14.3: Advisor & Pirate, 0000 Lost Connection

Re-cap:
Atienna has freed herself from the conflict in the Zatenminye Caverns of Aquarius. At a cost. True Conductor, Aquarian secretary Yulia Kriska has passed away along with the others in her connected group. Atienna has been confronted by True Conductor(-hunter) Cvetka Akulova and has been offered an opportunity (?) to work alongside Cvetka’s employer. Two months later, Atienna’s uncertainty remains…

Maria has suffered her first defeat. Having lost her childhood friend Conta to ELPIS, she has set off to find Conta and fulfill her promise. Despite this tragedy, Maria has found an odd  kinship with fellow almost-saint-candidate and True Conductor Veles (a bounty hunter who claims to be a guild leader) and also with Chevalier Renee LeBlanc, another True Conductor. Two months later, Maria’s search leads her…


Verlose Verbindung » Lost connection, unrecorded

Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

“Papers,” the man ordered in accented Common, hand extended. “Papers, please.”

Rainwater trickled down the brim of his charcoal-colored cap onto the metal gorget hanging around his neck by a thick chain. The imprint of a sea-goat lined the top of the accessory with the word Militärpolizei stamped in bold, capital letters just below it. A baton, a holstered gun, and a conductor of an unknown type hung at the belt around his waist.

Military police.

Balancing her small evergreen umbrella above her head, Virgoan advisor Atienna Imamu searched the small satchel that hung from her shoulders. After shifting aside three thick books and a stack of folded papers, she pulled out a slip of paper stamped with a Virgoan M-seal and her tribe’s seal.

The man accepted the identification and scanned it. Despite his hard eyes, his neatly trimmed ginger mustache brought some color to his face.

At the moment, they both stood at the corner of a sidewalk with steady traffic. A very large and gray stone-laden square unfolded before them. It was dotted with just-as-square v-trams that rolled along the tracks and around medium-sized, closely packed, just-as-square buildings. Several of those buildings were capped off with mint-colored domes, but the predominant colors in the area were beige and gray—gray from the clouding skyline. Despite the low, overbearing clouds, however, there was a sense of extended space to the square—an openness. Although there were most likely hundreds of people bustling around, it was not very crowded.

“Ah, I see. You are an advisor, Atienna Imamu.” The man nodded, handing back her slip and flashing her a cordial smile. “You are here for the Leitertechnik Diplomatisch Konvention! The conductor diplomatic convention! Is it true that people from even Libra and Sagittarius are coming over here?”

“Well, you’re very knowledgeable, Herr…?”

“Herr Schmidt,” replied the man with a grin, tipping his cap and sending some rainwater pattering onto the sidewalk. “Are you not with a bodyguard?” He glanced down the brick-stone walkway. “While it is quite safe here, there have been a couple of… incidents because of a… certain political group as of late. It would be best to travel with someone who can protect you, Frau Imamu. We would not want harm to come to a diplomat visiting our city.”

Atienna dipped her head. “I am just out to make a quick phone call.” She pointed to a building marked with long windows and capped with a triangular maroon roof just across the street.

Sefu was in there on the fourth floor being hustled around by the newly appointed Virgoan diplomat to Capricorn—Nyimbo Dimka of the Maneo Tribe. The man was much younger than the former diplomat Chiamaka had been and was much more energetic too. Thus, Atienna had used Nyimbo’s overzealousness to her advantage and had slipped away from them all minutes prior.

“I am just in there, so it is not so far.” She flashed the officer a genial smile. “I do thank you for your concern.”

“Enjoy your stay here, Frau Imamu.” The military police officer tipped his hat before pointing down the road. “There is a phone booth just down this street and to the left. It will be right across from the… how do you say… newspaper booth.”

Atienna dipped her head in thanks as the officer departed before following on down the road as the officer instructed. Her leather shoes click-clacked against the path, accentuating the subdued chatter ghosting the square.

After rounding the corner, she found the telephone booth as the military police office had described—rectangular, green-painted, straight across from the newspaper stand. Closing her umbrella, she slipped inside and took a moment to admire how clean and well-kept it was. She even thought she caught a hint of lemon-scented, cleaning-agent near the windows. She paused in her admiration to eye the phone box resting alluringly in front of her.

Her palms itched.

Atienna took in a deep breath and pulled out a slip of folded paper from her pocket. She had treated it with care ever since she’d received it from the True Conductor—rather, True Conductor hunter—Cvetka Akulova, and so it looked the same as it had when she’d accepted it two months ago. Though, she supposed she hadn’t so much treated with ‘reverent’ care as with ‘fearful’ care. Fear of deciding to use it. Fear of deciding not to. She had discussed this numerous times with Cadence and Werner. But the choice, Atienna knew, was ultimately her own.

She picked the phone off the receiver and waited to connect to the operator. After offering a polite word of greeting, she read the number off to the woman and waited as the phone trilled a ring before the line connected.

“Hello. Secretary speaking,” came the voice on the other end. Clipped, almost mechanical.

“Hello—”

“This is a private line that is being recorded for quality assurance purposes,” the voice continued. “At the moment, I’ve been directed to transfer all calls to a separate receiver. Please hold while I send you on over.”

Before Atienna could answer, the line rang again.

Oh. Okay.

“Hello,” came another voice—cheery—a second later. “You’ve reached the General Investigations Department of Ophiuchus! This call may be recorded for quality assurance purposes. Are you calling to submit a new request or to address an old case? If it’s the former option, I’d be happy to direct you to the Assignment Department. If it’s the latter, may I please have your case number or the name of the peacekeeper you’re in contact with?”

Atienna paused. “Oh… I suppose I have the wrong number. I’m sorry. Goodbye.” She slowly placed the phone back onto the receiver. And then she let out a sigh—of both disappointment and relief.

It seemed as if she had narrowed her number of tasks considerably after having only been in the city for a day. Still, it was odd. Had something happened to Cvetka’s contact or had it all been a taunting ploy….? It was something that definitely needed to be addressed… Perhaps, at a synchronization meeting.

Atienna spied the newspaper stand across the square and contemplated giving it a gander. Eventually, she pulled out her umbrella and started across the square. She politely addressed the vendor within and paid for the daily newspaper with one Capricornian mark.

The newspaper headline detailed the diplomatic conductor convention. Hosted below the informational article was a rather passionate, anti-military piece written by Marionette Engel, leader of the recently popularized Verbundene Augen movement:

—the political aficionados refuse to admit that the reason they support our constant skirmishes at the southern border is because it lines their pockets with money. In short, the Capricornian military is overfunded. Some economists may argue that these monetary resources trickle over to other economic sectors. While this may be true, they must acknowledge that, with every large investment, there is always a large down payment. And that down payment is the lives of our sons and daughters—

A sharp prick at the base of Atienna’s palm distracted her from her reading.

Werner, it seemed. But they had all promised to keep a low level of synchronization whenever he and Jericho were on operations or assignments. Atienna contemplated reaching out for him regardless but thought better of it. She didn’t want to distract him. And so, she returned her attention to the newspaper.

She blinked.

That was odd…

The words were a bit hard to read. Fuzzy. Out of focus.

Several words seemed to stand out from all the blurred ink. One from the headline article, one from the demilitarization piece, and another from an ad printed at the bottom corner.

I—

will—

enter.

Now, everything seemed out of focusThe noise around her. The movements of the pedestrians and vendors around her. Her own movements. The movements of the other five—no…. The others were drifting away from her. She could feel it, feel them pulling away, leaving her in cold, cold darkness.

The newspaper slipped from her hands and fell onto the floor. Her knees buckled, and she followed it to the ground a moment after. As she lay cold on her back, she blinked up at the gray sky in confusion and studied the shape of the clouds. They almost looked like eyes, peering down at her unyieldingly.

Dark faces ringed around her like a halo. Capricornian words shouted in alarm and concern. Beside her, the rainwater bled into the pages of her newspaper.

This sensation… the heat at the pit of her stomach and the cold enveloping her skin…. It was like when she had been poisoned by sorrowheat back at the dinner meeting in Virgo. Exactly the same.

The others…

She couldn’t complete the thought. Heaviness weighed down on her eyelids. As she drifted away, the pitter-pattering of the rain sounded like whispering in her ears.

I see you. I see you. I see you.


Slidr River, Aquarian-Capricornian Border

“Am… Am I really walking on water?”

“Yes, this is called a blessing, child Lita. I—Veles—have made it so!”

Maria Gloria-Fernandez threw her head back and hummed as she gently took both of Lita’s hands in her own and guided her forward in a slinking dance. “You are certainly amazing, my dear Beast of the Deep!”

At the moment, Lita was indeed walking on water. As was Maria. As was the bounty hunter Veles, as was the Monadic priest Simon, as was the sailor-turned-pirate Morandi, as was the foreign conductor engineer Emmanuel. Barefoot and walking along the surface of a crystalline river speckled with particles of glowing purple light.

There was an encroaching winter chill in the air, and the rocks guarding the side of the riverbank were lightly frosted. Overhead, grayed sunlight bled in through the archway of branches and barely touched their skin. Every so often a chunk of ice would roll on down the stream towards them. In response, Veles would offhandedly wave his conductor-gloved hand and the current would change causing the ice to flow around them.

It was quite strange feeling the water pushing up against her toes and keeping her afloat, Maria thought. It reminded her of that time she had stolen a hot-air balloon from Cancer and had ridden on its top all the way to Taurus. The airy buoyancy, the feeling of exhilaration of being at the divide two different terrains. It was peaceful.

“Golden Beast, your words are too kind!” Veles returned as he marched forward in front of them. Every so often, he would flick his hand and the glow of water beneath their feet would expand further ahead of them and recede a bit behind them. Despite the cold, Veles was still bare-chested, although he had taken up a much thicker fur-lined cloak that concealed his entire body.

Maria herself had a similar cloak wrapped around herself. She had gotten it in exchange for some of her medals back at an Aquarian port.

“I-It’s too bad Giorgio couldn’t come…” Lita mumbled, her words muffled in the fur-lining of her thick leather coat.

Maria moved forward to pull up the girl’s hoodie.

“Yes, well, he and the others have to take care of all the children,” Morandi said, gazing with uncertainty at the water flow below him. “It’d be precarious to bring them all along…” He glanced down at the girl. “Just as it is precarious for us to bring you along—”

Lita turned in his direction and frowned. “More precarious than when I was under the Campanas?”

Morandi grunted. “Well, dear, ELPIS and the Campanas are completely different organizations…” As he said this, his eyes widened and he hung his head. “What in saint’s name are we doing? This is crazy.”

“I still can’t wrap my head around it…” Emmanuel scratched the back of his neck as he shrugged his cloak more over his shoulders. “I have studied the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis. For my license. But my impression was that it was… not real? But you say memories can be stored in vitae? So… your Licensing Department in Ophiuchus… is wrong?”

“There is only one truth you need to know, Emmanuel,” Veles boomed. “And that is that I—Veles—will avenge my fallen guildmates!”

“Yes, we will find Beta, and I will rescue Conta,” Maria affirmed with a nod. She cocked her head at Emmanuel. “Was that not clear when we left the ship?”

Morandi choked and coughed, hard.

Maria blinked back at him, brow arched. “Are you alright, Morandi…?”

“Yes, Captain,” Morandi managed, pounding his chest. He glanced at Veles then back at her. “I was just concerned about whether or not we’re all on the same page…”

“Same page?” Maria inquired.

“I know we’ve been working together for several weeks now, and we and Veles share similar goals…” Morandi elaborated. “But the execution of those plans seems a bit… different.”

Maria recalled the day two weeks prior when she’d bounded into Veles’s hideout in Hapaira after dropping off the Chevalier Renée LeBlanc. She had quickly dismantled Veles’s bounty hunting associates—without any deaths included, since ‘that wouldn’t be a good way to make friends’ as Atienna had pointed out—and had approached Veles who reclined at the back of his hideout on a leather sofa. There, she had graciously bowed before him and requested his assistance in locating Conta. He was not interested in her request at first—at least, not until she explained that Beta was most likely the one who had executed his underlings. After that, he had immediately packed his bags and left with her.

It was through Veles’s efforts paired with Cadence’s trickle of information from the information broker in the Twin Cities that they had made it to this river that ran along the Aquarian-Capricornian border. Maria had left her ship in the Aquarian bay that this waterway poured into and had then left their canoeing boat behind too as the river had narrowed to the point where it was no longer accessible by it. The river had widened since then, but they had decided to settle on a more scenic route instead of opting for locomotive transportation.

Their destination?

The capital of Capricorn!

Yes, the trail of ELPIS sightings across Signum led there. A destination in sight. Die Hauptstadt.

Emmanuel was coming along to the capital due to his interest in the conductor convention there, while Lita wished to offer the assistance of her eyes in finding Conta. Morandi was there as a ‘nanny’ as Olive had put it. And as for the silent Simon who was taking in the scenery beside her—Maria supposed he was concerned about Conta. Or perhaps….

“Well, we both wish to protect what is ours…” Maria murmured, releasing Lita’s hand and fingering her blade beneath her cloak. “Is that not—ow…!”

Maria jerked her hand away from the blade before blinking down at her bare, tanned palm. She shook it absentmindedly and looked up to find Veles and the others studying her.

“Ay, that was strange…” She chuckled.

And suddenly, she became winded, her lungs igniting with intense, burning pain. Before she could even comprehend the situation, she was face down on the water. Its press against her cheek was both warm and cold, both wet and dry.

“Maria?! What—”

She didn’t hear the rest because she abruptly broke through the barrier and fell into the depths of the river. The cold gripped her tightly, forcing her to release her held breath and sending air bubbles out from her mouthHer limbs would not obey her, frozen stiff in the cold of the dark waters.

The memory of being caught in that conducting grenade explosion onboard Morandi’s ship over half a year ago seeped into her mind intrusively.

The only difference was that now she was not bleeding and that now she was in the middle of seeking something that had been stolen from her instead of stealing from other people. And—the air bubbles too. They were different. They almost looked like eyeballs, staring directly at her as they rose to the surface.

Maria sank deeper and deeper into the frigid dark.

Right.

All she needed to do was kick her legs a bit, and she’d break through the surface to rejoin her crew. She had to. She had to find Conta. To fulfill that promise.

An intrusive thought invaded her mind as black dots pricked her vision:

I don’t want to lose again—


“The Verbundene Augen is a new political movement that is seeing steady growth. Its foundation in the Die Hauptstadt appears to be in relation to the recent publicization of the Capricornian military Watch. Its strong stances on demilitarization and criticism of the Kaiser can be problematic for future progressive development. Proposals of defaming the group through associating it with ELPIS have been suggested due to both groups’ apparent anti-conductor stances. The leader Marionette Engel, however, has denounced ELPIS publicly so this may prove to be difficult. Further investigations into this group are suggested and to be approved by General Falke Sperber.” 

Report from Capricorn Chamber of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, 08/1941

13b: Solitary Maidens

Re-cap:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Like a politician, Olive thought.

Or pretending to be one, Cadence amended.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Probably to never be seen again, Cadence figured.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cadence wondered about that.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Hearing him say this made her feel a bit sad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Werner didn’t answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jericho agreed. Something wasn’t right.

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

“Told you.”

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

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

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

He stared at the file. “Thank you—”

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

***

On Saturday, Boss Romano made his first public appearance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

It was an invitation. To the Sognare.

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

“No Fortuna?” she asked.

“No Fortuna,” Allen affirmed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He ELPIS?” Allen arched a brow.

Pi nodded. “Friend. Nice to meet.”

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

Pi frowned, looking hurt.

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

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

Brightening, Pi accepted the gesture.

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

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

Izsak…?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silence stretched.

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

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

“And Nico?”

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

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

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

Cadence perked up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so, on Sunday, Cadence made a promise.


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

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

Francis Foxman (?) and Cadence Morello, unknown time

13a: Copper Cadence

Choose your finale OST: 1 – 2 – 3

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


Twin Cities, Gemini

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

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

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

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

Wait.

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

She was buried. Under rubble.

How had that happened?

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

Cadence grimaced.

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

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

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

No, no, no. This was way worse now—

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

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

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

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

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

Realization settled in abruptly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cadence grimaced. Talking about death like that so freely—

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

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

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

There was a stretch of silence.

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

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

Cadence figured Omicron really was getting delirious from blood loss.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fortuna and Carl remained silent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s important?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stop talking,” Fortuna reproached.

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

Saints. That wasn’t helpful.

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

That was helpful.

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

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

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

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

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

Morello.

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

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

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

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

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

Morello, pay attention.

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

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

Cadence held her breath, remaining still on the ground.

Now all she had to do was wait a little—

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

You’re Romanos, ya hypocrites! 

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

Saints. Why were they so smart?

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

It’s a Projector’s conductor. 

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

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

Another hand abruptly wrapped over both of theirs.

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

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

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

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

Guilt, later. Save, now.

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

Lieutenant—

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

Understood, sir!

This isn’t a joking situation. 

It’s the nerves. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here we go.

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

“Omicron?!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There’s no ho—”

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

“I’ve just reached a realization—”

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

“This city is unsalvageable—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He froze, wide-eyed.

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

The man—the boy—frowned slightly.

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

“I—”

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

“I wasn’t—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theta remained silent.

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

Theta’s eyes widened slightly.

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

Theta paled in the light.

Jericho’s image intensified in front of her eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

Hook. Line. Sinker.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I got a billion of ‘em for ya.”

Francis frowned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The image crossed her mind. Perfect.

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

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

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

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

Understood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Jericho.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cadence stiffened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Damn… He was gloomy.

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

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

“And Theta’s pals?”

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

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

Francis startled in alarm.

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

***

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

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

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

Nico Fabrizzio turned from where he knelt and stared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omicron lifted her head at the commotion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then Francis began to murmur under his breath,

“There is no end,

There is no beginning,

There is only a cycle.

Whether enemy, whether friend,

Whether family, whether stranger,

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

Whether alone, whether in company,

Whether in peace, whether in war,

May all return to where all began.”

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

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

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

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

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

For a moment, no one spoke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12.3: A Solo for a Beast

Re-cap:

Theta/Francis prepares to sink the Twin Cities, and the streets are in chaos. Maria reels from the revelation that Conta has become Beta. Now, she…

Twin Cities, Gemini

Caporegime Donato stumbled into the dark warehouse and immediately slipped on the blood on the floor. His son, Feliciano, rushed forward and helped him up to his feet. The two scanned the dark together, noting the suited men and women splayed dead on the ground. It took them a moment to register that there was a figure leaning against a table pressed alongside the wall.

Enzo.

“What in saint’s name happened here?” Donato muttered, walking up to the man.

“Apparently, some man with glasses—a Conjuror—came in. Attacked the guards.” Enzo grimaced. “Took the conductors we’d stocked and those knife things ELPIS wants. His vitae was white. Makes sense.”

“And he did all this?”

Enzo shook his head before he nodded down to a dead man splayed across his feet. “Not sure. Just arrived. But my guy here started spewin’ nonsense about some ‘beast’ comin’ in here and tearin’ ‘em all apart after the ELPIS people left.”

“Like that urban legend those street rats’ve been tossin’ around?” Feliciano arched a brow.

Ignoring him, Donato ran his hand down his face. “There goes our collateral.”

“I got word our warehouses with the Specialists also got ransacked.”

Donato’s face folded. “You’re kidding me.” He tapped his leg. “My leg’s not fully healed yet!”

“Well, the kids you gave us ain’t there anymore, so the contract is null and void.”

Feliciano brushed past his father and grabbed Enzo by the scruff. “The hell you say?”

“It doesn’t really matter now.” Enzo slapped Feliciano’s hands aside. “That swindler’s already loosened her tongue to the other execs, hasn’t she? Got word from one of my covers with Ambrose and barely packed my bags in time.”

Feliciano spat and gritted his teeth. “Cadence…”

Donato pinched the bridge of his nose before placing a calming hand on his son’s shoulder. “Yes, they know everything. They brought me into Warehouse 13—part of an exchange, I don’t know. Francis was there. Cuffed, of course, and out of his mind. But then the peacekeepers came, and he got free and started ransacking the place—the crazy bastard. Managed to give them the slip in the chaos.” He frowned. “A total embarrassment.”

Enzo shrugged and drew out a burlap sack from beneath the table with his foot. He picked it up and gave it a shake, causing it to give a metallic jingle. “Well, there’s one silver lining here. That Capricornian colonel gave us a down payment in Geminian cens—”

The burlap sack fell to the ground, bursting open and spilling its glittering contents out onto the wooden floor. The coins rattled as they tapered along the wood filling in the silence that followed.

Donato and Feliciano stared blankly at the empty space Enzo had once occupied. One second he was there, and the next he was gone.

A wail of terror rang out from overhead. Upon looking upwards, Donato and his son found a pair of legs kicking and flailing above them in the darkness. Those brand-name polished shoes were undeniably Enzo’s. His upper body and the rest of the ceiling were hidden in shadow, but something was definitely up there.

While Donato stared, Feliciano scrambled forward, grabbed Enzo by his legs, and tried to pull him down. For his efforts, he was gifted several kicks to the face that forced him to release the man.

“First it was the children. Then you took away Francis. You made my Cadence sad. And then you took Conta. And you made me very, very mad.”

A sickening crack resounded from above. Enzo’s kicking became more intense and frantic as a wheeze replaced the wailing. And then—

—his body hit the ground like a ragdoll. Instead of hopping to his feet, however, he rolled around on the floor clutching his throat. On his pale skin there hidden away by his hands was a sharp, purple imprint of a hand. He scratched at this imprint, chest moving up and down fruitlessly. His face paled, purpled, blued as he scrambled onto his knees and dragged himself over to Feliciano and Donato. Donato skirted backwards, while Feliciano rushed forward with concern. The younger man was pulled down by Enzo to the man’s eye level as the older man foamed at the mouth. There, Feliciano was able to see the terror that was in the man’s eyes. The Campana had seen something up in those shadows. Something horrifying, something unsightly, something Feliciano didn’t want to see.

Letting out a death rattle, Enzo collapsed into Feliciano’s arms.

Feliciano froze and turned. “Dad—”

But the space his father once occupied was empty. Trembling, Feliciano turned his eyes upwards. He recognized his father’s shoes instantly, kicking out from the darkness above.

“I can’t forgive it…” croaked a voice. “I can’t forgive it…”

Scrambling forward, Feliciano leaped and grabbed a hold of his father’s legs. He pulled and tugged, but it was no use. His father was jerked up and away from him and into the shadows above. Feliciano fell back onto his back as something wet and warm dribbled down onto his face. He wiped it away with his hand and stared. In the gloom, he could just barely make out the color red staining his fingertips.

A shadowy figure slowly spilled down from the ceiling onto the floor as wood creaked and groaned.

“Your father is dead.”

Feliciano’s heart raced and crumpled at the same time. With a stuttering roar, he lunged at the figure only to be met with a punch to the gut. He doubled over, heaving.

“You can run away or you can face me,” the figure said slowly, wrapping its fingers around his wrist. “It is your choice. It is my mercy.”

Feliciano trembled as the smell of iron filled his nostrils. “I—”

“No.”

Feliciano cried out in pain as the figure tightened its grip on his wrist until there was a crack. His knees buckled, and he collapsed onto the ground shaking.

An inhuman face peered out from the darkness.

“You hurt my Werner and my Cadence. I can’t forgive you either.”

***

Maria wasn’t done. Not yet. Not even close.

She tore through the city relentlessly, plucking those she deemed evil off of those she deemed innocent. She didn’t care what faction of the city they were a part of. She didn’t care whether or not they were ELPIS. She didn’t care if they were Romano or Campana. All she cared about was that she wanted to save people. Because she was strong. To confirmshe was strong.

Eventually, as she whistled around through the streets, she came across a man and a woman huddled together at the dead-end of an alleyway. The woman waved what looked like a drainage pipe wildly in the air as a group of men and women wielding rifle and bladeless conductors surrounded her and her companion.

Maria didn’t wait for an explanation or for the details. She rushed forward along the fire escape, leaped down into the dark, and landed on top of the one she deemed the gang’s leader. She ended the person by shoving her blade right down their gullet. As soon as she hit the ground as the leader fell, the leader’s companions dispersed immediately. They dropped their conductors and started off into the dark in a flurry of panic. Fakes, maybe. Or maybe she’d scared them.

Maria…

Maria looked down at the person who was now acting as a sheath to her blade.

A lonely death. How sad…

Regret. Guilt.

No. She was strong. She didn’t have regrets.

Maria looked at the man and the woman she had saved. They were dressed oddly. The woman was bundled in layers of fur coats, while the man was dressed in a crisp suit. They looked so unsuited yet perfectly suited for each other at the same time.

Maria blinked.

They were familiar to her, she realized.

And then it clicked.

It was the Sagittarian tourist Cadence had met. And the Cancerian tourist Atienna had met. Side-by-side. Hand-in-hand. Together. They stared at her wide-eyed, fearful.

“You’re True Conductors…” Maria realized. Their names came to her slowly. Hideyoshi. Louise.

“A-And who are you?” Hideyoshi stammered.

“Sh, honey, don’t talk to it,” Louise whispered to him, tightening her grip on the metal pipe. “It’s that. The monster the kids were talking about. The urban legend. The beast.” Louise dipped her head at Maria. “We do not mean you offense, Golden Beast! We are… mere tourists. Please spare us.”

They didn’t sound afraid, despite the dead man at their feet. They were definitely odd—a bit funny in the head, maybe—but Maria was in no mood to engage with them. Not when there was this gaping hole in her chest that needed to be filled.

As Maria stared at Louise, however, something else clicked in her mind. “Are you… the one Renée is looking for? The… Cancerian duchess?”

Hideyoshi stepped in front of Louise at this. “Are you in cahoots with ‘Renée’? I don’t care if you’re a beast or a demon, but you won’t lay a finger on her head, you hear?”

Something uncomfortable curled in Maria’s chest at the sight of him standing in front of her. She studied the two for a long time before she stared down the opposite end of the alleyway. “He is in this city now, yes? If you want to protect what’s yours, maybe you should leave.” She bent down and ripped her blade out from the mouth of the dead man before climbing back up the firescape.

Right. This was jealousy.

***

Maria’s rampage ended when she stumbled upon the body of a man lying flat on his stomach in an alleyway. His hand was extended outwards towards a plastic-wrapped candy basket that rested a meter away on its side.

He couldn’t save them either, she came to understand.

Maria slid into a crouch in front of him. She studied his face for a beat before moving the basket closer to his body.

“You were not able to reach them either,” she murmured, resting her chin on her knees. The pain in her chest returned, and she didn’t like it.

But the others were very busy. Maria didn’t want to disturb them too much. They might leave if she did. And Maria didn’t want that.

She glanced back at the man’s body again. Perhaps, she thought, he had been lonely too. Sad. Hopeless. Unable to reach. Yes.

After another moment of consideration, she laid down on her back beside him and stared up at the sky that was afire with tangerine light.

She had met so many interesting people in the past few weeks. Veles, Renée, that angry bounty hunter, and so many others through the eyes of the other five. But despite all those new faces, despite meeting all those new and exciting people, it wasn’t enough. They could not replace the space Conta had occupied. It was not the same. Insufficient.

That meant that Maria would have to seek Conta out. Yes. To fill in that emptiness. No matter what. She could do that. Definitely. Even though she’d failed in her promise to keep Conta at her side for eternity.

Maria blinked.

Was this what Jericho felt…?

A pit-pat of footsteps drew Maria’s attention away from the skyline. Upon lifting her head and looking down the alleyway, she saw a small figure dashing down towards her. It was the blind girl, wearing her conducting glasses. The girl made it about halfway down the alley before she tripped over a stray trash bin and fell flat on her face.

Maria picked herself off the ground and went to the girl’s side. “My dear,” she said as she aided the girl to her feet, “what are you doing out here?”

“Maria!” the girl exclaimed as soon as they made physical contact. “There you are!”

Maria stared at her. “Where is Renée? Did you…. follow me here?”

“He… told me to wait some place… but there were all of these loud sounds all of a sudden… and I… I thought it’d be a better call if I looked for you. I took initiative.” The girl lifted her head and then lowered it. “It was really, really hard—I could barely see anything—but I did it….” Her eyes widened. “Did you not… want me here?”

Maria understood now. The girl had followed her from behind. Just as Conta would. And Maria hadn’t noticed. Not really.

Maria placed a hand on the girl’s head. “I always enjoy company, my dear—” She paused, studying the girl’s face. “What was your name again?”

The girl’s brows creased. “I… don’t have one… They… call me ‘doll’ or ‘girl’ sometimes. Mary, Sue, Bella. They call all the other ones like me that too.”

Maria hadn’t even realized it. And if she hadn’t realized this obvious thing—just as she had not realized that Conta was gone—how much else hadn’t she realized?

“Do you want one, my dear? One just for you?”

The girl stiffened, flushing before nodding hesitantly.

“Lita,” Maria decided, threading her fingers through the girl’s hair as the light from above lazily sank downwards. “You are Lita.”

Light.

11.4: Maria’s (Primo) Defeat

Re-cap: 

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

Twin Cities, Gemini

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait, Maria—” Gabrielle began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Off we go then!” Maria hummed.

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

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

And—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s cruel. 

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

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

See. 

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

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

But then the blind girl joined Renée at the threshold.

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

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

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

A high-pitched screech and wail followed the question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What…?

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

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

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

“Maria!” Renée exclaimed, starting towards her.

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

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

Wait… what?

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

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

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

A letter in the original Ophiuchian alphabet.

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

When had it happened?

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

Was it then?

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

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

Why hadn’t she noticed?

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

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

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

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

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

Conta was gone?

No, that was impossible.

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

Conta was gone.

And a world without Conta was impossible.

But nothing was impossible.

Then… okay.

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

“Maria—”

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

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

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

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

Maria drove the shard downwards but—

—was stopped by a tanned hand around the wrist.

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

Wait, Maria!

Why? 

Think, Maria, please.

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

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

All the more reason to kill this impersonator.

But why did she send the bounty hunters?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But—

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

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

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

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

“There really is no hope.”

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

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

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

What was going on?

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

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

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

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

11.1: Cadence’s (Sincero) Deception

Re-cap:

Cadence Morello has faced her own self-deception and self-illusion. She has learnt that Donato of the Romano Family was the one behind Francis’s stabbing and that the man is working together with Enzo of the Campanas. But the city has been moving quickly without her notice. Theta (?) has decided that it is time for ELPIS to make their move, and the Twin Cities begins to fragment under ELPIS’s terror and ‘hope’. Now, Cadence and the other five must come together and decide to…

Twin Cities, Gemini

Cadence opened her eyes.

She was flat on her back with the dampness of the pavement beneath her soaked into her suit jacket and pants. Pain throbbed up and down her limbs—unpleasant when paired with the taste of iron in her mouth.

She blinked and squinted.

It was pitch black. She couldn’t even tell if she was looking at the sky or the ground. If it were the sky, she figured she’d at least be able to see the city lights reflected back by the smog clouds, but there was nothing.

Was she dreaming? No. It’d be a terrible dream if she felt this awful.

Was she dead?

And then she heard the screams; the pit-pat-pit-pat of gunfire that reminded her more of Werner’s side of things than her own; and the blaring of sirens.

Maybe she was in hell.

“What in saint’s name…”

You lost consciousness.

Jericho’s face eclipsed her just as a sudden burst of burning white light became reflected on the smog clouds above her.

“Yep. Seems so. From pain instead of drinkin’ this time, though. Great.”

The white light faded from the sky, leaving her in complete darkness again.

“Detective… what the hell is goin’ on here?”

ELPIS made their move. They cut the insulation lines connecting the generator conductors around the city to the vitae reservoirs’ generator conductors around three hours ago. ELPIS members are on the street. Targeting civilians and searching for members of the Romanos and the Campanas. Bendetto has gone missing.

What…?

I’ve been put on a task force set to hunt the ELPIS leaders who are confirmed to now be present in the city. Theta, Omicron, Iota. A pause. Then Jericho added as if an afterthought—I also…

The memories of Omega’s execution in the damp, dark warehouse flooded Cadence’s mind. The anger, the hatred, the righteousness, the minute satisfaction. And the emptiness afterwards.

Cadence’s heart thundered in her chest.

We have not located Theta yet. Another pause. I have not informed Leona of the connection between Theta and Francis either.

Relief.

Thanks, detective. But…

“I… I don’t get it.” Cadence pulled herself up to a sit and groaned. “Why are they actin’ now? Thought they were aimin’ ta lie low till they found that mystical third vitae reservoir. Use the Families against each other.”

Yes, Leona believes ELPIS has uncovered the location of the third reservoir, and they are now aiming to destroy the three central generator conductors hooked to them simultaneously. She has increased the number of agents guarding them, but given Theta’s ability, it may not be sufficient. The city conductor engineers are attempting to restore power.

“Leona?” Cadence struggled to a stand and began to drag herself blindly forward, hoping she wasn’t walking towards a dead-end. “You tellin’ me that Leona knows that there’s a third vitae reservoir in the Twin Cities? That there actually isone?”

Another memory flashed into Cadence’s mind.

The limestone pillars at the front of the Leonian Monadic Temple in the Monadic District. Then the pews within, pointing towards the faceless statue at the back. Then the back room behind that statue, and then the trap door within the backroom that led to a descending staircase. Up from the depths of those stairs bled soft light and intense heat.

“Beneath the Monadic Temples…? Seriously? Brain’s a little mush right now, so I can’t even think of a good joke.” Cadence chortled and winced at the pain that followed. She pushed forward, drawing closer to a barely noticeable streak of light several meters ahead. “How did Le—”

“The first chairs of all the Department of Ophiuchus receive confidential reports from the different countries of Signum about newly formed vitae reservoirs bi-annually,” Leona had informed Jericho at the crowded roundtable meeting within the Abaccio. “Of course, the countries are free to do what they please with these reservoirs as long as they follow conductor regulation and don’t start conflict over them. This particular reservoir formed one year following the end of the war and was delegated to be harvested in only times of emergency.”

“So, the official papers say,” Cadence muttered.

Finally, she reached the streak of light—the end of the alleyway. She stopped at the threshold and peered out onto the street.

“What the…”

The street itself was lit by a handful of trash fires spotted in front of tourist trap shops that had either boarded-up or broken windows. The walkways were scattered with shards of glass. Men in suits, women in dresses, men in rags, women in rags stampeded up and down those walkways, shrieking at the top of their lungs. A v-ehicle blitzed on and off-road, nearly taking out a v-lamp and a group that was running down the sidewalk waving clubs and bats. Chasing after that group were three police officers waving batons.

As if that’s gonna help. 

Cadence took a step forward flabbergasted, only to be rammed and shoved sideways first by a woman in high heels and then again by a man with a bag full of Geminian cens slung over his shoulders.

“Screw the Romanos! Screw the Campanas!” the man whooped, fist-pumping the air and shoving an old woman who was coming up in the opposite direction. “This city belongs to us—”

A white ray of vitae cut across the darkness and struck the man mid-sentence. He was thrown to the ground instantly, the coins in his bag spilling out onto the street.

Cadence ducked back into the alleyway just as a crowd of men and women darted in the direction of the fallen man. She peered around the corner and found them all scrambling on the ground and shoving the scattered cens into their pockets. Cadence scanned the road opposite where the vitae ray had emerged from but it was empty save for two pacing girls. The two crossed the road and came to the aid of the old woman who’d been pushed to the side by the man earlier. They helped the woman to her feet and escorted her across the street away from the scrambling crowd. They sat her down there in front of a coffee shop with boarded-up windows.

Cadence recognized one of the girls immediately. The butterfly-shaped birthmark was undeniable.

Matilda.

Keeping low, Cadence forced herself forward again, crossed the road, and approached them with a wave. “Hey, Tilda, ain’t you a good samaritan?”

Matilda jumped and turned on her heels. “Cade—oh, saints.” Matilda’s relief folded into horror. “W-What happened to you…?”

“Long story. Been out a bit.” Cadence thumbed a man throwing a trash can into the window of a bookshop two blocks down. “You been in contact with any of the Romano capos in the past few hours? Can’t imagine they’d let this go down even if Bendetto’s been spirited away like everyone’s been sayin’.”

“Bendetto.” Matilda swallowed, shook her head. “You—Cadence, it’s completely nuts. There’s… ELPIS members’re running around saying that they’re cleansing the city of all the Families. A-And people have been saying that a couple of Romano executives were rigged with conducting grenades and sent off to Romano fronts. A-All the smaller gangs in the city are taking advantage of all the chaos.” She frowned. “I… haven’t reached out to Cavallo… The Campanas, the Romanos—I-I don’t know, Cadence. But ELPIS really is here. I-I saw them. I saw the Ophiuchians too. I saw…”

Cadence placed a hand on her shoulder. “What did ya see, Matilda?”

“You… You wouldn’t believe me. What I saw…”

“Try me,” Cadence said before she cracked a grin with effort. “I mean, I’m an illusionist.”

Matilda took a deep breath and informed Cadence of her experience in the casino right before ELPIS unleashed their brand of justice, about her experience with Theta—Francis—at the highest floor of the building, about how Bendetto had been tied and gagged and captured.

“He let me go afterwards. Told me to get out of the city…” Matilda finished.

“And why didn’t ya?”

Matilda frowned. “Where do I even go if I leave?” She nodded to the girl behind her. “Some of the people in my group can’t afford to leave either. They have family here, and they’re my family.” She grimaced. “That definitely wasn’t Mr. Francis. He was looking at me like I was the saddest thing in the world. I hated it. Like, this city might be awful, but it’s good too. People like him scare me… Saying that he needs to destroy it to fix it. Why not just fix it?”

Cadence studied Matilda for a moment and felt an odd swell of pride in her chest. “That’s my girl, Tilda.” She nodded at the old woman. “And the super-heroism?

Matilda shrugged. “If this all blows over, then I have a bunch of people who owe me. Simple as that.”

Cadence ruffled the girl’s hair. “Well, don’t overdo yourself, girlie.” She pulled away and turned on her heels. “And stay safe, will ya?”

“Wait, where are you going?”

Cadence waved. “For a drink.”

***

Cadence wove through the city streets that she knew like the back of her hand. She dodged a couple of delinquents swinging around metal pipes, misdirected a robber away from a group of cowering children hiding in an abandoned v-ehicle, and eventually found herself in front of the Sognare. A sign was posted at the front: CLOSED until further notice.

She peered inside through the window. Empty. She tried the door. Unlocked.

Cadence slipped inside and collapsed on the bar table. The bartender—as expected—was nowhere to be seen, so Cadence rounded the counter, poured herself a spritz, and downed it in two gulps. She slapped the glass down and slid to the ground against the wine cases at the back.

“Guys…” Cadence tried. She lowered her head and tried again, this time with feeling as she reached outwards: “Guys! Please!”

Slowly, gradually, the other five filtered into her view. Maria sitting up on the bar counter, Olive and Atienna leaning against it, Jericho and Werner standing to the side. Lavi didn’t seem to be around, but Cadence figured that was a good thing.

All of their intense feelings that she had felt wavering beneath the surface came at her like a tsunami upon synchronization. It took her a moment to separate her own anxiety from theirs. When she did, she found them all looking at her with varying expressions—but they all shared a similar emotion: concern.

Cadence buried her head in her hands as that warmth bled into her.

Damn.

Atienna moved forward and knelt down beside her, placing a hand on her cheek at the exact spot where she’d slapped her.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Cadence said, lifting her head and cracking a grin. “Now that you’re here, doll.”

The attention then turned to Werner. There was still a void of darkness stretching behind him, and there was a somewhat distant look in his eyes.

“I’m fine as well,” Werner stated. “That isn’t what’s pertinent at the moment.”

“Right.” Cadence spread her arms wide. “Well, we’ve got a saint candidate peacekeeper who’s workin’ with ELPIS, obviously. We’ve got a colonel True Conductor who’s workin’ with ELPIS and who’s connected to a murderous Aquarian advisor. We’ve got a buncha kids stuck in a hellish slavery bit. And we’ve got ELPIS mowin’ through the city like maniacs.”

Maria pressed her hands together. “It is rather exciting, yes? So many things happening at once!” She peered into Olive’s face and beamed. “And let us not forget that amazing conductor trick you did!” She looked around the bar at them. “I don’t really understand it, but if this is a True Conductor thing, does that mean I can do it too?” She leaped off the counter and slipped in between Werner and Jericho, beaming. “Both of your conductings are very cool! I would like to try—”

“That development is rather interesting, Maria,” Atienna interjected with a gentle smile, “but we should try focusing on the immediate issues, don’t you think?”

“Right. And there’s only one way we’re gettin’ out of this damn mess,” Cadence said, struggling back up to a stand. “And that’s by workin’ together. We need ta be honest with each other.”

There was silence.

Olive arched an eyebrow at her.

“I know, I know. I’m the last person in the position ta be sayin’ that. I’ve been sayin’ I’m sorry, but it’s not enough.” Cadence grimaced. “But, we’re all bein’ dishonest here. With ourselves and each other. I’m not trynna make excuses for myself. We gotta—me included—stop lookin’ at this whole True Conductor thing like it’s just a situation that’ll go away.” She took in a deep breath. “It ain’t. Our lives are literally on the same chord. One note off, and it’ll be a disaster.” She held her hands out. “I’m not sayin’ we should be all holdin’-hands-like, frolickin’ in the fields or anything. I ain’t that optimistic. But we should be on the same page, feelins out. We’re livin’ together literally; and—like it or not—we’re probably gonna end up dyin’ together; and we’re gonna end up carin’ for each other if we don’t already do. It’s hard not ta. The more we try ta deny, the more we’ll butt heads.” She tapped her temple. “It might be a lie. Who knows? I mean, appearances—feelings—are deceiving. But sometimes a lie can eventually work its way into becoming a truth. And it’s just as—if not even more—valid.”

There was a beat of silence as Cadence took a minute to catch her breath. The silence continued afterwards. If she were Olive, she figured she’d be embarrassed.

“Aw, come on, guys.” Cadence chuckled, wincing at the stomach pain that followed. “I know I’m ramblin’ here, but I’m pourin’ my heart out ta ya. Please don’t leave me hangin—”

“Honestly, that reminded me of one of those drama plays my aunt and uncle used to force me to watch,” Olive interjected. “And I’m pretty sure you contradicted yourself twice there, but…” Olive met her eyes and nodded. I understand.

Jericho gave a silent thumbs-up. Maria offered her a small, but cheery clap with a beaming smile, while the corner of Atienna’s eyes crinkled. Werner remained impassive.

As expected.

“Honestly, right now,” Cadence drew, “all I wanna do is ta get myself, the Foxmans, Fortuna, and Nico the hell outta this city; or at least get whatever the hell this is fixed.”

Despite everything, Alma flashed into Cadence’s mind. She grimaced and shook her head.

“All of those guys were like family ta me before all this True Conductor stuff went down. I’m still pretty selfish so I can’t think beyond what I want and what’s important ta me. Not the Families or even ELPIS,” Cadence admitted, gesturing to herself. As soon as those words left her mouth, she felt a weight lift off her chest. She then nodded at each of them. “Werner wants ta bring down Colonel Douchebag for Capricorn. Atienna wants ta keep that crazy secretary chained down and stop her from muckin’ things up with the diplomacy thing. Maria wants ta save the children the Campana’s are sellin’ ‘cause she feels like it—”

“Ay, you know me so well,” Maria hummed.

“—and Jericho wants ta save Alice and wipe all trace of ELPIS outta the city. Olive wants ta complete the State Conducting Exam—”

Olive uncrossed his arms. “I—”

“—and he wants us ta all make it outta this stitch alive, and save Lavi along the way, and also for all of us ta get what we want. Pretty greedy if ya ask me,” Cadence finished. “Anyway, I’m not satisfied with just a win on my end. I want there ta be a win on your guy’s sides too. Honest. There’s gotta be a way for all of us ta hit these marks. I mean, I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, but all of ya are pretty brilliant.” She paused. “Any ideas?”

There was a stretch of silence; and in that silence, there was rumination. Ideas zipped from one end of Cadence’s mind to the other, and she could barely catch hold of them before they were discarded in favor of a different idea. The others were shuffling through their thoughts faster than a shady dealer shuffled a deck of bad cards.

And then, it clicked. For all of them. It wasn’t that one person had come up with a completely brilliant idea; rather, it was more like they all came up with a part of an idea that somehow all came together to form a singular, coherent concept.

It was an odd feeling—the way it all coalesced together in Cadence’s mind. She figured—as she felt Werner smooth out that idea’s rough edges within his own mind—that this was what synchronization was about.

“Yes, that could work,” Werner finally said, a thoughtful hand over his mouth, “but it’s based on relying on many assumptions. Our timing also would have to be exact.”

“It’s a gamble,” Cadence agreed. “But I’m feelin’ a bit lucky this week.”

“There’s no such thing as luck, Cadence,” Werner corrected. “But given our few viable options, that is the route that seems the least… problematic.”

“Great,” Cadence popped, leaning back against the wine cabinet as she took in a deep breath. “Hopefully, the cards’ll fall in our favor….” She paused, unlatching herself and approaching Jericho hesitantly. She looked him up and down and then swallowed. “Look, detective, I know how you feel about ELPIS. I understand. But please…” Her voice cracked despite her efforts. “He’s still Francis.” She placed a hand on the peacekeeper’s arm. “He’s still Francis. His vitae wasn’t ‘returning to the cycle’ or whatever that means when they used their resistor on him, so it’s still him. I know I’m bein’ so selfish right now, but please just wait until… I honestly don’t know… but please, Jericho.” She tightened her grip. “We can figure something out. Just wait. For just a little bit.”

Cadence knew the peacekeeper could feel how much Francis meant to her. The childhood memories of them wandering the late-night streets in search of tourists to pickpocket in their younger years was just as much burned into his mind as it was hers. The thing was that she didn’t know if that was enough—

“Okay. I will,” Jericho agreed after a beat. “For you. Because he is still Francis.” Then something in his eyes sharpened. “And I would like to speak with Theta.”

“Got it.”

Cadence turned to Werner then who was standing right beside Jericho. She met the man’s gaze, curled her hand into a fist, and lightly tapped it against his chest.

“I will make this right, Werner. I promise.”

***

On the day of the plan’s execution, Cadence got a tip-off from Matilda on where Theta was. The girl informed Cadence that one of her workers—one of her friends—had told her that Theta had been inviting a cluster of children every so often to join him at a particular location within the city. The location itself was completely out of the woods, in Cadence’s opinion, and she wondered if he’d truly be there. But it was her only lead.

And so, Cadence slid on the proto-conductor rings she’d stolen from Russo, transmuted the guise of Matilda over herself, and took to the streets. The police had ordered a citywide curfew a day or two ago, but as usual, no one heeded it. The darkened walkways were crowded with ambling gangs of thieves, delinquents, and hustlers, all sneering and jeering as they stalked their newly minted territory.

Cadence ducked past them, swept through cement walkways that bled into cobblestone streets, strolled through one of the city’s few metropolitan parks, and made her way over to the one place in the city she had never stepped foot in. The Twin Cities Library.

It was a large building that resembled more of a Monadic temple than anything else. Guarded by two large stone pillars that held up a triangular roof, the library loomed over the empty cobblestone walkways and stretched shadows all across the street. A white limestone staircase unfurled up to the entrance of the building, where a pair of twin statues of cupids stood erect.

As expected, the streets around the establishment were empty. No one in the city wanted to steal books, it seemed. Cadence could feel Atienna’s relief at this.

Sucking in a breath, Cadence crept her way up the stairs and slipped inside. The smell of old, musty books greeted her immediately. The interior was dark, and she could barely make out the outlines of towering bookcases lining the walls. A small sliver of light bled out from the back of the library. After making her way around the bookcases and towards the light, she found a wooden door that was slightly ajar.

Steeling herself, she slipped inside.

The room within was small. A large, oak desk sitting front and center and was cluttered with stacks of books and littered with wax candles. Gathered around the wealth of knowledge and light sat Theta and a group of children and adolescents. With everything going on in the city, the group’s serenity seemed out of place, illusory.

Some of the children gathered recognized Cadence—rather, her guise of Matilda—and leaped to their feet, beaming.

“You came!” they exclaimed. Their expressions fell, however, when they registered her carefully practiced expression of panicked fear.

“T-Theta…” Cadence stammered, stumbling forward. When Theta looked up at her in mild surprise, she took a step backwards. “I-I know you told me to leave, but I… I couldn’t. Some of the others wouldn’t. And…” She forced tears to spill from her eyes. “A bunch of men… the gangs… t-they… they attacked us… They took Marzia and the others. I-I don’t know who to go to… There’s no one. I… I-I…”

Theta shut the book in his hands with a snap, rose from his seat, and paced over to her. The children parted as he did so, all wearing varying expressions of guilt and worry. When Theta reached Cadence’s side, he wiped the false tears from her eyes with his thumb.

“Use my proto-conductor as I’ve shown you,” Theta addressed the children behind him. “And leave this city.” He knelt down and met Cadence’s eyes. “Tell me where, Matilda.”

Cadence swallowed. “W-Warehouse 13. The—”

“One near the docks, running along the center of the city,” Theta finished. “Do they have conductors?”

Cadence nodded.

“I see.” The light in Theta’s eyes changed. “There’s no reason to be afraid. I’ll help you.”

The one good thing about Francis being Theta was that Theta was a bit gullible, Cadence thought. She didn’t quite know how old ‘Theta’ was, but she figured seniority could make people just as naïve as youth did in certain situations.

Theta extended his bare hand, and Cadence accepted it hesitantly. The man then pressed his gloved hand against the carpet beneath them, which Cadence now noticed was stained black. The stain glowed at his contact, and they began to sink down into the blindingly bright portal.

Cadence winced at the light and shut her eyes. When she opened them a second later, she found herself standing in a cool, dark, familiar warehouse.

Empty metal trash bins were rusted into the ground, and piles of metal pipes cluttered the dirt floor. A hull of a ship rested at the center of the warehouse, looking the same as it did when Cadence came into this place several months prior.

Theta scanned the darkness from beside her. “Where are they?” He looked down at her, expression impassive. “Matilda, tell me—” Theta’s eyes widened, and something flickered in his eyes. “Are you… Cadence?”

Cadence’s heart skipped a beat.

How had he known her name? She’d never encountered Theta as herself before, so that could only mean… Francis and Theta were starting to bleed into each other.

No…

“T-The swindler? She wasn’t the one who took them.” Cadence feigned confusion. She shook her head and scanned the dark. “They were just here. I swear. The gang must’ve—”

“Enough.”

Cadence tensed and turned to meet Theta’s eyes.

“You deceived me.” The man’s eyes narrowed, and he lifted his gloved hand. “You—”

Now!

Before Theta’ could finish his sentence, Jericho leaped down from his perch on the steel beam above their heads. The peacekeeper tackled Theta to the ground, pinning the man’s hands behind his back before slapping on a pair of suppression cuffs over his wrists. Theta went slack immediately, allowing Jericho to pry his conductor glove off of him. Jericho remained planted there unmovingly as he stared holes down into the man.

Jericho.

Jericho glanced at Cadence and removed himself from the man’s back. Snapping her fingers to dispel Matilda’s appearance, Cadence moved forward, stopped only momentarily by a hand around the arm. Jericho again. Cadence patted his hand; and he released her, allowing her to sink to the floor and crawl over to the unconscious man.

Come on, Cadence urged as she studied his face. Please let the kid’s idea work.

The man’s eyes fluttered open as soon as the thought left her, and a quiet groan escaped from his lips as he blinked blearily around. When he locked onto Cadence’s face, he stared. “Cadence…? What happened to your face?”

Cadence scrambled forward. “Quick. Tell me something only Francis would know.”

A perplexed expression flashed across the man’s face. “When I was fourteen years old, I snuck out with a girl one night to go to some party. You agreed to be me for the night so Allen wouldn’t find out. You still use that as blackmail to this day.”

Cadence brightened immediately, but then frowned. “Theta might know that too with the way this whole thing works. There’s gotta be somethin’ else.”

“How about we play a round of cards,” the man suggested. “If you win, then I’m Theta. If I win, I’m Francis and you can be Theta.”

“Okay, Francis, no need ta push it.” Letting out a sigh of unmeasurable relief, Cadence helped him up to a sitting position. “Take it easy.”

“What’s going on? Where are we?” Francis asked, scanning the warehouse. “Is this Warehouse 13?” He tried the cuffs behind him, eyes darkening. “What is this?”

“You are under the jurisdiction of Ophiuchus,” Jericho stated from behind Cadence. “We have placed suppression cuffs on you in an attempt to suppress Theta’s vitae in hopes of also suppressing his memory and influence. We have succeeded.”

“The suitcase peacekeeper…” Francis studied Jericho before his eyes widened. “You’re the Ophiuchian who came down here to investigate that other peacekeeper’s disappearance a couple months ago.”

Jericho stared down at Francis. Cadence could see in the peacekeeper’s mind eye that he was staring down into the past. Affection and hatred twisted together as one. It made Cadence’s stomach do flip-flops.

“Yes, that was me,” Jericho finally said.

Francis continued to study Jericho before he suddenly startled and whipped to Cadence. “Allen, Carl, and Fortuna—”

“Slow down, Francis,” Cadence said, squeezing his shoulder. “The city is lookin’ like a bad bar fight right now ‘cause ELPIS’s decided ta make their entry into the spotlight.”

Francis paled. “Did I…” He shook his head, eyes sharpening. “The Ophiuchians—”

“Aren’t really involved in this whole thing we got goin’ on right now.” Cadence thumbed Jericho. “He’s a bit of a black sheep with ‘em and he’s pullin’ one out for me, but he’s the best in my book. A friend of his that’s helpin’ us is comin’ along in a bit too.”

Francis seemed to digest this information slowly. “So, what’s the plan here then?”

“A couple of the execs from both sides are comin’ down here in a couple,” Cadence explained. “From the Romanos and the Campanas.”

Francis blanched. “How in the world did you manage that?”

Cadence rubbed the back of her neck. “I… kinda had ta tell them that I got the one behind orchestratin’ this entire thing on a leash.”

“So, they’re coming here for me,” Francis surmised.

He didn’t look happy.

“Look. They’re our best bet at gettin’ control of the city, and they all need ta get on the same page,” Cadence explained. “The police ain’t in any state to get the reins in, and Ophiuchus is focused on the reservoirs. Plus, we can explain the situation with you too. And Enzo and Donato—”

“Enzo and Donato?”

“Yeah, I’ll explain that bit later.” Cadence waved her hand. “But… I can call the executives off if ya’d like.” She scratched her head and sighed. “Though… I kinda pushed them ta do me an additional favor, so if I back out now, I’ll be in the ruts.”

“An additional favor?”

“Yeah, long story short, I asked ‘em both ta destroy any evidence that they’d been dealin’ with the Capricornian Army.” She poked him in the chest. “Mind if I ask ya ta do the same in exchange for me gettin’ your head half on?”

“Wait. Are the Capricornians pulling out of the deal?” Francis frowned. “I would have to consult Allen and Carl about that first. We keep records for a reason, Cadence.” He arched a brow. “And why are you pushing for this? Did they pay you?”

Cadence flashed a grin, placing a finger to her lips. “A secret.”

Francis shook his head, amused. “Well, it wouldn’t be very business savvy of me to just go and accept those terms, would it?” The very faint smile he had on fell. “Jokes aside, what’s going on with my brothers?”

“That part of the plan is in action as we speak. Don’t ya worry about it,” Cadence elaborated before she chortled. “By the way, how’s it feel to be a damsel in distress?”

Instead of receiving the slightly annoyed chuckle from him as she’d expected, Francis suddenly slumped forward.

Cadence caught him. “H-Hey, talk ta me, what’s goin’ on?”

“Sorry. I’m just… really… tired….” Francis shook his head, his eyelids drooping slightly.

Cadence reached over and lightly slapped him on the cheek. “Come on, Francis, stay with me.”

Francis blinked and shook his head again.

“Say… Cadence…” he murmured. “Who do you think has the moral high ground here?”

Cadence’s heart skipped a beat, and she grabbed Francis by the shoulder. “Francis.” She squeezed. “Look at me. We’re not the ones throwin’ this city into the shit.”

She was about to mention that they weren’t the ones who were taking advantage of children either, but then she remembered Matilda and then the Specialist children. Damn. What they had been doing was wrong. No two cents about it. But still—

Cadence continued, “We ain’t the ones runnin’ around actin’ as judge, jury, and executioner. And we ain’t destroyin’ lives on an international scale.”

“Aren’t we?” Francis stared into her, and Cadence couldn’t help but stare back at the snake tattoo on his face. “I mean all of the conductors that we’ve been shipping out, that the Romanos have been selling… we’ve been indirectly taking lives since we were teenagers… Those people may have been using the conductors we’ve been selling to protect their countries and families, but what’s our reason?”

What was this…?

Cadence reached out with both of her hands and grabbed a hold of Francis’s face. He stared back at her with raised brows. Cadence figured he was wondering if she was who was losing their mind. She figured she was.

“Francis, look. I’m not even sure if there’s even a ‘lesser of two evils’ thing here. I’m pretty shit, you’re pretty shit, they’re pretty shit,” Cadence said. “But unlike them—despite all their talk about responsibility, yada, yada—we can change. Them? As soon as they kick the bucket and return ta their resistor, they’re back ta square one. They can look through all the records and bookshelves they keep all they want, but they ain’t actually learnin’ anythin’ from it. They can’t take responsibility—don’t care ta— ‘cause they can’t even feel the guilt or consequences of what they do. ‘Cause they don’t even remember it.” A heat twisted in her chest. “All they do is spew some sorta rhetoric that the world is in the dirts now and spread the false hope that everything is gonna be peachy after they do their ‘work’.”

Francis arched a brow at her.

“Sorry. Got kinda heated there, but I really mean that first bit.” Cadence released him from her hold. “But, it’ll be okay. You’ll be okay, Francis. We’ll fix this and get everything back ta the way it was. I promise.”

Francis studied her before he lowered his head and chuckled. Musically. A wonderful sound. “Alright, Cadence. I’ll let you swindle me a little while longer.”

10.3: Maria’s Battling (Riposo)

Re-cap:

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

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

Aboard Gloria’s Grail, International Waters

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A misunderstanding?” Maria peered down at her.

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

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

Morandi and Giorgio exchanged a look from beside her.

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

And that was that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The girl startled. “R-Really?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Maria spotted the attraction immediately.

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

“The Elementalist,” Ley said with a grimace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saints. Another delusional seafarer. Great.

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

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

He looked like—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s—

“Oh.” Maria stared. “It’s Gabrielle.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saints. Here comes a monologue… 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Renée tensed. “Veles, perhaps—”

Maria, wait—

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

Don’t know why I even try.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, most definitely.”

There was a beat of silence.

Morandi swallowed nervously from beside Maria.

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

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

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

In unison, they took a sip.

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

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

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

Morandi and his men brightened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Guild master?” Maria cocked her head.

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

Something strange tickled Maria’s chest.

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

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

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

Veles nodded. “Truly.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maria…

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

I don’t even know why I try. Again.

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

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

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

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

“And her name?” Gabrielle pressed.

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

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

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

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

The girl hesitated.

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

The girl, still tense, nodded slowly.

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

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

“No need.” Veles waved his hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What in saint’s name just happened…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Look, I’m not saying that we’re not going to save them—”

“But you are going to wait to save them? That makes no sense to me.” Maria rested a hand on the girl’s head. “You said much, much earlier that you knew someone who was good with kids, yes? What do you think he would do?”

Gabrielle’s eyes widened a fraction, and she seemed to stare past Maria into the distance. Her gaze dropped down to the girl at Maria’s side and something flickered in her gaze.

“You know, I’ve moved up a lot of ranks in my department recently. Starting to think that’s because that guy’s no longer there to hold me back all the time.” Gabrielle sighed and fell back into her chair. She ran her hand down her face and met Maria’s eyes. “I’m going to take point on this, and I’m going to make a call to Ophiuchus before anything goes down.”

Renée poured the peacekeeper a glass of wine.

Maria beamed again. “They say you have a terrible personality, but I can clearly see that you are strong!” She hummed in thought. “They’ve also always said that I should try and make my point instead of just doing things, and I must say doing it this way is refreshing!”

Gabrielle paused. “Who’s ‘they’?” She sighed. “And what’s this about a terrible personality?”

But Maria was already running up to the wheel of the ship. She gave the thing a spin and exclaimed—

“Twin Cities, away we go!”


The Beast of the Deep is the pseudonym for a bounty hunter known as Veles Yakut. He is a powerful water Elementalist who conducts vita extraneously and commands a large guild of bounty hunters. Successful bounties range in the thousands. 
Contact information: XXX.

Information requested by Beta on 30.10.1941

Information Card #891, Category B, Astante’s Brokering Files

9.6: Jericho’s (Lost) Raziocinio

Re-cap:

Ophiuchus has been breached through the use of portals created by the ELPIS leader and Specialist Theta. Omicron has entered Ophiuchus through the portals in hopes of retrieving Izsak Wtorek but escapes with Alice in tow. Alice has been seen alive by Cadence and is being held captive in an unknown room alongside Twin Cities underground criminal executives Still reeling from the developments, Jericho…

Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

Gabrielle’s office was quiet.

Roberto had been assigned a Capricorn case regarding a financial scandal involving a Transmutationist, the country’s capital bank, and “an unsaintly amount of damned sausages.” Ferris was swamped at the Assignment Department due to the recent attack on the Black Constellation Detention Center and had to take lunch while in her own office. Wtorek Elizabeta, meanwhile, kept to the detention center. Jericho didn’t understand her. Security for the lower levels of the detention center had increased tenfold, and medical Conductors were temporarily banned from entry. There was no point in waiting there.

All of these absences paired with Gabrielle’s continued absence left the luncheons for the past several days to just Jericho himself, Talib, and one Flannery Caertas who had started making frequent stops to Gabrielle’s office following the incident.

“Did you forget me already?” Flannery had cackled the first time she had appeared in the office after the ELPIS invasion. Her Librish accent was much harsher than Alice’s, but she continued on rapidly without care, “I’m codename ‘money bags,’ remember?” Her vibrant smile paired with her wild orange curls that fell just below her ears were an unusual sight.

“No, I remember,” Jericho had responded. “You are friends with Talib and Alice.”

Alice. Alice was still alive. ELPIS had Alice.

“I hope you won’t mind it if Flannery joins us for our lunches from now on, partner,” Talib had murmured with a tired smile from his usual spot.

“I don’t mind.”

Flannery grinned as she had leisurely seated herself beside Talib. “Good. That’s the spirit, Jeri. I appreciate ya. Y’keep your head on straight. Talib here’s all twisted up about it. But you and me—we know Alice’s probably makin’ those terrorists question their life choices, ‘ey?”

Jericho thought on it. “Alice is intimidating.”

“That’s it, lad. You got it. Alice’s holdin’ down the fort while your ELPIS Department gets a handle on everything. We gotta crack on, yeah?” After cackling, Flannery began to animatedly reminisce about times past with Jericho. Stories upon stories. Half of them seemed too strange to be real.

It was a form of comfort. 

Yes, that seemed like the case.

Childhood friends, Jericho had recalled again. That was what they were. Like Gilbert, Greta, and Werner. Like Atienna and Safiyah. Like Cadence, the Foxmans, Nico, and Fortuna.

Jericho wondered if he had something comparable to that. Alice had always said it was customary to form relationships at a young age and—

Alice.

***

Jericho’s lunches were shorter than they had been before due to the repercussions following the invasion. He had been assigned “clean up duty” the entire week which saw to him sweeping the halls of the Serpens Establishment and nearby locations to check for and to remove any black stains sighted. He shared this duty with Talib and dozens of other peacekeeping agents. Although he and the other agents had stopped finding the mysterious black streaks on their fourth comb through of the regions, Ophiuchus wanted them to be thorough.

Jericho didn’t hate it. He didn’t like it. It kept him busy.

“It’s like they’re making you run around like headless chickens,” Olivier had muttered. It was a statement that Jericho had agreed with.

In the times between clean up duty, Jericho would initiate a synchronization with either Cadence or Atienna. There was no progress on either end. Werner repeated patience. Jericho had patience. But he had no progress.

Then she appeared one day. Correction. She was there from the beginning.

When Jericho stepped into Gabrielle’s office with his usual sandwich four days after the incident, he found her sitting with her hands clasped together at Gabrielle’s desk. Talib sat stiffly in his usual spot on the sofa, and Flannery was nowhere to be seen.

Beneath the lights of Gabrielle’s office, her hair glittered gold and her amber eyes glowed. Now that she was dressed in the Ophiuchian monochrome suit and tie, she looked mesmerizingly stunning. He wanted to know more about this lovely person in spite of everything she had done.

No. There needed to be caution. 

Werner and Maria were watching.

Jericho could feel them tapping along the edges of his mind.

“You must be Jericho,” she said. “My name is Leona. I’m the chairwoman for the ELPIS Department… I believe we may have come across each other briefly before in New Ram City.” She gestured to a spot across from Talib. “Please sit.”

Jericho took a nibble of his sandwich and seated himself.

Silence fell.

“Why—I—it’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Leona,” Talib finally stammered. “I—what do we owe the pleasure? I mean, are you looking for someone? This office belongs to a chairwoman of the Assignment Department, but she’s off on a case at the moment—”

“The people I’m looking for are sitting right in front of me,” Leona informed him. “Agent Talib Al-Jarrah.” Her gaze wept over to Jericho. “Agent Jericho. I’m here requesting your assistance on a particular case.”

She knew your names. 

She is a chairwoman. She has access to the agent registry. 

Take precaution. 

“A case?” Talib questioned. “You don’t mean—”

“An ELPIS case,” Jericho stated more than asked.

Leona nodded, holding his gaze.

Jericho’s heart hammered wildly.

Talib did a double-take. “But, Miss Leona, we’re merely members of the Assignment Department. Is the ELPIS Department understaff—”

“I’m very aware of what department you two are a part of,” Leona interjected, folding her hands neatly in front of her. “But I am personally seeking you two out, do you understand?”

Talib exchanged a look with Jericho before nodding.

“Good. This is in regards to the case that a good portion of my department has been handling in the Twin Cities,” Leona elaborated. “I had earlier plans to request you two to temporarily offer me your services due to your particular skill sets. However, at the time, you both were handling an illegal manipulation case in Cancer.”

A missed opportunity, Jericho realized.

A dangerous one, someone corrected.

Talib leaned forward, perplexed. “You returned from the Twin Cities just to request us personally?”

A mirthless laugh. “No, I didn’t return for you specifically, Talib. I learned recently that an ELPIS leader might have gained access to Ophiuchus so I was returning to handle that. Seeing as how I’ve just arrived an hour ago, it’s clear that I wasn’t here soon enough.”

“I see…” Talib looked over at him again. “Then… do you know how—”

Leona held up a hand. “There may be a peacekeeping agent who is working with ELPIS. This peacekeeping agent in question most likely used a proto-conductor stored with the Specialist’s vitae within the establishment to allow the ELPIS leader to enter later.”

Talib stiffened. “That’s—”

“But that isn’t the topic I’m here to discuss,” Leona interjected. “At the moment, I want a Manipulator capable of manipulating multiple observational mediums long-range in order to comb the Twin Cities thoroughly. There are very few Manipulators who fit this criterion, Talib, and you are one of them. Your familiarity with the city is also advantageous.”

Talib remained silent.

“I also wanted to have someone who is more familiar with ELPIS’s movements to advise me,” Leona addressed Jericho now, her amber eyes glinting. “And your particular Specialist conducting may be useful.” She glanced at Talib who suddenly tensed. “And I’m sure, Talib, you are aware of what I mean about that.”

It’s natural that she knows, Jericho thought before the others could voice their apprehension. She is a chairwoman and head of a department. She is using me. But I will use her.

“Since we didn’t turn up any leads in the Twin Cities, I was under the impression that they had moved their operations to Scorpio since there has been activity reported there—though this has yet to be confirmed,” Leona continued. “Since a member who was active in the Twin Cities has made a movement here, however…”

“You think the ELPIS member who attacked the detention center has returned to the Twin Cities?” Talib tried.

“Yes, that is a possibility,” Leona confirmed. “Of course, if I’m understanding this correctly, you witnessed the ELPIS’s Specialist’s conducting abilities first hand. So, this may not hold true. I’m simply aiming to confirm or deny.”

Jericho’s head buzzed.

“All I ask is for two weeks of your time in the Twin Cities working temporarily alongside my department. After that, you will be returned to your departments.” Leona sighed, leaning back in Gabrielle’s chair and crossing her arms. “Since this is a case from a department that is not your own, I’ll give you a choice on whether or not to accept.”

***

They boarded the Grand Snake Train the following morning.

Jericho sat beside Talib in their designated compartment while Leona sat directly across from them.

Jericho was unsure of how to feel about Leona. If she was associated with ELPIS then he would have to act accordingly. If she was not then… he was not sure. Maria seemed to like her but the others did not. Odd.

Although Leona continuously looked Jericho and Talib over during the beginning of the train ride, she didn’t initiate conversation. The only words she spoke were to the dining-car service attendants. In the silence, Jericho had taken out his notebook and pressed his pen to the empty page. But he couldn’t think of what to write. Or even what to draw. Eventually, Jericho put the items back into his suitcase and began to doze off to the steady clack, clack of the v-train climbing along its route.

“—give me if this is rude, Miss Leona, but I’m actually quite curious about Monadism. I’ve been thinking to be a convert myself for some time now. How often are the gatherings?”

“I’m happy that you’re considering it, Talib. It’s a very respectful and kind community. People are welcomed in from all countries.”

Jericho awoke to such a conversation. When he lifted his head from the window, he found Talib leaning forward across the table and speaking animatedly to Leona. Leona herself was looking down at him with what Jericho assumed as amusement. He wasn’t certain. He’d never been good at reading people.

“Yes, the aspect about respecting one’s Ancestors has always intrigued me,” Talib continued. “And I think that having a saint candidate who uses the Ancestors as a role model while also acting as a role model themselves is very… inspiring.”

Leona smiled.

“Am I correct in saying that there are two active saint candidates at the moment?” Talib pressed onwards.

Leona’s lips dipped downwards briefly. “I still view a failed saint candidate as a saint candidate,” she replied. “They’ve already met all the criteria. They just haven’t mustered the strength nor the capabilities to take on the role.” She held Talib’s gaze. “So, yes, from my point of view, there are more than that. There’s the failed saint candidate of Taurus. And then there’s the failed saint candidate of Libra whom I’ve heard has been frequenting Ophiuchus as of late—despite her not being an agent.”

Talib stiffened.

Jericho connected the dots. Flannery was a failed saint candidate. There was most likely history there. But it was not relevant.

“Ah, yes…” Talib cleared his throat, leaning back into his seat. He shifted uncomfortably for a moment. “I wasn’t aware that saint candidates had responsibilities. Well, still—”

“Are these answers necessary to become Monadic, Talib? You seem to have an intense focus on saint candidates when that’s only a fraction of what Monadism is about.”

Talib flinched. “Well, Miss Leona, I apologize if my questions are excessive. I’m just a very cautious person, and I like to touch all bases before I dedicate my heart to something.”

Jericho waited for Talib to mention the Organization but he didn’t.

“That’s not a negative trait. In fact, it’s admirable,” Leona appraised. “You remind me of a close friend of mine. They were quite passionate, just as you are.”

“I… thank you,” Talib said uncertainly.

“Enough of that. It’s about time I went over the details of this case that you should know.” Leona glanced at Jericho. “Since you’ve come to, Jericho.”

Talib followed her gaze to Jericho and nodded at him in surprise. “Good morning, partner.”

Jericho nodded back.

“You must understand this before I debrief you,” Leona said firmly. “If you are to divulge any information I am about to give to you regarding ELPIS to outside parties, you will face disciplinary action. Your Conducting License will be revoked, and you will be removed from the agent registry. Additionally, you may be tried and held in the detention center. Is that clear?”

Jericho nodded. So did Talib.

“Good.” Leona reached for her suitcase beside her, withdrew a manila folder from within, and handed it to Talib. She explained, “There are two ELPIS leaders whom I know for certain are active and have had previous operations in the Twin Cities. The first would be a person who attacked the Black Constellation Detention Center.”

Talib flipped open the file and held it between him and Jericho. A photograph of a blurred woman’s face was paperclipped to one sheet of paper within. The sheet of paper read:

CLASSIFIED

      ELPIS Name: Omicron (#54)

      True Name: Unknown

      Country of Origin: Most likely Capricorn or Taurus

      Conducting-type: Manipulator

      Capable of manipulating 15+ items at once

      Incapable of using manipulated items as observational mediums

      Requirements—blood contact with item, conductor usage

      Location of tattoo: left-side of face

      Threat Level: A-

      Additional Notes: At least 3+ Licensed Conductors advised to engage.

Talib’s brows shot up. “Her manipulation ability is—”

“Yes, she’s much more adept than you at manipulating, Talib,” Leona agreed. “Although your talents aren’t something to be brushed aside.”

“… You flatter me, Miss Leona.”

Someone sounds like they’re tryna butter her up. 

Jericho didn’t understand the analogy.

“So, am I correct in saying that the names we’re referring to them by are pseudonyms of sorts?” Talib pressed. “To possibly hide their true identity?”

“They’re pseudonyms, but they have no desire to hide their true identities,” Leona replied. She reached over and tapped the number beside Omicron’s name. “That number indicates that this is the fifty-fourth person who has taken up the code-name Omicron. There have been fifty-three others who have taken up the name before them. They share similar conducting-types despite this.”

“They must go through leaders quickly then…” Talib noted, brows raised.

Leona pulled out another file from her suitcase and exchanged it for Omicron’s file. Talib flipped the new one open and held it out for Jericho again. There was no photo this time. Just a single sheet of paper:

CLASSIFIED

      ELPIS Name: Theta (#16)

      True Name: Unknown

      Country of Origin: Unknown

      Conducting Type: Specialist

      Capable of a form of spatial distortion

      Requirements—user’s blood marked with appropriate diameters at location of interest, conductor contact with separate blood marked area

      Location of tattoo: unknown, but most likely right-side of face

      Threat Level: S+

      Additional notes: Do not engage.

A faded memory flashed into Jericho’s memory once more. The sandy dunes that soaked up the tears and blood. And that person who had reached out for him amongst the destruction.

Leona continued, “Theta has been dormant for some time. This marks their first emergence in years.”

“Perhaps, it’s a new ELPIS leader then…” Talib suggested. His eyes then darkened. “I’ve never seen a Conductor with that kind of ability…” He handed the file back to her. “It’s dangerous. Am I correct to assume this ‘Theta’ is one of your capture priorities?”

“Yes, that’s the case. Although, this is the first time Theta has acted out so aggressively.” Leona’s eyes narrowed. “Something must have changed.”

“And… that conducting we saw,” Talib continued. “And these files. They’re using their blood as if it were vitae…”

“An old form of conducting,” Jericho recalled from Olive’s book reading only minutes ago.

Leona inspected him before nodding. “Yes, we believe that’s what it is. It’s a putrid form of conducting, but I have to admit that it’s one of the reasons ELPIS leaders are so hard to capture alive.”

“They gain an advantage every time they bleed,” Talib concluded.

Leona further elaborated, casting a look towards the window: “The conductors that we use aren’t capable of performing like that. They weren’t designed that way. We have yet to obtain ELPIS conductors to assess how exactly it’s done. Of course, their lower-tier members that we’ve captured are ignorant of this blood conducting.”

She was lying about something. 

“I’m surprised by your knowledge of it, Jericho,” Leona noted. “But you must have seen it in action yourself when you were with them. Perhaps, even taught about it. Though your file states that you had very little contact with actual leaders.”

Jericho hadn’t been taught this and had ever seen it himself. He supposed he was a ‘lower-tier’ member if that was the case. But he shouldn’t let her know that. It was time to change the subject.

“Are there any other ELPIS leaders who might be in the Twin Cities?” Jericho asked. “I would like to know. Please.”

Leona wordlessly reached into her suitcase and held out two files to him instead of Talib. Jericho accepted it, opened the first, and held it so that Talib could read as well.

ELPIS Name: Omega (#91)

      True Name: Unknown

      Country of Origin: Unknown

      Conducting Type: Manipulator

      Capable of manipulating an uncounted number of objects.

      Capable of using manipulated objects as observational mediums.

      Location of Tattoo: Back of neck

      Threat Level: C+

      Additional Notes: N/A

Jericho flipped to the next file.

A clear photo of a familiar woman with wild orange hair and glowering eyes was clipped to the corner.

ELPIS Name: Iota (#67)

      True Name: Iris McKillop

      Country of Origin: Libra

      Conducting Type: Manipulator

      Capable of manipulating 10+ objects at once

      Tends to favor chains as medium

      Location of Tattoo: Side of hand

      Threat Level: A+

      Additional Notes: Extremely dangerous, aggressive, violent. Do not engage unless accompanied.

Tugging the file out of Jericho’s hands, Talib stared down at the photo and paled. “She’s… the war criminal. She’s infamous in Libra. They used to tell horror stories about her back home… about how she’d drink the blood of children.” His gaze snapped up to Leona. “So she’s a leader of ELPIS…?”

Leona nodded silently. Talib returned to staring at McKillop’s photo.

“I see you enjoy reading files, Jericho,” Leona noted, crossing her legs and propping her elbow up on the armrest. She leaned into her fist. “I’ve personally read your file myself.”

“I’ve heard it’s a lengthy file,” Jericho replied.

Leona chuckled. “Yes, well… I do wish for you to find solace and closure here.”

Jericho stared at her. “…Thank you.”

The conversation lapsed back into silence, and Jericho’s eyes once again became heavy as he listened to the click-clacking and the low bellows of the train horn.

“Traitor.”

Jericho’s eyes snapped open. He winced as he was met with blinding white. The whiteness was pouring in through the windows of the train, bleaching everything of color. The compartment, the chairs, and—

Jericho turned back to face Talib but found that the man was no longer sitting beside him. Leona was no longer sitting across from him either. Jericho was alone. 

“You really are a traitor.”

A familiar young girl with hair that fell to her ears apparated beside him. Every detail of her was the same as it had been all those years ago: her small hands, the mole on her shoulder, her pointed nose. And as she turned slowly towards him, a large white crack appeared at her chest that began to creep outwards completing the image of the past. 

“We were going to save the world,” she said. 

“We were destroying it,” Jericho replied.

The cracks along the girl’s body grew.

“We were giving people hope,” she pressed.

“’Despair.’”

The cracks spider-webbed up her neck and bare limbs, but she continued to speak, “We were getting retribution.”

“I still am,” Jericho replied.

The girl’s lips turned upwards for a moment before they dipped downwards again. “Against the people who saved us.” The cracks reached her eyes, and they resembled tear stains.

“Against the people who made us their weapons.”

A pause. 

“We were friends.”

This was not reality. 

Jericho knew this well. Alice had gone over this particular dream with him many times before, but he didn’t feel remorse in these dreams so Alice had never had the need to dissect it any further. But now something was different. Something had changed. In his chest, a gaping hole was beginning to form. A hollowness. 

He didn’t understand it. 

“We were friends.”

Repeating that phrase one last time, the girl shattered into pieces as the fragmentation finished its course. 

“Jericho! Partner!”

Jericho startled and opened his eyes. Talib hovered over him, holding both of their suitcases in hand with great difficulty.

“We’ve arrived,” Talib explained. He glanced out the window behind him. “That Miss Leona is quite fast. She was off the train as soon as we arrived. We should catch up before the Organization can locate us.”

Jericho stared at the man blankly.

Even though the dream was over, even though reality now presented itself before him, Jericho still felt that gaping void. The emptiness.

Something wasn’t right. Something was missing.

Then it clicked.

It was Werner. His connection to Werner had been weakened to the point of almost non-existence, and a void now expanded between them. The fragmented events of what had occurred trickled down to Jericho slowly but he was only able to dissect three pieces of information from them. One, Werner had been overridden. Two, Cadence was the cause of the override. Three, Werner was injured because of the override.

“Er… partner?”

Staring up at Talib, Jericho reached out to Cadence. We were friends.

And silence answered him.

***

Twin Cities, Gemini

The first thing they did upon arrival in the Twin Cities was check into the Abaccio Hotel. The police were warding off the luxury hotel across the street from it. When Talib inquired what had occurred, the police officers informed him that hours earlier a generator conductor had blown. Talib didn’t seem pleased with the answer but after Leona asked him to let it be, he promptly dropped the topic and followed her inside the hotel.

While Leona and Talib checked into their rooms, Jericho remained outside and watched the police’s clean-up work. He wondered if the commissario Vincente Giustizia—no, Tau—was over there directing them on what to do.

It would be very easy to go over there, search for Tau, and stab him through with his conductor if he were present, Jericho thought. Jericho could picture himself going through the motion step-by-step. No, he would have to interrogate Tau first. Get him to show him where Alice was—

A silhouette suddenly appeared in front of Jericho. Atienna. He could tell that she was sitting in that small cavern within the large cavern again. He could tell she had just spoken with Cadence. He could tell—feel—that her knuckles were raw.

“Jericho, please don’t…” she said under her breath.

He stared at her.

If ELPIS didn’t exist, this would not have happened. If their ‘hope’ didn’t push people like this then… Yes. If ELPIS did not exist, then Alice wouldn’t, then Werner wouldn’t—

“Jericho,” Atienna whispered, “please be patient. I think I might have an idea. Please, just this once, avert your eyes.”

A brush against the shoulder jarred Jericho from his synchronization. Jericho turned his head and identified a tall man with light brown hair dressed in a military uniform.

“Sorry,” the man mumbled, offering a loose wave before sliding his hands into his pockets and turning to head down the sidewalk.

“Gilbert,” Jericho realized.

Second Lieutenant Gilbert Wolff stopped short in his tracks and whipped his head around. The man studied Jericho, eyeing the white band on his arm, before asking, “Do I… know you?”

Jericho blinked at him and looked across the street. Gilbert followed his gaze.

“Wait,” Gilbert began, facing him fully, “are you—”

“Ophiuchian agents know every person in Signum,” Jericho said, turning away swiftly. “Have a good day.” He entered the hotel without another word, feeling Gilbert’s gaze burning his back all the while.

***

Their second destination after arriving in the Twin Cities was the Leonian Monadic Temple. It was located at the exact point where the east and west halves met, and it resided within the Monadic District of the city. The streets within the district were clean and cobblestone. The buildings were pure white. There was not a single piece of trash on the ground, and there was not a beggar in sight.

The Leonian temple was large, consisting of a raised platform from which multiple pillars sprouted. The pillars were long and thick, supporting an extended roof that was carved with unfamiliar symbols.

Inside the temple was dark—lit only by a cluster of candles. There were only two small stained-glass windows on the left and right inside, ensuring that the light pouring in from the entrance was the dominant illuminator. Pews lined the walls and faced towards the back of the temple. The pews were filled with a cluster of men and women dressed in familiar monochrome uniforms. Peacekeepers. Most likely in the ELPIS Department. All of them turned to stare first at Leona and then at him and Talib as they entered. Their gazes, however, lingered on Jericho, leaving him to wonder if they knew who he was.

Without addressing him or Talib any further, Leona walked forward to the back of the temple where a large, startlingly realistic statue of a faceless person stood front and center. The statue was gilded with gold bits that caught the light from the windows.

Talib slid into a pew and motioned for Jericho to sit beside him. Jericho complied but couldn’t comprehend why they were stopping by this temple. The destination seemed irrelevant to their case at hand.

Eventually, Leona came back to them and motioned for Talib to stand. She nodded over to a cluster of peacekeeping agents whispering to one another at the corner of the room.

“The taller woman standing over there is Lucretia Long,” she explained. “She’s one of the senior agents in this department, and she’ll inform you of what you’re to do here, Talib. You’ll be working under her from now on.”

Talib nodded slowly before turning and extending a hand out to Jericho. Jericho stared down at it for a moment before accepting. Giving him a firm shake, Talib concluded with a, “See you around, partner,” before he headed over.

Jericho stared after him but then—

“Wow, this is so nostalgic!”

A pleasant buzz filled his mind. When he glanced to his left, he found Maria’s image sitting beside him. Faintly, he could make out where she was. On a canoe. In the middle of the ocean. Hm.

“This really brings me back,” Maria continued, “to the Monadic orphanage. We even had a statue of the Leonian Ancestor there too! I used to climb it all the time!” She paused, leaning forward to stare past Jericho.

He followed her gaze.

Leona was now seated to his left. She was admiring the statue.

Had she spoken to him? He hadn’t been paying attention.

“I didn’t hear anything.” Maria hummed. “She’s interesting though, isn’t she?”

Jericho stared at Leona, trying his best to figure out what about her Maria found interesting. Leona had formed an insurrection against Maria. A mutiny. But Maria herself held no ill will.

Jericho couldn’t understand her. And she couldn’t understand him.

“We should look into the crime organizations or the generator conductors in this city,” Jericho stated to Leona. “If we have no leads.”

Leona slowly turned away from the statue, her eyelashes catching the light and glittering. She studied Jericho impassively. “… I agree with looking into the generator conductors, and I’ve already put other agents on them. I’m working with the state to increase protection over them.” A pause. “But why exactly would ELPIS target the crime organizations? What about them would bring about ELPIS’s vindication?”

Leona was staring into him. Like Alice would. Almost like reading his thoughts.

“I know, right?” Maria whispered from beside him.

Jericho realized he had slipped. If he wasn’t connected to Cadence, he wouldn’t have knowledge of ELPIS’s dealings with the Romano executives and he wouldn’t have knowledge of the Romano’s underground work which made them targets of ELPIS.

“Intuition,” Jericho tried.

Maria nodded.

Leona regarded him. “I read your application form for the ELPIS Department. It said that you believe eliminating ELPIS will bring true peace to Signum. Do you mean that wholeheartedly?”

Jericho nodded. “Yes, they are—”

“The false hope that lures people astray,” Leona recited quietly. “But that could be said about any ideology. I’m sure if you looked into Signum’s history—beyond Signum’s history—you’d find groups similar to them.”

Jericho exchanged a quick glance with Maria who looked just as perplexed, albeit intrigued.

“And you’d find groups similar to us. Sometimes they win. Sometimes we win. In the end, it doesn’t matter. Regardless of the amount of guidance given, the same mistakes will happen over and over again.”

“Over and over again?” Jericho repeated.

“There will always be another ELPIS,” Leona said.

Another ELPIS. No, that was impossible. There was only one. If that wasn’t the case then—

A hand on his shoulder stopped the thought from completing its course. Maria. In the light that fell through the stained-glass windows, she was illuminated with a rose-colored glow.

“Well, you know what Conta tells me,” Maria hummed. “If you can’t find a solution to a problem even if you’ve spent a lot of time on it again and again, then all you need is a shift in perspective. Another person to help catch what you missed!”

Jericho informed Leona of Maria’s solution.

Leona gazed at him before chuckling mirthlessly. “That’s good. You have a good amount of pride. Pursue that goal to the ends of the earth. Just be sure not to look back. If you do, I’m sure you’ll be very disappointed.”

***

Acting on Jericho’s intuition, Leona met with several executives of the Romano Family the following day. Jericho wasn’t in attendance. He assumed Talib wasn’t in attendance either since the man had left the hotel to join his new team the previous night.

“Off to do long-range surveillance,” Talib had said before slipping a folded crane into Jericho’s pocket and finishing with, “but I’ll keep in touch.”

After the meeting, Leona invited Jericho over for lunch at the Gamma Geminorium. He learned here that he would be assigned temporarily as a guard for the Romano executives while she collected data about the days she was absent from the city from other agents. She informed him she would refer to him for ELPIS-related information after she’d finished and would move forward with him from there.

The first person Jericho was assigned to guard was Caporegime Bendetto of the Romano Family. Jericho recalled Cadence mentioning that the man handled land and collected rent for the organization.

Working alongside Jericho were two additional ELPIS Department agents who only exchanged words of greeting with him and nothing more. At first, Jericho had thought they were displeased with him because they knew of his connection to ELPIS. He later realized after witnessing them glowering in Bendetto’s direction that they weren’t fond of the crime families.

Bendetto spent most of his time in his apartment flat, taking calls from unknown business partners. He had a wife who brought him breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Lucy, was it? She was kind and warm, and Bendetto was kind and warm in return.

Late into his shift, Lucy brought Jericho a platter of multi-colored cookies and milk. Although he wasn’t hungry, he accepted them. He was joined by Olivier as he nibbled on the treats.

After offering a loose “hey” in greeting, Olivier muttered, arms crossed, “Have you talk-talked to Cadence lately?”

Jericho shook his head. He hadn’t spoken to her since Werner had been injured. Whenever he accidentally synchronized with her, she would always say something along the lines of “I’m really busy, detective. Sorry, maybe next time” before pulling away. Was this called ‘avoidance’?

Olivier frowned deeper. “Not surprised.” He rubbed his arm. “Anything… from Werner?”

Again, Jericho shook his head. And then heaviness came to him. It was uncomfortable and suffocating like there was an anchor pulling his entire chest downwards. He knew it was not his own feeling, but he didn’t know what to do with the knowledge that it was Olivier’s feeling.

On a whim, Jericho lifted the cookie he was eating and held up the cookie platter with his other hand. Does it taste good?

Olivier arched a brow, scoffed, rolled his tongue in his mouth, and said, “Yeah, they taste good. Are you sure they aren’t poisoned or something?”

Why would they be poisoned? 

Olivier scoffed again before glancing at the platter. “It’s really weird how that works. Being able to taste what another person tastes, I mean… It seems like a pretty useless thing.” He uncrossed his arms. “It’s been a while since I had any sweets. Sagittarius is surprisingly lax when it comes to that stuff.”

I can try more. If you’d like. Jericho stared down at the platter.

Olivier shifted from side-to-side for a moment before gesturing to a heart-shaped cookie. “How about that one?”

Jericho picked it up and ate it in two bites. He glanced at Olivier.

Olivier made a face. “Too much sugar.” He then pointed to a pumpkin-shaped one. “How about that one?”

After Jericho nibbled on it, Olivier gave a nod of approval. Then he pointed to another cookie.

After half an hour, the entire platter was empty, and Jericho was left feeling a bit nauseous. Olivier snickered at him before nervously urging him to drink water and milk.

Even after all the sweets, however, the heaviness eventually returned. Jericho supposed this meant that his efforts had failed. Alice would know, he thought, what the appropriate course of action should’ve been. Still, Olivier remained with him until the end of his shift.

Thus the first day and a half of the assignment passed without incident.

After his shift, Jericho made his way over to the alleyway outside the Casa de Bambolle. Not for entertainment purposes, he thought to the others just in case. For investigative purposes. When he arrived at the location in the alley where Cadence had emerged from after she had escaped her ELPIS capture, however, he found that it had already been warded off by ELPIS Department agents.

They knew what they were doing.

On the second night, Jericho was on guard over Donato and his son Feliciano. He was admitted into their lavishly furnished mansion on the outskirts of the city and was offered a plethora of refreshments. After ‘small talk’, he was taken into Donato’s home office where the man spent most of his time.

Two different ELPIS agents were assigned with Jericho for this shift and were already present upon his arrival. They too kept their distance.

Donato kept himself planted at his desk, going through piles upon piles of paperwork. Feliciano also kept to the office, watching with a grimace as the two other peacekeepers played cards in front of the fireplace sandwiched between bookshelves. Jericho himself began to go through the bookcases on Atienna’s behalf.

It was near the end of Jericho’s shift that Donato abruptly said, “I’m stepping out for a bit. I’ll be back in half an hour.”

Jericho turned on his heels. Donato was pulling a jacket from the coat hanger beside the door. His once cluttered desk was now empty. His gait was normal, his bad leg appearing not to bother him.

Jericho watched the man leave through the door and glanced over at the two agents. They hadn’t looked up from their game. Jericho detached himself from the bookcase and followed after Donato only to be stopped by a hand around the wrist. He turned and found Feliciano glowering behind him.

“Hey, Glasses, my dad said he was just steppin’ out for a bit. You deaf?”

“I am not deaf,” Jericho replied. “I am here to watch over you and your father. You were informed of this.” He stared at Feliciano. “Unless you are deaf?”

Feliciano stiffened and flinched away from him. “Creepy bastard…”

“I’m sorry if I scared you,” Jericho returned.

Feliciano flushed. “You didn’t—”

Brushing past Feliciano, Jericho exchanged a couple of parting words with the agents. He brushed past Feliciano again, picked up his suitcase from where he’d left it beside the door, and exited the office and then the mansion.

***

The night air was heavy and humid. Pitch black.

The mansions in this city were different from Olivier’s estate. These ones were all relatively close together, and their gated entrances met with the gray, brick sidewalk that connected the edge of the city to the heart of it.

Jericho wasn’t too familiar with these streets. He assumed this was because Cadence wasn’t familiar with them. But that didn’t matter.

Gripping his suitcase tightly, Jericho followed along the gray sidewalk in the direction of the city. The soles of his shoes squeaked against the wet sidewalk, highlighting the silence around him. The v-lamps lining the street were off, but Jericho didn’t mind it. In the distance, the active glittering lights from the city’s heart provided just enough visibility—

A flash of light suddenly burst across the street causing Jericho to stop in his tracks. He turned his head. Pitch black darkness met his eyes. But, even so, he swore he saw it. That color.

“Theta wants me to drag you back to base,” came a quiet voice from the darkness. “But I think it’s better if I just end you here.”

A high-pitched, metal click-clack, click-clack, click-clack followed the whisper, and it was paired with a rustling sound. Vaguely, Jericho could make out something writhing in the dark. It looked like a snake with an arrow-shaped head, its body twisting unnaturally in the air.

And then slowly, they became illuminated—the chains. They burned white, tips pointed, as they slithered through the night sky. A woman wearing a polka-dotted blue dress stood beneath them with her shadowed back to him. Her hand which was gloved in a metal contraption was extended outwards towards a man who was seated on the ground. Donato. He was bound in luminous chains that slithered over his body and mouth.

Donato’s eyes flicked over to Jericho, and he let out a muffled shout. The woman followed the man’s gaze, craned her neck, stared at Jericho.

“Huh?”

Jericho stared back at her. Stared back at the woman whose photo he had studied thoroughly only days earlier. Stared back at the woman whom Cadence had seen within that unknown room a week prior. Stared at the woman who had punched Carl across the room. Stared at the woman who had grabbed Alice’s wrist.

Jericho’s eyes darted to the woman’s ungloved hand that now rested lightly on her hip. There was a tattoo there. The symbol was unmistakable.

In that instant, every limb in Jericho’s body became electrified. Everything sharpened into focus. The unimportant things faded away into black.

There was only Iota and himself.

Jericho unlatched his suitcase, and his conductor fell into his waiting palm. He flicked it into activation, his vitae spilling out of it in the shape of a whip.

Iota’s eyes widened as the light from his vitae drained the color from her face.

“You’re…” Her eyes narrowed and she glowered at him. “You’re the suitcase bastard, aren’t you?” Kicking Donato to the side, she pointed her conductor-gloved index finger at him. “So they sent you here, huh? I’ve heard plenty of things about you from Omicron and Omega—”

“Shut up,” Jericho stated. “If you take me to Alice, I’ll let you live.”

Iota shut her mouth, flabbergasted. “Alice…? ‘Let me live’?” She barked out a laugh and flicked her hand outwards towards him. The chains obeyed her command and rushed at him.

With two quick whips of his conductor, Jericho shattered them along with the nearby v-lamps and gates that lined the sidewalk. Everything his conductor touched crumbled away into nothing. The trash bins, the gates, the gray brick sidewalk. Disintegration.

Ignoring the destruction, Jericho confirmed, “Yes. I will let you live long enough to choose your burial site.”

9.4: Maria’s Tale (Storia)

Re-cap:

Captain Maria Gloria-Fernandez is in the city of Hapaira, Pisces to pick up a package for the Campana Family. Her package has been stolen, however, and a blood trail leads to a mysterious girl surrounded by a massacre. In the background, Conta is behaving strangely, there is a tale of a mysterious beast of the deep, and a strange Cancerian Chevalier named Renee is also searching for something in the town. 

Hapaira, Pisces

Maria waved a hand in front of the girl’s face. The girl continued staring blankly forward, unflinching.

“Wow,” Maria exclaimed, “you really are blind!”

“Captain!” Morandi sighed. “How many times are you going to do this?”

They had stolen away into one of the buildings deeper into town. Maria had initially wanted them to take a house by the stream but Ley and Werner had advised against it.

“Doesn’t make sense to hang around a body of water for so long when we’ve got a water Elementalist and then some on our tails, does it?” was how Ley had put it. Werner had thought along the same lines, although he was much more serious when discussing the topic. He’d said something along the lines of “You should remain in Hapaira until you resolve the issue with the Elementalist. The Elementalist may utilize vitae extraneously and might catch you at a disadvantage if you return by sea.”

Maria hadn’t been too concerned about the Elementalist herself, but Werner had been so thorough about it that she decided to relent. Maria personally thought that Werner thought too much. So did Atienna and Olive. Why spend all that time worrying when one could spend the time enjoying?

That aside, it had been some time since Maria had been landlocked like this. The last time she’d been in one place for so long was a couple of years ago when she’d spent a week tearing through Cancer. She still hadn’t decided if she was fully enjoying this particular experience as much as that one yet.

Chef Raul, on the other hand, was enamored with their current place of residence. Correction—he was enamored by the kitchen of the house since it was stocked full of dried herbs and all sorts of strange-tasting ingredients. He hadn’t stepped foot outside of the kitchen since their arrival.

At the moment, Maria was seated at a table in a central room alongside the mysterious girl, Ley, Morandi, and Giorgio. Her other crew members were making a ruckus in the dining room, and despite Maria’s desire to join them, her interest was quite enraptured by the girl who sat before her. The girl also seemed to have piqued Conta’s interest. The woman quietly stood at the threshold of the door in between the dining room and the central room. The bounty hunter whom they had captured earlier was awake and bound in the corner just beside her.

Maria reached over the table and flicked an item that hung by a chain at the blind girl’s neck. It was a pair of old-looking glasses lined with jutting bits of metal and thin tubing.

A conductor. Probably for a Specialist.

The girl startled at Maria’s touch and wrapped her fingers protectively around her glasses.

“Come on, kid,” Ley drew from beside the girl. “We’ve got a lot of questions, but I’m sure you have a lot of them yourself. Let’s help each other out here. Could you at least give us a name?”

The girl turned her head away from Ley.

Brat.

Maria found her endearing.

Propping her elbow up on the table, Ley sighed at the bounty hunter. “How about you?”

The bounty hunter remained silent.

“It’s alright, dear,” Morandi assuaged the girl, throwing a dismissive glance in the bounty hunter’s direction. “You don’t have to tell us if you don’t want to. But we need to clarify a couple of points we’re a bit foggy about.” He gestured to himself and then faltered and cleared his throat. “We made introductions earlier, but I’m sure with everything going on, memorizing our names is the last thing on your mind. Once again, my name is Morandi. I’m a sailor. From Gemini.”

The girl turned in his direction and inclined her head. “It’s nice to meet you. Gemini is where I need to go.”

“You’re the package the Campanas wanted Maria to deliver,” Ley surmised after rubbing her eyes and tightening her magenta scarf.

“I go wherever Don Campana needs me to go,” the girl replied.

“And what places has Don Campana asked you to go to?” Ley asked.

“I’ve been everywhere,” the girl responded, crossing her arms and lifting her head. Maria marveled at how unaccented her Common was. “I’ve been to Cancer, to Scorpio, even to Taurus. People request me in those places all the time.”

Maria jumped forward, taking hold of the girl’s hands. “So you are an adventurer too! Oh—have you seen the Monadic Scarabée Temple in Cancer? Or the Okor Mountains of Taurus?”

The girl hesitated before shaking her head. “No, I’ve never seen those places.” She frowned. “I’m visually impaired.” She waved her hand in front of her face. “In case you haven’t noticed.” She cleared her throat, straightened herself, and lifted her chin again.

“Well, you may not have seen them,” Maria pressed, “but surely you have been to them! Felt the stones of the Scarabée, felt the rocks on the mountains—”

“No… I haven’t.”

“What?” Maria gasped, releasing the girl’s hands. “Well, that is no good! But it is okay! You are still young! We can still go to those places. Yes, let us head to the Scarabée Temple!”

“Head to the—” The girl shook her head, eyebrows dipping downwards. “What? We need to go to the Twin Cities. The Campanas were sending me there for ‘very important business’. That’s why you’re here, right? To get me there?”

“That is correct, my dear,” Maria hummed. “I thought this was going to be a very boring expedition, but things kept piling up, my dear, and now I have met you!”

The girl opened her mouth, then closed it.

“We would go to Gemini but we’ve got a couple of bounty hunters on our hands right now,” Ley continued, eyeing the bounty hunter. “Since one of them is probably a water Elementalist Conductor, it’s probably not the best thing to go back by boat—”

“Then we can go by v-train!” the girl shouted.

“V-trains are not very fun, yes?” Maria replied, crossing her arms on the table resting her chin on her folded hands. “There is not much freedom, no? Your destination is pre-set. There is only one direction you can go. Boring.”

“It doesn’t matter if it’s not fun!” the girl exclaimed. “It’s what’s necessary!”

“There’s no point in getting so worked up,” Ley said, waving a dismissive hand. “If we can nip this bounty group in the head, then we can get you there fast and easy. Which is why I need you to tell me if you’ve ever heard anything about this ‘beast of the deep’.”

“The beast of the deep?” the girl parroted, brows furrowing delicately. Her milky eyes flicked left and then right before she nodded. “Mhm, the people who had me before you—there was someone there who kept talking in third person and calling themselves that. It was a man.” She made a face. “He was weird. I think he was Aquarian… by his accent.”

The bound bounty hunter bristled.

“So we’re looking for a male Aquarian water Elementalist,” Ley surmised before studying the girl closely. “Going back to the Campana topic… the way we found you makes me wonder how exactly you’re related to them. You’re talking like you’re employed by them, but I don’t know any employers who put their employees in shipping containers.”

The girl lifted her head again. “Well, I’m special. That’s why. I’m important. I can’t be seen out in the open.”

“And still you want to go to the Twin Cities by v-train out in the open.”

The girl flushed.

“So do the Campanas have other people like you working for them?” Ley continued.

“What does that matter…?” The girl frowned before snapping, “I-If you won’t take me to the Twin Cities, then I’ll go myself!”

“How will you go if you cannot see?” Maria cocked her head.

The girl stiffened at this, before shooting up to a stand with a glower.

“Do you need help—” Morandi began.

Conta moved forward silently, placing a hand on the girl’s arm. When the girl turned her head in Conta’s direction, Conta lifted the girl’s hand onto her own arm.

“Which one were you again?” the girl asked. “Your name?”

Conta opened her mouth and paused before she answered, “Conta.”

“Can you take me to the dining room, Conta?” the girl asked.

“Of course.”

The girl allowed Conta to take her out of the room and into the dining area. Neither spared Maria nor any of the others a second glance as they made their exit. Maria watched them go, her words of praise for Conta’s forwardness remaining in her mouth.

“Captain.” Morandi sighed in exasperation. “Please try to be more tactful. Every time I think you improve, you take a step backwards.”

Ley muttered, shaking her head. “Kids…”

Maria turned to her. “What is wrong, my dear Ley? Do you not like little ones?”

Ley shook her head again. “No, it’s not that…” The corner of her eyes crinkled, causing Maria to wonder if she was smiling. “I used to work with someone who was annoyingly popular with kids… Never even had to think too much. But if this is the way I think it’s going, then…”

Morandi rubbed his mouth and glanced at Ley. “You don’t think that the Campanas ship…”

Maria glanced between them. “If you speak so cryptically like that, I won’t be able to understand you, my dears.”

“Sorry about that, Captain. Anyway, I think I’m going to go for a walk.” Ley rose to her feet, yawning and rolling her neck before exiting the room.

“Captain, I mean this with the most tender of intentions but,” Morandi drew afterwards, running his hand down his face. “You really must stop discovering people in boxes.”

***

The next morning the mysterious girl was nowhere to be found. As Maria scoured the dining room where her crew were draped drunkenly over one other, she could not find even a hint that the girl had ever been with them. During her search, the bounty hunter drew her attention with a chuckle.

“She slipped out last night,” the bounty hunter informed her. “You’ve lost what you’ve found.”

“Thank you for telling me, my dear,” was all Maria said.

Maria thus set off through town while humming to herself in thought. She wound down the narrow cobblestone streets, dipped in and out of the buildings, and even climbed one of the arches to see if she could spot the girl in the distance. Unfortunately, Maria realized that even if she spotted the girl, she wouldn’t be able to call out to her since she didn’t know the girl’s name. Her wandering took her back to the small river she’d discovered a week prior. It looked the same as before—save for a small boat that was docked by the steps running up its side.

Maria approached the boat curiously and inspected it. A couple of neatly folded, intricately designed blankets were within but that was it.

“Please step away from the boat, madame,” a voice called out from behind. Accented Common.

Maria whipped around to find a somewhat familiar man standing behind her.

It’s Renée, Gloria-Fernandez. The Chevalier from Cancer you encountered when you first arrived in Hapaira. 

Snapping her fingers in realization, Maria pointed at the man and identified him out loud. And then Maria spied a small body standing behind the man. A familiar girl in a sequined dress with milky eyes.

“Oh!” Maria exclaimed, taking a step forward with a grin. “It’s you!”

The girl skirted back behind Renée with a frown, while he took a step forward and held out a halting hand.

“Madame, as you say, I am a Chevalier of Cancer.” Renée flourished his hand. “To turn my back on this poor girl who has been abducted from her home would be a dishonor to the title. No, a dishonor to myself!”

“Abducted?” Maria cocked her head. She stared at the girl who cowered behind him. “Did we not un-abduct you?”

“I don’t want to lay a hand on a fair woman,” Renée continued on. “But from what I understand, you are partially behind what’s happened to this poor girl. I’m sure you don’t want any trouble, so I ask that you leave. I’m going to take this girl back to the Twin Cities—”

“No,” Maria popped. She pointed at the girl. “She is mine. I won’t let you take her, Renée, even though I like you, yes?”

Not waiting for the man to answer her, Maria closed the distance between them. She reached for the girl behind Renée but was stopped by a hand around the wrist.

“Please, madame.” Renée sighed. “I do not want to—”

Maria grabbed Renée’s hand and flipped him over her shoulder. The young girl startled at the sound of his body thudding against the ground and took a step backwards when Maria reached out for her.

You’re scaring her.

Maria hesitated and lowered her hand.

A sudden burst of peach-colored light from behind caught her attention. She whipped her sword out from her scabbard just in time to meet the edge of a sharp blade.

“I see that you’re not just some fair maiden,” Renée noted as he pushed against her sword with his own and rose to a stand. Both of his hands were gloved with familiar metal contraptions that were faintly humming with fading peach light.

Maria gasped. “Are you a Conjuror?”

Renée winked before he flicked a gloved hand and brought it to his blade. There was another flash of peach-colored light, and the weight of his blade suddenly fell away. Maria stumbled forward slightly at the sudden loss of resistance but brought her blade up just in time to block the thrust of an ornate dagger aimed at her gut.

Sparks flew as she swung up her blade and threw him off balance. Utilizing the opportunity, she grabbed his wrist and flipped him over her shoulder again. He managed to land somewhat on his feet this time and ripped his wrist out of her grasp as he stumbled back.

“Madame, I would appreciate it if you would stop doing tha—”

Glub, glub, glub.

At the strange sound, Maria turned her attention to the stream. She lowered her weapon and stared in awe. The river was bubbling and flowing backwards, glowing faintly with flecks of violet light. She threw a quick look in Renée’s direction to see if he was somehow involved in the oddity but found that he was staring too—not at the river, but at the area behind her. His eyes were wide, his mouth ajar.

And then she heard it. A rumbling. Almost like the growl of an animal. A beast. A growl so loud that the ground beneath her feet began to tremble.

An earthquake?

The sunlight that had been beating down above her head suddenly fell away into darkness, and a coolness hugged her body in its absence.

Maria followed Renée’s gaze towards the sound.

It was an awe-inspiring sight. A wave of water towered above her. So crystalline and clear that she could see the flecks of violet light illuminating the items that swam in its body—small schools of fish, branches from trees, remnants of ships.

The torrent crashed down onto Maria in an instant, ripping her right off her feet and submerging her within its depths. It didn’t, however, manage to knock the wind out of her body, nor did it rip her blade from her hands—not even as it threw her this way and that.

It was like a ride. Exhilarating. Around and round. Thrashing this way and that—

And then, the surge ceased abruptly and everything stilled. The speckles of light dotting the water dimmed slowly leaving her in darkness.

She felt it only a second after.

The void.

Just like when Olive had overridden Werner. No, it was more like when Jericho had been injured by Omicron. But more intense. She couldn’t feel the Capricornian soldier any longer, but could feel Cadence’s panic, feel Olive’s confusion and terror.

Maria hadn’t realized it up until but the others had all been so quiet recently in her head. Now, they were absolutely silent.

Shaking herself, Maria swam up towards the faint light trickling through the darkness above her. She broke through the surface of the water with a gasp and shook water droplets from hair. She chuckled lightly as the last bits of adrenaline left her body, but the laugh felt hollow. An odd, uncomfortable feeling weighed down her chest. She’d felt it before—when her old crew had left her for Leona, felt it when Jericho had been injured gravely by Omicron, felt it lightly when Conta had started acting cold towards her.

It wasn’t a good feeling.

She didn’t understand the feeling at that time just as she didn’t understand it now. She knew Werner would not die from his injuries. She would not let him. But there was uneasiness still. An uncomfortable sensation of restlessness.

And there was another question tickling her mind—

“Cadence… why did you do that…?” Maria asked out loud.

The lapping of the waves answered her in the silence. And then she came to a realization. Where the blue skyline met the blue sea was indiscernible. The horizon that divided the two was gone. Hapaira was no longer in sight.

Hm.

The ocean itself was littered with debris. Planks of wood. Linen and plastic tarps. Occasional crates, glass bottles, and what appeared to be pieces of fruit. They bobbed up and down in the rippling waves, knocking into one another with hollow clicks and clacks. Above all of this noise was another sound. Panting, splashing, gasping.

Maria scanned the open waters as she tuned her ears. There. Her eyes locked onto something—rather, someone—floundering several meters away amongst a cluster of crates.

It was the blind girl. Her hands were high in the air, and her head was bobbing up and down just above the water.

Maria recognized the signs immediately. The girl couldn’t swim.

After sliding her sword back into its scabbard with some difficulty, Maria dove under the water and swam towards the girl. She popped up just behind her and tucked her arms under the girl’s armpits before leaning backwards. The girl struggled in a panic against her hold, but she was rather weak so Maria was able to keep them both above water while restraining her with ease.

“Ay, you are so energetic all the time.” Maria chuckled. “You must learn to relax, yes?”

The girl stiffened, and when her coughing subsided, she turned her head slightly. “Are you… Maria?”

“That would be me!” Maria affirmed. “You are very good at recognizing people’s voices, aren’t you?”

“Wha—” the girl blinked the saltwater from her eyes. “You… saved me? After I… why?”

“Because I could?” Maria shrugged. “Plus, you are interesting and I want to learn more about you.” She thought a little more on it. “And I still have to get you to the Campanas, yes? I always see things through to the end, you see. I don’t really see the point in doing something if I don’t plan on finishing it.”

“But with the Cancerian—I—”

There was no one to remind Maria of what the man’s name was but she recalled it anyways. “Ah, yes, Renée! He is interesting, yes? I know a couple of Conjurors but he’s the fastest one I’ve seen.”

There was a beat of silence and then— “…T-Thank you…. Maria.”

Maria grabbed hold of a plank of wood that drifted past them. She placed the girl’s arms over it before wrapping her own arms around it.

They spent several minutes drifting like that until Maria spotted a small, narrow, overturned canoe several meters away. Leaving the girl hanging on the plank, Maria swam over to it leisurely before flipping it upright with a huff. After pulling herself up into the boat, she rowed over to the girl and extended a hand out to her. The girl didn’t respond, merely shivering tense as she clung tightly to the wooden plank.

“M-Maria…?”

“Right here!” Maria popped. She tapped the girl’s shoulder causing her to whip a flailing hand out. The girl was afraid of being abandoned. Maria took the girl’s hand in her own before hoisting her into the canoe.

The girl felt around for a bit before she settled down into the corner and stared in Maria’s direction. “Now what?”

Maria tapped her chin in thought. The pleasant rays of the sun beating above their heads were beginning to warm her cold limbs. Even so, Maria found herself frowning. “I think… I think we will wait.”

“W-Wait…?”

“Well, I could paddle us back to Hapaira,” Maria replied, sweeping her gaze across the horizon, “but I don’t feel like doing that right now, yes? I am a bit… down right now, so I think we’ll just wait until my crew comes to us.”

“W-What?! They’ll never find us!” the girl snapped. “T-They’ll never find us…”

“You have too little faith in my crew. They will certainly find us.”

The girl’s lips began to quiver, and she sniffled. “Saints… We’ll die out here.”

Maria stared at the girl as large tear droplets spilled down her face.

“I… I have to go to the Twin Cities.” The girl rubbed her eyes as she started to sob. “I have to be useful. If I’m not useful then… If I’m not useful… they won’t… t-they’ll throw me away.” Her words became lost in her wails as she gripped the odd pair of glasses that hung heavy, cold, and wet around her neck.

“You want to be useful?” Maria inquired, peering into the girl’s face. “And if you are not useful, then you have no purpose? Is that how you think?”

The girl continued to sob loudly, wiping her tears with the back of her arms. Maria didn’t interrupt her. Eventually, the girl’s sobs subsided and she was left gasping. When she finally caught her breath, she nodded her head before burying her head into her knees. “That’s just how life works.”

“You are very small to be thinking like that, no? I think someone once told me that it is called ‘maturity’, but I’m not sure so sure.” Maria chuckled. She studied the girl more carefully this time. “You are like my Ollie. If you keep thinking like that, you will surely make yourself unhappy.” She poked the girl in the chest. “You are the owner of your own life, yes? Your life is yours? Your possession? And because it is yours, you are the one who decides how valuable—or ‘useful’, as you say—it is.”

The girl’s brows furrowed.

“This world will become what you see it as. If you view it as bad, it will become bad. If you view yourself as useless, you will become useless. If you view it as unfair, it will become unfair,” Maria continued, nodding in affirmation. “Hm, yes, this world is exactly what I see it as. This is my story.” She paused, glancing down at her reflection in the water. “So, you see, I don’t really understand people who blame things on circumstance. In the end, you are still the one who has the power to break circumstance… yes?”

“What…?” The girl frowned. “I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

“That is what my Ollie said to me too.” Maria hummed before placing a hand on the girl’s head. “But, my dear, from my point of view, your life is quite valuable as it is. You have made it up to this point, no? That in itself holds value.”

***

Night soon fell. The warm sun sank down into the depths causing the temperature to drop considerably. Maria had salvaged a piece of dry wood and dry cloth that had been floating on top of a nearby plank and had managed to set it aflame. It had taken quite some time and a lot of patience but the cloth managed to catch crimson flame beneath her hands. Now, the torch crackled brightly at the tip of their canoe. The only spec of light in the pitch black. Well, not exactly.

The blackness of the sky was broken up by twinkling stars that were reflected back up by the ocean waters. If Maria reached out her hand, she could just scoop them up from the darkness.

“That really goes to show you how endless the world is!” Maria exclaimed. “One day, I will even reach the stars!”

The girl frowned again from where she sat in the corner of the canoe. Her legs were tucked beneath her chin. “The stars are out…? I barely remember what they look like.”

So she wasn’t always blind. 

“Well, if you cannot see it, then you can feel it, yes?”

“H-How can you feel the stars?” the girl grumbled, shivering.

Maria enveloped the girl’s hands in her own causing the girl to stiffen. Ignoring this, she turned the girl’s hands palm up and guided them upwards. Very faintly, just where the starlight crescented their skin, there was warmth.

The girl wiggled her fingers. “That’s stupid.” But she held them there and kept her face tilted upwards.

Releasing the girl’s hands, Maria laid on her back and stared up at the sky. She folded her hands behind her head and sighed. Her breath created transient clouds in the air. It was a bit cold, she realized.

A shuffling accompanied by the steady rocking of the boat drew Maria’s attention. When Maria lifted her head, she found the girl inching towards her on all fours. The girl must have felt her stare because she froze.

“I-It’s cold,” the girl stammered, flushing. “I… uhm… can I… If I get sick, I can’t be as usef—”

“You want to lay next to me?” Maria beamed. “There is plenty of room!” She motioned for the girl to come closer, paused, and then placed a hand on the girl’s arm. Slowly, she guided her down beside her.

The girl was tense, Maria noticed. Everyone was tense. And Maria didn’t really like it.

She tuned in a bit as she sensed Atienna and Cadence conversing with one another somewhere at the back of her mind but she did not move to join.

Sometimes things are just as interesting if you watch instead of hurtling in right away, don’t you think? It gives you quite a lot of time to contemplate the ‘interesting’ things you see, was what Atienna had said many times before. Maria had tried practicing it every so often out of curiosity, but this time she did it out of another feeling she couldn’t place.

As she listened in silently, she found herself thinking that Atienna was a bit terrifying. In a different way than herself.

Once their conversation ended, Maria hummed. “I wonder where Renée went.” She closed her eyes. “I wonder where Werner went…”

“Werner…? Who’s that?”

“Someone who is mine,” Maria replied. “I’ve lost him temporarily, I think.”

“He… passed away? I’m sor—”

“Of course not!” Maria laughed. “He will never die. I won’t allow it… It’s just that I see him all the time, and I have a feeling I will not be seeing him for a while now.”

“Oh, so you miss him?”

“I… do not think I like it,” she murmured. “When people leave. It is like a story is ending, yes? Their stories.” She twirled a lock of her hair. “Some time ago most of my fellow adventurers left me. Conta, Emanuel, and chef Raul are the ones who stayed. Morandi and Giorgio and all the others are all new, yes. Meeting new people is fun, but I would still like to see old people from time to time.”

“… all stories need to end,” the girl said matter-of-factly. “If they don’t end then what’s the point? You won’t value something if it can’t end. That’s what Mr. Campana tells me.”

“Mr. Campana does not sound like a very fun person—”

“Mr. Campana is smart,” the girl interjected. “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him.”

That sounded familiar. Maria didn’t understand what the girl meant nor did she understand what Cadence meant by those words. Maria informed the girl of this; and after asking who ‘Cadence’ was, the girl fell quiet.

Finally, the girl mumbled, “I need to pay him back. For everything he’s done for me… after my parents…” She trailed off.

“So you want to… repay Mr. Campana for helping you by working for him,” Maria drew. She nodded. “Hm, I understand—”

“So that’s why—”

“But I don’t understand.”

“What…?”

“I have been thanked several times before, yes? One time when I saved a woman’s daughter, she bought me an entire cow! I really didn’t understand what she was trying to do… I mean, I saved the daughter because I could.” Maria tapped her chin. “How do I say this? It’s just a feeling I have. If someone does something for you and expects something in return… or if you want to ‘make up for it’ and do something in return just for that reason…. it is… on both parts, insincere, yes?” Maria clasped her hands together. “I think insincerity just shows that you are not strong enough yet. But that is okay! Strength is something nurtured!”

The girl remained silent.

Maria slapped the girl on the arm causing her to yelp. “But if you just want to do something that is considered ‘kind’ just because you feel like doing it—that is strength!”

The girl mumbled something sleepily in response, but Maria didn’t quite catch it because—

—there it was again. The tension tightening her chest. Worry. It was a feeling she was still not unaccustomed to do as it usually wasn’t a feeling of her own. This time, it was a bit different. It was a mutual feeling. And although she knew she could bear the weight of the feeling on her own, she wasn’t sure about the others.

Werner is fine, my dears, she thought, and Cadence is sorry, yes? That is all that matters. Moving forward! 

Thinking these reassuring thoughts to them all night despite no response, Maria continued to stare up at the starry sky until morning.

***

The first thing Maria did when the girl uncurled from her sleep was exclaim, “I caught fish! If you are hungry!”

The girl, still rubbing the sleep out of her eyes, blinked at Maria in befuddlement. “Y-You caught a fish…?”

“I caught a fish.”

“With… with what?”

Holding out the now lifeless trout she had just caught, Maria laughed. “With my hands, of course! What else would I catch it with—ah, well, I could have used my sword, yes? But that’s not as fun.” She whipped said sword out from her scabbard and made four cuts into the fish before handing a sizable slab of filet to the girl.

The girl shivered as she held the meat in her palm. “I… can eat this? Are you sure? Is it safe? Raw?”

“Of course it is safe!” Maria laughed again. “I once was lost at sea for ten weeks and lived off of a shark I caught, you know?”

The girl stared, filet half in her mouth. “You’re lying.”

“No, it is the truth!”

And thus, Maria continued on speaking about her previous adventures. Adventures that ranged from pillaging a ship full of designer dresses from Cancer to temporarily adopting a raided ship full of illegally smuggled animals. Each tale seemed to pique the girl’s interest more and more, and soon the girl was on all fours, leaning forward and hanging onto every word with intent. When Maria informed the girl that she had gone from living in an orphanage to being recruited onto a pirate’s ship, the girl’s suspension of disbelief broke.

The girl made a face. “Really? You’re not lying? You were taken by pirates?”

It was night time now. The stars once again blanketed the sky. A renewed crimson torch burned at the edge of the canoe.

“Oh, yes. I am actually in search of that pirate who whisked us away. I am just taking the long way around,” Maria popped. “The scenic route. Conta and I both.”

“You say you’ve known Conta since childhood… but it didn’t seem like she liked you much,” the girl mumbled.

“Oh, we had a fight. I think,” Maria recalled. “I upset her back when we were in the Twin Cities.” She beamed down at the girl. “Which was around when I decided to take up a job for the Campanas, you see? I mean, I am not sure how they found me, but I had wanted to revisit Hapaira for some time now so I decided to take it.” Leaning forward, she peered into the girl’s face. “What exactly are you to do in Gemini? I have been meaning to ask.”

The girl looked away. “They don’t tell me a lot but I think I was supposed to do some work for the Romanos because of some engagement thing? I don’t know…”

“The Romanos? Oh, well if that is the case, I don’t think you will be given to the Romanos anytime soon.”

The girl paled. “W-what? Why? Did Mr. Campana contact you? Did I mess up with one of the other clients?”

Maria cocked her head. “No, they did not contact me. I know because someone who I know knows.” She pressed down the crease that had formed on the girl’s brow. “They are fighting.”

“Fighting—”

“Right! Conta and I were fighting,” Maria continued. “When we were in Gemini, she wanted to stay a little bit longer to stock up on supplies but I wanted to leave because it was getting a bit boring. She can be very stubborn, yes? I didn’t really think about it when I said it, but I told her, ‘My dear Conta, you are arguing with me now, but you will go with what I say in the end, yes? Because you are always following after me.’ And she was so upset that she ran off for an entire day.”

The girl’s brows furrowed again. “That’s a weird thing to stay angry about…” She peeked in Maria’s direction. “I mean, for an adult.”

Maria pushed down the girl’s furrowed brows again. “And you know of adult things?”

The girl looked away. “Yes, yes, I do.” But she didn’t sound proud like before at the fact and that made Maria feel a heaviness in her chest. Before Maria could digest the feeling, the girl straightened suddenly and whipped around to face her. “Maybe she’s just sick?”

“Sick?”

“When you’re not feeling well, you can be kind of… grumpy. Maybe that’s what’s happening with Conta. I can tell.”

“Are you a doctor?” Maria thought of Nico.

“I’m a Specialist. I’m able to see the color and flow of vitae in everything—living and non-living—through my eyes when I use my conductor.” She gestured lightly to the glasses that still hung around her neck. “That’s what I do working for Mr. Campana. I read the flow and color of vitae of Mr. Campana’s clients, and I can tell by how the flow looks how long a client’s natural life’ll be and what type of Conductor they’ll be.”

The flow of vitae…?

“I usually see it as a… river-beam-of-light thing sort of surrounding the person and kind of leading upwards like smoke,” she explained. “It’s hard to really describe. Uhm… But if a person’s sick then I can tell… Sorry if that was confusing. I don’t usually explain it mysel—”

“That’s amazing!” Maria exclaimed.

The girl dipped her head. “Well… I can check Conta’s vitae flow if you’d like. And uhm Mr. Morandi’s too. And since you’re here… maybe yours?”

Maria opened her mouth prepared to blurt out an excited response but paused in thought. She studied the girl carefully before asking, “Is this strength or insincerity, my dear?”

The girl stiffened before nodding firmly. “Strength.”

Maria beamed. “Okay. Let’s do it then. It will be fun, yes?”

Nodding again, the girl gingerly unfolded the glasses that hung at her neck and slipped them on. She looked a bit funny wearing them. Maria laughed loudly. The girl huffed, flushing, before holding out her hand palm up.

“It’s easier for me to focus on a specific vitae flow if I’m in contact with what I want to read.”

Maria placed her hand into the girl’s palm and wiggled her fingers as the girl’s fingers wrapped around hers. The girl lowered her head and closed her eyes. After a couple of drawn-out seconds, she lifted her head and her eyes. Her irises seemed to glow teal.

Maria glowed with amazement. “Wow, your eyes—”

“Saints…!” the girl whispered, trembling as she leaned back to look up at the sky above Maria’s head. “I’ve never seen such a large amount of vitae before. It’s like…” She made an explosion sound and threw her hands up in the air. Awe, not fear.

Maria cocked her head and then grinned. “Maybe I should become a Conductor then, yes? If I have so much of this vitae? Is that what you are saying?”

The girl shook her head and continued to gape.

“There’s… something really weird…” the girl continued after a pause. “Usually people’s vitae just kind of fades up into the sky, but yours—it… it splits off.” She jabbed her finger at the sky while counting under her breath. “It splits off into five directions.” She slowly lowered her gaze and seemed to meet Maria’s eyes. “… what are you?”

“An adventurer, of course—”

Maria spotted something in the distance behind the girl’s head and immediately leaped to her feet sending the boat rocking. The girl yelped in alarm and reached out for Maria in the darkness. With a loud laugh, Maria swept her off her feet and spun in a circle.

“W-What’s going on?! Maria!”

“Can’t you feel it?!” Maria beamed, hoisting the girl with one arm and pointing to the horizon with her free hand.

There in the distance, a very familiar ship was slowly but surely drifting on towards them.

“They are here!” She laughed, the cold sea air stinging her lungs. “My crew may be a bit funny but they are strong, yes?”


“Once again, we put forth the recommendation to officially increase the minimum age requirement for the V-Type Test to Ophiuchus. Now that the war has ended, there is no need for children under the age of sixteen to have their conducting-type tested. In fact, adolescent V-Type testing may put children at risk for being taken advantage of by militant parties seeking particular Conductors.” 

Proposal on Minimum Age Requirements in Regards to Conducting (1938), Joint Ethics Committee of Signum

8.4: Maria’s Capture (Fuga)

Re-cap:

The dominoes are beginning to fall

Maria has a bounty on her head, but she is not concerned with it. Instead, she has focused her attention on retrieving a package she is to deliver to the Campanas from Pisces. Upon arrival at Pisces, however, she has discovered that the package holder Elele has been murdered by the bounty hunters after her head and that the package is now missing. Maria thus begins a hunt for the bounty hunters, while Conta’s aloofness weights on the back of her mind. Her mysterious new crew member Ley also seems to know more than she’s letting on. Amongst everything, there is a tale swirling around about a “beast of the deep”. 

Hapaira, Pisces

“We’ve been on this so-called hunt for over three days now, Captain,” Morandi grumbled from where he sat at the foot of the steps. “This isn’t looking good. If the Campanas were to…”

“Nonsense, my dear Morandi!” Maria laughed, wiggling her bare toes and feeling the smooth stone beneath her feet. She reached down into the river which ran up to her thighs, cupped a puddle of it in her arms, and then flung it in Morandi’s direction.

Ley and Simon who were seated to his left managed to leap away just before the wave of water crashed onto shore, but Morandi and the others at his right were not as lucky and were barraged by the torrent.

“Captain!” came the shouts of exasperation.

Morandi sighed before he pulled off his shirt, wrung it over the river, and laid it out on one of the steps to dry.

Maria had discovered this waterway during one of their many searches for the bounty hunters. The water here was crystalline, making the rock bed beneath it visible to the naked eye. The rush of the river was barely audible, and the entire thing was bordered by a pair of short staircases on each end. Beyond the stairs on the left was a strip of empty, small, and colorful brick buildings; and beyond the stairs to the right was a patchwork of marshy overgrowth.

Upon their arrival, Maria had staked a claim on the land and labeled it as hers. Simon had informed her that it wouldn’t be possible for her to claim the land legally to which Maria had responded with “that’s why we do it not legally, no?” That had all been in good jest, of course. There was no way she would trap this piece of gorgeous land under her title. Something as beautiful as this deserved to be free and unclaimed. In a sense. It was still hers, of course. If anyone would dare to defile it, she would show them the terror that was the Golden Beast.

“I wonder what is taking my dear Giorgio so long?” Maria sighed as she ran her hand along the surface of the water. “He is surprisingly energetic when it comes to this stuff, yes?” She recalled Giorgio’s excitement when they’d first found this river. He had floundered around with her, kicking up the water with his feet.

“He’s a river boy at heart,” Morandi explained as he picked up a stray stone and tossed it into the river. “His village—before it was attacked by ELPIS—was renowned for its fishing industry. He’s practically married to any flowing body of water. It’s a bit of a strange interest, now that I think about it.”

Married, hm?

Maria paused in her play to glance over her shoulder. Sitting on the steps at the opposite side of the river was Conta. The woman stared at Maria with a blank expression which deepened into a frown when Maria wadded across the river to join her.

“What are you looking at my dear, Conta?” Maria asked, falling to a crouch in the stream in front of her so they were at eye level. “I was looking for you earlier, you know? Usually, you are already one step behind me, but this time I had to go in search of you! It’s fun to switch things up from time to time, yes?”

Conta averted her gaze. “I suppose, Captain.”

Maria chuckled lightly, resting her chin on her knees. “You know, it is strange. I am actually sort of glad that you are mad at me, Conta. It’s more funny than strange, actually? I mean…” She paused to stare at Conta’s reflection in the rippling water. “It is from that distance that I truly realize how much you mean to me.”

Conta’s reflection stiffened, and her eyes narrowed. “Captain, I…”

Maria beamed and popped her head up. “Even though I say that, I still hope that your next words are going to be ‘I am no longer upset with you.’ I truly did not mean to say that—” Maria paused, rose, and turned around.

Giorgio was coming along the strip of trodden land lining the stairs at the opposite side of the river. In his hands was a brown bag full of food. A gift from Raul, probably. The chef had decided he felt comfortable enough not accompanying Maria several days ago and had returned to the ship to continue his cooking duties. Since the stores and stalls dotting the pier were still devoid of people, it was not so hard to raid them for food ingredients. In fact, it had been rather boring. But Raul was happy with that so Maria supposed it was fine.

Maria drifted back across the river and popped up back onto the stairs just as Giorgio came down the stairwell. When she approached him, he flinched away from her while holding the brown bag high above his head.

“Captain! Captain!” Giorgio stammered. “The food! You’re dripping wet!”

Maria neared him still, placing one finger to her lips as she reached for something at his belt. “You said you sleep with a knife, my dear Giorgio, but I see you have started carrying it with you all times! You are starting to get the hang of me being your captain, yes?”

“Wha—”

Maria plucked the knife from his side, flipped it and caught it by the tip of its blade, before hurtling in the direction of one of the buildings behind him. The knife whistled through one of the open window there—a sound followed by a loud grunt and then a thud.

Maria brushed past the others and headed to the building she had sent the knife into. She leapt in through the window and landed deftly on the wooden floor inside. There was a trail of blood there leading to the corner of the room, and within that corner resided a panting man clutching his left arm. He was tall and dark with bottle green eyes. He tensed as Maria approached him.

Her gaze flicked to his sides. No weapons.

Wait. Had she gotten the wrong person?

Pay attention. Observe. 

Her gaze drifted to the man’s wound—rather, the hand clutching the wound. And then she smiled. This was definitely the right person. What was it that Cadence always said? ‘Bingo.’

“You are not a very good spy, yes?” Maria asked, reaching forward and wrapping her fingers around the hilt of the knife that protruded from his arm. “I could see you following my dear Giorgio from far away, my friend.”

The man’s bandaged hand gripped his wound and what little of the blade protruded from his arm. He was evidently missing several fingers.

Without hesitation, Maria ripped the knife out from his arm and watched as the man yelped and slid to the ground with a groan.

That’s terrible.

Not really.

Maria fell into a crouch in front of the man and tapped the knife at his cheek. “What exactly were you doing, my friend, following Giorgio like that?” She smiled and pressed the edge of the knife against the man’s face. “Mm… that’s not the right question. The right question is what were you planning to do to my dear Giorgio?”

Gritting his teeth, the man remained silent.

“You see, I have lost quite a few things recently, and I’ve been starting to think that the feeling of losing things is not fun, yes? So this is important to me, do you understand?”

Again, silence.

“Hm. How about this? One of my friends likes reading books, you see,” Maria continued. “There is one book she read—it is quite funny—where this one character who was a cannibal, yes? He ate other people and was able to get their memories from eating them. It was a horror story, but I found it very funny.” She leaned in close and whispered into the man’s ears: “Shall I give it a try?”

“Captain!”

Maria turned her head and found Ley, Morandi, Simon, and Giorgio storming into the room behind her. While Simon, Giorgio, and Morandi came in through the door, Ley leapt in through the window and was at Maria’s side at an instant.

Ley’s gaze flicked from the knife in Maria’s hands to the wounded man. Her eyes then narrowed from above her magenta mask, and she sank to the floor beside Maria while placing a hand on her shoulder.

“Do you mind if I try a crack at it, Captain?” Ley asked, voice barely muffled. “I used to be called a villain back in the day, so I’m sure that I might get some more out of him with just a little less loss of appendages.”

Maria considered Ley’s proposal for a moment before nodding and peeling away from the bounty hunter’s side. Ley took her place, falling into a crouch in front of him.

“Where are your bounty hunting pals?” Ley asked after a yawn. “You came alone even after you saw her tear through you guys that other night. That doesn’t seem like a very bounty hunter-like thing for you to do.”

The nameless bounty hunter glowered, but something else flickered in his eyes. What was that look? Pain—a different one than physical. That pain was of someone who had lost—

“Piscese bounty hunters don’t tend to operate in groups so I was pretty surprised when I saw you guys working together.” Ley yawned again, rubbing the tears out of her eyes. “Sorry. Tired. Anyway, that’s a pretty murderous vibe you’ve got there in your eyes. Makes me wonder if the bounty is all that’s on your mind.”

The flicker in the man’s eyes sparked into a flame and he launched himself up at Maria only to be swept to the ground by Ley who had kicked her feet beneath his own. He hit the ground with a thud and then went limp.

Ley swore under her breath and reached over to check the man’s pulse. “He’s just passed out.” She glanced at Maria. “We could use a Transmutationist if you’ve got one.” She gestured to his bleeding arm. “It’s not deep, but what do I know?”

“You really know how to take the reins, huh, my dear Ley?” Maria chuckled before she glanced over her shoulder at Simon. “No Transmutationists here!”

Ley shrugged and began to search the man’s clothing. She paused and pulled out something from the folds of his shirt. It looked like a keychain. A rather cute one of a blue mini surfboard. “Either a lead or a dead end.”

Maria hummed.

“It might be too good to be true,” Ley drew, “but there was that surfboard shop we passed by earlier.” She tossed the item to Maria. “Surfboard. Water. The Elementalist. The beast of the deep. Bounty hunters. The package. There’s too many coincidences.”

Maria inspected the keychain before swinging it by the ring around the point of her knife. “So the surfboard store is the way to go, yes?” She threw it up in the air, caught it, pocketed it.

Ley rose to her feet. “That seems the case. I think we should wait until princess here wakes up before we check it out though—”

“No, you will all stay here while I go now,” Maria said, wiping the knife off on her shirt. She twirled it around as she approached Giorgio who was hovering by the doorway and slid the thing back into his belt. “If there really is a beast out there, then it only makes sense for another beast to face it, no?”

***

Oddly enough, excitement was not brewing in Maria’s chest as she wove her way back through the colorful town of Hapaira. Instead, an emotion that was a bit unfamiliar to her was growing there. She couldn’t quite place a finger on it, but it was quite unpleasant—tying her stomach into knots.

At a fork in the red brick road beneath one of the town’s infamous arches, Maria paused to look left and then right. “I don’t remember which way to go…”

Left. 

It was Werner!

She looked around but could not see him.

Wait—

He sounded unhappy.

Unhappiness has nothing to do with this. I am advising you to think your actions through thoroughly. Going into an unknown location without the proper support is—

Maria laughed, feeling the odd knot in her stomach lessen. “Do not worry, Werner, I am strong, and I will never die.” She turned down the left path and began to wind down the narrow stone walkway there.

Everyone dies, came Werner’s thought. You should refrain from speaking out lou—

“Not me.” Maria hummed as she continued onwards. “And not you. We won’t die.” Ever. “I won’t let you.”

She reached the surfboard store not so soon after. It looked the same as before with bright colorful surfboards lining its front and seashell trinkets hanging from its extended roof. A shutter door was pulled all the way up to allow in sunlight. Upon closer inspection, Maria noticed that behind all of those displays at the very back wall was a small and narrow blue door.

After a moment of consideration, she reached out and pushed over one of the upright boards decorating the front. It crashed into the surfboard behind it which knocked into another surfboard—all in a domino crescendo. The crashes echoed through the silence surrounding her for a moment but quietness reigned in a beat after.

Hm. No one was coming through the door. That was a bit boring.

She’s crazy.

“Oh, Ollie!” Maria greeted him and threw her hands up in the air. She looked around but she could not see him either. She didn’t mind it though, as the knot in her stomach disappeared completely leaving her feeling light and pleasant as always. “Are you here to join me on this adventure?”

‘Course he is, doll. It’s hard ta ignore that kinda spirit, came Cadence’s voice drifting down into her thoughts. I was wonderin’ why I couldn’t stop shakin’ my leg. Turns out your excitement is just that infectious. 

Cadence was here too! Well, that was wonderful. All that was needed was Atienna and Jericho, and it would just be like the synchronization meeting minus all the long boring talk.

“Well, onwards we go!” Maria cheered.

Wait—

Maria paced up to the narrow blue door at the back of the store. When she pulled it open, she found a staircase descending downwards. While the path down was entirely pitch black, she could see a very faint light glowing from the bottom. Without skipping a beat, she dashed down the stairwell. Upon reaching the floor below, she found herself standing in a very small room lit only by a single v-bulb that swung from the ceiling. But—

Maria could feel Olive pale immediately with fear, disgust, and horror. She could even feel the chill that ran up his spine. It was an unfamiliar sensation to her.

How awful….

It was Atienna, and with her came a wave of apprehension and worry. Something weighed down in Maria’s chest at Atienna’s thought. An uncomfortable weight.

There were bodies everywhere in front of them. Bodies on top of bodies. Bodies drooping over the small circular tables that dotted the space. Red staining into the wood.

Ignoring Olive and Atienna’s apprehension, Maria continued forward and glanced around. These were most definitely some of the bounty hunters that came at her the previous week. This was definitely peculiar.

Maybe they all killed each other, Cadence suggested. Like a shootout. Bang, bang.

Why would they do such a thing? Atienna pondered.

Bounty greed? Cadence tried. I mean, they are after the money. 

Atienna seemed to think about this deeply. As strong and as terrifying desire is, it’s a bit strange that they would all be cooperating with another only to turn on another so suddenly, isn’t it? Even though they haven’t obtained what they’ve come for…

Well, when ya put it that way…

Intuition. The same weapon was used to kill all of them. It was Jericho, solidifying before Maria’s eyes with absolute clarity. He was crouched down inspecting one of the bodies. It was riddled with fist-shaped holes. The body beside it was too. They have similar markings. Not a shootout. One person.

Werner solidified beside him as well and gave a firm nod. I would say that a Projector did this, but these markings seem different. He gestured to a woman draped across one of the tables. She had a hole drilled straight through her forehead. Look at the singe marks of the exit holes. It’s too controlled and clean.

The one who killed your package holder Elele. Jericho nodded. “That person was an Elementalist. This is another party.”

Maybe it’s another bounty hunting group, Cadence reasoned. Killin’ off competition. And Mr. Fingerless there thought it was you, so that’s why he went after ya alone. Kinda weird for a bounty hunter though. Never thought they’d be the type for camaraderie. 

Was this really about Maria’s bounty? Atienna thought. I know you have quite a strong personality, Maria, and you draw attention everywhere you go, but it’s a bit strange that the bounty hunters knew exactly where you would be… plus, we still don’t know the chronology of these events. If one event is moved slightly out of order then…

That’s a valid point, Atienna, Werner agreed.

Wow, ya both are risin’ detectives ain’t ya? Cadence snickered. Gonna give Jericho a run for his money—

‘Run for my money’—what does that—

It’s awful, came Olive’s abrupt thought.

Jericho and Werner exchanged looks.

Don’t get me wrong. Olive continued, hesitant. I get that they’re out for Maria and that they’re dangerous. But when you talk about them like that, it’s like they’re not even human. A pause. These were people. 

Olive… Atienna began.

Maria noticed something black out of the corner of her eye. “Hey, what’s that?”

Sitting in the back corner of the room was a polished black crate that reminded Maria of one of the fancy cabinets she had stolen from a Cancerian estate several months prior. Surrounding it was a ring of corpses—some still clutching what appeared to be conductors, knives, and guns.

Ignoring the hesitation she felt curling in her chest, she strode over to the crate and popped the lid open. The interior was lined with bright pink padding, and it was filled with silk white pillows and stuffed animals.

It looks almost like a coffin… that is a bit ominous, don’t you think?

Looks like a good place ta take a nap. The container looks kinda familiar though—

There was a creak from behind Maria.

Hm.

Maria kicked up a knife that one of the corpses was holding, caught it, and spun around slashing. The figure that was standing behind her, however, ducked backwards from the swing and missed it by a hair’s breadth.

Oh! Maria thought as she studied the person. That is sort of impressive—

“Geeze, Captain. It’s just me.”

It was Ley, standing with her hands held up in the air.

“Wow,” Maria hummed, lowering the knife in surprise. “You are quite skilled, Ley!”

Skilled or creepy? Olive thought. There’s a difference. 

“I’m the one who’s skilled?” Ley chuckled, straightening herself and adjusting her scarf mask.

“What are you doing here?” Maria asked. “I said to stay behind, yes?”

Ley opened her mouth to speak but was cut off by another voice coming from behind—

“Who’s there?”

Maria cocked her head. Ley’s gaze focused on a point behind her. Following that gaze, Maria swiveled around.

There was something beneath one of the tables over which two corpses were draped. Rather, it was a someone. A person who was huddled there on all fours. After a beat of silence, that person crawled forward from out beneath the table and rose to a stand.

There was alarm from Werner, Olive, and Atienna’s end but Maria herself was simply curious because—

—standing amongst the corpses was a girl no older than twelve. Her skin was a pale white which was only several shades lighter her milky white eyes. The colors contrasted with her dark brown hair which was graced with a red bow. The bow itself reminded Maria of the ones that would be placed on top of her birthday presents back at the orphanage.

The girl turned her milky eyes in their direction. “Are you here to pick me up for Mr. Campana?” She brushed off her wonderfully expensive-looking sequined blue dress before crossing her arms. “I’ve been waiting all day, you know?”


Twin Cities, Gemini

Swallowing, Matilda pressed down on the folds of her dress and checked her reflection in the window to her left. Her hair wasn’t as dolled up as it had been that night at the Romano-Foxman meeting, and her butterfly shaped birthmark seemed even more prominent beneath the dim v-lights of the café. She couldn’t help but nervously pick at the chipping wood of the table in front of her. It wasn’t her fault, really. She hadn’t been expecting this meeting at all.

“What’s wrong?”

Matilda startled as her invitee slipped back into the seat across from her. She stared down at her hands. “Uh, nothing, I…”

“You seem nervous.” A chuckle that sounded off. “There’s no need to be.”

“Right,” Matilda said nervously, toying with a thread that was coming loose at the bottom of her skirt, “so why… did you… erm—”

“Do you… want to leave the city?”

Matilda froze and looked up.

The man was dressed in a black turtleneck sweater which was much different than his normal wear, but his easy smile was familiar.

Matilda’s mind raced. What was he saying? Why was he saying it? Did he want her to leave the city? Was she not doing a good enough job with her group? “Why would I want to do that? I mean, I wouldn’t find a better opportunity than this here…”

“Opportunity?” The smile began to slide from his face.

“I mean, even if I left the city, where would I go?” Matilda tried. “I’m not even sure I’ll be able to even go anywhere. I don’t think I’m on any records. And records are important, right? I mean, I know people who left the city trying to make a name for themselves, but they end up coming back here with even less than before. This is the only place for people like me.”

There was a pause. The chatter of those around them reached Matilda’s ears. It was worse than silence.

“I see. If you look at it that way, I can see how you would want to stay forever,” he said quietly. “You are very well-spoken, Matilda.”

Matilda flushed at this, and she didn’t quite know why. She was never like this around him usually. She cleared her throat. “Thank you, but can I ask why you’re asking, Mr. F—”

Her voice caught in her throat, and it took her a moment to find her words again:

“A-Are you… is everything okay…?”

“You really are well spoken…” The man gently rubbed the wetness from his eyes. “By the way, I’ve been meaning to ask. Have you come across anything strange with the items you’ve been delivering?”

The question was so odd that Matilda for a moment forgot the man’s tears. “What do you mean?”

“Items that maybe aren’t conductors or conductor parts is what I’m referring to.”

Matilda shook her head. “Were we missing some of the items we handed off? I know some of the recent deliveries haven’t made it to the drop-off locations, but I already explained everything to you…”

The man remained silent for a moment, turning to look out the window. “Your current occupation is very dangerous,” he drew, “and it’s going to become even more dangerous soon. You should leave. I’m sure the children working under you have already started to voice their dissent.”

Matilda stiffened. “I-I can take care of them. I don’t know why some of the others acting up suddenly and quitting, but I can always look for others. There’s a lot of kids like me on the street looking for some cens so—” Her voice caught in her throat again as she registered the gaze that the man fixated upon her. Something about it was unnerving. Unnatural. “Is there something wrong?”

“The only thing chaining you to your circumstances is yourself,” he murmured, rising to a stand, “and if you can’t break those chains yourself then allow me to destroy your circumstances.” He tossed a handful of cens onto the table and turned to leave. “As I’ve said, you should leave.”

Scattered among the Geminian Cens that were still clattering back and forth on the table were a handful of strange black and white game pieces imprinted faintly with the shapes of stars.