists, then maybe… but other than that…” Olive handed Klaus his journal back.

“Thank you…” Accepting the journal, Klaus glanced between them all. “So… what now? With lieutenant? Solution? Idea?”

A beat of silence.

Olive stared at his hand. “Well, I’ve never actually been overridden myself before. Not completely, I mean.”

“Maybe if you to be… knocked unconscious….” Klaus drew. “Then there would be… recalibration?”

Olive resisted doing a double-take. For someone who presented himself as a bookworm, Klaus sure was violent. But then again, Klaus was a soldier. Violence was on the roster.

“We can’t do that!” Nico objected, startling Olive with the intensity of his voice. “You might really injure Werner. Head injuries are serious!”

“Well, it’s better than me being stuck here like this,” Olive finally mumbled. “I can’t do anything. I’ll just end up getting Werner killed or something.” His gaze was once again drawn back to the woman lying on the bed. “Besides, you don’t look like you have the time to waste here—ow!” Olive jerked forward as something sharp cracked against the back of his skull. When he turned, he found Gilbert standing behind him with the butt of his conducting rifle still in the air.

“Gilbert!” Nico exclaimed.

“What is wrong with you…?” Olive muttered, rubbing the bruise that was beginning to blossom at the area of impact.

Gilbert lowered the rifle and swung it back over his shoulder. “You agreed.” A pause. “So feel any different?”

“Well, yeah. The back of my head hurts now,” Olive grumbled. He frowned as the pain throbbing at the back of his head abruptly dulled. “I feel sort of—”

The world lost focus, and Olive was reminded of the watercolor paintings Maria had stolen from a ship bound to Cancer. Smears of brown, yellow, and gray.

Olive stumbled forward, reaching for the support of the crate behind him. Just as he reached it, however, it fell away from his sights. As did the beds in the room, as did the dirty ground beneath his feet, as did the cold and the nauseating smells within the tent.

And then there was deep black.

***

When Olive opened his eyes, he did not see the gray of the clouded skyline nor did he see the tan of the Capricornian medical tent. Instead, he saw sky blue silk drapes and the top of a mahogany bed canopy.

He held his hand in front of him. Sunburnt and gloveless. He was back. Back on a bed. A comfortable bed.

Saints, there ya guys are! You and Werner—

—wow, where did you all go? Is this some sort of new trick? I would like to learn it!

—it was strange not feeling you—

—how are you both feeling?

The synchronization was low level but came with such force that Olive nearly leapt out of the bed. He could feel them again. All of them. The hollowness had been filled.

Fine, fine, I’m fine, Olive thought back as he sat up.

Werner was there. Olive could feel him too. But Olive did not venture any further than that. He knew it was fruitless, but he tried his best to pull his thoughts and feelings away from the man as much as possible. He couldn’t face him after what he’d done.

“Your Highness!”

Olive glanced to his left and found Trystan sitting on a chair at his bedside. The man unfolded himself quickly and drew nearer.

“Are you feeling alright?”

“I look how I feel,” Olive grumbled, “but I’m fine. What happened?”

“You passed out at the bookstore suddenly. You were out for the entire day…”

Olive swallowed, studying the sky-blue drapes. The color was familiar. “This isn’t our inn. Where are we?”

“Well…” Trystan pulled back and inclined his head.

Olive followed the man’s nod to the left side of the wall where a paper window stood wide and open. There was a cherry blossom tree growing just outside there, and a soft wind plucked the pink petals from its branches and tossed them into the room.

“Claire?”

Plucking a stray cherry blossom petal from his hair, the Sagittarian prince turned away from the window and offered a pleasant smile. “Morning, Olive.”


Sagittarius is a rich, diverse, and windy country and the largest country in Signum. It consists of ten clans and is ruled by one emperor. Each clan hosts its own unique language, culture, and way of life and is governed by one royal family whose members share blood relations to the emperor.

Countries of Signum by Multiple Authors, 20th edition 

6b: Crimson Volition

Re-cap:

The Watch has been stopped. Wtorek Izsak has been revealed to be affiliated with ELPIS and has been apprehended by Gabrielle Law. Due to the efforts of the swindler, the soldier, the chieftain’s daughter, the pirate,  the peacekeeper, and the prince himself, the prince has survived. They have survived. But questions and choices still need to be made. It is time to move on forward.

Olive felt like he’d been picked up by a whirlwind, tossed around in the air for the better part of a week, and then gently placed back down onto the ground as if all was in order. Everything fell into place the next couple of weeks after the Watch’s attack so perfectly that Olive couldn’t help but feel unnerved.

Gabrielle and Jericho left a week after the incident with Izsak in cuffs. Other Ophiuchian Agents, including Leona and Talib, arrived to apprehend the remaining members of the Watch and to bring them in for questioning. Samuel and the other guards present during the attack were making a recovery at the hospital. Olive had visited them for the most part during the stay, but as soon as they were well enough to make lengthy conversation, he stopped visiting.

Trystan was released from prison and was re-offered his position, but he declined the offer. Meanwhile, the feudal lord heading the Ariesian Investigation Bureau was called into questioning in his place. Olive figured that if he looked hard enough, he might find poetic justice in there somewhere. 

Olive learned from Cadence that the Romano Family and the Foxmans were working with Ophiuchus to find out exactly what else Verga had been shipping for ELPIS. Ricardo and the Foxmans had also rented out Matilda and her crew’s services. They were delivery men again, although they now transported conductor parts from facility to facility instead of whole conductors to civilians. It was stupid, Olive had thought, for them all to end up right back where they started. 

“That’s how the city works,” Cadence answered with a shrug as she attended the party celebrating the new partnership. “They had nowhere else to go anyways. Rinse and repeat.”

In the middle of a toast at the aforementioned party, Francis had coyly offered to Cadence a packet of normal cigarettes and a bottle of wine.  But after casting a glance in Olive’s direction, Cadence accepted only the wine.

Werner appeared to be ending on a slightly more positive note. After extensive interviews from Ophiuchian Agents and Capricornian officials, it was decided that Werner acted appropriately in the situation regarding Ersatz and ELPIS and that he was uninvolved with Ersatz’s plan. A statement by the Aquarian Captain Dunya Kramer also proved his and his division’s innocence. The Capricornian government was ruled to be involved in the ELPIS machinations as well.

Major Ersatz had survived the battle and was brought to Ophiuchus to be detained and questioned about his ELPIS involvement. He was given a dishonorable discharge by Capricorn, and the Watch was dismantled shortly after—per order of Ophiuchus. Werner was revered as a hero and given temporary leave, which he extended to the rest of his division.

The Ophiuchians also mediated the border conflict, and it was resolved with the vitae reservoir being declared as belonging within Capricornian borders. There were reparations to be made on both sides. Gilbert had derised the swiftness of it all and had something akin to “if it was solved that easily then why fight over it to begin with” to which Olive couldn’t help but agree. 

Soon after that, a new combat medic was introduced to Werner’s division. His placement was followed by a sudden influx of weaponized conductors. The oddity was questioned by common soldiers but remained unquestioned by high-ranking officers. On the surface the medic’s responsibilities seemed to merely be tending to the injuries of those within the division. However, his true responsibility lay in acting as a liaison between “the Capricornian army and certain organizations in Gemini” or so stated the official documentation Werner received a week prior to the medic’s arrival.

Cadence was worried, but they all knew Werner was reliable. Nico would be fine.

Maria’s side was surprisingly more subdued. Her ship had been quiet and empty since Olive’s incident. She pulled back into Pollux Bay a few days following the event, and the Foxmans greeted her warmly, much to the surprise of Morandi and his men. After hearing about her circumstances from Conta, the Foxmans offered her the services of Morandi and his men with condolences. Although there was some resistance at first, a flash of Geminian cens sealed the deal for Morandi’s group. They set out to sea the very next day.

When Olive asked what Maria’s goal really was on a stormy night at sea, she had laughed and said, “There was only one moment when I was not in control of my life, and I am in the search of the person responsible for it.” When he asked why in the world she would chase after someone like that, she simply responded with her usual ‘why not?’ Olive didn’t think he’d ever understand Maria.

Atienna’s conclusion made a bit more sense to Olive. Virgo ended its isolation two weeks after Usian’s arrest. Atienna’s father, however, resigned from the Tribal Council and stepped down as chieftain of the Imamu Tribe. Bachiru was upset, but Atienna thought it was for the best. She was planning to take a step forward, after all. Not as chieftain, of course. That responsibility was for someone else more worthy. Now that Virgo was ready to reach out to the world again, a diplomatic party needed to be formed to interact with the other countries. And Atienna was determined to have a foot in it. Despite the strength of her words, however, Olive could feel the falter through the link that they shared. He decided not to address the matter. 

Atienna herself spent quite some time researching the meanings behind ‘syzygy’ and ‘True Conductor’, but it seemed as if without a Conducting License she could barely scratch the surface of anything. How ELPIS and Leona knew of these words was also a mystery. And since there were so many dangerous unknowns involved, the six of them agreed to keep their connection under the table until they figured out how to resolve it. This agreement occurred following Atienna’s long-winded proposal, of course.

A small resolution came with Claire as well. With the conclusion of the Capricornian-Aquarian border conflict and the promise of reparations, Claire graciously returned home. But not after solidifying Sagittarian-Ariesian relations with the king and queen and then insisting that he and Olive become pen-pals during the same meeting. No tact at all, or perhaps too much tact. Olive had declined the offer point-blank in front of his aunt, uncle, and the feudal lords. Of course, Claire had just laughed the entire ordeal off.

While Olive’s personal relations did not seem to improve much, Olive discovered that Jericho’s relations did.

When Jericho returned to Ophiuchus, he did his best to avoid the commotion that came with his mission completion. The mystery of what had unfolded was the new buzz of the Serpens Establishment, and wiithin the first few days of his return, Jericho was approached by over a dozen peacekeepers pressing him for details. Thankfully, the ELPIS Department made a statement on Leona’s disappearance and Izsak’s involvement not long after.

According to the report, Leona had been ambushed by ELPIS after a fellow peacekeeper disclosed her location to them. A traitor to the upstanding, philanthropic Romano organization of the Twin Cities was then tasked by ELPIS to handle her imprisonment, but the traitor was discovered by the organization and was dealt with swiftly. Meanwhile, Leona managed to break free of her captors and successfully stopped the assassination of the Ariesian prince. The assassination was orchestrated by a recently ELPIS-converted Capricornian major with the assistance of the aforementioned peacekeeper. There was no mention of Maria’s ship.

Talk about paintin’ a pretty picture, Cadence thought as Atienna read the article in the newspaper. Not givin’ credit where credit is due.

The traitorous peacekeeper involved in the assassination attempt and Leona’s capture, the ELPIS Department elaborated, went by the name of Izsak Wtorek. A Taurusian who had served in Ophiuchus since its founding. Izsak was believed to have been under the influence of a Manipulator Conductor and was currently undergoing treatment in Ophiuchus through the Medical Department and the Psychological Evaluations Department.

Jericho and Talib’s names were mentioned only briefly at the end of the article. When pressed by Cadence, Jericho informed the group that he felt neither pleasure nor displeasure at this.

Shortly after the article was published, Talib invited Jericho to a party to celebrate a successful case closed and led Jericho into an office at the very back of the Serpens Establishment.

Within the office, Gabrielle sat at a desk with Alice Kingsley at her right and the pink-haired Ferris at her left. On a couch in the room sat three men and two women. All assessed Jericho with differing expressions upon his entrance.

“How would you like being my minion?” Gabrielle had asked, extending a hand. “I’m planning to become head chair of Ophiuchus and bring real peace to Signum, and I could really use someone like you on my team. You have a thing against ELPIS, right? Well, if you work with me, I can get you to them.”

Truly, a terrible personality.

Even so, Jericho accepted Gabrielle’s hand.

And with that, an entire month passed by.

Now Olive found himself kneeling before his uncle and aunt in the throne room of the royal palace. He had bowed upon entering and remained prostrate despite their insistence that he stand.

The red of the carpet below his feet was nostalgic. Almost alluring. Beckoning him to stay. To reconsider. To return to how things were before—skipping classes at the university, watching council meetings with disinterest, escaping to Marta’s shop to sleep for hours. It really was tempting. An easier way. Drifting through days with indifference.

But—

Mustering all of his courage, Olive lifted his gaze from the carpet to his aunt and uncle.

“I’ve decided to take the State Conducting Exam.”

Both his aunt and uncle beamed.

“That’s wonderful, Olive!” Terra hummed. “Now that this is over with, you can return to the university and—”

“I’m going to study on my own,” Olive said. “I’m leaving the Capital.”

“What?”

“Olivier, you can’t—”

There was a flicker of black out of the corner of his eye. Not any of the others. Lavi.

“I don’t care if it looks like I’m running away. If I stay here, I’ll fall back into the same patterns over and over again. I won’t change,” Olive continued, rising to a stand. “I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, and I’ll never be able to repay you. I know it seems selfish of me leaving like this, but I have to take responsibility.”

His uncle and aunt remained silent. There was disappointment in their eyes. But he could live with that. Letting out a small breath, Olive turned away from them and exited the chambers with his sister following right behind.

“My brother’s been looking weirdly determined recently. Usually, I’d think that’s a bad thing but he looks kinda cool so maybe it’s a good thing this time.

Lavender Chance, unknown time

3.[]: Convergence

Re-cap:

A phantom pain radiates out for the prince, the swindler, the soldier, the pirate, the chieftain’s daughter, and the peacekeeper. Although they are in physically different locations, the prince’s rings out to them loud and clear—“Enough already. You’re all going to listen to me. Here. Now.

The synchronization has begun.

It hurt.

Saints. It hurt.

Even after the medical Conductors had come and gone saying that all was in order, it still hurt. Even after they had informed Olive of what had occurred—that he had fainted in the bathroom, that Trystan had been called in for questioning after carrying Olive to his room, that he had been unconscious for several hours. Even after he bit his tongue and kicked all the doctors out of his room, it still hurt. But that didn’t matter.

As soon as Olive was alone, he ran to the door to make sure it was shut tightly and slid to the ground.

It hurt. But—

But that wasn’t what was important. What was important was….

Olive scrambled to his feet and spun around the room.

“Enough already.” He glared at the ceiling. “I don’t care if you wanna mess up my life. It’s already a mess, anyways. If you’re not real, fine. I already know I’ve got screws loose. But if you’re real…” He glowered at the corners of his room, fists balled. “Don’t you dare… give me hope.”

Silence answered him. Deafening.

“Well, fine.” He turned away and faced the door. “It doesn’t matter anyway.” He paced to the door but stopped short with his hand on the knob. His grip on it tightened, and he bit down on the inside of his mouth. “No, you know what? No.” He turned away and walked forward, arms crossed. “Enough already. You’re all going to listen to me. Here. Now.

His voice echoed around the corners of the room. When the echo of his voice died, another sound came to take its place. There was no word to describe it. The sound of something breaking? Something cracking apart? Clapping? Whatever it was, it unfurled from all directions, into all directions. His surroundings reverberated with the noise, then splintered and fragmented. Different colors and sensations. Hot and cold. Blue and green. Gold and orange. White and black.

And then as everything melted together, five figures appeared before him.

There was the woman in the window—Atienna—sitting at the foot of his bed surrounded by flowers that Olive knew were not really there. Sitting on his windowsill a little ways away from her was a boyish, red-haired young woman who had cards in her hands and a smile on her face—a smile that slid down into a gawk. Her gaze fell away from her cards and toward a man who stood opposite her beside Olive’s closet: a dark man with square glasses and dark eyes. Standing just a few feet away from him was the green-eyed, pipe-swinging woman. Even as their eyes met, her smile remained unfazed. It may have even grown brighter.

“What is this?” the blonde man—the soldier with ice blue eyes that Olive had seen aiming a conductor at an unarmed man on that moonlit night—who stood at the corner of the room whispered as he rubbed his temple. As the man appeared to realize his situation, his expression became horrified and then reserved. Without another word, he brushed past Olive and headed toward the door. He tried it. It did not budge. Pausing there with his gloved hand pressed against the frame of the door, he stated, “This is a hallucination.”

Atienna stared at the man and reached out for him when an exclamation cut her off short—

“Atienna?”

Atienna looked back at the red-haired woman who called her name, and her eyes widened. “Cadence?”

“Spirits!” the green-eyed woman boomed as she jumped up onto Oliver’s bed with widespread arms. She looked down at all of them with a blinding smile. “Why is it that you have summoned me here?”

Atienna, now halfway off of the bed and no longer surrounded by her garden, blinked up at her with a dissonant smile. “Maria…? You know I’ve said that we’re not spirits.”

Maria blinked down at her and scratched her head. “You are Atienna, yes? But if you are not a spirit then…”

“I ask that none of you move.” The man with the glasses spoke with an air of authority that did not match his blank expression. He extended his hand out to no one in particular. “I’m Agent Jericho of Ophiuchus. Currently, I’m investigating—”

“Wait,” Cadence interjected as she studied the man, “aren’t you—”

“Huh?” Maria tilted her head at Jericho before she crouched to his eye level. “Hey, I know your voice!”

“Can someone tell me what is goin’ on here?” Cadence snapped, leaping from the windowsill, throwing down her cards. “Even this is gettin’ a bit too much for me. Where am I?”

“This is not real,” the soldier, eyes closed, chanted from his corner. “I am suffering from a head injury. A concussion. This is not real. I need to inform a medical Conductor of my hallucinations. This is not real.”

“Uh, Werner, right?” Cadence pulled back and peered at the man. “Are ya all right?”

The soldier continued to mumble. Cadence continued to stare. The green-eyed woman and the agent continued to speak over one another. And Atienna continued to observe them all with an expression that was either one of curiosity or amusement.

Olive observed the chaos unfolding in front of him for a few minutes before he felt something thin and brittle inside snap in two.

“Oh, my saints, just shut up already!” He yelled so loudly he thought he’d torn his vocal chords.

Surprisingly, they obeyed and ogled.

“Look, I don’t get what’s going on, and normally I wouldn’t care.” He crossed his arms. “But…” He pointed at Atienna. “You saw her. You could see her. You could see Lavi.” He took a step forward. “Right?”

Atienna lifted her head and opened her mouth to respond, but—

“Wait a minute, aren’t you that prince? The Ariesian one!” Cadence said, jabbing a finger in Olive’s direction. “Yeah, I recognize ya! From the newspapers!”

The soldier stiffened. “Ariesian prince…?”

Cadence stepped forward and eyed Olive up and down. “The tabloids were sayin’ that you were in ‘hopeless, irrecoverable condition,’ but you’re lookin’ pretty good, kid.” She offered up a smile that reminded Olive of the feudal lords in court.

“That’s not the point—”

“Prince?” Maria jumped down from the bed and came to a stand right in front of him. She was tall and had to stoop to peer into his face. He could see all the flecks of green in her irises now. They looked almost inhuman. “I’ve never seen a prince before—wait a moment. You are the boy! From that night! The grumpy, short one!”

“I—what?” Olive recoiled before he glowered. “I don’t want to be talked down to by someone who—”

“Who said anything about talking down to?”

“Is it customary to shout when meeting a large amount of people like this?” Jericho interjected.

Everyone stared at him for a beat.

Atienna took the opportune moment of silence to step forward with raised hands. “Everyone, please calm down.” Her voice was gentle, deep, and quiet, reminding Olive of the sound of owls hooting in the quiet of a dead night. “This is the first time we’ve been able to talk all together like this so we should try to understand what’s going on, don’t you think?” She glanced at Olive and flashed him a sympathetic smile. “After we get at least a little bit of an idea about what’s happening, we can then move on to our individual issues. If that’s all right with everyone?”

“Yes. A good idea.” Jericho gave a thumbs-up from his corner. “This could aid in my investigation.” He gave another thumbs-up with his other hand.

Well, he was definitely weird. Olive resisted grimacing. Well, whatever.

“Whatever you say, doll.” Cadence tilted her hat with a charming smile.

Olive nodded in agreement, then found his gaze drifting over to the corner of the room. Atienna and then Cadence followed his gaze and locked eyes with the soldier who stood there still stiff as stone.

Cadence called back to him, “You gonna join us, good sir?”

There was an uncertain pause of silence in which the soldier appraised them with scrutiny. His eyes were sharp, cold, calculating. He seemed to have recovered from whatever meltdown he’d been going through earlier.

“I mean,” Cadence hummed, “if we’re all goin’ crazy, we should at least try to understand it, right?”

“If this is how this situation is going to be handled,” the soldier said finally, unravelling himself from his corner of the room and falling in place beside the peacekeeper, “I will partake. I believe that we should start with introductions first.”

“Call this a wild guess, I feel like we all sort vaguely know each other’s names already.” Cadence said pointedly.

“Things should not be left to assumption,” the soldier replied.

He was weird too.

“Right, right.” Cadence nodded as she hopped off the windowsill. She tilted her hat at them. “The name’s Cadence Morello. I’ll be open with ya, so I hope all of ya will be open with me. Born in Aries, raised in Gemini. Currently working in the Twin Cities. Nice ta meet ya.”

Something about the way Cadence spoke made Olive want to befriend her. Which was curious because he never wanted to befriend anyone.

“Twin Cities?” Maria exclaimed before she chuckled. “I was just there a couple of days ago! Such a fun place.”

“Were ya now—”

“We should stay on task,” the soldier advised, raising his hand to stop the conversation from derailing any further. “I am Werner Waltz, First Lieutenant serving in the Capricornian Army, 212th Division of the Border Force.”

Capricornian Army. Border Force. Olive felt a chill run down his spine, as he recalled staring into the whites of that young soldier’s eyes the night he’d somehow found himself in Werner’s presence. Olive had felt it then. The intent to kill. The lack of hesitation. To somehow reach that point—it made Olive’s stomach churn.

The green-eyed woman clapped her hands and rose to a stand above the bed. Olive was jarred out of his thoughts. Cadence and Werner gave her odd looks. Atienna, however, had an expression that betrayed curiosity. Jericho showed no reaction at all.

Taking a deep bow, the green-eyed woman introduced herself with a grin, “Captain Maria Gloria-Fernandez of Gloria’s Grail—here at your service! I am excited to discover more things about you all!”

“Atienna Imamu.” Atienna gestured to herself, tucking a stray dark curl behind her ear with downcast eyes. “I… am the daughter of the current chieftain of the Imamu Tribe in Virgo.”

The peacekeeper’s introduction came next, and he stepped forward with a hand extended in greeting: “Agent Jericho of Ophiuchus. I’m in the Twin Cities of Gemini. Investigating the disappearance of a fellow agent. ELPIS may be involved.”

“Olivier Chance,” Olive provided.

There was a long stretch of silence.

“So we got the ‘who’s,’” Cadence drew. “Now we need to know the ‘what’s’ and ‘why’s,’ right?”

“That would be the next logical step,” Werner affirmed and nodded at them. “If this is indeed real, what exactly is this and why is it happening?”

“Oh, it’s real all right.” Cadence leaned forward, nodding at Jericho. “I met him in the flesh just the other day. Saved my ass too.” She winked at him. “Owe ya one.”

“Just because you two have claimed to have met beyond this,” Werner interjected, gesturing to the space between them, “doesn’t mean it is real.”

“Got ya, got ya.” Cadence leaned back. “Y’know, you make a lotta sense when you’re not mumblin’ to yourself in some corner.” She flashed a sly grin.

Werner didn’t react with a cold snap nor a gaze of disapproval as Olive had expected. Rather, Werner appeared startled: “That was inappropriate of me.” He cleared his throat. “Regardless, I need confirmation from you all on what you’re seeing right now. At the moment, I’m standing in the communications cabin at my camp. This is fact. However,” he paused, glancing around Olive’s room, “there is an image superimposed on my surroundings.”

“Yeah, it’s my room,” Olive said.

“I see.” Werner glanced around the room again, gaze lingering on Olive’s unmade bed. “Then, is it the same case for all of you?”

Cadence nodded, bending down to pick up the cards off the floor. “I’m sittin’ in my apartment right now, but I…” She stood and ran a finger along the frame of the windowsill. “Yeah. This is weird.”

“So, it appears as if somehow we’ve synchronized with Prince Chance’s location, although we aren’t actually present,” Werner concluded. “And this is not the first time it has happened, correct?”

“For me at least, this synchronization has happened quite a few times,” Atienna replied with a thoughtful expression. “I believe it’s happened between us, Werner, at least once.”

Werner seemed caught off guard by the comment and studied Atienna with a frown.

“Synchronization?” Maria repeated falling back onto Olive’s bed. “Is that what this is called?”

“You’re going to get my bed dirty jumping all over it.”

“Huh?”

“We need to stay on topic. Referring to incidents like these as ‘synchronization’ will aid our communication,” Werner interjected. He frowned and then suddenly looked tentative, cautious. “But I believe there are levels of synchronization.”

“Levels?”

“The way we’re speaking to each other right now will be labeled as eighty percent synchronization,” Werner stated concisely.

“Why not one hundred?” Cadence asked to which Werner responded with a frown.

“If that’s the case,” Atienna murmured, “then would thirty percent appropriately describe when our thoughts cross, and perhaps sixty percent when both thoughts and feelings cross?” She glanced around timidly. “That’s… if I’m correct in assuming we’ve all experienced those things?”

Werner stared before nodding. “Yes, that’s acceptable.”

Atienna held her chin in thought as she observed them. “It’s interesting how our brains are interpreting this, isn’t it? It really is almost like astral projection.”

“Okay, got it. Numbers. Synchro.” Cadence clapped her hands. “Now, I was hopin’ for some reassurance that you’re also all seen some weird stuff. Like vision weird. I mean, as much as I’d like to be psychic, I’d rather not see some weird bird man on fire when I’m mindin’ my own business.”

Olive felt his heart skip a beat. How—she saw? The nightmare that kept Olive from sleeping every night. That memory that had become twisted over the eight years since the incident.

“Oh, I saw that too!” Maria exclaimed. “What was that?”

She saw too? All of them? Of course, they saw. Synchronization. But memories? Dreams? What else could they see and feel? Could they feel the panic seizing his chest right now? The fear? No. Get out.

“It’s all right, Olive,” Atienna murmured, voice gentle. “Let’s not delve into it too much.”

He looked up from the ground. They were all looking at him. Maria with a bit of curiosity. Jericho with a blank stare. Atienna with the same sympathy in her eyes as always. And Werner with furrowed brows.

The soldier studied Olive for a moment before he nodded. “This is good information. Now we know that memories may also factor into the equation.”

“I have an idea.”

All heads turned to Jericho.

“You nearly died with the assassination attempt, correct, Olive Chance? Around four or five days ago,” Jericho recalled matter-of-factly.

Olive shrugged and nodded, grateful for the deviation, although he was unnerved at the bluntness. He could feel Atienna shoot him a look of concern and could even feel the emotion, which unnerved him even more.

“And you’re Atienna Imamu. You were poisoned around that time too.”

Atienna covered her mouth. “Oh, I’m sorry you had to experience something like that. I wasn’t aware our synchronization was happening that early.”

“It wasn’t because of synchronization. Ophiuchus keeps tabs on every country in Signum. Even the ones in extreme isolation,” Jericho said bluntly.

Atienna lowered her hand and clasped it over her other. “I see… that’s how peace is kept outside, is it?”

“I fell down the stairs four days ago too,” Jericho continued. “I was in critical condition.”

“Must’ve been a long flight of stairs,” Cadence whistled.

“It was. In fact, it holds the record of being the longest staircase in Signum.”

There was a pause. Olive resisted rolling his eyes.

“Right…” Cadence raised a brow. “Anyways, I was caught up in an incident around that time too. Saints must be on my side with how I survived that one.”

“I was also injured four days ago by a Projector,” Werner affirmed. “I don’t believe in miracles, but if I were to speak in such terms, I would call it something like that.”

Everyone turned to Maria, who blinked back at them perplexed.

“Well, I can’t really recall ever doing something like nearly dying,” she hummed. “I mean, I will never die.” Her tone was matter of fact.

Olive could feel that she really did believe she’d never die, which was a concept Olive found hard to wrap his head around. This woman had more screws loose than he did.

“But I did fall into the ocean four days ago. It was a nice swim.”

“So, that settles it. It happened because we all nearly kicked the bucket.” Cadence hummed, “Now we have the ‘how’—”

“We have a timetable of when it happened,” Werner corrected. “And we only have half of the ‘how.’ Our near-death experiences may serve as the points of connection, but the line isn’t drawn.”

Cadence chuckled. “Right, right. I’m gettin’ too eager. Ya got smarts, Lieutenant. And ya speak like a poet. I like that in a guy.”

Werner’s frown deepened.

Gross.

“I’ve been putting a lot of thought into this,” Atienna murmured, placing a hand beneath her chin. “I’ve spoken about this before, but in Virgo, there’s a common belief that vitae is more than just a source of life energy. The belief is that it also has the capability of storing memories.”

“Yes, I’m familiar with that theory. You’re referring to the one that goes along with the P.D. Oran school of thought, am I correct?” Werner ascertained. “The belief that there’s an imperceptible part of vitae that is actually representative of the soul. The Anima-Vitae Hypothesis. It hasn’t been proven, but it’s often taught that way to the general public to help them understand what vitae actually is.”

“Oh, do you not believe that, Werner?”

“Although P.D. Oran has published a number of widely accepted works, she has a number of disproven and even redacted papers,” Werner responded. “When that theory is proven completely, I will believe it. Until then, vitae is energy. Nothing more. But please continue.”

An inquisitive smile graced Atienna’s lips. Tucking another lock of hair behind her ear, she continued, “Well, it goes against the widely accepted belief that vitae burns up after being used by a conductor or when someone dies or something is destroyed. In this theory, vitae gets released and returns to the world in a cycle. And since this theory also says that vitae contains memories, that would mean that memories are released through vitae upon death. If a person is resuscitated, their vitae would return to them and they would most likely say that their ‘life flashed before their eyes’. But what if two people died close to one another and were resuscitated at the same time? What if during the time period where their vitae were returning to their bodies, there was a crossing over of their vitae?”

“Wait, wait, I barely understand what vitae is. My attention span is only so long.” Cadence swatted her hand above her head as if the action would somehow do away with her confusion.

“Sorry, I tend to ramble when I’m excited,” Atienna mumbled, flushing.

“No, no, I got ya’ now, I think,” Cadence reassured her. “So, you’re sayin’ when we nearly died, our souls—vitae or whatever—crossed over during the ride back and that’s why this is happenin’?”

“That’s my theory,” Atienna concluded.

“Wow!” Maria beamed. “You know everything!”

Atienna flushed. “I don’t really. I wish I did.”

“Even if the Anima-Vitae hypothesis is true, that still wouldn’t make for a concrete explanation. We were nowhere near each other during our near-death experiences,” Werner supplied after considering this.

“What about you, your highness? What d’ya think?” Cadence interjected, nodding at Olive. “Ya got access to all sortsa education, right? Ya must be pretty smart?”

Olive ignored her.

He’d skipped too many lessons in the past to really have a grip on the conversation. Usually, he didn’t care if people knew this, but he didn’t want these people to know.

“Oh, I see,” came Cadence’s light response.

Damn.

“I’m surprised you don’t know about vitae,” Jericho said, locking eyes with Cadence. “You wouldn’t be able to take the State Conducting Exam without this knowledge.” He pointed to Cadence’s ringed fingers. “You are a Conductor. You must have a license. May I see it—”

“Wait, I have a question!” Maria shouted, snapping up in the bed. Cadence gave her a grateful look. “I think I get this synchronization stuff, but does that have anything to do with me being able to speak with people from your places? I mean, I was on my ship, but I was still able to speak with them when I was ‘synchronized’ with you all.”

There was another pause of silence as realization settled in.

“So it was you!” Cadence snapped, rising to a stand. “With Verga! You…!” She glared at Maria before her shoulders relaxed and she held up her hands. “I got a lot on my hands now ’cause of that, y’know?”

“Ah, were you talking about the sad man?” Maria asked, before she offered yet another smile. “I just told him my thoughts. Was that not what you were thinking too?”

Cadence opened her mouth to retort but seemed to think better of it.

Werner stepped forward and addressed Maria: “Captain Gloria-Fernandez, was it you who dealt with the Aquarian prisoners?”

“Oh, yes!” Maria mused. “Were they Aquarians? Such an interesting group! They had very interesting accents.”

“What did you do with the Aquarian Captain?”

Maria peered at him. “You do not remember?”

“This is serious. I was ordered to—” Werner caught himself. “I was ordered to handle the Aquarian Captain by my superior.”

“Oh. Well, I let her go.”

Werner’s expression betrayed nothing. “You let her go?”

Maria shrugged. “Yes, I felt like it. It’s not so bad, is it?”

Werner’s expression yet again betrayed nothing. “It’s unacceptable.”

Maria did not appear fazed. “What about it is unacceptable?”

Cadence took the opportunity to pop up between them. She raised her hands and faced Werner with an easy smile. “Look, I get it. I’m in the same boat. But ya gotta make do with the cards you’re dealt.” She glanced back at Maria. “Besides, gettin’ along at this point is what matters, right? Understandin’ one another?”

Werner’s gaze was frigid, causing Cadence to raise her hands higher. But then he shook his head as if pained and conceded, “I’m aware of that, Ms. Morello.”

“So there can be an override of will.” Atienna looked thoughtful.

That was when Olive realized it. No, he felt it. While the others had brought in pieces of their surroundings with their arrival, Jericho had come with nothing. There was a gaping blackness behind Jericho. A hollow space. A void.

Olive’s thoughts must have bled outward—or maybe it was someone else’s thoughts bleeding in—because everyone slowly turned toward the peacekeeper.

“Is there something on my face?” Jericho asked slowly.

“Jericho,” Atienna tried gently, “where exactly are you right now?”

Jericho stared. “I don’t know. I’m unconscious.”

“Unconscious?”

“Yes, I was injured. Ambushed by—”

There was a flare of red-hot rage that nearly winded Olive. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Werner holding his head with a grimace. Atienna was frowning deeply, and Cadence looked nauseous. Maria, of course, looked unfazed.

“—ELPIS.” Jericho gestured to his shoulder and his abdomen. “I’m in critical condition.”

No one said anything. No words needed to be said. A mutual understanding had dawned on all of them.

“What…?” Cadence was smiling, but her fear and nervousness bled into the room, causing Olive’s stomach to do flips. “Are ya sayin’ that whenever one of us goes through somethin’ like that, we all feel it?”

“Are you feeling all right right now, Jericho?” Atienna asked with concern.

“I feel no pain because I’m unconscious,” Jericho replied. He studied his hand, fisting it and unfisting it. “This feels like a dream. It’s hard to hold on.”

Cadence swore under her breath and ran her hand through her hair. She paused halfway through the motion as a thought struck her. A thought that radiated outwards—

What would happen if one of them died?

“If anything, all of this information highlights our need to break off this connection,” Werner finally said after a long stretch of silence.

“Break it off?” Atienna repeated.

“We are a liability to each other like this,” Werner responded. “Politically, this is a disaster waiting to happen. A prince of Aries, a person involved in the Virgoan political sphere, and an Ophiuchian agent. If something happens between one of your countries, then your confidentiality is compromised. Additionally, Jericho and I are constantly in combat due to our professions. This—” He paused, gesturing to the man. “—is a risk that is accepted in such professions.”

“Well, when ya put it like that…”

“What is this about cutting off a connection?” Maria shot up abruptly from the bed. “This seems to be an interesting occurrence, no? Are we not lucky to be experiencing something as unique as this? Why would you want to stop something that can lead to so many possibilities?”

“Lucky?” Olive asked flatly.

“Of course!” Maria sang, launching herself off his bed and landing right in front of him. She took a step forward and he took one backward before she spun on her heels and faced the others with widespread arms. “I was already blessed with such an expansive world made just for me to explore and discover, but now?” She grinned. “Now I can see everything through your eyes!”

Her energy was ridiculously infectious, and it took all of Olive’s willpower to keep his head straight. He mumbled, “It must be nice to be an idiot…”

Even Cadence looked befuddled by her enthusiasm.

Still, the lightness leaked out from her into the air. And for a moment, everything felt like it might turn out all right. And then—

Suddenly, she appeared right before Olive, landing gently on her feet, hair softly cascading down onto her shoulders as if she had just floated down from the ceiling.

Olive’s eyes widened. “Lavi—”

Cadence yelped and leapt back. Maria leaned forward with interest while Atienna covered her mouth in surprise. Werner’s hand reached for his side automatically. Before any further action could be taken, Olive stumbled forward, putting himself between his sister and them.

“You can see her.” Olive felt weak at the knees. “You can see her.”

“Your sister?” Werner said slowly, his expression becoming distant and strange. He eyed Olive. “Is this… a memory?”

Before Olive could respond, Lavi pushed him aside and stood in front of Werner with crossed arms and puffed cheeks. “That’s rude! Of course I’m real!”

Werner stiffened.

“Wait, so there’s seven of us?” Cadence wondered. She looked Lavi up and down. “What’s your name, doll?”

“Lavender Chance,” his sister answered, chin raised.

“Well, that’s a pretty name,” Cadence complimented. She smiled, but she thought to herself that the name sounded sort of familiar and in a bad way.

“Her name sounds familiar because she was one of the royal Ariesian family members who died in the Tragedy of Aries,” Werner offered, studying Lavi and then Olive. “Am I correct, Prince Chance?”

Olive wasn’t sure if he responded.

“I’m dead?” Lavi huffed. “I’m standing right here, you know?”

As soon as those words left her mouth, she disappeared. All traces of her gone in an instant. Listening distantly to the commotion following her sudden exit, Olive explained, “She comes and goes. But she always comes back.”

No matter what. Eight years of this mirage. It was probably some form of punishment.

There was a long stretch of silence.

“Okay, okay, okay, as exciting as this has been, this is gettin’ a little too much for me,” Cadence sighed, looking around wearily. “No more sudden surprises, right?”

Olive’s head was still buzzing. They could see her. They could see her. And if they were real and they could see her that meant that she was—

—real.

Was that a good thing? A bad thing? What exactly—

“I don’t really understand what’s going on,” Maria said as she met Olive’s eyes, “but things are real if you think they are real, and things are good if you believe they are good, no?”

Olive stared at her, unsure if she was crazy or if she was an idiot or if he was crazy or if he was the idiot.

Jericho broke through the silence with an out of place statement: “ELPIS may be involved with our current condition.”

“You think ELPIS may be involved?” Werner pressed, ripping his gaze away from Olive. “What makes you think that?”

“Intuition.”

“Intuition?” Werner frowned. “That’s not enough grounds to draw a conclusion.”

Jericho digested this before responding: “ELPIS may be behind the prince’s assassination. It may be behind Atienna’s incident. It most likely was behind mine.”

“Okay, Jericho, you’re a nice guy and all,” Cadence said, walking over to the man and placing a hand on his shoulder, “but it sounds to me like you’re seein’ ELPIS everywhere. I mean—oh.” She released him.

A memory—her memory—bled into Olive’s mind and jarred him out of his daze.

It was a blurry barrage of feelings and images, but Olive got the gist of it. Some old man named Verga was being paid by ELPIS to ship something. Olive shook his head to shake off the memory and saw the others doing the same. They must have seen it too then.

Olive peered at Cadence. So that was the kind of work she did. It made sense.

“Saints, you might be onto something’ actually,” Cadence muttered, glancing at Olive for half a second before focusing her attention back on Jericho. “Well, Agent Jericho—”

“Yes, I’ll look into it. But right now.” He stared down at his hands. “I can’t.”

Cadence cracked a grin again. “Don’t sweat it, partner.”

“Not because of my injuries. Most information about ELPIS is restricted to the ELPIS Division. I’m not in it yet.”

Cadence’s grin fell somewhat, but still she said, “Don’t sweat it, partner.”

“I hope by completing this missing agent case I’ll be promoted to the division,” Jericho concluded with a nod.

“All right, before this gets anymore out of hand, perhaps we should get on common ground,” Atienna gently said, clasping her hands together. “We all have things going on at the moment, right? And we have no idea how to stop whatever this is. Perhaps we could help each other out. I’m not talking about getting involved in national affairs or anything, but it would be reassuring if we all guaranteed each other’s safety for the time being, don’t you think—seeing how much we affect one another? And, of course, this is so that we ensure we also don’t interfere with one another without the other’s permission, right? And work together to look into what this is? I’m sure each of us has access to information the other doesn’t have. It’s much better than ignoring one another and coming across unexpected problems because of it, don’t you agree?” She let out a breathy sigh before flushing. “Sorry… rambling.”

Werner frowned, glancing at Olive. Then he nodded. “That is acceptable, so long as everyone agrees to those conditions.” He directed his gaze at Maria.

Cadence cracked a grin from where she sat. “Well, sounds good enough to me. Let’s get along and look after one another, shall we?”

“So we are all going to be around one another from now on then?” Maria brimmed with a radiant joy that was almost blinding. “How exciting!”

Olive rubbed his eyes and sighed. “Whatever happens, happens.”

“I accept,” Jericho said.

Atienna let out a sigh of relief that filled the room with an odd sort of serenity.

“So, to summarize this meeting’s conclusion—” Werner cleared his throat. “—we will be working with one another strictly to ensure our survival. We will mutually research what exactly this occurrence is, and we will investigate the possibility of ELPIS involvement. I don’t believe we will be able to get much on that front until Agent Jericho has recovered and joined the ELPIS Division.”

Jericho nodded.

“Seems about right,” Cadence affirmed. She nodded at Jericho. “I’m assumin’ you’re still in the Twin Cities. I’ll try sendin’ ya some help.”

They stood for a moment staring at each other.

“So…” Cadence tapped her foot. “Now what?”

They stared at Olive.

“What?”

“Well, ya are the one who synchronized us here. Ya gonna cut it off?”

“I have duties that I need to attend to,” Werner agreed. “I can’t do them in this state.”

Olive scowled. “I don’t even know how I brought you here! How do you expect me to send you away? You must think highly of yourself to think I want your company.”

Cadence whistled. “Okay, kid.”

“Perhaps emotional state is a factor,” Atienna murmured in thought. “Distress, anger—it seems as if synchronization increases with these things. I’ve injured myself several times within the time window of this connection, but I don’t think any of you have felt it.” She peered at Jericho. “So maybe the reason why we felt Jericho’s pain is…”

“So we gotta wait until everyone is all calm-like?”

Maria sprung up. “This is great, yes? Now we can get to know each other!”

“I will refrain,” Werner stated.

“Same,” Olive agreed.

Cadence shrugged her shoulders. “I got some time ta kill.”

And so they waited. And waited. And waited.

Olive felt the anxiety and tension that had consumed his entire body begin to slowly ebb away as Cadence and Atienna entertained Maria’s odd conversational topics. Golden beasts. Conductors. Money. Currency. Philosophy.

As the minutes ticked on, slowly, one by one, they began to fade from his vision until he was all alone.

His room was quiet. His windowsill unoccupied, his bed empty, the floor graced with feathers strewn loosely about, having fallen from the cage. But he could feel them distantly in his mind’s eye. Clearer than before. The noise, the colors, the sensations buzzed around in his mind. They were there. And Lavi—she was there.

What was it? Thirty percent synchronization? Ten?

Olive walked over to his bed and fell face-first into it.

What a bother.

Anima-Vitae Hypothesis: a theory about vitae that comes in three parts. Firstly, a part of vitae is representative of the soul. Secondly, vitae particles have the ability to store memories. Thirdly, upon the death of a person, their vitae does not dissipate. Instead, their vitae particles rejoin with the soft, living vitae of the natural world thus rejoining a cycle. A common belief held in Virgo. Has yet to be proven but was popularized by P.D. Oran.

All Things Vitae by L.B. Ran

3.1: Chance Detection

Re-cap:

Having slipped out from the watchful eye of his royal guards, Prince Olivier Chance falls asleep at a conductor store and awakens to Claire, a foreigner who requests Olive’s assistance in finding a conductor. Before the destination is reached, they are ambushed by two assassins seemingly after Olive’s life. Olive frightens off the assassins with his mysterious ability to conduct without a conductor and survives the night. The strange Claire is nowhere to be seen in the aftermath, and Alexander Charming is removed from his position of head royal guard due to his negligence. Afterwards, Olive encounters Gabrielle Law and Wtorek Izsak who have been sent to investigate his assassination attempt. He knows them well because it was at the Tragedy of Aries that they…

New Ram City, Aries

“We must allocate our funds to the military!”

“Oh please! What for? So you can waste more money on elaborate uniforms? They already look like walking art pieces! That’s not what the people need to see in this time of crisis! They need reassurance and answers!”

“If anything, that just proves the Investigation Bureau needs the funds!”

“The Investigation Bureau? With Ophiuchus around, the Bureau’s existence is pointless. It’d be better to dissolve it all together!”

Their words bounced around the room, not quite hitting their mark nor their target. A useless debate. Just like all the other debates before it. Olive had memorized their entire routine. Right after a jab at the IB—

“What? That’s ridiculous! You’re putting the royal family’s safety at stake by doing that! Do you not care at all about the prince?”

—there would be a remark about protecting the royal family. In this case, specifically him: the deadbeat nephew of the king and the queen. Olive, the king, and the queen sat in a row at the very center of the wall across from officials who were seated in a U-formation.

It wasn’t like any of them wanted to help him. He wasn’t egotistical enough to think that they needed to or that they were obliged to. But the fact was none of them wanted to help Aries either. All they wanted to do was line their pockets. Well, maybe they did need the money. Needed it to fill their mansions and groom the lands titled to them when they took up office as feudal lords.

But he didn’t care. Not really. Even if he did, none of his caring would matter. In the end, whatever changes they managed to get through today would probably be undone by some successor further down the line.

Why he even had to sit and watch them go at it went over his head. His uncle had said something about showing up for the people. But these weren’t people. These were politicians.

And politicians aren’t people?

Something tickled the back of his throat at the sudden thought. A laugh. He almost choked on it but covered it with a cough.

If they’re people, then humanity is screwed, he returned.

A flicker of black out of the corner of his eye interrupted his thoughts. Lavi. She stood at the center of the room with her hands pressed against her ears, head tilted upward, eyes closed. The v-light sprinkling down from the chandelier above them painted her cheeks with dapples of white and blue.

“Can you hear it?”

Olive uncurled from where he sat as a chill crept up his spine.

Her eyes opened slowly, lashes catching onto the light. Slowly, she lowered her hands and met his eyes. “The pulse of the syzygy. Everything is aligning now. There’s no turning back. True peace is—”

“Lavi…?”

“Is there something you’d like to comment on, Olive?”

Olive turned his head and found his uncle’s eyes boring into him. Not only his uncle’s eyes but everyone’s eyes. Their gazes prickled his skin.

He glanced back to the center of the room. She was gone.

“I need to use the restroom.”

* * *

Olive didn’t think he would walk down a hallway and hear only one pair of footsteps ever again. He glanced over his shoulder as he drifted down the palace corridor. Trystan was keeping at his shadow. The man’s left hand rested on the conductor at his hip, and his gaze swept from the floors to the windows to the ceiling, as if he’d find some shadowy assassin clinging to the walls like a spider. What they found at the end of the hall was, however, not a spider. It was—

“Mr. Wtorek?”

“Hey, Olive!” The peacekeeper waved as he approached them. He nodded at Trystan. “Mr. Carter.”

Trystan fumbled for a moment and offered a deep bow before he was stopped halfway by a hand on the shoulder.

“No need for that.” Wtorek waved him off. “It makes you look guilty.”

Trystan froze. “I―”

Izsak chuckled. “Don’t worry. I know a good kid when I see one.”

Trystan stiffened, and Olive smirked.

“Of course, I’m talking about you too, Olive.”

Olive frowned, and he heard Trystan cover a snort with a cough.

“What are you doing here, Mr. Wtorek?” Olive pressed as politely as he could.

“Well, I was actually looking for you.”

“Looking for me?”

“Yeah, Gabrielle’s finishing the interviews for the day, and I thought I’d dip out early.”

That didn’t sound responsible.

“I wanted to have a chat,” Izsak finished. He glanced at Trystan. “Just the two of us―”

Immediately, Trystan stepped forward. “With all due respect, Mr. Wtorek, as the new head royal guard, I cannot leave the prince’s side―”

But Izsak was already steering Olive away. “It’s just for a minute. I promise I’ll return him happier than before.”

Before Trystan could say anything more, they were already rounding the corner.

Izsak led Olive through the halls and up several staircases with the flair of a tourist guide despite the fact that Olive knew the building better than him. But Olive let him at it. There was no use fighting against it, anyways. That was what he thought until the halls began to look unfamiliar to him. The intricate paintings of royal families past had disappeared from the walls and had become replaced by stiff guards who eyed Olive and Izsak’s sash at their passage.

It wasn’t that Olive was unfamiliar with this place. Rather, he’d done everything in his power to avoid it. But before Olive could formulate a proper escape plan, they were already in front of a sturdy set of twin doors that looked so heavy that they seemed impossible to push open.

There were six guards stationed in front of the door, each of whom raised their conductors at their approach.

Izsak pointed to his sash before flashing his Ophiuchian badge. The guards stiffened before joining together to push the doors open. The metal door groaned against the marble flooring, and the guards were left panting at the effort.

Izsak gave Olive a wink over his shoulder like it was all part of some ruse before ushering Olive inside. Stepping into the room was like walking out from the coolness of the mansion into the blazing heat of midafternoon. The air felt thick and muddy, oversaturated but electrifying. Olive wasn’t sure whether breathing was more akin to drowning or suffocating. But he forgot his discomfort as soon as he saw it.

The cylinder rose up in a mess of tubing and wires before them like a mountain. It hummed with life, and white light pulsated through the glass veins that crisscrossed around its body. At its feet was a glowing lake of light that seemed to have no bottom.

The sight of the vitae reservoir made Olive’s stomach churn.

Izsak walked up to the long railings that circled around the device. Hesitantly, Olive joined him. On the wide strip of cement that filled in the space between the rails and the vitae reservoir, a handful of Conductors were rushing back and forth. Probably doing everything they could to ensure the generator conductor continued to run smoothly.

“You’re probably wondering why I brought you here,” Izsak hummed, leaning against the rails. He studied the cylinder with a frown. “It looks terrifying up close, doesn’t it? Hard to imagine this is the conductor that powers a quarter of Aries.”

Olive glanced at the man.

“Even harder to imagine that just six years ago this thing was in a pile of ashes.”

The statement was a slap to the face.

“I couldn’t believe it at first, when I heard,” Izsak continued. “That ELPIS would do all of those terrible things just to try and destroy this conductor. The Tragedy of Aries―all of those lives―just for this.” A dry laugh. “Then again, we did fight an eighteen-year war over vitae reservoirs. Makes you sort of wonder if we’d be better off without all of this.”

“If you want to give a history lesson, then you should’ve become a teacher. You might be better at it than a peacekeeper,” Olive said despite himself. He paused as his words resounded in his ears. “I mean…” He trailed off as he eyed Izsak.

Izsak wasn’t smiling but he wasn’t frowning either. His eyes were trained on the conductor looming before them. “I was thinking of becoming a teacher, actually, during the war. But after it was over and done with, I thought it’d be too easy on me if I did that.”

“Too easy?”

Izsak gave a wry chuckle. “I wasn’t too proud of the things I did during the war, and I’m still not proud. But at the time I was young and thought I deserved some sort of punishment in exchange for all the things I did. Gave up my dream and became a peacekeeper as some sort of convoluted retribution. Who knows if that was the right decision?”

Olive tensed. He felt exposed.

“But hey, it’s not all bad,” Izsak continued, “Elizabeta and I had Csilla, and our darling little girl almost became a saint candidate.” A sigh of pride.

Olive could almost understand the feeling.

“My sister was almost a saint candidate too,” Olive mumbled. He wasn’t quite sure why he’d said it, but his chest felt a bit lighter when he did. He hated the feeling.

“Your sister was almost a saint candidate? I see… Well, I’m sure when you complete your State Conducting Exam, you’ll be pretty great too.”

Completing the Exam? Olive couldn’t even think that far ahead.

Izsak let out a sudden sigh. “Well, our conversation got derailed like usual.” He faced Olive and gestured to the conductor. “I wanted to bring you here to show you this.” Pushing up his glasses, he met Olive’s eyes. “Even if something is burnt to the ground, it still can be rebuilt as long as there’s at least one person willing to rebuild it.” Izsak pulled away from the railings and reached for him. “Let’s just say I recognize that look in your eye.”

Olive didn’t like what Izsak was implying but allowed the man to squeeze his shoulder. Resisting someone like Izsak took too much effort. It was better to let them think that their words would change things.

* * *

Izsak led Olive back to the hall where Trystan still stood waiting. The peacekeeper didn’t linger long, conjuring both of them stuffed animals before departing with a wave.

Before Trystan could ask about anything, Olive threw his animal into the man’s hands and headed into the bathroom at the end of the hall.

Olive shut the door behind him. He ambled forward and glanced at the bathroom stalls before bypassing them and approaching the mirror. He glared at his reflection for a moment, then turned on the sink to splash his face with hot water. He remained there, gripping the edge of the sink as he stared into the steam rising up.

A creak drew his attention and it was followed by a flicker of black from the corner of his eye.

He straightened and turned. “Lavi—”

His words died in his throat as a shadow spilled out from the window that now stood ajar. A silhouette perched there. Black against white.

Olive barely had the time to take a step back before the figure lunged forward, pinning him against the sink and clamping a hand over his mouth. The steam rising from the sink provided a cloak of concealment for the intruder, but Olive had already seen it. Seen his assailant’s face. It was—

“Claire…?”

His assailant stiffened before pushing past the cloud of steam. “Olive…?”

“What the—why are you—what are you doing here?”

“What are you doing here?” Claire whispered in turn.

There was such an earnest expression on his face that Olive had to take a moment to digest it before he scowled and snapped: “This is the royal palace. I’m royalty. Do you need more clarification—”

“Is everything all right, your highness?” Trystan’s voice was barely audible above the rush of water.

Olive reached over to turn off the faucet and didn’t even glance at Claire as he answered, “Everything’s fine. You’ve already got the position as head royal guard. Are you really trying to climb up further now? I may be the prince, but you really need to be sucking up to other people. I can’t change anything.”

“That’s—I…” Trystan fell silent.

Olive turned back to Claire and shrugged the young man’s hands off his shoulders. “Stop looking like that. It’s annoying. I don’t want to be involved in whatever this is. Just get out of the palace now.”

Claire took a step back, hands raised. “You don’t want to know why I’m here?”

Olive dusted his sleeves and crossed his arms. “Like you want to tell me. With how you ran off the other day, I doubt it’s something that’ll be good for you or for me.”

“Okay, I have an explanation for tha—”

“I don’t want to hear it.”

“Okay, the truth is—”

“I said I didn’t want to hear it—”

“I’m in this country illegally.”

Olive paused.

“I sneaked past the borders and I don’t have any papers on me.”

A long stretch of silence passed.

“But you have to understand. I’m here for a reason—”

“This isn’t a confessional,” Olive said. “And that’s what all the illegal aliens say.” He paused and narrowed his eyes. “So is that why you approached me? Want me to magically wave my hands and make all of your problems go away?”

Claire stiffened and shook his head while waving his hands. “No, no, no, no, I had no idea, honestly.” He paused, met Olive’s eyes, and gestured hesitantly at him. “I don’t mean to be rude, but you didn’t really seem like the type. You don’t act regally. No offense.” He started waving his hands again. “I didn’t even know you’d be here. Really!”

Olive said nothing.

In the silence, Claire seemed to crack. “Okay, there’s this guy who promised to forge papers for me if I got him something from the royal palace. It’s this red vase thing.” Claire mimicked the shape with his hands. “Apparently, it’s a super valuable artifact, and I heard a rumor that it might be here so I… yeah.”

Olive looked him up and down. “Are you… suicidal? Stupid?”

“I….”

“Get out.”

Claire opened his mouth but then resigned himself to silence. He made it to the window.

That’s not very exciting, is it? Just letting him go like that.

Exciting? Who the hell cares if it’s exciting, Olive thought

—but then a sensation cracked open in his chest and expanded outward. It twisted deep in the pit of his stomach and before he could even put a name to it, he was already extending a hand.

“Wait—”

Claire, one foot already on the windowsill, paused and turned his head. He looked torn between confusion and fear but held steady.

“The Ramicus.”

Claire’s brows furrowed. “Excuse me?”

“That’s what the pot is called. The red one you’re talking about. They say that our Ancestor brought it from her homeland when she first came to Signum,” Olive elaborated. “I’m not going to forge documents for you, but I don’t mind giving you the urn. It’s ugly and everyone’ll be secretly happy it’s gone anyways.”

“I…” Claire stepped down from the sill. “I’m confused… Do you really mean that…? I—but why…?”

“That must be your favorite word.” Olive grimaced. “Don’t they teach you ‘don’t question good things that come your way’ in your country?”

“I… thank you,” Claire managed. “I don’t know what to say. I mean, first the conductor and now this.” He took a step forward. “Please let me thank you somehow. Oh, I know! I can treat you to something. You probably have eaten everywhere in the city already but still—”

“I’m not leaving the palace without my guards.”

Claire faltered and then chuckled. “O-Oh, right… Of course. You’re royalty. It’d probably be weird if you went out with someone like me.”

“It’s not that.” Olive glanced back at the door. “It’d be too much of a pain to deal with all the increased security. I already tested my luck yesterday.”

Claire was silent. And then he dug into his satchel and presented Olive with a rice ball. Olive had tried the food before when a traveling chef from Sagittarius visited the palace, but that had been a long time ago.

“How about I treat you here? It’s not much, I know. But it’s still something.”

“Is it poisoned?”

“What?”

Before Claire had the chance to form a coherent sentence, Olive grabbed the rice ball out of his hands and joined him at the windowsill. He sat down on the protruding terrace and bit into the ball. He chewed thoughtfully as Claire settled down beside him with a rice ball of his own.

A comfortable silence passed.

Then Olive asked, “Why are you trying to sneak into Aries in the first place? Getting your papers isn’t that hard if you’ve got the money. And you look like you’ve got the money.”

“I thought you said you didn’t want to know.” It was hard to tell whether he was being sarcastic or earnest.

“Fine, don’t tell me.”

“I’m looking for something here. It’s important. I just didn’t have enough time to go through all that paperwork.”

“If you’re going to be vague about it, I don’t see why you even bother saying it,” Olive grumbled. “What’s the point of not getting to the point?”

Claire stared for a beat before he chuckled. “It’s just difficult to explain… it’s not something physical.”

Olive harrumphed. “So I was wasting my time finding you a conductor.”

Claire flushed. “Oh, well. I mean, I did need one.” He paused, turning to stare out at the horizon. “But this thing I need… it’s something that you’d expect to get everywhere, but…”

“Are you a deaf poet?”

Claire shrugged. After a beat, he asked, “Don’t you get bored of staying inside here all the time?”

“I’ve never been outside of the Capital.” Olive shrugged. “Hard to know what you’re missing when you never experience it. Which is why you shouldn’t experience it. People who go out there just increase the number of things they realize they’re missing, and then they keep going out to try and fill in what they’re missing, but it’s just an endless cycle.”

“Wow, it must be fun to be you.”

“You’re still here though. You must be a masochist,” Olive replied.

“So this is what men do when they’re in the restroom together. I’ve always wondered.”

A gentle voice wafted in from behind, causing Olive to snap up and whip his head around. He swept the bathroom as a familiar sensation crept up his spine and clouded his mind. Déjà vu…?

The bathroom was empty. Occupied only by the remnants of steam from earlier. Nothing out of the ordinary. The cool wind that drifted in from the outside had begun to clear up the fogged mirror above the sink. Olive stared at it for a moment in confusion, and as the blurriness receded to the corners of the reflective surface, he did a double-take.

Captured there was not a reversed image of the bathroom’s interior, but an entirely different scene. An open window frame. A white window frame with a white flower box at its lip and a white windowsill on which a young woman had propped her elbows. A young woman who offered him a pleasant, thin smile as their eyes met. As if nothing about their situation was odd.

The more Olive looked at the mirror, the more it looked like a window. Flowery vines spilled out from the flower box and into the sink. Sunlight bounced off the glass windowpanes and splattered the flowers with droplets of light. It looked like a painting.

“W-What is it?” Claire whispered. He was craning his neck to peer inside the bathroom.

Olive glanced at him and then back at the mirror. Claire’s words confirmed his suspicions: this was something that he could only see. Like the woman from that night. Like Lav—

“It’s nothing,” Olive said, turning away and tapping his foot. He took another large bite out of the rice ball and swallowed without tasting it.

A soft chuckle resounded from behind again. “I’m not sure how, but I get the feeling that you’re in a tense situation right now. You must be very daring to spend time alone with someone you’ve just met while also turning your back on another person you’ve just met. Is this what they call bravery or is this what they call loneliness?”

Olive craned his neck just enough so that he could send the woman a glare. A glare which he soon found himself redirecting to the wall just beside the mirror-window when the woman smiled. It wasn’t that the woman had an unpleasant smile or a creepy one—in fact, it was a very beautiful one. But something about it seemed unnatural.

“It’s a good thing,” she said, now smiling with her eyes. “Many psychologists believe that human beings are social creatures, so I think it’s very natural to feel lonely. I’ve always wondered if people who never feel lonely have somehow evolved beyond the need for that. Or perhaps it’s a devolution? Sorry, I’m rambling now.”

Was that an insult or a compliment? Was any of that even directed at him?

There was a long stretch of silence, and the woman’s smile tipped downward. Her eyes, on the other hand, softened with an understanding that usually would have caused Olive to grit his teeth. Somehow, however, he could almost feel—understand—the sentiment behind her expression. Almost apologetic.

“You seem like you’re the one who’s lonely,” he said.

The woman’s eyes did not brighten, but the corners of her lips turned upward again. “You don’t seem very alarmed by my presence.”

“You’d have to beat pipe-swinging lady’s entrance if you wanted to alarm me,” Olive grumbled, facing forward again, but keeping the woman in the corner of his eye. “Anyways, I’m not a stranger to being messed up in the head, so nothing can surprise me.”

“P-Pipe-swinging lady?” Claire muttered beside him in confusion. “I don’t think you’re messed up in the head. I…” He glanced at the mirror. “I, uh… I talk to myself a lot too. A lot of people do. It’s actually a sign of intelligence, you know?”

Olive stared at him. “Right. Thanks for the pep talk.”

“I don’t think I’ve met this ‘pipe lady’ yet, but I’ve met the one called Cadence and the one called Werner,” the woman continued from her windowsill. She reached out and gently touched the lip of a flower that bloomed on one of the vines. “On another note, the human brain is frighteningly complex. Even the greatest researchers don’t completely understand what’s considered normal for a person’s mind. So, for you to say with that level of certainty that I’m a symptom of this ‘messed up head’ of yours—well—you must be smarter than them.”

“You really like to talk, don’t you?”

The woman chuckled at this, and Olive wondered how in the world he kept encountering people who laughed at pointed insults.

“Well… I think I am a little bit extroverted,” Claire replied. “But I’ve been trying to tone it down recently…”

Olive glanced at him and then looked back at the woman.

“I suppose you’re right to say I’m lonely,” she said. “Although it’s self-inflicted. I’ve been wondering recently: perhaps I’m a bit of a sadist? Or would that be a masochist?”

Olive felt something tickle in his chest at that statement. An almost dry laugh. Which was embarrassing. He side-glanced at Claire to check if he’d seen the slip, but Claire was focused solely on the horizon. Olive followed his gaze and then froze.

It was Lavi. She was here again. Standing at the very edge of the roof.

Olive came to a stand immediately, startling Claire beside him.

“Wow…” came the flower woman’s response. “I think this is the first time I’ve experienced more than two of us speaking like this to each other. This is something amazing.”

Then it clicked.

Olive felt his heart skip a beat. No, he felt his heart stop altogether.

She could see Lavi…?

Of course, she could see her. It was only natural. They were both swirling around in his mind, after all. Just like Lavi could see his hallucinated pipe-swinging woman from the other night, this hallucination could also see Lavi. Hallucinations were aware of hallucinations. It made sense. But even so—

It was pathetic. Olive knew it was pathetic to feel this emotion rising in his chest after so many years, but he couldn’t stop himself from feeling it. From acting on it.

“You can see her?” Olive whispered, whipping his head around and gesturing to where Lavi stood. His voice sounded unnatural in his own ears. “You… can see Lavi?”

“See who?” Claire’s voice resounded faintly in the background.

The woman in the mirror was no longer smiling with her lips nor her eyes. She seemed to be analyzing his expression. She straightened herself and peered into his face and then glanced at Lavi again. “Yes, of course, I can see her.”

It really was pathetic. How just four words could make that stupid, worthless, embarrassing feeling surge. That hope.

“You—” He stepped onto the windowsill breathlessly and—

And then there was pain. A sharp, pulsating pain erupted like fire. It came so suddenly and so forcefully that for a moment, he thought he’d been shot again. He looked toward the window bewildered but was only met with Claire’s own bewildered gaze.

“What’s wrong?” Claire asked.

He wasn’t sure if he screamed or cried or swore, but a second later he was on the ground shaking.

Distantly, someone called out a familiar name—

“Olive!”

He blinked once. Twice.

The bathroom around him twisted, swallowed up by an entirely different scenery. Somewhere gray and drab. Somewhere wet.

He was on the ground. On an unfamiliar hard, cold concrete floor. Red spilled out from somewhere and pooled at his fingertips. A cloak of white swooshed just beyond his line of sight. In the distance, a familiar voice called out a familiar name—

“Jericho!”

And then there was black.

“The morning of July 12th. A sunny day without a cloud in the sky. Helena Duncan, a fruit stall owner operating on the outskirts of New Ram City, says she heard loud booms in the direction of the royal palace. Moments later, the palace was ablaze and all power to the city and nearby towns was lost. 

[…]

The details are just coming in now, but the Ophiuchian Agents on the scene have strong evidence that this was an ELPIS machination and the target was the grand generator conductor. The true damage is difficult to discern due to the damage from the fire. Seventy-eight people have been reported missing, and twenty-three have been confirmed as dead including the royal king and royal queen and the princess. The country weeps at their passing, but hold hope in the prince who was found alive and remains in critical care. 

This is a day we shall not forget. A tragedy for Aries.”

Excerpt from the Ariesian Tuesday Serial, 1935

2.1: Chance Deflection

Re-cap:

Ariesian Prince Olive, tired of the suffocating extra protection he has received from increased security due to the assassination attempt on his life, has snuck away from the watchful eyes of his royal guards Trystan and Alexander. He has escaped to a conductor store owned by a woman named Marta whom he knows well. His head has been aching since the attempt, and he has been hearing things. But he does not care.

He dozed off, but not before speaking with a ghost–or perhaps an illusion–of his sister who died six years prior. A strange young man entered the store just as he fell asleep.

New Ram City, Aries

When Olive started into consciousness, he nearly fell out of his chair. Nose-to-nose with him was the young man in the sky-blue cloak. The one who’d been sitting behind him when Olive had first arrived at the store.

“What the—”

The young man pulled back with raised hands. “S-Sorry! You looked like you were having a bad dream… I…”

Olive ignored him and glanced over his shoulder toward the couch. His sister was gone. He glanced back over the counter. The back room of the shop was still thick with smoke. The clock that hung to the side of the wall read 2:01.

Nine hours of sleep.

Olive frowned.

He felt odd. As if he’d been asleep for longer than that. As if he’d been away for longer than. It still was a long time regardless. Olive figured the royal guards were probably looking for him now.

“Do you come here often?”

Olive turned back to the young man who had lowered his cloak to reveal his face. His features were sharp—more foxlike than catlike, Olive realized. His dark hair was wildly windswept. And he was tall. Two or three heads taller than Olive.

Instead of answering, Olive swept off the chair and started toward the door. The young man followed him.

“I-I was wondering if you could give me some advice on a conductor for a friend of mine. A weaponized one,” the young man continued. “They’re an Elementalist—”

Olive stopped short, sent him a look of displeasure. Did this person not know who he was? Usually, people on the streets avoided him when he traveled without a cloak and recognized his face. Whether it was because of his handed-down status or the rumors surrounding him, Olive didn’t care to know. He asked, “What makes you think I know anything about conductors?”

The young man rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. “Good question. You just… seem like the type? I mean, you’re here.” He gestured to the store.

“You’re here, too,” Olive returned. “There’s a mechanic in the back.”

“She seems busy…”

“She is,” Olive affirmed, sliding past him. “That’s what appointments are for.”

“Oh, you have to set an appointment?” The young man blanched before he chuckled with embarrassment. “I feel like an idiot now.”

Olive paused just as he reached the door and craned his neck. “How long have you been waiting here?”

The young man glanced at the clock. Paled. “Nine hours…”

Olive stared. “You are an idiot.”

The young man continued to ogle the clock.

“Extraneous or intraneous?”

“What?” The young man blinked out of his daze.

“Your friend is an Elementalist Conductor,” Olive repeated. “Do they conduct vitae extraneously or intraneously? The vitae outside their body or inside?”

The young man perked up immediately. “I-Intraneously?”

“Then you should probably get one that has a stronger insulator,” Olive said, turning his attention back to the door. “So they don’t exhaust their vitae reserves.”

“An insulator?”

Olive paused. Turned. “The material that goes inside a conductor? To keep vitae utilization stable?” When the young man frowned in confusion, Olive turned to him fully. “How are you looking for a conductor when you don’t even know what an insulator is…?”

“Th-That’s why I’m here.” The young man scratched his head. “Isn’t it…?”

“This shop is for special, customized conductors,” Olive said. What a pain. “You have to know what you want before you come here.” He pushed the door open but paused halfway through the threshold. “It’s closed right now, but there’s a store a couple streets down.”

With that, he inclined his head and pressed outside. The young man brightened and followed him.

The twilight air was still heavy and humid, but the lack of sun allowed a cool breeze to creep between the buildings. As Olive led the young man around the block, the breeze picked up.

The darkness of the night crept into the corners and alleyways around them, but a couple of stores were still open and poured out warm light. The streets were dotted sparsely with pedestrians. Nothing even remotely comparable to the afternoon rush hour from earlier.

The young man shoved a hand in Olive’s face. “I-I really appreciate you showing me the way. My name is Claire.”

Olive studied the hand apprehensively. “I don’t really need to know that.”

“Oh, true.” Claire lowered his hand and rubbed the back of his neck. “What’s your name?”

“You don’t really need to know that.”

“But I kind of do,” Claire insisted. “You’re helping me out. I’d feel bad if I didn’t at least get your name.”

Olive regarded him. “Olivier.”

“Oh, okay.” Claire nodded. “Can I just call you Olive?”

What—why? Did this guy really not know?

“I don’t really care.”

“I’m seventeen,” Claire continued, unperturbed. “How old are you, Olive? I mean if you don’t mind me asking…”

“Sixteen.”

“Oh, so I’m older. Are you from around here?”

“That’s how I know where everything is,” Olive replied dryly as they turned down a corner. “Let me guess: you’re a tourist.”

Claire broke out into a smile. “How did you guess?”

“You don’t know where anything is.”

“I guess you’re right about that.” Claire laughed sheepishly. “Anyways, it’s really impressive how much you know about conductors.” He pulled off his cloak and tied it around his waist. “Passionate people really inspire me. The fact that you can find something that you really love out of the millions of things out there and choose to pursue it on our own? It’s amazing.”

“Are you sure you’re not a solicitor trying to sell me something?” Olive side-eyed Claire.

“Did it sound that way?” Claire frowned. “I’m being honest…”

They trudged up a sloping walkway in silence.

“It’s not a passion,” Olive finally grumbled. On the outskirts of his vision, he saw a flash of long black hair. “It’s barely even a hobby.”

“Passion, hobby,” Claire mused. “They’re all things that you care about enough to—”

Olive came to an abrupt stop which sent Claire crashing into him. Claire stumbled backward after mumbling an apology before he gave Olive an inquiring look. In response, Olive nodded at the building in front of them. A behemoth, wooden sign loomed on top of the building. conductors: general, weaponized, generator.

The store was much larger than the shop they were previously in. This took up the entire block. It was a wooden building with window displays filled with conductors of different shapes, sizes, and colors.

Claire blinked up at the sight. “How did I not notice that before?”

What a pain, Olive thought with a sigh.

Claire returned the sound with a grateful smile and an extended hand. “Thank you—”

A sliver of brilliant cyan light cracked through the blackness just behind Claire. It blitzed past Claire in an instant and hurtled past Olive’s head. A dull crack resounded followed by a sharp pain at Olive’s ear.

Olive cradled his ear with a wince before he turned his head. A short knife with a blade made of cyan light was embedded in the wall just behind him. Its light dissipated a second after, taking the shape of the blade along with it. The handle clattered to the ground.

There was wetness at Olive’s ear. A drip, drip, drip of blood.

A conductor, he realized. A melee conductor. A Projector Conductor’s weapon.

“What—”

A shadow dropped down between them before Claire could finish.

A tall and dark figure cloaked in black.

Their face was covered by a white mask with painted red cheeks and a black smile.

The masked figure reached for their hip where an array of bladeless hilts hung on a belt. With a deft twist of their fingers, they plucked one of these hilts and twirled it in the air before pointing it at Olive. Out from the hilt grew a bright cyan blade. The light from it banished the shadows around them and ended at the hot tip that ghosted Olive’s throat.

Olive swallowed.

The figure spun the knife in hand and raised it high in the air.

“Olive!” Claire shouted.

Here we go again, Olive thought as he watched the edge of the knife hurtle toward him. It was like the universe was pushing him toward this point. But why? What did his assassination even accomplish? Was his life really worth all of this effort? At this point, wouldn’t it be better if he just—

Dodge! Tuck!

The thought came at Olive so forcefully that he obeyed it without hesitation. With a quick drop of his knees, he fell beneath the line of the knife’s path. Its sharp edge missed the top of his head by a hair’s breadth and carved a line in the wall where it became embedded.

Fight! Grab their weapon! Use it against them! Sweep their feet!

What? No! That was stupid!

“Run!” Olive shouted at Claire before he ducked out underneath the figure who had reached for their belt again. He gave the figure a jab at the side with his elbow before dashing down the walkway. His footsteps pounded in his ear as did his heartbeat. But those were the only sounds he could hear. Had the assassin gone after Claire?

Olive craned his neck just in time to see the silver glint of a blade arcing toward him.

Duck!

Olive snapped forward and ducked. The blade once again skirted his head. The momentum of his evasion, however, sent him tumbling forward and crashing into a trash bin.

A woman across the street gave a shout of alarm. Papers, rotten food, and scraps of metal rained down around him, drowning out the sound. By the time Olive got his bearings, the shadowy shape of the assassin was in front of him.

The assassin flicked their gloved hands and lilac light grew from their palm. The light illuminated their face—their mask. The mask was brown. Wooden. Carved into a smile.

The mask. It was different, Olive realized. The vitae color and conducting type were different too. A Conjurer Conductor, probably. This was not the person who had attacked him before. There was more than one assassin.

The lilac light began to take shape in the assassin’s hand. Another sword. As it solidified in their hand, the light it emitted dimmed until all that was left was a normal longsword, which they lifted into the air.

This was—

—exhilarating!

What… ?! Like hell it was!

“Guards!” Olive managed as he scrambled backward.

He felt something ghost the skin of his hand and turned his head. Crouching right beside him was a woman with tanned skin, with dark brown hair that fell in wild waves to her ears, with bottle-green eyes that glowed unnaturally in the darkness. A woman whose hand was wrapping around his.

“Wha—”

Before he could respond, the woman jerked his hand and forced it to wrap around a stray metal pipe on the ground beside him. With a manic grin, she guided his hand and the pipe upward—

Clang!

Sparks erupted in the dark as metal clashed against metal. The woman pulled Olive’s hand back and forced it forward with the pipe. With a surprised grunt and a metallic screech, the masked figure blocked the blow with their longsword.

Olive’s arm strained against the push of the assassin’s sword, but the woman continued to guide his pipe forward, forward, forward. But the assassin seemed prepared. Flicking their free hand, they conjured another weapon there in a flash of purple light. A dagger.

“Wow, conductors sure can do amazing things!” the woman laughed—of all things—from beside him.

The figure hesitated for a moment before driving the dagger toward Olive’s side. With a quick upward kick, however, the woman sent the dagger spinning in the air. Using the temporary distraction to her advantage, the woman gripped Olive’s hand tight and slid the pipe across the longsword. The motion sent the assassin stumbling back. Without hesitation, the woman swung the pipe at the assassin’s side. A sickening crack resounded.

As the assassin collapsed with a groan, Olive released the pipe, rose to his feet, and dashed down the walkway. He was jerked back, however, by the woman whose hand was still wrapped around his own. She was studying the groaning assassin curiously.

“What are you doing?!” Olive snapped. “Ru—”

He blinked.

The woman was gone.

His hand felt cold.

He looked around in confusion.

Nowhere.

“Wha…?”

He couldn’t linger on the absurdity for any longer because the masked figure rose to their feet. With a grimace, Olive turned on his heels and ran down the road. He locked eyes with the woman who was still standing across the street with her hands cupping her mouth in horror.

“Hide! Get the guards!” Olive snapped at her. She stumbled back in response, but he didn’t wait to see if she followed his request. He rounded the corner into an alleyway and threw a glance back in the direction of his assailant. They were dashing after him at an alarming speed.

“Olive—!”

Olive snapped his attention forward just in time to see a familiar pair of fox-like black eyes. With a painful crack, he collided with Claire and fell to the ground alongside him in a messy tangle of limbs.

“Olive!” Claire panted breathlessly as he sat himself up. He gripped Olive’s shoulder. “Are you okay?”

Olive swallowed a groan and unfurled his body. “W-Why are you here?!”

“I-I was following—”

“Why in Aries’ name are you following me?!” Olive snapped.

“I was just trying to help!” Claire returned, an edge creeping into his voice. He pulled himself up to a stand and then frowned. “Why are they chasing you?”

“Because I’m the prince, you idiot!” Olive snapped.

“The prince…?! The prince of what?!”

“Seriously?!” Olive recoiled. “I’m the prince of Ari—”

A swift blow to the side cut him off and sent him flying against the alley wall. His vision blurred as his back cracked against brick. His bandaged shoulder pulsated in unison, and his vision dimmed. With a grunt, he shook away the paired pain and forced himself to focus.

The assassin with the wooden mask approached him, sword in hand. But Olive didn’t care for this assassin. The assassin he cared for was the white-masked one who was now approaching a fallen Claire with a glowing cyan knife.

No.

Not again.

It was happening again. All his fault. The same thing. If he hadn’t reached out that helping hand then—

Olive felt it before he saw it. A heat bubbling up the base of his palms. A heat that steadily rose in intensity and temperature until it reached a boiling point. No! But it was too late. Before he realized what was happening, activation energy had been reached.

A flash of pure red sparked at his palms. A spark that exploded into a blaze of deep crimson. A wreath of fire.

The wooden-mask let out a shout of alarm as the flames licked at their feet. They stumbled backward to escape the heat, but the flame was relentless. Crawling across the ground, snapping, and devouring everything in sight. There was no stopping it now.

Soon the wooden-mask was pressed against the opposite alley wall alongside the white-mask. Flames surrounded them.

“Impossible!” the white-mask whispered against the wall of fire. “Without a conductor…?”

Mind buzzing, Olive scrambled to his feet and to Claire’s side. Claire sat up and squinted in confusion. His eyes widened and reflected in the blackness of his irises were the flickering flames. He turned to Olive and whispered, “Did you…?”

The crackling fire crept closer and closer to their assailants as Claire continued to stare, but then a gust of cold wind swept through the alley, extinguishing the roaring fire in an instant. A haze of smoke took its place and suffocated everything in a gray.

Olive stared. What sort of luck—

And then he coughed. He doubled over and coughed and gagged. The haze around him clouded everything. His sight. His mind.

Abruptly, a warm cyan light broke through the smoke, and Olive blinked up to find the white-mask staring down at him. Their knife conductor was pointed squarely at his face.

“Halt at once!” a familiar voice suddenly boomed from the darkness behind them.

Olive turned his head in the direction of the sound. And in the darkness there, a blade of deep crimson light bloomed. The face lit up above it belonged to none other than Alexander Charming.

A fiery arrow burst out of the darkness just behind the man’s head, and it hurtled toward the white-mask. Drawing and igniting another knife conductor in a flash of cyan, the white-mask deflected the arrow with ease.

Out from the night emerged Trystan with a sleek, black bow and arrow in hand. He was soon joined by a group of royal guards who each wielded a conductor.

“In the name of the Ariesian king and queen,” Trystan shouted, “you are hereby under arrest for your assault on the Ariesian prince. Lay down your weapons immediately!”

The white-mask and the wooden-mask exchanged looks before—in a mind-boggling feat of acrobatics—they scaled the wall behind them and climbed onto the rooftop. They peered down the ledge for a moment before disappearing into the night.

“After them!” Trystan ordered. The guards behind the man split off into groups. Trystan followed suit, disappearing down the street, conductor in hand.

Olive watched in a stupor before he turned to Claire. Claire who was no longer sitting beside him. Olive looked around wildly. Nothing. Nowhere. Nowhere. Nothing. Nothing but smoke and ash.

“Prince Chance,” Alexander said as he came to Olive’s side. His voice sounded distant, gargled. “Are you all right?”

Olive turned and emptied his stomach onto the ground. He could taste it. The acrid smoke curling on his tongue. He could feel it. The ghost of flames licking his skin. He could hear it. A distant crackle and pop. A memory.

“They escaped,” came a distant voice. It was Trystan, re-entering the alleyway panting. “Is the prince all right?”

“Yeah, he’ll be fine.”

A pause. “Those flames…”

“That’s for another time,” Alexander responded. He shut off his conductor with a flick of his hand. “Send out a search party for the assassins. We might still be able to catch them.”

“Right.”

Olive could feel Trystan staring at him—staring at his hands that were surrounded by dying embers. But Olive was staring at Trystan too. Staring at the conductor in the man’s hands. The bow and arrow.

* * *

The throne room was quiet save for the pit-pat of his uncle’s shoes as he paced back and forth in front of his throne. The throne of the king of Aries was as grand as all thrones tended to be. It had a gold frame that intricately twisted around a red cushion and rose up in the shape of ram horns. The queen’s throne next to it had the same design, and Terra sat on it pinching the bridge of her nose.

Olive stood in front of his pacing uncle. To his left stood Alexander and Trystan, both standing with their heads bowed.

“So you still haven’t been able to catch the two assassins,” his uncle drew as he threw a glance in Alexander’s direction.

“No, we haven’t, my king,” Alexander replied, finding a way to bow his head even more. “The search party we sent out several hours ago combed through the entire city, but they’ve found nothing. The assassins may have fled the city.”

“And the boy and the woman that Olive mentioned?”

“We haven’t been able to find them. Witnesses said they did see a boy running after Olive, but they didn’t see a woman.”

Olive frowned at this information. Was Claire…

Abruptly, Alexander sank to his knees, startling Olive from his thoughts. The royal guard pressed his head against the floor and clenched his fists. “My king, I am deeply ashamed that I let the prince be put in harm’s way like this, not only once, but twice now. I humbly accept any punishment.”

Olive uncrossed his arms. “Hey, wait a minute—”

“Olive, quiet,” his uncle said as he approached Alexander. “Alexander,” he said, “you’ve served the royal family for many years now and you’ve proven yourself worthy of your title as the head of the royal guards numerous times. After seeing the way you handled the Tragedy, I thought that there was no person better fit for the job.”

“Yes, my king.”

“But as you know, the Ariesian royal guard’s sole purpose is to protect not only New Ram City, but the royal family,” his uncle continued. “Alexander, your personal feelings toward Olive have clouded your judgment. I know you view him as an adolescent in need of freedom, but Olive is the prince of Aries. He is no normal teenager.”

Terra perked up at this with a frown.

“You will be demoted from your position as head royal guard, and you will be assigned to an outpost at the outer city wall,” his uncle stated without a drop of emotion.

Olive stiffened. Wasn’t that excessive? In the end, it had been his own decision that put him in the path of the assassins.

“But—”

“Olive! You don’t have a say in this,” his uncle snapped. “Especially after your constant reckless disobedience! Take some―”

“I know!” Olive snapped back. “I know it’s my fault!”

His uncle closed the distance between them in an instant. Hand raised.

Olive waited but the impact never came. Instead, his uncle lowered his hand and turned away.

“Although it may have been Olivier’s decisions that led to this situation,” his uncle continued, stepping in front of the former royal guard, “it is your duty to ensure these decisions do not get out of hand, Alexander.” He met Olive’s gaze. “Do you understand, Olivier?”

The doors clicked open a moment later, and a royal guard walked up to them.

“Sir, the Ophiuchian peacekeepers are here,” she said.

“Gabrielle and Izsak…” Olive mumbled under his breath.

The guard startled. “Yes, those are the peacekeepers. My prince, how did you know it was them?”

Olive frowned. How did he know?

“Send them into the meeting chambers and tell them we’ll be in shortly.” His uncle waved his hand.

* * *

Olive was wandering down the halls of the palace several hours later. The meeting seemed to be stretching on forever. It was a meeting his uncle and aunt had excluded him from very pointedly, but he didn’t focus on this fact.

The assassins. Claire. Alexander. The woman. They were all weighing on his mind. And the weight on his shadow? Trystan and another guard by the name of Samuel. They were at his heels and watching him like hawks. Alexander had been the only guard to truly master the art of the aloof watcher.

Alexander.

Olive clenched his fists as his gut twisted.

That was what happened when you cared about things.

“Hey, cheer up, Ollie! Maybe we could go to Uncle and convince him to let Alexander slide after!”

Olive stopped short and turned his head. There Lavi was, twirling a lock of dark hair as she strayed between him and the guards.

“I’m not going to convince him about anything,” Olive muttered, turning away from her. “You heard what he said. It’s final. I can’t take back the fact that I snuck out, and I can’t change the fact that he’s being punished because of it.”

“Why are you like this?” Lavi sighed, crossing her arms. “You never used to give up so easily!”

Olive clicked his tongue and whipped his head in her direction. A retort was on the tip of his tongue, but it died there as he locked eyes with Trystan who stood behind her. The man was exchanging a confused look with Samuel. Olive shut his mouth.

“What?” Lavi huffed. “You’re going to ignore me now? You can’t just do that.”

“Yeah, I’m aware.” Olive glanced away from her and stared at the ground. He’d been aware for six years.

“Good.” Lavi beamed, chin lifted. “Now, I’m sure we can convince Uncle if we go to him together.” A pause. “And maybe we can convince him to let us out with some guards to try to find Claire and that lady.”

Olive paused and shook his head. Of course, Lavi saw the woman and Claire. She’d always been able to see things he could see, whether they were real or not. Coincidentally, she strayed the line between reality and illusion too. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Trystan study him with uncertainty.

“Uh, sir,” Trystan began.

A smile broke across Lavi’s face as she pointed down the hall. “Oh, look, it’s—!”

“Well, look at who we have here! It’s Olive Chance!” came a familiar voice.

Down the hall came a man and a woman dressed in black and white suits. White sashes imprinted with the Ophiuchian symbol were wrapped around their right arms. The woman wore a red tie, while the man wore a yellow-orange one. Gabrielle Law and Izsak Wtorek. Ophiuchian peacekeeping agents.

“Miss Law,” Olive greeted them in surprise as they came to a stop in front of him. “Mr. Wtorek.”

“Olive, didn’t think we’d see you!” Izsak grinned. “How many years has it been now? Three?”

“It’s been two years,” Gabrielle replied with a yawn. She looked him up and down. “I’m glad to see that you’re all right.” She then reached for his head with her ringed hand. Before she could make contact, he slapped it away with a pointed glare. Instead of looking annoyed by this, she chuckled. “Same as ever, I see.”

Really, what a terrible personality. The most two-faced of them all.

“Look at you!” Izsak whistled. “You’ve grown so tall.” He snapped his fingers and reached into his suit pocket with a gloved hand. “I need your opinion.” There was a familiar amber glow from the area, and when Izsak pulled his hand out from his pocket, a stuffed animal rested in his palm. Pointed ears, buggy eyes, stubby tail.

Olive couldn’t help but let a smile tug at the corner of his lips as he studied the atrocity. “You’ve gotten better.”

Izsak chuckled. “That’s good to hear. Ophiuchus may outlaw the conjuring and transmutation of currency, but there’s nothing written about stuffed animals. In other words, I can start my own monopoly!”

Olive took it from the man and turned it over in his hand. Lavi skirted close to him and rubbed her fingers across its cheek. Her eyes brightened, and she brought up her other hand to squish its other cheek. “Wow,” she whispered, “it’s so ugly that it’s cute.”

“You all know each other?” Trystan’s question cut through the conversation abruptly, and all heads turned toward him. When he realized the attention, he straightened and cleared his throat. “Uh, I apologize, sirs, for interrupting your conversation. I was merely curious.”

Gabrielle regarded him before asking, “Trystan Carter, right? I remember seeing you at the Conductor Exam. I see you’re doing well for yourself. Climbed the ladder pretty quickly, too. King Augustus mentioned thinking of giving you a promotion to head royal guard.”

Olive started at this and glanced at Trystan. Their eyes met. He looked just as startled.

“I’m not surprised you asked if we know each other,” Gabrielle continued, rolling her neck. “I bet you haven’t seen our prince here talk to anyone so friendly like, right?”

What a terrible personality, Olive thought as he regarded the man and did his best to suppress a scowl.

“But to answer your question, yes, we know each other. We’ve been acquainted since six years ago.”

Trystan took a moment to digest the information. After a beat, he stiffened in surprise. “Wait, do you mean… six years ago… during the Tragedy?”

Olive stiffened in the silence that followed. And as he watched, Lavi tucked a lock of hair behind her hair with an unreadable, faraway expression. His stomach churned.

“We were one of the many peacekeepers at the scene after it happened,” Izsak explained.

Gabrielle elaborated, “The fire destroyed most evidence of ELPIS involvement in the royal palace, so we’re lucky Olive was there as key witness.”

There was a somber silence.

Before any more information could be offered, Olive interjected with feigned disinterest, “Anyways, is the meeting over?”

“Yeah, we just wrapped up,” Izsak replied, gaze lingering. “We’re working with the chair of your Investigation Bureau and Security Council to get to the bottom of this before it gets anymore out of hand.” He paused in thought. “You need to be careful, Olive.”

“He’s right you know,” Lavi added, arms crossed again.

“They seem very set on the idea that the assassins are Ariesian,” Gabrielle muttered. “Which I can’t exactly fault them for. It’s very rare for non-Ariesians to be Elementalists with the fire attribute.”

Izsak’s gaze flicked to Gabrielle’s face. “You sound unconvinced.”

Gabrielle chuckled, sliding her hands into her pockets. “I even have my reservations about whether the second group that attacked Olive last night are part of the first assassination attempt. We don’t fully understand the motive. There are too many variables to say for certain.”

And nothing could be left up to chance.

“You mean that there might be more than one group?” Lavi frowned. She gave Olive a worried look. “That’s not good.”

“Anyways”—Gabrielle sighed, waving the thought off—“all the royal guards are to submit their conductors for inspection by tomorrow night.” She nodded at the two who stood behind Olive. “Why don’t you two submit your conductors right now? I’ll handle our prince here.”

Trystan and the other guard exchanged uncertain glances, but before they could protest, Izsak stepped between them and pushed them down the hall. “Here, here,” Izsak said good-naturedly as he threw a glance back at Olive and Gabrielle, “I’ll show you where to submit them.”

It wasn’t until the three had disappeared from view that Gabrielle spoke.

“I heard that you used it again,” she said quietly. Her dark eyes seemed to bore into his face as she placed a hand on his shoulder. “Are you all right? Would you like me to put in a word to Doctor Kingsley?” Olive winced at the pressure, and she pulled back in surprise. “Oh, sorry…” Another pause. “You should get your wound examined. You know how dangerous elemental vitae can be.”

“I’m fine,” Olive replied, shrugging away from the woman. With that, he inclined his head down the hall and headed in the direction. Lavi soon joined him at his side.

“Wait―where―”

“To feed my bird,” Olive said. “It’s quieter.”

“But―”

“I’ll ask for an escort home, so don’t worry. You won’t get in trouble with your superiors.”

“And he says that I have a terrible personality,” Gabrielle sighed before she shouted: “You should be going to the medical Conductors!”

Aries is a warm northern country ruled by a fair king and queen. Beneath the king and queen are feudal lords who are assigned states to govern and given certain duties in turn. The capital is New Ram City which is under the protection of the royal guards, personally selected Conductors chosen to protect the royal family.

Countries of Signum by Multiple Authors, 20th edition