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 and 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 that ran along its length. 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 which looked 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 on the opposite side just as Giorgio came down the stairwell. When she approached him, he flinched away from her while holding the brown bag of food 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 windows—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 who was 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 she nodded and peeled 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 either a yawn or a sigh. “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. It was a very open store with its shutter door pulled all the way up to allow in sunlight. Upon closer inspection, however, 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 was 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. When she reached 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 as was the body beside it. 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 flicker 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 turned 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 than the milky white of her 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?” the girl asked, brushing off her wonderfully expensive-looking sequined blue dress before crossing her arms with a huff. “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 on the window to her left. Her hair wasn’t as dolled up as it had been that night at the Romanos-Foxman meeting, and so it frizzed out like a lion’s mane. Her butterfly shaped birthmark seemed even more prominent beneath the dim v-lights of the cafe, and 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 and turned forward 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 found herself flushing 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.


7.6: Jericho’s Peace (Guerra)

Re-cap:

Synchronization has occurred. 

Several months prior, peacekeeping agent  Jericho was assigned to investigate the disappearance of a missing peacekeeping agent named Leona, future chairwoman of the ELPIS Department of Ophiuchus. His investigation took him to the Twin Cities of Gemini alongside his assigned partner Talib Al-Jarrah where he encountered an ELPIS sect and an ELPIS leader Omicron who had been working with Atienna’s teacher Usian. After falling into a period of stasis after their clash, Jericho arrived in New Ram City to rescue Prince Olivier Chance from former peacekeeping agent Izsak Wtorek who was discovered to have been manipulated and indoctrinated into ELPIS. 

Upon Jericho’s return to Ophiuchus, he was introduced by Talib to Gabrielle Law and her inner circle which consisted of his psychiatrist Doctor Alice Kingsley, Agent Ferris Hart, and a handful of other peacekeeping agents. And now—

Lepischau, Cancer

“He’s going around back!” 

Jericho skidded to a halt as Talib’s voice echoed around the stucco alley walls.  He glanced up and found a paper crane enveloped in dark blue light racing over his head. He chased it down the opposite end of the alley and into the backdoor of what appeared to be a pastry shop. The pâtissiers that were within yelped and jumped backwards at his entrance sending a mist of flour into the air.

He ignored them and scanned the area. 

Floured counters, folded dough, piping bags gripped tightly in hands. 

There.

The origami paper crane was fluttering over the counter that divided the kitchen from the front of the store which was crowded with startled customers. The crane began to ring around a patron who was slowly backing away towards the door behind him. A young blonde man with bulging, vacant eyes.

Jericho threw himself across the counter towards the man. Instead of running out the door as Jericho had calculated, the man grabbed the closest patron—an old woman wearing a floral shawl—next to him with one gloved hand and held out the other hand haltingly to Jericho. When Jericho continued forward anyway, the man flicked his wrist. At the base of his gloved palms flashed brilliantly light that flickered from a pastel pink to a mint green. Telling signs. The light eventually solidified into a distinct shape. A gun. A Conjuror.

The other patrons were shouting and cowering now, but Jericho paid no mind. Instead, he studied the gun. It was misshapen and crooked like someone had melted it the forge of a conductor-manufacturing plant. Seeming to not care about its malformation, the Conjurer lifted the weapon and pressed it against the older woman’s temple. 

Without hesitation, the Conjuror moved his finger to the trigger. Without hesitation, Jericho kicked his foot out and knocked the gun right out of the Conjuror’s hand. The Conjuror did not hesitate again to conjure another weapon—a knife—and he released the old woman and charged at Jericho.

The man jerked forward strangely. Like a puppet on strings. It did not take much effort for Jericho to dodge the thrust of the man’s blade. And as Jericho lunged forward to knock it out of the man’s hand, he found that the blade too was misshapen, bent. Jericho swung his suitcase up and uppercut the Conjuror causing the man to lose his footing. Using the open opportunity, Jericho spun the man around and slammed him against the wall. One of the patrons screamed again.

Jericho reached for the suppression cuffs on his belt and slapped them onto the man’s wrists. The man immediately went slack and let out a groan. 

“What is your name?” Jericho asked as he held the Conjuror in place.

“Leize. I’m Leize. My name is Leize,” the Conjuror whispered, eyes wide, words hollow.  “That wasn’t me. I-It wasn’t. I saw. Not me.”

“You are okay, Leize,” Jericho said. “You will be treated by the Medical Department of Ophiuchus—”

“I’ve found the Manipulator!” This time Talib’s voice resounded much more closely. Just outside of the store. 

The paper crane had slipped beneath the door and was now hovering outside the store.

Jericho released the Conjuror who collapsed like a rag doll onto the floor. He stared at the man for a moment, regretting that he had not put him down more gently. He then addressed the older woman whom the Conjuror had previously held hostage: “Please watch this man. And do not take off the cuffs.” 

With that, Jericho burst out of the storefront following the fluttering paper crane through the busy streets of the Cancerian town. He blasted past the crepe stall that was pulled out on the side of the store and darted along the gray brick sidewalk. 

The crowd casually strolling along the pathway let out shrieks and parted. 

There. 

The only one who was running away from him. 

The Manipulator. A tall, blonde man wearing a dark blue suit. His escape was one full of clumsy stumbling with each step ending in a trip that he had to pick himself up from. Jericho was vaguely reminded of the drunk, swaggering man whom Cadence had played a round of poker with at a bar the last time they had synchronized. 

The distance between them closed swiftly. 

As Jericho neared him, however, the man abruptly whipped out a knife conductor and began swinging it wildly in an arc in his direction. Fortunately, the Manipulator’s erratic behavior earlier had already prompted people to stay as far away from him as possible. No complications. 

Ducking beneath the swing of the blade, Jericho swept his leg beneath the man’s feet causing the man to flop backwards onto his back.

Jericho pounced on the fallen Manipulator and held him there, squeezing the hand that wielded the knife conductor. There was a crack and the Manipulator released the weapon with a yelp.  Jericho placed a foot on the conductor and dragged it away from the man and slipped it into a slot on his belt. He then felt along his belt and then paused. 

Hm. 

He had forgotten to grab an additional suppression cuff from his suitcase which was for once not attached to his arm. 

What to do. 

Abruptly, however, the Manipulator began writhing and convulsing beneath him. The man’s eyes had snapped to the back of his head and his tongue was lolling out from his mouth.

Jericho released the man and rose to a stand watching him continue to contort almost as if having a seizure. Jericho knew this, of course, was not a seizure. Fact. This was penance. Justice. 

Talib Al-Jarrah joined him half a second later. He was panting heavily but brushed past Jericho to inspect the perpetrator. 

A sympathetic yet righteous look passed over Talib’s face before he knelt down to slap suppression cuffs on the man’s wrists. “What a fool.”

***

Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

“The Cancerian Manipulator was charged with five cases of illegal manipulation and conducting without a license. Four of the cases were women. They were treated by medical Conductors who managed to transmute most of the Manipulator’s vitae out from their bodies. They are in recovery. The same cannot be said for a charged suspect. It seems as if he’s suffering from the usual psychosis that results from living manipulation.” Rattling off the details of their latest closed case, Talib took a sip of tea and crossed his legs. He clicked his tongue and shook his head, huffing, “This is why Manipulators have such a terrible reputation. Because of people like this man.”

“If you aren’t careful, you’ll end up not so much different than him,” Doctor Alice Kingsley said from beside him. She was eating a fruit salad from a plastic container and had paused to gesture at him with her fork. “Although with the way you are, I’m not sure it’d make a difference.”

“Ah, yes, Alice, your words are as sharp as a knife that cuts through the heart as always,” Talib said.  “Good. That’s how I know the Organization hasn’t gotten to you yet.” He pointed to her plastic fork. “But, if you continue using things like that then it’s only a matter of time. Don’t you know that’s how they’re able to move forward with their plans? They make small, subtle changes to your environment without you noticing. You think to yourself ‘oh yes, how convenient this disposable fork is,’ but in reality, that fork is a device they use to lower your guard—that’s how they get you. Ignorance is compliance!”

“It isn’t healthy to make blaise comments like that,” Alice returned, slowly inserting a piece of lettuce into her mouth with her fork. “You may eventually convince yourself that all you are saying is true, and then you may not even be able to discern reality from fiction.” 

“Who says that it’s fiction?” Talib rebutted before his voice became gravely: “The Organization is a very real threat, Alice. I’ve known since childhood that you were of a person of intelligence so it’s strange that you would openly deny their existence—unless it’s that you’re trying to get them to think that you don’t believe them which is quite ingenious—”

“For such a terrifying organization, Talib, why would they have such a common name as ‘Organization’? Assuming that they’re the megalomaniacs you’re painting them as then would they not choose a more eye-catching pseudonym?” 

“Well—” 

Jericho watched them go back and forth from the sofa across from him for a moment before he turned to study the others in the room. Ferris Hart from the Assignment Department was sitting to his left and was giving Talib a tired look. She had recently dyed her hair a bright popping blue, and Jericho still had yet to adjust to it. 

“Adjusting to new things takes time,” Alice had told him during one of their first sessions. “And a willingness to accept.”

Roberto Gonzalez, a middle-aged man of Leonian descent with dark curls and full cheeks, was sitting to Jericho’s right and puffing a v-cig. Roberto belonged to the Commerce Regulation Department of Ophiuchus. Although the man was only a general agent in the department, as Gabrielle put it, “he had the keenest eye in Ophiuchus.” Accordingly, Roberto was able to spot conjured or transmuted counterfeits of anything on the spot. He had even closed a case that made headlines in the papers recently. 

Although there was no seating chart in place that Jericho knew of, it always seemed as if they fell into the same seating arrangements whenever they had their lunch meetings in Gabrielle’s office. At the thought of Gabrielle, Jericho stared at the empty desk behind him. The dust piling up on the surface was unsightly.  

“Regardless of your beliefs, your Cancerian criminal was handed to me,” Alice said, waving off Talib mid-rant. “I’ve heard from the chairman above me that they may transfer you both to more specialized departments.” She locked eyes with Jericho as she said this. “And I put a good word in for you both despite my initial misgivings, so we are making progress.”

“Well, your report was nicely typed, Talib,” Roberto commended. He spoke very fast like he was in a rush, but he appeared very relaxed.  “Might get you a promotion up to maybe the fourth chair of the General Investigations Department. And with Gabe promoted to second chair last month, and Alice keeping it up as third chair of the Psychological Evaluations Department, we might actually be getting somewhere finally.”

“Correction, Roberto,” Talib interjected, “I wasn’t the one who typed up the report. It was my partner here, Jericho.”

“The ELPIS guy? Really?” 

The guy who gets paid to play spot the difference? Really? 

“I’m not with ELPIS,” Jericho said. “It’s rude for you to say that.”

Roberto scoffed. “I still don’t get why Gabrielle roped you into this to begin with. She wants to create a big and good name for herself in order to head Ophiuchus, but she took you in. With a background like that, you’re bound to ruin her reputation.”

“Not many people know of my former association with ELPIS,” Jericho corrected. “Only the first chairmen of the departments and the executive of Ophiuchus know. And Alice. And you all.” And the other five. “I don’t use my conductor often.”

“Roberto, how could you say something like that?” Ferris interjected. “We’ve been working with him for months now and you can see how dedicated he is. I can’t believe you.”

“That’s not what you said when you found out the first time he used to be a part of ELPIS,” Roberta scoffed. “You told me you were scared of him.”

Jericho paused and stared at Ferris. “Really?”

“I—”

“Enough,” Alice said, putting her salad down on the island table. “Even though Gabrielle is away, we need to keep consistent with our work. There is no point in remaining in the same position. We all need to work to elevate our rankings, including you, Roberto—”

“Hey, I’m trying—”

“Yes, Roberto is merely being stagnated by the Organization’s machinations—”

“Talib, be quiet—”

Jericho watched them fire back and forth. 

In the past couple of months, Jericho had found that his social circle had increased somewhat. The addition of Olivier, Cadence, Werner, Maria, and Atienna had already increased Jericho’s circle from one to six. He was quite happy with his progress, although he could not inform Alice of it due to the group’s agreement of secrecy. Therefore when he was introduced by Talib to the individuals who were in Gabrielle’s inner circle, he supposed he had been something akin to ‘happy’ since Alice was able to see this progress. 

“What are you looking at?” Roberto huffed suddenly causing Jericho to realize he’d been staring at the man.

“Nothing,” Jericho replied, looking away in favor of staring at Alice’s salad. 

Jericho wondered if Roberto was someone who could even be considered a friend. He made a mental note to inquire Alice about it later. Or maybe Atienna or Cadence. 

That matter aside, other than Gabrielle herself, three other people who were a part of Gabrielle’s ‘inner circle’ were missing from the luncheon.  

The first was Moaerni, a man from Piscese who apparently knew Izsak and Gabrielle during the war. He worked in the Licensing Department and had a rather busy schedule. Cadence had tried several times to convince Jericho to “butter Moaerni up” so that Oliviercould more easily pass the State Conducting Exam. Jericho hadn’t understood what she’d meant but Werner, Atienna, and Olivier had all shut down the idea. 

Whenever Jericho would pass Moaerni in the hallways, the Piscese man would always give Jericho a wink and a small smile before rushing off to his next evaluation. Jericho would try his best to return the gesture. That was what their relationship amounted to. 

Then there was Elizabeta. Wtorek Elizabeta. 

Despite being apparently a significant part of Gabrielle’s operations, Elizabeta seldomly made her appearance. She was a Transmutationist in the Medical Department of Ophiuchus which was one of the busiest departments in the organization alongside General Investigations, Assignments, and Licensing. She was most likely preoccupied with her largest case. That of Izsak. 

Izsak. Wtorek Izsak. 

An Ophiuchian Conjuror originally from Taurus. Someone Alice, Talib, and Gabrielle respected. Someone Olivier was fond of. Someone who had been a part of Gabrielle’s inner circle. Someone who had tried to kill Olivier for being a True Conductor. Someone who had become a member of ELPIS. Correction, someone who had been manipulated via Manipulator into working with ELPIS. 

Needless to say, Wtorek Izsak was also a no show. 

The last no show was Flannery Caertas, but Jericho did not find her not being present unusual. She was not a peacekeeper by profession. And she apparently only swung by in their first meeting because she was well acquainted with Alice and Talib. Jericho was confused about the relation there, but he did not question it. “She’s the money bags,” Roberto had told him one day when he had been in one of his better moods. 

Their luncheon concluded half an hour later, and they all headed back to their respective departments within the Serpens Establishment. While on the way back to the General Investigations Department, Talib excused himself to the toilet leaving Jericho to stand out in the hall waiting for him.

“Traitor.”

At the sudden whisper that tickled the back of his neck, a sense of deja vu whipped through Jericho’s mind and something akin to a chill ran up his spine.  Jericho turned his head in the direction of the whisper but all he found was Ferris Hart.  

“Hey, Jericho,” she said when she approached him, “sorry if I startled you—”

“You did not startle me.”

Ferris chuckled. “Oh, okay. Uhm…what Roberto said earlier. I—”

“It is okay if you are afraid of me,” Jericho stated, offering her a thumbs up since it seemed customary and appropriate. “I won’t force you to change how you feel.”

Ferris looked sad when he said this, but he couldn’t understand why. 

***

His weekly session with Alice saw to them dissecting the contents of a small leather journal. 

“I’ve noticed that you’ve been adding drawings to the weekly journal entries I’ve been requiring you to write,” Alice noted, flipping through the journal in question. 

That was true. 

After Jericho’s incident in the Twin Cities several months prior, Alice had begun requiring him to detail his thoughts, feelings, and activities in weekly journal entries which she would later go over the following week. 

His first journal entry had read, “Given advice by C. Suggested to use Ophiuchian badge to get occasional free drinks. Informed C that I do not drink alcohol.” The next entry read: “Spoke with Doctor Kingsley. Spoke with Talib. A stated interest in my journal. Spoke with member of ELPIS Department. Denied requested information. Will try again later.”

Alice had not been pleased at these entries, although she voiced her interest in ‘C’ and ‘A’ and only seemed mildly put off when he declined to speak on them. 

The transition from writing in the journal entries to drawing in them had been a smooth one. 

When Jericho initially received the journal from Alice, he hadn’t been sure of what she wanted from the entries and had spent his free time staring at the blank journal page in thought.

It was during one of the first synchronization meetings that Werner held that Jericho had begun to sketch absentmindedly in the corner of his journal. He rendered the Capricornian Lieutenant in stick-figure form wearing a frown and the Ariesian prince with a scowl and fire spewing from his mouth. Olivier had noticed it first, glancing down at the drawing before snickering. Werner had not been pleased and had made his displeasure known in a concise five-minute lecture. “A hobby was acceptable,” was something along the lines of what he’d said, “but a distraction was not.”

Afterward, Atienna had taken interest in his drawings and had suggested that he continue them in his spare time as to “have something to take his mind off of things”. Maria had asked for him to draw all sorts of things. He was not sure if some of those things existed but tried to complete the requests anyway. Which landed him here with Alice squinting at a cat with bat wings.  

“I was told it was customary to ‘doodle’.” Jericho stared. “This is not what you wanted?”

“Why would you assume that?” Alice asked tersely. She leaned back in her chair with crossed arms. “What you’ve drawn here has told me more than what you’ve written and spoken about in all of our sessions.” For a moment, Jericho thought he saw her smile. “They’re nice, Jericho. Continue them. But I am curious as to what’s inspired them though.”

Praise? 

And then she stared at him with her piercing blue eyes. 

Again he found himself wondering if she could somehow hear his thoughts. Maybe, he thought, she would be able to pry the other five from his mind if she stared long enough. He couldn’t let that happen. He broke off eye contact and stared at the corner of her desk. 

“I’ve noticed that you haven’t mentioned ELPIS recently in your entries or in our sessions save for your recent interview with the ELPIS Department,” Alice drew suddenly. “What are your thoughts on Wtorek Izsak’s condition?”

“The Medical Department says that it is complex. The manipulation. They’re having a hard time transmuting the Manipulator’s vitae from Izsak. Elizabeta would know more about this than me.” 

“Yes, that’s what they say.” Alice raised her head.  “And Elizabeta is only able to perform transmutations along the guidelines that they’ve provided her with. She’s told me that it’s been difficult to even do that.” She began tapping her fingers on the surface of her desk, her manicured nails click-clacking. “You’ve seen how suppression cuffs affect individuals who have been manipulated firsthand, Jericho.”

Recalling Leize’s groaning and stuttering, Jericho nodded. “Yes.”

“This detail hasn’t been released yet but Elizabeta has told me that the suppression cuffs render Izsak fully unconscious.” She shook her head. “And that implies that Izsak isn’t under such manipulation—something that Elizabeta refuses to believe…. As much as I believe in Izsak’s character, these are the facts. But there is something missing. The head of the Medical Department is still labeling this as a Manipulation case despite everything. Something here isn’t fitting. I don’t like it.”

“Is that something Talib has said?”

Alice frowned. “Don’t insult me, Jericho.” 

Jericho stiffened under her gaze. 

But then she shook her head and pinched the bridge of her nose before reclining back in her seat with a sigh. “Forget I said anything.” She handed Jericho his journal back before reaching under her desk to pull out a leather, diamond-studded handbag. “Continue your journal entries, Jericho. And feel free to leave whenever you’re ready.” 

Jericho accepted the journal.

Alice paused before him as she rounded the desk and seemed to evaluate him in the silence. After a beat, she said, “Elizabeta asked me to invite you to come down to the Black Constellation Center to visit Izsak.”

Jericho cocked his head. “Why? I wasn’t close to Wtorek Izsak.”

Olivier was. 

“I’m surprised you’re not more interested in it to begin with given your goal,” Alice returned after studying Jericho for a beat. She then sighed: “Elizabeta’s being selfish most likely. I wasn’t going to even mention it. But given your recent journal entries, I thought it might be a good exercise. I’m also curious about it myself so I can’t deny I have a reason either”

Jericho thought on it for a moment. “For you Alice, okay. Izsak is not a real member of ELPIS but since he is being used by them, I will assist.” 

Offering either a hum of approval of a sigh of disapproval, Alice departed from the office leaving Jericho in silence. 

“Traitor.”

This time the whisper ghosted Jericho’s ear. When he turned his head, however, he only saw the awards and certificates dotting Alice’s wall. 

A ghost of a memory? The blur between reality and past illusions hadn’t been happening in a while. What was it that Alice had said? Focus on a single point. 

Jericho focused on a point on the wall. It was painted white, he realized. 

White. ELPIS. 

He wasn’t forgetting, was he? Forgetting ELPIS? Forgetting what they’d done? Forgetting that feeling? 

He gripped the journal tightly, crinkling the pages beneath his fingernails. 

No. He would never forget. His reason for being. 

Suppression cuffs are a newly added addition of required equipment to be carried by Ophiuchian peacekeeping agents at all times. These items will suppress the vitae flow within a suspect who is capable of using a conductor and will render them unconscious. Going forth, each agent is to carry at least two suppression cuffs while out on investigations at all times.

Additional information: The discovery of these devices was made by Agent Leona of the ELPIS Investigations Department, and they have been tested thoroughly. Usage on victims being illegally manipulated will suppress the Manipulator’s vitae and allow the victim to operate at a somewhat normal capacity until the Manipulator’s vitae is removed. 

Mass Department Update posted in the main hall of the Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus, Post Date: 31.08.1941

7.4: Maria’s Hunt (Cacciatore)

Re-cap:

Synchronization has occured.

Four months ago, Maria raided a cargo ship belonging to a sailor named Morandi. Onboard that ship, she found a golden woman in a packing container. Calling herself Oros, the woman sowed unrest  on Maria’s ship and eventually inspired a mutiny. Only Morandi and his crew, Maria’s childhood friend Conta, the Monadic priest Simon, the engineer Emmanuel, and the chef Raul remained by Maria’s side. After removing the traitors under the guise of the Golden Beast, Maria confronted Oros and found out that she was, in fact, the missing peacekeeping agent Leona. Leona informed Maria that she was a ‘True Conductor’ before claiming to spare Maria’s life…

Now, Maria sets off to Pisces to pick up a package for the Campana Family of the Twin Cities.

Onboard Gloria’s Grail, Piscese Waters

When Maria opened her eyes, she found that moonlight was still spilling in through her window and that her entire ship sounded as if it were still asleep. Only the creaks and groans of the wooden floorboards as the ship tilted back and forth, and the occasional tap of the waves against the side of the ship. 

Strange. 

Maria stared up past the streak of silver moonlight that cut through the darkness and squinted up at the ceiling in thought. It had been quite some time since she had awoken in the middle of the night. She usually slept into the early morning and liked to be awakened by chef Raul’s shouts of “breakfast is ready!” as he’d bang his ladle against his pot. 

Annoying was always Ollie’s thought on that. 

Shrugging the oddity off, she swung herself off of her hammock and approached the circular window built beside the pole that hosted her dangling prized possessions. She flicked a medal that hung from a nail and then peered through the window.

The moonlight made the black sea glow white. The moon itself was hanging low near where the sky met the sea—so low that Maria was sure she could reach out and pluck it from the air. She absentmindedly glanced at the exterior side of her ship through the porthole and paused.

There was something there. Pressed right up against the side of her ship. She peered closer and came to vaguely recognize the shadowy shape of what appeared to be a smaller ship roped to her own. It was a tiny thing that was probably only able to hold five men, or two horses, or maybe even the great bell of the Monadic orphanage she’d grown up in.

Maria hummed. “Isn’t that the opposite of the usual thing?” She attempted to lean a bit closer to get a better look but found herself unable to because the window was suddenly reflecting back her face. Her curious expression appeared there, illuminated by a deep lime green light from behind. The light also illuminated the face of the one who stood behind her. Those eyes that glowed there on that face were filed with an intent Maria was quite familiar with—the intent to kill. 

Without skipping a beat, Maria spun around and threw out her foot knocking the Projector’s vitae blade right out from their hands. The conductor landed somewhere in the darkness, and the Projector made for it. Maria, however, rushed forward, grabbed the Projector, and threw him across the room. He flipped through the air and crashed into the pole hosting all of her favorite treasures before sliding to the ground. The medal dangling from the hammered nail fell down onto his body. 

Maria plucked her sword from where it rested beside her door frame and pulled it out of its sheath. She drifted to the Projector as he stirred and with a flick of her wrist she picked the medal up with the tip of her blade and tossed it into her hand. The Projector lunged forward in that instant, and she threw her blade out again where it slipped into their mouth. The Projector froze immediately, eyes wide. 

“I have many friends who are Conductors, you see. And I have been putting much thought into whether I should become one too, my dear.”

She pressed the edge of the blade forward and leaned it a bit towards the corner of the Projector’s mouth. The Projector followed the push of her blade to the best of his abilities, but blood still began to dribble from his mouth. 

“But I think using something like this is much more cool, yes?”

Maria pressed the sword further with a thin smile. 

A shout of alarm echoed from above deck, however, halted Maria from the execution. She pulled the blade out from its human scabbard and then smacked the intruder at the temple with the butt of her blade. She did not wait to see them him against the floor, instead charging through her bedroom door and out into the hall. 

Shadows were floundering around in the darkness. Bodies on top of bodies. Flashes of light—conductors. 

Maria whistled down the hall, pulling bodies off of bodies, slashing bodies with blade, slicing hands wielding conductors with fluid ease. She broke up through the stairwell and onto the deck and was welcomed by a wonderfully chaotic scene. 

A flurry of swinging fists—even a swinging wooden plank being used as a makeshift weapon. Occasionally, there would be a burst of light and a shout. 

Maria slipped through the crowded deck, sliding her foot underneath legs and her blade into bodies with graceful ease. Her current crew compared to her previous one four months ago was a bit lacking in the combat arena. She had only picked up a handful of additional members since the incident with Leona, and so a large portion of her ship consisted of just Morandi and his men who were still sailors at heart. What they lacked in physical prowess, however, they made up for in steely determination.

More fun for herself, Maria supposed as she plucked one of the invaders off of the former sailor Giorgio who was fending off two knife-wielding attackers with a broom. She disarmed them with a swish and flick of her blade and used their weapons to pin them to the side of the ship by stabbing right through their hands. 

She spotted another invader on top of Raul—the chef onboard the ship—who was scrambling away on all fours. Maria quickly dispatched the invader by grabbing him by the scruff and tossing him over the side of the ship. There was a loud splash and then a beat of silence and then—

“There she is!” came a shout from one of the invaders across the ship who pointed what appeared to be a conducting rifle in her direction. 

A blast of light shot out from the nose from the rifle, but Maria had already ducked low in anticipation of the attack and rushed beneath it. She closed the distance between herself and the Projector and swung her blade up in an arc. There was a splatter of red, and the Projector let out a wail as he stumbled backward cradling his what remained of his fingers

“Captain!” came a shout from behind.  

Maria whipped around just in time to see someone leap at her from the railings beside her. Her attacker was, however, abruptly tackled to the side by a woman whose face was concealed by a dull magenta scarf and shawl. The woman quickly flipped the invader over her shoulder and knocked them unconscious by slamming their face into the wooden floorboards.

Maria turned away from the scene and locked eyes with the final target of her hunt—a tall and thin man standing at the center of her ship. He was wielding a normal pistol which he held to the head of a young woman with mousy brown hair. Conta. He was whispering something in her ear, and her expression darkened as his words continued. 

Tossing her blade to the side, Maria charged at the man full force. The man startled in response and whipped his pistol in her direction. Maria couldn’t help but laugh at this, reaching for a knife that hung on the belt of a woman she rushed past. 

Just as the man’s finger pressed down on the trigger, Maria swung the knife up in a circle effectively separating the man’s fingers from his hands. He released the weapon immediately but then reached for something at his belt with his still usable hand. 

Maria took the opportunity to rip Conta from the man’s hold and then stabbed the knife into the side of his leg. She swept her legs beneath him, grabbed his arm as he fell, and then flung him off the ship in one swooping motion.

After listening in for the telling splash, Maria dusted her hands, twirled around, and inspected Conta who had fallen onto the floor during the entire dance. 

“Ay, Conta,” Maria said, offering her an extended hand, “you always find yourself in these situations, yes? At least we didn’t have to go for a swim this time!”

Conta wordlessly picked herself off the ground and brushed herself off. Maria retracted her hand with a slightly cocked head. 

A thunder of footsteps resounded behind Maria before she could say anything more. When she turned, she found a panting Morandi and a panting Simon standing behind her. Morandi was covered in blood, but Maria assumed it belonged to the man who had been on top of him in the dimly lit hallway—the man whom she’d lacerated with her blade. 

“Are you alright, Captain?” Simon pressed, placing a tender hand to his heart. 

“Look at the smile,” Morandi sighed from beside him. “Of course she’s all right.” He dug into his pocket and handed something to her. A wad of paper. “It’s them again.”

Maria uncrumpled it and stared at the thing for a long and hard minute. And then she chuckled. “Only 750,000 common coins? That’s only a little more than last time, no? Say, my dears, is that a lot or a little for a person?”

Printed on the paper she held in her hands was an image of her face and below that her name and below that a name—WANTED. 

“Captain, that’s more than I’ll ever make in my lifetime,” Morandi said pointedly. “And this is the tenth time that this has happened this week. This is getting ridiculous. My men and I have to practically sleep with one eye open.”

“I sleep with a knife by my side, Captain,” one of Morandi’s former crew members, Giorgio, responded. “Er—I mean—Mr. Morandi.” 

“You can call him captain, Giorgio,” Maria chuckled and then hummed. “As long as I’m first Captain.”

Morandi grimaced. “That’ll just confuse people, Captain, although I do appreciate the gesture.”

“Nonsense!” Maria rebutted. “In Capricorn, they have things like First Lieutenant and Second Lieutenant! Do you mean to tell me you do not miss the cool title?”

“I don’t tend to think about it anymore, Captain,” Morandi responded. 

“If you say so, my dear.” Maria turned her attention back to the paper. “I wonder why there’s a bounty on my head…”

“Plundering. Stealing. Arson. Assault,” Morandi began. He gestured to the men and women scattered around the floor. “I heard one of them address another familiarly. They may be all from the same group—the same one as before. These bounty hunters.”

For a moment, Maria thought she could hear Olive listing those things along with Morandi. Olive always seemed to dislike it when she’d engage in these types of things for whatever reason. He was not fond of it at all, and she could always feel him flinching whenever she engaged in combat while they were synchronized. 

“It’s called valuing human life,” he’d grumble. “You should try it sometime.” 

It wasn’t as if she didn’t, so she didn’t understand his point. 

It would be fun though, she thought, for this crew to meet that crew. Chuckling at the idea, she turned to Conta who was standing silently. She pointed to her own face and held up the wanted poster. “Say, Conta, do you think that this picture looks like me?”

Conta stared at her for a long moment, before she replied flatly, “I wouldn’t know, Captain.” With that, she turned on her heels and disappeared below deck. 

Maria stared after her with a slight frown. “Is she still upset…?”

Simon placed a hand on her shoulder. “Just give her time, Captain. She’ll come out of it eventually.” 

“Each time they bring more people and each time the bounty ends up being higher,” Morandi grumbled from behind her. He glanced at Maria when she turned to look at him.  “I couldn’t help but wonder if this is related to our current package we’re to pick up from Pisces.”

“Why would that be when my face is the one on the posters?” Maria inquired. “Is it that you are bothered by us taking this job from the Campanas? I know you used to work for the Foxmans, and they do not like the Campanas, yes? And you dislike them just because the Foxmans dislike them?”

“I wouldn’t expect you to understand the complexities of the Twin Cities,” Morandi said, not unkindly. “There’s a certain level of loyalty required, but at the same time discrepancy is accepted.” He crossed his arms, paused, and then arched a brow at her. “How did you know the Campanas and the Foxmans had ill blood? I didn’t think you were one to pay attention to matters like that.”

Maria thought about Cadence’s meeting with the Foxmans and the Romanos that had occurred just the other day. While she had not been synchronized strongly with Cadence at the time, the memory of it had trickled down to her in her sleep as most of their memories tended to do. When Maria inquired about the debacle the next day, Cadence had waved it off as small family drama. Maria didn’t quite understand why people did not speak their honest thoughts; and when Maria asked Cadence this, the Geminian just laughed loudly. 

“It came to me in a dream,” Maria finally said. “But all right, Morandi, if you feel so strongly about it then we will no longer accept offers from the Campanas after this. Even if it is the most exciting offer in all existence,” she exclaimed, bowing low and placing a hand over her heart, “I swear to you that we will not accept it.”

“…Really?”

Maria popped up from her bow. “Of course, my dear. I am no liar and I never break promises. I don’t really understand it fully… but if you don’t like working with the Campanas because Francis, Allen, and Carl hate them, then this will be the one and only time.  At least while you and your crew are onboard, yes? I like to keep things that are mine happy. Is that such a strange thing?”

Morandi regarded her with an unreadable expression. 

“Besides, a friend of mine also doesn’t like them, although she lies about that for some reason, so it’s like that, yes?”

“A friend of yours?” Simon inquired from where he’d been watching the exchange beside them. 

“A lovely friend!” Instead of elaborating any further, Maria clapped her hands loudly and addressed Morandi: “Well, since all of the excitement is over, could you tell the others to tie all of our visitors up and throw them back onto their ship? Let’s send them on their merry way!” 

Morandi’s men grumbled a bit before he gave them a wave of dismissal and joined them in the task of gathering the bodies.

Maria watched them go before she turned on her heels and registered the magenta scarf-wearing woman kneeling on the floor behind her. The woman was busily tying up one of the intruders with some rope she seemed to have procured from nowhere. Maria approached her and dropped down to a crouch to watch her work. The woman arched a brow at Maria before giving either a grunt, a chuckle, or a yawn, and continued on with her work.

“Hey, Ley, yes?” Maria asked. “Those were some pretty amazing-looking maneuvers you did there, my friend! Where did you say you were from again?” 

Ley had been introduced to Maria through the Foxman brothers. She was a very mysterious person, always keeping her face hidden by a scarf and always covering her head with a shawl. She did not speak much but when she did, she always said something entertaining. 

“To these people here,” Ley said, tapping one of the unconscious perpetrators with her foot, “I’m from their worst nightmare.”

Maria chuckled. “That is pretty funny. That is what people usually say about me!”

“They might die, you know. Most of them are injured. If they don’t die of blood loss, they’ll die from hypothermia,” Ley said, nodding to the side of the ship where Morandi’s men were throwing the bodies over the railings into the attached smaller ship below. “While they are criminals, isn’t that a bit cruel? 

Maria cocked her head and chuckled. “Well, I am already showing them enough mercy as it is, yes? And if they come back—well if you are worried—” She gestured to herself widely. “—I am strong, my dear, so I will protect you.”

Ley chuckled. “If you’re that powerful, then why not tie them and keep them on board? Drop them off to authorities when we get to land.”

“I don’t want anything on this ship to hurt or to take what is mine,” Maria said, and that was that. 

***

Pisces was one of Maria’s favorite countries to visit because it was filled with more colors and sounds than any other country she’d ever visited before. Within the borders of Pisces was an even more spectacular port town which—according to Atienna—topped the lists for the number one tourist attraction sites of Signum. 

The city town Hapaira.

It was commonly known in Common as the ‘town of sapphire’ but it was often referred to as the ‘town of hunters.’ The slogan was that “whatever you were looking for, you could find it here.” And Maria found that those words certainly rang true. 

Excitement was always around every corner. Each turn, a chase or a scene. Each encounter, a door opening to a new and exciting adventure. All sorts of people from all walks of life—those from within Signum and those from without—passed through here. 

Maria remembered the first time she came to the Piscese town almost as if it was yesterday— 

The deep blue sea had brightened to a cerulean hue as she had neared the docks that had been spotted with numerous colorful ships of all shapes and sizes. Piscese women and men had cheerfully greeted her arrival before she had even neared shore. They had swung by using surfboards and sailboards and had climbed onboard bringing with them small, tourist-like trinkets like hand-carved pendants and seashell bracelets. Some even performed small water tricks.

Using conductors, the Piscese Elementalists had dipped their hands into seawater and had made the liquid twist into all sorts of shapes—birds, squares, circles, flowers. Then came the festivities. The night of their arrival so happened to be the night of an annual Piscese summer festival. There was chanting, singing, and dancing—all around a large bonfire fueled at the meeting point of sea and land. In the firelight, the darkly inked tattoos of the Piscese seemed to come alive on their skins—dancing, twisting, telling stories.

That night occurred only a week or so after she’d been taken from the Monadic orphanage. And it had certainly been a night to remember. 

And so, on the morning of the day they were to arrive at Pisces, Maria called all members of her ship onto the deck. It was barely dawn so most of them stumbled around groaning and yawning and grumbling. 

“We’ve been here before,” Giorgio grumbled. “It’s not anything new, Captain.” 

“But not with this ship, these people, and this atmosphere!” Maria had rebutted. 

The protests silenced when Raul brought them a hearty breakfast of eggs, sausage, chorizo, and coffee. Soon the entire crew was contentedly sipping from warm cups with full stomachs and looking out towards their destination. They weren’t able to see anything, however, since the horizon was veiled by a thin layer of mist, but Maria thought that just added to the excitement. 

Maria tried to reach out to the other five to show them the beauty as well but only managed to get Werner and Cadence synchronized with her. 

Werner appeared to be riding on a v-train of some sort, and Cadence seemed to be sitting by herself in an empty, white hallway that smelled a little bit like alcohol. They seemed like they certainly needed some cheering up. 

Maria drew near to the railings of the starboard port of the ship so they could all get a better look at the sea line. Neither of the two spoke. 

Maria glanced over her shoulder and smiled as she registered Conta standing there. “Do you remember, Conta? Right after the orphanage, they took us here, yes? The pirates.”

Conta stiffened at the address but then replied just as flatly as before: “Yes, Captain, I remember.”

“It’s not like you to reminisce, Captain,” Simon said as he joined them, coffee mug in hand. “Although I understand why. The town is really something else. It almost reminds me of home… the Monadic Temple.” 

With that, they all turned their attention forward just as the ship pulled through the misty veil revealing the city that glistened white on the blue horizon. But—

It was easy to see even from their distance the ruin.

The bay was littered by overturned ships, splintered pieces of wood, and metal cargo containers that jutted up like cliff faces from the seabed. In between all of these things lay fallen palm trees that bobbed up and down in the water and wooden crates that bounced back and forth in between them. The sandy white beaches in the distance were empty and strewn with fallen trees, and the docks looked desolate. 

Saints, that’s not good, Cadence thought with a grimace. What happened there?

“It must have been a storm,” Morandi said from behind Maria as he neared the railings. 

Captain Gloria-Fernandez, came Werner’s gravity. You should be cautious. Just because a storm has passed doesn’t mean the danger has passed. 

“Ay, your worry too much, Lieutenant,” Maria chimed, ignoring the look of confusion Morandi gave her. 

You worry too little, Werner returned before fading from her vision along with Cadence. 

***

It was quiet as they pulled in. Navigating around the wreckage was an exciting event for Maria, although Morandi and Simon didn’t seem to share the same sentiment. Maria cheerfully consoled them all the while and safely docked her boat at the pier. Her voice carried across the waves and seemed to be swallowed up by the void of dead silence around them. 

“Something isn’t right here, Captain,” Morandi muttered under his breath, squinting up at the sky as he followed her off the ship onto the pier. “The seagulls are too quiet. The ocean is too calm.” His leather footsteps against the wood beneath them accentuated his words. 

“You are always saying how you want everything to be more calm and quiet,” Maria returned. “Is this not what you wanted? And, as you said, there was a storm. And—Raul? What are you doing?”

Raul the chef had followed them off of the ship. His sunburnt cheeks were clammy with sweat, and he was wringing his white chef’s hat in his hands. She’d never seen him without his hat before and was enamored by his blonde curls. 

Raul shook his head. “This place gives me the creeps, Captain. I’d feel much safer going with you.” 

Before Maria could even digest the statement, her attention was drawn to the handful of her crew members who had followed the chef off of the ship. Simon, Conta, Ley, and a handful of Morandi’s men including Giorgio were standing nonchalantly behind him. 

“We’re tired of staying on board,” said one. “Time to stretch the legs.”

“I want to sightsee,” said another. 

“I’m the one who knows the location of our package holder,” Simon provided, nonplussed.

“I’ve never been to Pisces before,” Ley explained with a yawn. 

“Emmanuel and some of the others will keep an eye on the ship,” Simon added, “so there’s no need to worry about that.”

Maria shrugged, not really concerned about the ship at all. 

They set off in a cluster. 

Simon tried his best to speak about the best the town had to offer as they walked along the pier, but eventually, he trailed off. The bright and colorful straw-roofed stalls that usually dotted the walkways along the pier were empty. The tent flaps of the barren stalls slapped noisily against the wind in the quiet. 

There was not a single person in sight.

As they drew near the lip of the town, Maria took in the familiar sights. Little shops and buildings—some with stuccoed roofs and others with straw roofs, some with wooden structures and others made of colorful limestone—dotted the red brick path before them. Many of the buildings had extended roofs that oversaw patios spotted with small tables and chairs. 

But once again there was not a single person in sight. 

“Hello!” Maria called out, cupping her hands. 

When Maria turned, she found a pale Morandi and even paler Raul standing behind her stiff as stone. The others who had come along with them were also rigid save for Conta and Ley who were both looking around curiously. 

“Captain, please refrain from doing that,” Morandi said. 

“How will people know we are here if I don’t shout?” 

“That’s not—”

“Aw, my dears, are you possibly frightened?” Maria asked cheerfully. “You all know you are safe with me.”

If there was a response, Maria did not hear it and continued into the town. The others followed quietly behind her.  

The deeper they went into the town, the more the silence became evident as the crashing of the waves onto the sandy beach faded away behind them. The buildings here were wooden and painted with bright vibrant shades of reds, blues, yellows, and even greens. They had open, glassless windows, and many had doorways that were covered only by colorful pieces of hanging leather tarp. 

Maria spied someone peering in through one of the windows of the buildings. She waved at them, but they flinched away and shut their shutters. Strange.

“Captain, there’s someone sitting over there.”

Maria followed the direction of Ley’s gesture to a very pretty man who was seated at a table in front of a sweets shop. He had silky blonde hair that was tied up in a loose ponytail and was dressed in a loosely buttoned blue blouse over which a checkered suit jacket was thrown. There was a teacup in his left gloved hand and a newspaper in his right gloved hand.

The man continued to calmly sip his tea and read the paper at their approach and only set the cup back on its platter when Morandi cleared his throat. 

“Hello there!” Maria greeted him as she took a seat across from him. The chair was wet, but she didn’t mind it. “You look like you know many things, my dear. Do you know why you are the only one sitting here when it is such a lovely day?”

“I’m afraid I’m as befuddled as you are, miss.” The man smiled politely. He spoke in Common, his accent thick and Cancerian. “It appears as if something has occurred in this town.” His cerulean gaze swept the area. “People are afraid, no?” He paused to take a sip of his tea. “I’ve only heard rumors, but it appears as if this town has been visited by a monster of some sort. A beast.”

“The Golden Beast?” Maria perked up.  

“No.” The man shook his head with a perplexed expression. “I don’t believe that’s what it was.” 

Maria felt a bit disappointed at that revelation, but curiosity soon followed. “If it is not the Golden Beast then what beast is it?”

“I believe they called it the beast of the deep,” the man answered slowly. He then chuckled and shook his head. “Just a series of terrible storms. People always supernaturally explain away things they don’t understand. My, in fact, I know a Libran who—”

“You speak as if the supernatural is not real. Super means ‘cool’ and ‘best’ in Common, yes? So supernatural should mean the best cool of the natural, yes? Natural as in normal, so supernatural as in the best normal! Do you follow?”

The man stared at her silently. 

For some reason unknown to her, Simon and Morandi sighed from behind her. 

Abruptly, the Cancerian man reached across the table and grabbed hold of Maria’s hand and placed a kiss on top of it. “Miss, I tried my best to resist, but your beauty is too captivating. And your words have captivated me further. May I perchance have your name?”

Maria flipped the man’s hand in her own and then tugged it forward so she could return the gesture. “Maria Gloria-Fernandez.”

The man stiffened at first but then smiled genially. “I am Chevalier Renée LeBlanc.”

“Chevalier…” Maria turned the word over in her mouth.

Renée flipped his ponytail over his shoulder

“Why does that sound so familiar?” 

For some reason unknown to her, Renée looked as if he’d been slapped. 

“That’s because Chevaliers,” Ley began from behind her with a stifled yawn, “are Cancer’s best Conductors. They’re knighted—which is a big deal there—by the monarchs and receive medals from the prime minister.”

“Wow, you are so knowledgeable, Ley,” Maria praised. 

Renée cleared his throat loudly. “Yes, that is me. Chevalier Renée LeBlanc. I know I have been in the papers quite a few many times, but it is nothing, truly.” He paused to flip his ponytail again. “Anyone can do that. That is nothing in the face of your beauty, my lovely miss, so I must ask if you would like too—”

“Thanks, Renée!” Maria chimed as she shot up to a stand and slapped him on the back. “Those were some interesting things you’ve said!” She squeezed his shoulder and added as if an afterthought: “Oh, would you like to accompany us on the journey, Renée? It is always more fun with more people, yes?”

A pause.

Morandi cleared his throat. “Captain—”

“No, Miss Gloria-Fernandez, I apologize but I must decline,” Renée interjected with a faint smile. “I am here in this town of hunters in search of something myself. As much as your radiance blinds me, I cannot lose sight of what I am here for.”

Renée was rather… dramatic.

Maria stared at him for a long, silent moment before she chuckled at the thought. “Well, alright then, Beene, I think I understand.”

“It’s Renée,” Renée corrected, still smiling, before he returned to his tea and newspaper reading. 

As they walked away from the man and his table, Morandi approached Maria’s side and whispered into her ear, “Captain, don’t you find it strange that he was sitting out there by himself?”

“Not really,” Maria said. “It is a nice day, my dear. Who would not want to enjoy this weather?” She then pointed to the sun beating above their heads in the clear blue sky. 

“Of course you wouldn’t…”

*** 

Simon led them straight through the town while continuing on pointing out where attractions usually were.

 It was certainly a unique experience—seeing all those brightly painted houses and stores with no people in them, and seeing those grand white limestone, intricately designed arches that connected one side of the street to the other without tourists posing for pictures in front of them. There were four of them total along this road and each one was more detailed than the next.

The first time Maria had seen the arches, she had been awed by their detail. Her favorite one was the one carved ocean currents that flowed up both sides of the arch and met at the top to form a splashing wave that resembled a smiling face. On her first night here, after enjoying the Piscese festivities, she had climbed on top of the second arch to better see the design. Conta had been in a panicked worry, fretting from below as Maria had made her ascension. 

From even this distance, however, Maria could tell that the designs had been worn by the weather. Although the designs were still mesmerizing, they were now a bit faded. 

They passed a store that sold surfboards out front, and Maria pondered whether she should go pluck one off of its stand and carry it with her. She brushed the idea aside after a bit more thought. 

It was about fifteen minutes later that they arrived at their destination, a small wooden house painted a bright blue shade. A sign hanging from the extended roof of the store read Post Office. Its red-painted door read the same thing as did the sign at the window. 

Humming, Maria approached the door, pushed it open, and stepped forward. A squelching sound beneath her leather boots gave her pause. At first, she thought it was blood but then realized it wasn’t sticky enough to be that. She peered down and saw her reflection staring back up at her. 

Water. 

The entire floor was sopping wet with puddles of water. No—the entire building was. It dripped down from the waterlogged counter at the back of the shop, dribbled down from the flickering v-light fixtures hanging overhead, and glistened on the peeling walls.  By the smell of it, it was seawater. 

“An Elementalist…” Ley muttered. “But to cause this much damage…”

Maria held up her hand and entered the building. She stopped short when she heard footsteps following behind her and turned to see the others huddled only a meter away. 

Maria turned forward again and approached the empty counter at the back. The mailing slots behind it were clumped with soggy stacks of newspapers, envelopes, and folders. She peered over the counter. 

There was a body there on the floor. A large man with a balding head and black tattoos inked onto his bare, dark arms. He was laying on his stomach, face planted into a puddle. 

Maria leaped over the counter and crouched beside the man. She turned him over. Morandi and a couple of the others gagged from behind her, and Maria spared them a glance before she peered closely at the man’s face. His cheeks were pale and bloated, his eyes a bulging milky white. 

“That’s Elele,” Simon murmured, placing a hand over his heart. “He’s the one who was supposed to be holding the package for us.”

There was something in his mouth, and she reached over to pry it from his lips. A wad of paper. She unfurled it and came to a familiar sight—her own face printed with bleeding ink. 

“You don’t think those bounty hunters did this, do you?” Raul asked. He was standing beside her stiffly on his tippy toes as if he thought he’d fall right through the puddles if he put his full weight down. 

Maria slowly rose to her feet, turned to them, and then smiled. “Well, if that is the case, it is time to hunt instead of be hunted, yes?”

Pisces is a vibrant country with a rich culture and people. Rivers, canals, lakes, and other bodies of water comprise 75% of its land. Due to the constant sunshine that falls upon the land, many of its locations are listed in the official top ten tourist attractions list of Signum. Numerous conservation groups have been put in place by its government to perseve its beauty.

Countries of Signum by Various Authors, 20th edition

7.1: Olive’s Bravery (Codardia)

Re-cap:

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

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

Thousand Name City, Sagittarius

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

This was pointless.

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

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

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

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

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

Olive shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I mean, we’ve got enough of a handle on the synchronization to have meetings like this once a week.” Cadence shrugged.

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

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

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

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

“Captain Gloria-Fernandez,” Werner began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It had not gone well. 

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

“Improvements could be made,” Werner finally said.

He was being gentler than usual.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lavi was different from them. The more Olive spent time with the others, the more he started to realize it. The fact was that Lavi did not seem to be connected to the others at all. She could not synchronize with them nor did any of their memories seem to trickle down to her. The only connection she had with them was through him. 

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

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

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

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

And Olive could see exactly why.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A knock at the door jolted Olive causing him to dispel the flame vitae with a wave. He turned back to his sister only to find that she had apparated into thin air once again.

After snapping his meeting notebook shut and shoving it back into his drawers, he walked across the room and pulled open the door. It was Trystan Carter, the former Ariesian head royal guard turned his personal guard. Even though Trystan had shed the honorable Ariesian title, he hadn’t yet shed the demeanor that came with it. Straight backed with furrowed brows even though he didn’t have anything to prove. Pointless. 

“Are you ready, your highness?”

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

The stall vendor there peered down at Olive through his circular glasses at his approach, stroked his graying mustache, before grunting and disappearing behind a stack of papers in the back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your highness—” Trystan began, bringing Olive out of his thoughts. 

“Not here.”

“Sir—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bodhi Temple.

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

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

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

*** 

After they finished breakfast, they boarded one of the nearby v-streetcars enroute to the heart of the city. The scenery flitted by in streaks of reds and blues and flashes of yellow. The same colors greeted them when they boarded off of the tram, albeit suffocated by a thin cloud of haze that hung low in the air. Bodies were pressed up against bodies, stalls pressed up against stalls, tea stores on top of tea stores. Shops filled with bright and colorful fruits Olive had never seen before dotted the spaces in between them all. 

It was an almost familiar atmosphere to him. Almost.  Despite the familiarity of it all, Olive felt uncomfortable. It was much colder here despite the close proximity of everything. The wind seemed to find its way through even the narrowest of spaces, but the people did not seem to so much as shiver. 

Olive spent the entire day with Trystan scouring the city’s center looking for a freelancer who met their qualifications. There were many who claimed they did, but a quick questionnaire from Trystan shut many of them down.  

They finally found their man just before they boarded the last tram of the day. The Sagittarian was a former monk of the temple they were in search of and had studied the written language of all the clans there exclusively. He was an old, wiry man with a long, white beard and with a wisdom in his eye that twinkled every time he smiled. In other words, he fit the image of what they were looking for perfectly. He also was, however, a worldly man and requested a down payment of 400 Sagittarian wuen-dongs. 

Suspicious.

But Olive was tired and annoyed and nearing the point of no longer caring. It was just money. 

Trystan seemed a bit concerned on putting down such a large down payment but conceded when the Sagittarian provided to them with documentation proving his residence and his studies there. Trystan, who also seemed tired and rather annoyed, happily provided the man with the sums. 

After receiving the funds, the man informed them that he would need to quickly pack his things and that he’d be back shortly. Before they could put in another word, he disappeared from their sights. 

After waiting for two hours, Olive said, “Our two brain cells work wonders together.”

Cadence appeared then and with a somewhat sympathetic expression confirmed for Olive that they had been swindled. And that was the end of that. Let me lend ya a hand next time, kid. Just call out ta me. I know a liar when I see one. 

***

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

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

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

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

And what about me, Olive thought to himself, all I’m doing is studying for this stupid exam. I’m not even close to finding out about what I can do for Lavi.  It didn’t feel fair at all. Olive brought the book to his face and buried his head into it. Stupid exam. Stupid Sagittarian temple. Stupid guide. I’m really… 

“Your highness?”

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

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

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

This was not the bookstore. 

Chance?

Olive turned his head to the left.

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

Their gazes met.

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

 Olive could still feel the tightness of the man’s finger on the trigger of his conductor. 

You shouldn’t be here. 

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

—a body. There was a body lying right behind Werner. Rather, it was half a body. The uniform was Capricornian. The blood staining the periwinkle uniform was beginning to wash away with the rain, and the mud seemed to be consuming what little was left of the Capricornian’s body. It looked as if the mud was going to swallow it hole. 

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

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

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

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

“But—”

“Go!”

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

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

Without another word, Werner turned his back to Olive, aimed his conductor, and fired. 

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

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

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

Olive reached out for Werner’s back but—

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

“Lieutenant?!” 

Someone scrambled to Olive’s side. A familiar-looking man with dark black hair and glasses splattered with mud and water droplets. There was blood running down his face. 

“Lieutenant…?”

Olive stared at him, and the man stared directly back.

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

Olive opened his mouth and then closed it. 

“Lieutenant?!”

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

“Retreat,” Olive said slowly, quietly, so quietly that he wasn’t sure whether he’d said anything at all.

“… what?”

“Retreat!” Olive snapped, jerking the man towards him as he scrambled to a stand.  “Do you not know what that means?!”

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

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

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

Their flight was met with a rain of light from the direction that the grenade had come from. Vitae rays. 

Olive didn’t know what was worse. The boom they made as they pelted the ground around him, or the moment of blindness he had when one hit an area in front of him. He didn’t know at all. All he knew was that he had to run.

 Run. Run. Run. 

Olive wasn’t sure how long they ran for but eventually his knees gave out and he collapsed on all fours. Everything was a haze. Footsteps around him, panting, gasping. Was he even still alive? He fisted the mud and felt the cold seep in between his gloved fingers. Something wasn’t right. He felt sick. Saints. He felt sick. He wanted to heave but couldn’t. 

A pair of feet entered his periphery.

Olive struggled to a stand, still panting.

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

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

“—retreat?”

What?

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

“Werner.”

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

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

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

“Lieutenant Waltz, answer me—”

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

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

The full weight of what he had done sunk in. 

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

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

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

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

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

Captain Weingartner looked apprehensive.

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

***

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

“Werner?” The man’s eyes searched Olive’s for something he evidently did not find. He then tried again in Common: “… who are you?” Gilbert opened his mouth again in the silence that followed but paused and continued to stare.

Olive felt uneasy under the man’s gaze, but then realized why the man was gazing at him so intensely. Olive was shaking. His shoulders were trembling. He wasn’t sure if it was from the frigid cold that was burning his cheeks or—

 Saints. He was pathetic.

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

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

They found Nico in the first of a series of lined up tents that were set up behind a cliff face a mile deeper into the forest. When they entered, Olive was immediately overwhelmed by a putrid smell. The smell wasn’t an overwhelming alcohol-filled slap to the face, but it wasn’t a nauseating wave of suffocating iron either. It was a terrible mixture of both.

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

“It smells.”

Gilbert nodded. “Well, yeah.”

After a beat, he followed Gilbert into the tent. Blinking away the tears that formed at the smell that permeated within, he surveyed the interior.

There was a row of beds lining each side of the tent with nothing between them besides an occasional metal cart. The beds were occupied by uniformed men and women who were pale yet sweating. Some of them looked like if they moved even an inch they would die from exhaustion. 

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

“Hey, you home?”

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

Olive regarded Nico. Cadence’s longtime, childhood friend. Olive had only seen flashes of Nico from the handful of Cadence’s memories that had trickled into his mind since their six-way connection began. In those memories, Nico had been a teary-eyed, curly-haired mess of a boy who followed Cadence around like a lackey. Now he stood before Olive tall and almost dignified. Almost intimidating.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pity in Nico’s eyes was infuriating. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Study for the—how old are you?!”

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

“Old man?!”

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

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

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

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

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

Olive lowered his hands, suddenly feeling weak. He was glad that he was sitting. If he wasn’t, he probably would’ve just fallen to—maybe even through—the ground then and there. “What if…” What if he was stuck like this? What if Werner was—

A brush on his shoulder cut the thought off. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Olive reflexively glared. 

“Is the Lieutenant—”

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

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

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

Werner was going to be so pissed. 

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

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

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

What was going on?

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

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

The sounds meant nothing to him. 

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

Olive shrugged and didn’t comment on the oddity. There was no point in panicking about it. It’d just cause more problems not worth the trouble.

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

Maria. Of course it was Maria.

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

“Only what Werner told me.” 

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

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

“Kid, enough with the brattitude already.”

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

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

Klaus stared at him wide-eyed before giving an uncertain look to Gilbert who shrugged nonplussed.

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

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

Klaus was gaping again.

Gilbert flourished his hands sarcastically. “Thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Want to know. I like to observe—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A beat of silence. 

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

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

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

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

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

“Gilbert!” Nico exclaimed. 

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

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

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

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

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

And then there was deep black.

*** 

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

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

Saints, there ya guys are! You and Werner—

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

—it was strange not feeling you—

—how are you all feeling?

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

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

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

“Your Highness!” 

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

“Are you feeling alright?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Claire?”

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

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

Countries of Signum by Multiple Authors, 20th edition 

7.0: A Broker’s Concern (Malignità)

Re-cap:

Synchronization has occured. The six main characters have come together to save the Ariesian Prince from an assassination attempt made not only by the Capricornian Watch but also by the terrorist organization ELPIS. Virgo is out of isolation, the traitorous Verga has been removed, the missing peacekeeping agent has been found, the Watch has been disbanded, and now…

Twin Cities, Gemini

There was always “a word on the street” in the Twin Cities of Gemini. There was always something big happening in the city. Rumors, tall tales, gossip, and the like circulated through alleyways and late-night casinos like currency. Gossip for gossip, rumor for rumor. All done without an air of professionalism. Parsing through not only the truths and lies within these things professionally was what Astante did for a living.

For example, there was a rumor on the street that he was the best at his job. The best information broker in town was what they called him. While this was an interesting rumor, no one would pay good money for it.

Mulling about this to himself in his office, Astante emptied out his favorite box of dominoes onto his desk.

People in this city were more interested in other matters. Such matters that could easily tip the delicate balance of the city. Yes. The east half of the city and the west half of the city were on opposite ends of a wonderfully crafted scale that had been in place long before he took up this profession. It was a delicate balance that he watched carefully. He took note of even the most minute shifts, even the smallest tips of the scale.

Sighing, the information broker selected a domino from the pile and with careful precision balanced it upright on his table.

It started off with an interesting woman dropping by his office without appointment and requesting information on a renowned mercenary group that operated in the south-eastern countries of Signum. In exchange for this information, she offered him a large suitcase full of currency from different countries. Usually, he’d ask people for a piece of information as well, but she was so entertaining that he let her go with just that.

Astante had a scheduled appointment right after that with a young man who wanted information on the schedules of the leaders of a certain group. The young man claimed that he wanted an audience with the Foxmans for a job application and was tired of queuing for weeks for them. A terrible lie. So terrible, that Astante decided to go right along with it.

The Foxman brothers were a small crime organization that had a reasonable amount of power in the city due to their control over the city’s docks. There were three of them all together with the eldest Allen serving as the main head. They dealt in shipping all types of black-market goods in and out of the city and had a friendly business relationship with the Romano Family of the east side. At the end of each week, the three brothers would come together for a round of cards at the Rosario Round, a casino that served as one of their money-laundering fronts.

In exchange for this information regarding the brothers, the broker requested information about the changing relations occurring between the Campana Family of the west side of the city and the Romano Family from the liar. As usual, his lying patron was startled at his request but begrudgingly gave it when he learned that he wouldn’t receive the information he wanted unless he gave some himself. That was the art of brokering, after all.

Three days later, a rumor circulated the streets. One of the Foxman brothers had apparently been ambushed in the back alleyway outside of the Rosario Round. Of the five men who had accompanied him, only two had survived. The brother was left in critical condition.

Frowning as he recalled this, Astante continued to line up the dominoes.

Following this chatter, he had found himself booked for every day the following week. His first client was unsurprisingly the other two Foxman brothers. He was nearly thrown from his chair when he informed them that he had divulged their patterns to another patron. He was almost thrown out the window when he declined to tell them who requested such information.

“It’s policy,” he had told them. “Client protection.” In turn, they refused to tell him about their current relations between the Romano Family and the Campana Family.

That was fine, the broker supposed. He hadn’t given them information they hadn’t already known anyways. Besides, several days later that he had received that information from a member of the Campana Family who wanted to know if the Foxman brother who was stabbed truly survived the incident.

An hour after that Foxman encounter, he had been greeted with yet another unscheduled visit by a Saggitarian tourist who requested information on the best touring sites in Gemini and Aquarius. As the Saggitarian put it, he wanted the “good, secret, one-of-a-kind” locations that no one knew about. Which was an astounding request in itself. The Sagittarian requested locations that were “so jaw-droppingly inspiring that laying eyes on it sent people to hospitals.” A strange request to an information broker, but Astante was so entertained that he let the man have the information free of charge.

That too was surely something akin to a domino, he thought as he placed another piece down near the edge of his desk.

He was starting to run out of room. He glanced at the newspaper laying beside the domino he’d just placed. The headline took over half the front page—

TWIN CITIES MAYOR LUCIANO VARGAS MURDERED IN PRESENCE OF BODYGUARDS. WHAT DOES THIS SPELL FOR OUR CITY?

The fine-print article below it detailed the events of the mayor’s death. To summarize, one moment the mayor was in one piece, and in the next his limbs were scattered across his office. A locked-room mystery.

Astante brushed the paper to the ground and continued to line up the dominoes in the cleared space.

The rumors surrounding the mayor’s death came aplenty. Each one was more outrageous than the next.

The dockworkers and young kids had speculated that the Golden Beast was behind it. There was no other explanation for such a sudden and grizzly death. The Golden Beast was a story that started off as a small sea tale that had exploded out into a full-on popular urban legend. A tale about a merciless monster that disappeared people in a flash. He knew, however, that the spread of this legend could be traced to a renowned swindler who often took offers from the Romano Family.

After laying down the last domino, Astante leaned back to admire his work.

Of course, those were just rumors. Mere speculation. And although there was no such thing as a useless rumor and groundless speculation, the truth of the matter lay in a completely opposite direction.

This was all tied to three peculiar visitors who came to see him recently: the woman with the snake tattoo on the left side of her face, the man who seemed to have a book attached to his right arm, and that smiling saint candidate.

However, there was always a shade of truth in rumors. And the truth from that rumor of the Golden Beast was that normal people were no longer part of this pile-up.

With a hum, Astante reached out and flicked one of the dominoes at the end of the lineup. As he spun in his chair, he tuned his ears to the wonderful crescendo off the dominoes falling one after the other.

“With the Twin Cities left mayorless in the wake of this tragedy, many residents are left concerned on what this means for the safety of their families. Some are calling for a more detailed investigation of the mayor’s murder by the Twin Cities’s Police Officer Comissario Vincente Giustizia, while others are looking to the future and debating who should next take up the reigns.

We interviewed a trio of young businessmen on the street on what they thought of the mayor’s death. Although two declined to comment, one gave the following statement: ‘With the mayor gone, maybe there’s still hope for this place. Maybe we can now move forward.’

By this statement alone, the division of our city is clear. 

Former Mayor Vargas leaves behind a loving wife and three year old daughter.”

The Daily Duo, 03.11.1941

6b: Crimson Volition

Re-cap:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Truly, a terrible personality.

Even so, Jericho accepted Gabrielle’s hand.

And with that, an entire month passed by.

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

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

But—

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

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

Both his aunt and uncle beamed.

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

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

“What?”

“Olivier, you can’t—”

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

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

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

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

Lavender Chance, unknown time

6a: Chance Ignition

Re-cap:

The Capricornian Watch, and the truth behind the assassination. Yuseong Haneul. Lavi Chance. 

Prince Olivier Chance’s mind is swirling with these recent revelations and with everything he has revealed to the others about that tragedy six years ago. Meanwhile, peacekeeper Wtorek Izsak has disappeared after making a mysterious, startling discovery. Unbeknownst to Olive, a spark has ignited and New Ram City braces itself for the flame.

New Ram City, Aries

“Run and hide.” That was what Werner said right after admitting he knew of the secret Capricornian organization behind Olive’s assassination attempt. Ten out of ten. Still, there had been regret in the man’s eyes and guilt too. And…

It was weird feeling concern coming from that man. A Capricornian soldier who executed people without a second thought.

No. Olive knew the situation wasn’t as black and white as that. It had just been easier for Olive to think of people that way. It made rejecting people easier, which made it easier for people to keep their distance. No loss for either party. But Olive wouldn’t be able to do that now. He wouldn’t be able to reject and run away. Not with this connection. Not with the others.

He still felt raw and exposed from his earlier outburst, and part of him just wanted to bury his head beneath the ground. The embarrassment was almost too much. Sleeping forever and forgetting all about this—it’d be easier if he just did that. Even better if he just disappeare—

Olive stopped the thought before it fully formed. He focused on the road ahead. It was a dusty, dirt road reaching from the mansion gates to the royal palace. As he glanced between the iron bars to the palace that was no bigger than his fist in the distance, he realized how isolated it truly was. The only people who travelled this path were maids, butlers, and guards coming and leaving work. Occasionally a merchant cart would roll by selling goods, and Olive could see one approaching them on the road now. Nowadays, merchant carts visited the mansion more often than his aunt and uncle. So, in reality, this place had been home for Olive alone. A fact he hadn’t noticed before.

Olive turned his head and glanced at Samuel beside him. The guard was conversing with the other guards posted at the gate. They were marveling at the v-ehicle they had pulled in from the palace. Olive had to resist rolling his eyes.

Fifteen minutes earlier, Olive had informed Samuel he had found a lead on the assassination plot. But Samuel didn’t seem alarmed by his information. Samuel’s casualness was most likely linked to Olive’s past unreliability. Even still, the guards were so casual about the entire affair that for a moment Olive felt he’d been overreacting about the entire thing. Werner did seem the type to over-worry anyway. It was ridiculous—Werner worrying about this when the man had just barely made it out of a battle alive. Really—

Before Olive even finished the thought, an arrow whizzed right past his head and ricocheted off of the iron bars behind him. Olive turned his head in confusion and found a familiar arrow resting on the ground at his feet.

He looked up. The traveling cart that he’d seen only a moment before was parked right across the road. A man dressed in a chef’s uniform and wielding a conducting bow peered out from behind the cart. A handful of people Olive recognized from his days spent wandering the Ariesian markets were beside him. Shop owners. Customers. Beggars. All holding conductors.

“Forward! Forward! Forward!” They spoke Capricornian.

There was a flash of periwinkle light.

“Your highness!”

Samuel rushed at him.

There was a burst of blue, and they both flew backward to the ground. The world spun. Olive’s ears rang.

Shaking off his stupor, Olive lifted his head. The blast had sent him back onto mansion grounds. The gates were now twisted and bent out of shape. He scanned the area around him and froze. Samuel was beside him. Unmoving.

No. Not again.

Olive stumbled to Samuel’s side but was abruptly jerked backward by a hand around his wrist. His heart leapt to his throat before he realized who it was. Cadence. Even though he knew she wasn’t actually there, he could feel her fingernails digging into his wrist.

“Hey, your highness, their job is ta put down their lives for ya, yeah?” Cadence pressed. “Don’t go wastin’ their efforts.”

“Bu—”

“Those guys are here for you, kid! If ya wanna play hero, then ya should be gettin’ as far away from them as possible!”

Olive stiffened.

She was right.

He started toward the gate but stumbled back when he saw a cluster of the Watch blocking his path. Inside was the only way. But there were non-Conductors within the mansion. He needed to warn them.

Olive sprinted into the mansion and was met with perplexed looks from workers and guards alike. “Intruders!” He snapped. “Run! All of you!”

The mansion guards rushed to the door without hesitation, while maids and butlers scrambled away. A guard shoved Olive back and ordered him to climb the stairs.

Before Olive could argue, a ray of vitae blasted through the window next to the door and sent out fragments of wood and glass.

Olive’s ears rang.

Run.

Olive clambered to his feet and darted up the stairwell behind him.

He could hear them following. The stomp, stomp, stomp of their steady footsteps. Their panting breaths. Their shouts in Capricornian. He just barely managed to duck as a bullet ricocheted off the wall behind him. As he reached the last step, his foot caught on the rug beneath him. He face-planted on the floor before scrambling to his knees. He lifted his head and turned to a Capricornian pointing a rifle at his face.

“Pathetic,” came the accented Common.

Olive scoffed despite the fear. “I may be pathetic, but wouldn’t that make you—the person who’s trying to kill someone as pathetic as me—even more pathetic?”

A grimace. “Die, prince.”

Atienna appeared before Olive and guided his hand up to grab the Capricornian’s wrist. The man froze in confusion and Atienna used the opportunity to make Olive flip the man backwards and kick him in the face. The gun clattered to Olive’s side before the man tumbled down the stairwell. A handful of the Capricornians rushing up the stairs stepped to the side as the man fell, while others further went down to assess the damage.

“Keep going, Olive!” Atienna said before flickering out from his vision.

Olive grabbed the gun and ran down the hall. He ducked as a bright green ray of vitae whistled just above his head. He stumbled again and rolled, scrambling around a corner. He remained there for half a second to catch his breath, only to be startled as a vitae bolt barely missed the top of his head and gouged a hole in the wall above. Plaster rained down onto his hair and into his eyes. Taking a deep breath and gagging on the dust that clouded the air, Olive wiped his eyes and peered around the corner.

The Ariesian guards were holding off the Watch. Both sides were struggling. Projectors taking advantage of Conjurers on both ends. Elementalists blasting through them. Their numbers appeared even.

But Capricornians are more combat-ready. That is fact. Even after War’s end, they’ve been heavily trained. Many have seen real battle at the southern border with Argo.

As if to highlight this, a Capricornian Projector’s vitae bolt shot through the shoulder of an Ariesian flame Elementalist who had just gained the upper hand against a Capricornian Conjurer.

Olive bit his lip, heart hammering. He had to help. Somehow. He couldn’t be useless.

Werner appeared then, synchronizing in front of him with absolute clarity.

“Chance, calm down,” came Werner’s voice. He crouched down to Olive’s eye level. The man’s eyes were cold. Calm. He wrapped his hand around Olive’s own, which wielded the gun. “May I?”

Olive nodded.

Werner moved to cover Olive’s eyes with his other hand.

There was a silence in the darkness, then a handful of cracks. Shots fired.

The hand was removed from Olive’s eyes. A number of Capricornians were now on the floor cradling their legs. Confused Ariesian guards stood over them.

“One centimeter off,” Werner clicked his tongue. He turned to Olive. “I merely incapacitated them. I won’t kill another Capricornian. I’m only aiding you because your death will harm Capricorn.”

Uh.

“But I apologize that I didn’t inform you of this sooner. I have put you and Capricorn in unnecessary harm.” After a moment of staring, he said, “What are you doing? Run.”

Olive swallowed, nodded, ran. He stumbled down the hall and clambered up the next staircase before reaching the top floor. It was simply attic space, containing a handful of crates and valuables and a large open window at the end.

This had been a terrible idea.

Abruptly Maria appeared before him. Olive startled in surprise.

“Ollie, you are afraid, yes?” Maria asked. “I think I understand.”

“This really isn’t the time to be realizing your character development,” Olive snapped, whipping his head around toward the staircase. He could hear them coming up now. How many of them were there? Werner had listed some large number earlier, but Olive was in no state of mind to recall it.

“Do you trust me, Olive?”

Olive turned his head back to Maria.

Trust. That was a strong word. But…

“I guess…”

Without warning, Maria took his and guided him—

“Wha—”

—right out the window.

As the open sky rushed past Olive, his only thought was that he should have expected this from someone like Maria. The earth mocked him as he hurtled down toward it.

Olive squeezed his eyes shut and braced for impact but was abruptly jerked backward by a hand around the arm. At first, he thought it was one of the others, but then realized that would be impossible. Olive opened his eyes. The ground danced only inches below his dangling feet. Mocking again. He looked up. A hand was wrapped around his wrist. A familiar hand.

It was Claire. No, Haneul. Floating in midair on a staff. Wind sparkling with sapphire specs of light whistled out from the holes beneath the center of the staff.

“Y-You! Haneul!” Olive stammered as he dangled from Haneul’s grip. “You are a Conductor! What else have you lied about?!”

“That’s what you want to talk about?!” Haneul exclaimed. “And it’s still Claire!” With that, he pulled Olive up onto the staff. “Why do I always find you in situations where you’re running from something—”

He was cut off as a ray of vitae hurtled toward them from the window. He grabbed ahold of Olive’s shirt and blasted them out of the ray’s trajectory and up into the sky with a gust of wind. They whistled forward like an arrow, and the city flitted past them in smears of reds and browns. The wind whipped at Olive’s face, stinging his cheeks and his eyes, and the city blurred further with his involuntary tears.

“We have to get help! The royal palace!” Olive shouted. “Samuel and the other guard—”

“They’ll be waiting for you! Disguised! I need to keep you away from them! Trust me!”

He’s right.

“You haven’t exactly proven yourself to be trustworthy!”

“Yes, yes, I get it,” Claire sighed. “I’m actually a prince. I lied. I’m sorry. Seriously, I am. But honestly, I didn’t just approach you just because you were the Ariesian Prince. You’re actually a pretty okay person to hang out with.” He glanced at Olive. His eyes were remorseful but determined—although Olive wasn’t sure how much of either of those emotions were true. “Still, I would do it again. For my country.”

“And you said that I didn’t seem like a prince…”

“Well, I’m nothing special. There’s a prince or princess for each clan in Sagittarius. It’s actually pretty complicate—”

“Where are we going?” Olive asked as he realized their trajectory. They were heading to the city walls. “You’re going in the opposite direction of the royal palace! We have to—”

Claire remained silent before leaning forward and dipping the nose of the staff down. The air rushing them lessened and became almost pleasant as they descended. Eventually, their descent led them to an area along the city’s wall undergoing construction. There was a deep hole there in the wall—an unhealed scar from the War—and a wooden platform strung up by a rope alongside it for construction. Waiting for them on the platform were Claire’s masked vassals. Olive tensed as he saw them and recalled the night he had first met Claire.

“My lord!” the white mask exclaimed as they hovered on the conductor beside the platform. “What is going on? Why are you not at the royal palace—”

“The assassins have come,” Claire said. “I’m taking Olive away from the city. I want you and Felix to go to the royal palace and inform them that I have the prince in my custody.”

So this was another political ploy then.

At least he’s helping ya, kid.

“But, my lord,” the wooden-mask—Felix—objected. “Shouldn’t one of us come with you? What if they have an air Elementalist Conductor among them?”

“It’d be too heavy to carry someone else,” Claire sighed. “Besides, Capricornian Elementalist Conductors are rare.”

“Yeah, if you ignore the one who fired the flaming arrow,” Olive scoffed.

“The insolence!” Abruptly, Felix stepped forward threateningly. “My Lord, allow me to cut out his tongue!”

“A good way to kickstart an international incident,” Olive said with disinterest.

“Yeah, don’t do that.” Claire waved Felix off.

The man immediately stiffened. “B-But—”

“We’re going now. Be swift,” Claire ordered with an air of finality. The light and easygoing tone he had been using earlier had dissipated. His dark eyes were sharp and harsh—almost like Werner’s.

Felix tensed and then bowed his head.

With that, Claire kicked them back up to the sky. They ascended in a blur and burst above the clouds. The city was barely visible from this height, and the sun’s already unbearable rays whipped out mercilessly without the cover of the clouds. “I’m going to exit on the opposite side of the wall to throw off the Watch,” Claire continued as he moved them forward.

Olive frowned and watched as the city streamed underneath them. “Hey… even if there’s a second motive for why you’re helping me… thank you.”

Claire glanced back at him and smiled.

“I’m not talking to you,” Olive clarified.

Claire arched a brow before shook his head and chuckled. “Hold on to me.”

“What?” Olive frowned, peeling away. “Why?”

“In case you pass out,” Claire supplied. “The air is thinner up here. I’m used to it but—”

He was cut off as an arrow whistled out from below and knocked him right off the staff. Olive barely had time to discern where the arrow had come from before they were both in free fall.

“Claire!” Olive shouted as they tumbled through the open sky. He reached for the Sagittarian and just barely grabbed a hold of him.

His conductor!

The wind whipped at his eyes, but Olive blinked the tears away as he searched the skyline for Claire’s conductor. There. Only a centimeter away from his hand. How lucky. He grabbed it and fought the wind to bring it to Claire’s chest. “Claire!”

Claire’s eyes fluttered open and widened. He wrapped his fingers around his conductor and sent a burst of air out of it just as they were about to hit the ground of the bazaar below. But they were still too low. They crashed through a fruit stall in the marketplace before tumbling across the pavement.

Screams filled the air. Olive ignored them, wiped off the fruit juices that had splattered onto his face, and turned to Claire who lay beside him. The Sagittarian’s brows were furrowed in pain, and he gripped his shoulder where the arrow protruded. The arrow was still surrounded in flame-like vitae.

“The vitae’s spreading,” Olive realized in horror. “We need to get you to a Transmutationist.”

The guards ringed around them.

“Isn’t that the prince…?” one of them whispered uncertainly.

“Assassins!” Olive snapped for the fifth time that day. “We’re under attack! Evacuate the civilians!”

The guards barely had the time to exchange looks before a deep green vitae bolt exploded the flower stall next to them. Splinters shot out, petals fluttered, bystanders shouted and scattered.

Across the street, four Capricornians emerged from a dark alleyway. Two ducked behind the fallen stalls and pulled out long-ranged conductors: three rifles, one bow. The other two charged the Ariesian guards who had also drawn out their conductors amidst the chaos. There was a pause as the guards and the assassins locked eyes, then a flurry of dizzying light.

Four guards. Four Capricornians.

Another flurry of light.

A pottery stall imploded just feet away, sending shards of clay and ceramic cracking against the walls of nearby buildings.

Two guards. Three Capricornians.

Another flurry of light—

A dark green vitae bolt tore through the extended brick roof of a bakery, and a rain of blasted brick cometed the dusty square. The debris floated down into a soup shop just below it and knocked a steel pot right off of its nesting place above a fire. Its contents spilled across the ground and lapped at the feet of the two Conductors remaining.

One Ariesian guard. One Capricornian assassin.

The Capricornian who remained was the bow wielder. As the guards closed in around him, the assassin abandoned his bow for a melee conductor hanging at his hip. He ignited the weapon and produced a blade of vitae flames. The remaining Ariesian guard, a Conjurer, produced a haphazard sword that locked with the Capricornian’s blade. But the Capricornian’s sword was blazing, and the Ariesian’s began to melt against the heat. Globules of molten metal dribbled from the point of contact onto the ground.

Just as the Ariesian was about to collapse beneath the weight of the other’s sword, a bang rang out from the alley. A gunshot. The Capricornian fell to the ground. Relief spread over the Ariesian guard’s face as he squinted into the shadows of the alleyway. A figure stepped out.

A monochrome uniform and a white sash. It was—

“Mr. Wtorek…!” Olive sighed in relief. He turned to Claire who was still tense beside him. “It’s okay. He’s Gabrielle’s partner. Gabrielle’s the one who was in the throne room.”

The Ariesian guard approached Izsak while clutching his conjured blade like it was a lifeline. “Sir, I don’t know how many are left but they appear to be Capri—” The guard was cut off as Izsak brought up his gloved hand to the man’s mouth. “Sir—”

There was a bright flash of light at the base of Izsak’s glove conductor followed by a squelching sound that Olive found vaguely familiar. It was a sound that echoed within Werner’s and Jericho’s memories. A terrible sound.

The Ariesian guard stiffened, then went limp. Izsak released the man from his grip, and the man hit the ground spluttering. Protruding from the guard’s mouth was a mass of barbed wire.

“M-Mr. Wtorek?”

Get away from him.

Olive wasn’t quite sure which of the others had shouted it, and he couldn’t see any of them either. He wished he could. This didn’t make any sense.

Izsak coolly stepped over his victim before flicking his wrist. There was another flash of light, and a circular shape formed at his palm. But Olive was entranced by something else.

White. It was white.

Izsak’s vitae.

It was a pure white.

It didn’t make any sense. How—

Damn, Jericho was right, came Cadence’s thought. Everything really is ELPIS. But isn’t this guy your peacekeepin’ pal? Why would he—

What—

Grenade.

Werner’s thought sharply cut through Olive’s horror. Izsak casually dropped the conjured grenade and watched as it rolled to a stop a few feet away from Olive’s foot.

Olive grabbed Claire by the scruff and threw him backward before leaping away himself. It was a pretty useless and pathetic attempt. It probably wouldn’t have mattered whether he had made the escape attempt or not. But screw it, he thought. After all of the efforts the others had made to ensure his survival, he figured it would be even more pathetic if he didn’t try anything.

The grenade detonated, sending both Claire and Olive flying through the air.

Olive was thrown back into another stall. In the dazed confusion that followed, it took him a second to comprehend the colors that surrounded him: the flash of a blue bed sheet, the cotton plush from a mattress, and the red silk of a carefully woven blanket. By some means of ridiculous luck, he had been sent crashing into a stall that sold bedroom furniture.

A large tarp fell over his head from behind, and he fought against it for a panicked minute before he broke through the surface. Feathers from imploded pillows fluttered down around him obscuring the skyline. He stumbled over a bundle of silken pillowcases before tripping over a body. Claire. Olive darted to the Sagittarian’s side and shook him hard. Claire only groaned.

Olive opened his mouth to snap at him only to get a mouthful of feathers. He spat and gagged and spat again.

Pay attention.

Olive froze and looked up.

Out from the storm of fluttering white stepped Izsak Wtorek. His glasses were gone. And without them, he looked unnatural as he stood before the backdrop of raining feathers. In the man’s left hand was another grenade and in his right was a conjured pistol which he pointed in Olive’s direction.

“M-Mr. Wtorek, w-what—”

The man’s finger pressed down on the trigger of the gun.

Olive kicked up the thin blue mattress lying at his feet. He wasn’t quite sure if he had done it on instinct or if one of the others had overridden him to do it. Regardless, he was grateful for the mattress that exploded in place of his head.

Olive stumbled to his feet, grabbed Claire by the arm, and pulled him out of the mound of blankets, pillows, and mattresses. He tripped and stumbled and cursed with every step. Claire’s added weight paired with the sweltering Ariesian sun made the fatigue building in his legs almost unbearable.

“You’re so. Heavy,” Olive panted as he dragged the Sagittarian to the corner of the street. He was half-tempted to just leave Claire there. He was a two-faced bastard, after all. But Olive knew he wouldn’t be able to live with himself, so he continued pulling and panting.

Olive barely managed to drag Claire to the mouth of the alleyway before another grenade casually rolled to a stop an inch away from his foot. Without thinking, Olive kicked the thing as hard as he could. It flew a couple feet in the air before it erupted into flames and smoke.

The blast wave sent Olive into and through another stall that featured mechanical parts and accessories. There was no mattress to break his fall this time around. And Olive began to feel knob-like bruises pulsating at his rib cage where he had landed awkwardly on a small generator conductor. His ears rang, his body ached. His hands were sticky with a black substance.

Get up, Chance. Get up.

No. He couldn’t. It hurt.

Get up, Olive!

Olive bit his lip and pushed himself up. He stumbled over the remnants of the stall in front of him and assessed his surroundings. A canister filled with a black substance to his left. A couple of stray metal parts, an insulating tube, and a kick-starter were scattered hazardously across the ground.

But where was Claire?

There—only a couple feet away. And only a couple inches from Claire: Izsak. Izsak who was approaching Claire with his conjured pistol.

No.

Olive desperately scanned the area for anything he could use.

Not again.

This didn’t make sense.

The pieces didn’t fit. His thoughts didn’t either. Blurs of the past and the present. Heat from an unstoppable fire in his mind’s eye—heat from the sun whipping down from above his head. A memory. A reality.

And the reality was that Olive couldn’t let Claire die. Not when Claire had risked his life for him. Even if Claire was a dirty politician, even if Claire was just like the feudal lords who had whispered things behind his back after the Tragedy.

Olive knew that even with everything the other five had told him just that morning, he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if Claire died. But he couldn’t let himself die either.

There was only one way. He didn’t know how to control it, but he would have to.

Olive reached down for the canister filled with the black substance and threw its contents onto the peacekeeper. Izsak lifted his hand in surprise as a strip of oil painted him half black.

Sorry Izsak. Sorry Izsak. Sorry Izsak.

Olive repeated the endless mantra in his head as nausea and terror built up in his stomach.

Control it. Small.

Olive extended his hand out, and sparks erupted at his fingertips. Izsak’s eyes widened just as a stream of fire raced right toward him. The fire ate up the oil trail leading up to the man and consumed him in an instant. Smoke clouded the air.

Stop, Chance. You’ll exhaust your vitae reserves!

It was too late. The flames at his fingers died.

Olive’s head spun, and he felt faint. He staggered to the ground, squinting up past the smoke as it peeled away with a breeze that drifted through. The acrid smell still made him sick. But not as sick as he felt when he realized what he’d just done. Hot bile climbed up his throat, and he heaved onto the floor before wiping his mouth.

Kid, ya had to.

He rejected this thought and forced himself to look up.

Standing in the place Izsak had been was a large metal shield singed at its center. Out from behind that shield stepped Izsak, coated in the oil but perfectly unharmed.

Olive felt both relief and horror. The relief faded as Izsak’s gaze focused on him. The man approached Olive with purpose. There was no light in his eyes, and Olive knew from Cadence and Werner’s end that there was an intent to kill glistening there.

No. He couldn’t die. Not when all of their lives were tied to his. Not when Lavi was—

Olive scrambled backward desperately.

Izsak came to a stop a foot away from him.

“M-Mr. Wtorek…” Olive stammered wide-eyed. “Why…?”

Izsak stared holes into him. “What you did just proves it. You really are one of them.” He reached forward—and for a stupid moment, Olive thought that the man was going to offer him a cuff on the shoulder and shout ‘just kidding!’ Instead, the man wrapped his glove conductor around Olive’s throat.

Tears pricked Olive’s eyes as he scratched at the Izsak’s hand. He couldn’t breathe. Suffocating. Throat-crushing. A pressure. Just like that time six years ago.

“A saint candidate—no. You’re one of the connected. A True Conductor.” Izsak’s eyes seemed to glow white as his grip tightened. “You can’t be allowed to live… The Tragedy of Aries. You should have died then.”

Something inside Olive’s chest crumpled at the words and he felt tears prick his eyes. Olive wasn’t sure whether the tears were from the man’s words or from the fact that he was on his last breath.

“If the syzygy happens, then—”

—and from nowhere a black suitcase cracked against Izsak’s head, sending the man stumbling away. Olive fell to the ground and gasped for air. He rubbed his throat and looked up. Standing in Izsak’s place was Jericho, suitcase and all.

Olive felt the fear gripping his stomach release. “How—”

“I regained consciousness,” Jericho explained. “Doctor Fabrizzio Senior’s treatment.”

“I can see that…”

“The ELPIS initiates in the cargo warehouse are in custody. They informed me that the ELPIS leader went to Aries. Capital city. Intuition.”

Olive nodded slowly.

“Atienna convinced… me to abandon the ELPIS initiates. To come to you. Talib is at the port in Gemini to pick up Leona. Now I’m here.” He paused in thought. “Without jurisdiction. Off mission. Doctor Kingsley will yell at me.” Jericho clicked open his suitcase and turned toward Izsak, who was just rising to his feet.

Olive tensed.

A familiar, nightmarish-looking stuffed animal popped out from Jericho’s suitcase first and fell to the ground. Izsak stared at it for a moment before returning his attention to Jericho, who had pulled out a slim, cylindrical conductor from his briefcase.

“Wtorek Izsak,” Jericho said, activating his conductor with a flick of his wrist. “I’m apprehending you for involvement with ELPIS.” He glanced at Olive and Claire. “For making an attempt on the lives of the Ariesian and Sagittarian princes.”

Light spilled out from Jericho conductor’s tip forming the shape of a whip. The color. Pure white. It was blinding just looking at it.

“So you’re the traitor that Omicron was talking about,” Izsak said as he observed the conductor. “The traitor she met in Gemini.” He glanced at Olive. “The fact that you knew to come here means that you’re connected to him. You are a True Conductor too.”

Olive could barely grasp what was happening.

Why was Izsak…? Why was Jericho’s vitae color…?

Jericho’s past was hazy to Olive, but he had seen flashes of it. Memories of rolling sandy dunes, of a person in a white cloak extending a hand, of the very same hand offering a pat on the head as Jericho pulled the trigger on a trembling young Conductor.

You were indoctrinated into ELPIS when you were young… came Atienna’s realization that was filled with a wave of sympathy.

“Yes,” Jericho affirmed. “But I am here now to eliminate them.”

Jericho swung his conductor, and it hurtled out toward Izsak’s side. Izsak quickly conjured a thick pipe to block it. The whip wound around the pipe’s body. Izsak glanced at it with disinterest. Disinterest quickly morphed into surprise as white cracks appeared along the steel. Izsak released the pipe just as it crumbled to dust.

“You’re a Specialist,” Izsak realized.

“Stay back,” Jericho said as he threw Olive a look over his shoulder. “I am able to break apart vitae particles with my conductor.”

“You could’ve told me that before you swung that thing!” Olive snapped as he struggled to a stand. “Something isn’t right. You know Izsak… This is…”

Jericho’s glowing white whip straightened into a blade and Jericho quickly thrust it in Izsak’s direction. Izsak barely managed to dodge the jab, but he did not make it out untouched. The blade caught onto his Ophiuchian band which disintegrated in an instant. In a split second, the white blade of the sword splintered and shot out in all directions.

Rather than a whip or a sword, it seemed formless.

One of the splinters pierced Izsak’s leg, but the man quickly ripped himself away from it.

Not in long enough, came Jericho’s thought. He then recalled the splinters of light back with a flick of his conductor. The next moment he was charging at a crouching Izsak who was nursing his leg. Jericho transformed his vitae into a blade and raised it high.

Wait! This doesn’t make sense. Mr. Wtorek is—

Jericho hesitated.

Izsak took the opportunity to roll out from beneath him. He rose to his feet and glowered at them. “I’m outmatched,” he confirmed. “But I can’t allow you to live. Your existence is unnatural.” With that he brought up his hand and conjured an object.

A conducting grenade. A whole handful of them.

Get away—

A great wave of heat exploded out from the alleyway and a torrent of magenta flames enveloped Izsak’s hand. The man let out a yelp before ripping off his glove conductors that were beginning to melt in the oil-fueled heat. Before he or Olive or Jericho could react, Gabrielle burst out from the alley and tackled Izsak to the ground. The two Ophiuchians tousled around, throwing punches and kicks and snarls. Eventually, Gabrielle managed to deliver a well-aimed crack to Izsak’s jaw which dazed him. Grimacing, she hoisted herself up on top of the man and pinned his hands behind his back with an unreadable expression.

“Stay down, Wtorek,” she whispered.

Izsak struggled a bit more before going limp.

“We were just informed of the Watch by the Capricornian military. It’s a special-ops group of theirs that’s been given orders by a dissenting officer,” Gabrielle panted as she studied Izsak’s face. “Half of the royal guards have been dispatched around the city and are cleaning them out. The order from the Kaiser has been sent out for Watch members to ceasefire.”

As if on cue, the square became flooded with Ariesian guards. Some rushed to the fallen guards while others rushed to aid Gabrielle, civilians, Olive. Medical Conductors and palace guards surrounded him and barraged him with a flurry of questions.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Olive snapped, waving them away. “The others need more help than me. Samuel at the mansion and…” Claire.

Claire was attended by several Ariesian guards and had been joined by his vassals, who were frantically shouting at the Ariesians in Sagittarian. Claire appeared more amused at the situation than anything else.

Their eyes met. Claire cracked him a grin and gave him a thumbs up. Olive glared and looked away. Jericho was still standing beside him, staring holes into Izsak.

“You okay?” Olive eyed Jericho’s conductor which he had deactivated as soon as Gabrielle had burst through the alley.

Jericho blinked at him. “Yes.”

They stared at each other for a long while before Olive bent down to pick up the fallen stuffed animal off the floor. He stared at Izsak for a beat, felt something crumple in his chest, before he handed the plush to Jericho.

They stood in awkward silence.

Jericho asked, “Hug. Would that be customary?”

Saints. Jericho was weird.

“No.”

What a terrible week.

Specialist: a Conductor who does not fall into one of the five general conducting-type categories. Their ability to utilize vitae ranges with each manner of utilization vastly different from the next. There is still not much known about them as they consist of only 1% of the Conductor population.

Conducting 101 by L.B. Ran

5.4: GOLDEN BEAST

Re-cap:

Ignoring the concerns of the other five and members of her loyal crew, Maria has continued to try to befriend Oros. She also begins to investigate the disappearance of her crew members from her ship. Before any realizations can be made, however, she is overthrown by members of her mutinied crew under the leadership of Oros. Now that she is imprisoned and her pride hampered, she…

Gloria’s Grail, Geminian Waters

“I can’t believe Oros actually bested the Captain.”

“She’s not the captain anymore. Don’t call her that.”

Pierre and Tulio descended to the prison cells where Maria was kept below deck. The two had been crewmates together aboard a cargo ship called the G.S. Dante prior to being roped onto Gloria’s Grail. At the time of the Dante’s overtaking, instead of abandoning ship like the other crew, Pierre had headed for the cargo holding bay. His thought process had been this: if he was going to be out here risking his life on payroll, he should be paid equivalently. It was there that she had found him stuffing his pockets with Geminian Cens. At that moment, he had thought that she was the devil because when she had approached him, she hadn’t looked human. Her green eyes glowed, her smile seemed out of place, and the v-light behind her made it look as if there was a golden halo around her head.

“Oh, do you really like those things that much?” She had laughed as she looked down on him. “Well, they are quite shiny, but I already have a lot of them. You can keep them. You, on the other hand—I’m keeping you in exchange, yes?”

She had been a saint to him in that moment, and out of a fearful sort of admiration, he had accepted her offer. He had stayed at her side through thick and thin, ensuring to the best of his ability that she was always entertained.

It was after they came across and rescued a passenger ship that Pierre had begun to understand how Maria truly was. Instead of raiding it, Maria had offered a helping hand. When Pierre had questioned Maria about this, her answer had been a slap to the face.

“Hm?” She had studied him. “Why are you so against helping? Mercy is something only the strong possess, yes? Besides, are you not a passenger of this passenger ship? Why would you want me to do something bad to you?”

Maria really did not understand, Pierre had realized. He was not necessary to her.

And then Oros came. The self-proclaimed Golden Beast. Pierre didn’t really believe in such tall sea tales, but when Oros had made Maria bleed, Pierre realized there was no other possible explanation. Not only that, but—

“Pierre, would you go check on Maria?”

—Oros had remembered his name. It was something so small and insignificant, but it moved him.

And now Pierre and Tulio were following their new captain’s orders. They had passed several of the other crew who’d accepted Oros as the new and better captain. A captain who was not a domineering force of oppression and carelessness. The crew had all cheered and whooped at Pierre and Tulio’s passing. Some were a bit rowdier, but Pierre assumed they were just drunk.

The first thing Pierre noticed when he got down to the cell room was that the two men Oros had posted by the cell were no longer there. Pierre exchanged a panicked look with Tulio before he rushed forward and inspected the jail cell.

Empty. It was empty. He tried the cell door. Still locked. What in the world?

“Tulio—” Pierre began as he turned. The name caught in his throat.

Gone. Tulio was gone. The space where he had been standing was empty.

“Tulio?” Pierre tried. Silence answered. His heart thundered.

Pierre stumbled up the staircase and through the hallway.

Quiet. It was too quiet. Empty.

The men crowding the halls were gone. There was no trace of them.

Oros. He had to get to Oros.

Pierre darted down the hall and clambered up onto the deck of the ship.

There she was. Standing in the sunlight practically glowing with her back turned toward him. Just beyond her were the ones who would not accept her gracious proposal. Simon, Conta, Morandi and his men, Emmanuel, and the chef. They were bound by rope and guarded by a handful of other crew members.

Before he could call out her name, however, a cold hand grabbed the back of his neck. He already knew who it was.

A monster.

He turned to look. A monster with green eyes looked back down at him. Every inch of it was coated in red. No space of human skin remaining.

“What the—” came a shout from across the deck.

The crew members seemed to have finally noticed its presence and turned while raising their weapons. Oros remained with her back turned.

“What the hell is that?!” yelled one of the men.

“What do you mean?” it chuckled. “Oh, by the way, the only people left on this ship are now standing on this deck, you know?”

A sweet smell permeated the deck.

It turned its eyes onto Oros. “How did you like it, Oros? Living out my legend.”

“Your legend?” Pierre whispered.

It blinked down and flashed a white smile. “Conta was very fond of telling tall tales when we first started sailing, yes? I had always wanted to create my own, you see? But I’ve never been very imaginative.”

Pierre’s eyes widened.

“I am the Golden Beast,” it affirmed. “And let me tell you how the real story ends. The Golden Beast devours everyone and everything including the ship itself. And then she finds another ship to follow.”

Oros finally turned to face them. She looked amused more than anything else.

“So what will you do?” the Beast asked the crew members who were frozen in place. “Will you continue following her?”

One of the men frowned. “You’re letting us choose—”

“I am not telling you to choose between me and her,” it said with a chuckle. “There is no coming back to my side after what you have done. I won’t leave a trace of you left. What I am telling you to choose between is life and death. This is mercy.”

Its eyes glowed inhumanly. Its hand, which was still pressed on Pierre’s neck, felt wet and sticky.

“If you stay, I promise the Golden Beast will not leave a trace of you left.” It pointed to the open waters. “The ocean is beautiful, yes?”

When no one moved, it took a step forward. Almost immediately, the crew members ran to the sides of the ship and launched themselves off. Pierre swallowed as the beast’s laughter echoed in the background.

“And what about you, Pierre?”

Pierre froze as its hot breath ghosted his ear.

“Will you let me devour you too, like the others below?”

A scream of terror escaped Pierre’s throat and he scrambled toward Oros. He stopped short, however, as her golden eyes bore into him. No. There would be no mercy if he ran to her—that was what her eyes seemed to say. And so he ran past her.

As Pierre ran past Oros, the last thing he heard was—“Pathetic.”—before he plunged into the deep blue sea.

* * *

Licking the wine from her hand, Maria basked in the spray of sea that greeted the air upon Pierre’s departure. The wine had been Cadence’s idea who’d said it would be the icing on the cake for her revenge. Maria didn’t quite understand it, but it had seemed fun, so she’d agreed. She turned back to Oros who was now wielding a conductor. From its hilt glowed a yellow blade. Maria’s gaze then flicked to her crew that were still tied up between them.

“Don’t worry,” Maria told them. “You’re mine so it only makes sense that I protect you, yes? So just stay right there.”

“There you go with your disrespectful words, again.” Oros shook her head.

Maria stared at her. “I’m going to devour you. For taking things that are mine.”

Oros chuckled.

Before Maria could move forward, a person appeared out of thin air in front of her.

Jericho.

Synchronized.

The man looked between Maria and Oros and realization settled in. He turned to face Maria in her mind’s eye and held up a halting hand. “This woman may be the missing Agent Leona—”

“Why should I stop her just because she is this Leona?” Maria asked him out loud.

“She is the Chairman of the ELPIS Division of Ophiuchus,” Jericho said. “Important to Ophiuchus.” A pause. “I need her to get into the ELPIS Division.” Another pause. “And Ophiuchus will find out that you attacked an Agent. You will be on the run forever.”

Maria didn’t quite understand the problem with that. Jericho frowned before flickering out of existence. Good.

“‘Leona’?” Oros’s eyes narrowed. She scanned the deck. “Who are you speaking to?” Her eyes widened and then she threw her head back and laughed. “I see. It all makes sense now. There was no way a normal person would be able to hold their own against me for so long. But if they had the experience and memories of others right behind them? Well, perhaps that wouldn’t be so odd after all.” Without another word, Leona lowered her conductor before tossing it onto the deck of the ship.

“What are you doing?” Maria asked plainly.

“I’m letting you go,” Leona replied simply. She then inspected her nails. “Do you know what the word ‘conductor’ means?”

Maria stared at her.

“A conductor is something that transmits something. Heat, sound, vitae. Usually when using this word, you’re referring to how good an object is at transmitting those things. In that case…” Leona gestured to her. “You would be considered True Conductors.”

True Conductors.

“I don’t understand what you’re saying. But just because you say you are letting me go,” Maria said, eyes glowering, “does not mean that I am letting you go.”

Abruptly, Atienna appeared in front of her. She looked around curiously before she seemed to understand what was happening. She immediately stepped in-between her and Oros, just as Jericho had. Unlike him, she smiled. “You said we were yours, right? If we’re yours then wouldn’t you want to keep us happy?”

A wave of calm passed over Maria. She wondered if this is what the others meant by ‘feeling an emotion that was not their own.’

Maria paused and considered Atienna’s words. Her gaze then swept to Morandi and his men to Emmanuel and the chef and then to Simon and Conta. Conta…

“I understand what you are saying, I think. If you put it that way, then I guess I will save this for a later time,” Maria said with a nod. She returned her attention to Leona. “But still I’ve been thinking—I don’t understand why you are doing this.”

Leona tilted her head. “Are you saying that I should let the people who shamelessly humiliated me and carried me in a crate free? People can’t learn without punishment. Peace can’t be obtained without the fear of war keeping everything controlled.”

“We…” Morandi stammered. “We didn’t know that you…”

“Your ignorance doesn’t matter. Your actions do.” Leona crossed her arms. “Pride is priceless. The humiliation I have suffered—not even your life will be able to compensate, but it will do for now.”

Maria stepped forward. “No. They are mine too. Unhappiness for a life is an exchange I will make.”

Leona’s gaze darkened but then she chuckled mirthlessly. “Fine, I can forgive this. I also forgive you for your disrespect of me too but only because you are necessary.” Leona bent down to pick up the fallen conductor, ignited it in a flash, and severed the ropes holding her prisoners. Gripping the conductor tightly, she grabbed Conta and pulled her up to a stand.

Simon and Morandi gave a protest of alarm but were silenced when met with the tip of her conductor.

“Forgiving this one is a different story.” Keeping the conductor pointed at Simon’s and Morandi’s throats, she reached for Conta’s neck and plucked a golden chain that hung there. She yanked it off with little effort before pocketing the thing. “Thief.”

Conta trembled in her hold. “C-Captain… I…”

“Oh, I will definitely kill you if you do anything to her,” Maria chuckled. “She is my favorite.”

“Just something to hold the beast at bay,” Leona chuckled back as she moved the tip of the conductor to Conta’s throat. Holding Conta tightly, Leona walked to an area where a singular, small fishing boat hung by ropes in the air. The ropes were connected to a wheel built into one of the poles of the ship. Conta had insisted that they have extra boats on board just in case something happened. Maria assumed this was not what she meant.

“Lower the boat for me,” Leona ordered. Conta whimpered.

Morandi remained firmly planted in place.

“You should do it, Morandi,” Maria said with a pleasant smile. “It’s okay.”

Morandi frowned at her before rising to a stand and walking over to the wheel. He cranked the thing several times until the boat was level with the ship.

Leona got on the boat and pulled Conta with her. “Keep going.”

“Do it,” Maria agreed.

Morandi began cranking again, and the boat descended. Maria went to the edge of the ship to watch it go. When the boat hit the waters, Leona looked back up at her.

“Don’t misunderstand this situation,” Leona said. “I am allowing you to live because you are too important to die. If I stay any longer, you will try to attack me, and I will be forced to kill you in retaliation. We can’t have that.” She smiled. “Besides, I have duties that I’ve been taken away from.” She tightened her grip around Conta. “Do you understand?”

Understanding. That was the one thing Maria lacked, wasn’t it? Yes. Not even Maria the Golden Beast had achieved it yet. She didn’t fully understand what Leona was saying but what she did understand was that Leona had a lot of pride. So much pride that she would not let Conta go unless Maria said—

“Yes, I understand.”

With that, Leona pushed Conta into the sea and kicked the boat away from the side of the ship. Without hesitation, Maria dove into the waters after Conta.

“Conta, I’m bored. Can you read me another story? Not one of the old ones. Something new!”

“Maria… I’ve read all the books we have already.”

“Aw… well, then I’ll go get some for you—“

“Please don’t harass those kids at that school again, Maria… Oh! How about we make a story instead? It’ll be fun!”

“Make a story? But wouldn’t that be just like saying everything that’s happened already? That sounds boring…”

“You say really weird things sometimes, Maria… Here. I’ll start… How about we start with a monster? That’s exciting, isn’t it? A beast…” 

A conversation between Maria and Conta, many years ago

5.1: Chance Rejection

Re-cap:

Olive Chance, guided by Cadence, Atienna, and Werner, and aided by Claire, has managed to gather evidence proving that the arrested Trystan Carter is not the one behind the assassination attempt through the use of a vitae spectrophotometer. All he needs to do is find the right moment to present the evidence—the three samples—to the king and queen, but… 

New Ram City, Aries

Olive’s walk back to the royal palace was oddly filled with thoughts of Maria. He could only faintly see her in his mind’s eye. In a dark and dim cell with hands cuffed in chains, Maria sat without a smile. The very sight of her was unnerving. Betrayal must hurt.

When Olive finally made it back to the palace, he was greeted by Samuel and the other guard who had escorted him there.

“Your highness!” Samuel exclaimed. “Where have you been?”

“I—”

“The king and queen request your presence immediately.”

* * *

When Olive entered the throne room, he was immediately ushered into his chair beside his uncle and aunt’s thrones. They were already sitting there, both grim and stiff. They didn’t even look at him when he seated himself. Something he welcomed. Oddly enough, they were dressed formally. Dressed in the attire they would wear only to diplomatic meetings. A black suit and a red tie for his uncle, and a black dress laced with red for his aunt.

Olive then noticed Gabrielle standing to the side of the room with crossed arms. Izsak wasn’t with her. He needed to get the vials to her.

Before he could think on it any further, one of the royal guards abruptly entered the room and boomed, “Your highnesses, please welcome the nineteenth prince of Sagittarius. Yuseong Haneul of the Seong Clan.”

Oh. So they were expecting a prince from another country. That explained things. Talk about late notice. He thought of Atienna and wondered if they were here to seek aid.

Olive threw a disinterested look to the doors of the throne room, which creaked open slowly.

A person drifted forward, gliding in a way that made them seem as if they were floating on clouds. Sky-blue Sagittarian silken robes laced with silver-woven clouds wrapped around them. Their hands were hidden by the long, dangling sleeves of the robe, while their face was hidden by a black hat. The hat’s rim was wide and circular, and its top rose to a flat top above their head, slightly higher than a normal hat would. A blue and white beaded string connected to the ends of the hat hung inches below their chin.

They bowed low as they neared the throne before lifting their head to meet the king’s and queen’s eyes.

Olive felt faint as soon as he registered the face hiding beneath the brim of the hat. A coldness seeped into his bones. His head buzzed, his stomach burned, a buzzing panic seized his chest.

“It is a pleasure to meet your acquaintance,” Claire said calmly, smoothly, voice as steady and tranquil as Atienna’s. “I greatly appreciate your acceptance of my presence given the current circumstances that befall your crown prince.” He inclined his head in Olive’s direction, and their eyes met.

Olive felt bile climb up his throat as understanding dawned on him. He couldn’t breathe. He could taste smoke in the air.

“Prince Yuseong,” his uncle said calmly, “we are always glad to welcome a member of the Sagittarian royal clans even with short notice. However, given the current political state of things, I do have to question your reason for coming here.”

“With all due respect, that’s exactly what I’ve come here for,” Claire interjected. “While I understand your desire to keep out of the border conflict due to your current internal issues, I must say it would be impolite to reject the request of a party that has aided you.”

“What are you saying, Prince Yuseong?”

Olive shakily reached for his coat pocket. Empty. When did he…?

Claire gestured behind him. Two figures entered the room and came to a stand beside him—one of his left and one on his right. Both of them were donning masks—one a porcelain white and one a wooden brown.

“These are my vassals,” Claire said. “The one with the wooden mask is Felix, and the one in the white mask is Soha.” He waved his hand in the air, and the two stepped forward each presenting two items in their hands with a bow. One vial and one arrow each. “This is evidence that Trystan Carter is not the assassin.”

“How did you get your hands on those arrows?”

“I’ve been investigating the assassination since I arrived,” Claire answered. “I will be open. The two individuals that went after the prince several nights ago were my vassals here, but I meant no harm. I was merely trying to lure out the true assassins which did not turn out as planned unfortunately.” He gestured to Olive. “And as to how I got my hands on these arrows… you could ask Prince Chance that.”

Olive felt his uncle and aunt staring at him.

“We have much to discuss,” Claire—no, Haneul—finished with the smile of a politician.

* * *

Olive wasn’t really aware of being led back to his room nor was he aware of walking to his bed and sinking down into it. His bird was tweeting loudly, but he could barely hear it above the ringing in his ears.

Shut up already.

He buried his head.

Out of the corner of his eye, five shadows flickered into existence. What? All of them? He didn’t need this right now. Eighty percent synchronization. Eighty percent suffering.

“Leave me alone…” Olive muttered.

They didn’t move. One drifted closer. Atienna. She brought her with a sensation of calm. A calm he didn’t deserve.

“Leave me alone!” Olive snapped, leaping from the bed.

“Do you…” Atienna began. She paused then continued gently, “I understand if you don’t want to talk about it, but you have to understand… we’re connected, Olive. The things you feel, we feel too.”

Olive sent her a glare. “Sure, anything to distract you from your own problems.”

Atienna froze.

“Hey now, your highness, let’s not get too harsh here,” Cadence said as she drew near. “It ain’t all that bad, kid. I know it sucks that Claire stabbed ya in the back, but it ain’t your fault. He was very convincin—”

“This wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t listen to you and just let it be!”

“Yeah, prince, you’re right,” Cadence reassured him. But I did say the kid was a liar. “You shoulda just done your own thing. Ya know better than us about these kinds of things. You’re right—”

“I knew. I knew… It was pointless for me to try to help, but I did it anyway.” Olive kicked the pole of the birdcage, sending his bird into a fluttering panic. “I’m an idiot who never learns. Always the same thing over and over again. I—”

I should just die.

Like a lightning bolt, Olive’s thought rattled through the room.

Silence, shock. Shame, anger.

“Whoa, kid, that’s a bit much. Ya messed up, but there’s no reason ta start goin’ ta those lengths—”

“Why?” Olive scoffed. “Every time I try to help, I end up dragging down everyone around me. This, me freeing Oros, and—the world would be better if I was gone.” He shook his head before glowering at Cadence. “And what do you care? Sure, you might be connected to me, but I know what you really think. I’m just a spoiled brat to you. You act so sad, but it’s just an act in the end.”

All of them remained silent.

“Stop looking at me like that. Does feeling pity toward other people make you feel better about yourself? ‘I may be bad, but at least I’m not like that.’ Is that what you’re thinking? I know it is. You just don’t want to admit it.”

“Kid, you might be brat, but you ain’t that bad—”

“Not bad?” Olive scoffed. “I’m the one who caused the Tragedy of Aries!”

Another beat of silence.

Cadence exchanged a look with Werner. “Kid, I don’t know much history, but I doubt that you—”

Werner held up a hand. “Tell us.”

Olive stared at him wide-eyed. Words lodged in his throat. Heart hammering in his chest.

Atienna drew near and guided him onto the bed. There was no pity in her eyes. Only understanding. Nothing right, nothing wrong.

Screw it.

Olive swallowed and let out a breathy sigh. “I… My little sister was really talented. They said she had the ability to become a saint candidate. They took her to Ophiuchus to do the tests, but she failed. She was so upset after. I just wanted to cheer her up.” Saints, he was pathetic. “I did everything I could. Tried to build stupid toy conductors. But none of it was enough. So I snuck her out of the palace one day when my p—” Olive clenched his fists. “My parents had a meeting there. Bought her a stupid bird even though I had no idea how to take care of it. She was so happy after that. She was probably just tired of being cooped up all the time—I… I felt like I’d accomplished something. I got full of myself. So stupid.”

It was a memory forever burned into his mind. Her last smile.

“When we came back to the palace, there was a homeless man outside. None of the guards noticed him. And he was hungry and tired, and he asked for help. And… And… Because I was feeling like some self-righteous hero, I snuck him in. I…” He felt his voice crack. “I let him in… And he—”

“He let in the ELPIS members who murdered the people inside the royal palace,” Jericho realized. “The ones who started the fire.”

“ELPIS didn’t start the fire.” Olive felt somewhat lightheaded. “There were bodies everywhere, and it was all my fault… I…” He buried his head in his hands, eyes wide. “I tried to get Lavi away. I tried so hard. I ran. I ran. I ran, but they—she—”

The image of her small body dangling from that man’s white gloved hands invaded his mind. He felt sick.

“Maybe one of them could be saved, but I—” Olive dug into his hair. “I was just thinking to myself that I… that I couldn’t look at it. I just couldn’t look at her. At any of them. That’s all I could think. I couldn’t control it. I…”

The memory flashed in his mind. The fire that erupted from his hands without warning, spilling out from his fingertips, devouring everything in sight without discrimination. The white cloaks that the ELPIS members wore. The bodies strewn on the floor. His sister.

The smell had been revolting. It was truly something that no one should ever experience. The odor of burning flesh. The screams as bones and muscles melted. Seared into his memory.

When the Ophiuchians arrived later, they found Olive curled up in a pile of ash. Gabrielle had been the one to find him. Izsak had conjured mountains of stuffed-animals to try to get him to speak. But Doctor Kingsley had been the one to break through. They were the few who knew about his ability to channel vitae without a conductor. Something that he’d been able to do ever since that day.

Saints. He was pathetic. Saying he should just die or disappear when that was too easy of a punishment. Like an ant.

“Channeling vitae without a conductor…” Jericho stared.

Yes, it was all out now. They all knew what he’d done—

Jericho said, “ELPIS… their fault.” There was an edge to his voice, but Olive couldn’t feel the righteous anger from all those times before.

“That’s right, kid,” Cadence agreed. “Even if you didn’t let them in, they still would’ve gotten in. Besides, you were just a—”

“Don’t say that!” Olive snapped. “Just saying that doesn’t make it better!”

“That is obvious,” Werner interjected. He closed the mental and physical distance between them and lowered himself, so they were eye-level. “But now you know you must take responsibility. You believe your sister is still present, correct? She is more than an illusion. That line of thinking isn’t illogical given our situation.”

Atienna glanced at him and then nodded. “I’ve been giving it some thought since you mentioned her. In the context of the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis, your sister may actually be alive in a sense. During the Tragedy, when she was near death, her vitae may have left her body and entered you. It might also explain why you’re able to conduct without a conductor.”

“If that’s the case,” Werner continued, “then you are partially responsible for her current condition.”

“Werner—”

“And it’s your responsibility to find a way to reverse it,” Werner finished. “You have a goal now and a duty to reach that goal’s end. For your sister.”

An image flashed through Olive’s mind. It wasn’t Lavi. It was a young, frail-looking girl with platinum blonde hair and pale blue eyes. But the feeling was the same. A sibling affection.

Something clicked into place within Olive’s chest, and it suddenly felt as if the world became a bit clearer. He was ashamed at the feeling but at the same time…

“I’ll avenge you too,” Jericho interjected.

Too?

“I don’t want revenge.” Olive frowned. “And I don’t want anyone being killed on my behalf. I’m not like that.”

Jericho cocked his head at him.

“Nothing’ll be solved by beating someone with a suitcase,” Olive grumbled, rubbing his arms and then wiping the tears away from his eyes. Had he been crying? Embarrassing. “But thanks for the thought, I guess.”

Still, it didn’t feel right. It felt too easy. It really didn’t feel like he deserved this sort of redemption or whatever this was. It felt like an escape.

“You cannot die, Olive Chance.”

Everyone turned their attention to Maria. She was still within her jail cell on her ship—they could all see this—but she was standing now and gripping the bars of her cell. Tightly, just like Trystan had.

“I won’t allow you to die,” Maria elaborated. “Because I like you, and you are mine.” She looked toward him. “And I don’t let bad things happen to things that are mine.” She brightened abruptly and addressed all of them. “And that’s all of you.”

They all stared.

“Chance…” Werner said suddenly. There was an edge to his voice. “The attempt on your life was not an assassination attempt.”

Olive blinked a couple of times at the sudden nonsensical change. “Uh, what?”

“It’s very well known that Sagittarius is seeking aid from other countries after being pulled into the border conflict. It’s also known that Aries and Sagittarius have shared good relations following the Reservoir War. It follows that Aries would come to aid Sagittarius if anything were to happen to them. That is unless Aries had their hands full with something else.”

“Werner…” Atienna murmured. “What are you saying?”

Werner opened his mouth, then shut it. His eyes widened, then darkened. Abruptly, the synchronization between them was cut.

4.4: Gloria Twist

Re-cap:

Convergence has occurred. Maria has spent her time waltzing around the lives of the other five and has returned only to be challenged to a duel and surprisingly disarmed by the mysterious golden Oros. Maria’s crew members appear to be dissenting but she does not notice this herself. Maria’s carefree nature opens up a dangerous door… 

Aboard Gloria’s Grail, Geminian Waters

“Hm? Mutiny? Why would I be concerned about something like that?

Maria was not only addressing Simon and Conta who were currently present with her in her quarters but also Werner, Olive, and Cadence who were mentally present.

“Captain,” Conta began, “the men… they saw you—”
“—lose in your duel if I’m gettin’ the details correct,” Cadence finished.
“I didn’t lose,” Maria replied with a laugh.

Simon exchanged a glance with Conta, while Cadence tried to exchange a look with Werner.

“Right, right, ya didn’t lose.” Cadence nodded with a grin. “But some people probably don’t see it that way. And y’know how it is in these types of professions, once the big top dog looks like it’s feeling’ a little under the weather, all the other ones pounce.”

“I’m not feeling under the weather, though,” Maria replied.

Conta and Simon’s confused expressions deepened.

“Right, right, there’s nothin’ ya can’t do,” Cadence agreed laxly, “but that doesn’t change the fact that Oros lady is—”

“—conversing closely with some of the other men,” Simon said. “When I spoke with Morandi and his men earlier, they said she was saying strange things. Not to mention, Pierre…”

“Let them say strange things then,” Maria chuckled. “Everyone says I say strange things all of the time! It’s not fun being by myself, no? And we’ll take Pierre out of his cell and get him off this ship when we get to land.”

“But Captain,” Simon pressed, “the things she’s saying. She’s convincing some of them to leave and—”

“If they want to leave, they can leave,” Maria said with a shrug.

“Captain.” Simon smiled tiredly. “Do you recall the first thing you said to me when you found me?”

“Hm… ‘I like your priest outfit’?”

Simon chuckled and shook his head. “No, you said to me, ‘I like your eyes. I’ve decided! From now on, you are mine. Do you understand what that means? You cannot leave my side, and in turn I will protect you.’”

“Did I say those things?” Maria cocked her head with a slight frown before she brightened again. “Well, if I did, it was a spur of the moment thing.”

“It may have been that for you,” Simon said gently. “But for others, hearing things like that can be very troubling for the heart and the ego. Some view it as a chain. People don’t like being chained down, Maria.”

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Maria said, tousling her hair. “But I do understand not wanting to be chained down.”

“What about the others? The missing ones?” Conta pressed. “Simon and I’ve searched the entire ship top to bottom and we can’t find them. Morandi says he hasn’t been able to find some of his crew either.”

“Oh… they are still missing?” Maria pulled off her shirt in thought. “Well then…”

Both Werner and Simon flushed before looking away while Cadence and Conta looked on unperturbed.

Olive was facing the wall and shaking his head. “Get me the hell out of here.”

“Those disappearances…” Maria grabbed the towel hanging from her chair and wrapped it around her body. “I will look into that.”

* * *

The bath was a new installment on the ship. Six months ago, they had picked up a group stranded in the middle of a storm. They were members of a passenger ship bound from one of the outer countries to Gemini and were clinging desperately to the wreckage of their capsized ship. A day after getting those passengers on board, the Gloria Grail was throttled by the same storm, which had been pushed backward by wind currents.

They braved the storm and it was certainly exhilarating—though no one else seemed to think so—and made it to Geminian ports on a ship that sported five holes in its hull.

The passengers who were apparently from rich families offered to restore the ship. Although Simon had pressed to decline, Maria had said “why not?” Emmanuel, one of the passengers, happened to be an engineer hoping to learn about the conductors of the countries of Signum on his travels. He offered to design them a new ship, but Maria had cheerfully refused. Instead, Maria offered him a spot on her ship so he could see Signum in full. As she later found out, he hadn’t seemed to understand that Maria’s ship was what people considered a ‘pirate’ ship and had accepted the offer out of ignorance. He adapted well, however, and had managed to convince Maria to let him install a bathhouse on board.

And here it was.

Emmanuel was amazingly talented—Maria was sure to tell him that.

The bathing room was more like a sauna than anything else, equipped with a large hot bath and five shower stalls. The bath was Maria’s favorite as it reminded her of the hot springs of Sagittarius.

Maria sank into the waters and let out a sigh of relief. She stretched out her legs and stuck one out to lather it with a bar of soap that had been set to the side. She was halfway through this motion when she noticed she wasn’t alone.

Although Cadence and Olive had seemed to have lessened their synchronization with her, Werner remained. He stood, hands clasped behind him, with his back to her near the showers.

“Oh, if it isn’t the soldier! If you were going to stay here, why did you not just say so?”

The soldier flushed, cleared his throat, and stared at the door. “It is not my intention to intrude on your privacy.”

Maria chuckled. “What are you talking about? You are not intruding.” She gestured to the water. “You should join me! The water is perfect! How do you say it in Capricornian?”

“Perfekt.”

“Oh, so the same way—”

“No—”

“Anyway, join me!”

“I’m not actually present so that would be physically impossible,” Werner supplied. “Besides, that would be inappropriate.”

“How so?”

Werner turned slightly, caught himself, and said, “That should be obvious.”

Maria stared at him before swimming closer to the edge of the tub and studied his back. “Hm?” Maria squinted, trying to peer into his surroundings. “Where are you—”

“I would prefer it if you didn’t pry,” Werner said curtly. “I took the precaution of secluding myself when this synchronization first occurred, but I do not want a repeat of the Aquarian captain.”

Maria rested her chin on the edge of the tub. “Are you still mad about that?”

“Lingering on it does nothing,” Werner replied, back still turned. “That doesn’t mean I will not keep it in mind and allow it to happen again.”

Maria thrummed her fingers before she smiled. “I see. Your crew must think you’re pretty—how do they say it—‘cool’, yes?”

“What my men think of me is irrelevant,” Werner said after a stiff pause. “Leadership is about being an example to the people beneath you. You must be able to understand them, but you must not allow your understanding to cloud your judgment. That is how a chain of command works.”

“You do not have to lie to me,” Maria chuckled. “About you thinking that it is irrelevant.”

“Wha—”

“But this ‘understanding’ you are talking about… do you think I am lacking in it?” She thought of Conta and Simon and Morandi and Pierre as she asked the question.

This caused Werner to face her. After meeting her eyes, he turned away again and answered curtly, “Yes, I believe you are.”

Maria hummed. “I see. Well, I will become better then. Improve, yes. I can do anything, you know, but some things just require a bit more effort.”

In the distance, she could almost see Olive turn his head.

“You need to put more focus on Oros,” Werner returned. “I agree with Cadence and the members of your crew that she is something that needs to be removed. She challenged your leadership and is spreading dissent among your men.”

“Hm, since everyone is saying it, I guess I should look into it.” Maria frowned a rare frown. “I really don’t like being pushed to do things though.” She brightened a beat after and chuckled. “Hey, is it me, or are you being a little bit friendlier now, Wern?”

“It’s Werner,” Werner corrected. “And recent circumstances have indicated that improving relations would be beneficial.”

“You are talking about Nico, yes?”

“How—”

“I saw him when I was freeing that Aquarian Captain,” she said.

There was a jolt in Werner’s chest which resonated within her own. He really was upset about that then.

“I don’t regret what I did,” Maria said, “but I am sorry about the trouble you are in.”

“I understand.”

The door abruptly flew open. And the synchronization she had with Werner weakened to the point where he disappeared from her line of sight and she could no longer hear his thoughts. Which was a bit disappointing.

Maria turned her attention to her party crasher with a slight pout.

Standing at the threshold of the door was Oros in the flesh. And in the nude. All concerns immediately flew from Maria’s mind.

“May I join you?” the woman asked.

Maria beamed. “Yes, of course!”

Oros moved forward with an air of grace, crossing the bathroom as if she was gliding, before sinking into the waters right across from Maria. She plucked the bar of soap out of Maria’s hands.

“You are very good at sword fighting,” Maria said as she watched Oros lather herself.

“Of course, I am,” Oros answered with a smile.

“For someone who is so good at sword fighting, I’m surprised you were caught off guard and locked in that crate.”

Oros’s smile deepened. “I’m surprised someone like you was somewhat capable.”

Maria chuckled. “I am strong, yes.”

There was a stretch of silence.

“Say,” Oros said, “have you ever heard the tale of the Golden Beast?”

“I’ve heard it many times before. It’s a very popular sea-farer’s tale.” Maria hummed. “But I am excited to hear your version of it!”

Oros smiled thinly before she began:

“The Golden Beast is something that suddenly appears on ships. No one knows what it looks like or what it is. Some say it disguises itself as a passenger on the ship. It’s a merciful thing and so as long as it’s treated with utmost respect, it spares the ship. However, if it feels as if it has been wronged in any way, the ship’s fate is sealed.”

“Oh, very ominous!”

“Slowly, one by one, members and passengers of the ship start disappearing. Some say the beast makes them a part of the ship while others say the beast eats them whole. Still, like I’ve said, the Golden Beast is merciful. If the passengers promise to become the beast’s servants, then they are spared.”

“And if they don’t?”

Oros mimicked picking up a piece of food and dropping it in her mouth.

“That’s interesting. So how does your version end?” Maria pressed.

“Well, no one who has heard the story has lived to tell its ending.” Oros crossed her arms.

“That doesn’t seem very good for you or for me, does it?” Maria laughed.

“No. Just for you,” Oros concluded, rising to a stand.

Maria looked up at her in confusion. Confusion that was forgotten once she noticed how the light spilling in from the window caught onto Oros’s features. Really, she was radiant. Almost glowing.

Gold hair. Gold eyes.

“Hey!” Maria leapt up from the water. “You said your name was Oros, yes? Are you sure it’s that? I have a friend, you see, and he is looking for someone called—”

The door to the bathroom flew open.

Maria turned her head and found a handful of her crew standing there. One crew member in particular stood out to her.

Maria, came a warning voice.

She was in front of that man in an instant, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Pierre! Shouldn’t you be in your cell?” She squeezed. He tried to rip her hand away, but she tightened her hold, causing him to yelp. She then looked at the others around him, meeting each of their eyes, and smiled. “What exactly is going on here?”

They remained silent, whatever gusto they’d come in with seeming to have left them.

“What are you doing?”

The men turned their gazes away from Maria and toward Oros.

“Are you really going to show your cowardice to me when I’m standing right here?” came Oros’s rumbling voice.

Pierre’s gaze hardened, and he signaled some of the crew members forward. And step forward they did, dragging in unconscious bodies with them.

Maria stepped back as she registered who they were. Simon, Morandi, Morandi’s men, Raul the Chef, Emmanuel, and—

—Conta.

Conta. She looked strange lying there on the floor. It didn’t suit her. She was always bright—Conta.

“I’ve gotten rid of the ones who wouldn’t accept my offer.” Oros’s voice drew nearer until it was echoing just beside Maria’s ear. “Although these ones also rejected me, I couldn’t help but think to offer some mercy.”

Something hot and sharp pressed against Maria’s back, causing her to turn her head to the offending object. A sword—no.

It was shaped like a sword, but it had properties unlike one. Its edges glimmered a blinding gold, and it hummed strangely.

A conductor.

Oros pressed the conductor into Maria’s back. “I am the Golden Beast.”