14.2: Prince & Swindler, 0000 False Ignorance

Re-cap:

Olive has received his State Conductor’s License after clashing with the Sagittarian saint candidate Ilseong Jin at the Prognoikos Aurora Reservoirs of Ophiuchus. Now he is able to access the notes of Pema (a Sagittarian saint candidate who once served in the Body Temple) who was able to conduct without a conductor. Olive is certain the answer to his sister’s condition coincides with this ability. As Olive delves into his research two months later, he is drawn to…

Cadence Morello has made a promise. As Francis/Theta leaves the Twin Cities after it’s near destruction to recollect his mind, the Specialist children who have been taken advantage of by the deposed Campana crime family are left in Cadence’s, Allen’s, and Carl’s care. Now with more to care for (and more to lose), Cadence…


Falsche Unwissenheit » False ignorance, unrecorded 

Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

Ariesian Prince Olivier Chance was onto something. At least, he thought he was onto something. If he wasn’t actually onto something, he figured he might as well leap out the window to make up for the twelve hours he’d just wasted.

At the moment Olive resided on the third to highest floor of the Beobachter Library. It was an old building with wooden floorboards that creaked and groaned whenever Trystan Carter would walk over to bring him the books he requested. Having just brought over a rather large stack of gothic-looking books with yellowed pages, Trystan now sat across the table—reading a book instead of staring, as per Olive’s request. At the moment, the man was going through a thick anthology of Capricornian fairy tales with unusual interest.

Although Olive hated to admit it, even after holding a license for two months, he still found coming up onto these limited-access floors nerve-wracking. Everything here had an air of professionalism to it when compared to the lower levels, from the robust round tables, to the glass bookcases, to the stained-glass windows, and to even the people. Suited men and suited women, scholarly and serious, threaded around the study tables around him with purpose beneath the drooping stone chandeliers that hung down from the dome-shaped ceiling. Orderly. Executive. Intimidating.

Olive wondered if this was just Capricornian design, engineering, and culture at work. Truthfully, he’d been a bit excited to come to this country. And not just for research. It was embarrassing to think about it, but he’d spent more time than he’d liked when he first came to this country admiring the old gothic-looking, gray-bricked, many-windowed buildings and ‘squareness’ found in the design of everything. He’d gotten a glimpse of this place through Werner’s memories, but it wasn’t the same as seeing it for himself.

“Excuse me, sirs,” came a voice in Common as a shadow spilled over the table, “are you foreigners?”

Glancing up, Olive found an auburn-haired young man holding a handful of pamphlets. Not waiting for an answer, the young man reached forward with one of them. Before he could deliver the item, however, Trystan grabbed him by the wrist and squeezed. The man stiffened, staring wide-eyed at Trystan. Olive nodded and signaled the guard to release his grip. Upon being freed from Trystan’s iron hold, the Capricornian offered a genial smile and handed Olive the pamphlet.

FIGHT FOR THE PEOPLE NOT FOR THE COUNTRY, it read in Common. Just below it was the image of the curly-mustached Kaiser aiming a conducting rifle at some enemy in the distance. Half of the Kaiser’s body peeled away like torn paper to reveal a skeleton hidden underneath. Part of his conducting rifle peeled away in a similar artistic style to reveal that what the Kaiser ‘truly’ held was a death certificate. Tiny letters were printed just below the image: ‘Sponsored by the Verbundene Augen.’ Beneath that print was a cartoonish drawing of an eye with three lashes.

The imagery was provocative, to say the least. The meaning was clear.

“We’re having a meeting later today,” the young man continued. “The founder—Frau Marionette Engel, I mean—won’t be on-site, but we’d appreciate all the support we can get from—”

“Who exactly do you think they’re out there fighting for?” Olive asked, glancing up at him. “It’s easy to say all this when you’re here, right?”

“What…?”

It wasn’t like Olive disagreed with the idea. He just disagreed with people speaking about it without doing anything about it. Empty words. Just like the politicians back home. Saints, Olive could hear them now, filibustering in the meeting chambers about the same thing over and over again without actually implementing any policies. Not that Olive himself knew any better.

For a moment, he considered crumpling the pamphlet and tossing it over his shoulder. But then he thought better of it, smoothed it onto the table, and folded it into a rectangle.

“Bookmark,” he said in Capricornian when the man arched brow.

The man frowned before walking off without another word. Olive didn’t bother watching him go and refocused his attention on his work.

Laid out on the oak table in between him and Trystan were stacks upon stacks of books and papers. Werner had synchronized with him several hours prior when Olive had initially arrived at the library and had spent several minutes organizing everything into a manageable, efficient set-up to streamline Olive’s research process. The entire thing had fallen into disarray since then but Olive figured as long as nothing was scattered on the ground it was fine.

To Olive’s left rested translated pages from Pema’s journal that he had snuck out from the Bodhi Temple in Sagittarius. As Cadence had pointed out, “They said ya can’t bring a book down. Doesn’t mean ya can’t bring a copy ya made yourself down. Loophole!”

It had been a touchy task. A risk. He was still the prince of Aries, after all. He had expectations riding on his shoulders.

But he had ta do what he had ta do. 

And Olive knew he couldn’t stay cooped up in one place forever. The answers never pooled together in one place—or so was Atienna’s thought. And that line of thought had marked Olive’s decision to leave the Bodhi Temple behind.

It had taken Olive several weeks to find a library that hosted P.D. Oran’s works regarding the topic he’d taken interest in since the incident at Ophiuchus two months ago. Weeks of looping through the tightly structured bookstores of Libra, through the libraries squeezed between the weeping canals of Pisces, through the art galleries that dotted every street in Cancer, and finally to here. The capital of Capricorn.

The topic that evaded him so? That would be the one regarding the two different forms of vitae in existence. The ones Olive had known about since it was taught to him upon starting classes at the Royal University. Soft, living vitae and hard, non-living vitae.

And so Olive had turned to P.D. Oran, whose publications regarding vitae basics were taught universally in Signum. Most of P.D. Oran’s other works were censored or redacted by the Literary Department of Ophiuchus due to their provocative and anti-conductor rhetoric, insistence on the Vitae-Anima Hypothesis, and constant criticism of Ophiuchus’s state in Signum. Oran’s works regarding vitae theory beyond the basics were therefore practically non-existent. The only advanced books about it that Olive had seen were Conductors: Who is Using Who? which Atienna owned back in Virgo and the one that currently sat opened on the right side of Olive’s table: Between Vitae.

Former crime executive-turned-ELPIS leader, Francis Foxman, had told Cadence that True Conductors were like open channels, constantly accepting and releasing a flow of vitae. He’d said that normal people were not like that. He’d also obsessively talked about cycles. Olive figured it was all a metaphor, but….

There was a broken link in theory here. And Olive was certain it wasn’t on Francis’s end. The man had taken on the memories of Theta after all. And Theta probably knew a lot more about vitae than even the top professors at New Ram City’s Royal University.

That being said, the general, widely accepted belief was that vitae was merely energy—burned off after usage through a conductor—and could be replenished through ingesting soft, living vitae in food. But if the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis was true—if vitae was representative of the soul—then replenishing it seemed impossible. How could someone even replenish a soul? Quantify it? Was that why ELPIS was so against conductors? Because it utilized ‘the soul’? And where did hard, non-living vitae fall into this? The vitae reservoirs even?

Jericho had only vague impressions of conductors being evil, and Francis still hadn’t contacted Cadence since the Twin Cities incident. No answers from the most viable sources.

And what about conductor usage? Holding the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis true, vitae returned to the cycle after it was used by a conductor, didn’t it? The only time in theory that it didn’t return to the cycle was when vitae was bleached white. So, in theory, Lavi had returned to the cycle during the Tragedy of Aries and had somehow entered him—an old hypothesis that Olive was on the verge of confirming. But had Lavi entered him because he was a True Conductor and had an ‘open channel’? But that was before he’d become a True Conductor.

On another note, Pema’s notes had suggested very annoyingly vaguely that her ability to conduct without a conductor—like Olive himself could—had to do with her utilizing vitae that was in a different state than soft and hard. Which was completely off the books. But P.D. Oran’s Between Vitae also stated the possibility of there being a third form of vitae that was the ‘missing link’ between soft and hard vitae. A highly-energized state of vitae.

Of course, Oran’s words bordered on the line of pseudoscience, and half of his proposals on it weredenounced. Paired with Pema’s drunken ramblings, it didn’t seem very reliable, but still…

And so after constantly turning these topics over inside his head—and with Atienna’s assistance—Olive had come to develop a hypothesis over these past few weeks:

This third state of vitae mentioned in both Pema’s notes and P.D. Oran’s texts had to do something with what happened to Lavi. And that third state of vitae involved saint candidates and his own ability to conduct without a conductor.

At the thought of his sister Lavi, Olive frowned. She’d been appearing around him less and less recently. His stomach churned with worry and apprehension at the thought. He hated thinking about it. But at the same time, he was somewhat relieved by it. Lack of question and confrontation.

Stupid, Olive thought, drawing a hand down his face.

Where was the line between pseudoscience and science drawn anyway…? Reality and fantasy?

Ugh. I’m becoming like Talib… he thought.

“Olivier,” Trystan said suddenly, “I know that your research is very important to you… But I really believe you should pay the king and queen a visit, especially since you’ve managed to obtain your Conducting License. I’m certain they would be glad to receive a visit. Plus, your future prospects—”

Olive grimaced, no longer listening.

That was how it always was with Trystan nowadays. Always talking about going back home. Always wanting to push him back towards the royal palace. That had probably been Trystan’s agenda to begin with, Olive figured. Probably wanted to push his political agenda. Probably the only reason Trystan had insisted on bodyguarding him.

Oh, Olive, you know it’s not like that… It’s more than that, don’t you think?

Right.

Olive shook his head. That was a stupid thought—

A woman suddenly slid into the chair across from him right beside Trystan. Her hair was wiry, her face smudged with oil, the goggles resting around her neck fogged over with soot. The overalls she wore were in a similar state.

Trystan didn’t make any moves towards the woman. Merely gave her a tight frown of disapproval.

“Well.” The woman blinked at Olive expectantly. “Let’s see it!”

Here sat the second reason for Olive being in this capital. Marta John, the Ariesian conductor engineer whose shop Olive frequented back at New Ram City whenever he’d run away from his guards. He liked her because she never cared much for his royal status nor his history and she was blunt. Several months ago, she had been called into Ophiuchus to implement her new vitae-spectrophotometer invention, and her name had been in the papers ever since.

Olive had written to Marta upon receiving his physical State Conducting License. He’d been writing to his aunt and uncle at the time and had just done it on a whim, really. And frankly, writing to Marta had been much easier than writing to his aunt and uncle. Olive hadn’t been expecting to receive a card back from her Marta handing it to the carrier, but lo-and-behold, he did. Paired with Marta’s congratulatory letter came an invitation to the diplomatic conductor convention in Capricorn.

Two birds with one stone, Olive figured.

Olive dug into his coat pocket and pulled out the plastic card that he personally thought held too much power. His half-smiling, half-frowning portrait was captured on the left-hand side of the card while his personal details were listed to the right.

Olivier Chance / 16 / M
License Special Class Royalty
Conducting Type Elementalist (Sub: Fire) / Intraneous User
Color Crimson
Most used c.a. N/A
Conducting No 16-81-55-14-924 
Issued Year 1941 / Expires Year 1945

The Ariesian ram horn was watermarked in red just behind the slew of information, while the Ophiuchian stamp of approval was slapped right over his portrait.

“Well, look at that…” Marta arched a brow. “You actually went out and got one. You know, I need someone to keep an eye out on my shop in New Ram City since I’ve been so popular lately. You heading back to the royal life after your research spree, or do you want a job?”

Olive gave a non-committal grunt. Not something he wanted to talk about. One thing at a time. “So you said you’re here for that convention, right?”

Marta returned the shrug with a nod, adjusting her goggles around her neck. “Was invited by Dämon Fortschritt, leading face of Capricornian conductor engineering, himself. Head conductor engineer of the state and all that.”

“Never heard of him…” And Olive had heard of everyone in the conductor engineering sphere.

Marta nodded, half-heartedly. “His work in previous years was mostly in the pseudoscience realm, but he’s made a name for himself recently since he’s one of the ones who helped to develop the proto-conductor.”

Olive perked up at this, frowned. “…. Literally have never heard of him.”

“Well, anyway, I’m working with him on a new project,” Marta continued. “Word is that P.D. Oran might also be involved.”

“P.D. Oran…?”

Olive recalled his encounter with the somber, reclusive, fidgety man back at the Bodhi Temple. He hadn’t seen Oran when he’d returned to the temple after completing his exam and had figured Oran was just avoiding him. Olive would’ve never guessed that Oran had returned to the public realm. Maybe to repair his reputation?

“You gonna stick around for the conductor diplomatic convention thing?”

Olive shrugged, but then paused in thought. If he could directly speak to P.D. Oran now, since Oran seemed to be openly engaged in his research, then maybe he could get a word in with him about Between Vitae.

“Hey…” Olive grimaced. “Look. I hate asking for favors. I’m not demanding it. Not pulling the prince card. But… do you think you could…” He grimaced harder, looked away, rubbed the back of his neck. “Can you maybe introduce me to him?”

Marta blinked, returned his earlier shrug. “Well, like I said… It’s all rumor, but I can put in a word for you. I mean, you are the Ariesian prince, like you said. Flash that badge of yours, and I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

A pressure came off of Olive’s chest. “Thank—”

A sharp prick at the base of his palm cut Olive off short. He gripped his right hand with a wince before glancing down.

Nothing.

Did Werner—

Absolutely nothing. Dead silence. Radio static.

Olive’s ears rang as he came to realize he could no longer feel or hear any of the others. It was like a void had opened up and swallowed them whole leaving him completely—

—alone.

Before he could digest the feeling, his shoulder suddenly erupted with burning pain—like it was on fire. He tumbled out of his seat and onto the floor sending the papers cluttering his study table fluttering into the air. Trystan shouted in alarm before coming to his side.

“Your Highness! Your Highness!”

Olive had told Trystan many times not to call him that. But he couldn’t even focus on grumbling about it because—

There was that all-consuming, deathly silence. And the terrible burning heat eating away at his shoulder.

Olive stared wide-eyed at the high-rise ceiling as the papers rained down around him. Some of the pages caught the light spilling in from the stained-glass windows, causing several words to become illuminated,

I.

Will. 

Enter.

The pain felt exactly like the pain he’d felt when he’d fallen out onto the brick pathway outside the Royal University over half a year ago. The memory forced its way into Olive’s mind, painting over the library’s ceiling, over Trystan’s concern, over Marta’s alarm.

The memory of air that was no longer thin and dry but heavy and cold. The memory of a dimming sun. The memory of shouting guards. The memory of thinking it was all a bother.

The present returned a beat later as Trystan and Marta’s shouts rang in his ear. And then, she finally appeared before him.

As he lay on the floor, her dark hair fell like a canopy over his face as darkness crept in at the corners of his vision. He couldn’t help but think the reason she was here was to watch this unfold—

What? No. He couldn’t. Lavi. The others. Trystan.

He had to fight.

“No, Ollie, it’s too late,” Lavi whispered down to him.

Her dark hair dragged him into black.


Twin Cities, Gemini

“Again! Again! Again!”

Ariesian-Geminian, part-time swindler Cadence Morello clawed her way out from beneath the tangle of arms and limbs as she gasped for air. Her assailants were cruel, however, dragging her back into their clutches as they stomped on her legs and shoulders.

“Again! Come on, Cadence! Do it one more time! Please?”

The dock warehouse’s metal walls and closed windows threw back their sadistic cries at her.

“Ya know, just because I can make myself look like a horse doesn’t mean I’m actually one!”

“Giddyap! Giddyap!” were their responses to that as they pounded on her back.

Damn brats.

A creaking paired with a soft gust of wind indicated that the warehouse doors had been opened. Twin shadows spilled over Cadence’s face.

“Cadence,” was the first greeting.

“Good to see you’re in good company, Cadence,” was the second paired with deep laughter and a grin.

Cadence cracked open an eye, flashing that same grin back in the latter speaker’s direction. “‘Course—oh, wait! Carl, were ya serious when ya told me that you were gettin’ the kids a buncha candy from Ferrari’s store?”

Carl arched a brow. “What are you talkin’ about—”

Hook. Line. Sinker.

“Candy!” the children screeched as they scrambled off of Cadence’s body and mobbed Carl with their tiny fingers.

Carl let out a shout of alarm, stumbling backwards as they dangled from his arms, clung to his waist, darted between his legs.

Cadence picked herself up off the ground, dusted off her beaten suit, and stepped into place beside Allen. She watched with a cheery-eyed amusement as Carl transformed from a crime executive into the best new playground on the block. All without a conductor.

“Ya know,” she said to Allen, “for all that complainin’ that Carl did about Maria only takin’ the older bunch of kids, he gets along with ‘em all better than the both of us. Think it’s ‘cause they’re on the same wavelength?”

Allen gave a noncommittal grunt.

Carl spent five minutes trudging back and forth across the warehouse with the children acting as ball-and-chain before finally handing off the babysitting task to two of his lackeys who happened to enter the warehouse just then. Maximillian and Stefano. Poor saps. As Carl stomped away from the children and approached them, Cadence offered a smirk and a tip of her hat.

“Business ain’t good, Cadence,” Allen said suddenly. “We’re barely reigning in profit at this point. People’ve been conservative with spending since what happened with ELPIS. We’d be more than comfortable if we were just looking out for ourselves, but…” He eyed the children who were dragging Maximillian and Stefano to the ground.

Cadence glanced at him. “What are ya suggestin’, Allen…?”

“Ain’t gonna break the deal with Francis,” Allen explained. “But we gotta find a different way to deal with this. Another business opportunity. Something.”

Damn. Back to the black path?

Cadence figured she could probably take a couple more odd jobs here and there. Maybe even one from Fortuna. But the caveat of it all was that if she found herself kicking it with a not-so-nice employer, she actually had something they could use against her this time. Something to really lose. Something other than… Alma.

“Any word from Nico?” asked Carl. “From your weird psychic-link thing?”

Allen and Carl were both privy to her status as a True Conductor. They’d nonchalantly asked her about it the last time they’d met up with Francis at the Sognare two months ago. And she’d told them. They didn’t know more than the fact that she was connected to five other people across Signum and that ELPIS didn’t like True Conductors much, but the two brothers didn’t bother asking too many questions.

Accept everything. Reject nothing. Twin Cities motto.

“Geeze, not so loud, Carl. Anyone ever tell ya that ya’d make a terrible spy?”

“That’s why I ain’t born as a Manipulator.”

“And how would ya know that if ya never used a conductor or one of ‘em V-Type Tests before?”

“Can feel it in my bones. Hell, you’ve never takin’ one either. Why you boggin’ me?”

Cadence chortled. “Well, just wanted ta point out that ya can make a bangin’ cens if ya sell that skill on the market. Probably.”

“Cadence.” Allen frowned.

She rolled her neck in thought.

Nico, unlike them, had made a successful escape from the city. Nothing holding him back here anymore. The past buried behind him. In between the Foxmans, Nico, Fortuna, and herself, Cadence wondered if Nico had somehow managed to get the best hand in the game. But good for him. Right?

She sighed. “Doesn’t look Nico’s comin’ back any time soon. He’s in the deep necka the woods. Fully into his combat medic life.”

Allen took out a v-cig and shook it. Took a drag. “Could really use his help. ‘Specially with the sick kids. ‘Least he won’t charge like a damn debt collector like his father.”

Cadence absentmindedly played with the rim of her hat as she listened to the children squealing. Finally, she said, “Hate to say it, but it looks like Nico’s moved on—”

She was cut off as a sharp pain pricked her right palm. Swearing, she doubled over and cradled her hand.

“The hell, Cadence?” asked Carl.

“It’s nothin’.” Cadence waved him off as she studied her bare, unblemished palm. “Looks like the lieutenant got a minor injury is all.”

I will enter.

Suddenly, Cadence found herself face-first on the floor. Her limbs ached, her chest burned, her eyes stung. It felt she had just been pounded against the ground. Almost like when Feliciano and his gooks had nearly beaten her—Werner—within an inch of her life. No. Like when she’d been thrown sideways by that explosive conductor in the TwinStars Pub months ago. Back when this whole schtick began.

With a hell of a lot of effort, she cracked open her eyes. Allen, Carl, and a ring of children were looking down at her.

Did one of the others—

Others?

Saints.

She couldn’t hear or feel any of the others. A nauseating, dizzying sensation. Like she’d been pushed down into an endless abyss. Stomach-flipping, puke-inducing. Not pretty. She wanted to puke so bad but everything hurtso much that she couldn’t. She wished someone would just knock her out to put her out of her misery.

“Cadence! What’s goin’ on with you?!” came a shout from one of the faces above.

She couldn’t quite make out their expressions anymore. They were all clouded over by a memory. A memory of air that was clouded in smoke. A shroud of it, suffocating her with its gray hands.

She couldn’t breathe.

Not only that.

She couldn’t move.

Really, just like that time when it all began in the burning TwinStars Pub over half a year ago.

Memories of flames danced on the outskirts of her vision. In her mind’s eye, those flickering embers were reflected in the shards of glass scattered around her. 

No. It couldn’t be. Not like this. Not when she had all these people to take care of, all these people relying on her. Not when she’d made that promise with Francis.

She gagged, hacked, coughed.

The last thing that crept into Cadence’s mind as memory blurred into reality was an unnerving distorted image.

Captured in those shards of glass on the bar floor in her memory was the reflection of dozens of eyes all gazing back at her.


State Conducting License Format [FOR LICENSING DEPARTMENT USE ONLY]

Name / Age / Sex
Licensee Special Status (ex. royalty, diplomat, foreign alien, military, peacekeeping agent, conductor engineer, etc.)
Conducting Type (ex. Projector, Manipulator, Elementalist, etc. PLEASE NOTE: Elementalist’s subcategory required.) / Extraneous vs Intraneous -user
Color (of vitae)
Most used c.a. (Most used conductor apparatus. In general terms: glove-conductor, rifle-conductor, blade-conductor. Specific brand and model not required but may be added upon request.)
Conducting No (Examinee number)
Issued Year / Expires Year (Renewals required every four years.)

* Licenses are to be watermarked with an emblem of the licensee’s country of origin. Ophiuchian seal is required to differentiate from counterfeits. 

13b: Solitary Maidens

Re-cap:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Like a politician, Olive thought.

Or pretending to be one, Cadence amended.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Probably to never be seen again, Cadence figured.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cadence wondered about that.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Hearing him say this made her feel a bit sad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Werner didn’t answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jericho agreed. Something wasn’t right.

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

“Told you.”

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

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

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

He stared at the file. “Thank you—”

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

***

On Saturday, Boss Romano made his first public appearance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

It was an invitation. To the Sognare.

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

“No Fortuna?” she asked.

“No Fortuna,” Allen affirmed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He ELPIS?” Allen arched a brow.

Pi nodded. “Friend. Nice to meet.”

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

Pi frowned, looking hurt.

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

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

Brightening, Pi accepted the gesture.

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

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

Izsak…?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silence stretched.

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

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

“And Nico?”

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

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

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

Cadence perked up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so, on Sunday, Cadence made a promise.


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

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

Francis Foxman (?) and Cadence Morello, unknown time

13a: Copper Cadence

Choose your finale OST: 1 – 2 – 3

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


Twin Cities, Gemini

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

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

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

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

Wait.

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

She was buried. Under rubble.

How had that happened?

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

Cadence grimaced.

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

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

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

No, no, no. This was way worse now—

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

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

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

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

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

Realization settled in abruptly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cadence grimaced. Talking about death like that so freely—

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

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

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

There was a stretch of silence.

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

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

Cadence figured Omicron really was getting delirious from blood loss.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fortuna and Carl remained silent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s important?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stop talking,” Fortuna reproached.

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

Saints. That wasn’t helpful.

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

That was helpful.

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

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

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

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

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

Morello.

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

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

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

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

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

Morello, pay attention.

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

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

Cadence held her breath, remaining still on the ground.

Now all she had to do was wait a little—

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

You’re Romanos, ya hypocrites! 

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

Saints. Why were they so smart?

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

It’s a Projector’s conductor. 

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

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

Another hand abruptly wrapped over both of theirs.

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

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

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

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

Guilt, later. Save, now.

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

Lieutenant—

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

Understood, sir!

This isn’t a joking situation. 

It’s the nerves. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here we go.

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

“Omicron?!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There’s no ho—”

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

“I’ve just reached a realization—”

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

“This city is unsalvageable—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He froze, wide-eyed.

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

The man—the boy—frowned slightly.

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

“I—”

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

“I wasn’t—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theta remained silent.

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

Theta’s eyes widened slightly.

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

Theta paled in the light.

Jericho’s image intensified in front of her eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

Hook. Line. Sinker.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I got a billion of ‘em for ya.”

Francis frowned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The image crossed her mind. Perfect.

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

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

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

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

Understood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Jericho.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cadence stiffened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Damn… He was gloomy.

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

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

“And Theta’s pals?”

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

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

Francis startled in alarm.

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

***

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

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

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

Nico Fabrizzio turned from where he knelt and stared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omicron lifted her head at the commotion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then Francis began to murmur under his breath,

“There is no end,

There is no beginning,

There is only a cycle.

Whether enemy, whether friend,

Whether family, whether stranger,

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

Whether alone, whether in company,

Whether in peace, whether in war,

May all return to where all began.”

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

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

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

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

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

For a moment, no one spoke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11.6: Olive’s (Nascosto) Test

Re-cap:

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

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

Olive opened his eyes.

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

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

“Yeah.”

No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

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

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

It was now or never.

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

“Nerves?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was certain.

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

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

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

***

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

“Perks of being royalty,” Claire sang.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Olive nodded, not particularly caring.

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

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

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

“What is it, your highne—Olivier?”

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

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

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

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

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

Together, they stepped inside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Double-sided.

Damn. 

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talk about awkward.

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

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

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

“How was it?” he asked.

Eunji shrugged.

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

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

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

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

“It’s nothing—” Olive began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

Then the sirens blared.

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

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

Maria….

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

He grimaced.

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

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

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

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

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

“There really is no hope.”

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

Jericho.


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

Altogether, the exam can take 7.5 hours to complete.

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

Conducting Informational Packet, circa 1935

11.1: Cadence’s (Sincero) Deception

Re-cap:

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

Twin Cities, Gemini

Cadence opened her eyes.

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

She blinked and squinted.

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

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

Was she dead?

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

Maybe she was in hell.

“What in saint’s name…”

You lost consciousness.

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

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

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

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

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

What…?

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

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

Cadence’s heart thundered in her chest.

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

Relief.

Thanks, detective. But…

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

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

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

Another memory flashed into Cadence’s mind.

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

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

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

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

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

“What the…”

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

As if that’s gonna help. 

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

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

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

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

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

Matilda.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And why didn’t ya?”

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

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

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

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

“Wait, where are you going?”

Cadence waved. “For a drink.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Damn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was silence.

Olive arched an eyebrow at her.

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

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

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

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

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

As expected.

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

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

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

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

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

Olive uncrossed his arms. “I—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Got it.”

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steeling herself, she slipped inside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cadence nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cadence’s heart skipped a beat.

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

No…

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

“Enough.”

Cadence tensed and turned to meet Theta’s eyes.

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

Now!

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

Jericho.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He didn’t look happy.

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

“Enzo and Donato?”

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

“An additional favor?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Francis blinked and shook his head again.

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

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

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

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

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

What was this…?

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

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

Francis arched a brow at her.

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

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

10.3: Maria’s Battling (Riposo)

Re-cap:

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

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

Aboard Gloria’s Grail, International Waters

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A misunderstanding?” Maria peered down at her.

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

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

Morandi and Giorgio exchanged a look from beside her.

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

And that was that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The girl startled. “R-Really?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Maria spotted the attraction immediately.

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

“The Elementalist,” Ley said with a grimace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saints. Another delusional seafarer. Great.

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

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

He looked like—

some drunk pretending to be a king. What is he wearing.

The man lifted his hand in the air. It was gloved. A conductor.

The sea between the ship and the man glowed purple and rose, forming a bridge of water between the man and the front of the ship. The man walked forward onto that bridge, pacing across it with reverence.

Maria’s crew skirted backwards as he stepped onto the deck, while Maria studied him with interest. The girl cowered behind Maria, still holding her hand.

The man—Veles—flicked his conductor out in the direction of the bound bounty hunter. A razor slash of glowing water shot out from the seawall behind him and sliced the rope binding the bounty hunter in two. The freed man stumbled forward, rounding Maria and her group before coming to a tense stand behind Veles.

Veles pointed at Maria with a gloved finger. “You—”

“Okay, okay, let’s settle down now.” Saying this, Ley stepped in between Veles and Maria with her hands raised. She yawned tiredly and pulled off the magenta veil that she had constantly kept over her face. Simultaneously, she reached into the folds of her shirt and pulled out a familiar-looking badge that she flashed for all to see. “My name is—”

That’s—

“Oh.” Maria stared. “It’s Gabrielle.”

Ophiuchian Peacekeeper Gabrielle Law stared back at Maria, mouth hanging slightly ajar. The woman shook her head and flashed her badge again.

“My name is Gabrielle Law,” she stated clearly, meeting each person’s eyes and shining her badge at them. “Third chairwoman of the General Investigations Department of Ophiuchus. Since we are on open, international waters within Signum, you all fall under my jurisdiction. I seek to mediate the conflict here… and to resolve a case I’ve been assigned that you happen to be caught in the middle of.”

She really has a terrible personality. Swooping in like that last minute just for show…

Veles threw his head back, laughed, and pointed at Gabrielle. “What dominion do you think you have over me—Veles?!”

“Leader,” the now freed bounty hunter whispered from behind him. “We’re licensed by Ophiuchus. The peacekeeping agents do have legal authority over us. We can’t bounty hunt without their approval…”

“Nonsense!” Veles boomed. “Do you know who I am?”

Saints. Here comes a monologue… 

“I am the sea. I am the beast of the deep. The oceans roll with each step I take. I am not in your presence—you are in mypresence! Yes, that’s exactly who I am. I am someone who was selected to potentially become the Saint of the Deep. I am someone who saw a higher purpose than becoming tha—”

“I was a potential saint candidate too!” Maria interjected, while clapping in support of his speech. “I am Maria Gloria-Fernandez and—”

“I know exactly who you are,” Veles interjected, glowering. “You are the one whose head I am seeking! You are the one who slaughtered my fellow guild mates and captured—”

“If you’re talking about those people in that surfboard shop, I wasn’t the one who killed them,” Maria said.

“How dare you lie in my presence?” Veles snapped.

“I can vouch for Miss Gloria-Fernandez,” came a voice from behind. “If you cannot trust her words, I do hope you can trust mine.”

Veles stared past Maria with a frown before recognition flickered in his eyes. And then his expression brightened. “Renée!”

Maria turned and found Renée standing behind her wearing an amicable smile. The towering wall of water hadn’t seemed to disturb him in the slightest. In fact, he seemed more annoyed by the fact that he was drenched from head to toe than anything else.

“You two know each other?” Maria asked, brows arched.

“It’s been quite some time Renée LeBlanc,” Veles bellowed in confirmation.

“I am graced by your presence, Veles. Your entrances are as eye-catching as always,” Renée answered, dipping into a bow. He side-glanced at Morandi, who was gawking at him, and he added under his breath: “Please try to humor him. It improves his mood.”

Veles threw his head back and laughed. “To think I would encounter another fellow True Conductor at a place as quaint as this.”

Renée tensed. “Veles, perhaps—”

Maria, wait—

“What?!” Maria gasped, eyes sparkling. “You are both True Conductors too?!” She gestured to herself. “I’m one as well, yes?”

Don’t know why I even try.

***

“Ohhh, so you and Renée met each other at a True Conductor meeting a couple of years ago, and you met Claire there too.” Maria nodded.

Maria was sitting at a round table that she had Giorgio and Morandi set up for her on deck. Chef Raul had thrown a white tablecloth over the top and had nervously placed all their best wines on its surface before stepping back and observing from the sidelines.

The sun was warm above their heads; the sea was calm; the wine was fragrant. All-in-all, it had turned out to be a perfectly pleasant day.

Sitting alongside Maria at the table going clockwise was Gabrielle, Veles, Renée, Morandi, and the little girl. Her other crew members and Veles’s man were dotted around the deck, looking in with terribly concealed curiosity. Maria, Veles, and Renée were the only ones seated who had taken up wine-drinking. Gabrielle was as relaxed as they were, however, and was leaning back in her chair with arms crossed.

Veles took a sip of wine. “And you, Miss Captain, as you’ve said, have encountered Claire through one of the ones who you were connected with. As they say, True Conductors are drawn to each other.” He raised his glass of wine towards her. “And those who were sought to become potential saint candidates naturally become acquainted.”

“Here, here!” Maria chimed. “To the strong!”

“M-My apologies, Captain, excuse me,” Morandi interjected from her left. He cleared his throat and then muttered, “But pray tell… what in saint’s name is bloody going on here?!”

Maria looked to Veles, then to Renée, and then to Gabrielle. “We are… having a tea party, yes? A wine party!”

“A wine party,” Morandi repeated, glancing at Veles and then at Gabrielle. “With a bounty hunter who is after your head and who wants revenge because he thinks you killed his fellow bounty hunters…” He glanced at Gabrielle. “And with an Ophiuchian peacekeeper.”

“Let me correct you, commoner,” Veles drew. “I am a guild master, not a bounty hunter.”

—how is it possible for someone with as many screws loose as you to exist—

“It just so happens to be that I dabble in affairs that you call ‘bounty hunting’ because it amuses me.”

“Great…” Morandi muttered under his breath. “We have another one…”

Veles met Maria’s eyes. “As for my fellow guild mates…”

“Let’s just get some discrepancies out of the way,” Gabrielle interjected, leaning forward. “Veles, we aren’t the ones who killed your… guild members. If you’d like, once I return to Ophiuchus, I can see if I can get a separate investigation going for you regarding that. I was with Maria when she discovered the bodies. They were long dead before we even arrived at Hapaira.” She folded her hands in front of her. “I’m also acting on my authority as a peacekeeping agent to retract your bounty on Maria Gloria-Fernandez since she’s currently involved in my case. We can move further with this if we need to after my case is—”

“Nonsense!” Veles boomed. “I am acting on my own authority to retract my bounty on Maria Gloria-Fernandez.” He extended a hand out to Maria. “If you truly have not murdered my fellow guild mates in cold blood, then that leaves only one relationship for us—camaraderie through our shared True Conductorship and potential saint-candidacy-ship.”

“I didn’t kill them,” Maria affirmed. She paused, glancing to the side. “But I am sorry for your loss. Losing things is… painful, yes?”

Veles studied Maria for a moment and hummed. “Oh, and what of my guild mates that returned to me missing fingers and needing care after their encounter with you?”

“I mean, your crew was aiming to kill my crew too, yes? And you gave them a fright!” Maria chuckled. “I have to protect what is mine.”

“I must also protect what is mine,” Veles responded. “So, reparations clearly have to be made.”

“Oh, most definitely.”

There was a beat of silence.

Morandi swallowed nervously from beside Maria.

Maria herself could not fathom why he was nervous. Actually—Maria scanned the deck—everyone seemed nervous save for Gabrielle and Veles. She didn’t understand it at all.

“Well, it’s good that we are on the same page then!” Maria beamed, raising her glass of wine.

“Truly,” Veles cheered, lifting his glass to clink against her own.

In unison, they took a sip.

Morandi let out a quiet breath. “What…? T-That’s… it?”

Maria turned to Gabrielle and leaned forward. “So, Gabrielle! You surprised me! What is a peacekeeper doing on an adventurer’s ship?”

Gabrielle pinched the bridge of her nose before she folded her hands in front of her and elaborated: “My purpose on this ship is to investigate the crime organization known as the Campana Family. Since they’re extremely covert and are partially allowed to exist by Ophiuchus itself due to a blind-eye agreement, their activities have remained mostly unknown to us.” She paused, gaze drifting to the girl sitting beside Maria. “We’ve been waiting for an opportunity like this—for one of their shipments to end up on our radar—to assess their activities to see whether intervention is necessary. The Foxmans were kind enough to extend a helping hand by placing me in your group. I’m now asking for your cooperation.”

Morandi and his men brightened.

“You have it,” Maria popped. “Now that I know you are Gabrielle, I like you even more, Ley!”

“Right… Now that this is out in the open,” Gabrielle continued, “I’d like to speak to Maria, Renée, Veles, and the young girl alone.” She paused, gesturing to the surrounding men and women. “Now. Please.”

Maria waved her hand in the air, as did Veles. Morandi rose from the table and inclined his head towards the doors leading below deck. Begrudgingly, the rest of Maria’s crew along with Veles’s man followed him downwards. Conta who had been observing everything from the crow’s nest of the ship lingered for a while longer before disappearing below along with them.

“I wasn’t aware you were selected to be a saint candidate, Miss Gloria-Fernandez,” Gabrielle said after a lapse of silence. The peacekeeper studied her for a moment before moving on to Veles. “And you were selected too, but for Aquarius. But you both never actually went through the candidacy ceremony… Is that correct?”

“The Monadic orphanage Conta and I were a part of was raided by pirates right before I was supposed to head to Ophiuchus for the ceremony,” Maria recalled.

“… by pirates, you say?” Veles set his wineglass down. “You wouldn’t happen to be referring to the guild master, would you?”

“Guild master?” Maria cocked her head.

“Yes, I was also in a Monadic orphanage, albeit in Aquarius,” Veles elaborated. “It was a small, quaint place that was graced by my presence. It was only natural that I would be selected for saint candidacy. However… right before my ceremony, a man claiming to be a guild master recruited me to work under his wing for a short while.”

Something strange tickled Maria’s chest.

“What did he look like?” Maria pressed, leaning forward.

“… He was tall,” Veles replied, rubbing his chin. “Muscular. I believe he had a graying beard. And he also had an eyepatch over—”

“—his left eye,” Maria finished. She locked eyes with him and then chuckled. “What a coincidence!”

Veles nodded. “Truly.”

It’s obviously not a coincidence! Olive again. Still keeping her pleasant company. His mood seemed to be slightly alleviated.

“So, you were both prevented from starting the saint candidate ceremony by the same person,” Gabrielle concluded. “Is there any information you can offer me about saint candidacy? Maybe… any connection to ELPIS?”

Maria felt her heart skip an odd beat at the mention of ELPIS, but she shrugged it off and shook her head. “You certainly ask a lot of strange questions, my dear Gabrielle.”

“Saint candidacy is beneath me now.” Veles waved the notion off.

Clear disappointment flashed across Gabrielle’s face, and for a moment she remained silent. After the moment passed, she pressed, “There are several more things I would like to ask you. Firstly, what’s this ‘True Conductor’ that you keep mentioning? And secondly…” She locked eyes with Maria. “How did you know my name?”

“It has to do with me being a True Conductor—how I know your name, I mean,” Maria replied without skipping a beat. “Jericho is mine, you see.”

Gabrielle tensed. “You know Jericho? The Ophiuchian peacekeeper?”

Maria…

“Yes, he is mine, like I said.” Maria scratched her head. “I actually don’t really understand it well myself, but what he knows I know.”

I don’t even know why I try. Again.

Gabrielle stared at Maria long and hard before sighing and clasping her hands together. She glanced at Veles, then at Renée. “Can any of you elaborate any further?”

Renée shrugged his shoulders. “Miss Law, I am afraid that the best I can do is to say it is an exclusive club.”

“A club.” Gabrielle frowned. “Right.” She stared at him. “I actually do have a personal question for you myself, Renée. What exactly is a Chevalier of Cancer doing all the way in Hapaira? Chevaliers are almost always bound to remain within Cancer, so as a peacekeeper I can’t help but be curious.”

“I am searching for a Cancerian duchess who’s run away from home,” Renée explained, swirling his glass of wine. “I was ordered by the royal throne of Cancer to retrieve her.”

“And her name?” Gabrielle pressed.

Renée set down his glass of wine. “My apologies, Miss Law, but it is only by coincidence that I have found myself in your beautiful presence. I don’t mean to sound rude, but that truly is none of your business. This is a Cancerian issue.”

Gabrielle arched a brow at him before leaning back and holding her hands up in their placatingly. “That’s fair enough, Renée. My main purpose here is to handle the case with the Campanas. Everything else is just bonus…”

Gabrielle abruptly reached across the table and tapped the blind girl on the shoulder. The girl had been sitting tensely, quietly beside Maria all the while. Maria had almost forgotten she was present.

“Hey, kid, I’m one of the good guys,” Gabrielle said. “I’ll take care of you. If you’re alright with it, would you mind coming with me back to Ophiuchus?”

The girl hesitated.

Gabrielle grimaced, but then glanced at Maria. “I have to question the captain too, so she’ll be there with you.”

The girl, still tense, nodded slowly.

Veles rose from his seat. “This conversation no longer holds any pertinence for me, so I—Veles— will take my leave.”

“I don’t need to question you for the case so you’re free to leave,” Gabrielle affirmed, offering a loose wave. “I’ll submit a report about what happened to your guild mates for you. It’d most likely be handed down to Piscese authorities, though.”

“No need.” Veles waved his hand.

“Well, I kinda have to,” Gabrielle elaborated.

“So soon though, Veles?” Renée inquired, brow arched.

“There is no bounty here for me to claim any longer,” Veles explained. “And the murderer I seek is supposedly not on this ship. My time is valuable, my friend. I will not waste it.”

With that, he departed from the table and headed below deck. He returned a minute later with the other bounty hunter in tow. He paced over to a puddle of seawater half a meter away and dunked his gloved hand right into it. The puddle began to glow with purple light, and with a flick of his wrist, he sent the puddle back into the ocean. When he drew up his hand a second later, the ocean rumbled and a platform of water rose up to the ship. He walked over to the newly formed platform before pausing and nodding back at Maria.

“I will tell you this, fellow potential saint candidate,” Veles said as he stepped onto the water alongside his bounty hunting guild member. “The request I received for your head was most definitely made by someone close to you. It was submitted to one of my fallen brethren and held very detailed information about your persons. Information only someone close to you would know.”

“Is that so?” Maria hummed. She offered him a wave. “Thanks for the concern, my dear!”

With that, Veles flourished his hand in the air once more and road off on an ocean wave into the distance.

Maria stared after him until she could no longer see his silhouette.

What in saint’s name just happened…

I got to meet an exciting person, my dear Olive, Maria explained with a grin.

You mean a crazy person. A pause. Maria’s gaze was drawn to the little girl. You saw that on Cadence’s end too… right? The kids… 

Olive’s chest twisted into knots that knotted Maria’s own heart.

“…. Say, shall we rescue your friends?” Maria asked quietly as she stared off in what she assumed was the direction of the Twin Cities.

The girl startled beside her. “R-Rescue them…?”

“Yes, rescue them!” Maria chimed, nodding with certainty before she took the girl’s hands in her own. “There are others like you under the Campanas, yes? And if you are scared to return to them now, then how do you think those who are still there feel?”

The girl’s milky eyes widened. “I…” Guilt carved itself into her features.

“If you are too scared, my dear, you needn’t worry,” Maria hummed, releasing the girl’s hands and rising to a stand. “I can rescue them all on my own, yes—”

The girl grabbed a hold of Maria’s hand. “I-I know where they keep them. Where they kept me. Even though I can’t see, I remember the way. I… let me come… please?”

Maria beamed down at her. “I was hoping you would say that, my dear—”

“Maria,” Gabrielle interjected tersely. She was standing now, frowning deeply. “Look, I understand how you feel, but I need to bring this back to Ophiuchus first. This is beyond your paygrade. The best thing you can do to help children who might also be this girl’s situation is to come to Ophiuchus and testify—”

“How will that help?” Maria cocked her head. “I know they are there in the Twin Cities, yes? What will going to Ophiuchus and telling the people there that I know the children are in the city do? The children will be in that place longer if I go. It is… sad, no?”

“These are complicated things, Maria,” Gabrielle explained with a sigh. “You need to look at the bigger picture. These crime organizations need to be dismantled slowly so the social structure of the Twin Cities doesn’t fall apart. A testimony and a key witness need to be present so we can have a verdict to move this case forward with better resources. This is all just preliminary footwork. If we act too fast, the Campanas may be able to do a cover up and even more children can be hurt.”

Her career could be on the line if she loses control of this case. Like I said. Terrible personality.

“When you put it like that, it does sound complicated….” Maria agreed. She snapped her fingers. “But that’s just because you think it the way. If you think it’s uncomplicated, then it won’t be complicated. I mean, right now all I see is someone I want to save. And I will save them—”

“Look, I’m not saying that we’re not going to save them—”

“But you are going to wait to save them? That makes no sense to me.” Maria rested a hand on the girl’s head. “You said much, much earlier that you knew someone who was good with kids, yes? What do you think he would do?”

Gabrielle’s eyes widened a fraction, and she seemed to stare past Maria into the distance. Her gaze dropped down to the girl at Maria’s side and something flickered in her gaze.

“You know, I’ve moved up a lot of ranks in my department recently. Starting to think that’s because that guy’s no longer there to hold me back all the time.” Gabrielle sighed and fell back into her chair. She ran her hand down her face and met Maria’s eyes. “I’m going to take point on this, and I’m going to make a call to Ophiuchus before anything goes down.”

Renée poured the peacekeeper a glass of wine.

Maria beamed again. “They say you have a terrible personality, but I can clearly see that you are strong!” She hummed in thought. “They’ve also always said that I should try and make my point instead of just doing things, and I must say doing it this way is refreshing!”

Gabrielle paused. “Who’s ‘they’?” She sighed. “And what’s this about a terrible personality?”

But Maria was already running up to the wheel of the ship. She gave the thing a spin and exclaimed—

“Twin Cities, away we go!”


The Beast of the Deep is the pseudonym for a bounty hunter known as Veles Yakut. He is a powerful water Elementalist who conducts vita extraneously and commands a large guild of bounty hunters. Successful bounties range in the thousands. 
Contact information: XXX.

Information requested by Beta on 30.10.1941

Information Card #891, Category B, Astante’s Brokering Files

10.2: Cadence’s Gambling (Fallacia)

Mood OST for this chapter: (ಥ﹏ಥ)

Re-cap:

Disguising herself as Werner, Cadence works with Gilbert and Werner’s men to investigate Colonel Fritz von Spiel and his dealings with the Campanas. After a confrontation with Gilbert, the two work to together to discover that the Campanas are selling Specialist children and the colonel is more than willing to buy.

Afterwards, Cadence stumbles across Francis and follows him back to Theta’s room. Here, Cadence discovers the truth behind ELPIS, the resistors, and Theta’s plan. Reeling from this discovery, Cadence escapes and…

Twin Cities, Gemini

Cadence stumbled out of the portal, heart and head pounding. She didn’t have a clue where she was—it was too dark to make anything out. If it wasn’t for the fact that she could hear herself panting, she might’ve thought she were dead.

Scrambling blindly forward, she ran smack into a wall, tripped backwards, fell flat on her back, and blinked upwards. There was a crack of skyline there, and the smog clouding the sky reflected back the blue-orange lights from the city.

Judging by the thickness of the smog and the color of the lights, she figured she was in an alley in the west side of the city. The Louvre District again.

“What in saint’s name do I do…”

Save Alma. Right. They could leave this city together. Cadence’d gotten the means to do it. She’d get Alma to safety.

And then what?

What would happen to the city?

Well, that was Ophiuchus’s responsibility. They’d handle it fine. Since they were in the city already, they’d find the trail. And Jericho would probably say something about ‘intuition,’ swing that suitcase of his, and everything’d be okay. Werner hadn’t even needed to contact Ophiuchus to begin with. Right? Yeah.

No. That was a lie.

Would Ophiuchus even be able to find Theta’s room?

Cadence reached into her pocket and pulled out Theta’s proto-conductor that she’d taken off Comissario Vincente Giustizia—no, Tau.

She could just turn this into Ophiuchus, she thought. Make up a story. Say she’d encountered Jericho’s scuffle against Iota and found it on the streets afterwards. Everything’d be peachy then.

No. That was also a lie.

Cadence doubted Ophiuchus knew how to use the thing. And if she gave it to them, they’d just be hopping from place to place willy-nilly hoping they’d get the jump on ELPIS. Pure luck and chance.

And…

Jericho wanted it. He was the reason why she was gripping it so tightly in her hand. Any tighter and she’d shatter the thing. Jericho wanted it so that he could get to them. And if he got to them…

What would Jericho do to Theta—no, Francis?

Cadence paled as a chill ran up her spine.

ELPIS’s origins were irrelevant to Jericho. His hatred remained unchanged regardless of their circumstances. Cadence knew this—could feel this. And if that was the case then…

What would happen to Francis?

Cadence rolled over on all fours and stared at the ground, digging her nails into the damp, dirty concrete.

If Ophiuchus couldn’t fix this in time, what would happen to Allen, Carl, Fortuna? Alice? The executives? Werner’s men? Nico…?

Something hot and putrid crawled up her throat, causing her stomach to flip flop. She hadn’t felt this sick since she’d gone out drinking with the Foxman brothers and Nico before Nico had left for the Aquarian-Capricornian border.

As the memory of that drunken, chatter-filled night surfaced, Cadenced heaved, gagged, and puked.

Take damn responsibility,” Gilbert had said.

In that moment, as Gilbert had berated her, Cadence had felt intense shame. In his eyes, she’d only been a cowardly, selfish, two-faced liar. And Cadence knew that was what she was. That was how she grew up. There was no helping it. But still, when she met Gilbert’s disapproving eyes, she’d wanted to curl up, hide away, drink, change.

It was ridiculous. She barely even knew Gilbert. Which meant that Werner cared a lot about what Gilbert thought. Appearances and whatnot.

No.

It was different with Gilbert. By just a slight shade. Werner had cared because of… ‘Friendship’? That didn’t seem like him at all.

Cadence herself had never thought too deeply about the word. She’d purposefully stopped herself from thinking about people that way. There was no such thing in this city.

That was a lie.

All she was doing was trying to find the easiest way out. Like usual. A victim of circumstance. 

“I know that,” Cadence whispered, wiping her mouth. “But what in saint’s name am I supposed ta do?”

Who could she go to? No one. She’d burned all her bridges. No. They had never been there to begin with. She’d built up false bridges that held no substance. Try and walk across and she’d fall right through the illusion.

Damn.

No time to think about that.

She had to report into Cavallo. About the Campanas?

Cadence scrambled to her feet, pocketed Theta’s proto-conductor, and stumbled forward blindly. Eventually, she squeezed herself out of the alleyway and stumbled out onto a near empty street lit dimly by v-street-lamps.

“… Is that you, Cucciolo?”

Cadence straightened and turned.

A familiar woman with jet black hair that curled to her ears stood beneath a flickering light. Her red satin dress glowed in the dark as did her cherry red lips. Her eyes were soft, sad.

“Alma…” Cadence took a moment to take her in before she stumbled towards her. Cadence embraced her, and after a beat, Alma returned the gesture.

“You were… disguised as that Capricornian soldier, weren’t you?” Alma whispered into her hair. “You saved me that night, didn’t you? And you came to Enzo’s dinner tonight too… right? That was you.”

Alma had known. Of course, Alma had known.

“Are you alright?” Alma pressed, examining Cadence’s face. “You seemed really hurt in that explosion, and then you showed up at Enzo’s dinner like it was nothing… You poor thing…”

Werner’s bloodied body flashed into Cadence’s mind, and Cadence felt bile climb up her throat again.

“Alma,” Cadence breathed, grabbing hold of the woman’s hand. “Come with me.”

Alma stared at her, hand loose. “Come… with you?”

“Out of this city,” Cadence stammered, digging into her pockets, brushing past Theta’s proto-conductor, and pulling out the collection of proto-conducting rings she’d stolen from Russo. She held them out for Alma to see. “We can disguise ourselves. Sell these things. Use the money and get ourselves a place. I’ll buy you a piano. I—”

“Oh, Cucciolo.” Alma sighed, placing a hand on Cadence’s cheek. “If we run away, what then?”

“What… then?”

“Where will I play, Cucciolo? No—who will listen when I play? People are just starting to know who I am. If I leave and disappear now, they’ll surely forget me.”

What…?

“Y-You don’t need any of that—”

“Of course, I do, Cucciolo,” Alma said gently. “What’s the point of playing a song when no one is there to listen? A caged bird always sings for someone, right?” Alma pulled her hand out of Cadence’s grasp. “You should leave this half of the city, Cucciolo… Enzo was talking about looking for you earlier. He seemed very angry…”

Cadence remained frozen in place. Confused, flustered.

“I should go… but you should stay safe, Cucciolo,” Alma said as she began to pull away. “It was nice seeing you again. And… thank you for saving me. See you some time.”

Without sparing another look back, Alma continued on her walk down the street in the opposite direction—carrying on as if it was just any other night in her life. Unreachable.

“A-Alma… Alma, meet me at the Sognare!” Cadence shouted, voice cracking, as she curled her fingers around the rings. “Meet me at the Sognare! And I…” She trailed off as Alma disappeared from her sights. “Please…”

Silence.

Cadence turned on her heels, continued forward. Absentmindedly, she shoved the rings in her suit pocket and tried to collect her thoughts.

Shrug it off. Yeah. Just shrug it off. Alma would come back around. She would. She promised. If not, then it was just bad timing. Just the situation—

A sharp crack and pain against the back of her head cut the thought short, and Cadence fell forward into darkness.

***

When Cadence came to, she realized that not only was she bound to a metal chair but she was also cold. Cold as hell. She was in a small room with metal walls, with a metal ceiling lined with hanging icicles growing in-between slabs of meat on metal hooks. A cooler. Damn bad luck. At least it had an exit: a heavy-looking door just across from her.

But—to check the last box on the checklist of misfortune—she could no longer feel the familiar press of her conducting rings on her fingers. Whoever had taken her in had known enough to take them off.

Fortunately, she could still feel the press of Theta’s proto-conductor and the ring proto-conductors in her pants pocket. She would’ve felt more relieved, however, if she could actually move her hands enough to reach them. Her captors had bound her with metal chains wound so tight around her chest, arms, and legs that it hurt to breathe, move, shiver. No sticky-fingering or muscling her way out of this one.

The cooler door abruptly opened, and two figures stepped in. Two familiar men who shouldn’t have been anywhere near each other.

“Well, this is an odd sorta friendship ta see,” Cadence mused lightheartedly. “Did ya guys meet-cute?”

Donato of the Romano Family chuckled as he approached her, while Enzo of the Campanas stood beside him with a tired look. It seemed as if Donato’s encounter with Iota hadn’t shaken the old coot up a bit.

“A Caporegime of the Romanos and an executive of the Campanas meetin’ up with one another while the families themselves are beatin’ the snot outta each other,” Cadence hummed. “Now that’s a good secret.”

“And you’ll keep it a secret?” Donato mused. “Like how you’ll keep the Campana’s product a secret?”

“Product?” Cadence arched a brow.

“Oh, come on, Cadence.” Donato sighed. “I know you were at Enzo’s meeting. We found Cavallo’s dog Russo just as he was leaving the area and pulling off a proto-conductor ring. A ring that was obviously filled with your vitae.”

Dammit, Russo.

“And… where would Russo happen ta be now?”

“Six feet under,” Enzo replied. “Unlike you, he wasn’t as willing to lend an ear and was feelin’ a bit loose lipped.”

Dammit, Russo…

But. Okay. This was good. Bad for Russo. But good for her. They were planning on letting her live… up to a point. She had to get more information in the meanwhile, but she couldn’t overstep her bounds.

“So, given what’s goin’ down in the city that now, I’m guessin’ none of the bosses or any of the other executives know that you two are buddy-buddy. How long ya been pen pals?”

“How long have I been capo?” Donato returned.

Cadence arched a brow. “Geeze, so from the very beginning, huh? Pretty impressive how ya got under the bosses’ noses. Bet ya both were excited when Fortuna and Ambrose said they were gettin’ engaged, huh?”

“You too, Morello.” Enzo nodded. “I mean, that meant that the divide between you and Alma would no longer be there, right?”

Cadence froze.

“Alma talked about you a lot when she first came to me,” Enzo explained. “‘Course, she stopped after she got used to the good life, but I have a good memory.”

“She’s talked about ya a lot too when we met up,” Cadence returned good-naturedly. “Gossip, right?” She paused, pulling back. “I’m not a gossiper myself. Especially when my life is on the line—”

“I’m sure you said the same thing when you were dealing with Verga,” Donato interjected. “And Verga is stupid so he believed you.” He gestured to himself. “You can see there’s a difference here.”

Cadence smiled with effort. “That’s why you’re a capo and he wasn’t.” She shrugged. “If you’re gonna consider doin’ me in, can I at least get some of the details? Can’t let me die with curiosity, can ya?”

Donato considered this before chucking. “I like you, Cadence, so here it is—”

Obviously, he didn’t like her to not beat her over the head and tie her up, she thought.

“—You know this for fact: the Campana Family is selling Specialist Conductor children. The market for them is crazy. Especially in countries who’re bordering less-than-friendly countries outside of Signum. The wealthy love them too. And I’ve been providing some of them to Enzo in exchange for…” Donato slapped his bad leg. “Well, you see, they’ve got an amazing Specialist who’s been slowly but surely healing my leg. Soon, I’ll be walking like everyone else.”

Betraying the Family just for one healed-up leg? What a rat.

“Congratulations,” Cadence said faintly. She swallowed, cocked her head. “That’s great for ya and everything, but aren’t ya concerned about what’ll happen if any of the executives find out? I mean, they’re all busy dealin’ with killin’ each other, but ya know Francis is a good multitasker—”

“Francis?” Donato threw his head back and barked. “He’s probably completely lost his head by now. He’s not doing anything anytime soon.”

Cadence’s heart skipped a beat.

Donato knew. And if he knew, then…

“What…. did you do?” she whispered.

Enzo walked out of the cooler abruptly.

“You see, the Foxmans and the Campanas have had a bad relationship for some time now,” Donato explained. “The problem is the Foxmans are too loyal. Too nosey. So, honoring their relationship with the Romanos, they covertly started working with Ophiuchus to investigate the Campanas in an effort to take ‘em down. ‘Course if they started investigating the Campanas, then there’s no telling when they’d dig up our business agreement. Enzo and I would both be in bad waters with our bosses.”

Enzo returned carrying an open wooden crate and dropped it at Cadence’s feet. Cadence peered inside, and another wave of nausea overtook her. Resistors. The crate was full of resistors. Some of their glass-tube handles were filled with a swirling white light, while others were hollow and empty.

“Enzo found a whole cargo shipment full of these conductor-looking, knife-things stored in a warehouse in the west side,” Donato explained. “Apparently, Verga was shipping these for a certain group.” He bent down to pick up a resistor that was empty. Its blade was caked with dried blood. “What you’re seeing here is the very knife Francis was stabbed with.”

Cadence balled her fists, bit the inside of her lip, kept her face calm and even.

“It’s quite interesting—the effect of these things when they’re filled with the white vitae stuff.” Donato ran his finger along the blade. “Enzo had his boys test them on a couple of poor saps, and they completely went off the walls. We had to put most of ‘em down. ‘Course one managed to get away, but that’s not relevant.” He tapped the tip. “It surprisingly took a while for Francis to crumble, but the entire thing took the Foxmans’ eyes off of us for a while.” He chuckled. “Well, forever now.”

“Do ya even understand what ya’ve done…?”

“These things have something to do with ELPIS, yeah.” Donato nodded, tossing the resistor back into the crate. “But I’m not too concerned about them. We have what they want, after all. ‘Course dealing with Ophiuchus is another issue. I had to put in a lot of legwork to get away from the guards they put on me. And you know me—I’m old and I’m not as slick as I used to be—”

“This is all your fault!” Cadence seethed, startling herself, Donato, and Enzo. “You… You!”

“What has gotten into you, Cadence?” Donato sighed and rubbed his wrist. “You of all people should understand. In time, whatever this is will pass, and people’ll move on. ELPIS’ll do its thing, and they’ll leave like they always do. The Families’ll resolve their issues.” He paused, smiled genially. “Same goes for all the people you’ve deceived for us, right?”

“People’ll move on…?” Cadence parroted. She laughed. “Ya can’t be serious, Donato. I mean, ya’ve gotta be pullin’ my leg again, right? How in saint’s name are they gonna move on from this? This is ELPIS. They—”

They hadn’t moved on for centuries.

“I’m leaving you in Feliciano’s care while I decide what to do with you, Morello,” Donato said, nodding at Enzo. “Though, a couple of Feliciano’s friends have ended up as stiffs recently, so I can’t say he’s gonna be in too good a mood. He’ll be visiting soon.”

Enzo bent down to pick up the box of resistors and with Donato he exited the room. The cellar door shut quietly behind them, leaving Cadence alone in silence.

Cadence began to tremble despite herself.

Feliciano’s ‘care’?

Saints. They were going to beat the living hell out of her.

Cadence stared at the floor, mind racing. Would she be able to talk her way out of a beating?

Feliciano’s sneering face flashed into her mind.

No, definitely not. Not with Feliciano. He’d had a bone to pick with her since they were kids. Think.

Saints—

A shadow spilled across the floor in front of her. Cadence stiffened and yelped instinctively. But as she registered—as she felt—who was present, she startled.

Werner.

The Capricornian first lieutenant drew near to her, meeting her eyes with an unreadable expression. Just like how he’d looked at her when she’d encountered Jericho and Iota in the Louvre District. A void stretched out behind Werner. He still wasn’t awake.

“Morello, this will be excruciatingly painful.”

Cadence blinked.

What? What was he doing? Rubbing in it? Yeah, that made sense after what she’d done. She didn’t blame him at all.

Werner frowned. “I am not here to ‘rub it in.’ Morello, you’re unable to escape, and the others will most likely feel the pain Feliciano and his men are about to inflict on you. It may compromise us, and that cannot be afforded.”

The guilt came in like a flood at the realization. She had been so caught up in her own situation that she hadn’t even thought about how she’d affect the others.

Werner regarded her silently before extending a hand. “Allow me to override you, Cadence.”

Cadence did a double-take.

What…?

“There is evidence that when one of us is overridden, the others are unable to access the memories of the events nor the sensations the overrider experiences,” Werner explained calmly. “At the moment, this is our best option since the others are preoccupied.”

Cadence gaped.

He would go to such lengths to protect the others? It didn’t make sense. This didn’t seem like something he would do.

“Cadence, it’s not just them. You don’t have enough pain tolerance to handle this. Your reaction to Jericho’s injury during our first synchronization meeting makes this obvious,” Werner said. “As I’ve said, this is the best solution.”

Cadence stared at him incredulously. It really didn’t make sense. After everything she’d done, she wouldn’t blame him if he despised her, hated her, maybe even wanted the worse to happen to her. But…

“Why—” She met Werner’s eyes and felt her voice catch in her throat.

No…

The answer needn’t be said. Cadence could feel it. She wished she couldn’t but she did. It was a simple feeling, but a strong one. Not pity, not disappointment, not resentment—

Despite her selfishness, he cared for her. No, he still cared for her.

It hurt.

“I… I’m sorry, Werner,” Cadence whispered. She felt her eyes burn, felt her heart crumple, felt shame and disgust curl in her stomach.

If only she had her damn conductor. Then she could just snap her fingers and make everything go away. Disappear the shameful tears that were beginning to prick her eyes. Mask the trembles that were cascading down her body into a suave, casual, relaxed pose. And hide it. Hide everything away. Hide her cowardice, hide her selfishness. Shrug off her problems—

Just proving that you’ll never change,” Theta had said.

“I’m so, so sorry…” she whispered. “I don’t know what I’m doing. I just wanted to help Alma.” No, that was a lie. What she wanted was to stop Alma from leaving her side. Pathetic. Another blow. “I didn’t want ya to get hurt, Werner.” A truth. “I wasn’t thinking. I wasn’t thinking at all. I was so stupid. I coulda killed ya…” Saying it out loud was horrifying. “Saints, I coulda killed all of ya…”

—a hand suddenly touched her cheek.

She lifted her head to find Werner staring at her, blue eyes piercing and hard—but not exactly cold. A faint memory, faded at its images, floated into Cadence’s mind: a long, tall, thin woman standing in the middle of a cold, empty room wielding a long, tall, thin stick—an overbearing shadow.

They were the same, Cadence realized, paling. But that made Werner’s proposal so much worse. She couldn’t understand it. They had been in similar situations and circumstances, but they had turned out so different. How was that possible?

“Enough, Cadence,” Werner said tersely. “They’re coming.”

He really meant it, she realized. He really wanted to override her and endure the pain instead. But that didn’t make any sense. Was this really his choice?

Werner frowned. “Although I do believe my current state of mind might be somewhat altered due to my condition, this is my choice, Morello. Make no mistake.” He seemed to read her mind. “If you are truly sorry, then accept whatever guilt comes by me doing this. Accept responsibility, live with it, and don’t let it happen again.”

That was awfully manipulative of him.

The cellar door creaked open behind Werner, and a cluster of men eclipsed him. Feliciano and his lackeys.

“It’s time, Cadence,” Werner said calmly as always. “Are you ready?”

Before she could respond, Cadence felt the darkness pull her away from him almost instantly, felt him relax into the cold chair in her place, felt her consciousness slip away into blackness.

And in that pitch-black dark, she dreamt. No, in the dark, she remembered.

She remembered her mother with her long copper locks and her father with his freckled cheeks. War veterans in search of a better life in the Twin Cities. They’d only received a singular benefit package from Aries after the war’s end and had struggled to even afford a place to stay in the city.

Cadence had spent many nights home alone because her parents were always out working. One night, as she’d roamed through the house in the dark waiting for them to return, she’d discovered her mother’s conducting rings. She’d slipped them on, thinking they were fashionable items, adoring the way they’d make her fingers tingle. She’d try them on every single night while she waited for her parents to return, and it was by mere luck that she managed to activate them one day. She’d transmuted herself into one of the dresses she’d seen in her mother’s favorite fashion magazine and had been giddy with excitement and glee.

Slowly, slowly, she refined her skill until one night—when her parents came home late—she revealed her conducting to them. They’d both been ecstatic, proud, cheering as they spun her around the room.

Talented, they exclaimed, amazing. My talented, amazing daughter.

But that happiness was not the norm.

It was a stressful postwar era. Her parents constantly argued over money, food, bills. But Cadence hadn’t been bothered by it because to her that was normal. Besides—or so she had thought—as long as they had each other, it didn’t matter. Not the arguments, not the occasional thrown fists. It wasn’t perfect, but it was enough.

Then one night, her mother returned home with a black a shadow riding on her shoulders. When Cadence had greeted her at the doorway, her mother sank to her knees and wrapped her fingers around her neck.

“If it weren’t for you…” her mother had seethed, squeezing tight. “I wouldn’t have to be with that man. If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have to suffer like this. I wouldn’t be the damned laughing stock at work. I wouldn’t have to deal with people always looking at me with pity. It’s because of you. It’s all because of you, you, you!”

Cadence had sobbed, clawing at her mother’s hands as she gasped for air. Just as her vision began to fade, her mother released her and pulled back with a sob of her own. When Cadence had finally gained her bearings and her breath, she found her mother crying apologies under her breath—

“I’m terrible. Oh, I’m so terrible. I don’t deserve to be your mother. I’m terrible.”

It had hurt for Cadence to see her mother like that. Hurt more than the throbbing around her throat. And so, Cadence had crawled up to her mother’s side and said, “I-It’s not your fault, mommy. You’re just angry because you’re tired, right? It’s not your fault… And I’m okay, you see?” Snapping her fingers with a grin, Cadence disappeared the bruise marks on her neck in a flash of copper.

The way her mother’s eyes had lit up afterwards was like a dream, and the warmth from her mother’s embrace made Cadence forget all about the pain.

This wasn’t her mother’s fault at all, Cadence had thought. It was merely the situation, the circumstance.

That incident marked the first time her mother had a bad morrowheat trip. And it wasn’t the last.

“It’s stress relief,” her father had told her as he began to take morrowheat up himself. “We get nightmares, you know. About the war.”

This had been before morrowheat became properly refined and legalized. In its unrefined form, it was terribly addictive and often caused hallucinations, mood swings, lethargy. And as her parents continued to take the drug, they became less and less inclined to leave their apartment for work. Instead, they lounged together with interlocked limbs on the mattress on the floor that they all shared.

It was okay though. Because they were together. It was enough.

But then, Cadence’s mother passed. Just like that. In her sleep. They didn’t have enough money to hire doctors to figure out why. They didn’t have enough money for a funeral. And so, Cadence was left standing in front of her mother’s unmarked grave wondering exactly what had happened. There were no answers. There never were.

Cadence spent the following weeks curled up on their mattress in her mother’s spot. She’d burrowed into her mother’s blankets, breathed in her scents, and imagined that her mother was still there lying beside her. Cadence had even used her conducting rings to bring the illusion to life once. It was momentary comfort.

One day Cadence’s father came home and spoke to her about things she didn’t understand. Her mother had a savings account with a decent amount of money, he’d said. They’d both been saving the funds so that they could eventually send Cadence to school, he’d explained. But because of Gemini’s strict personal protection and privacy laws at the time, only the owner of the account was able to withdraw funds. And so, he wasn’t able to access any of it.

“Y…You can do it, can’t you, Cadence?” her father whispered with bags under his eyes as he held her hand. “You can make yourself look like mommy and take the money out, right?”

The desperation in his voice had been pitiful—so pitiful that several nights later, Cadence found herself wearing her mother’s conducting rings and standing in front of their chipped bathroom mirror. Snapping her fingers, she’d watched with joy, disgust, relief, horror as her deceased mother’s form shimmered over her own.

When Cadence brought home all of her mother’s savings from the bank the following morning, her father had been ecstatic. He’d picked her up and twirled her around, proclaimed how much he loved her, showered her with gifts—

Happiness. It was enough.

And then one day, he didn’t come back home.

Cadence spent those following weeks roaming the house, digging into the pantries for food, curling up on their mattress, waiting and waiting—until there was a knock at the door. It was the landlord who told her curtly, strictly, firmly that she needed to pack up and leave.

“You’re lucky that I’m not making you take on your parents’ debt,” was what he had left her with.

And so, for the first time in her life, with only the clothes on her back and her mother’s conducting rings on her fingers, Cadence stepped outside onto the streets of the Twin Cities alone. She’d learned quickly though. Learned to pickpocket, steal, swindle. Learned to take advantage of other people’s pity. Learned to use her conducting to get herself out of tight situations.

And then Alma found her. Rather, she found Alma. A beautiful, gentle person whom Cadence could always find at the Sognare. A person who smiled at her with apparent affection instead of pity. A perfect person. A constant.

Not so long after that, Cadence had encountered—rather, pickpocketed—Ricardo Romano who then introduced her to Fortuna. Literally days later Cadence befriended the Foxmans and then finally Nico. Together they had roamed the streets, claiming territory childishly as their own, challenging other delinquent rings to pick-pocketing feuds, swindling tourists with gambles and games.

Happiness. A constant.

Perhaps, that was why Cadence adored Alma so much. Meeting Alma marked the beginning of the best time in Cadence’s life… But Alma’s departure also marked the end of it.

Cadence still remembered it as if it was yesterday—the day that Alma left. After whispering apologies about being unable to stay by Cadence’s side, Alma had placed a hand on her cheek and had said with a dreamy smile: “Oh, I’m so excited, Cucciolo. All the girls at the Casa say that Enzo is so wealthy, and he knows so many famous people. Maybe with him, people will finally listen to my song…”

But Cadence had blamed Alma’s words on too much alcohol.

Fortuna took up on her father’s mantle not too long after that, while the Foxmans abandoned their pipe dream of running their own bar in favor of running the city’s docks. She’d congratulated all of them at the time, of course. Always appeared crooked-smile, bought them congratulatory presents using money she’d swindled from tourists, never showed a hint of jealousy, disdain, disappointment, hurt.

But appearances were deceiving.

Still, at least Nico would stay by her side, Cadence had thought to herself foolishly. Out of their entire group, the two of them had spent the most time together. Huddled in between alleyways, swallowing cigarettes whole for laughs, pick-pocketing wealthy kids who were in over their heads. Playing piano at the dwindling Sognare, sharing drinks at the bar after a rough day of work, musing about their unattainable dreams.

Right. Nico needed her, she’d thought, always followed her, would never leave her. It was something Cadence treasured. A constant.

But then… Nico had left too. Left for the borders of Capricorn while following his dream of being free of his father’s shadow in that twisted way of his. Left for that dream of his that had suddenly become attainable.

And Cadence was happy for him. Truly. But still she thought—

It was better to have an unattainable dream. Something that always needed to be pursued. No disappointment when it came down to it. No losing the dream and its perks, since it’d never be achieved. A constant. The same thing came to people. Situation over disposition.

***

When Cadence sluggishly came into consciousness, she was greeted with pain and cold. It felt as if cement had been filled in between her muscles and bones. She also no longer had any sensation in her fingertips. And her mouth tasted of iron.

Sure enough, when she got her bearings and surveyed her surroundings, she found that she was lying in a pool of her own blood. The cellar door was locked tightly. The only positive she collected from a second look around was that during the beat down, Feliciano and his goons had decided to untie her and leave her untied.

She tried to crawl up into a sitting position, but a dull pain shot up her limbs in protest. She collapsed and laid in place. Too much pain to even shiver.

If it hurt this much for her now, she thought, how much had it hurt for him?

It’s not your fault, whispered a familiar voice at the back of her head. Werner offered.

“Shut up,” she muttered.

It wasn’t your mom and dad’s fault either, the whisper continued, relaying the echoes of her dream. They couldn’t help their situation. They couldn’t help reacting the way they did. It was the stress, the poverty, the drugs. It’s all circumstance. 

Cadence shivered, wincing at the shooting pain it brought her.

One-way ticket to hypothermia.

But even so, despite the cold, she could still feel Werner’s warm hand against her cheek.

No, no. She didn’t want to think about that. Not now.

Right? It’s all circumstance. It’s not your—

“Shut up!” Cadence sobbed and pulled into herself. The tears stung the cuts on her cheek but she knew that the stinging pain was incomparable to what Werner had taken on for her. “Damn it! Shut up! Stop lying!”

Silence answered her.

Right. The person she’d been deceiving the most—Cadence realized in the quiet—had been herself all along. The truth was that it wasn’t all just circumstance. Not with herself. Not with her mother, not with her father, not even with Alma.

The answer was ridiculously clear:

A child representing past mistakes and an inescapable situation. 

A tool to earn money. 

And a person who was more pitiable than herself, a person who made her feel as if her own life wasn’t that awful.

—this was how her mother, her father, and Alma had viewed her in those moments that Cadence had painted over as ‘circumstance’.

It was as simple as that.

And simplicity hurt.

Cadence sobbed and curled deeper into herself.

How dare she think about herself after everything that had happened? How dare she—

“What in saint’s name are you doing…?”

Cadence blinked the frozen tears out of her eyes and found Olive standing before her. He felt her pain—she could tell—and was barely managing to hold back a wince. Damn.

“Of course, I can feel your pain,” Olive half-growled, half-grumbled. He knelt down beside her, hands hovering, hands shaking, eyes… wet? Tears. They were leaking from his eyes, and he was failing terribly at holding them back.

“S-Saints, your highness…” Cadence cracked a grin with effort. She had a cut on her lower lip that stretched open with the action. “Y-You should be laughin’ at my situation. Not cryin’. Specially after everything I did and everything I said to ya.” She grimaced. “I-I’m sorry about that, kid. You were right about everything… so ya gotta stop cryin—”

“It’s just sad okay, dammit… It’s not fair.” Olive wiped his eyes. “Those kids— they’re almost my age… it’s wrong what the Campanas are doing… and what…” His voice cracked. “W-What happened to you… and to Werner.” He shook his head. “It’s just not fair! How can people do that?”

It was easy for people to do that, Cadence thought. It was hard for them not to do that.

“You’re a good kid, Olive.” She sighed. “I mean it.” She laid her head back and groaned. “I’m sorry. For everything. It was all my fault. You’re all way too good for me.”

Him, Werner, Atienna, Jericho, Maria.

A pain more terrible than the throbs running through her limbs seized her chest.

And Nico, Francis, Allen, Carl, Fortuna too.

“You’re stupid,” Olive said, shaking his head. “You’re stupid and you’re so unbelievably selfish.”

Cadence tried to squint at him but even that was too much effort, so she laid back her head and closed her eyes.

“It wasn’t circumstances with Alma, your mom, or your dad,” Olive continued. “But it’s also not circumstance with me, and it’s not circumstance with any of the others. When it comes to us… I…” His cheeks flushed, and he took a deep breath before he grimaced. “If you get what I mean… I’m not here because of circumstance.”

Cadence cracked open an eye.

“You’re good enough for me,” Olive said, meeting Cadence’s gaze. “As long as we’re constantly trying to improve and trying our best to not make the same mistakes, we’re good enough for each other.”

Cadence abruptly recalled she was talking to a prince, and she couldn’t help but laugh. He was regal when he put the effort into it.

“We need to get out of here,” Olive muttered, rubbing his arms absentmindedly.

Right. Even if it hurt like hell, she had to find a way out of here before Feliciano came back. She couldn’t make Werner go through that again. She couldn’t let the others deal with the fading pain either. Responsibility, dammit.

Biting the inside of her cheek, Cadence forced herself up into a sit. The world spun around her, but she pushed herself further to an unstable stand and began to wobble to the door.

Pain, pain, pain.

Cadence, please don’t push yourself…

But she had to.

Cadence managed to make it to the door and pressed her hands against its surface. She could barely see more than a crack because her eyes were so swollen, but she didn’t need full vision to see that the door was frozen shut.

Suggestion. Don’t panic.

That was hard to do.

Kick it down! You can do it!

Really? Why was that even a suggestion?

“Claire said something…” Olive muttered from beside her. “He told me that there’s something special that True Conductors can do when it comes to vitae right before you overrode Werner… Since I’m able to conduct without my conductor—no, since I am a ‘conductor’—it might be different, but…” He placed his hands over her own and closed his eyes.

Cadence arched a brow at him, wincing at the pain that followed the motion.

And then she felt warmth. A buzz at the base of her palm that spread to her fingertips.

She turned slowly and managed to catch a glimpse of her bruised hands right before copper sparks of light erupted into copper flames beneath her palms.

“What the—”

Olive grabbed her and pulled her backwards as the door was engulfed in flames of vitae. Flames that she had created. Without the appropriate conductor. Without being an Elementalist.

“Saints…!” she exclaimed in unison with Olive.

The heat crackled wildly, eating away at the frost and the door itself, melting everything it touched. Soon the door became molten metal and ash, and the icicles that had been hanging above her head began to drip, drip, drip into puddles of water around her.

Once the fire died and warm night air spilled in from the door-less doorway, Cadence turned to Olive and blinked. “Did ya just see that?”

Olive snapped, “Of course I saw that. I’m right here! This is—”

“Kid, my body hurts like hell, and I don’t think I can spare another brain cell ta try and figure out what in saint’s name just happened,” Cadence said as she stepped forward, “so I’m just gonna get outta here now and leave the thinking ta you, Werner, and Atienna.” She paused and looked back at him. “Thanks, Olive. And not just for the mojo melting thing.”

And Werner too. She needed to thank him. But she wanted to say it to his face. It was only fair.

Hesitantly, Cadence stepped through the melted doorway and out into a dark alleyway just beyond. She took a deep breath. Soot, salt. Home.

“Woooooow.” A clap echoed from above. “I was just swinging by and thought I was gonna have to pull a heroic rescue, but look at this!”

Cadence recognized that voice. No, Olive recognized it. But that was impossible.

A series of metal clangs filled the air—each lower in tone than the last—and down from the darkness dropped a slender, tall figure concealed in shadow.

Cadence felt it immediately. The apprehension. The dread. Ominous.

A woman dressed in a monochrome suit stepped into the light pouring out from the cooler.

There were two things that Cadence noticed about the woman. One: there was a white Ophiuchian sash on her arm. Two: she wore sunglasses despite it being nighttime.

Cadence. Olive’s heart was hammering. I don’t understand. How is she here

Peacekeeping saint candidate Ilseong Jin stood before Cadence in the flesh.

I literally just saw her—

“A-Are you a peacekeeper?!” Cadence stammered, rushing to Jin and wincing with every step. “Ya gotta help me. I-I got jumped. A hospital. I need ta get to a—”

“How’s that Ariesian prince doing?” Jin asked, cocking her head. “Just saw him a minute ago but still.”

Cadence froze and felt Olive’s fear seep into her aching bones. “What…? What are ya talkin’ about?”

Cadence stumbled slightly. Jin caught her with one hand. But it was not a comfort. The peacekeeper’s touch sent chills down Cadence’s spine.

“Oh, come on,” Jin grumbled. “First the prince and now you? I mean, I literally saw your conducting!” She squinted. “At least you’re a bit more convincing. Though it really does look like you need to go to a hospital.” She squeezed Cadence’s shoulders sending Cadence a ripple of pain. “But congrats on taking the next step of True Conductorhood. First time I’ve ever seen a vitae crossover without an actual conductor though!” She released Cadence nonchalantly. “Cool.”

Cadence stumbled backwards, barely keeping her footing. “I’m guessin’ ya didn’t come here by train…”

“Nope. Just came to check on a friend though…” Jin took a step back and gave Cadence another once over. She then slipped a familiar, needle-shaped proto-conductor filled with black liquid out from her pocket and tapped it against the wall behind her. The wall immediately became engulfed in a familiar pale, tangerine light.

Cadence paled.

“I like the stupid kiddo, so needless to say, I like you,” Jin said as she stepped into the light with a wave, “so I’ll leave you with a warning. Omicron’s told me that Theta’s priming ready to snap, and when that happens…” She aimed a mock gun. “… the city’ll go with it no matter what plan they have.”

10.1: Olive’s Dimming (Fiammata)

Re-cap: 

Olive is at the Bodhi Temple studying for the State Conducting Exam. He is also there to partially protect Claire’s sister Eunji from rival clans using his status as Ariesian Prince. In exchange, Claire is to translate Sagittarian texts for him.

On a moonlit night, Olive encounters the saint candidate of Sagittarius, Ilseong Jin, who is also a peacekeeper and is Claire’s aunt. Jin unnerves Olive with her knowledge of True Conductors, his sister, and the mysterious syzygy but does not seem to be hostile. Fortunately, Olive is able to form a bond of trust with Claire despite the circumstances. His trust with Cadence, on the other hand, crumbles as he realizes that she has selfishly overridden Werner. Still far from the dangers of the Twin Cities, Olive…

Bodhi Temple, Sagittarius

Thwack.

“We’re leaving for Ophiuchus at the end of the week, Ollie.”

Thwack.

“… Already?”

Thwack.

“Eunji is bright. Way brighter than me, and I’m pretty bright. She’s already memorized all the materials that they usually put on the exam and then some. She’s just got to memorize a couple more of the conducting motions for the practical and we’re ready to go.”

Thwack.

“And memorizing is the same thing as learning?”

Thwack.

“Well, you can’t learn anything if you don’t memorize it. Education in Sagittarius is centered around memorization, actually.”

Thwack.

Silence.

Thwack.

“I know what you’re thinking, Ollie. You’re thinking about the others in your circle, aren’t you? I can see it all over your face. And I get it. We’re both lucky to be born in positions where our struggles are more social and political than physical… I’m sure at least some people in your circle aren’t as lucky as us.”

Thwack.

“But it’s really a waste of energy thinking about it, Ollie.”

Thwack.

“Wow, Claire…” A mocking clap. “Thanks for your unwanted words of wisdom. Did they teach you that in politician school?”

Thwack.

“Hey, I’m trying to be helpful here. One of yours was seriously injured that night, right? You’re lucky to be alive… I’m serious.” A sigh. “Anyway, I’m assuming from the way you’ve been acting that you haven’t been able to talk to the one who got hurt. That really sucks, but the fact is that you’re all still alive. And you’re not doing whoever it is any favors by moping about it. Trust me. I know first-hand. You should focus on the things you can do instead of the things you can’t—”

Crack!

Olive startled, turning his attention away from Claire and towards the archery range laid out in front of them. A row of targets bulleted with arrows was lined up at the far end of the range. Just below the open terrace Olive occupied, Trystan and Jin stood side-by-side poised with their bow conductors.

Claire leaned forward with interest beside Olive, and Claire’s guards who stood behind him did the same. Several monks had gathered around to watch the spectacle as well, leaving Olive to wonder how much free time they actually had. Then again, the current archery match unfolding truly was something to gawk at—especially on Jin’s end.

If Jin had terrified Olive the other night with her showy ridiculous enigmatic monologue, she had now completely horrified him with her prowess at both conducting and archery.

Trystan who was most definitely a skilled archer was clearly losing ground.

Alexander Charming used to rattle on about Trystan’s skill back at the palace. Olive hadn’t cared much for Alexander’s praise then, but over the past few months, Olive had come to appreciate Trystan’s prowess. In fact, Olive had felt a bit of pride when Trystan had first stepped out onto the archery range and had hit each of the targets right through the bullseye marks with a single arrow of fire vitae each. But then Jin had swooped in, twirling her bow conductor in hand before splitting and extinguishing Trystan’s fire arrows with invisible arrows of air.

It seemed unnatural—both Jin’s loose archery style and her bow conductor. Her bow conductor was long, black, sleek, light, string-less. It was so lightweight that Olive barely made out the glass insulators on its body. Something about the device didn’t seem right, but Olive couldn’t put his finger on it.

Trystan, rather than being embarrassed or flustered at his gradual defeat, seemed to be utterly gobsmacked by Jin’s precision and clapped loudly whenever she’d obliterate one of his arrows.

It was ridiculous. Olive figured Trystan was a masochist.

“I don’t really mean focusing on my aunt or anything when I say that,” Claire added under his breath. “That’s not something you or I can do right now. Probably. Since we don’t even know what’s happening on that front. But maybe I could ask. Maybe she’d tell me.” He turned to Olive, smiling. “Playing the fool is the way to success.”

Olive glanced at him. “I can see that.”

The monks around the range started clapping and cheering.

Jin had won, obviously.

The saint candidate turned on her heels, aimed a mock gun in Olive’s direction, and winked— “Bang!”

***

Olive regretted his decision to confront Cadence as soon as he did it. As usual, Olive found that his words were not as carefully chosen as Atienna’s and his thoughts not as collected as Werner’s. And so, he ended up saying something he didn’t mean:

“Aren’t you supposed to be good at reading people? It’s pretty obvious to me that Werner cares more about you than Alma does—if she even cares about you at all.”

And thus, as expected, Cadence completely snapped. She tore into him, dug out the tiny feelings he kept to himself, and laid them out to light.

It was embarrassing—the fact that Cadence could see through him so well. It hurt—the fact that Cadence knew what words would hurt him and said them anyways.

But she was right. It was stupid. How could he even think that the other five were anything remotely like family to him? They weren’t even friends. And that truth stung. But it didn’t matter. What mattered was what Cadence had done.

As his shouting match with Cadence reached its climax, Atienna synchronized with them both and intervened. She looked Cadence’s image right in the eye and slapped her hard. Cadence’s synchronization with him faded after that, but not before Olive managed to catch a rather disturbing look of hurt satisfaction flash across Cadence’s face.

Atienna remained with him several minutes afterwards. They didn’t exchange many words and refrained from speaking about what had occurred. However, just before Atienna departed, she placed a hand on his cheek and said, “You’re important to me, Olive. And that’s enough for me.”

The relief Olive felt at her reassurance was just as embarrassing as Cadence calling him out, and he could not reciprocate Atienna’s words.

Lavi came to him a while afterwards and seemed concerned about the lack of synchronization meetings. She wasn’t truly connected to him, Olive knew, so she wasn’t aware of what had happened between Werner and Cadence. As always, Lavi tried to get to the bottom of what had occurred, but he brushed her worries away.

It wasn’t something she needed to deal with, he told himself. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust her. Not at all.

Still, despite everything that had happened, Olive absolutely refused to mope around and to spend the day rolling around in bed. And so, right after his confrontation with Cadence, he rinsed his face in his bathroom sink and headed out with Trystan in search of Claire.

There were Sagittarian texts that needed to be translated, after all.

Olive found Claire and his masked guard Felix standing stiffly in front of the library’s doorway. The two were conversing with a duo standing at the threshold there. A woman and a man. The woman had short black hair that came up to her ears and had on a pair of circular glasses. Just by looking at her, Olive could tell that she was mean. There was something in her eye that just glinted viciousness. The man, on the other hand, had a mess of spiky dark hair and drooping eyes that made him look half asleep.

The woman locked eyes with Olive and glowered.

“Who’s that foreigner?” she snapped in some dialect of Sagittarian that Cadence knew. “You keep bringing people who aren’t of Sagittarian blood into our traditions. Don’t you have a sense of pride? First you bring a foreigner to be your vassal and now—”

Felix stiffened.

“Sister, I understand your concerns but although Felix may not have the blood of the Seong Clan running through his veins,” Claire responded politely, “his heart is Seongese through and through. He has spent all but five years of his life serving me, and he is one of my people. I would appreciate you treating my people with the same amount of respect you treat me with.”

Which apparently is none, Olive thought.

“Come on, Mai,” the spiky-haired man said from beside the woman. “Give Haneul a break, would you? We’re all here for the same thing.”

“Unlike that one, Kai,” Mai clarified, “you will pass your Conducting Exam with flying colors.”

“You doubt my sister’s prowess still, I see,” Claire said, smiling thinly.

“You’re ridiculous. He’s a disgrace—” Mai stopped short, sending a glare in Olive’s direction. “Why is that foreigner looking at me like that?”

“The foreigner’s name is Olivier Chance,” Olive responded in the dialect they were speaking as he joined their circle. He gave her a well-aimed look of disinterest. “Ariesian prince.” He nodded at Trystan who trailed behind him. “This is Trystan, my royal guard.”

Mai stiffened, looked him over, and then dipped into a deep bow. “I—my apologies, Prince Chance. I didn’t realize it was you. I heard rumors but…” She cleared her throat. “That aside, my name is Liuxing Mai of the Xing Clan. The man beside me is my younger brother: Liuxing Kai.”

Kai dipped into a bow too, looking more amused than anything else.

Olive arched a brow. “‘Liuxing’—oh, I recognize that surname. You were the group that went to Virgo in search of aid during the Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict, right?” He turned to Claire. “Haneul here came to Aries and managed to get my uncle and aunt to approve of his request within days. How did it go for you again?”

Mai’s face deepened red as she rose from her bow. “Our initial requests for aid were declined but subsequently Virgo did offer their assistance—”

“Right.” Olive shrugged. “But that was separate from your personal request, right?”

Mai’s face reddened further.

For once, Felix gave him a look of appreciation. Claire, on the other hand, had a careful expression of calm indifference folded across on his face. But Olive had seen it already—Claire’s brief smirk was undeniable.

“Woah, look at this!” came a familiar sing-song voice from down the hall. “All my favorite family members and favorite people gathered all in one spot.”

Olive grimaced and turned to find Jin casually strolling down the open hall towards them. Mai, Kai, and Felix dipped into bows at her approach. Jin merely offered a half-hearted, two-fingered salute at them in turn.

“So, Kai, you really going to take your State Conducting Exam at the end of this week?” Jin asked. “Coming here to cram right before?”

“That’s how Mai’s calendar is looking,” Kai replied. “Two Conductors capable of ascending the throne for the Xing Clan is better than one.”

“Mhm. Anyway, that’s when Eunji is taking it too, right?” Jin inspected them all from beneath her sunglasses. “All the clans will be watching closely because of that, huh?” She cracked a grin. “I’ll be watching too, of course.”

Claire and Mai exchanged a look and stiffened together.

“Really?” Claire pressed. “You’re coming to Ophiuchus too?”

“Of course! I wanna see you kiddos complete the State Conducting Exam.” Jin flashed a grin. “Besides, I have a feeling it’s going to be an explosive event.”

***

In between his time spent at the temple’s archives, Olive often went to observe the monks practicing with their conductors in the open courtyard that extended out just behind the library. He had discovered this courtyard during his second night at the library after looking out the leftwing window. The courtyard was large, square, and laid with a network of crisscrossing tiles that formed the image of a lotus. Barely. He had to squint to really see it.

Usually when the monks concluded their practice and emptied the field, Olive would take their place and try to emulate some of their motions. He often requested for Trystan to remain within the library so he could have the entire square to himself and to not risk Trystan being somehow caught in a crossfire. Trystan had reluctantly agreed but always kept a watchful eye on him from the second-floor window of the library facing the courtyard.

And so, right after Olive’s awkward conversation with Claire and his half-siblings, Olive decided to put reading texts aside and took to the courtyard instead. Trystan took to his perch in the library window. The monks were nowhere to be seen this time around, however, and Olive started off on his own.

As usual, his first ten conducting attempts ended with small sparks of vitae that puttered out into weak flame that spiraled out lazily and died quickly. Too weak. It was always either too weak or too strong whenever he tried to conduct.

The smell of burning flesh and the sobbing Sagittarian assassin abruptly flashed into his mind.

Olive grimaced and shook his head. He could never rein it in the way he wanted to.

He flicked his hand again to dispel the memory. Another poor spark and sputter.

If only he could achieve that sort of freedom air Elementalists had when conducting, Olive thought to himself, then maybe—

A clap resounded through the open square.

Olive stiffened and surveyed his surroundings. He glanced up at Trystan cautiously. The man was frowning from his post at the window and staring down and out towards an open hallway that ran at Olive’s right. Olive followed Trystan’s gaze and swallowed. Ilseong Jin was watching him from the walkway there. She was leaning against one of the pillars supporting the roof with arms crossed. Her bow conductor was slung over her back.

“Wow,” Jin said, singsong as she stepped out from the hall and carelessly skipped across the small stream that ran just beside it. After shaking off the water from her pants legs, she came to a stop in front of him and grinned. “I clapped because it felt like the right thing to do, but that was kinda sad.”

Olive tensed as he felt the familiar ominousness swirl at the pit of his stomach. “A lot of people must have said that to you, huh?”

“Yeesh, kiddo.” Jin sighed. “You have more salt in you than there is in the Piscese Ocean. Anyway, you looked like you needed help so I thought I’d—”

“Maybe you should get your prescription checked,” Olive said, gesturing to her sunglasses. “You’re seeing things that aren’t there.”

Go away. Go away.

Even with Trystan watching over his shoulder, Olive felt uneasy.

“Well, I’m seeing it pretty clearly, kiddo. You have issues conducting, don’t you? Without a conductor, I mean. Need a tip—”

“No.”

“Yeesh, kiddo—for real?” Jin chuckled. “At least let me lay my case first: I’ve read them. Pema’s books. The old monk’s sister. The one who conducted without a conductor. I read all of ‘em.”

Olive tensed.

“You wanna know a tidbit of what she wrote in there?” Jin grinned. “Just say please. I won’t tell anyone that I told you. We don’t want to both get into legal trouble, do we?”

Olive remained silent.

“Oh, fine, whatever. I’ll tell you anyways.”

Again, Olive remained silent.

“You say you’re not conducting with a conductor, but you are,” Jin said, tapping his chest. “Your entire body is the conductor. Your blood vessels and veins are the insulators. Your heart—your soul—is the conducting core. You get the picture, right?”

Olive slapped her hand away but digested the information she’d given him. That was very unusually backwards thinking. Conceptually, it seemed ridiculous.

Jin grinned, tucking her hand in her pocket. “Another tip: you shouldn’t hold back in anything you do. The more you try to control something, the harder it gets to control. Just like the more you try not to think of something, the more you think about it. Regrets hold you back—even in conducting.”

“Are you going to monologue again?”

“I’ll save my monologue for later.” Jin shrugged. “Anyway, what do you plan to do about the State Conducting Exam? The practical part, I mean. Since you can conduct without a conductor—well, that’s gonna draw a lot of unwanted eyes, you know?” She unfastened her conductor and twirled it in her hands. “Why don’t you try making something that looks like a conductor and use that? You look smart enough to do it.”

“For someone who says they’re on neutral ground, you’re giving me a lot of advice.”

Jin grinned thinly.

A cluster of monks started walking along the hall behind them and caught Olive’s attention. The group passed by slowly without acknowledging them. A particular ‘monk’ caught Olive’s attention—P.D. Oran. The man kept his head ducked low as he walked by with the group and kept his eyes glued to the ground. For his sake, Olive looked away.

“Ah, there he is,” Jin said singsong. She smiled back at Olive, waved her hand lazily through the air, and departed after the group of monks.

Olive waited until she disappeared before relaxing somewhat. Shivering his uneasiness away, he returned his attention to the task at hand and extended his arm out in pensive thought. Conducting without a conductor without restraint seemed impossible. But thinking of himself as a ‘conductor’ rather than a ‘Conductor’… It was a ludicrous idea, definitely, but…

He scanned the courtyard quickly. No one nearby. No one to be harmed.

His heart hammered in his chest as he closed his eyes and extended his hands outwards further. He pictured the components of a conductor in his mind’s eye. The insulator, the conductor core, the connecting tubes. His veins and blood vessels, his heart, his body. He pictured the vitae particles, the carbon atoms, the oxygen atoms—

The Sagittarian assassin’s burnt body flashed into his mind, but instead of shoving it away, he allowed it to pass.

—He then pictured the hum of the conducting core, the beat of his heart, and the culmination of atoms and particles into an explosive wreath of flame. Just this once. No restraint.

This is stupid, he thought. And then he flicked his wrist. The familiar spark of heat tickled his fingertips, and a gust of warmth flushed the front of his body.

Olive cracked open an eye.

A wreath of crimson flame swirled in front of him, twirling into the figure-eight shape he’d pictured in his mind. Nausea built up at the pit of his stomach at the smell of smoke that followed the ignition, but Olive was too flabbergasted to even register it.

Ridiculous. It couldn’t be that simple, could it?

He closed his eyes, imagined himself as a conductor, flicked his wrist again. When he opened his eyes, he found the flames dancing in a circle before him—once again just as he’d pictured. He chuckled nervously and did it again and again and again. Each time, the crimson flames obeyed.

Olive wanted to desperately synchronize with the others to show them all what he’d just learned, but he restrained himself as Cadence’s words rattled through his mind. Instead, he went through the motions for several hours before the usual fatigue that followed excessive vitae usage consumed him. Afterwards, he wiped the sweat from his brow, fell back onto the ground, and chuckled again despite himself as he watched the clouds pass overhead.

State Conducting Exam at the end of the week?

Focusing on the things you can do,” Claire had said.

That didn’t sound too bad.

But then, the knowledge of the Specialist children being sold by the Campanas suddenly bled into Olive’s mind from Cadence’s end.

9.[]-1 : A Soldier’s Promise (di un Amico), 1

Re-cap:

First Lieutenant Werner Waltz was on his way to report in his superior Colonel Fritz von Spiel for possible corroboration with the terrorist group ELPIS. He had discovered this information from a report from Stein who stated that he had seen the colonel speaking with Omicron. Before Werner could complete the call, however, he was overridden by Cadence whose intention was to save Alma who was caught up in a Romano-on-Campana attack. Werner was injured in the aftermath leaving his subordinates uncertain of what to do next.

Twin Cities, Gemini

Gilbert Wolff had never been an overachiever. He’d never been an ‘underachiever’ either. Just been an achiever. He didn’t really put much thought into it when he was younger but all the people he’d hung out with at the time thought he was ‘cool’. Whatever that meant. Didn’t matter much when his mother’d smack him upside the head every month or so to tell him to put more effort into the things that he did. The thing was, he did put effort into things. Things he thought were important.

His nature gained him average written and maths scores at the military academy, but ‘in the middle’ was a comfortable place to be. On the other hand, his interest in conductors and physical activities landed him above-average combat scores. His classmates at the academy thought he was ‘cool’ here too, but he once again didn’t put much thought into it.

Gilbert didn’t put much thought into his assignment out into the southern border either—even though during his second year of the academy, he made a pledge with Greta and (forcibly) Werner to be in the same squadron together. A childish pledge. Never to come true. Greta’s shyness made her score lowly at interviews despite her high grades and got her sent east—away from combat, thankfully. Werner’s perfect scores and interviewing skills got him sent to the capital. And Gilbert—well—could barely remember his interview after he completed it, so he wasn’t surprised at all by his path to southern hell.

But when Werner showed up at the v-train station in their home town with a suitcase in one hand and a ticket in the other on Gilbert’s deployment day, Gilbert had thought. A lot.

“I was most likely assigned to the capital due to my father’s prior position as a war hero,” Werner had explained to him on the train ride. “Earning a position through nepotism is unsatisfactory. I’ll earn my standing through my own merit in the southern border. I’ll be able to serve Capricorn better this way.”

Gilbert thought and thought about what Werner really meant. But the answer never came. So Gilbert thought and thought some more.

And that ended with him starting to put some thought into his service in the south. He thought about what the point of it all was, he thought of whether or not the lives of his squadron-mates were worth the meter of bulleted land they were meant to protect, he even thought about what his superiors were doing while he was dodging bullets.

If all of Gilbert’s thinking wasn’t stressful enough, Werner just had to go crazy and start hearing voices inside of his head. Right after a promotion too. Then came the underground modified conductors, the weird ‘sense of self’ shit, and Werner trying not to lose control of the situation.

This was why Gilbert hated thinking. Damn, he hated thinking.

All of that thinking landed Gilbert in his current position: sitting in the fifth-floor lobby of the Abaccio without any superiors barking down needed orders and with a group of subordinates asking unneeded questions.

“Sir… what do we do now…? Do we contact the capital…? To cancel the vacation…?”

The fire crackled in the hearth stretching shadows across the grand piano nestled just in front of it. Terrible design choice in Gilbert’s opinion. Made the room look creepy as hell.

“No need to call me sir when we’re on vacation, Emilia.” Gilbert sighed. “Though you can’t really call it much of a vacation now, can you?”

Bergmann dipped her head from where she sat on the sofa across from him. Beside her, Kleine fidgeted with his glasses.

“Damn.” Crossing his arms, Gilbert ruffled his hair and leaned back against the sofa. “The elites at the capital better give us a damned refund on this vacation. First Derik and now Werner?”

‘Honor, duty, and service’? What bull. The elites in the capital spewed out those words like propaganda machines. But Gilbert didn’t see them taking a bullet to the leg at the borders, and he didn’t see them out here in the Twin Cities acting as decoys for some stupid business deal either.

“Sir—Gilbert,” Bergmann tried, “was it really a blown generator conductor that caused it? Both for Stein and the first lieutenant?”

Gilbert arched a brow.

“I mean… I was speaking with a local earlier. He said that… there’s a rivalry between… He said that there’s criminal organizations in this city… He said that they’re warring.”

That was exactly what it was.

“Well, I’m sure the locals know a lot more than us, so maybe that’s the case,” Gilbert answered. “But it doesn’t involve us.” A lie. “So we shouldn’t get involved.”

“And Nico,” Bergman pressed on, “is he…?”

Nico had his hands full with not only Stein now but Werner too. In the hours following the explosion, Nico had swept Werner out of the general hospital and had whisked him away to the underground hospital—wherever the hell that was. Gilbert had been informed of this over a quick phone call with a dead-sounding Nico on the other end of the line.

Gilbert rubbed the back of his neck. So annoying. Bergmann and Kleine were the smartest in the squadron, so he could only hold up the facade for so long. “Yeah, our combat medic is—”

“What exactly are you discussing, Second Lieutenant Wolff?”

At the familiar voice, Gilbert turned his neck and found a stiff silhouette standing at the threshold of the lobby. With that platinum blonde hair and those ice-blue eyes, it was hard to mistake the figure as anyone else but Werner Waltz.

“Lieutenant Waltz?!” Kleine stammered, shooting to his feet with a salute ready.

Gilbert shot up and rushed over to the man, looking him up and down. “What the—Werner?! You’re…” He looked completely fine.

“I’m fine,” Werner confirmed. As usual, he was looking stern and professional. Like he hadn’t just been blasted sidewise by a so-called ‘malfunctioned generator conductor.’ “Fabrizzio is a skilled Transmutationist. He extended himself, however, and is recuperating at the moment.”

Gilbert felt a pressure on his chest lift. “Damn, Werner, I swear you’re superhuman sometimes.”

“What about the colonel?” Werner pressed, scanning the room. “Was he informed of what happened yet?”

“What? No,” Gilbert replied. “I was actually trying to figure what to do with that. The colonel’s somewhere in the west side of the city now, right? You said that he’s inviting us over for some sort of dinner today? Didn’t really give us a number to ring him up about anything.”

Werner’s gaze flicked to the left. And for a startlingly brief moment—so brief Gilbert almost missed it—a pained look crossed his face.

“I see. Since the invitation is still in place, we should prepare to attend—”

“What?” Gilbert did a double-take. “Seriously? You just got out of the damned hospital and you want to go to a dinner party? Just because you don’t want to be late? That’s even a bit much for you.”

“This was a personal invitation by the colonel, Wolff,” Werner responded. “We may be on vacation, but he is still our superior. He nodded at Kleine. “Could you give me the time, Kleine? I would like to know how much time we have left.”

What…?

Kleine fumbled around his uniform in search for what Gilbert assumed was his own personal pocket watch.

Werner watched Kleine struggle for a full minute before holding up his hand. “That’s enough, Klei—”

Gilbert rushed forward, grabbed Werner by the back of the neck, and slammed him into the table in front of them. He pinned the man there and pulled the man’s arms tightly behind his back.

“Lieutenant Wolff, what do you think you’re doing?!” Werner snapped as he struggled against Gilbert’s hold.

And that settled it.

“Who the hell are you?” Gilbert growled, pulling the man’s arm higher. “You think you can come waltzing in here pretending to be our first lieutenant?”

“L-Lieutenant Wolff!” Bergmann stammered. “What are you doing?!”

“It’s me. Gilbert,” the man beneath him pressed. “I haven’t been overridden by anyone. You are overstepping your bounds. I am your superior—”

Gilbert pulled the man’s arm.

“Ow, ow, ow! Saints, saints, saints, saints—I give! I give!” the man beneath him snapped. “Let me go! You’re hurtingme!”

Gilbert didn’t release the man, although his desperate shouts made Gilbert loosen his hold just a bit. Not so much out of sympathy as out of shock. But the loosened group was enough for the pinned man to abruptly snap his fingers. The snap was followed by a brilliant flash of copper light. When the light faded, Gilbert found himself staring down at a young woman with mousy brown hair dressed in a Capricornian nurse’s uniform.

“G-Greta?!” Gilbert stammered, releasing his hold and stumbling backwards.

Greta popped up a beat after, shaking the arm that he had pinned. “Sheesh. What’s with ya Capricornians and always layin’ on with the violence first?” Common. Faintly accented. She glanced at Kleine and Bergmann who were standing tense to her left and right before glancing back at him and cracking a lopsided grin. “Well, I see someone’s got a crush though.”

Bergmann immediately lunged for a v-lamp that rested beside the sofa, flipped it around, and wielded it like a spear. Gilbert doubted its effectiveness.

Ignoring the heat burning at the tips of his ears, Gilbert glowered. “Who the hell are you?”

Not-Greta frowned slightly. “Hey, no need ta be so rude. Look, can we all just take it down a few notches?” She sighed. “I’m pullin’ a big risk just by bein’ here, and I’d appreciate it if ya’d just listen ta me for a sec. I mean, it’s three against one. Tigers against a mouse.” Her gaze flicked left again. Pain. “Against an ant, really. No risk for you.”

“You know the lieutenant?” Kleine pressed. “As in…” He trailed off.

Not-Greta pointed a finger-gun in his direction and winked. She then snapped her fingers.

This time Gilbert watched as a copper light slipped up her arm from her fingers and enveloped her entire body. The light then cracked and shattered revealing Werner smiling—creepy. “‘Course, how would I get every single fine detail of our dear lieutenant down to a T, if I didn’t?”

This was a Transmutationist… right?

Not-Werner cast Bergmann who had lowered her makeshift spear an amicable smile. “There we go, Emilia. I already thought ya were lovely even with that terrifyin’ look on your face but without it—well—I’m heart-struck.”

Bergmann did a double-take. “How do you know my name?”

“Well—”

“Hey,” Gilbert warned.

Not-Werner waved him off. “I’m a good pal of your lieutenant.”

“You really are…” Kleine tried again. “One of the people that—”

“Woah, ya really like jumpin’ on things, don’t ya?” not-Werner interjected. He took a step backwards and dipped into a deep bow. “You can just call me Cadence.”

Gilbert frowned. That Cadence? The one that was involved in the Twin Cities’ underbelly? The one connected to Werner. What the hell was she doing here?

Bergmann stared. Kleine looked like he was connecting the pieces together, and his face brightened.

“Hate to say this, Kleine,” Cadence interjected with a sympathetic expression that looked out of place on Werner’s face, “but you’re still half in the dark as it is—”

“Hey,” Gilbert interjected. He paused, met her eyes. “You really need to shut your mouth if you don’t know what you’re saying.”

“Look, I’m doin’ this on Werner’s behalf.” Cadence locked eyes with him. “I just need an ear. Three pairs of ears.”

Gilbert frowned.

“Come on, Gilbert.”

The voice was the same.

Kleine and Bergmann were looking to him to decide.

Gilbert ran a hand down his face. “Hurry up and spit it out.”

***

On Cadence’s request, they all moved into Gilbert’s room before Cadence gave her explanation. Gilbert knew all the details already so hearing about it again was a pain. Cadence didn’t mention the whole weird mental connections thing—good. But not once during her entire recall of events did she mention ELPIS playing kidnappers with the city’s overlords. But maybe that was what Werner wanted, and so Gilbert refrained from mentioning it.

“So we’ve been receiving illegal conductors from a crime organization…?” Kleine paled, staring at his hands. He looked up at Cadence who still wore Werner’s guise. “Capricorn is okay with that…? That doesn’t make sense.”

“I get why it’s pretty shockin’,” Cadence said sympathetically. “But I can see where they’re comin’ from. Ya guys are neck-to-neck with the Argoans, right? Sometimes ya gotta make some tough choices. The ends justify the means.”

“What if Ophiuchus finds out—”

“Look, Klaus,” Cadence drew, “the Romanos’ve been circlin’ product for years, and no one’s caught them ‘em yet.” She tapped her chin in thought. “Though I can’t say what’ll happen if Capricorn finds out if you guys know about it now. That’s probably why ya should keep everythin’ here are secret, right?”

Kleine paled and glanced at Gilbert. Shaking his head, he addressed Cadence again: “Wait, so Lieutenant Waltz was—”

“Yeah…” Cadence frowned, gaze flicking left again. “He was caught up in the Romano-Campana fall out that’s been happenin’ since the beginnin’ of the month. It wasn’t on purpose though. He was just at the wrong place at the wrong time…”

Gilbert jerked his head at her. “So. Why’re you here?”

“Well, Werner… before the accident… he was investigatin’ your colonel, ya see. He’s a bit suspect—the colonel, I mean.” She glanced at Gilbert. “Did he mention that to ya?”

“The last thing he said to me was he needed to make a phone call,” Gilbert replied. “Then he ran off and got blasted sideways.”

“Wait—he was investigating Colonel von Spiel?” Kleine pressed. “Why? The colonel is—”

“Ya put too much faith in humanity, Klaus,” Cadence tutted. “Your colonel is one of what ‘em—whaddya call ‘em—richies? He’s the type ta think people come with price tags. But—hey—can ya blame ‘im? People born with gold spoons in their mouth tend ta be that way.”

“You got that right,” Gilbert grumbled.

“Anyway, point is—the details aren’t important—the colonel was fishy and is set to do some stuff probably not sanctioned by your military in that restaurant, so Werner was itchin’ to report him to the policing authorities. Urgently. ‘Specially after what happened with Ersatz.”

It was weird to hear Ersatz’s name being mentioned. No one had really talked about him since the whole border disaster.

“But the thing is, the higher-ups probably woulda probably asked him to gather more details on that bit,” Cadence continued, “since the only evidence of the colonel’s suspicious activities was a secondhand account from Stein.”

Bergmann stiffened. “You don’t think that…” It was the first time she’d spoken during the entire ordeal.

“Don’t know.” Cadence shrugged, some of the easygoingness leaving her with the motion.

“So you want to—what?” Gilbert arched a brow. “Help out?”

“Look, what’s important ta Werner is important ta me,” Cadence said, placing a hand to her chest. Her brows met, and she stared at the ground. Her gaze flicked subtly left again. “I just wanna get the information he was gonna have ta gather. Which involves me goin’ ta that dinner party the colonel invited us into and gettin’ the details of what he’s really doin’ there. After we get the scoop, I’ll leave it to ya ta turn in the information.” She spread her arms wide. “So what do ya say?”

Kleine and Bergmann looked to Gilbert expectantly.

Damn. If Gilbert could travel back in time and turn down that military promotion, he would.

Gilbert considered Cadence’s reasoning for a moment before sighing and muttering, “Fine. But if he’s pissed, you handle him.”

Cadence’s gaze shifted to the left again. “Yeah… I will…”

Gilbert followed her gaze there and found nothing.

“Anyways, thanks!” Cadence rose from the bed. “Don’t worry. All ya gotta do is just come with me to that place the colonel invited us to and act normal.” She approached the door. “I’ll handle the rest.”

“And when exactly are we going to meet up?” Gilbert arched a brow.

Cadence paused at the door. “Mm… I think it was in three hours or so? Ever heard of bein’ fashionably late?”

This person was more careless than he was, Gilbert realized. Or maybe she was just pretending to be that way.

“Really, ya don’t need to worry about a thing.” Cadence offered a wink before pulling the door open. Then she paused, stared at the suit-wearing, somewhat bald man who stood in the doorframe. “Russo?”

As if acknowledging the name, the man cracked her in the jaw and sent her flying backwards into Kleine. Bergmann was on the offender in an instant, pinning him to the ground.

“Hey, hey, let’s all be calm-like here!” Cadence said, cradling her cheek as she rose to a stand. She placed a hand on Bergmann’s shoulder. “I know him. It’s okay.”

Gilbert nodded at Bergmann. She released the man and allowed him to get back on his feet. The man sneered in return, brushing off his shoulders with a look of disgust.

Bastard.

“He’s a lackey of someone I work for,” Cadence explained, sliding a hand into her pocket. She nodded at Russo, speaking in Geminian that Gilbert barely understood: “Ya followed me on Cavallo’s orders?”

“Yeah,” Russo affirmed in Geminian with a sneer before glowering at the rest of them. He spat in Common: “Here I was hopin’ to catch you bein’ a rat, but instead I find a group of Capricornian rats instead. Ready to follow their leader into a dirty deal with the Campanas. You really are sheep like they say.”

Gilbert barked out a laugh and rolled up a sleeve. “Say that again so I can time my punch right this time.”

“Hey, now,” Cadence interjected, switching to Common stepping between them, all smiles. “Let’s take a breather, aight? If we don’t take a good look at our situation, we might miss the opportunity.”

“And what’s the situation?” Russo snapped, looking Cadence up and down. “Why in saint’s name are you playin’ soldier?”

“About that…” Cadence threw an arm around Gilbert’s shoulder. She thumbed him and nodded at Kleine. “These guys here are the perfect opportunity for gettin’ me in with the Campanas. Since they’re high-tier guests, security’ll be a bit laxer. I can slip in with my conductors unlike last time—”

Gilbert shrugged her arms away and pushed her aside. “The hell is this all really about?”

A look of hurt briefly, startlingly crossed her face. He wondered if he’d imagined it though because it disappeared in a flash.

“The whole situation is a bit complicated so I didn’t really go into detail,” Cadence drew slowly, “but like I said, there’s a bit of organizational family rivalry involved in all of this. Which makes the colonel even more suspect since he kept pushin’ for a Campana deal despite everything that happened.” She looked like she was going to elaborate but caught herself and ended with a half-hearted smile.

“That ain’t a bad idea, Morello.” Russo grinned with a nod. He looked her over and shrugged. “Sorry ‘bout the roughhousing. You know how it is.”

“Oh, do I,” Cadence reassured him. “So I—”

“I’m comin’ with you,” Russo interjected. “Just transmute one of your disguises over me. Can collect better info that way.”

A nervous pause. “That sounds like a good idea and all, but how is that gonna work? I mean, I can transmute a disguise on ya but I’m an intraneous user. It’s gonna break eventually if I don’t have contact with ya, and as much as I like ta hold hands…”

“Proto-conductors,” the man said after a beat of thought. “The new ones where Conductors can store their vitae inside of ‘em. Just pack your vitae in there, and I’ll slip on one of ‘em.”

“And ya’ve got one for a Transmutationist that can conduct vitae intraneously?”

“‘Course,” the man affirmed. “I’ll just go as Nico. He’s with the lot, isn’t he?”

“Go as Nico?” Cadence arched a brow. “I mean, again, that’s a brilliant idea and all, but Nico’s still a Romano associate.” She placed a hand on his arm. “Come on, Russo, I don’t wanna see ya riddled with bullet holes—”

“Then put one of those invisible transmutations over me,” Russo demanded, grabbing her by the scruff. “Like how you covered the boss and the Foxmans when you did Verga in.” Before she could get a word in, he released her then and jabbed her in the chest. “You wait here, Morello. I’ll bring ‘em.”

“… Ya know I’m patient,” Cadence replied sing-song.

“You lot better wait too,” Russo grunted, nodding at Gilbert and Kleine and then sneering at Bergmann.

Saints. Gilbert wanted to punch him. But before Gilbert could take a swing, Russo was out of the room.

***

Russo returned a couple of hours later carrying a briefcase.

“You gotta remove all your conductors before you can use it,” Russo said to Cadence as he placed the case on the bed.

Cadence eyed Gilbert, Kleine, and Bergmann with hesitation before she snapped her fingers. She shed Werner’s appearance with a shimmer or orange light and shrugged her shoulders.

Gilbert was a bit startled by Cadence’s true appearance. He sure wasn’t picturing a short, boyish, freckled red-head. But there she was, fingers littered with rings. It was hard to tell which ones were conductors. Maybe that was the point. She slid all her accessories off, pocketed them, and wiggled her fingers outwards. Russo undid his suitcase, revealing a cluster of conductor rings, bracelets, and gloves. They didn’t look that much different from regular conductors of those designs—save for the large insulation tubes that took up more than half of their bodies.

Kleine leaned forward with interest.

“So, do I just transmute the disguise I want on?” Cadence asked, plucking one from the case. “Or do I just blast it with my vitae, and you handle the outfit bit?”

“Transmute the disguise you want on,” Russo grumbled.

“Yes, sir,” Cadence said, sliding the ring on and snapping her fingers. She disappeared in a flash of copper and reappeared a second later as she slid the ring off. Its insulating tube that ran around it was now filled with her copper-colored vitae. She dropped it into Russo’s waiting hand.

Russo slipped on the ring, gave his stubby fingers a wiggle, and disappeared in a flash of copper. Then came the satisfied bark of laughter.

Kleine visibly shivered.

“Well, let’s hurry up and get this over with,” came Russo’s voice from the empty space. His still open suitcase floated up in the air. “Damn. I gotta put this somewhere first…”

Russo didn’t notice it. But Gilbert did. There were only two ring conductors left in the case as the invisible man snapped it shut.

***

Gilbert along with Bergmann, Kleine, one Cadence who was disguised as Werner, and one Russo who was disguised as a damned ghost took to the streets. They winded down cement sidewalks that bled into cobblestone walkways before passing over a series of bridges beneath which interconnected streams littered with gondolas flowed.

Cadence stopped short at a crosswalk that divided the Gamma District from the Louvre District. She glanced across the street towards some commotion that was breaking up the flow of pedestrian traffic there.

It was a cluster of suited men of Geminian descent surrounding a Sagittarian foreigner who looked like he’d just been tousled by a storm.

“The hell is Donato’s son doin’ over here?” came a voice from the empty space beside Gilbert.

Cadence held up a loose hand and paced across the street. Gilbert followed on after her, signaling for Bergmann and Kleine to stay put. As they neared the boisterous tousling group, the person whom Gilbert assumed was the ringleader turned on his heels to face them. The Sagittarian, who was being held up by the scruff by two of the ringleader’s lackeys, gave them a grateful look.

“The hell you looking at…” The ringleader trailed off as he registered what Gilbert assumed was his and ‘Werner’s height and prowess. Maybe, he’d even recognized their uniforms. It was one of the pluses of wearing them.

“What appears to be the issue here?” Cadence asked, matching Werner’s icy tone to startling perfection.

“The only issue here would be you stickin’ your nose in where it don’t belong,” the ringleader snapped.

“You’re disturbing the public,” Cadence informed him coolly, gesturing to the pedestrians flocked around them. “And you are causing an obstruction due to the disturbance…” She trailed off, gaze drifting to one of the lackeys who stood behind him.

Lackey in question had a face that looked like it was healing from getting run over by a v-ehicle. Purple bruises, slit lip that looked like it was healing incorrectly, patches of hair missing. If this city was as dangerous as Cadence was painting it to be, then Gilbert assumed that the man had probably been tousled in a similar way to how the Sagittarian was currently being tousled.

“Feliciano,” the lackey stammered, “why does she keep lookin’ at me like that?”

“Shut up, Luigi,” Feliciano snapped.

Luigi pushed past the other lackeys and placed a hand on Feliciano’s shoulder. “Hey, Feli, I already took a beatin’ earlier, and I don’t want to end up a stiff like—”

“That is enough,” Cadence said, stepping forward and causing the group to skirt backwards. “You’ve caused enough of a disturbance this evening. I kindly ask that you leave this street and this poor man alone.”

Gilbert stepped forward too just for the dramatics.

Feliciano skirted back but still kept one leg planted forward. “We were just leavin’.” He waved his hand loosely in the air, and his lackeys dropped the Sagittarian. Feliciano turned to the freed man and jabbed a finger at his chest. “Keep your mouth shut.”

And with that, the flock of bastards left, leaving the Sagittarian only mildly flustered. The pedestrians who had gathered turned on their heels and began to filter away from them. People really only did like to watch when things got violent, Gilbert thought.

The Sagittarian man brushed off his shoulders, straightened off his suit, and then abruptly dipped into a deep bow. “I am grateful for your kindnesses, dear stranger. And I humbly offer you my life.”

Damn. This man was off his rockers.

Cadence lightly pressed her gloved hands against her throat, and a warm light pooled beneath her palm. “Well, ya already owe me a favor, but if ya wanna lay on one more then that’s alright with me, Hide.”

The Sagittarian man snapped up immediately, eyes wide. “That voice…”

Cadence sounded like how she’d sounded when she took on her normal appearance.

“I probably look a bit different now but I’m still the same person inside,” she said with a wink. She removed her hand from her throat, and the glow on her skin there faded.

“Why—it’s Cadence Morel—”

Cadence lifted her hands in the air. “‘Ey, ‘ey, let’s not get too excited here. I’m kinda doin’ some top-secret undercover stuff at the moment. Ya mind keepin’ it on the down-low?” Her voice sounded like Werner’s again.

Hide slapped a hand over his mouth and nodded. “Your secret is safe with me.”

“Great. By the way, mind if I cash in that favor now?” Cadence asked, placing a hand on Hide’s shoulder.

“Absolutely!”

“Alrighty. That’s the spirit. Would ya mind headin’ over ta that new casino located between Gambino Street and Loretta Street back in the west side? Rosario Round. Ask a waiter that you’d like to speak to the boss, and tell ‘em Morello sent ya.”

Hide nodded.

“And tell ‘em everything that the guy Feliciano told ya not ta speak about. And tell ‘im you saw Feliciano with that Luigi guy too, would ya?”

Hide paused.

Cadence offered him a look of sympathy. “I know that may be a bit risqué since Feli just—”

“You’ve got it, Miss Morello!” Hide sang, dipping into a deep bow. “I will fulfill my duties to you with honor.” And with that, he too disappeared down the street.

“What was that about?” Gilbert muttered.

Cadence glanced back at Gilbert. Gave him a look of familiarity. Which would’ve been normal if she were actually Werner.

“Complicated stuff…” she said. “Givin’ myself a headache thinkin’ about it.”

“Well, welcome to the club.”

Cadence chortled. “…By the way, how did ya know I wasn’t him?” She turned on her heels, gesturing to her guise. “I mean, doin’ this is my job. I’ve been a bit rusty lately, but…”

Gilbert hesitated.

“Don’t worry. Russo ain’t here.” She nodded across the street where Bergmann and Kleine stood waiting. “I didn’t really make his transmutation perfect, so there’s a bit of distortion where he’s standing. Ya probably can’t see it but it’s my work so I can.”

What a cheeky person.

“You asked for the time,” Gilbert explained after a beat. “Werner keeps his pocket watch with him all the time. Never asks for the time. Dead giveaway.”

“Must be some important pocket watch, huh…”

“His sister made it for him,” Gilbert responded after a beat. “You didn’t know that? Thought you guys crisscrossed memories or whatever.”

Smiling, Cadence rubbed her wrists. “Surprisingly, we don’t get much from Werner’s end of things. Ya’d think we’d be the same person by now, but guess that’s not how it works—”

“I know it’s late to ask this,” Gilbert interjected, arms crossed, “but did Werner actually want you to do this? Telling Kleine and Bergmann about this. The thing is, if he didn’t, then this is pretty messed up.”

There was a beat of silence.

“Okay.” Cadence sighed. “Well, ya know the lieutenant never goes outta his way goin’ around askin’ people for help. He kinda goes all quiet-like. Waits until the very end to see if he really needs ta ask for help.”

“You mean he has restraint?” Gilbert arched a brow. “He’s cautious?”

Cadence’s gaze flicked left again. There was nothing there though. Just a phone booth.

“… Look,” she said. “I know a liar and person who’s untrustworthy when I see one. You guys don’t fit that bill. Don’t know if it’s that Capricornian sense of honor or whatever but that’s the vibe I’m gettin’. And ya know what…” Pain again, briefly. “Werner’s a reliable guy, but he doesn’t have that many people he can rely on himself. Doesn’t seek people like that out. So I’m sorta doin’ half of the seekin’ out for him.” She gestured to herself, smiling thinly. “I’m not the type who worries about appearances. They’re deceivin’. So I’m fine with grovelin’ like this if I have to.”

Gilbert scoffed. “You’re kidding. You’re telling me you’re a saint? That you’re not doing any of this for yourself?”

Cadence’s eyes widened slightly, and her gaze flicked left again. Nothing there. Just the telephone booth.

***

The colonel welcomed them into the five-star restaurant like the bastard he was. It wasn’t a restaurant any fancier than any of the others they’d seen in the city. Same art decorations, same circular tables dotting a fancifully carpeted floor, same pillars popping up in between the tables. There was even a stage at the back where a woman wearing a satin red dress was performing at a piano.

After sitting them down at a table covered in a red cloth embroidered with gold, the colonel excused himself. Cadence remained seated for quite some time, throwing glances at the pianist in between paces of conversation. When the pianist finished and took a deep bow, Cadence was amongst the loudest clappers in the audience. The pianist took notice and locked eyes with Cadence from across the restaurant.

Cadence excused herself to the restroom as soon as the pianist left the stage. Off to ‘do the job,’ Gilbert assumed. And after a lot of thinking, Gilbert ordered Bergmann and Kleine to stay put and he followed Cadence’s trail. It took a bit to find the restroom given how big the restaurant was, and he nearly threw himself into the room when he spotted its red-painted doors. But a conversation from within gave Gilbert pause.

“Would ya give me a break, kid…?” Cadence’s speech patterns with Werner’s voice. “I’m trying ta make up for i—”

A beat of silence.

“Okay, okay, ya make a fair point but what else can I do about it?”

Another beat.

“Kid, that’s not healthy. Ya can’t go around beatin’ yourself up like that for somethin’ ya did in the past. Yeah, ya did it, but it doesn’t define ya. I mean, I barely recognize ya from the brat three months ago. And back then, with you… it was just the situation—”

Silence.

“Yes, I do understand that ya gotta take responsibility. And, no, I’m not tryna twist this around ta make an excuse for myself, but I can see why ya see it that way.”

Silence.

“Look, I feel terrible about what happened. Sincerely. That disappointment ya feel is not yours alone, kid. It’s mine too. And flower girl’s, captain’s, and detective’s. It’s a five-way slaughterhouse.”

An even longer silence.

‘Alma doesn’t care about me but Werner does?’ …Kid, what do you know?”

And then a wry chuckle. A cruel chuckle.

“Oh, I get it. Ya really are a sweetheart ain’t ya, kid? You’re thinkin’ that all of us are some type of family, right? Atienna’s like your mom, Werner’s like your pop, I’m your screw-up older sister, and Maria and Jericho are your weird aunt and uncle? Yep, that really is how ya see it, isn’t it?”

A painful silence.

“Well, I’m just going to lay it down for ya so ya don’t get hurt in the future. This niceness that we all got goin’ on is just playin’ pretend. We gotta act like this ta make it work. It’s fine pretendin’ like it’s family if ya want. Maybe you can even make us be that way. I mean, ain’t that what you’re doin’ to Wern—”

Silence.

Frowning, Gilbert stormed through the doors and found Cadence still in Werner’s guise standing in front of the bathroom mirror holding her cheek. It looked like she’d been slapped. When she lowered her hand, however, her cheek was pale. She locked eyes with him through the mirror and whipped around—

“Gilbert?”

“Talking to yourself is not a good look,” Gilbert replied.

Cadence chuckled hollowly, rubbing her cheek. Her eyes were dry, making Gilbert wonder if he’d been mistaken when he saw them as wet earlier. “What are ya doin’ here?”

Gilbert ran his hand through his hair and sighed. “Let me come with you,” he said. “To the meeting. In a disguise, of course.”

Cadence did a double-take.

“Look,” Gilbert said, staring directly into Cadence’s eyes, “Werner asked me to keep him in line when this whole damn thing started. I promised to do that… And you know what? I messed up.”

Cadence stared at him, wide-eyed, pale, nauseous; and by the look on her face, he could tell she was about to drop a bombshell.

You messed up…?” Cadence chuckled. “I’m the one who messed up.”

And then she laid it on him. Just like that. How she’d overridden Werner to save that ‘Alma’. About how Werner had gotten knocked sideways because of that override. About how Werner was investigating the colonel—for his connections to ELPIS. About how Werner was going to report his suspicions to the capital and to Ophiuchus and call it a day. About how she was being pushed to investigate the Campanas by both ELPIS and her crime organization.

It was fucking ridiculous.

“So you should just skedaddle, Gilbert,” Cadence said at the end of it all. “This really doesn’t involve ya at all.”

Letting out a sigh, Gilbert pinched the bridge of his nose. And then he reached out a hand and slapped Cadence upside the head. She yelped and was met with another slap upside the head.

“I’d punch you across the damned room if I didn’t think Werner’d feel it too. The hell—you think telling me all of this is gonna make me say ‘Oh no, you’re so right. I should just sit my ass down and let you do your thing’?”

Cadence stared at him wordlessly.

“I know the type of person you are. I see people like you all the time in the capital,” Gilbert growled. “You never get your hands dirty. You force other people to, and when those people end up getting hurt or dying, you show up saying, ‘It couldn’t be helped. It was the situation.’ Just like them. They end up convincing themselves that that’s how it is!”

Cadence paled.

“Like hell it can’t be helped! That’s just damned lazy thinking. Easy for you to say that when you’re not getting your ass personally handed to you. It’s apathy through and through. That’s why you’ll never change.” He glowered at her. “Do you actually give a damn? Do you actually care? Because, obviously, people care about you. A bad investment if this is how you really are.” He took a breath, locked eyes with her. “Answer me. Do you actually care about any of the people you’re connected with, or are you just swindling them like how the capital swindles us, like how you’re swindling Nico?”

“Swindling Nico? I’m not—of course, I care—”

“Then prove it, you bastard!” He pressed a fist against her chest. “Every damn word you speak, every damn action you take—it has consequences. So you own up to your damn mistakes, and you don’t feel sorry for yourself. Get your head out of your apathy, and get some damn control of your life. Take some damn responsibility. Grovel if you have too.” A pause. “Is that understood?”

Cadence stiffened. “Y-Yes, sir.”

“Good.” Gilbert took a second to recollect himself and straightened his uniform in the mirror. “Anyways, with the way our capital works, they probably would’ve sent Werner on a damned goose chase so you made a good call about investigating Colonel Bastard—”

The bathroom door abruptly swung open and closed but no one entered. Russo.

“Was scopin’ out the place,” came the expected voice from the empty space in the corner of the bathroom. “Hurry up and transmute yourself so we can head in.”

Cadence threw something at Gilbert, and he caught it deftly. A ring conductor. She exchanged a couple of words in Geminian with Russo, and the latter grunted.

“Just hurry it up then,” Russo grumbled.

Cadence nodded at Gilbert, and so he slipped the ring on. Giving it a flick, he watched as his reflection disappeared from the mirror in a shimmer of copper.

9.6: Jericho’s (Lost) Raziocinio

Re-cap:

Ophiuchus has been breached through the use of portals created by the ELPIS leader and Specialist Theta. Omicron has entered Ophiuchus through the portals in hopes of retrieving Izsak Wtorek but escapes with Alice in tow. Alice has been seen alive by Cadence and is being held captive in an unknown room alongside Twin Cities underground criminal executives Still reeling from the developments, Jericho…

Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

Gabrielle’s office was quiet.

Roberto had been assigned a Capricorn case regarding a financial scandal involving a Transmutationist, the country’s capital bank, and “an unsaintly amount of damned sausages.” Ferris was swamped at the Assignment Department due to the recent attack on the Black Constellation Detention Center and had to take lunch while in her own office. Wtorek Elizabeta, meanwhile, kept to the detention center. Jericho didn’t understand her. Security for the lower levels of the detention center had increased tenfold, and medical Conductors were temporarily banned from entry. There was no point in waiting there.

All of these absences paired with Gabrielle’s continued absence left the luncheons for the past several days to just Jericho himself, Talib, and one Flannery Caertas who had started making frequent stops to Gabrielle’s office following the incident.

“Did you forget me already?” Flannery had cackled the first time she had appeared in the office after the ELPIS invasion. Her Librish accent was much harsher than Alice’s, but she continued on rapidly without care, “I’m codename ‘money bags,’ remember?” Her vibrant smile paired with her wild orange curls that fell just below her ears were an unusual sight.

“No, I remember,” Jericho had responded. “You are friends with Talib and Alice.”

Alice. Alice was still alive. ELPIS had Alice.

“I hope you won’t mind it if Flannery joins us for our lunches from now on, partner,” Talib had murmured with a tired smile from his usual spot.

“I don’t mind.”

Flannery grinned as she had leisurely seated herself beside Talib. “Good. That’s the spirit, Jeri. I appreciate ya. Y’keep your head on straight. Talib here’s all twisted up about it. But you and me—we know Alice’s probably makin’ those terrorists question their life choices, ‘ey?”

Jericho thought on it. “Alice is intimidating.”

“That’s it, lad. You got it. Alice’s holdin’ down the fort while your ELPIS Department gets a handle on everything. We gotta crack on, yeah?” After cackling, Flannery began to animatedly reminisce about times past with Jericho. Stories upon stories. Half of them seemed too strange to be real.

It was a form of comfort. 

Yes, that seemed like the case.

Childhood friends, Jericho had recalled again. That was what they were. Like Gilbert, Greta, and Werner. Like Atienna and Safiyah. Like Cadence, the Foxmans, Nico, and Fortuna.

Jericho wondered if he had something comparable to that. Alice had always said it was customary to form relationships at a young age and—

Alice.

***

Jericho’s lunches were shorter than they had been before due to the repercussions following the invasion. He had been assigned “clean up duty” the entire week which saw to him sweeping the halls of the Serpens Establishment and nearby locations to check for and to remove any black stains sighted. He shared this duty with Talib and dozens of other peacekeeping agents. Although he and the other agents had stopped finding the mysterious black streaks on their fourth comb through of the regions, Ophiuchus wanted them to be thorough.

Jericho didn’t hate it. He didn’t like it. It kept him busy.

“It’s like they’re making you run around like headless chickens,” Olivier had muttered. It was a statement that Jericho had agreed with.

In the times between clean up duty, Jericho would initiate a synchronization with either Cadence or Atienna. There was no progress on either end. Werner repeated patience. Jericho had patience. But he had no progress.

Then she appeared one day. Correction. She was there from the beginning.

When Jericho stepped into Gabrielle’s office with his usual sandwich four days after the incident, he found her sitting with her hands clasped together at Gabrielle’s desk. Talib sat stiffly in his usual spot on the sofa, and Flannery was nowhere to be seen.

Beneath the lights of Gabrielle’s office, her hair glittered gold and her amber eyes glowed. Now that she was dressed in the Ophiuchian monochrome suit and tie, she looked mesmerizingly stunning. He wanted to know more about this lovely person in spite of everything she had done.

No. There needed to be caution. 

Werner and Maria were watching.

Jericho could feel them tapping along the edges of his mind.

“You must be Jericho,” she said. “My name is Leona. I’m the chairwoman for the ELPIS Department… I believe we may have come across each other briefly before in New Ram City.” She gestured to a spot across from Talib. “Please sit.”

Jericho took a nibble of his sandwich and seated himself.

Silence fell.

“Why—I—it’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Leona,” Talib finally stammered. “I—what do we owe the pleasure? I mean, are you looking for someone? This office belongs to a chairwoman of the Assignment Department, but she’s off on a case at the moment—”

“The people I’m looking for are sitting right in front of me,” Leona informed him. “Agent Talib Al-Jarrah.” Her gaze wept over to Jericho. “Agent Jericho. I’m here requesting your assistance on a particular case.”

She knew your names. 

She is a chairwoman. She has access to the agent registry. 

Take precaution. 

“A case?” Talib questioned. “You don’t mean—”

“An ELPIS case,” Jericho stated more than asked.

Leona nodded, holding his gaze.

Jericho’s heart hammered wildly.

Talib did a double-take. “But, Miss Leona, we’re merely members of the Assignment Department. Is the ELPIS Department understaff—”

“I’m very aware of what department you two are a part of,” Leona interjected, folding her hands neatly in front of her. “But I am personally seeking you two out, do you understand?”

Talib exchanged a look with Jericho before nodding.

“Good. This is in regards to the case that a good portion of my department has been handling in the Twin Cities,” Leona elaborated. “I had earlier plans to request you two to temporarily offer me your services due to your particular skill sets. However, at the time, you both were handling an illegal manipulation case in Cancer.”

A missed opportunity, Jericho realized.

A dangerous one, someone corrected.

Talib leaned forward, perplexed. “You returned from the Twin Cities just to request us personally?”

A mirthless laugh. “No, I didn’t return for you specifically, Talib. I learned recently that an ELPIS leader might have gained access to Ophiuchus so I was returning to handle that. Seeing as how I’ve just arrived an hour ago, it’s clear that I wasn’t here soon enough.”

“I see…” Talib looked over at him again. “Then… do you know how—”

Leona held up a hand. “There may be a peacekeeping agent who is working with ELPIS. This peacekeeping agent in question most likely used a proto-conductor stored with the Specialist’s vitae within the establishment to allow the ELPIS leader to enter later.”

Talib stiffened. “That’s—”

“But that isn’t the topic I’m here to discuss,” Leona interjected. “At the moment, I want a Manipulator capable of manipulating multiple observational mediums long-range in order to comb the Twin Cities thoroughly. There are very few Manipulators who fit this criterion, Talib, and you are one of them. Your familiarity with the city is also advantageous.”

Talib remained silent.

“I also wanted to have someone who is more familiar with ELPIS’s movements to advise me,” Leona addressed Jericho now, her amber eyes glinting. “And your particular Specialist conducting may be useful.” She glanced at Talib who suddenly tensed. “And I’m sure, Talib, you are aware of what I mean about that.”

It’s natural that she knows, Jericho thought before the others could voice their apprehension. She is a chairwoman and head of a department. She is using me. But I will use her.

“Since we didn’t turn up any leads in the Twin Cities, I was under the impression that they had moved their operations to Scorpio since there has been activity reported there—though this has yet to be confirmed,” Leona continued. “Since a member who was active in the Twin Cities has made a movement here, however…”

“You think the ELPIS member who attacked the detention center has returned to the Twin Cities?” Talib tried.

“Yes, that is a possibility,” Leona confirmed. “Of course, if I’m understanding this correctly, you witnessed the ELPIS’s Specialist’s conducting abilities first hand. So, this may not hold true. I’m simply aiming to confirm or deny.”

Jericho’s head buzzed.

“All I ask is for two weeks of your time in the Twin Cities working temporarily alongside my department. After that, you will be returned to your departments.” Leona sighed, leaning back in Gabrielle’s chair and crossing her arms. “Since this is a case from a department that is not your own, I’ll give you a choice on whether or not to accept.”

***

They boarded the Grand Snake Train the following morning.

Jericho sat beside Talib in their designated compartment while Leona sat directly across from them.

Jericho was unsure of how to feel about Leona. If she was associated with ELPIS then he would have to act accordingly. If she was not then… he was not sure. Maria seemed to like her but the others did not. Odd.

Although Leona continuously looked Jericho and Talib over during the beginning of the train ride, she didn’t initiate conversation. The only words she spoke were to the dining-car service attendants. In the silence, Jericho had taken out his notebook and pressed his pen to the empty page. But he couldn’t think of what to write. Or even what to draw. Eventually, Jericho put the items back into his suitcase and began to doze off to the steady clack, clack of the v-train climbing along its route.

“—give me if this is rude, Miss Leona, but I’m actually quite curious about Monadism. I’ve been thinking to be a convert myself for some time now. How often are the gatherings?”

“I’m happy that you’re considering it, Talib. It’s a very respectful and kind community. People are welcomed in from all countries.”

Jericho awoke to such a conversation. When he lifted his head from the window, he found Talib leaning forward across the table and speaking animatedly to Leona. Leona herself was looking down at him with what Jericho assumed as amusement. He wasn’t certain. He’d never been good at reading people.

“Yes, the aspect about respecting one’s Ancestors has always intrigued me,” Talib continued. “And I think that having a saint candidate who uses the Ancestors as a role model while also acting as a role model themselves is very… inspiring.”

Leona smiled.

“Am I correct in saying that there are two active saint candidates at the moment?” Talib pressed onwards.

Leona’s lips dipped downwards briefly. “I still view a failed saint candidate as a saint candidate,” she replied. “They’ve already met all the criteria. They just haven’t mustered the strength nor the capabilities to take on the role.” She held Talib’s gaze. “So, yes, from my point of view, there are more than that. There’s the failed saint candidate of Taurus. And then there’s the failed saint candidate of Libra whom I’ve heard has been frequenting Ophiuchus as of late—despite her not being an agent.”

Talib stiffened.

Jericho connected the dots. Flannery was a failed saint candidate. There was most likely history there. But it was not relevant.

“Ah, yes…” Talib cleared his throat, leaning back into his seat. He shifted uncomfortably for a moment. “I wasn’t aware that saint candidates had responsibilities. Well, still—”

“Are these answers necessary to become Monadic, Talib? You seem to have an intense focus on saint candidates when that’s only a fraction of what Monadism is about.”

Talib flinched. “Well, Miss Leona, I apologize if my questions are excessive. I’m just a very cautious person, and I like to touch all bases before I dedicate my heart to something.”

Jericho waited for Talib to mention the Organization but he didn’t.

“That’s not a negative trait. In fact, it’s admirable,” Leona appraised. “You remind me of a close friend of mine. They were quite passionate, just as you are.”

“I… thank you,” Talib said uncertainly.

“Enough of that. It’s about time I went over the details of this case that you should know.” Leona glanced at Jericho. “Since you’ve come to, Jericho.”

Talib followed her gaze to Jericho and nodded at him in surprise. “Good morning, partner.”

Jericho nodded back.

“You must understand this before I debrief you,” Leona said firmly. “If you are to divulge any information I am about to give to you regarding ELPIS to outside parties, you will face disciplinary action. Your Conducting License will be revoked, and you will be removed from the agent registry. Additionally, you may be tried and held in the detention center. Is that clear?”

Jericho nodded. So did Talib.

“Good.” Leona reached for her suitcase beside her, withdrew a manila folder from within, and handed it to Talib. She explained, “There are two ELPIS leaders whom I know for certain are active and have had previous operations in the Twin Cities. The first would be a person who attacked the Black Constellation Detention Center.”

Talib flipped open the file and held it between him and Jericho. A photograph of a blurred woman’s face was paperclipped to one sheet of paper within. The sheet of paper read:

CLASSIFIED

      ELPIS Name: Omicron (#54)

      True Name: Unknown

      Country of Origin: Most likely Capricorn or Taurus

      Conducting-type: Manipulator

      Capable of manipulating 15+ items at once

      Incapable of using manipulated items as observational mediums

      Requirements—blood contact with item, conductor usage

      Location of tattoo: left-side of face

      Threat Level: A-

      Additional Notes: At least 3+ Licensed Conductors advised to engage.

Talib’s brows shot up. “Her manipulation ability is—”

“Yes, she’s much more adept than you at manipulating, Talib,” Leona agreed. “Although your talents aren’t something to be brushed aside.”

“… You flatter me, Miss Leona.”

Someone sounds like they’re tryna butter her up. 

Jericho didn’t understand the analogy.

“So, am I correct in saying that the names we’re referring to them by are pseudonyms of sorts?” Talib pressed. “To possibly hide their true identity?”

“They’re pseudonyms, but they have no desire to hide their true identities,” Leona replied. She reached over and tapped the number beside Omicron’s name. “That number indicates that this is the fifty-fourth person who has taken up the code-name Omicron. There have been fifty-three others who have taken up the name before them. They share similar conducting-types despite this.”

“They must go through leaders quickly then…” Talib noted, brows raised.

Leona pulled out another file from her suitcase and exchanged it for Omicron’s file. Talib flipped the new one open and held it out for Jericho again. There was no photo this time. Just a single sheet of paper:

CLASSIFIED

      ELPIS Name: Theta (#16)

      True Name: Unknown

      Country of Origin: Unknown

      Conducting Type: Specialist

      Capable of a form of spatial distortion

      Requirements—user’s blood marked with appropriate diameters at location of interest, conductor contact with separate blood marked area

      Location of tattoo: unknown, but most likely right-side of face

      Threat Level: S+

      Additional notes: Do not engage.

A faded memory flashed into Jericho’s memory once more. The sandy dunes that soaked up the tears and blood. And that person who had reached out for him amongst the destruction.

Leona continued, “Theta has been dormant for some time. This marks their first emergence in years.”

“Perhaps, it’s a new ELPIS leader then…” Talib suggested. His eyes then darkened. “I’ve never seen a Conductor with that kind of ability…” He handed the file back to her. “It’s dangerous. Am I correct to assume this ‘Theta’ is one of your capture priorities?”

“Yes, that’s the case. Although, this is the first time Theta has acted out so aggressively.” Leona’s eyes narrowed. “Something must have changed.”

“And… that conducting we saw,” Talib continued. “And these files. They’re using their blood as if it were vitae…”

“An old form of conducting,” Jericho recalled from Olive’s book reading only minutes ago.

Leona inspected him before nodding. “Yes, we believe that’s what it is. It’s a putrid form of conducting, but I have to admit that it’s one of the reasons ELPIS leaders are so hard to capture alive.”

“They gain an advantage every time they bleed,” Talib concluded.

Leona further elaborated, casting a look towards the window: “The conductors that we use aren’t capable of performing like that. They weren’t designed that way. We have yet to obtain ELPIS conductors to assess how exactly it’s done. Of course, their lower-tier members that we’ve captured are ignorant of this blood conducting.”

She was lying about something. 

“I’m surprised by your knowledge of it, Jericho,” Leona noted. “But you must have seen it in action yourself when you were with them. Perhaps, even taught about it. Though your file states that you had very little contact with actual leaders.”

Jericho hadn’t been taught this and had ever seen it himself. He supposed he was a ‘lower-tier’ member if that was the case. But he shouldn’t let her know that. It was time to change the subject.

“Are there any other ELPIS leaders who might be in the Twin Cities?” Jericho asked. “I would like to know. Please.”

Leona wordlessly reached into her suitcase and held out two files to him instead of Talib. Jericho accepted it, opened the first, and held it so that Talib could read as well.

ELPIS Name: Omega (#91)

      True Name: Unknown

      Country of Origin: Unknown

      Conducting Type: Manipulator

      Capable of manipulating an uncounted number of objects.

      Capable of using manipulated objects as observational mediums.

      Location of Tattoo: Back of neck

      Threat Level: C+

      Additional Notes: N/A

Jericho flipped to the next file.

A clear photo of a familiar woman with wild orange hair and glowering eyes was clipped to the corner.

ELPIS Name: Iota (#67)

      True Name: Iris McKillop

      Country of Origin: Libra

      Conducting Type: Manipulator

      Capable of manipulating 10+ objects at once

      Tends to favor chains as medium

      Location of Tattoo: Side of hand

      Threat Level: A+

      Additional Notes: Extremely dangerous, aggressive, violent. Do not engage unless accompanied.

Tugging the file out of Jericho’s hands, Talib stared down at the photo and paled. “She’s… the war criminal. She’s infamous in Libra. They used to tell horror stories about her back home… about how she’d drink the blood of children.” His gaze snapped up to Leona. “So she’s a leader of ELPIS…?”

Leona nodded silently. Talib returned to staring at McKillop’s photo.

“I see you enjoy reading files, Jericho,” Leona noted, crossing her legs and propping her elbow up on the armrest. She leaned into her fist. “I’ve personally read your file myself.”

“I’ve heard it’s a lengthy file,” Jericho replied.

Leona chuckled. “Yes, well… I do wish for you to find solace and closure here.”

Jericho stared at her. “…Thank you.”

The conversation lapsed back into silence, and Jericho’s eyes once again became heavy as he listened to the click-clacking and the low bellows of the train horn.

“Traitor.”

Jericho’s eyes snapped open. He winced as he was met with blinding white. The whiteness was pouring in through the windows of the train, bleaching everything of color. The compartment, the chairs, and—

Jericho turned back to face Talib but found that the man was no longer sitting beside him. Leona was no longer sitting across from him either. Jericho was alone. 

“You really are a traitor.”

A familiar young girl with hair that fell to her ears apparated beside him. Every detail of her was the same as it had been all those years ago: her small hands, the mole on her shoulder, her pointed nose. And as she turned slowly towards him, a large white crack appeared at her chest that began to creep outwards completing the image of the past. 

“We were going to save the world,” she said. 

“We were destroying it,” Jericho replied.

The cracks along the girl’s body grew.

“We were giving people hope,” she pressed.

“’Despair.’”

The cracks spider-webbed up her neck and bare limbs, but she continued to speak, “We were getting retribution.”

“I still am,” Jericho replied.

The girl’s lips turned upwards for a moment before they dipped downwards again. “Against the people who saved us.” The cracks reached her eyes, and they resembled tear stains.

“Against the people who made us their weapons.”

A pause. 

“We were friends.”

This was not reality. 

Jericho knew this well. Alice had gone over this particular dream with him many times before, but he didn’t feel remorse in these dreams so Alice had never had the need to dissect it any further. But now something was different. Something had changed. In his chest, a gaping hole was beginning to form. A hollowness. 

He didn’t understand it. 

“We were friends.”

Repeating that phrase one last time, the girl shattered into pieces as the fragmentation finished its course. 

“Jericho! Partner!”

Jericho startled and opened his eyes. Talib hovered over him, holding both of their suitcases in hand with great difficulty.

“We’ve arrived,” Talib explained. He glanced out the window behind him. “That Miss Leona is quite fast. She was off the train as soon as we arrived. We should catch up before the Organization can locate us.”

Jericho stared at the man blankly.

Even though the dream was over, even though reality now presented itself before him, Jericho still felt that gaping void. The emptiness.

Something wasn’t right. Something was missing.

Then it clicked.

It was Werner. His connection to Werner had been weakened to the point of almost non-existence, and a void now expanded between them. The fragmented events of what had occurred trickled down to Jericho slowly but he was only able to dissect three pieces of information from them. One, Werner had been overridden. Two, Cadence was the cause of the override. Three, Werner was injured because of the override.

“Er… partner?”

Staring up at Talib, Jericho reached out to Cadence. We were friends.

And silence answered him.

***

Twin Cities, Gemini

The first thing they did upon arrival in the Twin Cities was check into the Abaccio Hotel. The police were warding off the luxury hotel across the street from it. When Talib inquired what had occurred, the police officers informed him that hours earlier a generator conductor had blown. Talib didn’t seem pleased with the answer but after Leona asked him to let it be, he promptly dropped the topic and followed her inside the hotel.

While Leona and Talib checked into their rooms, Jericho remained outside and watched the police’s clean-up work. He wondered if the commissario Vincente Giustizia—no, Tau—was over there directing them on what to do.

It would be very easy to go over there, search for Tau, and stab him through with his conductor if he were present, Jericho thought. Jericho could picture himself going through the motion step-by-step. No, he would have to interrogate Tau first. Get him to show him where Alice was—

A silhouette suddenly appeared in front of Jericho. Atienna. He could tell that she was sitting in that small cavern within the large cavern again. He could tell she had just spoken with Cadence. He could tell—feel—that her knuckles were raw.

“Jericho, please don’t…” she said under her breath.

He stared at her.

If ELPIS didn’t exist, this would not have happened. If their ‘hope’ didn’t push people like this then… Yes. If ELPIS did not exist, then Alice wouldn’t, then Werner wouldn’t—

“Jericho,” Atienna whispered, “please be patient. I think I might have an idea. Please, just this once, avert your eyes.”

A brush against the shoulder jarred Jericho from his synchronization. Jericho turned his head and identified a tall man with light brown hair dressed in a military uniform.

“Sorry,” the man mumbled, offering a loose wave before sliding his hands into his pockets and turning to head down the sidewalk.

“Gilbert,” Jericho realized.

Second Lieutenant Gilbert Wolff stopped short in his tracks and whipped his head around. The man studied Jericho, eyeing the white band on his arm, before asking, “Do I… know you?”

Jericho blinked at him and looked across the street. Gilbert followed his gaze.

“Wait,” Gilbert began, facing him fully, “are you—”

“Ophiuchian agents know every person in Signum,” Jericho said, turning away swiftly. “Have a good day.” He entered the hotel without another word, feeling Gilbert’s gaze burning his back all the while.

***

Their second destination after arriving in the Twin Cities was the Leonian Monadic Temple. It was located at the exact point where the east and west halves met, and it resided within the Monadic District of the city. The streets within the district were clean and cobblestone. The buildings were pure white. There was not a single piece of trash on the ground, and there was not a beggar in sight.

The Leonian temple was large, consisting of a raised platform from which multiple pillars sprouted. The pillars were long and thick, supporting an extended roof that was carved with unfamiliar symbols.

Inside the temple was dark—lit only by a cluster of candles. There were only two small stained-glass windows on the left and right inside, ensuring that the light pouring in from the entrance was the dominant illuminator. Pews lined the walls and faced towards the back of the temple. The pews were filled with a cluster of men and women dressed in familiar monochrome uniforms. Peacekeepers. Most likely in the ELPIS Department. All of them turned to stare first at Leona and then at him and Talib as they entered. Their gazes, however, lingered on Jericho, leaving him to wonder if they knew who he was.

Without addressing him or Talib any further, Leona walked forward to the back of the temple where a large, startlingly realistic statue of a faceless person stood front and center. The statue was gilded with gold bits that caught the light from the windows.

Talib slid into a pew and motioned for Jericho to sit beside him. Jericho complied but couldn’t comprehend why they were stopping by this temple. The destination seemed irrelevant to their case at hand.

Eventually, Leona came back to them and motioned for Talib to stand. She nodded over to a cluster of peacekeeping agents whispering to one another at the corner of the room.

“The taller woman standing over there is Lucretia Long,” she explained. “She’s one of the senior agents in this department, and she’ll inform you of what you’re to do here, Talib. You’ll be working under her from now on.”

Talib nodded slowly before turning and extending a hand out to Jericho. Jericho stared down at it for a moment before accepting. Giving him a firm shake, Talib concluded with a, “See you around, partner,” before he headed over.

Jericho stared after him but then—

“Wow, this is so nostalgic!”

A pleasant buzz filled his mind. When he glanced to his left, he found Maria’s image sitting beside him. Faintly, he could make out where she was. On a canoe. In the middle of the ocean. Hm.

“This really brings me back,” Maria continued, “to the Monadic orphanage. We even had a statue of the Leonian Ancestor there too! I used to climb it all the time!” She paused, leaning forward to stare past Jericho.

He followed her gaze.

Leona was now seated to his left. She was admiring the statue.

Had she spoken to him? He hadn’t been paying attention.

“I didn’t hear anything.” Maria hummed. “She’s interesting though, isn’t she?”

Jericho stared at Leona, trying his best to figure out what about her Maria found interesting. Leona had formed an insurrection against Maria. A mutiny. But Maria herself held no ill will.

Jericho couldn’t understand her. And she couldn’t understand him.

“We should look into the crime organizations or the generator conductors in this city,” Jericho stated to Leona. “If we have no leads.”

Leona slowly turned away from the statue, her eyelashes catching the light and glittering. She studied Jericho impassively. “… I agree with looking into the generator conductors, and I’ve already put other agents on them. I’m working with the state to increase protection over them.” A pause. “But why exactly would ELPIS target the crime organizations? What about them would bring about ELPIS’s vindication?”

Leona was staring into him. Like Alice would. Almost like reading his thoughts.

“I know, right?” Maria whispered from beside him.

Jericho realized he had slipped. If he wasn’t connected to Cadence, he wouldn’t have knowledge of ELPIS’s dealings with the Romano executives and he wouldn’t have knowledge of the Romano’s underground work which made them targets of ELPIS.

“Intuition,” Jericho tried.

Maria nodded.

Leona regarded him. “I read your application form for the ELPIS Department. It said that you believe eliminating ELPIS will bring true peace to Signum. Do you mean that wholeheartedly?”

Jericho nodded. “Yes, they are—”

“The false hope that lures people astray,” Leona recited quietly. “But that could be said about any ideology. I’m sure if you looked into Signum’s history—beyond Signum’s history—you’d find groups similar to them.”

Jericho exchanged a quick glance with Maria who looked just as perplexed, albeit intrigued.

“And you’d find groups similar to us. Sometimes they win. Sometimes we win. In the end, it doesn’t matter. Regardless of the amount of guidance given, the same mistakes will happen over and over again.”

“Over and over again?” Jericho repeated.

“There will always be another ELPIS,” Leona said.

Another ELPIS. No, that was impossible. There was only one. If that wasn’t the case then—

A hand on his shoulder stopped the thought from completing its course. Maria. In the light that fell through the stained-glass windows, she was illuminated with a rose-colored glow.

“Well, you know what Conta tells me,” Maria hummed. “If you can’t find a solution to a problem even if you’ve spent a lot of time on it again and again, then all you need is a shift in perspective. Another person to help catch what you missed!”

Jericho informed Leona of Maria’s solution.

Leona gazed at him before chuckling mirthlessly. “That’s good. You have a good amount of pride. Pursue that goal to the ends of the earth. Just be sure not to look back. If you do, I’m sure you’ll be very disappointed.”

***

Acting on Jericho’s intuition, Leona met with several executives of the Romano Family the following day. Jericho wasn’t in attendance. He assumed Talib wasn’t in attendance either since the man had left the hotel to join his new team the previous night.

“Off to do long-range surveillance,” Talib had said before slipping a folded crane into Jericho’s pocket and finishing with, “but I’ll keep in touch.”

After the meeting, Leona invited Jericho over for lunch at the Gamma Geminorium. He learned here that he would be assigned temporarily as a guard for the Romano executives while she collected data about the days she was absent from the city from other agents. She informed him she would refer to him for ELPIS-related information after she’d finished and would move forward with him from there.

The first person Jericho was assigned to guard was Caporegime Bendetto of the Romano Family. Jericho recalled Cadence mentioning that the man handled land and collected rent for the organization.

Working alongside Jericho were two additional ELPIS Department agents who only exchanged words of greeting with him and nothing more. At first, Jericho had thought they were displeased with him because they knew of his connection to ELPIS. He later realized after witnessing them glowering in Bendetto’s direction that they weren’t fond of the crime families.

Bendetto spent most of his time in his apartment flat, taking calls from unknown business partners. He had a wife who brought him breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Lucy, was it? She was kind and warm, and Bendetto was kind and warm in return.

Late into his shift, Lucy brought Jericho a platter of multi-colored cookies and milk. Although he wasn’t hungry, he accepted them. He was joined by Olivier as he nibbled on the treats.

After offering a loose “hey” in greeting, Olivier muttered, arms crossed, “Have you talk-talked to Cadence lately?”

Jericho shook his head. He hadn’t spoken to her since Werner had been injured. Whenever he accidentally synchronized with her, she would always say something along the lines of “I’m really busy, detective. Sorry, maybe next time” before pulling away. Was this called ‘avoidance’?

Olivier frowned deeper. “Not surprised.” He rubbed his arm. “Anything… from Werner?”

Again, Jericho shook his head. And then heaviness came to him. It was uncomfortable and suffocating like there was an anchor pulling his entire chest downwards. He knew it was not his own feeling, but he didn’t know what to do with the knowledge that it was Olivier’s feeling.

On a whim, Jericho lifted the cookie he was eating and held up the cookie platter with his other hand. Does it taste good?

Olivier arched a brow, scoffed, rolled his tongue in his mouth, and said, “Yeah, they taste good. Are you sure they aren’t poisoned or something?”

Why would they be poisoned? 

Olivier scoffed again before glancing at the platter. “It’s really weird how that works. Being able to taste what another person tastes, I mean… It seems like a pretty useless thing.” He uncrossed his arms. “It’s been a while since I had any sweets. Sagittarius is surprisingly lax when it comes to that stuff.”

I can try more. If you’d like. Jericho stared down at the platter.

Olivier shifted from side-to-side for a moment before gesturing to a heart-shaped cookie. “How about that one?”

Jericho picked it up and ate it in two bites. He glanced at Olivier.

Olivier made a face. “Too much sugar.” He then pointed to a pumpkin-shaped one. “How about that one?”

After Jericho nibbled on it, Olivier gave a nod of approval. Then he pointed to another cookie.

After half an hour, the entire platter was empty, and Jericho was left feeling a bit nauseous. Olivier snickered at him before nervously urging him to drink water and milk.

Even after all the sweets, however, the heaviness eventually returned. Jericho supposed this meant that his efforts had failed. Alice would know, he thought, what the appropriate course of action should’ve been. Still, Olivier remained with him until the end of his shift.

Thus the first day and a half of the assignment passed without incident.

After his shift, Jericho made his way over to the alleyway outside the Casa de Bambolle. Not for entertainment purposes, he thought to the others just in case. For investigative purposes. When he arrived at the location in the alley where Cadence had emerged from after she had escaped her ELPIS capture, however, he found that it had already been warded off by ELPIS Department agents.

They knew what they were doing.

On the second night, Jericho was on guard over Donato and his son Feliciano. He was admitted into their lavishly furnished mansion on the outskirts of the city and was offered a plethora of refreshments. After ‘small talk’, he was taken into Donato’s home office where the man spent most of his time.

Two different ELPIS agents were assigned with Jericho for this shift and were already present upon his arrival. They too kept their distance.

Donato kept himself planted at his desk, going through piles upon piles of paperwork. Feliciano also kept to the office, watching with a grimace as the two other peacekeepers played cards in front of the fireplace sandwiched between bookshelves. Jericho himself began to go through the bookcases on Atienna’s behalf.

It was near the end of Jericho’s shift that Donato abruptly said, “I’m stepping out for a bit. I’ll be back in half an hour.”

Jericho turned on his heels. Donato was pulling a jacket from the coat hanger beside the door. His once cluttered desk was now empty. His gait was normal, his bad leg appearing not to bother him.

Jericho watched the man leave through the door and glanced over at the two agents. They hadn’t looked up from their game. Jericho detached himself from the bookcase and followed after Donato only to be stopped by a hand around the wrist. He turned and found Feliciano glowering behind him.

“Hey, Glasses, my dad said he was just steppin’ out for a bit. You deaf?”

“I am not deaf,” Jericho replied. “I am here to watch over you and your father. You were informed of this.” He stared at Feliciano. “Unless you are deaf?”

Feliciano stiffened and flinched away from him. “Creepy bastard…”

“I’m sorry if I scared you,” Jericho returned.

Feliciano flushed. “You didn’t—”

Brushing past Feliciano, Jericho exchanged a couple of parting words with the agents. He brushed past Feliciano again, picked up his suitcase from where he’d left it beside the door, and exited the office and then the mansion.

***

The night air was heavy and humid. Pitch black.

The mansions in this city were different from Olivier’s estate. These ones were all relatively close together, and their gated entrances met with the gray, brick sidewalk that connected the edge of the city to the heart of it.

Jericho wasn’t too familiar with these streets. He assumed this was because Cadence wasn’t familiar with them. But that didn’t matter.

Gripping his suitcase tightly, Jericho followed along the gray sidewalk in the direction of the city. The soles of his shoes squeaked against the wet sidewalk, highlighting the silence around him. The v-lamps lining the street were off, but Jericho didn’t mind it. In the distance, the active glittering lights from the city’s heart provided just enough visibility—

A flash of light suddenly burst across the street causing Jericho to stop in his tracks. He turned his head. Pitch black darkness met his eyes. But, even so, he swore he saw it. That color.

“Theta wants me to drag you back to base,” came a quiet voice from the darkness. “But I think it’s better if I just end you here.”

A high-pitched, metal click-clack, click-clack, click-clack followed the whisper, and it was paired with a rustling sound. Vaguely, Jericho could make out something writhing in the dark. It looked like a snake with an arrow-shaped head, its body twisting unnaturally in the air.

And then slowly, they became illuminated—the chains. They burned white, tips pointed, as they slithered through the night sky. A woman wearing a polka-dotted blue dress stood beneath them with her shadowed back to him. Her hand which was gloved in a metal contraption was extended outwards towards a man who was seated on the ground. Donato. He was bound in luminous chains that slithered over his body and mouth.

Donato’s eyes flicked over to Jericho, and he let out a muffled shout. The woman followed the man’s gaze, craned her neck, stared at Jericho.

“Huh?”

Jericho stared back at her. Stared back at the woman whose photo he had studied thoroughly only days earlier. Stared back at the woman whom Cadence had seen within that unknown room a week prior. Stared at the woman who had punched Carl across the room. Stared at the woman who had grabbed Alice’s wrist.

Jericho’s eyes darted to the woman’s ungloved hand that now rested lightly on her hip. There was a tattoo there. The symbol was unmistakable.

In that instant, every limb in Jericho’s body became electrified. Everything sharpened into focus. The unimportant things faded away into black.

There was only Iota and himself.

Jericho unlatched his suitcase, and his conductor fell into his waiting palm. He flicked it into activation, his vitae spilling out of it in the shape of a whip.

Iota’s eyes widened as the light from his vitae drained the color from her face.

“You’re…” Her eyes narrowed and she glowered at him. “You’re the suitcase bastard, aren’t you?” Kicking Donato to the side, she pointed her conductor-gloved index finger at him. “So they sent you here, huh? I’ve heard plenty of things about you from Omicron and Omega—”

“Shut up,” Jericho stated. “If you take me to Alice, I’ll let you live.”

Iota shut her mouth, flabbergasted. “Alice…? ‘Let me live’?” She barked out a laugh and flicked her hand outwards towards him. The chains obeyed her command and rushed at him.

With two quick whips of his conductor, Jericho shattered them along with the nearby v-lamps and gates that lined the sidewalk. Everything his conductor touched crumbled away into nothing. The trash bins, the gates, the gray brick sidewalk. Disintegration.

Ignoring the destruction, Jericho confirmed, “Yes. I will let you live long enough to choose your burial site.”